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I’ve been writing in the Oregon snow

For the past month I have been tak­ing part in the Artists in Res­i­dence pro­gram at Caldera in Cen­tral Ore­gon. What that means is: some nice folks here have allowed me to live in one of their fancy A-frame cab­ins (as pic­tured below) for a month so I can Get Writ­ing Done.


In the sum­mer­time Caldera is a camp for kids that focuses on facil­i­tat­ing engage­ment with the arts; in the win­ter Caldera is home to the Artists in Res­i­dence pro­gram; and year-round they run pro­grams and art projects with young peo­ple in Cen­tral Ore­gon and Portland.

The Caldera prop­erty – so named because it’s sit­u­ated by a col­lapsed vol­cano cone or caldera that is now a deep, spring water lake called Blue Lake – is sur­rounded by pon­derosa pines and at this time of year a healthy coat­ing of snow.


In addi­tion to the stun­ning and inspir­ing envi­ron­ment (that’s the view from my A-frame cabin bal­cony above) the Caldera res­i­dency has been a tremen­dous gift of time. I don’t think I’ve ever had a month away from the world where I’ve had the lux­ury of writ­ing only (although let me assure you that self-administration tasks like show­er­ing were also under­taken on a reg­u­lar basis).

I’ve been work­ing on new projects, look­ing back over old ones and edit­ing my forth­com­ing sec­ond novel. But it hasn’t all been fun and games. I’ve also done some seri­ous work such as hon­ing my snowball-hurling skills. Here I am cel­e­brat­ing a lengthy snow­ball throw with a look of unabashed emotion.


And because I really want you to be impressed with my snowball-hurling skills:


Thanks to my fellow-resident Emily Squires for that photo and Ems – apolo­gies for Microsoft Paint-ing all over it.

A sure high­light of the month was last Fri­day when I took an after­noon out of my res­i­dency to visit Sis­ters Mid­dle School (Sis­ters is the near­est town to Caldera) where I spoke about being an author and took some writ­ing work­shops. The stu­dents were just delight­ful. We talked about my books, other authors’ books (even bet­ter) and Aus­tralian stereo­types (we decided it was hideously unfair that mar­su­pi­als like kan­ga­roos had a monop­oly on pouches).

Any­way, this isn’t an Oscars speech but thanks for hav­ing me Caldera – y’all rock! And whether I go on to be more pro­lific as a writer or as a snowball-hurler, know that you’ll always have my grat­i­tude for the win­ter of 2014. 


The Hound of the Baskervilles

As a kid I loved all the Sher­lock Holmes sto­ries but it was the irre­sistibly mys­te­ri­ous novel The Hound of the Baskervilles that cap­ti­vated me the most. The imagery of that men­ac­ing hound and the moors enveloped in mist have stayed with me ever since (although the answer to the whodunnit-style mys­tery faded in time – con­ve­niently so for later rereadings).


So when I jumped online recently to revisit the novel – it’s now out of copy­right and in the pub­lic domain – I was sad to dis­cover that none of the free ebook ver­sions con­tained the illus­tra­tions that accom­pa­nied the story’s orig­i­nal pub­li­ca­tion in the pages of The Strand magazine. And what is a Sher­lock Holmes story with­out those black and white, of-the-era illus­tra­tions by Sid­ney Paget?

So I grabbed the text, hunted down the illus­tra­tions, used the cover design from the first edi­tion of the book (pic­tured above – isn’t it grand!) and put it all together at a ded­i­cated URL. Then I sat down with my tablet and hap­pily read the story once more.

You can see the results (and read the story) here –

Ah, the beauty of the inter­net. Where you can self-publish an out-of-copyright clas­sic and read it exactly how you want to read it.


The Black Claw of Once, Not Twice

A while ago now I had an idea for a story.

It would fea­ture a char­ac­ter who was haunted by visions of a scabby black claw that climbed and clam­bered around the edges of doors, walls and other objects in his life. And each time this poor guy spot­ted the claw he would see it only once, because when he blinked he inad­ver­tently made it dis­ap­pear. The con­stant appear­ance of a dev­il­ish black claw is a metaphor, an alle­gory, what­ever you like. Most of all, it’s a weird story. It didn’t really fit any­where and I wasn’t sure any­one would ever want to read it anyway.


So I threw it online and gave it a web­site of its own. Hav­ing worked with the guys behind Mon­o­cle (which is open-source ebook soft­ware that basi­cally lets you embed a pag­i­nated book on a web­page) I used that soft­ware, came up with a super basic design and bought the story’s cor­re­spond­ing URL – I thought it was a nice idea to be able to share the story eas­ily with a quick (but indica­tive) link.

Then I spent quite a few late nights cod­ing the web­site and mak­ing it work on differently-sized devices. I seri­ously extended my HTML and CSS skills dur­ing those late nights/early morn­ings. And I even started to under­stand some old jokes about cod­ing which spoke very closely to my expe­ri­ence. This one, for example:


I did some illus­tra­tions and redrafted the story over and over and over until it was in a halfway decent shape. Then I brought the story and the web together, putting the text into a proper HMTL for­mat, decid­ing on the font details and work­ing out the best way to present the illus­tra­tions in a reflow­able format.


It was an inter­est­ing exer­cise. There are things I think I did well (I like the main, front-page illus­tra­tion of the claw) and things I’d improve on in the future (such as mak­ing the entire web­site respon­sive rather than hav­ing dif­fer­ent ver­sions for mobiles, tablets and desktops).

Now it’s online for as long as I keep pay­ing my web host­ing fees. It’s a nice record to have of an odd story I felt com­pelled to do some­thing with. And I’ve already secured the URL for the next one.

If you haven’t read The Black Claw of Once, Not Twice you totally should. Hope you enjoy it.

Reflections on the Total Eclipse of the Sun

So it happened.

Hordes of peo­ple cov­ered the beaches. The moon cov­ered the sun. And the clouds cov­ered the eclipse.

But only for a minute or so. In the end, we had a clear view of the total solar eclipse in Far North Queens­land for one of the two min­utes of total­ity. Did it live up to the expec­ta­tions that led me to go on my Nerdtrip in the first place?

Firstly let me just say that I had my doubts about a total eclipse that took place so soon after sun­rise; so close to the hori­zon. But – oh boy – it was a sen­sa­tional and fit­ting warm-up act. The sun is a glow­ing, bul­bous orb when viewed through so much sky and atmos­phere. As I inad­e­quately cap­tured with my point’n’shoot.

The clouds hov­ered and threat­ened our van­tage point on Port Dou­glas beach from first light, but as the moon began mov­ing across the face of the sun my trav­el­ling buddy Ken and I were able to clearly see the begin­ning of the eclipse.

Every­one around us on the beach had long-necked cam­eras on tripods and spe­cial eclipse-observing glasses. But not us. We had our own sci­en­tific equip­ment – a card­board poster tube with a pair of binoc­u­lars sticky-taped to the top that pro­jected the sun onto a big piece of white cardboard.

We were the DIY nerds of the eclipse, bring­ing sci­ence and sticky tape together. Here I am with our astro­nom­i­cal contraption.

It may not look like much but it did a pretty good job of show­ing us the eclipse as it happened.

I was fas­ci­nated to see how dark the world would be with the sun was com­pletely obscured. And I had to wait a while as the dark­ness didn’t show up until the eclipse was almost total.

It turns out more than 80% of the sun needs to be cov­ered before a dif­fer­ence in the light can be noticed. I took some bad video of the cou­ple of min­utes lead­ing up to total­ity that shows things get­ting dark. Keep an eye out for Venus, which reap­pears in the dark sky (at the top of the screen) once total­ity hits.

We thought we were out of luck as total­ity struck when the clouds had over­taken the sun. But right after the above video fin­ishes the clouds got out of the way and we saw the total eclipse in all its glory.

And it was glorious.

This is the best image of it that I man­aged to capture.

But that photo doesn’t really con­vey what it was like to wit­ness the eclipse. It also didn’t look like the stun­ning pho­tos on the inter­net that look like this…

In truth, what we saw looked more like this…

For me this lat­ter image (a beau­ti­ful piece of work that I must credit to AAP and pho­tog­ra­pher Brian Cassey) sums up exactly what was so spec­tac­u­lar about the eclipse. And why it totally met my expectations.

Because it wasn’t just about one plan­e­tary body mov­ing in front of another. It was about being on Earth and see­ing the moon, which by some fluke is the Exact Right Size and Exact Right Dis­tance Away to seem­ingly slip over the sun like a per­fect mask.

And once total­ity was over the cel­e­bra­tory drinks were pulled from eskies all along the beach front. At this point the day was still younger than 7am.

It’s been a month since the eclipse now. And every time I’ve looked up and seen the moon since I’ve thought of it dif­fer­ently. With a renewed admiration. Because it per­formed this mirac­u­lous feat of shut­ting down the sun – the goliath cen­tre of our solar sys­tem – if only for a few minutes.

It was a hell of a show. Earth’s lit­tle pock­marked satel­lite has a def­i­nite, if irreg­u­lar, flair for show­biz. The evi­dence was in all the cheer­ing that took place on the beaches of Far North Queens­land early one morn­ing last November.

I couldn’t have been hap­pier with Nerdtrip 2012. And I’m already look­ing for­ward to the next total solar eclipse to take place in Aus­tralia – Syd­ney 2028.

My one tip for that eclipse – book your accom­mo­da­tion now!

Nerdtrip 2012: Total Eclipse of The Excuse for a Tropical Getaway

Next week I’m head­ing to far north Queens­land to see one of the won­ders of the world. Or should I say, one of the won­ders as seen from the world. Low down on the hori­zon, not long after sun­rise on Novem­ber 14, the Moon will pass in front of the sun and a Total Solar Eclipse will be vis­i­ble to any­one in or nearby to Cairns.

For a visual idea of what is going to hap­pen, here’s a sci­ency GIF.

Total Solar Eclipses are the Olympics of the astro­nom­i­cal world. They cause a lot of peo­ple to rush to one loca­tion with the promise of a great spec­ta­cle. Occa­sion­ally the weather ruins things, but quite often they deliver a visual delight that is hard to match. I mean, the things those gym­nasts do on the bars. Yikes!

I’m going on this Nerdtrip, with a nerd-friend of mine called Ken, because I want the spec­ta­cle. But I’m also going because I’m curious. Will the eclipse tem­porar­ily throw dark­ness upon the land? Will the birds stop chirp­ing, mis­tak­enly think­ing the day went by super fast? Will otherwise-oblivious passers-by see the eclipse and freak out, think­ing the end of the world has sud­denly come?

A Total Solar Eclipse is a nat­ural phe­nom­e­non that only occurs every 18 months or so, and doesn’t usu­ally take place over densely-populated loca­tions like Cairns and Port Dou­glas, which are per­fectly posi­tioned for this eclipse. Around 50,000 are expected in the region to see the celes­tial event.

As a boy I was always jeal­ous of my mum who wit­nessed the Great Mel­bourne Total Solar Eclipse of ’76 (as it is never called). No doubt the elu­sive­ness of that oh-so-close eclipse (missed it by just six years) has been feed­ing my desire to see one for reals. That, and the roman­tic image of a Total Solar Eclipse sav­ing Tintin’s hide which was burned into my mem­ory as a kid (and which now, on reflec­tion, appears to be quite con­de­scend­ing to the Incan people).

Nonethe­less, I am excited for this eclipse. And I’m not the only one. Char­tered flights will be bring­ing peo­ple to Cairns direct from Japan; an eclipse-themed music fes­ti­val will run for seven days; there will be cruise ships on the Coral Sea and hot air bal­loons in the sky; a bunch of impor­tant NASA sci­en­tists will be at a VIP gath­er­ing some­where west of Cairns; there will be an eclipse tweet-up on the beach at Palm Cove; and the eclipse chasers will be out in force. Eclipse chasers are exactly what they sound like – peo­ple who fol­low eclipses all over the world. One of the more pro­lific chasers Kate Russo dra­mat­i­cally defines an eclipse chaser on her web­site as ‘some­one who has made a life choice to give in to their insa­tiable desire to re-experience the thrill and excite­ment of total­ity. It sounds kind of bonkers, but you have to respect the unfil­tered passion.

Even down here in Mel­bourne we’re not immune to eclipse fever. This is an actual sticker I saw a month ago at a pedes­trian cross­ing in Colling­wood. Some guerilla mar­ket­ing from the peo­ple run­ning the eclipse music fes­ti­val (the same folks who run the Rain­bow Ser­pent fes­ti­val, by the by).

I shouldn’t fin­ish writ­ing with­out warn­ing that if you are plan­ning on see­ing this solar eclipse (or any other) you shouldn’t look directly at the sun. It will fry your eyes and melt your brain. See instruc­tions for safe eclipse view­ing here. There is also a wealth of infor­ma­tion about the Novem­ber eclipse on this edu­ca­tional web­site set up by the Astro­nom­i­cal Asso­ci­a­tion of Queensland.

Sadly it will all be over in a mat­ter of moments as the eclipse lasts for barely two min­utes. And my Nerdtrip trav­el­ling buddy Ken and I will have to deal with the eclipse come­down by snor­kel­ing, swim­ming, rain­forest­ing and beer-ing in the sun.

After all, what good is a Total Solar Eclipse if you don’t use the oppor­tu­nity to work on your tan?