Know your gunfire

I did something today that I never imagined myself doing: I sat down on the sofa with my wife and teen son and played them a video from the Las Vegas mass shooting.

Why? Because my wife and I frequently visit the US, and my son likely will at some point (though he currently shows little desire to, finding my nation baffling and backwards). And at this point in our history, one thing has become obvious.

Anyone going to visit the US should be able to recognize the sound of gunfire.

Even, maybe especially, automatic gunfire. The firing rate in Las Vegas indicates either a fully automatic weapon (one of the only types of guns that is difficult to buy in the US) or a semi-automatic modified with a cheap (less than $100) device to simulate a fully automatic firing rate. The latter is more likely, completely legal, and extremely easy to procure.

Gunfire doesn’t sound like what you hear in the movies or on TV. Unless you’re close to the weapon being fired, it doesn’t have that resonant boom that shakes your subwoofer during an action scene. It sounds like a little pop. “Like firecrackers,” is what witnesses often say. In the case of the Las Vegas shooting, it sounded like a whole lot of pops, a whole string of firecrackers.

(I originally wrote “the most recent mass shooting,” but that is already out of date. Three people died and two were injured in another mass shooting in Lawrence, Kansas yesterday.)

People die because they don’t recognize this sound. They don’t immediately duck and run. I now consider the ability to recognize gunfire a basic safety requirement before crossing the US border.

My son said, “The United States: zero days since the last mass shooting.” Americans, this is how our nation is viewed by the developed world. Except the truth is, we should set that counter at hours, not days. Over the past five years, the US has averaged a mass shooting 9 out of every 10 days.

This shooting was horrific. Families will be torn apart and grieving. Many victims will need long-term care; many others who weren’t injured will need trauma counseling that most of them won’t be able to afford.

But nothing will change, because selling guns and selling fear is making a lot of people very rich — from the manufacturers to the right-wing media stars to the lobbyists to the legislators they buy and the parasites who live off them.

Listen to this sound. If you live in or plan to visit the US, you should be able to recognize it.

EDITED TO ADD: YouTube took down the video I linked to, but it was made by the Guardian, which still has it up. It’s at the top of this page of ongoing updates.

Posted in USA | 3 Comments

Go phish

I rarely see spam arriving in my email, due to the very good spam filters employed by both of the email services I pay for. But every now and again, something slips through.

This morning, I opened my mail program and found this in the junk folder:



This is a phishing attempt — a scam designed to get me to click that “Review & Secure your account” link and give away my email login information, or to land on a website that injects malware into my computer.

I have to give credit where it’s due; the social engineering on this is quite good. It’s simple and plays right into our (justifiable) fears about being hacked. It alarms the recipient with straightforward language. It provides an almost irresistible “easy fix” — just click that blue box and everything will be fine.

But it has a few telltale flaws that give it away.


1. Typo

The first sentence should read, “We detected something unusual about a recent attemptED sign-in…” or perhaps “…a recent attempt TO sign in…”

But this is pretty nitpicky, and perhaps no one but an editor would feel their eyeballs snap to it. Also nitpicky is the fact that normal business language does not include exclamation points (“…a malicious user might be trying to access your account!”). So let’s move on to the bigger giveaways.

2. No indication that this is from either company I pay to handle my email.

Good phishing attempts will try to fool a victim with a perfect company logo, usually of one of the big free services such as Gmail. Since I don’t use those, I’m hard to hit that way.

3. The scammer didn’t know that this email address is not an account.

It’s an alias — an email address that is tied to my account but is not the actual address of record for that account. I can change it at any time without affecting my real email address. I can have multiple aliases tied to the same account. And I do.

This is something I would strongly recommend for everyone. Most decent email services include aliases as an option, and they’re usually simple to set up. I always use an alias for online shopping, for instance. When the spam targeting that alias gets out of hand, I simply delete the alias and create a new one. BAM goes the spam, straight into a brick wall. The address it’s targeting no longer exists. But my account is untouched.

4. The link behind that tempting blue box is not my email service.

In fact, it’s not a service at all. It’s this (I have taken out the https and the .com parts to break the link):

daleshearer [dot][my email alias]

“.au” is the top-level domain for Australia. Did you know that Dale Shearer is a former professional rugby player in Australia? Somehow I don’t think he’s attempting to scam me, but someone is using his name to do so. Might be an inside joke, but it certainly doesn’t help the scammer.

There are several ways to view the address behind a link. In Apple Mail, I can hover my mouse over it to bring up a floating box that reveals the address. Some email clients will respond to a mouse-hover by showing the address in a status bar at the bottom of the window. Often, you can also right click the link to see a contextual menu from which you can choose “copy link.” You can then paste that onto a note, blank email, or open document. This is a few more steps, but it enables you to view the address in a safe place.

Always, always view the true address before ever clicking a link, no matter how official or “right” it might appear. And look closely at the revealed address. Not all of them are so obviously fake as this one. Many use the trick of incorporating a company name, but the full address will still have some giveaways in it, usually by being much longer than, say, “[dot]com/mail” (the actual URL for Gmail). It might be “[dot]com” instead. Remember, the big companies pay for those short, easily-remembered addresses. If it’s not short and simple, it’s probably not real.

And that concludes today’s public service announcement. Let’s be careful out there!*


* gratuitous Hill Street Blues reference

Posted in tech | Leave a comment

Outcaste is coming!

I’ve just looked back at the date of my last blog post and wow, how did two months go by? It’s been a crazy summer, what with editing one novel and writing another, working with a new artist for Chronicles of Alsea artwork, settling in with a new publisher, and trying not to completely abandon my family in the process. (Opinions vary as to my success in that last one.)

I left my previous publisher early this year and was delighted to join up with Heartsome Publishing, a boutique outfit that embraces the “boutique” part of the name. They do not want to acquire a large stable of authors, but are instead focused on fully developing a small number of hand-picked authors.

In keeping with that, they found a fabulous cover artist for me and I could not be more pleased with the cover of Book Six in the Chronicles of Alsea: OUTCASTE.

With my prior publisher, cover art design was frequently an exercise in disappointed hopes. What I saw in my head was so much richer than what ended up on the covers (though I really like the cover for Vellmar the Blade — and it’s probably not a coincidence that it was the easiest one to produce).

It is of course extremely bad form for an author to say, “This cover is not what I envisioned, but it’s what I have to run with.” And I’ve heard horror stories about authors having no say whatsoever in their cover designs, so I was grateful to even have a voice.

For Outcaste, I not only had a voice, I had a cover artist who apparently looked inside my head, saw what I envisioned, and then created an even better version. It is, in a word, gorgeous. It’s a cover designed for mainstream science fiction/fantasy, which is where this book belongs. And it is beautifully emblematic of the journey our main character takes through this epic story.

Stacks with iPhone blog

Head on over to my author page on the Heartsome Publishing site to read the blurb and get a teaser of what this book is about. If you’re an e-book reader, you can pre-order a copy right there. If you prefer the paperback, I’ll be posting the Amazon link once that goes live just before the actual release — which is roaring right up on October 27.

And now back to my art production…just wait ’til you see the new Shield of Alsea.

Posted in good news, writing | 52 Comments

Gecko tail update

In the prior post, I predicted the gecko’s dropped tail would be stripped to bone by the end of the day. I forgot to check that night, but fortunately remembered the next morning.

I say fortunate because that was the morning our housekeeper makes her weekly visit, and I neglected to tell her not to clean up the bone on the veranda. (She’s used to such bizarre requests. For eight weeks I wouldn’t let her suck a spider web down the vacuum cleaner because I was feeding the spider. The week that spider finally expired was one of the happiest our poor housekeeper has ever experienced. She was positively jubilant sucking that dusty web away.)

Sure enough, when I got back home after teaching my Pilates class, the bone was long gone and the veranda was tidy. D’oh! I wanted to look at it with my wife’s geological loupe — I’ve never seen vertebrae that tiny.

But I did snap a photo before leaving for class, so with a little cropping and magnification, here is what a dropped gecko tail looks like after 36 hours.

Ants are efficient.

Gecko tail 2

Posted in biology | 6 Comments

Nat Geo on the veranda

(Warning: If you dislike ants, you are not going to like the photo at the end of this post.)

Last night, both of my cats were enjoying the cooler evening temperatures on the veranda while I sat at my desk by the open sliding glass door. The peace was disturbed when one of the cats suddenly sprang into action, dove into a plant, and came prancing back out.

This is usually a bad sign for anything I’d like to save, so I jumped out of my chair and prepared for a rescue — just as whatever was in the cat’s mouth dropped to the veranda and began flipping wildly about.

In the darkness, I couldn’t see what it was until I was reaching out to pick it up…

…and realized that it was a tail. A small gecko tail, doing exactly what it’s designed to do: detach and flip around to distract the predator while the gecko itself gets away.

I have never seen this in real life. It is amazing how much that tail flips! And for how long! In the beginning, the muscle fibers twitched so strongly that the tail repeatedly bounced into the air. As the twitching began to die down, the airborne bounces were reduced to flips: top side, bottom side, top side, bottom side. Later still, it went to straight, curl, straight, curl.

The movement went on for more than ten minutes. I was completely goggled. That is a lot of electrical activity for a body part that is no longer getting any blood supply to power the muscles.

It was too dark to photograph the tail, so I thought I’d do it in the morning. Well…I forgot that there are other residents living on our verandas, and they found the bounty first.

Gecko tail

The ants had already stripped away most of the skin. I expect to see bone by the end of the day.

The good news is that I saw the gecko later this morning, now only about four centimeters (1.5 inches) long. She’s missing half her body length and a lot of balance, but she has lived to tell the…

(I couldn’t resist.)

Posted in biology | 7 Comments

Three minutes of art

Clocking in at exactly three minutes, this Volvo ad is really a short film about possibilities. It’s beautiful, with gorgeous cinematography and a whole life packed into one dream, and it made my vision blur at the end.

The final text says:

Sometimes what never happens is the most important thing of all.

Hat tip to Alma.

Posted in ad worth watching | 4 Comments

Portugal wildfire (we’re okay)

Portugal fire 3

I’ve had quite a few emails from readers asking if we’re okay after learning of the horrific wildfire in central Portugal. So to start out: we are fine; we live a half-day’s drive from the area where this occurred. Nor do we know anyone who was injured or lost their homes. Thank you so much for thinking of us.

It was and continues to be a terrible tragedy. Portugal is currently in the midst of three days of national mourning. So far there are 64 confirmed deaths, and 40 villages in the area have been evacuated. Forty villages!

Portugal fire 1

The fire started from a “dry thunderstorm,” which means a thunderstorm in which the air is so hot that the rain evaporates before it can hit the ground. But the wind and the lightning strikes are still there.

This fire moved horrifically fast, due to the heat wave that has gripped Portugal (and much of Europe) for the last week or so. Many of the dead were caught on a highway, trying to evacuate when the fire jumped the road. They burned to death in their cars.

Portugal fire 2

But there was one story, printed in the BBC, that really captured my attention because it so beautifully illustrates who the Portuguese are.

We found ourselves stranded in a village called Mó Grande, just off of the IC8 motorway; ourselves and others were directed there by an officer from the IC8.

As we drove up the mountain road you could see the flames jumping across from one side of the valley to the other.

The accompanying wind threw branches at the car but you couldn’t stop, you could feel the heat.

Eventually we reached the small village at a crossroads surrounded by fire. Locals and ourselves were crying, overwhelmed by the heat and speed of the fire. It was dark, so dark, among the flames.

A man shouted for us to come and take refuge in his home, along with his mother. Several of us did.

His mum had an annex flat downstairs, where it was cooler and out of the way of the fire. During the time there, more people were arriving, knocking on the door, people just congregated where there were signs of life.

The guy’s mum poured us wine, and it would have been pleasant if it wasn’t for the circumstances.

[…] As the power went off, the flames hit hard, a fiery red tornado passed the windows. We crouched on the floor for a good hour, trying to breathe, praying, crying. […] Eventually the fire passed and we emerged to see the smouldering remains of the village. Miraculously, our house and the one next door did not burn.

And that, in a nutshell, is the beautiful hospitality of the Portuguese people. Not just that they would invite strangers into their homes in an emergency — that kindness is not limited to the Portuguese — but that they would pour wine for their guests during the apocalypse! That story did not surprise me at all, but it did make me smile in recognition.

I love my adopted nation for many reasons. This is just one of them.

Posted in Portugal | 7 Comments

Alien: Covenant review

Alien Covenant 2

WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW! (But not that many, really.)

Alien: Covenant is great fun!

…as long as you don’t bring your brain into the theater with you. Scientists and logical folks (hereafter referred to as SALFs) will be nearly as horrified with this film as they were with Prometheus. I say nearly, because the crew in this film aren’t quite as stupid as in Prometheus (can anyone forget the supposed trained biologist facing a brand new, hissing, cobra-like life form and saying, “Oh, you beauty, let me see you”?). They die because they don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell, not because they’re freaking idiots.

Although we have a lot of idiocy as well. For instance: Armed Dude 1 says “I have to take a pee” and instead goes off to smoke a cigarette — on a brand new, pristine planet they’re considering for colonization, mind you — and then FLICKS HIS CIGARETTE BUTT INTO THE BUSHES.

I said, “That dude needs to die.”

He did, and quite spectacularly. I was pleased.

The second death wasn’t nearly as pleasing, because that poor person did (almost) everything right and was trying hard to save a life, but…did I mention the snowball’s chance in hell? And for the third death, we were rooting for the human to make it out alive, but see aforementioned snowball.

The general plot of the film is: A ship carrying 2,000 colonists in cryosleep, about 1,400 frozen embryos, and 15 crew members is lumbering through space on its multi-year journey to the planet they’ve targeted for colonizing. Android Walter is the only active crew member while everyone else sleeps, but when he deploys the solar sails for a power recharge, the ship is hit by a sudden neutrino burst that rips up the sails, damages the ship, and messes with the cryosleep tubes. Subtract one crew member: the captain, who burns alive in his tube. Ugh.

After repairing the sails, nobody is eager to go back into their tubes for the several years it would take to reach their destination, because if they did, the movie would be over. Instead they make the bad, bad decision to check out this neat little planet two weeks away. Because (and here is our first groaner for the SALFs) it makes much more sense to divert course and land on a planet they didn’t even know was there, rather than continue to the planet they spent 10 months studying and preparing to colonize.

So they go to said planet, tracking an intercepted communication, and then pull a repeat of one of the worst Prometheus groaners when they don’t fly a single reconnaissance orbit but instead send out the landing shuttle immediately. Brilliant! (All SALFs groan.)

Upon landing, the new captain sets foot on the promised land and 42 seconds later brightly says this would be a great spot to colonize. Never mind that they have no idea of weather patterns, or whether winters last for 12 years, or whether this area is prone to earthquakes or tornadoes or hurricanes — you know, like the one they had to fly through to land there?

But it doesn’t matter, because the moment these poor saps landed, they were doomed. Here There Be Monsters, and the worst one isn’t even the ugliest.

Alien Covenant 1

Honey, you forgot to let the dog back in.

The rest of the film involves Android Walter meeting Android David (from Prometheus) and having some nice, philosophical sibling chitchat while various crew members die around them. At one point the new captain demonstrates why he was not chosen to be the original captain when he follows a character he knows is evil down a dark flight of stairs and into a room with some large, mysterious-looking eggs…and somehow manages to miss every nuance of menace in such dialogue as, “They’re alive, they’re just waiting” (for you, dude!) and “Go ahead, look in, it shouldn’t be missed.” At that point I threw my hands in the air and said, “Okay, he deserves to die.”

There is the usual action sequence involving an orbital lander attempting to escape the monster and the usual heroine trying to kill the monster before they go back into orbit (and it is all kinds of awesome that in this series of films, I can say “the usual heroine”), and the usual “surprise” once they get back to orbit and their colony ship…so I can’t say this film involved anything unexpected. If you’ve seen Alien and Aliens, you know what’s going to happen.

But that isn’t the point. The point is, this movie is fun. The cinematography and special effects are glorious. I’d watch it again just for those. The dialogue between the two androids is spooky and fascinating and has a couple of deep pockets of thought. The heroine is awesome and tough as nails (literally, in one instance) and makes all the right decisions. The action sequences are edge-of-seat exciting and the poor crew members die really disgusting, awful deaths with rivers of blood, so…the usual Alien fare.

So leave your logical brain at home and go enjoy yourself, and remember: litterbugs die first.

Posted in entertainment | 2 Comments

A must read: “My Family’s Slave”

The ashes filled a black plastic box about the size of a toaster. It weighed three and a half pounds. I put it in a canvas tote bag and packed it in my suitcase this past July for the transpacific flight to Manila. From there I would travel by car to a rural village. When I arrived, I would hand over all that was left of the woman who had spent 56 years as a slave in my family’s household.

Her name was Eudocia Tomas Pulido. We called her Lola.

This is a long read, and not an easy one. By that I mean, it’s impossible to draw any simple conclusions. I wanted to hate the author’s mother. I wanted to judge the author for not acting sooner. But those are simplistic reactions to a very complex set of relationships.

I think this article, by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Alex Tizon, should be required reading for all Americans. It’s beautifully written and draws you in even as it describes a lifetime of servitude and choices taken away — and love, given and received.

What made it resonate even more for me is that I recognize so many of the place names. The author and his family — including their slave Lola — lived in Salem, Oregon at the same time my family lived there. His mother worked at Fairview Hospital, where my mother had a temporary job during tax season. They took trips to Lincoln City, a coastal town I’ve stayed in and driven through more times than I can count.

Every article I’ve ever seen about modern slavery says it happens right next door. It feels different to read that in the abstract than to know it.

Maybe her life would have been better if she’d stayed in Mayantoc, gotten married, and had a family like her siblings. But maybe it would have been worse. Two younger sisters, Francisca and Zepriana, got sick and died. A brother, Claudio, was killed. What’s the point of wondering about it now? she asked. Bahala na was her guiding principle. Come what may. What came her way was another kind of family. In that family, she had eight children: Mom, my four siblings and me, and now my two daughters. The eight of us, she said, made her life worth living.

None of us was prepared for her to die so suddenly.

If you can read this and not get sniffles at the end, you are a stronger person than I.

Posted in culture, history, life | 2 Comments


A friend sent this on with a sniffle warning, and she was right. But it’s a good kind of sniffling, accompanied by laughter. If you don’t mind the potty mouths of a bunch of Brooklyn natives, with an occasional Spanish cuss tossed in (“Pendejo means handsome,” lawd, that cracked me up), this is a sweet, heartbreaking, and beautiful short film that shows it’s never too late to love.

(Hat tip to Alma.)

Posted in humor, life, video | 1 Comment