National Weather Service Dabbles in Spycraft with Coded Message

Posted in Stranger than Fiction with tags , , , on October 11, 2013 by J.M. Hoffman

As a thriller writer (even though, officially, “there are no spies” in Warwick), I was delighted to see the National Weather Service dabble in spycraft as the Alaska office sent out a coded message last week during the government shutdown:

National Weather Service Dabbles in Spycraft with Coded Message

National Weather Service Dabbles in Spycraft with Coded Message

It’s an old trick, but a good one. Read the first letter of each line to get the NWS’s secret message.

Their one mistake, of course, was getting caught.

The Making of “There are Strange Things Done in Washington”

Posted in Bedhind the Scenes with tags , , , , , on October 7, 2013 by J.M. Hoffman

Thanks to its intricate rhyming scheme and strong meter, I’ve always loved Robert Service’s poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” So I jumped at the opportunity to mimic it as I satirized the current government shutdown.

The first line came to me over breakfast: “There are strange things done in Washington…,” an obvious play on Service’s “There are strange things done in the midnight sun…” Then akin to Service’s “…by the men who moil for gold” I came up with “by the folks who forge our laws.”

Rhyming with “laws” is the obvious “flaws,” so that’s how I continued. “The Senate halls and quorum calls//have always had their flaws.” Not perfect, but good enough to keep me going.

It was 9:30am on Friday when I decided to write the poem, but I knew I had to leave the house by 5:00pm that day. I did a mental calculation. If I spent three hours writing, I’d have 30 minutes for lunch and still have four hours to record, produce, and upload the poem and a video of me reciting it. Doable, but barely.

I wanted at least one funny line in the middle, and a strong ending. Without that, there’d be no point.

I got the funny line pretty quickly. In the context of what the banks say:

“Just relax. Get off our backs,” they say. “And we’re still annoyed//
“That you bitch and moan about those loans that we made to the unemployed.”

Not riotous, but amusing, at least.

Around noon I figured out the ending:

This explains our awe for order and law, for the forces that keep us free//
To visit great parks, to enjoy the arts, to relax over afternoon tea.//
‘Tis been said before, but I’ll say it once more: Anarchy precedes every fall.//
But nonetheless, it’s true, I guess, that it beats no government at all.

So I was done by 12:30. Lunchtime. Then at 1:00 I started trying to record it.

Now, I despise being in front of a camera. Still, how hard could it be to read a four-minute poem?

Harder than you might think, it turns out.

But before I even started, I had to set up an amateur camera, in my case a Canon S95. Though primarily designed for still photography, it would record video.

For variety, I chose a pleasant outdoor spot for the recording. I didn’t want yet another video of a talking head against the backdrop of a plant, an office, or a table. At least my talking head would appear amid the beauty of fall foliage.

I had a fine outdoor chair to sit in, but I didn’t have a tripod. So I had to improvise, carefully balancing a side table on a second outdoor chair, then putting the camera on that. The camera ended up too high, but close enough. Without the table it would have been much too low.

And, obviously, being an author and not the president, I didn’t have a teleprompter at my disposal. And being an author and not a soap-opera actor, I couldn’t memorize four minutes of text quickly enough. So I printed out the poem and hastily taped it to the table.

I hit record, sat down, took a breath, and started reading.

Which was fine until the first gust of wind blew the page out of my view.

So I stopped, ran inside, grabbed more tape, and secured my text. Again I hit record, sat down, took a breath, and started reading.

One thing you may not know about me is that, in spite of my love of nature, I’m phobic about bugs that fly. So it was a deal-breaker when an insect landed on my glasses.

Inside again. Bug-spray. Back out. Record. Sit. Breathe. Read.

During one run I misread the hardest lines of the poem:

By that they mean the mighty machine of businesses large and small//
Whose inherent greed is just what we need to bring prosperity back to all//

The American folks who may have lost hope as they saw their fortunes shrink…

I made the easy if frustrating mistake of stopping after “back to all.”

In the end it took me an embarrassing half dozen takes to get all the words right, and even so, I had to combine two tries. But it was getting late, and I was running out of time.

So I took my took good readings — one of the first half of the poem and one of the second — and started editing.

Sadly, all I had was Windows Movie Maker, which is the technology equivalent of a toddler’s set of watercolor paints: good enough for a pro to do a fine job, but a major impediment for an amateur like myself.

Coming perilously close to my deadline, I got the two takes combined, mucked around with the titles until they were readable (I couldn’t figure out how to put a simple title at the top of the screen, though), and added credits at the end.

Time to save the thing (about 15 minutes of computer time!), upload it to YouTube, create and upload the closed-caption file, and put the whole thing together.

In the end, I finished just in time. It took me three hours to write four minutes of poetry, and four hours to turn it into a video.

The video is severely flawed. Even though I recorded it in high resolution, somewhere along the line (Windows Movie Maker?) it got downgraded. But there’s a silver lining to that goof: it masks the poor camera skills.

I’m not thrilled with my recitation, either. Another few takes and I feel like I could really have done a good job. But I had no time.

And, as is usually the case, I’m particularly dismayed with how I look on camera. But I think I have to get used to that.

All in all, it was a fun process, and it reminded me of the difficulty of releasing to the world something that with another hour or two could have been much better.

I hope you enjoy it.

The Alaska Trip: Day 3, Hubbard Glacier

Posted in Travel with tags , , , , , on July 2, 2013 by J.M. Hoffman

As I said, Alaska is humongous. Gigantic. Bigger than that, really. Much bigger.

Bizarrely, things therefore look small, because everything is so far away.

Hubbard Glacier

Hubbard Glacier

The contradiction jumped out at me as I gazed at Hubbard Glacier, a photo of which I’ve put just to the right. The thing is, that small line of blue-white at the bottom? That’s the glacier. And it rises 350 feet above the sea! (City dwellers, think of a 30-story building.)

This information comes via the National Park Service, along with other impossible facts. The glacier is actually 600 feet high, but 250 feet of it are below the water. The visible face is the terminus of a 7-mile wide river of ice that flows for 76 miles. (Yes, flows. Ice in Alaska does that.) By the time the ice reaches the end it’s some 450 years old.

Ice Water Near Hubbard Glacier

Ice Water Near Hubbard Glacier

The ice is constantly breaking off (“calving”), creating icebergs, which the sea gradually breaks up into smaller pieces of ice that litter the surrounding water for miles.

Green Mountains in Disenchantment Bay Near Hubbard Glacier

Green Mountains in Disenchantment Bay Near Hubbard Glacier

The other contradiction is the amount of greenery right next to all this frozenness. Much of Alaska, I would learn the next day, is actually a rainforest, with the ice merely punctuating vibrant and verdant woodlands.

Fog and icebergs prevented us from approaching Hubbard Glacier too closely, but even so, I managed to take a few pictures. It would have been worth traveling to Alaska just to see this beautiful array of white snow, blue ice, and green trees.

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The Alaska Trip: Day 2, The Boat

Posted in Travel with tags , , , on July 2, 2013 by J.M. Hoffman

Unless you’ve been on a cruise ship, you can’t imagine what it’s like.

Princess of the Seas in Seward

Princess of the Seas in Seward

My Stateroom on Princess of the Seas

My Stateroom on Princess of the Seas

My Stateroom on Princess of the Seas

My Stateroom on Princess of the Seas

The Pool on Princess of the Seas

The Pool on Princess of the Seas

The Pool on Princess of the Seas

The Pool on Princess of the Seas

I hadn’t, so in my ignorance I figured it was like a combination of a boat, a hotel, and a resort. And in a sense it was. But like so many things, the cruise ship is more than just the sum of its parts.

I boarded the boat in Seward, some 130 miles south of Anchorage. And, indeed, on board I found 13 stories, which they call “decks,” rooms (“staterooms”), four dining rooms, two pools, banks of elevators, and so on.

But once we set sail (with no sails), I realized that the magic was in the juxtaposition of the boat and Alaska. Whether majestic, peaceful, or quirky, the environment was always changing. One day there’d be ice water (literally — water with thousands of pieces of ice) out my large window, the next day a mountain. Put those mountains behind an outdoor pool with two hot tubs and a bar, and the scene was positively surreal.

So even though I was mostly looking forward to our land excursions, it didn’t take long before I decided that a retreat center floating by Alaska’s natural beauty is a fine place to spend a bit of time.

And things were only going to get better.

The Alaska Trip: Day 1, Anchorage

Posted in Travel with tags , , on June 30, 2013 by J.M. Hoffman

AlaskaAlaska is far away and huge.

Further than you think. And much bigger than it seems.

Also really bright, at least in June.

I left New York on a 6:00am flight (Delta, of course) to Anchorage via Minneapolis/St. Paul. Because I had to meet some people on the way to the airport, that meant waking up at 3:00am. So I’d been awake for six hours when I landed in MSP, and for seven hours when I boarded the 9:00am flight to Anchorage.

I’d been awake for over twelve hours when I landed in Anchorage, which is why I was so surprised to hear the greeting “good morning.” It was just a little before noon, local time.

Approach to Anchorage by Air

Approach to Anchorage by Air

Though part of the U.S., Anchorage is like nothing else. Even the approach via plane looks different. Lots of destinations boast snow-topped mountains, even in the summer, but here they rise majestically from the water and stretch impossibly to the horizon. It’s like the gateway to the end of the world, or, as I would later learn, the beginning.

My first task, appropriately, was survival: food and shelter. A taxi to my hotel (The Captain Hook — highly recommended) took care of both.

Fed and rested, I set out to explore. The downtown area is small, and I didn’t have the energy to venture too far away, so I decided to devote my time to buying gifts. The Alaska Native Arts Foundation didn’t have what I wanted, and my other recommendation, the Two Spirits Gallery, was closed.

That’s how I stumbled upon the “One People One World” gallery. I had, in fact, passed by it earlier, foolishly dismissing it because of its unorthodox appearance. This time I looked more closely, and started talking to the proprietor, Mr. Trevor Rennie. What a treat!

Trevor Rennie in "One People One World" Gallery, Anchorage, AK

Trevor Rennie in “One People One World” Gallery, Anchorage, AK

I spent nearly two hours with Trevor, learning about Alaskan art and native artists, talking about Anchorage, and ultimately buying a few gifts, which Trevor agreed to put in the mail to me. If you’re in Anchorage, stop by. Really.

Exhausted and borderline delirious, I returned to the hotel and relaxed before an 8:30pm dinner.

Anchorage at 9:40pm

Anchorage at 9:40pm

On my way to my room at 9:45pm, I snapped a picture of Anchorage. Lighting wasn’t a problem. It hadn’t even begun to get dark.

The next day I would travel 130 miles to Seward.


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