New uses for bar codes

Sharon Ashwood
January 4, 2010  •  2 Comments

Here’s a creepy piece of news to ponder as we launch into the new year with dreams of watching what we eat …

The article reports a study by high school students, who gathered about 150 DNA samples from foods and objects in New York as part of a science project with Rockefeller University and the American Museum of Natural History. After gathering samples from a variety of sources, including supermarkets and fresh markets, “They sent the samples to the natural history museum, which tapped into a databank of DNA bar codes that was pioneered by Canadian scientists at the University of Guelph in Ontario.”

A high percentage of the foods they collected as samples weren’t what was listed on the label. “That included a specialty sheep’s milk cheese that was actually made from cow’s milk, venison dog treats made of beef, and sturgeon caviar that was really Mississippi paddlefish.” In other words, cheap stuff substituted for expensive stuff. Not only are consumers being ripped off, but those trying to eat carefully for health reasons, like allergies, can’t rely on the package label.

If that isn’t enough food for thought, the article goes on to say, “The Consortium for the Bar Code of Life project involves identifying a particular DNA sequence in marine and animal life that is unique to the species. . . . Bob Hanner, a biologist at Guelph who led the work on bar coding, said [the project] shows the value of a technology that can be used to identify illicit goods at borders . . . he can soon see a time when people will be able to use tabletop devices at border crossings, schools and government departments to quickly identify a plant or animal.”

In other words, if something has the wrong DNA, they can be scanned at stopped at the border or anyplace else.

Interesting. The conspiracy theorist in me in all a-quiver. After all, people have DNA, too. Now we can really know whom we let pass through checkpoints.

The complete study will be covered in the January edition of BioScience magazine.

First task of the New Year

Sharon Ashwood
January 1, 2010  •  No Comments

Is setting up a new all-in-one Santa brought me. Unfortunately, they never have a tech guy packed in the box. Have made it print so far … we’ll see what else I can make it do …

New Year’s Eve

Sharon Ashwood
December 31, 2009  •  No Comments

Had a reasonable crack at a scene from ICED yesterday and hope to finish it up today. It always takes far longer to do about the first three chapters of a book. After that, I can set a good clip. The problem is organizing background info. How much, how little, how to reel it out so that the action keeps moving and explain the supernatural world while I’m at it. I’m always enormously glad to get that part out of the way.

Writing aside, today I have to clean the house before the dust bunnies have an uprising. It would be nice to start 2010 in an orderly fashion.

Here’s hoping you and yours have a fabulous New Year!

And 2009 went zooming past, bodies flying in its wake …

Sharon Ashwood
December 30, 2009  •  No Comments

This was a crazy year.

There were amazingly wonderful things. The Dark Forgotten series came out in February with RAVENOUS. SCORCHED came out the first of this month and actually registered on the B&N mass market romance bestseller list. For me, that’s huge. RAVENOUS was a bit of a last-throw-of-the-dice book, even though I wasn’t really admitting that to myself. Let’s just say I was so ready for some external validation.

I also finished school, ended up doing two jobs instead of one, and pretty much wore myself out. I’ve spent the weekend making like a couch potato. For all those people who say, “How can you possibly do so much?” the answer is that I can’t. Not really.

Of course, sitting around reassembling one’s splattered brains into a thinking organism is a great time to wax philosophical.

Annette mentioned the importance of the little victories we have along the way. I heartily concur. We can’t live by great achievements alone, nor should we. This is important because we need to remember we’re not just good writers, but good citizens, business persons, family members and individuals. Working in the arts is hard on self-esteem for a thousand reasons. It’s vital to have something besides sales numbers to measure yourself by.

And if we need to know that, so do other people. At the end of the day, it’s the good business relationships, the kindnesses, and the solid foundation of right action that gives us integrity. That’s what makes people turn and help when we falter, and what gives us the balance we need to keep moving forward. Some days it may not seem like it, but hard work and a good reputation still counts.

What did I do this year that I’m proud of? I finished commitments when I wanted to walk away so bad it gagged me. I helped a friend try something she was interested in, and for once didn’t help too much. I tried to be a good team player on several fronts. I made sure I was a good listener even when I had no brain cells to speak of. I took good care of my pets.

On the other hand, I get a failing grade in the domestic arts. I see some vacuuming in my future, because I’m doing New Year’s at my place. Despite the crazy year, I still have friends. That’s one blessing I’m counting for sure.

Resolutions? To make a little time to look after myself.

Getting up and running

Sharon Ashwood
December 29, 2009  •  No Comments

I sat down last night and wrote a scene of the new book, which is under the working title ICED. Why that title? It’s a winter book, for one thing. It’s also about people and societies being frozen in their way of thinking. It’s also about murders.

I’d written a “test scene” before. I’ll usually do that–throw the characters onto the page and see what happens. It helps me get a feel for the dynamics. Version 1.0 has its good parts and I’ll keep about half of it, but there was too much that wasn’t worked out to really make it fly on its own. This new scene was the real thing, all the characters’ strengths and weaknesses in place. Of course, the beginning wasn’t where I thought it should be. It never is.

Who will be back? So far, Perry, Lore, and Errata have made it through casting for major roles. Alessandro needs to be in it later on as well as some folks from UNCHAINED.

A Monday

Sharon Ashwood
December 21, 2009  •  No Comments

Productive weekend on the Christmas front, with wrapping and decorating happening. Went minimal on the decorating, given that it took exactly 5 minutes for the Evil Kitty to de-garland the window, followed by extravagant garland murder scene in the hallway. Garland removed before it could be ingested, and decorations reconsidered.

Staff lunch today. Very nice.

On the writing front, I’m waiting for editorial feedback on Unchained and/or Book IV proposal. I should appreciate the break, but I have a hard time enjoying the respite. There’s “driven” and “workaholic” and I think I’m edging toward the latter.

Planes, trains and etc.

Sharon Ashwood
December 16, 2009  •  No Comments

On the road for work today, which meant float planes and Skytrain and who knows what all to get to the meeting hours later. Meeting was brief and successful, which was a blessing, and then there was the reverse trip. That pretty much ate today.

It was pretty when the plane taxied through the harbour because the legislature is all Christmas lights and sparkle. However, I was really happy to get out of the killer shoes and power suit and turn back into a pumpkin.

Baked for the Christmas potluck (coconut squares. Must try one just to be sure they’re up to snuff). Now I’m printing off material for tomorrow’s critique meeting. Not really exciting stuff, but it feels good to be caught up for once.

Catching up

Sharon Ashwood
December 15, 2009  •  No Comments

There’s been quite a flurry of blogs and interviews with the launch of SCORCHED, and I’ve been busy, busy, busy. I just turned in a proposal for book four, and I’m still waiting for the revisions on UNCHAINED. Right this second, I’ve finished everything due this week. All I can say is WOW. Maybe I’ll make it to the post office to mail my Christmas cards tonight!

This has been the oddest fall. I’m working at two different positions for my day job, which means two offices in two separate buildings a fifteen-minute walk apart. No, this wasn’t planned–one my coworkers passed away. I’m happy to pitch in, but I’m grateful I finished school a month before this all happened.

But, things are looking up. The new-job learning curve is easing off a bit. I’ve got a week’s vacation between Christmas and New Year’s. All my writing obligations have been completed more or less on time. There’s holiday stuff to deal with, but that’s going to be fun. Eggnog ho!

The paranormal paycheque

Sharon Ashwood
November 4, 2009  •  1 Comment

I’m always fascinated by the traditional idea that all vampires are rich. Presumably this is a function of two things:
One: they have a castle or two somewhere in Eastern Europe stuffed with valuable heirlooms and
Two: they all get rich because they live forever.

haunted_castle_203_203x152These are of course fallacies. Castles are expensive to run–which undoubtedly explains the mandatory tropes of cobwebs, skeletons and other signs of residential neglect. Housekeepers are expensive. Plus, it’s a good thing Vlad’s a corpse, because heating the old family pile costs a small fortune all on its own. Flogging the family silver on eBay is only going to net so much cash. Nope, he’s better off in a condo.
As far as amassing a fortune over time goes, that would depend on one’s business sense. Just because somebody’s Undead, that doesn’t mean she or he’s good with investments. I don’t care how long I linger on this planet, I’m never going to fully understand derivatives.

I figure the number of financial whiz kids in the supernatural community is about the same as in the human population. They exist, but they’re in the minority. Some will, with luck and experience, have a nest egg for those days when it rains angry villagers with pitchforks—but that wouldn’t cover the day to day necessities of black leather and styling gel. So, at least some of my characters work. Some even like the satisfaction of a job well done.
What occupations they have depends on their talents and skills. Mac, the hero of SCORCHED, was a cop before his luck ran out and after that he remains, more or less, a kind of cop. He’s the type of guy who identifies with his career. My werewolf is a computer science professor, my werecougar a journalist, and my witch had to go back to school because she couldn’t figure out the business side of ghostbusting. What they do is a big part of who they are and how they fit into society. When I say the werewolf is the first of his family to pursue an academic career, to escape the family construction business and strike out on his own, we learn a fair amount about who he is before we even get to the business of being furry. He’s an educator, a dreamer, and a solver of puzzles, and that all comes together in his classroom.
Who we are is a complex bundle of factors that includes the nine to five—be that a.m. or p.m. Because a lot of my stories revolve around how non-humans fit in a human world, the work world is a goldmine for humour and character quirks. It’s also a great source of conflict.
After all, who hasn’t had at least one co-worker who was a good candidate for a flesh-eating monster in disguise?

A two-way street

Sharon Ashwood
October 20, 2009  •  No Comments

The traffic of ideas between TV and popular fiction is a two-way street. Who started the vampire craze? There’s a perfect opportunity for a big ol’ chicken and egg argument.

My theory is that books are usually a bit ahead in terms of creative exploration because, basically, books are cheaper to produce. Plus, there are more of them, so the odds of a trend-setting dark horse are greater. A publisher can gamble on a book that costs thousands in hopes of another Laurell K. Hamilton among the thousands of books published in a year. A TV pilot costs millions, and there are only a handful of prime time spots available. Really, innovation has become part of a numbers game. There are, of course, brilliant exceptions—Jessa and Annette both mention Buffy—but the vast majority of new shows stay within a fairly narrow creative bandwidth. Those that stray tend to die fairly quickly, especially if I like them.

Of course, if a hot new thing gets legs, the replicas follow. It’s a miracle if the tender new shoot of an idea survives the flood of imitations, which often aren’t as good as the original. I’ve never been a huge fan of reality TV, but the early examples had some novelty value. Pioneer House was actually pretty interesting and Mad Mad House was a guilty pleasure. What was on this summer—not so much.

But how does TV influence popular fiction? TV has the advantage of speed—especially news magazines and entertainment shows—to pick up on what’s on the public mind from one day to the next. Because of the time lag between writing and publication, ripped from the headlines is a little more leisurely for the novelist.

In my opinion, where the influence of TV really comes in is as a testing ground for subject matter. Lots of stuff comes and goes—it won’t be long before we forget all about the boy in the balloon—but the media stories that persist iron themselves into our collective social consciousness. You can start counting backward when you see a big news story, a super-hot trend, or the emergence of a new archetype (a slayer like Buffy, or a hot spy like Jennifer Garner in Alias). In six months to a year, you’ll see their reflection on the bestseller racks.

In fact, I take a paranoia poll every so often. Walk up to any bestseller wall in a bookstore and read the back covers. What are people worried about today? Terrorists? Epidemics? Greedy entrepreneurs? What are they hoping for? Rags to riches, love, justice? Our hopes, fears, and aspirations are all there. Popular fiction is a mirror into our day-to-day minds—sometimes profound, sometimes banal, but I think more true than anything coming out of an academic think tank.

What do you think will be the hot topics a year from now?

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