Sunday, February 19, 2017

My favorite fossils: entelodont


The Daeodon pictured below is a type of entelodont. Their teeth are frightening if you get close up. For those of us lucky enough to be able to touch them, we know they're as sharp as a high-quality chef's knife.

This specimen (pictured) is in the Carnegie Museum. Why they have those big flanges is unknown for certain. When there’s a physical attribute like that, all paleontologists can usually do is make a sensible guess based on logic and by observing animals of today. As there’s no obvious hunting purpose to the flanges, the best guess is that it’s probably part of some male-male competition event over females or herd leadership...that is, if they’re only on males. We don’t know yet if that’s so. It takes complete skeletons to know their sex, and there simply aren’t that many of those. If the females all have flanges too, then either there was a lot of head butting or posturing among entelodonts (or intraspecies displays, as they are called), or they evolved for other reasons. For some reason, Nature selected for bigger flanges, and that usually means it helped individuals with bigger ones survive better or eat better or spread their own genes better by being the hottest entelodont in the neighborhood.

Shot by Matt Celeskey via Wikimedia Commons



Monday, February 13, 2017

Guppy Must Die short story


The crew would suffice. Selma Eubanks was the lockman, Ed Flynn the muscle, and Harv Gupton the utility infielder, a bland-faced man you’d never remember well enough to pick out of a lineup. He could put on a tie and look like a copier salesman or carry a lunch bucket like a factory worker.

Fer Newmark was the planner. Once a utility infielder himself, he had grown into a planner more by his attention to detail than any particular smarts. Right now, Newmark was worried about the detail of Harv Gupton, whose hand shook--not a lot, but enough to tell a tale.

“Just off the sauce?” he asked Gupton when Selma was in the john powdering her nose.

“A few weeks.”

“Still got the shakes.”

Gupton looked down at his right hand as if it belonged to another man. He tucked the fingers between his leg and the motel bed. “I’ll be good for the job. Honest I will.”

“A few weeks, you say?”

“More than one,” Gupton said.

Newmark figured that to mean three days. Gupton was what you might call a functioning alcoholic, able to stay off for the length it took to plan and execute a job. This job was Tuesday, five days off. Maybe the shakes would go away by then. “Not a drop until after the job,” Newmark said.

“Not a drop. I swear.” Gupton crossed his heart clumsily with his left hand. It shook too.

A knock came at the motel room door. Newmark did not use the peephole. People get shot through peepholes. He cracked open the door with the chain still hooked on. “Flynn,” said a smooth voice over the state road traffic noise.

Newmark let Flynn in. His voice might cultured and his suit this year’s model, but he was good with a gun and his fists. And his eyes, flat steel gray, could intimidate people so that he didn’t often have to resort to a gun. 

“We all here?” he said.

“Yeah. You know Harv Gupton?”

They nodded at each other. Selma came out of the bathroom, the wrinkles of travel smoothed out. A beautiful black woman with an island accent, she never smiled. Newmark suspected it was to undercut her beauty, to keep guys from feeling invited in.

“What do you have?” Flynn said, taking a seat on the dresser, leaving the chair for Selma.

Newmark remained standing. “A bank.”

“A bank.”

“One by a grocery store.”

Flynn narrowed his eyes. “I know you’re smarter than that.”

“The store is about to close. They’ll be moving out the goods. But the bank will stay open while they do. Milk and eggs and shit, that gets sold to the last day. Canned beets, that gets hauled away.”

“Non-perishables,” Selma suggested.

“Right,” Newmark said. “For two days, those go out, and the bank is open.”

“There won’t be many customers, you figure?” Gupton said.

“You guys have cell phones?”

“Burner only,” Flynn said.

“I have a burner smart phone right here. When you Google a store, it shows you customer flow, how many are there at what hours.” He had it called up on his phone already and passed it around. “Figure half or third that many for the last two days.”

Flynn glanced at it and passed it on. “So we move at nine, when the bank opens?”

“Out before nine forty-five, when the last armored car comes to haul off the cash.”

“Also non-perishable,” Selma said.

Gupton giggled.

Newmark laid out the basics of the plan.

“What do I do now?” Selma said.

He looked at her. “Staffing details. How many, where are they?” He turned to Gupton. “We need a cell phone jammer set up outside. Find one.”

Flynn didn’t need to ask his job. He’d take care of the bank clerk and manager. “Can’t be much money,” he said.

“Over a hundred, according to my source. Twenty five per man.”

“What if your source is wrong?”

Newmark thought he wasn’t, and he knew the others would trust his sources. “Then we work cheaper. You still in?”

“Yup,” Flynn said.

Selma nodded.

Gupton said, “Okay, Fer, anything you want.” When Newmark held his gaze, he licked his lips, nervous. “I’m the--whatchacall it--man Friday.”

“Factotum,” Flynn suggested.

“Sure,” Gupton said, confused but agreeable. “I do whatever I’m told.” He said, “Maybe I’ll look like a homeless guy. You see them sometimes, sitting outside the grocery.”

That's match the shakes, at least. The phone had come back to Newmark and now he pulled up the photo collection for this job. It included a blueprint he’d drawn himself. He passed the phone around again.

He watched Flynn flip through the shots. “Rear exit?”

“To the store? It’s in there. Loading dock off a storage room.”

Flynn nodded as he kept flipping, and then he passed the phone to Selma.

Newmark watched Gupton from the corner of his eye. The man was twitching. Not just the shakes, but shifting from butt cheek to cheek, scratching his ribs. DTs? Or something worse? “Hey, Guppy,” Newmark said, knowing the man hated the nickname. “Take a walk with me.”

“Okay, Fer. I just gotta use the can first.”

That set off an alarm, one wired deep into Newmark’s criminal soul. That alarm had kept him from ever going down for a job. One arrest that didn’t stick when he was only twenty-three, but nothing worse in the twelve years since. He intended to keep it that way. “I’ll help,” he said to Gupton.

Both the others froze and glanced up.

“Ha-ha,” said Gupton, without humor.

“Stand up,” Newmark said. “And lift your shirt. Very slowly.”

Flynn came off the dresser, his knees flexed, ready to move.

“What?” Gupton said. “You turning gay on us?” He tried to force a laugh but failed.

“Shirt,” Newmark said, pointing at it and flicking his finger up to demonstrate.

Selma went to the front door, cracked it, and looked out. “Don’t see anything,” she said.

“Shirt,” Newmark repeated, staring at Gupton.

His hands were shaking badly as he lifted the tail of his shirt. When they all saw no sign of a wire, the tension ratcheted down a notch. “I wouldn’t do that to you, Fer,” Gupton said.

“Drop trou,” he said, backing off a step.

Gupton did without comment.

“And kick them to Flynn.” Without taking his eyes off Gupton, standing there in briefs and shirt, he said to Flynn, “Take out the phone, and look for any other device.”

“Yup,” Flynn said. As he emptied the pockets, he lined up everything on the dresser. The crack as he smashed the phone made Gupton jump.

Selma said, “Still nothing out here.”

“Check the bathroom window in back.”

“Done,” she said. As she moved past the dresser, she stopped. “Wait. That.”

“What?” Flynn said.

“The flash drive.” She held it up. It was on a key ring holding a car key, a key to a door, and that. Selma looked at it, flipped something on the side, and nodded. “It’s a recording device. A spy thing. Used them on a job in an engineering office once. This one was on.”

“You do industrial espionage too?” Flynn said.

Selma tensed, glanced at Gupton, but then she looked at Newmark’s face. She understood there was no reason to worry about Gupton any longer or what he might hear about her. “Still want me to check the rear?”

“If you don’t mind,” he said. “Then you can leave. You go now, Flynn.”

“I’m gone,” he said, and then he was as good as his word.

“B-b-b-but Fer,” Gupton said.

“We need to have a talk, you and I,” Newmark said, to keep him calm. Selma came through said, “Clear,” and snatched up her bag and left via the front door.

“Okay, let’s talk,” Gupton said.

But they weren’t going to talk. Those three words were going to be the last Gupton uttered.

---------------------------------------

I'm a big fan of Donald Westlake, both in his humorous mode and in his Parker/Stark mode. I always wanted to try a hardboiled crime novel a la Parker, but never have until Chuck Wendig's short fiction challenge gave me the title "Guppy Must Die." I failed in keeping it under the 1000 word limit, but I have a hard time keeping anything to that limit. Thanks to Chuck and Jeanette Hubbard for the inspiration, and apologies to Mr. Westlake's ghost. (If I were going to try this seriously, I'd immerse myself in Parker novels for six weeks first to "catch" the voice, which I don't think I caught well here.) Every writer with a functioning mind wants to be able to write as well as Westlake...but no one can. RIP, sir.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

How why and when I blog

As I have some new readers now, I wanted to mention a bit about my blogging habits.


  1. I blog every Sunday morning and rarely a second time during the week
  2. I moderate comments at least once a day (a step I take to avoid spam). So just post once; It'll appear by the next day at latest ... unless you spammed or used bad language
  3. My most common topics are natural disasters, emergency preparation for disasters (including power outages and snow storms), fossils, and soon I'll write more about pandemics and the end of oil. Every so often I review a movie or book. My primary topics are listed below in a linkable bullet point list, under the column of graphics/links for my books; the list begins "✸Australia ✸California"
  4. In November, I spend a month talking to other writers about the craft and business of writing. Readers who are not writers might find these posts dull, but a friend's book club promises me they find the topic fascinating. 😏
That's it! I link it via twitter, G+, and Facebook, so that people who follow me there and not here can find it.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Best Books I read in 2016

(Yes, yes, this is belated! I wanted to finish the fossil-hunting tale in January.)

The Next Pandemic, Dr. Ali Khan.  I read this while researching for my pandemic thriller. (Research which also spun off the post-apoc thriller 41 Days.) Dr. Khan was an epidemic researcher for the CDC, and his tales of being out on the ground in various epidemics helped me understand what that might be like for the hero of my upcoming novel. But it also made me appreciate the work these people do even more. Guys, they really, no-fooling, risk their lives for us, and 99.999% of us couldn’t name one of them. It’s a page-turner (which is of course my highest praise.)

WARNING: Being distributed by Hatchett, this ebook is five times the price it should be, so probably the library is the place to look for it.

Between Silk and Cyanide, Leo Marks. The SOE Codemaster talked about his work in WWII. Fascinating.

Landfall, Jerry Aubin. I blogged about this one already here. Capsule review if you don’t want to click the link: riveting, page-turner military SF, appropriate for YA boys and adults of both sexes as well. Three books are out in the series.




Watching the End of the World, Eric T. Knight.  A TV reality show goes wrong when a worldwide bioterror attack occurs while the contestants are on a plane. It goes even more wrong when they are forced to land in a bit of jungle that is under the control of a drug-runner/warlord. However, not is all at it seems. The last 1/4 of this is so well paced, I’m jealous of the craft. Amusingly, he emailed me as I was biting my nails and trying to flip pages faster at the end, and I yelled at him in an email to leave me alone! A book is obviously good when it makes you yell at nice people to allow you to finish it.

Full disclosure, Eric and I are friends. Funny story, that. I sort of...well...picked him up (in a totally non-sexual way) on a writer’s board when I saw we had some ideas in common about being a writer that are not all that typical in the indie community. He read one of my books, and I began to read his as what began as a polite act of reciprocity--but I quickly realized he really could write! A-HA! I dragged him into my den of evil authors morning writing sprint group and told him everything I know about the biz in emails, and he claims I somehow gave him my cover designers (but they were attainable through googling, so no, I didn’t), and after I was done telling him everything I know about Amazon and algos and blurbs and AMS ads (I promise you it didn’t take long, for my ignorance is as vast as an ocean and my knowledge a tiny raft in the middle of that ocean), we settled down to being "just" writing buds. So I am today not at all an unbiased person, as I know he’s not just a good writer but a good guy. But I was unbiased when I started reading page 1 of this book. Make of that what you will.

Maude, Donna Mabry.  A neighbor lady told me to read it, I grabbed it while it was on sale for free, and holy moly, this is a great indie book! It’s the author’s grandmother’s story, narrated in first person, just as the stories were told to the author when she was a child. A fascinating glimpse into poor women’s lives in America over 100 years ago. (This author, despite her being an indie too, I do not know at all.)

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Hunting Fossils - Conclusion


The fossils we found this month will go into a temporary set of drawers in the museum for further processing. Today, I’m working in the prep lab on a fossil found two years ago.

Many of the fossils we’ve been finding are on the surface. “Digging” for fossils is pretty rare here. There’s a surfeit of fine ones to be plucked off the ground. But sometimes in the canyon, you see a gleam of a tooth, and then an inch or two of curved jaw, and you know there’s something better encased in the rock behind it. Plaster, rock hammers, picks are used to ease the thing out--often over the course of a week or two. It comes out with plenty of extra rock around it.

Wikipedia. A fossil still in matrix

Such is the jaw I’m working on right now. It’s another oreodont. The rock--called “matrix”--needs to come off to reveal the fossil itself. Last week, I finished the top of the skull. There’s a beautiful pearlescent quality to part of it. I hit one difficult patch, but most of this one is coming along easily.

There are people who can do picky, fine work. I’m one of them, so this is my favorite part of the work. (That it’s done in air conditioned comfort is no small part of that.) I can sit for three hours, hunched over a microscope, my work in the eyepiece, and wield the tools of fossil cleaning on the specimen.

The primary tool I use is a pneumatic scribe, a vibrating needle that grinds away the matrix. It takes some practice figuring out the right angle and the right pressure to use--and that changes between the easier fossils and the harder ones, between bone and teeth, between animal and vegetable.

I cheat a little bit today and work at the side of the jaw, the thing that was exposed and let the paleontologist two years ago see it was there. Teeth are so easy to clean, so forgiving. It’s a joy to work at the side of a few molars. And it’s fascinating how different the molar surface is between species. Even I can tell at a glance a rhino from a mammoth from an entelodont from a camel from an oreodont. They each have distinctive cusps, or bumps.

oreodont skull, cleaned

After three hours, I stretch and walk around the museum, answering a question for a tourist. Then I go back into the lab and switch tasks.

I’ve been left with a bag of broken bones from earlier this year. It’s a 3-D jigsaw puzzle, and I’ve put it about half together. I’m thinking I might have more than one bone here. I have enough together I know that one is a vertebra. Naked eye, I gently try a couple of pieces against each other. I move to the microscope when I think I have a fit. I do! Another bit added.

I get out the polyvinyl butyral dissolved in acetone to glue them together, using toothpicks to hold the bones in place until the glue sets. I try another bone fragment in several places, finding no matches, and then I’m done. I put the tray back in my work area. I know the paleontologist comes by and checks my work from time to time, making sure I’m not messing up too badly. There are fossils here so fragile or so important, I’m not let near them.

After lunch, I’m pulled aside to help carve a resting place for a camel’s pelvic bone in a chunk of museum-quality foam. I cradle the bone in both hands, nervous as all get-out, I promise you, as someone else uses an electric knife to match the impression in the foam to the shape of the bone. The knife is just like the one you might use on holidays to carve the turkey.

When it’s ready, we move it out to a new exhibit in the museum. This takes four of us using eight locking suction cup devices to lift a heavy glass case. It’s like a scene out of something like Ocean’s Eleven (minus six), where they rob a museum. First, the guy who was using the knife flips off the alarm system--which is deafening when it is triggered--and then we lift the glass case. It’s heavy. I’m not sure why the alarms, because it really is a four-person job to lift this thing. It’s not something you could sneak in and do in thirty seconds, even if you did your tourism with eight locking suction cup devices in your backpack. Knife Guy rearranges the exhibit and adds the camel bone. He takes out a femur of a different camel, needed for study, and we lower the cabinet, lock it, and he re-sets the alarm.

Wikipedia. Not "my" museum but the sort of case we moved

I go back to work on the oreodont skull. I watch, during the breaks I take to rest my eyes, the paleontologist with the femur bone. She has out calipers and is measuring the distance between various bone markers. There’s some discussion in the field of splitting one camel species into two. If they do that, which is this bone going to be? A pile of scientific journals is open to the relevant pages. She takes pictures from time to time, and sometimes she asks me to hold a flashlight to illuminate a bit of bone correctly.

I’m down to halfway down in the oreodont’s cheek. It has a very deep lacrymal fossa, a dent that held a gland. That it’s so deep will probably help them know exactly what species it is.

I’m stiff from working in one position, so I wander outdoors and walk around. Were it not for the scorching summer heat, it’d be a beautiful day. It’s beautiful for about five minutes until I escape to the air conditioning. Tomorrow, it’s back out into the field, to hunt for more fossils, teeth and bones the hard rock is yielding back up to us.

In the center of the museum entrance is a huge entelodont’s head and neck, the flanges flared out impressively, the fossil teeth sharp enough that there’s a sign warning people not to touch them. Thirty million years after it died, its teeth can still draw blood.

In my time here, I have begun to long to be fossilized. It’s unlikely to happen, but I wish for it nonetheless. It’s as near to immortal as any of us might be.