Sunday, August 13, 2017

Oil Apocalypse: the Germ

Not just the germ for the Oil Apocalypse series of novels, but for my thinking about the collapse of civilization, sprouted decades ago, at university. There, I read various Club of Rome publications and Limits to Growth (which is entirely right in general, though people slam it for being wrong in a few specifics). Political science professors introduced to me to some fascinating principles that I absorbed. I didn’t think of this often as a young adult--I was busy getting laid and establishing a career like most people in their 20s--but it was percolating in the back of my mind. I wasn't yet a writer and didn't think people like me could be writers.

If you want to know more about Limits to Growth, an easy way to learn is to read this recent article.

I became interested in the topic of collapse--why and how civilizations fall--long before the Jared Diamond book on it. I should start with the 1988 book Rise and Fall of the Great Powers by Paul Kennedy, a seminal political science work that focuses largely on military power and how it first builds empires and then contributes to the collapse of them. I took some archeology courses in the 1990s and learned more about ancient civilizations that are naught but ruins now and why they may have ended. The Diamond book Collapse was released, and I read that. He speaks a lot of resource depletion due to overpopulation as a core cause of collapse. I’ve since read Joseph Tainter’s Collapse of Complex Societies, which talks about complexity of systems being the cause of collapse, a sort of weight that accumulates until it breaks a society into smaller, more manageable pieces. I’m currently working my way through mathematician Peter Turchin’s writing on the topic which analyzes the matter in a slightly different way. I suspect none has THE answer, but I suspect each has a piece of an answer to the question “what makes complex societies collapse?”

If you wander over to youtube, you’ll find interviews and lectures by all these men, or you can go read the Wikipedia pages on each of the mentioned books and get this gist.

If you’re not in the mood to read or listen to lectures, the most important thing to know is this: because of various causes, civilizations always collapse. It’s an inescapable rule, just like “you will die” is a rule. Whatever nation-state you inhabit is not immune to ending, as you are not immune to death. Wave your flag harder in response to this statement all you want, but it won’t stop the inevitable collapse. Rome’s empire fell. Alexander the Great conquered a huge swath of land but you’ll notice most of those conquered people don’t speak Greek any longer. Persia fell. The Mongols became something less than Genghis might have hoped. The sun sets pretty quickly on the British Empire nowadays. Collapse happens.

Often, collapse is more like "contraction." Rome fell, but you know, there is still a Rome in Italy, and some of the people there are descended from Imperial Romans.

Here's something to ponder: because we are in part a global society now, quite intertwined, trading goods across vast distances, is it more likely that if, say, the United States collapses will it take Canada, Australia, Britain, Japan, and Saudi Arabia with it? In the not-too-remote past, this was not so. Portugal used to be an empire of great power. When it collapsed from that position and because a much less powerful nation, it was good for the rest of Europe, not bad. It probably would be a real problem if that happened today--and not just because of the EU.

Another interesting question is: what does collapse look like in the modern age? Does it happen boom, overnight? Preppers obviously think so and most post-apocalyptic novels, including mine, cater to that belief/fear/desire. Or does it happen slowly, in a stair-step fashion, and in such a way that only a few people understand that they are living in the midst of a collapse as it occurs?

Part of the problem with how the human mind works is that we want simple answers and we think better when contemplating the short term. Trying to think about the collapse of vast civilizations, including how our own will collapse, takes a disinterested perspective, and a broad view.

While my other post-apocalyptic novels are about a specific triggering event, the Oil Apocalypse series depended on my inventing imaginary answers to these more complicated questions of how and how quickly collapse occurs. There is no way to write an exciting novel while including all of this information I’ve learned. I tried to hint at some of the complexities of the slow collapse leading up to the catastrophic event of the destruction of the Ras Tanura port in book 1 of my series, and I hope I was neither too subtle about that, nor too dull and academic. Spoiler alert: there's a second series planned for a long, long time after this series. That's because I think people will survive collapse, and I make this belief into fictional reality in series 2.

So in books 2-4 of the first series, and in the second series, I’ll let the slow collapse continue....

Sunday, August 6, 2017

I have good news about Oil Apocalypse!

Because my imagination and fingers have been working overtime the past six weeks, the third book will be ready much sooner than I'd planned. I still must coordinate with cover artist and proofreader for this surprise change, but if Book 2 drops into your Kindle on October 6, it's quite possible Book 3 will appear in late November, which is fully six weeks earlier than I had original thought I could do it. Yay for all of us!

And those three books will comprise a sort of sub-series, a complete tale that comes to a resting point. After that, there will be a time gap (for the characters, not for me and you) and we'll come back to them in Book 4 several years later, when relationships, resources, and troubles will have changed.

I originally thought this first section would be one book, but that wasn't so. And then I thought it would be two books, but I got so many interesting ideas, I realized I couldn't fit them into a single volume. So three books it is for this sub-series.

There is every possibility that there will be six or seven books in the series. I know the final scenes of the series as clearly as if I witnessed them happening in real life, and I can tell that they aren't coming up in any book soon. So if you like the Oil Apocalypse series, this is good news indeed. It won't be a short series!

Next Sunday I'll return to my posts on the end of oil, the collapse of civilizations, and related matters.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Oil Apocalypse Blogs: 5

As you thought about all this over the past two years of research, what was the most troubling single fact you ran across?

Perhaps this: in the United States, a majority of lettuce is grown in Yuma, AZ. (A good deal of the other fertile green land of the US has either suburbs built over it or grows grains for cows to eat and to sweeten Coke--and no, that isn’t the troubling thing! Or, yes, it is troubling, but...) A popular food all over America is iceberg lettuce, which contains 63 calories per pound. A liter of diesel fuel represents 9 million calories. (Calories = heat = energy to do work, whether the work gets done by human power or internal combustion engines.) From Yuma to, say, the outskirts of Boston is 4500 km/2800 miles. Long-haul trucks get about 6 miles per gallon of diesel (for my international readers, I believe that’s 39 litres per 100 km--correct me if my maths failed me). One common size of truck carries 40,000 pounds of lettuce or 250,000 calories of food per truck load. Multiply all that out and you see we’re using 250 million calories of diesel to transport 250 thousand calories. (And half of that lettuce will end up thrown out, so really, only 125 thousand calories will be put back into the human energy system.) When our great-great-great-great grandchildren are spreading the manure with a rake and think of this insane waste, they are going to curse our names and go spit on our graves. (which they'll have probably raided for bones to grind into fertilizer, if they're smart.)

I have a really crazy idea to solve this: grow lettuce near Boston for the 220 growing days it has, and just don’t eat it the other 140 days of the year. I know, I’m mad, MAD, I tell you. [Insert evil laugh.]

Um, Lou? Should I panic?

Definitely not. It’s not nearly the time to panic, and even when it is time, what use is panic?

Should I conserve gas?

Nah. I've quit thinking this way. I do out of habit, and I use solar power, and a low-flow toilet because I’m in the desert where water is going to run out one day soon, but I do all this knowing it won’t help. You use a gallon of gasoline today, or some guy in China uses it in five years, doesn’t really matter, does it? Petroleum will run out either way. (And all my using a low-flow toilet does is to allow developers to justify building another golf course or mall in the desert, so that’s downright idiotic of me, a person could argue.)

What should I do?

Right now? Be prepared not for the end of the world but for minor natural disasters--you know which are likely to strike you--and even more importantly for power outages. Because those will become more frequent before oil depletion is an issue.

Can’t we work to switch over to a radically different way of living and make the transition bearable? Something like urban gardening might help ameliorate some of the food issues you've talked about.

Urban gardening without petrochemicals is a smart idea but probably not enough to save us, even putting aside for a moment human nature (including greed, laziness, unwillingness to change, short-term thinking, unwillingness to believe the facts smacking us right in the face, aversion to physical labor, the urge to steal ripe tomatoes out of someone’s yard if they aren't looking, and so on). Maybe back when Jimmy Carter realized what was what and got the US to drive 55 (remember that gas-saving idea, fellow oldsters? Lasted for an eyeblink), there was still a remote chance of doing that if we rapidly added other measures like nationwide electric trains (totally doable with today’s tech, and totally nowhere on any infrastructure plan), different sorts of farm subsidies that punish petrochemical use, monoculture farming, and reward growing edible foods to sell locally, a move to 50 mpg cars within five years, and so on. We didn’t do it then, and we know more now and are closer to the end of oil now, and we’re still not doing it! Admit it: we suck at this kind of thing.

Former President Carter
Conversions to a sustainable way of managing energy reserves require not just putting on a sweater in the winter and driving 55 but decades of innovation, engineering, and manufacturing (which will require petroleum to drive until the new way is profitable and probably it will require significant tax increases on gasoline in the US, which very few of us are willing to accept), and I think we’ve missed the window where we could have done that, and missed it by quite a few decades. Not only the end of gas, but an ugly end to gas has become inevitable, I fear.

Some people think the last possible time to act was the beginning of the industrial revolution. Thinking along those lines, I’d counter that perhaps the last moment to call a halt and reconsider would have even been the invention of grain agriculture, which put us on the road to here. But back then, they didn’t know diddly-squat about...well, anything they’d have needed to know that might have stopped them from taking that step onto the slippery slope. They thought the world was flat and ended 100 miles away, and I’m sure they saw some tar pits, but sensibly they thought those were things to avoid, not exploit. Having more of their children survive to adulthood via farming seemed a good thing (and why shouldn’t it have?) and not also the first step on the road to runaway overpopulation that would lead to population growth, the discovery of oil, and very bad results of the end of oil in the long term.

Do you have no hope about a sane, rapid transition away from oil that doesn’t involve eventual cannibalism and billions starving and so on?

Sure. Mother Nature could unleash a pandemic on us that kills 95% of the population and renders 95% of the remainder infertile. That would help quite a bit. But I’m not sure that’s exactly “optimistic” or hopeful in the way you might wish, though it might be a little better to die of a viral respiratory disease than to be eaten by cannibals. (Never having experienced either, I’m only guessing at their relative merits, of course.) And, even if that pandemic happened, gas would still run out in several centuries--but in that case we might have been given the time to create a more gentle transition to the post-oil world. Are humans capable of becoming anything but short-sighted and greedy so that after the pandemic the ones left would use that time wisely and in that way? History doesn’t make me an optimist, but we’ve done great things before (like democracy and the internet and getting to the moon) so who knows?

Ack! You’re a horrible person, Lou! Can’t you say one positive thing about anything?

Sure. I’m really quite a cheerful person. It’s a nice day, I’m healthy and in no physical pain, and I hope you can say that too. Pour yourself a margarita if you drink alcohol, and re-watch your favorite comedy movie, and if someone close at hand loves you, enjoy laughing with him or her. Kiss your dog or cat or parakeet. Any day we’re not being buried or cremated is a fine day. Be grateful, as I am, that your life is being lived in this amazing, brief window when petroleum drove all this technology and easy living. “Alexa? Give me a recipe for margaritas.”

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Oil Apocalypse Blogs: 4

Don’t you think prepping and having a bunker full of powdered butter and a case of Amoxicillin and seeds and lots of ammunition will save you in case of a total collapse and food riots and all that?

I honestly don’t, sorry. I know it's a big business, prepper products, and that people are passionate about this (and some only pretend to be passionate to make money off the true believers), but I don’t think prepping will work. Again, I really don’t believe that a violent collapse will happen in my or your lifetime, but let’s say against all odds that a SHTF scenario is coming in ten years. I think if you’re anywhere near a city, living in a normal home with a normal number of occupants who go to the shooting range, responsibly, twice a month to keep up their skills, you’ll die quickly if the hungry hordes arrive and see you have a garden and food stores. Maybe if you had a compound with 250 trained soldiers who kept in training daily, in a remote mountain site surrounded by barbed wire, you could make it...but then compounds like that, well off the beaten path, tend to quickly devolve into bizarre paranoid cult dictatorships where the teenage girls don’t fare so well, and that occurs long before the crisis comes (which it probably won’t in the lifetime of any cult out there today, so you're risking a lot for no gain). So personally? I’m not moving to one of those compounds and would suggest you keep your daughters away from them.

Isn’t it possible we’ll figure out a way to use something common as fuel? Like air or salt water?

No, because again of the pesky laws of physics. But let’s say we could magically turn regular old air into fuel--into energy as amazing and cheap as petroleum was in 1930, plus some form of waste product (aka pollution). Fast forward. This could not possibly turn out well. (“Honey, you want to drive the air-car to the store while I suffocate to death, or vice versa?”)  Petroleum was probably our one chance, and ... well ... we kinda blew it. I’m not excepting myself from the blame, nor am I excepting myself from the evolutionary psychology truth about people that drives us to behave like this. We are short-term thinkers, and we weigh present benefits as many times more important than future ones. Our New Year’s resolutions about food and exercise mostly fail because a chocolate bar and resting after work appeal more than the long-term benefit. And we use up a finite gift like petroleum now rather than doling it out at a more responsible rate.

Can’t we colonize the galaxy and find new energy sources?

No. We can’t even begin to repair the damage we’ve done to this planet, much less terraform Mars to be habitable for humans, a place that has zero biomass, no protective magnetosphere, dead soil, and no oil to drill for anyway. Rocket fuel, which is not petroleum-based, nevertheless requires petroleum to manufacture. So that’s how you want to spent the last 2% of it? Going to a planet that can’t possibly support human life? (sigh.) We’ve never found any sign of so much as algae on another planet. Oil may be unique in the galaxy, even if intelligent life is not.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Oil Apocalypse Blogs: 3

Can solar power, hybrid cars, turbines, biodiesel, and nuclear power save our easy suburban life?

Not a chance. Solar, wind, and even nukes will provide electricity after coal and natural gas run out. And I’ve been reading up on how fragile the US grid for electricity is, and there’s horrible news there too. A lot of expensive infrastructure has to change fast for renewables to provide all our electricity.

But in any case, electricity isn’t food. It isn’t delivery of goods across oceans. Electricity isn’t putting tires on a vehicle that will rush your kid to the hospital in an ambulance (where, without plastics, I have not a clue what kind of equipment the doctors will be using anyway). Electricity is nice, mind you. It lets Siri and Alexa tell you knock-knock jokes, and it helps me write my novels and get them to your device. It keeps people in Yellow Knife from freezing to death and people in Adelaide from dying of heat stroke. I like electricity a good deal, though I’ve lived without hardly any myself over many years (one 85-watt solar panel, two batteries, DC power, and no other electricity served me fine for a decade, though that was in no way a typical suburban lifestyle).

Oil does so much more than drive us around; an astonishing amount of stuff we rely on is petroleum-based. (Glancing around... My eyeglasses, computer, shoes, carpet, electrical cords, Kindle, some clothing, some furniture bits. The driveway surface outside my front door. The tires on my car, and at least half the stuff under its hood that keeps it running. And I didn’t even have to stretch my neck to see all that!)

Renewables alone won’t give us the electricity we (think we) need. One day, I suspect, electricity will have to be coming mostly from nuke plants, many more plants than now exist, built (because oil is required to do that too) before oil runs entirely out. I will jump on the nutcase forecasting bandwagon to say this much. When/if that happens, no matter what assurances there are, expect a Chernobyl or Fukashima every three to five years or so. So, you know, buy property UPwind, not downwind of your local nuke plant. (I’m downwind of one. Do as I say and not as I do!) Um, also? We’re at peak uranium already. So unless the technology of nuclear reactors takes a massive leap forward in a shockingly short time, that phase won’t last long either. Then our descendants might be part of a great human migration away from extreme climates, the locations of which will likely be different than today’s, because while we can live without electricity for most things (as I found out when living without more than one 85-watt solar panel gave me), we can’t survive 130 degree days and 100 degree nights without it, which is where Phoenix is headed, and soon. Whoever is around after oil can live in temperate climes and with little to no electricity. We hominids did that for hundreds of thousands of years; we will again.

Some people will say we humans are great inventors and we’ll invent our way out of the inevitable end of oil. Perhaps, but I don’t believe we will because you cannot invent your way out of the rules of physics and biology, and nothing on the horizon looks able to replace most uses of oil. Minor new technologies will create minor improvements (as when electric car batteries can be manufactured more cheaply or to weigh much less, or when solar panels may one day not require almost as much electricity to manufacture as they’ll put out over their lives, which is the current state of affairs).

Of course and on the other hand...people used to living life one way will resist change. Look up all the brouhaha about smart electric meters. To keep the electrical grid going and to avoid blackouts, in many communities (mine is one of them), they remotely control things like your thermostat temp, no matter what you'd like. This way, everyone has some cooling or heating, and they avoid week-long blackouts that would literally kill people. But people are very against this! So, invent all you like, but you can't invent around greed and a sense of entitlement. (Entitlement to air conditioning? What a bizarre concept.)

I believe the great-great-great-(maybe another great or two)-grandchildren of people now being born may be living something like an 18th century agrarian life again (though surrounded by plastic trash from the petroleum age). Instead of spraying petrochemicals on their crops to increase the yield, they’ll once again spread manure. Yes, manure smells bad, but compared to death by starvation, guiding the manure-spreader around the farm once a year doesn’t sound like a terrible future.

So I’m an optimist about the distant future.

It’s just getting from this point to that point, particularly in how that excess 15 billion humans gets culled, that I’m afraid will be ugly and scary.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

The Oil Apocalypse Blogs: 2

What is the scariest aspect of the end of oil?

In my opinion? Food. Our just-in-time food delivery system depends entirely on petroleum. Starving people may not remain pleasant people, especially not when they live in the concentrations of today’s urban centers. England’s little glitch back 10 years ago that resulted in the “nine meals from anarchy” talk gave us a hint of what may well happen at the start of such an event.

Daniel Chase photo via Wikimedia. Before Hurricane Sandy

But food delivery isn’t the only facet of the food system that requires petroleum. Tractors and other farm machinery, tractor tires, insecticides, fertilizers...all require petroleum. Indeed, it was the industrial revolution and petroleum products as applied to farming that resulted in crop yields that caused the world population to explode from 500 million to over 7 billion in just a couple hundred years.

We need to pause from time to time and think about that. 500 million people is probably the carrying capacity of the earth sans oil. That is, this lovely, diverse, rare planet can support/feed only a half a billion homo sapiens. So when oil is gone, there will be at least 7 billion extra starving people (probably 15 billion or more by the time it happens, though drought or disease may have killed several billion first because we have other problems that stem from overpopulation).

So imagine: Fertile land and deer and fish for half a billion, with 15 billion clamoring for food. You can see what’s going to happen. People are going to starve to death...but a few will not do it quietly and politely, darn them. They will kill you to get your food, and if your food is gone, some will kill you to use you as food.

(I’m glad I won’t live to see it.)

Don’t Iran and Saudi Arabia get along really well?

Not according to what I read. I read several policy papers (rather boring research for me, I confess), and of all the local neighbors who might attack Saudi Arabia for its oil in the future, Iran seemed the most likely. Again, I can’t guess at a date, but one day, surely current tensions will come to that. Its impact on oil exports? That I would not begin to try and predict. Worst case scenario for the reader more than likely, is Russia backing Iran (as they likely would) and winning and gaining control over the Saudi Arabian oil fields. The British/US invasion of Iraq was ill-considered and wasteful and got us almost no oil. Our entering this hypothetical Iran-Saudi war, if Russia is a major player, to protect our access to Saudi oil? Absolutely necessary. It’ll probably be couched in some typical lie to appease the masses--WMDs or religion or “evil” leaders or whatever--but it will be entirely about oil and, if we want to keep living as we do, if we want to keep eating, not so much a choice as an imperative.

more next week

Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Oil Apocalypse Blogs: 1

As I begin to blog about the topics that I’ve researched and that led me to situate this novel series at the end of petroleum, I hardly know where to begin.

I’ll start with answering general questions friends and readers have already asked me and imaginary questions that other people might ask in the future.

Do you believe that oil is coming to an end?

Without a doubt.

It’s a finite resource. The world population increases daily by almost a quarter of a million people, India and China, the most populous nations, become bigger users of fossil fuels every day, and it takes tens of millions of years for new oil to be made via geological processes. So yes, absolutely, it’s coming to an end. I don’t need to “believe” it, no more than I need to “believe” in gravity or molybdenum or the planet Mercury. Oil will run out.

But I’ve read in the newspaper there is plenty. Don’t you believe the official measures of available oil and predictions of how long it will last?

Not for a second. These figures come from the oil industry itself (remember, the folks you brought you Deep Horizon and the Exxon Valdez?), which is fixated on short-term profit, not the long-term health of civilization, and from the same governments who have lied about everything they can lie about for my entire life. Obviously none is to be trusted and all have their own vested economic interests that make lying advantageous to them. They aren’t wholly on my side and have plenty of incentive to lie, so I don’t believe them.

So who do you believe?

Sorry, but I have no one reliable to offer you in exchange for those liars. I’ve read every peak oil/post oil book there is out there, watched all the documentaries, read hundreds of blog posts by everyone from social scientists to actuaries to economists to “recovering oil executives,” to the Grand Archdruid, to back-to-the-earth small organic farmers who use horses and hoes instead of tractors, and there is so much panic-mongering and so many unlikely claims, so many crazy cults that don’t allow dissent or questions if you wish to clarify the source of their claims, it’s hard to know whom to believe. So I don’t believe any of them either.

Sure, that’s because some are clearly nutty, but also because the most rational and well-read of them are predicting details about a future that is unpredictable. I don’t know the future, and they don’t know. Some (not much) new oil could be discovered. New technologies might emerge to get oil out of tar sands more efficiently. Nobody knows the shape of the future, and while someone out there (probably a few gas executives and intelligence agencies) is certain how much gasoline is truly left, they aren’t sharing that info.

We do all know this: oil is a finite resource and more than half that ever was has already been burned.

Wikimedia. Oil production and use. Hubbert's Peak in action to 2003

When will oil entirely run out?

Not a clue. After I’m dead and gone, no doubt, and probably before 100 years has passed, but other than that, without someone first telling us the truth about how much there is, I would not hazard a guess. (Okay, I did hazard a guess in writing this novel series, but Slashed is set about a generation from now, and that seems far too soon for us living in the real, non-fictional world. I didn’t want the world unrecognizable, so I chose that time frame and a world political arrangement that had the US dependent on one foreign source that gets shut off in an instant. Artistic license.)

more to come next week

Sunday, June 25, 2017

What I've been reading to write Oil Apocalypse

A brief bibliography for the new series:

1) Anything I could find on small ground-unit tactics, including parts of the US Army field manuals and after-action reports from Australian, US, and British ground troops going back to the 1950s. In a few cases, the reports had a few lines about what it felt like to be there and vivid descriptions that helped me imagine (though I’ve never been in combat myself) what that might be like. Many thanks to those authors.

2) I admit that I’m no expert on weapons (I’ve fired a half-dozen, but that’s about it), so online manuals and discussions have helped me appear (I hope) something other than a fool on the topic. Writer Eric T. Knight read Slashed to make sure I hadn’t said something utterly stupid about the topic, and I’ll continue to use my friends for just that purpose as I write the rest of the series. A big thank you goes out to them for this help.

3) Though it’s a subtle part of the setting, there is a warming trend in the deserts of the southwest US right now and I’ve extrapolated worse in the near future setting of my novels so that the snow level is higher, the mid-altitudes hotter, and the animal populations are shifting. I’ve read paleoclimatology edited for the non-professional reader, including The West Without Water, Ingram and Malamud-Roan. I’ve read climate change books that focus specifically on Arizona and New Mexico, including the beautifully written A Great Aridness by William DeBuys. I revisited some of the ruins of Sinagua and Hohokam people in Arizona where drought and heat drove them away from their home (and which also drove other cultural changes that led to the abandonment of many Indian cities in the 1400s in the southwestern US.) Brian Fagan’s books on water and climate and the history of human civilization provided some additional help.

4) Over the past three years, I’ve read probably everything written on peak oil since 1990, including many blogs and debates in comments, ones from the wackdoodle to the sober. I’ve interviewed a petroleum engineer, viewed every movie on the topic, and if I’ve missed a single popular book, I’d be shocked. (Thanks to the public library and the concept of free inter-library loans for much of this.) For a quick overview, I might suggest (though it is not without its problems) the film A Crude Awakening.

5) Wikipedia has become a sine qua non for most authors. I probably look at some page there five times a day. WokFI is just one page I looked at one day (for a scene that lasts barely 25 words), but hardly an hour passes that I don’t look up something like that. I remember the days when you had to drive to the library and look in books and Periodical Indexes and ask reference librarians (who are terrific people) and call around to find friends of friends of friends in order to find such facts. I donate every year to Wikimedia Foundation because they save me a lot of time and effort.

People tell me I spend too much time and effort on research, but as a reader of novels, I like to think the author is telling me truth about the real world rather than nonsense, and so to me it's a worthwhile use of my time. Besides, I like learning, so it's no chore.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

On vacation

I wish it was going to be all fun! I'm completing a big home repair project in early June and taking some time to visit with relatives I've too long neglected.

In any case, I am/will be away from the computer a lot between June 1 and June 19, the date I will upload my new novel to Amazon, change all my social media and website banners, and otherwise reveal the topic, summary and look of the novel series that will be coming the next year.

Planned release dates for that series:

July 9, 2017
October 6
January 5, 2018
April 6

I know that this seems "slow" in indie publishing these days, but I'd rather do it right than do it fast. If you don't want to wait three months between books, might I suggest you wait until April of 2018 and buy them all at once?

I have another series in the same world in mind, but I'm not 100% sure I'll immediately jump over to it in 2018. I still have a pen name book I'd like to revise and publish, and by April of 2018, I'll have enough stories for a collection of short speculative fiction (which I'll likely put at free from time to time, and which will have Dawn of Mammals and Gray short stories in it, and very likely one from the new series too.) So I might get those up on Amazon and do the work required to bundle Dawn and this new series before I start releasing another series.

Other releases to keep an eye out for this (northern hemisphere) summer are: Gray omnibus edition in late July and the audiobook of that from Podium Publishing in August on and Amazon.

So, back to the original topic (I did drift!), you may not see a blog post next week from me and the one I'd typically do on the 18th might be a day late.

If you email me from June 1 to 19, I also probably won't respond within hours as I usually do.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Mid-year report

No, it isn't yet the middle of the year yet, I know! I'm a rebel like that.

I'm a full-time novelist, earning a living that way, paying all my bills and maxing out my retirement contribution via novel sales. I know many, many writers out there would like to be this. Because I actually track my hours and tasks each day (I once worked for a management consulting firm, so tracking "billable" hours is like falling off a log for me), I thought I'd tell you what I've done so far this year, so you can see what one full-time writer's life looks like.

  • new words of fiction written: 186,000
  • words revised and proofread: 384,000
  • research: 169 hours 
  • administrative tasks: 215 hours
  • social media: 30 hours
  • socializing with other writers: a lot! But sometimes I learn something, so it is business time as much as social time
  • volunteerism: didn't track my hours, but I do help other writers
  • days off: 11 
  • blog posts written: 29 (I have some queued up for after the next novel release)
Not that the days off were usually off, exactly. That's when I run around and catch up on major-hassle errands, do repair projects, wrestle with government agencies, and so on.

My work days usually last 5.5 hours, and I work seven days per week, though there are moments outside those hours when I'm probably thinking about if this or that plot twist would work. ETA in response to an email: I'm a morning person, so I'm usually up before 5:00 a.m. and often done by noon.

I expect the second half of the year to be pretty much a duplication of the first half. (350K words, 300 hours of research, and so on.)

As you can see, I don't get as much as a one-day weekend most weeks (I tend to take time off in 3-4 day chunks). The time I work is close to that of any full-time job, 40 hours per week, and while a lot of what I do is fun, it certainly isn't all fun. Other benefits to this work: I get to write in the oldest, most comfortable clothes I own and not commute and not put up with horrible coworkers. So I'm not complaining, you see. But it is a job, aspiring novelists should know, not some endless happy dance in the land of frou-frou bunnies where ice cream drips from the trees. (which would be a real mess, come to think of it.) It's hard work.

I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to live this life. It was a long-held dream and Amazon, the Kindle, and my fans have made it come true. To all of them, many thanks.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

What I'm up to these days

An update to my fans and readers. I'm in the polishing and proofreading stage of the first in my new post-apocalyptic series. Yay! My pro proofreader will have it in early June as well as one of my friends who is expert on something I've put in there but am not an expert on, and I'll put it up for preorder around the 20th of June at Amazon, mention that here, on Facebook, Twitter, and to my mailing list. Right now, I'm planning for a July 10 publication date.

Some minor spoilers. It's set in Arizona, at mid-altitudes, close to here (yes, Virginia, there is water in Arizona):

Wikimedia commons

And it has some of these in it:

Wikimedia Commons

And a character sees something like this:

Wikimedia. by Sgt. MJ MacLeod
Can't wait to see what you think of it!

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Fan Appreciation Day!

I just made up this holiday. But let's all celebrate it anyway!

While I often say how much I appreciate my fans and readers to those in my mailing list, I know I have tens of thousands of other readers who aren't on the list, so I want to say to you, if you happen upon this, I am at least as much a fan of yours as you are of mine.

I write for you guys. I want to entertain to, to scare you, to get your heart beating fast, to make you shed a tear, to believe in my characters and care for them. I love when I hear you stayed up until 3 a.m. reading my books. If my entertaining you also distracts you from some physical or emotional pain in your life, that's the best news of all to me.

For the first time in a writing life that spans almost thirty years, I'm making a living writing fiction, and I could not possibly do this without your support. It's not just that you buy my books or read them on Kindle Unlimited. It's that you tell your friends about them too. It's that you rate them or review them on Amazon or Goodreads. This all helps keep me in T-shirts and toner. (Hmm, not saying I wear toner. That'd just be odd.) And if I'm paying my bills, all I need to do every morning is write! I can put out more books as a result. So you're helping me write more of the books you enjoy. A win-win.

If you want to hear more often that I appreciate you, sign up for my mailing list at the right hand side of this page. Rest assured, I do not send newsy emails with pix of my cute cat or grandkids. I only send out a mailing if there's a new release or a big sale that you might want to know of. If you don't want to sign up, I completely understand. Our email inboxes are crammed as it is. Just bookmark this site and check back every couple months, and you'll see the newest release under the sign-up form. Or you can +follow me on any book's page at Amazon, or at Bookbub, and they'll send you an email when I release a new book.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Scary Disease of the Week: Influenza

And so we’ve arrived at the final disease, my choice of the #1 scariest infectious disease out there.

Avian flu, via Wikimedia Commons

#1 is Influenza. We haven’t seen a pandemic flu in North America in a while--long enough to have lost our collective fear of one. The 1950’s saw the last. There are many different influenza viruses, and some have a low fatality rate, less than 2%, and some have a much higher rate, 70%. In most cases, the elderly and children are most vulnerable.

I chose this disease for the pandemic in my thriller in part because most of us hardly think twice about it. The word “flu” doesn’t send us into a tizzy the way “Ebola” does. Some of us get the vaccine, but many do not. We’ve grown used to the annual talk about flu and vaccines and tend to tune it out, despite that this virus kills thousands or tens of thousands times the people as Ebola does every year.

The flu type I chose for my novel Crow Vector, HPAI (Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, H5N1), is frightening--not just to me, but to the experts. With a 69% fatality rate right now, even with treatment, and almost no capacity at all to create vaccines for it, if it explodes out of China and starts moving from person to person (rather than only bird to person, as it stands), we are all in deep trouble.

The flu generally kills via filling the lungs with fluid. While it has no brain damage beyond the usually temporary confusion we feel when we have a high fever, going from having to cough several times a day to gasping for air to needing a breathing tube before you die is something I’ve don’t want anyone to have to experience.

Because the killer version of the H5N1 virus has already been manipulated in the lab to make it able to pass easily from person to person, in the 2014 Rotterdam experiments and elsewhere, we know with 100% certainty that it’s weaponizable. Not only is it, those experiments made it clear to anyone with the will and technique exactly how to turn it into a human pandemic. So... yeah. Scary disease indeed.

1950's flu epidemic; patients overwhelming medical system
Obviously, that I thought it most frightening--most realistically frightening--is why I picked it for the novel.

And this concludes my six-part series on scary infectious diseases. Return to Part I to see some runners-up. For me these are the scariest five:
  1. Influenza
  2. Rabies
  3. Hemorrhagic fevers
  4. Botulism
  5. Cruetzfeldt-Jakobs
Which disease scares you the most? Tell me in comments.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Scary Disease of the Week: Rabies

#2 Rabies. 100% fatal, and it’s a terrible way to die.
Rabies patient, 1959. CDC

Is there a vaccine? Yes. (I’ve had it twice myself.) Does it work? They really don’t know. (It’s not as if they’re going to ask a bunch of people to volunteer to take the vaccine and then infect them with rabies on purpose to make sure it worked. Not with that 100% fatality rate.)

And it certainly scores a full 10 points on my “symptoms involve the brain” scale. Terror, paranoia, and hallucinations are likely to plague you on the way to your inevitable death.

The one saving grace with this disease is its R nought, about 1.2. That is, if you have it, you’ll likely only infect one person, who will perhaps weeks later only infect one, and so on. Therefore, it’s unlikely to burst into pandemic status the way measles or MERS or the flu could. On the other hand, the infection of a group of animals could spread it locally to humans more rapidly. If every squirrel in Ontario, for instance, had it, and if they could pass it to pet cats allowed to run loose, there would be many more human cases as a result.

A diabolical person could manipulate it in the lab to become more pathogenic and then capture, infect, and release those squirrels. Because of the 100% fatality rate (exactly one person has recovered with treatment--though she still has serious and apparently permanent problems with balance--so it’s shy of that by the tiniest fraction of a percent), it’s on most biodefense programs’ list of potential weaponized diseases.

Rabies. Wikimedia Commons

And so we’re down to the final disease next week, my choice of the #1 scariest infectious disease out there.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Scary Disease of the Week: Hemorrhagic Fevers

#3 Viral hemorraghic fevers. Ebola, Marburg, Machupo, RVF, lassa, and a dozen more emerging diseases. If you’re only in your 20’s, expect to see many more discovered in your lifetime. 

Ebola outbreaks. Zach Orecchio via wikimedia commons

These diseases get a lot of press, and they seem to be #1 on most people's list of scary disease, despite the infections being rare. I suspect it’s the image of bleeding profusely (which doesn’t often happen, and not exactly the way it’s often fictionally presented), particularly from the eyes, that hits our “fear button.” The horrible part of the disease to me is the pain. As the organs are attacked and become spongy, there is reportedly terrible abdominal pain associated with that. You have a fever, you’re weak and sick, the whites of your eyes may get a few red streaks, but the pain in your gut is what pins you to the bed.

The fatality rates on these diseases range from a low of less than 5% to a high of 70%--similar to the range of flu fatality rates. Zaire Ebola (EBOV) has one of the highest mortality rates. The R nought--how many people get infected by one sick person--isn’t that bad, actually, particularly not in the countries where my readers live. The infections spreading more than that in Africa is related to funeral practices there. Nearly half the people who have died of it are health care workers, and of the rest, half are the women family members who traditionally prepare bodies for burial. If scientists can convince people to forgo their typical burial practices with the dead bodies, the R nought for Ebola drops to near 1. Viral hemorrhagic fevers can also be passed sexually, after recovery, for three to five months.

To be weaponized, you’d want to increase that aspect of the disease, making is pass more easily from person to person. Currently, with Ebola, sneezing pigs can infect people easily but sneezing people cannot. It wouldn't take much time in a lab to change that fact. Everything else about any one of these diseases is bad enough, but were you a terrorist, you’d want it to move easily through the air so that one sick person infected many. If you could change the most deadly hemorrhagic fever virus so that it had measles’s skill at jumping from person to person, you’d have a terrible weapon indeed.  

Lassa virus

Stay tuned for scary diseases of the week #2 and #1. Can you guess what they are?

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Scary Disease of the Week: Botulism

A series of blog posts upon the occasion of the release of my pandemic thriller Crow Vector.

#4 Botulism.

Clostridium botulinum from Wikipedia

Until I researched various weaponizable diseases for my novel 41 Days, I didn’t know how bad this was. Now I have something new to be terrified of!

It isn’t new, of course. As a child I was told about it. Home-canned foods are the most frequent source in industrialized nations, though there is wound botulism too and rare cases of inhalation botulism with lab workers. Certain sorts of health-food eating make it more likely you’ll get this disease: home fermented foods, non-pasteurized fruit juices, and the like have never been proven by science to do you any good, and if you’re dead from botulism, they definitely didn’t do you any good.

It’s not transmissible in the same sense all of the other scary diseases I chose are. It’s from a bacteria, but it’s not the bacteria itself that infects you and directly makes you ill, as with the plague. It’s a waste product of the bacteria produced in anaerobic conditions that gets you: the botulism toxin.

The disease qualifies as scary because of how sick it makes you: blurred vision is often the earliest symptom, then nausea, vomiting, increasingly painful cramps, seizures, paralysis of the face, and eventually the paralysis spreads downward to your chest so that you can’t breathe.

In the 21st century, there are treatments, and as a result not even 5% of people with it will die in places like Canada and Australia and the U.S. But where people don’t have access to those treatment or are too poor to afford them, it's 50% of people: also scary. For my prepper fans who believe that one day a SHTF scenario actually will come to pass, I’m betting you’re not going to have a lot of botulism antitoxin on hand, so you’re back up to the 50% fatality rate in those circumstances. And you'll probably be canning food at home so be at increased risk anyway.

Furthermore, it is weaponizable, which also kicked up its scariness score to put it at #4 on my list. USAMRIID and other biodefense labs around the world think this is important enough that they are working on defenses against that possibility.

Stay tuned for scary diseases of the week #3, #2, and #1

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Scary disease of the week: Creutzfeldt–Jakob

#5 on my countdown of terrifying diseases.

Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease. It’s rare, but it’s here--here meaning in the US, Canada, England, and Australia, where most of my readers reside.

It’s a prion disease. Prions are not amoebas, not viruses, not fungi, not bacteria, those being the usual agents that cause diseases. They’re something else, not even a form of life, and we can’t do a blessed thing about them yet.

It’s fatal. There’s no vaccine. There’s no treatment beyond pain pills and sedatives.

Worst of all, it’s not a good way to go. Because it in effect rots the brain, you have several stages of increasing dementia, hallucinations, muscle spasms, burning nerve pain, and eventually your brain won’t be able to tell you to breathe or swallow, which is what usually kills you.

Sometimes it comes from a genetic mutation. You can get it from eating animals that have it. (Don’t eat brains of any animal. I don’t care if you love their taste. Don’t risk it.) Cannibalism can spread it, so, er, avoid that too, in case you indulge right now. And you can get it from transfusions and transplants. Blood, transplanted corneas, and human growth hormone from infected people have spread it.

(Aside: my favorite discovery from my research for these posts was this line in Wikipedia: “In the U.S., the FDA has banned import of any donor sperm, motivated by a risk of Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease, inhibiting the once popular import of Scandinavian sperm.” Apparently, there was a Scandinavian sperm fad here that I totally missed???? Anyway...)

Stay tuned for Scary Diseases of the Week #4, 3, 2, and 1.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Scary disease of the week: introduction

Wikimedia commons

In my new novel, I make fun of “scary disease of the month reporting,” and yet here I am succumbing to the urge to do the same thing in this blog. Let me get that confession out of the way, and let me also remind both you and me that what kills people most is heart disease, COPD (both made much worse by smoking), diarrhea (in developing countries), and complications of diabetes. Among infection diseases, malaria is the biggest killer, but it’s not a disease that many of my readers have to think about. (It occurred naturally in Australia, particularly in the north, but y’all have worked hard to eradicate it.)

But even though the numbers give us that list, for some reason, it’s the emerging infectious diseases that capture our attention and frighten us. The blog posts in the following week pick five diseases that scare me plenty.

What makes a disease scary to me?
  • It’s kills most of those who get it. Over a 50% fatality rate gets my attention
  • On the way to killing me, it hurts me a lot or gives me dementia or nerve pain or other brain damage
  • It’s out there, already near me, or could easily be
  • There’s no way to prevent getting it
  • Or it mutates so easily that the prevention currently available quits working
  • There are no or treatments that work or the ones that do are limited in supply and expensive
  • Its infection rate (called R0 or R nought, in epidemiology) is high, moving easily from sick Sue over there to healthy me
  • A very bad person could use it in an act of bioterrorism
So here’s a rating chart I devised for my own use. I assigned points in every category from 1-10 to be as fair as possible in choosing my top five.

Those diseases that kill 100% got a 10, 70% got a 7, and so on. I went with the fatality rates with treatment in industrialized nations rather than its true fatality rate. As measles R nought runs around 20, most are under 10 so I gave it it’s median R nought score (if, on average, one sick person infects 4 others, it got a 4). “Crazify” is my neologism indicating the sort of torturous brain damage that scares me at least as much as physical pain and far more than bleeding out the eye sockets does. You might not feel the same about this issue, but that’s nightmare fuel to me. Imagine being paranoid, hallucinating, and demented, on top of the coughing or diarrhea. "It’s here!" means it is here in North America, something we could in fact catch right now. Usually that means it’s also in Australia and England, though not always. In one case, England has it worse than North America.

Diseases that are plenty scary but didn’t make my top five:

MERS. Terrible disease, a killer, no vaccine, but it’s still rare. You pretty much have to be in Saudi Arabia to get this and hang out with camels, or be a health care worker treating such people. It may be weaponizable though. Stay tuned to see what natural mutations and a spread to additional mammals might do to this one in your lifetime.

Measles. Worldwide, it’s a terrible killer, and the #1 easiest disease to pass along (it has the highest R nought). However, this disease is easily preventable with a vaccine. If you don’t vaccinate your children, there is no simple treatment and they have a good chance of dying. If enough people refuse to vaccinate, it’ll burst into epidemic status again in the developed world. 400 children die per day of it around the world as is. Enough people stop vaccinating, and that could jump to 4,000 or 40,000.

Smallpox. A nasty disease, very contagious, about 40% fatal, but except for some samples in labs, gone from the planet. This is not a promise on my part that some idiot won’t take those lab samples and start a pandemic again.

Naegleria fowleri, or the the brain-eating amoeba. Almost always fatal, not treatable, it scores high in my scary-brain-damage scale, and it’s here in North America, but you can’t catch it from the guy next to you on the bus. Not weaponizable and easily filtered out of city water supplies. But “brain-eating amoeba” isn’t a particularly comforting name, is it? (shudder)

Q Fever (Coxiella). I addressed this one in my novel 41 Days. It doesn’t kill now but it has a super-clever cellular trick that means if it ever was turned fatal by a terrorist manipulating the virus, or by Nature mutating it, it could be a real problem. All viruses are difficult or impossible to treat, and this one is no exception.

HIV. A killer, to be sure, but preventable and increasingly treatable (not curable, and the treatments have nasty side effects, but treatable). It is not potentially a pandemic, for it is already a pandemic. Pretty awful, but not awful enough to make it into the top five for me.

Pneumonic plague. Weaponizable and particular scary because you could wander around infecting others for a week before you got sick, scoring the maximum on the R nought scale, this can’t make the grade because it’s bacterial and almost any antibiotic will cure far. (insert scary music cue) Get an antibiotic-resistant form of this one going, and we will have bad trouble.

Next week: Disease #5 on my personal list of scary infectious diseases for humans.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Pandemics and overpopulation

Does the idea of ebola terrify you? Hanta? Zika? AIDS? Do you ever stay up nights wondering if  100% fatal rabies might one day mutate so that it can be spread by a sneeze?

Do you ever wonder what is going on that so many new diseases have seemed to pop out of nowhere?

It may surprise you to know that scientists know very well why this is happening.

First, to get this out of the way, it IS happening. Unlike a public perception that there are more earthquakes than ever (there are not), which is driven largely by having more forms of media to see reports on them, this event is real. More and more deadly pathogens are appearing all the time and jumping to humans...and killing some of us.


In the end, it all comes down to one factor, human overpopulation.

Habitat loss, climate change, and the eating of new sources of wild meat to survive all contribute. Habitats become smaller and migration routes are cut off, stranding species or pushing them into more contact with humans. The animals themselves, stressed by habitat loss have greater susceptibility to disease. Furthermore, when you put several different sorts of mammals--including humans--close together, diseases can more easily jump across species and mutate with the jump.

Animals that once controlled insects that carry diseases, like mosquitoes or ticks, are being driven to extinction. We might not have known that some little critter kept us safe from a terrible disease, but it did, and generally we only find this is so when it is too late to regain the animal population needed to help us.

Add to this accidental transfer of animal and insect life via international shipping (container shipping is an ecological disaster all by itself), as we in the US, Canada, and Australia import cheap goods from China, and you have a disaster that has been in the making for decades. You think it's scary now? It's just at its beginning. If you’re young, you’re going to be hearing about literally hundreds more killer diseases like Ebola before you die--hopefully of old age, rather than of one of these.

The solutions in the short term are complex. Many brilliant people are working at them.

The personal solutions you could implement are simple to list, even though it’s nearly impossible to convince people to implement them. I know I risk offending you by being blunt, but I will be blunt.

  • don’t have more than two children. We all play a part in overpopulation--or its sensible control. If you dearly want a big family, adopt children 3-X.
  • don’t buy goods from other countries. “Shop locally” ends up being the right answer not just for the economic health of your community and nation, but for the protection of yourself and your children from emerging disease
  • educate yourself about products that cause the worst environmental degradation, and don’t buy them. Two simple changes that you could begin with as you shop next at the grocery store: Eat chicken and domestically farmed fish, rather than beef and pork. Avoid all products with “palm oil” as an ingredient

This isn’t merely some liberal hippie-dippie concept, to save endangered species and shop locally and think about overpopulation and not be wasteful of energy. As a species, we’ve been committing collective suicide. And, as individuals, we can stop doing so.

I hope you never have to look down at a hospital bed and see your child or grandchild die of something like West Nile, but if you do, and you are calling out to God “Why?”...the first place you need to look is in the mirror. Did you do everything you could at a personal level to stop the mounting disaster from happening? Or did you roll your eyes and turn away?

I’ll be blogging about diseases for a month or two, in conjunction with the release of my new pandemic thriller, Crow Vector. I’ve read thousands of pages in research for writing it, and I have a good deal of scary stuff to tell you about.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Review: Panic in the Year Zero

I was in a mood not too long ago to see some black and white SF B movies. With various reference books and documentaries that examined these movies, I came up with a list of ones I wanted to see (and either hadn’t ever or hadn’t since childhood's rainy Saturday afternoons of creature feature).

The first movie I cared about finding was a post-apocalyptic thriller, Panic in the Year Zero, starring and directed by Ray Milland. The nuclear war comes (at 1962 levels, so it’s a survivable one). An L.A. family is on a camping trip when the war happens literally in their rearview mirror. The dad, Milland, quickly understands how society will collapse, and his job is to keep the four in the family alive through that phase and until society begins to rebuild itself. He behaves aggressively to accomplish this goal.

The movie is good, despite being 55 years old. It’s the a brutal sort of post-apocalyptic story that hadn’t been, so far as I know, depicted in movies before that. There were movies about mutant monsters and sole survivors, but nothing really like this. The Road, or The Walking Dead, or my own series Gray or most books you read in this genre are in the tradition of this movie. This has a bleak view of humanity. It talks directly of matters of right and wrong and expedience. When we do evil to accomplish an end, can we still call ourselves good people after we’ve done it? It’s a debate Milland’s character and his wife, played by Jean Hagen, have.

I spent a bit more money on this one title to get this version, which has a decent film commentary that talks about the film’s place in history and the various ways in which many of the supporting actors died within years of its release of alcohol-related illness. He also talks about the ahead-of-his-times prepper strategies the Milland character uses.

Frankie Avalon plays the son and does a great job--many of the reviews you’ll find online say “I didn’t know he could act,” but in fact here he proves he can, including when he has no dialog.

A strange aside: it at first seemed bizarre to me that everyone fleeing L.A. is white in the film, and I thought it was just because the film was made in 1962 and therefore unconsciously prejudiced, but then I looked up census figures to see and LA in fact was 94% white in 1960. (I was shocked.) So it was simply accurate. I learn something new literally every day because of the internet.

I know a number of my fans love all things post-apocalyptic, and if you haven’t seen this movie yet, hunt for it. Maybe your local library even has it! If not, the DVD I linked is well worth it.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Crow Vector now available for pre-order

The disease they’ve been preparing for...the pandemic they’ve been dreading.

A mystery disease strikes a family in New Jersey. Epidemiologist Glenn Stevens is assigned to lead the investigation. People are dying, drowning in fluid filling their lungs, and no medical treatment can save them.

As the fatalities skyrocket and each of his attempts to halt the spread of the disease fails, Glenn knows that the world will soon be in terrible trouble. The lab rushes to identify the pathogen, and Glenn gets shocking news: this is no natural disease mutation.

Someone is out there, working in the shadows, a man who plans to make the already dire situation even worse. Now it is Glenn’s job to find him and stop him.

The clock is ticking. And a billion lives hang in the balance.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

My favorite fossils: microfossils

The tiniest fossils excite me more than the biggest dinosaurs. There is a lot to learn from microfossils; fossilized pollen, for instance, can tell us a good deal about the evolution of plants. Many are beautiful. Here are some images from Wikipedia:

Ammonia beccarii, a benthic foram from the North Sea.

Marine microfossils: (diatom, ostracod, radiolarian, sponge spicule, radiolarian, planktonic foraminiferan (two), coccolith)

I’m particularly fond of diatoms and their variety and beauty. 

When you hold a piece of chalk, you’re holding microfossils. You may put microfossils on your garden. It may be in paints you use or many other common substances in your home and yard. Pretty cool, eh?

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

new book blurb

20 March. After getting a good deal of feedback, I've edited the blurb to this. (More changes may yet come)

The clock is ticking. And a billion lives hang in the balance.

A mystery disease strikes a family in New Jersey. Epidemiologist Glenn Stevens is assigned to lead the investigation. Healthy young people are dying, and no medical treatment can save them. It's the disease they’ve been preparing for, and the pandemic they’ve been dreading.

As the fatalities skyrocket, the lab rushes to identify the pathogen, and Glenn gets shocking news: this is no natural disease mutation. Someone is out there, working in the shadows, a man who plans to make the already dire situation even worse. Now it is Glenn’s job to find him and stop him. Humanity’s future is at stake.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

My favorite fossils: any whole mammal skeleton

There’s nothing more impressive than a full skeleton on display in a museum. Typically a challenge to collect from the field, these are valuable to science both for what they teach and how well they attract tourists, public interest, and therefore funding. And when you look at them, can’t you image the animal fleshed out, running over the ground, hunting?

This is a Hyaenodon horribulus (bonus points for great name) from the upper (late) Oligocene. Found in Wyoming, it current resides in an Ontario museum.

Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, February 26, 2017

My favorite fossils: coprolites

AKA fossilized poop.

No, I’m not a eight-year-old boy. ;D But I think it’s pretty cool that fecal matter manages to get fossilized. And if you can see what the animal eats embedded in the stool, that’s incredibly useful for understanding the animal's life.

All the coprolites you’d want to see are online at:

And no, I didn't realize until I'd posted this that it's favorite fossil #2. I take it back. Apparently I am an eight-year-old boy.
From the Miocene, courtesy of

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.