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 audible.com 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.

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.)

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 it...so 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.

Why?

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: http://www.poozeum.com/

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 poozeum.com

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.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Hunting Fossils - Part 3


By the end of the day, I’m whipped. Sweating, dusty, gritty, I take my haul back to the office. I have plastic bags marked with slips of paper as N14V-1, N14V-2, and so on. These markings are unique in this year, and they correspond to entries Marcie has made in the log book. The codes connect to her written description and to photos taken of the site. Or, in my case, a single photo, as the hillock I worked on yielded nothing spectacular.

Today, nothing spectacular was found by any of us. For the whole month, the best find was a single entelodont tooth in perfect condition, probably an m1, or lower molar. The woman in the group with the smallest hand could not close her hand around it--it’s that big. Had we found a canine--the fang--it would have been longer than the largest hand of the group. And we looked for it. (image-google “entelodont tooth” to see some, as there are no images in the public domain I can use here)

When the grad student found the entelodont tooth, another joined her to search the area all around it. But it was a lone tooth, probably washed from the full skeleton by water. As entelodonts were alpha predators, the teeth and bones wouldn’t have had the typical distribution of prey animal fossils.

There is such a thing, though I don’t know if there’s a mathematical description of the dispersal of bones. Because we were hunting fossils in a rural area, there were plenty of chances for the paleontologists to keep track of local predator kills. If a fox killed a rat, the kill was left alone, and a scientist would go out twice a week and check out the way the bones were being pulled away by scavengers. He might pick one up briefly to study tooth marks in the bone, but he’d carefully replace it where it had been. In two months, he’d have a movie running in his head of the way the bones dispersed, were trodden, moved away from one another. And that knowledge, he’d apply to hunting for fossil bones.

A.Weith, Wikipedia. Predators disperse bones

Some fossil bones are dispersed like that. Some are not. One of the easier ways to find them is when they’ve been dragged into a den of a dog or weasel or extinct burrowing creodont. Then you might find a whole bundle of them together. But watch out! You might be looking at the bones of four different kills, so it takes care to identify them all correctly.

Local hunters know that the scientists here are always on the lookout for recent kills. Sometimes, they also bring in a dead animal, and the lead paleontologist takes it home, boils it up (outside on the grill, his wife emphasized during a party she hosted) and turns it into only bones. The bones are set out, dried, and labeled. We use these to examine the processes and notches and foramina -- bumps and holes on bones -- to compare to fossil bones we find. Is this single fossil bone, unattached to anything else, an tarsal or a coccyx or something else? Modern anatomy comparisons can help identify this and give a basis for comparison of animal size. A cabinet in the museum is dedicated to modern bones used for this purpose. Bobcats, martens, beavers, a dog killed on the road, and more each have their separate box, filled with smaller boxes of bone groups, each carefully labeled.

“Carefully label” might as well be the job description here. I’ve learned some of the work of a curator of a fossil collection during my time here, too, and the working in a computer system used throughout the federal government for natural history collections. I’ve done spot checks on inventory. Pulled out specimens for visiting scientists to study. Pulled out rare specimens to be cast and sent to other museums and universities, either for study or display. Some sharing of actual specimens takes place, but if they are needed, they are quite rare, and instead of parcel service mailing, sometimes a skull is driven, in a carefully padded box, eight hundred miles, under the watchful eye of a professional, before it is handed over to another trusted professional. When she’s done with it, she has to drive it back. Parties are de rigueur on both ends of that trip. (Paleontologists party. A lot.)

Fossil collection drawer, much like the ones I worked with

“What are all these fossils worth?” some people ask. The truth is, I don’t know. Serious scientists don’t value fossils in dollars, and they don’t buy them, and they frown on any museum that does. That encourages pilfering and, as I mentioned a couple of posts ago, amateurs stealing fossils out of the ground means that nothing can be learned from them. Sure, the kiddies at the Field Museum might be impressed by the display...but it’s irresponsible of the museum to pay cash and drive an illegal trade in fossils. And quite frankly, the kiddies would have been equally impressed with a plaster replica as with a true fossil skeleton. I’ve caught the disdain of the scientists here for the few big natural history museums that engage in cash exchanges for fossil bones. And don’t ask them what they think of fossils sold on E-bay, not unless you want a ranting earful.

Knowledge is priceless. To the scientists I have met, putting a dollar value on a fossil is like putting a dollar value on a kid’s love for his grandma. Impossible to quantify.

When I have made sure the paperwork is all in order, I leave as quickly as I can to get into a shower. I’ve never taken showers this cold before, but my body is so overheated by the end of the afternoon in the searing canyon, I need it. I shower until I shiver. Then I rehydrate.

Tomorrow I’ll come back and work on the second part of the process, making a fossil found two years ago come fully out of the rock it was in.

(series will finish next week)

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Hunting Fossils, part 2

The kids--graduate students, but I’m getting to the age that anyone under 30 could be a kid of mine--are already settling in. I ask Marcie, the permanent worker in charge, if I can take a specific pile of rocks where no one else is working, and she okays it and marks it on a detailed map and in her expedition log. I watch my feet as I move off the trail, making sure that I don’t step on a fossil. There’s a bit of shade not much larger than my boot to the right. I check the spot for fossils and snakes before shoving my pack in there. I’d rather drink water that’s 100F than some that’s 140F, and that’s the difference the shade will make to my water bottle.

A canyon much like this: Wikimedia Commons, Peter1dav

The tools I’m most likely to need are already on the belt I wear, so I grab the rock hammer from the pack and sit down at the base of the hillock of packed gravel. I’m not going to be banging the rock hammer against anything. I use the tip to gently move loose rocks.

I’ve been told to keep a careful eye out for tiny bones, like rodent bones. “A bat would be great,” the lead paleontologist told me, and I had to look up what a bat skeleton looked like to imagine what I might be looking for. Lots of thin, thin finger bones. Pretty scary looking monster without its flesh. And the tiniest sharp teeth. I despair of finding one of those. It could easily be mistaken for a shard of mica. The slender finger bones would be unlikely to survive, but you never know. A skull or jaw, quite possibly. I’d memorized what they looked like.

I like this time of day, working before the heat feels as if it might literally kill me. I’ve asked to start at 6 a.m., but the grad students don’t wish to give up late-night partying, and the permanent workers don’t believe they can start then anyway; they are government workers, and if there’s anything the government is bad at, it’s logic. Better to kill a couple G5s in afternoon heat than to change the work hours! So this is as good as it gets, temperature-wise, and I appreciate the relative comfort while I have it.

Early mornings and late afternoons are also better for hunting because the sun comes in at an oblique angle. The way the light hits a fossil tooth or a fragment of still-shiny fossil bone makes it reflect sunlight back at you. You can see more of them when the sun is low than when it is directly overhead.

In fact, over where Marcie is working, I see a glimmer right in front of her boot. “Hey, I think there’s a tooth or bone right in front of your right boot,” I say. She reaches down. “About three inches out from there,” I say, then, “Now an inch to your left.” She finds it. “Yeah! Rhino tooth. Good eye.”

I don’t have a good eye, actually. Perhaps if I had more than five months at this work, I could learn to have a better one. But some people have visual acuity that allows them to pick one slightly different tiny bit out of many similar tiny bits. I’ve showed the seasonal rangers how fossils look in situ, by walking up to them with a handful of rocks and one tiny fossil that I carefully selected, bringing its bag and label with me, so I didn’t remove it from its data. “Pick out the fossil” I said to them. They couldn’t. The rock and the fossils are much the same color, and it is that trick of light that let me see the tip of the tooth. I haven’t a good eye, as Marcie said, but good luck--though as scientific as paleontologists are, many of them believe in fossil luck, too.

I comb through my small pile of rocks. I won’t leave this six by six mound all day. And someone else could re-examine it tomorrow and probably find ten fossils that I missed. I find several. One is a bone that could be the toe of something medium-sized or the humerus of something tiny. Even the grad students would have a hard time deciding which; it’ll take a more experienced paleontologist to tell what it is.

I find an oreodont tooth. Oreodonts! If the people are right who say only 1 in a million of individuals of a mammal species are fossilized, then once North America must have been wall-to-wall oreodonts, grazing every square inch of grass from Minnesota to the West Coast. (A West Coast that was some hundreds of miles east of where it is now, by the way.) There must have been herds of tens of thousands moving together. This is only one of many working fossil sites in North American filled with them, and there are sufficient skulls in the collection that I think it would be enough to build a decent-sized storage shed made of nothing but oreodont skulls. It’d be pretty, I think, but the scientists wouldn’t allow that to happen. So here’s yet another tooth.

I also find three fossilized dung-beetle brooding balls. Those are plentiful enough in these parts that we could build a whole city with them. If you have hiked a good deal, you have probably stepped on a few hundred yourself. I imagine armies of dung beetles, hurrying around under the endless herds of oreodonts, gathering up their dung to make the balls, laying their eggs inside, and moving on to make the next baby-dung-beetle incubator.


A modern dung beetle with ball
Today, it is just us five people here among the bare rocks--us and a few rattlers keeping themselves well hidden. But this bleak canyon was once a grassy landscape that teemed with life.





(To be continued)