Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017 Year in Review

I'm back!

Today I'm reviewing what I hoped to accomplish in 2017 and what I did accomplish.

My goals were:
  • Publish Dawn of Mammals 5, Mammoth -- I did that (but forgot the paperback for months! Oops!)
  • Write two Oil Apocalypse novels -- I wrote three, so A+ on this item
  • Finish and publish Crow Vector -- I did that
  • Revise my pen name historical novel about my great-grandmother’s childhood and get it out there. Oops again. I didn’t so much as read it.
  • But I also wrote a short fantasy novel, which I’m finishing revising right now, and a half-dozen short stories in various genres. 
In terms of work load, I did more than I set out to do, so I'll give myself a passing grade.

Also, two audio book companies approached me and so two of my series are out in audio now--though I can't really pat myself on the back much for that, for all I did was sign some papers!

This next year, my goals are:
  • Revise and publish all those short stories and the short novel in two volumes (one fantasy, one mixed genres, including tie-ins to Gray and Dawn of Mammals and the world of what will be Oil Apocalypse 6 or 7)
  • Write two more Oil Apocalypse books
  • Write more short stories during times I'll be busy with non-writing work
  • At least read my poor, neglected great-grandmother novel, which I've had drafted for seven years.If I can revise it great, but I'll lower my expectation and merely ask myself to read it.
  • Exercise more because I’ve been tied to my computer now for two years (11 novels written, edited, and published) and need to take care of myself, no matter what Amazon’s algorithms are demanding of me.
That's it! I hope you accomplished all your goals in 2017, saw a dream come true, and are enthused about life in 2018.

Happy New Year to everyone. I'll be back on Sundays with non-fiction articles again, these next two posts about some aspect of disaster recovery I've not yet addressed.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Taking a short break from blogging

I'll be back with blogs about natural disasters in the last half of the month. For now, giving myself some easy days. See you soon!

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Advice to those who would like to be full-time writers

One final word this NaNoWriMo month to newer writers.

If I could give you one piece of advice only, I'd skip over the craft advice and the excellent advice about writing every day and the advice about persevering in the face of rejection and say only one thing:

Get rid of your TV.

donating it would be better than doing this, I suppose

What? Why? Because it wastes time?

Not primarily that (though you are right!--it does waste time.) It will try and sell you crap you don't need, and that will cost you money you should be saving. And why should you be careful with your money? Money is freedom. Freedom is time to write. Time to write is the sine qua non of first getting good enough at your craft to have a shot at being a full-time writer, and then, once you start selling, of producing more stories or books to sell.

Time is like gold--more than gold. It's like air to a writer.

Every single shiny object which is advertised to you, that you fall prey to the lure of, that you buy? That's a piece of a book you tossed away. Convincing yourself you need a Mac and iPhone? Sorry to be blunt, but that's at least a full book you just wasted--because you had to earn a living at some straight job to buy that, even if you don't lose more time to playing around with their time-wasting apps.

Maybe you came from money. Hey, congrats, then buy all the Apple products and Lamborghinis your heart desires.

But if you're working class or close to it and if you want to be a writer--really and truly want it; it's the most important goal you have, and you're not just playing at this--that's my advice. Get rid of your TV.

Live simply. Quit acquiring things you don't need. Quit believing the lie that you need to acquire more things than would fit in a panel van. Things take up your time and then they take more time at a day job to pay them off and if they are expensive things, now you have to work more to insure them.

Use your time like the precious, finite resource it is.  Every object you buy is flushing that time down the toilet. It's therefore flushing the books you'll never have time to write down the toilet. I promise you that as arrive at my age, you'll wish you had more precious time ahead of you to finish writing all those book ideas in your file. Guard your time sooner--rather than regretting the spending of it later.

And then, for a bonus, when you do quit your day job and go full-time as a writer, you'll have learned the lessons of frugal, simple living, and when there is a lean year (and there will be lean years. If you're so new you're still thinking everyone who writes ends up King or Rowling, and swims through money right into the grave, you're probably not in the audience for this post), you'll know how to cut back when the income drops and be able to stay full-time as a writer.

If you say that writing is important to you, act as if it is. Make it important. Prioritize it. Don't throw away your time on shiny objects. You're not a magpie. You're a warrior of words. Remember your goal of being a full-time writer one day. Stay strong and focused.

Remember: you don't need more things. You need more time.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

What is success to you as a writer?

Someone on Twitter asked this question several weeks ago, and I couldn’t answer it because my answer, I believed, was too complex for 140 characters.

The thing is, when you’ve been a writer as long as I have, you have had many goals over the years, but some of them fell away as you realized they were naive or unlikely to ever be achieved, and others fell away because you met them, and yet others fell away because you grew or changed and old goals bore you now.

So, to cite one example, a newer writer, reading the book pages in a newspaper or magazine, might think “I want to get a good review in X paper!” and much later, when he’s a professional and has access to daily sales figures and see those reviews don’t help sales one bit, and he needs sales to pay his bills because he quit his day job, he really doesn’t care one way or the other about newspaper reviews.

I once thought, I want a trade publishing deal for a novel with a big house. When I thought that at first, there was no Kindle or ebooks, there were 20 big houses, and you could contact the editors directly. Boy, those were the good old days in tradpub! I like editors. But as the industry changed, and as I had every other form of traditional/gatekeeper success a person could want, and I realized I hated the agent system, I cared less and less about this goal. It no longer was the box to check off. It was a box. It kept slipping lower and lower on my list.

And when I heard about how well people were doing in indie publishing--well, honestly, at first I couldn’t believe it, and then I did, and then I started wondering, and it began to appeal more and more. I did a lot of research about doing this in 2012 and didn’t begin until 2013. At that point, I thought, “Any stranger buying my book is a great thing.” And it happened and it was a great thing! Long term, I thought, “Okay, my eventual goal is, in three years, have six books out and be selling a hundred books per week over all titles in Year Four.”

As it turned out--and with little effort from me beyond writing--I blew that goal out of the water within a year. I had many days that I sold more than a hundred books in a day, which stunned me. I knew I was extremely fortunate. So…goal achieved, right?

And then came a strange turn, one I never expected of myself, because I’m a pretty Zen sort of person most days, and about most things, and particularly about money and possessions. In a flash, X amount of money wasn’t success enough. I wanted 2X. 3X. 5X. I met people making a million as indies! If they could, why not me? Me-me-me-me-me! Even though I couldn’t figure out how to spend 1X, to tell you the truth, I saw these magical numbers out there and suddenly lusted for them. And that was weird, to be caught up in that acquisitive “it’s never enough!” mindset. I was only caught for four or five months, but caught I was. For people who get this disease, I can’t help notice, the goal keeps receding, the goal number becomes bigger, and they drive themselves harder and yet it is never hard enough! Relationships and health suffer as they chase after that goal that, like the line of the horizon, is unreachable.

Sad. Nerve-wracking. Self-defeating. I snapped myself out of it.

But in the wake of that temporary insanity, I was left with no definition of “success” in writing that seemed meaningful to me.

I suppose my gauge of success could be graphed as a double curve, like a two-humped camel. When I was young and naïve, I dreamed of awards and recognition. Those thoughts were knocked out of me by the reality of both how hard writing is to do well and how competitive a field it is and, worst of all, that to get some awards you have to kiss a lot of butt, which is not my talent at all. For a long time after that phase had passed, I had smaller goals that I met, one after the other.

I quit dreaming. I started seeing dreaming as useless. Work is good. Work is useful. Realistic goals that you set for yourself (not the marketplace or anything outside yourself) can be worked diligently for and met. That's not success exactly; it's how I live my writing life.

Today, I suppose my definition of success is in being able to answer this question in the affirmative.

Am I Happy when I’m writing?

So maybe that would have fit in 140 characters at Twitter after all. But it has taken a lifetime to simplify my definition of success to the one-word answer to that one question.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

How one full-time writer was made

I’ve been a writer for thirty years, and a full-time writer earning my living from novels for three years.

When I began writing for publication, I was already friends with a number of mid-list genre writers, so from the beginning I understood that becoming the next Stephen King in fame or income was unlikely in the extreme, and I understood what the life of the typical paperback writer was: another day job, income from writing under $10,000/year, and needing to write evenings and weekends when you were tired from a normal job. Somehow you had to do so without making your spouse or children hate you for ignoring them several hours per week when you should have been with them instead or doing your share of the household chores. You really had to want to do it to accept those terms!

I did want it that much. I wrote, studied hard on my own, took a few courses, and in very short time was placing poetry in magazines. Not long after that, I began selling stories to national magazines. I drifted from F/SF into literary writing for a time, had several stories published of that sort, won an fellowship to an MFA program (an experience which I hated, quite frankly. MFA programs in writing definitely aren’t for a person who was raised working class, prefers reading thrillers, and thinks Salem’s Lot and Lord of the Rings are good books!)

I realized lit-fic was not my true interest, retreated from that world, gave up what position I had earned there, and went back to my genre roots as a writer, where I felt much more at home. I wrote Gray back in 2003 or 2004, when post-apocalyptic wasn’t a big genre, and several agents rejected it. Digging through the stacks of used ten cent novels at a tag sale, I found Airport and The Glass Inferno and Jaws and a few other books of that time period and fell in love with them. Why doesn’t anyone write books like that any more? I wondered.

It wasn’t a huge leap from that thought to writing my own novels in that genre, mine being about natural disasters. I’m a sucker for a disaster movie. Even the worst TV disaster flicks make me happy. Show me a farm family in a tornado shelter or hurricane winds whipping the palm trees while dramatic music plays, and I want to settle in, munch popcorn, and watch until the end. I wrote the first disaster novel and started the second but again could not get most agents to even glance my way.

As no agent wanted to represent either Gray in 2004 or those books in 2012 or another book I wrote in between, indie was clearly the way to go if I wanted readers, and I did. I began the self-publishing journey in 2014, a bit late to the game, but at least I showed up! Admittedly, I made errors at first (you would not believe how difficult it is to find an excellent proofreader and a cover artist who “gets you,” and you waste a whole lot of money and patience kissing some frogs before your prince arrives), but in less than a year I had the basics down and Gray was gaining a following. (This has since swelled to over 40,000 readers for that series alone, and I am grateful for each one.)

I continued to write as I learned the ropes of indie as a business, and I’ve published most of what I’d written before and eight new novels I’ve written since entering self-publishing, including the Dawn of Mammals series, which has its own fans. I’ve unpublished a couple of pen name novels since.

I signed with an audio book publisher, and lately with a second audio book publisher, but otherwise I’m very happy with indie publishing my ebooks. I’ve been given a chance to reach the readers who agree with me about what constitutes a good story.

The only thing I don’t like about indie publishing is the self-promotion. I’d rather write, and I don’t like putting myself forward (or revealing much about myself). Because I don’t like promoting myself, I do almost none of it. People tell me I could sell four times as many books if I ran ads all the time and hired a savvy assistant to “be” me on Facebook and really work on PR over there, if I handed over the identity of my fans to Facebook as most authors do and let them pinpoint market and spam them and others who demographically match them, and pushed myself forward to be on podcasts and so on. This all sounds perfectly horrid to me, so all I do for promoting my books is this: about twice a year I run a few inexpensive ads, and I don’t even like doing that much. I’m a writer, and that’s the part I love to do. So that’s where I focus, and I trust that the rest will somehow take care of itself.

To be clear, I don’t repudiate my traditional publishing years (despite having abandoned that pen name and not being interested in going back to that world) nor do I dislike editors in the least. I always got along with editors well. There was a good deal of value to me in having to reach a certain standard of writing skill with short stories before being accepted for publication, and there was a value to competing for awards anonymously and seeing where I stacked up. It made me work harder, study harder, and up my game in order to be published in better and better magazines, and I’m glad I began my career that way.

I characterize my novels like this: I write science-based novels starring ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances, people with flaws and surprising resilience both. I aim to write page-turners, and when I get fan mail or reviews that say I’ve succeeded at that, I smile in contentment. If I made you stay up until the wee hours needing to know what happened next to my characters, I’ve done what I set out to do.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

On being a full-time writer

During November, National Novel Writing Month, I blog about writing. In past years, I’ve focused on craft or business. This year, I’ll be more autobiographical.

I have worked very hard to become a full-time novelist. For thirty years I’ve been working at writing, writing for years only in the mornings or nights in addition to a day job, and now I'm full-time as a writer.

And so it seems that after all that work, I should be 100% thrilled with having finally won my way through to success. (No, not Janet Evanovich/Hugh Howey levels of success, but I pay the bills with writing, which not a lot of novelists can say). And yet, here is what this looks like to me:

Is that image of a well-dressed lady from the back? Or of an old hag’s face? Youth? Or age? How you read the drawing depends on your perspective. And how I view my full-time writing status depends on my mood, what I still have to get done that day, what pressures I’m feeling, and how hard they press upon me.

If I simply detail my day for you, it sounds no worse than any work day at an office:

  • Check email, respond to fans (who are the most important people other than me in the whole deal!)
  • Do the heart of the work (about three hours): writing or revising or outlining the next
  • Deal with non-fan and complicated emails
  • Do other administrative tasks--uploading the books, dealing with covers, proofreading, and formatting, updating the web page, learning something new about the business, checking sales, accounting, advertising, and so on
  • Interact on social media or IRL with other writers
  • Read/research for future novels
  • Check emails again, clear inbox one last time, and done

I often work from 6:30 a.m. until 11 a.m., take a break, and then finish up by 2:00. That’s seven days a week, not five days. I try to take weekends between phases of a project (as between finishing a draft and starting revision) and an “easy week” while my proofreader has a book. But I can’t always relax because there are always administrative tasks piling up, so sometimes my “weekend off” is more like an afternoon off.

In a sense, the work is never done. When you run your own business, you can’t just shut off your brain and relax. If a good idea--or an item to add to the to-do list--pops to mind, you need to go deal with that, at least to write it down. If a crucial email comes in, you have to answer it. And writers are always thinking about books and characters, even in our “off” hours. We don’t watch a movie but that we take notes on how it did a dramatic thing well, noting a technique we might be able to adapt. We go to a picnic and while other people are having fun, we take mental notes on gestures, arguments overheard, what a tree limb looks like in the breeze, the games the kids are playing, and all sorts of things that might go into our novels.

A confession about my to-do list. I used to have a huge one. Produce audio books, get started on translations, transfer author site to wordpress with a snazzier design, figure out how to do X kind of advertising, and so on. But that list really started weighing on me. I added to it often but seldom crossed a line out. I finally gave up on it except for a post-it note sized to-do list, which usually is only of things to do this week.  I would not have done audio books ever had audio book companies not contacted me, for it was far too much work to do myself.

I know that if you’re not a pro writer, and you think you want to be one, that you’ll doubt this: but it’s harder work once you’re full-time than it ever was before. It’s hard work to stay where you are once you’ve arrived at a certain level of success. You must run as fast as you can up the down escalator, or it will dump you ignominiously on the ground while other, hungrier, harder-working writers pass you by.

Some days, you think, “I’m going to quit. This is too much work. Too much pressure.” Some days you look at yourself in the mirror and say “What the hell was I thinking?!?”

The only thing that saves me at such times, that keeps me marching forward, is the writing itself.

I love to write. I love to invent characters who seem as real to me as the people walking down the street outside my window. That’s the thing that makes me keep doing it, that the work is its own reward.

I also love to make readers feel something--especially to feel nervous and worried about my characters’ safety.

Still, back to my original thesis from last week: Being a full-time writer is not easy. It’s a real job, with a lot of dull and tedious chores. It isn’t much like your earliest, most naïve dreams of it. For me, it takes up about 330 days a year. You never really “arrive” at a destination. You just keep working harder and harder.

To my readers, thank you so much for reading.

To my fellow writers, I'm betting that one day (even if you doubt me now), you'll know what I'm saying. There's a whole lot of boring work to being a full-time writer.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Opting out of Kindle Unlimited for now

I am not going to release my next book into Kindle Unlimited this coming week, and I've been taking my existing books out as their 90-day terms in the program expire. By December 31 of 2017, I will not be in the program at all.
I apologize to readers who have come to expect my books will be there, but there are several problems with the program that Amazon has had years to fix and has chosen to ignore. It's a mess, and for now, I'm staying safely away.

4 of 6 are blatantly obvious KU scam books

and one Chinese click farm that scams Kindle Unlimited

Problem 1 is that if you read in "page read" mode, which many people do on their phones, we get paid nothing for a borrow and read of our book. Problem 2 is that many writers have discovered via testing even regular reads in normal reading mode aren't being counted fairly. Problem 3 is that we are getting paid less and less for a full read. When I began in KU, I received 75% of a normal royalty for a KU read; as I canceled my participation, that rate had dropped to 35%.

I don't like to talk about money or make my readers think about me as a money-grubbing person, but I'm afraid I must address an ugly fact here: I do need to eat and pay rent. It's hard to write books living out of a cardboard box in a viaduct with no electricity to run the computer. It's also hard to write books period, and counted over my lifetime of learning how and my hours of producing each book, I'm not making minimum wage at it. To make minimum wage for the work I have done before I die of old age is my fond desire.

But beyond my selfish need for an occasional meal and new 99-cent Walmart flip-flops and falling payments, the KU system is broken because of scammers. Anyone with half a brain can point to many scam books in the store in a moment (I bet you saw them in the image above!!), but somehow, Amazon cannot. Payouts for KU books come from pooled money, and perhaps as much as a third of that pool is going to scammers who pay click farms, usually based in China, companies that automatically run tablets or phones that flip book pages while being signed up for the free month of KU using stolen credit card numbers. A lot of these scam books aren't even in English. Some are English but are gibberish or random pages from Wikipedia or one sentence repeated for 1,000 pages. Some are real books, badly written, not selling on their merits. Or worst of all, they are books stolen from real authors like me.

Not that anyone is reading them. Huge rooms full of knock-off tablets or $5 phones are "reading" them, as in the other image above. It's out of control, and for reasons no one understands, Amazon does not care enough to stop it. Several of these books have been in the top 100 overall, or hit their "movers and shakers" list, and they still don't stop it! A single full-time staff person actually checking top-selling books could deal with a lot of it, and there is every indication they can tell when the read is happening in China or India or Indonesia, where these things are, but it's apparently not that important to Amazon.

It is important to writers, who feel they are being stolen from...who in fact ARE being stolen from. This has driven a lot of good writers out of Kindle Unlimited and thus here I am, hating feeling I must, but joining those ranks.

There are yet more problems with KU for authors, which are boring and sometimes technical and I've wasted too much writing time learning about them and understanding them, and I won't waste more writing time explaining them here. Believe me: they exist.

So again, I apologize. I love the idea of KU, but it's a broken thing, and until it gets fixed, I will hesitate long before rejoining.

What I think Amazon should do (not that they are asking me or likely to) is re-design KU so that authors get invited into it, indie writers who have proven themselves, who write good enough books that people want to read them and finish them. (They do this with Prime Reading, so I know they could also do it with Kindle Unlimited.) Then the overall quality would go up and everybody but the scammers would win. But I don't run Amazon. I'm just one of a million third-party vendors there, with no power at all except to opt out of a broken system. So that is what I'm doing, hoping (though it may be a useless hope) that if enough of the good indie writers do this, they'll start caring over at Amazon.

Again, if it causes you a problem, I apologize. If you stick with me and buy my books where you once borrowed, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. If you give up on me, I understand that. You can complain to me in comments, and I'll listen, but I'm impotent to change things. You can complain to Amazon, the only entity that can change this situation.  If enough fans do, maybe they'll fix what is broken.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Update on Oil Apocalypse 3

My wonderful cover designers have moved up my appointment for designing the cover of Oil Apocalypse 3 (Bled Dry) to November 1. When they give me a final version of the cover, I'll put up the book for pre-order, and it should drop onto your Kindle by November 20 or so.

It will complete this part of the tale, but I will return to the neighborhood with more Oil Apocalypse books in 2018. Nine or ten years later, the gas they had stored will have gone bad, their battery banks will be failing, and the challenges for survival will be new ones.

Right now, I'm indulging myself by writing some short stories, and I plan to put out a collection of them in 2018. It will be a variety of genres, including a crime story, a fable, a fantasy tale or two, and tie-in stories to each of my three series. I'm enjoying letting my creativity soar with different genres.

A reminder: as always in November, I talk about the business and craft of writing in my blog. In December, I'll go back to talking about disasters and other science topics.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

If your air conditioning fails in an emergency

If you live in a climate like mine, where the highs can crest 120 degrees in the shade, you live in fear of the electricity going out, and particularly of a massive power failure.

I’ve lived without heat in sub-freezing temps. It’s not only possible, it’s not that awful for a twelve-hour stretch. You just pile on the blankets, double up on socks, do everything you must with thin gloves on, drink hot liquid if you have a gas stove or way to heat it, and you can survive it. Your own body provides the heat you need, and the only trick is to trap it and not let it drift away from you.

But 120 degrees in the shade is 140+ in the sun, and if your house is in the sun (a pretty sure bet in the desert!), and the electricity fails, in twelve hours, you could be dead: Dead of heat stroke, dead of a stroke or heart attack, and miserable before you go to meet your maker.

If you remembered to put gas in your car (another reason to never let it fall under 50% full), perhaps you can drive out of the outage area and to a place you can find a cool building. Perhaps you have a generator and sufficient gasoline to run it for days and days--but I bet you don’t. Without electricity over a wide area, gas stations can't pump gas.

Sometimes a power outage stretches for hundreds of miles, and driving away from it is impossible. Or it happens when your car is in the shop, and you’re stuck at home in the heat.

So here’s something you can do to cool yourself down 10 to 20 degrees, which could be the difference between life and death. Keep block ice frozen all the time in warm weather if you have a big freezer--or keep water in plastic zipper bags frozen in a normal-size freezer, and put that ice in a cheap Styrofoam cooler, and run a fan past it. A DC fan can be run off a tiny solar panel hung out the window, and if you check at Amazon, you’ll see they have solar fans that are exact this--a panel, cable, and fan. So you get the fan going, you blow it over the ice, and you and your family stay in a smallish room and sit still, and you’ll be cooler than you were.

You can even pre-make a pretty nifty device like this:  Either use a solar fan with the remote panel you can hang out the window to keep it running, or buy a $150 rechargeable lithium battery that you can plug the fan into.

Don’t move around as you enjoy your homemade cooling system. Wear light clothing. Read a book, play a card game, or nap. Drink a lot of water. Bathe your face occasionally with a damp cloth. Stay cool until the sun goes down. And survive.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Habits that help you prepare for a disaster

Disasters might give you warning, as with hurricanes, but usually they do not. You're sitting there reading a book, and the power goes out. Or the earth starts to shake and your glass figurines fall off the shelf. Or the tornado siren comes. Or your phone buzzes, and it's your local emergency management office telling you there has been a train wreck and toxic chemicals are spilling into your neighborhood. Or you look up from pulling weeds in the vegetable garden, and the sky has gone dark and the sun is turning pink, and the hair on the back of your neck lets you know it's a wildfire blowing your way.

Of course you have your emergency supplies ready for "sheltering in place," don't you? And an emergency contact plan with your family, including someone out of town who will coordinate your locations and safety check-ins? You know that when cell towers get overloaded, texts will get through when calls won't, right?

You already own a generator if you're in a cold climate, or hurricane country, or dependent upon an electric breathing device to stay alive, and you won't be one of those people running out to buy one 10 minutes before a hurricane hits, will you? And you have your car filled up to at least half, because letting it go below half a tank is a bad thing. If you have a hybrid or electric, you top it up every night, right?

Your shelves have plenty of canned food, including soups, and you have bags of rice and beans and canned tomatoes to flavor them.  And you have a camp stove or gas stove or propane grill outside so you can cook them, right?

You're not short on kitty litter or pet food, I hope!

You know your neighbors, and who among them is elderly or disabled and might need your help, don't you? The single parents that might be away when the disaster strikes, leaving frightened children alone?

No? Then don't wait until it's too late. Make sure all that is in place by the end of next weekend. Get into good habits, and then you won't be caught off-guard when a disaster does happen.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Emergency Supplies

It's a good time to revisit the concept of having an emergency supply kit that you can grab and take with you if you are evacuated because of flood, fire, hurricane, or toxic waste spill. You might build a three-day or a five-day kit. Some of what you might want to include:

  • Water - one gallon of water per person per day for at least three days, for drinking and sanitation
  • Food - at least a three-day supply of non-perishable food
  • Battery-powered or hand crank radio and a NOAA Weather Radio with tone alert
  • Flashlight
  • First aid kit
  • Extra batteries
  • Whistle to signal for help
  • Dust mask to help filter contaminated air and plastic sheeting and duct tape to shelter-in-place
  • Moist towelettes, garbage bags and plastic ties for personal sanitation
  • Cell phone with chargers and a backup battery
  • Prescription medications
  • Non-prescription medications such as pain relievers, anti-diarrhea medication, antacids or laxatives
  • Spare glasses 
  • Infant formula, bottles, diapers, wipes, diaper rash cream
  • Pet food and extra water for your pet, plus their crate and leash
  • Cash or traveler's checks (ATMs don't work in power outages)
  • Important family documents such as copies of insurance policies, identification and bank account records saved electronically or in a waterproof, portable container
  • Sleeping bag or warm blanket for each person
  • Complete change of clothing appropriate for your climate and sturdy shoes
  • Household chlorine bleach and medicine dropper to disinfect waterMatches in a waterproof container
  • Feminine supplies and personal hygiene items
  • Mess kits, paper cups, plates, paper towels and plastic utensils
  • Paper and pencil
  • Books, games, puzzles or other activities for children
  • Duct tape, which is often useful
  • A tarp for picnics or makeshift tent

Think through where you might end up: at a shelter, a friend's house, or stuck camping out of your car. 

Do this before you think you might need to. Dedicate a corner of your garage to it. If you have no garage, pick the closet closest to your front door and make sure everything is packed neatly into cheap duffle bags so the family can throw everything in the car within 15 minutes if they need to. Change the water and medications every year (your birthday is a good time to do that) and recharge the spare phone battery.

I also put a water filter in my supplies and parachute cord. Think through your locale, your situation, and add whatever you want.

And NEVER let your gas tank go under 50% full. Because you really never know.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Puerto Rico in Crisis

3 Days after Maria passed

A humanitarian crisis is ongoing in Puerto Rico, and its national government has been far too slow to respond. Some highlights, as I write this:

  • Power is out throughout the island
  • Safe water is a problem
  • The death toll is not yet known
  • It took five days for the territory’s governor to get in touch with the mayors of all towns large enough to have them
  • Children’s hospital has been out of fuel for their generators for days
  • Lines for limited gas create panic
  • Agriculture is decimated for the year--no new crops of any kind for many months
  • The infrastructure is damaged--power lines, water lines, roads, and more
  • People desperate for food and medicine have looted closed drugs stores
  • Opportunistic looters are making the streets unsafe
  • Dangerous prisoners have escaped a storm-damaged prison
  • People rushing home to loved ones are being price gouged by airlines
  • For nearly a week hospitals did not have running water

And I hate to be a doomsayer on this, but I know there could be more to come. For instance, what if one dead body in a stream was a person with a communicable disease? An epidemic disease is possible. I'm not wishing for it. I'm dreading it.

Because of a lack of leadership from the White House, people finally went around that roadblock to help. The Mayor of New York organized shipments of supplies. Individuals begged FEMA and Health Corps workers to act anyway, even without orders from the top. And many did.

Most of my readers live in a safe place, a place where they can rely on police or fire coming to help. Certainly if there were a disaster, they’d see evidence of rescue workers right away. Puerto Rico residents waited five days before much happened at all. Five days without stores open. Five days without hot food. Five days without communication, not knowing if the water coming from the tap was safe to bathe in or not. It’s hot and muggy there as well, which must make everything seem so much worse.

I write disaster novels as entertainment, but I never want to see a disaster happen. And my heart goes out to my fellow Americans. I’ve donated money--including money to the American Library Association, to help rebuild and restock libraries there and in the USVI, when the immediate crisis is over. Donate to safe, known places: UNICEF, Save the Children, The Red Cross all have funds for Maria.

I’m ashamed of how late my federal government acted to save its own citizens. And poor towns in Texas still have terrible problems and dangerous pollution from Harvey. I guess this is the future we have to look forward to unless we are filthy rich. Very sad indeed.

It also serves as a warning to us all. We cannot necessarily rely on our governments, which may be in a crisis of whatever nature themselves. We have to take care of ourselves.

So I’m thinking “three days of food and water” may no longer be enough to keep on hand. Have a five-day supply on hand at all times for those disasters we can’t anticipate, like tornadoes, earthquakes, and power outages. If you are in the way of a hurricane, if one seems remotely likely to hit you in ten days, start buying extra supplies for ten or fourteen days that far in advance. If you can afford a hybrid car, that would help evacuate you when gasoline runs out. (You can still get 100 miles away from a dangerous coastal area on your electric charge, and as all-electric cars continue to improve, one day, they’ll take you over 500 miles on one charge). And a spare, portable solar panel and battery pack might see you through many days of power outages--not to live a comfy suburban life with TV and cold drinks, but to have the necessities and communication capability you’ll so desperately want.

lines for gas were 4-5 miles long

My heart goes out to the people of Puerto Rico. I wish I could do more to help them.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Apologies. Too busy to write an article

While my blog is, most Sundays, a researched non-fiction article, this week, I'm too busy to write another. My apologies. The good news is, I'm putting the finishing touches on Oil Apocalypse 3. I have only to proofread it and, depending on when my cover artist is free, it should be up for pre-order in mid to late November. Oil Apocalypse 2 is up for pre-order now. So I'm well ahead of my original schedule, and you'll have a complete story in hand by the end of the year.

However, the series won't be entirely done at that point. While books 1-2-3 will complete a tale, I'll return to the neighborhood nine years later (in their time) to take up the story again in a book 4 with whoever has survived the first nine years of the end of oil. New problems, new enemies, and new opportunities will abound. I hope to complete the rest of the series over the course of 2018.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Oil Apocalypse 2: Bleeding is on pre-order

Bleeding, the second installment in the Oil Apocalypse series is available at Amazon now for pre-order.


I'm working hard on Book 3, and it should be out in November.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Electricity: we have some problems

I want to talk today about electricity.

It isn’t a big part of my Oil Apocalypse novel series yet. But it will be in book #4.

In the U.S. and Canada, we’re close to being in big trouble with electricity. We’ve relied on it our entire lives. It has always been there with the flick of a switch, as much of it as we want, whenever we want it. Less and less is that likely to be so in the future.

Right now, fossil fuels produce most of the U.S. electricity, with nuclear and renewables of all sorts producing about 20% each. Fossil fuels will run out. Also, they are horrible for our health in the short and long term, burning them drives climate change, and yet we’re stuck with them for now.

Our entire electrical infrastructure is based on them, and nukes work pretty well with that system. As we move to renewables, this old system becomes a problem. The short explanation is this: electricity is quite hard to store. Nuclear power and fossil fuel power cannot be ramped up or shut off quickly. Those plants were designed to run all the time. Wind and solar (which by the way are not as eco-friendly as we might hope) can--and do--start up and shut off in seconds. The problem is with the shutting off.  The wind quits blowing. Clouds roll in. No electricity! But if the coal plants are all shut off when that happens, or the nuclear plant is at rest, you can’t exactly turn them on like a light switch. It can take hours or days to make those plants start generating electricity again.

So imagine a future in which we rely 100% on renewable electricity. The wind quits blowing and the sun goes down, both at the same time. Oops.

Choice A: live without electricity until the wind blows again or the sun shines again, or until another form can be generated or transported across a long distance. (As someone who lives in a hot desert right now, I can promise you, this is not really an option on 120-degree days!) Or choice B: find a way to store it in massive amounts so there is electricity saved up for times when sun or wind or water isn’t generating it.

Storage of electricity is a big challenge. Batteries go bad. Big batteries--enough to run a whole city during the peak evening hours--aren’t part of our infrastructure. There are other ways to store electricity, like using excess when you have it to pump a whole lot of water up really high, and then letting the water fall in a controlled manner, via gravity, to spin turbines when you need it, but is there such a device in your neighborhood? I’m guessing not. So we need to build these sorts of storage devices. Or invent new ways to store it. We’re not nearly there yet. Indeed, we’ve barely begun.

Worse, if you are on wind, and the wind starts to blow hard, there can be too much electricity and that can burn out transformers, fry lines, and otherwise result in damage to the grid so there is no electricity at all. Right now, you could ask a wind farm to shut off their delivery to the grid at such times, but they won’t. Why? Because that’s how they get paid, by delivering electricity. As we switch to more renewables but don’t update the delivery system--the wires and so on--expect more outages from this sort of event.

You like solar better? Here’s a chart I whipped up that compares electricity generated to electricity used by a typical family on a weekday. You can see the problem at a glance. You need some way to store it (my characters use batteries, as I have myself in the past) if you want to do anything after sunset that requires power.

There’s a lifestyle solution to this, which I lived for many, many years. You do a lot of electrical things from 10-2, when the sun is highest, including charging your computer, portable DVD player, phone, and Kindle. You run your fan all you want during those hours. You use your vacuum cleaner. But then at 2:00, you start to live a different lifestyle. You conserve. When the sun falls, you use up all the charge in one device, then in the next, then in the next to entertain yourself, and if you run them all down, you don’t get to used them again until 10 a.m. the next day. You rise with the sun and sleep soon after dark. Prime-time TV is the enemy of this lifestyle. You turn on only one low-voltage LED light. This works pretty well in spring and fall and in summers in temperate locations. Forget about heating in winter if it’s cold because in the dead of night, that's when you’re down to very little stored electricity indeed. You pile on another blanket and slip on another pair of socks. You use a hot water bottle to be warm enough to get to sleep. And, like me, you eat a baked potato for breakfast every morning because the oven working for 45 minutes helps take the chill off the kitchen.

I think I’m a rare person who is willing to live like this forever, having first experienced unlimited electricity at my command. And even I’m only willing to live like that forever if I can inhabit a temperate place! Unfortunately, not everyone in the USA can fit into coastal California, where you could live like that indefinitely. (In my case, I moved twice a year, using elevation control as my substitute for heat/air conditioning. Up high in the mountains in summer, it was pleasant in the days. Down in the low desert in winters, it was warm enough at night to need no heat. And by warm enough, I mean it was around freezing on the worst nights. Again, not a choice many people would embrace. But you do get used to that.)

Back to problems with the grid. Because of deregulation in the late 80’s, trees don’t get trimmed as often today, and trees growing into lines can bring the electrical grid down for millions of people. So can ice storms. So can a computer glitch or an inattentive employee at the power company. We live right now with a cobbled-together system that is aging, that isn't meant for renewable generation, and is really something of a mess.

Collectively, we are in deep trouble. Right now, right here, in the world we inhabit, our electricity delivery system is like that old car you kept running despite the hole in the floorboard and the non-functioning heater when you were 22 and poor. It’s a wonder it got you anywhere at all.

As for my characters in my novel series Oil Apocalypse? They were smart. They didn’t trust the aging grid, so they stayed off it when they built their homes. They generated their own electricity. One family had both solar and wind, so if the sun wasn’t shining, the wind might still be blowing. Thus, they could afford to have a smaller battery bank. The other families with only one form of power generation had lots of batteries.

And, spoiler alert, here comes a new problem. Batteries, unfortunately, don’t last forever. At some point after batteries are no longer manufactured in my fictional world, and the batteries hold very little charge, these off-the-grid systems will only be useful during sunny days (for the solar powered home) or windy moments (for the wind powered home). Extremes of weather will have to be dealt with the way people always have and still do in poor countries: Bundle up when it’s cold, and don’t work hard and live in the shade when it’s hot.

If you thought this is going to be a problem in the future, you would probably own some labor-saving devices that weren’t electrical. I can barely remember helping my grandmother run a hand-crank wringer-washer. This is far easier than banging your clothes on a rock, and all it requires is human power, the turning of a simple crank several times. Even at age 5, I could turn the crank.
you needn't dress like this to use it

One power-saving device I loved in my solar-only lifestyle was this, a solar shower. Basically, a black plastic bag (I’ve tried several brands, and this is definitely the good one), it allows you to take a shower or to do your dishes with a minimal wait period and passive solar heating of the water. Passive-solar water heaters are another useful item for the post-apocalyptic survivor to own, and I’ve given both of these to my characters in Oil Apocalypse.

The toughest challenge with electricity and for living a lifestyle with little or none is food preservation. That’s going to be a serious problem for my characters in book 4. And if you’ve ever lost electricity for five days because of a storm, you know that, right? It was a problem for you as well. I’ve owned two-way refrigerators that can run on either propane or electricity. But if you don’t have electricity and you don’t have fossil fuels, that isn’t much of a help. So what do you do? Eat meat as soon as you kill it, or smoke it, or salt it. I hope you know of a good salt source nearby.

I’ve rambled, I see, and don’t have the time to un-ramble this blog post. (I’m finishing Oil Apocalypse #3 as I write this.) But I hope I’ve given you more to be afraid of think about.

For more on this topic, I suggest reading The Grid by Gretchen Bakke.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Hurricane Harvey

I blog often about hurricanes during the season, and you can click on the word "hurricanes" at the tail end of the post to see more, but I wanted to talk about Harvey a bit. image

First of all, I am not without sympathy for the people who lost everything during the storm. Many of them were poor to begin with, and now they have nothing, and nothing to rebuild with. It's tragic.

However...there are a couple of howevers in all this.

1) The City of Houston has been making stupid zoning decisions for a long, long time. I've seen interviews with their own emergency managers on The Weather Channel dating back years, angry and desperate at this. They all KNEW this was coming. But instead of managing development, or requiring developers to deal with storm drainage, they let people build willy-nilly with no regard for the nature of their city, the problems they already have, or the fact that hurricanes hit that area of Texas every 10-20 years. They knew this was coming and apparently did not give a damn. And someone was lining their pockets. Developers, definitely. Elected city officials? Well, there are kickbacks that are traceable and those that are not, the "we golf at the same place and give each other's kids jobs" sort of glad-handing ways of politics everywhere.

So before you commit too much money to relief efforts, and before you cheerfully watch a billion dollars of federal tax money go to relief and think that's 100% okay, understand: they knew it was going to happen and they let it. They could have prevented a lot of the damage. If I ran the world (and I'd be a nasty fascist dictator, I suspect, so good thing I don't), I'd strip the wealth of every Houston developer and every Houston city council member. I'd leave them in nothing but their underwear, huddled on the sidewalk, all their accounts frozen, and see how they like it. And that money would go to poor people the city did not care about. Unfortunately, I don't rule the world. Rich people rule it, and you can be sure they have each other's backs on this. There won't even be a condition to the bail-out money that they change their zoning. There will be no justice, and the next hurricane will be as horrible for them and require another billion to bail them out again. I thought it was important you knew about this.

2) Be careful where you send your donations. The Red Cross, though administration-heavy, does get money and services to victims. Catholic Charities is another vetted organization. There is a Houston Food Bank, and there is a Houston Humane Society. Don't send money through GoFundMe or the like. There are as many scam artists as true victims there. I know it's appealing to think that if you avoid big agencies that no money will go to pay staff or for rent or so on, but better 70% of your money get to the victims than 100% go to a scammer.

3) Instead of only wringing your hands at the horrors you've seen on TV, think about your own locale, its natural disasters or the nearby chemical plants or nuke plants and rails on which dangerous chemicals are shipped, or a week-long power outage during extreme weather, and imagine the worst possible scenarios for you and your loved ones, turn off the TV, and make a plan:
A) In the first case, you have to grab and go. You have 10 minutes to do it. Most of us would spend that 10 minutes grabbing a child's favorite toy, the pets, the cell phone, and our old photo albums. Have a go-bag ready for every family member so you don't have to stop and pack clothes and shoes as well. Put a couple of pop-top cans of food or MREs in each bag and a few bottles of water. Help your kids pack their own bags. That will get you through a day where you're fleeing. And don't ever let your gas tank go under 1/2 a tank, because you really never know

B) In the second case, you are going to shelter in place and ride out a hurricane or ice storm or earthquake aftermath--either because you choose to or you haven't any choice. Don't wait until the last minute to gear up for this. Always have a five-day supply of emergency lighting, bottled water, canned food, some emergency cash, and other supplies you'll need. Go check out for more specifics. You only need do this once, leave the food most accessible, and switch it out once a year. (I'm a big fan of wheeled trash cans for this purpose--then if you need to walk a mile to a shelter or friend's house, you can push the thing along.) If you keep this up, you won't have to fight crowds or arm-wrestle over the last AA batteries on the shelf.

fill me with emergency supplies

Again, I'm sorry for the people who were hurt by the hurricane, those who are homeless, those who lost everything or, worst of all, a loved one. I'm not callous. But I am a realist, and I don't want your tender emotions to lead you to bad decisions.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Fun ways to prepare for collapse

Though I’m very skeptical about a rapid, catastrophic collapse of civilization, I do think things will be changing over the rest of the century. Perhaps you have children, and you’d like to help them be positioned best for a shift over their lifetimes.

home canned food Library of Congress image

First of all, I think these shifts will probably be slow enough that they’ll have time to adjust on their own. But a few skills learned young can serve for a lifetime. You can easily imagine a forty-five year old kid of yours saying, “Yeah, we had hens for a couple of years when I was a kid. What was that Mom said...?”

Hunter-gatherer skills. Teach your kids or grandkids to fish, hunt, shoot a bow, throw a spear, or identify and collect edible plants of your region, or all of these.

Farming skills. If you have a farm, great. (And I’m jealous.) If not, have as big a farm as you can manage, even if that means ten potted plants on the patio, which is what I have right now. You’ll learn about your region, the insects that will be a problem, the growing season, the local soil and what it needs. Involving your children and grandchildren will help them learn how to grow their own food.

If you can have hens where you live, think about doing that for at least a year or two. A dairy cow a possibility? Cool, though few of us could do that. Again, just a couple of years of doing this with your kids can teach lessons that will last many years.
Home skills: The more cooking, woodworking, basic mechanicals, plumbing, food preserving that you can learn and teach, the better. Have angora rabbits and spin your own yarn, then knit or crochet it into clothing? Make the family's old t-shirts into braided rugs and jackets? You get a gold star from me! You say you brew your own beer? Wonderful! Know blacksmithing? Wow, that one's really impressive.

All of this can be fun. It’s not much extra effort than what you likely do already around home and yard, it’s far healthier of a family activity than staring at a game console or TV all the time, and you might meet your next dear friend by getting out and learning some of these skills.

I can imagine a future where we live an agrarian lifestyle again--or our descendants will--but if I'm wrong, you've had some fun, so you haven't even wasted time.

You can hoard supplies for the end time, but supplies can be stolen or go bad or be lost in a flood. Knowledge is yours forever. Hoard knowledge.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The lure of apocalyptic thinking

The truth is, after all that reading (see prior week's post) about how civilizations collapse (or contract and re-form in another way), I don’t really believe entirely in a quick apocalyptic crash like those I write about. Yes, I feel the draw of that sort of thinking. Who doesn’t? Most of us love exploring this idea, at least in the novels we read and the movies we watch. Some people take it even further and actually prepare for “the end times,” stockpiling food, ammunition, drugs, and gold.

really silly stuff
We are not as logical as we’d like to believe we are. We are not logical in the face of powerful animal emotions and drives that steer us more often than our complex thinking brains do.
Every generation--or quite large chunks of it--has thought it will be the last generation, that civilization is on the brink. That seems to be part and parcel of being a human being. It’s a form of egotism, say the experts, the unconscious belief that we are at the center of everything, that this, our lifetime, is the pivotal moment, that the world has never been going to hell in a handbasket faster and that the end is surely nigh.

And yet, what statistics show us is that the world has never been safer, not in the places most of my readers live. Safer how? From disease, from war, from roaming bands pillaging and raping. Over my lifetime the murder rate in my nation has dropped a lot.

The experts say, the psychology is: if the world is ending in my lifetime, then I’m pretty darned special, aren’t I? But if the world is safer now, if I’m just one of billions of people in a world that will continue without a hiccup when I die of some ignoble old-age disease, the same as tens of billions who came before me and billions more who will come after...then who am I? Sort of nobody. This kind of knowledge can set off an existential crisis.

This meshes with my experience and the cynical, skeptical view I've gained. I’ve lived through Y2K (the computers will all be so confused we won’t be able to eat, eeek! It’s the END), 2012, and Hale-Bopp hysteria and much more. I’m even old enough to have done the “duck and cover” drills for nuclear war (which, to be fair, seems remotely possible--I’ll allow you nuclear war as a semi-rational fear). When I was a kid and went somewhere like summer camp or a weekend rock music festival, and I met kids from other places, I realized everyone thought their own small town, no matter how truly inconsequential, would be high on the Russian’s list of targets for nuclear strikes. Sorry, people from (for example) Bloomington Indiana or Marion Illinois, but you were never ever on that list.

Even as a teenager, I saw that believing you were on that list elevated your sense of your own importance. If we were all right about being in the top 10 targets list in our goofy little Midwestern towns, then the Russians wouldn’t have had any bombs left for Washington DC or New York or bomber factories or missile silos. Surely they weren’t that stupid!

Most people who were rabid about Y2K or 2012 now would deny ever believing in it...much the way if you once got drunk at a wedding and made a fool of yourself, you push that out of your mind and might eventually come to deny that. (Perhaps we all need a wife to remind us of these moments. “Oh yes you did say that!” lol)

When we talk about the “collapse” of civilizations, or when scientists do, I often think we should use a different world. Collapse implies catastrophe. But when civilizations fall, they generally do something closer to “contract” (in drought-stricken deserts, as with the Anasazi, the people simply move, to literally greener pastures). Imperial Rome fell. It collapsed! We all know that. But, hey, you know, Rome is still there. You can go visit it, even! It’s in a place called Italy, and some of the people who live there are direct descendants of imperial Romans of 2000 years ago and even some of their buildings are still there. When Italy collapses as a nation--and it will, as all nations will--there will probably still be a Rome. It’s a good site to build a city, so it’ll probably still be a town after oil is long gone or after a pandemic hits or after climate change makes where I live uninhabitable.

If you’re interested in the psychology of end-time thinking, this article is interesting (written just after the world did not end in 2012): apocalypse psychology. A trip to google would get you a number more.

I’m not saying everything is hunky-dory and always will be. Read the last two month’s blog posts, and you’ll see how pessimistic I am. Oil will end. Potable water is going to be a real issue one day. The salinization of California's soil is likely going to create a worldwide food crisis before too long. Our electrical infrastructure (which I’ll write about in a future post) in the US and Canada is in bad shape and bizarrely enough, renewable energy sources are stressing it more than ever. So expect blackouts to increase until we get that sorted. And if you’re in a city, expect some rioting and looting during blackouts. Don’t go sightseeing when that happens because looters can be dangerous. Hunker down, conserve resources, don’t suffocate yourself with generator exhaust, and it will pass, the lights and fridge will come back on, the cleaning crews will be out sweeping up the broken glass, and all will be well again.

Even a big collapse, as with climate change or oil depletion, will not happen overnight. Adjustments will be made. People will move from Florida or Arizona, new technologies will ease the slide, and much of life in first world nations will be enjoyable as ever.

Longtime followers of my blog also know I say if you live in Oklahoma, be prepared for a tornado, in Toronto, for a bad ice storm, and in Florida, for a hurricane, in Japan...well, everything but tornadoes. You guys get the disasters in Japan! Those could happen, and while it is statistically unlikely you'd die from a weather event, you could be very uncomfortable for weeks because of it. Lightning is the biggest weather killer, and I'll bet that you have gone outside in a thunderstorm or gotten in the tub or shower. I know I have!

This post is my way of saying, though I am writing a novel series about a catastrophic end of oil scenario, I hope that you know it’s just fiction. Don’t let it push you over the edge into extremist thinking or behavior or for heaven's sake, make yourself sick over it. Look around you. Go for a walk in your own town. See? Everything is fine right now.

If you are worried for your children or grandchildren (even if they are not yet born), and what might happen to them thirty or fifty years down the road, I will talk about a couple of simple solutions to position them best for a contraction of civilization. I might be wrong in my suggestions, but they are largely fun suggestions, so you'll have lost nothing by trying one or two of them.

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 originally 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.