My Kinda Cloud

Rainbow cloudJust got back from the Sonoma Coast of California. Some lovely scenery down there. Here’s an example.

That’s a shot I took looking out over the Pacific’s blue waters on a lovely, otherwise cloudless day. I guess it’s some sort of sun dog painted on top of some whispy clouds.Rainbow too

I seem to be having a run of good luck, weatherwise these days. And this is just one example. I hope everybody gets a bit of this sort of beauty in their worlds from time to time.

Anyway, here’s another look, this time with the low surf in the foreground. It was a peak moment in a generally wonderful day. I wish as much for all of you.

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Writing in 40s Vernacular

When a fellow in a book you are reading describes a dame as peachy, you’re reading 1940s vernacular.

One task I set myself in writing Uncle Herb’s World War II saga was to include some of the slang and catch-phrases the soldiers and sailors used in those times. Much of this has faded from common usage now, so it wasn’t an easy task. But if one is trying to really get the feel of what it was like to be with Navy airmen battling the Japanese Imperial Fleet in 1943, it helps to get right in among them and hear how they actually spoke when they were shooting the breeze.

Phrases like, “Say, wise guy! What’s the big idea?” were commonplace. So leaving them out would diminish the story. But how does one go about relearning the lost vernacular of another time? Fortunately, there are ways to do it.

First off, it helps to have some seniority. While I am not old enough to have actually used slang in the 40s, I do harken back to days of crawling around on my mom’s or my grandmother’s carpet while real, honest-to-God speakers of the lingo were rattling off the whole kit and caboodle. I may have been barely old enough to say more than goo-goo but I had ears. And some of their jive stuck in my head.

And where memory can’t provide, there are other great resources. Books and movies of the time are full of useful dope. Books like Michener’s Tales Of The South Pacific, and Mailer’s The Naked And The Dead, written in those times, dish up a boatload of lingo. Movies like Guadalcanal Diary portray soldiers chewing the fat realistically. And let’s not overlook The Three Stooges, whose short features released in those times contained plenty of wiseacre comments.

My only worry is that some brainiac under-assistant editor or sub-agent, will look at what I’ve written and get all worked up about my anachronistic authorial style and voice. They might mistakenly think I always write that way and give my manuscript the old heave-ho. Nosirree. That’s a bunch of hooey. I’m just getting wise to this razzmatazz for one particular novel.

Here’s a scene from The Fallen Eagle where vernacular comes to the fore as Bill asks Herb to read a love letter from home:


“It’s from your girl, right?” Bill pried. “It’s from Betty.”

“Nope,” Herb said. “Return address says it’s from Eve McFarlane, 53rd Avenue South, Rainier Beach, Seattle, Washington.”

“Betty’s best friend Eve, you mean? She’s peachy.”

“Any girl would be peachy to a hard up fellow like you.”

“Come on,” Bill persisted. “What’s it say?”

“Will you jokers can the chitchat?” Joe demanded. “Put that letter away, Herb.”

“Yes, Boss.” Herb put the letter back in its envelope and tucked it into his flight suit’s breast pocket.


Anyway. You get the idea. It’s more interesting to the reader to get a sense of the way Continue reading

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Crocodile Attack!

Big biterA little known fact of the Solomon Islands campaign of World War II, is that some of the casualties were due to crocodiles. The swamps and rivers in those jungle isles abound with the largest and hungriest of all the crocs, the saltwater crocodile, known in Australia as the “salty.”

As I complete the second draft of Uncle Herb’s story, I thought it might be of interest to share just a small part of the tale with you. The excerpt below is from the middle of the novel. It takes place just after the torpedo bomber was shot down onto jungle-covered New Georgia Island. It’s not for the faint of heart.

EXCERPT from The Fallen Eagle:

Herb forced his way through vines and thorns and wet matted vegetation and stinking muck, with such difficulty and pain that it took him another ten minutes to circle the banyan.

“No sign of him,” he said to Joe when he rejoined him at the end of the circuit.

“Maybe you should go back the way the plane came in,” Joe murmured. His voice was so weak it scared Herb as much as Bill’s absence. Joe pointed a lax finger at the torn-up jungle aft of the tail section. “We left a lot of the plane back that way.”

“Yeah, I know.” Herb went with his head hanging from pain and weakness. He began working his way down the hill slope, back along the trail of wreckage the Sea Eagle had dropped as she came in. She had clipped a dozen treetops and disemboweled herself as she collided with bigger and bigger branches.

Laboring downhill, Herb passed a crumpled bomb-bay door, and then the mangled metal of Bill’s .30 caliber machine gun. But still he found no sign of Bill.

Herb knew that to shout would hurt. But he drew a deep breath in slowly, and when his lungs had filled to the point of agony from his breastbone, he forced himself to holler, “Billy!” Doubling over from the pain of the shout, he suppressed a groan and listened for a response.

Far off, faintly, weakly, he heard a reply. “I’m down here, Pops. Help me!”

The sound of Bill’s voice renewed Herb’s resolve. He moved downslope along the wreckage path, passing splintered trunks of smaller trees, piles of branches and foliage, bits and pieces of the Avenger. He moved through razor sharp blackberry-like vines that pierced the light fabric of his flight suit and tore fresh gashes in his arms and shins.

Swim at your own riskEventually, he edged down to the brushy bank of a twenty-yard-wide, fast flowing, muddy river. He stopped on a sand bank that was crisscrossed by waterlogged tree trunks, fallen branches and tangled vines. He was certain Bill’s voice had come from the direction ahead of him. But the river—rain-swollen and turbulent—intervened.

He drew another deep, painful breath and called again, “Bill!”


He looked where the voice had come from. The far shore of the river was a sandy flatland covered with regular rows of hundreds of plantation palm trees. Beyond them was the ocean, perhaps two hundred yards away, blue and clear with light surf. In a line from the sea to where Herb crouched, a swath of palm trees had lost their tops when the Sea Eagle cut into them before crossing the river and hitting the hillside, which was the slope of a river-cut bluff. The tops of the shorn-off palms had fallen among the still-standing trunks. And there, near the river’s edge, lying on his back on a bed of fronds laid down by one of the palm tops—was Bill. His legs were stretched out nearly down to the water’s edge. When he spotted Herb, he sat up.

“I got tossed out the bomb bay,” he explained. “Went into the river face first. Water broke my fall. Otherwise I’d be dead.”

“You hurt bad?” Herb called, wincing at the fierce pain in his chest.

“Yeah.” Bill lifted his right leg a few inches. Even at twenty yards’ distance, Herb could see the calf muscle had been fileted by shrapnel or something that happened in the crash. The wound was exposed because Bill’s trouser leg was torn open. Raw flesh hung from the underside of his calf. It was dripping blood pretty badly.

“Did you get a tourniquet on it?”

“At the knee.” Bill pointed just below his knee, where his web belt had been cinched up in an effort to stop the blood flow. “It’s not working too good.”

“Can you get across the river?”

“No!” Bill called back fearfully. “I can’t. You gotta come over here!”

“I don’t know if I can make it. I’m not in too good a shape either. Besides. Joe’s over here.”

“How is he?”

“Not too good. I’ve gotta get back to him. You gotta come over here.”

“I don’t know, Herb. I’m pretty sure there’s crocodiles in this river.”

“How do you know?”

“When I was wading ashore, I heard something big splash in over on your side.”

Herb glanced around. “Nothing here but mud and sand.” He unsnapped the clasp on the service pistol holster at his hip, drew out the .44 and held it up, just to be safe. “Come on. I’ll cover you.”

“Okay,” Bill said reticently. “But you keep those eagle eyes wide open.”

Bill stood gingerly and hobbled down into the water. As he did, he drew his own pistol and checked that its safety was off. “Pops?” he asked. “Can’t those things smell blood in the water?”

“I think that’s sharks, Billy. Keep moving.”

Bill waded out until he was thigh deep. The current was fast and it tugged him sideways. He stumbled over a boulder on the bottom and nearly fell. “I can’t do this!” he called.

“Keep moving!” Herb called back.

At the halfway point, Bill was up to his waist and the current threatened to float him away. “It’s too deep!” he cried.

“No, it isn’t. You’re gonna make it. Now, keep moving.”

Anticipating Bill’s arrival, Herb carefully negotiated his way among the logs and branches tangled in front of him and moved to the water’s edge. He reached out his left hand encouragingly to Bill, ignoring how the hand was dripping blood into the river. Bill made for the outstretched hand, but he stumbled just shy of the shore and went down. He plunged under the surface briefly and then rose sputtering and gasping.

“Swim!” Herb commanded. “You’re almost here.” He lowered himself into the water to get nearer to Bill. He went in up to his waist, but kept a grip on a branch, anticipating hauling Bill out by offering his left leg with the boot toe up. Bill flailed in the water just a yard or two away but making slow progress against the current.

A heavy splash downstream made Herb turn his head in time to see a reptilian tail—green, scaly, glistening, and at least ten feet long, gliding off a big downed log and slipping smoothly beneath the river’s surface. The crocodile had been sunning in a shaft of daylight that shone through overhanging branches. Herb guessed from the size of the tail that it must be attached to a stupendously huge animal. Ripples appeared on the surface of the water in a V shape, coming straight for Bill, who was flailing nearer with agonizing slowness against the stiff current.

“What is it, Herb?” Bill asked direly as he floundered.

“Just keep swimming, Billy. Faster!”

The V moved much more rapidly than Bill. The streamlined giant slipped swiftly through its native element. Bill had heard the croc too. “Is… it…” he asked between strokes, “coming… this… way?”

“Yeah!” Herb snapped. “Now, hurry up!”

Bill was little more than an arm’s length away now, but a strong eddy in the river kept him at bay despite his efforts. Herb lowered himself still further into the water and stretched out his left leg. Bill finally caught his ankle and drew himself to Herb, climbing hand-over-hand up his leg until he had an arm around Herb’s chest. Now both men’s floating bodies were tugged by the current. Herb’s left arm lacked the strength to draw them out.

“Get us out of here!” Bill begged.

“Pipe down!” Herb ordered. “Let me concentrate.” Leaving off his effort to drag them out, he held the pistol out at arm’s length. “Keep still!” he half whispered to Bill. He drew a bead on the V in the water, which by now had come to within ten feet of them. Just as he was about to squeeze the trigger—it vanished. The croc had dived, intending to take them from beneath.

“Herb!” Bill cried in a small voice. He drew his legs up under him, but the wounded calf released blood-colored swirls into the water.

Herb swung the muzzle of his pistol down, aiming nearer and nearer, estimating where the reptile’s head would be if he could see it through the murky water. At the last instant before that aim-point met the place where Bill’s feet were now drawn up alongside his, Herb fired off three shots in rapid succession. The bullets kicked up three splashes of water and an instant later the croc’s head erupted from the river. The yard-long jaws opened wide and snapped in the air, lashing up a welter of froth. But they didn’t close on Bill, who screamed as the mighty reptile’s head foamed the water inches from him. The monster was no longer interested in Bill or Herb. It was churning its own red blood into the river’s frothing surface. It went into a death roll, from its blindly snapping jaws to the tip of its lashing tail, tumbling over and over as it had intended to do with Bill in its jaws. But now it was thrashing its own death agony. Each time the scaly yellow throat rotated to the surface, prodigious spurts of blood gushed from two holes, painting the river’s surface crimson. The huge tail sliced the water, splashing wave after wave of spray over Herb and Bill. After three rolls, the croc settled and floated belly up. It drifted away from them in blood-reddened water as the current carried it toward the sea.

Bill clung to Herb, trembling and gasping like a fish out of water.

The croc’s small, clawed feet stuck up, looking almost comical—four little surrender flags hoisted in the air. The two exit wounds on the croc’s throat poured red streamers into the river, adding to the red stain spreading around the dead monster.

After a few moments gasping for breath, Bill clambered up some branches and logs and pulled himself to safety. Herb stayed put awhile, aiming his pistol at one ripple and then another, fearing that another croc might appear. When none did, he climbed up and over the fallen branches to join Bill. He sat down on a big, muddy log and hung his head, wincing at pains he had temporarily forgotten.

Bill laid out flat on a little sand bar between two logs, arms at his sides and his hands limp. After a few moments, he said without looking at Herb, “Nice shooting, Pops.”

Herb lifted his head and drew a breath. “Just doing my job, Billy Boy. Now, come on. Let’s get going.”

Bill said, “I lost my gun out there.”

“You wanna go back and fetch it?” Herb cracked the faintest of smiles. “I’ll cover you.”

“Very funny,” Bill said.

“We gotta get back and see how Joe’s doing. Patch up that leg of yours. C’mon.”

“You gotta help me walk.”

“No dice, Bill. I’m pretty messed up myself. Come on. You can make it. Or do you want me to leave you here with the crocs? There’s a couple more coming.”

Bill sat up straight. Out in the river, two more V-shaped ripples were coming upstream. Without another word, Bill got up and followed Herb going back the way he had come.

By the time they scrambled up the hillside to the plane, Herb was half dragging Bill along, despite what he had said. Bill’s face was white as a ghost. He moved in herky-jerky motions that convinced Herb he was just about out of blood.


Well, so there you have it. The prose may still need a little line editing but I think you get the point: there’s never a dull moment when your plane crashes onto a jungle island. Let me remind you again because you might not believe it, this is based on a true story. And there’s worse to come!

Stay tuned.

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Ceres Asteroid Closeup Shocks Space Scientists

Ceres surprisesThe first closeup photo returned by the asteroid-exploring space probe, Dawn, has shocked and dismayed mission scientists. Furthermore, the unexpected discovery on the surface of the largest asteroid in the solar system suggests grave consequences for all mankind.

In a prepared statement, a NASA administrator admitted, “We really uncorked the celestial genie on this one!”

The new image makes clear that Ceres is not a dwarf planet, as some scientists had suggested, but rather is a form of cosmic flypaper, programmed to destroy everything within a parsec if and when an intelligent species sends a probe in its direction.

The President, reached in an underground bunker ten miles beneath Washington DC, said, “Make no mistake. We are working on a new kind of drone to neutralize it. If we have the time. Meanwhile, I’ve asked Bruce Willis to reassemble the Armageddon team that saved us last time something like this happened.”

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A Senate for Iraq?

Iraq 3 StatesIn a previous post, I suggested that Iraq could end its years of bloody conflict by creating a U.S.-style Senate. As the hypothetical map shows, division of Iraq into three “states” similar to those in the U.S. would create a new institution that gives voice to the concerns of the three main ethnic and religious divisions of the country.

As the horrors of the ISIL occupation have shown, life in Iraq without a Senate has led to deep divisions, power vacuums, and easy insurgent conquests of disenfranchised regions. So, how would a Senate (as part of a U.S.-style bicameral legislature) help to solve the problem?

That’s easy. You see, even though majority rule is the mainstay of democracy and a very desirable goal for any country, there are other needs of a population that may not be solved by simple majority rule. The example here is obvious. How can Sunni Arabs or Kurdish citizens of Iraq hope to have their concerns heard in the halls of government? One answer that DOES NOT WORK is simple majority rule. And that’s how Iraq is operating now. No wonder Sunnis and Kurds have grave doubts about their futures. And no wonder ISIL still has much support in the regions it has overrun.

The dissatisfaction that allowed ISIL to stage its takeover in the north and west of Iraq will remain, even as ISIL itself is coming to be seen as too extreme a solution for the tastes of the local populations. Nevertheless, the rising tide of Shiite armies from the south will in no way calm the nerves of Sunnis and Kurds who have been oppressed by the Shiite dominated government for years now.

President Obama has called for a “more inclusive” government in Iraq. But he hasn’t spelled out how that can come to be. Hence my effort here. Let me say it again. IRAQ NEEDS A SENATE.

Right now, democratic voting by the people of Iraq always leads to a Shiite dominated Council of Representatives, equivalent to the simple majority politics of the U.S. House of Representatives. And that’s it. There is no legislative body that looks beyond a simple majority vote. And that’s bad. The very essence of Iraq’s current government organization dictates that the majority Shiite population will always get its way on everything. So what else might Iraqis do?

It the map above were used to collect votes from the populations of three U.S.-style “states”, then Shiites would always win in the predominately Shiite region of South Iraq, Sunni Arabs would always win in the predominately Sunni Arab West, and Kurdish candidates would always win in the predominately Kurdish North. How does that help?

In the U.S.’s bicameral legislature, no law can be passed without BOTH legislative bodies approving it. If Iraq had such a system—which it currently does not—then certain problems could be alleviated. Nicest of all, a balance of power between the rival factions could be created. And that balance ought to go a tremendous way toward calming the fears and outrage of those who feel they have no voice in Iraq’s government today. How?

As happens in the U.S., the two houses would broker national power in ways very different from today’s Iraq, and a balance of interests could be struck. For instance if Shiites were to propose Senate legislation that was hated by both Kurds and Sunni Arabs, then their motion would be defeated by Senators from the North and West (as I proposed before, the three states would send an equal number of Senators to the Senate–seven from each “state” in the model I proposed).

One might ask why the Shiites who now rule absolutely through a simple majority in the Council of Representatives, would ever allow the creation of a Senate that could override their will? Well, bear this in mind: the Council of Representatives, in turn, could block any Sunni-Kurd legislation coming from the Senate that it didn’t like.

This may sound like a recipe for stalemate, but will that be the case? Maybe not. Because the two legislative houses would now protect the interests of all three groups, it should be possible to go forward in a spirit of national compromise, enacting legislation that takes everyone’s concerns into consideration. In such an atmosphere of cooperation backed by the ability to block any really repugnant proposals, a new national unity could be forged and a brighter future for all Iraqis could be created.

Still not convinced? Then consider the ISIL insurrection, realize it stems from lack of representation of minorities, and get ready for it to repeat again and again and again and again. Iraq’s 2005 constitution actually calls for a Senate (termed a Council of Union or Federation Council) but no such body has yet been created.

I believe that, deep down, Northern and Western Iraqis want to be part of a stable and fair nation. A Senate would open the door to that possibility and bring all Iraqis lasting peace and prosperity.

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Uncle Herb’s Story–Complete at Last!

Three brave airmenIt’s taken about six months, but finally the saga of my Uncle Herbert Hopp’s World War 2 heroism and suffering is finished, all 85,000 words of it. Whew! With the movie Unbroken set to hit the screen on Christmas Day, I guess it’s entirely appropriate that the tale of another hero in the same war should be ready to hit the presses–well, almost.

Bound for the South PacificAt right is a photo of Herb in Honolulu just a month before his triumphant and disastrous trip to the Solomon Islands.

Next up for my manuscript is the review and revision process, and I’ve already engaged two proof readers and gotten them on the task. After they’ve had their say, I’ll begin a potentially long quest to find a home for Herb at a major publishing house. That’s a procedure of many steps.

First comes the search for an agent who can get a hearing for Herb in the hallowed halls of the book publishing establishment. Then come contract negotiations. Then, no doubt, a substantial revision to suit the requirements of an editorial staff. And then the long time needed for setup and production of the actual book. Only then will The Fallen Eagle —as I have tentatively titled the work— make its appearance on bookshelves.

The whole rigamarole might eat up to two years in eclipse before Herb’s story finally finds the full light of day.

But it’ll be worth the wait. Herb’s is a tale of the forgotten wounded warrior. Compared to Louis Zamperini of Unbroken fame, Herb is a very similar type. He was a tough kid, and it was no doubt that toughness that enabled him to survive where others perished. Ultimately, I believe that if Zamperini’s story deserved the attention it got, then so does Herb’s. Time will tell. And in good time, I can even imagine a day when The Fallen Eagle could become a comparable Hollywood film like Unbroken. Everything that made Zamperini’s story compelling is found in Herb’s story, and maybe even a little more.

Here’s a little teaser, the Foreword I wrote for this book:

Stories of the Second World War have not delved deeply enough into the hardest truth of the conflict. That truth can’t be seen in histories of the broad sweep of armies and navies across the globe. It can’t be felt in portrayals of the awesome effects of the weapons of war. But it shows up starkly on the faces of men, scarcely old enough to grow a beard, who give their blood and their lives in a commitment to save our world from hatred and tyranny. This story is an account of my Uncle Herbert Albert Hopp’s struggles, his audacious exploits, and the horrific personal consequences the closing days of the Guadalcanal Campaign wrought on him and his torpedo-bomber crewmates. This is the true story of Naval aviators who played their parts in the epic contest of nations in the South Pacific in 1943.

I applaud those books and films that have portrayed this conflict before. But here you will find the deepest and bitterest truths about what it was like for the brave young men who lived or died in the Solomon Islands. I have interviewed family members who knew Herb better and longer than I. I have researched every possible military record, including Herb’s own long and gruesomely detailed medical records. If I have done my job as a writer well then you will see what it really means for heroes to go and fight and bleed and die to protect the ones they love. God bless them all.

“O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife,
“Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life.”

—From “America The Beautiful,” written by Katharine Lee Bates in 1913, the year Herbert Hopp was born.

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Writing–too busy to blog

Torpedo's Away!I’d like to take the time to write something profound here, but I’m too darned busy completing my latest project, Uncle Herb’s World War II story, which is itself pretty profound. Suffice it to say I’m about halfway through the first full draft of the novel, and on a timeline to get that draft done within a week or two. Right about on schedule.

At the moment, I’m taking just a short break to let you know this project is nearing the finish line. I just plowed my way through the central description of Herb’s gun battle with Japanese Zeros bent on avenging his torpedo bomber striking a destroyer of the Imperial Japanese Fleet.

That unequal fight (against seven Zeros) didn’t work out too well for Herb. Next I’ll be writing about his crash in flames on a tropical jungle island.

So now you know what I’ve been up to. I’d better get back to it!

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The volcanic landscape of Gale Crater, Mars

Gale Crater erupts!As the Mars rover Curiosity explores the landscape of Gale Crater, a 96 mile (154 km) wide hole in the planet with an imposing 3.4 mile (18 km) high central peak in its middle, a scientific conundrum has been reported by the investigators who are operating the rover’s science instruments. Everywhere they look with the rover’s camera eyes, they see landforms that suggest wind and water laid down the rock layers that make up the landscape. But when they analyze the chemistry of the rock layers, they find that water could not have been involved, because water would have altered the chemistry of the sand and dust particles it carried.

One principle investigator has stated the problem succinctly: the rock layers have the appearance of sedimentary rocks put in place by windblown dunes or river sandbars—but they have the chemistry of pure basaltic, volcanic, lava.

In my view, these investigators may have been misled somewhat by their primary mission goals, which include a directive to “follow the water” and to look for environments where life could have existed. Because such environments must include ample amounts of liquid water, it seems possible the investigators are distracted from seeing other possibilities in the landforms they are investigating, especially volcanic landforms lacking water and therefore non-conducive to life.

It seems quite reasonable that investigators trying to fit their data to life-compatible scenarios might overlook alternative, harsher conditions that could explain their raw data much more precisely than they have done in their published reports. This presentation will address their data, and offer an alternative model for the evolution of the landscape of Gale Crater—namely, via volcanism.

Mars before GaleBoth models start from the same point of departure: about 3.6 billion years ago, an asteroid struck Mars with enough force to put that 96 mile hole in the ground and send a powerful shock wave deep into the crust. All agree that this event started a series of subsequent developments that led to today’s landscape at Gale Crater. The point of divergence comes when one either takes the wind-and-water rationale the rover team has adopted, or uses volcanism as the primary mechanism.

Gale at impactPyroclastic deposits from volcanic eruptions come in a tremendous variety of forms. Because it is not my intent to review these, it is sufficient to select the one that best fits the data obtained from Curiosity’s cameras and chemistry experiments, which show that most rocks examined so far have a mineral composition quite close to basalt, the most common form of volcanic rock on Mars and Earth. Hand lens imaging and microscopic imaging have shown the rocks to be generally grainy, as opposed to glassy or vesiculated (a bubbled form common to many basaltic rocks on earth). Importantly, not all earthly pyroclastic deposits have significant amounts of glassy materials in them. Some can be quite granular at a fine scale, as is seen in the Mt. St. Helens ash sample collected by Dr. M. A. Wilson of the College of Geology, Wooster University, Ohio. That sample has abundant crystalline rock particles in it, derived from the basalt of the volcano by the ultra-violent conditions of a Plinian explosion and pyroclastic flow. Dr. Wilson’s sample contains minimal amounts of glassy shards. Instead it includes some rounded particles of glassy material mixed in with the crystalline particles.

Perhaps such pyroclastic materials form the bulk of the outcrops on the bottom of Gale Crater and the slopes of Mount Sharp, the central peak. What remains then, is to explain how those landforms were created from this pulverized material. If the apparently windblown and waterborne formations were not actually emplaced by wind and water, then how did they come about?

Gale Crater erupts!Again, Mt. St. Helens and other earthly volcanoes provide appropriate examples. The deposits on their sides, or laid down farther from their central vents, provide examples of all the outcrops encountered by Curiosity. Investigators working with the rover’s imaging systems have reported layered deposits, which they have characterized as possible riverbed or lakebed deposits, and sloping layered deposits they characterize as possible dunes, or the advancing edges of river deltas. However, these deposition histories are not the only ones that fit the landforms seen.

The alternative to these wind- and water-driven mechanisms is the stratovolcano, a mountain like St. Helens, built of layer after layer of pyroclastic flows. In Mt. St. Helens’ historic eruption, the most prominent phenomenon of all was the explosion of rock and dust from the volcano’s caldera. Propelled by a devastating blast of gas, dust and rock fragments spread over the surrounding landscape for miles, traveling in incandescently-hot clouds of stupendous proportions.

Pyroclastic flows are driven by steam, carbon dioxide, and other gasses trapped under the volcano at extreme pressures and temperatures. The sudden release of pressure as the volcano explodes exerts violent forces that pulverize rocks and disperse fluid lavas into finely divided particles. The initial pyroclastic cloud of dust and rock comprises a mixture of large and small fragments, but as the flow moves downhill under the pull of gravity, this assortment of fragments begins to separate. Large rocks and boulders fall out early, while dust and smaller rocks (called lapilli) continue to move downhill.

This sorting-out of particle sizes has much to say about some of the layered deposits seen so far by Curiosity. Most common there are layers made of particles so fine that the rock appears featureless, even when examined up close with the “hand-lens” magnifier on the rover’s robotic arm. Other deposits appear fine-grained as well, but contain within them scattered dots of larger materials, on the order of a quarter-inch across. These look like the small lapilli that earthbound geologists have noted in some of our planet’s pyroclastic deposits. Finally, in just a few locations, rover geologists have reported layers of larger stones, in the range of one-half-inch to an inch in diameter. These latter deposits they describe as “conglomerate” rocks, geologic terminology for a rock layer that itself is comprised of many individual rocks solidified into one mass. However, within pyroclastic flows, such groups of larger, heavier fragments of stone are simply included within the continuum of things grouped under the term “lapilli.”

Gale goes extinctKey here is the notion that the farther a pyroclastic flow goes, the more it loses its larger rocks and comes to consist solely of fine ash. Alternatively, it is also true that the larger and more energetic an eruption is, the farther it will spread its larger rock fragments. So volcanoes, like rivers, can spread layers of rocks or fine powders, and deposit them in the same places, or separately.

The forgoing examples and discussions offer an alternative to the water- and wind-driven mechanisms proposed by the rover scientists to explain the different layered deposits they have been exploring. Simply put, multiple eruptions of pyroclastic flows, large and small, could have created all the landforms seen so far by Curiosity.

Rover scientists have noted variations within outcrops that appear like layers of wind-blown sand, and this forms the basis of one argument that the entire edifice of Mt. Sharp was piled up by the wind. However, in my pyroclastic model, these dune-like layers could have been blown by the gasses that carried the dust, with gusts caused by local variations in the landscape. Such wind-like variations have been described for pyroclastic ash accumulations on Earth.

Gale settles inWhile my volcanic concept requires no liquid water for emplacement of any landform seen so far, it does not exclude it. So far, there have been several, rare instances of deposits with a quite different chemical signature than basalt, namely clay minerals. Clays occur where basaltic materials are in contact with liquid water for long periods of time, and are altered by chemical reaction with the water. Therefore, if the Mt. Sharp volcano lay dormant for substantial amounts of time, then water from rain or underground aquifers might have filled parts of the crater floor, much the way Spirit Lake has formed beside Mt. St. Helens. Such lakes, although intermittent, would have left behind muddy layers of sediment deposited on their bottoms, which subsequently would have been buried by additional pyroclastic flows from Mt. Sharp. Therefore, while a volcanic model explains the major proportion of the landforms seen at Gale Crater, there is no reason to exclude some limited role for water in the landscape.

In summary, a model is presented in which Gale Crater’s Mount Sharp is a meteor-impact-derived strato-volcano, built by pyroclastic eruptions. This model explains the geological features encountered by the rover Curiosity without the need to invoke significant action by wind or liquid water.

Note added December 9, 2014: I have put this post into a pdf file. If you are interested in having a copy, you can download it here.

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Ebola convalescent serum–I should have guessed!

The antibody manRemember how strange it seemed when an Ebola patient was imported from West Africa into the US? Remember the odd scene when he was filmed walking around in an isolation moon suit in Atlanta? It almost seemed insane that the Centers for Disease Control had brought such a patient right into our midst.

As a writer of medical thrillers I–of all people–should have got it right off the bat. It was all about convalescent serum. Dr. Kent Brantly was not only a walking case of the world’s most dreaded disease, but he was also a walking gold mine of cure. As he recovers from the virus, his immunity can be passed on to other patients by dosing with his blood serum.

Duh. I should have spotted that one coming. Wasn’t my first professionally published medical mystery, Blood Tide, all about saving oneself with a dose of convalescent serum? And, weren’t the heroes of my tale researchers who were busy creating Zmapp-like mixtures of antibody molecules for treating the disease?

I’ll have to admit I wasn’t paying very close attention to what was going on in the real world. But now with NBC reporting that Brantly’s blood has been used to treat several other patients, including Nina Pham, the Dallas nurse who contracted the virus from Thomas Eric Duncan, the only out-of-control case to invade America so far, it’s all becoming clear. The CDC has been planning to use convalescent sera all along. That’s why they imported a couple of moon-suited ebola patients. Something tells me there may be more, before this is all over.

NeahVirusI guess even when one is a writer of novels like The Neah Virus, in which an ebola-related virus breaks out in the US in the rainforests of Washington State, one can still miss a clue in the real world where truth can be stranger–or at least more convoluted–than fiction.

In my book (well, in my NEXT book, maybe) the intrepid researchers of the CDC stand out as sharp and highly motivated people who grapple with lethal threats on a daily basis, trying to keep the rest of us safe and sound. Keep up the great work, CDC!

Now then. Suppose I write a little tale about a fictitious Liberian missionary…

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Viruses, viruses, everywhere

Enterovirus cladogramIt’s a scary time for those of us who fear viruses. Oh. Of course, that’s all of us, isn’t it?

Ebola outbreaks in Africa. Cases turning up in America. The potential for horrific scenes of death and destruction abound.

But don’t forget those other viruses. These days, you don’t hear so much about influenza, which remains the top killer virus in the U.S. and around the world. Nor is much said about enterovirus 68, although I personally feel it may be the most ominous of all the dangerous microbes currently making the rounds.

You see, while we are preoccupied with the horrors of Ebola in Africa, and fears of what it might do, enterovirus 68 (EV-D68 for short) has been making subtle shifts, through mutation, to become more threatening with each new, small outbreak, over a period of decades.

Look at the image above. It is called a cladogram. It’s a sort of family tree of virus mutation, drawn up for the EV-D68 viruses isolated from sick patients in the decades since the first member of the family was identified back in 1968. The scariest thing about the cladogram is the number of branches it has. Each branch represents at least one, and sometimes several, mutations in the virus. Click it for a closer view.

So, while the world has been blissfully almost unaware of EV-D68 since its first small epidemic in 1968, the virus has stubbornly refused to go away. Instead, it has moved quietly through human populations worldwide, and has slowly changed its form.

It would seem that all this change might be of little concern to humanity. After all, the influenza and common-cold viruses are known to mutate constantly, and they seem almost a part of everyday life. They crop up somewhere in the world, and then disappear again.

But there are signs in the medical literature that suggest we should not be too complacent about EV-D68. First off, it has been striking young children very hard. This implies that older people have had one or another of the previous mutants in them already and have therefor developed enough immunity to hold the virus off. But babies with naive immune systems take the full brunt of the virus’s attack. Among young kids, the disease strikes powerfully. Most alarmingly, it sometimes causes more than congestion and coughing–it can infect the nervous system and cause paralysis.

This outcome is very rare and might engender little concern for the population in general, except for one thing: EV-D68 is a member of the picornavirus family. While this is the same family as the common-cold virus, it also contains within it the deadly polio virus. And so we are now confronted with a virus that is second-cousin to polio and has been slowly mutating, almost unobserved, into a form that can cause a polio-like disease. The experts at the Centers for Disease Control and others who monitor such things are worried. So am I.

I write medical thriller novels in part to take an advance look at what might happen if one or another virus got loose in a big way. And I feel the inspiration for another book coming on right now.

If you would like an overly-detailed look into this subject, the National Library of Medicine keeps a copy of the original article on EV-D68 mutation here.

Let’s hope the mutation rate slows down a bit. Otherwise, we may be looking at big trouble.

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