The Unprepossessing Phineus Morton

Fin as WatsonLong ago, while I was writing the original manuscript of The Jihad Virus, I had a minor revelation: the story I was drafting ran strongly parallel to a good Sherlock Holmes mystery.

It had quite a few similar story elements: a brilliant man solving deadly mysteries, scientific sleuthing methods, and a more-or-less faithful follower and chronicler of the events, who had a medical background himself.

In the Holmes stories, of course the chronicler is the now-famous Dr. John Watson, MD, Afghanistan war veteran, and target of Sherlockian epithets like, “Elementary, my dear Watson.”

In my stories, Phineus (Fin) Morton has no MD, but like Watson, he is a war veteran with a medical background. Furthermore, Fin is a soldier who served in both Afghanistan AND in Bagdad, Iraq. So he’s actually one up on Watson when it comes to comparing war wounds and post-traumatic stress symptoms. Fin served as a medical corpsman, and hence has plenty of background to inform his witnessing of events like the modern-day plagues threatened by The Jihad Virus and The Neah Virus.

Who better then, to accompany and explain the doings of my stories’ hero, Dr. Peyton McKean, biotechnology researcher, as he confronts evil villains and deadly contagion? Fin has the right combination: he’s a medical man with combat experience!

The parallels between Morton and Watson run deep.

Another realm of commonality is that of romance. In the Holmes stories, Sherlock was, well, just too far out there to end up with a girlfriend. In my stories, the illustrious Dr. McKean has already settled down with a wife and kid who have long since adjusted to his idiosyncrasies. As with the Sherlock stories, it is the sidekick who finds romance. Watson met his future bride on an adventure with Holmes. The same sort of thing happens for Fin Morton–repeatedly.

OuchPoor Fin. He’s had a rough romantic ride, at least so far, in my hands. He’s seen romance appear in each of two novels, first with the lovely and dangerous Egyptian horse trainer Jameela Noori in The Jihad Virus, and then with beautiful Native American shaman’s daughter Tleena Steel in The Neah Virus.

And yet he remains single. How can I be so cruel to him? Worse, he starts each new adventure with a broken heart. Of course, that sets up his redemption in each novel by finding true love.

Wait! I’m giving away much more here than I should tell. No more spoilers.

Because of the many parallels to the Holmes stories–right down to physical descriptions–I welcome you to imagine Fin as the currently most favored Watson, the actor Martin Freeman. He’s as close a match to my description as I have seen. That’s just a coincidence, since The Jihad Virus was first released in 2004, long before Mr. Freeman had become prominent. But it’s a nice coincidence. In The Jihad Virus, Fin describes himself like this:

“I’m a medical reporter, a healthy twenty-seven-year-old male of average height and build and looks, with good vital signs. My tours in the Mideast left no physical scars on me, but I was not to be so lucky in the events I’m about to retell.”

You get the picture?

And, by the way, that Benedict Cumberbatch fellow does a passably good job of looking like my overly-tall, quirky, socially maladjusted sleuth, Dr. Peyton McKean. If Freeman and Cumberbatch would like a suggestion for a new movie together, may I suggest The Jihad Virus?

Posted in Author, Peyton McKean | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Iraq Needs A Senate

Iraq 3 StatesIf Iraqis want the bloodshed to stop, they should create a Senate like the United States has. The not-so-democratic qualities of this institution could save their nation. I truly believe that.

Let me explain, using some maps I drew for the purpose.

In the first, I have drawn some heavy black lines delineating three “States” within Iraq, similar to the U.S.’s states. Think of them like North Dakota, California, and Texas, if you will.

Iraq GovernatesIn the second map, you can see these “states” contain within them subdivisions similar to U.S. congressional districts. I have rather arbitrarily slashed right across the boundaries of these “Governates,” as Iraqis call them. The reason why I did this is apparent in the third map: my “state” lines correspond roughly to the major religious and ethnic divisions of Iraq.

So, imagine an Iraq with a Senate comprised of 7 senators from each of the three “states,” all elected by the total popular vote of their “state.” What would the institution be like?

Iraq DemographicsWell, it would not be democratic, for one thing. It would have an equal number of senators from the Shiite dominated south (all seven having been elected along religious lines by the Shiite majority), and the Sunni west (again, all Sunnis, no doubt) and the Kurdish north (same story there).

Equal numbers of senators despite South Iraq having three times the population of West Iraq? Does that seem fair? Does it sound like a recipe for religious and ethnic division and deadlock?

Maybe not.

Let’s assume the three groups of seven always vote as unified blocks (not necessarily true, but likely). There is actually no possibility of deadlock, simply because of the math. Whatever law or bill is favored by two of the groups wins. And even if there are some crossover voters, the odd number of the total, 21, dictates that either the yeas or the nays will win. No deadlock. The U.S. senate operates slightly differently than this, but the effect is the same.

The key to all this is as follows: the three-state division of the senate would give minorities a voice that they now lack. For instance, if the Shiite “state” tried to pass legislation that the Sunni and Kurd minorities didn’t like, those two “states” could unite to vote the law down.

As things now stand, the only legislative branch up and running in Iraq is their equivalent of the U.S. House of Representatives (their Council of Representatives). But this body is elected strictly by popular vote, just like the U.S. House. The problem with that is the lack of representation of minorities and domination of the Iraqi government by the Shiite majority. Hence the need for a Senate.

Of course, a Senate can’t alleviate every problem, but at least the minorities would have some means to get their concerns heard.

Finally, I should point out that the “states” don’t even have to be defined with lines on a map. Given the powerful divisions within Iraq, it would be just as simple to have voters register as Shiite, Kurd, Sunni (other minorities, like Christians and Turkomens might have to join one or another of the three groups as they see fit).

I really believe this “State” orientation would help the situation a lot. It works pretty well in the U.S., a nation with deep regional differences that once suffered though a brutal and bloody civil war of its own.

Why does a Senate help to calm regional anger? Precisely because it is not-so-democratic. Consider North Dakota, California, and Texas. These states are from far-flung regions of the United States and they often have strongly held, disagreeing points of view. But here’s the key: the tiny population of North Dakota has the same number of senators (two) as Texas, the largest state of the three, and California, the most populous.

So, the Senate is the great equalizer in American politics.

Give it a try, Iraq.

Posted in Author | Tagged , , , | Comments Off

Saving lives–too busy to blog

It’s nice when the biotech industry comes knocking at my door and asks for my help saving people’s lives. I have been acting as an expert consultant to a new biotech company and we are under a deadline to get a clinical trial proposal to the FDA for testing a new anemia remedy.

Considering my father suffered from anemia in the years before he died, I am particularly happy to lend my skills in the battle to create a new drug to fight the disease.

This does, however, put my fiction writing on hold. My next book, Blood on the Moon, will suffer about a month’s delay.

Meanwhile, I wrote ’round-the-clock, literally, yesterday on our Investigational New Drug application. This is its own kind of medical thriller.

Bye for now. Gotta go get with it again.

Posted in Author, Real Science | Tagged , , | Comments Off

Blood On The Moon paperback coming soon

Blood On The MoonIf you’ve been reading Dinosaur Wars in paperback form, then you know the third and final volume of the trilogy, Blood On The Moon, has yet to appear in hard copy. Well, that’s about to change.

I am already midway through redlining the original text, making a few changes so that the story flows more smoothly, but not really changing who-does-what-to-whom. Taking red pen to page is a laborious process, but I had hoped to finish in time to release this new version, formally called Edition 2, by the end of June.

But events have conspired to make that timeframe slip.

RedRiverIf it’s any consolation to those waiting for volume three (I like to think of millions of dedicated fans clamoring, although the reality is somewhat less than that) there is a good reason for the delay.

You see, my old chums in the biotech industry have drafted me back into action. They want me to help them write a convincing application to the Food and Drug Administration so they can get approval to test their new anemia treatment in human clinical trials.

For the die-hard reader, I hope your frustration at the delay is moderated by knowing my sidetracking will potentially benefit millions of people who suffer the debilitating effects of a lack of red blood cells to carry oxygen around their bodies.

I think the slowdown is worth it. How ’bout you?

Posted in Author, Dinosaur Country | Tagged , , , | Comments Off

Lo, the Mighty Serpopard–er, Sauropod

Narmer's SerpopardsSo did you know the ancient Egyptians dug dinosaurs? The creatures you see at left with long intertwining necks are shown on a five-thousand-year-old sculpture unearthed near the Nile, called the Narmer palette. On it, a predynastic Egyptian king massacres his enemies and even tames the mythic beasts with lassoes.

Click the image for a close-up view of the action.

Archeologists call these creatures serpopards, meaning snake-leopards, although most depictions are non-spotted and rather more lion-headed than leopard-like. Their tails are usually long, and their feet have claws, not hooves.

Dino SealThey have turned up on a variety of artifacts in Egypt and in Mesopotamia as well, at Uruk, a city contemporaneous to the predynastic times in Egypt, just before the pharaohs came to power. At right is the imprint of a Sumerian seal from those times. Now those are some re-e-e-ealy long tails.

Dino DucklingsTake a look at this sauropod dinosaur daddy taking his brood out for a stroll, depicted by me on the cover of my Dinosaur Tales short story, Hatching Alamosaurus. Doesn’t he look quite a bit like the Mesopotamian serpopards? I think it’s no coincidence.

Some will say it’s just that, a coincidence, the result of an ancient sculptor’s fanciful combining of different animal forms, a not-uncommon trick in those times (consider the Sphinx, the prototypical chimeric beast). Some others will say the serpopard is just a crude approximation of a giraffe, and not a dinosaur or chimera at all.

Four DogsWe can put the latter counter-hypothesis to rest easily. Take a look at this sculpture, known as the four-dog palette. On one side it’s got a serpopard, down there at the bottom, right. On the other side it’s got two giraffes, sculpted accurately with hooves, horns, and long legs. But the serpopard has no horns, shorter legs, and multiple toes, and that’s typical of sauropod dinosaurs.

SerpopardsAnd to clinch my argument, take a look at this palette, called the two-dog palette, which has some incredibly snaky-necked serpopards. On its back side, below, is another serpopard and some other creatures as well. Click it for a closer view. Note the well-crafted giraffe at the bottom, and several wild dogs, lions, ibex, bull, and antelope above that, as well as a griffin (another likely dinosaur depiction) and above that, the serpopard. So there is a consistency to the depiction of the creature, and it was clearly distinguished from the giraffe.

Two Dogs BackSo what could it be? Where did the idea ever come from? Let me offer a suggestion. Outcroppings of Mesozoic rocks occur widely around North Africa and the Middle East. In them, scientists have recently found the bones of huge sauropod dinosaurs. So, if a complete, or nearly complete sauropod skeleton was uncovered by ancient Egyptians, then the legend of the serpopard may have been based upon fact.

I believe it. How about you?

Posted in Dinosaur Country | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off

I’d like to thank…

Alumni AwardWell, it really happened. My alma mater, West Seattle High School, put my picture up in their Hall of Fame. There enshrined for a long time to come is my grinning face, enjoying one of the finer moments in life, getting recognition for a lot of hard work.

Several people made flattering speeches about me, and then they handed me this plaque, which you see in its new place of honor on a bookshelf in my writing office, surrounded by some of my dinosaur friends.

If you click the picture, you can get a closeup to read the text.

I hadn’t really stopped to measure the impact of my scientific career until the Alumni Association called and told me I had won their award. But thinking back on my decades in the biotech industry, I can see what they mean. Arthritis treatments, a study of the most potent inflammatory hormone in the human body, those do rate an acknowledgment. And that odd thing, the “FLAG epitope tag,” which I call a molecular handle these days, rates special mention. It is the world’s first commercially successful nanotechnology device. And researchers around the world are using it to study every aspect of human health and disease.

My invention of the FLAG epitope was something like Thomas Edison inventing the lightbulb. On the day he made it in his lab, it was just one lightbulb. But a couple of decades later it had proliferated and was illuminating millions of homes and businesses.

I can see my “molecular handle” in that perspective. It has gone on far beyond my invention and become a commonplace tool in scientific laboratories around the world. Thousands of scientific researchers are using it daily to help illuminate the workings of the human body in health and disease.

While I was at the podium making my acceptance speech, I offered the school library copies of my novels, Dinosaur Wars and The Neah Virus, which were gladly accepted.

After that, I thanked the faculty, past and present, for their dedication to seeing each student live up to his or her full potential. I guess the point of all this awarding and accepting is that, in my case, their pedantic labors paid back some dividends.

Posted in Author, Real Science, Seattle | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off

Washington’s Ice Age Floods

Mammoth toothThese fragments of mammoth tusk are part of an incredible story. During the last Ice Age, glaciers of the Northern polar icecap dammed up the headwaters of the Columbia River and then broke, releasing some of the largest floods the world has ever seen. Much of the eastern half of Washington State went under, time and time again, as the ice dam broke and then reformed, and then broke again.

Highway workers building an interchange on Interstate-5 just north of Vancouver, Washington in the town of Ridgefield, dug up the tusk fragments and passed them along to paleontologists at Seattle’s Burke Museum. When the scientists went to investigate, they learned that the tusk had been buried within the deep layers of mud and sediment laid down by those Ice-Age floods. So it seems likely the mammoth died in one of those floods and was washed to its final resting place, where the construction workers found it.

Flood ComethIt’s impressive that the flood could carry off and then bury one of the largest elephants to ever walk the earth. This is the Columbian Mammoth, a stupendous creature that makes modern elephants look small. It stood as much as 13 feet high at the shoulder. But the flood that carried it was no lightweight, either. As the picture at right shows, the torrent that was released when the ice dam broke roared down the valleys and canyons of Eastern Washington, reaching speeds of 80 miles per hour and depths of hundreds of feet. That’s a flash flood the likes of which no human has seen in recorded history. So carrying off mammoths was not at all beyond its scope. In fact, the floods scoured the soil and trees away too, taking the canyons down to bedrock, and then sweeping away some of that as well.

Missoula FloodsThe map shows just how stupendous the floods were. On the right, Lake Missoula was backed up behind the ice dam, which was in the Idaho Panhandle near Spokane, Washington. Lake Missoula inundated much of western Montana, and held a volume of water comparable to several of the Great Lakes. When the dam gave way, the water overtopped the river channels and spilled across the landscape of Eastern Washington, pooled into several gigantic temporary lakes, and then spilled down the Columbia River Gorge, where it overwhelmed the area of present-day Portland and Vancouver, and even filled the entire Willamette River valley. Ridgefield, where the mammoth came to rest, was deep underwater at the height of the surge.

The mammoths, and the floods, are gone now with the passing of time and the retreat of the glaciers. But the bones and tusks remain, and are occasionally discovered, bringing back to us the awesome history of this part of our planet. And, oh, by the way, scientists think that maybe–just maybe–the first Native Americans had arrived on the scene to be witnesses. Or victims, perhaps?

It all gets me to thinking. Can’t I come up with a story that weaves these colossal events into a plot filled with mystery and intrigue? Stay tuned.

Posted in Dinosaur Country, Peyton McKean, Real Science | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off

The largest animal that ever sat on a nest

Big MammasIn my “Dinosaur Tales” short stories, I try to imagine dinosaurs just a little beyond the way most scientists currently see them. Sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised by where my imagination leads. Here’s an example.

Try to imagine how the world’s heaviest creature could have managed to sit on its nest without crushing every egg to smithereens. Nobody has ever published a scientific analysis of the idea, nor has any paleoartist ever, to my knowledge, attempted to show how it was done.

So here you go: my best effort at demonstrating how a thirty-ton behemoth could gently lower itself down and cover its delicate eggs and hatchlings with its breast. Let’s not forget: the closest living relatives of Alamosaurs are birds.

I watched some video footage of elephants lying down to get the postures just about right, and then applied them to Alamosaurus, as you see here. Under that mom in the middle, you see her long, narrow nest with eggs in two rows. That’s factual information. In Argentina, scientists have uncovered dozens of these long, thin nests, which the adults excavated by scraping sandy soil with their three-clawed hind feet until a suitable trench had been made. Then mom deposited her eggs two-by-two in a long line. Click the image for a close-up.

Why the long, thin nest? As you can see here (and this is my original thinking) if a thirty-ton mamma lies ACROSS the line, her weight is born by the ground, and her belly will not sag to the bottom of the nest. So that’s how the huge beasts solved their nest-sitting problem. They let the ground take the weight!

While I’m at it, I may as well mention the other innovations in this picture. Not only is this the first image of sauropods lying on nests, but it is, to my knowledge, the first image giving them giraffe coloring. But it makes sense. They were the giraffes of the Mesozoic era, so why not color them like the only examples we know? In fact, why would you color them any other way? What example would you base your color scheme on? Same goes for the striped tail. We know the sauropods used their tails as weapons (some fossil tails even have war-clubs on the ends). So, what’s the modern equivalent? If you have ever been tail-whipped by an iguana, like I have, then you know that their bull-whip tail can really hurt. So, why is it striped? As a reminder not to get too close again. The strategy probably would have been as useful 65 million years ago with T rex as it is today against foxes, dogs, and other iguana eaters. Hence, my stripy-tailed sauropods. Note the babies in the background, tagging along behind mom under the protective cover of her tail? That’s another first in this image–showing them just the way baby ducklings follow their moms.

LiposaurusFinally, although I’m not the first to do so, I have included lips and a long prehensile tongue on my Alamosaurus. They sure give the big beast a different look, compared to the grinning, non-lipped, lizard-faced version artists have shown for a century or two. At right is John Martin and Richard Neave’s concept of a few years ago. While some may criticize this choice of facial soft parts, I’d have to retaliate by asking where anyone got the notion to leave lips off a tree-browsing animal like this, in the first place.

Anyway, I’ll probably stir up more controversy than I can settle with this image, but there it is.

And if in its humble way, this image gets anyone wondering whether these majestic creatures were really as sophisticated as I’ve portrayed here, you can find a lot more detail on the pages and pages of prose I packed into my little Dinosaur Tale, “Hatching Alamosaurus.” You can even buy a print of the image, suitable for framing, so you can impress your friends, family, and/or coworkers with your discerning knowledge of sauropod dinosaur nesting behavior. How cool is that?

Posted in Dinosaur Country, Real Science | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off

Why I dedicated The Jihad Virus to women

TheFeminine“I dedicate my story to the women of this world. Your voices should be heard more often. In your caring hearts, you hold the keys to peace.”

That’s the dedication at the beginning of my new medical thriller, The Jihad Virus. And even though the central hero of the tail is Dr. Peyton McKean, a man and “The Greatest Mind Since Sherlock Holmes,” there are plenty of reasons why the dedication goes to folks of the feminine gender.

The women in this story carry their fair share of the burden of fighting this deadly microbe. In the process, they stand up and are counted against terrorism and in favor of humanity. And while they’re at it, they even save the illustrious Dr. McKean a time or two.

For instance, Dr. Kay Erwin, Chief Epidemiologist at Seattle Public Health Hospital, is the one who announces the Jihad Virus threat to the world. It is also Kay who tends to Dr. McKean personally in her world-class isolation facility when he comes down with the deadly infection.

And Janet Emerson, McKean’s head technician at Seattle’s Immune Corporation, is the person tasked with making an experimental vaccine that may be the world’s last and best hope for salvation.

Suffice it to say, both ladies acquit themselves well.

And I have yet to mention the most central female presence of all. Jameela Noori, an Egyptian horse trainer, begins the book as caretaker for the Arabian steeds of the arch villain, oil-billionaire-gone-bad Sheik Abdul-Ghazi. In one scene, we see Jameela unabashedly use her riding crop to face down the Sheik when he comes at her in a moralistic fit, with a flail in hand. Then she uses it to give a slap in the face to one of his henchmen. And she does a lot more than that before the tail is done.

Strong female characters play key roles in my novels and short stories. I have always admired the qualities shared by most women. And I don’t mean those phony Hollywood visions of women as brawling, murderous warriors. I mean their real traits, like sympathy, caring, and generally giving a damn about whether their fellow human beings and creatures are happy or not. When these feminine qualities are exercised to their fullest, the bad guys’ plots are bound to fail.

PinkPeaceThat opening quote is something I believe with all my heart. Not until feminine voices are heard loud and clear above the voices of war-mongering males, will this world ever find peace.

That’s why, in nearly every story I write, there comes a moment when a woman must step up and be counted–against evil, and for finding answers to the stories’ central problems. Let’s hope someday women will find the ways and means to step up and solve this world’s real problems. I believe our fate is in your hands, ladies.

Maybe you can do with the men of the world what you do so well with children. Make them play fair, mind their manners, and share with others.

Posted in Peyton McKean | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off

The Jihad Virus — Published!

Noble Arabian SteedA chase on horseback, no less! Now that’s a tale of adventure, danger, and, well, horsemanship. All that and a medical thriller with a deadly virus to boot! As usual with my novels, I’ve packed a lot more than just a mystery into this one. It’s got exotic locales, beautiful women, dastardly villains and, let’s see. Oh. Yes. The Greatest Mind Since Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Peyton McKean. What more could a fan of mysteries, thrillers, and, well, er, horseback chases, want? If there is anything else, forgive me for not squeezing it in.

Anyway, The Jihad Virus is published. Here’s the promotional text from the back cover, just so you’ll know what it’s all about:

Jihad Virus Cover“DNA, THE CODE OF LIFE —AND DEATH

A deadly microbe: When a U.S. Customs inspector at the Canadian border succumbs to a fatal viral infection, a terrifying fear becomes reality. Someone has smuggled a devastating genetically altered strain of smallpox virus into the country. But where is it? And just how lethal might it be?

A master murderer: Sheik Abdul-Ghazi, oil billionaire turned terrorist, has masterminded a plot to spread a plague that will kill millions. He and his jihadi zealots are holed up on a remote western ranch, preparing to unleash their nightmare weapon on American cities.

Beautiful ZahirahA beautiful woman: Jameela Noori, Abdul-Ghazi’s Egyptian-born horse trainer, may be the consummate blend of beauty and treachery. Or is she the weak link in a diabolical scheme?

The greatest mind since Sherlock Holmes: As the plague’s first victims die, brilliant vaccine researcher, Dr. Peyton McKean, is enlisted by the Centers for Disease Control to track down the source of the virus and find a cure. From his lab, to a horseback chase in a hail of bullets, McKean brings to bear his keen intellect and the boldness of a born adventurer. But overcoming this threat will take more than daring. It will take a medical miracle.”

And if that doesn’t get your juices flowing, try the inside front cover teaser:

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Kay said, her voice cracking. “I’ll get straight to the point. We’ve got a seriously ill patient on our isolation ward.” She paused to draw a breath. “He’s got smallpox.”

A qualm rattled through me. Had she said smallpox? I jotted the word down, although I wasn’t likely to forget it. A medieval scene flickered across my mind — pockmarked, dead bodies piled high on oxcarts. I felt a crawling sensation at the back of my neck.

I wasn’t the only one with the creeps. Murmurs passed among the other reporters like a spreading epidemic. Nobody had expected anything so sinister. The terse public information e-mail hadn’t even vaguely hinted at this. A minute before, the video cameras and sound booms of the two TV crews had seemed like two too many. But Kay had just reset all our thinking. Now, seasoned press people whispered like bad mannered schoolchildren. Smallpox wasn’t something you could mention without causing a stir.

Smallpox. I scribbled the word on my notepad and noticed I had written it twice.”

The Jihad Virus is available in all the usual ebook forms, and as a paperback too. Look for it at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, Kobo, iTunes, and other formats. Some of these distributers have yet to list the new book, and some only list copies of the ten-year-old, out-of-print paperback edition. I’d recommend getting the new version, which I have laboriously brought up to my current writing standards, although the old paperback is basically the same story–just sometimes collector-edition priced. The new paperback version is already available from Amazon and should be available from Barnes & Noble soon.

Posted in Author, Peyton McKean | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off