Happy Ishtar, er, Eostre, er, Easter!

IshtarHappy bunny-and-egg day! Whatever you call it, this is a fun day, and a great time of year. Our American manifestation of this ancient and primordial feast day puts the emphasis on fun, as it should. Chocolate bunnies, colored eggs, excited kids, getting outdoors, parades, family get-togethers–all sorts of enjoyment of the season of the renewal of life!

Like many another holiday, this one has a long history. 4,500 years ago, when the pyramids were being built, ancient Egyptians celebrated the bursting-forth of crops from the ground with feasts. To this day, both Coptic Christians and Muslims in Cairo still mark the day, although now they celebrate with dyed hard-boiled eggs and chocolate bunnies. It’s said that it becomes all-but-impossible to find white eggs in the markets, at any price.

I turned up this information while researching my current in-progress novel, The Jihad Virus, in which one of the protagonists is a half-Copt, half-Muslim woman, Jameela Noori. More about her in another post, but right now there’s more to tell about Easter.

The Copts, of course, celebrate the classic Easter, with the death and resurrection of Jesus taking the place of the ancient fertility celebration of pagan times. The Muslims, whose religion frowns on images of martyred prophets, bunnies, or chicks, instead celebrate a day of “taking the air,” or “smelling the breezes,” on which, after feasting on colored eggs, people dress nicely and go out into the fresh spring air for a stroll about the neighborhood. A bit like the Easter Parade, no?

EostreThe Pharaonic origins of the festival are lost, but other cultures have retained some bits and pieces. The image above is of Ishtar, the 4,000 year-old Mesopotamian goddess of fertility. The image at right shows Eostre, the Germanic tribal version of the goddess of springtime and fecundity, with her bunny and birdy helpers.

So there you have it, the originators of today’s celebrations, in their different ethnic guises. Scholars of antiquities still debate the connections, but I rather like it all. Ishtar–Eostre–Easter. Fertility. Rebirth. The celebration is about as universal as it can be.

Pass the egg basket, please. Now, where did I hide that chocolate bunny?

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The Jihad Virus Under Re-Construction

The Jihad Virus coverNext up, another Peyton McKean medical thriller. Actually, this was my first thriller, published ten years ago. I’m revamping it a little to bring the writing style up-to-date and to adjust the timeframe to modern realities like Osama bin Laden’s death and other global changes.

Nonetheless, the story remains the same. Terrorists have crossed the border from Canada into the US, and the only clue is a Customs agent who comes down with smallpox. Not just any old strain of smallpox, mind you, but something new and deadly.

Call in Dr. Peyton McKean, “The Greatest Mind Since Sherlock Holmes.” Maybe he can trace the lethal microbe’s whereabouts and create a vaccine to contain it, before it breaks out into a plague the likes of which have not been seen since the Middle Ages.

I’ve begun a revision of the manuscript in anticipation of releasing the novel as an ebook and paperback sometime within the next several months.

Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, if you’re itching to get your hands on a Peyton McKean thriller, try The Neah Virus, already available in ebook and paperback formats.

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Hatching Alamosaurus–Published!

Alamosaurs!My “Dinosaur Tales” short stories are intended to give readers a wild adventure ride, as well as a close-up look at one or another species of dinosaur. Each new tale (tail?) is its own challenge to write. How do I keep the young hero couple, Kit Daniels and Chase Armstrong, in nearly constant motion, while pausing now and then to just take a look in wonder at the most spectacular creatures the world has ever seen?

Readers who follow Kit and Chase’s misadventures will get the latest update on their budding romance here, and readers who follow dinosaur science will find some brand new ideas about the fabulous Alamosaurus.

This time around, a herd of these long-necked sauropod dinosaurs have started their annual migration to their nesting grounds. Unfortunately, in the 65 million years since they last tried this, our world has changed. There are highways and bridges and towns and people all along their migration path, and that spells trouble for humans and dinosaurs alike.

While the action makes for a fun read, I’m particularly proud of the effort I put into bringing the largest animals ever to walk the earth into clearer focus than most people have ever seen. Take a good look at the cover. Click it for a close-up. It’s an original piece of artwork, as are all the covers of my books and stories. I’m not a particularly talented artist, but after struggling with this one over a period of months, the big beasties are portrayed as they have never been seen before.

Until I wrote about it in this story, and painted it on the cover, no one–not fiction writer, not scientist–had ever portrayed a sauropod settling down on its nest. The conventional thinking was that they were just too big. But when I studied films of elephants as models for the picture, it became clear that even huge animals can lie down gently.

So there you have it. The first-ever images of sauropod parents “nestling” down on their eggs and hatchlings. Inside the pages, readers will watch alamosaurs feeding their newborns with the biggest piles of barf the world has ever seen, and see them defend their babes against predators. Just how efficient a weapon is that long, bullwhip tail, anyway?

But lest you think this is all a long boring science lecture, think again. What happens if you go kayaking alongside these giants in a river? Might any trouble come of that? What if someone were to buzz them on a jet ski?

I won’t spoil the plot by telling you what happens, but here’s a hint–the action is almost non-stop. Kit and Chase have long since learned that there is no way to mix it up with dinosaurs without putting your life on the line. Fortunately for readers’ peace of mind, their dinosaur-management skills have improved greatly. And they don’t scare easily, anymore.

Hatching Alamosaurus is available from all the usual ebook sources. You can find it at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, iTunes, Sony Reader, Kobo, Smashwords, and any more.

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Alamosaurus cover art image

Nesting AlamosaursWhen I set out to create a cover for my new short story, “Hatching Alamosaurus,” I had no idea how things would turn out. Now that the job is finally done, I’m actually quite pleased. These big beasties essentially combine a giraffe’s neck with an elephant’s body and an iguana’s tail, so I developed my portrayal by cutting and pasting photos of those three creatures together to arrive at a composite image of Alamosaurus. By doing so, I think I may have come upon a few new concepts about how these majestic beasts looked and behaved. Click for a closer image and have a detailed look around. While you’re at it, notice the heroes of the story, Kit Daniels and Chase Armstrong, who wisely brought Chase’s tranquilizer-dart rifle as they stroll too close to these temperamental animals.

Every schoolchild learns about long-necked sauropod dinosaurs like brontosaurus, apatosaurus, brachiosaurus, and on and on. Paleontologists have dug up the bones of dozens of species all over the world. Of course, sauropods are extinct now, so scientists are left with only speculations as to how they looked and behaved. And I think they may have gotten a few things wrong.

Sauropod lipsLipless wondersFor instance, compare the giraffe-based head of my Alamosaurus to the view recently painted by Mike Skrepnick of a related species, Abydosaurus. I’m not knocking Mike’s interpretation, with bare rows of teeth and lizard eyes sunk in their sockets. That’s generally the way dinosaur experts have chosen to represent these creatures. But while working with giraffe head images, I realized there was no reason why the dinosaurian equivalent could not have had lips and a tongue with which to nibble tree branches and leaves, and eyes that stick out like giraffe eyes to better see the world around them. So I left those giraffe features on my creatures, and I think they look pretty believable. Again, click for some close-up comparisons.

Here are a couple of interesting facts: fossilized tracks have shown that sauropods traveled in herds of young and old alike; fossilized nests have shown the eggs were laid in double rows in long, narrow foot-scrapes; bone cross-sections have shown the animals grew incredibly fast, reaching giant sizes in just a few years. Beyond that, all is speculation. The prevailing theory is that the nests were covered with sand and left to hatch on their own, following the sea-turtle model. Well, I disagree.

How could baby sauropods grow so fast, unless they were cared for and fed by their parents? So I decided to do what nobody else seems to have done before me–I decided to paint some images of Alamosaurus lying down on its nest to cover and incubate its eggs and babies the way modern birds do.

Careful! Fragile eggs!That’s a tough proposition. Most scientists feel that the largest creatures ever to stride the earth could not possibly have lain down over their nests without either injuring themselves, or crushing their eggs and babies. But I was undaunted.

I found some film of an elephant at a zoo lying down. It was clear that a stupendously big beast was quite capable of settling down gingerly onto the ground. So I used several stop frames of that film, and the bodies and legs you see in the cover painting are of that one elephant in various stages of “getting down.” At the rear-center of the painting, it was walking. At right-rear, it had squatted onto its left thigh. At center, it was gingerly walking its two front feet forward to get its elbows down. At left, it was fully settled on the ground. I simply added a couple of long nests to the scene to complete the depiction of mighty Alamosaurus parents gently covering their nests. And, oh, while I was at it, I put in a row of hatchlings following one mom as she walks along. Rather like ducklings, no?

Finally, the tails of sauropods have been proposed as nasty bullwhip weapons for fending off predators. To get the right effect, I gathered some images of iguana tails and pasted them onto my composite beasts and viola! giraffe-elephant-lizard dinosaurs!

I then hit the publish button on my computer, and the story is already available at Amazon and Smashwords. It ought to show up at all the other ebook sellers in the next week or two. I’ll make a formal announcement soon.

Meanwhile, I’ll leave it to the public, and the dinosaur experts, to decide if they prefer my new model for sauropod looks and doings, or if they prefer the old, bare-toothed, sunken-eyed, baby-abandoning model. It’s not for me to say. But I’ve done my best to give the big beasties a make-over.

I hope you like it.

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The Mario Kart School of Driving

What'sa wronga fo' you?!“Where’d you learn to drive? Mario Kart?”

Freeways are getting worse, have you noticed? There are lots of reasons, but I’ve singled out one particular type of driver for today’s sermon–the “Mario.”

You know this type of driver. What you may not have noticed, is how much of his or her rudeness and rage comes from the primary training ground most kids attend these days: The Mario Kart School of Driving.

Watch kids play their Nintendo games and see if I’m not right. Cutting people off for sport, rushing to get ahead of the other guy, tallying up points for being aggressive. After kids do this for ten years or so, they graduate up to the real thing–and I don’t mean Championship Mario. I mean, your local freeway.

When I’m out there on today’s roads, I see some things I had never noticed before. I’m an older, wise driver. You don’t get a lot past me. I’ve seen every stunt imaginable, all across this nation and in a couple of others.

Hah Ha!Here’s the worst thing Mario-schooled drivers do: when you put on your blinker to change lanes, they SPEED UP to close you off and not let you in. I can recall a time when a blinker caused you to SLOW DOWN, to politely allow that driver to change lanes. Those were the good old days.

In reaction, many drivers just don’t signal, or they signal and swoop into the lane so quickly a Mario driver doesn’t have time to head them off. That makes them a kind of “Mario,” too. And it makes for some downright reckless lane changes.

And don’t think I don’t see you or know what you’re up to, Mario drivers. An old hand like me can see when you floor it to rush up and close the gap, because the hood of your car rises as you accelerate, just as–in the good old days–it would go down slightly as you braked to kindly let me in. So, I know you’re flooring it when you see my signal. That’s why signaling has become, er, optional for some of us, sometimes.

And I won’t even get into what State Patrollers call “zipperheads,” other than to say they move through traffic in the shape of a zipper, changing lanes super-frequently to pass people on the left, then right, then left.

But here’s what I’m saying. It’s not okay. It’s not just a game. Don’t believe me? Here’s a little cautionary tale.

I came on the I-5 freeway entrance at Snoqualmie Pass, with the highway covered in an inch or two of compacted snow and ice, with another inch of fresh snow on top. I accelerated along the on ramp, and as I joined traffic I saw two big semi trucks approaching me from behind. There was plenty of room between them for a safe merge, and I moved smoothly for that point, matching their speed, about 40 mph (remember, it was snowing). The merge would have gone down fine, except the second trucker decided to do a Mario. He hit the gas–and I knew it, because the hood of his truck tractor rose up. He came on like gangbusters, rushing up to close the gap so fast he almost rear-ended the truck in front of him.

Now, at 40 mph on snow and ice, I suddenly had a bit of a problem–staying alive, that is! As the merge lane went away, I had nowhere to go but onto the shoulder, which was piled up with snow. If I had hit the brakes, they probably still would be using the jaws of life to cut me out from under that second truck. But I didn’t panic. I held the wheel smooth and let off the gas and coasted to a slow speed, while the triumphant second trucker roared past.

I got back on the road and went on my way, passing the trucks later with not so much as a hand gesture.

My point is obvious, right? Mario drivers can potentially get people killed, and probably have. I was really shocked that a professional driver like a trucker would do something so juvenile. But there he was: Mario in a Mack.

Anyway. All that said, I’d like to enter a couple of new terms into the modern dictionary:

To “Rush up,” meaning to deliberately accelerate to close a gap another driver wants to lane-change into.

To “Mario” or, to “Do a Mario,” to engage in dangerous driving essentially for the sport of it, as if to win points for getting ahead or cutting the other guy off.

Those are both verbs. Here’s a noun:

“Mario,” defined as the driver who behaves as I’ve described above, playing the highway like a game.

Let me use that last one in a sentence. “Hey Mario! Where’d you learn to drive?”

Finally, here’s some extra credit reading, in which a scientific study showed that people got more prone to violence playing Mario Kart than playing shooter games.

I believe it.

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Hatching a new story

NemegtoSkullI’m right on the brink of releasing the next short story in my “Dinosaur Tales” series, which continues the storyline I originated in my “Dinosaur Wars” novel trilogy. I wrote it under the tentative name, “Hatching Alamosaurus,” and that name seems to have stuck.

This one is going to be especially fun. It gets my favorite combination of plots and subplots cooking pretty hot. There’s adventure, if dodging the trampling feet of the biggest creatures to ever stride the earth is your idea of a good time. There’s light romance, for those who have followed the hero, Chase Armstrong, and heroine, Kit Daniels, throughout their previous amorous misadventures. And–as always–I sneak a little scientific information into the mix, for those who want to learn something new about the marvelous beasts that foraged, fought, and nested in North America 65 million years ago.

I won’t spoil the plot by explaining the life-or-death experiences Kit and Chase seem to run into everywhere they go in a world where dinosaurs have returned. And I won’t spoil the romance by telling what the latest twist is. Suffice it to say this story takes place immediately after the end of book three of the trilogy. And, as those who read Blood On The Moon will recall, the very last page has the word “proposal” on it.

Meanwhile, I’ve done my best to portray the remarkable lives of the huge long-necked sauropod dinosaurs as they migrate, fight to protect their young, browse among the treetops, and generally have a good old dinosaurian time of it. In attendance and taking notes is comical Dr. Ogilvey, the paleontologist who seems to have a theory for every aspect of dinosaurian size, shape, and behavior. And along for the ride is the adventurers’ human-sized, intelligent dinosaur friend, Gar, the Kra.

TekisonCreek copyI promise, never a dull moment. Once I release this one in a week or two, you’ll be alternately amused, shocked, tickled, and intrigued by this mix of huge dinosaurs and intrepid people, who all gather on the shoreline of the mighty Columbia River at the nesting grounds of the biggest creature that ever had to figure out how to settle down on a nest of fragile eggs.

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The Ignimbrites of Mars

impact sinterI’m here to propose a new type of rock. Martian ignimbrite. Or call it impact sinter. Same thing.

Huh? You say.

The Mars rover Curiosity has passed by some pretty interesting outcrops of rocks as it rolls along, and nobody seems to quite know what they are, so I’ll go ahead and give it a try. After all, I got a B in second-year geology for majors at the University of Washington a couple decades ago. That ought to qualify me.

Bungled call?

Look at the images above. Click them for better views. Curiosity snapped them a week or two ago while just passing by. And Curiosity had already passed by a couple more of these low outcrops along her way to this one. The scientists in charge suggested they were “conglomerate” rocks, which here on earth are normally found where rivers once laid down a mix of rocks and sand that later hardened into a type of stone that is itself made up of stones. Cool stuff.

When they saw these layers of lumpy stone on Mars, they cried, “Aha! Conglomerate!” and went on to postulate that ancient rivers and floods on a warmer and wetter Mars had delivered these fields of stones into the bottom of Gale Crater, where they solidified into conglomerates over a billion years or so.

Well, I don’t think so. I think the lumpy stone is not a conglomerate, at least not like anything here on earth.

Heat-fused stoneHow about this for an alternative: impact sinter. Suppose a major asteroid impact hit somewhere in the area of Gale Crater, long after Gale had formed. Suppose material thrown out by the new impact blanketed the floor of Gale Crater. What would you expect to see. Rocks and boulders? Sure. They would be tossed out by the megaton and land in Gale Crater. Sand and dust? Sure. Those too would be blown out of the impact site, the result of the impacting meteor pulverizing much of the rock it collided with. But what else?

How about gravel-sized chunks, say, the size of the lumps and bumps seen in the rover’s photo of the “conglomerate”? A lot of gravel ought to have landed in Gale, along with the boulders and dust. But is it that simple? Should we just look for gravel? Heck, there’s plenty of it there, all around Curiosity.

But a large-scale meteor would generate more than boulders, gravel, sand, and dust when it slammed into Mars. It would generate heat, and a lot of it. Scientific calculations of good-sized impacts suggest stupendous explosions at the impact point, generating white-hot heat on the magnitude of an atom bomb blast. Wow!

So, as that gravel was flying out of the new hole in Mars, and traveling to lay down a blanket of rubble across Gale Crater, it was also being heated hot enough to melt the rock, and even vaporize some of the solid stone. What landed in Gale, then, was an incandescent, glowing layer of rocks, sand, and dust with a few boulders in the mix.

After some time, the heat would dissipate and the rocks would cool. But the end result of the process would be a blanket of rocks that had stuck to one another by via their surface coatings of melted stone, in a matrix of melted-together sand and dust particles. And that would yield the conglomerate-like rocks Curiosity has been seeing.

Earthly ignimbriteSo. No water needed. Sorry rover scientists. I think you missed that call. The layers of chunky stone you have been seeing are the product of white-hot heat, not flowing water. It’s understandable, your missing this one. There are no such rocks on earth. They’ve long since been weathered away or destroyed by other geological processes. The only sintered rocks we see these days are hardened volcanic ash layers, like the one at right. Rather meek and mild-mannered, compared to the gnarly rocks Curiosity has been photographing.

Now, I know I’m not a planetary scientist, just a fellow with a pretty good record of scientific experiments and observations. So, maybe I’m not qualified to prove anybody’s geological theory right or wrong. But give this one some more thought, won’t you, rocket scientists?

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Rocking with The Beaters

Meet the BeatersTonight is the night! The Beaters and I will be rocking Bad Albert’s in Ballard with our unique brand of hard-hitting rock’n’roll’n’rhythm’n’blues music. If you’re in the area, come on down. 5100 Ballard Ave NW, Seattle, Washington.

Tonight we’re lining up all our best Beatles songs for a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the British Invasion. We were all kids back then, and I went to both Seattle Beatles concerts. Pandemonium.

Beatin' itI’ve been rocking and rolling with The Beaters for 30 years now, and we still know how to generate a little pandemonium of our own. Got things pretty well-honed to a fine edge. We do covers of The Doors, Temptations, Stray Cats, Beatles, and even a few of our own.

We’ve been around the block, a few times, and played with a lot of other great musicians. Here’s a shot of us backing The Drifters a while back.

Driftin'One thing is true. We hit it hard and the crowds leave sweaty, tired, and satisfied. Come on down tonight, and see and hear for yourself.

If you’d like to know some more about me and the boys, you can check our blog, which is a bit out-of-date but has some MP3 recordings you can listen to, and some other stuff. Or go “like” our Facebook page. It’s more up-to-the-minute.

Yarrrgh!See you tonight?

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My Alma Mater Likes Me

WSHSIt’s one of those proud-and-humbled-at-the-same-time experiences. The Alumni Association of West Seattle High School just got in touch with me. They want to hang my picture on their Hall of Fame wall at the school. Well, gee, yeah, okay.

Now, I’m not actually too prone to humility. But when I browsed the resumes of other folks on that wall, it was an exercise in how to feel humble. My mugshot is going to hang alongside some pretty illustrious company: Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit Mt. Everest; a long list of multi-medaled war heroes and military leaders; notable politicians; world-renowned poets; humanitarians.

It all serves to make me really grateful to those who nominated me and those who chose me over other deserving souls. Wow. I’d better take some time and carefully draft the one-page resume they want. It’ll be hard to match the accomplishments of my company on that wall.

West Seattle High SchoolDon’t worry though. I’ll come up with something. Maybe my genetic engineering tool, a molecular handle, that’s used in labs worldwide to study plagues of mankind from AIDS, to drugs, to cancer and infectious diseases. Maybe my list of biotechnology patents and record of discoveries that made an $11 billion company out of Seattle’s Immunex Corporation and led to the blockbuster arthritis drug, Enbrel. Maybe my four science fiction and medical thriller novels. Or maybe even digging up bones of dinosaur families with the world’s top paleontologists.

I’ll think of some good ones. Still, there will be some head shots up there who outclass my best. That’s good. I can always stop by and read them, whenever I feel I need a little humbling. What have I got to compare to Ivar Haglund, who created the best fish’n’chips recipe on the planet, or Art Oberto, who practically invented beef jerky?

Thanks West Seattle. You are the navel of the universe.

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The News from Ketchum

Cold and sunnyIt’s COLD here in Ketchum, Idaho. Record-settingly so. You’d have to be nuts to go skiing when the thermometer drops below zero (and I don’t mean centigrade). So I guess that makes me, um, er, well, we all knew that already anyway.

I don’t know how many layers of clothing I’ve been wearing. About a half dozen, maybe? And well, let’s see. One, two, three, four, five, –six little hotties.

Still chilled to the bone after riding those chairlifts. But the powder snow has been fantastic. Just a few inches every day, but mounting up to a foot or so. And the sun has broken through the clouds from time to time, as promised here in Sun Valley.

Wanna lift?Just looked out the window of our condo unit. About a foot of fresh powder overnight.

Gotta go.

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