Friday, October 24, 2014

Paleontology Without Dinosaurs

In the fossil world, T. rex is Elvis.  He's the King.  Everybody knows him, and when the subject comes up, he's the one everyone thinks of first.

Something very similar happens with the Mesozoic.  That's the era lasting roughly from 250 to 65 mya, during which dinosaurs arose, thrived, and fell into extinction.  But there's a lot of interesting prehistory, On Beyond Elvis.  There's the Eoarchean Era, when life (probably)arose on Earth.  Or the early Cambrian when life ceased being a relatively placid process and abruptly got funky with armor, claws, and myriad offensive and defensive armaments.

And there's the Eocene Epoch, late in the Cenozoic Era.  Recently I visited the Florissant Fossil Beds National monument which preserves an astonishing assemblage of fossils and microfossils from 34 million years ago.  The fossilized redwood stumps are enormous, but most of the fossils are very small -- hickory leaves, mayflies, spiders and the like.  Many of which are still around.  So it's not as sexy a time as the Cretaceous.  But collectively, the fossils offer a finely grained glimpse into the distant past, and can tell us a great deal about the evolution of life on our planet.  They're not tourist bait, the way Rexie is.  But for those of us who love science, it is genuinely fascinating.

The crown jewel of the collection is a beautifully detailed tsetse fly.  It is the only fossil tsetse fly ever found.  And it was found not in Africa, but in Colorado.


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

MileHighCon -- Friday!

I'm still on the road and suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous motor inn Wi-Fi.  My theory is that travelers are using the Web more and more but that the hotels and motels are reluctant to upgrade their systems because 1) it's expensive, and 2) they figure that, like everything else electronic, it's going to be obsolete soon anyway, so why waste the money?

But I want to remind everybody that MileHighCon, the Rocky Mountains' premiere fantasy and science fiction literary convention, begins Friday.   I'll be there, I'll be interviewing Phil and Kaja Foglio about plot, and I'll be electrifying a pickle.  It'll be fun.

If you're going to be there, feel free to say hello.  That's what I'm there for, after all.  Theoretically, all the guests of honor are a draw not only because you'll get to see and hear them but because you might meet them as well.  So why not meet us?

And speaking of the Florissant Fossil Beds . . .

Yesterday, I was at the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument.  It's the dinosaur fossils that draw all the attention, but there's more to the history of life than just the Mesozoic.  The Florissant fossils come from the late Eocene, 35 million years ago and are a fascinating mixture of the huge -- there are several fossilized sequoia stumps on outdoor display -- and the small and delicate.  In the information   center are displayed shall fossils of leaves, insects, and even (I kid you not) fish vomit.  These finely detailed traces of various organisms can tell us a great deal about life then.

My favorite fossil?  The twelve-year-old boy in me likes the fish vomit, of course.  But the aesthete loves the finely-detailed fly (ten percent of all the thousands of fossils found are of near-perfect quality).  And the science geek really likes the fossil tsetse fly.  This is the only fossil of this organism ever found, and it was located far, far, far from its current African habitat.


Monday, October 20, 2014

Fraud and Dinosaurs

Yesterday, Marianne and I stopped by the Moenkopi Dinosaur Tracks in Tuba City, Arizona.  The experience combined two of my favorite interest:  paleontology and fraud.  Here's how it went:

We drove up to the shabby little stands at the site, and were greeted by an old Navajo woman who offered to show us the tracks.  There was a sign saying that tours were free but donations were accepted.  She led us out on the rock, which had an impressive number of very real dinosaur tracks.  I've seen enough to be sure of this.  "These are three million years old," she said.

The woman carried a water bottle and squirted water into the tracks to make them stand out.  "These are the tiniest tracks," she said. "I think it was a baby."  Then, a ways further, "these are T. rex footprints."

The last dinosaur died 65 million years ago.  And if you look up the site online, you'll find that the dried mud turned to rock long, long before the advent of the tyrannosaur.  (They'll also tell you what dinosaurs "really" left the prints, but don't you believe them.  In the absence of any dino tracks ending in a set of bones, no dinosaur tracks have been connected to their species.  Those are just guesses.). From these facts, I gather that she had no real interest in dinosaurs other than as a source of income.  Otherwise, she'd have learned more.

But now came the fun stuff.  She showed us rocks she said were dinosaur bones. "These are the eyes," she said, squirting water into erosions, "and the nose here. We didn't know this until a few years ago a man came and told us about them."    She showed us round stoned embedded in the rock.  "These are the eggs."  Then some rounded rocks.  "Dino poo."

My heart went out to this woman.  She was working hard.  She had no idea how little of what she said I believed.  She was doing no harm at all.  At the end of the tour, she brought us back to the stand and told us she had made all the jewelry for sale there herself.

It's possible I gave her too large a tip.  But that combination of rascality and innocence is all too rare in this world.  Also, I wanted to do my little bit to impress upon their self-appointed guardians that the fossils were valuable.

As a source of income, if nothing else.

And remember . . .

MileHiCon is this weekend.  It's going to be fun!  The Foglios will be there!  I'm going to electrify a pickle!

Be there or be square.  If you can, of course.


Friday, October 17, 2014

What I'm Up To, I Think

Marianne and I arrived in Denver Tuesday, jumped in a rental car, and made a mad dash for the Grand Canyon.  We could have made it in two days if we weren't  so distractible, so prone to side-trips and stopping by the side of the road for no better reason than to breathe the air of a new state.  Yesterday, we went hours out of our way to see Monument Valley, and though we arrived late at our hotel, we were glad of it.

Decades ago, when I had two or three or five stories published, Jack Dann breezed into Philadelphia, as was his wont from time to time back then.  He asked me how my writing was going and I had to tell him it was at a standstill.  "I don't have any ideas for new fiction," I said.  Then I begged him to tell me what to do."

"You're empty," he said.  "Fill yourself up.  Read, take on new experiences, learn.  When you're full again, you'll start writing again.'

And I did.

Since then, I have never stopped writing again, because I'm always full of new stuff.  And I'm always full of new stuff because I'm always out looking for it.

Hence, this trip.

I am not, however, fool enough to try to declare it as a business expense on my taxes.


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Crossing Lines


Today I crossed the Continental Divide for the first time on foot.  I'd crossed it from the air many times, of course, but that' not the same thing.  It's statistical, like knowing that sometime in the past year you must have had a birthday as opposed  to it being -- hurrah! -- today.

The experience put me in mind of Russia.  A few miles outside of Ekaterinburg (Sverdlovsk Oblast, two time zones east of Moscow), I visited the monument marking the line dividing Asia from Europe.  Physically, that's not a very important distinction, of course, because it's  only politically and culturally that Europe and Asia are two different continents.  But emotionally...   So much history was tied up in the awareness of that line that to delineate even a fraction of it would require a book.  Also, I was there with Russian fans from both sides of the line, so it was a meaningful event for me.

Similarly, when I straddled the Zero Meridian in Greenwich, England, that was a moving experience, too.  It was scientific history that was being celebrated then -- the Greenwich Observatory got to define longitude as starting from their doorstep simply because they were the first people with the intellectual clout to simply do so.

All three lines matter only to human beings.  Little does a bird or a chipmunk care if it's on one side or the other, so long as there's something to eat close at hand.  A raindrop might care about the Continental Divide because which side it landed on would determine -- long, long time later -- whether it ended up in the Atlantic or the Pacific.    But to say that it did would be to engage in the pathetic fallacy:  things don't feel emotions, and won't until we get AIs up and running, and possibly even then.

So it was a great moment and a peculiarly human one for me.  I look forward to more such bursts of joy as I move into the future, crossing more lines.


Monday, October 13, 2014

Forgotten Writers: Charles S. Brooks


One of my guilty pleasures -- after literary criticism -- is belletristic essays.  A slim volume with an unlikely title calls to me from a bookstore shelf, I open it despite the unfamiliar name, check the price, and...

Well, for two dollars, why not?

This is how I came across Charles S. Brooks, a writer so obscure there is no Wikipedia entry on him. From descriptions gleaned from ABEbooks, I determined that he graduated from Yale in 1900 and subsequently went to work at his father's printing business.  On the side, he wrote essays, short plays, a novel or two.  By testimony of his essays, he was a bookish man, though hardly of elevated tastes (of War and Peace, he wrote, "I read it once when I was ill and I nearly died of it").  He was blatantly  in love with words.

The book I found was Journeys to Bagdad.  Having read through its essays, I can safely say the man had stuff.  Every sentence, taken by itself, is beautifully written.  He clearly put his heart into his work.

Here are a few samples chosen, believe it or not, at random:

To me it is strange that so few people go down rabbit-holes.

In old literature life was compared to a journey, and wise men rejoiced to question old men because, like travelers, they knew the sloughs and roughnesses of the long road.

Though science lay me by the heels, I'll assert that the crocus, which is a pioneer on the windy borderland of March, would not show its head except on the sounding of the hurdy-gurdy.

Yesterday I was on the roof with the tinman.

Anyone who can write such sentences is my brother, come what may.

Alas, the essays have not aged well.  "The Worst Edition of Shakespeare" will do to explain why.  It begins with an account of going to the circus with a young relative, segues into a description of how essays should open, mentions John Bell's 1774 edition of Shakespeare, goes on to describe the contents of Brooks' bookshelves in whimsical terms, comes to the matter with the discovery that that Bell's edition is badly regarded, and then after some verbal didos, gets down to business:  Bell assembled his Shakespeare from acting copies of the plays as they were currently being performed. Cuts and all.

This is interesting.  As are Brooks' remarks on Bell's commentary.  Did you know that in 1774, a proper young woman would never use the word "blanket" in mixed company?  Neither did I.  It was a bedroom word, and thus Bell deplored Shakespear's putting the words "blanket of the dark" in Lady MacBeth's mouth.

But then, the essay moves on, to discuss the nature of gossip both literal and literary, and with a return to Brooks' anthropomorphized bookshelf, the essay ends.

The point I'm making is not that Brooks was a bad writer -- he was not-- but that he made what looked to be good choices at the time, and guessed wrong.

This can happen to anyone.  I am certain it has already happened to most of the writers I value.  I can only hope it hasn't happened to me.

To dedicate one's life to art is to take a leap in the dark.

You can find many of Brooks' books available free online.  Go and take a look.  De gustibus non disputandum.  I could be wrong.

And as always . . .

I'm on the road again.  Or will be.  Tomorrow, I leave for Colorado.  I'm to be a guest of honor at MileHiCon, the largest science fiction and fantasy literary convention in the Rocky Mountains region.  That's this October 24th through 26, but Marianne and I are going early so we can take in some of the splendor of the country thereabouts.

I'll be blogging as I can.  Most likely you'll notice no interruptions here.  But I can promise nothing.

You can find the MileHiCon site -- it looks like it's going to be a terrific con -- here.

Above:  One of many original wood-cuts in the book by Allen Lewis.  It really is a well-made object.  The publishers can't have guessed how thoroughly the man would disappear from the literary scene.


Friday, October 10, 2014

The Evolution of the Martini (Part 4)


The Dry Martini

The Twentieth Century was fast approaching and a new age required a new drink.  The Martini -- though not yet a drink you or I would acknowledge as such -- already existed.  Sweet vermouth had been replaced by dry vermouth.  And now, in a crucial step into the future, Old Tom Gin (a lovely tipple, but sweet) was replaced by London Gin.

This new drink was dubbed the Dry Martini.  Or perhaps we should say the "Dry" Martini.

Here's the recipe:

The Dry Martini
1 part London Gin
1 part Dry Vermouth
3 dashes Angostura Bitters
Shake over ice
Strain into cocktail glasses
Garnish with an olive or a lemon twist

Excitement was high at the American Martini Laboratory as this first true Martini was chilled, poured, and given its defining bit of fruity color.  We hoisted the glasses.  We toasted the occasion ("For Science!").  We tasted.  And...

The result was one wet mess.  This was a Martini mixed by your well-meaning teetotaler aunt on hearsay.  Chiefly, it was wet, wet, wet.  Which is to say that the vermouth, rather than modulating the flavor, dominated it.  Anyone who has ever drunk down a glass of dry vermouth (as I once did; out of politeness; and regretted it upon first sip; but I will spare you the story) will tell you that this is Not a Good Thing.

Luckily, there are those who will drink anything.  And bartenders who will tinker with that Anything hoping to make the best of a soggy drink.

At this stage of evolution, there was no indication that a Terrible Beauty was a-borning.  Nor how little change would be required to achieve it.

And for those who came in late . . .

Part 1:  Click here to discover the Ur-ancestor of the Martini.

Part 2:  Click here to witness the miracle that was the Martinez.

Part 3:  Click here to discover the first, not-entirely-convincing Martini.