Influential books and recommended reading

odyssey and iliadAlthough I have always loved to read, there are a few novels that are indelibly etched into my brain as exciting, thrilling, and thoroughly entertaining. Listed here are seven books that have had a profound impact on me as a reader and as a writer. I’ve listed them in chronological order as to the date when I first read each book.

Homer: The Iliad and Odyssey—Ever since I was old enough to read, I’ve enjoyed Greek and Norse mythology. The stories move and are packed with action and adventure, heroic deeds, and tragedy. By far my favorite is Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, relating the tales of Ulysses and other great heroes as they carry out the siege of Troy and then struggle to return home, having pissed-off the gods. A two volume hard-bound copy has a prominent location in my library.

rtt-usfirst-pbClive Cussler: Raise the Titanic—Anyone who has read my interview by Chris Graham knows that Clive Cussler was the first modern author who hooked me on the action-thriller genre. Raise the Titanic was the book, and I first read it in about 1980. Since that introduction to Dirk Pitt, I’ve read all his adventures, and I still enjoy Pitt’s wit and resourcefulness.

alpha deceptionJon Land: The Alpha Deception—Jon Land created a fascinating character named Blaine McCracken. Along with his trusty sidekick—Johnny Wareagle—McCracken led thrilling adventures against some really despicable antagonists. Darker than the Dirk Pitt series, but equally exciting, these novels added high-tech mystery to gun-blazing action.

Michael Crichton: Jurassic Park—A master at his craft, Crichton blended science fact with science fiction better than any other author. And Jurassic Park is the best example of a seamless merging of fact and fiction. The use of amphibian DNA to fill the gaps in the aged dinosaur DNA is simply brilliant, and forced me to research the science of DNA jurassic parkand cloning to understand what was real and what was speculation. With a fast pace and loads of cliffhangers, this is a must-read for any thriller fan.

Matthew Reilly: Ice Station—I was lured into Ice Station by the back-cover blurb, and quickly became a huge fan of Reilly. Ice Station is the first of the Scarecrow series, and marked a new sub-genre of action-thrillers for me—I call this the ultra-action thriller. This book is the prototypical example of the phrase “can’t put down.”

Matthew Reilly: Scarecrow—Once I became a fan of our ice stationleatherneck warrior, code name Scarecrow, I kept reading the series as fast as the books were released. Scarecrow makes my list of influential books in part due to the intense plot and non-stop action characteristic of the author, and in part due to the non-conventional way Reilly handles some of the main characters. I won’t say too much (no spoilers), but suffice it to say this is one damned good book and full of surprises.

scarecrowJames Rollins: Map of Bones—Another great franchise is the Sigma Force, with characters and stories from the imagination of James Rollins (pen name). Map of Bones is not the first Sigma Force novel, but it was the one that hooked me. To this day, Rollins’ writing of the Sigma Force novels has had more influence on my writing than any other single author.map of bones

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An interview with Commander James Nicolaou on the Ukraine-Russian conflict

With tension in Ukraine still very high, I am fortunate today to share this interview with Commander James Nicolaou, Strategic Global Intervention Team (SGIT).

Russian armored carriersQuestion: Thank you Commander for taking time from your busy schedule for this interview. What can you share with us about the full extent of Russian military involvement in Eastern Ukraine?

Commander Nicolaou: Well, to begin, let me point out the obvious—there is much information that I cannot share due to national security interests. However, as the international press has reported, a Russian military convoy numbering about two dozen armored vehicles—mostly armored personnel carriers—crossed the border and entered Ukraine sovereign territory two days ago. This is not new, and the Russian military has repeatedly violated the eastern border. For example, you may recall press photos of Russian surface-to-air missile launchers retreating back to Russian in the day following the downing of the Malaysian airliner. NATO has confirmed many of these illegal incursions into Ukraine. Following the most recent invasion of an armored Russian convoy, Ukrainian artillery shelled the convoy, destroying many of the vehicles and forcing the convoy to retreat.

Question: Do you believe that an invasion of Ukraine is imminent?Troops on border

Commander Nicolaou: That’s a difficult question to answer for the simple reason that we are dealing with the psychology of President Vladimir Putin. He is without doubt insecure, and he has a strong nationalist ideology. This is bolstered by a very high domestic approval rating topping 85%. Putin and many in his government covet the former Soviet Bloc countries of Eastern Europe. The sanctions imposed by European countries and the US have done little to put pressure on Putin or erode his support within Russia. Now consider that he has placed 20,000 troops on the border, plus he has sent smaller military units and equipment across the border regularly since the Crimea was unlawfully annexed by Russia, and I’d suggest there is only one conclusion that makes sense.

Question: Do you think that the Russian aid convoy is legitimate? That Russia genuinely wants to help achieve a peaceful resolution?

Commander Nicolaou: Look, the so-called aid convoy of about 200 trucks is manned by young men, all of fighting age. These young men have been photographed by international members of the press all wearing the same clothing, khaki shorts. The trucks are not fully loaded, which begs the question, why have so many partly filled tricks? And why do we not see a normal cross section of men and women of varying age if these are aid workers rather than soldiers? If President Putin truly wants to see a return of peace to the region, all he has to do is remove Russian military support and the rebels initiative will collapse. That he has not done so signals his intentions; take control of Eastern Ukraine—as he did the Crimean Peninsula—under false pretense of preventing harm to ethnic Russians.

Question: If the convoy is not to distribute humanitarian aid, why go to the trouble? What is the purpose of the convoy?

Commander Nicolaou: That’s a good question and one that the intelligence community has considered carefully. My own analysts at SGIT have put forward three reasons. Normally, I would not be allowed to go to this level of detail in a public briefing, but the military brass has made the decision that this is one case where secrecy is not helpful. Reason one—Russian is cultivating a public image of the peacemaker. Although this image does not sell to the general public in the US, it is appealing in many other countries, especially those that do not care much for the US. Reason two—intelligence. Driving a large convoy into Eastern Ukraine is a good cover for on-the-ground intelligence that would be extremely useful to the invasion force. And reason three—smuggling arms and ammunition into Ukraine for the benefit of the pro-Russian militia.

Question: Do you expect NATO to engage in any significant way if Russia does invade?

Commander Nicolaou: I really can’t speculate on what military response might be forthcoming from NATO. But I will remind you that Ukraine is not a member of NATO, thus there is no treaty obligation on the part of Europe and the US to offer military support.

Question: It sounds like this would be an ideal mission for Special Forces. Any expectation that SGIT will be on the ground in Eastern Ukraine.

Commander Nicolaou: Again, I can’t answer that.

Question: I understand. Thank you Commander, for sharing your insight.

Commander Nicolaou: Certainly. Thank you.

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Author reading from Crossing Savage

Planning to be in Bend, Oregon on Sunday August 10? I’ll be reading a passage from Crossing Savage at the Know Your Local Authors event, sponsored by the Deschutes County Library System.

Celebrate local writers at the Downtown Bend Public Library at Second Sunday on August 10, 2014 at 2:00 pm. The event is free and open to the public and will feature 13 of Central Oregon’s finest local authors. Books will be available for sale before and after the event.

Hope to see you there!

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It’s time to take a stance, or admit we don’t give a damn.

RUSSIA-US-POLITICS-DIPLOMACY-JUSTICE-MAGNITSKYIn the days since Malaysian Airline Flight 17 was shot down over Eastern Ukraine, we have witnessed Western Governments express moral outrage, and families of those murdered publicly convey their grief. We have stood by while the pro-Russian militia—acting like drunken thugs—delayed international inspection teams, delayed removal of the bodies, and apparently looted any personal belongings of value.

What we have not seen is a public expression of outrage from Russia or, more correctly, from Vladimir Putin (since his will is Russian foreign policy). We have not heard Putin demand that the pro-Russian militia cease using surface to air missiles of the type used to down MH17. In fact, only days later the militia used surface to air missiles to shoot down two Ukrainian military aircraft, and they had previously shot down a Ukrainian transport plane.

Putin has publicly stated that Russia has the right to directly and indirectly defend ethnic Russians living in other sovereign countries, whether or not they are in fact Russian citizens. No doubt this sells well to the homeland, but it cannot be taken seriously. Think about it. If this position justified military intervention, the world would dissolve into total anarchy overnight.

The tragedy of MH17 goes beyond the 298 murdered civilians—it includes the lack of Western Governments to hold Putin and Russia accountable. The cover story in the August 4, 2014 issue of Time Magazine (Cold War II, by Simon Shuster) says it well in reporting President Obama’s July 21 statement that the least Putin could do is exert his influence on the militia to cooperate with the investigation: “The least Putin could do was the most Obama could ask for.” And European leaders have done no better. Following the MH17 tragedy France announced that would proceed with selling a warship to Russia, and Italy has lead the resistance to further sanctions against Russia.

The message to Putin from both the US and Europe is “Please don’t do that again.” For a nationalistic leader like Putin, who enjoys an 86% approval rating at home, why should he care what Europe and the US want? Indeed, Putin has made it clear that his goal is a greater Russia (read this to mean territory and influence).

Having already annexed the Crimean Peninsula, formerly a portion of Ukraine, President Putin is poised to invade Eastern Ukraine, probably on the pretense of protecting ethnic Russians who are citizens of Ukraine. Putin has made it absolutely clear that he is not concerned that it was the pro-Russian militia he has trained and armed that murdered 298 civilians.

I grieve with the families of the victims, and I find the rhetoric of moral outrage and condemnation coming from the European leaders phony. Europe does not want to upset trade with Russia (including energy imports from Russia). So Putin may annex and invade sovereign nations on the thinnest of pretense, and provide weapons and training that allows his proxy militia to shoot down a civilian airplane, all with impunity.

It is time for Europe’s leaders to put up or shut up. If they do not want to take a stance against Russian aggression, then they need to say so and stop with the cheap stage acts. On the other hand, if they want to make it clear that this aggression will not be tolerated, the course is simple. With UN backing send ground troops with all necessary support into Ukraine to destroy the surface to air missiles and secure the border with Russia. Anything less is telling Putin he is free to continue this lawless path to a greater Russia.

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The tragedy of MH17—What should we do? What can we do?

MH17 militiamanMany reviewers of Crossing Savage point to the similarities between the fictional plot and the conflict in Ukraine. I was discussing this question two days ago during an interview for KWCC (Wenatchee, WA)—three hours later I heard the news that flight MH17 had been downed over Eastern Ukraine. It is all but certain that the civilian airliner with 298 passengers was shot down by an advanced Russian radar-guided missile. What is less certain is whether the pro-Russian militia acted alone or if their deed was enabled by direct actions from the Russian military.Russian AA battery

Until now, the heavy fighting has been confined to the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Vladimir Putin argues that Russian is justified to defend ethnic Russians residing in Ukraine, using direct and indirect means. Putin has taken the extraordinary steps of annexing the Crimean Peninsula; Eastern Ukraine is likely next. With Europe receiving more than a third of its natural gas from Russia, the EU has little real leverage to stop Russian aggression. And the US has no appetite to enter a new conflict in Europe as we are winding down our wars in the Middle East.

Putin has read the tealeaves with skill. Nevertheless, there are significant actions the US and the EU should pursue.MH17 personal effects

  1. Europe should offer military support, especially ground troops, to Ukraine to bring an end to the militias and destroy their surface to air missiles. The UN must support this goal and means. Once done, the border crossings with Russia need to be secured and monitored by the UN to halt unchecked (and undocumented) transfer of weapons and soldiers.
  2. The US must accelerate export of LNG and, if necessary, oil to Europe in order to free Europe from dependence on Russian energy resources. This will require intense political support from both parties, but it is necessary.
  3. Washington needs to adopt a long-term energy plan (as in decades long) that speaks to the national interests of the US. How does this happen with the least productive Congress in decades? That responsibility falls on our shoulders, the voters. Until we hold our elected representatives responsible for conducting the business of the Nation, in the best interest of the Nation, nothing will change for the better.

MH17 memorialIt remains to be seen if European leaders have the resolve to stand up to Putin and the atrocities committed by the pro-Russian militias acting as proxy armies of the Russian Federation. If they do it will be painful, but the murdered crew and passengers on MH17 were mostly citizens of European countries.

The broader danger is the US has no functional, sustainable long-term energy policy. This leaves the US and our allies vulnerable to aggression as is evident in the Middle East and Ukraine. The solution is at hand—the technical knowledge and capability exists. The buck stops with us, the voters. If we do not insist our representatives conduct business in the interest of the US as a whole (not isolated regions and corporate special interests) then nothing will change.

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Enter to win FREE copy of Crossing Savage

DSCF3074Here’s what book blogger Valerie Mitchell says about Crossing Savage:

“Are you ready for an edge of the seat thriller? Crossing Savage is a wonderful read that is filled with intrigue, action and lots of smarts. This is one of those books that is hard to put down once you start, so would be great to take with you on vacation and read through it all the way to the end in just a few days. I’m not sure exactly where fact ends and his imagination takes over, but the result is a compelling story that draws you right in and keeps you reading.”

You can read her full review at Sweeps 4 Bloggers and while you are there enter to win a FREE autographed copy of Crossing Savage!

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How my journey to become an author began with a best-seller.

Jules Verne 1Here is a question I am often asked: “How did you go from a career in science and engineering to writing fiction?” It’s a good question, and I understand why fiction writing may appear to be so divergent from the rigors of science and engineering. My standard answer is that the two activities really share much in common–the process of creating something, invention.Jules Verne 2

Consider Jules Verne as the prototypical example of a fiction writer whose visions of technology were far ahead of his time, and yet many of those visions have been reduced to practice. Verne, through his writing, was creating much more than a story.

My love affair with action thrillers began about 35 years ago when I first read Raise the Titanic by Clive Cussler. That is when I started this journey that has lead me to write Crossing Savage and start the Peter Savage Novels series.

rtt-usfirst-pb“In about 1979 a good friend gave me a worn paperback copy of Raise the Titanic by Clive Cussler. Until that time, I seldom read for pleasure—there was plenty of reading required for my college studies and I felt that was sufficient. Still, I started reading one evening and soon met Dirk Pitt and the rest of the cast. From that moment, I was hooked on action thrillers. If only I could create these wonderful stories, I would often daydream when the rigors of university studies and work seemed to be tsra-sketch-02-1024x684endless.” You can read more of this interview at the blog of Chris the story-reading ape. In addition to discussing why I decided to eventually write action-thrillers, there is also a discussion about the process of publishing–my experiences with self-publishing and then working with a small imprint.

By the way, the story-reading ape’s blog is packed with interesting interviews. Check it out…

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New evidence in support of abiogenic oil formation–by Professor Ian Savage

earth638x250Recent reports from some of my colleagues at Northwestern University and the University of New Mexico lend even more support to the abiogenic theory of petroleum formation. If you’ve followed my earlier blogs on this web site, you know that my work at Oregon State University is aimed at studying theoretical chemical reactions between carbon and water deep within the Earth. My Japanese colleague, Professor Kenji Sato, and I suspect that water and carbonaceous materials buried within sediment in the sea floor are subducted beneath continental plates due to plate tectonics (more commonly called continental drift).

Over eons, this slow but steady process would have resulted in a tremendous amount of water, seashells (calcium carbonate), and other debris being pushed into the mantel—the layer of semi-molten and molten rock beneath the Earth’s crust. Indeed, my ill-fated subduction 9expedition to Chernabura Island in the Aleutian chain, along the northern subduction zone of the Pacific plate, was aimed at retrieving rock samples to investigate this hypothesis. If you’ve read Crossing Savage, you know that expedition went horribly wrong. But our research was given a huge boost by core samples from that area shipped to my lab by the National Science Foundation.

After careful examination of the cores by my students, we found a image_1806_2-Ringwooditeclass of iron minerals commonly called serpentine, that shows remarkable chemical activity for generating reactive hydrogen from water. However, we did not find evidence high concentrations of water, although we know from volcanic eruptions, in which large amounts of steam are vented, that water does enter the mantle. Still, the location of this water remained a mystery.

240px-BlueRingwooditeThat mystery seems to be solved. Vast amounts of water are stored in the deep blue mineral ringwoodite (named after the Australian geologist Ted Ringwood), a rare form of another iron-based mineral called peridot. Analysis shows that ringwoodite contains up to 1.5 weight percent water. This mineral releases its water as it melts at the transition boundary between the upper and lower mantle, a depth of about 400 km to 600 km. Ringwoodite has been found in meteors, but it is extremely rare on Earth. A minute crystal of ringwoodite was found as an inclusion in a diamond from an ancient volcano in Brazil. This evidence, along with seismic data, supports the theory that vast amounts of ringwoodite are distributed throughout the deep mantle and may account for more than three times to total water in all the oceans.

The fact that ringwoodite and diamond (elemental carbon) have been found together proves carbon and water are collocated at depths where there is sufficient heat and pressure to form hydrocarbons.

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What really defines human nature? Not what you may think.

hydrogen-bombAbout 200,000 years ago (plus or minus), Homo Sapiens, or modern humans, first appeared on the plains of Africa, having evolved from our primate ancestors. Since that time, modern humans have eclipsed all other species currently living or known to have lived. So, what makes humans so successful? And what characteristics are most “human”?

The answer to the first question is our mental capability. This is manifested in many forms—spoken and written language, tool making, abstract reasoning, etc. The second question is more difficult. You might answer that love, compassion, religion, self-awareness are characteristics that uniquely differentiate humans from all other animals.battleship broadside

I’d argue that it is our single-minded desire to kill each other that is the most unique of human characteristics.

Of course, rivalry among species is common in nature, typically driven by territorial or mating disputes, as well as food. Chimpanzees and other primates are known to wage orchestrated group conflict, and they are very vicious. Perhaps this is the closest behavior in the natural world to warfare as waged by humans. However, there is nothing about the natural fighting and killing exhibited by primates, canines, bears, large cats, etc. that comes even remotely close to the art and science that mankind has invented and refined. To say we, as a species, excel at killing would be a huge understatement.

AC130Centuries ago we developed weapons that kill by stabbing, slicing, bludgeoning… but that wasn’t sufficient. We used our superior intellect to invent new weapons that kill with bullets, shrapnel, explosives, fire, disease, chemicals, and radiation. If there is one thing that humankind does well, it is inventing and using complex tools to slaughter each other.

In the past 100 years alone, we have invented and used nuclear weapons, biological weapons, chemical weapons, intercontinental ballistic missiles, battleships, bombers, and a nearly endless variety of munitions and guns, including machine guns that fire 3,000 rounds per minute. In WWI, 17 million soldiers and civilians died in battle. During WWII, only 3 decades later, the death toll reached as high as 80 million by some estimates, the vast majority civilians.minigun

History is riddled with warfare. We have a pronounced tendency to glorify battle. Fighting and killing among humans is a constant; it seems to be as ingrained in our behavior as is reproduction. Indeed, the desired to become better at killing has driven the development of technology more than any other goal.

DF-SC-84-05193So pervasive is Homo Sapien’s need to kill that it happens around us all the time. News reports of murder and mass murder are common. Civilians murder using guns, knives, cars, explosives, hammers (a favorite weapon in China). We kill adults, children, people we don’t know. Even when a motive is revealed, it defies logic.

I am left wondering, what evolutionary purpose is served by this instinctive need of modern humans to constantly kill. Indeed, it seems counterproductive to achieving a stable and healthy population. And perhaps that is the answer. Perhaps this is Nature working to control the population of humankind, since we seem to be unwilling to limit the growth of our species to a population that is sustainable.

When will humankind learn to use its extraordinary mental capacity to overcome this behaviorally flaw? Until we do, I’m afraid our future is bleak.

Peace.

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Viable alternatives to oil–yes, they exist

Earth oilPreviously in this blog I’ve written about Russian aggression in Ukraine and the fact that Europe is impotent to retaliate since Russia supplies more than a third of the natural gas used by Europe. So, what can be done? Actually, a lot if governments and industry choose to act.

Unlike the oil embargoes of the 70s—a decade when there were few options to refining imported oil to make transportation fuels—we now have feasible options to imported oil and natural gas. Before I go further, let me break this challenge down into two parts. First, there is energy need for buildings, homes, and factories; so-called stationary applications. There are many solutions to this challenge including solar power, wind generators, geothermal, and conventional power plants (coal, natural gas, nuclear, oil, tidal and hydro).embargo 1

The bigger challenge is transportation fuels, which have historically been refined from oil. Thus, nations are most vulnerable when it comes to supply of transportation fuels like diesel, gasoline, and jet fuel. But there are alternatives to oil as the source of these necessary fuels.

Natural gas (NG) is the most obvious alternative to oil; yes even for transportation fuels. You are probably familiar with CNG-fueled buses, and this is a good option. With the abundance of natural gas in the US (we have about a 200-year supply, and more and more gas is found every day) the economic savings of burning CNG (compressed natural gas) in heavy engines that would otherwise burn diesel fuel is significant. One gallon of diesel fuel costs about $4, whereas an energy-equivalent amount of CNG costs less than $1.

CNG is attractive, but it is far from the only option. NG, biomass, coal, garbage, sewage can all be converted using known processes to make liquid transportation fuels. The generic chemical process was invented in Germany during the early 20th century and is called Fisher-Tropsch, or FT, synthesis. This chemical conversion process was used in large-scale refineries by Germany to fuel their military machine during WWII, and has been commercially used in South Africa for decades to make liquid fuels.German FT refinery WWII

FT synthesis is an extremely versatile process for making liquid fuels, and here’s why. The fuels we burn in engines are generically called hydrocarbons, molecules made from hydrogen and carbon atoms arranged in a nearly endless variety of configurations. What is important is that these hydrocarbon molecules burn readily and release a large amount of energy. Fortuitously, hydrogen and carbon are abundant on Earth, and these atoms make up NG, biomass, coal, garbage, sewage—really everything that is either derived from biological material or petroleum.

The FT process begins by breaking down these starting materials to syngas—a mixture of hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide. This first step, called gasification or reforming, is usually done with the addition of water, an excellent source of hydrogen. The syngas is then reconstituted, subjected to chemical reactions that yield hydrocarbons ranging from methane (CH4, the principal component of natural gas) to heavy hydrocarbon molecules containing 10 to 20 carbon atoms and twice that number of hydrogen atoms. These heavy hydrocarbons are useful as a substitute for diesel fuel and jet fuel.

The versatility of FT synthesis to use a variety of feedstocks—including renewables such as biomass, garbage, and sewage—is an additional bonus. However, the important point is that every country has access to this technology, which means there is no good reason to rely on imported oil.

Yes, economics should be considered, and it is often claimed that the cost of making synthetic gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel using the FT Russian navy Crimeaprocess is simply too expensive compared with refining these fuels from oil. However, the true and complete costs of energy should be tallied—including the cost of nearly 25 years of almost non-stop warfare in the Middle East.

In the 70s the OPEC countries drew our national attention to the perils of relying on imported energy. Now, Vladimir Putin is demonstrating European vulnerability by relying on imported energy (natural gas and oil).

The lessons are clear. The penalties are obvious. The solutions are in hand.

It’s time to act.

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