This Week’s Book Review – Monster Hunter Memoirs: Saints

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘Monster Hunter’ trilogy comes to entertaining conclusion

By MARK LARDAS

Aug 15, 2018

“Monster Hunter Memoirs: Saints,” by Larry Correia and John Ringo, Baen Books, 2018, 288 pages, $25

Fanfic gets written when a fan of a writer writes their own story in that author’s world. It is especially popular in fantasy and science fiction. What happens when an established science fiction author gets so enthusiastic they create fanfic?

“Monster Hunter Memoirs: Saints,” by Larry Correia and John Ringo happens.

Ringo, well-established when Correia’s first novel, “Monster Hunter International,” appeared liked the series so much he wrote three novels set in Correia’s urban fantasy universe. He showed the novels to Correia. The two decided they were worth publishing. They rewrote the books together to make the plots fit better into Correia’s canon. The result was the “Monster Hunter Memoirs” trilogy. “Saints” is the final book. It was preceded by “Grunge” and “Sinners.”

The story involves Monster Hunter International, but is set in the 1980s and 1990s with a monster hunter who died before the events of “Monster Hunter International.”

The central character, Chad Gardenier, is literally on mission from God. A Marine, in the Beirut barracks when a suicide bomber attacked it in 1983, Chad was given a choice in the anteroom to heaven: go to heaven or return to earth to save the world. Chad was a Marine. Of course he accepted the mission to save the world.

He hooked up with Monster Hunter International shortly after his medical discharge from the Marines. Stumbling into an outbreak of zombies, he killed a bunch, saved folks and got a job offer from MHI. By the start of “Saints,” Chad is an experienced monster hunter leading the team in New Orleans. New Orleans is filled with all sorts of nasty monsters needing killing. After all, it is a voodoo kind of place.

It turns out there is a reason New Orleans attracts such creatures buried way under the city; and it threatens to destroy the world. Chad Gardinier finally confronts the mission for which he has been sent.

“Monster Hunter Memoirs: Saints” ends up a fusion of Correia’s and Ringo’s writing styles, blending both their humor and their fascination with firearms. Fans of either writer will find this entertaining.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.


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Shameless Blog Self-promotion

Last month, Ray and I took a two-week cruise to Hawaii, round trip from San Francisco, with Hillsdale College.  Over at my personal blog, RushBabe49.com, I am documenting that trip with  pictures and commentary, in 1-2 day bites.  You are all invited to drop by and read my posts.  The latest describes our day in Lahaina, Maui (day 9 of the 15-day cruise).  Scroll down for earlier posts, starting with Day One when we left San Francisco.  Sea days were spent in lectures given by some people you are sure to be familiar with.  Each post starts with the image below.  Please visit and comment!


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This Week’s Book Review – Turncoat

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘Turncoat’ offers a fresh look at Benedict Arnold

By MARK LARDAS

Aug 7, 2018

“Turncoat: Benedict Arnold and the Crisis of American Liberty,” by Stephen Brumwell, Yale University Press, 2018, 384 pages, $30

Benedict Arnold has become synonymous with treason. Yet few today know his story.

“Turncoat: Benedict Arnold and the Crisis of American Liberty,” by Stephen Brumwell is a fresh look at the man and his times.

Arnold was a brilliant general, probably only second to George Washington in talent. Next to Washington, he may be most responsible for the survival of the patriot cause. His dogged defense on Lake Champlain in 1776, and his spirited attacks in the Saratoga campaign in 1777, defeated Britain’s northern offensive and led France to enter the revolution on the American side. Absent Arnold, Britain would likely have won by 1778. Three years later, he tried to give Britain the war by betraying West Point to them.

Brumwell traces what led Arnold to switch sides. It was more complicated than many believe.

Arnold was prickly and always protective of his honor. Washington and many of the other Revolutionary generals also were. Yet Arnold combined this with a personality that created jealous enemies.

Badly wounded at Saratoga, Arnold’s wound denied him the active battlefield command he desired. As a substitute, Washington appointed the injured Arnold military governor of freshly-recaptured Philadelphia in 1778. It proved a poisoned command.

Arnold quickly quarreled with Philadelphia’s civilian government. The ruling Philadelphia radicals attacked Arnold with a flurry of meaningless or trivial charges. They should have been dismissed. Instead, to placate this politically powerful faction led Arnold to be court martialed.

Additionally, the French alliance upset Arnold. The revolution began as a political party fight. This is why loyalists were called Tories. Many viewed the French alliance as inviting a stranger into a family quarrel.

This and disillusionment with the Colonial government led Arnold to switch sides. Viewing himself as a new General Monk (who dumped the Parliamentarians to restore Britain’s monarchy after the English Civil War) Arnold sought to end the war by reunifying colonies with Britain.

Arnold misjudged the moment. Instead his actions increased colonial resolve and made him a synonym for treason.

“Turncoat” is a book with surprising resonance today. It shows what happens when the political gets too personal.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.


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This Week’s Book Review – Seven at Santa Cruz

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

Biography offers intimate look at WWII fighter pilot

By MARK LARDAS

Aug 1, 2018

”Seven at Santa Cruz: The Life of Fighter Ace Stanley ‘Swede’ Vejtasa,” by Ted Edwards, Naval Institute Press, 2018, 304 pages, $29.95

Living World War II veterans are fewer each day. First person accounts or histories written using personal interviews of surviving veterans are shrinking.

“Seven at Santa Cruz: The Life of Fighter Ace Stanley ‘Swede’ Vejtasa,” by Ted Edwards is a new biography of Vejtasa that bucks this trend. Edwards used extended interviews with Vejtasa and other World War II veterans researching it.

Nicknamed “Swede” for reasons comprehensible to only mid-20th century naval aviators, Stanley Vejtasa was of Bohemian and Norwegian stock, the first generation born in the United States after his father came here from what today is the Czech Republic and mother from Norway.

He grew up in rural Montana when most children, including him, were fascinated by all things aircraft. He joined the Navy to learn to fly.

He flew a lot and in combat, graduating from flight school just before the United States entered World War II. He flew dive bombers from the aircraft carrier Yorktown as part of the Atlantic “Neutrality Patrol” before Pearl Harbor. After Dec. 7, 1941, he accompanied Yorktown into the Pacific. There, in the action leading up to and including the Battle of the Coral Sea, he hit a Japanese transport off Tulagi, helped sink the Japanese aircraft carrier Shoho, and shot down three Japanese Zero fighters flying combat air patrol over Yorktown. He shot down the Zeros using a Dauntless dive bomber.

That earned him a Navy Cross and a transfer to fighters. Flying an F4F Wildcat from the carrier Enterprise at the battle of Santa Cruz, he shot down seven Japanese aircraft in one day. He saved the Enterprise and got a Navy Cross for that, too.

Edwards’ book follows these battles, but also looks at the totality of Vejtasa’s life, including life growing up in Montana, through Vejtasa’s later career in the Navy, which reached an apex with command of the aircraft carrier Constellation in 1962-63.

Vejtasa died in 2014, but Edwards interviewed him extensively before his death. “Seven at Santa Cruz” provides an intimate look at a man who played a small yet critical role in the Pacific War.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.


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Saturday Night Science: Losing the Nobel Prize

“Losing the Nobel Prize” by Brian KeatingEver since the time of Galileo, the history of astronomy has been punctuated by a series of “great debates”—disputes between competing theories of the organisation of the universe which observation and experiment using available technology are not yet able to resolve one way or another. In Galileo’s time, the great debate was between the Ptolemaic model, which placed the Earth at the centre of the solar system (and universe) and the competing Copernican model which had the planets all revolving around the Sun. Both models worked about as well in predicting astronomical phenomena such as eclipses and the motion of planets, and no observation made so far had been able to distinguish them.

Then, in 1610, Galileo turned his primitive telescope to the sky and observed the bright planets Venus and Jupiter. He found Venus to exhibit phases, just like the Moon, which changed over time. This would not happen in the Ptolemaic system, but is precisely what would be expected in the Copernican model—where Venus circled the Sun in an orbit inside that of Earth. Turning to Jupiter, he found it to be surrounded by four bright satellites (now called the Galilean moons) which orbited the giant planet. This further falsified Ptolemy’s model, in which the Earth was the sole source of attraction around which all celestial bodies revolved. Since anybody could build their own telescope and confirm these observations, this effectively resolved the first great debate in favour of the Copernican heliocentric model, although some hold-outs in positions of authority resisted its dethroning of the Earth as the centre of the universe.

This dethroning came to be called the “Copernican principle”, that Earth occupies no special place in the universe: it is one of a number of planets orbiting an ordinary star in a universe filled with a multitude of other stars. Indeed, when Galileo observed the star cluster we call the Pleiades, he saw myriad stars too dim to be visible to the unaided eye. Further, the bright stars were surrounded by a diffuse bluish glow. Applying the Copernican principle again, he argued that the glow was due to innumerably more stars too remote and dim for his telescope to resolve, and then generalised that the glow of the Milky Way was also composed of uncountably many stars. Not only had the Earth been demoted from the centre of the solar system, so had the Sun been dethroned to being just one of a host of stars possibly stretching to infinity.

But Galileo’s inference from observing the Pleiades was wrong. The glow that surrounds the bright stars is due to interstellar dust and gas which reflect light from the stars toward Earth. No matter how large or powerful the telescope you point toward such a reflection nebula, all you’ll ever see is a smooth glow. Driven by the desire to confirm his Copernican convictions, Galileo had been fooled by dust. He would not be the last.

William Herschel was an eminent musician and composer, but his passion was astronomy. He pioneered the large reflecting telescope, building more than sixty telescopes. In 1789, funded by a grant from King George III, Herschel completed a reflector with a mirror 1.26 metres in diameter, which remained the largest aperture telescope in existence for the next fifty years. In Herschel’s day, the great debate was about the Sun’s position among the surrounding stars. At the time, there was no way to determine the distance or absolute brightness of stars, but Herschel decided that he could compile a map of the galaxy (then considered to be the entire universe) by surveying the number of stars in different directions. Only if the Sun was at the centre of the galaxy would the counts be equal in all directions.

Aided by his sister Caroline, a talented astronomer herself, he eventually compiled a map which indicated the galaxy was in the shape of a disc, with the Sun at the centre. This seemed to refute the Copernican view that there was nothing special about the Sun’s position. Such was Herschel’s reputation that this finding, however puzzling, remained unchallenged until 1847 when Wilhelm Struve discovered that Herschel’s results had been rendered invalid by his failing to take into account the absorption and scattering of starlight by interstellar dust. Just as you can only see the same distance in all directions while within a patch of fog, regardless of the shape of the patch, Herschel’s survey could only see so far before extinction of light by dust cut off his view of stars. Later it was discovered that the Sun is far from the centre of the galaxy. Herschel had been fooled by dust.

In the 1920s, another great debate consumed astronomy. Was the Milky Way the entire universe, or were the “spiral nebulæ” other “island universes”, galaxies in their own right, peers of the Milky Way? With no way to measure distance or telescopes able to resolve them into stars, many astronomers believed spiral neublæ were nearby objects, perhaps other solar systems in the process of formation. The discovery of a Cepheid variable star in the nearby Andromeda “nebula” by Edwin Hubble in 1923 allowed settling this debate. Andromeda was much farther away than the most distant stars found in the Milky Way. It must, then be a separate galaxy. Once again, demotion: the Milky Way was not the entire universe, but just one galaxy among a multitude.

But how far away were the galaxies? Hubble continued his search and measurements and found that the more distant the galaxy, the more rapidly it was receding from us. This meant the universe was expanding. Hubble was then able to calculate the age of the universe—the time when all of the galaxies must have been squeezed together into a single point. From his observations, he computed this age at two billion years. This was a major embarrassment: astrophysicists and geologists were confident in dating the Sun and Earth at around five billion years. It didn’t make any sense for them to be more than twice as old as the universe of which they were a part. Some years later, it was discovered that Hubble’s distance estimates were far understated because he failed to account for extinction of light from the stars he measured due to dust. The universe is now known to be seven times the age Hubble estimated. Hubble had been fooled by dust.

By the 1950s, the expanding universe was generally accepted and the great debate was whether it had come into being in some cataclysmic event in the past (the “Big Bang”) or was eternal, with new matter spontaneously appearing to form new galaxies and stars as the existing ones receded from one another (the “Steady State” theory). Once again, there were no observational data to falsify either theory. The Steady State theory was attractive to many astronomers because it was the more “Copernican”—the universe would appear overall the same at any time in an infinite past and future, so our position in time is not privileged in any way, while in the Big Bang the distant past and future are very different than the conditions we observe today. (The rate of matter creation required by the Steady State theory was so low that no plausible laboratory experiment could detect it.)

The discovery of the cosmic background radiation in 1965 definitively settled the debate in favour of the Big Bang. It was precisely what was expected if the early universe were much denser and hotter than conditions today, as predicted by the Big Bang. The Steady State theory made no such prediction and was, despite rear-guard actions by some of its defenders (invoking dust to explain the detected radiation!), was considered falsified by most researchers.

But the Big Bang was not without its own problems. In particular, in order to end up with anything like the universe we observe today, the initial conditions at the time of the Big Bang seemed to have been fantastically fine-tuned (for example, an infinitesimal change in the balance between the density and rate of expansion in the early universe would have caused the universe to quickly collapse into a black hole or disperse into the void without forming stars and galaxies). There was no physical reason to explain these fine-tuned values; you had to assume that’s just the way things happened to be, or that a Creator had set the dial with a precision of dozens of decimal places.

In 1979, the theory of inflation was proposed. Inflation held that in an instant after the Big Bang the size of the universe blew up exponentially so that all the observable universe today was, before inflation, the size of an elementary particle today. Thus, it’s no surprise that the universe we now observe appears so uniform. Inflation so neatly resolved the tensions between the Big Bang theory and observation that it (and refinements over the years) became widely accepted. But could inflation be observed? That is the ultimate test of a scientific theory.

There have been numerous cases in science where many years elapsed between a theory being proposed and definitive experimental evidence for it being found. After Galileo’s observations, the Copernican theory that the Earth orbits the Sun became widely accepted, but there was no direct evidence for the Earth’s motion with respect to the distant stars until the discovery of the aberration of light in 1727. Einstein’s theory of general relativity predicted gravitational radiation in 1915, but the phenomenon was not directly detected by experiment until a century later. Would inflation have to wait as long or longer?

Things didn’t look promising. Almost everything we know about the universe comes from observations of electromagnetic radiation: light, radio waves, X-rays, etc., with a little bit more from particles (cosmic rays and neutrinos). But the cosmic background radiation forms an impenetrable curtain behind which we cannot observe anything via the electromagnetic spectrum, and it dates from around 380,000 years after the Big Bang. The era of inflation was believed to have ended 10−32 seconds after the Bang; considerably earlier. The only “messenger” which could possibly have reached us from that era is gravitational radiation. We’ve just recently become able to detect gravitational radiation from the most violent events in the universe, but no conceivable experiment would be able to detect this signal from the baby universe.

So is it hopeless? Well, not necessarily…. The cosmic background radiation is a snapshot of the universe as it existed 380,000 years after the Big Bang, and only a few years after it was first detected, it was realised that gravitational waves from the very early universe might have left subtle imprints upon the radiation we observe today. In particular, gravitational radiation creates a form of polarisation called B-modes which most other sources cannot create.

If it were possible to detect B-mode polarisation in the cosmic background radiation, it would be a direct detection of inflation. While the experiment would be demanding and eventually result in literally going to the end of the Earth, it would be strong evidence for the process which shaped the universe we inhabit and, in all likelihood, a ticket to Stockholm for those who made the discovery.

This was the quest on which the author embarked in the year 2000, resulting in the deployment of an instrument called BICEP1 (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization) in the Dark Sector Laboratory at the South Pole. Here is my picture of that laboratory in January 2013. The BICEP telescope is located in the foreground inside a conical shield which protects it against thermal radiation from the surrounding ice. In the background is the South Pole Telescope, a millimetre wave antenna which was not involved in this research.

BICEP2 and South Pole Telescope, 2013-01-09

BICEP1 was a prototype, intended to test the technologies to be used in the experiment. These included cooling the entire telescope (which was a modest aperture [26 cm] refractor, not unlike Galileo’s, but operating at millimetre wavelengths instead of visible light) to the temperature of interstellar space, with its detector cooled to just ¼ degree above absolute zero. In 2010 its successor, BICEP2, began observation at the South Pole, and continued its run into 2012. When I took the photo above, BICEP2 had recently concluded its observations.

On March 17th, 2014, the BICEP2 collaboration announced, at a press conference, the detection of B-mode polarisation in the region of the southern sky they had monitored. Note the swirling pattern of polarisation which is the signature of B-modes, as opposed to the starburst pattern of other kinds of polarisation.

Cosmic background radiation B-modes from BICEP2

But, not so fast, other researchers cautioned. The risk in doing “science by press release” is that the research is not subjected to peer review—criticism by other researchers in the field—before publication and further criticism in subsequent publications. The BICEP2 results went immediately to the front pages of major newspapers. Here was direct evidence of the birth cry of the universe and confirmation of a theory which some argued implied the existence of a multiverse—the latest Copernican demotion—the idea that our universe was just one of an ensemble, possibly infinite, of parallel universes in which every possibility was instantiated somewhere. Amid the frenzy, a few specialists in the field, including researchers on competing projects, raised the question, “What about the dust?” Dust again! As it happens, while gravitational radiation can induce B-mode polarisation, it isn’t the only thing which can do so. Our galaxy is filled with dust and magnetic fields which can cause those dust particles to align with them. Aligned dust particles cause polarised reflections which can mimic the B-mode signature of the gravitational radiation sought by BICEP2.

The BICEP2 team was well aware of this potential contamination problem. Unfortunately, their telescope was sensitive only to one wavelength, chosen to be the most sensitive to B-modes due to primordial gravitational radiation. It could not, however, distinguish a signal from that cause from one due to foreground dust. At the same time, however, the European Space Agency Planck spacecraft was collecting precision data on the cosmic background radiation in a variety of wavelengths, including one sensitive primarily to dust. Those data would have allowed the BICEP2 investigators to quantify the degree their signal was due to dust. But there was a problem: BICEP2 and Planck were direct competitors.

Planck had the data, but had not released them to other researchers. However, the BICEP2 team discovered that a member of the Planck collaboration had shown a slide at a conference of unpublished Planck observations of dust. A member of the BICEP2 team digitised an image of the slide, created a model from it, and concluded that dust contamination of the BICEP2 data would not be significant. This was a highly dubious, if not explicitly unethical move. It confirmed measurements from earlier experiments and provided confidence in the results.

In September 2014, a preprint from the Planck collaboration (eventually published in 2016) showed that B-modes from foreground dust could account for all of the signal detected by BICEP2. In January 2015, the European Space Agency published an analysis of the Planck and BICEP2 observations which showed the entire BICEP2 detection was consistent with dust in the Milky Way. The epochal detection of inflation had been deflated. The BICEP2 researchers had been deceived by dust.

The author, a founder of the original BICEP project, was so close to a Nobel prize he was already trying to read the minds of the Nobel committee to divine who among the many members of the collaboration they would reward with the gold medal. Then it all went away, seemingly overnight, turned to dust. Some said that the entire episode had injured the public’s perception of science, but to me it seems an excellent example of science working precisely as intended. A result is placed before the public; others, with access to the same raw data are given an opportunity to critique them, setting forth their own raw data; and eventually researchers in the field decide whether the original results are correct. Yes, it would probably be better if all of this happened in musty library stacks of journals almost nobody reads before bursting out of the chest of mass media, but in an age where scientific research is funded by agencies spending money taken from hairdressers and cab drivers by coercive governments under implicit threat of violence, it is inevitable they will force researchers into the public arena to trumpet their “achievements”.

In parallel with the saga of BICEP2, the author discusses the Nobel Prizes and what he considers to be their dysfunction in today’s scientific research environment. I was surprised to learn that many of the curious restrictions on awards of the Nobel Prize were not, as I had heard and many believe, conditions of Alfred Nobel’s will. In fact, the conditions that the prize be shared no more than three ways, not be awarded posthumously, and not awarded to a group (with the exception of the Peace prize) appear nowhere in Nobel’s will, but were imposed later by the Nobel Foundation. Further, Nobel’s will explicitly states that the prizes shall be awarded to “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind”. This constraint (emphasis mine) has been ignored since the inception of the prizes.

He decries the lack of “diversity” in Nobel laureates (by which he means, almost entirely, how few women have won prizes). While there have certainly been women who deserved prizes and didn’t win (Lise Meitner, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, and Vera Rubin are prime examples), there are many more men who didn’t make the three laureates cut-off (Freeman Dyson an obvious example for the 1965 Physics Nobel for quantum electrodynamics). The whole Nobel prize concept is capricious, and rewards only those who happen to be in the right place at the right time in the right field that the committee has decided deserves an award this year and are lucky enough not to die before the prize is awarded. To imagine it to be “fair” or representative of scientific merit is, in the estimation of this scribbler, in flying unicorn territory.

In all, this is a candid view of how science is done at the top of the field today, with all of the budget squabbles, maneuvering for recognition, rivalry among competing groups of researchers, balancing the desire to get things right with the compulsion to get there first, and the eye on that prize, given only to a few in a generation, which can change one’s life forever.

Personally, I can’t imagine being so fixated on winning a prize one has so little chance of gaining. It’s like being obsessed with winning the lottery—and about as likely.

In parallel with all of this is an autobiographical account of the career of a scientist with its ups and downs, which is both a cautionary tale and an inspiration to those who choose to pursue that difficult and intensely meritocratic career path.

I recommend this book on all three tracks: a story of scientific discovery, mis-interpretation, and self-correction, the dysfunction of the Nobel Prizes and how they might be remedied, and the candid story of a working scientist in today’s deeply corrupt coercively-funded research environment.

Keating, Brian. Losing the Nobel Prize. New York: W. W. Norton, 2018. ISBN 978-1-324-00091-4.

Here is a one hour talk by the author about the BICEP2 experience and the Nobel Prize.

This is the BICEP2 press conference on March 17, 2014, announcing the discovery of B-mode polarisation in the cosmic microwave background radiation.

What do you do after losing the Nobel prize?  In this April, 2016 (much) more technical talk at the SETI Institute, Brian Keating describes post-BICEP2 research aimed at using the cosmic background radiation to explore other aspects of the early universe including whether the universe has an inherent chirality (left- or right-handedness).  (The preview image for this video looks like it’s broken, but if you click the play button it plays correctly, at least for me.)

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This Week’s Book Review – Shale Boom: The Barnett Shale Play and Fort Worth

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘Shale Boom’ an even-handed look at fracking

By MARK LARDAS

July 24, 2018

“Shale Boom: The Barnett Shale Play and Fort Worth,” by Diana Davids Hinton, Texas Christian University Press, 2018, 192 pages, $30

Twenty years ago, the United States was running out of oil and gas. Fracking changed everything. Today, the United States is the world’s largest producer of petroleum products.

“Shale Boom: The Barnett Shale Play and Fort Worth,” by Diana Davids Hinton tells the history of a key part of that transformation. It examines how the Barnett Shale helped trigger the fracking revolution, and explores its consequences.

Hinton puts fracking in its historical context. It was not new. Some form of fracturing was done as early as the 1920s. This included injecting liquids into wells under high pressure — hydraulic fracturing. Hinton reveals what was new. The Barnett Shale is a large but narrow layer of oil bearing rock beneath Fort Worth and the area west of it. Fracking techniques of the 1980s and 1990s meant wells failed to yield economic levels of gas and oil.

George Mitchell owned lease rights in the area. Hinton shows how the Galveston-born Mitchell financed new fracking techniques. The new technology unlocked the Barnett Shale, producing unprecedented levels of natural gas. Directional drilling techniques developed during this century’s first decade multiplied yields.

It kick-started a shale gas boom around Fort Worth. Much of the best yield area was under Fort Worth, complicating things. What followed included some craziness of the type accompanying every oil boom. Hinton traces the action.

Hinton looks at the impact urban drilling had on both drillers and residents. She also examines the bust inevitably following a boom, the backlash against drilling, and the impact of environmental concerns fueled by fear of fracking.

Hinton is refreshingly even-handed. She looks at both the benefits and costs (societal and environmental as well as financial) of drilling and the hydrocarbon industry. She also explores both the benefits and excesses of environmental opposition to fracking. Hinton is unafraid to expose the follies and dodgy activities of individuals in both drilling and the environmental movement.

Hinton closes with an examination of the impacts of fracking — long and short term — around Fort Worth, and its global implications. “Shale Boom” a fascinating and balanced look at what technology revolutions yield.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.


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Review: Une Fantaisie du Docteur Ox

“Une fantasie du docteur Ox" par Jules Verne (1874)After reading and reviewing Jules Verne’s Hector Servadac last year, I stumbled upon a phenomenal bargain: a Kindle edition of the complete works of Jules Verne—160 titles, with 5400 illustrations—for US$ 2.51 at this writing, published by Arvensa. This is not a cheap public domain knock-off, but a thoroughly professional publication with very few errors. For less than the price of a paperback book, you get just about everything Jules Verne ever wrote in Kindle format which, if you download the free Kindle French dictionary, allows you to quickly look up the obscure terms and jargon of which Verne is so fond without flipping through the Little Bob. That’s how I read this work, although I have cited a print edition in the header for those who prefer such.

The strange story of Doctor Ox would be considered a novella in modern publishing terms, coming in at 19,240 words. It is divided into 17 chapters and is written in much the same style as the author’s Voyages extraordinaires, with his customary huge vocabulary, fondness for lengthy enumerations, and witty parody of the national character of foreigners.

Here, the foreigners in question are the Flemish, speakers of dialects of the Dutch language who live in the northern part of Belgium. The Flemish are known for being phlegmatic, and nowhere is this more in evidence than the small city of Quiquendone. Its 2,393 residents and their ancestors have lived there since the city was founded in 1197, and very little has happened to disturb their placid lives; they like it that way. Its major industries are the manufacture of whipped cream and barley sugar. Its inhabitants are taciturn and, when they speak, do so slowly. For centuries, what little government they require has been provided by generations of the van Tricasse family, son succeeding father as burgomaster. There is little for the burgomaster to do, and one of the few items on his agenda, inherited from his father twenty years ago, is whether the city should dispense with the services of its sole policeman, who hasn’t had anything to do for decades.

Burgomaster van Tricasse exemplifies the moderation in all things of the residents of his city. I cannot resist quoting this quintessentially Jules Verne description in full.

Le bourgmestre était un personnage de cinquante ans, ni gras ni maigre, ni petit ni grand, ni vieux ni jeune, ni coloré ni pâle, ni gai ni triste, ni content ni ennuyé, ni énergique ni mou, ni fier ni humble, ni bon ni méchant, ni généreux ni avare, ni brave ni poltron, ni trop ni trop peu, — ne quid nimis, — un homme modéré en tout ; mais à la lenteur invariable de ses mouvements, à sa mâchoire inférieure un peu pendante, à sa paupière supérieure immuablement relevée, à son front uni comme une plaque de cuivre jaune et sans une ride, à ses muscles peu salliants, un physionomiste eût sans peine reconnu que le bourgomestre van Tricasse était le flegme personnifié.

Imagine how startled this paragon of moderation and peace must have been when the city’s policeman—he whose job has been at risk for decades—pounds on the door and, when admitted, reports that the city’s doctor and lawyer, visiting the house of scientist Doctor Ox, had gotten into an argument. They had been talking politics! Such a thing had not happened in Quiquendone in over a century. Words were exchanged that might lead to a duel!

Who is this Doctor Ox? A recent arrival in Quiquendone, he is a celebrated scientist, considered a leader in the field of physiology. He stands out against the other inhabitants of the city. Of no well-defined nationality, he is a genuine eccentric, self-confident, ambitious, and known even to smile in public. He and his laboratory assistant Gédéon Ygène work on their experiments and never speak of them to others.

Shortly after arriving in Quiquendone, Dr Ox approached the burgomaster and city council with a proposal: to illuminate the city and its buildings, not with the new-fangled electric lights which other cities were adopting, but with a new invention of his own, oxy-hydric gas. Using powerful electric batteries he invented, water would be decomposed into hydrogen and oxygen gas, stored separately, then delivered in parallel pipes to individual taps where they would be combined and burned, producing a light much brighter and pure than electric lights, not to mention conventional gaslights burning natural or manufactured gas. In storage and distribution, hydrogen and oxygen would be strictly segregated, as any mixing prior to the point of use ran the risk of an explosion. Dr Ox offered to pay all of the expenses of building the gas production plant, storage facilities, and installation of the underground pipes and light fixtures in public buildings and private residences. After a demonstration of oxy-hydric lighting, city fathers gave the go-ahead for the installation, presuming Dr Ox was willing to assume all the costs in order to demonstrate his invention to other potential customers.

Over succeeding days and weeks, things before unimagined, indeed, unimaginable begin to occur. On a visit to Dr Ox, the burgomaster himself and his best friend city council president Niklausse find themselves in—dare it be said—a political argument. At the opera house, where musicians and singers usually so moderate the tempo that works are performed over multiple days, one act per night, a performance of Meyerbeer’s Les Hugenots becomes frenetic and incites the audience to what can only be described as a riot. A ball at the house of the banker becomes a whirlwind of sound and motion. And yet, each time, after people go home, they return to normal and find it difficult to believe what they did the night before.

Over time, the phenomenon, at first only seen in large public gatherings, begins to spread into individual homes and private lives. You would think the placid Flemish had been transformed into the hotter tempered denizens of countries to the south. Twenty newspapers spring up, each advocating its own radical agenda. Even plants start growing to enormous size, and cats and dogs, previously as reserved as their masters, begin to bare fangs and claws. Finally, a mass movement rises to avenge the honour of Quiquendone for an injury committed in the year 1185 by a cow from the neighbouring town of Virgamen.

What was happening? Whence the madness? What would be the result when the citizens of Quiquendone, armed with everything they could lay their hands on, marched upon their neighbours?

This is a classic “puzzle story”, seasoned with a mad scientist of whom the author allows us occasional candid glimpses as the story unfolds. You’ll probably solve the puzzle yourself long before the big reveal at the end. Jules Verne, always anticipating the future, foresaw this: the penultimate chapter is titled (my translation), “Where the intelligent reader sees that he guessed correctly, despite every precaution by the author”. The enjoyment here is not so much the puzzle but rather Verne’s language and delicious description of characters and events, which are up to the standard of his better-known works.

This is “minor Verne”, written originally for a public reading and then published in a newspaper in Amiens, his adopted home. Many believed that in Quiquendone he was satirising Amiens and his placid neighbours.

Doctor Ox would reappear in the work of Jules Verne in his 1882 play Voyage à travers l’impossible (Journey Through the Impossible), a work which, after 97 performances in Paris, was believed lost until a single handwritten manuscript was found in 1978. Dr Ox reprises his role as mad scientist, joining other characters from Verne’s novels on their own extraordinary voyages. After that work, Doctor Ox disappears from the world. But when I regard the frenzied serial madness loose today, from “bathroom equality”, tearing down Civil War monuments, masked “Antifa” blackshirts beating up people in the streets, the “refugee” racket, and Russians under every bed, I sometimes wonder if he’s taken up residence in today’s United States.

An English translation is available. Verne’s reputation has often suffered due to poor English translations of his work; I have not read this edition and don’t know how good it is. Warning: the description of this book at Amazon contains a huge spoiler for the central puzzle of the story.

Verne, Jules. Une Fantaisie du Docteur Ox. Seattle: CreateSpace, [1874] 2017. ISBN 978-1-5470-6408-3.


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Book Review: Sanity

“Sanity” by Neovictorian [pseud.]Have you sometimes felt, since an early age, that you were an alien, somehow placed on Earth and observing the antics of humans as if they were a different species? Why do they believe such stupid things? Why do they do such dumb things? Any why do they keep doing them over and over again seemingly incapable of learning from the bad outcomes of all the previous attempts?

That is how Cal Adler felt since childhood and, like most people with such feelings, kept them quiet and bottled up while trying to get ahead in a game whose rules often seemed absurd. In his senior year in high school, he encounters a substitute guidance counsellor who tells him, without any preliminary conversation, precisely how he feels. He’s assured he is not alone, and that over time he will meet others. He is given an enigmatic contact in case of emergency. He is advised, as any alien in a strange land, to blend in while observing and developing his own talents. And that’s the last he sees of the counsellor.

Cal’s subsequent life is punctuated by singular events: a terrorist incident in which he spontaneously rises to the occasion, encountering extraordinary people, and being initiated into skills he never imagined he’d possess. He begins to put together a picture of a shadowy…something…of which he may or may not be a part, whose goals are unclear, but whose people are extraordinary.

Meanwhile, a pop religion called ReHumanism, founded by a science fiction writer, is gaining adherents among prominent figures in business, entertainment, and technology. Its “scriptures” advocate escape from the tragic cycle of progress and collapse which has characterised the human experience by turning away from the artificial environment in which we have immersed ourselves and rediscovering our inherent human nature which may, to many in the modern world, seem alien. Is there a connection between ReHumanism (which seems like a flaky scam to Cal) and the mysterious people he is encountering?

All of these threads begin to come together when Cal, working as a private investigator in Reno, Nevada, is retained by the daughter of a recently-deceased billionaire industrialist to find her mother, who has disappeared during a tourist visit to Alaska. The mother is revealed have become a convert to and supporter of ReHumanism. Are they involved? And how did the daughter find Cal, who, after previous events, has achieved a level of low observability stealth aircraft designers can only dream of?

An adventure begins in which nothing is as it seems and all of Cal’s formidable talents are tested to their limits.

This is an engaging and provocative mystery/thriller which will resonate with those who identify with the kind of heroic, independent, and inner-directed characters that populate the fiction of Robert A. Heinlein and other writers of the golden age of science fiction. It speaks directly to those sworn to chart their own course through life regardless of what others may think or say. I’m not sure the shadowy organisation we glimpse here actually exists, but I wish it did…and I wish they’d contacted me. There are many tips of the hat here to works and authors of fiction with similar themes, and I’m sure many more I missed.

This is an example of the efflorescence of independent science fiction which the obsolescence of the traditional gatekeeper publishers has engendered. With the advent of low-cost, high-margin self-publishing and customer reviews and ratings to evaluate quality, an entire new cohort of authors whose work would never before have seen the light of day is now enriching the genre and the lives of their enthusiastic readers. The work is not free of typographical and grammatical errors, but I’ve read books from major science fiction publishers with more. The Kindle edition is free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Neovictorian [pseud.] and Neal Van Wahr. Sanity. Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, [2017] 2018. ISBN 978-1-980820-95-6.


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This Week’s Book Review – Blue Collar Space

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

Everyday jobs turn wondrous in ‘Blue Collar Space’

By MARK LARDAS

July 18, 2018

“Blue Collar Space,” by Martin Shoemaker, Old Town Books, 2018, 244 pages, $11.99

What will it be like when humans are living and working in space? Ordinary folk, like those who live down your street?

“Blue Collar Space,” by Martin Shoemaker offers one vision. It is a collection of short science fiction stories set on the moon and Mars, and Jupiter orbit.

The settings are exotic. The jobs are ordinary. EMTs, sanitation workers, teachers, doctors, factory workers and miners feature in these stories. A few stories fall into the category of space adventure. “Not Close Enough” deals with a first manned mission to Mars — sort of a first manned mission to Mars. The explorers from NASA, ESA, Roscosmos, JAXA, and space agencies from India, Australia and China are not allowed closer to Mars’ surface than Martian orbit. There is a sort of spy adventure in the short story “Black Orbit,” with smugglers and secret agents.

Yet most deal with life and work of an everyday sort; dirty jobs in a space setting. A rescue team is sent to assist crash survivors in “Scramble.” A young girl must find help for her injured father — on the surface of the moon — in “Father-Daughter Outing.” The complexities of running a sanitation system on a lunar city gets explored in “The Night We Flushed the Old Town.” A children’s survival class instructor on Mars has to figure out how to fix things when something goes wrong in “Snack Break.” A moon prospector grapples with the discovery that starring in a moon-based kiddie show really is significant in “A Sense of Wonder.”

It is not dull. Shoemaker shows the adventure in doing things that on Earth are ordinary when they must be done in a hostile environment like space. Being on a spaceship, a space station, or surface of the moon and Mars changes things. He writes with a crisp and engaging style that draws readers into the tale. The result is fascinating reading.

“Blue Collar Space” captures what life will really be like when we finally get off Earth and move into space. It will be commonplace, yet at the same time it will be wonder filled.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.


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Nomination Window Closes Friday July 20 for Science Fiction’s Dragon Awards

If you’re a science fiction fan, consider participating in the Dragon Awards to honor the year’s best fiction. Declan Finn has a nice round-up of Dragon Award suggestions. I’m honored that A Rambling Wreck made Declan’s list as well as the Happy Frogs slate of recommendations.  There are many other fine works worth looking into as well.


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