I was never one of those kids who go crazy about dinosaurs. But since the California public schools in the 1950s were crazy about dinosaurs, we got taught about them and tested on them. So from those days on, I could identify a tyrannosaur and a brontosaur, triceratops and stegosaurus at a glance.
Then they renamed brontosaurus into something else, and I was as unimpressed by this pointless, annoying move as I was by saying "not a planet" about Pluto (it has enough mass for gravity to make it round. Nuff said. Planet forever) and renaming some but not all of the African colonies when they won their independence.
(Yes to, Botswana instead of Bechuanaland. And yes, the two Rhodesias needed a native name instead of some Englishman's, so: Zambia and Zimbabwe.
(But in the back of my mind, I don't know where Benin is till I remember, Oh, yes, that was Dahomey, so it's next to Togo.
(And colonies on other continents, too: Belize -- that was the capital of British Honduras and is now the country name; Myanmar -- they have a weird and repressive government, so of course they can't be called Burma anymore. Fortunately, Zaire came and went, though it was actually nice when the two countries with "Republic of the Congo" in their names diverged between The Congo and Zaire.
(And Burkina Faso is a great and memorable name. Nobody could have expected the former colony of "Upper Volta" to keep that name, especially since there is no "Lower Volta" to be upper than. Heck, I can't even find any other Volta at all.
(Don't bother writing in to inform me. I already know that the Volta is a river that flows through Ghana, whose colonial name was Gold Coast, and which was never called Lower Volta.)
But there was no reason to change Brontosaurus. Sure, it was stupid to name something for a sound, when its voice, if it had one, no person had ever heard, but once that was its name, nobody cared that it meant "thunder lizard."
While they were getting rid of the thunder part, they might as well have dropped the lizard part, too, and got rid of all the "saur" names. But they didn't. And I refused to care enough to learn the new names.
Dinosaur name-changing ruined my interest in dinosaurs until I read Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park, which was a first-rate sci-fi novel by a guy who refused to let his work be marketed as sci-fi, because when he started out, science fiction put a cap on the number of books you'd sell. He wrote for a much wider audience than sci-fi aficionados, so he was correct to refuse that label back when he started.
Crichton made me care about dinosaurs -- and got me to remember the names of dinosaurs that were completely unheard-of back in the 1950s. (Velociraptor never came up. Pterodactyl was the only flyer we knew about.)
I was also intrigued by the then-controversial hypothesis that dinosaurs did not go extinct, it's just that the only ones who made it through the Extinction-Level Event happened to be feathered flyers. You know, birds.
But my interest has extended only to watching the generally-very-good Jurassic movies, and even they gave up on actual dinosaurs and had to invent new genetically engineered ones.
However, I downloaded a dinosaur book from Audible.com, Steve Brusatte's The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World. Brusatte is a serious and important dinosaur scientist, who knows about all the old dinosaur scientists and actually knows and has opinions of all the current ones.
The book isn't anything that could have been written when I was a kid. That's because in the 1950s nobody knew about DNA (we were still talking about "genes and chromosomes") and the picture of dinosaur evolution was just beginning to emerge.
But the picture is way fuller now, and this book is a very good introduction to where dinosaurs came from, how and when they emerged, how they came to dominate the zöosphere, how they changed over time, and finally how the big four-legged guys died out, how hairy egg-eating rats began to make their big move toward becoming, you know, us, and how only the feathered bipeds kept the dinosaur team in the game up to the present.
I like to look at the crows on our patio and think of them as small dinosaurs, with their smarter-than-you-think attitude, their patience, their willingness to allow squirrels (whom they could kill with a single peck to their furry little heads) to "chase" them from the seeds they're monopolizing, and I think, maybe this is how some of the tyrannosaurs behaved. When they weren't particularly hungry.
Lots of myths are dispelled in the pages of The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs. The whole tyrannosaur family had a lot more variety than I had supposed, and archaeological evidence has clarified a lot of their hunting and eating habits.
Even in bones whose DNA is unrecoverable, the elemental composition of the bones can tell scientists a lot about the dinosaur diet, and there have been so many discoveries that we can now talk about the "usual" disposition of fossils and what it tells us about the dinosaurs' lives.
But for me, the most exciting thing was the movement through time. I hadn't realized that the crodilians were earlier than dinosaurs, with some truly mammoth specimens that make our current crop of crocs and gators look like kids playing in the yard.
And those swimming dinosaurs weren't dinosaurs at all -- true dinosaurs lived on land (even if they also flew).
It's a book that not only tells you the results of scientific work, Brusatte also gives us a good picture of how the work is done, and how human personalities figure into the research. It's not an autobiography or a memoire, it's definitely about the science. But any kid who wants to grow up to be a paleontologist should read this book to get an understanding of what that actually means.
After all, I entered college as an archaeology major. Only during the first semester did I come to understand two things: 1. Physical anthropology is an actual science and you have to study anatomy like a doctor would, and 2. What I liked about archaeology was reading books about the discoveries, whereas the actual work of discovering stuff is mostly about going to the hottest and driest, or hottest and dampest, places on Earth and digging in the hot sun for day after day, making barely detectable progress.
Or it was sitting in the dank basement of a museum somewhere, sorting through fragments of clay pots from some ancient site, trying to find enough pieces to reassemble some credible portion of a single pot.
All the coolest stuff was actually being done by linguists, and while I loved and love linguistics, I also knew that I had a hard enough time holding English, Spanish, and Portuguese in my head at the same time. Ugaritic and Mayan and whatever-the-heck Linear A is were more than my brain could handle. I know enough to understand a phrase like "the Eteocretan language of the 1st millennium bc" but not much beyond that. I was not going to be the one who deciphered Mayan script or Linear A.
Instead I changed my major to theatre, which is where I was spending all my time anyway. My philosophy was: Study what you love. Later, I realized my philosophy should have been, "Learn to love to study something that you can use to support a family," but hey, some people get rich writing, directing, or starring in plays and movies, so why not me?
This is exactly the reasoning that has so many kids breaking their hearts because there just aren't that many open slots in the NBA.
So future paleontologists who need a dose or reality, read The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, not just for the dinosaurs, but also for the picture the book gives you of the scientific life by one of the more successful practitioners. Remember that you probably won't be so lucky. And it hasn't made him rich.
If you want rich, study the life of Bill Gates and realize: That's the guy who should have written The Art of the Deal, not the guy who inherited millions in money and property from his dad and managed not to lose it all.
Because there was one deal that Bill Gates negotiated, way back when nobody heard of him and he hadn't done anything except sound and look really smart, which made his fortune: When IBM hired Gates to write the operating system for the IBM PC, all Gates ever did was to port the old CP/M operating system, with all of its commands, to a new Intel-driven processor. No exceptional brainwork needed, just competence.
But the deal was this: Gates somehow came out of it with the right to sell the same operating system to other computer makers, as long as he took the IBM name off it.
Thus we got MS-DOS (just CP/M with delusions of grandeur) and then Windows -- which entirely consists of ideas generated in the Xerox PARC project or inherited by them from the SRI International group in Menlo Park, California.
Gates never invented anything. Microsoft's entire history consists of monopolistic practices and bald-faced corporate "borrowing" from people who actually invented things that worked.
That's how you become a genius businessman -- make deals that work to your advantage in ways that the other party never conceived of. Now Gates is still in the personal computer business, and IBM isn't.
But if you have raised ethical children, and they are considering a scientific career, you should encourage them -- but also acquaint them with sources like The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaur that show just enough of what goes on behind the scenes to encourage the kids who belong in the field and discourage the ones who, like me, would hate doing the actual work.
No matter your age or career interests, however, I assure you that if you want to know about dinosaurs, this is as close to up-to-the-minute as you're going to get in science books aimed at the general public.
Last week the column I submitted ran ridiculously long, because I included the saga of my hate affair with the methodology of medically-required stool samples, as a precursor or avoider of invasive and nauseating colonoscopies.
However, though I tried to deal with the subject with the same exquisite sensitivity and aplomb that I brought to my review of toilet paper a decade or so ago (winner: Still Cottonelle, especially the Mega Roll version of Cottonelle Clean Care), it was about a third of the column, and when there wasn't room, that was the part we left out.
A few days later, both I and my fearless editors decided that my level of detail was not right for a paper that people sometimes read while eating breakfast. So let me skip the details and share only the conclusion with you:
The technology of collecting the material for a diagnostic sample is now perfectly engineered and is so tidy you don't even have to wash your hands. (Wash them anyway. Come on.) Everything works exactly as advertised.
So don't let fastidiousness prevent you from getting the lab analysis done. If signs of cancer show up, then they'll do the colonoscopy and you'll be glad they did, because if you have polyps that need removing, or even fullblown cancer, you want to find out about it now, not later when it has already spread to other organs.
I know, you're not going to live forever. But is your ingrained aversion to even thinking about poop worth dying over? No. It isn't. Get the lab work done.
There, that's the short version. The no-visualization version, at least compared to the original. Get the sample and do the labwork, people over 50 with no family history of colon cancer. (With a family history, the colonoscope is coming out right away.)
In a world where people can name a child "Colin" and some people even pronounce that name with a long O instead of a short one, so it's an exact homophone for "colon," we can certainly be grown-up enough to overcome our phobias and do what it takes to prevent needless early death.
And, for those who care (and now that my mother is gone, it's a markedly shorter list), my lab results were perfectly clean. I'm going to die eventually, but apparently not from colon cancer, or at least not soon.
Harry S. Truman was U.S. President when I was born, though by the time I became old enough to understand language, the only presidents I knew were President Eisenhower (of the U.S.) and President David O. McKay (of the LDS Church). Both of them figured in the nightly prayers my parents taught me to say.
I never prayed for President Truman, or knew anything about him except that he succeeded to the presidency when FDR died, until James Whitmore starred in Give 'em Hell, Harry!
Then, like everybody else, I fell in love with Truman ... as portrayed by James Whitmore, who was also wonderful in The Shawshank Redemption and as William Benteen in the Twilight Zone episode "On Thursday We Leave for Home," among many other roles.
More stuff came up about Truman in histories of World War II, the Korean War, and other books, but with The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That Changed the World, by A.J. Baime, I got my first real closeup of the man during the most crucial time in his Presidency.
Baime does a fine job of confining most of his narrative to those first four months of Truman's presidency, but it was essential to understanding that period for us to know how Truman got to be President, what kind of man he was, and why he was so ill-prepared for the job that everyone knew he was going to have.
All the people close to Franklin Delano Roosevelt knew that even as he ran for reelection in 1944, he was a dying man. They only hoped he would live long enough to accomplish his far-reaching dreams: an international organization that would succeed where the League of Nations had failed; a positive relationship with the Soviet Union; progress toward his liberal and open-hearted vision of what American society should be.
It seems logical that FDR's planning should have included Harry S. Truman, the Senator he plucked from near obscurity to be his running mate. After all, if he died before his plans had been accomplished, Truman would be the guy who might be able to continue his work.
But FDR's ego was such that it was inconceivable that a nobody like Truman could possibly accomplish anything on the scale of the Great Work FDR was doing.
So Truman was simply not in the loop on anything. Not only did he never hear a thing about the atomic bomb that was near the point of testing and using when FDR died, he didn't know about anything else.
However, to be fair to FDR, he didn't single Truman out for exclusion. FDR was famous -- no, he was notorious -- for hiding everything from everybody. You would go into a meeting with him and come away convinced that FDR was completely on your side. Then, when nothing happened as a result of that meeting, you would gradually come to realize that he hadn't actually promised to do anything.
He never did. His complete secretiveness led him to think he was a match for "Uncle Joe" Stalin in their meetings, but unlike FDR, Stalin wasn't secretive, he simply lied right to your face and made ridiculous demands, and signed agreements he had no intention of keeping. FDR was a deceiver, but he had never faced a liar on the scale of Josef Stalin.
The only person he fooled, really, was Winston Churchill, who seems to have genuinely believed that he and FDR were great friends. They never were. There is no sign that FDR even liked Churchill or wanted to spend any time with him. It's just that Churchill was the only thing standing between Hitler and domination of world trade through control of the seas.
By the time FDR dies in the book, I, for one, am relieved to see him go. He won the confidence of the American people by projecting an optimistic attitude, but his policies prolonged the Depression, and instead of leading the people to oppose Hitler and Imperial Japan, he took pathetic baby steps to keep England alive and to hamper Japan's conquest of China while public opinion took care of itself.
Meanwhile, in The Accidental President, we see that in every way except being a real part of FDR's administration, Truman was ready to be, not just an adequate President, but a great one. Though his political career had been created by the Pendergast Machine in Kansas City, Missouri, Truman was always an honest judge; no one ever made a charge of corruption against him that had any truth in it, because he took no bribes.
Unlike politicians like Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, Truman did not get rich while in office -- or out of it. There was no Harry Truman Foundation funneling money to friends. And Truman was never arrogant and condescending while in office -- his friends from before remained his friends, and he kept up his poker game with the same players as long as he could.
Regular folks in his hometown of Independence, Missouri, would say about him, "Nothing special about Harry. It could have been pretty much anybody here in Independence who got to be President, and they'd do pretty much the same job he's doing."
That might not sound like praise -- in fact, to someone like FDR, a true elitist, that would have sounded like savage criticism. But Truman would have known exactly what they meant, and it was that attitude that won him election in 1948, when the war was over, his own party was divided by two splinter candidates, Democrat Henry Wallace running as a Progressive and Democrat Strom Thurmond running as a pro-segregation States' Rights Democrat ("Dixiecrat").
In the event, Truman beat Republican Thomas E. Dewey even though Thurmond and Wallace both got more than 1.1 million popular votes and even though Thurmond even got 39 electoral votes, including a lone elector from Tennessee who went off the farm and voted for Thurmond instead of Truman. Truman's popular vote was larger than the other three candidates combined.
It was, and still is, considered a political miracle. But most of it probably came from that image of Truman developed in his first four months as President: a just-folks guy like any other hard-working, persistent survivor of the Great War and the Great Depression.
But for anyone who cared to look, the signs were all there. Yes, Truman tried to start a haberdashery with an Army buddy after the Great War, and it failed, but so did a lot of businesses, and he stuck it out. Yes, he ended up having to sell off the family farm as he supported his family through other work, but that was happening to many thousands of farmers, and at least he didn't end up like so many Dust Bowl victims, trucking off to the Central Valley of California to pick vegetables.
Truman picked himself up and, through hard work and rock solid integrity, kept on going. Pendergast picked him to run for U.S. Senate, not because Truman was a good machine pol, but because he was widely known not to be a puppet in Pendergast's hands. And Truman ran for office because he was asked to, not because he ever had any lofty political ambitions.
When FDR -- quite out of the blue, in everyone's opinion -- named Truman as his running mate at the 1944 Democratic Party convention, the one thing everyone knew, but nobody could say out loud, was that whoever was FDR's Vice President would probably end up President before -- long before -- FDR's fourth term was over.
All of that was prelude. Baime does a superb job of setting the stage without doing a full-blown biography, and then gives us a detailed account of where the geopolitical situation was and what Truman did with it as he learned, on the job, what was really going on.
Many historians have come to believe that Truman is surely in the top ten of U.S. Presidents, and maybe in the top five. Much of his reputation comes from that hard-fought election of 1948, and from his dealings with prima donna General Douglas MacArthur, who was largely hated by his soldiers but loved by the Taft (ultra-conservative) wing of the Republican Party.
But when you read The Accidental President, or listen to it as narrated by Tony Messano, you will realize that Harry Truman was not created by the presidency, he was more ready for it -- despite FDR's secretiveness -- than most men who have held the office.
It's well worth reading, not only because it's a fascinating period of history in which the roots of most of our history since then were formed or forming, but also because it reminds us that it's better to have a President with a solid, honorable character, and let him learn on the job, than have someone who is "ready" to be President, but who has no honor.
Truman was, from his confusing first day in office, a better man than his predecessor, and a better President, in my opinion. Truman wasn't playing mind games with everyone who came into his office -- or with anyone. He conducted high-level diplomacy in the same no-b.s. way, much to the confusion of the Russians, despite the fact that they had so many highly placed spies and recording devices depriving Truman and his team of any kind of privacy during summit meetings.
I can imagine how baffled they were to realize that what Truman said about U.S. policy in meetings with Stalin or top Soviet officials was exactly the same as what he said in private with his top advisers and Cabinet officials.
O for that time, and for a person like that as head of our country.
But you know the old saying, "God protects fools, drunks, and the United States." I hope it's still true.
The Christmas season approaches, and we're continuing the tradition of offering some of my books, signed and personalized to your gift recipient, through our local Greensboro Barnes & Noble at Friendly Center.
This spares you and me the need to attend a single book signing on a certain day, and you don't have to wait in any lines longer than the checkout line at the bookstore.
Barnes & Noble will take orders by email at CRM2795@bn.com. They will not be taking orders over the phone. They will ship anywhere in the U.S. Remote buyers will pay the actual shipping costs, but there's no charge beyond the ordinary price of the books to local customers who pick them up in the store.
The last day to place out-of-town orders is 10 December, but local orders can be placed as late as 17 December, for pickup before Christmas.
We don't offer this with every title -- just a few that Barnes & Noble orders especially for this purpose and keeps on hand until the end of the Christmas buying season.
Here is the list of books available in this program -- until the store runs out of a particular title:
Leading the group is my newest book, A Town Divided by Christmas, which came out just this past Tuesday. It's the story of two scientists who come to conduct a genetic study in a North Carolina town, and find that, in the best Hallmark Christmas movie tradition, there is love waiting for them -- if they're willing to change their lives enough to accommodate it.
With any luck, you'll enjoy it as romance and as comedy. But of course, a book with a Christmas setting needs to be read before Christmas, so that's one title you may want to look at first -- perhaps to see if you enjoy it, and then to send copies as gifts to people you think would also like reading it.
A Town Divided by Christmas has scientists in it, but it is not science fiction by any rational definition. No space ships. No aliens. Not in the future. Just people of today doing their best to lead happy lives constrained by the needs of others and the requirements of making a living.
Here are the titles that we're offering to those who would like autographed and personalized copies to give as gifts this Christmas, starting now:
A Town Divided by Christmas
Ender's Game - gift edition hardback
Ender's Game - Young Adult trade edition (exactly the same text as in the edition for adults)
Ender's Shadow - Young Adult trade edition
Children of the Fleet - hardcover and mass market
The Lost Gate
A War of Gifts (an Ender novel from his time in Battle School)
If you don't care whether the book is autographed and personalized, then you can buy it in the store and take it home. But if you want the personalization and autograph, you will buy it but leave it with the store, and on Mondays I will come in and sign whatever books are waiting for me.
This offer is from our local Barnes & Noble only. The national chain and the Barnes & Noble website have nothing to do with this, so they won't know what you're talking about if you try to participate through them.
In addition, signed (but not personalized) copies of many of my books can be ordered directly from my own online bookstore at Hatrack.com -- including my earlier Christmas book Zanna's Gift, which I think may be the best story I ever wrote. Give us a look at http://www.hatrack.com/store/store.cgi
on the art and business of science fiction writing.
Over five hours of insight and advice.
Recorded live at Uncle Orson's Writing Class in Greensboro, NC.
Available exclusively at OSCStorycraft.com