Friday, June 27, 2014

Excerpt from a work in progress (not ready to give out the title yet)

NOTE: When I retired, I had a one-year, a five-year, and a ten-year plan, depending on how long I stayed healthy. The one-year plan was to get that damned textbook off my desk (achieved! 9th Ed of FOUNDATIONS OF PARASITOLOGY). The five-year plan was to get some piece of fiction published, by a real publisher (I'm about 2/3 the way through that plan, not entirely successful yet). The ten-year plan was to make some money. Right now one of my fiction pieces, a perfect murder, is available on (search for BE CAREFUL, DR. RENNER), and will soon be published as an e-book by my agency, along with the sequel (THE STITCHER FILE). The following excerpt is from a work that resulted from a comment many years ago by a family friend: "John, nobody cares about worms and snails. If you want people to read your stuff, you need to write about sex, violence, and religion." Here's the excerpt (pages 304-306 out of about 350 so far):

The public has an enormous interest in trials for, I believe, the following reason: they are microscopic illustrations of what most people think are timeless cosmic forces at work. Thus trials hold a certain morbid fascination for us, especially in the west—the global west, that is, the cultures strongly influenced by the tenets of Christianity. Most religions, however well they
function as sources of personal strength in times of stress, fail miserably as cosmologies. Species, individuals, ideas, rumors, innovations, societies, planets, stars, and galactic systems all evolve, degenerate, and change progressively. These changes are irreversible and largely unexpected. In most cases we construct the future rather than predict it. In all instances, the evolutionary end point is death. Species become extinct, stars grow cold, ideas and rumors eventually dissipate, new technological discoveries get replaced by still newer ones, and human beings die. But Christianity claims we do not die, and the more fundamentalist sects declare that sinners and non-believers spend eternity in a place called “Hell.”
I have this picture of a human spirit appearing at the gates to Heaven, being judged, then either admitted or sent to Hell. Such images are, I think, the source of our fascination with criminal proceedings. All of the basic elements of Christianity—origin, sin, judgment, fate—are compressed, metaphorically, in a trial, especially when the defendant is accused of violating one of the Ten Commandments. These are not really cynical comments, just Jack Blake's interpretation of certain aspects of his profession and the public’s view of it.
A trial, however, is as much an evolutionary event as the appearance of a new species. So its progress must be built, made from existing and manifested occurrences, rather than predicted, no less than a work of art, or literature, must be built. You cannot always know in advance what raw materials a witness will provide, or how much of your laboriously constructed edifice will be destroyed by testimony you cannot—let us say, are not prepared at the moment to—refute. Thus Eleanor Haddock becomes a problem. She not only saw Stanley walk away from the church a few moments before the explosions, she also saw him install the dynamite and hook up the wiring. Or so she claims. None of these claims are, of course, true.
Single witness incrimination in the absence of corroborative evidence is a problem for juries as well as for defenses. Technically: single witnesses don’t fulfill the criterion of beyond all reasonable doubt. What they do accomplish within the artistic medium known as “courtroom” however, is to legitimatize massive amounts of circumstantial evidence. Suddenly coincidence is explained so becomes fact, instead of conjecture, in the mind of a juror. Prosecution and defense alike, all bound by legal, ethical, and judicial constraints, are nevertheless free to try to convince a sample of the electorate that the plausible is indeed true. Or, conversely, that the implausible is true, or, I suppose, that the truth is implausible. But even a single witness can play havoc with the best made plans of defense attorneys.
During direct, led by Shivvers, I struggle to keep a straight face. Periodically I glance over at Stanley; for the first time since we met that interested day decades ago in the Fillmore County courthouse, he seems to be paying attention to something other than himself. His eyebrows are drawn together by his squint; his lips are tight; his head is cocked, almost as if he’s a little hard of hearing in one ear. Of all the people in the world who might have been the one who is supposed to have seen Stanley walk away from the Cathedral that night, Eleanor Haddock is the most unlikely. Upon cross examination, I learn why she has survived all these years: she’s a superb actress. She also knows my client well enough, and me too, that she’s confident I will not call him to the stand to testify in his own defense. But Eleanor Haddock on the stand, as a prosecution witness, changes everything. Suddenly, Stanley on the stand is starting to look like a real possibility. I strain to keep from smiling.
“What is your current address, Ms. Haddock?” I begin cross examination innocently enough.


Sunday, June 15, 2014


This text is an excerpt from BERNICE AND JOHN: FINALLY MEETING YOUR PARENTS WHO DIED A LONG TIME AGO, available as an e-book on

So John comes home from the office, pours himself a stiff belt of Ballentine’s Scotch, eats dinner that Bernice has prepared, or, later, when she is increasingly ill, dinner that he prepares, then spreads his maps on the dining room table. Sometime he blows smoke rings. Always he studies drilling reports, makes marks on his maps, notes depths and formations, then draws what he believes to be the habitat of oil. What does the information look like that he uses to find this precious fossil sunlight? It looks like this:

Yoakum - Wasson, NE. (Clear Fork), New Well, Occidental Permian Ltd, Houston, TX, Well # 146, Wasson North Clearfork Unit, 5281 fsl 97 fel, Zone 7854' to 8238', 2-27-04, 365 bbls oil 1057 mcf gas 20 bbls wtr, pumping, 8.90 mi NE of Denver City.

The data are reported as oil field name, type of completion, operator’s name, operator’s office city, well number, lease name, legal description of tract, distance from nearest lease line, producing interval or zone, date tested, initial potential, production method, and distance and direction from the nearest town. This is the raw undigested knowledge of petroleum geology. It’s the rough equivalent of sighting a single bird of a single species, to an ornithologist, and like birds, it comes across his vision as hundreds of such items, some of value to his larger quest—food and shelter for his family, a meaningful life, his children playing the piano, his friends talking politics over a glass of whiskey and a deck of cards—others of value to his immediate needs: a clue to the habitat of oil. Once in a while there is closure; a name, lease, location, and report is familiar to him from months of research and negotiation that end with heavy equipment down in the blackjacks and poison ivy, the roar and clank of engine and tongs, red-brown mud gurgling from a pipe into the slush pit, and a mile of pipe stacked in a derrick.
At Tidewater, and later at Youngblood, John’s responsibility and vested interest end with the derrick out in the pasture. At some point, however, he comes to believe that what he is doing for others, he could just as easily be doing for himself. The American dream, the American audacity, the American gambler, comes home to 2605 Elmhurst in the form of a gentle man with confidence in his own mental capacities. He quits Youngblood and hangs out his shingle. John Janovy—Petroleum Geologist, reads his business card. Half a century later, with John Janovy—Petroleum Geologist cremated and his ashes spread on the wind for 30 of those years, I unfurl his maps and begin to study the tiny lettering, the symbols, the lines that he made while squinting through the smoke. What made one man believe that he could take information available to all and turn it into a discovery and thus into a livelihood, if not a raison d’etre? I don’t know. But I do know it can be done. Novelists, artists, musicians, film makers, politicians do it; why can’t petroleum geologists? Evidently they can. We were never destitute, never without food and clothing, never without books and newspapers, and never without piano lessons.
Digging through the remnants of this life, however, I’m struck by the sheer richness of his interests, nay, his obsessions. Boxes filled with notebooks, notebooks filled with pages, each page filled with stamps, lightly affixed, or sometimes in glassine envelopes, all organized, classified, categorized, and the vast majority residing in a perfect India ink frame, hand drawn, in fine lines, with German drafting instruments, at only God knows what time of night or day and at the expense of what other activities. Boxes filled with boxes filled with coins—Guatemalan coins, Colombian coins, Mexican coins, coins from nations now gone in political upheavals of the late 20th Century—and files filled with correspondence about coins. To his friend Warren Calvert, a man I remember for his feisty attitude and his strange Ohio accent, his constant sense of having a good time, there is a letter, or rather a copy, on flimsy copy paper, carefully dated, and filed. John and Warren are discussing the potential value of coins issued by a leper colony. There are no typos, no smudges, on this carbon copy. There are no typos, no erasure smudges, on any of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of carbon copies of everything from letters to a Hong Kong supplier of stereo equipment to the United States Government Printing Office to accompany a check for $1.75 for a publication on ecology of the desert Southwest.
The tape recordings are next. Colombian music, piano music, big band dance music, sound effects, percussion ensembles, and among the boxes and boxes of reel to reel tape, his son playing the piano—as an adult long gone from home, on a friend’s Steinway grand—and his father and son playing the fiddle and banjo, respectively, and finally, a recording of the telephone conversation in which he tells Rachel he’s bought her a ring. I salvage the large TEAC tape deck, put it away on a bottom shelf back home, and stare at it periodically. The rest of the stereo equipment goes to our son, along with the hand built, by John’s hands, and beautifully finished, perfectly hinged, cabinet to contain it.
A hundred years from now, if the world is still a relatively stable and safe place for an American, and if our own son, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and their children, have lived long and healthy lives, this cabinet will be a treasured antique. The LP records it once held, however, go into a garage sale, and what doesn’t sell ends up at Goodwill. What he has designed, with his own brain, and made, with his own two hands, is art; what he has bought, a technology evolving at breakneck speed, gets trashed. If one man’s obsessions can tell us anything, it’s a warning to save the art and don’t let your sense of self worth get hitched to any evolving technology.
Some place in the world Mozart is playing. And Glenn Gould. Eventually, I declare, to nobody in particular, I will find that tape he made of my grandfather talking about the good old days and play it. I will take notes, then decipher those notes, writing somewhere on paper—maybe acid-free paper—with ink, not ballpoint that fades in the sun but permanent ink, India ink, like on his maps showing the habitat of oil. Then I will put those notes away somewhere. And somebody will find them, somewhere, some time, in the rubble of our existence, and marvel at what those notes say about coming to America in the late 19th Century, watching your wife die young, and rearing four kids, one of whom turns out to be a petroleum geologist with plenty to say about the world’s supply of oil, a geologist whose words ring true, indeed more and more true if not outright prophetic, decades after his death: “Foreign crude will kill this country.”

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Scientific illiteracy on the part of politicians

In response to some Facebook posts regarding the loss of Louisiana coastline, here is an excerpt from INTELLIGENT DESIGNER: EVOLUTION FOR POLITICIANS (the full book is available on kindle, nook, and, and also from as a nice paperback):

Besides the factors of responsibility, approval, and scrutiny, it also is important to remember that mobs want answers and solutions from their leaders, not questions and problems. In general, science tends to produce more questions and problems than answers and solutions. This tendency derives from the fundamental nature of science as an activity and probably is best explained by the metaphor of an Island of Understanding in a Sea of Ignorance. Remember that as an island grows in size (increase in understanding), its shoreline (the boundary between understanding and ignorance) also grows. All the questions and problems lie along this boundary. In addition, to continue with the metaphor, the larger an island gets, the more geographically diverse it tends to be; this principle is well illustrated by existing real islands. If that geographic diversity involves mountains, then we have a high perch from which to observe the sea of ignorance. Routinely such observation shows that sea to be much larger than we imagined when we were only down on our hands and knees in the sand studying nature at the [metaphorical] shore.
The familiar case of New Orleans vs. Hurricane Katrina beautifully illustrates all these points about breadth of knowledge, comparative thinking, observations, history, and the basic properties of science. Breadth of knowledge is perhaps the most important factor that should have been considered in the political decisions involving the Mississippi Delta ecology. A broadly educated politician would never simply ask how much money an ecological project—for example, a system of levees and an artificial river (the New Orleans shipping channel)—costs, or how much money the public is willing to spend on such a project. Instead, as a minimum, a broadly educated politician considers history, socio-economic conditions, the probability of disaster, the quality of expertise consulted, whether or not that expertise is in agreement with other expertise from diverse sources, the nature of observations, the process of analysis, and whether the process itself has obvious flaws or internal contradictions. Thus to really assess the adequacy of New Orleans levees, one would have to study the Mississippi Delta using approaches that would be quite familiar to any evolutionary biologist.
Research over the past half century, an activity increasing both the size of our island of understanding and the length of its shoreline boundary with the sea of ignorance, clearly revealed (produced) more questions and problems about the Mississippi Delta region than answers and solutions. Such research involved new technologies such as satellite imagery, geographic information system software, and socio-economic analysis, as well as experience derived from study of the Achafalaya River and its basin using more conventional methods—measurement of stream flow, sedimentation and erosion rates, pressures on diversion dams and gates, etc. Over the years, the scientific community came to realize that the initial problem and its solution, namely, keeping water out of New Orleans by building levees, was actually only a small part of a much larger problem, specifically, long term management of the interrelationship between a nation’s economy and one of the world’s largest rivers.
This kind of collective activity, in which a truly massive ecosystem is the primary player at the center of a highly integrated, far-reaching, transportation and financial network, does not lend itself to governance by mobs that want answers and solutions instead of questions and problems from their leaders. Instead, this kind of system requires almost Jeffersonian dignity, patience, foresight, and breadth, traits that don’t survive well in our Third Millennium media-driven electioneering environment.

(INTELLIGENT DESIGNER, as well as TEN MINUTE ECOLOGIST and other Janovy books are available on kindle, nook, smashwords, and from