Tuesday, July 09, 2024

New Squid Species

 We have no idea how many species of squid there are. The giant and colossal squids top 13 meters (allegedly a lot more - unproven, but fun to imagine), and more are discovered all the time. This one drew attention because, according to cephalopod author extraordinaire Danna Staaf, the eggs are twice the size of those in known species.   

THE classic giant squid drawing by Prof. A. E. Verrill.  

Monday, July 08, 2024

Shark Movies Good and Bad

 It's Shark Week!

Most of the stuff on TV this week isn't much more realistic than shark movies tend to be. Especially when you get to Megalodon, which of course they immediately do.  SPOILER: It's extinct.

A couple of movies I saw lately:

One of the better entries (or entrees?) is The Shallows. I don't know how realistic the shark's persistence is (it has a decaying whale carcass to munch on, why stalk Blake Lively?) and the final battle is REALLY silly. 

That out of the way, it's a terrific movie, with unrelenting tension and a superb performance by Lively. The director did something unusual in Hollywood but very smart here by keeping it to 80 minutes: he knew he couldn't stretch the confrontation out forever. 

One critic called it a Sports Illustrated photo shoot with a shark, but she did Lively a disservice. Sure the camera spends a lot of time focused on a lovely woman in a swimsuit, but she gets less sexy as the film goes on: unlike some stars who don't look convincing when they are "dirtied up" for a role, Lively (with help from the makeup artist) sells it: she's miserable and beat up and bloodied and sunburned and at one point near despair. 

Also, once she decides to fight, her McGuyvering with the few objects she can reach is fun to watch. It's not Jaws, but it ain't bad.

Then we have Under Paris. Another shark B movie, but you can't hate it, because it commits 100% to its idiotic premise, tossing off science-y explanations for everything in a relentless drive toward a furious feeding frenzy of an over the top finale. Everyone plays it straight and earnest and you root for both sides. This probably is not original with me, but why not call it "Chomps-Elysees?"

Just keep swimming...

Saturday, July 06, 2024

Review: "A Hunt for Justice" against wildlife poaching

 A Hunt for Justice: The True Story of an Undercover Wildlife Agent

Lucinda Delaney Schroeder

Lyons Press, 2006, 270pp

 A compelling account from a law enforcement branch most of us know little about. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has its own agents who often go undercover as hunters to bust poachers. This book centers on the author’s time in Alaska, with no way to call for help and an unreliable civilian informant partner, as she gathers evidence on a major poaching operation. The poachers are hunting guides who assure their clients a kill, even from a protected area or species, by any means necessary. That includes illegally exhausting and herding prey with airplanes and even doing the shooting and giving the client the credit.

We know, since she wrote the book, that Lucinda survives, but it’s VERY chancy, and the author’s unadorned but very effective writing keeps the tension up at all times. Lucinda's toughness, hunting skills, and ability to translate for disgruntled Spanish clients get her in the good graces of the ringleader, who she knows will kill her if she's discovered. The danger rises with the arrival of a new client - a man she once fined for poaching and who will recognize her if they meet.  She finally gets enough evidence and gets out of the hunting camp alive, elated: only to learn she has to get statements from Spanish and German clients of the illegal operation. They are back in Europe, with no reason to cooperate except she’s holding their trophies in the US. We get many more tense moments as Lucinda, who seems to exaggerate her authority a good bit to get the job done, wheedles and presses until she obtains the needed statements in Spain (Germany will not cooperate.)

She closes with a list of the jail time, fines, forfeited equipment, and forfeited trophies meted out as she – and the animals – finally get justice. It’s a very good book, still relevant today, by an incredibly courageous woman who gives us a window into the scale of poaching and the underfunded, outnumbered agents who try to police it.

Matt Bille is a writer, historian, and naturalist living in Colorado Springs. He can be reached at mattsciwriter@protonmail.com. Website: www.mattbilleauthor.com.

Read Matt's Latest book, Of Books and Beasts: A Cryptozoologist's Library. This unique reference offers a friendly skeptic's 400 reviews of books on cryptozoology, zoology, related sciences, and cryptozoological fiction.
Watch for Matt's cryptozoological horror novel Death by Legend, coming soon from Hangar 1!

Book Review: Meet the first American spacewomen in THE SIX

Loren Grush

The Six: The Untold Story of America’s First Women Astronauts

Scribner, 2023, 422pp.

 There’s a lot of history and intrigue surrounding the first American women to break the space barrier, and Grush’s book provides an outstanding exploration of it all. Grush deftly balances the astronaut’s personal lives and professional achievements, never losing sight of either., I learned more about Sally’s life in particular, both before and after her historic space flight and her nine years at NASA. While there are small errors like calling the T-38 trainer a “fighter,” or women in WWII flying "jets," they are few. Grush covers the astronauts’ selection, their often-surprised reaction to being picked, the sexism they encountered (not as bad as might have been expected from a fraternity made up mostly of fighter pilots, but still existed and had to face down, and encounters with a press corps that sometime asked idiotic questions. Grush follows each woman through her first spaceflight, with little-remembered highlights like surgeon Rhea Seddon “operating” with a bone saw to make the “flyswatter” to trip a switch on a recalcitrant satellite. The women prepared for space in Apollo-era suits that didn’t fit, in a buoyancy lab building with no private changing area, and with a gaggle of press and NASA handlers that swarmed around them like Texas mosquitos. One item I'd not read was the engineer who became so enamored of Judy Resnick that he ran out to chock the wheels of her T-38 after a trip. (That sounds humorous, but it got to the stalking level and official action was needed.) The women were actually aware that they were the pioneers, and the options for women coming after them depended on their performance. They drove themselves hard for perfection and volunteered for duties they thought would advance their progress toward flights.

Then came the Challenger accident, which killed one of the Six, Judy Resnick, and changed all their lives. Especially altered was Sally Ride’s, as she served on the Rogers Commission, helped bring the O-ring problem to light, and was, incredibly, “as a woman,” asked to pick the color for the cover of the final report. She went on to helm the Ride Report about NASA’s future and turn down requests to be NASA Administrator before leaving the agency for good.

As a space historian myself, I also appreciated Grush’s discussion at the end about the primary and secondary sources used in the book.

This is a first-rate book about a critical chapter in the history of space exploration.

Matt Bille is a historian and writer in Colorado Springs. His 2004 book The First Space Race chronicled the Sputnik-Explorer-Vanguard competition of the 1950s.


Saturday, June 08, 2024

Space Exploration: An Epic Week

Even by the standards of an Apollo kid, this was a memorable week. 

We had two groundbreaking missions, the loss of an Apollo hero and an announcement of an upcoming film project. And that’s just the stuff connected to human flight. 

It kicked off with the delayed flight of Boeing’s Starliner on June 5. There was a lot of prelaunch discussion about taking off with a leak of helium (used to pressurize thrusters) but the redundant systems made everyone feel the safety margins were satisfied. Still, it got a bit sticky when more leak and thruster problems developed.  Starliner had to hold outside the ISS’s 200m keep out zone until the system was deemed go for docking. Once in, Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams got to work on further troubleshooting the Starliner and running experiments.

Then Thursday brought the second launch of the week was another milestone.  On the fourth launch of SpaceX’s experimental Starship, intended to revolutionize space travel in the next great Earth-to-orbit leap since the Falcon 9 made reusable launchers routine, achieved more of its test objectives than any previous mission, by far: indeed, it orbited, reentered, demonstrated essentially everything except landing on a platform, dropping the booster and spacecraft into the sea at the end of controlled landing sequences that involved flip maneuvers, engine relights, and essentially all the technical steps short of touchdown.  

With a week of triumph came a very hard moment. William “Bill” Anders of Apollo 8 was piloting his T-34A (a vintage trainer) when he crashed into the sea for reasons unknown. 

Anders will forever be remembered for his quick reaction when he saw the stunning 

(Images NASA)

Earthrise over the lunar horizon and grabbed a 35mm camera for one of the iconic photographs of the Space Age, one used ever since to remind humans we are all passengers on Spaceship Earth. He said of the photograph, “We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”

Anders graduated from the Naval Academy in 1955 and served as a fighter pilot in the Air Force. In 1996 he founded the Heritage Flight Museum. Anders became a major general is n the USAF Reserve, held numerous government aerospace leadership posts, and eventually became chair of General Dynamics, retiring in 1994. 

Anders was 90. (The Beechcraft plane entered service as a USAF trainer in 1950: it was also used by the Navy and internationally.)  There will undoubtedly be criticism about whether he should have been flying the acrobatics recorded on video in the 225hp aircraft, at that age, even on a lovely day off Jones Island in San Juan Washington state, but I think Charles Lindbergh has the last word here:

“Any coward can sit at home and criticize a pilot for flying into a mountain in a fog. But I would rather by far die on a mountainside than in bed. What kind of man would live where there is no daring? And is life so dear that we should blame men for dying in adventure? Is there a better way to die?”

A last note of the week was the announcement of an upcoming streaming-service film on Sally Ride. Spielberg’s Amblin Partners will co-produce the Amazon film, and Kristin Stewart will star. The film is based on Meredith E. Bagby’s book The New Guys. It’s a good book, with potential for a great film (and an pic casting challenge, with so many well-known historical figures at NASA and on the Rogers midsession). I do wonder if they will make a serious film or a soap opera. Bagby is involved, not just as seller of the rights but in coproduction, so that's good, but...Fingers crossed. 

Matt Bille is a historian and writer in Colorado Springs. His 2004 book The First Space Race chronicled the Sputnik-Explorer-Vanguard competition of the 1950s.


Friday, May 31, 2024

Review: Space War epic Alpha Wave

Alpha Wave (The Sleepers War Book 1) 

Blackstone Publishing; 2023. 764pp.

Jonathan Maberry and the late Weston Ochse take the space war epic in new directions - out into the universe and into the heart - in this gripping tale of resistance.   

Some the elements here, like forgotten or cast-aside supersoldiers and a battle that will remind you of the end of Star Wars: A New Hope, are familiar, if very well done. But there are surprise twists every time things start to look familiar, and cutting through it all is the human element that makes this novel something special. When historian Lexie Chow (a historian hero - I'm on board already) and her handful of Resistance fighters steal an old ship and leave occupied Earth on a desperate, longshot effort to find and wake the Sleepers, they know the entire Flock fleet is looking for them. It's not a spoiler to say the cloak of secrecy shrouding their mission is not as seamless as they think, although I guessed wrong about the source of the threat.

The buildup is very solid. In an analogy made explicit later in the book, it's clear from the outset the humans have fallen into a version of the trap Western militaries have faced against Asian enemies. The ability of cultures like the Chinese and Vietnamese to think in multi-generational terms and devalue the individual life has befuddled generals and empires. The Flock is the galactic master of this strategy, and their ability to play the humble and contrite peace-seekers at the right time is one reason countless planets live under the harsh rule of their taloned feet. There's a great deal of history-based wisdom in here about how resistance movements and dominant societies unfold, flavored by Ochese's expertise as a military intelligence expert, but it never slows the storytelling. (I don't know how the author partnership was done, and it's not obvious to me, but it works pretty seamlessly.)  They offer an original, plausibly written version of how FTL travel is done. 

Things really gets going when our heroes find the Sleepers lied to and abandoned long ago. The authors don't just assume the old solders will jump into the new war. They have to deal with the strangeness of their resurrection, the unexpected abilities, the knowledge of their betrayal, and the loss of loved ones, not to mention the mind-blowing (literally) discovery that somehow they've been in unconscious psychic contact with others, inspiring many of the acts of the Resistance. There's a lot of anguish before they decide there really isn't anything else to do except suit up and go back in.

Meanwhile, the Flock are watching, and the only plan with a chance of working is a crazy one requiring even more courage from the human crew of the former historic artifact Tin Man than from the supersoldiers. One of the great ideas here is that the Flock, in studying humans to keep them in line, hasn't come out unchanged. What they have learned from us about emotions has made some Flock leaders MORE dangerous, more capable of strategizing against us, and more willing to take any number of casualties to subjugate, capture, and exploit humans and superhumans. A Flock who takes the charming third name ("battle name") of Hell is especially good at learning from us - and despising us. Lexie and Sleeper leader Jason Horse, long connected in dreams, try to navigate their connection in real life, touchingly so, as Tin Man hurtles toward a destiny that Jason suspects will be very different than a simple space battle. There's another interested party in this war, with the highest, most personal stakes imaginable, and the way Jason interacts with them will rule the fate of all.

The end of this novel sets us up for a future that's more cosmically consequential than even humans vs. the vast Flock Empire.

The characters and technology all work well here, as they do in Maberry's thrillers. The stuff stored for 200 years (except the complex Sleeper capsules, many of which have failed) is a bit too reliable for me sometimes. The Flock is described and developed well even if the translation of their speech feels a little too human. Hearing that humans "can't wipe their own assess" is a bit startling from a homicidal ostrich. A few editing mistakes, like saying "two men" in one scene when one is a woman, slipped through. 

The authors write human interaction, from philosophy to agonizing decisions to unexpected love and sex, in a way that pulls the reader along, not just to see what happens but to see what these people - and near-people - do under unimagined circumstances. 

So sign on to the Tin Man and venture forth on a quest that offers humanity's last hope - and perhaps an undreamed-of future if we live to see it. This is a saga with more greatness ahead.

Matt Bille is a writer, historian, and naturalist living in Colorado Springs. He can be reached at mattsciwriter@protonmail.com. Website: www.mattbilleauthor.com.

Read Matt's Latest book, Of Books and Beasts: A Cryptozoologist's Library. This unique reference offers a friendly skeptic's 400 reviews of books on cryptozoology, zoology, related sciences, and cryptozoological fiction.
Watch for Matt's cryptozoological horror novel Death by Legend, coming soon from Hangar 1!

Monday, May 13, 2024

Unique book on conservation, A Tale of Two Cranes

 A Talk of Two Cranes: Lessons Learned from 50 Years of the Endangered Species Act 

Prometheus, 2023, 266pp.

Gronewold’s discussion of the 50 years of the EPA is built around the kind of coincidence scientists dream about. Two species, extremely similar to each other AND with very similar conservation stories, in different countries with different approaches to protecting an endangered species.

Gronewold starts by discussing his time as an environmental reporter (where he says reporting was hindered in 2016-2020, not by the Trump administration, but by editors’ insistence on cramming a Trump angle into every story). He spent extended time in Japan, where he became aware of the story of the Japanese population of the red-crowned crane Grus japonensis (the species also lives on the Asian mainland, where it is under threat) and how closely it paralleled that of the whooping crane (Grus americanus). Both were on the edge of extinction: indeed, most American authors felt the whooper’s disappearance was inevitable. Both are now national symbols of conservation success. What can we learn from this?

Gronewold sets his personal story and professional evaluations in a rich landscape that includes everything from Japanese science fiction poetry to the impacts of World War II.  He goes into the global picture of biodiversity and endangered species, where the whooper and some the other species protected by the US Endangered Species Act (ESA) are lights in a darkening picture. He was surprised when the IUCN declared dragonflies, seemingly ubiquitous, are in a global decline. A study of 362 large carnivores of all types showed exactly 12 were improving in conservation status. 

The ESA, he writes, has had an international impact. Many nations have used it as a model. Japan’s 1992 Act on Conservation of Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (ACES) is one example. ACES goes into more detail than ESA about what agency has what responsibilities and how its mandates are executed. Canadian legislation modeled on ESA has also played a vital part io the survival of the two cranes. Different philosophies are in play, though. The ESA solutions focus on habitat preservation above all and will not even consider feeding programs, while the Japanese, in part due to loss of wildlands proportionally greater than the US has suffered, are committed to a long-term program of feeding their cranes in winter. Japanese conservationists are trying to restore bits of marsh in the crane’s habitat in eastern Hokkaido, but major expansions are precluded by the cost of buying and repurposing land. Gronewold discusses the interconnectedness of species and habitat, and how actions taken to benefit one species may damage another’s chances. 

The author muses on de-extinction programs. He says the extinct thylacine might be brought back and supports it, although he admits partly for selfish reasons: he wants to see them. Whether broader de-extinction is desired or possible is left unexplored. 

Gronewold doesn’t attempt definitive answers, but he presents the story of ESA and wildlife conservation, through the lens of these two species, in a way that will make readers think and perhaps even give them hope. 

Friday, May 03, 2024

Extinction, a superb scientific thriller


Douglas Preston 

Extinction. (Forge, 2024)

Wow. This is a terrific thriller, and my favorite of Preston’s solo novels. While I’m a faithful reader of everything by Preston and/or Childs, this might be the most fun I’ve had since it all started with Relic

Preston knows readers will look at his valley of de-extincted Ice Age mammals and think, “Jurassic Park,” so he has fun by having his characters trash the films at every opportunity. While his wealthy entrepreneur and brilliant and slightly mad scientist didn’t bring back any apex predators, the vividly written mammoths, glyptodonts, Irish elk, and others draw a stream of healthy visitors to this beautiful site in Colorado.

The murder of two guests kicks off the thread of an investigation that runs through the book. Agent Cash and Sheriff Colcord conduct a superbly written, suspenseful series of investigations as things get weirder and deaths continue. The company is up to something even stranger than bringing back mammoths, but the investigators don’t know what is or how it’s connected to the murders. A mix of grieving parents, secretive executives, cultists in the forest, and a movie company using mammoths in a Western (go with it) add to the fun and suspense. And when you think you’ve solved the mystery, you haven’t.  

The characters are excellent. Cash is especially notable because most writers would make her Hollywood pretty, not plain and a bit stout. She has a secret past which implies we’ll see her in another book, and I hope so. She and Colcord’s initially prickly partnership changes to professional respect and friendship, not a throwaway sex scene. 

I guessed the first of two twists - that they are breeding Neanderthals. The scientist in chief teaches the surprisingly intelligent “cave men” not just English, but use computers and other modern technology. What could go wrong? How about “everything?” Preston’s take on this subspecies is original and surprising, though the pale skin doesn't mesh with current thought and a super-researcher like Preston has to know this. 

The second twist doesn’t strike until the last chapters, and I didn’t see it coming. I won’t spoil it, but it’s stunning and adds a great deal of emotional weight to the novel. Finally, an Afterword explains the scientific thinking, some of it controversial Preston put into the novel. You’ll be disquieted about both the past and the future. 

There’s not much to nitpick here. All the animals are at the high end of their real-life sizes, but that’s logical if you’re choosing the genes for animals to exhibit. Preston’s ground sloth is too big, though. A “honey wagon” on a movie set is a portable bathroom, not a star’s trailer (unless the character mentioning it is being sarcastic). 

It's a satisfying read in every possible way.  I stayed up late reading this, You will, too. 

Matt Bille is a writer, historian, and naturalist living in Colorado Springs. He can be reached at mattsciwriter@protonmail.com. Website: www.mattbilleauthor.com.

Read Matt's Latest book, Of Books and Beasts: A Cryptozoologist's Library. This unique reference offers a friendly skeptic's 400 reviews of books on cryptozoology, zoology, related sciences, and cryptozoological fiction. Your search for the world's new and undiscovered animals begins here!

Sunday, April 28, 2024

Estes Park Bigfoot Fest, Day 3

 So, that was Estes Park.

I had some side quests, as always. I spotted a used bookstore behind the theater, called Cliffhanger, and of course had to stop in and buy a book of essays by Barry Lopez. I loved the place and promised to say so, so here it is:

 I’d stopped on the way up at The Crossword in Boulder, a place I’d found on my last visit, picking up books on Alaskan wildlife and Colorado legends.

My writer friend from Colorado Springs, Melissa Marie Rolli, was in town for something else and brought her husband and oldest boy over. She and I talked zoology and writing with Ranae Holland while the men did guy stuff. I reconnected with Lija Fisher, who had a booth for her well-written fiction for younger readers, which I call “Jonny Quest does cryptozoology.” She works with Sasquatch Outpost in Bailey, from whose booth I bought some fuzzy gifts.

Obviously, the highlight for me was talking with Ranae Holland, who accepted gifts of my books and looks forward to future chats. She also did a kindness for someone I love: I’ll leave out the details, but I don’t forget such things. So, I’m definitely a fan. She said a lot of things that surprised me and improved my understanding of the Bigfoot world. We didn’t go into it, but her faith and interest in spiritual phenomena must make her a bit of an outsider among skeptics, too. As a Christian, I think, as she does, that there are some things outside science. I tend to tiptoe around that in my science writing, so she gets an extra point for courage in describing how it’s a key part of her worldview.

To expand on that just a little, me, being Christian means I agree some things are nonphysical in nature.  It doesn't mean any particular things: that is, believing in the Divine does not require me to believe in ghosts or mediums or shapeshifting Sasquatches. It is logical that I accept the possibility, but I need evidence for any particular nonphysical thing, and I've not seen it. Wherever Ranae's answers lie, I hope she finds them: if she tells us what she's found, I'll listen.

And Bigfoot? I didn’t see or hear any new evidence of its existence. I’ve put up my own reward of $5,000 to whoever gets the Bigfoot specimen that results in naming the species in a top journal, and I doubt I will pay out – even though I’d be thrilled to do so. Thankfully, the Estes Park gathering had no hint of the sometimes acrimonious and even dangerous conflicts within the Bigfoot community. It was about trading information, buying stuff, hanging out, and having fun, and by those standards it certainly succeeded.

See you next year.

Matt Bille is a writer, historian, and naturalist living in Colorado Springs. He can be reached at mattsciwriter@protonmail.com. Website: www.mattbilleauthor.com.

Read Matt's Latest book, Of Books and Beasts: A Cryptozoologist's Library. This unique reference offers a friendly skeptic's 400 reviews of books on cryptozoology, zoology, related sciences, and cryptozoological fiction. Your search for the world's new and undiscovered animals begins here!


Cryptozoological Fiction Review: Myth Hunter

Myth Hunter: Wendigo Nights

by Shannon Lawrence

Warrior Muse Press, 2024

There's a considerable crossover between straight cryptofiction and urban fantasy. Shannon Lawrence's Myth Hunter: Wendigo Nights adroitly straddles both worlds in a way that offers great characters and plenty of thrills and adventure.

Selina Moonstone is a Myth Hunter, fully human but with some heightened abilities (a little like a Slayer in the Buffyverse, come to think of it). Selina is part-Cherokee, as is the author, who made Selina in her image to avoid trampling on other people’s stories the way many authors do.

Some of Selina's time is spent dealing with “common” cryptids like Bigfoot. Bigfoot here is generally benign, but has to be shooed away from human habitats. She also deals with nasty cryptids like Chupacabras, but they’re hamsters compared to the Wendigo. The Wendigo is a malevolent magical entity that possesses humans. Lawrence’s Wendigo is accurately described as the being of Indigenous legend (here, Cree) not the Bigfoot-y cryptid of pop culture.

Selina’s old mentor and substitute father, Nathan, calls her to Canada for an emergency. He needs her help to deal with a Wendigo – but exactly what help he needs, and why, shakes her to her core. Selina must search desperately for a forgotten ritual no one is even sure exists, dogged by Charles, a cryptozoologist turned cryptid killer. Kudos to Lawrence for dealing with a lot of stuff that gets handwaved by other authors, such as how Selina gets an arsenal of weapons across a national border.

It was a little fuzzy to me how well-known cryptids are - most people don't believe in them, but Selina, needing any help she can get, tells Charles he'll be famous on TV for killing a Wendigo. That’s a quibble, though. The story works, the twists are great, and the big confrontation is a nailbiter. I can visualize the locations easily and immerse myself in the evocative milieu of spirit and myth. Lawrence’s version of an old legend, the Sin Eater, is an original take and adds fun to the story.

I’ve never commented on a sex scene in a book, but this one deserves notice because of its humanity. Short but beautifully written, it's all about touch and emotion, not the frantic gymnastics we're all so sick of.

At the end of the book, Selina’s life has changed in ways I won’t spoil, but we know she has a lot of adventures ahead of her. Readers will be there for it.

Thursday, April 25, 2024

Bigfoot Fest in Estes Park: Day 2

Estes Park Bigfoot Days (Part 2 of 3)

Day 2 was the free festival in Bond Park, with presentations in the Park Theater, which we writers are required by law to describe as “historic.” It’s a wonderfully quirky place, a jumble of colorful pieces from different decades, that first opened in 1913.

By the way, I didn’t prep for this event. I didn’t look up previous presentations or interviews with the Bigfooters because I wanted to come in with no preconceptions and report my observations. Concerning Ranae Holland, I should clarify that we never had a sit-down interview. I saw her presentation, and she graciously fit in several short chats over the two days. She readily okayed my using her words in the blog and didn’t ask to review them: I appreciate that kind of trust. Everything here is from my hand-written notes, and any errors are mine alone.

Saturday morning was beautiful, mostly sunny yet decorated with light snow. There was good music on tap: the Celtic band unreeled some infectious foot-stompers. There were kid play areas, an axe-throwing venue (I managed to embed one without hurting myself), and about 30 vendor tents. Maybe half had Bigfoot-related merchandise. The rest offered outdoor-themed goods, food, cannabis products (insert your “Rocky Mountain High” joke here), and gear like knives.

I spent some time with a geologist who explained the post-glacial development of the Rocky Mountain National Park’s current contours. He was selling geology tours and trail maps in partnership with the best-known local Bigfooter, Kenny Collins, who leads Bigfoot tours. I kept looking for Collins, only to learn I’d missed him because he was one of several people walking around in a full Bigfoot suit. Estes Park has plenty of local Bigfoot lore, although police officers I asked couldn’t remember anyone making an official report.

I went to Holland’s presentation, which was an eye-opener if you equate “skeptic” with rejection of all Bigfoot claims. Such claims are unproven, but she reiterated that a skeptic is a questioner, not a “cynic” who won’t look at anything connected to the topic.

Holland is a great presenter, with infectious energy and the timing of a standup comic.

Before she went on Finding Bigfoot, she spent over two decades in limnology and biology, with a special focus on conservation of waterways and their wildlife. She was part of the prestigious Alaska Salmon Program and did research at Lake Iliamna, which is cool since I’m setting a novel there. She was acquainted with Bigfooter Matt Moneymaker, who convinced her to shoot the pilot for Finding Bigfoot. Assuming it would vanish like 90+ percent of pilots do; she was headed back to school for her PhD studying “beavers and rainbow trout” when the show was picked up and found her contract did in fact require her to show up. After that, scientific curiosity, travel, and exploration kept her on board.

Calling herself, “Scully with three Mulders,” Holland recounted her good-natured back and forth with costars who brought her what they thought of as good evidence. Those interactions earned her the nickname of “the Renae-sayer,” but she had a lot of fun despite sometimes-rough conditions. She's not impressed with the evidence for an unknown ape stomping around and doubts we'll ever find one, but she remains fascinated by the phenomenon. “What is Bigfoot?” is the question to her, whether the answer is biological, spiritual, or some mix. Seeing a Bigfoot would not change her worldview: it would just give her a new starting point to investigate that question.

A few other highlights from Holland:

    Modern technology is not a shortcut: drones and remote cameras and eDNA don’t obviate the need for patience in fieldwork or analysis,

    People wondering if a cryptid show or video is real should “follow the money: “ Who is paying for it, and why are they presenting or posting it? Discovery, which funded FB, obviously wanted good TV, and the team accommodated them (“we didn’t really need to ride a hot-air balloon to a location,” she said with a grin), but all video of the actual investigation segments, while edited, is genuine.

    She has a deeply spiritual side, calling herself a “woman of faith,” and thinks there’s a lot to learn about Bigfoot beyond the zoological. She’s very interested in Indigenous perspectives on Bigfoot. Holland has had some odd experiences like seeing “orbs” and thinks some things are “outside science.” The skeptical community today leans so heavily toward atheism that her forthrightness about what she believes and is thinking about takes courage.   [I am reminded of Nobel-winning physiologist Charles Richet's statement on some of his experiments that, "I never said it was possible; I only said it was true."] More of my own thoughts, as a Christian who's also a science writer, will appear in Post #3.

    She is not writing her own book. If she eventually does, it will be with an Indigenous coauthor who can help explore the subject from their worldview. She finds her friend Kathy Strain’s work on this topic very useful. [I’ve met Strain and liked her presentation, although I’ve always felt her book tried too hard to reconcile very different creatures/beliefs with the mainstream image of Bigfoot.]

     While she acknowledges there’s plenty of Hollywood stuff in the show, she got the crew to unite to demand there be no faking on the actual investigations: when one crewmember faked noises, they had him removed from the shoot.

     She is curious about other cryptids, having searched for several of the primate types. She believes the likelihood of finding unclassified large aquatic fauna is much greater than that of terrestrial fauna.

    She cautions against cherry-picking evidence, saying the whole body of evidence needs to be considered. I asked her about this later. I said, “Don’t you have to start by deciding which accounts, footprints, etc. are most likely to be valuable”? She replied that that kind of prejudgment steps off the path of the scientific method. Her preferred approach is quantitative as well as qualitative, taking in all the evidence, developing databases, and looking for patterns.

I skipped the day’s documentary film, about a sacred tree near Bailey, CO, that people claimed they’d actually seen Bigfoot emerging from.   

In Part 3: People, Bookstores, Anecdotes, and Observations

Matt Bille is a writer, historian, and naturalist living in Colorado Springs. He can be reached at mattsciwriter@protonmail.com. Website: www.mattbilleauthor.com.

Read Matt's Latest book, Of Books and Beasts: A Cryptozoologist's Library. This unique reference offers a friendly skeptic's 400 reviews of books on cryptozoology, zoology, related sciences, and cryptozoological fiction. Your search for the world's new and undiscovered animals begins here!

Monday, April 22, 2024

Voyager 1: A Long-Distance Miracle

Being a lifelong space buff, I remember when Voyager 1 was launched. When it lifted off in 1977, I was a nervous kid headed for college. I followed the mission on TV and in magazine articles as it made a slew of discoveries at Saturn and Jupiter, Eventually, as the internet appeared and Voyager began showing up in space history publications, I still kept an "eye" out as it left the solar system and counted off the billions of miles. In 1990, it took the famous "pale blue dot" photograph.  Around 2000, when my co-author Erika visited James Van Allen in his office at Iowa State for the writing of our book The First Space Race, he was, guess what, studying Voyager results.  It carried the "Golden Record" message from Earth into interstellar space. 

Over the years, the spacecraft was maintained from Earth, as controllers and then volunteers shut down non-vital functions to match its declining power levels. They also modified the software many times, no mean feat at such distances.  When it started sending garbage in late 2023, everyone assumed it was gone for good.

Almost everybody. A cadre of die-hards kept working. They developed a software fix, itself a challenge working with a computer 46 years old. The tiny capacity of its 68k "brain" and the daunting fact that it took 44 hours for a roundtrip for speed-of-light signals meant every line of code and every bit had to count. 

And they did it

Voyager 1 is alive again.  

"Congratulations" just doesn't say it, but it's the best I can do. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineers, many now deceased, and the men and women who kept us in contact pulled off a truly amazing feat. God bless and Godspeed.

Maybe we can send these programming geniuses to Microsoft so they can come up with a Word upgrade that doesn't need umpteen gigabytes of space and  is easy to use. Nah. Microsoft would never go for it.

Matt Bille is a researcher, writer, historian, and naturalist in Colorado Springs.   He can be reached at mattsciwriter@protonmail,com and has a website at www.mattbilleauthor.com. He was lead author of The First Space Race, published by NASA through Texas A&M in 2004. He is a member of the AIAA History Committee and the National Association of Science Writers. 

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Estes Park Bigfoot Days 2024 (Post 1 of 3)

Well, I have attended the Estes Park Bigfoot Days for the second time. Even for someone like me who thinks it highly unlikely Bigfoot is tramping through around the woods, it was a fun and informative experience. Headquarters was the Holiday Inn, a genuinely nice place with binoculars and walking sticks in every room for guests headed out to see the gorgeous terrain around this Colorado mountain town. You can almost see the famously haunted Stanley Hotel from there.

I study cryptozoology along with zoology, but I'm not a cryptozoologist: I prefer the time-honored term “naturalist.” I like most cryptozoologists, though. Their boundless (even if sometimes unreasonable) optimism and enthusiasm are infectious, and I enjoy spending time with them and learning what they think. I learned more this time than I expected.

The first night was the Bigfoot BBQ dinner. Despite my complaint of false advertising (they never serve actual Bigfoot), it was very good. The special guests this year were three TV Bigfoot hunters: Russell Acord and Ronny LeBlanc of Expedition Bigfoot and Ranae Holland of Finding Bigfoot.

My table included two couples with a squatch-hunting guy and a spouse who was humoring him, along with one dedicated Bigfoot hunter and an Apache family with some interesting stories. I asked several people what I always ask: why do you think we don’t have bodies? The suggestions were not new. They included the chances of finding any given species’ remains in a huge area, Bigfoot being spiritual rather than material, undiscovered extensive cave systems, burying the dead, and “the government” grabbing remains for reasons unknown. (OK, almost unknown: one man suggested the military wants to study how Bigfoot camouflages itself. That might actually be a good question if it’s a real animal.) Someone mentioned it was just like the way the Smithsonian was hiding all the bones of "giants" found in American West, although every such story is a proven hoax or at least without any supporting evidence. When LeBlanc, visiting our table, said the same thing, my reflexive but unfortunate response of “Bullshit” broke my own rules about objectivity, politeness, and public swearing, although he either didn’t hear it or passed it off. (I apologize, Ronny: everyone says you’re a good guy, but I’ve heard that fiction once too often.)  

I of course had my picture taken with the Bigfooters, although I’d watched their shows only a few times and was unimpressed with their results. I didn’t want to talk to the guys so much: no doubt they had a lot of great stories, but I felt I’d read or heard everything they were likely to say about Bigfoot's existence. I did want to talk to biologist Ranae Holland, FB’s skeptic, and that turned out to be smart. She gets most of the ink in these posts because she proved to be an interesting person with remarkably interesting things to say about science, skepticism, and the Big Guy.

L-R: Ronny LeBlanc, Ranae Holland, yours truly, some leftover hippie, and Russell Acord

When I joked that being the skeptic in a Bigfoot show must be like shooting fish in a barrel, she didn’t embrace that: instead, she used it to launch a group discussion of science and skepticism. She explained that a skeptic’s role is asking for proof, being willing to look at evidence offered, and, for her, spending lots of time in the field looking, and hoping to see better evidence that would tell her what’s actually happening, A skeptic is NOT a reflexive debunker who won't look at the topic. To her, the continuum runs from true believers at one end, to scientist/skeptics in the middle, to cynics at the far end. She thinks it extremely unlikely there’s a large unknown primate, but she’s interested in the whole phenomenon and the larger question of “What is Bigfoot?” She even listens to the "woo" types, like the "portal” witnesses, because they are part of the answer to that question. I was surprised at that. I’m interested in the alleged biological animal: I leave the rest to the parapsychologists or folklorists, and I did something no writer should do in assuming Holland had the same approach. There will a lot more on that topic in the next post.

Far from disdaining Bigfoot-hunters (hoaxers excepted), Holland is protective of the Bigfoot community. She explained she had no problem with people doing Bigfoot as entertainment, like on Mountain Monsters, as long as they're not trying to claim they're doing science when they're not. She hates people luring enthusiasts with crap, like CGI videos, just for money. Her participation is "about the people and the conversation.” It’s also a platform for interesting youth in science, especially LGBTQ+ youth who may feel uncomfortable or unwelcome. (She said wryly that, being an “out” lesbian, left-handed, and an academic who studies Bigfoot, she understands being an outsider very well.) She mentioned the importance of citizen scientists and diverse kinds of scientists, noting that Pyle, a lepidopterist, authored the valuable book Where Bigfoot Walks.

Ranae emphasized, "Science is not rejecting Bigfoot. Science is rejecting the evidence people are bringing in." She's currently spending a lot of time going to Indigenous communities to hear their stories for herself. (I asked the Apache gentleman at my table, whose name I can’t bring to mind, whether his people had a word for Bigfoot. He said the medicine men had one, but he didn't know it. A woman of his family said most Apache just use a direct translation of "Bigfoot.")

With over a hundred people present, I was surprised when a request for people to tell their encounter stories drew just four or five responses, only a couple involving direct sightings. Our Apache tablemates described Bigfoot as a well-known denizen of the Jicarilla Apache Reservation, although it wasn’t physical but also spiritual and shapeshifting. I have only a surface understanding of First Nations worldviews, so I'm going to stick with just reporting what they said.

Suffice to say, I finished Day 1 feeling very full and very intrigued.

Coming in Post #2

Saturday in the Park and More Conversations with Ranae Holland

Matt Bille is a writer, historian, and naturalist living in Colorado Springs. He can be reached at mattsciwriter@protonmail.com. Website: www.mattbilleauthor.com.

Read Matt's Latest book, Of Books and Beasts: A Cryptozoologist's Library. This unique reference offers a friendly skeptic's 400 reviews of books on cryptozoology, zoology, related sciences, and cryptozoological fiction. Your search for the world's new and undiscovered animals begins here!


Tuesday, April 02, 2024

Book Review: Big Meg introduces the REAL Megalodon

I just finished reading the first nonfiction book I know of devoted entirely to the prehistoric shark Otodus megalodon, Big Meg: The Story of the Largest and Most Mysterious Predator that Ever Lived, by Tim and Emma Flannery. (Doubleday, 2023, 200 pp.) 

The text is excellent, clear and highly readable, as one would expect from Tim Flannery. Emma is his scientist daughter, and they don't separate sections by author, so kudos to both of them: however they divided or blended the work, it succeeded in producing a consistent and engaging tone.  The terminology is precise enough for paleontology buffs but not over the head of a smart high schooler. I didn't know from reading Flannery's earlier work (my favorite is his book Throwim Way Leg), that Meg teeth stimulated Flannery's interest in paleontology from an early age. Here he describes finding his first tooth and how his efforts to seek out more contributed to his career. 

Five chapters summarize what we know and don't know about the fish. What we know is not as much as we'd like, so that it takes up less than half the book. The authors could have gone into more scientific detail, but the book is clearly meant, in text and in length, for a wide audience.  They discuss shark evolution (with a very good short introduction to dating methods), the features of Meg and where they came from, and so on. We learn how the fish lived in the chapter "The Miocene: The Meg's Heyday." 

The book finishes this section by examining the Meg's likely time of extinction on and the theories involved. The authors choose as the likeliest explanation of extinction a mix of two factors: the general reduction in the productivity and thus prey available in the oceans in the late Pliocene and the Meg strategy, usual in sharks, of the females being larger than the males. The Flannerys suggest that having the females be the smaller, as seen in cetaceans and particularly sperm whales, means the latter have a cushion in hard times because the most critical sex for reproduction eats less and thus does not need to find as much prey.  (I'm not sure whether they figured in the rise in female consumption when pregnant, or whether that is enough of a factor to matter.) The Meg made it to 2.6 MYA at best and may have gone extinct much earlier than that. 

On everyone's favorite question, how big the largest Megs grew, the book does not offer a definitive answer, noting that we never have remains of the largest or smallest member of any fossil species. The book ventures that the largest Meg tooth ever found, 18 cm high, "almost certainly came from an individual that exceeded 15 meters in length" and mentions estimates up to 20 m. The text says a couple of times the Meg may have been the largest predator ever, if one excludes the baleen whales on a technicality, which most people do. The only contenders offered are the modern sperm whale and its predecessor Livyatan melvilli. The authors apparently consider the ichthyosaurs out of contention, although one species of Shonisaurus has been estimated at 21 m and 81.5 metric tons. The influential 2015 paper "Sizing Ocean Giants" (see URL below) grants the sperm whale 20 m, though I've read of higher claims.

The author with replica Meg jaws at the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center

The authors set the Meg material in context with chapters on the unfortunate interactions of sharks vs. humans (in both directions), shark fossil collecting, and the use of shark fossils in arts and crafts. Oddly, they don't discuss the fake Meg teeth swamping the fossil-selling industry: Steve Alten, who knows a good bit about the Meg and popular culture, thinks 85 percent of teeth marketed from the current hot spot of Indonesia are fakes. (There's an interesting real v fake discussion here.) A particular strength is that book offers many stories of fossil discoveries I'd never read elsewhere. A chapter titled "The Imaginary Meg" considers, very fairly, and dismisses claims the fish still exists. It savages the film Meg but doesn't examine Steve Alten's or other Meg books. 

There are good chapter references and an index, something frustratingly absent in too many books these days.

The serious weakness is the lack of illustrations: except for a single page before Chapter 1, there are no photos of fossils or locations, no maps, no timelines, nothing. Regardless, all those interested in sharks in general or Meg in particular will devour this book.


(PDF) Sizing ocean giants: Patterns of intraspecific size variation in marine megafauna (researchgate.net)

The ichthyosaur figure is from  https://faculty.umb.edu/liam.revell/pdfs/Sander_etal_2021.Science.pdf 

Matt Bille is a writer, historian, and naturalist living in Colorado Springs. He can be reached at mattsciwriter@protonmail.com. Website: www.mattbilleauthor.com.

Read Matt's Latest book, Of Books and Beasts: A Cryptozoologist's Library. This unique reference offers a friendly skeptic's 400 reviews of books on cryptozoology, zoology, related sciences, and cryptozoological fiction. Your search for the world's new and undiscovered animals begins here!