I finished Xanth #27, Cube Route, completing the first Xanth magical trilogy, and went into a deliberately fallow period so as to catch up on chores. That's because I don't do some chores when I'm moving on a novel, and they pile up. I'm a writer; I really do like writing, and it's easy to let other things slide when I'm writing. For example, filing. I had publishers' statements of accounts going back months, and newspaper clippings going back years. So I tackled the filing. That spread across several days, because most of the unfiled material was unfiled for a reason: it was hard to classify. So I had to make up new categories for it, specific enough so that it would be useful, general enough so that I would have a few folders rather than hundreds. All of the material was interesting to me, by definition; I wouldn't have saved it otherwise. My problem is that I'm interested in just about everything except filing. Much of it related to human health and psychology, or to science. Some of it I decided to share with you. I must say that I'm not sure why thousands of folk a day choose to hit on this site or to read this column; I make no special claims to superior knowledge or entertainment. I just remark on what occurs to me, and here is more of the same, item by item in happenstance order.
NEW SCIENTIST for July 28 2001 has an article titled "Raising a Stink." It says that the average human adult farts roughly ten times a day. (Elsewhere I have heard it is 14 times a day. I suppose it depends on the grandeur of the emissions.) The genders emit with similar frequency, and 99% is made up of five odorless gases. So how come the fart's odious or odorous reputation? One Michael Levitt believes he has found the answer. He had the flatus of 16 healthy men and women who ate 200 grams of pinto beans analyzed, and concludes that hydrogen sulfide is the main culprit in smelly farts. Now you might think that fart research is a waste of effort, but it seems that because these gases are combustible, there have been a number of fatal explosions during operations on the gut. Now they know to purge gas as well as solids when setting up for surgery. What a way to die: from an exploding fart. I doubt that the surgeon appreciates such an in-your-face episode much either. A 1999 newspaper clipping tells of the top movies featuring flatulence. #1 is the 1974 movie Blazing Saddles, wherein cowpokes feast on baked beans and let fly. And a report on the annual Ig Noble science awards had one for the man who invented the "under-ease" airtight underwear that forces foul-smelling flatulence through a replaceable charcoal filter. Problem solved. Which reminds me: I mentioned those TV ads showing bottoms, advertising wet wipes. Okay, we got some and tried them. My wife didn't go for them, but I did. It's like washing instead of scraping, and I do feel cleaner. No, you don't have to kiss my ass; your lips might be dirty. The fancy dispenser is intriguing; I had been on a flat package before, but this is on a roll.
A perhaps related article in the October 27 issue is on alternative toilets. The largest single use of water in the typical western household is flushing the toilet, and there's a global fresh water shortage, so an alternative is needed. A good one is the composting toilet. You have to toss in some straw or sawdust to cover your contribution, and once a month or so you have to knock the top off the cone of feces that forms, lest it rise until it pokes out of the hole, making an unpleasant experience for the unwary sitter. That reminds me of my youth in the backwoods, where privies were used, and such cones did rise awesomely to seat-level. It also reminds me of a joke: Two mischievous boys got hold of some dynamite, so they thought it would be a good joke to blow up the privy. They planted the dynamite in it, then retreated somewhat to set it off. Just then old Grandpa toddled out of the house and entered the privy. Better yet; they set it off. Boom! The privy sailed up, flipped over 360 degrees in the air, and landed neatly back on its foundation. While the boys stood gaping, the door opened and Grandpa toddled out. He saw them, and said "Hi, boys! Good thing I didn't let that one in the house!"
A recent Dear Abby column had a letter from an atheist: "I believe that with death, we cease to exist. Therefore, while we are here on Earth it is our job to treat each other and ourselves with care and do as little damage as possible." I'm agnostic rather than atheist, but I agree. Maybe related: Letter in the ST PETERSBURG TIMES January 27, 2001: Stephanie Chiariello inquires why we use sex to measure a leader's morality, and asks whether the Christian right has become so pro-gun, pro capital punishment, pro segregation, and so pro-greed that it hides behind a shield of sexual "morality" so that we won't notice how un-Christian it has become, satisfying the bigotry and greed of the few instead of meeting the basic needs of the many? That strikes me as an excellent question.
Column by Norman Solomon I read in LIBERAL OPINION WEEK blows the whistle on Internet search engines: companies pay to get their ads ranked high, so when you search, you are really find ads rather than what you are looking for. That may explain why when I did a search for Piers Anthony this HiPiers.com site was not one of the top entries. We need a search engine that answers to the need of the user rather than being corrupted by payoffs. If someone out there knows of one, let me know. Maybe we need an impartial rating service for search engines, so folk can avoid the de facto spam.
Article in the April 1999 DISCOVER magazine: the asteroid that ended the reign of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago may have made our planet beautiful for a time, by heaving billions of tons of debris into orbit where it formed a Saturn-like ring. The shadow of that ring would have changed the climate where it passed, complicating life's existence. Times were rough in the old days.
A 1999 column by Norman Solomon discusses aspects of Mark Twain most Americans never meet. He was outspoken on social justice and foreign policy. He commented on slavery, which existed in America then, and abolitionists were despised and insulted. "Loyalty to petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul." When the Philippines came under American power, he suggested a new flag for that province: "Just your usual flag, with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross-bones." And he said "None but the dead are permitted to speak truth." But not too loudly.
In 1999 there was a report of an oddity in space confounding astronomers: a point of light like nothing seen before, with a completely unfamiliar spectrum. A new kind of quasar? Mysteries like this fascinate me.
Column by Thomas Sowell in the TAMPA TRIBUNE in 1998 makes a point: he receives mail from the public ranging from fan to hate, as any public figure does. I think I spend more time each year on mail than on any novel. What bugs Sowell is the letter from some teen who writes because his school class has assigned a paper in the form of writing to someone to express an opinion. This makes the kid think that his opinion ought to be taken seriously by others merely because it exists. For example one wrote that General Douglas MacArthur overestimated the casualties that would have resulted from an invasion of Japan in World War II, so dropped the Atomic bombs instead. The kid has had no military training, but he's second-guessing the commander of that operation who was ranked among the great military minds in history. I appreciate Sowell's point, having received my share of arrogantly ignorant letters. But I think I disagree. We have freedom of thought and speech in America, and that includes freedom of ignorant thought and speech. I am ignorant about hosts of things, but freely express my opinions here. Last column I took off on Jerry Falwell, calling him a bigot. He has spent his life in God's service as he sees it, and I haven't paid much attention to him, so how can I reject his philosophy? Well, that's the thing about freedom: I have as much right to my opinion as he has to his, knowledge and faith apart. Let the ignorant express their opinions; they'll be flattened soon enough if they are wrong. Therein may be the real education of them. I have learned more from those who disagree with me than from those who agree. Sometimes, on rare occasions, the other side even turns out to be right.
August 29, 1999 article in the ST PETE TIMES on workplace stars: a study indicates that they aren't born, they are made. They aren't generally smarter than average performers, or harder workers, or more creative, or better at brown-nosing the boss; they don't take bigger risks, and they aren't born leaders. Overall they are not more talented. So what accounts for their success? It turns out to be that they work differently. Their strategies include taking initiative, networking, gaining multiple perspectives on problems, being good followers and good leaders, and being savvy about organizational politics. They develop a network of "knowledge experts" who can help them troubleshoot problems or do their jobs better. And they see projects or problems through the eyes of others, including customers, competitors, coworkers, and bosses. This provides depth of perspective and leads to better solutions to problems. They manage themselves similarly, looking for new opportunities. Okay, I'm intrigued by this analysis, which I think is crediting empathy for success, and it describes the way I work as a writer; I am big on empathy and relate well to my readers. But I think it misses one significant aspect: luck. What's the difference between a best-selling writer and an unsold writer? The bestseller will be quick to explain that he is the best writer, but that's not necessarily the case; some phenomenal writers never get anywhere and some average ones hit the jackpot. The bestseller is the one who has the luck to encounter a good agent, a good editor, a savvy publisher, and perfect timing. I can give an example from my own experience: I wanted to work with a particular editor whose job I had admired in the genre magazines. He was now with a book publisher, doing their fantasy. So I wrote a fantasy novel to show him. I wrote it well, and he edited it well, and the publisher promoted it well, and in time it sold more than a million paperback copies and won an award. That was the first Xanth novel. Thereafter my agent parlayed it into excellent terms for the following novels and I did well financially. All of us were competent, but the key here is that we happened to do our things just when fantasy was about to launch from the cellar of sales to bestseller status. We all rode that escalator up, but we hadn't seen it coming. Other writers as competent as I am didn't happen to catch it, and did not achieve that success. So luck was the extra factor. Other writers have caught other escalators and done better than I; I don't think they are better writers, just luckier. Similarly I doubt that superior workers in other areas always rise high; some just happen to be in the right spot at the right time. Competence does count; some get good breaks but lack the ability to make the most of them. Competence, empathy, and luck--there's the ticket. Today, with the same competence and empathy, but lacking the luck, I am heading reluctantly into has-been territory.
I am hardly the only writer who has had trouble with traditional publishing. In 1997 Norman Spinrad, known for the savage Bug Jack Barron, issued an Internet cry for help. I responded with a column about Spinrad, who come on the publishing scene about the same time I did. Neil Schulman also responded with a promo for his Pulpless.com, an Internet publisher I wound up financing. I lost a hundred grand when it failed, but I did it for principle, not profit, and am sorry it didn't work out. The old correspondence showed up as part of my filing cleanup. Today there are many Internet publishers, as my Internet Publishing section shows, and they serve a necessary function, though some are crashing.
Newspaper article in April 1999 on a seagoing city. A Sarasota, Florida, engineer plans to build the largest ship in the world and transform it into a city of 50,000 that will sail around the globe every two years. Freedom Ship is a six billion dollar project. Today's largest ships run a bit over 1,000 feet in length; this one will be over 4,000 feet. That's about four fifths of a mile. It will be 25 stories high. Norman Nixon is raising venture capital for it. It will have condominiums priced from under $200,000 to over $7 million. I'm almost tempted, if it comes to be, if I have the money, if I live long enough. If no terrorists target it. But I'm not sure I want to leave my tree farm; I doubt there'll be many pine trees, wild deer, or gopher tortoises aboard that ship.
I don't like abortions, and I doubt anyone else does; my overwhelming preference is birth control. But this is not to argue that case, which I will do at length if challenged. It is to note an item in THE ECONOMIST in August 1999, which appeared widely elsewhere too. In 1973 Wade v Roe legalized abortion in the United States, and there have been many abortions since then, together with bombings of clinics and murders of doctors. Now it seems that the recent downturn in the American crime rate is because many unwanted babies were not born. An unwanted baby is a prime candidate for a miserable life and eventual criminality. So those criminals are being eliminated by abortion. That's a shocker, but the statistics seem to show it. Talk of an ill wind!
August 1999 clipping from the CITRUS CHRONICLE (it picks up on some good material, maybe because my daughter works there) and from the larger newspapers: Analysis of pollen and plant images place the Shroud of Turin before the 8th century. For those who came on the scene yesterday, the Shroud of Turin was believed to be the burial cloth of Jesus Christ. It even had the faint figure of a man outlined on its surface, as if divine radiation had imprinted the picture. I don't believe Jesus was divine, but I do believe he was a mortal man who meant well, so got put away by those in power. Regardless, if his shroud survived to the present, that would be significant. So I followed that case. THE SKETICAL INQUIRER ran an article debunking it, and that caused me to let that subscription lapse. The thing is, I want to know the truth about things, whatever it is. The Catholic Church, which does accept the supernatural, maintained an objective attitude; its interest was to protect the Shroud from destruction, but also to ascertain whether it was valid. When dating technology advanced to the point where a tiny sample would suffice, the Church allowed a sample to be taken. It indicated that the Shroud was not old enough to have been used by Jesus, and was made circa 1300. Okay, so it wasn't the original Shroud. So why was I turned off by the SKEPTICAL INQUIRER, which said that? Because it was my impression that there was no way that magazine would have granted the validity of the Shroud; it had come to debunk, and it was going to debunk. Its mind was made up in advance. In contrast the Catholic Church was open, ready to accept the evidence either way. I am not and will never be a Catholic, but in my mind the Church won this one. I tried to explain this to the editor of FREE INQUIRY, a leading Humanist magazine and a smart man, but don't think I got through to him. (There is a Humanist connection to SKEPTICAL INQUIRER.) I have no present belief in the supernatural, but if at some point it is demonstrated to exist, then I will accept it. When I say I am agnostic, I mean it: my mind is not locked. So if this reopens the case of the Shroud, I will continue to observe with interest. The new evidence suggests that the pollen in the Shroud does come from the region where Jesus was buried. Of course it could be Jesus' shroud, but that would not prove that Jesus was divine, only that he died.
1999 article on a group of four thirteen year old Tampa girls performing song and dance as the PYT troupe: Pretty Young Things. Suddenly they got nationally popular and were going on tours. It seems that folk like to see young girls bouncing around. That was two years ago; by this time they must be 15 and fading, the appeal of their innocence expended. I could be wrong.
Another 1999 item, about humor. It turns out it is serious stuff. I knew that, having a certain reputation as a humorist. Mark Twain is quoted: "The secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow." I knew that too. It is said that a prerequisite for humor is a painful childhood. Yes; I've been there and done that. It is said that humorists are the third oldest profession in the world, behind prostitutes and accordion players. I didn't know that, though I like accordion music; I thought story-telling was the second oldest profession. I can't comment on prostitutes, as I don't know any. Meanwhile my bittersweet outlook is surely evident in this column.
Ad I received in 1999: Lax-Optics, "the Miracle Lensless Spectacles." It seems they have opaque lenses with myriad pinholes, and gazing through these corrects vision. I'm curious, but not curious enough to risk $59 for a pair.
1999 again, this time in PARADE, the Sunday supplement: there were those who claimed that speed on the highway does not kill, stupid drivers do. So the speed limits rose in a number of states. Now the evidence is coming in: in the 24 states that raised their speed limits, deaths rose 15%. In 7 states that did not change their limits, there was no rise in deaths. I understand that there are studies that indicate a similar rise where guns are distributed more freely, though the gun nuts do their best to blow that away. There seems to be studies on both sides of the gun issue, and I'd really like to know the truth.
Another article, this one by Robyn Blumner of the ST PETE TIMES, says that violence is not begotten in children by violent movies, music, and video games. Children are able to distinguish between fact and fiction early. It is the amount of actual violence they have seen or endured that correlates most directly with anti-social behavior. I presume this means that violent printed fiction has similar null-effect. That's important to me; I want to entertain my young readers but not to warp them. Every so often a minister will chide me about such things as including sexual references in my fiction, pointing out that children read it. I have rejected such cautions, but if it turned out that fiction does make children violent or sexually abusive or damages them in other ways, I'd have a crisis of conscience. So far I believe fiction is innocent of such effects.
All the foregoing has been from my sorting of clippings, and there's half a passel remaining. So I'll postpone the rest for another column, and get on with my regular material, which is similar, only more recent.
The results are in from the comprehensive Florida recount of the 2000 election ballots, and sure enough, the state did go for Al Gore, even excluding the votes he lost because of the notorious Butterfly Ballot and the semi-systematic exclusion of black voters. The recount of the spot counties would have confirmed George W Bush, so ironically the Supreme Court could have had its way without openly cheating, had it just stayed clear. But what should have counted was the complete state vote, including those that were thrown out because they both checked Gore or Bush and wrote the same name in below. There was no doubt of voter intent, but they were trashed on a technicality. Those who say it's over, forget it already, are evidently not interested in an accurate count; they just want their man in. Well, they have him in, but the Presidency is tainted, as is the Supreme Court. I still have seen no statement by any Republican expressing dismay over the illicit nature of the win, or saying that the man who got the most votes should have had the office. I judge the party by that; it does indeed seem to put greed and power ahead of principle or decency. I doubt I am the only one who will remember.
I graduated from Westtown Friends School in 1952. It is a Quaker school, and we attended two Friends' Meetings a week there, and had classes on Quakerism, and it was forbidden to play cards, even Canasta or Bridge or Solitaire. There was a Boy's side of the school, and a girl's side, and normally neither gender was permitted across the line on penalty of expulsion. This system did help prepare me for later life in the US Army, ironically. It was a good school, but I think not good enough. For one thing, as the smallest member of my class, male or female, I learned what bullying was all about, while the school administration was oblivious. As I grew, and fought, and became a tougher contender, the bullying stopped, but I did not respect the system. As a poor boy I found I could not afford the equipment that the rich kids could, and so was obliquely squeezed out of sports I might have done well in--and the administration was oblivious. As a fellow traveler of nerds--I wasn't a nerd myself, having trouble keeping the scholastic pace (in my day there was no dyslexia, only bad performance)--I was part of the out crowd, while the favor went to those of the in-crowd clique. When I discovered joy in higher math, I was instead required to take languages, Latin and German. Not only did this come close to flunking me out--I was a dunce at languages--it put me hopelessly behind in math, destroying what might have been a future career. And the administration was oblivious. With other avenues blocked out, I eventually became a writer, and though it was surely my best possible employment, I don't feel I owe much of my success to the school. The school solicits me for money; I don't contribute. Now it wants me to attend my 50th class reunion and share grateful joy for the old school. I doubt I will. And I doubt the administration understands.
Macrohard has come out with what I understand is its first truly stable operating system, XP, which herds the user into ever more home-company products or services. Coincidentally I read a book that has been on my shelf for nigh 40 years, The Big Ball of Wax, by Shepherd Mead. That's a tale of the future as seen back then, where big business has taken over the world and everything is commercialized in the name of a dandy mechanism for "feelie" experience, XP. XP stands for ExPerience, and in the novel you are truly in the story, whatever its nature, including sexual. In the novel, the average man is hopelessly captive to the corporation. I see a pattern here. I wonder how many will balk at entering this corral? Meanwhile I'm in Linux, watching developments on the open source front.
Neil Schulman sent me his short novel Escape From Heaven via email. The protagonist dies in an accident, and is surprised to find himself in Heaven, since he's an atheist. He is even more surprised to discover that he's a clone of God. And he just loves the luscious angels who help him orient. This is a fast-moving interesting story with surprising developments as Good and Evil face their final struggle. I suspect this will be a contender for the Libertarian Prometheus Award.
Meanwhile I completed Xanth #27, Cube Route. A magic trilogy is three cubed, of course. Next year I'll start of the second magic trilogy. The novel is about a rather plain young woman named Cube who travels a complicated route to achieve beauty. She wants beauty so she can get a man and live happily ever after, of course. I'm privately pleased with a sequence wherein she occupies the body of an outstandingly beautiful Mundane woman who is nevertheless suicidal. It seems that physical beauty doesn't necessarily bring happiness. But the lack of it does not bring joy.
We saw a movie, Monsters, Inc. It was fun. The main characters were monsters I'll call Eyeball and Ogre, whose business it is to open doors into the rooms of children and make them scream. There are hundreds of doors, each one opening onto a different child's room. That's such a great explanation for how monsters get there without the adults knowing. Now we know. We haven't yet seen Harry Potter, because our movie-freak daughter the newspaperwoman has been kept busy at work. My wife and I don't go out unless dragged, so if she doesn't drag us, we wait. But I did put in a video order, and once I got my novel done I watched them. I'm a typical man; I like science fiction, fantasy, pretty girls, adventure, and sexy stuff, so that's what I order. The trouble is, I also like quality and craftsmanship. So I keep ordering sexy adventures and being disappointed because they aren't well enough done. I never learn. So I watched a Baywatch video movie, an adventure on the Alaskan coast, with pretty girls galore, but it was as if they were all clones of dressmakers' mannequins. No real character. Then I watched Woman of Desire with Bo Derek, expecting much flesh and little story, but it was the other way around, with some excellent acting and not a lot of flesh. Ah, well. Then Romance, a subtitled erotic French movie about a young woman whose boyfriend lost his passion for her, so she has affairs with other men. That may sound cheap, but it's not; it's a sensitive study, and sexy as hell. Then Tales of Erotica, which are pretty good; one's about a woman who is intrigued by a painting and hungry for sex, and she finally finds her way into the painting and lies on a bud there, waiting for the potent man. Another is about a man who gets a special motorcycle that turns into a passionate nude woman, with whom he has sex while riding. But when he gives a regular girl a ride, the motorcycle gets jealous and throws them off. The girl, unaware, rides the motorcycle to get help for the injured man--and now it becomes a virile naked man. She is delighted. It's my kind of junk. Then Pitch Black, a sci-fi horror that's actually pretty compelling; I liked it, and liked the original monsters. No men in monkey suits here. Then Heavenly Creatures, about two New Zealand teen girls who imagine their own fantasy realm, but it's no light fluff; they wind up killing one of their mothers when they are to be separated. It's based on a true murder case, a shocker. Then The Last Prostitute, wherein two boys seek out a fabulous prostitute they have heard about, but she is now retired and running a horse farm. So they work with the horses. No secret is made of the woman's past; when the boys ask what she gave a rich man in exchange for the fine horse he gave her, she said "Hummingbird round the lingam." The boys draw a blank; they do not understand the terminology, as she had known would be the case. I think I could figure it out if I tried, though it's not something I ever experienced. It's a fine story, well done, and what little sex there is, is off-stage. And My Neighbor Totoro, Japanamation with dubbed English, a gift from a reader, perhaps the best children's monster story ever. I saw it years ago in the Japanese version, and loved it, and the English just makes it better. A father and his two daughters, ages maybe ten and five, move to a haunted house in the country, but the magic creatures and monsters are friendly, and they have marvelous adventures. So the videos I saw weren't quite what I expected, but were worthwhile anyway. That may be a decent analogy of life, too.
Which reminds me of television. I watch it in the evening while eating supper and reading news or science magazines, so it doesn't get much attention unless it's good. Best new program: "The Guardian." " CSI" continues good, and "West Wing," and "JAG." "Boston Public" seems to be turning into a soap opera, going the same route as "Ally McBeal," which I understand is produced by the same outfit. Too bad; those were winners, but are fading. And of course there's "Survivor," our guilty pleasure.
Minor matters: we have a Turk's Cap hibiscus plant. Normal hibiscus flowers open out in assorted appealing colors; there are many varieties. But this variety blossoms closed; the petals stay together like tight little skirts. We had the plant for a couple of years in a pot, protecting it from the winter freezes, but it lacked enough soil and its stems died. So we transplanted it outside, and it flourished--but almost every winter it gets frozen back to the ground. It's the stress between security and freedom; security can stifle, but freedom can destroy. But each year it sends new sprouts up from the roots, starting over. Now it is flowering again. At first there was just one red skirt, then ten, then twenty and on, building up. The past week there have been 150, peaking at 180. I think it will decline, as more flowers will drop than bud new, but it's quite a sight. We also have a small Christmas Cactus. We had it in a pot on the pool enclosure floor while we figured out where to plant it, but when we were ready, it had sent roots out and anchored to the floor. So we took away the pot and left the plant where it was. Since then it has done just fine without soil, and now is blossoming beautifully, with about 15 buds waiting for their turns. It's obviously a survivor.
A couple years back I put something in the garden square where we bury our garbage and have potatoes, squash, and tomatoes come up from the leavings. I wasn't sure this one would sprout--I forget what it was--so I marked the place by putting several little white stones at two places on the border. Where perpendiculars from those stones intersected was the site. Nothing ever sprouted, but those stones remain. They have become an end in themselves, two groups of five each. Creatures in the night knock them off, and I replace them. Is there a point? I don't know. I just get sentimental about small things, even stones.
There was a meteor shower one Sunday morning, and I did go out for about ten minutes and counted 15. Another day I was cycling out to close our gate for the night, and encountered a pack of pigs: three big black ones, two medium brown ones, seven piglets. Sigh; we don't want pigs on our tree farm; they destroy it for other animals. But they keep coming.
Al-Najjar is back in prison. He was confined for three an a half years on secret evidence, until a judge finally freed him when the government seemed to have no case. He was out for a year, then suddenly arrested again. No new evidence; they said it was because he had overstayed his student visa about twenty years ago, and they want to deport him, though his three children are American and there's no place to send him. I understand about half a million students overstay their visas, and the government ignores them; why are they so hot after this one? Why don't they enforce the law evenly? They actually are keeping him in solitary confinement, though he is charged with no crime other than being here. Yes, he is from the mid-east, but had no connection we know of to the recent terrorism. It smells like a vendetta.
Remember my two prior reports on the Nigeria scam? They keep on coming. In these two months there were fourteen more. They are starting to branch out; two are from the Congo. Three are same person with the same offer, sent different times. There are also some straight solicitations from that region.
NEW SCIENTIST has an article on the fifth dimension that could explain Dark Matter: this dimension way be folded over and over, like a stored bedsheet, bringing parts of our four dimensional universe close to each other. Thus a galaxy that is a billion light years away, looking along the flat sheet, may be only a hundred million light years distant if you look across the folds, and its gravity crosses those folds to affect us. We can't see it, we can't feel it, but we feel its gravity and call it Dark Matter.
A recent theory on why so many people in the world hate America is that they actually are reacting to "modernity." They are settled in their set way and don't want change, while America is the symbol of rapid change. Israel is on outpost of modernity in a region that prefers the old ways, so is hated. I don't know if that's true, but if it is, I'm with the moderns, where there is better freedom and equality among people, especially for women. I don't think much of any religion that has has a tacit tenet the suppression of women.
Article in the fall 2001 issue of FREE INQUIRY magazine titled "Can Agnosticism Improve American Public Life?" Americans generally won't vote for a candidate who does not profess to believe in God. Yet the most intellectually honest person is likely to have theological doubts. It asks "Can we persist in electing only those who are unwilling to be forthright on the most important question of all our lives and then expect honesty from them on other matters?" The major reason I did not join any religion, despite having a religious upbringing, was that I saw no genuine moral enlightenment in religion. I seek truth in all things, and try for decency, and see too much bigotry and indecency among those who profess to be deeply religious. Religion did not meet my moral standards. I haven't changed my mind. Meanwhile FREE INQUIRY is a hard-hitting magazine; an ad for it lists articles it has run, such as "The Sins of Mother Teresa" who had a dark side; "Can Science Prove that Prayer Works?" the answer, as I remember, being that it does not work when objectively tested; "Morality Requires God... Or Does It?" and of course it doesn't. Look at the God-fearing Taliban, or agnostics like me who do care about right and wrong.
I am on the solicitation list for countless organizations. All of them claim to be special, needing my money to go to them rather than to some other organization. I have been well into donor fatigue for decades, because a contribution does not satisfy them, it marks me for doubled solicitations. Charities can get greedy too. Now we contribute on an annual basis to selected charities, and if they solicit us more often they risk being removed from our selection. If they hassle me by phone for plus-$100 gifts I cut them off. That's why I no longer contribute to the American Friends Service Committee, though I once worked for them and I know they do good work, or Common Cause, though I was once on their local board of directors. I have drawn a line, and I enforce it. But some are more poignant than others. I did not contribute to a recent solicitation by AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL, because we have already done so this year, but I relay their present message: the global abuse of women. In many parts of the world they torture and kill women in the name of "honor" when the women have done nothing we would consider ill. It's really enforcement of virtual slavery of women by men. Consider the Taliban, again; they are merely an extreme form of a widespread attitude. Elsewhere women are abducted and forced into prostitution. Women are tortured and sexually abused in prison. Women are mutilated in the genitals in the name of chastity. Amnesty International tracks such abuses, among others, and reports on them, and tries to do something about them. Their Web site is www.amnestyusa.org.
Another worthy outfit is PROJECT VOTE SMART at www.vote-smart.org. They research the backgrounds and records of candidates for public office on a nonpartisan basis and provide the information to voters so they can make informed choices. It's good work. They need donations, volunteers, and a wider public awareness of their effort.
Article in NEW SCIENTIST on memory: those of us who have trouble remembering names or where we put something--are we losing it? Not necessarily. The brain does not merely remember, it forgets. The process of forgetting may be as important as the process of remembering. When I did my sorting, the problem was not just classifying for filing (remembering), but deciding what to throw out (forgetting). The two operate in tandem. Remembering everything is no good. The article tells of Solomon Shereshevski, a celebrated mnemonist. (Mneme = mind, memory.) He performed feats of memory for paying audiences. He could look at strings of dozens of numbers on a blackboard, and recite them accurately months or years later, forwards or backwards. I believe it was eidetic memory; he could see the numbers like a picture, and read them off that mental blackboard. But so much of his brain was taken with that, that it was short on actual thinking ability. There's only so much brain in the skull, and if too much is taken for storage, there's less for calculating. The man wasn't smart enough to hold down a regular job, so he had to make money being a memory freak. He lacked the forgetting mechanism. There's more: it seems that those people who remember crises excessively tend to have longer episodes of depression. They may have post traumatic stress disorder. They can't let it go. And more: remembering in too much detail may prevent a person from seeing the larger pattern. One advantage of having a sloppy memory is being able to take creative leaps. To be original. And I find I don't mind having a sloppy memory so much after all.
I always thought that my social/political/religious makeup was pretty much one of a kind, ornery independent liberal agnostic. But in the past decade I have found that it matches Humanism almost perfectly. (www.americanhumanist.org.) I have to stretch to find anything I really disagree with humanists about. I don't read their magazine THE HUMANIST carefully, because I don't need to study what I already believe; I prefer to focus on what's new or different, always learning. But it's a good magazine. The November/December issue has an article on theocracy, a form of government in which God is recognized as the supreme civil ruler, basically rule by priests, as in Iran. The article warns that Republicans are trying to break down the constitutional separation of church and state, heading for this type of government in the USA. They are aligning with the Catholics and some Protestant organizations. "One might say that the Republican Party has, for all practical purposes, become the Catholic Party in the united States, pursuing the Roman Catholic church's agenda." I find this frightening. Fortunately many Catholics are not captive of the right wing, and neither are many Protestants, Jews, Muslims, humanists, and others. How long, it asks, will these others tolerate "the political drift toward theocracy such as pro-life--particularly when millions around the world are dying due to Vatican and Republican refusal to permit the use of contraceptives to prevent the spread of AIDS and other family planning services to control unwieldy population growth? In effect, the slogan pro-life is camouflage for a culture of death and patriarchal rule." Damn well told. I suspect that some of those who preach patriotism and push "strict constructionist" interpretation of the Constitution are in fact fundamentally un-American. They don't believe in real freedom for people to be different. Their agenda is to convert the USA into a theocracy like Iran or the dissipating Taliban regime, only one run by them. They were willing to cheat to put their man in office, and now they are taking the next step. Civil liberties are already taking a beating. We'd better see that they don't succeed in establishing a theocracy here, because it is much harder to get rid of that than to prevent it.
Our Web mistress, Seema, recently visited China. That's why the OctOgre column was delayed a bit; she wasn't back yet. Now she has pictures of that trip on her Web site, and you can see them at www.seema-designs.com/china/.
Newspaper article October 2, 2001, by William Raspberry, pointing out that the seeds of terrorism are nourished in the fertile ground of despair. Convince people that they have nothing to lose, that they are doomed to poverty and powerlessness, and terrorism will come. So the best way to war against terrorism is to broaden the base of freedom and prosperity. Another article, by Thomas Friedman, November 28, says the real foe is totalitarianism (intolerant one-party government). In World War Two and the Cold War we fought to defeat secular totalitarianism--Nazism and Communism--but that World War Three will be against religious totalitarianism. Biblical faiths--Judaism, Christianity, Islam--tend to believe that they have the exclusive truth, and they try to destroy all other faiths. In America we believe that there is no one right faith, merely different kinds of faith, each with its merits or demerits. So the Islamic extremists tried to strike against tolerant America, and are starting to reap the harvest of our response.
NEW SCIENTIST had an article September 15 by Brian Aldiss, the author of the story on which the movie AI was based. Can human consciousness ever be programmed into a machine? He doubts it. He says that our brains are better designed to fantasize than to think logically. We love storytelling, while for logic and reason we have to go to school. Brains are far more than computers; intelligence can't exist without consciousness. Feeling, I believe he believes (he doesn't quite say), is integral to consciousness. He feels that feeling can't be duplicated unless flesh is duplicated. So there can't be actual mechanical consciousness. Okay, there's a case to be made, but I disagree. I regard consciousness as a sophisticated feedback circuit, and I believe that if we can understand and duplicate that circuit, we can bring consciousness to a machine. With the pace of current advances, I hope to see it in my lifetime. US NEWS & WORLD REPORT, November 12, 2001 issue, has an article titled "Mind in a Mirror" about mapping morality, awareness, and self in the brain. Scientists use magnetic resonance to track where the blood flow goes as people think about certain subjects. It turns out that even when people think they are making rational judgments, their emotions may actually be driving the outcome. This also shows the power of empathy. When people think about themselves in certain situations, the same neural circuits light up as when they actually are in those situations. A policeman can in effect put himself into the mind of a thief. That's empathy, and I think it is a vital key to the nature of the human mind. Animals have little empathy, humans have a lot, and it gives us enormous power. But the article cautions that as yet we know little; the brain is like an orchestra, with many individual instruments contributing to the total effect. So making a machine mind may be pretty clumsy at first; identifying the instruments isn't the same as making them harmonize.
The newsletter of the NATIONAL WRITERS UNION is American Writer. In the Fall 2001 issue is a letter from Clare Hanrahan, who is serving six months in a federal prison camp for nonviolent dissent at Fort Benning, Georgia, relating to the notorious School of the Americas (SOA), where they teach torture and terrorism. The school's name has been recently changed, but not its nature. She would like to hear from fellow writers, but I think readers who applaud her stand might like to write too. I wrote to her, and here is her address: Clare Hanrahan, 90285-020, Box A, Alderson, WV 24910. Information about the SOA Watch is at www.soaw.org.
I received an email from Jay Lobley about Type 1 diabetes--that's the rough kind. They are trying islet transplants, and these enable patients to get off insulin shots. But they have to take anti-rejection pills, so it's not a perfect cure. They want to get the word out that there is progress, and it could save many people from "the silent killer." You can reach him at email@example.com.
I'm a significant stockholder in Xlibris, the self publishing facility, and also have a number of my books there. Thus I have two perspectives. There has been anger at Xlibris because it is now charging more to sell larger books; as a board member I know that it can't afford to lose money on books so must price them so there is a profit for company and author. But as a writer I dread what it will cost me to buy copies of my books for collaborators and agent to market. I also am annoyed at the publishing process; their requirements are sometimes contradictory, as I discussed last column. They sent only two of the four books I had paid for, so I had to query to get the others, and got the tables of contents repeatedly fouled up; it seemed they couldn't make a correction without adding another error. The galley correction forms were balky and confusing. For example they said to be sure to put the novel number on--but there was no place on the form for it. One galley had the wrong galley number, which could have resulted in the wrong novel being printed under the right title. And their accounts were maddening until my wife and I struggled through to make sense of them so I could do accurate cost accounting, to tell which novel's royalties pay back its initial fees. I finally sent off an irate letter pointing out where their figures do not match what they paid me. It's a nuisance, and it needs to be fixed, but I'm not sure I can get through to their personnel. I also don't like being forced to set up an Internet money account in order to get my royalties; they piled up for four months until I tackled that. Still, Xlibris is doing the job, and writers are not getting shafted the way they are at some Internet publishers. So I do recommend it, with reservations.
I have a Vision recumbent bike, a RowBike, and a JoyRider adult trike that I use to ride out to fetch in the newspapers or close the gate when I'm not jogging there; it's all part of my exercise regime, that also includes the dumbbells for the arms. The problem with pneumatic tires is that they go flat; I prefer solid ones, but they are hard to come by. The rear tire of the RowBike went flat, so I patched it, but the patch didn't hold, and finally we got a self-sealing replacement inner tube. And it went flat even faster. I filled it again, and it held; must have been a catch in the valve. But then the Vision front tire went flat, and again the patch didn't hold--in fact it started peeling off before I even inflated the tube. Maybe the rubber cement folk haven't caught on to the nature of recent tubes. So we got another self-sealing tube--and it went flat in a day. Filled it, flat again. Filled it again--and it held. My theory is that the self-sealing aspect takes a while to flow to the holes they make them with. Meanwhile the little front tire of the trike has a slow leak. Sigh. And a spot reference: I mentioned problem with memory. For this paragraph I couldn't remember the name of the dingus where you fill the tire, that little tube thing where you pump the air in. So I went to my Reverse Dictionary, hoping it would have a diagram of a tire with that dingus named. Hell, it didn't even list "tire." So I tried the READER'S DIGEST REVERSE DICTIONARY, a bigger book. It had "tire" but not that. So I tried the RANDOM HOUSE dictionary: no luck. Webster's, ditto. Then my old Funk & Wagnalls 1913 dictionary I got second hand for my tenth birthday, in 1944--and it had it! Valve! So I didn't have to go to my OED, Oxford English Dictionary. Understand, these are all huge definitive dictionaries, and I use them constantly. I'm a writer, after all. It's good to have my childhood companion come through for me again, even if it hasn't kept up with newfangled terms like parsec or Internet.
After the WTC bombings the mosquito planes were grounded, and the mosquitoes took control of the air in noxious clouds. Then at last they flew the planes over, spraying, and suddenly the mosquitoes were gone. It was wonderful. But gradually they built up again, and now they form clouds again, but the planes haven't come. Too bad. I guess the mosquitoes have to get so thick you can't breathe before the authorities act.
Do you ever wonder where clouds originate or where birds go? I have the answers. Clouds form in the field just northwest of our tree farm, and slowly rise as they cross our trees; I can generally see the angle of their bottom inclination in the mornings. I don't know about other birds, but the nearly extinct Whooping Cranes come here to Citrus County, Florida. They have been trained to follow a small airplane that looks like a bird, and have been flying from Wisconsin to Florida a bit every day when the weather is fair. They will winter in Citrus County, and return north in the spring. Bird hunters not welcome; over-hunting is one reason why the birds are so few. In fact, to paraphrase someone, I point the finger in the face and say "you helped this happen."
A reader called my attention to www.literotica.com, where a subdivision publishes XXXanth stories. These are erotic items featuring Xanth characters, but it is obvious that I am not their author. Just as well.
HiPiers receives about ten emails a day, excluding spam. All are acknowledged, if they have valid return addresses, and many receive personal answers from me. But it's a nuisance when we get long downloads that tie up the system, and often they aren't useful to us anyway. Please don't send MP3 attachments; they take time, we don't have the software to handle them, and distrust attachments anyway, for fear of viruses.
Each Dismember I get Christmas cards. They are a problem. No, I don't have any philosophical objection to them; we celebrate the standard holidays like anyone else. It's that I don't know how to respond. I don't want to write a letter response to a mass-mailed card, and I don't want to ignore them. For a time I made up cards of my own and sent them to anyone who sent me a card, but that was cumbersome and many of mine were late, because they were sent after the other cards. So I guess I'm back to not responding, except via this note: thanks for your cards, folks, and I hope you understand.
Next column will be FeBlueberry, along with the thorough update of the Internet Publishing survey--a chore I hardly relish.
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