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In the OctOgre column I asked readers to tell me where in Xanth I had described Lake Wails and the Iron Mountain, as I had in ogrishly clumsy fashion lost them. Readers promptly came through. Here is the credit I put into the Author's Note for Xanth #29 Pet Peeve:
Here's where the Web site comes in: I asked my readers, and promised to give credits to the first five who located novel and page for me. Within a day after that column was published, I had five responses: Lake Wails is in Ogre, Ogre, and both Wails and Iron are in Panties. That enabled me to do my homework efficiently, and stay on my accelerated schedule. So here are those credits: Krysta Barcok, Cynthia McSorley and Rob Doherty, Michael Ratcliff, Rachael Biggs, and Kristina Keller. I regret that I am unable to give credit to #6; Mike Sloan just missed the cut. Thank you, all, and all the others who followed.
I completed the novel within two months, thanks to the expected interruptions that did not come. It may be the funniest and naughtiest Xanth yet, therefore may in danger of editorial censorship, though TOR has never been guilty of that so far on my books. But just in case they don't make it into print, here are some of the saucy bits, so when you get your copy you can copy them back in. The protagonist is meek Goody Goblin, whose job is to find a good home for the pet peeve, an irascible green bird that doesn't like anything, and says so loudly and pointedly, using Goody's voice. Its amazing how angry how fast fierce creatures like ogres, dragons, and women can get when expertly insulted. So Goody has a bodyguard: Hannah Barbarian, a fan suggestion who first appeared in Geis of the Gargoyle. She's a tall, fit, trim, handsome, militant woman. So the peeve calls her "beef butt." At one point an evil sorceress is trying to take over the body of nice Gwenny Goblin, who was introduced in Isle of View and is now Chiefess of Goblin Mountain. Goody has the wit (he's polite, not stupid) to sic the peeve on her, and the bird has a ball. It threatens to poop on her head, insults her freely, and when she protests, it says "Tough tittie, tootsie." Then they cross the Sar Chasm, another fan suggestion, and the huge cleft comments on them sarcastically. Naturally the peeve rises to the occasion. "I've seen better cracks on a poop pot." I was thinking of a crevice on the side of a caked ceramic chamber potty, then realized that someone with a filthy mind might have another take on it. Should I change it? Naw, none of my readers would have such dirty minds. There's one that doesn't involve the bird: a fine masculine male robot lacks just one part that isn't standard on robots, that he needs in order to be able to consummate his romance with a human woman. So they make that part out of iron--he's an iron man--and go to the Mundane Outernet for a formula to make it bigger and harder. Of course by the time the novel is published, two years hence, the Internet may have been cleansed of spam and its anatomy enlargement ads, ruining the humor.

Meanwhile some of my other books are being published now. As a general rule I don't push my books here in the bimonthly column; HiPiers is intended as an informational site, and those interested in my latest efforts can check the appropriate sections or linked sites. I've seen the sites of other writers that amount to BUY MY BOOK! BUY MY BOOK!! BUY MY BOOK!!! and that's okay for them, but I regard my readers as people as well as markets, and I talk to them as such. So if book ads turn you off, skip the next few paragraphs.

The second ChroMagic novel Key to Chroma should be available from Mundania Press at any moment. I proofread the galleys right after finishing Peeve, and you know, this is a different kind of fantasy. It's big, bold, and sexy, but also qualitatively distinct from other fantasy I've seen. No evil wizards shooting lighting from their fingers, no huge medieval battles between the forces of Good and Evil, no mystic magic swords, no armies of grisly ghouls. Instead this novel starts with the lovely Red Glamor suddenly appearing and sitting on King Havoc's lap as he is on the royal privy pot, giving him a mission (not an emission), and fading out, leaving him sexually frustrated but bound to do her will. It turns out to be quite a challenge. What I like best about ChroMagic is the culture of the world, with its special conventions of speech and action. Magic abounds, but it is inherent rather than flashy. Women are by no means lesser citizens; they know their sexual power over men, and use it freely. And I love the inset stories. One of these, "The Dancer," I believe could make a fine movie by itself. It's the story of the "no fault" relationship of an old man and a nine year old girl as they travel. No, not sexual; it is as temporary grandfather and granddaughter. He's a retired drummer, and she's a novice dancer, so they practice together, making a team in the manner of this culture. When their journey is complete they find they have fallen love with the roles and don't want to give them up. He never had a granddaughter, and she never knew her blood grandfathers. That leads in due course to remarkable things, as they find themselves competing as a team against the finest drum/dance team of the area: her mother, his son. I wrote this after seeing the stage production of Riverdance; it obviously affected me. There really is something about a live performance that celluloid lacks. So okay, nobody has to read the series, and traditional publishers weren't interested. But it is what I believe is my finest fantasy, and though I enjoy Xanth, ChroMagic moves me in ways Xanth does not. I'll happily put it up against any other fantasy, for interest, quality and power. My hope is that readers will agree.

Also available now at Mundania Press is the sequel to my dirty fantasy novel Pornucopia, titled The Magic Fart. Yes, it is exactly as naughty as the title suggests. The protagonist Prior Gross, having won back his small anti-VD smegma penis in the first novel, now must rescue his ideal woman, who he didn't know existed, from the land of Fartingale, where farts are social currency. When folk fight, they try to hold down their opponents so they can emit stunning farts in their faces. They have pissing, shitting, and yes, farting contests galore, with prizes for the victors. Men love to watch women leaning back, spreading their legs, and pissing for distance. No, I'm not implying anything about the tastes of Mundane men; this is fantasy. Shitting gold bricks can be literal, if you have the guts for it. Demons are involved, with supernatural nether abilities, and they really have it in for Prior Gross, who defeated them before. And of course there is the climactic Magic Fart, which blows the corona off the sun and plugs the black hole in the center of the galaxy; that will surely generate some mischief bye and bye. Fantastic naughtiness, if I do say so myself. So if you are of the decent persuasion, stay well away from this; it is not for your kind. Not sold to anyone under 18, either. If you want open access to farts, go to their Web site The Fart Mart at www.farts.com/, where you can buy everything from a whoopee cushion to Crepitation Contest CD. I found half of that in 1960 and it wowed me; maybe sometime I'll order that CD so as to hear the nether end of it. Perhaps related:I received an email with two pictures of a naked human male torso decorated so that the erect penis looks like the head and body of a snake. Clever, colorful, and artistic. And I received a solicitation for a Revolutionary Sex Wafer that delivers blood to your sex organ within minutes. Only $49.95 plus shipping for a bottle. Gee, does my limp old anatomy show?

Mundania will also be bringing out my older novels Macroscope and the Omnivore trilogy. Why, I hear some cynic inquiring, are those old novels now going to Mundania instead of Xlibris? Because its easier and cheaper, and they get better editions and promotion. Xlibris costs $500 for a trade paperback edition and that's fine, but Mundania costs me nothing and they also do hardcover. So I'm doing what I recommend for everyone: try for a regular publisher, and if you don't land one (let's face it, the average publisher is an idiot and you're a genius, so naturally it doesn't understand you) then go to a self publisher like Xlibris and do it your way. I suspect the golden age of literature is incipient, because now writers can bypass the plugged bottleneck of regular publishers and make their material available directly to the public. Sure, there'll be a plethora of junk, but there'll also be material that misses the editorial cut by being too good for it.

Whatever I have done, at some point gets a request for a sequel. The most frequent request is for an 8th Incarnations of Immortality novel featuring Nox, the Incarnation of Night. So far I have demurred, feeling that anything after God would seem anticlimactic. But now Stephen Smith has made the suggestion for Under a Velvet Cloak with such detail, tracing the whole history of Nox--a portrait of the Incarnation as a young girl, as it were (that's an oblique literary reference to James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Boy), that I am constrained to take it seriously. Also, there's a breakthrough in the complicated chronology of that series: go to www.druidstar.com/IoIChron.html for a five page listing covering 15 billion years BCE (Before Christian Era) to 2004. I never published my timelines before losing track of them, so this is invaluable. It makes it possible for me to return to that series without having to reread 7 novels to get it all straight. So I am consulting my readership, that vasty font of information and opinionation: should I tackle such a novel? I don't undertake to do it, merely to consider the input pro and con. I don't even have a market for it, but one might develop, as was the case with the 4th Mode novel. These days I pretty much write what I choose to, then worry about the market, which is why my current rejection rate approximates that of a novice writer. I did mention that publishers are idiots?

Here's another serious query: a gay reader suggested that I have gay characters in Xanth. I replied that the market probably wouldn't tolerate it, and that I, being unabashedly straight, might not be able to portray gay folk well. He replied that such a surprise might pack a punch, and that if I can write female or black viewpoint well, when I am neither, why not gay? Okay, so I'm checking: what do readers think of this? If I do it, I would have a gay male character, sympathetically portrayed. Would this alienate readers? I'm not preaching tolerance here, but checking reality. Things can be presented today that couldn't be a decade or two ago. But Xanth, apart from panty naughtiness and running nymphs, has been a pretty straight-laced series. I mean, storks deliver babies, and the standard cuss word is bleep. If readers say to do it, I'll check my agent and publisher. My guess is that the publisher, conscious of subterranean prejudice, would veto it. I won't do it without clearance from all parties. I'm happy to push the limits every which way elsewhere, as perhaps the prior paragraphs suggest, but Xanth is commercial fiction, with commercial limits.

Meanwhile after Pet Peeve I returned to my prior project, Alfred, the pseudo biography of my father as seen by the major women in his life, based on his lifelong journal and corollary references. I discovered something that made me wonder. Jack Kevorkian at the University of Pennsylvania in 1950 gave special credit to my father as an outstanding teacher there. My father did teach there, and certainly he was an independent thinker, as am I, but that's an unusual name. Was it the same Kevorkian later known as Dr. Death, now in prison for helping people to choose their own deaths in their own time? The law is often an ass, as that demonstrates. So I looked up Kevorkian via Google, and got material, but could not verify his school and college education. So here's where I appeal to my readers again: can anyone verify or refute his attendance at the U of P in 1950? I don't promise any credit in a book this time; this is a noncommercial project that has no guarantee of publication other than eventually at Xlibris, that may be read only by some family members. It's just something I'd like to know.

While I'm on the subject of books: Stephen King got a literary award for his contributions. The National Book Foundation presented him with its 2003 Medal for Distinguished Contributions to American Letters, intended to honor American authors who enrich the literary landscape. Naturally the critics are foaming at the mouth. I mean, no popular writer is ever entitled to literary recognition; commercial success is by definition a signal of poor writing. I once read an article by a person who surveyed the New York Times Book Review for a year, and found that there was zero overlap between their reviews and their bestsellers lists. No bestseller had been reviewed. That showed the way of it. After that, of course, rather than admit they were not serving the public they were selling newspapers to, they started to review a few popular books, I suspect grudgingly. Naturally I am weighing in on the subject. I'm with King; it's high bleeping time a readable writer got some literary recognition. It may never happen again, but at least it makes the elites relevant for that fifteen minutes. Readability should be a fundamental definition of good writing; the fact that what critics typically endorse is apt to be unreadable is a signal of their> willful ignorance, not that of the reading public. Got it straight now, literati? Get with the program. Meanwhile, congratulations, Stephen King.

I received an invitation from Cliff Roberts of the Ft. Worth Haiku Society to contribute a frog haiku to his site. He's a reader of mine, so naturally I obliged. A haiku is a Japanese art form akin to poetry. It consists of seventeen syllables in three lines of 5, 7, 5. So I wrote my first haiku: "Wee tiny green frogs/ Jumping around my windows/ Cute as they can be" You can see that and many others at http://members.aol.com/Vanpire13/bk.htm. Note that that's Vanpire, not Vampire. We do like those little frogs; they snap up the bugs trying to get into our house. Their feet stick to the glass so they can jump sideways on a vertical pane. There are even smaller brown toads on the ground on occasion; they're cute too.

It's the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Jack Kennedy. It seems half the citizens of the USA were born after that tragic event, so to them it's history. Not to me. I'm an immigrant, naturalized American at age 24 while serving in the US Army. Thus I didn't get to vote in a presidential election until I was 26, and I voted for Kennedy in 1960. Sure he had his flaws, but he was an intellectual and ethical giant compared to the current occupant. He visited Tampa Bay, Florida, and was welcomed. Four days later he visited Dallas, Texas, and was killed. Conservatives seem to have loved Texas ever since, and fought to keep guns freely available, maybe so they can be ready for the next Kennedy.

I read Stupid White Men by Michael Moore. The past two years have dated it a bit, but time has already amplified the points he makes. I also have his movie Bowling for Columbine, which I mean to watch when I'm not trying to complete something on a private deadline. I received an email from Michael Moore, saying Macroscope was one of the best books he'd read. I thanked him, and inquired whether he was the same person. It could be a coincidence of names. I received no answer, so as with Kevorkian, I can't be sure. Regardless, Stupid has some solid points, and I agree with much of it. I'd love to have the author as a reader.

Meanwhile Ralph Nader had a column about a nefarious outfit. It says all citizens should be free from government surveillance of their electronic communications, and no data should be gathered on law-abiding citizens by business or government. "The current greatest threat to our individual liberties is overreaching government controls established under the guise of preventing terrorism." Presidential authority to issue executive orders and directives should be eliminated, and all previous executive orders should be repealed. So what is this subversive outfit? It is the Texas State Republican Platform for 2002, the underpinning for the present national administration. Hypocrisy, where is now thy sting?

I seem to be on the mailing list of several political parties, though I am a registered independent. A mailing from Chuck Schumer for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee says in part that right-wing strategists are running up immense deficits deliberately so as to tie the hands of government for decades to come. They want to eliminate Social Security and Medicare, among other things. I also received a sample issue of THE PROGRESSIVE POPULIST for December 1, 2003. It's interesting for those at the left edge of the scale, as I am, but I already have more subscriptions than I can keep up with and am trying to cut down. But there's one shocker in their letter section I want to share: it points out that investigative reporter David Icke www.davidicke.com says that the Bush administration was aware of the danger of the 9/11 attack, but let it happen in order to gain the immediate political advantage of shocking 90% of Americans into supporting the Bush agenda. Okay, I don't know David Icke and can't speak for his authority, but I have heard that the White House has been stonewalling the official report on 9/11, refusing to allow it to be released. I don't see how there can be legitimate reason to suppress that--unless it indicates administration complicity. I know that the nefarious Patriot Act was rushed through Congress in the immediate wake of that tragedy, while public attention was distracted. (I understand the lurking sequel, Patriot Act II, is even worse.) So now I must wonder: were 3,000 innocent people deliberately sacrificed on the altar of rightist politics? If so, this smells like treason.

Newspaper column by Robyn Blumner in the ST PETE TIMES points up one of the things about the current US administration that bothers me. The Constitution is being battered. The Bill of Rights requires that certain rights be honored when folk are arrested. The Geneva Conventions have similar requirements. We don't torture prisoners to make them confess. But now we do send them to other countries that do use torture, with lists of questions to be answered. Yes, there's a specific: naturalized Canadian citizen Maher Arar was arrested but never charged with any crime. He was born in Syria, moved to Canada as a teenager, and has been Canadian since 1991. He has a wife and two children, and does computer consulting. He attended a family gathering in Tunisia, then was returning to Canada when he was arrested at a New York airport changing planes. Why? Because he had an acquaintance who was suspected of being a member of Al-Qaeda. They sent him to Syria where he was held for ten months in a cell resembling a grave, six feet by seven feet by three feet. He was beaten, whipped, and threatened. Finally he was returned to Canada. Evidently there never was any evidence against him. This is Bush administration justice? Comparisons to Nazi methods are overdone, but this is suggestive. If they can do this to the innocent, who in America is safe? I think it is my blind luck that I am a naturalized citizen whose country of origin was England, not Syria. But every time they get away with it, the corruptors of our constitution will be emboldened. Do you have a friend from Afghanistan? Iraq? Syria? Iran? Maybe you should get out of America before suspicion falls on you. Remember, they don't need evidence. They may simply torture you until you say whatever they want you to say. Don't try to protest your innocence too long; that will merely annoy them.

One of the outfits I support is RESIST, whose full title is A Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority, at www.resistinc.org. It sends money to numerous outfits that aren't on the radar of the big charities. Africa/Asia/International; Environmental; Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender; Health/AIDS/ disability; Labor; Media/Culture; Middle East; Native American; Peace/Anti-Militarism; Prisoners; Women; Youth. The February/March 2003 issue--I got backlogged--mentions how the attention on Iraq allowed numerous other outrages to be overlooked: The dismissal of many basic civil rights, forced registration of immigrants of Middle Eastern descent, disregard for previous nuclear arms treaties, appointment of right-wing judges, and the wholesale amputation of major social service programs. Outraged activists have sounded alarms, but you don't see much of that in the big-time corporate-controlled media. Amnesty International also does good work, with current special missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Mexico, Nigeria, and Russia. The way things are going, they may need one in USA soon. I find it scary the way we are meekly allowing ourselves to be herded like sheep to the fleecing or slaughter.

I also read Foul Matter by Martha Grimes. I had seen comment on it and had it in mind; then the other Inverness writer Kristene O'Donnelly sent it to me. Here's the key: "foul matter" is what publishers in their arrogance call unedited manuscripts. I've seen those words marked on my own returned novels. The author spins a story demonstrating how foul the whole publishing industry is, and she gets off some good ones along the way. The story itself isn't much, and the writing is not compelling; she's evidently more of a literary writer than a gut writer, at least in this book. But some of the incidental comments are choice. For example, the idea that the aspiring writer might go to some exotic place for inspiration. Like the castle in Scotland--but what about the hassles of dreary cold from inadequate fires, clanging pipes, awful plumbing, and the need for many servants to maintain it? The daily grind soon ruins it. What about telling students about achieving success by constantly writing? No, better to tell them the truth: their chances of getting (traditionally) published are less than zero, that getting an agent is almost impossible. Aspiring writers seem to have a total lack of understanding of what writing is about. What about best sellers? Those are generally bought, not achieved, by publishers buying shelf space up front and hawking dumps for those authors or books they decide to push. You think this is fiction? It isn't. It's called promotion. In the music industry it's called payola. Pay the money, get the sales. I was put on the bestseller lists by publishers that bought exposure for my books, and taken off those lists by publishers that didn't. The quality of my writing was incidental; it hardly matters how good it may be, if readers can't readily find it. So Martha Grimes, couching it as fiction, tells some truths that publishers and advice books won't reveal. Foul matter, indeed.

And while I'm on the subject of publishers: there is a window of opportunity to correct errors between the hardcover and paperback editions of books. I took advantage of this to send in corrections for Up in a Heaval. The corrections were acknowledged--and not made. This is not the first time. Essentially, whatever they say, they don't make corrections. After the initial publication I normally have to revert a book and take it to a new publisher to get corrections made. I'm talking about traditional print publishers above, but some electronic publishers seem to be understudying them to pick up their worst traits. This time one demanded what made me such an expert? Not that I make the claim; here is the opening sentence of my ongoing publishing list: "This survey has no authority other than my own ornery wish to help hopeful writers make progress; I'm really a writer, not a surveyor." Then I say "I've had a good deal of experience in the publishing school of hard knocks, hence my interest in making it easier for others." Believe it. I do it in part because today I am beyond blacklisting; traditional publishers tried that thirty years ago, and the experience made me permanently militant, like an abused animal. Beginning writers dare not protest too much, because they can be blacklisted. So I say what they can't; someone has to. Publishers who don't like it are free to challenge me, but they need to learn who can be pushed around, and who can't. I don't enjoy educating them, but I do it when necessary, my object then being to make them sorry they tried. I do make corrections when warranted, and sometimes they are. My concern is the truth, whatever it may be.

Meanwhile my dreary mundane life continues. We have two 1995 vintage cars, a Saturn and a Ford Aspire. We're watching the new high efficiency cars like the Prius but not rushing to buy them as long as our older cars are reliable. Well, one day the Aspire front left tire collapsed. Totally flat. So I went to take it off--and couldn't. The car tools are simply inadequate to compete with the powered nut tighteners they use to put them on; you have to get help. Maybe that's why they do it. Where would profits be if anyone could remove and patch a tire as we did in the old days? It gripes me. Finally I tried pumping it up with my foot-pedal bicycle pump. Took time, but eventually got there. If the tire would hold for more than an hour, we could drive the car in to the shop. And it did. In fact they couldn't find anything wrong with the tire, so it's still on, and doing fine. Magic, anyone?

We replaced two of our aging air conditioners--it's a big house--and added another heat exchanger. This is a device that takes heat from the hot air and puts it into the hot water, and it just about doubles the efficiency of the unit. Our other heat exchanger is fine; some summers we turn off the water heater and just use the heat exchanger, and our electric bill drops. But the new one doesn't work. We paid $800 for it, and it worked for only the five minutes the repairman was here, and quit literally as he was departing. This gripes me. We'll keep after it, but summer is gone.

I went to the Florida Community College Press Association Conference in Ocala and spoke to a small group about electronic publishing. I don't go out often, and the older I get the less I am inclined, but I hope my words to the students were helpful. I was once a teacher, you know. One of the items in the membership package was a booklet "Best Practices for Newspaper Journalists." It consists mainly of a listing of ways in which newspapers are deemed to be unfair: they get the facts wrong, they refuse to admit errors, they won't name names, they have ignorant or incompetent reporters, and so on. Seems eerily like regular publishers. Each complaint is explored, and there are suggestions for correction. May they be heeded.

Remember Andi and the "dead baby" jibe a cruel chat room participant sent? Several readers sent advice, and I relayed it. Now Andi knows the identity of the man: evidently in the US military in Japan, Kelvin Martin. It seems he is known elsewhere. But in the course of rousting him out, the chat room got shut down. Andi is grateful to those who responded to my column note, lending support.

Keeping up with medical research is difficult; there's so much going on now. Harold Varmus decided to do something about it. He set up PubMedCentral, at www.pubmedcentral.org/, to become a digital repository of all the works in biomedical science. Access is free and unrestricted. I mention it here because I approve of this sort of thing. Paper scientific journals are expensive and hard to search through; an online facility is much more convenient. This is open-access publishing for the benefit of the world.

The universe interests me. NEW SCIENTIST has an article that stretches minds and suggests how it is that the fundamental laws of physics are right to enable life like ours to form. If you are religious the answer is easy: God made it so we could inherit it and worship Him. Too bad I'm not smart enough to take the easy way. I want to know how a seemingly chance distribution of laws happens to work so well for our convenience. I don't much trust the beneficence of chance when it comes to my existence. I doubt chance gives half a crap about me. Well, string theory postulates nine or ten dimensions of space, and one of time. The extra six or seven dimensions may be very small or even rolled up, not seeming to affect us much. But, if I understand this correctly--and it's not certain that anyone understands it correctly--those fragmentary dimensions affect the main ones, modifying their parameters, such as the cosmological constant. They may vary across the larger landscape, generating bubbles of existence with varying physics. There may be an infinite number of bubbles, each with slightly different rules. One bubble happened to have rules that enabled life to form. We are in that bubble, selected by pure chance. Maybe the principle is better explained by a con game I read of long ago: a man receives a free sample of advice from a stock investment service saying next week this stock will rise. Lo, it does. Comes another prediction, and it is right again. After about a dozen accurate predictions comes the sales pitch: are you convinced? Our service costs yea much. Sign up if you want more. Well, it's expensive, but it has been 100% accurate, so he should be able to make a bundle. He signs up. Okay, where's the catch? It's that the company sent out maybe 128,000 letters, half saying the stock would rise, half saying it would drop. Naturally half of them were right, half wrong. Then it sent out 64,000 predictions to those who had received the right predictions. Half of those were right. It sent out 32,000 to those. Then 16,000, then 8,000, 4,000, 2,000, 1,000, 500, 250, 125, 64--and solicits those 64 rights after twelve predictions. Half of them will lose their shirts next time, then half the remainder, and so on, but the company has their fat payments for the supposedly perfect service. The perfect prediction record is selection, not insight. Too bad the marks don't know that. Okay, here we are in the selected bubble where the rules have favored our existence, and we think it was inevitable, but it's just selection. All those other universes washed out. This explains the unique variables that make us possible: one spot on the continuum. God isn't necessary. Another item suggests that the shape of the universe is a dodecahedron: that is, like a soccer ball with many pentagonal sides. An angular bubble?

Another article relates to the length of life. Some creatures live briefly, others for up to a century or so. Humans live longer than most. One way to figure it is total number of heartbeats, which I think is about one billion: use them up at a hundred per second, you don't survive as long as a creature with one beat per minute. By this reckoning, humans live about twice as long as other mammals. What's our secret? Well, it may be membranes. They govern everything about us; cells have them. There are enough membranes in one person to cover, if spread out, 75 soccer fields. One type leads to fast reflexes and short life; the other to slower reflexes and longer life. We have the latter kind. A creature that under-eats suffers a conversion of membranes to the slower kind, so lives longer. The wrong membranes may contribute to diabetes, depression, mental disease and whatnot. I find this fascinating. If they find out how to convert membranes without starvation or mental disease, the secret of positive long life may be at hand.

Not that longer life is necessarily desirable. Quality counts, too. A short happy life might be preferable to a long sad one. NEW SCIENTIST has an article about happiness too. What would increase the personal happiness of the average person? #1 is to earn more money. How much more? About $100,000 a year. Oh. #2 is to desire less. Yes, I guess you'd better, because you are unlikely to get a hundred grand a year more. #3 is not to worry if you aren't a genius. Gee, you mean it's okay for ogres? It says tested IQ means knowing a lot of vocabulary and being able to rotate things in your mind; that doesn't have a lot to do with your ability to get along with people. Others are to make friends, get married, find God or a belief system, do someone a good turn, and grow old gracefully. Hm; I'm a mixed case.

A couple of columns ago I commented on the Asperger syndrome: high-end autism that interests me because it may run in my family. I had a long response from a reader with a number of thoughts, "OldPhoenix," who suffers the condition. People with AS (Asperger Syndrome) may not understand the human need for affirmation. They see a conversation without real content, "small talk," and figure it is pointless. My father was that way; even routine social queries like "How are you?" bothered him because he knew no one really cared how he was, and didn't want detail on his health or mood, so he figured this was wasted breath. I can handle it, but empty conventions do bother me some. If there is some searing trouble of the heart, AS can relate, because that has content. My father did; I do. But it is easy for AS folk to make social blunders, not picking up well on nonverbal cues. My father did, and didn't understand why he managed to tee off so many folk on occasion, including members of his family, and yes, including me. I once ran out of space on the last line of a letter, so abbreviated it in the manner of "space is gone, will write again soon." He assumed from that, that I did not know the proper use of a comma, so sent me a letter explaining it, including a half page of deliberately run-on sentences to demonstrate the case. Never mind that I was an English teacher and professional writer, or that all other commas in that letter and every letter were correct. On the basis of a single comma, he assumed I had a lifelong ignorance. It was insulting, and I blew my top. In retrospect I wish I had had a better understand then of his nature; I would have let it pass. And of course he never understood my reaction, or the reactions of others he corrected. He was just trying to be helpful.

My thesis, as I have discussed before, is that the problem may be a lack of empathy. That is, the ability to feel the feelings of others as if they are your own; to put yourself in the other's place. I regard empathy as a defining condition of humanity. We all have it, but some more than others. The lack of it does not mean that a person is mean spirited; it's more like being color blind, and wondering why others seem so thrilled over a scene that to you is merely shades of gray. If you wince when someone cuts his hand by accident, that's empathy. Whether I am correct remains to be seen; empathy may have nothing to do with autism. But so far, it seems to me like a fair match. So let's say two men meet at a bus station, and there's nothing to do for ten minutes while they wait. Complete silence can seem hostile, so they prefer to make small talk: how are you, fine, do you think it will rain? maybe, that damned bus is running late again, yeah they do. Empty dialogue, but it relates them to each other in an amicable way, so neither feels nervous. Small talk connects people; it doesn't need content. Social engagement counts. But for those who don't pick up, empathetically (not emphatically), it is pointless, and they may come across as strange because they don't relate in the manner of normal folk.

"I think the hallmark is intensity," OldPhoenix says. "Normal people are afraid of intensity in anything." And I think, maybe with reason. Say I, a white bearded senior citizen, encounter an attractive young woman. (It does happen, at conventions.) Admiring her fine points with visual or tactile intensity would alarm her. How would I feel if I were in her place? Nervous as hell. So I try to keep my eyes off the finely sculptured contours of her tight sweater and jeans, and my hands to myself, not because I lack interest, but because I appreciate her feelings in this regard. Empathy. With luck she'll recognize my name badge and turn out to be a fan: "Oh, I read all three of your books!" Then I can look at her as I talk to her, fine points and all, without generating nervousness. I have become known and theoretically safe. My empathy has prevented me from making a nice ass of myself, I hope.

But, OldPhoenix says, a person's significant other can do much to alleviate problems. Humor me, dear; just say "fine" when asked how you are doing, and you hope it won't rain, and pretend you are enjoying the party; such little favors please me. When we're alone you can relax again and I'll make it up to you. AS understands deal making, if not the pointless little nuances.

And, OldPhoenix says, in my novel Macroscope, my genius sociopath Schön has Aspergers. Wow--I didn't know that, but it does fit.

I received a snail mail ad for WATERDANCE in North Carolina. It's a gated scenic community in the Blue Ridge Mountains, lots from $79,000 to $400,000, and you build your own house. I know it's lovely country there; we considered moving to that area before coming here. But I'm satisfied to be in backwoods Florida.

PARADOX, the magazine of historical and speculative fiction, has an interview with me in their Issue 3, Autumn 2003. It relates mostly to historical fiction, of course. It's a print magazine, with a lovely bare nymph on the cover, but the web site is http://home.nyc.rr.com/paradoxmag/index.html. Subscription is $15 for a four issue year. Elsewhere, I am told there is an audio interview with me dating from 1987 at www.wiredforbooks.org/swaim/ . I tried to check it, but it required me to download RealPlayer for a two week trial and I didn't trust that, so I haven't verified. But the interview could be legitimate.

More on bullying: I learned of a relevant site: www.preventchildabuse.org. I'd rather see bullies sent to prison, instead of marijuana smokers.

The first Apollo Project put a man on the moon. Now there is the Apollo Alliance, consisting of twelve of the country's biggest unions, endorsed by environmental groups. Its intent is to achieve energy independence from foreign oil. Converting to hydrogen powered cars is one way. I'm for it.

I hardly credit many of the claims made by health magazine ads, but I consider them, just in case. It's an inconvenient function of open mindedness. HEALTH SCIENCES INSTITUTE says that a "magic bullet" treatment for cancer has been discovered, ten thousand times as strong as chemotherapy, with zero side effects, but it has been hushed up by a drug giant. Now stories have abounded for decades about things like a magic carburetor that doubles car gas mileage, bought up and suppressed by the oil industry. Rebuttals abound too. But the fact is corporations do go for profits, and they aren't eager to see their profits tank. So there is a rationale for suppression, and sometimes cases are documented. One was the stainless steel razor blade, before the era of powered shavers. American companies sold only blades that wore down quickly, keeping replacement sales up, until finally a British company marketed the one that held its sharpness for, I don't know, maybe twenty times as long. So if there is a cheap, effective, safe treatment for cancer that will gut profits, don't hold your breath waiting for corporations to tell you about it. I think that's the main reason the medical establishment remains largely willfully blind to the way Vitamin C stifles the common cold, saving those of us who know about it much grief. Still, I suspect most such claims are bogus. This is one is for Graviola extract, from an Amazon rainforest tree. Subscribe, and they'll tell you about it.

Article in THE ECONOMIST "How to run a company well." The first commandment is "A sound ethical compass." Too bad; as discussed above, corporations orient on profits, not ethics. One insight is offered by the news report of the two million dollar party that the chief executive of Tyco International threw for his trophy wife's birthday: on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, with a Roman Empire theme (how fitting!) with scantily clad models and Roman centurions. It seems the top officers looted the company of $600 million, and this is an indication how they spent it. No, I wasn't invited, but it's interesting to see how the elite live.

Maybe related is a NEW SCIENTIST article on pleasure. Seems there was once on experiment to see if electrical stimulation of the brain's pleasure centers could cure depression, chronic pain, schizophrenia, addiction, and even homosexuality, which was then regarded as a psychiatric disorder. (Some are still arguing that case.) The results were fuzzy; it may be that it was desire rather than pleasure being stimulated. Pleasure can't be maintained at high intensity very long, but desire is never ending. The human brain remains too complicated for scientists to completely fathom.

Newspaper feature on comedian Al Franken's irreverent take on politics that endears him to the left and alienates him from the right. Okay, I'll check; I have his book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them--A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, and some day when I have a chance to read it I'll report further.

Newspaper ran a Mensa mini-quiz. Mensa is theoretically the smartest one per cent or so of our population. Now I never sought to join Mensa. This was in part because I don't feel the urge to proclaim my supposed superiority to others; I'm more the dull ogre type, socially. Ogres are justifiably proud of their stupidity, but they know more than they let on, and some bright folk know less than they think. But also, I have a chronic problem with tests; I tend to come up with different answers. That doesn't necessarily mean I'm wrong; it's apt to mean the keyed test answer is wrong, or that there are alternate solutions. Sometimes the bright folk seem downright stupid. There are examples in this quiz. One relates to the discovery of a coin marked 99 B.C. Of course it's fake; how could they know the Christian Era was coming in 99 years? But consider this: the initials might stand for Billion Cents, the country having suffered recent hyper inflation. Or it could come from the personal marked collection of Bill Clinton. Or be a token for the purchase of ninety nine Bullion Cubes. Can you say that's not so, this being an unfamiliar coin? Evidently Mensa didn't think of that. Until you know what the initials stand for, you don't know whether the coin is valid or fake. Bum question. Another question is counting from zero, what is the first number that contains the letter "a"? Okay, their answer is one thousand. But I say they are wrong. They didn't say to count in whole numbers, so it could be one half. They didn't say which direction to count, so it could be minus one hundred and one. They didn't say what language to count in; I believe three in Chinese is "san." It could have a thousand answers, depending how you define "number." As such, it may be an unanswerable question. Mensa wasn't smart enough to know that? But don't get me started; I have a lifetime of different answers in many situations. I really did test as subnormal early in life because of it. I am, I repeat, open minded, and that opens up other worlds, but standard folk typically don't get it. So I tend to stay clear and go my own ornery way. Writing fantastic fiction is comfortable exercise for my festering brain, and it's nice that so many readers like to join me there. Who would have thought there could be so many square pegs?

News item: there are now thirty million nones. No, I'm not misspelling nuns; these are the folk who answer "None" when queried about their religious preference. I've been a none all along; now it seems I have company. The article says that to folk in the Bible Belt a none is a Satanist or a communist. Yes, I've been called a Satanist. 17% are Republicans, 30% Democrats, and 43% independents, so I'm with the plurality there. Nones tend to be young; I'm not, but I have young readers. Does that count? So why did I never join a religion? It's not antipathy, as I was raised as a Quaker, and married a Unitarian-Universalist minister's daughter. It's that I looked at religion, saw the hypocrisy in it, concluded that it was not an ennobling force, and declined to participate. Religion did not meet my standards of personal integrity and tolerance. Sure there are many sects, with many variations of belief and practice, and they are killing each other over their differences. But I figure I can live a decent life without being directed by the sanctimonious hierarchy of some unfathomable entity, and that is what I try to do.

SCIENCE NEWS had an item on a study relating racism to mental performance. The results "suggest that harboring racial bias may be maladaptive to optimal cognitive functioning." Um, let me translate that: racism is stupid.

WORLD WATCH is a top public service organization. It usually depresses me to read their publications, because they track the ongoing degradation of our global environment. But sometimes there is hope. A letter in their November/December 2003 issue by Guy Dauncey remarks on the parable of Easter Island. I am familiar with that: the islanders had a virtual paradise, but their greed and shortsightedness destroyed it, decimating their population. They were carving huge statues instead of conserving their resources. That's what America and other nations are doing now, and the result will be similar destruction. But this letter points out another parable: the island of Tikopia, where they saw similar disaster coming, so they acted to prevent it. They limited their population, using abortion and infanticide (today we could do it considerably more kindly with birth control) so as to have zero population growth. They shifted from slash and burn agriculture to permaculture, growing multi-storied orchards of fruit and nuts and carefully managed garden plots. They built walls in the sea to trap fish at low tide. They gave up keeping and eating pigs, because those animals did too much damage. And they survived in what is said to be like a Garden of Eden. They did what was necessary--as we could, if we ever got the right leadership. Which example will we follow?

Let's conclude on a positive note: newspaper had a feature on a bestselling nineteen year old fantasy author, Christopher Paolini. His novel Eragon was published by Knopf, and made the hardcover children's bestseller list. Good for him. Here's a bit of the rest of the story: he self published his novel, promoted it assiduously, and it came to the attention of a traditional editor. He was offered a nice five figure sum for a trilogy. He wrote to me: what should he do? I said GET AN AGENT, and argued my point: an agent might double the advance and get better terms, being well worth his commission. First time writers normally can't get agents, but with a publisher's offer in hand, yes, then it is possible. He did, and while the specific figure of the eventual deal wasn't given, it was mid six figures. Now Paolini is really on his way. I'm glad my advice worked.

Until two months hence--
PIERS
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