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Piers the handyman 2007
Dismember 2009
HI-

Several readers sent suggestions about fixing my capitalization problem in my last column, but none were on target. I finally managed to fix it myself by finding the "May I?" button. That's the one that's there solely to torpedo you when all you want to do is handle your project. I believe I have remarked before on my theory that Open Source is populated to an extent by refugees from Microsoft, who bring their bad habits with them. Such as contempt for clarity, simplicity, and user friendliness. In this case the May-I button is hidden in Formatting—AutoFormat—While Typing. Mine had gotten unchecked, and that cut out all of the AutoCorrect function. Why they don't have the AutoCorrect turnon with the AutoCorrect address—well, as I said, they don't seem to be interested in making it easy.

In that vein: Ed Howdershelt, who came up and got me online a couple years ago, came up again to install the current version of Ubuntu, as he had a spare disk. I used Kubuntu for a year or so, preferring the KDE environment, but was willing to try this for the sake of OpenOffice 3. Ubuntu installed, but couldn't handle my modem. So we had to put the old Xandros back on, and it worked but all my defaults had been wiped, including my customized keyboard, and it was a hassle restoring them. Another week Ed came up again to try installing OpenOffice 3 directly on Xandros, but it wouldn't. It turns out that you can't get there from here; Xandros doesn't recognize the current OpenOffice. Apparently the Xandros folk don't much care about staying current with other open source software. This spells the likely conclusion of my association with Xandros. For too long it has teased me with its occasional shutdowns when I try to back up material, its refusal to recognize my printer directly, its turnoff of my keyboard when doing automatic backups so that I wind up with letters missing from words or commands, and its refusal to save my session setup for next time. It can do that last, as once every so often it does, but normally it doesn't, so that I have to take ten minutes each morning setting things up "by hand." Programs can do these things regularly, because prior programs did. I may try Ubuntu again and see if we can find a modem that will work with it. Or Kubuntu, the KDE environment variant I prefer, though when I used Kubuntu before it was incomplete in three sources we tried, as if they had never bothered to check it before distributing it. Another time he brought PCLinuxOS, that claims to be easy to install and full featured. But it wouldn't install. No error messages, no cautions; it recognized my system, it said it was installing, but then the screen went blank and activity stopped. That's par for this course. Another time we got a virus, so sought to install an online virus program; it said it was a 13 hour download, and it did tie up our phone line overnight. Then it said it was missing a file and wouldn't work. They couldn't have warned us before wasting all that time? That, too is par; it's why we don't much like online updating. It generally is complicated, ties up our phone for hours, and then doesn't work. So we bought Norton at a store, and it slows down our Windows system almost as much as the virus did; we have to turn it off to get things done. Don't get me started on why I don't much like Norton. And yes, I feel the whole hassle should be unnecessary. An open source operating system should address an open source modem and open source word processor without hassle. I guess I am still looking for the perfect Linux distribution that actually behaves the way it should: straightforward, full featured, reliable. But as I said above, about open source programmers, who seem determined to drive users back to Microsoft...Years ago in the local Linux users group someone said he wanted a system that worked out of the box, and two others bawled him out for even wanting it. Thereafter I tuned out of that organization, as it obviously did not represent folk like me who do want hassle-free performance. Are we that rare? So it seems I won't be able to upgrade unless I get a geek here to do it. How we miss Tim, who set up my present system years ago, before he died. If there's a geek within range of the Citrus County area who knows how to tame the balky tiger of my system on Linux, get in touch; we might be able to do some business. And no, they don't even offer broadband here in the hinterland; dial-up is us.

I kept writing, and finished Xanth #35 Well-Tempered Clavicle within three months, which is decent, considering my mood and the computer problems. Is the novel up to Xanthly snuff, considering the whole of it was written during my grief for the loss of my daughter? The readers will have to say, in due course. But I think it's close. I do know how to write, critics to the contrary notwithstanding, regardless of my mood at the time. This is the story of well-tempered Picka Bone, son of the walking skeleton Marrow Bones, who winds up traveling with Princess Dawn, daughter of Prince Dolph and Electra: their fathers once traveled together. Picka learns that he can detach his shoulder bones—clavicles--and play beautiful music on his ribs. So beautiful that Dawn falls in love with him, though she is not his type; all that shapely flesh on her nice bones turns him off. The horrendous Music Monster, however, does want to marry her, and realizes that he needs to destroy Picka to make her amenable. The details get complicated as Picka reluctantly faces off musically against the Monster with Dawn as the prize. The title is a parody of Johann Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, a famous piece of piano music.

The moment I finished the Xanth novel, came the page proofs for GEODYSSEY #5 Climate of Change. I spent Thanksgiving day and weekend proofreading. This is serious historical fiction, the kind critics are careful not to read so they can continue to blame me for writing only funny fantasy. This novel follows in its fashion the fortunes of five diverse human cultures: the Xhosa of Africa, the Basques of Europe, the Alani of the near east, the aborigines of Australia, and the Maya of Central America. Prior novels in the series have gone back as far as eight million years; this one is relatively restrained, going back only 100,000 years. But it does have its points, I like to think. My interest in the real nature of our species remains, as is evident in the HiPiers columns discussions. This novel differs from the others in the series in that there are no fixed relationships, apart from the blood ties of Family; instead any of three brothers may marry one woman, and either of two woman may marry her brother. All combinations are tried, in the course of the novel, so that we see how alternate combinations work out. The fact is, just about any man can make it with just about any woman, in our species, if both care to try, and here they do. There is one other complication: some folk insist that marriage begin with rape. Others are understandably put off by this, so there's a fair amount of sexual tension. TOR will publish it in hardcover in May 2010.

On to lesser things. I started growing out my hair when I was 70½, when my wife could no longer cut it. It is now creeping up on 5 years, and I have a foot-long ponytail, with the longest hair maybe a foot and a half. If hair grows six inches a year, why isn't it two and a half feet long? Apparently I am up against the limit of hair follicle life. Not that I really needed to match the lovely yard-long tresses of my daughters. Penny was my vanilla haired daughter, Cheryl is my chocolate haired daughter. I'm sort of in between, a muddy mix. I use hair glop to condition my hair and keep it from tangling. I have used Alberto VO5 for years, but now am experimenting also with Brylcreem and Vitalis. (I have trouble remembering that last, and think of Velva, Vigaro, or Velveeta, which probably wouldn't work as well.) Brylcreem works but I have to put on twice as much, and Vitalis is liquid and I have to soak it on. So I think I'll stick with VO5. I use hair ties with marble-sized balls to tie my ponytail together; my wife call them "bobbles."

I remain on the dread Soft Diet, following my tooth extractions, and have lost weight. But as my gums heal I am returning to a normal diet, though I have only a few teeth that can chew nuts. I look forward to getting my partial dentures, trusting that then I will be able to chew with authority.

New term, for me: cougar. Not the wild cat, but an older woman who dates younger men. The man may be in his early twenties, the woman within a decade one side or the other of 45. It seems that many young men prefer cougars, because they are experienced and interested, and don't have issues about saving it for marriage. I suspect young women might do well to study the ways of cougars, and emulate them. But maybe it take that extra twenty years to learn. I remember the remark a man made about dating older women: "They don't smell, they don't tell, they don't swell, and they're grateful as hell." I once remarked to an email reader who wondered why I have young pretty women in my fiction instead of more realistic ones that I'd like to write about a handsome, wealthy young man having an affair with a poor plain 50 year old woman, but there was no market for that kind of fiction. But that made it a challenge, and now just such a story leads off my Relationships 4 collection, which I will market any day now; I finished it back in July. I didn't know about cougars then, though I had heard of MILFs = Mother In Law Figures. This woman is neither. Anyway, what mystifies me is the origin of the term: why cougar? There must be a reason.

Eye-opening figure: I heard that more soldiers today die of suicide than in combat. That means the toll is substantially worse than the statistics indicate. It's one of these figures that are hard to accept a first blush, like the fact that more men get raped than women, because of prison.

I briefly ran out of magazines to read while ignoring TV in the evening, a rare event. Understand, these are science and social comment magazines, with content. NEW SCIENTIST, DISCOVER, SCIENCE NEWS, LIBERAL OPINION WEEK, THE WEEK, THE HUMANIST, FREE INQUIRY, US NEWS—that sort of thing, none of them frivolous. I'm a slow reader, so they tend to back up. But sometimes hitches in delivery make a gap, and for a couple of days I had none. So I checked and discovered a book I had set aside ten or fifteen years ago for just such an emergency: The Essential Calvin and Hobbes. Today's readers may not realize just how good this comic strip was. It just might be the best ever, certainly on a par with Li'l Abner in its heyday, Pogo, or Peanuts. Calvin is a six year old brat of a boy with a stuffed tiger named Hobbes. But in his mind, Hobbes is a real tiger who can talk. Calvin is a small boy with a huge wild imagination. Can't think why that appeals to me. So this is my book review for this month. If you never heard of Calvin, your life is incomplete.

The AARP magazine ran a feature on myths about illness. It said that taking vitamin C won't help. Too bad; this means that AARP is buying into the myth that Vitamin C doesn't help with a cold. I wish the authors of such articles would do their homework, rather than spreading misinformation. I've said it before and will repeat it here: when symptoms of a cold start, take one gram of Vitamin C per hour until the symptoms abate. Normally that will stifle that cold. Those who say otherwise simply haven't tried it. Why suffer the miseries of the common cold when you can so readily abate them?

Item in DISCOVER: geothermal heating and cooling of homes is becoming more popular. The government is offering a 30% rebate on the purchase of geothermal heat pumps. 250 feet down, the ground is a relatively constant 50 degrees F, year round, and this is used as a source, in the manner of a refrigerator, either direction. You can save about a third of your energy cost this way.

And in NEW SCIENTIST: some folk are smarter than others, but that's not the whole story. What counts is how you use it. High IQ us about mental power, but rational thinking is about control. One study showed no correlation between intelligence and a person's ability to avoid some common traps. For example, if a bat and ball cost $1.10 total, and the bat costs a dollar more than the ball, what does the ball cost? No, not a dime; that would be a difference of only .90. It is .05. Obvious in retrospect, but smart people miss it as often as average people do. That explains a lot. I'm no intellectual genius, but I try to use common sense, and I have seen experts muff it. For example I remarked to a space-probe engineer that a single-stage rocket would be the most efficient way to put a payload into orbit. He corrected me, saying that multiple stages are most efficient. He was wrong. One stage, in which all of the non-orbiting mass is used as fuel, has to be best. Common sense. It's not the way we do it, for valid reasons, but it should be the ideal. A favorite of mine, in part because it caught me, was given in the book The Education of T C Mits (The Celebrated Man in the Street): one job gives a raise of $50 every 6 months, the other a raise of $200 every year. Which pays better? Would you believe, it is the first?

And in SCIENCE NEWS: they have discovered that using humor and emotion to target a reading audience is more effective than simply piling on the facts. Duh! Free-lance fiction writers have always been more skilled at getting through to readers, whether in fiction or nonfiction, because they have no captive student audience; they have to keep it interesting or they lose their readers. So they do. You thought it was coincidence that made you read this column?

I have dialogues with assorted readers about This & That that can lead to interesting bypaths. Tom Lang sent me a copy of THE TECH, which I think is an MIT newspaper. One of its articles is titled "Untangling the Traditions That Begot Early Christianity" by Roberto Perez-Franco, reviewing the book Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, by Earl Doherty. This says that Jesus was indeed neither god nor man. "He was just the mythical amalgam of several previous independent traditions and cults." It seems there is a detailed argument whose conclusion, simply rendered, is that there was no historical Jesus. Ever. I find this interesting, as I am that anomaly who believes in Jesus but not in God. I read the applicable portions of the New Testament carefully when researching for my novel Tarot, where Jesus is a character, and concluded that they had the semblance of authenticity. That there was a person who truly tried to improve the world, and was literally crucified for it. Jesus believed in a God who did not in the end believe in Jesus. I further believe that if Jesus came again, preaching the same message, he would seek to drive out the money changers who govern the temple and would be crucified again, by rich conservative Christians who no longer honor any significant part of his thesis. But could Jesus never have existed? It seems that the research and argument in this book is persuasive. As a skeptical believer in Jesus I am shaken. I suspect it will be worse for the devoted religionists, who may seek to burn this book in their supposed defense of Jesus.

NEW SCIENTIST has an article on the resurgent Large Hadron Collider, which is now cranking up again. It seeks to verify the Higgs Boson, perhaps my favorite ghost. The result will be highly significant either way: if it finds it, or if it doesn't. Supersymmetry (SUSY), a leading candidate for the Theory of Everything, may be on the line. Naturally America will be watching politics, celebrity scandals, and sports games, but the real significance is here. In the same issue is also a summary of Darwin's On the Origin of Species, a similarly telling exploration in biology that conservatives still don't necessarily accept, 150 years later. They seem to be rather slow learners. I like to think that Jesus would have accepted it as God's way to fine-tune life.

And a newspaper article suggests that researchers think they can turn peaceful ants into ravening killers of other ants by changing their chemical signals. I wonder whether they could use a similar technique to do the reverse with human beings, and bring peace. It's a thought.

PIERS
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