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Piers the handyman 2007
NoRemember 2011
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I read Lake of Spirits by Keith Robinson. The is the fourth novel in the author's Island of Fog series, intended for young readers; the nine major characters are twelve years old. Don't let that fool you; as with the others, this is a hard-hitting story that may actually be more suitable for adults than children. This time the children are joined by a shape changer who is one of the miengu water spirits, Jolie. She is seventeen and absolutely gorgeous; all the boys are instantly in her thrall. So far so good. But as the cover summary says, “This is a tale of paranoia, betrayal, and impending doom.” yes it is. Jolie leads them into a series of misadventures which are not necessarily innocent. For example, she gets one shy boy to read his not-very-good poetry aloud to villagers, who promptly laugh him offstage, as it were. He is humiliated. Was it an accident, or is there a broad mean streak in Jolie? The girls see her as ugly and don't like her at all. Then one critical girl disappears. Jolie pretends innocence, but they suspect her, as it turns out with good reason. I don't think it is giving away anything to say that Jolie is not at all what she appears. But what she is, is the point of the novel. It's tense, ugly, and makes absolute sense. You won't completely enjoy reading it, but this is another good one, well worth your attention. If I may lapse into a broader discussion (and who can stop me?) I suggest that this whole series is the kind of thing traditional publishers have foolishly shut out. Thank fate for new options, such as self publishing and electronic publishing, notably Kindle, that enables some excellent writers to bypass the closed shop that is Parnassus and reach their readers directly. There's a revolution occurring in publishing, and I'm glad to see it. www.UnearthlyTales.com

 

I generally go with my wife on routine shopping, so as to be there when she needs me. I don't make a big thing of it, but I don't ever want to not be there when she needs me, whether it is to carry a grocery bag or help her if she falls. So I was there in Kmart while she looked at books. She reads way more than I do. I saw a bin of remaindered hardcover books, $5 per. I glanced at one, and recognized the name: David Benioff. He is reputed to be one of the better Hollywood script writers, and he was going to do the movie adaptation of Xanth, before the financial crunch that wiped out that and many other projects. He even sent me a fan letter, about seven years ago, so he is by definition a good guy. Apart from that, the book looked interesting, as it related to the siege of Leningrad during World War Two. As it happens, in my GEODYSSEY series I have a 50,000 word chapter on the siege of Stalingrad in the same war; both were part of the German-Russian front. It has been said that if World War Two was the greatest war in the history of mankind, the German-Russian front might well be the second greatest, by itself. We in America tend to think that the war was about American involvement, but it was a hell of a lot more than that. We never suffered the truly awful consequences of it. So from my vantage of having researched and written about one part of that front, I felt I could form an opinion on another author's treatment of another part. All of which explains why I bought the book at one-fifth cover price. It did not prepare me for a far more powerful emotional experience that I anticipated. I'll say it outright: I never got the chance to see what kind of screenplay Benioff could make from my fiction, but now I have sampled his fiction, and he's one hell of a fine writer. This book put me back in World War Two and held me fascinated to the end, and when it was done I felt separation pangs. The story seems simple enough: the introduction explains how his grandfather told him of a week in the siege of Leningrad, allowing him to novelize it. Then commences the story of that week in 1942. Lev is required to find a dozen fresh eggs for an officer's daughter's wedding cake, when there are no eggs to be had. He and a cellmate who became his friend, Kolya, set out to accomplish that, and have some horrendous adventures along the way. Hunger and terrible cold haunt them throughout. For example, a suspiciously well-fed man says he has eggs, but it's a trap: the man is a cannibal, with human bodies hanging like animal carcasses from his chamber. They barely escape. Later they come to a house where Russian girls are kept for German officers' entertainment. Why do they do it? Here's a hint: when one 14 year old girl tried to walk away from it, they caught her and hacked off her feet. When the Germans come this time they are killed by sharpshooting partisans, including a young woman, Vika, who can score from 400 yards. Lev rather likes her. Later they are captured by Germans who tell them that anyone who can read will have a relatively cushy job as a translator of Russian documents. Vika quietly warns him, and Lev pretends illiteracy. Sure enough, all the literates are summarily shot. The novel is filled with details like this that provide a real feel for the horror of the situation. I was painfully moved when Kolya is hit by friendly fire. “It's not the way I pictured it,” he says as he dies. Ouch! At the end they get the eggs, and Vika goes her way. Only to return three years later, after the war, her red hair grown out, beautiful, to be with Lev, who never stopped loving her. “No one looks that good by accident.” So she becomes the author's grandmother, who never talks about the war. That was wondrously satisfying. The novel haunted me for days after I finished reading it. That's the mark of excellent writing. So I'm glad I found this book; it truly moved me. Benioff is a fan of mine? Now I'm a fan of his.

 

I still ply my archery, still with abysmal scores. But the score is not the point; I do it for arm exercise, right side and left side, and heaving the targets into place. I score it only to keep it interesting. Sunday OctOgre 30, the day I wrote most of this Column, was typical: Right side I scored in the center with one arrow, and missed the target with 10 of the remaining 12, for a score of 1-10 = -9. Left side I scored with 1, and missed with 8. So the left side did better than the right side, this time. I saw one arrow veer left but never heard it hit; sure enough, I couldn't find it. After searching I realized that it had found the one inch wide gap between the main target and a baffle target and sneaked through; it was about 50 feet beyond. But another one I couldn't find. However I did find one arrow I had lost a prior day, and one I may have lost a prior year, because it was buried underground in the forest with no fletching left; the metal detector found it. So I retain 12 arrows, ranging in condition from good to awful. If I had better equipment I'm sure I could score much better, but I'm ornery and will stay with my battered instruments as I do in other aspects of my life, notably sexual. We aging fossils must stick together.

 

60 Minutes had an interesting item. I usually miss this excellent program because it's on at the time I'm making supper, but my wife called me over and we just had to have supper late. It made the case that artist Vincent Van Gogh did not commit suicide, and its case was persuasive. For one thing, he painted several pictures after the supposed last one. For another, he shouldn't have had access to a gun. And why shoot himself in the gut, instead of in the head? It seems more likely that local teens, who liked to tease him, pretended to shoot him, and the gun was loaded. So they bugged out, and he chose not to blame them. A sad story. After his death, of course, he became perhaps the most famous artist ever, with paintings worth millions of dollars. We have one that I may have looked at for more time, cumulatively, than he took in painting it, and after 20 years I'm still finding new aspects in it.

 

Personal: my recovery from my falls continues, and I'm about 95% back. I still get shoulder twinges and my strength is not quite what it was, but I should get there in due course. On another problem: Folk ask me why I don't just pay the price of Viagra so I can rise properly to the occasion for sex. It is that I can't stand getting gouged $30 for a pill that may cost the company $3 to make. I do continue to have sex; it's just more difficult. Like working with bad arrows in archery, or imperfect programs in Linux. If I always took the easy route, I would not be the writer or the person I am. I seldom take the easy route, and I often pay for it. Which reminds me: I received an email inviting me to link with SexDatePersonals.com for xdating. Sorry, folks, you're over 55 years too late for that. I delight in viewing esthetic women, but I touch only one. I also saw an ad in the newspaper for Trivaxa, which supposedly is better than Viagra, but they don't say what it costs. If it really worked and was affordable, they'd give the price in their ad. It describes how utterly thrilled the wife is that now her man is performing so vigorously. Uh-huh. The quiet truth is that the average wife would be satisfied if her husband had less, not more, interest in sex; she'd rather be shopping or sleeping.

 

I mentioned songs that run through my head. They still do, but readers had some feedback on one of them, “Waltzing Matilda.” Keith Younger advised me that a Matilda was a bedroll carried by the Swaggy (hobo), and to go waltzing with your tilda was to go on the tramp looking for work. In the song the tramp steals and kills a sheep (jumbuck), then jumps into the waterhole (bilabong) and drowns rather than be captured and hanged for livestock poaching. Next day Alma had a similar clarification: to waltz matilda was to travel alone with nothing more than you could carry in your bedroll. A few days later Jerry Bridges said much the same: the matilda was the rucksack, and waltzing matilda was hiking alone. The song is a sad one, especially when properly understood, but still beautiful.

 

I get fan mail, and I try to answer it responsively. Many readers thank me for writing novels that they actually like to read. (I pity all those other authors who write books folk don't like to read.) But Valerie had a new one: Xanth helped her quit smoking. Whenever she craved a cigarette, she read Xanth instead. She has now been smoke free for 7 years. Wow! My wife has been smoke free for a similar time, after smoking for 50 years. It was illness and prescription medication that enabled her to stop. Just think: if I had introduced her to Xanth, she might have stopped decades earlier. Ah, well. Anyway, I recommend this smoking cure for those who care to try it. Which would you rather be addicted to: life-shortening cigarettes, or life-escaping Xanth?

 

Interesting newspaper column about empathy by David Brooks. I'm a fan of empathy, which in simple terms is the ability to feel the feelings of others; I think it is one of the fundamental things that separates human from animal, and I see its power everywhere. Such as why does it take over a decade on average to execute a convicted murderer? Because the horror of dying is embedded in our nature; there by for the grace of God go I. This is apart from the merit of the death penalty; I'm against it for substantial social, economic and personal reasons. But if we have empathy, if we truly feel for other folk, why then does evil continue unfettered? This column may clarify that. It seems that empathy provides a moral orientation, such as the Golden Rule: treat others as you would like to be treated yourself. But that it doesn't put much horsepower into that orientation. You know that folk across the world are starving, but you're still putting on weight eating food you don't really need. You may suffer a bit of guilt, but you don't change your actions. How come? Well, I can see a reason: in the old days, circa half a million years ago, empathy helped tribesmen in their hunting. If I were a jumbuck, where would I be grazing now? Where would I flee if surprised by a swagman? So, having a notion what the jumbuck will do, the hunters plant an ambusher at the likely escape route, and he spears the fleeing animal, and everyone eats hearty tonight. (No, I don't think vegetarians existed then. But I suspect it is empathy that makes me a vegetarian.) So empathy helped mankind to survive and prosper. But if he identified too closely with the jumbuck, as I do, he wouldn't be able to kill or eat it. So there had to be limits: understand, but don't take it too far. Thus this limitation is not a weakness but a necessary qualification, to get the benefit without the liability. Nature cares mainly about what works for survival, not about what's nice.

 

Speaking of executions: I suffer from what I suspect is a common anomaly, being against the death penalty in general, yet applauding it in some specifics. Such as Oba Chandler. He lured a tourist family, a woman and her two teen daughters, onto his boat, where he mercilessly bound, raped, and killed them. When caught three years later he was defiant and unapologetic. He seemed to be sorry only that he was caught. No need to go into the details; I'm satisfied that this man did not deserve to live, and am also satisfied that he was finally executed. Another case remains unsolved: that of Jenny Odom, a pretty and talented Florida girl who was twelve when someone abducted her, molested her and killed her. She lived about 20 miles from us, so it was good and local. It's been over 20 years, now, I think, and obviously her murderer does not feel sufficient remorse to step forward. I think I could pull the switch on him, if I had the opportunity. I have been sensitive to the situation of girls since raising two myself.

 

Flier from Harry Dent pushing a doomsday newsletter says the DOW will plunge as low as 3,300, there will be chaos, deflation, and the Next Great Depression. I don't automatically dismiss such warnings; sometimes they are correct. It's like the stopped clock being right twice a day. This one makes a fairly persuasive case. It even gives a time-line: between late 2012 and late 2014 for the bottom. It won't happen in one day; the descent will start around July or August, 2011, certainly by October or November. In short, it's supposed to be happening now. As for gold and silver, the traditional hedges in bad times, get out of them now, as they will drop. The man who predicted the end of the world was wrong again, but the stock market is more subject to seizures. A different flier from Porter Stansberry predicts hyper-inflation with our national monetary system collapsing. Everything will immediately get much more expensive. The stock markets will plummet more than 40%. Gold may rise to over $5,000 an ounce. So these two reports are opposite in most things except the stock markets, and we'll be in deep trouble if we don't heed both of them immediately. I am heeding neither, but I am waiting and watching somewhat nervously.

 

THE WASHINGTON SPECTATOR, one of the small newsletters that publishes what you generally don't see in the big sponsor-run efforts, has an expose of money in politics. The Republicans are generally richer, as money seems to be their Prime Directive, but this shows that the Democrats are trying. Members of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, DCCC, are asked to contribute $125,000 in dues and raised another $75,000 for the party. Subcommittee chairpersons must contribute $150,000 and raise another $100,000. More powerful committees must contribute $250,000 and raise $250,000. The chairs of top committees must contribute $500,000 and raise one million. All the way up to Nancy Pelosi who must contribute $800,000 and raise $25 million. (Could that be a typo for $2.5 million? That would be in line, but I'm not sure it's the case.) Now you know the price of the Democrats. You can bet the Republicans will be raising more money, less openly. And of course the best congress money can buy is not a very good congress. And from Democratic National Headquarters (for some reason now the Democrats think I'm a Democrat; in earlier years the Republicans thought I was one of them. I've been a registered independent since I first registered in Florida in 1959, after becoming an American citizen in the US Army in 1958) came an appeal for money, showing these statistics: $165 billion = GOP cuts to Medicare. $172 billion = subsidies for Big Oil, tax cuts for millionaires, and tax breaks for offshoring companies. That is, the Republicans are cutting health for the common man and giving it to the richest outfits. And while we're at it, I noted that the newspaper for OctOgre 28 showed oil prices the highest in two months, Exxon profits jumping to over $10 billion, and the DOW rising 339.51 on the same day. Any questions? Well, the same newsletter describes the Occupy Wall Street movement, OWS. It started September 17 with 150 people turning out. Before long there were 20,000 and it was spreading to other cities. It has no leaders, no real organization; they are simply united by the common desire to try to hold Wall Street accountable for its mischief. One percent of people control forty percent of the wealth, with almost one in five Americans on food stamps. The other 99% want to change that. Can they succeed? Probably not, but it's nice to see the effort. We are heading toward a feudal society, with a few rich barons and many powerless serfs. It's a de facto plutocracy, government by and for the wealthy. But I very much fear that as with the notorious French Revolution there will be no way to redistribute resources without wholesale bloodshed. The greedheads are in control now and they simply will not let go voluntarily. With luck I won't live long enough to see the horrors we are heading for.

 

Local newspaper article says the chimney swifts, which look like flying cigars, consume more than 12,000 flying insect pests per day, including mosquitoes and biting flies. Wow! I used to be pestered mercilessly by both when I went out, but today not so much. That change could date from when the swifts colonized our unused chimney. We're glad to have them. Another newspaper item for OctOgre 30 has pictures of some of the world's most treacherous highways. Those things scare me. A road on Norway has 11 hairpin turns as it wends up a slope. One in Morocco looks worse. One in China, the Guoliang Tunnel Road, threads along vertical cliffs, alternately tunneling and at the edge with no guard rails. One in Bolivia has about 26 cars go over the edge every year, killing 100 people. Maybe the greedheads cut the guard-rail budget in the name of fiscal responsibility. Not for me; I'm staying in safe dull flat Florida with the alligators.

 

Columnist Robyn Blumner had to have a breast biopsy, which caught her cancer early enough to handle. But she wanted to know exactly what the charges would be for what procedure, understandably. She tried to comparison shop for the MRI she was told to get. One outfit said it would cost her $625. Another said it would be $3,000. So she went for the cheaper one. Then she learned that it charges the government $2,450; she might be on the hook for more. But there's a network of insurers involved, and the discrepancy was proprietary information: they would not tell her. Then she had the procedure itself, to remove the cancer. For that they billed $12,016.58, but that was not the whole of it; the total was more than $16,700. She sought a justification for these charges, but what she got was opaque. She could not get an understandable breakdown. Be a sensible client? “I tried. It can't be done,” she reports. There will be more in due course. Welcome to America, the home of private enterprise medicine. Other countries, evidently more backwards than we, cover all their citizens, providing better care at much cheaper rates, and their people live longer than ours. Why? Because in America the greedheads have control, and are fighting to protect their privilege of making the rest of us pay far more than we should, and dying when we go broke doing it, so that they can get ever-richer. We have the most expensive health care in the world, but not the best.

 

NEW SCIENTIST has an article on meat without slaughter. That is, growing it in the laboratory, any kind you want. Synthetic meat is far lower in greenhouse emissions, land use, and water use, and on a par with pork for energy use. So it seems to make great sense. So would I eat steak grown in the laboratory? Since my objection is to the mistreatment and slaughter of animals for food, theoretically I could eat synthetic meat. But I suspect my gut would recoil. I would far rather have synthetic candy that does not rot teeth or contribute to obesity. Wholesome food, economically produced. Leave the artificial meat to those with the stomach for it.

 

I haven't been on Twitter directly, but the folk who run my Blog site put my Tweets on for me. I have done what I hope is a new wrinkle: telling a science fiction story in 121 twenty word Tweets. This completely dull ordinary man suddenly starts suffering narrow escapes from death. What's going on? There's even some romance. So if you know where to go to find it, you can start reading the story at a Tweet a day. I hope you enjoy it. If enough people do, I may write another. I'd love to start a new genre, Tweet stories. Maybe it will make me famous, and everyone will be doing it. (A dull writer's dream of glory...) So why haven't I gone on Twitter myself? I have tired, but all I get is a blank screen. The address as I understand it is http://twitter.com/piersanthony, but the program puts in #!/ before my name and leaves me in limbo. I think those on phones need to put @ instead of / before my name. Have I mentioned that the Internet doesn't much like me, so I get jinxed? Maybe there's a critic hidden in the works. But if you're not jinxed, go read my story.

 

An experiment suggests that neutrinos travel slightly faster than light. That could wreck Einsteinian physics, so they are searching for some mistake in the data. And not finding it. Now I'm not into esoteric physics so this may be a stupid question: why can't neutrinos go faster than light? Light goes faster than sound without concerning anyone; different things go at different speeds. Maybe light is just the fastest traveler known in Einstein's day, so he thought that was the ultimate limit. He didn't have the chance to time the speed of neutrinos. He just got the wrong traveler, so set the wrong limit. The universe will survive nicely if that is corrected. No?

 

More evidence that human beings interbred with Neandertal man, also with the newly discovered Denisova man who lived in central Asia. We know that humans will have sex with just about anything they catch, so it's not surprising that some of those unions were fertile. Stories of man/horse and man/bird crossbreeding are fantasy—centaurs and harpies—but it's not for want of trying. It also seems that some of those “foreign” genes really helped mankind survive the rough world.

 

Folk interested in my novels should be able to find Xanth #35 Well-Tempered Clavicle on sale in hardcover, Knot Gneiss in paperback, and the entirely different The Sopaths. Happy reading!

 

Oh—and just in case anyone has not yet caught on, I am of the liberal social-religious-political persuasion, and this is where I vent.

PIERS
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