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Piers the handyman 2007
FeBlueberry 2012

I try not to belabor this, but I do think often of my lost daughter, in part because so many things remind me of her. This time it's my Xanth month. When I was figuring them out for the calendar, I lacked one for February, and Penny suggested FeBlueberry. I laughed, dismissing it, but in the course of the next minute realized that it would do, and now it's one of my favorites. FeBlueberry, when the Redberries are blue with cold; what could make more sense?


We saw the current Sherlock Holmes movie, A Game of Shadows. I found it loud, violent, and generally confusing. I got the gist, that Sherlock's worst enemy had a dastardly plot to destroy the world and had to be stopped, and that this somehow connected to Watson's wedding. Holmes finally takes the man out in a mutual drowning, but reappears at the end, so all is well. Then I saw Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. As usual there were confusing jumps and not all the sound was clear; I fear my age is showing. But it had some remarkable action sequences, including one of our hero climbing with sticky gloves on the world's tallest building, and of course a glove malfunctioned, so he dangled a hundred stories over the street. Also a sequence where the leading lady needed to distract a bad guy, and wow, did her displayed breasts ever distract. I generally prefer slender women rather than cows, but she could distract me anytime. Not much substance that I could see—I am referring to the movie, not her bosom—but an enjoyable thriller.


I read The Uncanny Valley by Gregory Miller, whose Scaring the Crows I reviewed here two years ago. He remains an effective writer with nuanced characterizations and eerily intriguing settings. But mainly he has a wild imagination that takes you in unexpected directions. The unifying theme is that all the stories are set in the same obscure town, each told by a different person. These stories are brief, sometimes more like fragments, and few have really solid conclusions; they are more to make you wonder. Secret trysts, odd deaths, eerie mysteries. They range from the gruesome to the nice, with many in between. For example there is “The Fourth Floor,” wherein children in a fix-up house, living on the lower two floors while the upper floors have not yet been refurbished, hear a nightly pounding for two hours every night. The parents won't talk about it, so finally the kids investigate on their own. They find a woman in a tattered dress walking into the the wall, the thud coming when her head hits the plaster, over and over. She has no eyes, just empty sockets, so can't see to avoid it. Who is the noisy ghost? What is her history? What is she trying to accomplish? We don't find out. The family learns to use ear plugs, and all is well. I find that intriguing but frustrating. Then there's “Don't Tell,” with a nine year old boy coming to know a nice neighbor woman who gives him lemonade. She shows him a picture of her, but it's dated 1654. How can that be? She says stand beside her and look in the mirror. The story illustration shows what he would see: her reflection as a centuries-old hag. Magic keeps her alive and looking young. Would he like to join her? He ponders, and decides he would. So he drinks her special potion, and in due course he will join her, living a very long time, and she won't be lonely any more. So if you want your imagination nervously tweaked, these 33 stories will surely do it.


I read The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived, put out by the WatchTower Bible and Tract society. You know, the folk who come to your door to persuade you to reform before the Second Coming. I am a life-long agnostic with no belief in the supernatural, and that includes God right down to bad luck on Friday the 13th. But I try to keep an open mind, and I do believe in Jesus, in the sense of a man trying to reform an erring world, and getting crucified for it. The world has never been much interested in true reform. This is a beautiful volume, with full color illustrations throughout, complete with lesson-plan type questions following every chapter. It is written in clear man-in-the-street English. I do fault it grammatically for using “he that” instead of “he who” throughout; a truck is a that, a person is a who. I also question the way it repeats the story of Jesus saying that it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a sewing needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. I take his point, but I believe it's a mistranslation: the Aramaic symbol for a camel's hair rope is similar to that for a camel, and they got the wrong one, as any proofreader with common sense should have realized. Apart from such minor things, how is it? It does seem like a good review of the life and death of Jesus, which I find depressing: the naysayers are so steeped in their bigotry, and Jesus' death by torture is not fun reading. It is heavy on interpretation, much of which I disagree with, turning the Bible to an argument in favor of the WatchTower's agenda. I wonder: how many WatchTower folk are there in the world? Because they believe that only the best 144,000 will be saved when the crash comes, and the rest will be eternally sorry. If there are more than 144,000 of them in the world now, as I suspect there are, not all of them will be saved, and trying to recruit more is surely mischief, especially if any of the new recruits are more pious than the existing ones. Of course I, as a rock-solid unbeliever, am not affected; there is no Afterlife for me of any nature. But I do wonder. As for the constant miracles of healing and resurrection Jesus performed: a miracle is pretty much by definition magic, and I don't credit this at all. But I note with a certain disgust that people apparently crowded to Jesus not so much to heed his message as for private greed: to be touched and healed. Why did he bother? He must have been a generous man, or determinedly hopeful.


I read The Ghost in the Crystal, by Matt Posner, the first in his School of the Ages series. This is about Simon, a thirteen year old boy interested in magic. He sees an classified ad beginning “If you can read this advertisement, you may have what it takes to be a student wizard at School of the Ages.” It turns out that the ad is invisible to those without magic potential. Simon follows up, and is recruited to attend the school. It goes on of course from there. This may seem to smack of Harry Potter and Hogwash, but it is its own story. There is a strong Jewish and biblical current, but it's about magic rather than religion, and the magic is impressive. I got the feeling I was attending the school by correspondence, and that the magic was authentic. A seemingly dull curriculum turns out to be otherwise. For example “Seminar in Memento Analysis” has them contemplating mementos. A memento is an object, anything from a ring to a brick that is associated with a spirit. Pick one up, and commune with the spirit. But you dare not trust the spirit, because it is out for its own advantage and will trick you and take over your body if you are foolish enough to let it. If you are careful, you can get useful information or power. Some spirits are more dangerous than others, so new students are limited to the easy ones, sort of the way a ski school would limit novices to the gentle slopes before letting them try Mt. Everest. It takes time and diligence, but in due course you may indeed scale the heights. Well, a dangerous spirit persuades Simon to take his memento; that's the ghost in the crystal. Before it is done, one of Simon's party of friends dies. This ain't beanbag. There's more, of course, serious and light; I liked the sequence where they encounter a hat that keeps jumping at them, and every time it collides it becomes two hats, until they are waist-deep in hats and have to figure out how to stop them. Simon has friends and enemies and aspires to romance as he struggles to make his way. This is good reading. It's available on Kindle.


I read Finding Oz, by Evan I Schwartz. This is a biography of L Frank Baum, the author of the original Oz series of fantasy novels. It traces the likely sources of the elements of Oz, showing that Baum drew pretty much from familiar things in his own life. I was interested to note that Baum as a child was abruptly sent to a military academy for two years. He was not a healthy child; he had a heart condition, and this life was brutally rough on him. He was finally returned home when a disciplinary beating with a cane drove him into a heart attack. He had been caught gazing out the window at singing birds. This is the sort of thing that makes a writer, unfortunately: abrupt separation from the familiar and time spent in relative hell. It seems to be true for many writers, and I relate well, having experienced similar, though without cane beatings. But, again like many writers, Baum spent many years not succeeding well at other employments, until finally he started penciling fantasy and found his emotional home. The Yellow Brick Road existed where he was, literally; there were such roads made from left over ship ballast bricks. People he knew may have become principle figures in the story, though masked. Ironically he chose Kansas as the starting point because he regarded it as the dreariest place on earth, something well worth escaping from. Then the movie made it a sappy homecoming. I learned also that the movie directors wanted to cut it, believing it was too long, so they eliminated the tribute to Baum's original book, so that many viewers never knew there had been one, and only a battle prevented them from yanking out the evocative theme song “Over the Rainbow.” Producers are still doing that sort of thing, being as insensitive as ever. Oh, and the original slippers were silver, not ruby. Ruby shows up better against yellow bricks.


I read Hollenguard by S Arthur Martin. This starts out with Kamil, the young innkeeper's assistant, being intrigued by overnight travelers, one of whom is a lovely young woman. After they leave, a bad storm comes up and Kamil runs after them to warn them, only to find three of them dead and only the woman, Elysandria, surviving. It seems that the storm is a cover for deadly creatures who are out to destroy all people. They have to flee the inn, traveling north to avoid the storm and its minions, but there turns out to be few places to hide. They join with others, but the beasts attack and drive them out too. In the end they make a stand at the old fortress of Hollenguard, but even there they are about to be overwhelmed. This is adventure fantasy with almost unremitting action and little hope of redemption; the monsters are plainly dominant, and the main question is how long anyone can survive the onslaught. This is self published but well worth reading; you can find the author at www.sarthurmartin.com.


For Pete's sake, look what's happening to recycling. It used to be so complicated that it was hardly worth it, but now they allow you to put all recyclables into the same hopper: plastic, glass, metal, paper. This has cut our weekly garbage down to about a quarter. I note that the little triangles on plastic have different numbers and words. For example, #1 says PETE. I wonder who Pete is, and trust he's a nice guy for setting up this recycling deal. Pete would be short for Peter, which means Rock. It's a version of Piers, Pedro, Pietro, Pierre—there are a dozen or so variants, surely all good folk. Jesus told Peter that he was the rock on which Jesus would build his church. That's a pretty good credit. So maybe now Peter is expanding operations and doing recycling. Other triangles have different words. #2 says HOPE, a nice sentiment, except that when I looked closer I realized it was actually HDPE, which could stand for Heavy Duty Penis Envy. Maybe a movie editor changed it. #5 I think is PP, maybe Past Participle. Maybe it's a secret language that only the initiate comprehend. Ah, well.


Last Column I mentioned how Ask Marilyn had fouled up an answer. If the chances of being selected for a test are 25% a quarter, what are they for a year? Marilyn said 25%. I got confirmation from two readers, saying that the true annual odds are about 68.4%. The odds per quarter don't change, but that was not the question. Then Marilyn ran a correction herself. Good for her; she's not stupid.


Bizarro cartoon for Jamboree 28, 2012: two old codgers playing chess with bottles of medicine. “Lipitor takes Prozac. Check.” Makes sense to me; I'm an old codger. Lio comic for Jamboree 18 has Lio hooking up a snowblower for his fun, only to discover that it was set not on SNOW but on SNOT. Ugh! His expression indicates it 'snot funny.


An item made the local news when a 67 year old man struck a woman with his shopping cart for having too many items for the ten item checkout line. Why do I note this? Because it happened at the very Publix shore where we shop. Reminds me of the time, decades ago, when I absentmindedly headed for an open checkout spot, and someone reminded me that I was over the limit. Indeed I was; I hastily changed lanes. Then I and the rest of the store had to wait while the clerks pooled their resources to try to make change for that man's high denomination bill. Mister self-righteous didn't care how he inconvenienced others.


Newspaper item on workplace bullying. Most of my life I have been self employed, so the only bullies I had to deal with are publishers, some of which I took to law; it's the only language some seem to understand. But I remember how it was before, and it reminds me yet again how glad I was to get out of that rat race. This article says that if you haven't experienced it you're likely to believe it doesn't happen, but it does. It's not physical violence; it's more situational, and sometimes the only escape is to quit your job. Today with the job market as tight as it is, that may not be an option. I suffered deterioration of my health when caught in a situation not of my making that nevertheless cost me my job. I suspect similar is happening to many folk today. The article suggests that victims try to persuade the boss that this sort of thing is bad for the bottom line. If the boss is not the bully.


Charles Krauthammer—the name ironically makes me think of beating up on Germans—is a conservative columnist who can normally be depended on to find the wrong side of a political issue. But he had a column that interested me. If there are so many planets in the galaxy—the indication is there may be hundreds of billions—chances are that life is common, and intelligent life not uncommon. So how come we have seen no evidence of it? He refers to Carl Sagan's thought that it is because advanced civilizations destroy themselves. Ouch! Yet look at ours; if it doesn't do it via nuclear war, it may do it via pollution and resource depletion. We are well on the way to destroying ourselves, while the greed-heads prevent reform that might diminish their profits. If that is typical—and it may be—then we have our answer. We may be alone because the prior civilizations have suicided and we're next. Because of our own folly.


Sunny Florida is the ideal place to live, at least until it gets entirely paved over by expanding population. But there's a problem with another type of immigrant: Burmese pythons have taken over the Everglades, and now 99% of the raccoons are gone, 98% of the opossums, 94% of the deer, 87% of the bobcats, and close to 100% of the rabbits. Even alligators are prey to the pythons. The question is, as the prey runs out, what will the pythons eat next? They grow to an average of 16 feet long, and breed copiously. They may not care to migrate north, because we do get some winter freezes; In Jamboree we had a low here on the tree farm of 21°F, later followed by a high of 81°. The serpents won't like the freezes, so I suspect they will move instead into human territory in the south, eliminating wild dog and cat problems before they start in on stray humans. Then it may get ugly.


Speaking of ugly: Author's Guild reports on the struggle among the titans of the publishing industry, with Amazon increasingly bullying old-line publishers. I never liked getting pushed around by those publishers, and fought back, which is why I got blacklisted and badmouthed while other writers achieved success denied me; I don't owe the old order much. Later I did get my own success, but I did not forget. I like seeing real competition develop, such as electronic publishing and now the e-readers like Nook and Kindle, and there is a private satisfaction seeing the old bullies get pushed around by the new one. But I am wary of the fresh master, Amazon, even though Amazon has been courting me. I am aware that I am a mouse running among elephants, and will prosper only as long as I can avoid getting stepped on. I love doing business with Kindle, which provides a real alternative to the closed shop that is traditional book marketing, and I encourage new writers to go there. Amazon has done the world a significant favor by offering alternative publication anyone can afford, and I applaud it. But once Amazon puts the old publishers away, and becomes in effect the only publisher and bookseller, we regular writers may, like revolutionary France in Coleridge's poem, find ourselves wearing the name of freedom, graven on a heavier chain.


Thomas Friedman had a nice newspaper column, spelling out the ideal political candidate. That would be one who advocates an immediate investment in infrastructure that will create jobs and shore up our highways, airports, schools, mass transit, as well as fixing our fiscal imbalance. Who will reform taxes, so that everyone pays fairly. Who has an inspirational vision, like Kennedy's drive to take us to the moon and beyond. And who supports a minimum floor of public financing for presidential, senate, and house campaigns, so that big anonymous corporate money will no longer buy elections. Okay, I would tweak that agenda here and there, but I agree. Yet I fear nothing like this will happen. The greed-heads are already in control, a cancer on our culture, and they will not let go short of something like the French Revolution mentioned above, that cuts off their heads. That dooms us all.


I saw an ad in PARADE for the Nicotrol Inhaler, the quit-smoking prescription device. That pleases me, because I know that, unlike most others, it actually works. My wife smoked for fifty years, and I was resigned to losing her eventually to lung cancer, but Nicotrol got her off cigarettes. It's been five years now, and chances are it won't be lung cancer that takes her out. If it worked for my wife, who was a heavy smoker, three packs a day in her prime, it should work for just about anyone. What it is is a thing like a cigarette with a cylinder that provides nicotine when sucked on, so that craving is satisfied without the smoke pollution, and the hands are kept occupied so that a person can't smoke a cigarette as some do while using a patch or chewing gum. Simple and effective.


Newspaper column by Naomi Oreskes made a point that got my attention. She said when she had jury duty, the judge asked the jurors before the trial how they expected to vote. A few expected to vote guilty; a few expected to vote not guilty. Half of them said they didn't yet know enough to decide. Understand: this was hypothetical; they expected to hear the evidence then decide for real. I would have gone with the agnostics, of course. But it was the wrong answer. Why? Because in the American system of justice, there is a presumption of innocence. So if you don't know enough to decide, your verdict should be Not Guilty. Okay, the columnist went on to say that open-mindedness can be the wrong answer in science and public policy too. This business of being undecided about global warming is wrong, because for the last decade the scientific consensus has been overwhelming; climate change is happening, is caused by man's pollution of the atmosphere, and is dangerous to our future. Our default should be to save the world, and if there is any possibility that current trends are dangerous, we need to change them. If by some faint chance there is not that danger, changing the trend won't do any harm. I see it as like playing Russian roulette: so there is only one chance in six that the operative chamber has the bullet. Would you put the pistol to your head and fire? What we actually have is more like five chances in six. You want to be open-minded and gamble? Then pull the trigger, idiot, somewhere else.


THE WEEK had an item on Internet piracy of music, books, and movies, and efforts to stop it. I have discussed this here before, but it bears repeating: pirates are thieves who are destroying the ability of creative artists to make a living, myself included; a LOT of my works are chronically stolen. The pirates need to be stopped. The problem is how to do it without censoring free expression itself. I think there does have to be a law, but one carefully crafted to shut down only the pirates.


I plan ahead, and generally know what I'll be working on each day. I allow four days at the end of the month to update the Survey of Electronic Publishers and Related Services, and to write this HiPiers Column. Plenty of time. Except for the unexpected. Jamboree 30 a leak sprang in the water tank that processes out the radon gas in our ground water, so we don't get slowly poisoned. We had to call the man, and this morning, FeBlueberry 1, he replaced the tank with a new three thousand dollar plus purification system. So instead of editing this Column then I spent two hours on that. Jamboree 31st my wife had a routine blood test. Oh yeah? We lost two hours to that. I say We because I don't like to let her go out alone, lest something happen. And there were special IRS forms that had to be completed and mailed before the month expired (we have complicated finances); we wound up driving to town at night to mail them. Then I made supper and served it at 9 PM. The fact is, life really does tend to get in the way of whatever I'm trying to do. This HiPiers column had to be abbreviated. Yes I know: I tend to talk too much anyway. Still, it annoys me.


Book review of A Universe From Nothing by Lawrence Krauss in NEW SCIENTIST echoes my conclusion: why is there something instead of nothing? Because “nothing” is an extremely unstable state from which the production of “something” is pretty much inevitable. But what accounts for the laws of physics that govern us? We exist in a multiverse, where a seemingly infinite number of universes have their own varying rules, and we are in the one that made us feasible. We surely would not like it much in one of the other universes. Another article clarifies that the multiverse is not eternal; it had a beginning. Ours may be a multiply-derivative bubble, but there was a beginning. Another article clarifies that quantum physics requires that fermions (in this case, electrons) can not occupy the same quantum state. Each demands its own territory, as it were. That means that when too many electrons come together in an atom, they have to separate, occupying positions farther and farther away from the nucleus. That leaves them with only weak attraction to the protons in the center, so they are free to play around with the electrons of other atoms. Oh, the scandal! This enables chemistry, and without it we would not exist, because everything would be compacted in the center of the atom. Maybe in other universes this separation and illicit flirtation is not the case, so matter as we know it does not exist.


From DISCOVER we learn that Otzi the Ice Man had a good meal of goat meat and bread shortly before he died. He must have been ambushed. We still have not brought his murderer to justice. This does mess up my characterization of him in the GEODYSSEY series, where he was leading the enemy astray so as to decoy them away from his beloved daughter. Or does it? Maybe the enemy was closer than he thought, waiting in ambush. I dread the think what they then did to the daughter.


It seems there is a restaurant in Beijing, China, named the Shit House, which serves Asian dishes inspired by the bathroom experience. They are served in replica toilets and bed pans. It is fabulously successful. Say, do you think if I wrote a novel titled The Magic Fart it would be fabulously successful? Naw.


The month of Jamboree I wrote a 28,000 word novella, To Be A Woman, that I may publish separately. It's about a female humanoid robot crafted for sexual purpose, a sexbot named Elasa for Electronic Associates, who is so well designed that she can't be told physically from a living woman, though the fact that she never says No may offer a clue. She achieves consciousness, and that makes her an order of magnitude more personable. She can pass the Turing test, fooling folk into thinking she's a person. Indeed, she sues for personhood, so that she can marry the man she loves. Then it gets interesting. I find I like the novella length, and may write another, of a completely different nature. With Kindle self publication, this length is feasible; no longer is there a need to conform to the Procrustean wordage requirements of traditional publishers. Procrustes, you may remember, was the man who put visitors on his bed, and if they were too short he stretched them to fit, and if too long, he cut them down to fit. He had particular notions about size. For some reason travelers did not like that, just as writers don't much like it today. I like to write a story to the length that best suits it, rather than the length that suits a theme-challenged editor.


More, anon, when. Happy FeBlueberry to all.


Many folk speak disparagingly of horse opera, which surely bears little relation to the historical exploration of the American West, but is entertaining on a superficial level. Similarly they sneer at space opera, which is horse opera translated to space. Bat Durston jumps into his spaceship and warps to Planet X where humanoid monsters are terrorizing the colonists. He whips out his blaster and goes after the monsters. Bang bang, you're dead. The colonists are grateful.


Okay, I have trouble doing anything conventionally, so when I set out to do space opera, I started from the plight of the Vietnamese and Haitian Boat People in the 20th century, so that was my historical basis, and went from there. The refugees in the space bubble encounter the same sort of pirates and most are brutally slaughtered. But a few survive, one of whom is Hope Hubris, who goes on to become a naturalized Jupiter (America) citizen and finally comes to rule Jupiter. He is the Space Tyrant, in the sense of one-man rule, not evil. It's a pretty wild and gritty and often sexy adventure. Critics never liked it, being too dull to understand what I was doing, but readers, being smarter, loved it. Why don't you sample it and see what you think?


They are having a special 3-day promotion at .99 per volume, February 4,5,6: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_0_4?url=search-alias%3Ddigital-text&field-keywords=bio+of+a+space+tyrant&sprefix=bio+%2Cdigital-text%2C363

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