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Piers the handyman 2007
NoRemember 2012

Every so often we here in Florida send a hurricane north, just so you folk up there can share the experience. I trust you enjoyed Hurricane Sandy. But seriously, she was a minimal hurricane, with 85-mile-an-hour winds, but a big one, a thousand miles across. Even a mere tropical storm can make an impression if it sits on you, as we found with Tropical Storm Debby earlier this year and got a record one-day's rain. So the Northeast got it, and there are maybe 100 people dead and tens of billions of dollars damage done, and it will be some time before things are fully back to normal. The weather is not always dull.


I continue breaking in System 76, and overall I like it, but there are some hangups. I finally found the way to turn on the macro recording, cleverly hidden in another drawer, so was able to make my Date, Time and Degree ° macros, but I remain perplexed why they don't seem to like macros. Linux is supposed to be open source, so that users can have it their own way, but sometimes it seems as anal-retentive as Macrohard Doors. Normally it loads LibreOffice with my files correctly placed on my ten assorted desktops, but it places them one line below where they were when I closed, so that there is a space left at the top, and the bottom file doesn't show its Status Bar because it is off the screen below. So each day I have to haul my files back up one line, a nuisance. But sometimes it doesn't load LibreOffice at all, and then refuses to load it when I specifically call it up; it just chugs away for thirty seconds and gives up. The only way I can get it is to reset the system, and then it thinks it has crashed, and all the files are piled up squarely atop each other (they evidently haven't learned about offsetting them slightly so you know there's more than one) and have to be sized and placed where they belong, another nuisance. One morning I had to reset twice to get it. My wife thinks it thinks it has loaded the word processor so won't do it again. If so, where is it? Not on my screen. But apart from such things, it's fine. I have it set up so that Control F1 puts me on Desktop 1, ^F2 on Desk 2, and so on up to 10, and ^F11 and ^F12 take me respectively down or up one desk. So I can constantly jump around desks as I do this & that, each desk having its files laid out without disturbing others. I'm editing this Column on D#1, card games live on D#2, letters on D#3, file handlers on D#5, Ideas on D#6, my novel notes and text files on D#8, Electronic Publishing Survey files on D#9, and my personal notes and records on D#10, with others dedicated to peripheral files like reader suggestions for Xanth and spot projects. I still love the ongoing wordage indication for files, though this version gives 5% fewer words than the prior one; I learned this when I copied my novel chapter files here and found they had shrunk. The prior system counted initial quotes as words, presumably to allow for the extra space taken by dialogue in fiction; this one doesn't. Since there's a lot of dialogue in my fiction, this makes a significant difference; I'm not yet sure how to allow for it. I used to use calculated wordage, which represents how much space the text will take when print published, but for that I need a fixed font like Courior 10 pt, which this doesn't have. My system is my working space, and I know where my assorted tools are. Oh, those card games? I am a workaholic, but I do take breaks scattered through the day, playing mostly Free Cell, which I deem to be the best of the card games. Every card is visible, and every game is winnable, but some are a challenge to play correctly. So the element of luck exists only in the deal; skill counts thereafter. I have won in as little as four minutes or as much as 40 minutes; 10 minutes is typical.


My minister correspondent sent me information he wanted to promote. As a very general rule this column is my blog-type opinionation, not a promo for anything other than my own books, and I don't push them much. I've seen the web sites of other writers which are essentially BUY MY BOOK and little else. Of course I want you to buy my books, but I figure you will when you're ready, and you're more likely to be ready if you are entertained or edified by my remarks. Anything I comment on here is likely to include my personal take on it; I'm really talking about myself, as will soon be evident. Anyway, the subject of thus paragraph is Hidden Choices, Inc., www.HiddenChoices.org, a non-profit outfit operating since 1999. “Hidden Choices affirms life choices by providing resources that assist children and families in crisis and need. We believe all human life is significant in every dimension. Hidden Choices is committed to preserve, protect, and educate by supporting the pro-child, pro-family movement in all respects of social justice and stage of life.” Their web site is an online clearing house directed to individuals in crisis looking for assistant parenting, career and financial help, affordable and safe healthcare, housing, education and legal matters while supporting community professional/leaders with critical information needed in working for the welfare of society. It started by helping young women and families facing crisis pregnancies so they could choose alternatives to abortion. Have I presented my stance on abortion recently? I am a liberal who doesn't like abortion. I wish there would never be another abortion. If there is anything truly innocent in this world, it's an unborn baby, and if there is guilt there, surely it is of the parents. So the guilty are killing the innocent, and that bothers me. Even in the case of rape, the fault is surely not with the baby. So I would like to see a world in which there is never an unwanted baby. That means in turn universal, affordable, convenient, effective contraception for all women and men. This is where I diverge from the conservative “pro-life” crowd, who tend to try to suppress contraception too, though it is the single most effective way to reduce abortions. Which side are they on? Studies show that when women (and a girl who can get pregnant is a woman regardless of age) are given free contraception of their choice, they go for the most effective, and it does significantly reduce abortions. An item published in OctOgre says that in 2010 there were 34 births per 1,000 teens, but those given contraceptives had a rate of only 6.3 births per 1,000. That's a reduction of over 80%. So I hope Hidden Choices not only helps pregnant teens place their babies, but also admits that in some rare cases abortion may the best choice, and that contraceptive information is vital even for grade-school girls. Otherwise it is not doing the full job. So what is the real agenda of the anti-abortion anti-contraceptive, anti sex-education folk? Is it that they consider sex itself to be a sin and want to punish anyone who indulges in it, especially any female? The one who gets punished, mostly, is the girl who didn't have a choice, because of rape or incest or forceful peer pressure (try not going along with the crowd and see what it does to your status and your life), or the fact that she's unlikely to have a man in her life if she doesn't give him sex, or economics (sometimes sex is the only viable way for a girl to get money to survive), or sheer ignorance, and gets pregnant. Where was the help she needed before she got pregnant? Which brings me back to contraception. I can't make every family treat its children the way it should, and I can't stop every rapist from going after any unguarded woman, but contraception could at least prevent pregnancies from resulting. That would not solve the whole problem, but it would help a lot. Now if there were only universal protection against VD, and a way to stop sexual bullying...


Here on the Sun Coast we have our own news items. Such as the Mystery Monkey. A wild rhesus macaque escaped from the preserve four years ago, and hid out in the wilds of St. Petersburg, Florida, where the natives protected it. Then it bit a woman who was sunning herself. My guess is that it had gotten used to food handouts, and when she didn't provide one, it sought to rebuke her for her error. That's one reason why you shouldn't feed wild animals. That blew its cover, and the authorities learned where it was. It evaded many traps, but finally got caught by anesthetic darts and was hauled away. Had it not gotten greedy, it might have survived free indefinitely. But the incident did give me a notion, and I wrote it into my current Xanth novel, #38 Board Stiff. Only in this case the escapee from the zoo is a human man, who has to evade the baited traps aliens set out for him, including a banquet when he's hungry, and cage with a lovely amenable woman. Which maybe ties in with my text item: in Spring Hill, which lies between us and St. Pete, a nude woman walked around the neighborhood. When she pulled a gun on two policemen, they shot her to death. That was tragic, because it was an antique firearm, unloaded, she had taken down from the wall; the police were too damn quick to shoot first and ask questions later. She was Inga Marie Swanson, age 42, by all accounts generous and kindhearted. She was deeply religious, and became concerned about some church members' financial problems, discussed at Bible study. But something more was wrong. “My brain won't shut off,” she said. Then she got naked and went out among the people. What she clearly needed was psychiatric assistance. What she got was bullets. It can be a cruel world.


CENSORSHIP NEWS reports that according to a Harvard Business School study, the highest per capita consumption of pornography occurs in those states with the most restrictive laws regulating access to adult content. Makes you think, doesn't it? I understand that similar is true for conservative communities and sexual abuse. Sex is another nature-programmed instinct that can't be turned off by law. “Government suppression of information is thought control — and censorship.” Amen. I believe that pornography should not be restricted at all. Using the pretense of trying to project children, the censors try to censor it for us all. But what is pornography except depictions of sex as a spectator sport? Children would not be much interested in it, and what harm would it do them? (I am speaking of regular adult sex here, not child porn, which is something else.) If they learn early what it is that adults do with each other in bed, is that so bad? It might even save some of them from sexual abuse, because they would recognize it when it threatened them. If there is anything that should be restricted, I should think it would be the extreme violence children get to watch on TV, that perhaps encourages them to think that violence is the way to solve social problems. America is a far more violent society than those where more sensible policies govern.


NEW SCIENTIST issue for September 29-October 5, 2012/ is dedicated to the question “What is Reality?” That is one of my pet interests. The discussion gets complicated, with a chart of the fundamental particles: quarks, leptons, bosons which define the four percent of the universe we know about, with the other 96% consisting of Gravity, Dark Matter, and Dark Energy. It asks whether matter is real. I forget the ratios, but I read somewhere else that if you made a proton the size of the Earth, the nearest electron ring would be about two and a half times as far away as the sun. Something like that. That's a remarkably diffuse. Yet if you kick a rock made up of such diffusivity, your toe will know it's real. There is the abiding question why is there something instead of nothing, and the answer may be that in the quantum realm things can spontaneously pop into existence, and that may be how our universe came to be. The Big Bang might be a tiny evanescent blip in the larger scheme, important only to us. There is the question whether the reality we think we know could be illusion. “It is difficult to refute the idea that consciousness is all there is.” Yet it seems to me that there has to be a physical reality to make that consciousness. So I don't think we have the answers yet, but we're getting closer. I'd like to live long enough to see those answers.


Another item in that issue says not to believe the American presidential polls. “Barring a political earthquake, Barack Obama will be re-elected at a canter.” The gist is that the news media like to generate excitement, such as by describing neck and neck horse races, but that the dull fundamentals say Obama has always been well ahead. I hope that is correct. As far is I can tell, the Republicans are motivated primarily by greed and want power so they can suck more blood from the body, and to hell with the welfare of ordinary folk. I am and always have been a registered independent (that's No Preference, not a party), ready to vote for whomever I feel is best, but recently the Republicans have been the worst. The Thom Hartmann Blog summarizes how the Florida Republican Party had to cut ties with Strategic Allied Consulting after it was caught changing addresses on numerous voter registration forms to block newly-registered Democrats from voting in November. The scandal is spreading to at least ten Florida counties. “This is blatant election fraud committed by the Republican Party ... in an effort to rig the elections.” Exactly. They don't care how they win, and surely would not have cleaned up that act had it not been discovered. I guess they had reason to say that Florida would go Republican: they were making sure of it. Meanwhile an Internet thesis that arrived here the day I was editing this Column: when a company has a problem, it reduces its staff and workers. Why not apply that to our government? Reducing congressmen, senators, and their staffs could save eight billion dollars a year. Congresspersons should be required to serve up to 30 years to earn retirement benefits, like everyone else, and have the same medical and retirement benefits as we do, and not be allowed to raise their own pay. This does have its appeal, though I'm not sure it would really eliminate corruption. For one thing, much of the problem lies in the supporting bureaucracy that does not answer to the voters.


My wife has a Kindle account, which serves her reading needs fairly nicely. I have, I believe, remarked before on my dismay at store bookshelves being filled by multiple copies of the same books, rather than proffering a four-fold wider variety of titles. She would buy more titles if they had them, but evidently they are not much interested in paying customers like her. Kindle, in contrast, like other electronic formats, offers everything it can, and she is buying much more there. Well, Amazon sent out a letter to Kindle customers, applauding the recent court decision that imposes limitations on publishers' ability to set e-book prices. That means Amazon can cut their prices if they want to. They say that's good news. I'm not so sure. Amazon cuts prices below the level that the publishers can match without going broke, and is taking over most of the electronic sales. That's good for customers right now, but what about when Amazon drives regular publishers out of business and takes over publishing? What will their prices be once they have no competition? We may rue the day. It's not that I like the old order; I don't. But I'm not sure the new order will be an improvement in the long run.


DISCOVER magazine had a feature on the Permian Woods. This was a while back, 298 million years, before the heyday of the dinosaurs. What caught my eye was the painting of the Sigillaria trees, like standing green paint brushes or feather dusters up to 80 feet tall rising out of the swamp. Vegetation has changed in recent millennia, but those trees were striking. The issue also discusses consciousness, theorizing that it is an emergent property of a complex physical system. Maybe; my theory is that it results from a feedback loop, so you can see yourself thinking, as it were. The article conjectures that a sufficiently complex machine could be conscious. Yes, and I think a machine with the right feedback circuitry could be conscious. I have mentioned my novella To Be A Woman, wherein a fembot does become conscious and sues for personhood before moving on to other challenges in ensuing novellas.


Item in THE WEEK speculates that the male hormone testosterone seems to weaken the immune system and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, thus accounting for men's shorter lifespans. Castratos lived between 14 and 19 years longer than average men. Ouch! I'd like to live longer, but my appreciation of the female form is a significant part of what makes my life worth living. Talk about getting screwed! Perhaps related newspaper item says that boys are now reaching puberty up to two years earlier than previously reported: age 9 on average for blacks, age 10 for whites and Hispanics. Girls too are getting there earlier. So how long will those boys be living? I hit puberty at age 18 and I never looked my age; maybe there's a real advantage in that lateness. Also in THE WEEK is a discussion of the gold standard. It has a superficial appeal: make our currency equivalent to gold, so at any time you can trade it in for gold at a fixed rate. That should abolish inflation. But it is also a straitjacket. The government can't print money to abate a recession, and we'd return to the Boom and Panic economic roller coaster of yore. We are having enough of a taste of that today to appreciate why we don't want it permanently. And a page on circumcision, which may have started as a religious ritual. Now it appears to protect against AIDS. I, as an uncircumcised male, object on principle to cutting the penises of boys who are not part of the religion that requires it. In fact I don't like indoctrinating children into particular religions before they reach the age of consent; they should get to decide for themselves. We try to protect children from early sexual experience, but not from sexual mutilation? So what about the health benefit? I think it would be better for men to avoid having sex with those infected with AIDS, or to use condoms. Amputating foreskin is an extreme measure. Consider where the logic leads: Women could avoid breast cancer by having their breasts cut off at puberty. Anyone could avoid headaches by having his head cut off. There needs to be some sense of proportion. And a newspaper item has a good take on health: perhaps the single best thing you can do to protect your health is to wash your hands. Repeatedly, after any contaminating contact. It seems that communicable diseases can be cut by 50% by doing that. I do it. I remember once being in a rest room when a barber came in. He washed his hands before urinating, which I can understand, because he has been touching the dirty heads of countless customers. But I noticed he didn't wash them afterward. That is possibly one reason I no longer have my hair cut. My wife did it for years, and when she became too ill to do it, I stopped cutting it and grew it long. I also notice whether doctors wash or don't wash; the article says that a leading factor in health-care associated infections is the lack of hand-washing by medical personnel.



Article in NEW SCIENTIST by Laura Spinney conjectures that lethal weapons could have been the driving force behind the evolution of human civilization. That got my attention, because it always seemed to me that weapons and war are essentially uncivilized. The idea is that developing weapons that can kill at a distance made it impossible for any one person to rule by strength alone. I think of how the gun has been called the equalizer, because a small man who is good with a gun can kill a big man before he gets close. But doesn't that just change the person of power? But if anyone can kill from a distant ambush, maybe not. It is said that an armed society is a polite society. So maybe the gun nuts have a point: if everyone is armed, there is more interest in getting along. Also in NEW SCIENTIST a comprehensive feature on Death, way too much material for me to cover in any detail, so just a couple of points. It conjectures that our awareness of our own mortality may be the civilizing factor. Why try for wealth or fame if we're doomed anyway? So we might as well focus on worthwhile things. And the thesis that we should not fear death, since it is inevitable. But that ignores an overriding aspect: we are programmed to fear death by the instinct of self preservation, and that can't be reasoned away. Despite our awareness that immortality would be a curse, not a blessing. We simply are not properly rational on this subject, by nature's design.


I read the daily comics. “Zits” had a nice series on mealtime talks with your teenager. Tell us about your day? He's a giant clam. Routine questions? He's a big tap offering only drips of answers. Stories of high school? He's a stone faced Easter Island statue. How are things between him and his girlfriend? He's a locked and chained safe. Thoughts about college? His head is a giant Rubik Cube. But when the parents plan to go out to an event, he's an open fire hydrant spewing questions and demands.


And on Column Editing Day we went out and early-voted. No fuss, no muss, no line, and it's done. No secret: for the Democrats from Obama down plus one independent, against all 11 (Florida) state amendments, for retention of three judges targeted by the Republicans because they are doing their job instead of yielding to corruption, and for better funding of schools. So what are your priorities?

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