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I watched Albert Nobbs, the story of a woman in 19th century Ireland who posed as a man in order to be safer (she had been gang raped) and get better work. She is carefully saving money in order to be able to set up a tobacco shop and be self employed, but for that she needs a woman to mind the shop in the day, so she wants to marry a girl. It's all very practical, but things go wrong. She makes a friend who is also a woman in male guise, and “he” is married and loves the wife, but then a plague of typhoid fever takes out the wife. Giving up on the girl, Albert commits suicide, ironically, because the girl seemed about to agree to marry him. In the end it seems the friend will marry the girl, who is in desperate need. This is not gay marriage, merely folk doing what they have to to survive. It's a quality movie I respect but did not enjoy; tearjerkers are not to my taste.


I watched Angels And Demons, the sequel to The Da Vinci Code. The blurb claims it is just as thrilling, and it is. This time it invokes the Illuminati, a known (in science fiction circles) secret society that now is out to destroy the Catholic Church. The pope dies, and before the conclave can elect a new one, the four most likely prospects are abducted. They will be killed one per hour if the demands of the terrorists are not met. Worse, they have gotten hold of a vial of antimatter that will soon touch regular matter and take out the Vatican and a chunk of Rome in the explosion. The protagonist is an American professor who researched them. He is flown to Vatican City in Rome, where he gets to work following clues to run down the key locations and save the cardinals. He is joined by an attractive lady scholar who knows about key aspects. But they are just too late for the first three abductees, and barely manage to save the fourth. Then the tension and surprises intensify. I have my own minor story here: I had dental surgery and though I slept at home thereafter in the afternoon, when it came formal night I found myself awake, perhaps because of the disruption of my day, what with anesthetic, medication, and early sleep. I hardly ever lose sleep ordinarily; maybe once a year. I tried to read myself to sleep in the study, so as not to disturb my wife, but remained wide awake. So I watched the two and a half hour video, previews and all. That almost made the sleep loss worth it. I'm not religious, but this is really not a religious movie; it's intense action/adventure with a churchly background.


I read The Color of Fate by Leilani Dawn. This is a fantasy novel that starts traditionally, with a young man fleeing his difficult situation, unexpectedly joined by an attractive and assertive young woman fleeing a worse situation: a forced marriage to a brute who will destroy her. A supernatural storm almost wipes them out, and it turns out that neither is what he or she seems to be. He is a transformed dragon, she a queen, though it takes time for them to know it or accept it. There is no romance between them, partly because they catch on that it is fated. It seems that to save the world, in a manner, they need to awaken several dragons, and the means are devious. For example, he picks up several stones from the trail, and they change color and fly up; then the other stones join them, swirling in air, and form into a dragon who is there to help them. The humans are limited, seeing reality linearly, while the dragons see it as a whole. They come to a wall that requires similarly devious means to pass, and enter a deserted city where they almost starve to death. There are warring forces supporting them and opposing them, but friends and enemies are not clear-cut. There may be alternate realities, and they need to find the right one, against the odds. You simply don't know where the story is headed, and the conclusion is inconclusive; there's evidently a lot more to accomplish in likely sequels.


I read Burnt Jesus by Landon Alspiret. This one is wildly different from anything I've seen before. The protagonist is an aspiring writer who is getting nowhere and is pondering suicide. But a man with a burned face intercedes, and takes him on an excursion across other realities. He is Burnt Jesus, who was not crucified in his reality but burned at the stake, and survives to do good today. It turns out that there are many Jesusi, each of whom died in a different manner: one was beheaded, another was drowned, and so on. Later revived, they get together every decade or so to compare notes and for the companionship. But now someone is killing them, one by one, and if they all die, the fabric of reality will sunder and there will be no realities left. It turns out that the killer may be one of them. But which one? So this is a weird murder mystery that I suspect will infuriate some conservative Christians, though the Jesusi are treated with respect. This novel could make an angry splash.


I read By Right of Arms by J T Buckley, an Xlibris novel. I was an early investor in Xlibris when it first started in 1997 and served on its board of directors because I wanted to ensure that competent self publishing was available for writers. I am no longer connected with it, and indeed, it is now part of a larger conglomerate, but it was an early innovator and leader and I'm glad to see that it is still serving its purpose. This is exactly the type of novel that would not make it with traditional publishers, who seem generally more interested in style than in substance. The style here is what I call high grade amateur, sufficient to get the message across but not compelling. What counts here is the story, and it is military science fiction, as the title suggests. A distress call is received from Alpha Centauri, and a warship is dispatched from Earth in response. Meanwhile, ubiquitous pirates are attacking ships and assassinating leading figures. Then things complicate. It turns out that the people of Earth have forgotten that Atlantis was the center of a stellar empire, but the folk of that empire remember and still have high respect for Terra. The ship captain becomes an interstellar leader, dispatching pirates and reorganizing the fragmented empire, and marrying the leading lady of a prominent planet. There is action galore as he fights through space encounters and treachery. There turns out to be a reptile empire that will need to be dealt with, presumably in a sequel. Devotees of old style space adventure should like this novel.


One day I got loose in BigLots and checked their bin of $3 DVD videos and bought half a dozen; it's my price. Of course I don't expect quality films, just passing entertainment on my degraded level. The Real Cancun is a sort of documentary or reality movie showing a group of college age kids from all over going there for a week of fun. I have never been close to that sort of thing, so it was an educational experience. I remember when news anchor Walter Cronkite remarked humorously on a dream of sailing on a 70 foot yacht with a 16 year old mistress, and his wife remarked that he'd be lucky to get on a 16 foot boat with his 70 year old mistress. I suspect it would be somewhat like that with me; wives don't necessarily understand the innocent fantasies of husbands. They swam, they ate, they drank, they talked, they had a wet T-shirt contest where some didn't bother with the T-shirts, just had bare breasts, for what little difference it made. One guy was not a drinker, so the campaign of the others was to get him to drink, and finally he did. A shapely black girl said she was the token black girl in the group; it really didn't matter. Some formed couples and it came to sex; others just associated. Most were sad to leave when it ended. It was fun to see, once.


I watched Fired Up, another $3 effort. In this one two boys on the school football team decide to join the cheerleader squad so as to get close to all those healthy pretty girls. Standard fare, well enough done, as they help to cheer-lead and find romance, and the squad that was so bad that “We could take a dump in our pants and still do better than last year” does significantly better at the end. I never heard of the Fountains of Troy acrobatic performance, said to be impossibly difficult, but they manage to pull it off with the lead girl doing a flip high in the air to represent the fountain water. Fun.


I watched The Blob, $3 again, and it was a better movie than I expected. Formula, but well enough done, with a story line that makes sense. A seeming meteor crashes to earth and releases a cranberry jelly type monster that consumes any animal flesh it finds. Several ordinary people get eaten before the others catch on. But it turns out to be an experimental life form, and armed men are there to corral it and keep the secret, ready to sacrifice regular folk in that effort. So the real enemy is as much the officials as the blob. But the real folk discover that the blob can't stand cold, and spray it with fire extinguishers, finally immobilizing it. Makes sense to me.


I watched Assassins, a thriller wherein Sylvester Stallone is a hit man who wants to retire, but it can be tricky retiring from this profession. For one thing, another hit man wants to eliminate him so as to claim the #1 spot. Naturally there's a pretty girl in play, and a lot of money. I'm not really a fan of Stallone, but this is well done and tense. Certainly worth the $3.


I watched Prom Night, a slasher type movie, not my favorite type, but well enough done for what it is. Three years ago, Donna's family was killed by a deranged man who was obsessed with her. Her uncle took her in and she's done all right. Now the murderer has escaped the mental hospital and is after her again, killing anyone who gets in his way. It's Prom Night, and the big dance is a backdrop to the deadly stalking elsewhere in the building. The police finally take out the murderer, but only after he has killed several police and friends of Donna. I'm not sure why I bought it; maybe because this is the unrated version and there's always the hope of seeing something sexy.


I watched Jason Goes to Hell, a supernatural slasher. Jason is a monster who assumes human form and takes over new human bodies by disgorging his heart through his mouth and making the victim swallow it. Those he can't use he hacks to death. It's about as gory a movie as I've seen, maybe because I'm not a fan of the genre so have seen few. It seems that he can be finally killed only by a blood relative wielding a sword-like magic dagger, and the last two relatives are a young women and her baby daughter. The disc has both the R-Rated and the Unrated versions; naturally I watched the latter. I presume the rating is because bare breasts are shown, rather than the ugly gore. In America violent killing is fine to show to children, but natural bare breasts are taboo. I believe in ratings, so that viewers can know what to expect, but suspect they get distorted by a warped perspective.


I watched Pride and Prejudice. I read the book as a teen, as an assigned reading, and it was so-so. About all I remembered of it was that one Darcy wasn't interested in a girl, then later changed his mind. Maybe I'm more romantic in my senescence, because I really like this 1940 movie. Mr. Darcy is Pride, a handsome wealthy man who doesn't think much of the local girls, and Elizabeth is Prejudice, who believes bad things about him and won't give him the time of day when he changes his mind about her. He confesses his love for her, and she tells him to get lost. Then he uses his money to do something really nice for her financially and socially distressed family, and she changes her mind. It ends in a passionate kiss. That may not sound like much, but it's well done and it stirred my emotion.


I watched Little Women, and was surprised to see how it seemed to echo Pride and Prejudice, with several attractive sisters in an impecunious family looking to find suitable men, and a dictatorial rich dowager aunt who will cut off anyone who marries against her will. Maybe the author of the book, Louisa May Alcott, had read the prior book by Jane Austen. Anyway, I had somehow expected a story about children, but these were indeed young women. One is an aspiring author—the novel was said to be partly autobiographical—who couldn't quite make up her mind about men, to the leading men's evident frustration. In the end she finally does settle on one, and all is presumed well. My appreciation of the movie was hampered by a bad disc; I had to keep restarting and paging to the next section to get past the spots where it froze up. But it's another telling story. There's still life in these classics, especially when they have stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Janet Leigh.


The Authors Guild circulated a forceful open letter by Richard Russo whose gist I thought worth sharing here. “Not everyone believes, as I do, that the writing life is endangered by the downward pressure of e-book pricing, by the relentless, ongoing erosion of copyright protection, by the scorched-earth capitalism of companies like Google and Amazon, by spineless publishers who won't stand up to them, by the 'information wants to be free' crowd who believe that art should be cheap or free and treated as a commodity, by internet search engines who are all too happy to direct people to on-line sites that sell pirated (read 'stolen') books, and even by militant librarians who see no reason why they shouldn't be able to 'lend' our e-books without restriction...Somehow we're even losing the war for hearts and minds. When we defend copyright, we're seen as greedy. When we justly sue, we're seen as litigious. When we attempt to defend the physical books and stores that sell them, we're seen as Luddites. Our altruism, when we're able to summon it, is too often seen as self-serving.” But the big outfits need content, he points out, and writers are the ones who provide it, regardless of the medium. “The writing life is ours to defend.” So if you're a writer, join the Author's Guild, www.authorsguild.org and help. To add my own comment: I suspect that plumbers, dentists, truck drivers and all don't subscribe to the notion that their services should be free; why assume that only creative artists (and yes, writing is an art) should not be fairly compensated for their work? What we remember the ancient Greeks for is not how they fed their faces, but their magnificent architecture. Did their masons, architects, stone haulers and all work for nothing? We need to support the arts today, lest we become dreary grubbers like so many I won't bother to name.


I heard from Li Ning, or “Leon,” who is Chinese, <thtfidz@hotmail.com> and we developed an interesting dialogue. I will summarize his points as well as I can, though without being certain I have them right. He is concerned about the ultimate nature of reality, as I am, and posed a number of rhetorical questions. “Who am I?” to which he answers that it has to be our memory, because without it we lose our sense of identity. When we sleep we lose our consciousness for a time, but when we wake it is our memory that restores our sense of self. We will all someday die, but if computer read-only memory technology advances sufficiently we may be able to continue in that form, which would be a kind of immortality. But can we be conscious in that form? He thinks it is possible. My comment is that consciousness is a process, as is life itself, as is fire or a river; consciousness may be a feedback loop in the brain that might be duplicated in a machine. So yes, it is possible, maybe soon. He believes that DNA is a kind of memory, and I agree; it is like a computer hard disc, while consciousness is like RAM (random access memory) that we normally work with. He mentions the Fermi Paradox, with which I am not familiar; maybe another reader will clarify it for me. At any rate, if you are interested in such discussion, contact Leon at his email address and eliminate the middleman, as I may have things garbled.


As usual, I have a number of clippings of newspaper or magazine items that interest me. In turns out that one reason for sleep is that the body washes the brain during sleep, opening the spigots that physically flush out toxins in the manner of dish washing or flushing the toilet. It would be too complicated to do this while we are mentally active, so it is done on the night shift. So sleep is not wasted; it's a necessary function. My analogy generates a chain of thought: suppose you were talking with a man and his head became a flushing toilet? You might not appreciate the sight or the smell. So it's better done in privacy. Kissing: it may be that frequent kissing is a better indication of a couple's happiness than is frequent sex. That reminds me of a comment made by a white southern man: he could enjoy sex with a black woman as long as he didn't have to kiss her. That suggests, apart from the question of racism, that kissing is indeed more important emotionally than sex. Art: it may predate agriculture and civilization by a substantial margin. Maybe so; I feel the ultimate defining indication of humanity is art; no other animal practices or appreciates it. Remember, by art I mean the arts: dancing, music, architecture, sculpture, painting, story-telling, and more. Item titled “Burn and Crash” in NEW SCIENTIST says “If you thought the financial crisis was bad, wait until you see what's coming down the pipe from the fossil fuel industry.” The essence is that we'd better focus on clean energy before the climate change resulting from fossil fuels pollution takes us out. Naturally the fossil fuel industry executives don't see this. “Denial, I believe, has become institutionalized.” Tails: they have discovered non-beating tails in just about every cell of our bodies, that serve as communication antennae; without them we would be unable to function, not knowing where we are or what is what. Mirror images: it seems that if you stare at your reflection in a darkened mirror long enough, the image changes, becoming ghostly or monstrous. Could that be the origin of ghosts? Letter in NEW SCIENTIST by Ron Gibson remarks on efforts in Texas to mandate the teaching of creationism. “These creationist Texans exemplify a large segment of our society—poorly educated, enamored with their bibles and guns, predominantly from the south and very sure of themselves. They will always be guided by superstition and ignorance, not reason.” Newspaper item commenting on an article in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, saying that life is just an invention. “We have failed to define life because there was never anything to define in the first place.” Interesting, though I disagree. Life is reactive; it seeks to perpetuate itself; it is aware, on some level. That's not just a convenience of concept. Women and sex: they are now remapping the sensory homunculus—you know, that distorted figure showing the sizes of body parts according to how much space the brain devotes to them—to include women's body parts, like the nipples, vagina, and clitoris. They already know that they address three different parts of the brain. Next they'll scan her brain while a women has sex, to get the connections in action. The eternal mystery of the gender is about to be demystified. Or more bluntly: tough titty, girl. New food-tech companies are working to make plant-based alternatives to eggs, poultry, and other meats, not only sparing animals from slaughter but benefiting human health. As a vegetarian for ideological reason—that is, I don't like hurting animals—I approve of this. If a local company of this nature started up, I might invest in it. Another company is seeking $10 billion to build Freedom Ship, a behemoth 4,500 feet long, 350 feet high, for 50,000 residents and 20,000 visitors, a city on the seas, with an airport on the top deck. That intrigues me; were I about 50 years younger and not addicted to my library of books I'd consider living there. But suppose a hurricane comes? I'd be nervous. I'd also be nervous about the local politics of ship-city government, when residents can't simply walk away; would it become abusive? The name might become a mockery. Guns: Another study concludes that the link is clear: more guns, more suicides. I'm ambivalent, because I believe in the right to suicide, and a gun is the one thing the profit-driven medical establishment can't prevent being available. The profit-driven gun industry has seen to that. So that if you are terminal, with nothing but pain and medical bankruptcy in your limited future, you can escape despite their efforts to keep you alive and suffering indefinitely. Politics: President Obama is said to have lied when he said that if you like your insurance you can keep it. The Tampa Bay Times listed that as the Lie of the Year. Nonsense. Obama said what his advisers told him would be the case. Then companies started shutting down insurance policies rather than upgrade them to decent standards, and blaming the president. There may be a huge lie there, but it's not the president's, it's the companies', the opposing politicians, and the newspaper's. For shame. Secrecy: the government said it was not spying on Americans. Then Snowden leaked the documents proving that's a lie; there is a massive spying effort in place. So now the government, in true dictatorial banana republic fashion, wants to punish Snowden. He's not the one at fault; he's the whistle-blower. For shame, again. But governments are like that, ours included. Remember how they jailed Mandela for advocating better government in South Africa? There, incidentally, was one great man. I'm liberal, and I believe in big government where necessary, but I want it competent, compassionately motivated, and honest. Ours is not. Artificial intelligence: book review in SCIENCE NEWS on Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era has a striking insight: if they achieve conscious intelligence in a machine, it would soon not be interested in remaining under human control. That could be the end of us. So do we really want that breakthrough? I think I do, but I'm nervous. Schooling in England: they are starting formal education of children at age four, and some would like to make it age two. But play is a necessary part of early learning; denying it is making English children lag behind their peers elsewhere whose formal studies start later. As a British child who escaped that by coming to America I am relieved. Where would I be today if my imaginative brain had been stultified by early schooling? Fresh Water: we are running out of it, thanks to over-pumping and pollution, and will soon enough face an ugly crisis. But an item in THE WEEK says that vast reserves have been discovered beneath the continental shelves of several continents, a hundred times as much as we have pumped in the past century. Tap it by drilling and the supply is effectively unlimited; we'll wipe ourselves out by other means long before exhausting that. Unemployment: the numbers of the unemployed are down a bit, but that's another kind of lie. There are five million American workers who have simply dropped off the rolls. They still exist, obviously, but they've given up searching for jobs that don't exist, so are no longer counted. We need reform in these statistics; as it is now, you can't trust them. Guns again, a startling statistic: the mass killings occur mostly in places where guns are banned, and killers know that they will face no armed opposition. Such as factories, warehouses, grade schools. So banning guns in those areas is counterproductive. Exercise: a 94 year old woman still exercises vigorously, setting records for her age class. She makes the case that exercise is the key. Sitting on your ass is lethal. I'm glad to know it, though I do sit on my ass long hours to write things like this column; I take my own exercise seriously, and those who don't know me are amazed at my age; I simply don't look or act 79. Evolution: articles in NEW SCIENTIST indicate that early human populations were small and inbred, and it was worse for the Neandertals. But later there was a population explosion among humans, and that sponsored a cultural explosion. It had been a mystery why it took a hundred thousand years or so for humans to develop the arts, for example, when their forms did not change. This explains that. Just as big cities today tend to have more arts and industry, so did increased population promote them then. In my novel But What of Earth? decades ago I promoted the idea that civilization depends on population; this confirms it. (Of course I was there before the scientists, as usual; science fiction is that way.) Privacy: they are developing new tools that hide internet traffic. That may restore privacy, preventing further snooping by government agencies or anyone else. More power to those tools! Rich living: twenty two billionaires have bought apartments at a 60 story condominium being built near Miami. The Porsche Design Tower has three car elevators to take residents and their cars directly to units with adjacent glass garages. Wow! If I were that wastefully rich, I'd have trouble deciding whether to live there or on the Freedom Ship. Maybe I'd commute between them. Health: I read recently that the current epidemic of obesity is leading to an epidemic of Type 2 diabetes, which in turn may lead to Alzheimer's. So if you want to avoid Alzheimer’s, as I certainly do, do what it takes to bring down your weight, as I do. No big secret, merely discipline and work. Vitamin E may help. Grammar: I'm one of those who dislikes using “they” for a single person. But increasingly that's the way to refer to someone whose gender you may not know. Constantly using “he or she” or “he/she” or “s/he” gets awkward, and I don't like awkwardness in my writing. So I'll probably have to change. Damn.


From FOREST NEWS, the publication of FSEEE, the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, an organization I support: Hydraulic Fracturing--Fracking--has its place and is contributing to the approaching energy independence of America so as to be no longer dependent on hostile countries for oil. But it poses a dangerous threat of pollution. One fracking well can use up to 5 million gallons of water, sourced from nearby water tables, rivers and streams. The contaminated used water needs to be disposed of safely. But we can't trust profit-minded companies to do it safely. We might trace the chemicals they use for fracking, but they refuse to give out that information, claiming it's proprietary. Yeah, sure, as if every company doesn't already know the formula; it's the public it's being concealed from. So how can it be checked for neighborhood pollution? Well, new “tracer technology” now offers the natural gas companies and the Forest Service means to verify it. If contamination occurs, tracers can pinpoint the source and accurately determine liability. So if the companies really are doing it cleanly, this will verify that. How can they object? Of course they will object, but it should be done regardless. I think fracking is a marvelous breakthrough, but it has to be done cleanly. FSEEE is there to see to that.


In this area we have Sandhill Cranes, birds less impressive than the celebrated Whooping Cranes they are working so hard to restore, but legitimate in their own venue. They come to fields in our neighborhood, and are car-wise, staying out of trouble without being spooked. They stand about four feet tall, are light gray, with a spot of red/brown on their head. There's a pair who comes daily to the field adjacent to our tree farm; I hear them calling as they fly in around 7 AM, sounding like winding a rusty grandfather clock. I call them Sandy and Sandra H Crane. This week I was clearing brush from around my gate, and they watched me, wondering what I was up to. A recent article describes one crane who came to a neighborhood man with a broken upper bill, evidently trusting him to do the right thing. He called for help, and now the bird might get operated on, and may be returned to the wild with a prosthetic beak. That's the way humans and birds should interact.


And in Dismember I completed the last stories for Relationships 6, my ongoing series of story collections. They range from sexy to straight fantasy. Next month I'll tackle Neris, which is Siren spelled backward. There's a story there, of course. More anon, when,

PIERS
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