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Piers Anthony, Jan. 1, 2011 Piers Anthony, Jan. 1, 2011. Photo by Jane McConnell.
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I watched Alien Outpost, which is set up like a documentary about a forgotten war repelling aliens in the near future. It is oddly effective that way, with journalists interviewing the soldiers, between bouts of ugly action. No faked glorifying of war here. A decade later outposts are on guard, this one in the Pakistan region, but the native humans sometimes see them as intruders. So they have to defend themselves against local warriors as well as aliens called “heavies.” They look sort of like armored ape men, and if you see one, you're in a fight for your life. Apart from that, things are weird. Inexplicable betrayals. Odd questions of authority. A man is captured, but manages to give the coordinates where there is “Steel Rain.” What is that? Their order is to retreat, but Captain Spears violates it to lead a raid into enemy territory, because he believes there's a deadly danger they must discover and deal with. They find an alien bunker with captives under alien control. There's some sort of alien spire: they blow it up. That messes up the alien control system, maybe stopping the steel rain missiles, maybe saving the planet. Gritty action throughout. Devastatingly realistic.

I watched Attila. It claims that the Hun made a refuge that lasted to the present. Then American soldiers stumble into it, rousing the vicious spirit. It's fantasy, beginning with the mispronunciation of his name and continuing with a misunderstanding of his nature, but what do you expect of a junk movie? They take an artifact, and part if it comes alive. Attila is back as a kind of zombie, impervious to bullets, superhumanly strong, gruesomely killing those in his way. He takes his staff of power. A crack squad is sent to get it back. The general is determined, heedless of the challenge he doesn't have to handle himself. They start seeing fading visions of dead men. These are tough fighters who don't quit readily, including one shapely woman, but Attila kills them one by one. Then the general turns out to be a similar monster, and it dissolves into nonsense. I had hoped for better.

I watched Mirrormask. Helena, the daughter of the couple that runs a family circus, is restive. She wants to go out and see the world, but her mother fears she could not handle it. “You'll be the death of me,” mother says. “If only I were,” Helena responds. Then mother collapses and is taken to the hospital where the outcome of her surgery will be in doubt, and Helena blames herself for her mean words. Meanwhile the circus is struggling. Helena wanders into an unfamiliar section where things are strange. When a person curses a book, it floats back toward the library, and the person can stand on it and get a free ride. The library is quite a place, with a composite librarian made of piled books. Creatures are sort of composites, mixed human and puppet style animation. Helena realizes that she's dreaming, and takes it in stride. She has to find a way to wake the White Queen, her mother. The nasty Black Queen wants to adopt her, which may keep her forever in dreamland. It's sort of an Alice in Wonderland trek, and she does go through the mirror (looking glass), and in the end she wakes, and her mother survives, and all is well. I suspect the author, Neil Gaiman is a Lewis Carroll fan.

I had my 83rd birthday without fanfare. Daughter Cheryl came to visit and we had a nice relaxed Sunday afternoon. I also did spot chores that day, like transplanting an ailing houseplant and sewing up some holes in my pocket, and I wrote 1,500 words of the third story in a trilogy, “He Who Is Noble.” A routine day, which is fine at my age.

I watched Splendor in the Grass, one that has intrigued be since before it was made in 1961. I was in the high school library circa 1950 when two girls asked the librarian where the quote came from. It's from Wordsworth's Ode on Intimations of Immortality. “Though nothing can bring back the hour/ Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower.” What was it really about? Well at last maybe the movie will tell me. It says that when we grow up we have to find strength in other things than passing splendor and glory. This is a story of young love in 1928, poor girl Deanie, rich boy Bud whose family doesn't want him to marry below his station. His father has big plans for him. Meanwhile his pretty sister is a complete renegade, flirting, drinking, dating married men, a general disgrace. He gets in a fight trying to take her home when she's drunk. He breaks up with Deanie because he can't stand to be with her and not make love. He takes up with the town flirt, a girl he doesn't have to respect. This drives Deanie almost literally crazy. She attempts suicide, jumping into the river. She winds up at a mental institution. Time passes. Bud is at Yale but listless. Nobody can figure what's wrong with them. We know, of course: they miss the glory of the flower. Then comes the stock market crash of 1929, which shakes things up financially. Bud's father suicides. Bud and Deanie eventually meet again, but he's married and she's about to marry. Their splendor in the grass, their perfect love, was not to be. Damn, that's sad.

I watched Gypsy, the second of four 1960 era classics I got cheap, all featuring Natalie Wood. This one's a musical. Wood is Louise, the sister in an acting family who isn't an actress. She slowly comes to the fore as the old act crumbles and they have to devise a new one. But the new location turns out to be burlesque with halfway bare girls. Mama won't settle for that, but they're broke, and wallflower Louise decides to try. It seems hopeless, but she adopts the gimmick of being a Lady. She turns out to have a great figure. And it works! She does a song, dance, and partial strip, and they love it. Thus she becomes the star they need, to everyone's surprise. And mama has a problem with that. She gets over it.

I watched Sex and the Single Girl. This is a hilariously sexy farce from the start. Bob, the manager of STOP, a gutter scraping magazine, has a quarrel with Dr. Helen Gurley Brown, author of a book the same title as the movie. He wants to prove that she's a virgin and make her sue the magazine to prove she isn't. Naturally they get interested in each other and fall in love. Phenomenal complications with confused identities, a wild car chase, and of course a happy madcap ending.

I watched Inside Daisy Clover. It is 1936. This time Wood is tomboyish smart talking 15 year old Daisy, quick to lose her temper, quick to punch a boy who tries to kiss her. She gets an audition for a song, and makes it into the movies, where she becomes a big success. They train her to be feminine, and in due course Wade (Robert Redford) marries her. And decamps after having a night with her. Would she have listened had she been warned that all he wanted was to get into her pants? Unlikely. She carries on. What else is there to do? She is now living in the grim reality behind the fantasy. She tries to commit suicide, messes it up, blows up the house, and walks away. She's tired of being used.

I watched Serenity. This is a wild one. River Tam is a seventeen year old girl, a mind reader. That makes her deadly. The setting is a confederation of planets, most of which are civilized, but the outlying ones aren't. There are reavers who eat people alive. The Alliance is after River, and that's bad mischief. River can be turned into a devastating warrior girl with the utterance of a phrase, or put instantly to sleep with another one. Junky spaceboat Serenity captain Mal is trying to protect her. The
Alliance assassin is trying to capture her. She is aware of the name Miranda, but nobody knows who or that that is. It turns out to be a derelict planet, inhabited by thirty million dead people. A recording tells why: they used a supposedly beneficial pacifying drug, but it pacified too much and they lost interest in, well, living. This is the news that the Alliance is suppressing. It needs to be broadcast so that other worlds don't get wiped out the same way. If they can do it after they crash on the planet and try to hold off the reavers. They do it, barely.

I watched the first two episodes of Firefly, the TV series to which Serenity is the movie sequel. Yes I know, I should have watched these first, so I could have followed the movie better. What can I say? I'm old and confused. You knew that before you read this column, which doesn't say much for your judgment. Mal and Zoe are with the crew defending a valley. Firefly is an obsolete class of spaceship, good mainly for salvage: theirs looks like a clumsy wingless wasp. Okay, maybe like a firefly. This crew will take any job, legal or illegal, to maintain itself. But they get stiffed on a delivery, so their illegal cargo is still aboard as they pick up passengers, including a high class call girl and a preacher, for another delivery. This could be mischief. Then there is conflict between passengers and Kaylee gets shot. Mal investigates and discovers that one passenger's little sister, the genius River Tam, is being smuggled out to save her from the Alliance messing with her brain. This is more mischief. They can't trust anyone outside the ship. There's even a western style shootout, followed by a spaceship battle of sorts. But all ends halfway well.

I watched episode #3 “The Train Job” which starts with a bar brawl they break up with the appearance of the Serenity, which threatens to blow a new crater in this moon if the bar bullies don't retreat. River wakes from a nightmare; brother Simon reassures her. They take on their new mission with one mean client, Niska, essentially to rob a train. The Serenity flies above the train while Mal and cohorts ready the cargo for hauling up into the ship. Success. The courtesan Inara steps in to rescue Mal. She's been a passenger, but seems to be becoming part of the crew. Then it turns out the cargo is medicine to save the lives of the planet's workers. Oops. So they return it, and the money: deal's off. Niska's not pleased. Naturally there's a fight. Honor among thieves. I like these thieves.

Episode #4 is “Bushwhacked.” They encounter a derelict ship and decide to play Good Samaritan. What happened to make this suddenly a ghost ship? They check it out. Meanwhile River wanders, picking up things mentally. Turns out to be reavers that wiped them out. And booby-trapped the ship for when they detach. That's mischief. Kaylee the equipment genius defuses it. Then an Alliance ship comes. That's worse mischief. They want River, but don't quite catch her.

Episode #5 “Shindig” At least I think this is the fifth one: apparently they showed them out of order, as the network executives did their best to mess up the series so it would fail. Inara is engaged by a client for several days: remember; she's a high class Companion. This is what she does for a living. Then Mal attends the ball too, on business, with Kaylee. Naturally he provokes a quarrel with Inara's date and winds up in a sword duel, which he barely survives. Not that he has any interest in Inara (suppressed smile).

Episode #6 “Safe” They deliver a herd of cattle to a planet, and get into a gunfight during a ball. Lovely sequence of girls flouncing up their skirts while men plug each other. Shepherd, a bystander, gets shot, and desperately needs a doctor, but Simon the doctor has been kidnapped by the natives along with his sister River. But the natives think River is a witch and are about to burn her at the stake, when the Serenity comes to rescue them.

Episode #7 “Our Mrs. Reynolds.” They return to the craft to discover a girl aboard who says she's Mal's wife, Saffron. It seems while he was half drunk last night he went through a wedding ceremony without realizing it. She's a good cook and eager to please him and to be a good wife. She's attractive enough to make that prospect interesting. She kisses him, and he falls unconscious. Then she starts pieing the ship's controls. Saffron is not what she seems to be. She hijacks the ship and sends it to a chop-shop, then decamps in the lifeboat. They manage to nullify the chop-shop and get away. So Mal's not married after all.

Episode #8 “Jaynestown.” They return to a planet where crewman Jayne once participated in a heist that went bad, only to discover he has become a local hero. There's even a statue of him. So they use that celebration as a distraction while they accomplish their mission here.

Episode #9 “Out of Gas.” An internal explosion cripples the Serenity and they have only two hours of air left. Mal sends everyone else off on the two lifeboat shuttles and remains himself to try to make repairs. It's probably a death sentence. But he gets the essential part from raiders who thought to steal the ship, and gets it running again. The others return and all is reasonably well. Along the way we see flashbacks how he gathered crew members.

Episode #10 “Ariel.” Simon proffers a deal: help him sneak River into a hospital so he can run tests to find out what's wrong with her, and he'll tell them how to find medical supplies worth a fortune. They do it, and along the way Simon saves a patient about to be killed by wrong medication. He learns that River's brain has been cut into: they were doing something mysterious and ugly to her. So is it a trap? Thuggish Jayne may have betrayed them. River says “two by two, hands of blue” and there are two men in blue gloves finishing off survivors. Jayne did betray them, but was in turn betrayed himself, so helped them escape. Mal isn't fooled and almost kills Jayne in turn.

Episode #11 “War of Stories.” Inara has a special client: a woman. They agree that it's more relaxing without men. Women often do. Mal gets captured in a delivery gone bad, by a former client with a grudge, Niska, and gets tortured. The crew comes to rescue him, male and female, including River, and kills Niska in a bloody battle.

Episode #12 “Trash.” This is the first of three episodes that were never aired. Naturally it's a good one. Saffron, the supposed wife who betrayed them in Episode #7 “Our Mrs. Reynolds” is back, this time with a big prospective heist. Naturally they trust her not a whit, but they need the loot. Inara is not pleased, though she claims to be uninterested in Mal. (Yeah, sure.) Saffron turns out to be yet another man's wife, as Yolanda. Whom she of course betrays again. And Saffron betrays them again, but it turns out that this time the whole crew was playing her, and they wind up with the loot. Lovely cross and doublecross and triplecross adventure.

Episode #13 “The Message.” Never aired. The mail brings surprises, among them the body of Mal and Zoe's old war buddy Tracey. Who then wakes up. He faked death to transport artificial human organs. Others are chasing him. They flee, get caught, talk their way out of it, but Tracey dies. They deliver his body to his home world.

Episode #14 “Heart of Gold.” Never aired. The madam of a bordello is an old friend of Inara and asks for help. A gunslinger says one of her prostitute's incipient baby is his and he means to take it because his wife is barren. So they help, but there are complications. Such as the superior gun of the slinger, and the baby getting born. They brace for the siege. Mal has a night with the madam, which disturbs Inara. After the action, which saves the bordello and baby but costs the life of the madam, Inara decides to leave.

Episode #15 “Objects in Space” Final one. A bounty hunter comes after River, because of the huge reward for her capture. He sneaks aboard and starts taking crew members prisoner, one by one. River becomes the ship, she says; she has weird mental abilities. Mal finally throws him off the ship into space, and River is safe. End of series. Overall this is a fun series; too bad it was cut off. The ship Serenity is like a stable or warehouse inside, and the characters are fallible folk with colorful language. But the TV network interfered from the start, wanting faster action, more humor, wanting to grab an audience in a hurry, and finally killing it. At least there was the later movie that unraveled more of the mystery of River Tam, which turned out to be more than the series hinted. I loved all of it.

I watched Cash McCall, another Natalie Wood movie. Cash McCall is a rich corporate raider, a vulture. Lory (Wood) is the daughter of the owner of Austin Plastics. They have met before, and he is interested in her, but she's mad at him. He is buying the company, of which she owns ten percent. He tells her how he met a girl, found himself falling for her, couldn't afford that complication, so sent her away. She felt humiliated: she had really been interested. That's why she's mad. But now their love is in the open; she's not mad any more. Then another woman who figured she might nab Cash talks with her. That's mischief. She's mad again. But finally the misunderstandings clear and they will marry.

I watched Passengers. Jim wakes aboard the starship Avalon, he is told, after 120 years of suspended animation. Only no one else is there. He was awakened 90 years too soon, because of a glitch, and is alone. The other 4,999 passengers, and the crew, remain suspended. The programmed holos and an android are working, and the ship is beautiful, as is the starry sky outside. He is desperate for company. Finally, after a year, he wakes another passenger, Aurora. They are company for each other, and they fall in love. Then she learns that he woke her up. That alienates her, understandably. Then things start breaking down on the ship, as the glitch that woke Jim gets worse, and that rouses Gus, the chief maintenance man. The ship stops rotating so gravity is lost. That's real mischief. Rotation and gravity return, but complete failure is imminent. Then this quiet story becomes tense. Jim locates the malfunction and saves the ship, but gets blown into space. Aurora saves him, barely. They reconcile, and make a good life for themselves, having enabled the ship to complete its mission without them. A hard hitting story.

I watched Master and Commander. The year is 1805, the Atlantic Ocean, and Napoleon rules Europe. The British ship is in fog. Is there a sail in the distance? Then there's a flash of a cannon firing. They are being attacked! They manage to escape in the fog, but they're outclassed and have been beaten. Now Captain “Lucky” Jack means to pursue and take out the French warship, though his ship is inferior in armament, sails, and guns. And maybe in strategy. Meanwhile things are tough and discipline is eroding. The crew thinks there's a Jonah aboard, bringing bad luck. The suspect commits suicide. And the luck changes: they get the wind they need to sail on. They explore the rare creatures of the Galapagos islands. And they set a trap for the enemy ship, posing as disabled so that it will draw alongside to board and capture it and take spoils. Only the capture goes the other way, after brutal combat. This is one walloping adventure.

I watched Beyond the Sea, about the rise of singer Bobby Darin. He got rheumatic fever as a child and seemed doomed. But he fights on, determined not only to survive but to make it big as a singer. His girlfriend, then wife, Sandra, is skittish, so he lays a sword on the bed and promises never to cross over to her side. Soon she crosses to his side. They both succeed in movies, but there are problems in scheduling when they have a baby. They quarrel. He throws tantrums and breaks things. So while his career flourishes, his personal life is mixed. Often playing alongside of him is the boy who plays himself when young, so that he seems to be two ages at once. The movie doesn't quite make it clear, but I think Bobby Darin did die from the complications of his illness, but his music lives on.

I watched Fantastic Beasts. Something mysterious is ravaging the streets of 1926 New York. Newt arrives, and what looks like a platypus escapes from his suitcase, so he has to chase it through the crowd. It gobbles coins, which he has to shake out of it. Tina takes him in, lest he reveal the existence of magic here; Non Magicals--No Mags, or Muggles in Britain--aren't supposed to know about it. But things keep happening, making Newt scramble. More magical creatures escape and have to be caught. There's an obscurial loose, and that's real mischief. The council condemns both Newt and Tina to death,which seems unfair, but Newt uses magic to rescue them. The obscurial is tearing up the city streets, literally; there are horrendous scenes. Newt helps bring the monster under control, and helps undo the damage it has wrought. There's a suggestion that Newt and Tina will be together in the future.

I read Love Stories, one of the Everyman's Pocket Classics series, curious about what the critics think love is. I have seen denunciations of “The plotless little horrors they call stories” such as are run in the NEW YORKER magazine. It's a different realm from mine. So here are nineteen stories, by names like Guy de Maupassant, Italo Calvino, F Scott Fitzgerald, D H Lawrence, and Vladimir Nabokov, the kind that lesser writers like me can barely aspire to. And you know what? We are indeed in different worlds, because what I call a story is intelligible, has a beginning, middle, and end, and is interesting throughout. What I call a love story has romance and maybe some sex appeal. I want my readers to understand the narrative, to care about the characters, and maybe be surprised and gratified by the conclusion. It is clear that the folk who selected these stories don't share these values. It is not that they are bad writing; there is excellent visible style here. But style is more properly an ornament of a story, rather than the story itself, critics to the contrary notwithstanding; the best style is invisible, guiding the reader subtly into the imagined realms. Critics think writers like me lack style, which I think shows the extent of their willful ignorance. I think it was the American novelist Vardis Fisher who remarked that all the writers praised for their styles had bad style: this is surely what he meant. I remember also how years ago someone made a survey of the NEW YORK TIMES books covered in one year, all those reviewed and all the bestsellers, and discovered that there was zero overlap: not one bestseller had been reviewed, and vice versa. That illustrated the disconnect between what critics favor and what real people favor. After that I believe there came some reluctant reform, but not a lot. There are provocative thoughts here in the anthology, but it also takes more than provocation to make a story. There are interesting characters, but they are not much engaged in romance. There are intriguing slices of life here. But where is the story? These seem to be highly talented writers who are not properly conversant with the genre. So too many of these efforts are indeed plotless little horrors, and one really is from the NEW YORKER. Take the first one, “Clair de Lune,” by Guy de Maupassant. The priest is a compleat (sic--it means extraordinarily thoroughgoing) servant of God. Everything in the world is an example of the clockwork mechanisms of God. He really has no use for women: they were placed on Earth solely to tempt and test man. Then he discovers his niece, whom he had hopes of making a nun, flirting with a boy. He is shocked, but then realizes that God must have made love, too. That's it: the fact of love observed from afar, maybe educating the priest. This is a love story? It's more like a confession of ignorance. I had hopes for “Bluebeard's Egg,” by Margaret Atwood, she of The Handmaid's Tale fame, which has utterly fascinating diversions and lovely observations. I was surprised to discover that apparently neither she nor her editor knows the distinction between prone (face down) and supine (face up). So what is the main story? Wife discovers that her husband and her best friend may have a hidden sexual interest in each other. That's it: a possible breakup, the antithesis of love. The other stories are no closer. If you want marvelous thoughts, they are here in plenty. If you want actual love stories, look elsewhere.

I read The Botany of Desire, by Michael Pollan. This is some book! It is subtitled “A plant's-eye view of the world,” and its general thesis is that plants may be taming us as much as we are taming them. You think that's laughable? It isn't. He makes the point that all plants really care about is making more copies of themselves, the same as we do. But they are essentially immobile, so they recruit mobile animals to help spread their genes. Bees or people: whatever works. How does that work? He tells the story of four familiar plants: the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato. You think that's boring? Boring as a greased roller coaster ride across Hell without a seat belt. Plants are nature alchemists, he says, expert at transforming water, soil, and sunlight into an array of precious substances we can't live without. So okay, start with the apple. You think of John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, famous for spreading apple trees across the New World. Did you know that he was a decidedly odd man, friend to both white man and Indian? He was said to have freed a wolf from a trap, nursed it back to health, then kept it as a pet. He was a vegetarian who was at one point engaged to marry a ten year old girl. Do I have your attention yet? Yes he really was a vegetarian. Oh, you mean the other? He visited her and contributed to her maintenance, expecting to marry her when she came of age. Then she flirted with boys her own age. That broke his heart, and he broke up with her. It seems they're never too young to be heart breakers. He went on to bring apple trees to the frontier, and they were very popular. But it I learned that apples don't grow true from the seed: they need to be grafted to get good ones. So what was so great about sour apples? Well, they could be made into cider, and hard cider is, well, intoxicating. Johnny Appleseed was bringing the gift of alcohol to the frontier. Now you know the true secret of his popularity. Even the notoriously restrictive Puritans made an exception for cider. Johnny was a preacher of a sort, bringing folk God's word and hard drink. Then the tulip, which wasn't edible or useful, just pretty. But folk appreciate beauty too, and tulips were stolen from their oriental masters and became quite the fad in Holland before that bubble burst. Commenting generally on what flowers brought to mankind, generating fruits, and feeding the huge appetites of warm blooded mammals, he says: “Without flowers, we would not be.” I suspect this is an exaggeration, but it's an interesting thought. Then marijuana, which changes consciousness, and similar agents may be the original foundation of religion, including Christianity. Now there's a concept to ponder! It does make sense to me, I being agnostic. The Apostle Paul's conversion to Christ answers the description of a drug high. Thus plant chemistry may indeed be responsible for religion. Also witches: women learned to make potions from psychoactive plants which they made into “flying ointment” which they put on a special dildo to administer vaginally. That was the broomstick that enabled them to fly, as it were. But back to marijuana: naturally the authorities didn't like it. More drug arrests are based on it than any other, and sanctimonious America jails more folk than any other country in history. Why do folk crave it? There's a considerable discussion. My private theory is that the average man is depressed because he is treated like dirt and needs to zonk out his mind to escape his awareness of his plight. Many also believe that mind alteration helps creativity: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for example used opium. Now I'm a fan of Coleridge and pride myself on my imagination, but I have never used any recreational drugs, have never been drunk, and even avoid things like nicotine and caffeine. But alas I can't say the same for other writers. Finally there is the lowly potato, one of the major foods today. It originated in South America, and a story is that a Spanish galleon wrecked off the coast of Ireland in 1588 and potatoes survived to prosper on the island. Suddenly the poor there had an affordable source of food. The population rose from three million to eight million in less than a century. Then in 1845 came the potato blight and the population crashed to four million. They found a different variety, immune to the blight, but the damage was done. Meanwhile in America the practice of monoculture, that is, having everything genetically the same, led to a feast for the bugs, and huge amounts of pesticides to control them, with attendant damage to the environment. Monsanto developed the Newleaf potato that was immune to such depredations, a wonderful breakthrough. But as one farmer put it, “It gives corporate America one more noose around my neck.” Because the attendant contract pretty well sewed up the farmer's soul. But in the end the popular backlash against genetically modified foods may have doomed that perfect potato. Sigh. I don't know whom or what to blame for that idiocy.

And a book I read only in part, 100 of 440 pages. Why? Because it is evidently a PhD thesis whose latter portion is documentation of the early portion; I have already gotten the message, and it's a potent one. The Great Leveler, by Walter Scheidel, subtitled “Violence and the history of inequality.” Have you noticed how the rich keep getting richer while the poor grow poorer? By the unlikely stroke of luck in becoming a bestselling author in the 1980s I escaped that rat race, becoming one of the rich one percent instead of one of the poor ninety nine percent, and unlike too many others who win the economic lottery I did not waste what I won. But the state of the economic world continues to bother me; my heart is with the ninety nine. The average person is in debt to the company store, and sinking lower. There, but for the dubious grace of fate, go I. Are most folk stupid, unlucky, or crazy, or is the game rigged? This book provides the answer: the game is rigged. What we call civilization is in fact the establishment of inequality. The only really equal folk are the supposed savages, the primitive hunter/gatherers who wrest their daily sustenance from the land, or starve. Every man for himself. When they start to organize, such as by building houses, digging wells, planting crops, they require leadership and discipline. Otherwise the feckless neighbors will simply steal the crop that some folk labor so hard to raise. The ant and the grasshopper: when winter comes, the average grasshopper does not helplessly starve to death. He raids the ant's supplies. We see a similar problem in the economics of the Internet today, where those who write books for a living see them stolen by those who don't. Information wants to be free, the thieves claim. Sure. By extension, Food wants to be free. Housing wants to be free. Entertainment wants to be free. Why should anyone work when it's easier to steal what you need from the ants? Maybe you personally don't feel that way, but all it takes is one thief to deprive you of your livelihood, and there are many more than one out there. An honest man among thieves is doomed. So when you organize to gain the advantages of scale and specialization, you need protection too. Thus the civilized state, where a leader protects the farmer, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, the artist (writing is an art), and even the innocent virgin. If thieves come, the leader sends troops to slay the thieves. The system works. But it means the governing is in the hands of the leader, or the leader's class. He has power, and yes, power does tend to corrupt. But if you're a farmer, even a corrupt leader is better than no leader. So the leaders tend to get richer, and it is frustrating to the majority, but the average man is still better off than he would be with anarchy. That inherent inequality of power translates smoothly into inequality of possession. This has been true the world over, from the time civilization began. The Sumerians were corrupt, the ancient Chinese were corrupt, the Romans were corrupt, the emperors were corrupt, the power mongers today are corrupt. They don't see it that way, of course; to them it is only fair that they get 99% of the wealth of the nation, and they may resent the 1% that escapes their clutches. They are the elites, the most deserving; all else is nuisance. But if you have a differing opinion, what are your options? There are some, but they aren't pretty. And here is the remaining thesis of the book. There are four great levelers, effective only when extreme: Warfare, Revolution, State Failure, and Lethal Pandemics. World War Two was a leveler, where whole countries were economically wiped out. The French Revolution was a leveler, where the peasants rose up to behead the elites. The Communist takeover of Russia was a leveler, at first. The Black Death was a leveler, in part because so few workers remained they could command better wages. What all the levelers have in common is deadly violence. Violence levels the playing field, for a while. But the moment the leveling is done, and peace and productivity return, the inequality manifests again. Was Napoleon really better than the prior royalty? Was Stalin better than the Russian nobility? Are the corporations better than the prior elites? The book concludes “But what of the alternatives? All of us who prize greater economic equality would do well to remember that with the rarest of exceptions, it was only ever brought forth in sorrow. Be careful what you wish for.” And I add that it never lasted more than a historical instant. This saddens me, but I have to conclude that inequality is mankind's natural state, and the alternatives are horrifying. We are stuck with an ugly system.

I read The Ironborn Claim by Dawn Edelen and David Brumbley. I could guess who wrote what; some parts have violent action, others confession-like introspection. This is a werewolf story, but hardly the usual type. These werewolves live among ordinary folk, who don't know of their existence, and they do not terrorize the normals. They have a dozen or so clans that do not much mix with each other, each with a different power. Nickel is one of the Ironborn, and they can handle metals like iron and steel, drawing power from them and readily molding them to different shapes. His girlfriend is Aura, also Ironborn. They are the seventh generation of their type, and are expected to mate and produce pure lineage pups. They like each other well enough. But. Aura does not like being channeled: she is a free spirit who wants to do her own thing. She runs away the day before the ceremony, and it takes two years for him to search her out. She somewhat reluctantly rejoins him, but also develops an interest in Orlando, a Shadowborn, a rare and dangerous breed. He is cautious, because women normally are extremely wary of him, for good reason; his power can destroy others without his really meaning it to. Nick is not thrilled, but it turns out that Orlando is a useful ally. Aura, still undecided, winds up sleeping with each of them. Then she and Nick go before the Council to be admitted as one of the official werewolf lines, but the corrupt powers that be don't want to share it, and impose standards that don't apply to other lines, turning them down. Not only that, they seek to destroy them, and treacherously attack. Orlando lets fly with lightning that destroys half the attackers, but they know the mischief has just begun. Then the Council abducts Aura, using her as a lure to bring Nick in to get eliminated. But the Ironborns attack by surprise and win the day again, rescuing Aura. Then—the novel ends. The continuation is in the sequel, which I will read and review next month. This is an interesting and hard hitting take on the werewolf genre. It suffers as so many electronic books do from lack of copy-editing, but is well worth reading regardless.

There was a news item about how WOMEN'S HEALTH magazine would be running a nude picture on the cover, and it showed the picture. This is of course a transparent ploy to get men who would not otherwise be interested in such a magazine to buy it, and only a man whose brains are in his eyeballs would fall for it. Right: I bought a copy. The nude is Sofia Vergara, age 45, from Columbia, South America. I had not heard of her, but she does have a nice figure, and I like her thesis that a girl doesn't have to be 19 to be cover material. I learned that she laughs a lot and that she used “fuck” 32 times in her three hour interview. Let's see, that's a bit under once every five minutes. She's a savvy businesswoman with a slender torso and huge breasts: that's evidently what it takes. I notice that despite being nude she doesn't actually show anything; her hands cover the nipples of her breasts and her poses mask her crotch. But she has a pretty face and long brown hair. What more can a voyeur ask?

Yes, we watched the solar eclipse. We were in the 85% coverage zone, and used paper plates with holes punched to see the circular shadows on white cardboard. I expected to see an arc of a circle the same apparent size as the sun but blocking only about four fifths of its light, but it actually was a circular shadow about a quarter the sun's diameter, moving from south to west. Curious.

I continue to meander my way back into a life largely without glasses. After more than 60 years needing them for reading, it seems to require more than five minutes to get used to their absence. We bought several pairs of glasses with magnifying lenses, and 2.5 mag seems to be comfortable in average light for average print. The larger print of the computer screen needs no glasses, and the brighter light of outdoors needs none either, even for reading.

Assorted notes: it seems that men's fertility is declining, with sperm counts dropping by half in the last 40 years. I suspect global warming. Male testicles hang vulnerably outside the body for coolth, and when the world gets warmer, there is less of that. A letter in NEW SCIENTIST says that if women are given affordable access to birth control, the birth rate will plummet. Such assess is gaining, so there's a chance we'll get our burgeoning population under control before the world expires in a universal crowded slum. A letter in the TAMPA BAY TIMES says it is no longer impolitic to state that the president is a liar. A column refers to the “Firehose of Falsehood.” Trump has been averaging 4.6 falsehoods per day since becoming president. The political theory is that if you keep the lies coming fast enough, some folk will start to believe them. It does seem to be working so far. Gun deaths are up 12% so far this year. Well, I understand that gun sales were up last year, when the gun nuts feared Trump might not win: now they are being used. A leaked Justice Department memo says that it isn't color that keeps minorities out of college; it's money. More students at the 38 top colleges come from the top 1% than from the bottom 60%. Yes, that is part of the Inequality System as discussed above. Article in NEW SCIENTIST says that we can get a handle on the internet's many problems, you know, like spam, phishing, cyber bullying, and dangerous hacking, by using the handle system. Everything online is given a unique identifier, or handle, and the handle registry acts as a gatehouse, deciding who can access information. But then the internet would be controlled by the authorities, whoever they may be, and you can be sure that anything critical of them would never make it. The cure may be worse than the ailment. But I have a possible solution: have two nets, maybe the official internet with handles, and the unofficial outernet with no controls. Let folk choose which one they want to be in, or both. The internet would be safe; the outernet would be free. That could be an interesting contrast. And another personal statement of position: I'm liberal, but I don't support the extremism of the left, the antifa (from anti-fascist) that seeks to prevent conservative speakers at college campuses. If you don't like what the rightists are saying, and I don't, then don't attend their programs. You have no right to prevent them from making their case. When you try, you are being like them, not truly liberal. And global farmland is now shrinking, as intensive farming increases, growing more on less land. That can be greatly enhanced by going vegetarian or vegan, as that uses vastly less land than feasting on dead cows does. And here is a surprising endangered natural treasure: sand. The HIGHTOWER LOWDOWN says that practically every skyscraper, shopping mall, office tower, dam, airport terminal and so on is essentially made of sand, in concrete, and we're using it up. A typical American house uses more than a hundred tons of sand, gravel, and crushed stone for the foundation. It's a fast disappearing natural resource. We should pause to think about that.

Last year I remarked on folk with disabilities, such as autism, and this month received a thank-you from Cassandra Bowen and news of an organization for people with disabilities getting into business, and a link. This is https://www.commercialcapitaltraining.com/business-resources/business-ideas/business-ideas-people-disabilities/. I hope some of you find it useful regardless whether you are disabled or in business.

And another NEW SCIENTIST article—you can see why it is my favorite magazine—is on loneliness. This does not necessarily mean being physically alone: you really can be alone in a crowd. We are what is called an obligatorily gregarious species. In English: we like to have company. Lack of it makes us suffer, mentally and physically. That's why solitary confinement is cruel though not unusual punishment. It's why the social media are so instantly popular. People are suffering and not finding the answers they need. I understand that socially isolated folk suffer worse health and die sooner than do the socially connected, and it's not necessarily their own fault. Can anything be done about it? Research suggests that finding a sense of purpose and meaning in life can counter the negative effects of loneliness. That's why folk like me try in our feeble way to do some good in the world. There's a detailed appendix I find of interest. What exactly is loneliness? It is not simply being alone or without friends, though those surely contribute. It is a subjective feeling of social isolation. Being the petunia in an onion patch, as an erstwhile song of my day put it. Some folk are genetically disposed to feel more isolated than others. How could this be a survival trait? Because loneliness causes people to seek the company of others, and there is protection in numbers. More folk survive in groups than in isolation. I suspect that a lack of meaningful relationships, contrasted to plenteous meaningless ones, is a strong contributor, which might be the case with online social media. I suspect that one trusted and beloved physical friend would outweigh a hundred online friends. But I don't know, as I have no personal social media presence, whatever sites in my name may claim, and very few physical friends. Writing is a necessarily isolated profession, if you want to get your novel written. I do have hundreds of fans, however, and I hear from some every day. If I had my choice I wouldn't choose between the types, I'd choose both.

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