The Ogre’s Den image
Piers’ Starry Night Enterprise Christmas present.
Piers’ Starry Night Enterprise Christmas present.

Jamboree 2023

HI-

Last year I reviewed the ogres' pursuits, month by month. I think the point has been made: stay away from ogres unless you have excellent reason, such as being terminally foolish or having a genuine desire to orbit the moon naked. Go play with something safer, such as dragons, basilisks, werewolves, vampires, mundane swat teams, or nickelpedes. Yes, that is sneaking in a reference to the next Xanth novel I expect to write, #49 Knickelpede Knight. That will start smaller and end larger than any prior Xanth story. If you're not interested in a clairvoyant scholarly nickelpede or telepathic empathic lady fire ant, skip it, when. And yes, ogres do learn not to mess with this couple. Ogres are as you know justifiably proud of their stupidity, but where Demons are involved who can toast the feet of ogres, even stupidity backs off.

I completed last month’s column almost on time, but then our geek was ill, so it still got posted late. I strove to do this one on time, but somehow my days are filled so that not only does most of my reading of books and viewing of videos get squeezed out, so does my writing, including this. I may have to try to reformulate my daily life to get more efficient. Much of it has to do with losing my first wife, remarrying, discovering that there’s a new mistress, that is, sheriff in town, and handling chores like the mail and meals. I also play a lot of free cell, the challenging solitaire card game, to settle my ongoing emotional stresses. Everything takes time.

I still exercise, but have reduced it on doctor’s orders after I got diagnosed with a heart flutter. I'm in good shape for my age of 88, but don’t want to push too hard. I used to run three miles, three times a week, then 1.6 miles, but every so often I would trip and fall, always on my face. Critics might think that would improve my looks, but I slowed to an exercise walk and now wear a bicycle helmet. I still draw my 55 pound draw weight bow – that’s how hard the pull is, not the weight of the instrument – but not the standard way. Originally I drew it 20 times right side one day, and 20 time left side the next day. Then abruptly I couldn’t, because instead of holding still for the pull it would swing forward. So I tried bracing it against a door sill to stop the swing, and that works, sorta. That is, I hold it up against the sill, and draw down, somewhat like doing chin-ups, five times right and five left on exercise days, twice on alternate days. I still try it away from the sill, but can’t do it at all then, not even close. So I'm not the man I was, if you judge by muscle. Mentally? That is for you to judge, by these columns and my published books.

Florida is generally warm, but there are exceptions. Christmas Eve Day our low was 25F, and Christmas Day it was 24F. The little Pink Hibiscus I saved from a broken off branch had grown to a bush 12 feet in diameter, and I was unable to cover it. Now the leaves have been sadly damaged. But the resurrected Papaya tree beside it suffered no apparent damage. Other plants were in between, like the Plumeria. I tell relatives and fans up north to keep their freezing weather up there where it belongs, but they ignore me. It’s a nuisance.

When I do my exercise walk, MaryLee worries that I might trip carelessly and fall, and maybe hurt the pavement with my face, so she sends along the Little Voice, that perches on my shoulder and tells me to Slow Down. When there is smoke from the neighbor’s fire, the Little Voice coughs. When it rains the Little Voice gets soaking wet, which annoys her even though a plastered down shirt looks good on her. But what she really doesn’t like is gusty wind, because it blows her hair back to tangle with her wings and a rogue gust could blow up her skirt to flash her panties. She’s mostly invisible, but it’s the principle of it, and there might be phantoms watching; wind is a bother. So when an errant storm is passing, the Little Voice tattles and MaryLee makes me stay inside. Females can be so unreasonable.

I like to spell and pronounce words correctly, but MaryLee finds some of mine archaic. I remember circa 1975 I was criticized for not pronouncing “genre” “Jhan-er.” Now it turns out that it has become “Jhan-ra.” again. Sometimes I stay still while the fashion of the moment bypasses me. There are also words like “conduit” and “minuscule.” The first is properly “con-dwit,” and the second “minu-scule,” but the Little Voice on the internet pronounces them “con-du-it” and “mini-scule.” Is the world determinedly illiterate? But I remember reading a book long ago that addressed this problem. It turns out that language is perpetually changing, and each generation condemns the errors of the following generation. This goes all the way back to Latin. So the errors become so well established that they become the standard. I suspect that Attila, King of the Huns, would be annoyed to hear his name accented on the second syllable instead of the first. I remember my surprise at learning that the comic character Lord Plushbottom is actually pronounced Lord Plum. It surely originated as it is spelled, before getting degraded into near nonsense. We're just such sloppy speakers we should be ashamed. That’s a-SHAMED, but I wonder whether time will make it ASS-aimed, as the assinines take over, making crap of whatever they touch.

Odds & endments: A reader, BS Foolsbane (email handle) sent a picture of a shirt with a picture of an owl holding a mug of coffee. It says I'M MULTITASKING. I CAN LISTEN, IGNORE, AND FORGET AT THE SAME TIME. That talent is hardly limited to owls. Quote in the local newspaper: “You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough,” by Mae West. Yes, once can be more than enough for some folk. And there’s my own saying: ’try to live your life in such manner that when at last you have to lay it down, you will not be ashamed.” I am trying to do that. It’s amazing how much trouble that leads me into, as the asses aim. The local newspaper, the CITRUS COUNTY CHRONICLE – we used to subscribe to several St. Petersburg and Tampa newspapers, but they no longer deliver here to the backwoods, maybe having tired of the yokels – for December 20 had no comics or word puzzles except for a couple hiding on separate pages. They were listed in the index, but the referenced pages were instead full of foreclosure notices. I waited to see whether they would fix it next day by running the missing items, but they didn’t. Apparently I am the only one who noticed. It makes me wonder whether the idea that the world is a construct of imagination and there is no tangible reality is true. What do you do when there is a glitch in the program? Appeal to the nonexistent authority? And a reader, Clayton, told me about Krampus, who it seems was the original Santa, who comes and takes naughty kids away in a sack rather than bringing them presents. I can see how modern editing could have reversed that. He is not in my dictionaries or fantasy references. Maybe I'll look him up on the internet, if I ever learn how to use my newfangled Smartphone. As we know, ogres are wary of smart things.

MaryLee and I saw the second Minions animated movie. We concluded that while it wasn’t quite as good at the first one, it was still well worthwhile. This one went into the childhood of Grue, who aspires to be truly evil, but feelings get in the way. The minions try to help, with mixed results. He is dismissed by the evil adults, because he is a child, but in the end he does manage to make some scores. There is a kind of magic medal that he needs, that keeps getting lost so he has to chase it down again, with the minions' help. Great animation throughout.

I read Journey of a Forsaken Rose, by Kenneth Kelly. We collaborated on a trilogy, years ago, so I am interested in what else he does. This is an as yet unpublished book, still being tweaked. Graf is a tough man whose family was severely wronged by a prince, so he settles it his own way, castrating the prince and killing the king. Graf is not a bad man, just one it is best not to mess with. Then he steps into exile in another realm; he will not be returning home. He encounters a large white dog, a bitch – that is, a female canine – who seems to like his company. Graf has been a dog trainer, so he understands and respects her. He names her Ivory, and she turns out to be useful as a companion and guard. But she is no ordinary dog, in fact not a dog at all; she turns out to be a shape changer, one of whose shapes is that of a lovely human woman named Amber. They are already friends; they become lovers, and a committed couple. They encounter assorted others, and get involved in a struggle that has endured for a thousand years, involving some historical characters. Hardly any folk here are exactly what they first appear to be; enemies may be friends in the larger scheme, and friends enemies. There are ferocious encounters, but in the end Graf and Amber survive, barely, and prevail. This is a considerable oversimplification of a complicated narrative, but it’s a lively and at times hard-hitting story. Keep an eye out for it when it gets published. There will be a sequel.

MaryLee and I on Xmas Eve watched Hotel Transylvania 3, another enjoyable movie. Folk think that Christmas is a Christian holiday, but it is actually a pagan festival, Merry Modranecht, that the Roman Christians took over by force: accept the new version or die. Few folk realize this today, despite the evident pagan aspects of the holiday. Information on this was sent to me by Helen Brown, who signs herself delightfully “Love and Lentils.” But back to the movie. This time the whole monster contingent goes on a cruise captained by Erika, a sexy human woman who secretly means to kill Drac and destroy the monsters. Drac gets seriously interested in Erika, who deliberately lures him on so she can finish him. His daughter Mavis is jealous of his attention to Erika, exactly in the manner of the grown children of widowers, who somehow think that his finding a new relationship means disloyalty to the Dear Departed, but actually she has reason. Then he saves Erika’s life, and she begins to suffer second thoughts, as does Mavis. Meanwhile all the players of the first two movies are there in full force with antics galore. It builds into a formidable climax as a giant sea monster sets about destroying the lesser land monsters. This movie has everything, including a touching human element.

Correspondent Sandi Bateson did some research and came up with some interesting aspects of Christmas, the celebration that supposedly honors the birth of Jesus Christ, the Savior. “Christmas was made up by the Roman Catholic Church to convert the pagans to Christianity. The irony of it was, the church adopted the pagan symbolisms. My question is, who was converted, Christians or pagans? Because Christ wasn’t born in December. The mistletoe, oh I just learned about that one the other day. Historically it represents romance, fertility and vitality … because nothing says love like bird feces and poison. The Celtic Druids valued mistletoe for its healing properties and were the first to decorate with it. In the Norse culture, the Mistletoe plant was a sign of love and peace. The story goes that the goddess Figg lost her son, the god Baldur, to an arrow made of mistletoe. After his death, she vowed that mistletoe would kiss anyone who passed beneath so long as it was never again used as a weapon. December 25th was the rebirth of the sun every year, so when they chose that as Christ’s 'birthday', they had to remind people they were worshiping the ’son', not the sun. Even Santa has many pagan candidates for the original Father Christmas and Odin to name a couple. Odin has a sleigh pulled by reindeer. Even the gift giving had nothing to do with the three wise men. On December 23rd, the Romans held the festival of Sigillaria, a day when particular markets were set up to sell Sigilla, pottery figures that, along with candles, were made as offerings to Saturn. Back then, as it is the same as today, they spent more than they could afford.” She got this from an online article. The link is https://historycollection.com/16-pagan-christmas-traditions-that-people-mistakenly-credit-to-christianity/. So you can see we are all unwitting pagans at heart. Jesus would weep.

EQUEDIA for 12/4/22 says “Something BIG is happening behind closed doors.” Fortunately they are sneaking peeks through the keyholes so that we can know what’s going on. This concerns crypto currency, the supposed alternative to regular dollars, rubles, yuan or whatever. It seems that key crypto players are mysteriously dying, so someone is playing hardball. Meanwhile nations are quietly buying gold, you know, the old standby for security when there are monetary upheavals. China especially, much more than is being reported. Do they know something we don’t? There may be a monstrous trade war coming, China vs. the USA. So we don’t know the force driving these economic quakes, but it’s scary. I remember the economic advice to buy gold and hope the price goes down. Because gold soars during bad times, so it’s better to take a loss there but have the world secure.

EQUEDIA for 12/18/22 says AI – that is, Artificial Intelligence – is shifting votes to the Democrats. AI now has phenomenal control over information. “Don’t think about AI as a tool or a weapon. Instead think of it as a source of information.” But of course our decisions are based in information, so any distortion of that is dangerous to we largely ignorant peons.

EQUEDIA for 12/25/22 says that the Fed is telling us that inflation is easing off, but don’t you believe it. Governments are secretly carrying out hidden price controls, using monetary reserves. But when the reserves run out, there will be real mischief. “And remember how exuberant QE was? Well, in two years, the Fed doubled it … and no one has said a word.” This bothers me for another reason. In my day journalism had rules, one of which was the identify the words before you use initials. That’s why I write what AI stands for the first time I use it in a column. But what’s QE? It doesn’t say, so I can’t follow what has been doubled. My big dictionary says it stands for “which is,” but that doesn’t seem to fit. They just don’t make journalists the way they used to. Maybe that’s another reason the language, like the economy, constantly degrades. So MaryLee looked it up: Quantitative Easing – lowering long-term borrowing costs. But there should not have been that QuEstion.

EQUEDIA for 1/1/2023 starts “You're suffering while THEY are reaping the rewards. They will end up owning everything, while you lose everything.” Who are THEY? The greedy corporations, who are quietly pulling stunts to get around regulations, gain money, and invest in utility companies, which it seems is where the biggest profits are. Utilities are electricity, sewer, water, internet connection, things that don’t command much of your attention but that you really can’t do without, so they've got you, to use an archaic metaphor, by the balls. (I'm not sure how that applies to women. Got you by the boobs?) You have no choice but pay. “If you want a taste of what happens when the elite capitalists take over a predominantly public amenity, look no farther than nursing homes: 'Overdoses, bedsores, broken bones' – not a bad metaphor for where our economy is headed.” They promise that next week they'll reveal an even grander scheme.

I have been slowly going through old magazines, forcing myself to throw out what seems no longer relevant, but it is a wrenching process because they are full of challenging thoughts. So a few samples before I get into the newer ones. FREE INQUIRY for June/July 2008 has an article by Adolf Grunbaum titled “Why Is There a Universe at all, Rather than Just Nothing?” This is one of my buttons, as regular readers of this column will remember. The buttons are the mystery of Existence, the mystery of Life, and the mystery of Consciousness. So do we have an answer here? No, it is merely amplifying the question. The most reasonable state is nothing, but obviously that’s not the case. So what’s my take? I think the zero sum of the universe must be nothing, as with 6 + 4 – 10 = 0. But that’s not enough. The total may be zero, but what about the numbers in the equation, and the rules of their employment? Zero is not necessarily nothing. If you could add up all the matter and antimatter in the universe, and all the positive and negative energy of their being, it might balance out to a zero total, but that’s just matter and energy. What about the rules of their mergence? Rules are not nothing either. What determines that light must travel at a given speed, that positrons and electrons attract each other, or that mass attracts mass in the form of gravity? I am agnostic, with no belief in the supernatural, and God is supernatural. But there does seem to be more here than we comprehend. I suppose we could call that mystery God, but then comes the question who or what created God? I am left with my awkward unbelief. I would like to have something I can believe in, other than just that something exists. Bleep it, who made the rules? If it is all imagination, who made that? Is our very existence a self-negating paradox? I have a problem with that, too. If an infinite number of universes burst into existence, each with its own unique rules, we are living in the one that happened to have the rules we see, that made us possible. No coincidence there; with infinite variety, one variant of the myriad is bound to work. But what generated that phenomenal burst of alternatives? There’s the ultimate mystery. My guess is that nothingness is stressed, maybe being paradoxical, so periodically erupts into chaotic something, like a bump in a stressed rug, and we are part of that something. We think we're so great, when actually we are a mere passing flux, a burp in the eternal intestine. A passing pain in the ass of reality. Maybe if we consider all the possibilities, ranging from our universe to total nonexistence, each of the myriad chances is as likely as the others, so we are in that one we contemplate. The universes conjectured by the speculative fiction genre are other examples, that we take as frivolous because they aren’t ours. We are prejudiced against the supernatural.

WORLD WATCH November/December 2004 has a feature on population and its discontents, with letters commenting. One by Genn Gumulka in Canada is astounded by the idea that some want to have the whole world attain the level of affluence of North America. “Even with zero population growth, pursuit of this foolish goal would require almost seven planets to sustain human consumption.” She says that the richest 30 percent of the world’s population account for 70 percent of the global ecological footprint. “So let’s stop the finger pointing and start accepting responsibility.” Yes, overpopulation is a serious matter, but it also matters how much damage each individual person does. A letter by Peter Cohen addresses the Quaker view. I was raised as a Quaker – that’s the Religious Society of Friends — and though I never joined that or any other religious sect, I have respect for their principles, such as pacifism and sensible economics. “In the middle of the seventeenth century, when Quakerism was founded, there were over 600 million people on Earth; now there are more than six billion.” Actually today, almost twenty years later, it just passed 8 billion. “The human population is growing at the rate of 3,000 every 20 minutes, while a plant or animal species is extinguished in the same time. Directly or indirectly, rapid population growth is threatening the quality of life worldwide.” While at that time American policy blocked assistance to foreign family planning agencies accused of providing abortion services, counseling, or referrals. Letter by Kathleen Keating says “We have been very discouraged because environmental organizations do not speak out about the great harm a meat diet is causing in terms of the environment, world hunger, and cruelty to animals.” I say Amen to that. Letter by Alex Hershaft says “Scores of studies conducted in the past three decades demonstrates beyond reasonable doubt that replacing animal fat and meat in our diet with vegetables, fresh fruits, and whole grains lowers substantially the risk of heart disease and stroke, cancer, diabetes, and other chronic diseases.” And at the end of the magazine, some interesting statistics. Number of unique visitors per day to the five largest news sites: 2 to 3 million. Number of unique visitors per day to pornography websites: 23 to 60 million. I don’t object to pornography the way many folk do; it reflects an interest in sex, which is a natural function. But ten to twenty times as much interest as in the news suggests a distortion of values.

Now on to more recent magazines. THE WEEK for December 9, 2022. Gun violence is 25 times as high in America as in any other developed democratic nation. Why are we doing nothing about it? Leaders of the far right Oath Keepers militia are getting convicted of seditious conspiracy. Okay, that’s a start. But what about our policy of letting these nuts have guns? I do believe in personal freedom, but not for the purpose of killing others or overthrowing our government. Will China invade Taiwan? This could ruin the computer industry, as Taiwan manufactures about 70 percent of the global supply of advanced semiconductors – the chips that power smartphones, cars, and computers. Mischief indeed. Folk who have had Covid can get it again, as variants multiply, and its like playing Russian roulette. Each time you get an infection you are trying your luck again. That’s not the type of game I prefer to play. Recently a maskless man approached us at an eatery and said we amused him, I presume because we were wearing masks. I didn’t argue with him; only a fool argues with a fool, and he has a right to play that deadly roulette until he dies of it. A new study indicates that a pregnant woman who drinks just one glass of wine a week may alter the structure of her baby’s brain, especially the section relating to social cognition and language development. The poor baby!

THE WEEK for December 16 has a note from the National Review that Donald Trump has disqualified himself. He has threatened to terminate the Constitution. It concludes that he is a loser and a cheat, and “in his heart of hearts, a tyrant.” This is extreme language, even for politics. Another item relates to an outbreak of measles despite the availability of an effective vaccine. I remember measles; I got it in high school, before any vaccine existed, and ran a fever of 105F. I had a cough, but didn’t cough because I lacked the strength to take a deep enough breath. They had to give me intravenous feeding to tide me through. So yes, measles almost killed me, and I do believe in vaccines. Now anti-vaxxers are spreading destructive misinformation, pretending it’s the vaccines that cause the mischief. Today the reddest counties have triple the Covid death rates of the bluest. I am wickedly tempted to say it serves them right, but will refrain, being at heart a halfway nice guy, or at least suffering the delusion of niceness. In Minneapolis there is a room in a building that some say is the quietest place on the planet. It is called an anechoic chamber. You can hear your own heart beating, and spending more than a few minutes in it can make you start doubting your sanity. For $600 an hour you can attempt to set a new record for endurance there. This sounds like fun, maybe, I think. My sanity is already precarious enough.

THE WEEK for December 23 says that hospitals are deluged as Covid fuels a “tripledemic.” That is, Covid, flu, and RSV (respiratory syncytial virus). Deaths are up 65 percent. They are running out of beds. Folk want to think the pandemic is over, “but wishful thinking won’t make it true.” Item on first time book signings where no one shows up. Novelist Jodi Picoult sad “I have sat lonely at a signing table many times only to have someone approach...and ask me where the bathroom is.” Welcome to the world of writing! Elon Musk is no longer the richest person in the world. Tesla’s stock lowered in price and Bernard Arnault of LVMH nudged past him. Poor Elon! He must feel like a loser. But tomorrow is another day, and he may recover. Brittney Griner, the tall lady basketball player, is home. She was traded for a notorious Russian arms dealer. There is a suspicion that Russia grabbed her on a technicality exactly to make a trade like this. Remind me never to visit Russia, even if there is a fan there. I don’t want to be traded for a criminal, even if my critics call it a fair exchange.

THE WEEK for December 30 says that the Jan 6 panel is urging Trump’s prosecution. I suspect that this sort of thing will effectively derail his run for the presidency, but you never can tell, with today’s politics. In England, “Harry and Meghan burn their bridges” by speaking too candidly. I know how that goes. My wife lives in fear that I will open my big mouth once too often and destroy my career. But maybe some bridges need to be burned. Items on health suggest that adding extra salt to cooked food is linked to a reduction in life expectancy of more that two years for men and a year and a half for women. I've been practicing a low salt diet for decades. Running marathons may increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes for men. I exercise regularly, but never at that level. Watching TV can be bad for your heart. I don’t watch much TV. Maybe the risk is really from sitting still for hours and guzzling beer? And interesting detail on the Russian Ukraine war. Ukraine fortified Snake Island on the Black Sea. Then came the war, and the Russian warship Moskva came and told them to lay down their arms and surrender, or they would be bombed. They replied (in Ukrainian) “Go f*ck yourself.” (The asterisk is mine. I don’t know how it would translate. Maybe to posterior-ter-risk?) So the ship put them out of business, captured them, tortured them, disappeared them, but the phrase became popular everywhere in Ukraine. In due course they were returned in a prisoner exchange, now national heroes. Later the Moskva was bombed and sunk. It had been f*cked.

THE PROGRESSIVE for October / November 2022 has an article titled “What is Fascism?” by Jay Hatheway. “Fascism is a closed ideological system that places the state and the nation at the center of all human life.” It gradually became racist, empowering the Nazis and their atrocities. Italy’s dictator Mussolini adapted as its symbol the fasces, a bundle of rods suggesting the power and unity of Roman times. Another article is titled “Yes, You Can Call Them Fascist,” by David Masciotra, describing how the GOP and its allies, such as Donald Trump and the Proud Boys, have a lot in common with it. So is fascist the best word to describe the current Republican Party? They asked Anthony DiMaggio, political scientist at Lehigh University. He said “Because it entails the cult of personality surrounding an aspiring dictator, rising anti-intellectualism, white supremacy, and eliminationist efforts to target or wipe out political enemies and 'undesirable' minority groups. That is a unique combination that includes, but goes beyond, white nationalism.” Another common quality of fascism is the use of violence as a political instrument. Republicans have collaborated with violent extremist groups such as the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, and the Three Percenters, along with worshiping guns and celebrating vigilantism. The accompanying picture showed Republican Representative Lauren Boebert of Colorado, still a cute girl. It seems a shame to have such prettiness wasted on such ugliness. Another article, “Shadows of War” by Chris Hedges, says that the true costs of war are hidden from the public because the reality is too horrific to accept. It gives stomach turning examples. “Despair and suicide grip survivors. More Vietnam veterans committed suicide after the war than were killed during it.” And an irony: “Those with whom veterans have most in common when the war is over are often those they fought.” Surely because they understand the horror, as the ignorant patriots back home do not. As I have noted before, this magazine does not mince words. I heard that when my father was doing Quaker relief work in Spain during and after its civil war of 1936-39, feeding the hungry children, my mother joined him there and happened to pass the scene just after a battle. What she saw gave her stomach problems that lasted the rest of her life. I am not a pacifist, but that doesn’t mean I like war. I remember the term “chicken hawks” to describe men who did everything they could to avoid serving in the military, then when they got power in Congress were happy to encourage wars for young men to fight. There’s a lot of money to be made in the war industry, at the expense of innocent folk.

NEW SCIENTIST October 8-14, 2022 says a long-lost rogue planet could explain the weird orbits of distant asteroids. It was twice the size of Earth, and may have pushed them into the outer reaches of the early solar system before it was itself ejected. (Maybe the local planets didn’t like its politics?) That’s not the same as the giant planet that may still reside out there, dubbed Planet Nine. I sort of resent that; to me, Pluto is the ninth planet, though the fickle powers that be demoted it. Maybe they will come to their senses some day and restore it to its rightful place. I feel an affinity for P names, and Pluto, with its landscape and satellites, seems deserving. Another article says that fewer boys have been born amid the Covid-19 pandemic. That’s par for that course; stressful global events do it. Another says that vaccines could cut the risk of long covid by two fifths. I had the vaccines, got covid, and don’t have long covid. MaryLee must have had a symptom-less case, and now suffers long covid which makes her chronically tired and messes with her mind. She calls herself a covidiot. We may have found traces of the very first stars in the universe, called Population III stars. A quasar of the time is 30 billion light years distant. How can that be, when the universe is under half that age? Well, it exploded in all directions, so stars on the far side can be far, far away. But how our telescopes can see them, considering the limitation of light-speed, is something my ogre-brain has not quite fathomed. It seems that considering the early inflation of the universe, and its continued expansion, it may now be about 90 billion light years across, and we can see about half that far. They have recognized a new species of sloth whose head is like a coconut. Sloths are slow; maybe that’s why they have only just now joined the listing. Gravity has largely shaped our universe, but now we are learning of the effect of magnetism. Yes, I wonder whether the mysterious Dark Matter is actually the effect of magnetism, holding whirling galaxies together instead of gravity. Astronomers are beginning to wonder too. We are learning more about Nubia, which is turning out to be way more than ancient Egypt’s backward neighbor. Nubians built some of the Pyramids. Article on health as we age clarifies the usual: eat moderately, get protein, and exercise. Too many folk don’t.

NEW SCIENTIST October 15-21. A more deadly version of Monkeypox is circulating in the Congo. Will it go global? It seems that health authorities are ignoring it. That could cost us. Ultra-processed food are the main driver of obesity today. The hottest point in the solar system isn’t the sun, but in a building near Oxford, England, where they are working on fusion to generate electricity. Good for Oxford; I was born there, but not in that building. Climate change is forcing monkeys out of trees. That may have been what forced our ancestors out of trees, a while back. But this time the change is too fast for the creatures to adapt. Review of a book Nineteen Ways of Looking at Consciousness, by Patrick House Wildfire. That’s one of my buttons, as mentioned above. Is it a simulation? It seems the discussion gets complicated, understandably. Article titled “How to be curious,” by Dan Jones. It seems that curiosity can be a boon and a bane by turns. It is the driving force behind science, exploration, and discovery, but it can also lead to wasting time on clickbait, fake news, and dangerous experiments. So we need to exercise it carefully. Article by Michael Brooks looks for the answer. It seems that it doesn’t necessarily make sense to think that there is an ultimate reality. An analogy is that a forest seen from a distance is just velvety green, but closer up you see the trees, then a tree trunk, then the atoms that make it up. Reality is the ensemble of all these things. It’s really about understanding things better and better. There’s not a set definition. And the first home-grown genetically modified food could be on sale soon, in the form of bright purple tomatoes. Say, maybe I can get one of those for MaryLee, whose favorite color is purple. Just 2.5 percent of Earth’s water is fresh; the rest is in the oceans. About 99 percent of the fresh water is groundwater, or in glaciers and ice caps. Why do humans have pubic hair, when other “hairless” animals like pigs and elephants don’t? It may be to enhance our smell, like a wick in a fragrance lamp. And a cartoon titled “Overthinking”: Man walking along has a small speech balloon above showing his thoughts. As he goes it grows and thickens, until finally it rains and he has to use an umbrella. Just think of that!

NEW SCIENTIST October 22-28. The worst ever outbreak of bird flu is building in the UK. The Neanderthals were highly inbred. It seems that men stayed in the home group where they were born, while most women moved to different groups. Transplanted livers can function for a total of over a hundred years. Female robins are just as skillful at singing as males. Say, that might be true for humans, too. A jet of radiation from two colliding neutron stars appears to be traveling at seven times the speed of light. It has to be an optical illusion. If you point a laser beam at the moon and sweep it across the surface, the dot of light appears to move faster than light-speed, but individual photons don’t. It’s a matter of perspective. Human neurons have been transplanted into the developing brains of young rats. They figure this will help test psychiatric drugs. Maybe; but I am worried about rats with human intelligence. Maybe some of them are already driving cars on our highways; that might explain road rage. Wildlife populations are declining on a devastating scale as human numbers and pollution increase. Another discussion of consciousness, with no explanation of it. Fusion energy is coming, slowly. Death is part of life; natural selection kills less fit or less lucky creatures, leading to a continuous reach toward better fitness. Without that cruel selection we would not be where we are today. Manage your online gaming sensibly, lest you suffer “Zoom Fatigue.” I will keep that in mind if I ever get seriously online.

NEW SCIENTIST October 29-November 4. They plan to try to save the Greenland glacier by using big curtains to hold the ice back. But the project could take 30 years. Curtains for the glacier? I fear for the glacier. Turmeric supplements have been linked to liver damage in some people. That concerns me because I take a Turmeric supplement. But the great majority of takers have no trouble. Turtles talk; dozens of species use vocal sounds to communicate. So there really is a voice of the turtle. The James Webb Space Telescope, JWST, has spotted the smallest galaxy, about one thousandth the mass of our own Milky Way Galaxy. When they discover a galaxy so small I could hold it in my hand I will really be impressed. The picture of an intervening structure, the Pillars of Creation, resemble a dragon taking off from the top of a mountain, with a spot of fire in its nose. A second dragon is about to follow it, with a glowing red eye. Why do mosquitoes bite some people more than others? I have noted that they go after women more. I think it’s that women taste better than men. Can geothermal energy heat the UK? One project is getting going after a decade, half of which was getting funding. I believe that geothermal is the answer. If they funded it immediately it would help. But governments seem to be largely blind to its potential, maybe because the fossil fuel industry is laboring to hang on to its pollutive power. A genetic test could one day assess whether a child is predisposed to have dyslexia. I'm for that. I believe I had undiagnosed dyslexia, and it took me three years and five schools to make it through first grade because I couldn’t learn to read. Once I got past that I, well, I became an effective writer, critics to the contrary notwithstanding. It would have saved me a huge amount of trouble if I had been diagnosed at the outset. The proton is stretchier than we thought, which puzzles scientists. Just so long as it holds together; I happen to have protons in my body I don’t want to lose. A physical neural net could make aircraft wings that morph to handle things like turbulence. I don’t suppose we'll ever look out the window and discover our airplane has become a flying dragon, but who knows? Columnist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein muses whether they could change the name of JWST to Just Wonderful Space Telescope. It seems that James Webb promoted psychological warfare as a cold war tactic and was active in an anti-LGBTQ+ moral panic. He discriminated against Blacks. She does make a case. Letters promoting green burial. A body can be buried where it will decay into soil, or rendered into charcoal to use in garden soil. The US military appears to take climate change seriously, but is itself a major polluter. The movie Remote has an architect who notices a clock running backwards, and other oddities. This interests me; I will watch for that movie. Renewables are now by far the cheapest energy source almost everywhere. So let’s get to them faster. Article titled “Sweet nothings” by Helen Thomson interviewing Allison Sylvetsky says that artificial sweeteners are increasingly suspect in health. We need to know more about them. Yes indeed; I have been a fan of them, and of Stevia; I even named a pretty girl character Stevia. Article titled “Water, water everywhere” by Conor Feehly says that ocean worlds, that is, planets flush with water, seem to be common in the galaxy. Since life as we know it depends on water, we want to know more about them. Question in the back pages: “Who is the avenge person in the world, and what is their age, location, physical appearance etc?” Answers vary, but indicate male, Chinese or Indian, working in the service sector on $30,000 a year, with two children, in a large city. One problem with surveying people is that the average person tends to rate himself as above average. For technical average we may be looking for someone with one breast and one testicle. The average location would be somewhere deep in Earth’s core. With less than two legs. In fact there really is no average person. One quotes comedian George Carlin: “Think about how stupid the average person is, and then realise [British spelling] that half of them are stupider than that.” And a question: “What is a vulva?” The dictionary says it’s the external female genitalia, but it seems the scholars are baffled by it, concluding that the question remains unresolved. In my magic Land of Xanth a mere glimpse of a woman’s tight panties freaks out a man. Well, panties cover the vulva, which freaks out the scholars. So it seems there is a bit of magic in drear Mundania, if you know where to look for it, such as under a skirt. I hope this revelation doesn’t get me in further trouble with the Thought Police, who don’t like their secrets getting blabbed.

NEW SCIENTIST November 5-11: A soup of new coronavirus variants looks set to drive a new wave of infections across Europe and the US. They are using AI to train robot dogs, making them cheaper. I wonder how they do as companions? Neutron stars may fire neutrino beams like a laser light show, rather than evenly across their surface. That could explain why some of the stars seem to jerk as they spin. AIs can outperform humans when instructed to think step by step. I understand they are getting into creative writing; that makes me a mite nervous. I like to think that no machine could match my devious imagination, but now that they can win at Chess and the game of Go there’s a tinge of uncertainty. AI is also getting into art, so artists should be nervous too. Are we one universe among many? Cosmologist Laura Mersini-Houghton says our cosmos is part of a multiverse, and there is evidence to prove it. Columnist Rowan Hooper interviews her. I mentioned the mystery of why there is something instead of nothing, so here is another take on it. How did our universe begin? It started small, a microscopic patch of energy. The chance of forming a universe like ours is one chance in10 to the power of 10 to the power of 123. That’s prohibitively small. Yet we do think we know it happened. So there needs to be a pool of universes to choose from. That echoes my thinking. String theory is the idea that nature at a fundamental level is 11 dimensions and forms a huge pool of probabilities. Maybe our universe decoupled from the original quantum state during the inflation. We should be able to see signs of that decoupling in the microwave background. As with magic, all we have to do is know where to look, maybe under the skirt of reality. We may be able to use quantum entanglement as a tool for testing the existence of the multiverse. Let’s do it! It could indeed explain why our universe is as it is. What actually started it all is a question for another day. With my luck they'll get the answer one minute after I die. I'll be annoyed. Garlic, blueberries, turmeric and orange juice have immune boosting reputations. So what about that liver damage turmeric may do? Vitamin D may help. I take that too. Also omega-3, which I get in flax-seed oil, to avoid hurting fish. And high-fiber foods. If you get the idea that I'm a health nut, right on. And a couple of cartoons. A woman tells her office that she is evaluating her simulated population experiment, not playing with her imaginary friends. And space is like a sheet of paper, and two points can be folded together, and we might pass through a wormhole to the other side. “And that’s why the ship looks like a giant pencil.” Now we know.

NEW SCIENTIST November 12-18: “If a house and a spouse don’t make an adult, what does?” Say, I have both, so I must be adult. At my age it’s about time. A new IBM computer is the largest yet. The Osprey quantum computer has 433 qubits, or quantum bits, more than triple the size of the company’s previous record-breaking 127 qubit computer. This was a challenge, because qubits can be disturbed by forces exerted on them by neighboring qubits in a similar way that crossed wires can make conventional computers malfunction. Maybe its like having too many women in the kitchen. In 2023 they hope to have a working 1121 qubit computer. Let’s hope it doesn’t rebel and take over the company. Birds are mostly monogamous, but couples do break up on occasion, and are more common in species that migrate greater distances. Maybe he gets to see more hot chicks when traveling. A daily aspirin dose raises the risk of serious falls in older people, especially those over 70. Some time ago my doctor put me on low-dose aspirin, but when I learned its dangers, I quit it. There’s a plant in China that converts carbon dioxide and hydrogen into methanol, used in the production of plastics and fuel. This should help reduce pollution. A strangely cool star ate planets before Earth was born. It’s a white dwarf about 90 light years from us, about 10.7 billion years old. So we escaped by waiting until it had had its fill. That’s a relief. US clock changes have a deadly effect on deer and people. Moving to permanent daylight saving time could save 33 people and 36,550 deer each year. Most “home compostable” plastic doesn’t break down in garden bins. Ooops! A strange, shrouded galaxy is blasting out cosmic neutrinos. They are produced when a proton slams into another particle, creating a shower of fundamental particles, some of which later decay and release neutrinos. Maybe that galaxy figured that its shrouding would keep us from noticing. Some phantom notes played by violins turn out to be real. So folk weren’t imagining it. Crooked star clusters may signal that Einstein was wrong. Their asymmetry fits better under the MOND – Modifien Newtonian Dynamics – than under Einstein’s theories. This shakes up astronomers, who don’t want to admit that they may have gotten the universe wrong. I've been a fan of MOND for some time, as it eliminates the fictitious Dark Matter used to explain why spinning galaxies don’t fly apart. They think there must be more matter hidden that generates the extra gravity needed, but of course they can’t actually find it. Cane toads fling their tongues so hard the recoil slaps their heart. A weird dead star about 13,000 light years away may have a solid surface. It’s a magnetar, girt by really powerful magnetic fields. But, no, I don’t think that means you could walk on it, even with magnetic boots. Another comment on consciousness, as Philip Ball reviews Sentience: The invention of consciousness by Nicholas Humphrey. This says that sentience is a higher form of consciousness than cognitive consciousness, in which the mind is merely aware of stimuli that influence behavior. In sentient consciousness these perceptions are accompanied by subjective feelings philosophers call qualia, which is perhaps the biggest battleground of the philosophy of mind. That’s the way I see it: feeling is the essence of consciousness. So why did evolution give us so much feeling about our world? It must be an advantage, contributing to survival. As I see it, feelings make us care about survival. That’s what counts. But we still seem to be murky on where awareness and feelings, and awareness of feelings, come from. That may be the elusive answer to the mystery. Article titled “Flower power” by Penny Sarchet says that originally there were no flowering plants; they evolved as the dinosaurs were declining. How did they come to conquer the world? 125 million years ago, maybe earlier, they were showing some diversity but were comparatively simple, cousins of magnolias and water lilies. When they figured out how to attract insects and use them to facilitate pollination. When bees came on the scene it went nova, a partnership that now pretty well rules the world.

And a few newspaper clippings. Letter by Helen F Koczur says roads don’t kill, it’s aggressive drivers. If she slows down to make a turn, even in a shopping center, she gets the horn. If she slows down for construction workers, she gets flashing headlights and the horn. Amen, Helen! When I slow for a turn I can get obscene gestures. Those drivers seem to feel that they own the road and other drivers should just get the h*ll out of their way. I have been impatiently passed even when driving above the speed limit. Article by David Klepper says that anti-LGBTQ hate thrives online, spurring fears of more violence in our country. That’s just a subset of hateful content about Jews, Muslims, women, Black people, Asians and others. If I could wave a magic wand and eliminate all the bigots, I'd be sorely tempted. I presume bigotry had a survival advantage in the old days, like a million years ago, when strangers could not be trusted, but it has become a substitute for rational thinking. The oldest DNA reveals life in Greenland 2 million years ago, when it was a lush landscape. Article by Ben Shapiro titled “China is using big tech – so why is the west targeting Musk’s Twitter?” It concludes “All of this bodes ill for the future of the digital age in the West. If the West is perfectly sanguine about tyrannical regimes weaponizing capitalism and technology while fretting over capitalists who own technology companies broadening the use of their platforms, the West will be contributing to its own defeat. And China will celebrate.” Yes, that makes me nervous. Article by Buster Thompson titled “Sheriff backs AG’s push to name fentanyl a WMD” (Weapon of Mass Destruction) says that recently authorities in Florida seized enough fentanyl to kill the Sunshine State’s entire population of 22 million. Fentanyl is up to 50 times as strong as heroin. Yes, there are other ways than nuclear bombs to wipe folk out. Letter by Holly Pfister says “The dragon in our society symbolizes the supernatural power of evil and chaos. China is the dragon today.” Also “This dragon is more sinister than we imagine. China has overtaken the U.S. with the largest navy in the world.” We still have more aircraft carriers, but China is gaining there too. Letter by Robert Husted traces the way in the 1930s Germany militarized and bullied neighbors until it invaded Poland and World War II began. Yes, I was there in my fashion, as a child of 5. We came to America on the last ship out of Europe before the war shut down civilian travel. The letter says that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine follows that course. “If America allows Putin to continue his war of aggression there will be no peace.” Yes. But at least the West is supporting Ukraine, enabling it to fight back with increasing effectiveness. Russia is now wearing itself out for no gain. And Danielle Beckemeyer says that social media is both a blessing and a curse. Anonymity allows ugliness to spread. “A 2015 study found that roughly 53 percent of Americans reported being exposed to hate speech on social media.” Yes. I don’t go on social media, but I understand that there are places where I am falsely vilified. They just make up things, and some others will believe them. Anonymity is a two edged sword. “Now a permanent fixture, social media has many benefits, but needs reasonable limits. Personal communication will lead to a less violent future.” I have tried to figure out how to have complete free speech without the flourishing of lying and bigotry, and I don’t have any easy answer. Censorship certainly is not it. “In a 2018 survey (Cigna), nearly half of 20,000 U.S. adults report they always feel alone and isolated. Loneliness and social isolation are twice as harmful to physical and mental health as being obese.” But she, too, finds no easy answers to the internet problem of improved efficiency of communication together with the unleashing of ugly behaviors.

So, once again, I am wa-a-ay late with this column. I apologize to anyone who cares, and promise to attempt to do better in future. It’s just hard to get time for it. It reminds me of when I had a wife, two children, a dog and a cat, and they all had better things for me to do than sit at my desk and try to write. That’s a common problem with writers; ask any of them. Now it’s left field that keeps hurling things my way that it insists are more important that my foolish broadcasting of my determined ignorance via this column. Yet I continue. Ogres are slow learners.

PIERS

Click here to read previous newsletters