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AwGhost 2006
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If you don't like computer discussion, skip the first few paragraphs of this column. If you don't like tarot card discussion, skip the next few. If you don't like Piers Anthony fulminations, skip the rest; you're in the wrong section. This is the bimonthly blog. The one you're looking for is the Internet Publishing & Services list. Next time try to hit the right button the first time.

I mentioned my computer crash last column. Complications continue. I prefer to use Linux on principle, so as not to be locked into a dominating money-hungry corporation, and Linux has features I like, but there are problems. At this stage I have tried Caldera, Red Hat, Xandros, Knoppix, SUSE, and Linspire. I elected not to try Ubuntu, because it uses the Gnome environment, which I discovered I don't like. These are all distributions of Linux, similar in essential features, differing in details. Caldera was okay but seemed to go out of business. Red Hat crashed. Xandros got balky about backing up, then trashed two of my files I had been thus unable to back up. Knoppix is a "live" version not suitable for my hard disk mode of operation, though very nice for its designed purpose. SUSE refused to install the environment I prefer, KDE, giving me Gnome instead, both it and SUSE struck me as relatively primitive, lacking contemporary features like ready keyboard changing, more than four virtual desktops with their individual names and backgrounds (I personalize, with file handlers in "Files" and my writing files in "Novels" with scenic backgrounds, and so on; I love it), and it had trouble addressing peripherals, like my floppy disks. It also seemed to be incapable of clearing an error message, which can be aggravating. I thought that that fault was fixed way back in CP/M, back in the stone age of computing. So finally we ordered Linspire from Amazon.com, and I started using it the first of July, to write Xanth #32, Two to the Fifth.

Linspire is supposed to be the easiest version of Linux for a newcomer to use. Sure, I've been using Linux for over five years, after taking a year and a half struggling to get it from a local computer shop, but here's the key: the only way it has worked is when it has been set up personally by a geek. This time we were trying to do it ourselves, and-I say this bemusedly-it can't be done by real people. Oh, we managed to get it installed, after switching out systems-the Compaq we had ultimately refused to install anything but Windows, which means we won't buy Compaq again--but all we have is the offline version. We use a modem; the high-speed Internet option is not available for us. Yes, we checked; it seems we are too far into the back woods. Linspire keeps bugging us to go online, as it is designed for that, but it won't go online with our modem. Would you believe, when we tried, it gave a message saying to check whether we had the right modem we had to go online first? "Please download and run the scanmodem tool before sending any query..." Catch 22: since we can't take it online, we can't check to find out how to get online, or download their tool. Unless we do it with a Windows system. Sure they have cute little tutorials, and Click 'n' Run, things that are supposed to make everything easy. Know what? We got halfway through those menus, and they vacated. Simply disappeared. No error messages, no nothing, they simply stopped existing. So I reset, and tried again, and this time the menus remained but pulled other stunts, such as requiring a unique account name, but offering no place to put it. Start over. Such as proffering a place to put it, but graying it out so that it could not be used. Such as using obscure terms we never heard of and never needed with Windows. So why the hell leave Windows? So those nice looking step by step instructions in the manual don't match reality; the later menus they say will come up when you click this & that, may or may not appear. Leaving us unconnected without explanation. I wish to hell these outfits would actually try watching a newcomer attempt to use their stuff. But as with Windows, they obviously don't, whatever they say. Finally we did go online via Windows, and Linspire doesn't list the modems we have, though they are standard brands that worked before. Par for the course. Such as the external AOpen that I used for years with Red Hat Linux, until The Crash. What do they have against an external modem? I prefer it, as it shows me what's happening when it is happening. As if they ever cared what I prefer.

So how is Linspire offline? Not bad actually, though there too are problems. With SUSE I started using OpenOffice 2 with its .odt files (Open Delirium Tremens, I think); but Linspire 5.0, bought new, used OpenOffice 1.1 which can't read .odt files. I had sort of expected a new distribution to be current; silly me. Install StarOffice 8, which I think is the same as OpenOffice2? We tried. It asked us to open a terminal, for which there was no icon, and the word "terminal" is not in the manual index. Neither, for that matter, is the term "modem." Really helpful, folk; try using your own manual some day. We had to stair-step to find Konsole. Then we got obscure "alien" commands, not at all intuitive or simple. In sum, we could not install StarOffice 8. Sandbagged again. So my wife loaded StarOffice 8 on her Windows system, no trouble at all, and used it to translate the .odt files to .sxw (Sexy Wench) files, which I then imported to Linspire. But note the connection: we had to use Windows in order to use Linux. What is the point in going to Linux, if you have to use Windows to get it started? What of those folk who can't afford more than one system? It had better be Windows. As I remarked in the June column, I'm sure I have fans in Microsoft who are chortling as they watch me struggle like a hooked fish to escape Windows, and keep not quite succeeding. On and on. We have to log on as "Administrator"; Linspire seems to offer no other choice. Is it that the Linux geeks don't care whether it is usable by regular folk? Or are they simply tuned out of real life?"

Minor things: there are statistics for the games you can play. I played card games-and discovered that it penalizes you one game per session. I played one game of Grandfather, won it, and it listed me with 50%. Next session, it listed me at 33% before I ever played. Here's a bulletin for whoever programs this stuff: a game should not be listed as won or lost until it is actually played, or at least the first move is made. Otherwise the statistics are invalid, and thus pointless. Duh. We are now using a Flash drive. It kept saying to unmount it at the end, but when we did, it said okay-then flashed the error message again. Turned out it wants you to abolish the dialogue box it uses. Why didn't it say so? The speller doesn't know the words "Linspire," "online" or "okay." There is an Auto-load feature, so that commonly used programs can be set to load on their own at startup. I tried that, but it led to confusing instructions and it seems I wound up accidentally overwriting or deleting a program that auto-loaded the desktop icons and desktop menu bar, as well as the way to address the flash drive. And the screen saver. Shouldn't there have been a warning note for such an important program? WARNING: DELETION OF THIS FILE WILL CRIPPLE YOUR SYSTEM, AND IT CAN'T BE REVERSED BECAIUSE WE THINK YOU SHOULD DAMN WELL SUFFER FOR YOUR STUPIDITY. Something like that, letting some noxious candor squeeze out. But I keep forgetting: we're dealing with geek programming here, that thinks if you run afoul of unmarked potholes it's a neat joke on you. Ha. Ha. So I had to reinstall, losing all my defaults and files (though those were backed up this time), having to start over. Why wasn't I amused? Maybe I lack a proper sense of humor, at least when it's my time being wasted. I won't be trying auto-load again. Then there's the matter of macros: I like to make and use them. But I haven't been able to since StarOffice 6, because they changed them so that only a geek can do it now. I got them for StarOffice 7 with Red Hat by bringing a geek in to figure it out. He discovered that it was putting REM by any macro I recorded, meaning to ignore it. For sure! Linspire hasn't fixed this; I can theoretically record a macro, but can't do anything with it. Again: it is evident that they don't have newcomers actually try their product, because if they did, they'd fix this sort of mousetrap. But if any distribution of Linux ever decides to get serious about making it usable for ordinary users, in reality as well as advertising, here is my advice: not only do you need to have bug-free programs that work reliably, and clear instructions that match what is happening on the screen; put warning notices to mark treacherous territory, and have an Oops button. Or is that too complicated for them to grasp?

At any rate, I concluded that Linspire was best for my purpose; I fault it mainly for not fixing standard Linux problems, because it's the one that claims to be the world's easiest desktop Linux. That claim seems about as true as the Windows claim that the user is the most important person. Gives some pained laughter. I decided to order a complete system with it pre-installed. We found material on Koobox that seemed just right. But when we went to order, they were out of stock of the particular one I had decided on, and stopped selling it. I am bemused; how did they know? I swear that thing was available until the very day I tried to order it. But perhaps it explains the rest: Linspire does not want my business. It wants to force me to buy a Windows system and then struggle to impose Linspire on it, knowing I may never succeed. I am not allowed to bypass all that hassle. It fits the master plan: thou shalt not suffer an ordinary user to go unto the temple of Linux ungeeked. I am disgusted.

So on the last day of July we drove to CIRCUIT CITY and bought a new Acer computer system and brought it home, a 2.5 hour trip. The mas brought our boxes down from an eight foot high shelf using what amounted to a portable elevator vehicle. What won't they think of next? August 1 I set it up, got it running-main problem was finding the right plug for the sound, as there were 6 outlets, none of which worked, and no instructions relating to that, so finally my wife put on a card game with sound effects and I tried one plug after another until the sound came through. Why can't they have instructions that simply tell you? Then I tried to install Linspire. First it refused to read the CD ROM drive, so I got in there and changed the default so that it had to read it first. It wouldn't hold; it had to be reset each time. Then it read the Linspire disk, started loading-and went kaplooey, unable to do it. So we tried Xandros; it ignored that disc completely. Tried Linspire again, and again it started okay, but the moment Windows realized it was being replaced, it garbled the works. We can't put Linux on a Windows system; Windows doesn't allow it. Antitrust? Sure, but who is going to spend millions of dollars making the legal case? They do it in Europe, and have to do it again because Microsoft ignores the court's judgment. So we have wasted time and money, again, and I'm still on my temporary Linspire system. I am not at all pleased, as the tone of this column may hint. But I will say the new system came with a nice mouse that has no ball; apparently it uses a red laser light, so can operate on any surface with impunity.

My wife and I had our 50th wedding anniversary June 23. It's a significant marker, and we celebrated by doing nothing. Our elder daughter sent us a bouquet with 50 flowers, roses and such. That left us with a perplexity: we were caught by surprise by the delivery, and just sort of dumbly accepted it. Should we have tipped the lady who brought the flowers? If so, how much? It's a problem, because is it truly a gift if you have to pay someone for bringing it? Were we remiss? Anyway, the expensive home treatments are keeping my wife on her feet, and the surgeon said her aortic aneurysm is stable for now, so postponed surgery for a year. That's a relief, because it's really a form of heart surgery, and dangerous; they have to stop the heart to do it. So we're doing okay, considering our situation. I can't say whether we'll make the 60th, though; there are too many health questions, hers and mine.

Right after that anniversary, things went wrong. I was struggling with one of those computer glitches, and then our Sony TV crashed. Well, it had lasted 9.5 years and was about due. Next day our water pump failed, evidently taken out by lightning. Okay, so we shopped for a new TV and got a 32" wide screen HiSense. No, we never heard of it before either, and presume it's a made-up brand name for a manufacturer we would recognize if we saw it, only at a cheaper price. It seems to be working fine. It is HDTV-capable, but of course we don't get HDTV here. I mentioned being in the back woods? And the pump company sent a man out promptly, and not only did he replace it, there was no charge, because it was still on warranty. Even though it wasn't a defect in the pump, but lightning. So maybe our anniversary wasn't cursed after all.

In this period I was contacted by a reader-well, yes, by hundreds of readers, as usual, but this one was different. He is Renard Gervais, who works with computers. Did he ever walk into a situation here! We quickly developed a hot and heavy correspondence as he wrestled to diagnose and fix our computer problem by email and snail mail. He sent CD copies of Knoppix, SUSE, Linspire and others, which is how I was able to try them out, and decide on Linspire. I shipped him my crashed hard disk, as I was unable to address it here-it wouldn't mount-and he verified the bad news: its cooling fan had failed, and it had warped and was dead. That's why Knoppix had been unable to rescue my files. Damn.

But he had originally contacted me for another reason. He had read the third volume of Tarot years ago, and been impressed by my hundred-card Animation Tarot deck. So he had worked out his own 100 card variation. Tarot is like open source computing: anyone can do a variant, and there may be more different tarot decks than there are Linux variants. But most are 78 cards; I'm the only one I know of to develop a 100 card deck, which I did by working out the likely true history of the deck and restoring cards that had been lost. If my variant makes sense to others, so that they are moved to improve on it, fine. And Gervais did. His deck is animated, every picture something to see. He asked me whether it's okay to circulate that. Sure it is. I am pondering whether to put it on my site, but am not sure I have room; it's massive. What it needs is its own site, where anyone can visit, see the cards, appreciate them, and use or download them. The Internet makes great sense for tarot, because anyone can access it. The only physical deck I have is a very nice one made by Stephanie Peters, which she gave me when she visited in 2002.

Let me say more about my tarot. The novel is one of the most significant of my career, and therefore largely ignored by the critical and reviewing establishment, which is not equipped to comprehend it. In vastly simplified terms, it concerns the monk Brother Paul of the Holy Order of Vision who is assigned the mission of determining whether the seeming manifestation of God on a far planet is genuine. That is, is it really God, or an impostor? It is important not to make a mistake here, as you might imagine. Brother Paul feels inadequate to the challenge, but he is the one assigned and he must do it. There is considerable evidence that it is God, so this is no minor quest. That exploration leads him through a fantastic study of the planet, where very strange things happen, and a sometimes painful exploration of the nature of mankind and himself. This summary is inadequate, but I can't properly convey a quarter million word philosophical novel in a few hundred words. It really does need to be read to be understood, and I have said that anyone who does read it and is not offended at some point, does not properly understand it.

Now the deck. The standard 78 card tarot decks are known mainly for divination or character exploration. They consist of the 52 cards of a regular playing card deck, plus 22 Trumps, or Triumphs, and an extra face card in each suit, the Page. The history and nature of tarot is too complicated to go into here; let's just say that you could spend years fathoming it if you chose, as I did. Every card has its special meaning, and a different or opposite meaning if reversed-that is, dealt upside down. You do a reading by laying down the cards in a set pattern, and the ones that turn up indicate whether you will come into money, get married, die suddenly, and so on. Divination. Let me clarify that I have no belief in the supernatural, and divination is supernatural. But when I first tried a tarot reading on myself, back circa 1975, I was amazed; I felt like a butterfly pinned to a board, all my secrets exposed. So how could it work so well, if it was based on magic that doesn't exist? That intrigued me, and I studied it, and the result was the quarter million word novel Tarot, the 100 card Animation Tarot deck, and the Satellite Spread. I concluded that it wasn't supernatural, but a fine psychological tool that pushed key human buttons. I set out to make it do that better. Actually, as I see it, tarot is five-fold: it can be used for entertainment, as in games or gambling. For divination, perhaps its most common use, which really includes character analysis, a sort of Rorschach test. Or study, as in a survey of all the available decks with their cultural indications, special interpretations, religious significance, and the history of its practitioners; there is some fascinating material there, and some passionate disagreements. For example, one beautiful variant was crafted by a self-proclaimed most evil man in the world, Alister Crowley. Or business, as with those who sell books about it, collect cards, or make money from divinations. Or meditation, considering the meanings of the individual cards, especially their symbolism. Five uses, equating to the five suits; more about those below.

The Animation Tarot deck has 30 Triumphs and 5 suits of 14 cards each. The Triumphs are special cards, covering things like Love, Death, Time, Reason, Power, Future, and so on, and they too have alternate names. Power, for example, is the traditional Emperor. I did not change the Tarot, I merely amended it and enhanced its definitions, trying to restore it to its original splendor. The Triumphs actually trace the life of Jesus Christ, or of any person, with some savage parodies of the foibles of established institutions. In the traditional deck, for example, the High Priest is almost indistinguishable from the Emperor. Was that a mistake? No, it suggests how the leaders of the Church had assumed worldly pleasures and power. Right on target for medieval times (and today, actually), but of course anyone who openly said such a thing risked being tortured until he repented, then perhaps burned at the stake. Then on through Death, and thereafter the transfer of the Soul to another vessel, and a vision of the Afterlife. The cards were in fact a sermon, secretly circulated by the Waldenses sect. But because their real purpose had to be secret, they were hidden within a deck of playing cards, and outsiders did not necessarily know their true nature. Even some Tarot experts today seem not to know or care. There's much more than meets the eye. So a deck reached the court of the King of France, who took it for a new kind of game. Well, it was, in its special fashion.

The suits are variously interpreted, according to the user's preference: the conventional Fire, Air, Water, Earth, plus Aura. You see, the first four are what the ancients were believed to have taught, but actually they taught five, including the Void, so I replaced that lost suit. Only mine is positive, covering the not only the Void, but also Aura, Soul, Spirit and the Arts, which are what truly separate mankind from the animals. No animal appreciates the arts. The suits can also be called Nature, Science, Faith, Trade, and Art. Or Energy, Gas, Liquid, Solid, Plasma. Or Do, Think, Feel, Have, Be. Within each suit the 14 cards further define their aspects, positive and reversed, so it writes with a fairly fine pen, at least compared to the traditional 78 card tarot deck.

But the Satellite Spread is special. It is an enhanced version of a traditional spread, and it is the way the deck is made to relate to human concerns. It was developed for the Animation Tarot, but can be used with any deck. It is hard to digest it without sacrificing clarity, but I'll try. Let's say you have a problem and you want guidance from the cards. First formulate your Question. Then select your Significator, the card that stands for you personally. This is normally Court Card, but can be any card, depending on your nature. Shuffle the complete deck, with your Significator in it, then deal the cards face down into five piles of 20 cards each. Then start with any pile and turn its cards face up, one by one. Do this until you find your Significator. If it isn't in the first pile, do the second, and so on; it's bound to be somewhere. When it turns up, stop right there and check which of the five piles it's in. If it is in, say, the third pile, that's FEEL, as in Do, Think, FEEL, Have, Be, above. Is the nature of your Question consistent with this category? Such as, does she truly love me? If it is, proceed. If not, stop there, as the Deck has declined to address this question. Maybe it doesn't want to break your heart by telling you the truth; you'll be happier in ignorance. Let's say you proceed. Put your Significator down in the center of the table. Turn up the next card in the pile, below it, and lay it face up, cross-wise. That is, the Significator is oriented north-south; the next card crosses it oriented east-west. The next one goes south of it, with the N-S orientation; it is the first satellite card. The next one goes west of the Significator, also oriented N-S. The next one, north, and the next one, east. Now you have a pattern of six cards, with two crossed in the center and four around them. The first set of cards stands for Definition, defining your problem. The card below is Past, the one west is Present, the one north is Future, and the one east is Destiny. Interpret each card in the light of its position. Court cards are likely to represent important people in your life, being their Significators, and the meanings of the others are as given in the deck or your manual of interpretation associated with whatever deck you are using. As I said, it doesn't have to be the Animation Deck, though for this purpose the Animation Deck will be most precise. The complete pattern should pretty well define your situation, with Destiny summing it up. You have to interpret it for yourself; no one else should do it for you, for the cards speak only to you, in ways that only you can appreciate. Say your Destiny card is Death; that doesn't necessarily mean you will die; it could be that your romantic interest does not return your love and the relationship is effectively dead. But if you remain uncertain, you can start another satellite. Deal another card from that pile across the card that confuses you. This will define not the whole pattern, but only just that one card, amending its meaning. Does that do it for you? If not, deal out three more cards as satellites. These will be Past Present and Future for that card only, which has become the Significator for that Satellite. Does that do it? If not, you can build further satellites around any of those cards. The Spread is endlessly accommodating; it wants you to understand what it is saying to you. Except: when you run out of cards in that pile. If your Significator was the top card in the pile, you have 19 more to use if you need them; if it was in the middle, you may have only 10 cards. If it was near the bottom, you may not be able to complete your initial Spread. Take the hint: it is not meant to be. Don't try a second Reading on the same Question. This is a system that will tell you No if it needs to. If you cheat by trying to go beyond the pile, your answer won't be valid. Don't blame the Deck or the Spread if you get a bad answer after abusing it.

That's it. If you are serious about questioning the Deck, this Spread will interactively answer. More power to you.

I bought a Tri-King scooter I saw on sale for $50 in a catalog. It is like a regular scooter, only with two tails spreading of from the common stem with the handlebars. You don't put a foot on the ground to push it; your feet remain in place on the two sidebars. So how do you make it go? It came with a DVD video disc-but that refused to load, though we tried it on three systems. The little manual did not say a lot, so mostly I had to work it out for myself. At first I got nowhere. In fact it seemed to want to nudge forward only when I did the reverse of what the meager instruction said. So I went back to re-reread the instructions, and devised an interpretation that allowed me to do it my way. That was the breakthrough; I started to move. Not rapidly, not readily; it was a constant struggle. But I practiced half an hour a day for about a week, gradually improving, and got so I could move it along at a walking pace, though it would have saved much energy simply to walk. I found that I can't use it our our rough drive; it needs a smooth level surface. So I conquered it, but it remains in effect a toy, not usable in real life. For fetching our newspapers I still use the recumbent cycle and the adult scooter.

I mentioned last time that Hewlett-Packard reneged on a hundred dollar rebate. But a week later they sent it. We had not sent them a complaint, figuring it would be futile; they just did it. So apparently the notice they sent us before was in error, and they did not renege. I'm glad, because I really like their printers.

We saw movies: X-Men 3, Cars, Superman Returns, Dead Man's Chest. All had their points and debits. I think Cars is about the finest animation I've seen, with some lovely scenes, and I like the way that all the characters are cars; no humans at all. I liked the somewhat conflicted situation in Superman: during his five year absence Lois Lane got a life, with a good man and her son by Superman. How could he just break that up? He couldn't. Then the son, who is a weakling needing an inhaler, saw his mother being roughed up, and manifested a bit of super strength, killing the bad guy with a piano. That suggests the future. It was nice right before that scene, when the boy was picking out "Chopsticks" or whatever on the piano, and the bad guy sat down beside him and played a competent accompaniment. So the bad guy wasn't all bad, though he had to go when he beat on Lois Lane. It was a nice touch. As for good movies like An Inconvenient Truth-this is a conservative county. It never was shown here.

I read books, trying to catch up before starting writing my novel, because once I start writing, the rest of the world tends to get squeezed out. Flame, by Jack Woodford, a fairly standard romance, showing me how the guy earned his living. You would hardly really know him from that, just as you would hardly know me from Xanth, but at least it showed me that he was indeed a competent writer. A Hole in the Earth, by Robert Bausch. I bought that two years ago from Daedalus for $2.98, which was a fair markdown from the $24 hardcover price. It starts with our hero's teenage daughter he hardly knew coming to live with him for the summer, together with her sort-of boyfriend. Then his girlfriend turns up pregnant. He's not particularly competent handling women anyway, and so muddles along. It's well written and interesting, if not spectacular, a mainstream slice of life. Then I read a potentially fascinating alien-contact novel that I think doesn't quite make it. Naturally I never heard again from the author after saying so. You get no thanks for an informed opinion if it isn't positive.

Serpent's Tooth, by Andre Norton, the one I was given at Oasis. I found it opaque and heavy, barely readable. That bothered me, so I searched the house and raided my daughter's copy of a children's novel Norton wrote decades ago, Octagon Magic. You see, I always got along well with Andre, and the reason I didn't read her books was to avoid judging her, as is the case with Serpent's Tooth. I did not want that to be my final impression of her. I'm pleased to report that Octagon Magic, copyright 1967 (the year I had my first novel published) is not at all like that. It is written clearly and it is interesting. A little girl strays onto the estate of a woman she takes to be a witch, who lives in an eight sided house, and receives a more understanding welcome than she expected. In the course of the novel we learn more about the old house and old woman, with revisited scenes from the past. This is a suitable book to remember Andre Norton by.

Then I read one for pleasure. I normally read fiction for business, and nonfiction for pleasure. Before the Dawn by Nicolas Wade explores the history of mankind in that period of roughly 200,000 years ago to 15,000 years ago. This is a period I have researched more than casually in the past, and it still fascinates me. There are many nice insights in this book, though the author does miss some. For example, he discusses the way couple-life became feasible, one man protecting and breeding with one woman, but doesn't catch on to the formidable arsenal of attractants woman developed to ensure the presence of the man, including breasts that turn men on as well as nursing offspring, and the appearance of perpetual breedability so that not only is he constantly attracted, he dare not leave her alone lest she breed with some other man. He does make a case that our species emerged from Africa 50,000 years ago, rather than 100,000 years ago; I had had great difficulty figuring out why man would wait 50,000 years in the near east before suddenly exploding in capabilities. It seems he didn't; he emerged from Africa when he developed those capabilities. The author traces the descent via genetics, aligning it with linguistic and archaeological evidence, zeroing in on dates. He believes that this was when language developed. I have a problem with that; my prior researches suggested that language was what powered the increase in brain size in the course of two and a half million years. If language came only 50,000 years, ago, what made for the larger brains of the Neandertals, who split from our lineage hundreds of thousands of years ago? What drove our own brain size increase, which happened long before 50,000 year ago. So I don't think we have the answer yet. But it's a fascinating and informative book.

Richard Vallance sent me several DVDs he suspected would not have been shown in America. He may be right; they represent a perspective we don't get via normal media. One is titled Iraq-The Hidden Story. It says that this war has been sanitized for American news, and makes the case. It's a horror there, with 35,000 lives lost the past three years. No one who sees this brutality and carnage would ever support war again-so the news of it is suppressed. The TV news thus supports governments that want to go to war. Journalists are targeted by insurgents and Americans; 92 have been killed there, more than in the whole Vietnam war. We need to get out of Iraq; we will never pacify it. Face it: if another nation invaded America on a false premise, and slaughtered any folk who protested, would we ever give up our fight for independence? Or would we constantly harass them by any means possible, in an unyielding effort to get them out? That is what they are doing with us. We are the oppressors, in Iraq, not the liberators. But our controlled press can't say so. And that's only the beginning; the videos show how it is oil that always drove our involvement in the middle east, and how in 14 months our occupying force squandered more than twenty billion dollars that belonged to Iraq; it was a special interest feeding frenzy that abated only when the money was gone. One video is on global warming, about which much of America is in denial; it's broader and worse than we know. And how American companies do their drug trial in India, where the subjects are not paid, only their recruiters, and some suffer serious side effects, like paralysis.

I also started watching some videos my daughter gave me over a year ago: the MythBuster series. These two men go around checking out popular myths, and their explorations can be fascinating. For example, the Penny Drop. The myth is that if you drop a penny off the top of the empire State Building, it will either embed itself in the concrete below, or hit someone in the head, killing him. What's the truth? Well, first they pointed out that tall buildings can generate their own weather, and your penny bight be blown right back up at you, not hitting the ground at all. Then they calculated terminal velocity for a penny-that is, the highest speed it will achieve when falling. For a person it is 120 miles per hour; for a penny it is 35-65 mph. So they tested that, dropping a person off a plane, who while in free fall let loose bunches of pennies. Sure enough, they disappeared upward, falling more slowly. Then they made a gun to fire pennies at 65 mph into a concrete wall, then a mock head. Know what? The pennies simply bounced off the wall-and off the head. Finally they fired the penny into a live human hand. It stung, but did not even break the skin. So the myth is false; not only can pennies not embed themselves in concrete, they can't even embed themselves in human flesh. Want another? Can mints or other chewed things enable a person to beat the police breath test? One MythBuster undertook the chore of getting drunk to test this. The answer: no. Nothing worked. You can't beat the breath test.

I have mentioned that I now wear my hair long, ever since my wife had to stop cutting it. This was started as a matter of expedience, but now that I have wrestled with the problem of tying ponytails, I conclude that I like my hair this way, and will probably stay with it the rest of my life. It doesn't actually save me time, because each day I have to "do" my hair, brushing and combing it out and tying it back. As it lengthens past shoulder length the tangles have become worse; I have spent minutes ripping out snarls of hair, which I can ill afford to do with my thinning quota. Which suggests an answer to a hypothetical question: why do I wear a ponytail? To cover my bald spot. So finally we shopped at the grocery story for a lotion to abate the tangles. It seems that it smooths over the scaly stem of the hair so that it doesn't snag on itself. I'm trying L'Ordeal Kids Tangle Tamer, Burst of Sweet Pear flavor. It sprays on, perfuming me to smell like a ripe pear-Piers = pears? Don't call me a fruit!--and does seem to be helping. Actually, VO5 also works. Maybe this will hold me as my hair continues to grow to bra-strap length and beyond. Oh, stop sniggering; you know what I mean. You're just jealous of my lovely wave. I never knew what great hair I had, until after 70. Compare yours, when you're that age.

As usual, I have a huge pile of clippings. I save out anything that interests me, and just about everything does. Then I have to skip most of them, because I'm aware that they wouldn't interest others equivalently. So, distilled, a selection of items:

NEW SCIENTIST has an article about how they have discovered the switch that turns on puberty. It refers to it as the teen gene. But they don't yet know why it comes into play when it does. Puberty has been happening earlier. In the mid 18th century it was 17 for European girls; a century later it was 14. Now it's 13, and for black American girls it's getting down toward 12. That's average; they don't consider it precocious unless it happens before age 8. It runs about two years later for boys. I believe I was the last in my class for it, at age 18. Yes, I was ridiculed, but the fact is I never looked my age, and now that's a blessing. I'll be 72 on August 6, and I won't look it. So there.

Perhaps related: a prior NEW SCIENTIST complex of articles about Love. Can science help us understand it? There do seem to be biological underpinnings, and the various forms of love-romantic, maternal, family, religious-have neurochemical circuitry in common. Levels of certain hormones peak during sexual intercourse as that aspect of love is indulged. One thing that seems to turn people on is laughter. Wow: I make people laugh all the time. Does that make me a romantic figure? Then when it goes bad, there are four horsemen of the apocalypse: Contempt, as with insults and sarcasm; Air of Superiority; Criticism/Defensiveness; and Stonewalling or Emotional Withdrawal. Similar things apply to gay love, with some distinctions; without the fundamental difference of genders, they can't afford to be too similar in other respects. One telling question: "If we are attracted to people who resemble us, why aren't we all gay?" So differences in age, race, personality and such may contribute to a stable gay/lesbian relationship.

Newspaper reference to the problem of illegal immigration. I'm a legal immigrant, whatever my critics may prefer to think. Have I mentioned how when I was naturalized American in 1957, age 24 in my US Army uniform, they started interviewing my American wife, taking her for a foreign army bride? No, we were the exception, and I took the oath of citizenship as the one man, together with 49 women. But I retain a certain sympathy for immigrants. Many come here from Mexico, trying to make a living, and are exploited mercilessly by American companies. The authorities try to wall the immigrants out, literally, but it's useless because they sneak and bribe their way across the border, abetted by those companies. The solution, columnist Cynthia Tucker says, is to cut off the flow of jobs. "If a few business executives were to be imprisoned for illegally hiring, the practice would experience a sudden drop in popularity." Then far fewer folk would try to sneak in. But of course that won't happen, because they want to harass poor workers, not rich employers. Meanwhile thousands turn up at marches in Florida and around the country, demonstrating for immigration reform.

I still receive ads for multi-million dollar estates. They look nice, but the fact is the software environment of my computer as I write my novels is probably more important to me than the hardware environment of my house, and it's somewhat cheaper.

NEW SCIENTIST has a feature where folk send in questions, and other folk answer them. A child chided for nose-picking inquired whether it's coincidence that the human finger fits a human nostril. The answers say that yes, it is coincidence, and describe the snot rocket, where one nostril is blocked and the snot is blown out in a glorious stream from the other. Well, maybe. But when I wake at night with saliva drooling on my pillow because my nose has blocked up solid and I have to breathe through my mouth to survive, I wonder. Could the finger be nature's way of cleaning out a bodily waste, as is urination and defecation? We seldom do any of these things in public, but that doesn't mean they aren't necessary.

From a column by Jay Bookman: "WMD [weapons of mass destruction] was the administration's excuse for a war it had already decided upon for other reasons." "Of course, accusing Bush of deliberately lying to the country still sets off a contentious counter-attack. Historians, though, will have no qualms whatsoever about reaching the same conclusion; the evidence is overwhelming." From another column by the same author: "Do the math-in barely a decade, the number of pork projects grew almost ten-fold. No wonder lobbyists are in a feeding frenzy." And one by Peter Phillips, titled "Neo-Conservatives Seek Global Dominance." That may say it all. But here's a comment that makes sense in the local ST PETE TIMES newspaper, by Donald F Kelly: "If your government has the right to set a minimum wage, then why doesn't it have the right to set a maximum wage that a CEO can make?" Damn good question, what with the minimum wage unchanged in 9 years while CEO pay has increased enormously. If I were making such law, I'd start with a ratio of 10-1; that is, the highest paid member of a company could not make more than ten times the wage of the lowest paid member. Maybe the ratio should be narrower than that.

I have mentioned high-fructose corn syrup before, because I will no longer use products containing it, lest it mess up my digestion. Now it turns out that it's worse than that: those who can digest it fail to have their hunger abated, so they go right on eating and become obese. Thus it may be contributing significantly to the current epidemic of obesity and diabetes. My wife and I read food labels carefully, and act on them, excluding such perils. It is one secret of health, or at least of being less sickly than otherwise.

NEW SCIENTIST: how to live to 100 and enjoy it. Go for small stresses, because the effort your body makes to overcome them makes it healthier. Marry, because such a relationship really boosts your well-being. In fact, age and living alone are the strongest predictors for heart disease. Live in a healthy place. Indulge yourself in moderation with things like a glass of wine, a chocolate bar, a nap: pleasure is generally good for you. Exercise your body and your brain. Laugh. Take care of yourself, to the point of a little bit of hypochondria. Don't eat much. Get a life: take some risk, seek novelty. Okay, I'll try. I wonder whether ornery blogging at two month intervals counts? PARADE agrees: "A solid marriage with regular and enthusiastic sex can be the best preventive medicine of all." Cuddling does it for women, but men need full sex.

Evidence grows that we don't properly understand gravity. I've been a fan of Dark Matter for years; it fascinates me. But increasingly I am wondering whether it doesn't really exist. That it is an attempt to explain our confusion about gravity by postulating an invisible something, like a ghost who makes our accounts go wrong. That latter notion really is simpler, and may in the end be the truth. There is considerable data about dark matter, but also about gravity; scientists who know way more about both than I do are gradually coming to some sort of conclusion. I am eager to see it.

From DISCOVER magazine: it may not have been smallpox that decimated the native Americans, but a little-known local disease related to Ebola. That magazine also suggests that the American economy could prosper without oil. Wind power alone, properly developed, would supply all our energy needs. And that mankind evolved to run as wall as to walk. Yes, the running dynamics are different from walking; I am conscious of it as I run for exercise. It's not just faster walking. It seems that man is the only striding biped that's a runner that's tailless.

I'm not much into horse racing, or, for that matter, other TV sports. But we did watch the Kentucky Derby. I looked at the list of entries and saw one named Keyed Entry. That was obviously a computer-using writer's horse, so I focused on it. Would you believe, that horse was #1 at the quarter mile, #1 at the half mile, still #1 at three quarter miles. Then pooped out and dropped all the way back to last, #20, at the finish. That figures; it matches the career of the typical writer, with high hopes until the publisher responds to let him know they regard him as horse puckey.

For a few days there were motorcycles all around town. Then we found out why: there is an organization known as the Patriot Guard that honors fallen soldiers. There had been a local soldier killed, so they were out to help. More power to them.

Global warming is a problem, a serious one, as glaciers melt, storms increase, and climate shifts imperil our food supplies. But it's not the only one. We are running out of fresh water, and energy is becoming expensive. I see politics as the solution: We need to get those in denial about such problems the hell out of office so that the problems can be addressed before it's no longer possible to avoid disaster. My vote is for solar power, used among other things to glean clear water from the sea. But we are stuck with an administration that voted to cut funding for programs like "Sesame Street." Anything worthwhile seems to be at risk.

Citrus County is where John Couey, a convicted sex offender, abducted, raped, and killed nine year old Jessica Lunsford. At last his trial came up. They had to change venues to try to get an impartial jury, but in the end had to postpone, because the jury pool ran out without finding enough. I'm not surprised.

Column by Bob Herbert: "Hallmarks of totalitarian regimes have always included an excessive reliance on secrecy, the deliberate stoking of fear in the general population, a preference for military rather than diplomatic solutions in foreign policy, the promotion of blind patriotism, the denial of human rights, the curtailment of the rule of law, hostility to a free press and the systematic invasion of the privacy of ordinary people." Say, that seems eerily familiar. Not that it could ever happen here...

I mentioned starting to write Xanth #32, Two to the Fifth. Naturally it's not as simple as a straight math pun. It moved well in the month of Jewel-Lye, especially considering it was part time work, and I wrote 44,600 words. There is a complicated mission for Cyrus Cyborg, the son of Roland Robot and Hannah Barbarian, who got together in Pet Peeve. The stork brought them a crossbreed with some assembly needed, and Cyrus was created adult. Remember the Three Princesses, Melody, Harmony, and Rhythm? They are now twelve years old, precocious girls eager to get into things the Adult Conspiracy forbids. Rhythm is assigned to help Cyrus on his mission, incognito; he knows her identity, but others don't. At one point she leads him to a pool in a glade and confesses that she has a crush on him and would like to marry him. "But you're a child!" he protests, dismissing it. Uh-oh. Now she's a Girl Scorned. She is also a Sorceress. He really should have found a nicer way to set her straight; one simply does not safely dismiss a Sorceress of any age. She invokes a spell that makes her ten years older, for one hour, bursting out of her clothing, and stands before him a lusciously nude age 22. She grabs him, stuns him with a kiss, and hauls him into the pond with her. It is a love spring, by no coincidence. There follows an intense ellipsis; Cyrus doesn't have a chance. Then the spell runs out and she reverts to age 12. Cyrus is left passionately in love with a woman who won't exist for another decade. I did mention that it is unwise to dismiss a Sorceress? Rhythm's vengeance is complete. Then the stork arrives with a bundle for her. Did I mention why the Adult Conspiracy exists? Her parents will never understand. She's in one bleep of a picklement. This is just an incidental scene in the larger novel, though it does relate to the main theme. Their daughter will play a vital role in the conclusion.

A reader sent me an email, and I answered it-and received this response: "You are not permitted to send mail from [this address]. All SMTP connections have been blocked from your system because its address matches in the DNS Black List." So if you wonder why you didn't get an answer...

PIERS
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