Monday, December 28, 2020

 Word Replacement Time

I almost used the word ‘footage’ in reference to recent YouTube coverage of a rocket launch, when I realized the term was meant to describe a segment of old-fashioned movie film or fast-fading videotape. Everything is going digital, so I guess the replacement word for footage ought to be ‘pixilation.’

Some other modernizing replacement suggestions:

Junk Words or Phrases            Modernized Replacement Words or Phrases

        objective news                             agenda pixilating

        dial a phone                                 thumb it (still works for hitching a ride, too)

         militias                                        candidate supporters

         face masks                                   political affiliation designators

         pandemic                                     party time

         patriotism                                    secessionism

         distancing                                    political positioning

         loser                                             winner

         U.S. government                          entropy               

         2020                                             2021


Please mask up (and pass the message on) to save the lives of fellow Americans and let’s all have a Much Happier New Year.


Have a look at the NC thriller novel series on the website or Amazon.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Having A Safe Celebration

   Let's hope everyone across our battered nation will have a good Christmas or other seasonal celebration of faith, but please do it safely.

   Today—the winter solstice—is the longest, darkest night of a dark year. Last week the virus scored a grim new record victory against America, infecting a million more of us in just five days. An American is dying now every 24 seconds. Health care workers are fighting on through their fatigue and sadness and frustration, but they’re being overwhelmed in many hot spots.

   Yet there are still many among us who stubbornly refuse to wear a mask and distance themselves, even though we know these simple precautions can prevent thousands more fellow Americans from facing premature death.

   In this season of caring, can’t we all step up and fight this common global enemy? Vaccines are being distributed and, given time, this herculean effort will take beneficial effect, but meanwhile we need to cooperate with the expert advice and the well-known guidelines. To not do so is to prolong the suffering of hundreds of thousands of us and delay real economic recovery for us all.

   Here’s to a vaccinated New Year.


Look to the southwest just after sunset tonight, below and to the right of the moon slice and not far above the horizon for a sight not seen for the past 800 years. The giant planets Jupiter and Saturn will appear to almost touch, creating what some are calling a Christmas Star.

Monday, December 14, 2020

John Caughey, Part Two

    Last post, I introduced you to one of my enduring heroes, my maternal stonemason grandfather John. (My late Dad Erol is another.)

    Gramp John and I used to exchange letters and postcards, frequently kidding each other about this or that. I think his unquenchable sense of humor was an ingredient in the secret recipe that kept him on Earth, thriving and contributing, for one hundred and three years. One of his woodland paintings he did in his later years depicted a dog chasing a cat chasing a mouse scooting for cover as a hawk looked on. The title was, “Life. Just one damned thing after another.”

    Somehow, we got onto the subject of horoscopes, poking fun at each other’s celestial signs. Claiming he could read my scope as well as any astrologer out there, he sent me the following week’s worth of astrological advice:

MONDAY: Avoid get-rich-quick schemes today, icy streets, and close friends.

TUESDAY: Be glad you’re you. Everybody else certainly is. On that other matter, just stick to your story and stop worrying.

WEDNESDAY: You will be followed today. Wear a disguise.

THURSDAY: You will receive a compliment. It will be a lie.

FRIDAY: You have your shirt on backwards. Slow down.

SATURDAY: You will receive a warning by mail today. Pay up.

SUNDAY: You should, but you won’t.

    The ironic part about this reading of my personal stars was its flavor of accuracy.

    We also exchanged serious notes. One day after a freezing rainstorm he took his customary walk through the woods, dressed as usual, I’m sure, in shirt and tie, vested suit coat and Stetson felt hat. (In old photos of the Wright Brothers testing their planes, they were similarly dressed; it’s what people did then.) That day he sent me a postcard that said, “Old as I am, Mother Nature still has the power to amaze and delight me. Last night she decorated the trees with billions of ice diamonds.”

    The old man himself never lost the power to amaze and delight this lucky grandson of his. Were it not for him, I wouldn’t even be here. Were it not for him, I would not carry much of his beneficial philosophy and example throughout my life. He has influenced my writing and even appeared as a character. An elderly couple, Hank and Hattie Gaskill, prominent in my suspense novel series, were drawn largely from Gramp John and his pleasant wife, Hattie.

     He touched thousands of others for the better over his more than ten decades, and those thousands have in turn touched still others with some of his enduring work ethic, good humor, and wisdom.

     And now he’s touched you a bit, as well.

     Author Albert Pine said, “What we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others and the world remains and is immortal.”


Try the thriller novel series Guns, Diamondback, Kllrs, and Deathsman, set in the misty folds of the Great Smokies and endorsed by top gun bestselling authors Lee Child, Ridley Pearson, and Stephen Coonts. Available in print or Kindle from Amazon or through

On Friday, 2,900 Americans died. That was two persons for every minute of that 24-hour day. Want to do something to cut down that horrific daily death toll? Just follow the advice of the qualified experts. Mask up and distance; it shows fellow Americans you care. Avoid all unnecessary gatherings. These simple easy measures will help save thousands upon thousands of lives until the vaccines intervene and slowly take beneficial effect.


Monday, December 7, 2020

 John Caughey, a New England Centenarian, Part One

    Only one American in six thousand lives to the century mark. Fewer than that make it in style.

    John Caughey, my maternal grandfather, did.

    Born on 7 March 1874 to hardy Yankee stock, he attended a one-room schoolhouse commanded by a stern lady the kids privately called “Old Piecrust.” His first job was making wheels for horse-drawn wagons, but he found better pay as a stone mason and then a contractor with as many as 50 men in his crew, building fine homes all over New England. He did most of the stonework himself—granite chimneys, slate patios, stone bridges, mortar-less field stone walls. After years of strenuous ten-hour workdays, he would have laughed at the idea of gym membership. He was not a big man, never weighing more than 160 pounds, but he was strong, and he earned a wide reputation for quality work and iron honesty. Living in Waltham, Massachusetts, he fathered and well supported five children who all turned out fine. I’m one of his fortunate 15 grandchildren. If he had not fathered my mother, I would not even be here.

    Early in his career he built a stone bridge for a man who wanted it to support one horse and buggy. Several decades later he happened to be doing another job for a different owner of the same estate and watched as a loaded concrete truck crossed the old bridge. “Told the man I’d built it,” he said, “after that truck got across.” In 1949, at 74, he married a wise and funny lady named Hattie, having lost his first wife in 1946. Also in 1949, he helped my father build our house on a hillside in the village of Williamsburg. I was eleven when I watched him chisel and fit the granite blocks that cover the front, and set the mortared chimney from salvaged cobblestones, and choose and place the field stones for a dry ten-foot-high driveway retaining wall that has not budged an inch since. I remember his patience and the perfection he demanded of himself as he measured and cut with his self-sharpened hand saws the studs and joists and rafters. I remember his rough hands, the split nails and callused fingers covered with granite dust, hands that could whittle a fine sliding willow whistle for me while he ate sparingly from a black tin lunch pail.

    He set his last stone at 86. He and Hattie traveled a bit and laughed a lot for a happy time. Then, at 88 and twice widowed, he took up a new career, patiently teaching himself over months and years to create fine oil paintings in the rustic studio he built near Antrim, New Hampshire, using the rough side of inexpensive Masonite to simulate canvas, and framing his scenes in natural weathered silver oak. Soon people sought him out to buy his work. In his early nineties he began taking on commissions. As a special project he decided to paint scenes of as many aging covered bridges as he could as a way of preserving them and he had me drive him all over two states and take photos he could work from. He called them kissin’ bridges, perhaps remembering a time or two he’d stopped his buggy in the shade of one for some nineteenth-century romancing. I wrote an article about him for New Hampshire Profiles magazine.

    He’d built a 40-foot clock tower of brick and granite in 1942 for the Canton, Mass., School for Crippled Children, who took to calling him Uncle John, and that’s how he chose to sign his paintings.

    His secrets for longevity? Like the rare doctor who managed to get a look at him, I can only guess. He worked hard in all seasons, as was the normal and expected New England custom back then, never smoked or took a drink, did not believe in doctors or their medicines with all their harmful side effects, ate a bit of everything for nutrition and not for recreation, and though always mild mannered and never stressed from worry, he had an infernal stubborn streak. Well into his later years he retained a full shock of white hair and a mustache, used only a magnifying glass to read more easily, and took daily walks through the woods in search of saplings he could whittle into canes and sell to “old duffers,” though his own cane, awarded by town officials for being the oldest guy around, hung unused on a wall. He split his own firewood to heat the studio.

    One night in his hundred and third year, he went to sleep and did not wake up. But for me and the thousands of others he touched throughout a century his passing changed nothing. He’s still an ineradicable part of us all.

    One of his paintings, a fine winter scene with a horse-drawn buggy, a red barn, snow-laden conifers, and a frozen brook, hangs in our dining room.


For some absorbing pandemic reading, try the thriller novel series Guns, Diamondback, Kllrs, and Deathsman, set in the misty folds of the Great Smokies and endorsed by top gun bestselling authors Lee Child, Ridley Pearson, and Stephen Coonts. Available in print or Kindle from Amazon or through my website.

Please follow the advice of the qualified experts. Mask up and distance. Avoid unnecessary gatherings. These simple easy measures will help save lives.


Monday, November 30, 2020

Where is American Patriotism?

    On infamous 9/11, nineteen terrorists killed 2,977 Americans on our own soil, and our people came together in a wave of patriotism not seen since the Second World War. Flags sold out in days. Political affiliations and differences evaporated. We were united and unanimously defiant in the face of the common enemy.

    In 2020 a new deadly enemy has attacked us everywhere, except this time it is mindless and microscopic. In ten months of terrorism it has infected over 13 million of us and killed over 267,000 of us. For some perspective, that’s 90 times more than those killed on 9/11. It’s 55 times more than our combat deaths in the Gulf War, the Afghan fighting, and Iraq combined. In ten months the toll has been six times the number of American combat deaths in all 19 years of the Vietnam War. Within a week or so the toll will exceed the horrific number of American World War Two combat deaths.

    We have only four percent of the planet’s population, yet we have 19 percent of the global deaths. The curve of infection and death across our nation is nearly vertical, setting terrible records with no end in sight. An American is felled by the virus now every minute of every day. The killer continues to ravage our people and our economy.

    Yet where is American patriotism in the face of this murderous enemy?

    Spring breakers and normally patriotic bikers and political rally attendees and college and neighborhood party goers have continually flouted the best advice of the experts like immunologist Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx and have defied the imposed state and city restrictions in the name of personal freedom, only deepening the crisis and prolonging economic recovery for all of us.

    Severely stressed health care workers and medical science experts recently begged us not to travel and gather this Thanksgiving. Millions of us traveled and gathered anyway.

    Naomi and I decided to watch the Macy’s parade for some uplifting entertainment. The company had scaled it back because, they said, safety was of paramount concern. But none of the parade participants were masked or practicing distancing. There was a heavy police presence, most likely to deter any potential terrorist attack. But not one officer we saw mingling with the crowd was wearing a mask to thwart the invisible killer that stalks across America. Not one. Very few of the thousands of spectators wore masks or bothered to distance. Most cheered loudly. We turned off the coverage in frustration and dismay well before the parade ended.

    Vaccines are on the way, but we’ll need to get through several more months before they can help defeat this invader.

    We have the simple weapons needed to fight the enemy and cut the death toll right now, and we know from examples the world over that they work. Avoiding all unnecessary gatherings. Wearing effective masks. Keeping our distances. Washing our hands. If we will only do these things we can save thousands of lives. Regardless of our individual views, we are all Americans first. And together we can beat this common enemy that is sickening and killing us.

    Please, people.

    Please spread this simple life-saving message among family and friends. It’s more important than ever.



Monday, November 23, 2020

Giving the Right Kind of Thanks   

   The pandemic is obviously and exponentially raging out of control all across America, partly because we’ve had no coherent national plan to fight it (and still do not), and partly because we’ve simply grown weary of it and want it to end. Far too many people have adopted a cavalier attitude and are not wearing masks and not social distancing, even though we’re being told over and over by the qualified experts like immunologist Dr. Fauci that those are the best two weapons we have to effectively combat this scourge that has now killed a quarter million Americans and is breaking records for infections and deaths every day, straining our health care facilities and those who valiantly work within it to their limits.

    Masking and distancing have somehow become politicized. Not wearing a mask is for some people a bold statement that their personal freedom will not be compromised. Some are still believing that Covid is no worse than the flu or that it’s an insidious hoax, but any health care worker will testify that it is indeed quite real and is extremely nasty. Some people simply feel that mask wearing is too inconvenient and annoying.

    It’s Thanksgiving week, and despite expert advice not to gather this year in traditional celebration, many are planning to do so anyway.

    We’ve thanked our courageous, overworked, and severely stressed health care workers for their heroic efforts, and that is certainly appropriate to do once again this week. But some of those hard pressed workers are begging us to show our sincere thanks, our support for them, and our compassion for our fellow Americans by masking up and distancing and not gathering (which risks spreading the disease now more than ever) while we all await a vaccine.

   What’s really inconvenient and annoying and an imposition on personal freedom is being shut away alone in an isolation unit with a tube down your throat, choking to death on a respirator.

   Or causing fellow Americans or someone you love to suffer that needless fate.

   Please follow the advice of the experts. Mask up and distance. Avoid unnecessary gatherings. These simple measures will help save lives.


Monday, November 16, 2020

 About being funny:

Readers really like good humor.

Readers really dislike not-so-good humor.

The difference between the two is subjective and elusive.

Writing humor can be some of the toughest work we try to tackle. A few pros of course can bring it off quite well. Janet Evanovich is a fine example with her plucky, sometimes riskily rash and vulnerable heroine Stephanie Plum, who works as an untrained and unlikely bounty hunter for her uncouth cousin Vinnie, a bail bondsman. Plum has the sometimes help of inherently humorous sidekicks like plus-sized unashamed former hooker Lulu and some quirky relatives like her prickly outspoken grandmother Mazur. She has a hot-and-cold romance with vice cop Joe Morelli, and she can always turn to the mysterious Batman-like Ranger when she needs serious muscle to help her get out of the latest dire jam she’s managed to get herself into. Evanovich has starred Stephanie Plum in more than two dozen best-selling novels and she’s showing no signs of slowing down as I write this. Humor has sure worked well for her.

Another beloved author for whom humor was a helpful career-maker was the late Robert B. Parker. His humor was less slapstick than the Evanovich style, more understated and wry, an integral element of the interaction between protagonists and their associates. This was showcased in his Spencer PI books and the resultant TV series. Several authors are carrying on the Parker franchise with somewhat varying degrees of success. A couple of them nail the humor style. A couple of them don’t, really.

There are a few commonalities in the styles of these two highly successful authors we can take note of and perhaps learn from.

For the most part, the humorous bits occur outside and apart from the serious scenes. For example, especially in the original Parker books, scenes of tension and lurking danger such as between Sheriff Jesse Stone and the sophisticated criminal Gino Fish, or scenes when somebody is killed in the Plum books, do not contain humor. The authors restrict the humor to the quieter scenes wherein it’s more appropriate. A better way of stating this might be their novels are not constructed primarily to showcase humor. The core structure is a serious engaging plot first, with humor used here and there only as a pleasant bonus for the reader.

In the Plum books the humor is a bit more outrageous. In the Parker books it’s more subtle, handled with a deft light touch.

Neither author in effect tells us when something is supposed to be funny. They let us figure that out for ourselves. I read a book recently wherein the author kept saying things like: “Susan threw back her head and laughed.” This after a bit of so-called humor that was not all that funny and thus did not warrant Susan’s strong reaction to it. By showing Susan breaking out in uproarious laughter, the author is indicating that you, the reader, should too. It’s similar to people I’m sure you’ve met who in conversations laugh excessively at their own bad jokes. Or those folk who append a string of ha,ha,ha’s to their online comments or texts. This author also had his protagonist and associates joking casually and only semi-cleverly while in the thick of mortal combat, which did not sound appropriate or authentic at all. You won’t find either Stephanie Plum or Jesse Stone ever throwing back their heads and laughing—or joking while in a serious fight.

These days TV comics (as on Netflix), both male and female, are almost all heavily foul mouthed, swearing a lot and employing scatological and sexual comments. Sorry, but I don’t get that. I much prefer the more intelligent and cleaner wit of Jay Leno or Jerry Seinfeld, and both those comedians have long been far more popular and successful with the general public as well. Jim Gaffigan uses cleverness to make us laugh, not profanity or sexual blatancy, and he’s one of the most popular comics out there now by far. Likewise, Stephen Wright appealed to our intelligence, not our base instincts. I view those foul-mouthed comics as insulting, arrogantly assuming I’ll accept and even admire their crude below-the-belt remarks. I don’t, and I’m obviously not alone.

If you want to write humor, the best advice I can offer is to study the two example successful authors, Robert Parker and Janet Evanovich, with their quite different styles. Then proceed with caution, perhaps somewhere in the range between the two, generally using light touches here and there only as seasoning for an otherwise engaging and well-plotted story.


For some distracting pandemic reading, try the thriller novel series Guns, Diamondback, Kllrs, and Deathsman, set in the misty folds of the Great Smokies and endorsed by top gun bestselling authors Lee Child, Ridley Pearson, and Stephen Coonts. Available in print or Kindle from Amazon. Money back if you don’t like them.

Monday, November 9, 2020

Our Cosmic Carnival Ride

    The newest Mars rover, Perseverance, launched last July and carrying an array of instruments along with a small aerial drone, has logged 159 million miles with some 133 million miles to go before landing on the red planet on 18 February, 2021. It’s streaking along at 60,000 mph, or a thousand miles every minute (equivalent to three minutes traveling from coast to coast across America). What would that feel like if we could hitch a ride on the spacecraft?   

    Actually, there would be no sensation of speed at all because we can only sense acceleration or deceleration, not constant linear (or near linear) velocity. There would be no perceptible movement of stellar bodies to give a visual indication, either, simply because every object is so very far away from the spacecraft. Don’t believe it? Need proof?

    Well, we're all doing high speeds in several different directions right now, in fact. As the earth rotates, we're moving up to 1,100 mph toward the east just sitting on our couches. That's one direction.

    We Earthlings speed around our sun in our annual orbit at 67,000 mph, covering 19 miles per second and we don't even need any ride tickets. That's another direction.

    Our whole solar system is orbiting the central black hole in our Milky Way galaxy at half a million miles per hour or 139 miles per second. That’s another direction.

    And the entire Milky Way is hurtling through space at 1.3 million mph or an astounding 361 miles per second (equivalent to flashing across the whole width of Florida in a single second). That’s yet another direction (toward the massive Andromeda galaxy).

    That makes four high velocity movements in different directions simultaneously. 

    It's a wild and crazy cosmic carnival ride, yet we sense almost none of it. The only clues we have are the sun and star field daily appearing to poke across the sky as Earth rotates, and the slow change of annual seasons as we orbit our faithful star.

    And you thought the Tilt-a-Whirl and the Zipper and the Dueling Dragons roller coaster were adventurous.

Phil For some absorbing pandemic reading, try the thriller novel series Guns, Diamondback, Kllrs, and Deathsman, set in the misty folds of the Great Smokies and endorsed by top gun bestselling authors Lee Child, Ridley Pearson, and Stephen Coonts. Available in print or Kindle from Amazon or easily through my website. Money back if you don’t like them.

To help save lives, please mask up and social distance in public.


Monday, November 2, 2020

 Correctly using our language

     Our language is endlessly expressive, but it must be used correctly to preserve its integrity and to be most effective. Too many times words are misused, so the language suffers. Here are a few examples:

     The original meaning of unique was one of a kind. As such, it could have no modifiers. You cannot have something that is very unique (very one of a kind). Something is either one of a kind or it’s not. The proper word you want if you’re going to use a modifier is unusual. Often something can be very unusual.

     The original meaning of enormity was a horrific abomination on a vast scale. The Holocaust was an enormity. An elephant is not, therefore, an enormity. An elephant is enormous, or unusually large.

     Credible means believable and does not mean credulous or gullible.

     Enervate means to weaken and does not mean to energize. A rush hour commute through insane traffic is enervating. A Starbucks cappuccino is energizing.

     Criteria is the plural, not the singular of criterion, which is the singular, and data is the plural form of datum.

     Bemused originally meant confused or perplexed. If you appreciate some humorous comment or incident, you are amused, not bemused.

     To imply means to suggest something without saying it outright. To infer means to draw a conclusion from what someone else implies. The speaker/writer implies, and the listener/reader infers.

     Comprise means to include; compose means to make up. When you use comprise, you put the whole first: A soccer game comprises (includes) two halves. When you use compose, you put the pieces or segments first: Fifty states compose (make up) the United States of America.

     Farther refers to physical distance, while further describes the degree or extent of an action or situation. “I can’t run any farther and I have nothing further to say about that.”

     Use fewer when you’re referring to separate items that can be counted, like apples or carrots; use less when referring to a whole category, like fruit or veggies: You have fewer dollars and therefore less money.

     We’re all clear on a lie meaning an untruth. It’s the other usage that can be troublesome. Lie also means to recline, as: “Why don’t you lie down and rest?” Lay requires an object: “Lay the book on the table.” Lie is something you can do by yourself, but you need an object to lay.

It’s even more confusing in the past tense. The past tense of lie is lay: “I lay down for an hour last night.” And the past tense of lay is laid: “I laid the book on the table.” (Sometimes it’s easier to just say, “I took a nap.” Or, “I put the book on the table.”)

     An often-misused phrase that particularly lights my fuse is center around. The center of a circle or sphere is fixed and unmoving in relation to that circle or sphere. Therefore, the phrase is impossible. You can center on something or revolve around it, as the planets revolve around the sun, which is stationery at the center of our solar system with respect to earth (the entire solar system collectively is moving through space). But the earth cannot center around the sun.

     There are lists of commonly misused words online. Study them to be sure you use them correctly.

     Of course, if enough people continue to misuse a certain word or phrase, the folks who write the dictionaries will eventually cave in, throw up their hands, curse (eloquently), and add the misused definition, sadly to the detriment of our language.


For some absorbing pandemic reading, try the thriller novel series Guns, Diamondback, Kllrs, and Deathsman, set in the misty folds of the Great Smokies and endorsed by top gun bestselling authors Lee Child, Ridley Pearson, and Stephen Coonts. Available in print or Kindle from Amazon or easily through my website. Money back if you don’t like them.

Monday, October 26, 2020

The Mask War

     It continues to be a social and political point of serious contention that has even led to lethal violence. It doesn’t help that our own government and its agencies have given us conflicting information from the start of the pandemic. Don’t buy masks. Masks don’t help. Masks do help. Masks should be mandated. No, mask wearing decisions should be entrusted to people as a matter of personal preference. (Even though we can’t trust people not to drink and drive, and we can’t trust people not to speed, and we really can’t trust college kids not to drink and throw wild packed parties.) Mask wearing is somehow an affront to American freedom. Mask wearing promotes more infections. (Where the hell did that one come from?) And so the mask war drags on.

     So, we see lots of people wearing them and social distancing as our scientists and virologists and doctors like Fauci strongly recommend. And we see lots of people not wearing them, even in shoulder-to-shoulder crowds such as at some of the frequent political rallies.

     And the death toll keeps climbing.

     Why are we behaving this way? Well, there’s American historical precedent that may help explain the phenomenon. Anyone my age well remembers the widespread controversy over seat belts in the 1980s. None of my first four cars had belts. They also had hard metal dashes with various potentially harmful protuberances, no padded steering wheels, no designed-in crushable impact zones. Not even any turn signal lights on my first two cars. When I was a child seated beside my father as he drove his Chevy, I remember him holding out his strong arm in front of me as a safety barrier when he needed to come to quick stops or another car threatened a collision.

     When seat belts were proposed, there was a furor. Car companies warned they would add a lot of cost to the sale prices and they demanded more time to make the transition. People rejected the belting idea outright. I had friends who seriously claimed you’d be better off being thrown clear in a crash. Some said government had no right to restrict our freedoms by mandating belts. (I also had motorcycling friends who claimed the same thing about helmet laws.)

     Common sense and the best public interest prevailed and seat belts were mandated. Clearly they, along with air bags, have saved many lives.

     Today people accept seat belts as merely a sensible part of driving and base their model selections in part on safety ratings. Nobody considers belts an affront to our freedoms. (Though I did have a friend a few years back who would hold the shoulder belt across his chest to make it look like he was wearing it but refused to hook it up.)

     Here are the unarguable facts: Masks work. We can easily see that from the excellent results in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and other nations where the people have been wearing them routinely. Those nations locked down quickly, the populations cooperated fully with masking and distancing, and they’ve been able to open up months ago in conjunction with rigorous resting and tracing. We’re told by the qualified experts it is within our power to prevent 100,000 more American deaths in the next 100 days if we will only widely adopt the simple, easy measures of masking, distancing, and personal hygiene.

     So please, folks, buckle up and wear a mask to save yourself and our fellow Americans, and implore family and friends to do the same.


Visit for a bio, gallery, and descriptions and reviews of Phil’s suspense novels. There are easy buy links for distracting pandemic reading. Money back if you don’t like the yarns.

Monday, October 19, 2020

DIY for Old Folks   

    For some years, long-time friend Larry Cotton and I have been inventing things and writing articles about how to build them for the DIY magazine Make. We invented a laminar flow yard water fountain, for example. We did a color-coded plywood kit that young kids can assemble without tools to create a chair, a rocker, a chalk board, or a make-believe boat depending on how the parts are assembled. We made a cat scratching post that deposits a treat when used, thus training pets away from clawing the furniture. And we created a tamper-resistant lifesaving box that houses three inflatable throw sticks for immediate public use at swimming areas to prevent drownings. We’ve published two dozen such articles.

    But the magazine is devoted mostly to young and middle-aged makers, and Larry and I are getting on in years. So, I’m thinking of proposing a dozen DIY projects for older generation makers:

How to make a mirror with adaptive wrinkle cancellation.

A 3-D printer for making replacement body parts cheap.

A selfie stick that doubles as a cane.

A clock that not only tells you the time, date, day of the week, and year but also your name.

A blood pressure warning beeper for safely viewing political debates.

A trebuchet that can launch your neighbor’s Pekinese into low orbit.

A halo kit for grandchildren.

How to repair dental plates with automotive body putty.

A pocket periscope that lets you see over the steering wheel.

Adding a nose-hair trimmer to your multi-tool.

Build a quadcopter drone that can fetch up to 20 prescriptions from the nearest Walmart.

A portable harp that you can take with you. (Assuming a celestial destination.)

     Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go take a nap.

Phil Check out my site for some guaranteed good reading.

Please mask up and distance to save American lives.


Monday, October 12, 2020

Elon Musk’s failures

     Elon Reeve Musk, a citizen not only of his birth nation, South Africa, but also of Canada and America, has taken Space X to literally great heights as its founder, CEO, CTO, and chief designer. The company was first to land a booster for reuse, the first to land one at sea, the first to capture an expensive nose fairing for reuse, and the first to strap three rockets together to create the biggest and most powerful space torch since the moonshots. In 2018, Naomi and I watched the first spectacular Falcon Heavy launch from the Cape Canaveral VIP area and enjoyed a great catered lunch, narration by Bill Nye the Science Guy, a champagne toast, and free ball caps.

     On a much lesser NASA budget than Boeing got, Space X was the first to take back ISS astronaut transport from the Russians, with the first two Dragon commuters dressed as stylishly as Star Trek characters. His Teslas are selling like Big Macs and keep increasing their range, recently all the way to a Mars flyby piloted by Starman. (Let’s see Mercedes beat that.) His Boring Company is anything but. His largely sun-powered factories are revolutionary. His huge starship is mind-warping in its potential to make humankind a multi-planet species. His philanthropy is generous. His philosophy is extraordinarily visionary.

     But, like other geniuses such as Einstein and Edison and Ford and Howard Johnson, you only know about his astonishing string of successes. You never hear about his failures.

    When he was four years old, for example, his mother caught him repeatedly firing one of her lipsticks (her favorite shade) out of the toaster. She had to have the living room ceiling repainted.

    When he was ten, he attempted to launch the family cat into the next county with a truck inner tube tied between two clothesline poles. The fire department used a ladder truck to get the animal down off the Presbyterian Church, and his father attached his allowance to pay the cat whisperer’s fee.

   When he was fourteen, he wired up two dozen motorcycle batteries in series and fried his sister Tosca’s three-speed Schwinn trying to break the bicycle World Land Speed Record.

    At eighteen, he designed a reusable Roman candle (a precursor to his everyman’s flame thrower) that set fire to the college quadrangle.

    At twenty, he dug a rollerblade tunnel from his fraternity cross-campus to a sorority for committing an ill-fated panty raid.

    At twenty-five, he strapped speakers to a flock of Canadian geese so they could spread free classic outlaw western music to several countries while migrating. The incessant honking did not harmonize well with Willie and Waylon, however.

    But his successes have far outnumbered his failures* of course, and his stratospheric net worth of a hundred billion or so attests to that.

    Like many other admirers around this weary planet, and at a time when we all sorely need exemplary people we can look up to, eccentric, exceptional Elon has become my personal hero.


* (okay, mostly fictional)

    Since the first diagnosed U.S. Covid case on 20 January, we’ve had an average of one death every two minutes. We have the power to save 100,000 Americans in just the next hundred days if we, as a caring and compassionate people, will only mask up and distance in public. Densely populated Japan has done it. Australia has done it. New Zealand has done it. In those nations the per capita death toll is only a tiny fraction of ours.

   If we’ll come together, we can beat this lethal common enemy like they have.


Monday, October 5, 2020

 Let’s Defy the Enemy Instead

   For months, many Americans from the top down have been defying the best advice from scientists and virologists and doctors who’ve been exhorting us all to avoid gathering, to mask up, and to social distance.

   As a result, our record remains by far the worst in the world among developed comparatively wealthy countries for disastrously mismanaging the pandemic. Even in the face of more than 210,000 American deaths to date and increasing infection numbers, way too many of us are still flouting mandates and defying the maskers and distancers, sometimes even violently. In so doing we’re perpetuating the pandemic and extending and deepening the damage to our entire economy.

   It's not like we have any reason to doubt that the recommended measures work, because we can see that they certainly have worked quite well in other countries. In Japan, for example, with its densely packed population, and in New Zealand they jumped on the virus fast with strict lockdowns, and they’ve had near total cooperation from their people to mask up and distance. As a result, their per capita infections and deaths are only a tiny fraction of ours, and they can now open up cautiously in conjunction with rigorous testing and tracing.

   We’re being told by the qualified experts, including the CDC and widely respected Dr. Fauci, that if 95 percent of us simply wear masks in public and keep our distance we can save 100,000 American lives over the next 100 days alone. It’s not a political thing or a severe imposition to restrict our cherished freedoms. It’s merely well-proven common sense and common courtesy if we care about each other at all. Masking and distancing are the best weapons we have.

   So, instead of defying those who are trying to save us, let’s defy the evil common Covid enemy that’s trying to destroy us. In the words of the prominent newsman Chris Wallace, the unfortunate moderator of the recent debate that was anything but presidential:

                                             JUST WEAR THE DAMN MASK

   Please pass that simple lifesaving message on to everybody you know.


Monday, September 28, 2020

Acoustic archaeology; really?


     I’ve been involved with music much of my life, playing my violin at gatherings such as weddings and funerals, for a while in a country square-dance band, and for six years in a group we called Cold Biscuit at all kinds of functions.  It’s been fun and has earned extra money.


     I love most kinds of music and often listen through headphones as I’m writing fiction at my computer.  My favorite piece is Beethoven’s hauntingly beautiful “Moonlight Sonata.”  I even laboriously taught myself to play it on the piano over a month, although I’m no pianist.  I’ve listened to several accomplished pianists doing the piece and found each to be slightly different in style, this note progression played a bit faster or slower than others play it, that few bars played more loudly or softly, a note held a bit longer or not held quite as long.  Overall, this makes perceptible differences in how the piece sounds and thus subtle differences in how it affects me.  And that, in turn, got me thinking, just how, exactly, did the genius Beethoven himself play it?


     It seems only logical that we can never know.


     Or can we?


     There is a fringe scientific field called acoustic archaeology.  It explores the possibility that we can retrieve sounds from the past.  This seems ridiculous at first, but the idea grows on you when you think a bit deeper.  


     Early recordings were captured on wax cylinders by a stylus that vibrated in sync with sound input and in so doing incised indentations in the wax.  The sounds could be retrieved when a playback needle was drawn across those indentations at the same speed and the resultant sound amplified through a megaphone.  This was the essence of the early twentieth-century wind-up Victrola and the sound was not great, although it seemed astonishing in its time.  That same basic principle, greatly refined, still works with vinyl records, which are making a surprise comeback, and with superb fidelity.


     Columnist David Jones claimed in 1982 that sound waves will vibrate a metal trowel as they impinge on it, so if a plasterer happens to be singing lustily as he works, the trowel should create tiny ripples in the wet plaster, and if those ripples, when dried, could be read by a sophisticated-enough device (a laser?) at least parts of the worker’s song ought to be reproducible.


     Serious scientists are studying other ways old and even ancient sounds might be recovered.  One claimed to have retrieved the hum of a potter’s wheel by electromechanically reading the grooves in a pot cast on that wheel, for example.  Still deeper thinking posits that sound might subtly change a room’s very molecular structure in a faint but retrievable way through some future high tech.


     I was writing this post when a related article popped up in the news.  Egyptian Karnak priest Nesyamun died 3,000 years ago, but his mummified remains, which even survived the Nazi Blitz, are in remarkably good condition.  His dying wish was that he be allowed to speak in the afterlife so he could petition the gods for admission to eternity.  A team of scientists from Royal Holloway, London U., York U., and the Leeds Museum, CT scanned the old guy’s vocal tract, 3D printed it, and produced a sound through the printed replica, the first step in possibly reproducing words and even sentences from this priest who has not been heard for thirty centuries. They even have hieroglyphics incised on his coffin so they can perhaps have him say what he hoped to in the afterlife.  File that away in your weird folder.


     Meanwhile, if Beethoven ever happened to practice his “Moonlight Sonata” in an otherwise quiet church, say, which was being plastered at the time . . .



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