Pericles Commission: the cover version

About two years ago, the brilliant young assistant to a certain literary agent pulled my query from the slush pile. She thought it looked okay.

Now here she is, Joanna Stampfel-Volpe, holding the cover of the end result.

Thanks Jo!

When Historical “Facts” Aren’t So Factual

Vicky Alvear Shecter is far too modest. Vicky's a regular commenter on this blog, but I'm sure lots of people don't realize she's the author of two fantastic biographies. Alexander the Great Rocks the World and, only recently, Cleopatra Rules! The Amazing Life of the Original Teen Queen. Her first young adult novel, Cleopatra's Moon, is out in summer 2011. When it comes to ancient history she knows what she's talking about. Vicky's a docent at the Michael C. Carlos Museum of Antiquities at Emory University in Atlanta. So I imposed on her to do a guest post, and here it is.

Speaking to high school kids at a Junior Classical League conference last year, I offered a word association game. When I got to “Cleopatra,” I got:


“Wow,” I remember thinking. “They went from queenly to unseemly in a matter of seconds!” The spirit of Augustus Caesar must have danced a little jig of victory because 2,000 years after his propaganda war against the queen, we are still maligning her with insults related to her ultimately unknowable (and irrelevant) sex life.

What’s worse, little has changed since Augustus worked up Romans into a frenzy of outrage, fear and loathing for a powerful woman.

“Tell me,” I asked the teens. “What’s the first word you use to disparage a girl you don’t like or that you find threatening.”

“Slut,” they admitted a bit sheepishly. “Whore.”

Augustus’ model for taking a strong woman down, it seems, went deeper than we could even imagine. We are still acting it out today.

And yet, when it comes to Cleopatra, the facts don’t jibe. Most modern scholars now believe that the queen had only two relationships her whole life—both with Roman leaders with whom she politically aligned for the preservation of her crown and kingdom: Julius Caesar and Marc Antony.

All agree that Augustus masterminded a smear campaign against the queen of Egypt so thorough, we still automatically accept it today. We picture her as a seductress instead of as a brilliant politician who kept her kingdom from being eaten alive by Rome for twenty years. We imagine her as a femme fatale instead of the devoted mother of four children. That’s right., four.

In writing Cleopatra Rules! The Amazing Life of the Original Teen Queen—I’ve learned two important lessons:

1) Don’t automatically accept ancient “facts” as facts, and

2) Do not, under any circumstances, ask teens to play a word association game!

A note on names

Most modern names come from the Bible, a book which had yet to be written when my hero Nico walked the mean streets of Classical Athens. Quite a few people have asked me what's the "right" way to say the ancient names. I'll be getting hate mail from classical linguists for this, but the truth is, there is no right way. I hope you'll pick whatever sounds happiest to you, and have fun reading the story.

For those who'd like a little more guidance, try this.

The Greeks had only a single name each, which we would think of as a first name. Greek names were usually two everyday words stuck together to form a meaning. A lot of the trick to saying them is to spot the word boundary, then say and think of them as two words.

Let me use as an example someone you've heard of: Cleopatra.

Cleopatra may have been Queen of Egypt, but her name was very typically Greek. If you can cope with Cleopatra, you can cope with any Greek name. Cleopatra is cleo + patra. Cleo means glory, and patra means of the father. Glory of the father. The ending in –a makes it a feminine name.

Boy names end in –os, –us, –es, –is, or –on. Girl names end in –a, –ia, or –ache. You can switch the sex of any name by switching the ending.

With that in mind, here are two of my major characters with interesting names:

Nicolaos is nico + laos. Nico is a variant of Nike, which means victory. Laos is of the people. Victory of the people. Nicolaos is a common name in Greece to this day, and is quite obviously the origin of the western Nicholas. There was a St Nicolaos who is better known as Santa Claus. The Claus part comes from the –colaos of Nicolaos. Nico is our modern Nick.

Diotima is dios + tima. The Greek Dios is the Latin Deus, which if you've ever heard a Latin prayer in church you will know means God. Tima means honored. Diotima is honored by God. A suitable name for any priestess.

As a graduation exercise, here's a random name that looks tough but is amazingly simple:

Archeptolis. Archeptolis is almost the same as Architect, a very common English word. Say Architect. Now take off the tect and add on a tolis. Done!

The pt in Greek always sounds like a plain old English t. Every modern child knows the flying reptile called a pterodactyl. It's the same thing.

The Greek ch can always be said like an Engish k (as in architect). But if you want to go for slightly more authenticity, try saying it like the ch in Scottish or German, which is to say like a k while choking on a fishbone.

Author notes in historical mysteries, and the spoiler problem

I love writing author notes. In fact I love it so much that I wrote 33 pages for The Ionia Sanction and had to do some extreme cutting to get it back to a mere 17 pages. Don't panic, the author note for The Pericles Commission comes in at a svelte 8 pages.

But there's a slight problem with the author note for any historical mystery. Because it's, you know, a mystery, where someone got killed, and someone did it, and it's pretty much impossible to write about the history behind a real murder without giving away some plot.

It never occurred to me, the editor, the executive editor, or anyone else, that the author note might need a spoiler alert, because it's right at the back of the book. Until no less than Steven Saylor himself pointed it out when he read the ARC. It turns out he and others like to turn to the back and read the author note first.

So at the last minute we inserted an alert in the first paragraph of the author note (at least, I hope we did...I myself haven't seen the final book yet). But the ARC doesn't have an alert, so if you're holding the ARC, don't read the author note until you've read the book!

A lovely review by Irene Hahn

Irene runs the Roman History Reading Group. It's a group of like-minded people who gather online every two weeks to talk about modern books set in ancient Rome, and also ancient Roman books. They let me hang out with them even though I come from the Greek end of town. Anyone interested in this stuff would be very welcome to join in.

Irene's become a minor history celebrity since she started the reading group, to the point that publishers are sending her books to review. One of them, at my slight prodding, was The Pericles Commission.

Gary at Bouchercon: and on a panel

Bouchercon is a huge mystery fan conference held each year in a different city. This year it's in San Francisco, from the 14th to the 17th October.

If you're at Bouchercon, or anywhere nearby, then I would really, really, really like to catch up. (No, really!)

If you're attending Bouchercon, then you get the added bonus of watching me make a total fool of myself in front of the fans. I'm on one of the panel discussions.

My Bouchercon panel consists of Keith Kahla (moderator), Steven Saylor, Lindsey Davis, John Maddox Roberts, and little debut-author me.

I'll be a dwarf among giants, but I'm looking forward to this!

The Little Bears

There was a large temple complex dedicated to the goddess Artemis, outside Athens at a town called Brauron. Largely forgotten today, if you were a girl growing up in Athens, then you cared about Brauron very much indeed.

Brauron seems to have been like a combination holiday camp and finishing school for girls. A girl, when she reached the age of 13 or so, packed up her belongings and was taken by her father to the temple. There she was dedicated to the goddess to be her servant for one year.

The girls were called the arktoi, the Little Bears. It was a very special time in a girl's life.

The story of why they were called Little Bears is rather odd, and goes like this: Once, long ago, a tame she-bear lived at the sanctuary of Artemis. A maiden played with the bear, and the bear scratched out her eyes. [All right, not such a tame bear...Gary]. The girl's brother killed the bear, and at once a famine fell upon the Athenians. The Athenians consulted the Oracle at Delphi, who told them Artemis was annoyed about the bear. To appease Artemis, every Athenian girl must before her marriage play at being the bear of Artemis.

The Little Bears played in the forest, had running races and games, danced, studied, and served the goddess. By all accounts it was a time every girl looked forward to.

This first image is from Wiki Commons and is a statue that was unearthed at Brauron. It's difficult to see at first, because the statue's lost its color, but in the folds of her chiton she holds a bunny rabbit. See her left hand holds up the material and her right holds the bunny? This is very typical. Every child was shown holding either a cute animal or a bird.

The fathers commissioned these statues to commemorate the girl's time as a Little Bear. It's somewhat more permanent than a family snapshot. One thing we can be quite sure about: every one of these children was loved by her parents. Firstly because she got her year at Brauron, secondly because a statue like this isn't something you do lightly.

The chiton was probably painted saffron-yellow. There are references to say that was the standard uniform. I guess this girl is at the end of her time, because her hair's loose. The usual arrangement for a maiden is for braids to be tied up like so:

I took this photo at the Getty Villa. It's the head of one of the Little Bears and despite the degradation shows the usual hair arrangement well. There are sadly few statues of children from the Greek world. I suspect most of them come from Brauron. Those that do exist look

very natural indeed, which is a big help in judging the statues of grown-ups.

When her time as a Little Bear came to an end, the girl would enter the temple to dedicate her toys to Artemis. Which means she left them there on the altar. This was the moment when she transformed from a girl to a young woman. She left the Temple of Artemis and returned with her father to Athens, where in all likelihood a marriage had already been arranged. She would remember her time as a Little Bear for the rest of her life.

On the nullity of Amazon rankings

People tell me, as Pericles Commission nears release, to ignore the book's Amazon ranking.  Which I didn't even know existed until people told me to ignore it.

So this made me find out about Amazon rankings.  As far as I can tell, the advice is right; Amazon ranking appears to be a poor implementation of a bad idea.  The concept is that every single book is stack ranked based on sales.  And not only sales, but using a projection algorithm based on buying trends.

So my humble debut historical mystery is stack ranked in the same group as, for example, the latest Twilight.  Because, you know, it makes perfect sense that teenage girls who're into emotionally dysfunctional vampires will also want to read an ancient murder mystery, right?   Also, the same people want to read the latest textbook on calculus and Shakespeare's Hamlet.

You could make this work, I suppose, if you stack ranked within genres.  So that ancient mysteries were ranked only among themselves, and dysfunctional vampires only sucked each others' blood.  But even then there's a problem because the 7th book in a successful series comes with an existing audience.  A book late in a series could totally outsell a profitable newcomer and yet still underperform on expectations.

So what does this ranking system measure?  Actually, nothing, except perhaps a profitability projection for the bookseller.

Surprisingly, it seems nobody can tell how many copies of any book have actually been sold.  The publisher knows how many have been shipped to stores, but not how many have left the shop.  Books are sold on consignment; the store could in the future return some to the warehouse.   There's a system called BookScan which does measure sales in something approaching real time, but it doesn't monitor all stores.

So for months, until there's an audit, nobody knows the sale numbers!

(I stole the blog post title from a letter written by Roger Bacon in the 13th century, entitled On The Nullity Of Magic.)

G. Corby, now available in a potty near you

All right, it might not be near you, but I am published on a bathroom wall.

Regular reader and commenter Rachel is editor of the erudite publication, Poets in the Potty, at Indiana University. The latest edition of Poets in the Potty includes my short-short "Hello My Friend, You Have Won..." which originally appeared on Rammenas. I am humbled to be on the same page as Emily Dickinson and Ogden Nash.

Anyone within range of Indiana University should immediately go there and rush to the bathroom to read the latest.

Rachel is awarded 10 points for getting me into print before St. Martin's Press.

Poets in the Potty is a seriously good idea. It wouldn't hurt for a few corporates to be doing this.

And here is the final print run:

Halley's Comet sighted by the Greeks?

So there's a story going about that the ancient Greeks may have spotted Halley's Comet. It comes from a paper published by two academics at Brigham Young University named Graham and Hintz.

The claim relies on an excerpt from Meteorology, written by Aristotle, that a rock the size of a wagon fell to earth in the second year after the 78th Olympiad, and that a philosopher named Anaxagoras predicted it. This caught my attention as much because I use Anaxagoras as a character in The Ionia Sanction! Anaxagoras was a pre-Socratic philosopher. Though only just pre-Socratic; young Socrates was aged between 2 and 4 years old when the meteor hit. Anaxagoras was also well known among the ancient Greeks for his wild idea that all matter was composed of infinitesimally small particles.

The suggestion that Anaxagoras could have predicted a meteor fall is obviously rubbish. But Aristotle mentions in passing that a comet was visible in the sky when the rock fell. As it happens this is in the window for when a Halley's Comet flyby would be expected.

The best you can say is it might have been Halley's comet. If so, it's the earliest known sighting.

The Ionia Sanction

A small team of highly trained experts has been at work on what to call Book 2 of the Hellene Mysteries, which is what I call the series even if no one else does!  Book 2 will be released with, no doubt, another beautiful cover from St Martin's Minotaur, on which will be the words...

The Ionia Sanction

Why Ionia?  Because that's the ancient province in which most of the action takes place.  Also, The Ionia Sanction is in the same style as The Pericles Commission, so there's the virtue of consistency. 

These images are taken from Atlas pour servir a L'histoire Grecque de E. Curtius, by Auguste Bouche Leclercq, 1888.  As you can see I got hold of an original edition and took some photos.  The book, by the way, is both a thing of beauty and incredibly informative.  If you can find a copy at a library it's well worth a look.

First off, here's a map showing Ionia.  It's the purple section in the middle.  As you can see, Ionia is fundamentally the west coast of Turkey.

The yellow province directly below Ionia is Doria.  The pink province directly above Ionia is Aeolia.  

Almost all the Greek cities were founded by people from one of two super-tribes: the Dorians and the Ionians.  The Dorians were the people of the Peloponnese, and the Ionians were the people who lived in Attica, plus the islands and the west coast of Turkey.  The west coast of Turkey was named Ionia, after the tribe which colonized it.  

You might think that Doria was colonized by Dorians, but that would be far too sensible.  Doria was inhabited by Karians, a non-Greek people who absorbed Greek culture going back even to Mykenaean times, but who themselves were not Greek.  Doria did have a few Dorians on the premises, hence the name by which the Greeks called it.  The Aeolians likewise were not originally Greek.  And now I'll exercise some self-control and stop talking about other provinces, or this blog post will turn into an entire book.

Here is where Ionia lies relative to Athens.  Attica, with Athens as its capital, is the purple splodge on the left.  Ionia is the elongated pinkish splodge on the right.  In between is the Aegean Sea.

Athens heavily supported Ionia after the Persians came along and took control of the province.  The Athenians and the Ionians, after all, were of one blood, all members of the Ionic super-tribe, and the Athenians believed overwhelmingly in freedom at all costs ("Live Free or Die" is the motto of New Hampshire, but it could have been written for the Athenians).  The Ionians revolted against the Persians, which ended badly and the ringleaders who didn't flee were executed.   The only Ionian city not to rebel against Persia was Ephesus.  After the revolt, the Ephesians were rewarded by the Great King with permission to rule themselves.  Ephesus thus attained a very special position indeed: a Hellene city within the Persian Empire but with self-rule.  For this reason, in the stories I've treated Ephesus as the Checkpoint Charlie of the ancient world.  Which probably isn't all that far wrong.

So here's a blow-up of Ephesus and Magnesia.  The river directly below Magnesia is the Meander River, which tends

When we hit on The Ionia Sanction I immediately did a quick search for similar titles, and came up at once with The Ionian Mission, which is one of the titles in Patrrick O'Brian's brilliant series of Napoleonic sea stories.  I should have realized instantly because his entire series sits on the bookcase in my office.

The highly trained team of title thinkers were literary agents Janet Reid, Suzie Townsend, Joanna Volpe, and FinePrint Godsends Meredith Barnes and Judith Engracia.  Thank you, Ladies!  Editor Kathleen and Keith Kahla did the final approval, since it is, in fact, their right to pick the title!  A lot of people don't realize that cover and title fall into the publisher's realm.  I'm enormously lucky to have editors who've turned author consultation into an art form.

The value of a Classical drachma

Imagine walking into a modern Bureau de Change and handing over a one drachma coin from Classical Athens, and asking for US dollars. What's the exchange rate?

(For the purposes of the hypothetical, let's disregard the inherent value of an antique coin.)

Modern exchange rates are determined by the relative popularity of the currencies, which normally depends on factors like GDP, inflation rates, and central bank interest rates. We could try the same, except adjusting for inflation over 2,500 years and accounting for minor social influences such as the fall of the Roman Empire is clearly a loser.

So I'll try to do it by equating incomes.

There are plenty of sources from Classical Athens to say the average wage of an Athenian worker was a drachma a day. Athenians didn't work every day. They didn't have public holidays like we do, but they did have a lot of religious festivals. No one much except slaves did any work during the Great Dionysia, for example. I'll arbitrarily assign 330 working days.

I found a 2005 US census which says the average yearly income of people in full time emplyment was USD 49,069.

If we take the value of average wages to be equivalent, then the Bureau de Change should give us about USD 150 for our coin.

The exchange rate of the modern Greek drachma, as I write this, is GRD 1 = USD 0.0037.

So 1 Classical Athenian drachma has the purchase power of 40,540 modern drachmae, which looks bad until you realize this gives a notional inflation rate, year on year, over 2,500 years, of 0.0425%

That's pretty good inflation control!

Jacket copy

L.T. Host asked me in the previous post about the jacket copy, which is the description you read on the inside flap of a book.

The jacket copy...oh dear Gods...the jacket copy. You are looking at 200 words that took me a week to write.

The jacket copy is just about the last thing that gets written when a book is being produced. There's no relationship between the jacket copy and the contents of the query I submitted two years ago, except in so far as I wrote both, and they're about the same book, so there's a natural tendency to duplicate any turn of phrase that works well.

The jacket copy might be written by either the editor or the author. In my case Editor Kathleen asked if I'd like to give it a go, and she asked for 200 words.

So I wrote 200 words. Or rather, I wrote a zillion different versions of 200 words, because when the words you choose will be used by people in bookstores to decide whether or not to buy your book, you tend to become a trifle obsessive.

But this was nothing compared to the agony of writing the bio. Yes, I know it's only a smattering of words, but there is something indelibly narcissistic about describing yourself for a book cover. Also, it's a challenge to sound interesting and fun and good at killing people (in theory).

And another one...

No sooner do I post the blurbs than another one comes in. This from no less than John Maddox Roberts:

"Periclean Athens has been a long-neglected venue for historical mysteries, but Gary Corby comes through in rare style with a murder mystery tied in with the customs and the complex politics of Athens as it was approaching the peak of its glory. A good read that not only entertains but leaves the reader knowing a lot more about Classical Athens."

I have to say it's a weird feeling to receive blurbs from people whose books I've read and loved for years. Kelli of course is a recent rising star. Steven Saylor, Paul Doherty and John Roberts are all founding fathers of the ancient mystery genre.

You may have noticed tabs appear along the top of the blog, by the way. With the Grand Opening so close, I've begun to add the things that book blogs are supposed to have, such as a book page and a bio. An events page will appear real soon now.

What does an author do while waiting for his debut to release? I'm desperately trying to get the third book into shape so my early test readers can check it while I'm book touring for the first. (The second is in perfect condition and in the capable hands of Editor Kathleen.) I'm at 93,000 words on the third and almost halfway through 2nd draft. It'll need another revision before it's fit for human consumption, so there's plenty to keep me busy.

What they said about The Pericles Commission

I hope you'll allow me a brief moment of pride. It's traditional to ask other, better-known authors who write in a similar vein if they'd care to comment about one's forthcoming book. The requests are typically made by the editor, not the author, and those interested receive an Advance Reader Copy. Receiving an ARC is no obligation to blurb the book; that's only done if the reader is so inclined.

Here are the blurbs that will appear on the back cover of The Pericles Commission. The words are a delight to this debut author, but it's the names attached to the words which make me puff
my chest.

The Pericles Commission is a rollicking romp through ancient Athens, with captivating characters and engrossing, suspense-filled turns as twisty as the Attic streets. Debut author Gary Corby has not only made Greek history accessible—he’s made it first-rate entertainment.”
—Kelli Stanley, award-winning author of Nox Dormienda and City of Dragons

“Gary Corby’s ambitious series debut delivers an unexpected dividend—a lively sense of humor which leavens the weighty subject matter: the messy birth of democracy in Athens, attended by riot, revenge, and, of course, murder.”
—Steven Saylor, international bestselling author of Roma

The Pericles Commission is a most original and enjoyable interpretation of classical Athens. Corby vividly and lucidly describes the intricacies of the city . . . in this exciting saga of flesh-and-blood characters who jostle and fight, love and hate as they approach the climax of murderous intrigue.”
—P. C. Doherty

Hegesistratus of Elis

Since I'm in an icky gruesome phase, here's a quote from Herodotus. Not much I can add to this.

Hegesistratus of Elis had once been arrested by the Spartans on the charge of doing them a number of injuries of a very serious nature. Flung into prison and condemned to death, Hegesistratus, realizing, in his desperate situation, not only that his life was at stake, but that he would be tortured before his execution, dared a deed which one cannot find words adequate to tell.

He was lying with one foot in the stocks--which were made of wood reinforced with iron--and somehow managed to get hold of a knife, which was smuggled into the prison. No sooner was the knife in his hands than he contrived the means to escape--and how he did it was the bravest action of all those we know: he cut off a piece of his foot, having nicely judged how much to leave in order to pull it free. Then, as the prison was guarded, he worked a hole through the wall and escaped to Tegea, travelling at night and lying up during the day in the woods. The Spartans went out in force to try to find him, but he got clear and reached Tegea on the third night. They were astonished at the man's daring when they saw half his foot lying by the stocks and yet were unable to find him.

I'd love to know what Hegesistratus did to annoy the Spartans. Whatever, it must have been spectacular.

Herodotus say Hegesistratus got himself a wooden foot made. He later went over to the Persians during the wars and became one of their seers.

Amputation in Ancient Greece

I believe the first person to describe surgical amputation was Hippocrates, in a book called "On Joints". Hippocrates only performed amputation to stop gangrene, and even then only as a last resort. He said to cut into the bone below the boundaries of the blackening when the limb was fairly dead and has lost its sensibility. Also he was happy for the dead flesh to come away naturally, and for some small amount of bone to remain sticking out. He speaks quite calmly of the process taking 60 to 80 days.

The Greeks had no knowledge of how to perform amputation on living flesh. The big problem for the Greek doctors was loss of blood. Hippocrates does mention the use of ligatures elsewhere, but there's no mention of them used in amputation. Where he does mention ligatures he stresses the danger of gangrene. By the first century AD, a doctor called Celsus does write of both cauterizing wounds and ligature of veins.

The other likely cause of amputation was trauma. Guess what? Trauma is a Greek word. Again, the Greeks seem to have been remarkably conservative. It appears they'd rather have carried a mangled limb and risked infection than amputate. This might tell us something about the likely survival rate of amputees. Hippocrates mentions cautery, which means to apply burning heat, about ten times throughout his works, and a few of those are in reference to wounds, but never in reference to amputation. Nevertheless it seems likely to me that in the case of traumatic amputation, the wound would have been cauterized. Incredibly, they didn't use a tourniquet. The tourniquet wasn't invented until 1718!

Giggles the netbook

Two weeks ago I acquired a netbook for travel. I face a few weeks on the road, and a light device that's good for email, web and writing will be just the thing. So I bought an Asus Eee PC, model 1001P.

The iPad was very tempting, but unfortunately, although it looks way cool, at heart it's a toy. Try typing on it, or connecting a USB. Or multitasking. The iPad is however streets ahead of everything else as an eReader. I much prefer the high quality backlit screen of the iPad to any of the eInk systems, and I never thought I'd find myself saying that. If only someone could marry Apple's product management to Microsoft's engineering, it would be awesome.

So I got the Eee PC, and my girls instantly named the machine Giggles. Forthwith is Gary's evaluation of Giggles.

First, the good news:

The battery life is incredible at 9 hours or more. Who would have thought advertising could tell the truth?

The small keyboard's not as much of an impediment as I expected. If like me you can touch type then you'll hit a lot of wrong keys, but it can be got used to with a lot of practise. Ditto, the mousepad is small but usable.

Connectivity is surprisingly good. (and far better than that iPad I mentioned…)

I expected a restrictive 10.1" screen size and therefore was not disappointed. It's usable for writing.

The portability is excellent. I carry Giggles to places where I used to take pen and paper.

It's so cheap, it's like buying a disposable computer. Value for money is A+.

Now for the bad news. Considering what I paid for it, it's rude to complain, but that won't stop me:

The Intel graphics chip is awful. Giggles is happiest at 1024x600 with no external monitor. Giggles can drive an external monitor—even my 24" monitor in portrait mode—but don't expect to look at it too long without getting eyestrain or a headache. There is a weird problem which I haven't worked out yet with viewing video from disk files—audio works but video is nothing but black—though streamed video from the net works fine.

You can practically see the steam-driven cogs make the CPU tick over. Sometimes I type text, and a few seconds later the machine catches up. No one in their right mind would run Vista or Win 7 on this box. XP's the strained limit. It might actually make a reasonably undemanding linux platform.

Asus includes a whole pile of "helpful" system utilities. These silently take over from standard Windows control panel dialogs, so that things don't behave like they should. For example, you can set screen resolution through the standard dialog all you like; and it won't do a thing because Asus has pre-installed a service called astray that sets the resolution to 800x600. You can see the resolution change from your own settings on boot as soon as astray starts. It took me two days to realize how much my life would improve if I hunted own and removed all the "helpful" utilities. Vanilla XP works just fine.

All in all, very usable as a takeaway machine. I might even manage to write while I'm away.