MT VOID 10/22/99 (Vol. 18, Number 17)

MT VOID 10/22/99 (Vol. 18, Number 17)

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
Club Notice - 10/22/99 -- Vol. 18, No. 17

Table of Contents

Outside events: The Science Fiction Association of Bergen County meets on the second Saturday of every month in Upper Saddle River; call 201-447-3652 for details.

Chair/Librarian: Mark Leeper, 732-817-5619,
Factotum: Evelyn Leeper, 732-332-6218,
Distinguished Heinlein Apologist: Rob Mitchell,
HO Chair Emeritus: John Jetzt,
HO Librarian Emeritus: Nick Sauer,
Back issues at
All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted.


My training is as a mathematician and I think quantitatively when I can. I tend to do little seat of the pants calculations. I come into a restaurant and look around and say once we sit down it will take something like 40 minutes before our food comes. I don't get it spot on typically, of course. But usually I am not very far off. How does one judge something like that? Well, I will have made an estimate of the average length of time to eat a meal. Now I will assume that I did not come in just after opening or at some other special time. So then I look around the room and estimate the proportion of tables where people are eating. Say I see nine tables and at six of them people are talking, at three of them people are eating. One third of the tables are in the stage where they have been served. So if one third are in that last 20 minutes you can expect the average visit to be 60 minutes and that it will take about 40 minutes to be served. And what we tend to get is in the range of 35 to 45 minutes. Not too bad.

So I was rather surprised to see someone else become well known for making much the same sort of calculation. J. Richard Gott III has written a now famous paper in the December 6, 1997 New Scientist. His ideas were reprinted in The New Yorker just recently. Gott looks at the longevity of institutions. Suppose your favorite restaurant is three years old. How much longer can you expect it to be around? You have a 25% probability that it is in any given quarter of its life. You have a 50% chance that it is in the second or third quarter of its life. What does it mean to be in the second or third quarter? Well assume that you really are in the second or third quarter. The shortest the institution can last is if you are at the end of the third quarter of its life. Since it has lasted three years each quarter must be a year. You expect the restaurant to last at least another year.

The longest it can last is if we are at the beginning of the second quarter. Each quarter is then three years and the total life is 12 years. Hence if the restaurant has lasted 3 years already we can say with a 50% probability that it will last from 1 to 9 more years.

However 50% confidence is not so high. Let us require 95% probability for the prediction. Well the higher the reliability of the prediction, the less useful it will be, unfortunately. We can say with 95% probability that we are neither in the first or last 40th of life of the restaurant. We can expect than that the three years is somewhere between the end of the first 40th and the beginning of the last. The remaining life of the restaurant is between 1/39th of its current age and 39 times the current age. That means you can be darn sure that the restaurant will last more than four more weeks but less than 117 more years. That does not seem like a very surprising prediction, but that is the sort of thing you get if you insist on the prediction having a 95% probability of bring true.

I will not say that all this is unassailable logic. There are all kinds of extenuating circumstances that can throw a monkey wrench into the proceedings. My grandmother in California is 103 years old. This would say that the odds are 50% that she will die in the interval from age 137 to 412. Well, at the rate she is going it would not greatly surprise me that she makes it to 137, but she is starting to slow down and the smart money says she ain't gonna make it past 150. In fact I strongly suspect the odds are really good that she and the year 2035 shall remain forever strangers. But now if we were estimating the life expectancy of a bank the odds might be somewhat different. It is not so unusual that a bank last 137 years. And in fact if a bank were around for the last 103 years, the odds are much better that the bank might make it to the ripe old age of 137 than that my grandmother will. Banks do not get old the way people do. They may in their own way, but there is no physical reason why a bank might not live to be 400 years old.

Let's try the calculation on the United States. The odds are about 50% that the US will still be alive and kicking in the year 2073 but will die between then and the year 2668. Well, we would more or less expect the world to be unrecognizable by the year 2668. There, in fact, is one of the fallacies in this calculation. It assumes fairly uniform conditions along the interval of time. Most people expect the future to be very different from the past as social and technological change really all the ground rules. I, frankly, would be surprised to find out the concept of "country" still exists in the year 2668. Come to that I would be surprised to make any observations at all in the year 2668. Gott applies his approach to estimating the longevity of plays on Broadway. For something like that the time interval is pretty much uniform. You might try applying the formula to things like how long your project at work will last. Again the probability says that you have 50% odds that the institution's life will go to a point between 4/3 its current age and 4 times its current age. If you want to go to 95% probability the interval is 40/39 its current age and 40 times its current age. [-mrl]

FIGHT CLUB (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):

Capsule: People may be discussing for years the meaning of this strange absurdist black comedy set in a near future. The unnamed narrator is a man who habitually crashes medical support encounter groups feigning diseases that he does not have. He meets two enigmatic characters, one a woman who also fakes disease to go to encounter group meetings, the other a strange anarchistic genius. With the latter the narrator founds a sort of fraternity where men can come and connect with each other by fist- fighting. A dark film both figuratively and literally, FIGHT CLUB is a real go-for-the- throat satire tracking the rising tide of rage in America. Eventually it starts to run out of steam if not anger, and perhaps could have been trimmed from its 139-minute running time. Rating: 7 (0 to 10), +2 (-4 to +4).

On the heels of AMERICAN BEAUTY, one dark satire of American suburban life, comes a far grimmer satire of lower class society and anger. Chuck Palahniuk's premier novel is brought to the screen as a howl of rage by David Fincher, director of ALIEN 3, SE7EN, THE GAME, and the upcoming RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA. FIGHT CLUB is about a subculture of men who have turned their backs on soft supportive philosophies and meaningless consumerism and have replaced it with hard knuckles and covert terrorism.

As the film opens, the narrator of the film (Edward Norton) has someone unseen holding a gun in his mouth. He begins to think back over the previous six months to how he came to this pass. In flashback he has been a man suffering from insomnia, living in a constant netherworld between awake and asleep. He complains of the malady to his doctor. His doctor belittles him and suggests that if he wants to see what real pain is he should visit a testicular cancer support group. Under an assumed name, the narrator pretends to be a fellow sufferer and soon finds he really enjoys going to and giving support to the patients. He begins going every night a week to a different disease encounter group. Then he notices Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter) who shares this voyeuristic hobby. They begin to barter which support groups each may cover. In a different setting, he meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) a soap salesman and film projectionist who is fighting his own war guerilla against society.

When a mysterious explosion destroys the narrator's apartment, he arranges an invitation to stay with Durden who asks for one thing in return. He wants to fight the narrator. The narrator surprises himself by enjoying the experience. This becomes a frequent habit replacing encounter groups. As other men come to watch the two fight, they want to fight also, forming a common bond. Durden and the main character found a secret society that stages fist fights. Eschewing the old life of soft self-sacrificing support of others, membership in the macho fighting society starts changing all of the narrator's perspectives. All that is real is the world where men fight emasculation and prove their strength by the friendly beating of each other. They then wear their injuries as proof they are manly. Eventually this underground counterculture will add to its agenda the sowing of chaos and anarchy.

Jim Uhls's script is frequently bitterly funny, but fails to connect the various themes together. The catalog-buying consumer culture seems so little to touch the lifestyle of Tyler Durden that his rage against it seems unmotivated and almost could have been added by the writers as an afterthought. Even if Durden is to use it as a symbol of what he is fighting the film needs to tell us why that symbol of superficiality rather than, say, architecture or vacation homes. The text chillingly examines the bestial impulses in man and suggests that we are a long way from breeding them out of the species. The main character is saddled with opposite impulses "to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable." In theme and even somewhat in plot this film could be compared to, of all things, THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE.

Jeff Cronenweth's photography features an agile and dizzying camera flying the viewer around and through holes where Orson Wells would fear to go. Virtually every scene in the movie is underlit to reflect the theme and create a repressive tone.

This film seems a not entirely directed howl of anger. It is technically flawed, but coming in the wake of rage crimes like Littleton it could not be more timely. I rate it a 7 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]