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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
07/16/04 -- Vol. 23, No. 3
Table of Contents
The Loss of Innocence (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I was reading about the 1950s quiz show scandals. The writer said that this incident was when America lost its innocence. Of course, it was when American doughboys went to World War I was when America lost its innocence. Ken Burns assures me that the so-called 1919 Black Sox Scandal was when America lost its innocence. When Pearl Harbor was hit America lost its innocence. I also hear that America lost its innocence when it heard that United States soldiers were abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Of course America had already lost its innocence on 9/11. I guess innocence has got to be hands down our most renewable resource. Lost it and it grows right back. [-mrl]
Those Phony Handwritten Fonts(comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I got an appeal for money from an organization with whose goals I agree. I won't say for certain that I would have contributed to this appeal, but I might have. On it was what appeared at first look to be a handwritten note to me explaining the virtues of their program. I took a closer look at the note and discovered what I had already suspected. Every "a" looked exactly like every other "a". Every "b" was identical to every other "b". And so forth. Every letter of a certain type was identical to every other of the same type--upper and lower case. If one sighted down the rows the bases of the letters were as straight as arrows.
Well, it is obvious what was going on. One of the inventions of the computer age is the personalized printer font. All one needs to do is fill out a sample card and write out the twenty-six letters in lower case and the twenty-six letters in upper case. There may be a few more symbols you also fill in. A computer then scans in the letters and voila!, you have created your own personal computer font that looks to be somewhat like your own handwriting. You can then read this font into a program like Microsoft Word and it will write out what you type in a font that looks superficially as if you had written it. At least each "a" looks like an "a" you might have written. But, of course, the program that uses this only knows one way to make a lower case "a". A smarter program might be able to vary it, but that smarter program is not yet much used if it exists. The illusion that you have hand written the output is a poor and unconvincing one. The note fools the eye for only an instant of time. One quickly notices the truth of the situation. Then whatever else the note may say it bears a message that the writer went to a great deal of effort to pull off a little deception on you, the reader.
How do you react to a small cheat from someone you trusted a moment before? The author wanted to convince you that he or she has personally handwritten this note, but, in fact, had done no such thing. It is much the same as if you had been playing cards with an old friend and just for an instant noticed that that friend had dealt to himself off the bottom of the deck. Well, it indicates that regardless of what you felt the relationship was, the old friend was willing and happy to mortgage that good feeling for a tiny advantage. I don't think that it would ruin a strong relationship, but particularly if this had been a trusting relationship in the past it can never be the same again. The person who wrote the note really did feel that it was worth the risk to try to deceive the reader.
Now why would someone use one of these fonts? Well for years people who do mass mailings--advertisements, charities, political appeals, etc.--have looked for a way to mass-produce mail, but make it look like each piece had personal attention lavished upon it. It calls attention to a particular appeal if it looks like a human at the other end really thought about you and had sent you your own piece of mail. The illusion they want to create is that you are one of their most important contributors and without your help their cause is lost. But they still want to use the intelligence of a computer to mass-produce that illusion. They want to rubber stamp personal attention.
We all have received form letters that have our own names as part of the message. My mailbox is full of pieces of spam mail that refer to me by name. But it is nearly always obvious that some machine took our names from a list. Sometimes the results are comical, since a program probably cannot use the judgment that a human would give. I remember hearing a news story that the Church of Christ somewhere received a piece of mail that asked "Dear Mr. Christ, are you stuck in a low-paying, dead-end job?" (I am also reminded that at one point to get the advantages of an unlisted phone number free I put my telephone in the name of my dachshund, Sam Arnsheim. I got a phone call from someone wanting to sell Sam Arnsheim dancing lessons and claiming that a friend of his suggested he would be interested in some dance lessons. The image of my dachshund dancing has always stuck with me.)
Most charities and appeals seem to have (at least) two lists of leads. There is the intelligent list and the sucker list. I think I discovered this with a certain well-known anti-racist organization in the American Southeast. They used to send me what looked like personalized photographs of lynchings of blacks, made to look like they had been taken with an old brownie camera with a printed note made to look handwritten. Similarly they would send what looked like handwritten notes on yellow lined school tablet paper thanking me for my contribution. But it clearly was a printed note and they would forget details like putting the perforation at the top of the page. I sent them mail pointing out that I agreed with their goals but that an appeal based on this sort of deception is a mistake. Apparently they knew what I was talking about and while I still got mail from them, it was on a higher level. The grandstanding deceptions stopped immediately, never to return.
So to return to the case I started from, I wrote a note to the woman who had sent me the "handwritten" appeal pointing out that that it was foolish of her to alienate contributors by including what they could easily tell was an ersatz handwritten note. She responded, as I might have expected, suggesting I had questioned the value of her cause (which I had not) and the economies of computer generation (which I had not). If anything what I was questioning was the expense of creating a computer font whose sole purpose was to deceive the very contributors she was dependent upon.
This leaves me (and perhaps you) with a dilemma. I can be sympathetic to a particular cause, but still be unhappy about the tactics of the people collecting for the cause. This is not as serious as catching them siphoning off funds. It is jut a small deception on their part. On one hand you may not want to abandon the cause. But on the other hand do you really want to reinforce the behavior by giving funds to people who have already used your money to deceive you? (Of course, I mean other than the government, who frequently use your own money deceive you. You have no choice there.) I don't have an easy answer. Perhaps the best thing to do is simply ask to be taken off the appeal's mailing list and have your computer remind you annually to contribute. That is using a computer for a good and charitable and non-deceptive purpose. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
One thing about the writing in 1953--they *loved* tobacco. I suspect at the time no one noticed how often it showed up, but fifty years later in a world of no-smoking buildings and so on, it's glaring. So as I was reading the Retro Hugo nominees, I started keeping track:
The lack of smoking in MISSION OF GRAVITY might be partially due to the nature of the setting, where fires of any sort are very iffy.
As I noted two weeks ago, I found myself asking whether tobacco was anachronistic in "Three Hearts and Three Lions". But I discovered that the first literary mention of tobacco was in Edmund Spenser's "The Faerie Queen" in the late 16th century, so I guess Anderson is allowed to include it on the basis of established usage.
Of course, this is all incidental to whether the stories are good. But I have to add that while some editors and publishers want to take out all references to smoking when they re-issue earlier works, I think that is a mistake, because it presents a false picture of what the mindset was at that time.
I already talked about the novellas a few weeks ago. So now first, the novelettes. My choice for the Hugo is "The Wall Around the World" by Theodore Cogswell. Oddly enough, this seems like it would be a fine companion piece for the "Harry Potter" books, with its "scientific" approach to magic. I also liked Philip K. Dick's "Second Variety", though either I remembered it or the ending was obvious. Still, the discussion of war and its methods was what the story was really about.
Poul Anderson's "Sam Hall" was okay but seemed like typical conservative/libertarian preaching. (I know that "conservative" and "libertarian" seem like opposites, but in many ways they are not.) It wasn't helped, of course, by Anderson's introduction (in THE BEST OF POUL ANDERSON) in which he explains how the McCarthy era wasn't really that bad and the only people complaining were very vocal in their complaints that they couldn't complain and they were probably Commie liberals anyway.
On the other hand, James Blish's "Earthman, Come Home" suffered by being a part of a larger cycle--it ended up as the last two chapters of the last book of CITIES IN FLIGHT. Since I was not familiar with what led up to it, I found it flat. (I still think, though, that the scene in DARK CITY when the city is revealed is the ultimate Blishian moment.) And while I'm a Sherlock Holmes fan, I found "The Adventure of the Misplaced Hound" by Poul Anderson and Gordon R. Dickson just too fluffy for an award.
The short stories were all of high-quality, and all award-worthy, but I would pick "It's a *Good* Life" by Jerome Bixby, and not just because it was made into a "Twilight Zone" story. It is a very effective horror piece on its own.
Some people think "The Nine Billion Names of God" by Arthur C. Clarke is too thin a story, but the concept is interesting and the ending perfect.
"Star Light, Star Bright" by Alfred Bester is a classic tale of mutants. Robert Sheckley's "Seventh Victim" (made into the film TENTH VICTIM perhaps because there was already a different film called SEVENTH VICTIM) was also somewhat predictable, and the game doesn't bear close examination (in particular the "bootstrapping" process of how it got started), but the world Sheckley describes seems at least reasonably well imagined. And while I can appreciate that "A Saucer of Loneliness" by Theodore Sturgeon is quality writing, I found it the least engaging of the short stories. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: Millions saw the apple fall, but Newton was the one who asked why. --Bernard M. Baruch
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