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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
09/10/04 -- Vol. 23, No. 11
Table of Contents
Fish Oil (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I take these fish oil capsules that are supposed to be good for your heart. They are large as pills go and they are gel capsules which in this humid area tends to make them stick together in the jar. They are not fun to take. But then every once in a while I hear of some young person having a heart attack and I tell myself, "there but for the grease of cod go I." [-mrl]
Some Thoughts on Defense (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Last week I was talking about Wright Patterson Air Force Base and issues of defense. I don't think that I have suddenly become very martial, but when I go to places like the museum I start thinking of issues of defense. I began thinking of the various classes of defense. And these are also the classes of offense. Defense and offense are closely related and not just as opposites. They say the best defense is a good offense. So offensive weapons are defensive weapons. On the other hand they say a shield is something to strike from behind. So defenses are offenses.
The simplest sort of protection is hardening. The turtle has a shell. The snail has a shell. You have a skin and a hard skull. This is a Class One defense. But it can be more sophisticated. In the military sense it can be armor plating. It can be a fort.
Next consider the ability to strike or strike back. Call these Class Two defenses. It is, as I have said, hard to distinguish between these and Class One. A missile shield is called a shield these days but really is the ability to attack incoming objects. When we think about national "defense" we picture weapons of offense. Even in the 50s when a TV station would sign off at night (remember when they signed off at night?) they would play the Star-Spangled Banner and show pictures of missiles and planes. These are offense weapons.
Then you have the protection by distance. In WWII Hitler and Hirohito were defended by distance. The armies thought they had to "get there" before they could force them to surrender. The Allies and the Soviets were racing each other to Berlin at the end of the war in Europe. Call the defenses of distance defenses. The Air Force is all about using planes for transport to reduce Class Three defenses to Class Two and Class One defenses.
More than ever today enemies can be hidden and protected by secrecy. This is becoming a more important form of defense. For example we think we know the World Trade Center has been attacked by something called Al Qaeda but we are not exactly sure who they are or where they are. They have Class Four defenses. You try to reduce their defenses to Classes One, Two, and Three by the collection of intelligence about them. Osama Bin Laden knows who and where his enemies are. We don't know where he is. This stalemate has gone on for years. High technology stealth bombers are useless under those conditions. Secrecy is a cheap and effective defense. Terrorists usually employ this defense.
Finally you have what is probably the most dangerous type of defense for us. You have dispersion of the enemy. Call these Class Five defenses. There are few good counter-strategies to this sort of strategy. There are few ways to overcome dispersion. In the realm of fiction this is what Carl Stephenson's story "Leiningen vs. the Ants" is all about. There, in its extreme form, it was square miles of independently directed enemies, army ants. There was no command center to kill. Conventional weapons were useless. You can with a boot kill a hundred at a time but hundred more will take their place, and that defense does little good.
To some extent this is what the Americans used against the British in the American Revolution. That was a guerilla war. This is what the North Vietnamese used against the Americans. The Americans won every major battle in the Vietnam War and they still lost the war. Even winning battles was not an effective strategy against the enemy as long as they had the Viet Cong, a dispersed force. We burned out whole villages and they just popped up elsewhere.
A dispersed enemy might be directed by something protected with the first four classes of defense. Or they may not be. There were leaders of the Viet Cong, but most of them operated independently. There usually is no really good way to overcome Class Five defenses without destroying nearly everything. That was why the US looked so badly in the Viet Nam war. A dispersed enemy cannot be eliminated without killing a lot of innocent people and doing a lot of destruction at the same time. In the Stephenson story Leiningen was able to overcome the ants only by flooding his farm and himself destroying exactly what he was trying to defend. The ultimate attack today is a dispersed attack. It has a real multiplier on the potency of attacks. The combined forces of Japan and Germany could not hit New York and kill thousands of Americans on their own mainland, but a dispersed Middle Eastern enemy did just that. And certainly if Japan or Germany had the mainland we would have had a much better idea how to hit back. That dispersed enemy tactic is being used very effectively against us in the Iraq. We are fighting there an enemy that has a Class Five defense strategy and we have Classes One to Three. Don't expect a really good victory there. At least not one for us. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
James Marcus's AMAZONIA (ISBN 1-56584-870-5) is the story of the author's five years (from 1996 to 2001) as an editor at amazon.com. It is okay to breeze through, but does not have any real surprises or revelations. People who have been following the dot.com phenomena in general will probably already know about amazon.com's various policies and acquisitions, and others won't learn much from this. For example, Marcus talks about the disastrous acquisition of pets.com, but doesn't explain *why* it was so bad compared to other apparently similar decisions that went well. There were interesting tidbits--the Millennium Poem, for one. And even though I knew the all about "Project Shift" and one of its unintended side-effects, it was interesting to see an even bigger picture. (Project Shift was the concept of removing shipping charges for all orders of two or more items. When this happened, "'The Book of Hope' began its meteoric ascent. This slender Biblical tract clearly had much to recommend it.... Most shoppers, however were attracted to its 99-cent price tag. Droves of them tossed it in the shopping cart a second, more expensive item and made their shipping charges disappear: a miracle on a par with the loaves and fishes. We also did a surprisingly brisk business with Dover Classics, which sold for a dollar each." I used this ploy at least once, and various shoppers' web sites suggested it as well, so it is not surprising that it actually impacted amazon.com's bottom line. Apparently, amazon.com came close to eliminating every item under five dollars from their catalog to solve this problem, until wiser heads prevailed and they dropped the "two-item-free-shipping" offer. (I believe now it is free shipping for items over a certain dollar amount.)
My "non-specific" book discussion group read John Steinbeck's SWEET THURSDAY (ISBN 0-140-18750-2), a sequel to CANNERY ROW. Everyone else loved it and thought it hilarious, but while I saw some humor in it, it did not strike me that strongly. (On the other hand, I thought Nikolai Gogol's DEAD SOULS was very funny, and parts of Herman Melville's MOBY DICK crack me up.) But since it was so popular, it was decided to read CANNERY ROW for the January meeting.
The novelette "The Battle of York" by James Stoddard ("Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, July 2004) is an idea that is not exactly new, but Stoddard handles it very well. The premise is that three thousand years in the future, someone has pieced together a history of George Washington based on imperfect records (much as we do with, say, ancient Egypt) or on legends (Parson Weems has a lot to answer for). So not surprisingly, a few of the "facts" are wrong. What is surprising is how true to the spirit of it all Stoddard's re-telling is. This is a story I read a couple of months ago, and it has really stuck with me, which is the sign of a good story. This is definitely going on my Hugo nominations ballot next year. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. --Mahatma Gandhi
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