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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
02/11/05 -- Vol. 23, No. 33 (Whole Number 1269)
Table of Contents
Chemlawn (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I was looking at a truck from a company that maintains lawns and promises to keep them green. The name of the company is Chemlawn. It never occurred to me before, and it probably never occured to the people of the company, but that is a very ironic name. The "Chem", of course, comes from "Chemistry." The word "chemistry" originally came from alchemy, which meant the science from the land of Chem. Chem is the ancient name of Egypt. So the name Chemlawn is essentially tying in the lawn with the land of Egypt. It is saying "Egypt-Lawn". Actually, though, Egypt is a country not generally noted for the beauty and lushness of its lawns. The company is saying they will give you lawns like they have in Egypt. There are few lawns in Egypt as I remember. [-mrl]
Machine Wars (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
There are some funny little dramas of the computer age. Some we never see, but they go on all the time. Evelyn has for a long time wondered about Amazon's used books. People who have used books to sell can sell them though Amazon and just send a commission to Amazon for using their facilities. They set their own price for the book and it will either sell for that figure or it will not.
Frequently Evelyn has puzzled why there are books that are being sold for just one cent plus postage. She speculated that perhaps the postage stated was higher than it actually cost to mail the item. She thought that perhaps they were making their money off of the postage. It hardly seemed to be worth the seller's effort. It turns out the real reason so many books sell for just a penny is more interesting and more humorous. Frequently more than one person will be offering the same used book. Customers usually choose the least expensive copy of the book being offered. If you can lower your price to just a penny less than the next lowest seller you will be the one who gets the sale. People were noticing that frequently they would lose a sale for just a few pennies that someone else was underselling them. Sharp sellers realized the best way to make a sale was to lower their price just a penny below the best competition.
Their rescue from this situation was software. A program could be designed to look at each of the books a given seller had on Amazon and to find the user did not have the minimum offer, the offer could be to reset to the minimum price minus a penny. That worked and some sellers discovered it improved their sales. They were very happy with the software. If they couldn't get the asking price they wanted for the books, at least they could get something. Well, you can guess what happened. The software became so popular that other sellers used it. That included the competition. Now two competing booksellers are using the same software. Prices started going like what is called a "Chinese Auction." Seller A's program looks at the listing and sees Seller B has the book listed for $5. It re-lists the book for A at $4.99. Seller B's software sees its master is being undersold by a penny so his price is lowered to $4.98. Without A knowing it is being done, A's software lowers the price to $4.97. A and B may off somewhere asleep or doing something else without realizing the hotly contested bidding war that was going on in their names. The two prices played leapfrog until both sellers were offering the book for just one cent plus postage. Neither knew he is being so magnanimous.
You may think you have programmed your winning selling strategy into your PC, but if you have only thought about what happens if you have human opponents, you may need to think out your strategy some more. This is the sort of thing that can have serious repercussions. A process similar to this one was at least suspected of causing the great stock market crash of October, 1987. On one day, (Black) Monday October 19, the Dow Jones Industrial average lost 22.6% of its total value. That was over 500 points dropped and the biggest lost ever in a single day. The prime suspect for the cause of the crash was computerized trading.
It does not look like the computers were the primary cause. Other stock markets that do not use computer trading fell at the same time so these days economists look for other explanations. But the effects of computerized trades could well have been the catalyst. And previously there had been other crashes that were similar but did not come about because of computer trading.
We live in an age when computers can do what humans do not have stamina enough to do. They can act as agents of humans and do what humans would be doing, but can do it tirelessly 24 hours a day. But the real danger of that is that a human has a sense of when he has let things go too far. A human can apply judgement and can decide that a strategy has to be re-thought. A machine cannot make that same sort of judgement unless it is programmed to take into account those conditions. It is a problem that Isaac Asimov was writing about years ago, but it is a gotcha that still comes around and bites us. [-mrl]
RELATIVITY by Robert J. Sawyer (copyright 2004, Robert J. Sawyer, ISFIC Press, $25.00, 304pp, ISBN 0-9759156-0-6) (book review by Joe Karpierz):
Robert J. Sawyer was recently Guest of Honor at WindyCon in Chicago in November of 2004. While I was unfortunately unable to attend, I was able to buy a copy of the book RELATIVITY, released in conjunction with WindyCon and published by ISFIC press out of Deerfield, Illinois. RELATIVITY is Sawyer's first United States collection of short fiction, essays, articles, and speeches--and I'll have to agree with the statement on the inside front flap which says that RELATIVITY is "a book every Robert J. Sawyer and science fiction fan should have in their collection."
RELATIVITY is a remarkably diverse collection of items: eight short stories, four speeches, ten articles, all twelve installments of Sawyer's "On Writing" column from the Canadian science fiction magazine ON SPEC, and four pieces "About Rob", which include an autobiography, a critical essay by Valerie Broerge, a bibliography, and even a crossword puzzle, also by Broerge. It is a well-rounded, high-quality look at many facets of the man who, it can be said, is dominating the SF field these days.
Of the eight stories that are gathered here, there are three I haven't read before: "Immortality", "Ineluctable", and "Relativity". I've read the others from various sources, including chapbooks and Sawyer's Canadian collection of short work, Iterations. These "new" three are just as good as the others. About Rob's short fiction I wrote in my review of ITERATIONS: "ITERATIONS is full of short stories the way I remember short stories were written when I was younger--short, sweet, with some impact and with something to make you want to go 'hmmmm'. Maybe I've been looking in all the wrong places (I think there's a song title in there somewhere) for short fiction, but I just don't find much like this any more."
These stories just confirm that assertion. "Relativity" is the story of a woman who has a husband and children but volunteers to go on a long interstellar voyage of exploration to another planet and the reality she faces when she comes home after seven years of time from her point of view, thirty years from her family's; "Immortality" is a story of a different kind of immortality than is normally dealt with in this genre, as a retired singer goes back to her 60th high school reunion and discovers that she has some unfinished business to take care of; and my favorite of the three, "Ineluctable", wherein cultural differences between aliens and humans during a First Contact situation result in fearsome consequences.
As for the non-fiction contained in the book (which actually is nearly two-thirds of the content), it is a terrific mix of topics, ideas, and thought provoking insights. His speech on AI and SF contained a new interpretation of my favorite movie of all time, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, which I found fascinating but didn't quite explain the Starchild. The articles give an insightful look into Sawyer's beliefs and views--I especially liked "Science and God", "Pros and Cons", and "Committing Trilogy" (which I had read previously, but still enjoyed). While I'm not a writer, and don't have any aspirations of being one, the articles "On Writing" seem to me to contain very practical and common sense advice about doing things the right way. Sawyer's autobiography will give you just enough information about his life without hitting you over the head with unnecessary and boring details. The bibliography is a complete listing of everything that Sawyer has published, and is useful to all fans who may have a gap in their collection.
As far as the physical makeup of the book, the cover is beautifully illustrated by Jael--it's one I'd like to have a print of. ISFIC Press did a terrific job putting the book together.
RELATIVITY is a must for all fans of Robert J. Sawyer, and should be read by folks who have an interest in delving into his work. Go get it now. [-jak]
THE WILD PARROTS OF TELEGRAPH HILL (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: The Birdman of Telegraph Hill is Mark Bittner. A failed street musician and a self-proclaimed dharma bum, Bittner has set himself up as an almost full-time companion to the local flock of feral parrots. In the course of this film we get to know Bittner and the birds. Bittner's stories give the birds real personalities. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
How engaging can a film be that is a documentary about a flock of feral parrots living in San Francisco? Surprisingly, THE WILD PARROTS OF TELEGRAPH HILL proves to be intelligent and touching. It shows how strong and involving a documentary can be about a subject that may sound only of marginal interest. It is a film that has the power to completely change what the viewer thinks of birds. The parrots of Telegraph Hill are really conures. A conure, depending on whom you ask is either a small parrot or a large parakeet. There is a flock of about 45 of them living in San Francisco on Telegraph Hill. They are a particular breed, cherry-headed conures, and they have a green plumage except around the face where they are a very bright red. And for a while, there was one man who was the world expert on this flock of conures and lived in close proximity to them.
Mark Bittner came to San Francisco as an aspiring writer, poet, singer, and songwriter. Most things he tried did not work out. Bittner himself realized that all the writers he liked came to bad ends. After an unsuccessful stint as a street musician he discovered and became fascinated (or obsessed) with the parrot flock on Telegraph Hill. There are many local legends as to where the parrots came from, but nobody knows for sure. They were probably born wild, were captured by the pet industry and taken as pets, and then escaped somehow. Bittner says that there are about forty-five of them and he has a name for each bird. Connor found an unoccupied house and took up uninvited residence. The owners of the house found Bittner living there, but took much the same attitude of fascination toward him that he took toward the parrots. Then all of Bittner's time was spent caring for and getting to know the birds, each of which he can distinguish by sight and each with a noticeably different personality. And Bittner returned to writing. His articles about the birds have made him an internationally known authority. He is the author of THE WILD PARROTS OF TELEGRAPH HILL.
One learns through the films a little of the lives of the birds. Connor, who was Mark's personal favorite, was a loner who could not win a mate, probably because he was really a blue-crowned conure living among cherry-headeds. As a sort of outcast himself Connor protects other outcasts from the flock. It seems a very admirable reaction. We learn something of Connor and of some of the birds, particularly the surprisingly poignant story of Tupelo. We learn something of how the parrots protect themselves from their chief predators, the hawks.
The film is released at a time when avian intelligence is a very topical subject. The idea that birds' brains are simple is giving way to increasing respect. Last year a crow was observed to actually forge a tool to solve a problem. This week I read an article that said that by some measures birds have been seen to show intelligence beyond that of non-human apes. There are birds, notably crows and parrots, that are now thought to rival chimpanzees for intelligence. One can tell a bird is from the parrot family because of the characteristic foot. A parrot- family bird can be recognized an 'X' for a foot with two toes going forward and two going backward. Bittner finds the birds to be very emotional animals, considered by some to be a controversial observation. Other issues concerning the birds is if they should be allowed to stay in the city or removed because they are a non-native and invasive species.
THE WILD PARROTS OF TELEGRAPH HILL looks at the twin paradoxes of the presence of the birds and the presence of the man who studies them. Both seem to have come uninvited and neither seems to have much means of support, but both have become part of the scene of this pleasant street in a pleasant city.
Admittedly I have an interest in animal and particularly bird intelligence, but I find this amiable documentary well worth seeing. I rate it a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
"I write novels (*when* I write them), not series. The first time I saw the words "stand alone novel" I thought I would never stop throwing up. Once upon a time, a book was a book. One. A Singular. Now they're not books unless there's *at least* three of them." --Howard Waldrop, Readercon 15 Program Book
Charlie Stross's THE FAMILY TRADE (ISBN 0-765-30929-7) is labeled "Book One of The Merchant Princes". A more accurate description would be that it is the first half of a book, and ends very much in media res. Miriam Beckstein discovers she is actually a cross-over from another world (orphaned as a baby), and not only from that world, but a princess there. The political structure of that world is a clan structure that is basically the same as the organized crime families here. And they are involved in similar illegal activities. I didn't find the alternate history aspect of the other world very well fleshed out, it's not clear when the cross-world traffic began, and the fact that it ends with everything up in the air is the final nail in its coffin.
As an additional complaint, publishers used to tell us that the higher price of books was because the books were longer. Then the bookstore chains said they wouldn't stock mid-range authors priced above $25. So most authors split their novels into two or three pieces and padded the pieces out, and the publishers priced them at a few dollars below that. But when Stross split his novel, he didn't add padding. This is good, but the price for this half-novel is $24.95--the maximum it could be. So Tor is asking people to pay $50 for a novel. No thanks. (I borrowed this from the library.)
Most of what I said above goes for John Brimingham's WEAPONS OF CHOICE (ISBN 0-345-45712-9) as well. At least WEAPONS OF CHOICE is in trade paperback rather than hardback, but it is book one of a trilogy, so it's still $48 for the whole story. However, the Stross has "Book One of The Merchant Princes" right on the front in fairly large print; WEAPONS OF CHOICE has "The first novel in a three-book epic, the Axis of Time trilogy" in much smaller print on the back. The premise is that part of a multi-national naval task force from 2021 gets transmitted back to 1942 Midway. (Yes, it sounds a lot like THE PHILADELPHIA EXPERIMENT.) The reaction of the 1942 military to the diverse make-up of their 2021 counterparts is worth investigating up to a point, but Birmingham seems to want to deal with every possible permutation of problem and reaction, and it becomes repetitive after a while. In addition to the usual American "types", the multi-national aspect lets Birmingham have Japanese, Asians, and Russians as well. (I find it interesting that his 2021 military team has a high-ranking lesbian, but apparently no gay male personnel. I still haven't decided if 1942 personnel should have more problems dealing with a black lesbian commander or a gay male sailor.) One reason the story is/will be so long is that Birmingham is spening at least a novel's worth of exposition on the inter- personal relationships, at least another novel's worth of exposition on the military strategy, and another large chunk on the aspect of having the 2021 folks trying to 1) convince the 1942 folks that they really are from 2021, and 2) explain what will happen in the war, all the secret details the 1942 people don't know, etc. The problem is that my inter-weaving them, the whole thing seems stretched thin.
And Mike Farren's KINDLING (ISBN 0-765-30656-5) is even worse than these two for many reasons. First, nowhere on the cover (front or back) does it indicate that it is the first book of a series. Only after the reader has slogged through 416 pages, does she get to read the final words: "TO BE CONTINUED". And amazingly enough, this is priced at $27.95, *above* the theoretical limit. If the book were good, that would be some mitigation, but it isn't. The alternate world Farren describes makes no sense. In it North America was settled primarily by the Norse, and Christianity apparently shares equally with Wicca (although we also have a rabbi), yet we have Jamestown, Virginia, Albany, etc. We also have a plethora (one might even say a surfeit) of recognizable names: Queen Diana (who cared about the poor and did a lot of good works) and her husband King Carlyle (who was self-indulgent, extravagant, and autocratic), General James Dean, Colonel Patton (a woman, but with the same personality as her namesake), Vincent Corleone (head of the United Workers Party), Prime Minister Jack Kennedy, and Jackvance Weaver. And lastly, it's written entirely from a male perspective. True, the four central characters are two males and two females, but while the males are characters with personalities and lives of their own, the females are defined solely by their relationships with men. (And the clincher is the way the sex scenes are written--this book is obviously intended for a male audience.) So it's only part of a badly written, over-priced series. 'Nuff said.
(Again, if you wonder why I am reading all these, it is because I am on a panel judging alternate history works, and am now in catch-up mode on last year's novels. There have been, I should add, multi-volume alternate histories I did like, such as Mary Gentle's "Book of ASH". Not only was it excellently written-- unlike a lot of these--but it was released as a single volume in Britain, and while it was split into four parts in the United States, it was clearly labeled, all four parts came out in the same year, and it came out in mass-market paperback, meaning it cost about what a single hardback would.)
Herman Gollob's ME & SHAKESPEARE (ISBN 0-385-49818-7) is accurately titled--it is as much (or more) about Gollob as about Shakespeare. After a while his digressions from Shakespeare into his experiences (such as meeting Frank Sinatra at a party) seem self-indulgent. His comments on the plays are occasionally thought-provoking, though they are extracted from classes that he taught or took and frequently lack enough context. However, his on-going analysis of "King Lear" as a Judaic play is engaging--I wish he would write just that book. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Democratic civilization is the first in history to blame itself because another power is trying to destroy it. --Jean-François Revel, 1970
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