MT VOID 02/09/07 -- Vol. 25, No. 32, Whole Number 1427

MT VOID 02/09/07 -- Vol. 25, No. 32, Whole Number 1427

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
02/09/07 -- Vol. 25, No. 32, Whole Number 1427

Table of Contents

      El Presidente: Mark Leeper, The Power Behind El Pres: Evelyn Leeper, Back issues at All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted. All comments sent will be assumed authorized for inclusion unless otherwise noted. To subscribe, send mail to To unsubscribe, send mail to


The letter of comment on cookies, warskiing, and electronic vagabonds in the 02/02/07 issue of the MT VOID was mistakenly attributed to Daniel Kimmel. It was written by Daniel Cox. [-ecl]

Je Ne Comprends Pas (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

While the name the Ian Fleming title CASINO ROYALE has been around since JFK declared " Ich ben ein berliner!" ("I am a jelly doughnut"), in that time has anybody but me noticed it is a grammatical error? I has been a while since my French class but shouldn't it be CASINO ROYAL? Don't adjectives have to agree in gender with nouns? [-mrl]

Pythagoras and the Law (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

I run a program to help high school kids with mathematics. A question that seems to come up often is whether real people ever do mathematics. I expect the low end of these kids--probably the ones asking for help--are going to have careers such as working in lumberyards, running a cash register, being automobile mechanics. These are jobs that all use mathematics, but only on a low level. Certainly the students see that arithmetic might be useful, though surprisingly few can do it with any proficiency. But it is hard for them to see how something like the quadratic equation or the Pythagorean Theorem is going to be of use to them in the future. Actually, I can see how something as complex as the Pythagorean Theorem can be used in a lumberyard, but it is harder to tie it into cash registers or traditional auto mechanics. But you never know. There was a drug dealer who found that questions of mathematics and particularly the Pythagorean Theorem became very relevant to his line of work.

In November 2005, a case came up to the New York State Court of Appeals. It seems that one James Robbins was found guilty of selling drugs. The sentence was made stronger because, as the law had determined, he had been selling drugs within a thousand feet of a school. It is illegal enough to deal drugs, but to sell them so close to a school is considered worse and gives an even stiffer sentence. You have probably seen signs all over the roads that warn "Drug Free School Zone" to compassionately inform poor unsuspecting drug dealers that they are entering the region within a thousand feet of the school with stiffer fines. (I don't know how much consideration has been given to putting up signs on the reverse side telling people they are leaving the school proximity zone. They could just put up a small sign that says, "Leaving drug-free zone. Resume Drugs." (Aside: You know I made that comment to a family member who happens to be a Massachusetts State Trooper and he completely missed the humor in it. I guess all humor is relative.))

The aforementioned Mr. Robbins had been selling drugs in Manhattan at the corner of Eighth Avenue and 40th Street. And there was, in fact, a school on 43rd Street between Eighth and Ninth. The appeal did not contest the fact of the selling of drugs. What was contested was the distance from the school. Counsel for the Defense argued that it had been paced and there is no way to get to the point that Robbins was standing and delivering by walking 1000 feet. Any path to the point of Robbins dealership would require going around buildings and the point was outside of the distance of a 1000-foot walk from the school.

The law enforcement authorities had made the case that Robbins actually had been standing within a 1000-foot radius of the school. It seems they measured along the streets. One had to walk from the school 490 feet to the corner of Eighth Avenue and then 764 feet to Mr. Robbins's chosen place of business at the corner of Eighth Avenue and 40th Street. Plugging this into a calculator they came up with a figure that Mr. Robbins's ad hoc place of business is actually 907.63 feet from the school.

The real question was whether the law takes into account obstacles. It turns out that mathematicians do not always measure distances in the same way. They sometimes do use what they have dubbed--appropriately enough in this case--"the Manhattan Metric." That is a way to measure distance was inspired by the streets and avenues of Manhattan. Using this metric you measure distances rectilinearly. (That is not a messy as it sounds.) The distance from (0,0) to (3,6) is considered to be 9 or 3+6 because you would go from (0,0) to (3,0) going a distance of 3, and then from (3,0) to (3,6). There is incidentally also the "Washington Metric", which is inspired by the roads of Washington, DC where roads come radially out of a center point. You can use many different metrics to measure the distance between points as long as you follow four fairly intuitive rules: 1) The distance from any point to itself must be zero. 2) The distance from any point to any different point is positive. 3) The distance from point A to point B is the same as the distance from B to A. And finally that detours cannot save you distance. That is, 4) the distance from A to C has to be no more than the distance from A to B plus the distance from B to C for any point B. Actually, the real Manhattan does not fit the third constraint if you travel by car. Sometimes in Manhattan you have to go a lot further to travel from A to B than to travel from B to A due to their lamentable practice of creating one-way streets. (I always said that civilization started going downhill with the invention of the one-way street. Until that point you could always leave the way you came. With one-way streets They (the big They) had a means of trapping you.)

Okay, with that diversion you may be wondering how the appeal turned out. The magistrate opined that applicable metric should be not how a person walks but as the crow flies, in spite of the fact that crows do not generally buy drugs. If distance is to be measured for the purpose of enforcing drug free zones around schools the distance should be the metric most likely taught within the schools. They will use everybody's favorite metric, the Pythagorean Theorem. Entrepreneur Robbins was within a thousand feet of the school. He got a small lesson in geometry and he got the stiffer penalty. Q.E.D. (He probably preferred the lesson in geometry to the stiff penalty. Though some of my student may not think so.) [-mrl]

LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: Clint Eastwood shows us the battle of Iwo Jima from the Japanese side, having three months ago given it to us from the American side. This time he gives us a more traditional war film that is anti-violence but pays homage to those men forced to be violent. The film is based on the actual letters of one Japanese commander who is forced to do his duty knowing it will mean his death. Eastwood makes some stylistic mistakes, but the strength of the underlying material comes through. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10

This is, of course, Eastwood's second Iwo Jima film. It is a follow-up to his directly previous film, FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS. He said in an interview on National Public Radio that while making the first film he became interested in these letters by the Japanese commander of the island and decided that there was a movie to be made about him. As far as I am concerned, it is actually a better film and very different in tone. FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS was about exploitation and dishonesty. This is a film about honor and courage. In spite of the necessary downbeat ending, at the end of LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA one feels clean and the previous film leaves one feeling a little dirty. Curiously, that makes this the more traditional of the two war films. But there might be good reason for the traditions. Actually, the two films are mostly consistent in their respect for the fighting man and are less positive on functionaries who did their service a safe distance from the fighting, people who could be unfeeling who could tell themselves it was in good cause.

In the closing days of the Pacific War General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (played by Ken Watanabe) is the commander ordered to defend Iwo Jima from the onslaught of Americans. The island itself seems of little intrinsic value beyond simply being a strategic objective, being it was actually Japan. Like Yamamoto, Kuribayashi had been to the United States and was pessimistic that Japan could defeat such an industrial power. At this point in the war, that conclusion was rapidly becoming obvious to all and all too obvious. Kuribayashi accepts the command fully knowing that it is going to mean his death and the death of most of his men. Knowing that fact reinforces his natural compassion for the men serving under him. This makes him liked by the men, but disliked by the junior officers who favor harsh discipline for those lower in command. Kuribayashi's strategy it to take men from digging trenches on the beach and had them instead dig caves in the rocky hills of the island. This will simply slow the Americans. He sees his responsibility is to protect the Japanese children from the Americans, even if it is for only one day.

Iris Yamashita's screenplay, based on Kuribayashi's letters to his family, gives us views into the lives of the serving men and how they came to be serving on Iwo Jima. Once we are introduced and have a feel for the characters, we see them plunged into the inferno of war. The personal stories are affecting, though this is a surprisingly familiar structure for a war film. Films from the 1940s up to BAND OF BROTHERS have used it. And the soldiers experience and personalities are not very different from those of their American enemies. They are sympathetically portrayed. One low-level American soldier is decidedly unsympathetic, but there is a Japanese soldier who balances him off. The majority of those on both sides are just decent people hoping to survive the war and to get back to civilian life. There is something of the same spirit here of Michael Shaara's book THE KILLER ANGELS (made into the great film GETTYSBURG). As in Shaara, both sides are seen as noble and the war is very unfortunate. What we see are probably echoes of just about any war.

Ken Watanabe, playing General Kuribayashi, has been in Japanese films since 1984, notably including the food comedy TAMPOPO. However he did not get much attention in this country until his title role in THE LAST SAMURAI. Since then he has been in BATMAN BEGINS and MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA. The IMDB also says he is rumored to be already cast for next year's WOLVERINE. He is fast becoming this generation's answer to Toshiro Mifune. His is the only face in the film that is likely to be familiar to Americans.

Both Iwo Jima films have the heavily muted colors all but simulating monochrome. Color is used to highlight parts of an image--especially the flames of explosions--but never the full image. Selecting color values within a single scene like this is effective once or twice, but it is becoming an all-too-familiar device. Nobody is denying that lighting and color affect the feel of a film, but this is a gimmick that calls attention to itself away from the underlying material, and both of Eastwood's Iwo Jima films used it. Also the muted colors are something of a special problem in this film. The subtitles are in white and the background is frequently nearly white making the titles less readable. If Eastwood wanted to color something in the frame, it should have been the subtitles.

LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA has some wrenching moments but overall it strikes me as much less graphic than was FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS. Overall Eastwood gives tone to the film by playing honor and fatalism against each other. We rarely get a chance to see the war from the Japanese side, particularly in the tragic final weeks. I rate LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10. [-mrl]

[Mark's review of FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS may be found in the 10/27/06 issue of the MT VOID, or at or at]

Toddler Air Rage (letters of comment by Phil Merkel, Daniel Kimmel, and David Leeper):

In response to Mark's article on toddler air rage in the 02/02/07 issue of the MT VOID, we got several letters.

Phil Merkel writes, "I enjoyed reading your piece on the child who would not buckle (or perhaps the parents who wouldn't buckle down?) and it made me wonder if the child who refuses to wear a seat belt on a plane would wear one in a car? The car belts are more restrictive for children on cars and I would think it would be much less a problem on a plane with it's simple lap belt." [-pm]

Dan Kimmel writes, " I agree with Mark's notion about being responsible for your kids in transit. When my daughter was an infant, we took the train from New York back to Boston and I could see everyone giving us the fish eye when we boarded. We made sure we had food, diapers, toys to distract her, etc. When we got off the train in Boston one passenger thanked us for having such a well-behaved baby. Of course my wife and I were exhausted. However I want to add that while people should expect parents to control and otherwise be responsible for their kids, being a parent isn't a crime, and adults who are looking for trouble when they see a kid board should cool it. On a flight to Florida there was a mother and toddler sitting behind me. While boarding was going on, the kid started kicking my seat. I turned around, gave them both a big smile, wished them a nice flight, and said, as pleasantly as I could, that I trusted that junior would *not* be kicking my seat for the rest of the flight. The kicking stopped." [-dk]

Mark replies, "This also happened to me recently, but the kicking did not stop. Again it was origami to the rescue. I started tearing pages out my magazine and folding figures. That at least kept her amused. She kicked only very occasionally after that." [-mrl]

And Dan concludes, "A little civility on both sides accomplishes more than a sense of infringed entitlement. (Not that I'm accusing Mark of this, just making an observation.)" [-dk]

To which Mark says, "I agree." [-mrl]

And David Leeper writes, "This is a sensible editorial like Mark's many other sensible editorials. It's not surprising, since I know he comes from a sensible family.... Mark has put his finger on the much broader now-vs-then trend towards blaming someone or something else for every mishap, large or small. What might have caused such a trend? I hope Mark will put some ink and intellect into that broader topic ..."

Mark responds:

"We may be talking about two different things.

The now-vs-then change you are seeing is one of better communication so we see it happening more often. It has always been human nature to blame others. You might be able to get some restitution from the blamed party. Even if not it is just human psychology to find a scapegoat. A scapegoat with deep pockets is even better in this age of easy lawsuits. And frequently natural prejudices play a part. You cannot look at Jewish history and not realize that Jews have been blamed for a lot that in enlightened times we realize they could not possibly have been guilty of (e.g., causing the Black Plague). When a woman spills hot coffee in her lap it is natural to find someone else to blame. (Incidentally, I believe Consumer Reports made a case that McDonalds really was at least partially to blame serving the coffee at a dangerously high temperature.) But I think that probably most people prefer to blame others or to let others take the blame.

In the case in the editorial, however, it was not somebody blaming bad luck on AirTran but a complaint about airline policy not being sufficiently tolerant of uncooperative children and inconveniences they cause. They were not saying the incident was AirTran's fault but that they did not like the way AirTran handled the situation. A big part of that is the Kulesza's attitude that other people have a responsibility to be tolerant of the inconveniences they inflict on them because they are parents dealing with an uncooperative child. They are denying responsibility for their child's behavior and saying that the behavior should be treated as just the other passengers' bad luck." [-mrl]

Translations (letter of comment by Charles Harris):

In Evelyn's comments on "A Dictionary of Received Ideas" in the 02/02/07 issue of the MT VOID, she wrote, "Krailsheimer does indicate a couple of spots where he took liberties. For example, he has 'SPICE: plural of 'spouse'; an old joke but still good for a laugh,' with a note '[chacal/shakos in French].' 'Chacal' is 'jackal', but I cannot find 'shakos' in my dictionary."

Charlie Harris writes:

American Heritage Dictionary:

shakˇo also shackˇo (shak'o, sha'ko, shä'-)
n.     pl. shakˇos also shackˇos or shakˇoes also shackˇoes
     A stiff, cylindrical military dress hat with a metal plate in front, a short visor, and a plume. [French schako, from Hungarian csákó, from csákós (süveg), pointed (cap), from csák, peak, perhaps from Middle High German zacke, tack, nail.]

The plural of a French adjective that ends in -al typically ends in -aux (pronounced o).

If you like this sort of word-play and inventive translation, you may enjoy the book I'm working my way through (hoping to finish before the end of the decade): Douglas Hofstadter's LE TON BEAU DE MAROT. This is the book I've mentioned before that is built around *88* translations of the same little French poem. As you'd expect from Hofstadter, its 600 pages contain *lots* more than his ruminations on the challenges of translation. It strikes me as a more disciplined, academic, nonfiction (mostly) counterpart to the compulsively rambling TRISTRAM SHANDY (one of my very favorite humorous books). I agree with both the rave and the pan on Amazon. [-ch]

Evelyn responds, "Coincidentally, Hofstadter's book was mentioned recently in a different context at our local book discussion and after that I had already put it on my shelf to re-read!" [-ecl]

This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):

You know you have too many books when you find yourself figuring out what clothes to get rid of to make room in the drawers for books!

Our discussion group chose ON THE ROAD by Jack Kerouac (ISBN-10 0-140-04259-8, ISBN-13 978-0-140-04259-7) for our January book. most of us found it close to unreadable, and certainly not enjoyable. But at least two of us were stuck by this passage in Part 2, Chapter 2: "When daybreak came we were zooming through New Jersey wit the great cloud of Metropolitan New York rising before us in the snowy distance. Dean had a sweater wrapped around his ears to keep warm. He said we were a band of Arabs coming in to blow up New York." And this was written a half century before 9/11.

Written in 1851, FIFTEEN DECISIVE BATTLES OF THE WORLD by Sir Edward S. Creasey (ISBN-10 0-306-80559-6, ISBN-13 978-0-306- 80559-2) is a classic.

The battles are (briefly):

     490 B.C.E.--The Persians defeated at Marathon.
     413 B.C.E.--The Athenians defeated at Syracuse.
     331 B.C.E.--Darius III defeated at Gaugamela (Arbela).
     207 B.C.E.--The Catheginians defeated at Metaurus.
       9 B.C.E.--The Romans defeated in the Teutoberg Forest.
     451 C.E.--Attila the Hun defeated at Chalons.
     732 C.E.--The Moors defeated at Tours.
    1066 C.E.--Harold defeated at Hastings.
    1429 C.E.--The English defeated at Orleans.
    1588 C.E.--The Spanish Armada defeated.
    1704 C.E.--The French defeated at Blenheim.
    1709 C.E.--The Swedes defeated at Poltava.
    1777 C.E.--Burgoyne defeated at Saratoga.
    1792 C.E.--Foreign armies defeated at Valmy.
    1815 C.E.--Napoleon defeated at Waterloo.

One thing that is noted by everyone is that all of these are very Eurocentric choices. But even more than that, they are all battles that reinforced (western) European dominance. Even Teutoberg is seen by Creasy as leading directly to the establishment of the British peoples. Creasy chooses Tours as critical in halting the Arab invasion of Europe. But he ignores the recapture of Jerusalem by Saladin in 1187 or the capture of Acre in 1291, either of which could be cited as halting the expansion of Europe into the Middle East and Asia. He ignores the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. He ignores the defeat in the Battle of Koan of the Mongols invading Japan in 1281.

[He also does not include Yarmouk in 636 which brought Islam flooding out of Arabia and is arguably the most important. See -mrl] [And which one rarely ever hears about. -ecl]

One might think that Creasy's critical turning points would have generated various alternate history stories, but one would be only partly accurate. Yes, there are stories based on most of the early ones (though with Alexander, Carthage, and Joan of Arc they are more general than based on specific battles) and for Saratoga and Waterloo, but nothing for Syracuse, Tours, Blenheim, Poltava, or Valmy.

Historian Joseph B. Mitchell has five more battles since 1851:

    1863--Confederates defeated in the Vicksburg Campaign.
    1866--Austria defeated at Sadowa in the Seven Weeks' War.
    1914--German forces defeated at the Marne.
    1942--Japanese defeated at Midway.
    1942--Germans defeated at Stalingrad (now Volgograd).

For alternate histories, Vicksburg has been almost ignored, while Gettysburg has inspired dozens of stories. Sadowa? Nothing. The Marne? Most World War I alternate histories focus on either the assassination or some obscure German corporal. And it seems as though there are only a couple of stories on Midway and none on Stalingrad. (One might argue that Mitchell should have chosen Pearl Harbor, since without that we might have "sat out" the war, and things would be very different now.)

By the way, in his chapter on Saratoga, Creasy quotes Alexis de Toqueville, who had written fifteen years earlier. Even by Creasy's time, it was a picture of the United States that was not accurate, and certainly as a prediction of what would come was fairly far off: "The time will therefore come when one hundred and fifty millions of men will be living in North America, equal in condition, one race, owing their origin to the same cause, and preserving the same civilisation, the same language, the same religion, the same habits, the same manners, and imbued with the same opinions, propagated under the same forms. The rest is uncertain, but this is certain; ...." (The United States population was 150,000,000 in 1950.)

Creasy himself repeatedly refers to "Anglo-Americans", and says things like, "They, like ourselves, are members of the great Anglo-Saxon nation", and "our race is one, being of the same blood, speaking the same language, having an essential resemblance in our institutions and usages, and worshipping in the temples of the same God." Again, even in Creasy's time this was not accurate--even before the massive influx of immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the United States had a fair percentage of German (almost 10% of the population during the War of 1812), Scots, and Irish. And of course there was a very large percentage of African-Americans, which both he and de Toqueville ignored. [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

           The reason people blame things on previous 
           generations is that there's only one other choice.
                                          -- Doug Larson

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