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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
04/20/07 -- Vol. 25, No. 42, Whole Number 1437
Table of Contents
Human Computer Interaction in Movies:
In his Boing-Boing blog, Cory Doctorow says, "Michael Schmitz's paper, 'Human Computer Interaction in Science Fiction Movies' [ http://w5.cs.uni-sb.de/~butz/teaching/ie-ss03/papers/HCIinSF/] is a visual, thematic tour through the ways that people talk to computers (and vice-versa) in movies and TV shows, from Metropolis to Futurama. There's some really insightful analysis here--and there's plenty to be learned just by looking at the side-by-side screenshots." [-cd]
Aerospace and Honeybees (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
One of the arguments I have made for the importance of space technology and for becoming a space-faring people is that as time goes by there will be more and more threats to our planet brought about by our population growth and our increasing technological state. Even if each has a low probability of causing a real disaster, the sheer numbers of such threats makes something really nasty happening almost inevitable sooner or later. Now if at that time we have advanced sufficiently that we are no longer dependent on Home Planet Earth--and that will take hundreds of years to get to that state--then the human race will survive. If not, we are really taking our chances. Of course the irony is that space technology also speeds up the rate of other technology. It increases the possibility of us giving ourselves another whiz-bang that has some dire side effect.
Now what makes this all the scarier is plausible deniability. We might not know that what we are doing is having the side effect that is bringing our downfall. A great example is carbon dioxide from cars and industries. Is carbon dioxide causing environmental changes? It seems likely, but it takes a long time to prove such a thing. There is some doubt. Meanwhile there is a certainty that we like having very big cars. We like the things that industries are creating for us. And the industries employ a lot of people who need their salaries to survive. We weigh the doubt against the certainty and do not take any action at all. We just continue what we were doing. And the side effect gets worse and worse. And there is something to be said for that attitude because we do not want to be fearful of every technological change. Fear of change makes society stagnate. But there are worse dangers than stagnation. It is a difficult course to go.
It is a staple of science fiction movies that when something really bad is about to happen it starts in some subtle way that makes that back pages of the newspaper. It is there for all to see. And many of us do see it and leave it go just saying, "That's funny." For example, fish are washing up on the shore in THE GIANT BEHEMOTH, or the pigeons in Trafalgar Square are losing their sense of direction in THE CORE. Or bees are disappearing from their hives. That one is from real life.
You may have seen this in the back pages of your newspaper, but to date not very many people are taking it very seriously. We have been hearing about it only for a few months. It is call Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD. Over the last few months honeybee keepers have been facing a very strange phenomenon. They have been going out to visit their hives and finding nobody home in a significant fraction of them. Some of the hives are just empty of bees. Whole colonies of bees are just going missing. First this was happening in isolated parts of the United States, then large parts of the United States, then in continental Europe. Now it is being reported in Britain. Most of us see the story and just say, "That's odd." If we think about the effects at all maybe we think that the price of honey might go up. The truth is that bees sting people and many of us are just not that fond of bees.
The more thoughtful of us see this is something a little scary. About one third of all crops get their pollination from honeybees. Since the age of dinosaurs there have been intimate links between bees and flowers that sort of evolved together. And we are highly dependent on that symbiosis. If honeybees were to disappear we would likely have much less food grown, much less fed to animals. The whole system would go into famine mode. And honeybees are disappearing. And the problem is they are disappearing without a trace. It would be one thing if we were finding their dead bodies someplace and could see if we could figure out what killed them. Maybe it is some parasite and maybe it is pesticides. Of course people would be rooting for it to be parasites because then there would be little we could do. And we prefer that to stopping use of pesticides for some strange reason. And city dwellers would rather it be pesticides than something they are doing. The further the cause is from our daily lives, the less chance we will be asked to change our lifestyle. But there are no bees to be found to perform an autopsy on so we have no idea what the cause is.
Now it looks like it might be something that we all are familiar with. Bees become disoriented in the presence of cell phone radiation. Bees actually avoid their own hives in the presence of cell phone radiation in the frequency range 900 MHz - 1800 MHz. They seem to communicate in the hive by means of a "waggle" dance. It is being speculated that the ability to do that dance is being affected. Dr Jochen Kuhn of Koblenz-Landau University in Germany has been doing research into the effects of this radiation and bees. He finds that the normal function of bees is disrupted by the radiation resonance effect of telephone handsets. When bees cannot return home they have no choice but to fly until they drop. Then birds probably eat them. Nothing is found.
Make no mistake. This is frightening stuff. Suppose a link is discovered. Are we going to throw out our cell phones and decide cell phone technology was a big mistake? Are we going to shut down the mobile phone industry and throw the people out of work? And if strong evidence is not proven are we going to just let things go on? We will probably not make a big change without really solid evidence, evidence that may not even be possible to collect. So with the introduction of the cell phone we may have put ourselves on an inevitable course to worldwide famine. And we never could have seen the association in advance. This may be right up there with fundamentalist Islam and global warming as a threat. And it could be something we are doing to ourselves.
So what other new technology is coming along now that may have unforeseen effects?
See http://tinyurl.com/3cutao for more details. [-mrl]
EIFELHEIM (letter of comment by Gerald W. Ryan):
In response to the announcement of the Hugo nominees in the 03/30/07 issue of the MT VOID, Jerry Ryan writes:
Just catching up with my reading here. I seem to remember Michael Flynn doing a short story called "Eifelheim" in ANALOG, at least fifteen years ago, maybe even twenty. Have you read the novel? I am wondering if Flynn decided to do a novel-length version of the story.
My memory of the story was that the protagonist had done some kind of mathematical analysis of population growth and did not understand why a town that his model predicted would exist did not actually exist. It turned out that there had been a town in that place, named Eifelheim, that had been abandoned for some reason... and as the stroy developed we learned that an alien vehicle had landed in the place and that it had gotten an evil reputation (at one point the characters determined that the original version of the town name was Teufel Heim or "devil home"), and the story ended with exhuming the grave of a dead alien whose body had not decomposed, because no terran bacteria would eat it. I remember liking the story and wishing it had been longer. Do you think I finally got my wish? [-gwr]
Mark responds, "I think the Hugo-nominated novel is an expansion of the short story. And, no, I have not read it. I hate to say it, but I am very under-read with current SF." [-mrl]
Evelyn adds, "Yes, it is definitely an expansion from the novella. In fact, the novella was nominated for a Hugo exactly twenty years ago (it lost to Robert Silverberg's "Gilgamesh in the Outback"). See Mark L. Olson's review at http://www.nesfa.org/reviews/Olson/Eifelheim.html for more details." [-ecl]
Witchcraft, Conventions, and THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB (letter of comment by Bob Devney):
In response to Mark's comments on witchcraft in the 03/16/07 issue of the MT VOID, Bob Devney writes:
You have lured me out of my lurker's den by dangling a delicious opportunity for nigglement. A few ishes back, you noted that the English killed a lot more people for witchcraft than ever did our New Englanders, yet pop history makes Salem the center of witch- hunting hysteria. Great observation, and one new to me. These cool gedankenpunkts are why everybody should be diving into the MT VOID with unceasing regularity. However, along the way you said, "The few people executed for witchcraft in American history died by the relatively merciful method of hanging. -mrl" This might come as crushing news to Giles Corey. You may recall his story from Arthur Miller's great Salem play THE CRUCIBLE. Here's how Wikipedia (I know, I know, but this agrees with other accounts I've read) describes Corey's story.
"Giles Corey, an 80-year-old farmer from the southeast end of Salem called Salem Farms, refused to enter a plea when he came to trial in September. The judges mistakenly believed that the law provided for the application of a form of torture called peine forte et dure, in which the victim was slowly crushed by piling stones on a board that was laid upon the victim's body. (British law had, in reality, abolished this practice twenty years earlier.) After two days of peine fort et dure, Corey died without entering a plea (Boyer 8). Though his refusal to plead is often explained as a way of preventing his possessions from being confiscated by the state, this is not true; the possessions of convicted witches were often confiscated, and the possessions of persons accused but not convicted were confiscated before a trial, as in the case of Corey's neighbor John Proctor and the wealthy English's of Salem Town. Some historians hypothesize that Giles Corey's personal character, a stubborn and lawsuit- prone old man who knew he was going to be convicted regardless, led to his recalcitrance (Boyer 8)."
[True. Now that I think about it what I had read was that the majority were hanged, but there were a few that were executed by other means. I think that one person was actually sentenced to be burned at a stake. The only such case in the New World. He escaped however and the sentence was never carried out. That may have been outside of Salem. You are right, my statement was too sweeping. (Gee, should I make a pun with broomstick? No, maybe not.) -mrl]
Miller records the tradition that Corey refused to say anything to his tormentors except, "More weight." Anyway, Mark, that's my case for you to revise and extend your remarks . . . . [-rd]
And by the way, if you try to wriggle out by claiming that technically he wasn't executed but died under questioning, I'll . . . I'll . . . I'll think less of you. [-rd]
[I wouldn't think of it. And in fact didn't. -mrl]
And now for a hundred little errands before I'm off to bed. Hope you and Evelyn are well. Are y'all going to Yokohama? [-rd]
[We are doing less con-going this year. As much as we like Worldcons, I cannot see going all the way to Japan and then sitting in a convention. There would be so much more to be amazed at outside of the convention than in. If I go again to Japan, it will be to see Japan. And that I can do without using up space in some of the rare cheap accomodations. We went to Japan very inexpensively, but the means we used to not scale up well for conventions. I am expecting some serious problems. - mrl]
Or, hey, are you going to Readercon, like last year? [-rd]
[We are unsure at this point. Not to sound like a grinch, but the convention seems built around the mean-spirited Kirk Polland Bad Prose Competition, which always leaves a very bad taste in my mouth. If I go at all I leave after one round. If they ever realized that it has run its course (years ago) and abolished it, we would probably go to Readercon every year. -mrl]
I just saw the very first audience sneak preview of a movie they're still editing of THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB, from the novel by Karen Joy Fowler, one of the co-GOHs this year. Maria Bello, Amy Brenneman, Emily Blunt, Kathy Baker, Jimmy Smits, and more. I mostly loved it. Not out until Aug or Sept, apparently. [-rd]
[I will probably see it then. Thank you for the tip. -mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
PESACH FOR THE REST OF US: MAKING THE PASSOVER SEDER YOUR OWN by Marge Piercy (ISBN-10 0-805-24242-2, ISBN-13 978-0-805-24242-3) is a bit too radical for me. Piercy and her family and friends do a lot to make the Seder relevant: putting an orange on the Seder plate to represent women, emphasizing all the springtime/fertility images, changing the Four Questions to ones they find more relevant, and so on. If she were more aware of the basics, I might be more accepting of her changes, but she does not seem to be. For example, she discusses why we bless the wine for the Seder, and claims we don't bless wine any other time. This is just flat-out wrong. The observant bless it whenever they drink it; even the less observant bless it for Kiddush on Friday night. And she pads the book out with recipes, including some that are not even kosher! Maybe I am just too much of a traditionalist, but I found this too unstructured, too "New-Agey/pagan symbolism/do-your-own-thing" to be worthwhile.
[Well, perhaps that is what the Seder is about from a certain point of view. -mrl]
I re-read BLAMELESS IN ABADDON by James Morrow (ISBN-10 0-156-00505-0, ISBN-13 978-0-156-00505-0), the middle book of his "Towing Jehovah" trilogy, and the one which most discusses theodicy, its defenses, and the flaws in them. I suppose one can get one's philosophy in a more traditional philosophy book, and in some sense Morrow is as enamored of the "expository lump" approach as Kim Stanley Robinson. But as with Robinson's work, the exposition is part of what makes it good.
MARK TWAIN by Albert Bigelow Paine (ISBN-10 0-877-54170-1, ISBN-13: 978-0-877-54170-7) was the first biography of Twain (published in 1912), and the most hagiographic. In his introduction to the three-volume 1980 Chelsea House edition I have, James Cox gives a brief overview of the major biographies of Twain and the approaches they have taken. Paine relied a lot on his own conversations with Twain (as well as those close to him), and people are notoriously unreliable in remembering their early years (as well as often desirous of portraying themselves well). And Twain, as a storyteller, was probably more prone to "elaborate" than most. So it is not surprising that Paine paints only a favorable picture of Twain--it is left for the later biographers to do more research and discover a more balanced picture. (Paine himself wrote an introduction in 1935 correcting some of the more noted errors.) But as long as that is kept in mind, Paine's work is a joy to read.
Other noted Twain biographers include Van Wyck Brooks (1925), Bernard DeVoto (1932), Dixon Wecter (1952), Justin Kaplan (1966), and Hamlin Hill (1973). The last three cover three different eras in Twain's life, so complement rather than directly dispute each other. (Works by Susy Clemens and William Dean Howells are too brief and anecdotal to be considered true biographies.) The Kaplan is on my to-read shelf, so expect comments on that eventually.
In preparation for the film NEXT, I read the story upon which it is based, "The Golden Man". This appeared in IF in 1954, and was reprinted in Judith Merril's BEYOND THE BARRIERS OF SPACE AND TIME that same year. Of it, Merril wrote, "The theme [of predestination vs. free will] is handled here, with unusual dramatic impact, by a young West Coast writer of exceptional promise." And who was that writer? Philip K. Dick, now so esteemed that he is the only modern science fiction author whose name is actually used to promote movies based on their work. I am sure there is some anthology or collection in print with this story, as Hollywood usually makes sure that there is advertising for their films even in bookstores. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: I once saw a photograph of a large herd of wild elephants in Central Africa seeing an airplane for the first time, and all in a state of wild collective terror. . . . As, however, there were no journalists among them, the terror died down when the airplane was out of sight. -- Bertrand Russell
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