MT VOID 10/26/07 -- Vol. 26, No. 17, Whole Number 1464

MT VOID 10/26/07 -- Vol. 26, No. 17, Whole Number 1464

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
10/26/07 -- Vol. 26, No. 17, Whole Number 1464

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

Tell it All in One Page (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

Big ideas do not necessarily take up a big space. Einstein's most famous equation is the simple

I am floored by the simple fact
The Edge Magazine has ninety well-known deep thinkers' answers to the question "What is your formula? Your equation? Your algorithm?" Each is limited to a single page. Basically it is a single viewgraph. Take a look at what they got. (P.S. One of the contributors happens to be the wife of a friend. I notice that Dean Kamen picked a special case of the same formula I picked above.)


A Die-off of Tongues (Part 3) (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

I have been talking the last couple of weeks about how some languages are dying off and about the efforts of some people to keep these languages alive. In the last century, languages that have been saved from extinction have included Hawaiian, Irish Gaelic, Hebrew, and Yiddish. However, there are two very different situations when it comes to saving dying languages. In one case the languages are saved from within and in the other they are saved from without. Hebrew was brought back by a large number of people who were committed to the use of the language in their daily lives. Essentially it was the chosen to be the first language of the State of Israel. People who intended to use the language chose it. When enough people became committed, the continuance of the language was assured. It also helped that Jewish prayer books were written in Hebrew. The situation was very similar with Hawaiian, Gaelic, and Yiddish. Commitment made saving these languages a lot easier. Even with a language like Yiddish for which there was a whole proud literature, how much of the non-Yiddish-speaking world is really taking advantage of that literature? Yiddish literature is still of very selective appeal. It is the everyday users of a language who have to save it, generally not well-meaning outsiders.

On the other hand there are the languages that have to be saved from without. One argument for saving dying languages is like the one for the Banawas of the Amazon Rain Forests. These are people who "make curare, a fast-acting and deadly strychnine- based poison used on blowgun darts and arrows. The ability to make this poison is the result of centuries of knowledge- gathering and experimentation. It is encoded in the Banawas' language in the terms for plants and procedures that are in danger of being lost, as the last seventy remaining Banawa speakers gradually switch to Portuguese." This is the argument provided by Professor Daniel L. Everett of the Department of Linguistics of the University of Manchester. I have no idea how Everett would suggest getting the Banawas to hold onto a language that is no longer really useful to them. I assume it is not greatly useful or they would be using it. I am sure Everett could record the language on audiotape. If it has a written version he could learn that. But how long can he keep a language on what is essentially life support?

If the Banawas are not committed to saving the language then studying the language and recording it will make it only a studied and recorded dead language. If the Banawas do not agree that it represents their identity and culture or are not willing to save that identity and culture, then the goal of saving the language, no matter how laudable that goal is, is doomed to failure. The best Everett can hope to do is to put the language in cold storage and hope that future generations of Banawa decide to resurrect it, an unlikely prospect. I won't say that nobody will really suffer, because presumably the decreasing circle of speakers might be sorry to see the language disappear. Everett says "For many people, like these Amazonian groups, the loss of language brings loss of identity and sense of community, loss of traditional spirituality, and even loss of the will to live." Nobody is saying that this loss is a good thing, it is bad for a limited set of people. But there are many issues that as potently devalue lives and it is not clear that efforts to save a language without providing a population of volunteer speakers will do much to avert the sad situation.

The outer world presumably knows how to synthesize curare if they need it. The threat of lost knowledge is not a particularly frightening prospect. Few issues are so close to being victimless. There is always the risk that there is something else really useful or enriching may be lost. But then there might be something threatening that will go undiscovered. There is always the question of what was on the road we did not take.

It is easy to say that of course languages should be preserved. However if one is willing to put in effort to do good in the world, preserving languages that few people have an interest in may not actually be the best use of that effort.

To read more about Everett's work, see .


Correction (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

And speaking of language, mine was a little loose last week. People are studying Klingon academically, but I know of no cases where people are actually getting Ph.D.s in it yet. [-mrl]

Languages (letter of comment by Fred Lerner):

In his article on languages in the 10/19/07 issue of the MT VOID, Mark wrote, "I almost think that if a language can be eliminated it should be. Misunderstanding between people due to language barriers I consider a serious problem." [-mrl]

Fred Lerner responds, "At a lecture on language loss and preservation that I attended several years ago, the speaker offered this observation: 'Think how much more peaceful the former Yugoslavia would be if the Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians all spoke the same language.'" [-fl]

Languages, MICHAEL CLAYTON, and Early Morning Discussions (letter of comment by Ernest Lilley):

In response to the 10/19/07 issue of the MT VOID, Ernest Lilley writes:

Dear El Presidente,

Another nice issue. I especially like the stuff about [many tongues versus one] and the good movies that Cloony does.

Re early morning discussions with Evelyn: you're welcome to come sleep on the couch when she throws you out ... and we already know you'd rather be proud than happy. [-el]

Plato and Heinlein, and MICHAEL CLAYTON and the Titanic (letter of comment by Taras Wolansky):

In response to Evelyn's comments on Plato's REPUBLIC in the 10/19/07 issue of the MT VOID, Taras Wolansky writes, "It might be an interesting exercise, to figure out the ways in which Heinlein's BEYOND THIS HORIZON is a response to BRAVE NEW WORLD: a eugenic utopia without coercion." [-tw]

Evelyn responds, "I'm not sure about BEYOND THIS HORIZON, but Plato's influence has been noted in Heinlein's STARSHIP TROOPERS." [-ecl]

In response to Mark's review of MICHAEL CLAYTON in the same issue, Taras continues:

The review of the movie, MICHAEL CLAYTON, got me thinking about the way Hollywood creates a counter-factual (but consistent?) worldview. Just the other day--it may have been at Capclave--I heard somebody refer to the Titanic as an example of how corrupt rich people buy their way out of everything.

In the real world, the rich people on the Titanic behaved very well: for example, the richest man in the world put his pregnant wife on a lifeboat and went back to the first class lounge to wait for the icy waters. But in the Hollywood movie, the *fictitious* rich guy lies and cheats his way onto a lifeboat. In the real world, there really were villains who lied and cheated their way onto lifeboats: a gang of swindlers (who went on to fleece some of the survivors). Yet in Hollywood World, these are precisely the kinds of people who are the heroes of movie after movie after movie.

In the real world, for at least half a century, most interracial crime has been black on white. But in Hollywood it's still 1947, and will always be 1947, as far as race relations are concerned.

Does it matter that Hollywood disseminates an ersatz worldview? It suddenly occurred to me, as I looked back over what I just wrote, that I had delineated exactly the counter-factual views-- about wealth and race--behind the Duke "rape" case. And if experience is any guide there is still a large population of Duke rape "truthers" out there, who believe the case was real but covered up by the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy, another very common Hollywood trope. [-tw]

Mark responds:

I have never actually heard how honesty correlated to wealth either on the Titanic or in the world in general.

Is there a political bias in the media? I have heard arguments that there is a liberal bias and arguments that there is a conservative bias. Actually it seems to me that it is relatively easy to tell objectively. I developed my own metric that allows for actual numerical results. I won't tell my conclusions here, but I will tell my method and let people decide for themselves. (This has previously been fodder for an editorial.)

My technique is to look at conflicts presented dramatically. Dramas set up conflicts and frequently tell the viewer whom to side with. My technique is to count conflicts that cross gender and/or racial lines. If it is a male conflicting with a female which one is in the right. If the man is presented as right and the woman as wrong, count that as one point for male bias. If the woman is right count it as one point for female bias.

Similarly if the conflict is a white person against a non-white person tally that. Once you get some data you can draw your own conclusions. [-mrl]

And Evelyn chimes in:

On the Titanic, the situation was more that the rich people who had bought first-class tickets were generally treated better than the poorer people who had bought second- or third-class tickets, not that the richer people, ex post facto, bought seats on the lifeboat. [-ecl]

Karl Popper (letter of comment by Victoria Fineberg):

In response to Evelyn's comments on Karl Popper in the 10/19/07 issue of the MT VOID, Victoria Fineberg writes:

Your review of Karl Popper was a nice surprise. I have just finished BLACK SWAN[: THE IMPACT THE THE HIGHLY IMPROBABLE] by Nassim Taleb, and he has many positive references to Popper. That is in stark contract with severe criticism of other philosophers, economists, and lots of others.

Have you read any Taleb's books? BLACK SWAN came out this year; before that he had FOOLED BY RANDOMNESS and a technical book on trading. If you have not heard of Taleb, one way to meet him is a podcast: .

I am very envious that you have so much time for reading and writing. You and Mark really got it right. [-vf]

Evelyn replies, "I have not read Taleb, but I notice our library has BLACK SWAN, so I will check it out. His other book gets mixed reviews, but if I like BLACK SWAN, I may get it through inter-library loan. And, yes, being able to take early retirement was definitely 'getting it right.'" [-ecl]

Early Mornings, Languages, WINDTALKERS, and Professor Challenger (letter of comment by John Purcell):

In response to the 10/19/07 issue of the MT VOID, John Purcell writes:

I can sort of identify with you and Evelyn with those early- morning philosophical discussions. My wife and I don't start our days with heady topics; typically, our nights end with them, and usually on a weekend. It is not uncommon for Valerie and I to solve the world's problems at 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning. Too bad world leaders aren't around to take notes; some of our solutions--especially hers--are pretty darned good.

Ever since I earned my Masters in Applied Linguistics at Iowa State University, articles about language have interested me, especially since I now teach college English. Some times our class discussions veer off onto the topic of how languages evolve, and I like to point out that English can be described as a living language: one that is dynamic, adding and dropping words, changing pronunciations, meanings both denotative and connotative, syntactic structure, and so on. Because of its flexibility, it is not surprising that English has become such a dominant and vital language in world commerce and communication, and this has nothing to do politically with any American agenda. Well, to be honest, there may be a hidden agenda, but I don't think so. At least I don't see it. After all, it is hidden.

The dying off of languages is indeed sad, but it is a part of how spoken languages evolve. As long as there are living speakers of these languages and dialects, they will be around and hopefully someone someday will make an effort to get preserve these pockets of little-known languages. But it is all a part of the process of change: some languages slowly die off as their speakers die, and other languages become assimilated into others, much as pidgins become creoles as children grow up learning this new combo-language as their primary language. This is all normal growth and decay, sad to say. I would love to see Native American languages preserved, as well as others from around the world, if at all possible. But like I keep saying, language die- off is normal. On the other hand, let Esperanto pass into the dustbin of history; such should be the fate of artificial languages. Besides, the odds of children learning Esperanto as their primary language are very remote. It could happen, but think of how quirky their parents would be.

This topic reminds me of the movie WINDTALKERS, starring Nicholas Cage and Adam Beach. An excellent film. Navajo is a cool language, and I am glad that the efforts to preserve it have so far been relatively successful. When I was growing up in Minnesota, I remember hearing about a project to record old surviving members of Ojibway and Sioux tribes speaking and telling stories. Now you've got me wondering about that effort and I've made a note to check it out. As if I don't have enough school-work to do...

Thank you for the latest VOID, Mark. Always enjoyable and interesting. By the way, MICHAEL CLAYTON has been getting good reviews, and sounds like the kind of film I'd like. And tell Evelyn that I have always enjoyed Doyle's Professor Challenger stories. Fun reading. [-jp]

Mark replies:

I don't think that anybody has a political agenda to spread English to other countries any more than there was a political agenda to get everybody using cell phones. It is really convenient and sometimes very necessary to be able to communicate. The world is an easier place to live in when language barriers are down. No small part of it was that those big Hollywood movies were a lot easier to enjoy when you knew what the people were saying. I doubt very much that it was a political plot. However those who turn it to their advantage to create paranoia and hatred have certainly used the imaginary concept of "language imperialism" as a charge. And I would say that within our own borders there have been agendas to get people to use English. Getting non-English speaking immigrants to learn and speak English is a win-win proposition.

I am more sympathetic to Esperanto than you are. It would be less work worldwide if everybody had to learn only two languages. And so regular a language as Esperanto is easier to learn than is English, at least if you disregard entertainment media. But English is filling the role of the near-universal second language. Esperanto is not a bad idea; it is a good idea that did not pan out.

I thought WINDTALKERS would have been better if it was more about windtalking. It was substantially a cliched war film with code language as a subplot. But at least it told about the code- talking episode of the war to people who might not otherwise know about it. PBS did a much more interesting documentary about the code talkers, timed to show about the same time that the film was released. I seem to remember having heard of it years earlier and I think in our Southwest travels we heard there was an exhibit that was tribute to the Windtalkers, but that it was at the time located in a Burger King restaurant. If I remember that right, it is a shame that there isn't something better.

As for Professor Challenger, around 1959 I discovered him and went crazy for THE LOST WORLD. I have not read the other novels, but did read the shorter stories which at least had some interesting science fiction ideas. [-mrl]

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

-30-: THE COLLAPSE OF THE GREAT AMERICAN NEWSPAPER edited by Charles M. Madigan (ISBN-13 978-1-56663-742-8, ISBN-10 1-56663-742-2) is a collection of articles by different people, so it is not surprising that they do not all agree on the causes of the phenomenon, the solutions (if any) to the phenomenon, or even the age of the phenomenon. Several writers say that the newspaper has been in decline for decades now. The causes seem to be some subset of 1) the growth of the suburbs, 2) the erosion of advertising revenues, 3) the spread of competing media, and 4) greed. The growth of the suburbs is a two-fold problem. First, the people in the suburbs have more interest in their local communities and less in the big city itself. And second, distributing a daily newspaper over an entire metropolitan area is considerably more difficult than distributing it within the relatively compact city limits.

The erosion of advertising revenues is, again, two-fold. The big city center stores, with their multi-page ads, have declined, and the chain stores in the suburban malls advertise in suburban papers and direct mail flyers. And the classified section is being eaten away by Web sites such as Craigslist.

Competing media have been around since radio became popular, and this is why the story of the decline of newspapers has been around almost as long. For example, the decline of the afternoon newspaper can be attributed to the rise of the evening television news, which competed in the same time slot, but with newer news, and with more pictures.

And finally, greed. As newspapers went public, bought by large conglomerates, their stockholders started demanding higher and higher profits, profits comparable to other investments but not in accord with the more intangible goals of the press. This may be in part why the smaller newspapers are still surviving--they are often still family-owned, and the family cares more about the quality of the newspaper than squeezing out another few dollars.

One local example given by Neil Hickey may serve to explain why there is disagreement. According to Hickey, "when Gannett took over the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey, it cut the staff from 225 to 180 and told the theater critic there was no money for him to cover Broadway plays." Cutting the staff means less coverage, and less in-depth coverage, than before, but I think Gannett may have a point on the Broadway plays. At one time Asbury Press and its constituents could have been considered being within the circle of influence of Broadway. Nowadays, that is not true, due to part to rising transportation and ticket costs. If the Asbury Park Press wants to continue to cover culture, it would probably do better for everyone if it shifted its staff to books, which remain far more available to the Press's readers. (One doesn't expect the Allentown, PA, or Albany, NY newspapers to cover Broadway plays, does one?)

As for the solution, some feel a better integration of print format and Web sites would help. Most feel that blindly following what readers say they want (shorter stories, more pictures, horoscopes) rather than providing better, more in-depth reporting and analysis is not the solution. And all agree that the constant cutting of staff most newspapers are trying will not solve the problem. And there should be some solution; Hickey points out that the news business "is the only business protected by the Constitution of the United States, a status that brings obligations for both the shareholder and the journalist."

If you want to read more about the future of journalism (with some comments on newspapers), see my write-up on the panel The Future of Journalism at the 2006 Worldcon.

THE KING'S ENGLISH by Kingsley Amis (ISBN-13 978-0-312-20657-4, ISBN-10 0-312-20657-7) is a follow-on book to FOWLER'S MODERN USAGE (and who knows what either of them would have had to say about the word "follow-on"?). Two samples:

"-athon" and "-thon": "... Competitive events demanding comparable endurance were quickly set up, like the so-called 'dance marathon' in the USA. This institution may have been in doubtful taste but at least its name and nature were clear enough. Not as much could be said for what followed, when the second half of the word 'marathon' was taken as a sort of verbal building-block when devising names fir less edifying activities ... [telethon, sale-a-thon, walkathon-talkathon]. Not every Americanism deserves to have its credentials carefully examined. Some ought to be shot on sight."

"Twice two": "Whether you should say twice two *is* four or *are* four was the sort of 'argument' people interested in words were sometimes asked to 'settle'. All right, then: either is correct, and the two have been so for a half dozen centuries. The 'was' and 'were' in the first sentence are in the past tense because the problem involves some acquaintance with multiplication. Next question."

I cannot say I always agree with Amis, but he does make many good points, and also realizes that languages evolve and that there are perfectly good American usages which do not pass muster in Britain (though obviously not all of them, as evidenced by the passage above!). Even if you do not agree with his conclusions, his style is full of wit and intelligence, and well worth reading. [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper

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