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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
03/07/08 -- Vol. 26, No. 36, Whole Number 1483
Table of Contents
Fighting Words (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
When two mathematicians hate each other they accuse each other of being one basis vector short of a spanning set. [-mrl]
Royalty Milestone (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
If my calculations are correct, today (7 March 2008) Queen Elizabeth II becomes the English/British monarch with the third- longest reign, passing King Henry III with 56 years, 0 months, and 30 days to his 56 years, 0 months, and 29 days.
Anyone who calculates the precise number of days (rather than years, months, days) will discover this still gives the same date.
She will match King George III on 11 May 2011 (if she lives to 85), and Queen Victoria on 20 August 2015 (if she lives to 91). [-ecl]
Electronic Rumors (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I have a friend who seems to enjoy being a forwarding point for her friends on the Internet. You know the sort of person. They get and forward mail with a warning that there is some new computer virus loose that will melt your hard drive and you will loose the virus on your computer if you read a piece of mail with a subject line that says "Free Ice Cream on Tuesday." The mail comes with the suggestion that you forward this message to everybody you can think of. Or they may say that if you are feeling a heart attack coming on you can save your life by grabbing your left elbow and pushing it up and behind your left ear. [Don't try this at home, kiddies. If you feel a heart attack coming on, dial 911.] For years when I get one of these things I cut and paste a phrase into the search window of Snopes (http://www.snopes.com/). The Snopes people are professional rumor investigators. (Did such a profession exist before the Internet?) They do the legwork to get to the bottom of whether the warnings are true or not. Usually I can get back to the sender with the facts. I do this now as a public service. It actually used to be part of my job when forwarded rumor mail clogged up email servers at the corporation where I worked. I used to try to tell people not to do this forwarding when it was just a resource problem. Once Snopes came along I had an even better reason for telling people not to forward these things. It turned out that only very, very rarely did the messages actually tell the truth. For a long time I never saw one of these urban legends that was true. Every single one was misinformation. In fact, over more than a decade there have only been two or three of these send-arounds that were *not* misinformation.
I have taken it a step further and have tried to understand the psychology of people who start these rumors and the people who act as their accomplices by forwarding them. There is a psychology behind why people send around misinformation. Let me digress a moment. Years ago there was a string of forest fires started by arson. My dad said that he could not imagine why anybody would want to start a forest fire. He didn't seem to like my response that I didn't see the mystery. But I really don't see the mystery. You have a kid who has very little power who is able to do something that makes front page news across the country. That is a very affirming thing, even if what you have done has a bad effect. Apparently powerless people like to feel they can do something big. There probably is something of a thrill in having everybody talking about an event and to know that they are really talking about you. (They also make this point in the recent film BREACH, by the way.) It is probably a power trip for somebody to say something, true or false, and have something between thousands and millions of people repeating it. So this sort of person makes up plausible lies and tells them to a few other people and then watches the chain reaction. The people who forward the pieces probably are people wanting to share a juicy piece of gossip and to be the first to tell people about it. These pass-arounds are attention-getters. I think technically the pass-around are non-technical computer viruses. They are dependent on people to do the spreading, but if people are willing to do it, they become just part of the mechanism.
There is a history of such urban legends, of course. Urban legends did not need the Internet to get started. They have been with us probably since ancient times. Who knows how much of Herodotus or Suetonius is rumor? But the Internet has been a godsend to the rumor starter. Churchill said, "A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on." Now that there is an Internet you can strike the word "halfway."
Like computer viruses, this electronic spreading of invented rumors started out as just a (frequently nasty) practical joke and went on to being done intentionally for gain. I have not seen many for financial gain beyond a few Ponzi schemes. But they work particularly well for aiding in dirty politics. If you want to spread a false rumor about a political candidate it does not have to be even all that plausible. If you sent it to a small group of like-minded people soon a lot of people are going to be spreading your rumor. Then people assume because so many people are saying it there must be a grain of truth. Then even people who would normally doubt such a rumor will see that a lot of people are saying the same thing, so it will have credibility. Over the last few years I have seen a real upswing in the amount of political misinformation intentionally spread around. Things that if you check them out just are twisted. From my point of view an inordinate proportion of this misinformation (though by no means all) seems to benefit the Right Wing. PBS's news program "Now" recently did a very good piece on this and other forms of dirty politics. It is available online at
Also it is one thing to forward around urban legends, but it gets a lot worse when it comes to medical misinformation ("coughing during a heart attack can save your life"). That is dangerous one way. If you sent around political information ("Obama is a madrassa-trained Muslim") that is bad in a different way. You are probably playing into somebody's hands. I never forward information that I don't have from a good source (obvious jokes are an exception). "New York Times" articles are one thing, but I don't forward strange things that show up in my email saying tell everybody you know.
Now you know my attitude about these things you can tell it to everybody you know. [-mrl]
COYOTE by Allen Steele (copyright 2002, Ace Science Fiction, $7.99, 431pp, ISBN 0-441-01116-0) (book review by Joe Karpierz):
COYOTE is one of those books that I've been meaning to get around to for a number of years now. I picked it up when I was working in downtown Chicago and meant to read it on the train to and from work, but for some reason that never happened. The book came highly recommended, and had won some critical and popular acclaim. So, when looking for something on my to-read stack, I spotted it and decided that it was time.
COYOTE is billed as "A Novel of Interstellar Exploration". I don't know about that. It is, however, a novel of interstellar colonization and pioneering. And it's a darned good one. What I didn't know is that the 8 "Parts" of this book were originally written as shorter works that were published in ASIMOV'S SF MAGAZINE from January 2001 through December 2002. Steele took those pieces and deftly combined them into a wonderful novel full of strong characters, characters that are reminiscent of our pioneering days as they set out to colonize the stars.
The novel starts on earth in the year 2070. The United States of America no longer exists. In its place is the United Republic of America, which has sacrificed the good life of its citizens to build the URSS Alabama, the ship that will take just over 100 colonists to Coyote, the moon of a planet in the 47 Ursae Majoris system, more than 45 light years away. Its Captain, Robert E. Lee, descended from *that* Robert E. Lee, is leading a conspiracy that will steal the Alabama; Lee does not care for the current state of his country and plans to start a new life with the colonists a long way away from the current regime. The conspiracy was widespread and infiltrated to high levels of the government--I'm somewhat surprised that something like this could have been pulled off.
It almost wasn't. Lee left a note for his ex-wife, a country loyalist and cold-hearted woman, explaining what he was doing. She found the note earlier than was intended, and she was almost able to stop the conspiracy. Even though she couldn't, there was yet another fail-safe on board, where a crew member loyal to the URA was to awaken early and "terminate" the mission if things hadn't gone as originally planned. However, he was in the wrong biostasis chamber, and another person woke up to find himself alone with no way to get back into stasis. He spent his remaining days trying to remain alive and sane--a sanity which may have been in question because of another starship he thought he spotted out a window.
Once the ship gets to Coyote, the story settles down into a look at how colonists would handle their first few years on a new planet. There's nothing really extraordinary about the stories themselves--what *is* extraordinary is the cast of characters whose lives we follow throughout the novel as they try to make a new life for themselves on Coyote.
This is a terrific read. While it never really slows down, for me it dragged in some spots once the Alabama landed on Coyote. The characters do save the story, however, as Steele tries, successfully I think, to give the reader some feel for what pioneers would face on a new world. The book deserved the praise it received. There are two more novels in the series--I look forward to reading them. [-jak]
COLD DECEMBER (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: In this very low-budget drama a man in his twenties realizes that in spite of his outward appearance of success he is dissatisfied with just about every aspect of his life. His friends have the intellects and curiosity of Eloi. His job and his boss are painful to even think about. Chris has to decide if he will go back to living death or if he will seize the day. In spite of its modest production values the film tells its story and it might be a situation that the viewer will find familiar. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
You know a completed film you are dealing with is low-profile when you put the title of the film and the director's name--he is also the writer--into the Internet Movie Database and it comes back not found. This is a film made on the cheap--the really cheap. Supposedly the shooting costs were $3000. That is for actors (all seven of them), crew, everyone. It has no explosions, no car chases, no superheroes, no zombies, and no familiar actors (at least not familiar to me). Instead it is about people in a situation and how they react. Digital photography brings with it the promise of films much like COLD DECEMBER. A newcomer no longer needs a studio to back him as a filmmaker. A feature film can now be made for the price of a hobby.
Chris (Chris Fountain) has a pretty wife, a well-paying job, fancy Chicago surroundings, friends, and a deep feeling dissatisfaction. As the film opens he admits to his life that he is just not very happy. It turns out this is not the first time he has made this declaration to his wife Kate (Alyssa Roehrenbeck). He has been quietly desperate for the last five years. But this cold December is the winter of his discontent. His life has become bland and repetitive. He works each day at a job he secretly hates, for a boss he not-so-secretly hates. He goes to the gym after work. When the weekend comes he gets together with his friends he drinks and he talks about sports. Sometimes he does drugs. And when the week is gone all he has to show for it is a paycheck and a week is gone from his life.
At first we wonder if he is not just having a psychological crisis. But writer/director Brian Wright soon dispels that interpretation by showing us his friends. They are painfully boring. They all are cut with the same cookie cutter. They all like (incredibly) heavy drinking. When the wives are not around they talk about sex on a very dull level. In front of the wives the topic goes back to sports. The wives meanwhile talk about the transcendental experience they had seeing these beautiful fur-topped boots that are for sale and are just perfect. Somehow Chris has awakened and realized that all his friends are dead already. Not so much literally, but they are mentally moribund.
The film is shot mostly with what appears to be a handheld digital camera, reportedly over a five-day shooting schedule that would have made Roger Corman proud. Sometimes the camera shakes even when the characters are standing still. The film is about 82 minutes long and even then it sometimes lingers on a scene after the characters have left it, perhaps just to show a Chicago building-scape. It is nearly impossible in film to convey the fact that someone is bored without being a little boring to the audience. About the only way to show people are boring without boring the audience it to make it humorous. Sometimes Brian's friends are funny and sometimes they are just dull.
I would like to feel that these dull people are a comic fiction. Unfortunately, I think that Brian Wright might be right. The eventual statement made by the film may be a little trite even for so short a film. I rate COLD DECEMBER a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10. My understanding is that this film will not play on the art house circuit. It will go direct to DVD and to Netflix. [-mrl]
Robert A. Heinlein (letters of comment by Joe Karpierz and Mike Glyer):
In response to Evelyn's comment's about Heinlein in the 02/22/08 issue of the MT VOID ("a reading binge of STARSHIP TROOPERS, Joe Haldeman's THE FOREVER WAR, and John Scalzi's OLD MAN"S WAR would not be unreasonable to suggest"), Joe Karpierz writes, "I've read two of the three books. I read THE FOREVER WAR back in the 1970s, and OLD MAN'S WAR when it was nominated for the Hugo. I remember FOREVER WAR as one of those novels that blew me away, the kind of which you don't see too many times in your life. I loved OLD MAN'S WAR, and am trying to figure out how to squeeze in more books in that universe. I've been considering STARSHIP TROOPERS on and off for a long time now, but as I previously said I never felt compelled to read any earlier Heinlein. [-jak]
In response to Rob Mitchell's recommendation of THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS and Taras Wolansky's recommendation of METHUSELAH'S CHILDREN in the 02/29/08 issue, Joe writes, "As I speak, I'm running an audiobook search on my local library's website. It looks like I can get MOON and TROOPERS as sound recordings. I'll go that way with those, and I'll try to find CHILDREN in print. Thanks to all for the recommendations." [-jak]
And Mike Gleyer writes, "Taras Wolansky writes, 'For Heinlein, the defense of sexual freedom was one of the reasons you had a strong military.' LOL! Certainly the people who made the movie from STARSHIP TROOPERS seem to have believed this...." [-mg]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
THE ANNOTATED PRIDE & PREJUDICE by Jane Austen, annotated by David M. Shapard (ISBN-13 978-0-307-27810-4, ISBN-10 0-307-27810-7) is well done. First, the text is on the left-hand pages and the notes on the right-hand ones, with every note on the page opposite what it is annotating. If that meant that there would be blank space at the bottom of the text page (because of lengthy notes), then there is. The notes are very thorough, covering definitions as well as comments on mores and attitudes, and even drawings of various types of carriages and so on.
The science fiction discussion group picked DIASPORA by Greg Egan (ISBN-13 978-0-061-05798-4, ISBN-10 0-061-05798-3) for this month. I know I read it when it first came out (1997), but I don't remember it being as difficult to follow as it was this time. Maybe I made more use of the glossary last time, but frankly, I don't think a novel should require a glossary--or Java-enabled pages demonstrating the mathematical concepts (as Egan has provided for this as well)--to be understood. His shorter fiction (so far) doesn't seem to have this problem; one suspects that there just isn't enough space in a short story to work in characters, a plot, *and* semi-Riemannian manifolds as well.
M IS FOR MAGIC by Neil Gaiman (ISBN-13 978-0-06-118642-4, ISBN-10 0-06-118642-2) is the latest collection of Gaiman's short fiction. It includes the Hugo-nominated "How to Talk to Girls at Parties" as well as many other excellent stories from various regular sources, and some deal with fairly adult issues of aging and so on, yet is marketed as "Young Adult" (and is catalogued this way in my library). All of which means that if you are looking for Neil Gaiman books, you have to check several locations in your bookstore or library. This may be another way that amazon.com is an improvement over a brick-and-mortar bookstore: you type in "Nail Gaiman" and it shows you *all* his books, not just a fraction of them.
FREE FOR ALL: ODDBALLS, GEEKS, AND GANSTAS IN THE PUBLIC LIBRARY by Don Borchert (ISBN-13 978-1-9052-6412-4, ISBN-10 1-9052-6412-7) is an anecdotal account of Borchert's experiences in a public library in the Los Angeles area. He does not tell us the actual city, but instead refers to it as "Bay City". Fans of Raymond Chandler will recognize this as the city that Philip Marlowe had the most problems with, because the police there 1) thought they were a law unto themselves, and 2) hated private detectives (along with minorities, the poor, and anyone else who did not fit their notion of who should be allowed in Bay City). Borchert's description of the police in his city seems somewhat similar, though in a much toned-down fashion. It is more like what an Indian friend of ours described around here. This friend was stopped for some sort of traffic violation and was addressed rather rudely by the policeman when he asked for his license. When our friend opened his wallet to take out his license, his Bell Labs ID was facing it. Suddenly the policeman became much more polite, with "Mr." this and "Mr." that. (Chandler's Bay City was actually Santa Monica, but that does not mean Borchert's is.) [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Oh for a lodge in some vast wilderness, Some boundless contiguity of shade, Where rumour of oppression and deceit, Of unsuccessful or successful war, Might never reach me more. -- William Cowper
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