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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
08/01/08 -- Vol. 27, No. 5, Whole Number 1504
Table of Contents
Sign of the Times (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I have been retired now for seven years. That really isn't that long. But one problem with being retired is that I am away from the technical community. One loses track of what technology is out there and what other people are using. You know what I find shocking. There is something about seeing someone who looks like he lives at subsistence income. You know. His clothes look really shabby. You almost feel sorry for him and then you see he is walking around with a bluetooth phone in his ear. I am just learning to use an iPod. That just makes me feel maybe it has all gotten past me. Maybe the bus has left and I wasn't on it. [-mrl]
Robots and Slaves (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Our science fiction reading group is discussing a shorter work this month. It is Jack Williamson's novelette "With Folded Hands", which appeared first in "Astounding Stories" in 1947. In the story a man who sells in mechanicals--basically robots--finds his business dying when new superior robots come along to compete. The new robots, streamlined black humanoids--are in every way superior to the robots he had been selling. But the new robots have more than superior technology; they have an ideology. They are "the perfect mechanicals 'To Serve and Obey and Guard Men from Harm.'" In fact their ideology is paternalism carried to an extreme degree. Human work is no longer necessary. They are the same mix of slave and master that a parent is to a very young child. Humans no longer have to work under their rule, but humans also are stuck in a sort of stagnation and uselessness.
This story makes a good pairing with Isaac Asimov's robot stories. Both can be seen as arguments about the institution of slavery about what would make a perfect slave.
The three laws of robotics are, of course:
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
These are very much the priorities one would want to give a perfect, selfless slave. Asimov makes his robot perfect slaves. And that is not so immoral as it sounds at first since they are, after all, machines that do not suffer or are degraded by servitude. Asimov's laws are just the very rules I would want to give a slave if I wanted to be entirely selfish.
The main intent Williamson had for "With Folded Hands" is reportedly just to point out that some inventions may seem like a good idea at the time they are created, but may have some very nasty consequences. He was probably thinking of the creation of the nuclear bomb which arguably saved hundreds of thousands lives on each side of the Pacific War. But with nuclear proliferation that invention seems like less and less like a good thing for humanity.
But like the Asimov robot stories, "With Folded Hands" brings up questions related to those of human slavery. It suggests issues that actually were argued in this country in the Antebellum South. Some in the South wondered if slavery might not be a bad thing, but not because of the negative effect on the slave. The slave was generally considered a beast of burden and rules of justice simply did not apply to him. But some argued that slavery was bad for the master by offloading all responsibility to work. The challenge of work is good for the soul. People who do not work stagnate. They need challenges to hone their spirit and to keep them from falling into decadence. At the risk of further mixing my metaphor I will point out that the same issue frequently applies to retired employees, some of whom remain active and find new challenges and some of whom rapidly become useless couch potatoes and fall into a pointless and empty existence. Just writing this editorial is part of my campaign to remain in the former category.
But Williamson's concept of machines that will do all human labor is flawed. Perhaps machines could do all menial labor. Intellectual labor is another matter. Suppose I am trying to prove the Goldbach Conjecture in mathematics or to get a better understanding of the Persian Wars. In the first case it is unlikely that machines can be creative enough to do new mathematics. It is one thing to check the millions of cases for the Four-Color Map Conjecture. That is how the conjecture was finally proved. But that is not actually creative work. To prove the Goldbach conjecture on the other hand seems to require some sort of creativity of which machines are currently incapable. Now that is not as clear as it used to be since computers can now be creative in ways that rival or transcend human creativity. See the my editorial in the MT VOID 12/14/07: http://www.fanac.org/fanzines/MT_Void/MT_Void-2624.html#4
But whether computers will ever do creative mathematical proof is still an open question.
On the other hand even if a machine could get of good understanding of the Persian wars, that would not be the point. A human would need to get the understanding that that would require human work. Machines could retrieve information. Certainly that is much what Google does today, but to understand and make others understand the Persian Wars to any depth just does not seem to be the kind of labor that one of Williamson's humanoids could do. So I am not entirely certain that Williamson's humanoids would be so bad.
By the way, you can find a radio adaptation of "With Folded Hands" from "Dimension X" at http://www.otr.net/?p=dimx. [-mrl]
THE DARK KNIGHT (letter of comment by Andre Kuzniarek):
In response to Mark's review of THE DARK KNIGHT in the 07/25/08 issue of the MT VOID, Andre Kuzniarek writes:
[Mark said,] "In addition to Bale and Ledger, Aaron Eckhart plays District Attorney Harvey Dent on a strange journey from crusading public servant to the featured villain in the next Batman film."
I think Two Face being in the next film is just a rumor. He sure seemed dead at the end of this one, and it seems like that's the whole point of Batman being "sacrificed" at the end. I do see some speculation online that Harvey Dent the person is dead, but Two-Face the villain survives, but that does not really seem to fit with the message of the movie, or what we see.
As much as I like the film for its depth, and Ledger's awesome performance, it also seemed quite muddled visually and from an editing and story telling standpoint. Many scenes were just left hanging, like the interrupted party at Bruce Wayne's place (what happened after he rescued Rachel?), or literally leaving the Joker hanging. Everything jumps around so much that the film seems almost incoherent at times. This might be in service of the story with regard to the chaos created by the Joker, enhancing the unsettled feeling demanded by the events onscreen, but the pace could have been less frenetic. It was also odd to add Scarecrow into the mix at the beginning, just making more distraction and confusion. It's possible a lot was cut out to meet a length limit, which is surprising for a flagship production like this. The fact that there is very little art direction related to the city environment also adds a bit to the sense of the production being done too quickly. Sure, there is some argument for keeping things realistic, but I think the Burton films understood that a guy wearing a bat suit just doesn't fit into the real world and so the overall art direction i those was an extension of the character. The fact that it is lacking here is mostly covered by very dark lighting and some jumbled action scenes. I think plenty of the scenes worked very well of course, more than not, but I just wish that as whole it came together better. Perhaps a director's cut on DVD will resolve my concerns. [-ak]
[As for Harvey Dent coming back after being apparently dead, well, Dracula always did. So did Fu Manchu. Villains tend to find a way. -mrl]
Autos, Decisions, and THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION (letter of comment by Joseph T. Major):
In response to the 07/25/08 issue of the MT VOID, Joseph T. Major writes:
Autos: They make SUVs in Louisville. Driving to the Sam's Club to get envelopes for my family newsletter, we passed the Ford Louisville Assembly Plant, where they make SUVs. Usually the parking lot is crammed full. This time it was empty. Very eerie. (Good for the local air, but not so good for the local economy.) [-jtm]
[Mark responds, "The Ford Louisville may seem eerie, but at least Ford claims it is just a retooling and that they are investing big money into it. We will have to see how that works out. Back at Lucent just about any merger, divesting, or large change of management was used as an occasion to make the "hard decision" and to lay off people. It is sort of like fission of atoms releases energy and fusion of atoms releases energy. Fission or fusion of companies releases employees." -mrl]
Decisions: WWII Navy meals on the "New Jersey" and other combat ships, such as my father-in-law's ship, "USS Bush", may have been unhealthy by modern standards, but somehow my father-in-law survived. When I look over modern health standards for children, I wonder how I survived. Apropos of nothing, there is a rising problem with children having impaired immunological systems because they've been brought up in sanitized hygenic environments. Unfortunately not the way it worked in THROUGH THE EYE OF A NEEDLE. [-jtm]
[Mark replies, "Yes, people used to eat all sorts of unhealthy food and smoke and still lived well into their sixties. But it is also true that we do seem to be overprotective of children. I used to walk twenty minutes to and from school. These days that is considered very dangerous. Lots of things are considered dangerous that were not in my day. We now have the media to warn us of all the scary things that can happen to children to and from school so parents are more fearful. But then predators hearing about other predators become more proficient also." - mrl]
THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION: Chabon is recreating the dreamland of the Jewish Bund, which imagined a one world socialist state with a separate but equal world-spread entity for Jews, using the international language of Judaism, Yiddish. (Imagine the jolly fun they would have explaining that fact of life to the Jews of Thessalonika.) At least they got the Jewish part, in this strange world where the Fourteenth Amendment says nothing about citizenship. [-jtm]
Evelyn responds: "The Fourteenth Amendment refers to 'all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof.'" I suspect the answer is that these temporary refugees were not subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, in the same way that Indians were not. Until the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act, most Indians were not citizens, the Fourteenth Amendment notwithstanding." -ecl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Sharyn November on how teens and other feel about YA genre fiction: "They are tired of faeries, werewolves and other shapeshifters, vampires, dragons, the Greek gods, trilogies, pirates, zombies, teen superheroes, the teenage Evil Genius, any kind of boarding school setting, 'mean girls,' underground cities (especially New York or London), the Victorians, the Male Chosen One (in any genre), and retold fairy tales."
SPELLBOUND: THE SURPRISING ORIGINS AND ASTONISHING SECRETS OF ENGLISH SPELLING by James Essinger (ISBN-13 978-0-385-34084-7, ISBN-10 0-385-34084-2) is more a history of the English language and less an explanation about spelling. Essinger also makes some mistakes, or rather, has some misunderstandings. He refers to "a holy book, such as the Christian Bible, the Muslim Koran, or the Jewish Talmud" (page xxviii). The Talmud is not really a holy book; it is more a set of annotations to the Torah, which *is* a holy book. He says of "kosher" that it "has come to mean in modern English not just food that is prepared according to Jewish but also, more broadly, anything that is correct, genuine, and legitimate" (page 26). The only problem is that that is what it means in Hebrew; one speaks of a "kosher scroll" in a mezuzah, for example.
And in writing about languages which do not use the Roman alphabet, Essinger says, "where there is an accepted romanization system, the writing of a foreign nonalphabetic name is fairly straighforward. But a strange-looking name in a foreign language that is written using Roman letters will not have any standardized way of being written" (page 52). If it is already in Roman letters, why change it at all?
On page 77 he gives a sample of text written in the International Phoentic Alphabet (IPA). I found myself thinking how interesting it looked. Then on page 78 he says, "purely phonetic writing looks absolutely horrendous, as the physical appearance of Hamlet's speech in the IPA shows all too well." Well, that wasn't my reaction at all!
Essinger talks about how the English language became basically a completely different language by 1500 from what it was in 1400, and the "Great Vowel Shift", which made what had been pronounced "Saw it is team to say the shows on the sarm fate noo," to our present "So it is time to see the shoes on the same feet now." Again, though, a lot of this is only marginally related to spelling.
Reading old books about books is enlightening. One discovers that authors were considered great and lasting in 1937 are completely forgotten now, and one is perhaps reminded that many authors currently in favor may fade from view in another few decades. THE JOYS OF READING: LIFE'S GREATEST PLEASURE by Burton Rascoe (copyright 1937, and of course there is no ISBN) has chapters on "The Joys of Reading" and "How to Judge Literary Values," but it also has lists. The list of twenty-five favorite authors from 1900 to 1925 includes many that have withstood the tes of time: H. G. Wells, G. K. Chesterton, Rudyard Kipling, Henry James, and Jack London. But it also includes Joseph Hergesheimer, Gamaliel Bradford, May Sinclair, and W. J. Locke, and omits (for example) Arthur Conan Doyle. A list of the twenty-five favorite books lists two by Wells: THE OUTLINE OF HISTORY and MR. BRITLING SEES IT THROUGH. Admittedly, his classic science fiction novels were written before 1900, but this century still saw THE FIRST MEN IN THE MOON, THE FOOD OF THE GODS, and IN THE DAYS OF THE COMET. [-ecl]
[Actually, almost all of his most enjoyable novels were written prior to 1900. The fun novels are THE TIME MACHINE, THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, THE INVISIBLE MAN, THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU, and THE FIRST MEN IN THE MOON. Of these only the latter was written in the 1900s. THE FOOD OF THE GODS and IN THE DAYS OF THE COMET are more pondeous philosophical works and generally not fun reads. For some reason they were included in the famous collection SEVEN SCIENCE FICTION NOVELS BY H. G. WELLS, and the more enjoyable WHEN THE SLEEPER WAKES (1899) was not. -mrl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: All ignorance toboggans into know and trudges up to ignorance again. -- e.e.cummings, 1959
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