MT VOID 11/14/08 -- Vol. 27, No. 20, Whole Number 1519

MT VOID 11/14/08 -- Vol. 27, No. 20, Whole Number 1519

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
11/14/08 -- Vol. 27, No. 20, Whole Number 1519

Table of Contents

      El Honcho Grande: Mark Leeper, La Honcha Bonita: 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


On November 22, 10PM-midnight PST, KPCC will broadcast "The Waldorf Conference", co-written by sometime-contributor to the MT VOID Daniel M. Kimmel, along with Arnie Reisman and Nat Segaloff. "On November 24, 1947, the most powerful men in American film met in New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel to decide how to address the House Un-American Activities Committee Communist witch-hunt. 24 hours later they emerged, having created the Hollywood Blacklist. 'The Waldorf Conference"' dramatically speculates on what went on in that room."

It will also be available over the Internet for a week following the broadcast at . [-ecl]

mY cOmplaint (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

I remember in chemistry class in high school we were discussing acidity and alkalinity. The measure of this is the pH.

You mean "capital-P-small-h?"

No, it's "small-p-capital-H."

What if it starts a sentence?

It's still "small-p-capital-H."

But that doesn't make sense. That is not how English works.

This isn't English, it's chemistry.

Chemists still need English if they want to communicate.

It's still "small-p-capital-H."

But that is not how we capitalize in English. If you capitalize anything at all it is the first letter.

"That's just how it is."

So that was it. That opened the door. Somebody who later was big at Apple must have seen that. Now we have iPods and iPhones and iTunes and eHarmony and who knows what else. [-mrl]

Answers to Last Week's Titanic Math Problem (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

Evelyn gave the table of casualties on the Titanic

            Women/Children  Men    Total
First            6%         69%     40%
Second          19%         90%     56%
Third           53%         86%     75%
Crew            13%         78%     76%

[Note: This data has been challenged by a reader. See Taras Wolanksy's letter of comment.]

I asked for each of First Class, Second Class, Third Class, and Crew, what proportion, to the nearest percent were men? For each of First Class, Second Class, Third Class, and Crew, what proportion, to the nearest percent were men who were casualties?

These are actually simple mixture problems.

In First Class, Second Class, Third Class, and Crew, the proportion that were men was 54%, 52%, 67%, and 97%, respectively.

In First Class, Second Class, Third Class, and Crew, the proportion that were men who were casualties was 37%, 47%, 57%, and 76%. [-mrl]

The Ruckus About Pluto (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

I recently got into a discussion with an older science fiction fan about Pluto. He had brought it up jokingly saying the ninth planet was now supposedly no longer a planet. I guess that the correct term now is "planetoid." I could tell from the way he was talking that he was not happy that it no longer was a planet. A lot of people are unhappy about the new classification.

Now I knew this was an emotional issue for some people. There were protests when it was announced that Pluto would no longer be considered a planet. So what is a planet, I asked my friend. Well, he said there was a technical definition. What is the definition of planet? He did not know exactly. I did not say this to his face, but if he is not sure that Pluto fits the definition of a planet and is not even sure what the definition is, why does it bother him that Pluto does not fit the technical conditions of being considered a planet? The answer is obvious though. He almost certainly was taught very young that there were nine planets. And from a young age he might have been able to list them. For science fans that is sort of like the A-B-C Song. Young kids with a science orientation can rattle off the names of the planets in order of smallest to largest orbits. It is not the planets going outward from the sun since Pluto has a strange orbit and is now or was recently nearer the sun than was Uranus.

But being able to rattle off the names of the planets is more a number trick than actually knowing the planets. You can probably list the people in your family youngest to oldest or oldest to youngest. No problem. But try rattling off the names of the eight planets in the opposite order and it will go noticeably slower. (And the alphabet song is almost no help at all in listing the letters of the alphabet in reverse order.) But any kid with a science orientation does know the names of the nine planets as we were taught them, and some of us feel a little betrayed that Pluto was demoted to a planetoid. The question really centers on what actually is a planet. To those of us brought up on Donald Duck comic books or on Flash Gordon serials a planet is like another country where things are different. Another dimension is the same sort of thing as another planet. It is a place to set stories. I don't mean to imply everybody who thinks Pluto should be a planet is so unsophisticated, but that is how a lot of us start. I think few people could tell you what a planet really is and why astronomers no longer count Pluto.

The thing is I have had this really hard life, you know. I have had much bigger disappointments than finding out that I was wrong about Pluto being a planet. My response is just to wonder what is a planet and why doesn't Pluto qualify.

Well, a planet has to have enough gravity to be roughly spherical and it has to be in orbit around the sun. So far Pluto is a planet in good standing. But then there is the question of mass. If a body does not clean up its orbit it is not allowed to be a planet. And Pluto has been a bad boy and has not been cleaning up its orbit. A planet goes around in its orbit and its gravity picks up debris. Well, I hate to be a tattletale, but Pluto has not been cleaning up its orbit. It doesn't have enough mass to do that.

You see the existence of a ninth planet was predicted by Percival Lowell based on perturbations to Uranus's orbit. Lowell said that there was a big mass out there that was influencing Uranus. Lowell looked for it, but it takes a lot of time to find such things, particularly with the crude tools that were available in the early 1900s. Lowell died in 1916, convinced that there was a ninth planet out there somewhere. In 1929 Clyde Tombaugh was hired by the Lowell Observatory to look for the predicted object. He had a new device called a "blink comparator" that helped him better to see moving objects. Tombaugh looked and there really was an object near where Lowell thought it should be. The object was supposedly the missing planet--then called Planet X. A schoolchild suggested the name Pluto, for the god of the underworld. The astronomers at the Lowell Observatory noticed that Pluto starts out with the initials of Perceval Lowell and so Pluto was officially our ninth planet.

As time went by it was discovered that there were errors in Lowell's calculation. Uranus was not the mass Lowell thought it was. There was no large massive object. And Pluto just did not have the mass that Lowell predicted. In fact Lowell had wrong information on the mass of Uranus and its perturbations were not from another planet at all.

Pluto was an ice ball from what we now know to be the Kuiper belt. That is this big ring-cloud of ice and rock that is generally outside the orbit of Neptune, 4.5 to 7.5 billion kilometers from the sun. That is about 30 to 50 times as far from the sun as we are. This one ice ball just happened to be in the right place at the right time. It was mistaken for Lowell's predicted planet, which really did not exist. The situation is sort of like what happened to Cary Grant in NORTH BY NORTHWEST. Pluto is the George Kaplan of the Solar System.

But perhaps unused to the sudden attention it kept it real identity secret and let us play with the idea of Rocky Jones landing on it and finding space pirates. But it is not big enough to clean out its orbit. We now know that while it is unusually big for a Kuiper Belt object and in the game of cosmic billiards it ending up considerably sunward of most of its mates, it is really an unwitting fugitive from the Kuiper Belt.

Most of us grew up with this nice orderly view that the solar system was a star with nine planets orbiting around it. That is neat and simple. Well, even our solar system is not so neat and simple. It is a large collection of objects from being as big as Jupiter to as fine as dust. There probably are things big enough to be planets further out. We have found a chunk three-quarters the mass of Pluto out at 130 billion kilometers out. We could probably easily be missing a chunk the size of Mercury that far out. The concept we previously had was that the solar system was a nice orderly comprehensible collection of a few objects and that school children could memorize everything large enough to be called a planet. That simplicity fed our egos probably in the same way it fed our egos that the Earth was the center of it all. I think we now know that the solar system is just a big collection of junk loosely held together by the gravitational force of the sun. It has no more order than the dust I sweep up from my garage floor. Yes, there are some bigger objects, but they are just part of the detritus of what happened to be there. It is not simple, and school kids cannot memorize the entire set of large and important objects that are there.

I have to say that given my druthers I would still have it be a planet, but I must be grown-up about this. If it is not a planet, it is not a planet. And I am mature enough to say that even if it is an ice ball from the Kuiper Belt there is no reason that Rocky Jones can't find space pirates on it. [-mrl]

Titanic (letter of comment by Taras Wolansky):

In response to Evelyn's comments on Titanic in the 11/07/08 issue of the MT VOID, Taras Wolansky writes:

The statistics on TITANIC survivorship you reported conflicted with my recollection ("a man in first class had a better chance of surviving that a woman in third class, 'women and children first' notwithstanding") so I checked them up online.

In fact, "third class women were 41% more likely to survive than first class men." See for the official casualty figures. 46.06% of women in third class were saved, against only 32.57% of men in first class. (The difference between movies and reality!)

Among the crew, 86.96% of women survived, against only 21.69% of men. In fact, crewmen made up almost half (46%) of all the casualties. [-tw]

[Peter Rubinstein sent the same figures.]

Evelyn responds:

The figures Wade gave were:

            Women/Children  Men    Total
First            6%         69%     40%
Second          19%         90%     56%
Third           53%         86%     75%
Crew            13%         78%     76%

The figures gave are:

            Women/Children  Men    Total
First            3%         67%     40%
Second          11%         92%     56%
Third           58%         84%     75%
Crew            13%         78%     76%

These are pretty close. Note, however, that Wade combines women and children into a single category, while anesi lists them separately. (I have combined them in the table to give an apples- to-apples comparison.) Because only 34% of the children in Third Class were saved, that makes Wade's percentage for the combined category lower than anesi's.

The statistics are therefore consistent. I was actually comparing the rates of women/children in the various classes as opposed to comparing women versus men. [-ecl]

The Case for Caution (letter of comment Ian Gahan):

In response to Mark's comments on caution in the 11/07/08 issue of the MT VOID, Ian Gahan writes:

Some comments regarding "The case for caution". I too remember the Y2K issue and hearing commentators afterwards telling everyone that it was a lot of fuss about nothing. The fact that virtually nothing happened was that all round the world software developers were frantically rewriting software to prevent the problem happening. It turned out that we were all very successful. But guess what, we all get to go through it again in twenty-nine years time (2038) when Unix hits its date wrap round.

Regarding anthropogenic global warming, forget it, it is not happening, even the IPCC (the UN bunch of "politicians" behind the scam) now refer to it as "climate change". CO2 does not cause warming. Current increasing CO2 is a result of the end of the little ice age. CO2 rises around 800 years after warming starts. Yes, mankind is adding to the level, by approximately 2%. The world has been getting colder for the last ten years and will continue getting colder for at least the next twenty years.

I sincerely hope that you are wrong about nothing happening the same way twice, otherwise bang goes the scientific method. :-) [-ig]

Mark responds:

I am not sure that the scientific community is anywhere near declaring that global warming is not created by people. If you like to follow the debate a good web site is Climate Debate Daily at

As for the scientific method I am not saying that the overall outcome will not be the same. I am just saying it will not happen exactly the same way twice. [-mrl]

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

REALITYLAND: TRUE-LIFE ADVENTURES AT WALT DISNEY WORLD by David Koenig (ISBN-13 978-0-964060-52-4, ISBN-10 0-964060-52-3) is what appears to be a reasonably honest look at the rise (and to some extent fall) of Walt Disney World, the Florida mega-complex. Koenig does a good job conveying the obsessive nature of everything at Walt Disney World. For example, at the beginning employees at the hotels could not accept tips (this soon changed), security was handled by Disney staff, who decided whether or not to call local law enforcement (this also soon changed), calling every dissatisfied guest to try to placate them (ditto), and so on. In fact, the book can be summed up as a long recitation of Disney decisions that seemed like good ideas at the time, but turned out to be mistakes. So far as I can tell, the management of Walt Disney World (post-Walt) always thought that they knew better than the entire industry what should be done--and were usually wrong. One more example: when Space Mountain opened, no one was allowed to refer to it as a roller coaster. The result was that people expected a placid ride past space vistas and were often not happy with the results, which included bumps, bruises, wrenched backs, lost items, etc.

Of course, the public had its flaws as well. While real injuries were sometimes sustained, there were also attempts at scams. "Sometimes, the accusations were pure fiction, just someone trying to make a quick buck off the big corporation. One guest claimed she was injured by a brick that fell from Cinderella Castle. Impossible, Disney easily illustrated, since the castle has no bricks; it's a fiberglass facade. Another woman claimed the Hydrolator chambers at EPCOT Center's Living Seas pavilion descended so fast, they damaged her eardrums. Disney merely demonstrated that the pseudo-elevators only give the illusion of descending and actually let the guests off at the same elevation as when they entered." [page 142]

REALITYLAND is definitely worth reading if you are interested in the whole tourist mega-industry in the Orlando area. However, fans of Walt Disney World may find themselves somewhat disillusioned by all the backstage information.

REALITYLAND is definitely worth reading if you are interested in the whole tourist mega-industry in the Orlando area. However, fans of Walt Disney World may find themselves somewhat disillusioned by all the backstage information.

And speaking of the travel/tourist industry, in SMILE WHEN YOU'RE LYING: CONFESSIONS OF A ROGUE TRAVEL WRITER by Chuck Thompson (ISBN-13 978-0-8050-8209-8, ISBN-10 0-8050-8209-3) the author seems to have two purposes. First, he wants to convince the reader that everything they read from established "travel writers" is hype--and overwritten hype at that. The first example he gives is:

"Renaissance funhogs, brace yourselves: This trip, combining three days of mountain biking with five days of whitewater rafting on the Colorado River, may be the tastiest pairing since chocolate and cabernet. It takes you straight into the heart of Canyonlands' high-desert rock garden, defined by the goose-necking canyons of Green and Colorado and an almost hallucinogenic symphony of spires, buttes, mesas, hoodoos, fins, arches, and slickrock."

Thompson's goal in this is to convince the reader that travel writers--and the sorts of vacations they promote--are not to be trusted. They are too insulated from the destination, too controlled, and so on. This goal is somewhat undercut by what seems to be Thompson's other purpose: to tell the most hair-raising stories about his travels that he can. While he claims to be trying to convince readers that the Philippines is the friendliest country in the world, I can't help but feel that telling a long story of how a bus trip left him standing on a deserted country road at 3:30 in the morning to change buses, and that while waiting he was approached by eight men with machetes soliciting him for gay sex, saved only by the sudden (and fortunate) arrival of the bus-- well, this story is not going to get Americans traveling to the Philippines in droves, and certainly not on trips involving independent bus travel. Not everything he says is accurate. For example, he also claims that you can recharge dead batteries by rubbing them briskly on your pants leg for a minute or two, and this may make them last as long as an hour or two. While resting the battery may help it recover slightly, and heating it by rubbing may add a little more, one cannot actually recharge a battery this way.

But once in a while, he does get it right, such as when he writes, "Spicy Is Almost Never Spicy: In the United States when they tell you it's spicy, it's not spicy. In the rest of the world when they tell you it's spicy, there's a 20 percent chance it's spicy. In Thailand when they tell you it's spicy, it's going to taste like someone shoving a blowtorch down your throat for the next twenty- five minutes."

I wanted to like THE LAST THEOREM by Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl (ISBN-13 978-0-345-47021-8, ISBN-10 0-345-47021-4)--I really did. I've been reading Clarke and Pohl since Hector was a pup, and was hoping for the old magic. Plus of course it was about mathematics, and that's pretty darn rare. Alas, either their writing or my tastes have changed. What is wrong? Well, first of all, there's an awful lot of expository lumps. And there's an awful lot of convenient occurrences and coincidences. And of course Sri Lanka is great and the United States isn't. And I cannot say that I find either the mathematical or the socio- political premises very likely.

A POCKETFUL OF HISTORY: FOUR HUNDRED YEARS OF AMERICA--ONE STATE QUARTER AT A TIME by Jim Noles (ISBN-13 978-0-306-81578-2, ISBN-10 0-306-81578-8) is, among other things, an example of subtitling gone wild. The book itself is a historical grab-bag, telling the history behind each state's design, starting with Caesar Rodney and ending with King Kamehameha. Sometimes Noles is hard-pressed to write his chapter; of South Carolina's design, he says, "South Carolina is another state that ... relied on an amalgamation of symbols for its quarter design--and created a difficult task for an author left to craft a chapter about a bird, a flower, and a palm tree." He is not always positive: "At the risk of irritating Michigan's nearly 10 million citizens, it is difficult to ignore the obvious: Michigan's state quarter ... is perhaps the most boring of the bunch." Depicting the outline of the state and the Great Lakes system, it is described by Noles as a "cupro-nickel- plated hydrogeography lesson."

Since a lot of the history or meanings on the quarters was familiar to me, I found some of the stories about how the choices were made more interesting. Iowa had to reject the suggestion of the Sullivan brothers when it was decided that a row of their heads was too close to the "busts or portraits of any person, living or dead." Full-figure images such as Cesar Rodney and George Washington were allowed, but I would think Mount Rushmore on the South Dakota quarter violates the "no-busts" rule. And there is still some dispute on whether the astronaut suit for Ohio violates the rule against portraying living persons, since arguably it is supposed to be either John Glenn or Neil Armstrong. The bison appears on three coins (though only as a skull on one of them). Lincoln and Washington each appear twice. Only one Native American appears, and only two actual woman (i.e., not Lady Liberty or the Spirit of the Commonwealth). Two states claim the Wright Brothers' achievement, and two the space program. And as Noles said, "[It] is difficult to find a more bitter piece of irony than New Hampshire's decision to depict the fabled Old Man of the Mountain" in its design--within three years of the quarters' issuance, the rock formation had collapsed into a pile of rubble.

As I said, how the choices were made and why is at times more interesting and revealing than the straight history behind what is being depicted. (And I can't help but feel that there will not be a similar book about the Presidential dollars--there is nothing notable about them. The portraits of the Presidents are not particularly notable, and the reverse does not have anything representing something distinctive to that particular President.) [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

           Life is the art of drawing sufficient conclusions 
           from insufficient premises.
                                          -- Samuel Butler

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