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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
05/01/09 -- Vol. 27, No. 44, Whole Number 1543
Table of Contents
Apologies for the lateness of last week's MT VOID--blame it on the town of Amherst (MA). I had planned on sending it out from my new netbook using the town's free Wifi, but every page I went to said there was a certificate problem, so I waited until I got back to NJ that evening to send it out. [-ecl]
News from Prehistory (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
TOPIC: News From Prehistory (comments by Mark R. Leeper) We now know from skull CAT scans that the raptor dinosaur Deinonychus had remarkable vision. In Nevada bone-hunters have confirmed this by finding Deinonychus nests in which they were apparently stockpiling poker chips. Hard to believe. [-mrl]
Bill Nye, Science Guy and Atheist Corruptor of Youth (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Bill Nye the Science Guy is the friendly popularizer of science known for his humor and his bow ties. He presents a friendly, likeable image for science. But now he has turned mad dog and is viciously corrupting our youth. It happened in Waco, Texas, last week when he told an audience that the moon actually did not generate any light of its own and only reflected the light from the sun. Can you believe that? Well, Genesis 1:16, of course, explains that: "God made two great lights--the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night," but Godless science has its own version. Several good church folk in the audience became enraged and marched out, one yelling, "We believe in God!" I guess Texas schools need to teach children that there are competing points of view as to whether the moon lit up under the astronauts' feet.
Also in the news is that Texas Governor Rick Perry is saying he thinks his state should secede from the Union. After an incident like this one above I really think they should. [-mrl]
The One-Deck Shuffle (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Every once in a while I get an inkling that more time has passed than I had realized. I was helping a high school boy with his math homework. The problem was to determine the probability that a card picked at random out of a 52-card pack would be a Queen or a Club.
"Okay," I said, "what is the probability that it is a club?"
"I don't know."
"Well how many clubs are there in a deck?"
"I don't know."
"Well, how many suits are there?"
"I don't know."
"Well, what are the suits?"
"I don't know."
"What are the red suits?"
"I don't know."
"Well have you ever seen a deck of cards?"
"No, I've never played cards."
Well, back when I was his age kids were supposed to pretend not to know playing cards very much. It was considered mostly a wasteful pastime. Perhaps a course in probability like this one would mention them. But you would never bring a deck of cards to school. After all, some people gamble with decks of cards. Of course everybody knew about cards from their non-academic lives. Even if you only played gin and solitaire, you at least knew about a deck of cards. I had never run into someone who did not know anything about a deck of cards. There are lots of games that can be played with a deck of playing cards, so it really is a very versatile, if low-tech, entertainment device.
But of course we are living in a different age. For my generation, cards were at best considered an idle time activity. You might play with them on a long summer Saturday afternoon, but it was a decadent pursuit. They were a pastime. Kids don't have pastimes anymore. What they have is videogames. Kids don't play solitaire any more--they pound their way through videogames. But it never occurred to me that kids might be growing up without ever playing cards. Somehow you don't think that there might be people whose entertainment might vary so much from ours. A game like gin rummy is probably as obsolete and dull to today's kids as Cribbage or horseshoe toss was to us.
But our parents must have gone through something similar. I know about 1960 or so we used to think it funny when in English class when there would be exercises in our textbook that said "write two paragraphs about your favorite radio program." Nobody in the class had a favorite radio program. In fact the kids just barely knew that there was such a thing as a radio program. By 1960 radio drama had mostly died. They might listen to music. They might even listen to a particular disk jockey. But there were not many who actually had something resembling a radio program they listened to. The radio was a source of current music, not of drama. The teacher said the obvious thing, which was to write instead about their favorite television program. But technology had changed what was the popular form of entertainment. By 1960 it was obvious to all that our English textbook, at least in this minor way, had become outdated and no longer matched the real world.
To me it still seems very strange that as popular as card playing has been as a pastime, that the younger generation considers it passe'. Basically cards provide us a way to play games that vary based on a randomizing element that is the shuffling of the deck. The shuffling of the deck randomizes the order of the cards and that randomization gives games their unpredictability and their element of chance. In the age of the computer we have much better randomizing algorithms. Variability in computer games still comes from randomizing elements, but they are pseudo-random number generating procedures that are faster and more efficient than physical shuffling of cards. And they can be called on thousands of times a second. One-deck-shuffle games cannot be nearly as subtle as a result.
I suspect that there are even now people in the youngest generation people who would look at a film like THE CINCINNATI KID and wonder why grown men could get so fascinated by such a technically retarded game as poker.
But look at the bright side. Whatever game the kids are playing right now will to their kids be as quaint as Go Fish! is to the current teens. [-mrl]
THE GRAVEYARD BOOK by Neil Gaiman (copyright 2008, HarperCollins, $17.99, 312pp, ISBN 978-0-06-053092-1) (book review by Joe Karpierz):
Neil Gaiman has been hit or miss for me over the years--mostly miss. I didn't care for AMERICAN GODS all that much, and GOOD OMENS (cowritten by Terry Pratchett) did nothing for me. I didn't read CORALINE, but did see and enjoy the movie (I'm told by my kids that there were a lot of deviations from the story). I think I've finally found a Neil Gaiman novel I like.
THE GRAVEYARD BOOK is the story of Nobody Owens, a very small child who was left in a graveyard when the rest of his family was killed by the man Jack. Jack was really looking to kill Bod, as he is called, but Bod is the only one that got away.
THE GRAVEYARD BOOK is clearly inspired by Rudyard Kipling's JUNGLE BOOK. The child is taken in by the residents of the graveyard, and Mr. and Mrs. Owens take him as the child they never had. He has a guardian, Silas, whose main tasks are to be a teacher to Bod and to keep him safe. We find out that Silas is a member of the Honour Guard, and he seems to be neither alive nor dead. Silas is very mysterious, and he and the rest of the residents of the graveyard admonish Bod never to leave the graveyard; as long as he stays, he is safe, and he can be protected from the man Jack who is still out there looking for him.
The structure of the novel is like a collection of short stories, each taking place a year or two after the previous, and each giving us a glimpse of what it's like for a young boy to grow up in a graveyard in the care of its residents. In one chapter, we meet Scarlett, a girl who comes to visit the graveyard--it's actually a sort of nature preserve--and meets what she and her parents presume to be her imaginary friend Bod. It's a very touching tale, as Bod needs human companionship and gets it for a short time in the person of Scarlett. He's also not very happy when she has to leave. In another chapter, we meet Liza Hempstock, the ghost of a which buried in a different part of the graveyard, but she has no headstone. Bod feels for her, and goes out into the world to attempt to procure a headstone for her. He plans to pawn a valuable piece of jewelry that he has found beneath a grave in the lair of the Sleer. He learns a valuable lesson about greed and friendship in this chapter. In another, we meet Miss Lupescu, another member of the Honour Guard who watches over Bod while Silas is gone from the graveyard running mysterious errands. Miss Lupescu teaches Bod different lessons than Silas teaches, and feeds Bod different food than Silas buys, and Bod doesn't like it. But in the end, Bod and Miss Lupescu become good friends.
This is truly the story of a boy growing up amidst fantastic friends, magic, wonders, and death. It's the story of a boy who comes to grips with who he is and how he has to deal with that knowledge. The story deals with a group of men called the Jack of All Trades and the prophecy of which Bod is a part. We've seen this kind of thing before in many different places, so it's really nothing special. What is important is how Bod deals with the problem with the help of his friends, thus learning an important life lesson about friendship.
Finally, of course, Bod must leave the graveyard, and thus he learns yet another lesson: we must leave the things of our childhood behind and go out into the world and make something of ourselves.
This is really a terrific little book. I believe that it deserved the Newberry Medal that it won. It's a terrific book for young and old alike. I highly recommend it. However, it's not clear to me that it belongs on a list of Hugo nominees. It's not that it's YA, and it's not that it's fantasy. It just doesn't feel to me like it belongs with Hugo nominees and winners of the past. But go read it anyway--I think you'll enjoy it.
Next up, SATURN'S CHILDREN by Charles Stross. [-jak]
Hiding in Plain Sight (letter of comment by Tim McDaniel):
In response to Mark's comments on hiding in plain sight in the 04/03/09 issue of the MT VOID, Tim McDaniel writes:
In re yours of the 3rd inst. on "Hiding in Plain Sight".
A "one-time pad" encrypts characters by (for example) XORing a different random integer for each character. If each key integer is used at most once, and if the integers are truly random, then it can be proven to be unbreakable. Before computers, the drawback was in generating as many key units as characters that you'd ever want to send, and in distributing the keys to the field.
The key must be truly random, not pseudo-random as on many computers. In cryptography, patterns can be fatal.
What Mark described was not a "one-time pad", but looks like a variant of "running-key cipher". The Wikipedia article for that notes, "Perhaps surprisingly, the security is usually fairly poor", for several stated reasons.
My amateur impression from reading David Kahn's THE CODEBREAKERS is that the two most famous signs of a crackable system are calling it unbreakable, and citing the number of possible combinations. [-tmd]
Lifecycle of a Star (letter of comment by Frank Leisti):
In response to Mark's comments on stars and hydrogen in the 04/24/09 issue of the MT VOID, Frank Leisti writes, "Fortunately, when the hydrogen is used up in a star, the helium is then converted to higher order elements all the way up to iron, which unfortunately, starts to use more energy than it makes, shutting down the nuclear furnace of the star and allowing gravity to force things together. Depending on the size of the original star, this star can either expand as it is doing this, shrink down to white dwarf, neutron, magnetron, or with a supernova explosion which creates much higher order material (into the radioactive material ranges), it could become a black hole. [-frl]
Sense of Wonder (letter of comment by Frank Leisti):
In response to Mark's comments on the sense of wonder in the 04/24/09 issue of the MT VOID, Frank Leisti writes, "On the Sense of Wonder, I recall from my youth, reading in comic books a form of advertising which showed the difference of presenting science in the classroom. One part of the competition was a person simply leading the class in a standard transfer of knowledge--teacher to student. The other part was a person who, with their presentation had a hands-on activity for the students to learn from. It was obvious which developed the greater sense of wonder." [-frl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
LITTLE BROTHER by Cory Doctorow (ISBN-13 978-0-7653-1985-2, ISBN-10 0-7653-1985-3) is a Hugo nominee. It has gotten a lot of good reviews. I thought it was awful.
First, the basic premise: Marcus is a sixteen-year-old hacker who gets caught up in a DHS sweep after a terrorist attack in San Francisco. After he is held incommunicado for a week and psychologically tortured, he is released, but becomes the leader of a movement to reverse the Orwellian tactics of the government. (It's no accident that his handle at the beginning is "w1nst0n" and that the novel is called "*Little* Brother".) Doctorow is in the forefront of the current "personal freedom" movement, and his agenda is showing--not just showing, in fact, but lit up with searchlights and announced with air raid sirens. I have in the past accused Heinlein of being unsubtle, but I realize now that there were whole new levels.
But there are other problems. I'm all in favor of a well-written, well-placed info-dump, but this book seems to be almost a third info-dump. (Someone claimed that Doctorow wrote this by stringing together a lot of his "Boing-Boing" columns with a minimal plot.) Most of the characters seem fairly thin--I realize that this is a YA novel, but even so....
The odd thing is that many of the things that I object to in LITTLE BROTHER I loved in Neal Stephenson's SNOW CRASH. I assume it must be the writing style. Stephenson tended to isolate his info-dumps via the character of the Librarian, rather than have the narrator pontificate, and his characters were more complex. It's odd, I suppose, that there should be so much similarity between two books that are at opposite ends of the spectrum for me, but there you have it. I really expected to like LITTLE BROTHER, but it was a massive disappointment.
Our discussion group read THE LAST CHINESE CHEF by Nicole Mones (ISBN-13 978-0-547-05373-8, ISBN-10 0-547-05373-8), with the plot about a woman who is investigating a claim about her deceased husband and meets a Chinese American who is the son and grandson of great Chinese chefs and is going to compete in a cooking contest. I found the long discussions of the philosophy and practice of Chinese food far more interesting than the mystery or romance plot, so for the benefit of those who want to read only those parts, they are on pages 26-28, 34-54, 63-69, 76-80, 95-99, 122-136, 148-150, 152-155, 165-170, 183-195, and 228-242.
THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN by Simon Winchester (read by David Case) (ISBN-13 978-0-7366-5160-8, ISBN-10 0-7366-5160-8) is about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary and its greatest volunteer, but also about the history of dictionaries, the American Civil War, and a variety of other digressions. The professor is James Murray, the editor of the project. The madman is Dr. W. C. Minor, who contributed thousands of quotations for the project-- while confined in Broadmoor Asylum for having committed a murder while insane.
There are a few unexpected lessons to be learned. While Murray satrted the project, he estimated it would take two years to produce the first volume; it took twenty. All his other estimates were equally off. But the fact is, if anyone had realized how long the project would take, they never would have undertaken it.
And Murray also helped, merely by thinking about the process. The editor had volunteers reading from a list of books, sending in quotations for whatever words they thought worthwhile. Copying the quotations in a standard format took a long time, and often words were skipped that would have been useful. Murray took a two-step approach. He *indexed* each book in a booklet, jotting down all the words that might be of use, along with the page number, and did this in such a way that it was in alphabetical order. When he had a few of these, he wrote Murray, explaining his method, and asking what words Murray could use quotations for right away. Then he needed merely to look them up and copy those quotations. This meant he was not wasting his time copying quotations for words that would not be worked on for years, while Murray struggled with other words than he could help out with.
I recommended this for anyone who is interested in either the English language, or managing large projects.
And speaking of large projects, THE RIVER OF DOUBT by Candice Millard (read by Richard Ferrone) (ISBN-13 978-0-7393-2303-8, ISBN-10 0-7393-2303-2; book ISBN-13 978-0-7679-1373-7, ISBN-10 0-7679-1373-6) is about yet another example of why accurate planning is important. After losing his bid for the Presidency in 1912, Roosevelt went to South America, supposedly to travel down a reasonably well-known river. The person organizing the expedition selected most of the principals without really thinking it through. For example, he chose as the quartermaster on the jungle trip a man whose only experience in exploration was an Arctic polar expedition--and a failed one at that!
And then when the expedition got to South America, they somehow decided to change their plan from a relatively safe river to the River of Doubt, a completely unknown river in a region supposedly inhabited by hostile tribes. To some extent, this decision was of the magnitude of the Donner party's decision to take the short cut.
I have already reviewed Roosevelt's account, THROUGH THE BRAZILIAN WILDERNESS, of the Roosevelt-Rondon Expedition to map what was then called the "River of Doubt" (Rio da Duvida), was renamed Rio Roosevelt, and then later renamed Rio Teodoro. As I noted, "his descriptions of the land, the animals, and the plants are first- rate, but he does somewhat gloss over some of the hardships of the expedition, in specific the illnesses. I suppose perhaps it was considered 'unmanly' to complain of malaria, blood poisoning, and so on, but the result is a slightly incomplete picture of the expedition." Millard corrects these omissions, talking at length about Roosevelt's injuries and illnesses, including that he was so incapacitated at one point that he told the others to leave him behind with a vial of morphine he always carried on expeditions for just such a situation. (They didn't.)
This book is a good read on its own, but is even better when read in conjunction with THROUGH THE BRAZILIAN WILDERNESS http://tinyurl.com/TR-brazil. My review can be found at (at http://www.geocities.com/athens/4824/rev-r3.htm#brazilian. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Paradoxical as it sounds, many intellectuals prefer life in the mud to life in clear water. -- Martin H. Fischer
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