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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
05/29/09 -- Vol. 27, No. 48, Whole Number 1547
Table of Contents
Acknowledgement (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
This week's MT Void is brought to you by the Pre-Owned-Humvee Owners Exchange. Buy a used Humvee today. Make the World your battlefield. [-mrl]
The Number One NASA Gross-Out (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
The press has been enjoying the disgusting fact that on the International Space Station, the water the astronauts drink is recycled urine. And the public is responding with a uniform "Ooooooooooooo! That's disgusting." http://apnews.myway.com/article/20090521/D98AAOU80.html
The real issue is how well the water is purified. I would hazard a guess that whenever you drink a glass of water it is likely nearly all if not all water that has at one time or another been part of urine and probably many, many times. Anyone who now wants to try living without water, I will understand your reasons. [-mrl]
The Measure of All Things (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I recently had a birthday. I just turned 59 years old. My brother sent me a birthday card with the inscription "Happy Birthday, bro... you're closing in on the big six-oh..." I guess the thought that I would be 60 in another twelve months does not really bother me. I know it bothers other people when they reach a round age. It does not seem to bother me. I never had a mid-life crisis either. It never bothered me that I was growing older. I guess given a choice I would want to stay young, but when I hit these big numbers for my age they do not affect me the way they do other people.
When people ask me if I do not mind these milestones I usually give a sort of facetious answer. I say I always knew I would turn sixty if I live long enough and I had a pretty good idea about when it would happen. The new larger age is not taking me at all by surprise. I saw the milestone coming. And maybe that is the reason it doesn't bother me. I have been realistic about how far away that birthday is. But that may not be the only reason reaching an age milestone does not bother me. And there is a story involved with it.
In 1989 I reviewed Edward Zwick's film GLORY. This is the story of Robert Gould Shaw and his all-black Civil War company of volunteers. These soldiers were abused at the time and not given the proper implements to train. Rather than guns they were given pikes, which were essentially spears. In my review I said, "It is the story of the white officers who led [the 54th Massachusetts Regiment] and the story of five soldiers who shared the same tent upon enlisting. All the other blacks in the film are effectively spear-carriers (in some cases literally)."
A day or so after publishing the review I got an irate piece of email from a woman who told me that only a racist could have written that. I thought this odd and I wrote back to her saying that I assumed what she objected to was the term "spear-carrier". There is a negative epithet for blacks that is similar, a hyphenated word with spear as the first word. But it is not "spear-carrier". The latter is a term from the stage. It refers to a minor acting part. Usually it is a non-speaking part. In Verdi's "Aida" the Egyptian army (or rather a facsimile thereof) troops on the stage and just stands there holding their spears. I do not believe they even get a chance to sing like a chorus, though I could be wrong about that. In any case "spear-carrier" is not a racial epithet.
My correspondent responded that she knew all that. It still was racist to use the phrase "spear-carrier". Now I could have been shocked that such a nasty word was applied to me and I could have come back contritely an apologized or argued back. This would have achieved nothing at all. This was particularly true because I knew that my usage was not racist and that my correspondent had a chip on her shoulder and was trying to pick a fight. Instead I decided to use to my advantage her free use of loaded shock-words.
I wrote back to her in mock innocence that I had heard about racists and how bad they supposedly were. How sure was she that many of them were guilty of no more than using a common and innocent stage term? Maybe she was right and racism could be an innocent thing after all. The response I got back was, "Well, I don't have time to discuss it now." And she must have been a very busy person because, you know, she never did get back to me.
So what does this have to do with why I am not too concerned about approaching 60? Well, it is the same situation. I still feel fairly young. I still get a laugh out of life. If this is what being 60 is like--well, it is what being 59 is like--I think that 60 is not the terrible age it is cracked up to be. On me it is not such a bad fit.
Protagoras of Abdera (ca. 490-ca. 420 B.C.E.) said "Of all things the measure is Man, of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not." I think even he is stretching things. For you, gentle reader, the measure of all things is yourself. For me it is me. I don't think I will feel a whole lot different when I get to 60, so 60 is not that much of a threat. [-mrl]
Netbooks and WiFi (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
In my never-ending quest to be among the last to embrace a new technology, I recently got a laptop--or more accurately, a netbook. A netbook is one of those small (about 8-1/2" by 11"), lightweight laptops that are really designed just for traveling. The major differences between a regular laptop and a netbook, other than physical size, are that netbooks have no CD/CD-ROM/DVD drives and have less RAM memory. (They may have less hard drive space as well, but 160Gb seems more than enough to me. Of course, we still have a PC that has a 4Gb hard drive!) We did get the netbook model with the larger battery, because everyone seemed to agree that the smaller battery was really insufficient, giving only about two hours of use on a full charge.
We chose the MSI Wind (over the Acer, Asus, or HP), based on various reviews. I forget which were which, but some had fewer WiFi protocols, and others had fewer USB ports. The keyboard size was not an issue, since I'm used to my palmtop (and indeed am composing this article on my palmtop!). The MSI has three USB ports and a card reader.
I have been using the netbook (nicknamed "Windy") on my trips to visit my father in Massachusetts, so here are my observations on the netbook (and on free WiFi):
1) Every description of any netbook (on store websites, in stores, etc.) says in capital letters "CANNOT PLAY DVDs". I guess this is a big use people have for laptops (especially when traveling) and the stores want to make sure they don't get a lot of returns from dissatisfied users. Admittedly, I wouldn't mind this capability, but eliminating the drive is what gets the price down to $329.99 (before taxes and shipping, at least for my model at Costco), and the weight down as well.
2) The netbook arrived with the user manual loaded on disk. It also came with two CD-ROMs (one of the manual, and one of drivers, etc.). This seems peculiar, to say the least, since as I noted, the netbook has no drive to read these discs with! Clearly, they assume one has other facilities, but I suspect that there are at least some people who will get *just* the netbook.
3) The netbooks (so far as I can tell) all run Windows XP, not Windows Vista. This may be because the minimal RAM memory is not sufficient for Vista. In any case, some people are buying netbooks rather than laptops simply because they hate Vista.
4) While it cannot play (or read from) CDs, it can play music (and movies) imported into iTunes. Unfortunately, the speakers are a bit under-powered. (It sounds fine with headphones.)
5) The netbook came with a 60-day free trial of MS Office 2007. But I really didn't want to spend hundreds of dollars for a permanent license. However, I had a CD-ROM of Office 97. So on our Mac, I copied all the files from the CD-ROM to a 2Gb memory card from our camera. Then I put the memory card in the card reader slot on Windy and installed the programs from there! It works fine. (The only problem is that if I double-click a Word file, it brings up the free trial version--I should probably just de-install those.)
6) I did the same sort of "copy-to-card" installation for our Garmin City Navigator map software. I may even try it with the MKS toolkit, although that is on 5 diskettes. Still, I can probably do the same thing sequentially.
7) The touch pad takes some getting used to. It is "tap-to-click", which means that even the slightest pressure makes it think you have clicked on wherever the cursor happens to be. To change this, you have to load a new set of drivers (and it took two emails to MSI to discover this--the first gave me two suggestions, one wrong and one impractical). But all this allows is turning off "tap-to- click" altogether, not adjusting the sensitivity.
8) This is my first experience with WiFi. It took a long time to set up a Wifi network at home. Someone gave us an older router, but the instructions and CD-ROM for the router assume one has a PC with a CD-ROM drive. What we have is a MAC with a CD-ROM drive and a PC without a CD-ROM drive. So it took a while to figure out that this router did not actually support connectivity by a Mac. Once we bought a new router that explicitly said it supported a Mac, it was pretty straightforward to set it up. (Another reason was that I was spending a lot of time in Massachusetts and even when I was home had no time to work on setting it up.)
9) The home WiFi still seems to have some problems. Frequently I find that if the netbook has gone into a sleep cycle or turned itself off, that when I start it up, it says it is connected, but it won't load external pages. I end up having to run the "repair" function for the network, and then it works. I have no idea why this is.
And now for the longest section:
10) Free WiFi is great ... mostly. So far, I used the WiFi at Panera, Starbucks, Amherst (MA) Township, the Thirsty Mind (South Hadley, MA), and our local library. Of the non-library sites, my vote is for Panera, and here's why:
For Starbucks, you must do a fair amount of set-up ahead of time. You have to create an AT&T WiFi Starbucks account. This is free, but to do this you need to have a Starbucks card. Luckily, I had such a card. (At the Toronto International Film Festival one year, the "goodie bags" had a free $5 Starbucks card, which I still had money on, because in Toronto, everyone goes to Tim Horton's or Second Cup.) Anyway, I needed to make the card current by re- charging or using it. So I added $5 to it (and because it was denominated in Canadian dollars, I didn't even have to add US$5), and then created the AT&T account.
Now, when one is using WiFi, one does not wish to send passwords through the air. So one wants the login screens to use the "https" (secure) protocol, rather than just "http". Most do. AT&T Wifi does not. So to log in at Starbucks, you have to send your password unencrypted. If nothing else, be sure your AT&T Wifi password is completely different than any others you have.
(Blockbuster is another site that does not have secure login.)
Panera, on the other hand, is pretty much "plug-and-play" without the plug. You power up your netbook, bring up your browser, and as soon as you enter a URL, it gives you a "login" screen where all you do is click the "login" button and you're in. Their food is better, too. (For that matter, they have real food. I recommend their Fuji Apple Grilled Chicken Salad with the apple on the side rather than the baguette.) The one "drawback" is that between 11:30AM and 2:00PM, they limit you to only 30 minutes of connect time.
Amherst Township required no login or password, but every page I tried (including news.yahoo.com) returned some sort of certificate error. According to a knowledgeable friend, this probably indicates poor administration rather than a security problem, but in a college town, who wants to take the chance?
The Thirsty Mind also has no login screens, and has comfy chairs, but their coffee is undistinguished, their pastries (at least the lemon poppy bread I got) stale, and no "real" food. Its major advantage for me was that it was literally only five minutes away from the nursing home I was visiting.
Not surprising, the library network is the best and easiest to use, and requires no login, so even people from other towns can use it. I have no idea if this is standard policy for library WiFi, or even if there is such a thing as "standard policy." [-ecl]
UNMISTAKEN CHILD (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: With a minimum of explanation or narration writer/director Nati Baratz follows the process of the search for and verification of the very young reincarnation of a recently deceased Buddhist Lama. The process began in 2001 and took four years from toddler to teacher. The film takes us to see the method of choosing a candidate and the process of verifying that the "right" child has been chosen. Along the way the documentary silently invites either belief or skepticism. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
Israeli filmmaker Nati Baratz takes us to Nepal to document as it happens the intriguing true story of the search for the reincarnation of a great Buddhist teacher. UNMISTAKEN CHILD looks at the faith of Nepalese Buddhists and their process for choosing a successor to a beloved lama, recently deceased. The chosen child must be less than eighteen months old and yet show signs of being the reincarnation of the lama.
Master Lama Konchog died in 2001. To those who believed in the lama death is not the end of their relationship with him. It is only an interruption. There is no doubt in their minds that Konchog's spirit has chosen the body of a very young boy, twelve to eighteen months old, has filled him with his soul, and is continuing his great work in the body of the boy. They have, they believe, only to find the young reincarnation and restore him to his position of honor. But how can they find the boy who does not himself know his great cosmic purpose? A monk is chosen by the Dalai Lama to go on this seemingly impossible quest. Chosen is Tenpin Zopa, a self-effacing and withdrawn student of Konchog. Tenzin is given the guidance of his dreams and some astrological readings to help him narrow his search for the boy.
In Nepal the modern world sits side-by-side with a life-style and tradition centuries old. Tenzin wears the ubiquitous Buddhist red and gold robes when he is not wearing a T-shirt bearing the mystical inscription "Nike". Tenzin lives in a modest monk's room with a small cabinet that opens to reveal a small television set. His quest will be made on foot or by mule, except for the parts where he is taxied by helicopter. And of course on his mission he is accompanied by a documentary film crew of undisclosed size.
Photography by Yaron Orbach shows us the aloof beauty of the rocky and misty mountains of Nepal. We also see the hard realities of Nepalese mountain village life. The pacing of the film is frequently slow and requires some small part of the patience show by the people of the mountain villages.
As most of Baratz's audience is probably not Buddhist, the film suggests the viewer see the proceedings in two ways, as a believer might and as an unbeliever might. This makes it really two films. The believing half will see miraculous verification in the film that indeed the boy chosen is correct and the process has worked. To the non-believing half the ways of Buddhism will seem quaint. He may question the taking of so young a child from his family and village and told that he must become a monk. I rate UNMISTAKEN CHILD a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
There are questions that really went unanswered during the narrative. How does the family of the chosen boy really feel about having their child taken from home at such a young age to become a lama? Perhaps a related question: How does having a film crew present affect Tenzin, how does it affect the chosen child, and how does it affect the boy's family? If the family objected, would they have felt they could have protested in front of the camera?
This film has been playing at film festivals including the Toronto International Film Festival and will have a limited release in the United States beginning June 4, 2009.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt1286798
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/unmistaken_child
SF Book Discussions and Grades (letter of comment by John Purcell):
In response to the 05/22/09 issue of the MT VOID issue, John Purcell writes:
Your latest VOID has definitely punched a couple of my buttons, one of which is a *big* one. First off, I read Frederik Pohl's autobiography THE WAY THE FUTURE WAS a long, long time ago, and thoroughly enjoyed it. It offered some unique firsthand accounts of major events in fandom of the 1930s, such as the infamous Worldcon exclusion act of 1939, the inner workings of the Futurians, and other seminal fannish figures like Donald Wollheim, Forrest J. Ackerman, Sam Moskowitz, and many, many others. A wonderful book that makes a great companion work to Moskowitz's THE IMMORTAL STORM and Jack Speer's UP TO NOW. I certainly wish I could be at the Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library for the discussion. The June 11th double-treat of book and movie version of THIS ISLAND EARTH would be fun, too.
Now for that big honking button you pushed. As you probably know, Mark, I teach English literature, rhetoric, and composition at a community college here in Texas. I completely agree with you that teachers should grade on ability shown and not on effort. The only time I fudge course grades is if the student has made dramatic improvement during the course of the semester, and only then if their grade is a half-percentage point below the next grade level up. For example, if Student A has struggled to get their grade from a low 70 in August to something like a 79.7 by the end of fall semester, I'll give that student an 80: C to a B. However, let's say Student B finishes the semester at 78.9, and has been waffling around the B mark all semester long. I'm sorry, but that's too much of a distance for me to fudge it up. Obviously this student's grade is reflective of their ability: borderline above average. With a bit of work and focus, he/she could rise over that B bump and get into the low 80s. Plus, I don't do extra credit. It astonishes me as to how many college students ask if I offer extra credit assignments. I simply don't. If the four papers (three short, one major essay) during the semester aren't indicative of their ability to write clearly, coherently, and argue their stances logically, then an additional assignment really isn't necessary.
That "No Child Left Behind" Act is a terribly ill-administered measure. It forces teachers to "teach to the test" in order for their school to hit the magic numbers so that the administration can proudly say, "We're an exemplary high school!" and get extra funding. Seems to me that the school districts with low-achieving students are the areas that need funding, technology, and teachers committed to bringing excellence to the classroom. I don't like grade inflation as much as the next person. It stinks. That being said, the nice thing about being a college instructor is that I don't have to deal with parents; the students are solely responsible for their success at this level. If they do a good job on their papers, quizzes, exams, and assignments, then their grade will reflect their accomplishment. And that, my friend, is something to definitely be proud of.
Your final comment had me vigorously nodding in agreement: "I am working hard to give them the opportunity to actually understand the mathematics better than their fellow students do." Substitute the word "material" for "mathematics" and you have my teaching philosophy. My goal is always to provide my students the tools for their success not only in their academic pursuits, but also in life. Clear communication is something everybody can use.
Now it's time to clean a litter box or two--more like three, actually--and get on with my daily life.
"Courage is doing what you're afraid to do; there can be no courage unless you're scared." - Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker
Great to hear from you. I am looking forward to reading the Pohl. Also I want to reread THIS ISLAND EARTH. I really like the film (and had to wait a long time to get it on DVD). The book is really fun and reminds me of ads I used to see in magazines that offered to send you a kit to build a television. If you could build one, you might also get a job offer. I read the book in high school, mostly to replay the film in my mind. The film is a lot of fun. If I read it this time I can put on in the background the music since the score has been re-recorded by Monstrous Movie Music who do exquisitely faithful recreations of original film scores.
I was hoping to get some real teachers responding on my opinions. I am not a real teacher, I just play one at the library. (Well, I am not a real professional.) I do hate to see that math education is going so heavily into test preparation. I guess it is the "No Child Left Behind" policy and the Law of Unintended Consequences really biting math education. That and the abandonment of rote learning of the addition and multiplication tables. The latter is a bitter pill for young students, but students who get into high school and cannot add and multiply are really the walking wounded. Rounding 79.7 to 80 and giving a B is one thing. Rounding a 63 to 80 is really lying to society as a whole that the student is better than he actually is. Society pays a heavy price for grade inflation. Certainly it slows things down when a bank teller cannot easily calculate 10% of a number, a case Evelyn and I have actually seen. Teachers have a responsibility to their students, but also a responsibility to society.
I may disagree that it is the under-achievers where the funding is required. It probably needs to be spread all along the line. I think school funding should be a function not of how well or poorly the students test, but of how much students improve. You need to have the vast majority to be adequate in achievement without sacrificing the high-achievers. If the vast majority are not adequate the country is damaged in one way, and if there are not enough high-achievers it is damaged in another way just as serious, if not more so. And there is something else going on. I remember in China in the early 1980s being impressed with how cultured students were and at the same time being shocked at how bad the teaching conditions were. Somehow the kids have to get the attitude that learning a lot is really, really important. In China kids are hungry to learn. I don't see that as much in this country.
I like the Rickenbacker quote. Siegfried was the man who knew no fear. Somehow he never worked as a hero for me. Somehow this is similar to my opinion of heaven. I have thought that it was a theological mistake to come up with the idea of heaven. Is virtue really virtue if done for reward in the afterlife? [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Well, as usual, Joe Karpierz is covering the Hugo-nominated novels, so I figured I would discuss the short fiction.
First, the novellas:
"The Erdmann Nexus" by Nancy Kress (ASIMOV'S Oct/Nov 2008): The brief summary of this might be "Dial E for Elderly", since it seems very similar to Sir Arthur C. Clarke's "Dial F for Frankenstein", except that the gestalt mind is formed by the elderly instead of the phone system. Okay, but nothing special. This seems to be part of what might be called "the Old Wave"--the trend towards fiction about the elderly. Could it be because the authors are getting older?
"The Political Prisoner" by Charles Coleman Finlay (F&SF Aug 2008): I found this a bit too clearly a re-telling of past political purges to be able to rate it highly. (I had the same problem with Robert Charles Wilson's recent alternate history, "This Peaceable land".) While it is true that one can be able to gain insight into our current situation, or even our history, from well-written science fiction, a certain level of subtlety is to be desired.
"The Tear" by Ian McDonald (GALACTIC EMPIRES): I read this last, because it was not made available as part of the electronic Hugo packet until version 2.0. It has all the faults of Rosenbaum & Doctorow's "True Names" with none of the virtues. One problem with reading something electronically (for me, anyway) is that it is harder to skip through it and sample bits--not that a story should be read that way, but it can encourage one to stick with something because it seems to get better.
"True Names" by Benjamin Rosenbaum & Cory Doctorow (FAST FORWARD 2): This may be very good, but it is also very hard to read: "Seven star systems, a hundred interstitial brown dwarf stars, and a vast swatch of dark matter in all directions had given up their quarks to fashion the great sphere of strange-computronium around the fervid trinary black hole system at Byzantium's heart."
I will admit that Rosenbaum and Doctorow occasionally have a gem of a sentence: "All across Beebeself, it was a truth universally acknowledged that a singleton daemon in possession of sufficiently massive computation rights must be in want of a spawning filter." But I couldn't manage to read enough of this to be able to say how dense the gems are.
"Truth" by Robert Reed (ASIMOV'S Oct/Nov 2008): A somewhat science fictional take on interrogating prisoners. The fact that the prisoner is a time traveler from the future makes things a bit different, but Reed is clearly looking at the effectiveness of various interrogation techniques rather than the time travel aspects. And ultimately it seems more a commentary on the multiple-worlds hypothesis than on anything in the real world.
My voting order: "The Erdmann Nexus", "Truth", "The Political Prisoner", "True Names", no award, "The Tear"
I had hoped to get to the novelettes and short stories this week, but that didn't happen.
One reason I am so far behind in my reading and writing is that I am currently carrying a very heavy course load. I have not re- enrolled in college, mind you, but I am currently taking three Teaching Company courses and also "After Borges; The International Legacy of Jorge Luis Borges", a course in Comparative Literature at Penn State University taught by Prof. Djelal Kadir in the Fall 2007 semester. I suppose I am not really taking the latter, since I am not getting any lectures or classroom time, but merely reading the works on the syllabus and writing up my own impressions and conclusions from them. (And you know that eventually that will all show up here!)
The Teaching Company courses are "Medieval Heroines in History and Legend", "Jewish Intellectual History: 16th to 20th Century", and "Chaos". I listened to three-quarters of the first one during a drive to Massachusetts a while ago, but Mark was interested in the Joan of Arc lessons and some of Eleanor of Aquitaine, and we're just now getting to them. (The other two heroines, by the way, were Heloise and Hildegard of Bingen.)
On my latest trip, I started "Jewish Intellectual History: 16th to 20th Century" and am about half-way through that. And since we just finished the course "The Story of Human Language" at home, we have started "Chaos" (on DVD rather than CD) as our primary class. (The lecturer, Professor Steven Strogatz, looks a lot like science fiction author Stephen Baxter, and I keep getting the feeling that he is the one talking.) [-ecl]
[Note: That is "Strogatz," not "Stugats." -mrl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: To guess what to keep and what to throw away takes considerable skill. Actually it is probably merely a matter of luck, but it looks as if it takes considerable skill. -- Richard Feynman, 1965
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