MT VOID 09/25/09 -- Vol. 28, No. 13, Whole Number 1564

MT VOID 09/25/09 -- Vol. 28, No. 13, Whole Number 1564

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
09/25/09 -- Vol. 28, No. 13, Whole Number 1564

Table of Contents

      C3PO: Mark Leeper, R2D2: Evelyn Leeper, Back issues at All material is copyrighted 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


This week's MT VOID is brought to you by the Pre-Owned-Humvee Owners Exchange. Buy a used Humvee today. It's not a car; it's a defense system. [-mrl]

Political Question (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

Question: What date was Rep. Joe Wilson born?

Answer: You-lie 31, 1947


Little Bitty, Simple Numbers (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

I was reading an article that talked about vacuum energy. This is the energy in space that is independent of any matter. How empty space can hold energy I will not go into here (because I just started this article and already I am in way over my head). But the book I was reading suggests that it is on the order of 10^112 ergs per cubic centimeter. (Note: we use "^" to indicate an exponent.) That is a lot of energy considering it is stored in nothing--literally nothing at all. That is the theoretical prediction. The actual measured value is about 10^-8 ergs per cubic centimeter. (In the words of Lou Costello, "I don't even know what I'm talking about.") Anyway the author of the article says predicted value is a big number. (Now I know something of what I am talking about.) He is wrong.

Just on general principles, 10^112 is actually a very small number. There are big numbers, but 10^112 is not one of them. In general, it is beyond the power of the human mind to conceive of a large number. We are just weak, tiny people, and we do not understand the concept of large numbers. For the purposes of this conversation I will be talking only about non-negative numbers. Well, based on the problems I was given in mathematics class, 10^112 is certainly large by comparison to most of the numbers I worked with. But how big are most numbers? There are only a finite number of numbers less than 10^112. The ones larger go on and on. There is no upper bound on the integers. I just have to increment that exponent by one to get a number that is ten times as big. 10^113 is a whole lot bigger than 10^112. You can fit ten intervals of integers, each one as big as the interval from 0 to 10^112 into the interval from 0 to 10^113.

So how big is the average positive integer? You cannot say, because it is too big. In fact, the average positive integer, if we really could talk about such a thing, would be a lot like being infinite itself. Well, that is loose language. In any case pick any number you want. There are integers up there that make it look incredibly small. Consider the largest number any human has ever conceived up to... *now*! Okay, take that and consider 10 raised to that as a power. Okay, the human race has just thought about a much bigger number. And I mean a whole *lot* bigger! But that number is still a whole lot smaller than some of the numbers out there. It is every much a part of the human condition--as much as it is that we are mortal or that we are doomed to hear a lot of Frank Sinatra music even though he is dead--that we have only played with the numbers that are really near zero on the number line. We cannot conceive of a number that is not huddled in a bunch very close to zero.

Even there we cannot conceive of all the numbers that are near zero. We just know about the really simple ones. We talk just about the ones that are easy to express. Well, we know about a lot of integers. In fact, we know about a lot of fractions that we call "rational" numbers. (Even here "a lot" is not really a lot. Most fractions we have never thought about.) We know about some irrational numbers. We know about the square root of two. Most of us know about e and about pi. We can express numbers arbitrarily big (but not really big at all). Some numbers we can express only in words. Like "the 248465489th decimal place of pi." Some number we can describe like "the largest real root of (x^567)-(5*x^34)+237." That is a name for a number. And with enough computing capability we could figure out an approximation of what that number is. But any number that we really know about we could type out and describe in a finite string of characters. That means that only a finite set of numbers have ever been thought of individually. There are only a finite number of integers that have ever occurred to us to think about. That could be argued to be a lot of numbers, but it is still finite. There are more numbers in the interval from 0 to 1/(10^112). In fact, the set of numbers we ever *could* have a name for may be infinite, but it is still no more that the number of positive integers. That means not just that the vast, vast, vast majority of numbers have not been named, but we could not express them even if we thought of them. We do not have tools to name them. There is no way of expressing the value of these numbers.

So most positive numbers are larger than the human mind can conceive. We have just been playing with the *tiniest* of numbers and then just the ones that are *really*, *really* easy to express. When you play with numbers you are always just at the beginning and dealing with only the very simplest and tiniest of numbers. We play with the simple numbers because the big ones are just beyond our comprehension. [-mrl]

Great Books of the Western World (letter of comment by Kip Williams):

In response to Evelyn's comments on the Great Books of the Western World in the 09/11/09 issue of the MT VOID, Kip Williams writes, "Fortunately, I never had to buy the "great books" set as a set. A book shop in Hampton, VA, was selling individual volumes for $5 each, and I got the DON QUIXOTE because the slim hardcover was less cumbersome than a three-inch thick paperback. Personally, two-column text is a little easier on my eyes sometimes because I don't have to scan so far over. YMMV." [-kw]

Anticipation Con Suite (letters of comment by Dan Kimmel, David Goldfarb, and Morris Keesan):

In response to Evelyn's comment in the 09/18/09 issue of the MT VOID that she had been told the con suite at Anticipation was open only at night, Dan Kimmel writes, "It was in fact open all day. I had breakfast there several times." [-dk]

David Goldfarb writes, "Since I was staying in the Delta, I had more opportunity to stop by the Anticipation con suite than you, and it was in fact always open when I did. Whoever told you it was only open in the evening was (at best) mistaken." [-dg]

And Morris Keesan writes, "And while Evelyn may have "heard that ... the [Anticipation] Con Suite ... was open only in the evenings," she heard an untrue rumor. The Con Suite was open in the mornings and afternoons, and had breakfast and lunch foods." [-mk]

Evelyn responds, "Well, I guess this proves one should not believe everything one hears." [-ecl]

Anticipation Masquerade (letter of comment by Jo Paltin):

In response to Evelyn's comments on the Anticipation Masquerade in the 09/18/09 issue of the MT VOID, Jo Paltin writes:

Regarding your comments about the Anticipation Masquerade: First, I agree with you that the flat seating at the Masquerade and Hugo awards is a definite weakness of every Worldcon that uses such a venue. Further, the videography was rather amateurish in that the French-speaking co-host did not receive proper lighting and was usually shown in the dark, as contrasted to the English-speaking host. Enough said.

Since you did not attend the Masquerade, and relied on the apparently sour opinions of others, I'd like to offer the following counter-review: I attended and found the Masquerade to be of high quality, if somewhat smaller than other recent Worldcons' masquerades. The children were bought on stage en masse and they had the opportunity to show off, get applause, and walk off--all within two minutes. A better win-win solution would be difficult to devise. I applaud the organizers for setting up the "Kamikaze Kids" children's costuming event earlier that day to help kids dress for the Masquerade; I participated with my daughter and we received very useful tips that I intend to re-use in the future. I must add that the various costumers we met could not have been kinder and more forthcoming--a relative rarity in my experience.

The Masquerade adults provided high quality and fun costuming. There was a lot of creativity on stage. This included both design (see the Charlie Brown/Peanuts-inspired scene that comprised two people) and scenario (see the warning to male game designers or the Klingon Batman). There was no lack of humor; there was no more than one embarrassing costume (there really should be a weight limit for bare-midriff costumers); and the logistics associated with the presentations (i.e., audio & stage lights) went smoothly by and large. I cannot speak with authority about the prizes, because I did not stay for that portion of the program. I'm pretty sure they were not as extensive as all that, because my daughter's favorites did not win, so it was a contest after all. So, unlike your sources, I'd say that the Masquerade was a success and far better than many other Worldcons could muster. I'm looking forward to the next one. [-jp]

Speed of Light (letter of comment by Paul S. R. Chisholm):

In response to Ian Gahan's comments on the speed of light in the 09/18/09 issue of the MT VOID ("surely it is possible to travel faster than the speed of light, even in the same medium"), Paul Chisholm writes:

Hope I'm not the millionth person to point this out. [-psrc]

Mark replies:

This is a good point. I was not aware of it. The article says, "Cherenkov radiation... is electromagnetic radiation emitted when a charged particle (such as an electron) passes through an insulator at a constant speed greater than the speed of light in that medium." So when you are not talking about vacuum as the medium, strange things are possible.

Gahan said I was discussing the speed of light and you did not complete the mantra with "in a vacuum". Of course in the original article when I said "the speed of light" that almost always means "in a vacuum." Negative five is *a* square root of 25, but *the* square root of 25 is five. *The* speed of light is 186,000 mps, but there are lower figures that are also speeds of light in air, water, or lime Jell-O. [-mrl]

Thunderstorms on Saturn Thunderstorms on Saturn (letters of comment by Sam Long and Morris Keesan):

In response to Mark's question about thunderstorms on Saturn in the 09/18/09 issue of the MT VOID, Sam Long writes:

Yes, the lightning on Saturn is giving rise to thunder, and if you were there, floating around in Saturn's atmosphere, you could hear it. Sound is simply vibrations in air, and there need not be anything around to hear the vibrations for such vibrations to be sound. This also is the answer to the question, "If a tree falls in a forest..."

I believe there's also lightning on Jupiter (whose Great Red Spot is, I understand, a storm--though perhaps not a lightning storm of the sort on Saturn--that has lasted centuries) and (I think) Venus.

Meantime, keep those MT VOIDs coming; I enjoy them.

P.S.: I'm a meteorologist by trade (though a bureaucrat in practice--my gravestone will say "In Memorandum" instead of "In Memoriam"). Do forecasts count as science fiction? Some people might say so..., Well, I think we are agreed that it would create a disturbance in the atmosphere. But whether in the atmosphere a person could hear it is another matter. I doubt that anyone could ever be in a position to "hear" this atmospheric disturbance. The one can define sound to be that which is hearable or just as a disturbance in the air. They are slightly different, but either works. I guess deep-down I agree with you that the other definition is a little anthropocentric. [-sl]

Mark replies:

I would say that weather forecasts do not count as science fiction by not being fiction. Arthur C. Clarke wrote fiction about the future and he also wrote essays about it. But I think he distinguished the two. Again it comes down to definitions rather than substance. [-mrl]

And Morris Keesan writes:

Regarding the question of what the storm on Saturn is, I'm on the side of those calling it "thunder". If a tree falls where there's no one to hear it, it makes a sound, which is the vibration of the atmosphere (and it's arrogantly anthropocentric to imagine that there's anywhere on Earth with trees growing where there are no life forms with sound-sensitive organs, or that "sound" should be defined as vibrations that humans can hear [just as discussions of the Schrodinger's cat gedanken-experiment tend to forget about the cat-as-observer]). And, by the way, even though the word "lightning" seems to be, per, derived "from gerund of lightenen to lighten", I can't find any dictionary source that gives "lightening" as an acceptable alternate spelling. [-mk]

Genes and Altruism (letter of comment by Morris Keesan):

Anyone interested in possible genetic bases for empathy and altruism should read Matt Ridley's book THE ORIGINS OF VIRTUE (London, England: Viking, 1996. ISBN 0-670-86357-2; also published by Viking in New York, 1997, ISBN 0-670-87449-3 and in paperback by Penguin, ISBN 0-140-26445-0 as THE ORIGINS OF VIRTUE: HUMAN INSTINCTS AND THE EVOLUTION OF COOPERATION), in which he considers ways in which altruistic behaviors could have evolved, and the benefits to the groups in which the genes for those behaviors were prevalent. [-mk]

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

My first question about READING THE OED: ONE MAN, ONE YEAR, 21,730 PAGES by Ammon Shea (ISBN-13 978-0-399-53398-3) is, "Just what is Shea living on while he does this?" He apparently spent eight hours a day on the reading, and there is no mention of even a part-time job. I suppose it could be that Shea's girlfriend was so inspired by his project that she agreed to support him through it, but I'm not putting money on it.

One problem with the book was that the parts about the reading of the dictionary were fairly skimpy, so Shea needed to pad it out with a sampling of words from the OED. He has previously written two books about obscure words, so it was an obvious thing to do, but it makes this more just another book about obscure words and less distinctive in its subject. (The book is about half narrative and half words.)

MAD PROFESSOR: THE UNCOLLECTED SHORT STORIES OF RUDY RUCKER by Rudy Rucker (ISBN-13 978-1-56025-974-9, ISBN-10 1-56025-974-4) is a collection of stories that are primarily centered on mathematics. Several of the stories are co-authored with other science fiction writers; all have notes about them by Rucker. The mathematical nature of the stories means they may have a narrower audience that a more general science fiction story, but the mathematics are not overly advanced. One wonders if the subtitle is not a sly paradox: having been collected in this volume, the stories are not longer uncollected. (Or the subtitle "The Previously Uncollected Stories of Rudy Rucker" was just not as catchy.)

And a random thought: who invented alphabetical order? This is not the same as who invented alphabets, because one can have an alphabet without a specific order to it, and one could have an order without the notion of using that as a filing order. (Many early libraries had their books filed chronologically by when they were acquired.) [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

           If it is the devil that tempts the young 
           to enjoy themselves, is it not, perhaps, 
           the same personage that persuades the old 
           to condemn their enjoyment?
                                          -- Bertrand Russell

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