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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
11/27/09 -- Vol. 28, No. 22, Whole Number 1573
Table of Contents
An Explanation Is Ode (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I was listening to the radio and they play Beethoven's "Ode to Joy". Now you may just stop there and listen to the music. It is nice music. But, I mean, what is the point? You can write an Ode to a Grecian Urn. There is some point there. I mean it is not everybody who knows what is so great about a Grecian urn. A Grecian urn is not what you call one of your most highly prized commodities, even if you can see them in museums. Most people think of them as fancy ash trays. Grecian urns could stand some odes. But what is the bit with writing an Ode to Joy? I mean, I know of people who are not that keen on apple pie or Motherhood. But who needs to be reminded that joy is a good thing? I myself will take all the joy I can get. I am a regular Joy Boy. But who doesn't en-joy joy? Who has to be convinced that joy is a good thing? I mean what a waste of a nice tune. [-mrl]
An Open Letter to an Indian-born Friend (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I want to thank you for pointing me to the lecture by Guru H. G. Radha Gopinath Prabhu giving his proofs of the existence of God. As you might know, proofs or purported proofs of the existence of God are a particular of mine. I think that there are certain propositions that the Universe does not give us sufficient tools to determine the truth or falsity of. For example there is the proposition that some sets are too big to be put in a one-to- one correspondence with the integers but too small to be put in a one-to-one correspondence with the real numbers. Paul Cohen, one of my professors at Stanford, proved that determining that proposition is true is impossible, but proving it is false is equally impossible. The proposition that such sets exist is forever undecided. That is what I consider the proposition "God exists" now and forever undecided. Of course if He shows up and reveals himself, I will be proven wrong.
In 12th grade English we read Thomas Aquinas's proof of the existence of God. He would make statements like if something is infinite there is no room for anything else. I immediately responded to my teacher that the set of even integers is infinite, but they leave room for the set of odd integers, which is also infinite. I suspect most of the people who read Aquinas, particularly in his own day, came to him with a predisposition to like the proposition that God exists, and they were not sufficiently critical of his arguments. Probably few people of Aquinas's day had much knowledge of infinity in any case.
Similarly I think that most people who come to Guru Prabhu do so assuming he is a very wise man. He is after all a guru. They may be assuming that he has thought out everything he says very clearly and carefully. If it does not make sense the fault is with them and they should reconsider very carefully. It is a form of proof by intimidation. I, on the other hand, approach anybody's proof of the existence of God with a strong expectation of finding heavy logic flaws, perhaps obscured by logical obfuscation. I would suggest that you yourself should look at his arguments with the same degree of criticality that you would if you were the teacher and he was the student.
Guru Prabhu begins by defining God as the cause of causes, what I think we would call the first cause. Certainly some people say, without proof, that the God they worship was the first cause. But this is already assuming that some cause was first rather than there being an infinite chain of causes. Further if the first cause of our universe turns out to be a hole in the multiverse, I am not sure that would meet any acceptable criteria for being a God. Who would want to worship a hole?
Guru Prabhu's first argument is that for every urge there is a satisfaction in nature. Since some have an urge to know God, there must be a satisfaction of that urge in nature. But it is most certainly true that some urges have no satisfaction in nature. One example is the urge to find a set that is too big to be put in a one-to-one correspondence with the integers but too small to be put in a one-to-one correspondence with the real numbers. We will never find a fulfillment of the urge to find such a set in nature, as I said above.
One might expect from a Guru some new insights from a substantially different mindset and from a different culture. In fact, Guru Prabhu mostly just echoes standard Creationist arguments that one could get from the radio in the US. He uses a semantic argument: The world is creation and how can you have creation without a creator, he asks? This is a circular argument. The people who first called the world a creation assumed that God created it rather than it coming together from natural forces. This does not prove the existence of God, it simply says that someone believed in God when they were making up new words.
Guru Prabhu gives us the arguments that the evolution of something as complex as man is impossible by chance. Well, no it is not. It is just highly improbable on a given planet. It is made much more probable by the immensity of the universe. Where Guru Prabhu is not too obscure and mystical to follow, he falls back on very familiar arguments that have long since been disproven.
The surprise is that Guru Prabhu's arguments are very much the arguments of Western Creationists. I doubt that is even a coincidence. There may or may not be a God, I do not know myself. But the attempts to give a logical proof of the existence of God have in my experience invariably shown up ignorance of the nature of proof. Independently of whether there is a God or not, attempts to "prove" the existence of God are traps for gurus and sages and foolish people to show where their wisdom is lacking. I think it is probable that Guru Pradhu is sincere and probably believes that his arguments are as wise here as in other spheres of his knowledge. I do not find his arguments as convincing of his conclusions.
But as I say I do appreciate your pointing me to his lectures.
[It should be noted that my friend does not agree with the Guru and was not trying to convert me to the Guru's views. He presented the arguments as a logical curiosity. People interested in hearing this lecture will find it playable and downloadable online at http://tinyurl.com/Prabhu-God.] Also see a good article on this subject at http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/goldstein09/goldstein09_index.html.]
WHIPPING STAR by Frank Herbert (copyright 1970, Herbert Properties LLC; copyright 2008 Tantor, narrated by Scott Brick, 6 hrs 52 mins) (audiobook review by Joe Karpierz):
WHIPPING STAR is the first Frank Herbert book I've "read" that wasn't a Dune novel since THE DOSADI EXPERIMENT, which I believe was originally serialized in GALAXY magazine a long time ago, and which is also in the same universe as WHIPPING STAR. So, I came at this from a couple of different angles (quite unintentionally at first, and then quite consciously after awhile): I listened to it from the perspective of the book on its own, and I listened to it with DUNE hanging around in the back of my head. Let's talk about the book all on its own first.
The time is sometime in the far future. Humanity has made contact with a bunch of alien races: the Calebans, the Pan Spechi, the Gowachin, the Taprisiots, and a whole bunch of others. They've all joined forces to form the ConSentiency, an organization that governs affairs between the lot of them. Our hero is one Jorj X. Mckie, a Saboteur Extraordinary and a member of the Bureau of Sabotage (BuSab). BuSab was formed, if you can believe this, as an organization to slow down the progress of government. In one of Herberts more ingenious ideas in the novel, this government was acting so fast on things that they weren't taking the time to consider the ramifications of what they were doing, and they were turning into a tyrannical sort of government. BuSab was formed to slow them down. Now how about that? The idea of a government working too fast is nearly unbelievable in itself, which would make this novel one of fantasy, not SF.
So, the story is that our friends the Calebans have been slowly disappearing; when each one disappears, there is a calamity: folks either die or become insane. Nice. The thing is, we want the Calebans around, as they have given members of the ConSentiency jump door technology, which provides the ability to travel from one place to the next almost instantly (see folding space in the "Dune" universe for something similar, but definitely not the same. I guess Frank likes the ability to travel instantaneously in his stories, so he comes up with some reasonably interesting devices to make it happen).
As our story opens, there is one Caleban left, whose name, we learn, is Fannie May. She has entered into something of a very strange contract with one Mliss Abnethe (it's interesting to listen to the reader, Scott Brick, pronounce some of the names in this story--Mliss is one of them). It seems that she's undergone some mental treatment that causes her mental anguish when someone suffers. Since she can no longer inflict pain on someone else, she has someone do it for her. In fact, the contract allows her to have Fannie May whipped to death, and when death occurs, every one who has ever used a jump door will die.
So, what we have is a very traditional detective story--our detective is Mckie, of course--trying to find out why this is all going on, and oh, by the way, he's trying to stop it, too. What makes it especially difficult is communication with the Calebans-- they are difficult to see and speak in ways that are difficult to understand.
This book is traditional SF fare for its day but at the same time is full of the kinds of things we like to see in today's books-- imaginative settings, races, civilizations, and ideas. It's also kind of frustrating, as with today's novels we're used to a bit more plausible aliens. This is the kind of stuff that would have wowed me back in 1970 when it came out (and I was eleven), and the kind of stuff I think I'm missing today. It would be interesting to see what kind of things Frank would be writing today (if he weren't still writing "Dune" novels), and in particular what this story would turn out to be like if he were writing it today. I don't want to forget to mention the reader, Scott Brick. I think he does a serviceable job voicing all the characters, including the aliens. Since he really has nothing to go on when trying to give voice to any of these aliens, he comes up with an interpretation that's pretty good in my book.
Ah, now to the second part--DUNE in the back of my head. It's tough to be a writer who has penned what is arguably one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time. (I say arguably because someone will argue with me. I mean, that's why we have these discussions, and that's why fandom is so interesting. But for those of you who disagree with me--well, you're wrong. :-)) Anything else you come up with will invariably be compared to that great novel, that one time shot that sent you skyrocketing to fame. compared to DUNE, the writing here falls flat--it just doesn't compare to the grand prose and storytelling of DUNE. It's not necessarily a fair comparison, of course, but it's going to be made whether it's fair or not (for additional thoughts about DUNE and its successors, see my upcoming review of PAUL OF DUNE, wherein I finally realize what the problem *really* is with all the "Dune" sequels--not just the Anderson/Herbert editions, but the other ones by Frank Herbert himself). [-jak]
OUTRAGE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Kirby Dick who wrote and directed THIS FILM IS NOT RATED, an angry examination of the American film ratings board, brings us an exposé of congressmen who repeatedly vote against gay rights but who are secretly gay themselves. Dick looks at the damage they have done to the lesbian and gay community and gives the evidence that they themselves are gay. While the film is full of some very cogent arguments, there are major flaws in his case. Dick is missing a vital link: the fact that someone who is privately gay should necessarily determine how that person votes on legislation. And by not making that case the film frequently comes off as a piece of malicious vengeance against politicians who do not vote the way he would like. Rating: 0 (-4 to +4) or 5/10
Kirby Dick makes angry documentaries. He made TWIST OF FAITH about the hypocrisy in the Roman Catholic Church over the sexual abuse scandal. He made THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED about the American MPAA system for rating films and the inaccuracy of their ratings. The current film OUTRAGE is about Congressmen who, under a "family values" stance, vote repeatedly against gay civil rights, yet who are purportedly gay themselves. This documentary gives the names of right-wing lawmakers who are gay yet repeatedly oppose pro-gay legislation.
Dick methodically presents police recordings, interviews, and shows documentary data that his targets really are gay. I will not repeat names of people he is "outing" here, and that limits what I can say about this film. But it is not my place to "out" them in my writing. People who do speak cogently that I will list include James McGreevy and Barney Frank, both publicly gay.
The problem with this film is that there is a gap in its logic. And that gap is very hard to fill, but is central. Kirby Dick had not really made a case that closeted gay politicians who vote against pro-gay (or anti-anti-gay) legislation are guilty of wrongdoing. He has shown they are not voting their sexual preference, but not that they are not voting their conscience. The gap is that Dick does not show that anti-gay legislation is materially wrong. I may feel that it is wrong--and I generally do--but if he overtly says that it is wrong it very much changes the focus of the film. The burden of proof is on Dick, and OUTRAGE becomes a film taking a side on legislation. That may seem like a small gap, but it is central.
The film makes the assumption that gay politicians have a responsibility to be in favor of pro-gay legislation, regardless of their opinion of it. Saying that gay legislators have a responsibility to vote some particular way just because they happen to be gay is really an unintentional attack on gays. It is saying they should be voting their sexual preference rather than voting on the merits of the issue. And it is telling the American people that they feel that gay politicians, openly or not, have a responsibility to be biased. It is looking at gay politicians who keep their sexual preference private and criticizing them for not being biased in the way that the way the filmmakers say they should be. And at the same time it is spitefully "outing" gay politicians who are not joining the cause of gay civil rights.
Perhaps not surprisingly this work has the same weaknesses of Kirby Dick's THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED. Both films are giant ad hominem arguments. His assumption is that people who vote in ways he does not like, in congress or in the MPAA, have unproven ulterior motives. He does make a case for why he believes that, but he does not show that these people are voting in bad faith. OUTRAGE documents Kirby Dick's own rage at the men he outs. There is no attempt to make it balanced. And his film, while engaging is the weaker for that fault. I rate OUTRAGE a 0 on the -4 to +4 scale or 5/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt1049400/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/10011262-outrage/
A Simple Mathematics Problem and 42 (letter of comment by Tim Bateman):
In response to Mark's simple mathematics problem in the 11/20/09 issue of the MT VOID ("There have over the years been a lot of predictions that the world coming to an end. Figure out to three decimal places what percentage of these predictions have proven true."), Tim Bateman writes, "Is it cheating to factor in that the world has never come to an end yet? Unless I'm imagining that I'm still here." [-tb]
[You may assume that you exist and are still here. In fact, I am not sure how else you could do the problem. -mrl]
Tim also points out that 4 is 2+2, 2*2, and 2^2. [-tb]
[Yes, 2 and 4 have the closest relationship of any two different integers. -mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
In preparation for my panel on Philcon on Isaac Asimov's FOUNDATION, I re-read it, and made a few notes. The page numbers refer to the Science Fiction Book Club omnibus volume containing the "Foundation Trilogy".
(page 3) "Born to middle-class parents": Tens of thousands of years in the future, will people still have the same concept of middle class as we do now? I know that some will say that having them speak and write in English is inaccurate, and that such terms as "middle-class" is merely a rendering of their concept into something we can understand. But it still jars.
(page 3) "tobacco grower": As I had said earlier, the amount of smoking here is indicative of the 1940 and 1950s, and has not aged well. See also pages 29, 45, 56, 70, 73, 79, 81, 85, 90, 109, 136, 137, 181, 200, 220, and 226.
(page 4) "hyper-space": Clearly, Asimov needs some faster-than- light travel, and so uses the classic hyper-space. However, he wrote so long ago that he apparently felt that he needed a paragraph of expository lump to explain it.
(page 6) "ship's gravity": Well, they obviously also have artificial gravity, though one wonders how they determine what setting to use, because on page 6, we discover that (for example) the gravity of Trantor is a bit greater than that of Synnax.
(page 9) Trantor has 75,000,000 square miles of land surface. First, they seem not to be using metric units. Yes, it is a translation from Standard Galactic, but on page 110, temperature is given in "centigrade". This area is about 25% more than Earth has, but there is no indication how much of Trantor is ocean. The population is 40 billion, six times Earth's current population of 6.8 billion, but sixteen times what it was when Asimov was writing (2.5 billion).
(page 10) "The rate of planetary turnings differed": Having said this, Asimov then drops the subject. There is no indication later than any of the many planets with people living on the surface have a day's length markedly different from any other.
(page 11) Apparently the hundred square miles of the Emperor's palace grounds is the only green on the planet. One wonders where the oxygen comes from (or the soil, when it reverts to agriculture in a later book).
(page 12) Trantorians seem to suffer from agoraphobia (fear of the outdoors) the same way Earthers do in THE CAVES OF STEEL and THE NAKED SUN.
(page 13) Seldon is referred to as "Raven" because he is always predicting disaster. I'm assuming this is a reference to Edgar Allan Poe's poem, but isn't that a rather unlikely allusion to have survived tens of thousands of years?
(page 14) Seldon says that the conglomerate must be unaware of psychohistory's predictions or the predictions will fail. Donald Kingsbury picked up on the in his novel PSYCHOHISTORICAL CRISIS, noting this means that the rulers must therefore keep the population in ignorance. But Asimov, or rather Seldon, breaks his own rules when he tells the government his predictions. Now that they have this knowledge, won't they disturb the predictions?
(page 15) Seldon has a "calculator"; I guess the term pre-dates the "four-bangers" of the 1970s.
(page 17) Seldon claims psychohistory cannot predict the fate of individuals, but then sets a probability of 1.7% that he will be executed. On page 21, he gives Dornick a probability of 77.2% of being freed, and on page 31 he assigns probabilities to Chen being alive at the end of the year.
(page 19) Dornick has a "right to a lawyer". This sounds very twentieth century American to me.
(page 22) I had earlier said that all the names were European, and there were no names that might have been Japanese, or Indian, or African. There was, however, one Chinese name I missed, Linge Chen. Also, Joseph Patrouch notes contradictory reports of the press coverage of Seldon's trial on pages 22 and 30.
(page 27) The Empire is 12,000 years old. By comparison, the Egyptian Dynasties lasted about 3500 years.
(page 35) "Most will leave for Trantor, but some will stay. It will be easy to arrange." It sounds as though Asimov had plotted out the whole series at the beginning. However, the other five parts of FOUNDATION were written between 1942 and 1944, and the stories in the other two books in the trilogy between 1945 and 1949, while this section ("The Psychohistorians") was written in 1951--after all of them. So inserting this "clue" was, to quote Asimov, "easy to arrange."
In fact, if one reads "The Psychohistorians" without knowing that it was written as an introductory section to a story cycle, one may well end up thinking, "What kind of a story is this? There's no real resolution or ending to it."
(page 40) Pirenne is using a "stylus" and "paper". These seem inconsistent. A stylus uses pressure, not graphite or ink. Also, everyone is still using coins, which we are pretty much phasing out now. (I suppose one might argue that the Empire is reverting to earlier technology, but I am not convinced.)
(page 42) "freedom of the press": Again, a very twentieth century American concept.
(page 44) "peasantry" and "nobility": One might argue about whether this is the model that people would revert to. Also, Patrouch points out that Rodric is already apparently interested in acquiring land on page 44, while on pages 48-49 it is presented as something that just occurred to him then.
(page 50) "Back to oil and coal, are they?": This seems unlikely. If the Empire has been expanding for 12,000 years and has had atomic power for 50,000 years (according to Alexei Panshin), why would people even know about coal and oil. And if they did, wouldn't those resources have already be depleted?
(page 65) "a thing no so-called gentleman would do": This seems even odder than the other anachronistic phrases. Even today, we have abandoned this notion, at least expressed this way.
(page 74) "Terminus and its companion Foundation at the other end of the Galaxy": Although "The Psychohistorians" was written last, this makes it seem as though Asimov always had a Second Foundation in mind. (Of course, this may have been inserted later as well.)
(page 75) "You see, then, that you are faced by hard necessity, and that action is forced on you. The nature of that action--that is, the solution to you dilemma--is, of course, obvious!" If Seldon were not just a hologram, someone would surely have reached out and strangled him. If it is so obvious, why does Seldon not just say what it is?!
(page 80) "comic-opera": Even now, this art-form is fairly obscure. In 12,000 years ....
(page 85) "Insulin will bring a diabetic to normal without the faintest need of a knife, but appendicitis needs an operation." Contrast this with STAR TREK's premise that invasive surgery is pretty much gone in just three centuries from now. In any case, it seems reasonable to believe that by the technological peak of the Empire, they would have found a cure (perhaps some sort of gene therapy) for diabetes rather than relying on insulin.
(page 88) "Thou, too, Brutus": Like the Poe reference, this seems unlikely to survive 12,000 years, especially since no one even remembers on which planet humanity originated.
(page 92) The entire course of history seems to depend on the finding of a derelict ship--surely a random, unpredictable event.
(page 94) They apparently still have printed newspapers, which should re-assure all the current newspaper that are dropping like flies.
(page 96) Again, there is a long discussion of how the masses must be unaware of the predictions of psychohistory, yet the government (or the Foundation) seems to think that their knowledge will not be disruptive. (Admittedly, they do not know the full plan, but it is not clear why they cannot train psychohistorians to figure it out.)
(page 100) "I remember the time ... when the cities of Anacreon were warmed by the burning of coal and oil." See note on page 52 above.
(page 101) "By Seldon[!]": I'm not convinced a regent on Anacreon would use this oath.
(page 111) "thirty pieces of silver": Again, an anachronistic reference. This is like someone in modern Chicago making a casual reference to someone having their soul weighed against a feather.
(page 112) "March 14th": I *really* find it hard to believe that they are still using the same Earth-based solar calendar. If they are, they should certainly be able to figure out the origin planet. Also, it is not clear how soon after the events of March 14 Seldon re-appears. Is it possible that he appears on the Ides of March?
(page 122) The "ultra-wave relay" is the first of many dei ex machinis, including the microfilm-recorder on page 154 and the Visual Record receiver on page 211.
(page 141 in the Ace edition) Asimov gets a bit carried away at times; there are four exclamation points in just fifteen sentences.
(page 160) "Atomic power can be conquered only by more atomic power": Is this necessarily true? Vietnam, and other recent conflicts seem to indicate that this need not be the case. Indeed, later Hober Mallow uses a boycott to defeat a world with atomic power.
(page 181) An oven that can cook the toughest roast in two minutes sounds like a microwave oven to me. Also, there is yet another mention of coal.
(page 183) Many people have said that Asimov doesn't do very well with women in the original "Foundation" books. This page is an example.
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: The hardest thing in the world to understand is income tax. -- Albert Einstein