MT VOID 03/05/10 -- Vol. 28, No. 36, Whole Number 1587

MT VOID 03/05/10 -- Vol. 28, No. 36, Whole Number 1587

@@@@@ @   @ @@@@@    @     @ @@@@@@@   @       @  @@@@@ @@@@@ @@@
  @   @   @ @        @ @ @ @    @       @     @   @   @   @   @  @
  @   @@@@@ @@@@     @  @  @    @        @   @    @   @   @   @   @
  @   @   @ @        @     @    @         @ @     @   @   @   @  @
  @   @   @ @@@@@    @     @    @          @      @@@@@ @@@@@ @@@

Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
03/05/10 -- Vol. 28, No. 36, Whole Number 1587

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

Enigma Within a Shopping Mall (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

I just came back from wandering all over my local shopping mall. Year after year the people who manage these malls stubbornly refuse to put the stores in alphabetical order. [-mrl]

Pi and Powers of 10 (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

I have more thoughts about the BBC's news story I mentioned last week that a computer scientist had worked out the digits of pi to 2.7 trillion decimal places.

The first question I ask is how big is a trillion to the BBC? A lot of people think a trillion is a trillion is a trillion. Au contraire.

We may not be talking about the same number when we say "trillion". Traditionally in Britain they have used the "long scale". In the United States we use the "short scale". We think of large numbers going up as million, billion, trillion, quadrillion, quintillion, etc. They seems to be saying one-illion, two-illions, three- illions, four-illions, five-illions,etc. if there really was such a thing as an illion. But how much is an "illion?" Well the two systems agree on what a million is but not what a billion is.

In the United States--indeed, anyplace that uses the short scale--a thousand million is too much to say each time. I guess as Evlyn points out, it is a milliard. A thousand million is a billion. A thousand billion is a trillion.

In Europe they use the long scale for naming large numbers. This way they don't have to name so many new numbers. You ask a Frenchman how much a thousand million is and he will say "Je ne comprends pas," which is a really easy way out. But if you ask an English-speaking Frenchman he still won't understand. A thousand million is a thousand million to a Frenchman. A million million is a billion. In the long system it takes a million of the last illion to make the next illion. A thousand billion is just a thousand billion. I don't think there are billiards that are numbers. There is the game, of course. It takes a million billion to make a trillion. So the French hear a number from the United States and think of a much larger number. This explains why the French thought our huge economic bailouts were totally insane when they were merely extremely crazy.

Most of Europe uses the long scale. We, in the US use the sort scale. Both sides of the pond we agree that a million is 10^6. But what we call a billion, 10^9, on the long scale is called a thousand million. On the long scale a billion is 10^12. That is what we call a "trillion," but on the long scale a trillion is 10^18. But news of how many digits were computed from pi on both sides of the Atlantic seem to say it was a 2.7 trillion digits so you hope they mean that that somebody checked and everybody is agreed that it is 2.7x10^12 digits.

But seriously I think that people who are looking at the decimal places of pi to try to find something interesting are making a serious mistake. As I pointed out in our November 20th issue there does seem to be an interesting pattern in that starting with 242422nd decimal place, the next eight decimal places of pi are 42424242.


But that is probably a coincidence. Looking at the decimal places of pi at all is extremely anthropic and pompous. The universe has shown that pi really is a special number to the universe. It is ratio of a circumference of a circle to its diameter. And it shows up in all sorts of wonderful places like that exp(i*pi) + 1 = 0. That is true from an objective and not human-centered view of the universe. But the decimal expansion of pi assumes that ten is a really important number to the universe. Ten is important the way we do mathematics, but that is because we have been using ten since early on in mathematics. It came from the fact we have ten fingers. That was a biological accident. Pi, e, and 1 would be important numbers in mathematics no matter how many fingers we had. But ten came along merely because of our physical makeup. If an alien race came along that happened to have twelve fingers our work on the decimal expansion of pi would be of much less interest to them. It is arbitrary to look for information about pi tied in to the number 10 or any other number suggested by our biology. If there is going to be anything interesting in pi, we would want to look in a less anthropocentric manner.

So do I have something better to look at? Sure. It comes from something called continued fractions. Start with pi. It is a little more than 3. Record 3 and subtract it from pi. Then take its reciprocal. Now you have something at little more than 7. Record 7 and subtract it from the number you had. Then take its reciprocal. Continue and you get a sequence of natural numbers that begins: 3, 7, 15, 1, 292, 1, 1, 1, ... That is the sequence you might better be studying. It is much less arbitrary. You can show that

Pi = 3 + 1/(7 + 1/(15 + 1/(1 + 1/(292 + 1/(...)))))

There is more at stake here than just political correctness or multi-culturalism for aliens. It just seems unlikely that we will find something universally interesting if we keep looking at pi and seeing what we get when we multiply it by the number of fingers on our hands. [-mrl]

Mythology (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

[Someone asked what the mythology book was that Mark had mentioned In his review of PERCY JACKSON & THE OLYMPIANS: THE LIGHTNING THIEF.]

You surprise me on the mythology. I would have thought that you would be interested in fantasy that is also an important part of the culture. My parents could not complain if I was spending my time reading mythology. The book I suggested was fairly good, but it was chosen by convenience. It was GODS AND MORTALS IN CLASSICAL MYTHOLOGY: A DICTIONARY by Michael Grant. However, if you are getting into mythology I am not sure a dictionary of names is what you want. It makes little sense to read it name by name and if you want to know about a particular god or demigod, I would think Wikipedia would be sufficient.

I grew up with Edith Hamilton's MYTHOLOGY for reading the myths as stories, but I think that Bulfinch's GREEK AND ROMAN MYTHOLOGY: THE AGE OF FABLE is respected. [-mrl]

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

As proof that my interest in Jorge Luis Borges knows ... well, not no bounds, but certainly fairly wide-ranging ones, I watched EL AMOR Y EL ESPANTO ("Love and Fear"). This is an Argentinean film directed by Juan Carlos Desanzo and based on part of Borges's life which was available in a Region 1 DVD (Argentina is Region 5). This was not as much a slam-dunk as it might seem--hence the "no- bounds" comment"--because the film is in Spanish, and there are no English subtitles (or even Spanish ones, which would have helped). So if I'm a bit unclear about some things, that is why.

It begins with the coming to power of Juan Peron in 1946. Borges was actively opposed to Peron, so the first "episode" is of his being transferred from his position in the National Library to one as an inspector of birds and rabbits in the Central Market. Several things are worth noting here.

First, like Borges's writing in A UNIVERSAL HISTORY OF INFAMY and elsewhere, EL AMOR Y EL ESPANTO is a combination of fact and fiction. But in this story it is impossible to say how accurate the film is to the actual facts, because there is apparently much dispute over the facts. Borges claimed that Peron was personally involved (and biographer Emir Rodriguez Monegal seems to believe this), but this seems very unlikely given the vast number of civil servants and the demands upon Peron's time right after his election. It was in fact explicitly denied by Per¢n's Secretary of State for Culture for Buenos Aires Raul Salinas (according to Edwin Williamson). Salinas said that originally Borges was to be transferred to a position in "apicultura" (bees), but Borges and his friends tried to cause trouble by distorting "apicultura" to "avicultura". One problem with this distortion is that there was no such thing as "Direcci¢n de Avicultura", according to Arturo L¢pez Pe¤a. However, the fact that the Peronist newspapers referred to Borges as an inspector of chickens makes Salinas's claim a bit suspicious as well.

At any rate, the story as told in the film is very striking. It begins in Borges's parlor, where Borges and his mother are listening to the crowds cheering Per¢n's triumph. Borges then goes to his job in the Library, with its enormous high ceilings. In some the "funcionario"--the sort of anonymous government official that Kafka wrote of. This official has the appearance--and bearing--of a gangster. (If this were to be remade in English, Bob Hoskins would be perfect for the role.) The use of the gangster image is in keeping with Borges's interests; he wrote of gangsters in his writings about Argentinean low-life, in THE UNIVERSAL HISTORY OF INFAMY, and even in an introduction to the book THE GANGS OF NEW YORK.

This functionary informs Borges of his new position, and Borges then meets his girlfriend, who (I think) breaks off their relationship. That night, Borges walks through dark streets past painted graffiti that says "LA PRIMERA SEÑAL HA SIDO ARTICULADA" ("The first sign has been given"). This echoes "La primera letra del Nombre ha sido articulada" ("The first letter of the name [of God] has been spoken") from "Death and the Compass".

The next day Borges goes to his new job, but is repulsed by the filth of the pigsty he has to walk through and flees. He passes another graffiti that says "LA SEGUNDA SEÑAL HA SIDO ARTICULADA." He then goes into a bar where he watches some toughs playing cards. Something in his demeanor offends them and one challenges him with a knife. The bartended points out that Borges is unarmed, and suddenly someone throws a knife so that it lands in the table in front of Borges. He takes the knife, goes outside, is stabbed in the fight ... and wakes up. (Well, you knew he wasn't going to die this soon.) This, of course, is the basic plot of Borges's story "The South".

The next day Borges leaves his home and takes a room under the pseudonym Alejandro Visari. When the landlady asks for his occupation, he says that he is a "funcionario", taking on the same role as his oppressor. His mother comes to visit and Borges finds out that his girlfriend (named Beatriz Irena Viterbo here--the name of the woman in "The Aleph") is going to marry the new director of the Library, Carlos Argentino Daneri (also from "The Aleph"). His mother says that he needs the help of a detective (if there was an explanation why, I missed it), and suggests that he call on Detective Erik Lönnrot. Lönnrot, of course, is the detective in "Death and the Compass".

When he arrives at Lönnrot's office, he finds the clerk in the outer office writing. What is he writing? DON QUIXOTE. Yes, it's Pierre Menard. To explain why he is writing a book that Borges tells him was written in the 16th century, Menard recites a sentence first as Cervantes wrote it and then, with completely different emphasis and interpretation, as he is writing it.

Borges tells Lönnrot that there is an assassin after him, and that this assassin is the state. Lönnrot dismisses this idea--after all, Borges is not a man of action who poses some threat.

On Borges's way out, Menard tells him that he is writing a novel even better than DON QUIXOTE, and also that he has the key to the mystery. Later, Borges goes to Menard's apartment, an attic full of books, where Menard shows him the other book he is writing: EN BUSCA DEL TIEMPO PERDIDO (REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST). Before he can tell Borges the key, though, he is stabbed in the back somehow (even though there is nothing behind him but a blank wall).

Borges dreams Beatriz is being poisoned with a glass of milk (as in Alfred Hitchock's NOTORIOUS). He visits her, manages to force Daneri to spill the milk, and gets thrown out. Returning to Lönnrot, he passes graffiti saying "LA ULTIMA SEÑAL HA SIDO ARTICULADA." After he has returned to Lönnrot, he goes through the process of using the compass to "triangulate" the site of the fourth murder. (As I have noted before, this is the magnetic compass, not the geometric one, though in the film he does use a set of dividers which resembles that sort of compass. He determines that the fourth point is his pensione, and he is the target. On his way there, he sees a student attacked by thugs in the street and Lönnrot intervenes--apparently Lönnrot has connections to the police. Lönnrott takes Borges to the police records department. This is a Kafka-esque labyrinth of records, also resembling an enormous library. Borges seeks out his own files. At first I thought that his records covered the entire table and were as complete as Funes's memory, but I am not sure that is the case, since he finally picks up one folder with a sense of triumph. That is definitely at least one of his folder, if not the entire set, and it turns out to have blank pages, because he is not guilty of anything. Lönnrot concludes that he himself is the intended victim, at the address given in the story "Death and the Compass", and goes off to meet his fate.

(Actually, I may not be far off on the Funes reference, since one review says that there is a character name Funes who manages a "library", and that probably refers to this sequence.)

Borges is met again by the functionary and told that his job--his actual future job--is as a man of letters. Borges goes to Beatriz's house and finds her dead. She is holding a pink rose; he cups his hand around it and it turns red (a reference to his poem "The Rose"?). He accuses Daneri of killing her, and then returns to pensione, where admits his true identity when his landlady starts to question him about his job. He packs to return home, but then his mother walks through the door, and ...

He is back standing in his parlor with his mother, while we hear the crowd outside cheering Peron's triumph.

For those of you not paying attention, I will point out that this film therefore contains a dream sequence within a dream sequence.

Gustavo Camps criticizes the film for a dependence on dialogue rather than visual images, which he thinks particularly bad for a thriller. He also describes it as being more a collection of independent scenes than a single narrative, and certainly it has this aspect. Then again, Borges's writing is a collection of short pieces, with nothing longer than "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", so perhaps this is appropriate. (For reasons passing understanding, there are many pages on the Internet that claim the fifteen-page "The Congress" is longer.) Camps also points out that the screenwriter, José Pablo Feinman, is a Peronista and so is perhaps not entirely sympathetic to the anti-Peronist historical Borges. [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

           The more a man lies to others the more 
           he lies to himself.
                                          -- Anonymous

Go to my home page