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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
04/02/10 -- Vol. 28, No. 40, Whole Number 1591
Table of Contents
How It Happens (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Sitting in our motel room we occasionally channel surf to see what is on cable. Evelyn asks the question of our age, with so many channels to watch how can there not be anything on that is worth watching. It seems like half the channels are infomercials. Now cable originally sold itself as an alternative to watching commercials. Cable got it money through subscription, not through selling advertising. These days there is much more advertising on cable than there ever was on broadcast TV. The thing is that since we were children there has been an incredible proliferation of things not worth watching. There are more things not worth watching today than there ever was in the past. In fact, making all this not-worth-watching material is the biggest growth area in the whole Lack-of-Entertainment Industry. [-mrl]
No Mistake--Case Closed (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
It used to be that we would get a lot of wrong number phone calls. Well, a specific kind of wrong numbers. It would sound like the electronic tones of a fax machine was calling our phone. It was as if some fax machine had mistakenly entered our number on their fax network. We might get two or three of these calls a day.
Now Evelyn and I disagreed on what might be causing this problem. She thought that they were just what they seemed. One or more rogue fax machine operatorss had entered a wrong number, our house phone number. To me it smelled of a scam. Someone was making money out of bothering us. But if they were not connecting with us, how did it work?
My theory was this. If you are telemarketing you waste a lot of time if you just do the obvious thing. If you just pick numbers at random and call them some--maybe most--of them may be non-assigned phone numbers. Some may be gas stations or pet stores. Calling these would be wastes of time. I suspect that telemarketers call very few pet stores. They want to target better than that. And a large percentage of phones just never answer. I mean, a telemarketer can call a number and wait through ten rings and get nothing for his time.
As so often happens with the wrong people who are having trouble, the computer comes to their aid. It is an equal opportunity device and helps good people and people whom you would rather it not help. I read that there was computer software to help telemarketers. In this case a machine was created that would screen the response first. If there was no answer it would go on to the next number. If it got a recording it could detect that and give up. When someone did answer a light would go on and the telemarketer would pick up that call and be guaranteed a connection. Of course, there was some delay. It was detectable at my end by the delay. I would pick up the phone and say hello and get no response for five or ten seconds. Then a telemarketer would come on and I would wish that I had hung up during the delay. Of course, there were some humans who would call me and then take some time to say hello, but I could get a feel for which ones were telemarketers. I got so that I could hang up in time and I would be fairly sure that I was not hanging up on a friend. Of course, if I could not be sure that it was not a human who had made the call and was too timid to call back when I hung up on them. But that was an acceptable risk.
So there were some telemarketing calls I got that I understood what the machine was doing. But it was not obvious that this other sort of behavior, mimicking fax machines, did any good for a telemarketer.
Still, my theory of the off-course fax machines was that the call had been intentional. I was supposed to think the problem was some poor inept clerk accidentally entering my phone number when they should be entering a fax machine number. I was expected to think I was just unlucky. But that did not sound right. There were too many fax calls. I thought someone was making a list of phone numbers where people answered the phone.
Well, was it bad luck or was it a ploy of telemarketers to call my number and waste my time? Evelyn was betting the former, I was betting the latter. Evelyn was just thought that I was thinking the worst of people.
It just today occurred to me now the law protects me from telemarketers. I have put my name on the national don't-call list and by law telemarketers are supposed to not call me. It seems to me that at the same time it became illegal to call me, for some reason fax clerks got a lot more "ept" at entering fax numbers. It has been years since a fax machine has called me and then given me meaningless electronic tones. Or more likely the follow-up telemarketing calls had become illegal. Now it is quite possible that machines like I describe did and still do exist. It is easy enough to feed in the "don't call" list and have it not waste time calling these people. But the fact that the "fax" calls stopped when telemarketing became illegal strikes me as more than simple coincidence. The inept fax calls and the telemarketing seem connected. The evidence is enough to convince me. The machines were likely just making lists of people who do answer their phones and then reporting these pre-screened phone numbers. [-mrl]
PANDORA'S STAR by Peter F. Hamilton (Audible release date 11/17/2008, Tantor Media, 37 hrs and 22 mins, narrated by John Lee) (audiobook review by Joe Karpierz):
So, I've had some Peter F. Hamilton sitting on my bookshelves for a long time, but the more I looked at them the more I realized that I wasn't going to get to them any time soon. They're big, fat, doorstop books. The premise of THE NEUTRONIUM ALCHEMIST sounds interesting, but apparently not interesting enough for me to jump right in and get started. So I figured that an audiobook was in order, since I have an hour round-trip every day to and from work. It turns out that the audiobooks are the equivalent of doorstops as well--in this case, 37 hours+. So, the question is, was it worth the time? I'll answer that later in this review.
Where to begin? Well, in the late 21st century. Wilson Kime is one of the first men to walk on Mars. As the crew of that first ship disembarks onto the planet, a wormhole opens in front of them to reveal a couple of scientists that had just invented wormhole technology such that it can now be used for interstellar travel. These guys are Nigel Sheldon and Ozzie Isaacs.
Jump forward three hundred years to the main setting of the story, the Commonwealth. Man has spread among the stars using the wormhole technology invented by Sheldon and Isaacs. It is a peaceful Commonwealth; there hasn't been a war in hundreds of years. And humanity has "rejuvenation technology"--the tool by which time is turned back and a person returns to having the body of an eighteen-year old again--except they get to keep the memories. Well, only if they want to. They can have the memories stored away and wiped from their own minds to start fresh if they want. There is even a "re-life" procedure, whereby a dead person can be brought back to life in a new young body with memories up to the time they had them stored away. This is actually a very interesting problem that could have been explored more in the novel--there aren't a lot of kids, and people live hundreds of years, potentially allowing stagnation to set in. You'd think there would be more kids than are mentioned in the novel, since humanity is constantly expanding further and further into space.
Astronomer Dudley Bose observes the Dyson Pair Enclosure--a pair of stars that have disappears because of what scientists think are Dyson spheres. Of course, the question is why are those stars enclosed? Are the enclosures keeping something in, or something out? A starship is built, commanded by Kime, with Bose on board, to go visit the Dyson Pair and find out what they can about it.
In a side story--at least so far it's a side story--there's a group called the Guardians of Selfhood, who believe that an alien called the Starflyer is influencing human government in a negative way. The Commonwealth calls the Guardians a terrorist group. Investigator Paula Myo has been hot on the case of the fellow who appears to be backing the Guardians (and whose name escapes me at the moment--there were so many of them) for well over a hundred years.
Kime's ship, the Second Chance, gets to Dyson Alpha, and the barrier goes down for no apparent reason. The aliens there capture a couple of Kime's crew--one of which is Dudley Bose--while Kime takes the Second Chance home in a major hurry after seeing overly agressive warfare (is there any other kind?) in the Dyson Alpha system. From Bose, the aliens learn about wormhole technology, build a few hundred wormhole generators, and attack the Commonwealth.
Is your head spinning yet? It should be, and I've only mentioned the main story lines going on. This is a massive book in many, many ways. It's a Space Opera of grand scope--starships, aliens, wars, exotic planets and aliens, well developed interesting characters by the bucketfull, romance, deception, etc.--the list goes on and on.
And on and on and on and on.
And on and on....
You get the point. This is a grand and glorious story, full of all sorts of wonderful things, and massive in scope. But it's ... too much. Well, maybe it's too much. And maybe it isn't. I loved this book. This is the kind of stuff that had me running to the library and bookstores to find SF books to devour by the boatload. And it's well written. The writing style is lush, full of wondrous descriptions of exotic planets and locales. The prose is elegant without being pretentious. And John Lee, our British narrator, makes it come to life, effortlessly reading all sorts of different parts without missing a beat. But I often wondered, as I listened, whether Hamilton was overdoing it--couldn't it be written in a much more compact way? I'm thinking so. The paperback is over a thousand pages long, and of course this audiobook is over 37 hours long. And *it's only the first part*. The pair of books--the other one being JUDAS UNCHAINED--clearly were one huge massive big large fat book that had to be broken somewhere. So of course, it was at a cliff-hanger, in more ways than one.
Was it worth the time? Yeah, I think so. But I couldn't listen to another audiobook for about a week. I just needed to get away for a while. But, if you like long books, and you like the space opera adventure of old but told in a much more modern way with modern sensibilities, then this is for you. [-jak]
IN SEARCH OF BEETHOVEN (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: This 139-minute documentary of Ludwig van Beethoven is the most intelligent film biography of a composer I have seen. By featuring great musicians and conductors giving their commentary on the music itself this film is a step more intelligent than most musical biographies. Beethoven's music is transcendent and washes over the viewer. Phil Grabsky writes, directs, and even films this account. Juliet Stevenson narrates. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
When I was growing up, the classic screen music biography in my house was Charles Vidor's A SONG TO REMEMBER, with Cornel Wilde as Frederic Chopin and Paul Muni as his teacher. Most composer biographies, whether they are dramatic or documentary, tell the story of a life, all or in part, and simply play the music to illustrate the composer's work and hopefully for the audience to enjoy. Here is the composer; here is the music he wrote. I have not seen Phil Grabsky's earlier film IN SEARCH OF MOZART, but IN SEARCH OF BEETHOVEN does something that I have not encountered before. As a documentary it brings in experts and as often as they talk about Ludwig van Beethoven, they talk about the music itself. The man sheds light on the music but also the music sheds light on the man. For example, Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda talks about how the first chord of the First Symphony was intended as a shock to the audience to announce that a new kind of music was coming. Cellist David Waterman hears the same music and tells us that from the music one can hear the composer "bursting with confidence" in his own genius. Just hearing the music would be nice, but to hear experts deeply involved with the music telling what they hear in the music is a unique approach. Among the expert witnesses are Emanuel Ax, Jonathan Biss, Riccardo Chailly, Alban Gerhardt, Janine Jansen, Roger Norrington, Ilona Schmiel, and Lars Vogt.
One downside of having the expert opinions is the use of a few basic terms perhaps beyond a beginner. There is not much beyond terms like "pizzicato", but some rudimentary knowledge is assumed. The story is told with some humor. Beethoven had large hands and some of the music he wrote intentionally required stretches that would have been physically impossible for some pianists. His presence would be less than uplifting for those around him. He threw books at people. If he felt too hot some evening he would overturn a pitcher of water over his head and let it drip down to the apartment below him. Some of the story is also tragic. He had his great depression in his deafness, and his feelings of betrayal when his former hero, Napoleon Bonaparte, crowned himself emperor. Napoleon is replaced in his love by Humanity as a whole, topped by the last movement of his Ninth Symphony with its famous setting of Friedrich Schiller's poem "Ode to Joy". Writer/director Phil Grabsky gives us the twin tragedy that Mozart lost his life so early and Beethoven lost his hearing also early.
Grabsky then has really three different things he is trying to do with this biography. He is documenting the life of Beethoven, he is illustrating the life with brilliant concert performers playing the music, but he is also having those same experts talking about what is in the music itself. And because he has three agenda to present to do justice to each he has made the film long, 139 minutes. One place where these goals are in conflict is that Grabsky has people talking over the music in the main body of the documentary. The DVD comes with a second disk that includes several of the complete symphonic movements and other pieces played by the same famous musicians without voiceovers or interruptions.
Even those who think they know about the life of Beethoven should find plenty of interest in this documentary account. I rate IN SEARCH OF BEETHOVEN a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.
Film Credits: http://uk.imdb.com/title/tt1308123/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/in_search_of_beethoven/
Edison's FRANKENSTEIN, Remakes, and Pi (letter of comment by Kip Williams):
In response to Mark's comments on Edison's FRANKENSTEIN in the 03/19/09 issue of the MT VOID, Kip Williams writes, "Edison's FRANKENSTEIN was lost? I didn't know. I've had at least a clip from it for the last twenty-five years, from a PBS show called 'The Amazing Years of Cinema,' narrated by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (for whose beautiful voice I just purchased an LP of Hovhaness's setting of verses from the 'Rubaiyat' of Omar Khayyam, but I digress). It's the scene where Frankenstein reverses his monster into being." [-kw]
Evelyn replies, "The IMDB comment indicate that it was rediscovered in the 1970s, but still hoarded by the discoverer." [-ecl]
In response to Mark's comments on remakes in the same issue, Kip writes, "Interestingly enough, I've been saying lately that if one has to remake a movie, don't take an icon of my youth and try to update it. Take a movie with potential that didn't quite work out and do it as it should have been. I like John Carpenter's THE THING much better than the 1950s version, for instance. It's closer to the paranoia and fear in the original novella, which the black and white version missed entirely in their battle with the space carrot." [-kw]
Mark replies, "Personally I like both versions of THE THING, though I find the second one a little frustrating. The story was supposed to be scientists facing the presence as a scientific problem. Carpenter decided he could not make the scientists the heroes, so the only person doing the real thinking was the helicopter pilot. The scientists were pretty much useless. John Campbell, who wrote the story, was pro-science and both film versions were anti- science." [-mrl]
And in response to comments on pi in the same issue, Kip writes, "I don't recall if it was before or after Keith [Lynch]'s discussion of pi (which suspiciously follows my wishing him a happy Pi Day by about ten minutes), but my subscription copy of VIZ arrived about the same time, and the first panel of "Mr. Logic" shows the irritating hero reading a book called "One Million Digits of Pi in Morse Code" to himself... "di daa daa dit..." (I doubt the dialog in his balloon was real Morse.) This brings two of Keith's interests together. [-kw]
Zeugma (letter of comment by Tim Bateman):
In response to Evelyn's question in the 03/19/10 issue of the MT VOID ("What about pseudo-parallel construction, e.g., 'He got awakened, ready, and his coat"? Is there a name for this sort of thing?'"), Tim Bateman writes, "Yes. It's 'zeugma' (Greek for 'yoke'). She left the dance in tears and a taxi, et cetera. The Wikipedia article on the subject has more information (than you probably want or need)." [-tb]
Can there be more information than one wants? :-) At any rate, the Wikipedia article did have the first example I recall noticing, from Michael Flanders's "Have Some Madeira M'Dear": "When he asked 'What in Heaven?' she made no reply, up her mind, and a dash for the door."
And the specific zeugma I was asking about was the syllepsis. [-ecl]
What You Don't Know You Can't Do (letter of comment by Jack Weaver):
In response to Mark's comments on impossible tasks in the 03/26/10 issue of the MT VOID, Jack Weaver writes:
Your article reminds me of a story I read years ago, probably in a pulp magazine around 1940 ñ a couple of years. The story opened with a group of scientists and engineers viewing a grainy 8MM film of a man demonstrating a backpack that allows him to fly around above a parking lot. Unfortunately the demo ends when the backpack explodes destroying itself and killing the man doing the demo. The group is told that the film was taken by a guard at a local military base with his personal camera where the incident occurred and that the device demonstrated appeared to work by negating gravity. At the end of the story we are in a hanger with a large device connected by heavy cables to a mass of equipment and hovering a foot or so above the floor. Hey, it's not a backpack that one can wear but it is a beginning. Of course amongst the spectators is the man that was supposedly killed during the original demo... [-jw]
I assume you are saying the original film is a fake. The problem is that just seeing the jetpack would disclose necessary design assumptions that the fake jetpack might not have.
Commando Cody of the Republic serials had a fictional jetpack that would not be stable. If one looks at the real jet pack that was eventually designed (watching the pre-credit sequence of THUNDERBALL will do), you see that the jets are set off to the right and the left to give the jetpack a wider stance for more stability. And that makes sense. To construct a working jetpack you would probably have to do that. But did the jetpack in the 8MM film in the story do that? Or was it like Commando Cody's pack, which had the rockets too close together for stability? [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Greg Egan is the author most people think of when they think of "mathematical" science fiction authors. but STORIES OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS by Ted Chiang (ISBN-13 978-0-765-30419-3) proves that Chiang is another who relies heavily on the "Queen of Sciences". For example, "Tower of Babylon" is a story built upon geometry (pun intended)--in specific, the idea of a curved universe in which if you travel far enough in a single direction, you return to your point of origin. (There is also an element of topology in the intertwining spiral staircases.) Of course, it also relies heavily on the Bible, and on early theories of the universe--not precisely Aristotelian (as in Richard Garfinkle's CELESTIAL MATTERS), but having aspects of that cosmology. (This is one reason why quibbles about air density, temperature, and gravity are beside the point.)
"Understand" is to some extent the standard story (usually told in the first person) of someone whose intelligence is enhanced to superhuman levels (e.g., Daniel Keyes's "Flowers for Algernon" or Poul Anderson's BRAIN WAVE). As with most such stories, the problem is that the (un-enhanced) author has to be able to write convincingly from the point of a super-genius which is, in effect, the same as trying to write from the point of view of an alien. One thought from it did connect to other stories by Chiang, the idea of gestalt: "In each case, I don't have to consciously memorize rules, then apply them mechanically. I just perceive how the system behaves as a whole, as an entity." And later, "My new language is taking shape. It is gestalt-oriented, rendering it beautifully suited for thought, but impractical for writing or speech. It wouldn't be translated in the form of words arranged linearly, but as a giant ideogram, to be absorbed as a whole."
"Division by Zero" is clearly mathematical, being based on the idea of discovering that mathematics is not consistent, but somehow it never seemed to go anywhere.
"Story of Your Life" is told in a very non-linear fashion, in keeping with the way the aliens in it think. And this is what I remembered most clearly about the story. But a recent viewing of "Breaking the Mayan Code" brought a whole new set of connections to mind.
For example, Chiang's protagonist writes, "Their script isn't word divided; a sentence is written by joining the logograms for the constituent words. They join the logograms by rotating and modifying." This is almost exactly what the Mayans did with their symbols; in fact, the documentary has a lot of scenes in which we seen several logograms in a row, and then animation shows then transforming, rotating, and uniting to form a single glyph. However, in the alien language, "a noun is identified as subject or object based on the orientation of its logogram relative to that of the verb." I do not think this applies to the Mayan language.
What really sums up the idea of the story, though, is this: "This meant the heptapod had to know how the entire sentence would be laid out before it could write the very first stroke. ... The heptapods didn't write a sentence one semagram at a time; they built it out of strokes irrespective of individual semagrams." (I actually use something like this in programming one of our VCRs, as it sometimes saves button presses to program the fields out of order.)
Mathematically, Chiang also makes references to the calculus of variations.
"Seventy-Two Letters" is a story of golems, and homunculi. The idea of the creative power of language--the use of "charms" of seventy-two Hebrew letters to animate golems connects to the notion of performative language as described in "Story of Your Life". The interconnection of the two--golems and homunculi--is quite deft, and makes the story more than "just" another Frankenstein clone (if that's not mixing one's metaphors). (I will add that this story won the Sidewise Award for alternate history.)
"The Evolution of Human Science" was originally published in "Nature" as one of their short-shorts, under the title "Catching the Crumbs from the Table" and, like "Understand", looks at a sort of post-human intelligence, though from a different point of view, one more in keeping with the notion of the Singularity.
"Hell Is the Absence of God" revisits the problem of reconciling the existence of God and of evil, but in a somewhat different fashion than usual. The earth of Chiang's story is experiencing angelic visitations. These sometimes cause sickness, injury, or death; other times they provide miraculous cures. In addition, Hell is sometimes visible, and one can see who is there. Hell is not a place of eternal punishment but "merely" the "absence of God." What determines who is blessed by an angelic visitation and who is cursed, who goes to Heaven and who to Hell, and how all this affects people's beliefs, philosophies, and feelings is Chiang's subject.
This is indeed a daunting task, but Chiang is up to it. As evidence, here is part of his afterword: "For me, one of the unsatisfying things about the Book of Job is that, in the end, God rewards Job. ... Why does God restore Job's fortunes at all? Why the happy ending? One of the basic messages of the book is that virtue isn't always rewarded; bad things happen to good people. Job ultimately accepts this, demonstrating virtue, and is subsequently rewarded. Doesn't this undercut the message? It seems to me that the Book of Job lacks the courage of its convictions: If the author were really committed to the idea that virtue isn't always rewarded, shouldn't the book have ended with Job still bereft of everything?"
"Liking What You See: A Documentary" is about calliagnosia, a condition in which someone is unable to recognize "beauty" (or "attractiveness", if you prefer). In the world of the story, one can have a simple operation to "install" this condition (and conveniently, the ability to turn it on and off with ease). Not surprisingly, many of the early proponents are college students, but there are also those who are against it.
(As an aside, when did the plural of "passerby" become "passerbys" as it is in the book?)
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: If the Almighty were to rebuild the world and asked me for advice, I would have English Channels round every country. And the atmosphere would be such that anything which attempted to fly would be set on fire. -- Winston Churchill
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