MT VOID 04/09/10 -- Vol. 28, No. 41, Whole Number 1592

MT VOID 04/09/10 -- Vol. 28, No. 41, Whole Number 1592

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
04/09/10 -- Vol. 28, No. 41, Whole Number 1592

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

Science Fiction (and Other) Discussion Groups:

April 6: PERSEPOLIS, graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi, Middletown 
	(NJ) Public Library, film at 5:30PM (preceded at 5:00 by 
	short about animation), discussion of film and book 
	after film
      Timothy Ferris, selected online articles (see
      , Old Bridge (NJ) 
	Public Library, 7PM
May 13: THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH by Walter Tevis, Middletown (NJ) 
	Public Library, film at 5:30PM, discussion of film and book 
	after film
May 27: A MIRROR FOR OBSERVERS by Edgar Pangborn, Old Bridge (NJ) 
	Public Library, 7PM (postponed from February)
June 10: THE CIRCUS OF DR. LAO by Charles G. Finney, Middletown (NJ) 
	Public Library, film at 5:30PM, discussion of film and book 
	after film
July 8: RICHARD III by William Shakespeare, Middletown (NJ) 
	Public Library, film at 5:30PM, discussion of film and book 
	after film

Hugo Nominations:

The Hugo nominations for this year have been announced and may be found at

Talk Is Cheap (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

I was listening to the old Jimmy Rogers song that goes "She had kisses sweeter than wine" and made myself a bet that Rogers never tasted Mogen David. [-mrl]

Why Religion Was Invented (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

I was reading OUR KIND, a collection of essays by anthropologist Marvin Harris. The essays are about the nature of humankind and various aspects of the human mind. He asks if there are any examples of religious-like or superstitious behavior in other species. I would have thought even if he had examples they would be rare. In fact, the example he gives is very common. If you put a pigeon in a cage and whenever he pecks a lever a food pellet drops, you train the pigeon to believe that food dropping has something do to with pecking levers. That is a very natural form of superstition and we do see it all the time. Humans probably pick up the same sort of superstitions just by chance.

One explanation why religion is so firmly engrained in humankind is that a religion has a certain survival value. Suppose your friend is struck by lightning. You can assume that it is a purely random event. He was hit just by chance. It is very unsettling to accept that your friend just died by bad luck. It could have been you and next time it might well be. That is a very debilitating philosophy.

Instead it is easier to believe that some agency actually caused the death. That sort of thinking can go two ways. Either it was done by someone specific you know or someone unknowable. Neither case is true, but by feeling you understand the tragedy you can feel you can use this knowledge. Perhaps it will let you avoid it in the future. That makes you feel a lot better. It gives you a sense of security.

If you believe the death was caused by some entity you know then he has to be stopped from doing it again. This is probably the basis of a belief in witchcraft. "I have misfortune. He caused it by magic. He must be punished so he does not do it to me again." If it is someone you can get your hands on you can feel safe hating and punishing that person. The Bible says "thou shall not suffer a witch to live." That is in Exodus 22:17. And that instruction has gotten a lot of innocent people murdered. (As of this writing, Ali Sabat, a Lebanese television personality who predicts the future has been sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia for sorcery.)

If, however, the person or entity causing the problem is someone not so accessible for punishment the reasoning goes in another direction. If you can't beat him, so you have to join him. Or at the very least you have to appease him. So one creates a god who one has some chance of appeasing. You codify the rules you think will please him and there you have religious law.

Either if you destroy a witch or follow a religion what are the results? Do they give you the protection you want? Probably it does nothing for your protection. It has no effect. However having seen one close to you touched by disaster you accept the possibility of a similar disaster visited on yourself. When that same disaster does not strike you--how likely is it that you too will be struck by lightning?--it makes you feel you are doing the right sort of thing to avoid it. What is really happening is just that a disaster like your neighbor experienced is an unlikely event. But you codify the set of rules you live by and decide that is a formula for success. And that is probably one way a religion is generated.

Hopefully the rules correlate well with your natural sense of right and wrong. You instinctively know that if people go around killing other people it leads to a lot of unhappiness, so maybe you make one of your religious laws that you should not kill one another. Then again you still have laws like "Thou shall not suffer a witch to live." Whatever good religions do, they also are the excuse for a lot of pain and suffering. But the code of I think maybe we create a code of religious laws so we feel we are doing something to avoid disasters.

We also need to create a God to be the giver of these laws. My opinion is that we form the belief in a personal God from very early life experience. When you are newborn there is this big thing that takes care of you, feeds you, and answers your unhappiness with love. That is a concept that becomes part of your very young mind. Later as you get bigger there is this woman around who gets smaller relative to you. Perhaps you even disagree with her on occasion. That cannot be the caring titan you remember. The caring titan that loves you must be God. [-mrl]

Sentence Structure (letter of comment by Fred Lerner):

In response to Evelyn's review of STORIES OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS by Ted Chiang, in the 04/02/10 issue of the MT VOID, Fred Lerner writes:

Evelyn writes, "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.'"

Don't we have something like this here on Earth? Germans often place their verbs at the end of the sentence, which implies the need for more advance knowledge of what they intend to say than is required of an English speaker." [-fl]

Evelyn responds:

Ah, but Germans could say, "Don't English-speakers often place their direct objects at the end of the sentence, which implies the need for more advance knowledge of what they intend to say than is required of a German speaker?" In truth, I did think of German sentence construction, but it is not clear (to me, anyway) that that requires any more forethought than English. [-ecl]

Television (letter of comment by Sam Long):

In response to Mark's comments on television in the 04/02/10 issue of the MT VOID, Sam Long writes:

I too have to wonder how, with hundreds of channels available on cable TV, there is so often nothing that I (or you) would call "see-worthy" on. I wonder whether Arthur C Clarke ever meditated on this, and regretted having invented the geostationary communication satellite.

Those shopping networks like QVC, HSN, etc.: they're nothing but commercials you might say, but at least they're honest about it. For my part, if I see an ad, or worse, an informercial, for a product or service on TV ("but wait"), I wouldn't have it if they paid me. My first reaction when I see one of those ads coming on is to mute the TV and/or start channel surfing. I can think of only one exception to this in the last few years: a handle with a slip-on cloth pad for cleaning the inside of a car's windshield that I saw on one of those "but wait" commercials. Even then, I didn't order it--wouldn't have ordered it--from TV. I got the identical item for a few bucks at the local Walgreen's--cheaper than ordering it--and it works as advertised.

Do you remember the following little ditty--'tis the season, after all--from MAD magazine back in the late '50s, I think it was? The tune is "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear".

        They came on April 15th, dear
        To take away our gold:
        Tax men, unmoved by plea or tear.
        It makes your blood run cold.
            O Income Tax, you break our backs;
            The Government takes all.
            A thief by any other name
            Would never have such gall!


Mark replies:

All I can say about the cable problem is that there has been an enormous explosion in the number of things I care nothing about. Among them are objects sold on infomercials. Though I do admit that some of them must work and I wouldn't mind spending a few bucks on a device that would help cleaning the inside of a windshield. The angle that you have to clean is one that nature did not do a very good job of accommodating the human body to make.

Now here is where I get a huge army of indignant people to hate me. As for taxes I think the complaints about how terrible the taxes are I think are misplaced. I think I have fairly reasonable life style and I have never felt the taxes I was paying were all that bad in return for what I was getting. Sure I would like to pay less and have more money, but I just don't feel that I have given in to the kind of greed that so many Americans have given in to. The philosophy that I can make better use of my money than the government can just falls down many places. I would like to see education improved and there is only little I can do along those lines without giving the money to the government and having them spend it for me. The infrastructure of this country is falling apart and I could not do a whole lot about it without being in partnership with the government. Most countries pay a lot more in taxes than out country does.

It is human nature to want more and pay less. That is why we have so many Americans going so far into debt. Speaking for myself I do very little on long-term credit. I do use a credit card, but only once have I paid interest on a credit card. That was when the company I worked for misplaced a mail bag and the mail was delayed. And that doubled the number of times I ever paid interest in my life. The other was my mortgage. But people have wanted to get more and more on credit and created their own financial problems.

I would say even now that my taxes are not bad and I have gotten value for the tax money I have spent. Sure there is some wastage in what I spend. There is wastage whenever a lot of money is involved in anything. And it should be fixed. But A thinks too much money is being spent on B, and B thinks too much money is being spent on A, and so both A and B hate the taxes and think that they are allies in the anti-tax movement. I have been looking but have seen no reasonable and coherent ideas coming out of the anti- tax movement that even the anti-tax movement could all agree on. As Charles the II says in THE LIBERTINE "Anyone can oppose--it's fun to be against things--but there comes a time when you have to start being for things as well." And the anti-tax people are really good at being against things and really bad--to the point of incoherence--at being for things. [-mrl]

Television, Beethoven, Remakes, and Jet Packs (letter of comment by Kip Williams):

In response to various items in the 04/02/10 issue of the MT VOID, Kip Williams writes:

TV, I determined years ago, is a vast wonderland. There is too much of it for me to even keep up with just the really good stuff. As a result, I try to avoid commitment to a series that requires me to stick with the show lest I miss an important inflection somewhere.

is something I used once, for a specific purpose. I used to tape movies off of SPN, one of the first cable services I knew of. They specialized in black and white Public Domain movies, including Wheeler & Woolsey. It was to tape one of these that I set my VCR confidently -- confident because of all the stations, they never, ever deviated from their announced times. If a movie was to be on from 11:17 to 2:06, I could set a timer for 11:16 to 2:07 and have the whole movie plus two minutes of ads. Ah, and what boring ads they were. Wretched jewelry offers and kitchen gadgets for which the phrase "well, don't answer, because we'll also throw in..." were invented.

So one day I went to look at the movie I'd taped the night before, and there was no movie. Just the ads. All the dumb junk they advertised (over and over) during the movies, and none of the movie. It was the dawn of cable shopping networks, with cheerful idiots pimping rotating jewelry with the outward manners of sleazy televangelists. I was so pissed off I put their number in my modem and had it start trying to connect. I stopped fairly soon, though, because it wasn't the fault of the drone at the other end.

fanciers can also find a treat at the BBC, where Andras Schiff has a series of lectures on all 32 of the Beethoven piano sonatas. Each is about 45 minutes -- he spends two whole segments on the famed Hammerklavier. They can be streamed online or downloaded and put in a player.

The Thing
remake--I had missed the nuance that the pilot was made a singular hero instead of the scientists. Well, that's Hollywood for you. Point taken.

Jet Pack
and other solo flying devices may be seen at the Army Transportation Museum at Fort Stewart, near my old home of Newport News, Virginia. Though the place is in need of some money for upkeep, it still has a terrific collection of vehicles (including hovercrafts, a flying wing, and something that looks like an Imperial Walker). Inside, they have a video of a jet pack being tested, as well as a hideous contraption that's like a small platform you stand on and grasp a pair of handlebars, and below that is a wooden propeller with six-foot blades. I have no idea whether they ever got a volunteer to stand on the blasted suicide machine.

Steve Stiles was stationed at the base, and says he used to get away from it all by ducking into one of the train cars and chilling for a while.

that's a lot of stuff. Good issue! [-kw]

Mark responds:

I am much like you on TV. Friends recommend series and I will watch an episode and, like the 21st-century guy that I am, I have a hard time committing.

The Beethoven site looks really good. Pete Brady, if you are reading this you probably want to check this site out. (I am not sure this is from the BBC, however. It appears to be from the newspaper "The Guardian".)

The hideous contraption you mention sound like a flying platform. I seem to remember ones that did not look like this, but there is one you can see at

Thanks for writing. [-mrl]

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

My copy of AN AFRICAN MILLIONAIRE by Grant Allen (ISBN-13 978-1-6164-6014-3) is one of those books for which Dover used to be known: a facsimile edition of an older mystery long out of print. In this case, the original publication was in 1897, and the Dover price in 1980 was $4.50. (Now it costs $12.95 from Coachwhip Publications; Dover no longer publishes it.)

This is a collection of twelve stories, which really form a continuous story (so I guess this might be considered a fix-up novel, though this was no fixing up involved). The stories are narrated by Seymour Wentworth, secretary to Sir Charles Vandrift. Vandrift is the title character, and he is the target of confidence trickster Colonel Cuthbert Clay, which appears in the stories under different names and with different disguises. After a while, the stories become predictable and the reader can figure out what is going on well before Vandrift--in fact, soon enough that the reader begins to think that for a millionaire, Vandrift is pretty dense.

THE CONSUMER'S GUIDE TO EFFECTIVE ENVIRONMENTAL CHOICES: PRACTICAL ADVICE FROM THE UNION OF CONCERNED SCIENTISTS by Michael Brower, Ph.D., and Warren Leon, Ph.D. (ISBN-13 978-0-609-80281-6 has a title that is almost longer than their "Seven Rules for Responsible Consumption". Basically, their take is that you should stop worrying about the small stuff (e.g., disposable paper cups) and concentrate on the more effective items (e.g., buying an energy- efficient refrigerator).

Their seven rules actually can be collapsed into one. The first three ("Give special attention to major purchases", "Become a weight watcher", and "Analyze your consumption quantitatively", all really say the same thing: size matters. Major purchases are going to account for more energy use/pollution than minor ones, heavy purchases more than light ones, and larger usage more than smaller. "Don't worry or feel guilty about unimportant decisions" may be good advice but it doesn't do much for the environment. "Look for opportunities to be a leader" is only effective in conjunction with the first (collapsed) rule. As they note, "Buy more of those things that help the environment" only works if you do this to substitute for a more damaging item--buying a pair of shoes recycled from old tires is only effective if you buy them *instead of* a pair of leather shoes. (There are some exceptions--for example, replacing a perfectly good showerhead with a water-saving one is probably a good idea.) "Think about nonenvironmental reasons for reducing consumption" is back to reducing consumption, which was the first (and now only remaining) rule.

What it all boils down to is that you need to reduce your consumption by some non-trivial amount. When you move, it's more important to live closer to work and have low-maintenance landscaping than to avoid paper plates when you barbecue and obsess over paper vs. plastic bags.

CYBERABAD DAYS by Ian McDonald (ISBN-13 978-1-59102-699-0) is a collection of short stories (well, probably closer to novelettes) set in the world of McDonald's RIVER OF GODS, the India of 2047. India has split in several warring states. What is interesting is how McDonald has managed to address so many current issues: "Sanjeev and Robotwallah" is about combat by telepresence (not unlike the film SLEEP DEALER), class and ethnic differences in "Kyle Meets the River", genetic engineering in "The Dust Assassin", gender imbalance in "An Eligible Boy", and so on. All of these are played out in the Indianized world of the future. For example, McDonald doesn't write about "A.I.", he writes about "aeai" (just as people in India have names like "Vijay"). And people watch "tivi". McDonald manages to capture the feeling of India. He lives in Belfast; either he travels a lot or he spends his days watching Bollywood movies.

Simon Winchester does a lot of research and is usually fairly reliable but in THE MAP THAT CHANGED THE WORLD by Simon Winchester (ISBN-13 978-0-06-093180-9), he makes a basic error. He is writing about the 18th century view of the age of the earth and how William Smith changed that, and observes that Smith was born March 23, 1769, which he says was 5772 years, four months, and sixteen days since Bishop Ussher's origin date of October 23, 4004 B.C. Actually it's *5771* years, etc. (though Winchester does adjust for the Julian-to-Gregorian shift). Winchester has forgotten that there is no Year Zero in our calendar. (Maybe as penance he should write his next book about calendars and Dennis the Short.) [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

           Obscurantism in an academic subject expands 
           to fill the vacuum of its intrinsic simplicity.
                                          -- Richard Dawkins

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