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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
05/13/11 -- Vol. 29, No. 46, Whole Number 1649
Table of Contents
Be-earlied Vengeance (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
A headline claims, "Al-Qaida vows revenge for Osama bin Laden's death." Didn't they already do that ten years before the fact? [-mrl]
The Future of Mankind (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
There is a worthwhile article about the long-term future of the human race provided by the Boston Globe. Graeme Wood's article "What will happen to us?" can be found at
Fearful Symmetries (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I was reading about the Horizon Problem associated with the Big Bang. It is a startling example of there being more mysterious symmetry to the universe than there ought to be.
We like to feel that we live in an orderly universe. It makes us feel that the universe is in a sort of balance that makes it more comprehensible. We tend to feel that we can bring our own aesthetic to the universe and our aesthetic tells us how we expect things to be. I believe that it was Albert Einstein who felt that the most beautiful theory to explain phenomena is probably the correct one. However, physical observation frequently shows the universe as having either more or less symmetry than we expected. Generally when we find this it means that our model is incorrect. Very often this significantly changes our understanding of the physical universe.
Modern physics began with the Michelson-Morley experiment that found unexpectedly that the speed of light had to be the same no matter what direction it is coming from. That was a very troubling symmetry that undermined physics has it had been since the time of Isaac Newton. Later Albert Einstein was much bothered by the lack of symmetry between the forces expanding the universe and those contracting it. He had expected a perfect balance since he assumed that universe was to some degree unchanging and constant. And I am not sure what the current understanding is of the imbalance between the amount of matter and anti-matter in the universe. They seem to be created at the same time and they annihilate each other symmetrically. We would expect about the same amount of each, but there seems to be much more matter than anti-matter.
One example of a symmetry that is hard to explain comes the "Horizon Problem." That is the name that has been given to an observation that shows a symmetry that is theoretically impossible. Suppose you are camping and have a campfire. That gives a very great variation in temperature in the area of the fire. What is right near the fire is very hot; what is a little further a way is not quite so hot. Maybe ten feet away things are considerably cooler. But if you put out the fire properly and go to bed, in the morning the temperature of the ground near and further from the fire pit should be very much more uniform. Everything should be at about the same temperature. Why? Well when things that are hotter come in contact with things that are colder their temperatures seem to equalize. After a while the laws of thermodynamics and entropy say that they should reach the same temperature. But the reason they reach the same temperature is that they are in contact with each other. The effect of equalizing of temperature works because of contact.
Now consider the heat from the Big Bang that is as far back in our universe as we can feel we have any understanding. It was, we think, extremely non-uniform in the amount of heat that it created. Some of what came out of the explosion should have been at a very different energy level than other parts. Over time we would expect that some of that variation should go away. Because of contact temperatures should locally smooth out. And indeed that smoothing is what seems to have happened. If you look out into space there is that uniform three-degree background radiation--well, 2.725 K-- that Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson detected with the Holmdel Horn. In every direction you look, the background radiation is exactly the same three degrees. At first you might expect this. That is what happened with the campfire.
But the same principle does not quite apply. If you look into space in one direction the background radiation is at 2.725 K. If you look in the opposite direction the radiation is at 2.725 K. Well, you sort of expect some equalizing. But that background radiation is just a little too uniform. The radiation you are detecting in one direction had not had time to equalize with the radiation you are detecting from the other direction. We are detecting Big Bang radiation from a billion light years to the east and comparing it with radiation from a billion light years to the west. That radiation has only had time to effect things within a radius of a billion light years from itself. Its radius of effect is currently billion light years. Yet it seems to have equalized with radiation two billion light years from itself. This would mean it has contact of some sort with a region of the universe that is too far away for it to have that contact. Light from that source has traveled only one billion light years, so it cannot be affecting points two billion light years away from itself. Yet they seem to have equalized. And nobody can explain how.
See Wikipedia on the Horizon Problem: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horizon_problem
THOR (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: THOR is a comic-book film that gives us a different sort of superhero, the Norse god banished from Asgard and exiled to Earth and struggling to retrieve/earn his hammer of power. If I were to picture the gods in Asgard, what we see of them in this film is not what they would look like in my mind. Some veteran actors like Anthony Hopkins seem over-qualified to play opposite Chris Hemsworth in the title role. If the concept of Kenneth Branagh directing a 3D super-hero film seems a bit odd, he is moderately less ponderous than he was with MARY SHELLEY'S FRANKENSTEIN. But the real star of this show is Bo Welch whose production design is original and different enough to steal the show from the actors. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
Thor is sort of a new hero to me. I never read a comic in which he was a character. I must have spent more time in the DC universe. So I was learning as I went. Bear with me, Thor-comics fans. I did know that this was the Thor of Norse folklore as opposed to an ordinary Joe who is heir to the powers of Thor. But what powers does Thor have? He is muscular. But his strength is like that of maybe ten mortals. That is not all that useful. He has a hammer. How much damage can he do with a hammer? Of course, this would be a magical hammer, but I had no idea what it could do beyond clobbering. Each use would be something of a surprise, though none of the powers turn out to be very imaginative.
I cannot say I took to the Thor character right away and perhaps not at all. What do I think of when I think of the Norse Thor? This is the guy who makes the thunder and the lightning with his mighty hammer like the god of blacksmiths. Chris Hemsworth looked too much like a buff surfer dude who sometimes wore Norse armor, as it would be envisioned for a Las Vegas stage show. It was a little on the gaudy side. He seems to have no trouble speaking English for reasons unexplained except perhaps for story expediency. On the whole he is not a character who is really interesting. On the other hand where Superman is an Earth resident with a little concern for the Planet Krypton, Thor mostly is all about what is happening in Asgard. He has some concern for the people on Earth, but this film could be called THOR'S NEW MEXICO ADVENTURE. His mind is on Asgard. He has an agenda of his own other than making the world (our world) a better place. So there is something to him.
Thor has been up to his usual tricks of being too headstrong and arrogant, though you would think that being the god who brings the thunderstorms arrogance is sort of the name of the game. But he pushes it too far and is exiled from the realm of Asgard to the realm of ... New Mexico? Most people there find him just plain weird, which is about par for the course these days. But when he falls to Earth he drops his best friend, his hammer. He wants just to pick up the hammer, but the hammer has had enough and does not want to be taken for granted. He must earn his hammer. Luckily or unluckily Thor's brother Loki is staging a coup d'etat in Asgard and this provides Thor with an enemy to vanquish and a way to earn back his hammer. Along the way a pretty particle physicist teaches him about love.
Actors Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgård, Colm Feore (completely unrecognizable), Natalie Portman, and Rene Russo may be more than this film really needed and a bit too much competition for Chris Hemsworth. He falls a little short of being believable as the god who makes huge storms with his mighty hammer. In THOR there is a desperate shortage of people who really look Scandinavian enough to be Norse gods. The real competition for the first class actors is Bo Welch, the production designer who gives real visual splendor to Asgard. My only complaint was that the central palace looked too much like a golden pipe organ. Patrick Doyle does the music, surprising for a comic-book film, though it may be expected for a Kenneth Branagh film. Doyle's musical style is better suited to sunny Sicily than to Norse worlds of ice and cold. His score follows the action rather than setting the emotional tone.
It is great to see Sir Anthony Hopkins's career panning out and his getting to play all the great dramatic roles, you know, like Zorro, Hannibal Lecter, Odin, the Wolfman's father, and Van Helsing. Good to see him out of his Shakespeare rut. I rate THOR a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0800369/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/thor/
Cubicles, BTL, and Google (letters of comment by Nathan and Paul S. R. Chisholm):
Continuing his comments on cubicles from the 05/06/11 issue of the MT VOID, Nathan writes:
I wish I could have worked at the Labs in the great days of the late 1970s! Alas, I was still in high school then though I *did* visit on school trips and *really* wanted to work there.
By time I did, mid 1980s, it was still good but obviously sliding as their cash cow as being slowly murdered.
Working at Google. That's an interesting question. The pressure for never stopping working in brain fields is so great, I don't think at this point I'd *want to*--but I wonder if it has ever been any different?
Don't get me wrong, I have no issues with working hard at work, but I also want a life, which seems to be something of an anathema in the USA these days! [-n]
And Paul Chisholm writes:
While just about everything about Google indeed makes it a great work environment, you might be disappointed in this regard. Most Googlers sit in open cubicles. Offices are rare, and private offices are very rare indeed. (Even the CEO, Eric Schmidt, has sometimes shared his office. See p. 82 of Steven Levy's excellent book IN THE PLEX.) There are a lot of conference rooms, and many "phone rooms" for when one wants to make a private call.
When I left AT&T Labs in 1996, I had a private office with a door. I wouldn't take that over a cubicle at Google, even if I had a time machine that transported me back to 1996, and certainly not if I had to work at any flavor of "the Labs" circa 2011. (If I could go back to 1981 ... nah.)
On the other hand, even the Holmdel and Murray Hill cafeterias, on their best days any time in the last thirty years, couldn't touch any Google cafe in Mountain View or New York.
I'll stop now before this becomes a recruiting spiel. (If you'd like a recruiting spiel, please contact me privately.-) [-psrc]
Mammals (letter of comment by Fred Lerner):
In response to Evelyn's comments on classification in the 05/06/11 issue of the MT VOID, Fred Lerner writes:
[Evelyn writes], "If you ask a zoologist what a mammal is, he can cite a definition: three bones in the inner ear. ... In the case of mammals, in casual usage, a mammal is basically an animal that has hair and bears live young."
The definition that I learned long ago is that a mammal is a creature whose females suckle their young. That is clear-cut, easy to observe, and so far as I know has no exceptions. So why worry about the architecture of the inner ear or the mechanics of birth? [-fl]
Well, you don't want to define a zoological class by behavior. The whole thing is the issue of what is "easy to observe." The three bones of the inner ear is at worst only marginally more difficult to observe than suckling behavior for an animal. You find a dead one (hopefully) and examine the bones of the inner ear. However, suppose we are talking about a Megazostrodon. That is a creature that lived 200 million years ago. It certainly was mammal-like. Was it actually a mammal by your definition? Who knows? That is not so clear-cut and easy to observe without a time machine. The bones of the inner ear survive, however. [-mrl]
Willing Suspension of Disbelief (letter of comment by Kip Williams): In response to Evelyn's comments on SNOW CRASH in the 05/06/11 issue of the MT VOID, Kip Williams writes, "Willing suspension of disbelief goes just so far. We'll happily swallow some things, and strain at others. Within a world that violates many laws of physics and biology, we still demand and expect some kinds of truth. As I put it in an animation APA some years back, "Wile E. Coyote would *never* do that!" [-kw]
WWW: WONDER and Late Middle Age (letter of comment by Keith F. Lynch):
In response to Joe Karpierz's review of WWW: WONDER in the 05/06/11 issue of the MT VOID, Keith F. Lynch writes, "The ape in Sawyer's latest trilogy is named Hobo, not Bobo." [-kfl]
And in response to Evelyn's comments on SNOW CRASH in the same issue, Keith writes, "Since when has fifty been *late* middle age?" [-kfl]
Evelyn responds, "Well, there is no precise definition of 'middle age', so I'll fall back on the United States Census definition, which (according to Wikipedia) lists middle age as including both the age categories 35 to 44 and 45 to 50. So in that definition, fifty would be late middle age. What would *you* call late middle age?" [-ecl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
I normally leave the reviewing of the Hugo-nominated novels to Joe Karpierz, but I do feel obliged to say that CRYOBURN by Lois McMaster Bujold is the most lightweight, and at the same time, annoying Hugo novel nominee I've seen in a long time. Bujold assumes the reader knows all about Miles, his background, and his medical problems; nothing really happens; even the slightest hint of danger or menace is relieved in only a few pages; and the whole thing seems to be a very thinly veiled complaint about the mortgage crisis. (When they started talking about "commodifying [cryogenic] contracts" on page 114, I fully expected the contracts to end up being called Cryogenic Debt Obligations, or CDOs.)
In fact, Kelly Jennings is spot-on in her review of CRYOBURN in "Strange Horizons" (02/18/11): nothing at risk for the main characters, too much focus on the YA aspects of the story, and a whole lot of insensitivity towards economic or social inequality. Kelly observes that on Barryar, "counts and emperors rule so well that industrious serfs are happy to serve." On Kibou-daini, the rulers are not so "enlightened", but there does not seem to be any recognition that this is something to be concerned about. As Jennings writes, "On Barrayar, as Bujold has written it, this works very well. ... But when [Bujold] makes the leap to a world where people eat frozen pizza and live in tiny flats and worry about health insurance and daycare--our world--it's a lot harder to buy the argument that we should trust the Liege Lord, since he knows what's best. This is especially true when we see Miles treating Jin like a tool he's going to use and leave behind; or when Roic and Lord Mark, characters we are meant to like and identify with, mock the impoverished and the ignorant for no crime other than being impoverished and ignorant." The main (local) characters do end up better off through a fairy-tale sort of solution, but everyone else is still stuck.
The fascination of fantasy with feudalism and monarchy has, of course, been much discussed, and its "overflow" into science fiction is not all that surprising. The sub-genre of "science fantasy" is full of examples. The "Star Wars" saga may have science fiction props, but its underlying philosophy comes from fantasy. So while the "Vorkosigan" saga is set in a world of interstellar empires and all sorts of advanced technology, it's still basically fantasy. But when that fantasy gets moved to what is in effect our world, we get a disconnect.
Having been disappointed by Connie Willis's BLACKOUT/ALL CLEAR as well, I can only hope that the other three nominees are worthier choices.
A HISTORY OF HISTORIES: EPICS, CHRONICLES, ROMANCES AND INQUIRIES FROM HERODOTUS AND THUCYDIDES TO THE TWENTIETH CENTURY by John Burrow (ISBN 978-0-375-72767-2) is interesting only to the extent that the reader is familiar with the works being discussed. So while there are a few that have achieved relatively broad appeal (Gibbon's DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE and Prescott's CONQUEST OF MEXICO, for example) discussions of works such as Giovanni Villani's CHRONICLE (of the history of Florence, written in the mid-fourteenth century) are unlikely to have wide appeal. It is odd that this was published by Vintage for the general public; it seems much more aimed at an academic audience. (It did make me want to go back and re-read Prescott, though.) [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are more pliable. --Mark Twain
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