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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
02/01/13 -- Vol. 31, No. 30, Whole Number 1739
Table of Contents
Science Fiction (and Other) Discussion Groups (NJ)
February 7: THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING (film), Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 6:30PM February 14: SLEEP DEALER (film), Middletown (NJ) Public Library, 5:30PM; discussion after the film February 21: THE STRANGER by Albert Camus, Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM March 7: TBD (film), Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 6:30PM March 14: ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (film), Middletown (NJ) Public Library, 5:30PM; discussion after the film March 28: THE RAPTURE OF THE NERDS by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross, Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM April 18: FANCIES AND GOODNIGHTS by John Collier (some subset TBD), Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM May 23: THE STARS MY DESTINATION by Alfred Bester, Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM June 20: FLOATING OPERA by John Barth, Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM July 25: TRSF by the MIT Technology Review, Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM Speculative Fiction Lectures: February 2: Hildy Steveman and Neal Levin on the business side of writing, Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 12N March 2: Ginjer Buchanan (Editor-in-Chief, Ace and Roc Books), Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 12N Northern New Jersey events are listed at: http://www.sfsnnj.com/news.html
Semper (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
All I can say is if the Marines really were marine, their motto would be Semper Fish. [-mrl]
Does Mathematics Have a Personality? (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I feel a little funny writing about this week's topic because I think it will sound a little like I am getting old and the cheese has fallen off my cracker, so to speak. But most of my life mathematics has been very important to me. It is like a friend that I can always call on when I have nothing else to do. Some people feel that way about crossword puzzles or other mental pursuits. For me it is mathematics. And I can do mathematics on a smaller piece of paper than I would need to carry to do a crossword puzzle. I am not sure to what extent this happens in other disciplines, but I think mathematicians have a sort of personal relationship with their subject. Personally I get to the point where I feel that mathematics makes choices and expresses preferences. There are times I even feel it is laughing at me in some joke at my expense.
I can be doing a problem and the math will tell me I am correct to think about a problem a certain way, but the mathematics suggests a better approach. Consider the following simple word problem a student asked me for help on: A car starts out on a straight road going at 20 mph. An hour later a second car starts out on the same road and direction going 60 mph. How long will it take the second car to catch up?
The standard way to solve the problem is to say we will measure time from when the second car starts. The first car has travels 20 miles so his position at time t is 20(t+1) and the second car's position is 60t. They will have gone the same distance when 20t+20=60t. Subtract 20t from both sides and you get a new equation 20=40t, so t=20/40=1/2. That was pretty easy. I got the right answer. So I am happy. But what the mathematics is asking why are we subtracting from both sides? We are measuring how far each car is from the starting point at time t. But the starting point is unimportant once the race has started. Think about the problem as how far apart the cars are at time t. They start 20 miles apart and the second car is eating the distance between them at 40 mph. Once you see that you don't need to write any equations 20/40 is 1/2. The mathematics says that it is fastest to consider the distance between the cars rather than the distance each has traveled. You can do it either way, but the mathematics will give you extra work if you do it the natural way. The mathematics recommends concentrating on the distance between. Okay, that is a simple algebraic example.
When it comes to logarithms you can have logs with a base of any real number greater than 1. (You could stretch a point an even have logs with base between 0 and 1, non-inclusive.) However, we have a number system based on 10 because we have ten fingers and ten toes. As a result it seems to mean that when we deal with logarithms it might make the most sense to deal with logarithms with a base of 10. That works nicely until we get to calculus. Then it turns out that the derivative log(x) is log(e)/x where e is some strange number having to do with compound interest among other things. That is fairly ugly and the mathematics seems to be forcing in the use of this funny number e. On the other hand if you are going to use logs with a base of e--what are called natural logs--the derivative of ln(x) (that is the "natural" log of x) is 1/x. The math is saying," you can work with logs of any base, but you aren't going to get away from using e and your life will be miserable with all the constants you have to worry about." Math will just bully you until you give in and use natural logarithms. You don't want to make the mathematics too angry with you. You want to work with it and not fight it. Similarly you can measure angles in degrees where there are 360 degrees in a circle. You will be okay again until you get to calculus. Then in calculus the mathematics starts having preferences again. It will be easier on you if you measure angle in radians. There are 2*pi radians in a 360-degree circle. If you take a wedge of a circle that has an angle of one radian, the length of each straight side will be the same as the arc length of the rounded side. You would not think it is a big deal, but if you want nice numbers to come out when you differentiate, you have to use radians for your angle measure. The mathematics will punish you without more complicated expressions unless you measure angles the way the mathematics recommends.
Other times the mathematics almost seems to be laughing at you. I was doing a problem I set for myself. A parabola that is the graph of a quadratic equation crosses the X-axis at A and B. If I add C to the quadratic it now crosses the X-axis at D and E. Is it possible to find E in terms of the other variables? I said the graph had to be some multiple of
But if you add C to it, it had be a multiple of (X-D)(X-E).
Looking at the x terms we get (A+B)=(D+E) so E=(A+B-D)
What an interesting relationship. Or is it? All this is really saying is that
This says that adding a constant to a quadratic will not change its axis of symmetry. The roots will move, but they will still be centered around and equidistant from the axis of symmetry which will itself remain unchanged. I should have immediately seen
I did not have to go through so much trouble. I missed seeing what was going on so the mathematics laid it out for me. The mathematics was telling me that I went through all that mathematics when there was a simple answer. And mathematics can be patronizing. [-mrl]
It's Hard to Predict, Especially the Future (comments by Dale L. Skran, Jr.):
Okay, I'll fess up--I'm a "future junkie." I have a large collection of books on futurism and prediction, and rank Arthur C. Clarke's PROFILES OF THE FUTURE as one of my all-time favorite books. Now that I have reached "a certain age" I can look back at predictions made earlier in my lifetime and provide my personal assessment of their success or failure. It was with great interest that I noticed "Writers of the Future" had created a time capsule of predictions by SF writers made in 1987, and now, twenty-five years later, have posted them on the web. I propose to briefly discuss some of the set of predictions, with an emphasis on analyzing why they went wrong--or right. I won't address all of them since, frankly, some are just plain silly or are obviously intended as a joke or parody.
GREGORY BENFORD (TIMESCAPE, FURIOUS GULF, ANOMOLIES)
The first set of predictions is from Gregory Benford, a well-known hard SF writer that I generally like. Benford has provided a neat and easy to follow list, so here goes:
GERALD FEINBERG (physicist who coined the term "Tachyon")
Feinberg, who has written no SF, and is perhaps best known for various speculative popular science tomes, limited himself to suggesting that the world of 2012 would be based in large part on nanotechnology. As a Foresight Institute advisor, Mr. Feinberg was in a good position to understand the promise of nanotechnology as envisioned by Eric Drexler. He would be quite surprised to find that in 2012 very little of Drexler's vision has been implemented, but the name "nanotechnology" has been appropriated by others to refer to any science done in the nanometer range. Many interesting discoveries have been made, but society is a long way from being transformed. It is safe to say that in 2012, the greatest age of nanotechnology--whatever that means-- still lies in the future.
SHELDON GLASHOW (Nobel Prize in Physics 1979)
Glashow has an interesting set of predictions, including:
As near as I can tell, Glashow is not an SF writer, and I am a bit surprised to see his predictions here. As you can see, a Nobel Prize is of little value in predicting the future, as Glashow seems to have achieved about the record that could be obtained by asking questions and flipping a coin.
FRED POHL (GATEWAY, MAN PLUS, THE COOL WAR)
Pohl makes a variation of Pascal's wager here--betting if anyone is alive to open the capsule in 2012 then things went very well indeed. He predicts, among other things, a powerful World Court, mass disarmament, space colonization, machines replacing hard labor, a higher life expectancy, and so on.
In a way, Pohl is right on the money--all the bad things on the horizon in 1987 like nuclear war and a mass die-off from AIDS did not happen. However, as someone committed to various liberal causes, Pohl missed the direction of the solution. Many credit Reagan's defense build-up, and especially "Star Wars" with bankrupting the Soviet Union and setting the stage for a decade of real peace. Life expectancy did rise, and machines did replace brute labor, although space colonization has been slow going.
However, the World Court is pretty much the joke it always was, the world is awash in weapons, and hardly a day goes by without fresh reports of fighting. Recently France has entered Mali to battle a new Al-Qaeda off-shoot. The fine print, of course, is that Russia, the United States, Europe, and Japan co-operate on many levels to a remarkable degree, including running the ISS as a joint project. China is off in left field, but tightly tied to the United States economy in a fashion unimaginable in 1987. So, perhaps, in the end, Fred is right--we do live in a kind of utopia!
JERRY POURNELLE (THE MOTE IN GOD'S EYE, INFERNO, LUCIFER'S HAMMER)
Jerry made a single sweet and simple prediction--in 2012 a computer would win the Campbell Award for Best New SF Writer. Plainly, this has not occurred, and we don't seem anywhere near it occurring. Please find below some sample text produced very recently by a large, modern recurrent artificial neural net:
He was elected President during the Revolutionary War and forgave Opus Paul at Rome. The regime of his crew of England, is now Arab women's icons in and the demons that use something between the characters? sisters in lower coil trains were always operated on the line of the ephemerable street, respectively, the graphic or other facility for deformation of a given proportion of large segments at RTUS). The B every chord was a "strongly cold internal palette pour even the white blade."
As you can see, although it is an improvement over Chatterbots like Eliza, it is also not likely to win any awards. As someone actively involved in the computer revolution, I can sympathize a bit with Jerry's desire that things move faster. We are certainly moving toward the point he predicted, but obviously are not there yet. I note in passing that if Jerry's prediction had come true, almost certainly 2013 would be post-Singularity, but Jerry was only looking at his little patch (SF) of how the computer would affect the world.
TIM POWERS (ON STRANGER TIDES, THE ANUBIS GATES, DECLARE)
Power predicted that many people would be frozen on "death" and that it would be possible to converse with them via electronic means, leading to substantial changes in probate and copyright law. This has *CLEARLY* not happened, nor do we seem to be on an especially rapid track in this direction. I think Powers was guilty of not fully appreciating how difficult it might be to read the minds of frozen dead people. We have gotten in 2012 to the point of being able to use a machine to create a blurry picture of whatever a person is seeing. In time, we may be able to "read" a living mind, at least to some degree. If we could do what he suggests, it probably implies the solution of the "download" problem and the Singularity as well, although I guess we could be keeping the brains in vats and using bionic interfaces (which we have made a lot of progress on, since bionic hearing is widely deployed and bionic vision in development) to communicate with them.
ORSON SCOTT CARD (ENDER'S GAME, ALVIN MAKER, CAPITOL)
Card predicts the following:
It seems like Card was anticipating the end of the Cold War with an American collapse. A lot of his predictions are still good if the Cold War ends due to Soviet collapse, as actually occurred.
GENE WOLFE (THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN, SOLDIER OF SIDON)
Wolfe makes a number of specific predictions:
DAVE WOLVERTON (IN THE COMPANY OF ANGELS, ON MY WAY TO PARADISE)
Wolverton predicts that:
ROGER ZELAZNY (THIS IMMORTAL, "Amber" Series, CREATURES OF LIGHT AND DARKNESS)
Roger made the following specific predictions:
That was fun! I'd like to conclude with a few general observations about predicting the future:
One final thought--I've found personally that it is easier to build the future than to predict it. In other words, if you lay down Herman Kahn as a bet, I'll meet your bet with Bill Gates and raise with Steven Jobs. [-dls]
2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson (copyright 2012, Orbit, 563pp, e-book edition, ISBN 978-0-316-19280-4) (book review by Joe Karpierz):
Raise your hand if you read the Mars Trilogy (RED MARS, GREEN MARS, BLUE MARS) by Kim Stanley Robinson. Yeah, I thought so. A whole bunch of you. They were good, weren't they? All three were nominated for Hugos, with GREEN MARS and BLUE MARS winning the Hugo for best novel the year each was eligible. Absolutely great stuff.
Some would argue that Robinson continued to write good stuff. I guess he did. THE YEARS OF RICE AND SALT was nominated for the best novel Hugo in 2003, but did not win that year. I personally did not care for the book--so much so that I gave up after 80 pages, more or less. After that, I did not find the subject matter of Robinson's books interesting to me at all, so I didn't read them.
And then came 2312.
With 2312, Robinson returned to more traditional science fiction. From everything I've read and listened to, the novel is one of the most talked about and "important" books of 2012. One of my old friends, whom I saw at Chicon this year for the first time since Chicon in 2000, said he liked the book. I respect his opinion, since his tastes and mine are quite similar. With all that, I figured I'd better read the thing and get a head start on the Hugo-nominated novels (that was kind of my thought about REDSHIRTS too, but I may be on shakier ground, there).
And while I'm probably right about it being nominated for a Hugo, I'm pretty sure it's not going to get my vote as the number one novel of 2012.
2312 is a brilliantly and beautifully written book about what life would be like 300 years from now, in the titular year. Mankind is confined to the Solar System, as the technology to travel to the stars does not exist, and, as stated in the novel, may never exist. The Solar System is a fractured place, with factions that have different agendas, different outlooks, and, well, different lives. And yet, it is a wondrous place, with beautiful, breathtaking adventures, but at the same time is a place with struggling civilizations. Earth is a mess, with much of it underwater after the climate has gone out of control. New York has been rebuilt above the water, with the old New York still underneath it. There is a project afoot to rebuild Florida as well. Mercury, Venus, Mars, and the vicinities of the gas giants are populated.
It is a place of grandiose technologies and possibilities. Terminator is a city on Mercury that travels on rails around the circumference of the planet, staying ahead of the sun in the shade because of the expansion and contraction of the rails in the sun. Adventurous people can *surf the rings of Saturn*, for crying out loud. 2312 is full of cool and neat stuff just like this. Full to the brim.
And therein lies the problem, because, well, nothing much happens.
Robinson inserts a story of sorts into the travelogue that is 2312. The aunt of Swan, one of our protagonists, dies under suspicious circumstances. Swan comes to learn that Alex (her aunt) is part of a secret team that is investigating a new breed of "qubes", AIs that are quantum computers. It is possible that the rogue qubes are responsible for Alex's death. Swan must try to convince Alex's friends and colleagues that she can be trusted and can help with the investigation of Alex's death. One of those people is Wahram, from the Saturn system. Throughout the novel Swan and Wahram encounter each other, and then separate again, for months at a time. The eventually become close and develop a relationship that ends in marriage.
The problem I have with the book is that all this stuff with Swan, Wahram, the qubes, and all the rest of it takes up a very small portion of the book. The rest of it is, well, an advertisement for the Solar System circa 2312. As I said at the beginning, the book is beautifully written, but it almost seems like the plot, if there really is one, was inserted after all the ideas were laid out, almost as if Robinson thought, "Oops, I'd better put something in here to hold it all together."
One of my major complaints about Arthur C. Clarke's RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA was that nothing happened. At all. Period. I think that 2312 is the RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA of the current generation. Both books contain a wealth of ideas, a wealth of wonderful vistas, and an absolute lack of any compelling storyline to keep it going. I'm sure there are a lot of folks who like that sort of thing. I get bored really easily. I'm not in it for form, I'm in it for story. And the story here is that there is none to speak of. But unless I read my tea leaves wrong, 2312 is a strong contender for the Hugo this year. It won't have my vote. [-jak]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
THE MIRAGE by Matt Ruff (ISBN 978-0-061-97622-3) is an odd alternate history, more satire than serious. There are far too many specific reversals of the current world situation in our timeline (Baghdad rather than New York having a World Trade Center, the Muslims rather than the United States declaring a "War on Terror", and so on) for it to be taken as a serious counterfactual, and indeed many reviews have criticized it for this reason. However, if one recognizes that it is not supposed to be a completely realistic scenario, it is well-written and engaging.
I have a new Agatha Christie trope to mention. Christie wrote twelve "Miss Marple" novels:
Of these, four have misidentified bodies, three have "false" targets, and seven have women who have married or fallen in love with disreputable or otherwise unsuitable men, this last being a trope I have not mentioned before. (For example, in one, the deceased husband had squandered his inheritance in bad speculations.) I mention this last in the context of the Miss Marple novels, because it is much less prevalent in the Hercule Poirot novels than some of the tropes unrelated to gender. (Actually, the Poirot novels seem slanted more against women, although there are unsuitable men as well. But there are a lot more Poirot novels, so I am a bit less familiar with some of them, especially those not dramatized by BBC-Radio.)
I listened to the podcast "12 Byzantine Rulers" by Lars Brownworth (author of LOST TO THE WEST: THE FORGOTTEN BYZANTINE EMPIRE THAT RESCUED WESTERN CIVILIZATION, which Greg Frederick reviewed in the 01/04/13 issue of the MT VOID). This podcast (which predates the book) was not as good as "The History of Rome" podcast, and Brownworth made a couple of annoying errors. He repeatedly referred to "Richard the Lion-Hearted"--the correct appelation is "Richard the Lionheart". And he claims that Voltaire said, "Those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it." While it is true that no one can find a definite reference to this quote, it is almost universally attributed to George Santayana.
It also hits only the high points. While it does cover more than twelve emperors--it includes some background for each one, which usually means discussing an emperor or two before him--it omits a lot of the "connective tissue." After all, there were eighty-eight emperors of the Eastern Roman Empire.
But Brownworth also makes some important points in a more accessible-length podcast. This is 18 episodes; "The History of Rome" is about 200, and "The History of Byzantium" podcast (which is the sequel to "The History of Rome") will probably be closer to the latter than to the former. In particular, Brownworth notes that the conquest and sacking of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade was probably one of the main causes that allowed the spread of Islam in the Middle East and into eastern Europe during the Middle Ages. Had Constantinople remained, it could have stopped the Muslims. As it was, it held them back for eight hundred years, making Europe vastly different today than it would have been.
He notes in this regard that in the West we learn that the Roman Empire fell in A.D. 476, and completely ignore the Eastern Roman Empire, which continued for almost another thousand years. It was the source of 40,000 of our 55,000 ancient Greek texts. Literacy vanished from the West, but flourished in the East. Justinian preserved and codified Roman law, which forms the basis of most Western law these days. As Brownworth concludes: "Thomas Cahill was wrong. The Irish didn't save civilization; the Byzantines did."
(Even 1453 is an inaccurate year for the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire, because Trebizond held out until 1460.) [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: The humour of Dostoievsky is the humour of a barloafer who ties a kettle to a dog's tail. --W. Somerset MaughamTweet
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