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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
02/08/13 -- Vol. 31, No. 32, Whole Number 1740
Table of Contents
eSlide (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Yes, we live in an amazing world of technological progress. While we were sleeping we have this tremendous advance come upon us. If eSlide is here, can the singularity be far behind? With eSlide you can compute logarithms, square roots, cube roots, exponentials to two and even three decimal places. Now there is nothing to carry hanging from your belt. If you have access to the Internet you have access to eSlide, the on-line virtual slide rule.
Film Reviews and the Internet (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I am a fan of the film FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH. For a long time it was very little known in this country, though under the correct title, QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, it is very popular in Britain. Sadly it was for years very hard to find in the United States. These days it very frequently shows up on people's lists of the best science fiction films. But that has taken years.
It did get a tiny release in this country and the New York Times critic claimed he saw it and it was boring. He said he "slipped out while the others were sleeping." (I might say that most people find this film about as boring as THE GUNS OF NAVARONE.) He said nothing substantive about the film and I suspect he did not actually see it. Or perhaps his taste is just very different from most people's.
Then in 1973 that film showed up on network television and in Judith Crist's review in weekly TV guide she called it "soporific and sophomoric." She sounded like she had read the New York Times review. My opinion is that it is neither soporific nor sophomoric. And my opinion seems to be the most common if I look on the Internet at Rotten Tomatoes (and for newer films Meta-critic). And that ability to look on the Internet is key.
After being slammed by two critics very few people thought seeing the film was worthwhile. Undaunted I recommended the film for years and finally, perhaps partially due to my efforts, the film has gotten some recognition. But one or two critics probably condemned the film in the US to obscurity for decades.
That was then. This is now.
Then a major critic like Judith Crist could say that FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH was boring and stupid, and she would do a lot of damage. Her review in TV Guide would be all that anyone would ever see.
This is now. Today people would know Crist did not like it but that eighty percent of critics were favorable on RottonTomatoes.com and recommended the film. Today one or two critics would not have the power to sink a film. With electronic connectivity it is much easier to find the opinions of people like you and perhaps critics you trust.
That is a significant shift in reviewing over the years. Film reviewing is much more democratic with much more data available on who does or does not like the film and why. That is an advantage.
One of the negative aspects is that not everybody reviewing films really knows cinema (English translation: has my taste). But even if you take just the overall public opinion of a film that is something of a guide as to whether you will like the film or not.
But that is also bad news. I suspect there will soon be no really good career film reviewers left. The market is going to people who review for free. There is little point in a newspaper hiring a career film critic, and having to give him medical benefits and a pension. And such newspapers and their critics are a thing of the past. Newspapers are dying because anyone with an Internet connection can get free news, free editorials, free film criticism, free movies, and a lot more for that magic price of free. And some of this is valuable and a lot comes through the rule you get what you pay for. Few people feel responsibility to people who are getting things free.
That is the downside. The upside is that Judith Crist cannot really help or hurt a film very much. She is just one of many people commenting on it. Even her knowledge of film might discourage some readers. They want to know what people LIKE THEM thought of the film, not an ivory tower film critic. And they are actually right. The professional critic may be downgrading a film because it borrows a lot from films that are thirty years older. But to a reader who has seen no films more than twenty years old, that would not be a drawback.
It is no longer true that one or two bad critics can do any real damage to a film. In the future people who disagree will come to know what critics they can trust. Boston area critic and friend Dan Kimmel frequently disagrees with me on films. I like to read his reviews knowing we will disagree. After all I have little to learn from someone who shares my tastes.
The real downside of the new environment is that once you can get the best and most reliable film reviews for free, nobody will be making a career of reviewing films. That means the quality of film criticism will probably suffer in the years to come. My guess is that there will be fewer people with an interest in the Italian Neo-realist movement or the French New Wave. New cinema fans will have a disproportionate interest in the films of the then previous ten years. Newer filmgoers have always given less attention to older films. That is so much so that VERTIGO (1958) has replaced displaced CITIZEN KANE (1941) in Sight and Sounds poll of the best films of all time. And in turn Hitchcock's place will be much less secure in a decade or so.
I am not saying the environment now is better or worse than it used to be, but it is different and that has its upsides and downsides. [-mrl]
HANSEL AND GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS (film review by Dale L. Skran, Jr.):
At 18% on the tomato meter, we can assume that the critics who bothered to see HANSEL AND GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS didn't like it very much. However, since it opened on the box office as #1, it may be that audiences will disagree. As for myself, I went to see it on the strength of Dan Kimmel's favorable review, and I was not disappointed.
Starring Jeremy Renner (HURT LOCKER, AVENGERS, BOURNE LEGACY) as Hasel, Gemma Arterton (QUANTUM OF SOLACE, TESS OF D'URBERVILLES, PRINCE OF PERSIA) as Gretel, and Famke Janssen (X-MEN) as Muriel, the head bad witch, HANSEL AND GRETEL provides a hearty dose of B- movie action and fun, coupled with a plot more complex and reasonable that is often the case in such films. HANSEL AND GRETEL has at its core the original fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel finding the gingerbread house in the woods. Somewhat like WICKED, HANSEL AND GRETEL fills in both what happened afterwards and what happened before the events chronicled in the oft-told tale of two brave children who escape the clutches of a rather nasty witch who wants to eat them.
H&G functions as a pastiche of old Hammer horror films, super-hero tales, and ROAD WARRIOR stitched together with healthy helpings of R-rated gore. I haven't seen a real R movie in a while, and, well, they're a lot more violent than PG-13. It was a bit refreshing to see Gretel relying on some old time street fighting standbys rather than fancy martial arts moves. Be warned--if you don't have a pretty high toleration for blood, don't see this movie.
I'm going to skip over the plot, which has a number of twists and turns, leading you and the main characters to someplace rather different than you might expect. Famke Janssen is entertainingly evil as the leader of the witches, channeling her Dark Phoenix look from the X-MEN: THE LAST STAND. Renner and Arterton play Hansel and Gretel straight, as grimly determined witch hunters who, as action heroes, are not exactly deep.
Just to make things clear, HANSEL AND GRETEL strikes back to the old-fashioned, pre-BEWITCHED view of witches as ugly evil monsters who eat children. At the same time, the movie does balance this off with a series of events that graphically show how scared people can start burning anyone close to hand as a witch. Also, and to the disappointment of a lot of critics, HANSEL AND GRETEL is *not* a parody. There is a certain species of critic that can't abide fantasy or SF unless it is political or a parody. HANSEL AND GRETEL is neither.
I'm rating HANSEL AND GRETEL a solid +1 for those who like violent action fantasy movies. It is considerably better than such recent fair as the 2010 version of CLASH OF THE TITANS or the 2011 CONAN THE BARBARIAN. There is one rather mild sex scene, but large amounts of horror violence and plain old head chopping violence. Rated R for a reason and not for kids. [-dls]
[Note, the +1 rating is on the rating scale I use, -4 to +4, or 6/10. Thanks, Dale. -mrl]
THE EVOLUTIONARY VOID by Peter F. Hamilton (copyright 2010, Tantor Audio; 24 hours, 45 minutes; narrated by John Lee) (audiobook review by Joe Karpierz):
In contrast to 2312 (which I reviewed previously here in the MT VOID), the conclusion to Peter F. Hamilton's "Void Trilogy", THE EVOLUTIONARY VOID, is one big thrill ride which really doesn't let up. Hamilton is rapidly become one of my favorite authors simply because he writes the kind of stuff that I enjoy and remember reading ages ago when I was growing up, and yet is not so old fashioned as to be tired and worn out. Hamilton's stuff gives the reader the sense of wonder that seems to have all but disappeared in today's literary SF scene, where it is completely apparent that style is more important to the writer than story.
To recap: the Void is a pocket universe within our universe. It occasionally expands, destroying portions of our galaxy when it does so. Inigo, the First Dreamer, shared his dreams of The Water Walker, a powerful telekinetic (everyone in the Void has these powers, but Edeard, the Water Walker, is the strongest) and kind of savior to the people on his planet. Edeard's race of people are former residents of the galaxy outside who were let in to the Void a long time ago. The result of the revealed dreams (to get back to that) is that a pilgrimage by followers of Inigo to go back into the Void to live the idyllic life that can be found there. The thing that is really drawing everyone there is the fact that you can "reset" the universe back in time to "correct" your mistakes, thus living a happy and carefree life. The downside for the galaxy is that resetting takes up power, which the Void gets by expanding and eating planets and star systems, thus destroying parts of the galaxy.
So, of course, back in the Commonwealth, there are factions out to stop the Pilgrimage. Araminta, the Second Dreamer, has been in hiding from Living Dream (the folks on the Pilgrimage) and just about everyone else including the psycho killer Cat, detective Paula Myo, and members of other factions who want her for their own gains. Araminta, in her role as the Second Dreamer, must decide if she wants to come out of hiding to lead the Pilgrimage into the Void, or do something to stop the Pilgrimage so she can save the galaxy. And we need to remember the Accelerator faction, led by Ilanthe, who wants to get into the Void for her own reasons.
Meanwhile, we continue to see Inigo's dreams of Edeard as he ages and becomes more and more prominent within Makkathran, the city he came to as a youth. He's mayor now, and has a vision for the people of the city--a vision which is dangerous for both the city and himself. And yet, under his leadership the Skylords are coming to Makkathran to take the elderly and dying to the Heart, the center of the Void, as they have reached Fulfillment.
The real question, though, is just what is at the Heart, the center of the Void? And why does it need people who have been Fulfilled?
THE EVOLUTIONARY VOID really is a story of evolution: the evolution of Edeard, the evolution of the human race, indeed, any race, to post-physical form, the evolution of the Void, and the evolution of the characters within the story. Hamilton practically hits us over the head with that theme over and over and over again, but we don't notice that much because there is so much going on that we don't have time to think about it.
THE EVOLUTIONARY VOID is also a reunion of sorts--just about every last major character from THE STARFLYER WAR (as documented in PANDORA'S STAR and JUDAS UNCHAINED) makes an appearance, and just about all of them make a contribution to the story. In fact, at one point as things are really heating up and a whole bunch of characters from THE STARFLYER WAR are together, the characters joke that there are enough legends in one spot that all they have to do is put on superhero costumes to save the day (or something to that effect, anyway).
And once again, I can't say enough about John Lee's narration of the book. Right now I think of his voice when I think of Commonwealth Stories. I wouldn't have it any other way.
THE EVOLUTIONARY VOID brings the "Void Trilogy" to an astoundingly satisfying conclusion, and should make any fan of space opera happy. This is a terrific book. Too bad more like it aren't being written these days. [-jak]
DIRTY ENERGY (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is deemed the United States's worst oil disaster, almost twenty times greater than the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Uncapped for three months, the efforts to well spewed an estimated 53,000 barrels of crude oil per day. Virtually every aspect of the attempts to stanch the flow and make reparations have been called into question. DIRTY ENERGY looks at the victims of the disaster and presents a bewildering litany of injustices and inappropriate action. Writer/producer/director Bryan D. Hopkins reports on the damage and collects interviews with the victims of the disaster. While missing fair representation of British Petroleum, the unrepaired ravages of the disaster are shocking and underscore the need for effective regulation of the petroleum industry. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon drilling on behalf of British Petroleum (BP) had a gusher that caused an explosion killing eleven workers. BP found itself unable to cap the wellhead, which spewed every day at least 53,000 barrels of crude oil up into the Gulf of Mexico. BP promised to control to stop the flow and to repair the damage done to the people and the environment. DIRTY ENERGY looks at how far short of the promise BP fell and how little of BP's obligation has been fulfilled.
From the beginning BP's strategy was allegedly more cover up than clean up. Rather than collecting the oil the cleanup people made heavy use of dispersants to spread the released oil more thinly but more widely to be absorbed by more sea life and ending in our food supply. Wild life, fishing, tourism, business, health, and more are victims of the spill and Hopkins goes from one to another assessing the damage done, frighteningly and comprehensively. Interviewees compare the results of this oil spill with that of the Exxon Valdez and compare the size of this disaster with that of Hurricane Katrina.
Issue is taken with the degree of power that BP was given during the time of the cleanup. Effectively BP could close the beaches to people who would want to see that the cleanup was being completed properly. Sadly the only people with anything like the facilities to attack the problems being faced were those with the most to gain by a cover-up. Slicks would be found and reported only to be gone the next day due to overnight use of dispersants to hide the problem.
The film hits again and again on what great earthy people the victims of the oil spill are and what a great life they had taken away from them by the oil spill and its aftermath. I suppose that adds texture to the film, but even if the people were not earthy and did not love what they did, there would have been just as much of an injustice done to them. It is not surprising that Hopkins was unable to get representatives and allies of BP on camera to present their point of view about the disaster. What is missing is evidence that Hopkins even tried. A few instances of where BP was invited to respond and declined would have gone a long way to convince the viewer that Hopkins was at least attempting to present a balanced viewpoint.
Occasionally stylistic choices are questionable. Some of the shots of the disaster are shown with an annoying effect of shaking the image as if it is being lost to satellite interference. This seems like grating and obvious manipulation. Other touches are canny and clever. Beside the closing credits is a list of congressmen who have accepted large PAC donations from the gas and oil industry, the amount, their states and their political parties. (One political party seems very heavily to dominate the list.)
The film ends in a lament that the oil and gas industry are so politically powerful and calls on the viewer to get involved. It might not be a bad idea. I rate DIRTY ENERGY a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. DIRTY ENERGY is currently available on DVD and Video on Demand distributed by Cinema Libre.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2071449/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/dirty_energy/
Does Mathematics have a Personality? (letters of comment by David G. Leeper, David Goldfarb, and Sam Long):
In response to Mark's comments on whether mathematics has a personality in the 02/01/13 issue of the MT VOID, David Leeper writes:
I've had similar thoughts about natural constants. In particular, the value of pi may well be "different" for intelligent beings on some distant planet.
Why? Because on that planet the person who first identified pi might have decided this natural constant should be 6.28318... instead of 3.14159... He/she/it may have chosen to set it to the ratio of a circle's circumference to its radius rather than to its diameter.
In fact if I were in charge and doing it all over again, that's what I would choose. In math, physics, and engineering, "2 pi" shows up so often, rather than just "pi" alone, that I conjecture the "2" simply covers us Earthlings for the somewhat artibitrary historic "accident" of not choosing the more natural pi=6.28318...
Also, exp(2*pi*i) = 1 has been described as one of the most elegant equations in mathematics because it includes the four natural constants e, pi, i, and 1 in such a compact form. So what's that "2" doing in there? I suppose one might argue that 2 is also a natural constant, but I suspect otherwise. I think someone or something is sending us a (literally) universal message through mathematics: pi should have been 6.28318...
No big deal ... we just have to write the "2" alongside "pi" over and over again. I'm used to it. [-dgl]
I had the same thought at times and so have many people.
Grab the lid of a jar. Most likely you are grabbing opposite points on that lid. The points of contact are very nearly the endpoints of a diameter. The parameter that you first notice about a circle is the diameter. You can bend that length a little more than three times around the circle. That is where we got pi from.
Think back to high school and even college math. How often does the diameter of a circle come up? You very rarely have the diameter come up in an explanation. It is the radius that you play with the most. The radius comes up all the time. The segment from (0,0) to (sin(x),cos(x)) is a radius of a unit circle around (0,0). It takes a little more than six times the radius to go around the circumference. 2*pi is a constant that shows up a lot, probably more often than pi without the 2. But apparently pi was a well- known constant before 2*pi got really important.
I don't think it makes sense to say on another planet pi would be defined differently. They would not have Greek letters anyway. They might choose 6.28318... and call it something like Zeg. There are Zeg radians around a circle.
Actually you have it wrong. In bringing up Euler's elegant equation, that is one place where pi comes without a 2. What people say is beautiful is that e^(i*pi)+1=0. That hits all FIVE (not four) important constants including zero. (Interpret the same formula to mean Wrath (1), Indignation (2), Trouble (3), and the sending of Messengers of Evil (4) [inside joke].)
Anyway you might want to look at http://www.math.utah.edu/~palais/pi.html and this was not the first suggestion that there is a better constant to use. [-mrl]
Yeah, I think I like your (Euler's own?) formation better. Zero is indeed another fundamental constant, and your form picks it up elegantly.
I thought I had read the form exp(2*pi*i) = 1 in the Feynman Lectures on Physics. So I looked it up. The binding cracked when I opened my copy, now turning brown around the edges. His Chapter 22 in Volume 1 of his series starts with the natural numbers 1,2,... and zero, works its way through algebra, logarithms, and other stuff, and ends with what he calls the most remarkable formula in mathematics:
exp(i x) = cos(x) + i sin(x)
Feynman calls his equation "our gem" because it links algebra to geometry, which to him is very important ... perhaps because he is a physicist.
So I must have seen the exp(2*pi*i) = 1 somewhere else ... maybe it was in one of my old college lectures. But that's how it stuck in my mind.
Being an engineer, specifically an EE, my favorite formula will always be the Fourier transform pair. In writing my dissertation, I had to (finally) understand it thoroughly, and it's a beauty.
If S denotes the integral from -infinity to infinity, then the pair is
F(f) = S [ g(t) exp( - j 2 pi t ) dt ]
g(t) = S [ F(f) exp( j 2 pi f ) df ]
Throughout EE, we use j rather than i because i was already "taken" to be the symbol for current.
In almost every book and at almost every university except notably MIT, they substitute omega = 2 pi f in order "simplify" the formula, but it turns out to destroy the perfect symmetry of the pair--the inverse transform g(t) needs a 1/omega in front of the integral, and people tend to forget to put it there. So in my dissertation, I abandoned the form I'd been taught and switched to the MIT method. I had to write "2*pi*f" over and over instead of just an omega, but it was worth it.
In the end, I think the personality of the math might better be called the personality of the beholder as expressed in the math. [-dgl]
David Goldfarb writes:
My "Does Mathematics Have a Personality?" story involves probability. I was reading about a board game called "Shadows Over Camelot", in which the players take the roles of knights of King Arthur's court working together to achieve quests and fend off threats...but in which one of the knights may be a hidden traitor.
The way that works is that there is a deck of 8 cards, 7 of which represent loyal knights and 1 of which is the Traitor; each player receives one at the start of the game. I wondered how the probability of having a traitor varied with the number of players. So to take an example, I decided to analyze a game with five players. I used the formula for choosing to work out how many ways there are to distribute cards to them that would include the Traitor card. That would be (7 choose 4) * (1 choose 1), while the total number of ways to choose is of course (8 choose 5). So I wrote these formulas up in order to divide the one into the other. After some time laboriously canceling numbers, the answer turned out to be 5/8.
Immediately after getting this simple result, I realized there was a much simpler way to come to it: visualize the cards as filling 8 slots, with 5 of the slots corresponding to a player and the other 3 being out of the game. Since the Traitor card has an equal chance of being dealt into any one of them, of course the chance that one of the five players will be a traitor is 5 in 8. What's more, this method generalizes to any number of players, easily and obviously. So I felt very silly about not seeing that at once. [-dg]
I have to think about that one. But so often in mathematics you trip over some insight that you wonder why you have not seen it before. And sometimes nobody has thought of it that way before. Of course you never know because I don't think anybody publishes just an insight into how to prove something that has already been proved less insightfully. [-mrl]
And Sam Long writes:
Ref mathematics...I'm not much of a mathematician--I got as far as differential equations in college--but I like mathematical concepts and imagery, which is why I enjoyed the Clifton Fadiman anthologies /Fantasia Mathematica /and /The Mathematical Magpie/, among others, even though a number of the stories in them have been overtaken by events in the last few decades, such as the proof of Fermat's Last Theorem and the solution to the Four Color Problem.
My own little mathematical quirk or pastime is decomposing numbers I see (such as house numbers, or UPC numbers or ISBNs) into their prime factors. As far as possible, I try to do those calculations in my head when I don't have anything else to do. It's straightforward. I look at the number, to see whether it ends in an even number (0, 2, 4, 6, 8) or by 5. If so, it's divisible by 2 or 5. If it's even, do its last two numbers divide by 4, or its last three by 8? Then it's divisible by 4 or 8. Do its digits add up to a multiple of 3 or 9? Then it's divisible by 3 or 9. All this so far can be done by inspection. Take my house number, 1338, It's divisible by 2, but 38 is not divisible by 4. Now 1 + 3 + 3 + 8 = 15, which is divisible by 3. Therefore 1338 is divisible by 2 and 3, and so of course 6. Divide 1338 by 6 to get 223 (this can be done in my head). Now 152 is 225, so any prime factors of 223 will have to be less than 15. Since 223 is odd, and its digits sum to 7, it is not divisible by 2 or 3 (but we already knew that). and we are left with possible prime factors of 7, 11, and 13. It gets a little more complicated here, but it's still easy to divide 223 by 7 in your head; it's 32 with a remainder of 6, so 7 isn't a prime factor of 223. The sum of the odd-numbered digits minus the sum of the even-numbered digits ([2+3] - ) is 3, which is not 0 or 11 or a multiple of 11, so 11 is not a prime factor of 223 either. (In this case, it's faster to simply divide 223 by 11 to get 20 with a remainder of 3.) Dividing 223 by 13 in your head isn't quite as simple, but is not all that hard: the quotient is 17 with a remainder of 2. Therefore the prime factors of my house number are 2, 3, and 223.
I don't often decompose numbers greater than 4 or maybe 5 digits in this manner (i.e., in my head), but if I have a calculator handy, I can factor up to 8- or 10-digit numbers in fairly short order, or at least determine whether they have prime factors less than 100 or so. For some numbers I could go to my CRC Handbook and simply look the number up in the table of primes and prime factors. What do I get out of this? Nothing much; but it keeps my mind busy sometimes, and my mental calculation skills sharp. [-sl]
The Fadiman books are gems. I happened on them just at the right time in my life, maybe at age 14 or so. I loved mathematics and I loved science fiction and they came together so beautifully. They still stand up very well.
I may try the factorization. My quirk is when I see a date, I figure out what day of the week it was. Particularly if I see the date written out so I don't have to memorize it, I can figure out any date A.D. in under 30 seconds. That comes in handy in film reviewing because so often someone claims a date falls on a certain day of the week and they are just wrong. In FORREST GUMP, Gump says his mother died on a certain day of the week, but when we see her gravestone, we see the date she died and it was a different day of the week. It is easy to check and that was sloppy film making to get it wrong. Then you point it out and you always get someone writing in and saying they don't care if the film got the day of the week right. Frequently it is the same people who complain if a Star Trek film got the details of a photon torpedo correct or some such detail. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
THIS CRAFT OF VERSE by Jorge Luis Borges (read by Jorge Luis Borges) (ISBN 978-0-674-00587-7) consists of six lectures: "The Riddle of Poetry", "The Metaphor", "The Telling of the Tale", "Word Music and Translation", "Thought and Poetry", and "A Poet's Creed". So when I say that the book was "read" by Borges, that is not quite true, because what I listened to were recordings of the original lectures, which were later transcribed into a book. These lectures were given at Harvard during the 1967-1968 school year, but the tapes were missing or unknown for thirty years before being re- discovered in the archives. I am not generally a fan of audiobooks, but clearly this is an exception, both because the spoken version was the original format, and because it is Borges himself delivering it.
The lectures are full of examples and references, and this is all the more amazing in that by this time Borges was almost entirely blind, so he delivered these lectures (each about forty-five minutes long) with no notes. Thus when in the lectures on metaphors, he goes through dozens of metaphors in a half-dozen different languages, complete with translations and analysis, he is doing it entirely from memory. Two of my favorites were the Anglo- Saxon use of the term "whale-road" for the sea and John Burgon's description of Petra as "the rose-red city, half as old as time." Borges discusses why that is so much more evocative than "the rose- red city, as old as time," and also references use of "the thousand nights and a night" rather than just "the thousand nights." [-ecl]
[I think the Anglo-Saxons also used "swan-road" for the sea. My guess is that the "whale road" is deeper. -mrl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: If you steal from one author, it's plagiarism; if you steal from many, it's research. --Wilson MiznerTweet
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