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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
03/22/13 -- Vol. 31, No. 38, Whole Number 1746
Table of Contents
If You Think Alien Life is Rare... (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I was reading a science article entitled "Alien Life May Be Rare Across the Universe." My high school teacher asked me to look at each word and see if it was superfluous. Can't we just remove the word "Alien"? If you look into deep space, my suspicion is that however rare alien life is, non-alien life is a whole lot rarer.
Math Solution (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Last week I asked the following question:
Bill Amend's Foxtrot comic frequently has math content. In the case of the cartoon below Paige is given a mathematics test that is supposedly extremely difficult. Of the four "killer" problems one is actually a simple problem that can be done in your head in under five seconds. Which one is the simple problem and what is the reasoning?
Here is my answer:
The limit problem (#1) is the ringer.
As x gets very large the x^3 terms will swamp all the monomials of lower degree. The limit will be the same as that of sqrt(x^3)/sqrt(x^3) which, of course, equals 1. So the limit is 1.
Steve Milton, Barry Litofsky, and David Leeper sent correct solutions.
Walter Meissner solved all four problems. Walter gave a complete solution to all four problems, but technically did not identify that #1 can be done simply. But what he did was more impressive than getting the problem I asked right. His solutions can be found at http://leepers.us/FoxtrotComic.pdf
On the subject of what are supposed to be difficult mathematics problems, but which really are not, the following showed up in the Open Culture website at the same time I was preparing this problem and its solution. Apparently the REALLY, REALLY difficult mathematics problem in GOOOD WILL HUNTING and which looked suspiciously simple actually WAS simple.
Another Mathematics Puzzle Solution (letter of comment by David Leeper):
On the math problem the following came in from a David Leeper. He did a lot more work on this than I did or probably will, so I will publish his entire response.
[I kind of like that surname, Leeper. It carries with it the expectation of big things. Actually he has had that surname even longer than I have, but they were just days in the 1940s decade, which was a really lousy decade--interesting to read about but really lousy to live in--so I cannot say I envy him that very much. My apologies to anyone else who lived in that decade and really liked it. -mrl]
David Leeper writes:
Greetings ... re the math puzzle: The solution to #1 is simply 1 since as x->infinity, only the x^3 terms matter.
The solution to #3 is u^n ln(u) / (n+1) assuming I did the algebra correctly, but that took over 5 minutes, not 5 seconds.
I couldn't find a closed form solution to #2, but it the summand can be rewritten (-1)^(k+1) / (k + 1/k^2). That summation is bounded from above by the alternating harmonic series 1--1/2 +1/3--1/4 +1/5 ... = ln(2) which comes from a Taylor (McLauren?) series for ln(1+x) where x = 1.
As k increases, the summation's terms quickly approach those of the alternating harmonic series, and the biggest error is in the first term, which is 1/2 rather than 1.
So an approximation to the solution is ln(2)--1/2. Close maybe, but no cigar. That took me more like 15 minutes of screwing around.
On #4, I first note that there are no terms in theta in the integrand, so the outermost integration can be replaced by a scalar multiplier of 2pi. The integrand can be re-written rho^3 cos(phi)sin(phi) which is the same as rho^3 2 sin(2 phi). And the integral of sin(2 phi) from zero to pi/2 is 2 (I think).
So that puts another scalar out front equal to 4.
Finally the integral of rho^3 is 1/4 rho^4 evaluated from 0 to 4 = 4^3 = 64. So I get (2 pi) (4) (64) = 512 pi for a solution. That also took about 15 minutes. Ugh.
I wonder if the writer was serious or just threw a bunch of complex terms together for the cartoon. All except #2 look like they could have come from an exam testing for understanding. Maybe #2 is also a legit question if the solution exists in closed form, but I couldn't find anything better than a bound ...
My Reading of the Second Amendment (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I have tried to put in little jabs on the issue of guns without becoming too embroiled in the sort of controversy that is going on around the country. That was probably not my smartest decision lately. Now I would like to at least present my actual impressions of the issue. What I said was:
"I think I am the victim of age [mistyped as "wage"] discrimination. The NRA wants the United States to put armed guards in guards in all the schools. Haven't they been reading the news? What about the Aurora shootings? I think we need armed guards in every movie theater. Actually in multiplexes we need them in every movie auditorium. It is the only way we can feel safe watching a movie. And in addition it will assure the people making PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 5 that someone is going to be watching the darn thing."
A reader responded:
"You have to remember that the NRA aren't even respected amongst a lot of us gun supporters. Look to the Second Amendment Foundation or the Gun Owners of America for a better representation of the pro-gun side; The NRA sold out gun owners through the '60's & '70's. Rather than armed guards (which will be quickly phased out the first budget crunch), how about enabling the teachers to be responders themselves? Perhaps not with firearms, but certainly arm them with tasers and other non-lethal means of defense. It's time we reversed the defenseless victim mentality and take some responsibility for our OWN safety. Perhaps it's from a Heinlein-Libertarian background (his quote "an armed society is a polite society" comes to mind), although I think the exchange from the original Karate Kid also fits; when Mr Miagi asks Daniel if he wants to learn karate so he can fight, Daniel says he wants to learn it so he *doesn't* have to fight."
My point was that the solution is not armed guards. But it isn't defensive weapons like tasers either. It comes to a simple mathematical issue. This country has only a handful of psychotics, but it has hundreds of millions of people who are possible targets. If we have to arm every schoolroom, every theater auditorium, every grocery store, on and on. that will cost far more than the economy can possibly bear. I did a piece a few weeks back suggesting that now everybody is going to have body armor because of the advantage body armor gave the Aurora shooter:
I was not serious, but consider the cost if that recommendation were carried out. Approaching this as an arms war with the psychotics is totally infeasible. And the results are far from dependable and comforting. Columbine High School, I believe, had an armed guard on duty, but it was a big school and a single armed guard was not sufficient. And having many armed guards, each with salary and benefits, patrolling school hallways will be a huge expense and will not put the children at ease by any means. I cannot see how arming all the potential targets is a possible solution to the problem. We will either have to lower the number of armed aggressors or the problems just cannot be solved. It would be nice to be able to lower the number of psychotics, but again that seems unlikely as a solution. To me that seems to leave keeping the weaponry out of the hands of the potential killers.
The Second Amendment says "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." I was going to argue that a psychotic with weapons is not a well regulated militia, but being fair that is not what the amendment says. My reading says that the clause at the beginning is just saying why the following is being made law. Ignoring the motives what the amendment is saying is just that "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." Period.
(Incidentally, I wonder why the framers of the Bill of Rights felt it was necessary to explain why this right is being given. I am not aware that any of the other Amendments includes a clause justifying the Amendment. I don't see it as making much difference, but it is almost as if they expected the Amendment to be questioned.)
"The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. Personally I would stand by that. But again by my reading it does not say the people may have any arms they want. One can keep and bear arms with no weapon more effective than the muskets that the framers of the Second Amendment knew of. If we made it against the law for the public having anything more deadly than a musket the public could still exercise their right to keep and bear arms. That seems to me to be in keeping with the wording of the amendment. Of course gun owners could and would be given considerably more leeway, but my reading does not say that assault rifles could not be made illegal.
By contrast the First Amendment says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." This specifically says that Congress cannot say this applies to some religions and not to others. It applies to any religion. But the Second Amendment, by my reading, says that anyone can be someone who keeps and bears arms, but it does not say that they have a right to any arms anyone invents.
I do not believe I have any disagreement with the hunter who hunts for food as a matter of survival. As long as he does not leave around carcasses peppered with lead shrapnel that poisons wild scavengers. But I see nothing in the wording of the Second Amendment that says the possession of an AK-47 cannot be outlawed.
That is my opinion.
By the way, Heinlein was quite wrong. An armed society is a toughened society where frequently people are aggressive and do not feel much need to be considerate. I have been in an armed society that was definitely not a polite society. For reasons of tact I will not name it, but the maxim is dead wrong. [-mrl]
Flying and Overhead Bin Space (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Our last two flights were "very full" (I am not sure how that is different from just "full"--it's like "most unique"), so they asked for volunteers to check their carry-ons at the gate. There was no charge, but you would have to pick up your bag at baggage claim at the far end. At least two dozen people volunteered.
This tells me that these two dozen people would have checked their bags at check-in if there had been no $25 charge. After all, why would you haul your luggage all the way through the airport just to check it at the gate? So one reason that the overheads cannot accommodate everyone's carry-ons is that when they built the planes, they assumed that (maybe) 75% of the people would have carry-ons going into the bins. Then they added a $25 charge and the percentage jumped to (say) 90%.
But wait--it's worse than that. Planes used to fly 90% full; now they are 100% full. So on a 150-seat plane, it used to be that about 100 people had carry-on items; now 135 do.
They also asked us to stow the bags in the bin with the wheels towards the aisle. This makes it a lot harder to get them out at the end, but it has another effect--it is impossible to get anything out of the bags during the flight! This is great for the purpose of keeping passengers in their seats, but not so great for the convenience of the passengers.
On the plus side, the TSA will start allowing small pocketknives in carry-on luggage in April. [-ecl]
Boskone 2013 Con Report (con report by Dale L. Skran, Jr.):
Boskone was February 15-17 this year, and since the guest of Honor was Vernor Vinge, I made it a priority to attend. I've been to Boskone a few times, although not recently, and have always considered it one of the best regional cons. I was not disappointed--this Boskone felt like a mini-worldcon, with a very high quality set of authors present and perhaps the best science program I've seen in a long while.
We got there on Friday afternoon, and started out at 5 PM with "It Came From the USPTO: Silly and Weird Patents" a solo talk by Science guest of Honor Jordin Kare. A nice intro to Jordin can be found at http://spectrum.ieee.org/geek-life/profiles/dream-job-jordin-kane, but you can also check out his bio at LaserMotive, http://lasermotive.com/about/executive-staff/jordin-kare/. Please note that the misspelling of "kare" as "kane" in the first URL is not an error on my part; this is the correct URL and the mistake is that of the IEEE. Jordin is an extremely accomplished scientist and inventor who is also a well known filker. In addition to this, he has a day job at Intellectual Ventures, one the largest patent holding companies in existence. Intellectual Ventures maintains a large staff of scientists who create new patents, which IV then tries to license. Jordin reported that he is a named co-inventor on about 100 patents, and that he has 300 applications in the pipeline. These are very impressive statistics--not at the Edison level, but way beyond most inventors.
The talk was drawn from Jordin's work at IV, and was utterly hilarious. His presentation presents a series of patents and patent applications that are hard to believe. This sort of talk may be a bit esoteric for the average fan, and it does help if you understand something about how the patent system really works, i.e. that you can patent almost anything IF (and only IF) you make the claims narrow enough. For example, adding the word "interstellar" to a claim may allow it to be granted. An idea can be both non-obvious and implement-able, and thus patentable, but at the same time incredibly stupid.
After a quick dinner we again caught Jordin Kare in another solo talk at 7 PM titled "Laser Launch." Kare has worked in this field for years (see URL above for LaserMotive), and gave an excellent talk. Kare reported on a recent NASA funded solar launch study he participated in as the designer of one of three competing spacecraft. The net conclusion of the study was that all three would probably work technically, but that there was some question about economic feasibility. Essentially, any laser launch system requires a significant up-front cost that can only be justified by a high level of traffic to space. However, no one will commit to any space projects as long as the cost of reaching space is high. Thus, we sit on the ground faced with the classic chicken and the egg dilemma.
Friday night was just packed, and we next attended 8 PM's "Singularity: There can be only One" panel well moderated by James Patrick Kelly and featuring Charles Stross, Christopher Weuve, Michael F. Flynn, and, last but not least, Vernor Vinge. As I'm sure you all know, Vinge is "Mr. Singularity"--the SF writer most associated with this concept, and the one who has written about it the most seriously. Stross has also written about the Singularity extensively after Vinge started the trend, and made valuable contributions to the panel. Weuve, a naval analyst, added a bit, but was a lightweight on a panel with three of SF's brightest stars (Vinge, Stross, Kelly). I like Flynn a lot, but he seemed too eager to impress the audience, and he clearly had little to say about the Singularity compared to Vinge and Stross. Kelly deserves kudos for an excellent moderating job, especially in making sure that the retiring Vinge got significant air time.
Vinge was asked to revisit his original paper on the Singularity, and discuss his prediction of the timing of the Singularity. He stated that he didn't see much of anything that was dated in the paper, and he stuck by the predicted dates, although he did point out that he always made it clear that there were forces which could act to prevent the Singularity. You can find the original Vinge article at http://mindstalk.net/vinge/vinge-sing.html, and probably other places as well. In that article Vinge stated he would be surprised if the Singularity occurred prior to 2005, and surprised if it occurred after 2030. We have to give him a 100% mark on the first date, since 2013 has come, and IBM's Watson notwithstanding, no Singularity. The question remains--will it occur in the next 17 years?
At first blush, this seems unlikely or even ridiculous. 1996 was seventeen years ago, and that seems like yesterday! And yet, we have Watson, and Google is starting to roll out driverless cars and Google glasses. We have semi-working quantum computers and limited invisibility shields. Human equivalence in handwriting recognition has been achieved by advanced neural nets. We had none of these things 17 years ago. It is also worth remembering that given the laws of exponential growth, most of the advances between 2013 and 2030 will occur in 2029. So 2030 does not seem completely out of the question, although it is more possible that by 2030 the Singularity will loom as a likely near term event that has about the same salience as the next presidential election. Let's meet at Boskone in 2030 and discuss.
9 PM brought "Hugo Award Possibilities: Dramatic Presentation" moderated by Bob Devney, and including Colin Harris, Dan Kimmel, and Jim Mann. Devney is a nice fellow, and pleasant to listen to, but as a moderator he allowed the panel to wander, with the result that movies occupied 75% of the time. Dan started the panel with a screed (perhaps inspired in part by my writing) complaining that no matter what the panel said, long form would be won by THE HOBBIT, and the short form by a DR WHO episode.
This was followed by a useful discussion of best long form drama. Panelists liked CLOUD ATLAS, SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD, and LIFE OF PI. Other favorites included PARANORMAN, WRECK-IT-RALPH, JOHN CARTER, AVENGERS, RISE OF THE GUARDIANS, BRAVE, SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN, and MEN IN BLACK III. Jim Mann deserves a special award for declining politely to babble on about movies he had not seen, something that, as we shall see, certain panelists later in the con felt compelled to do.
The short form discussion was brief, with Kimmel suggesting episodes from GAME OF THRONES SEASON II (the BLACKWATER episode) and TRUE BLOOD SEASON 5 (the final episode) as possible Hugo nominees in short form. I found the discussion disappointing as a lot of excellent SF TV was not even mentioned, mainly since much of the time was taken up discussing which of six possible Dr. Who episodes was the best. This makes me think a special rule should be adopted saying that if fewer than 12 episodes of a TV show are available, the TV show must be considered as a whole under long form. This would hopefully have the effect of deep-sixing Dr. Who. This proposal is just a jape; a more serious idea appears anon.
The treatment of media SF at cons like Boskone and Worldcon is a bit sad. We have descended to the point where 100,000 attend Dragoncon and even more attend Comicon, while Worldcon attendance drifts around 5,000 consisting of mainly older fans. At this rate by the time the Singularity arrives in 2030 Worldcon will be held in a nursing home. The continued Procrustean effort to fit all SF media into long form and short form in an Internet powered world with 100x the amount of SF media available relative to that which existed in the 50s and 60s is absurd. A minimal reform would be to create five media SF Hugos:  best original dramatic SF--long form,  best adapted dramatic SF--long form,  best SF TV series,  best episode from an SF TV series,  best short form SF not on TV, including one-shot shorts, plays, speeches, and  best SF video game. In terms of the current year, Game of Thrones Season II would be a natural winner for category , a Dr. Who episode would handily win in category , and some oddball short would win in category . This would leave categories  and  for the best SF movie and the best SF TV series, providing long overdue recognition to the many excellent SF TV shows currently running.
It is also ironic that at the same time as Worldcon attendance is trending downward, the top TV sitcom, "Big Bang Theory" concerns the lives of a group of comic and media SF fans who are scientists and engineers. BBT is extremely accurate (in my opinion, sometimes painfully so) in portraying the lifestyle and behavior of both SF fans and science/engineering nerds. One thing you won't see on the show, however, is any discussion of old-fashioned written SF. Well, there is one episode where Sheldon mentions that a Conan video game is based on the stories by Robert E. Howard, but as far as I know this is the ONLY mention of written SF in the show. This is, I think, extremely accurate. The center of modern SF fandom lies in TV SF, movie SF, and SF gaming, with a declining comic subculture. The number of new fans of written SF not involving vampires is modest, and the interest of media SF fans in written SF is modest, trending toward their interest in classic British novels, which trends toward zero. Notably, the characters in the BBT attend Comicon annually, but Worldcon or other SF cons are never mentioned.
One reason for this, and which is well illustrated in the BBT, is that to a large degree we are all living in a hard SF novel. The antics shown on the BBT involve accurate modern science including the search for the Higgs Boson, holographic models of the universe, string theory, Mars rovers, and a character doing a tour of duty on the International Space Station, all things that in the 50s would have been the domain of hard SF. In fact, with their astronomical IQs, witty repartee, scientific/engineering careers, and sexual high jinks, the characters in BBT often seem ripped from an adult Heinlein novel. To point a finer point on it--where do people go for escapist entertainment with the most popular comedy watched by up to 20 million mainstream folks has about an 80% overlap with 60s adult Heinlein novels?
We ended Friday at 10 PM, and already the con felt excellent. I stated Saturday at 10 AM with the "Energy From Space" panel, featuring moderator Tom Easton, Jordin Kare, Chad Orzel, Jeff Hecht, and Joan Slonczewski. This was one of the best science panels I have seen at any con, with an amazing coverage of topics by people who for the most part demonstrated a deep understanding of the material. Most of the input was from either Jordin Kare or Jeff Hecht, so unless I mention otherwise the information came from them. The panel first reviewed typical SPS (Solar Power Satellite) designs from the late 1970s/early 1980s, which featured very large receiving antennas on the ground. These efforts suffered from the need for vast amounts of capital to build enough power stations to create any net payback. This was followed by a review of proposals, mainly advocated by Criswell, calling for the construction of SPS using space-based materials. It turns out that these schemes are equally impractical since the amount of capital needed to build the space-based manufacturing infrastructure is prohibitively large.
More recently, the SPS-ALPHA project described the self-assembly in space of an SPS using large numbers of standard component the solar cells on one side and a microwave antenna on the other. However, the biggest issue is that the cost of energy on the ground, both from cheap natural gas and cheaper solar cells keeps dropping below what SPS can provide.
This has led to a new SPS design based on lasers. The main advantage of transmitting the power to Earth using a laser is that the receiving antenna can be a lot smaller, meaning that the SPS can be a lot smaller and hence a lot cheaper. This opens up a variety of applications, including beaming power to remote military sites, providing post-disaster power, and powering spacecraft. You can buy 50% efficient receiving cells off-the-shelf, and it takes about 70-80% efficiency to make the idea work, something the panelists believed possible. Current NASA-funded SPS projects are laser-based.
Slonczewski came at the problem from her background as a biologist and an SF author writing hard SF about SPS systems (THE HIGHEST FRONTIER). Slonczewski presented an interesting thesis that any widespread usage of so-called "green" energy will result in serious problems. For example, injecting water into the ground to extract geothermal energy can cause earthquakes. Wind power implemented on a large scale can change the weather. Ground based solar power increases heat absorption and leads to global warming. Her view is that only space solar power is truly large-scale, renewable, and free of major side effects.
The panel discussed methods to prevent SPS lasers from acting as weapons. The main approach is to make sure the power density of the beam is such that it does not cause rapid warming, and to further make sure that each tracking element has to have a positive lock on a little ground laser before transmitting power to Earth. This means that you can't hack the SPS and command it to point to any place you want--it will only point to beacons. It is even possible to use multiple satellites to illuminate the same spot, thus reducing the beam power to the point that it would no longer cause eye damage.
I raised the issue of the possible vulnerability of SPS to terrorist attacks using the "bucket of nails" approach. Joan responded that a large network of SPS could not be easily destroyed with a few rockets/bombs, and that the damage to the non- centralized designs under consideration by clouds of nails would be limited, i.e., 10% power loss. It was also pointed out that an SPS has a lot of power, and that power could be used to provide an active defense against incoming small objects.
Toward the end of the panel, Easton described solar power towers being considered in various Gulf states. These towers would be a mile high and have turbines in the tower to extract energy from heated air as it rises. Kare has studied the idea, and stated that he concluded that the power density was not good compared to the amount of construction required, and also that the towers were vulnerable to extreme weather events.
From 11 AM to 12 noon I ate lunch and collected George R. R. Martin's autograph. At noon I got some Vinge autographs and then joined in progress the "SF/F/H TV WTF" panel with Moderator Erin Underwood, Jennifer Pelland, and Bob Eggleton. This was the worst panel of the con, and I felt sorry for Underwood and Eggleton. Pelland had an opinion about everything, and almost every opinion was negative, whether she had seen the show or not. She dominated the panel with a long series of snarky remarks and gestures that made a mockery of any serious discussion of TV SF. My suggestion is that you avoid any panel she is on at future cons. It is hard to pick out a most wrong comment by Pelland, but she launched into a screed against ARROW, which has "botoxed actresses" and was in her view a terrible show. I mention this because I think ARROW is one of the best SF superhero shows I've see--better than SMALLVILLE, NO ORDINARY FAMILY, or THE CAPE. Pelland ranted that she wants to see "real SF" with "space ships." Pelland didn't seem to feel that CONTINUUM was "real SF." I love space ships too, but you have to be rather narrow minded to reject any SF without "space ships."
At 1 PM we moved on to "The Rise of the Machines, Reconsidered," a panel moderated by Christopher Weuve, and including Charles Stross, Jeanne Cavelos, John P. Murphy, and Charles Gannon. Stross needs no introduction. Murphy is an SF writer with a PhD in Multi-robot control. Cavelos is a book editor and writer who previously worked as an astrophysicist for NASA. Weuve is a naval analyst and once was part of the Naval War College. Finally, Gannon is an SF writer with a PhD in English. It may just be that I have been working on image recognition technology for the last year or so, but I found Gannon and Weuve's comments on the difficulty of recognizing a horse to mainly convey that they were ill-informed about the current status of image recognition research. As always, Stross showed that he had really thought about where robotics would likely take us. To conclude, you know you are living in the 21st century when most of the ideas mentioned by a panel of SF writers have already been implemented, i.e., thought caps to control a robot arm, etc.
At 2 PM we moved to the guest of honor interview with Vernor Vinge, ably handled by his Tor/Forge editor Jim Frenkel. I didn't take a lot of notes, but I am pleased to report that Vinge is a very nice fellow with a lot of ideas who readily admits that he writes pretty slowly. The most interesting part of the panel was the back and forth between Frenkel and Vinge about what his next book ought to be. Vinge seemed to be eager to write a sequel to RAINBOW'S END but Frenkel thought this would be too hard and advocated for a sequel to CHILDREN OF THE SKY.
At 3 PM my wife and I went to different events, with her attending "A Greatness in the Con 2.0: Exploring the Works of Vernor Vinge." She videotaped that panel, and I haven't see the video yet, so I'll focus on what I did--a Kaffeeklatsche with Michael Flynn. I am a big fan of one of Flynn's early novels, IN THE COUNTRY OF THE BLIND, and I asked a number of questions about the novel. It turns out Flynn is a former mathematician, having turned to writing after getting a Master's degree in Topology. This accounts for the focus on mathematics in THE COUNTRY OF THE BLIND. Flynn also wrote in the 90s a series of books--the Firestar series--focusing on the results of industrialist Mariesa van Huyten's funding of a private space program. van Huyten's is a combination of Bill Gates' interest in creating better high schools with Elon Musk's private space program. Flynn's fictional 1990s resembles to a startling degree what is happening in school reform and the private development of space travel right now. It should be noted that the main character from THE BLIND appears very briefly in the Firestar series, extending Flynn's future history. If you are interested in seeing more of Flynn, he will be the guest of honor at Lunacon March 15-17th in Rye Brook, NY.
After collecting some Stross and Pournelle autographs at 5 PM, I joined my wife at "The Year in Physics and Astronomy" with Mark Olson and Jeff Hecht. I've seen this panel before at other cons, and the quality varies. Much of the first part of the panel focused on the very recent meteor impact in Russia. Another large block of the discussion concerned meta-materials that create invisibility and other prodigies. I also learned that ICE CUBE, the system that turns Antarctica into a giant neutrino detector is now in operation, and exciting new results may be forthcoming. There was also a considerable discussion of how ex-planets are detected. All in all, a fun panel with well prepared participants.
I started Sunday the 17th at 10 AM with "Scientists Look at Science Fiction," with Mark L. Olson moderating Jordin Kare, Chad Orzel, and Michael Flynn. If these names by now seem familiar, they should! Jordin Kare told a couple of good jokes. Here is one:
[Student 1] I used to think that correlation was causation until I
took a class in statistics.
[Student 2] Did it help?
[Student 1] Possibly.
Here is another:
[Man #1, Seeing a person at a conference with a GPS watch] How
well does that work?
[Man #2] Pretty well, except for low Earth orbit.
[Man #1 -- sees Man #2 has astronaut badge]
Orzel also had a funny quote--"Correlation is not causation, but correlation is highly correlated with causation."
Kare made the point that most so-called "predictions" are based on specifying a human desire, for which sometimes real people develop technology to satisfy that desire. For example, Wells did not "predict" the LASER in WAR OF THE WORLDS. STAR TREK communicators did not "predict" cell phones. In each case, the writer was simply describing a gadget of unknown nature that satisfied a human fear or desire, respectively.
The panel did mention that there is at least one specific case, the US Navy's Combat Information Centers, that are directly based on the description that E. E. Doc Smith provided of the Directrix used in his tales for displaying battlefield information. In this case it appears that Smith provided sufficient detail that the Navy simply followed his specifications.
All in all, not the best panel of the con, but still interesting! After a quick lunch, I caught the end of "Winter is Coming. Again." a panel with Bob Devney moderating Myke Cole and Teresa Nielsen Hayden in a discussion of their favorite lines and scenes from Season II of HBO's GAME OF THRONES. The final event we attended at the con was a noon time Kaffeeklatsch with Jordin Kare. It turns out that my wife and I were the only people to attend, which may have been a bit off-putting for Jordin, who was filling in for the Nielsen Haydens, who had to leave early. This was great for us, however, and a big thank-you to Mr. Kare for making himself available. Since this con report is running long, and our conversation with Jordin mainly focused on space, I've decided to cover that in a separate report.
The art show was very good, although the artist GOH was not to our taste. The hucksters' room was modest sized but still a good source of quick books for autographing. The freebie tables were well stocked, and we picked up a number of books there. Boskone gave us a free set of two hardback volumes of Hal Clement stories, which I found very generous. The con suite was large, had many comfortable tables and chairs, and a lot of good food. Overall, Boskone was excellent, and a good thing too, as I won't be able to make it to World Con this year! [-dls]
Smoking in Space (letter of comment by Gregory Benford):
In response to Evelyn's comment (that in Waldo" everyone smokes, even in space) in the 03/15/13 issue of the MT VOID, Gregory Benford writes:
As [Dennis] Tito discovered on MIR, the Russians did so routinely, getting vodka and cigarette rations each day. He said the place stunk but he still loved being in orbit. [-gb]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
I just re-read UP THE LINE by Robert Silverberg (ISBN 978-0-345-29696-2). I first read it when it came out in 1969. I have read a lot of alternate history and time travel stories in the interim, but re-reading this was like going back to an old friend. In particular, it is so believable to have Justinian's first words on beholding the Hagia Sophia not as "O Solomon, I have surpassed thee!", but rather, "Look up there, you sodomitic simpleton! Find me the mother-humper who left that scaffolding in the dome! I want his balls in an alabaster vase before mass begins!"
This is not to say that there are not "reverse anachronisms." (If an anachronism is putting something on the wrong place in the past, then a reverse anachronism is putting something on the wrong place in the future, that is, the future when you are writing.) So the Silverberg's Sparta of 1997 has little in common with ours: ours has no fusion-power plant built in the 1980s, no Stalinist-architecture apartment blocks, no pod serbive to Athens. And our 2010 was not the "Year of the Assassins". As Neil Gaiman said of the years 1984 and 2001, "Win some, lose some."
I also like the cover illustration for the 1981 fourth printing of the book. It is not as flashy as the original cover, but it captures the concept beautifully. Murray Tinkelman has rendered the Suleimaniye Mosque, the mounted Crusader and the time traveler in a style that makes them look insubstantial, as if they are illusions that might disappear. And the time traveler even has a ghostly double of himself. My only quibble is that the Suleymaniye Mosque was started in 1550, a hundred years after the fall of Byzantium, and in an era that was not visited in the book.
[See the cover at http://tinyurl.com/void-uptheline. -mrl]
THE NEW CTHULHU: THE RECENT WEIRD edited by Caitlin R. Kiernan (ISBN 978-1-607-01289-4) was a book I started it a while ago, but because it was on the Kindle, it was perfect for finishing on my recent trip to Arizona. And an excellent book it is, too. There are a couple of stories that I thought not quite in the tone of Lovecraft, but only a couple, and the rest exhibited a wide range even with the Lovecraftian genre.
JORGE LUIS BORGES by Jason Wilson (ISBN 978-1-86189-286-7) is in Reaktion's "Critical Lives" series, and combines a short biography with an analysis of how the events in Borges's life affected his thinking and writing. For example, Wilson says that Borges's friendship with Macedonio Fernandez "taught him to read [and presumably to write] skeptically." Wilson also points out how in his stories and poems Borges makes references and allusions to real people in his life, sometimes just by name, sometimes more in the manner of a roman a clef. My main complaint is that the book has no index.
In reading Wilson's comments about "Funes, the Memorious" it struck me that Funes's memory resembles that of a person with Asperger's, not just in its extent, but in its insistence on specificity: "He was, don't forget, almost incapable of generalities or Platonic ideals. Not only was it difficult for him to understand that the generic term 'dog' covered so many disparate individuals of diverse size and form, it distressed him that the dog of 3:14 PM seen in profile had the same name as the dog of 3:15 PM (seen from the front)." This is close to the situation Temple Grandin describes: she can remember every chair she has seen, but has difficulty with the idea of a "Platonic" chair. However, I do not think this extends to perceiving the dog at 3:14 as a different dog than that at 3:15. In part, this is because there would be the problem that there would be another dog at 3:14:30, and another one at 3:14:15, and indeed, an infinite number of dogs between those two times.
A few months ago we saw CLOUD ATLAS and I was intrigued by the language used in the most future of the segments. So I checked CLOUD ATLAS by David Mitchell (ISBN 978-0-8129-9471-1) and read just that section, "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After". Mitchell postulates a particular path for the English language over the next few centuries. (It is not clear when this section takes place, but clearly at least several hundred years, since the Somni- Korean sequence comes between us and it.) Mitchell has no "Great Vowel Shifts", no major consonant drifts, but rather a set of elisions and omissions:
Whether a linguist would find this particular set of changes likely, I do not know, but they seem that way to me. This section should be added to any list of books using "future English". [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Write what you know will always be excellent advice for those who ought not to write at all. Write what you think, what you imagine, what you suspect! --Gore VidalTweet
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