MT VOID 03/21/14 -- Vol. 32, No. 38, Whole Number 1798

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
03/21/14 -- Vol. 32, No. 38, Whole Number 1798

Table of Contents

      Co-Editor: Mark Leeper, Co-Editor: Evelyn Leeper, Back issues at All material is copyrighted by author unless otherwise noted. All comments sent or posted will be assumed authorized for inclusion unless otherwise noted. To subscribe, send mail to To unsubscribe, send mail to

Bruce Sterling's Closing Remarks at SXSW:

The original sound file of Bruce Sterling's closing remarks at SXSW is at There is a transcript at

Futurist Terms:

There is a list (with definitions) of "20 Crucial Terms Every 21st Century Futurist Should Know" from io9 at

Another You (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

Apple is working on a device that will allow you to download your entire consciousness onto one small device you can carry in your shirt pocket. It will be called the iI. [-mrl]

Puzzle (contributed by Tom Russell):

March 14, 2014, my wife and I observed the sun rise in the west.

Well, even the fool on the hill knows that the sun doesn't actually rise; it is an illusion. The earth's rotation causes the sun to appear on the horizon and then to apparently move higher and higher until it is completely above the horizon.

This is the same sequence we witnessed yesterday: when we looked out of the window the sun was a blob on the horizon; but then it moved up in the sky until it was a disk completely above the horizon; then it continued to move even further up in the sky--but it was in the western sky, not in the east.

How did we see this? [-tlr]

[Answer next week. -mrl]

The Digital Comic Museum (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

The Digital Comic Museum is apparently a collection of public domain comic books from the pre-1960s "Golden Age" that are free to download and read. According to the Open Culture site there are more than 15,000 comic books. If you don't mind reading on a computer, it is quite a stash. You can find out details at:


Password Question (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):

Why is it that the financial sites, for which one would want to most secure passwords, are the ones most likely to exclude special characters from the set of characters allowed? [-ecl]

THE POSTMAN's Moral Ambiguity (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

[This article appeared previously in Steven Silver's fanzine ARGENTUS. If you already have a copy of the article you are entitled to a full refund on this week's issue.]

I have a few films that seem almost universally panned by the critics, but anyone I show the film to seems to like it. One is Timothy Hines's version of THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005). It is not just done as a period piece; it is one that is extremely faithful to the book. Now I could call such a film a guilty pleasure, but that would be wrong. A guilty pleasure is a film you know is bad but that you like in spite of its faults. I just almost never can bring myself to see a film I like as being a bad film. It is hard to entertain someone with a piece of celluloid. If I like a film it is good and I am willing to defend it as such. I can think of only one film as being a genuine guilty pleasure of mine, and that would be THE STORY OF O. But that is a very different sort of "guilty pleasure."

More to the point there is another film that is something of a laughing stock for some people, but I consider a good film. And most people I have shown it to have agreed it was quite good. That film is THE POSTMAN (1997), directed by it star Kevin Costner and based on the novel by David Brin. The film was a failure at the box office and was lambasted by the critics. But I keep running into people who say, "Don't laugh, but I really liked THE POSTMAN." I think this is a film with a very interesting message.

So what is my interpretation of the film? Consider this: There are chemical solutions that are ready to crystallize, but they do not. The solution is chemically pure and all the conditions are right. But the crystal still does not form. What is needed is a seed to crystallize around. Add one little speck of contaminant--a piece of dust maybe--and almost instantly the entire fluid crystallizes. The film THE POSTMAN shows us a world that is ready to undergo a monumental change, but it needs a catalyst to start the reaction. The right lie at the right time sets everything on the right course.

The film is a post-apocalyptic view of a United States that has reverted to town-sized city-states. We are never told why everything went sour, but we just know that it did. Everybody knows it has fallen apart and it is impossible to put back together. That is an unpleasant truth that people have had to swallow, and they know that truth. People are tired of the truth and want things to heal, but the truth is in front of them every day and is undeniable. A paramilitary gang of marauders preys on towns like the bandits in MAGNIFICENT SEVEN. They are the only law that exists and there is no government to stop them.

Into this unpleasant reality is dropped one liar, a con man. It seems he has found a mailbag full of letters from before all the nastiness. It came from back when mail was actually delivered or just a little later. The scoundrel decides to see if he can con a town into feeding him. The idea is he is going to claim to be a mailman, working for a US government that is coming back together. The mail is starting again and he claims he has been appointed to be a postman. Oh, and by the way--he adds--the town has a legal duty to feed him while he is there. That is part of the deal if they want to get their mail.

But what the people of the town have heard is that the US government is coming back together. Soon there will be protection from the marauding gangs. Normal times are returning. This is what everybody wants, and now the news has come that it is starting to happen. They now believe they have to organize themselves and be ready when the US Government contacts them. And that makes all the difference.

Every country teaches its school children that it is good. It is on the side of right and truth. Usually we think of this as a bad thing. THE POSTMAN asks if sometimes our ideals are lies and if they are is that really a bad thing. Two religions may hold mutually exclusive beliefs yet good can be done in the name of each. [-mrl]

Counting Countries, Updated, with Observations on the Travelers Century Club (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):

[This is an update of an article from a couple of years ago, mostly because someone asked me the question recently.]

People often ask us how many countries we have visited. It is not a simple question to answer. (States are easier--all fifty, though even there one has to add "and Washington, D.C.").

First, there are 49 unequivocal countries:

Australia, Austria, Belgium, Botswana, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Canada, China, Costa Rica, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Kenya, Latvia, Lithuania, Malaysia, Mexico, Netherlands, Norway, Palestine, Peru, Romania, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Swaziland, Sweden, Tanzania, Thailand, Turkey, Turks & Caicos, United Kingdom, United States, Vatican City, Vietnam, Zimbabwe

Then there are four countries that were all part of one country when we visited, but split up about a week later:

And another two that also split (though more peacefully):

Two "countries" were actually British territories, but are usually counted separately:

(And Hong Kong is now part of China, but not completely incorporated there either.)

While we're at it, some people would count four more we have visited as countries (if not sovereign nations):

The last four are not sovereign nations, but are countries in the sense of being treated as separate entities from their governing nations by various organizations--for example, the International Olympic Committee and AMPAS (Puerto Rico and Hong Kong), and various sport associations (Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland).

Seven others--which at least are undisputed countries--barely count:

And finally, a "one-off":

Well, almost finally. It turns out that the "Travelers Century Club" has a list of "countries" which takes into account (e.g.) continental separations and island groups. So when counting from their list we would add Alaska, Hawaii, and the Galapagos Islands, and count Turkey in Europe and Turkey in Asia as separate countries.

Now I think the TCC rules are questionable. For example, they define an island group that is within 200 miles of its home country, but has a population of at least 100,000, and is administered as a separate state, province, or department, as a separate "country." So Prince Edward Island counts as a separate country (being a Canadian province), but Manhattan Island does not. (Hawai'i does, because satisfies another requirement: it is more than 200 miles from the home country.)

On the other hand, they clearly exclude the United Nations, because it has no resident population.

(See for the full list of rules.)

Anyway, here's the summary:

So I believe that currently the strictest count would be 47, and the most inclusive would be 71. My guess is that the number the most people would agree on would be 61 (the first three categories, but not the last four).

[By the way, our current car has been in all the states except Alaska, Florida, Hawai'i, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, and Washington, and all the Canadian provinces/territories except Nunavut, Northwest Territories, Prince Edward Island, and Yukon.] [-ecl]

MARS (2010) (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: When new life may or may not have been discovered by a robot probe on Mars three very ordinary people are sent to Mars to confirm or deny the discovery of life. These are definitely not astronauts with the "Right Stuff." They might not even have any stuff at all. This is an animated film done on a small budget with in the "mumblecore" style. Mixing mumblecore with science fiction is original, but the resulting film demands more than it delivers in return. Rating: low +1 (-4 to +4) or 5/10

To start what is "mumblecore"? Wikipedia defines mumblecore as "a subgenre of American independent film characterized by low budget production values and amateur actors, heavily focused on naturalistic dialogue." One of the filmmakers associated with the movement is Mark Duplass. The films rarely have a lot going on and more focus on dialog that is rarely even dramatic. The dialog frequently sounds unscripted and improvised. This sounds like the antithesis of science fiction films that frequently use special effects and are directed to getting to specific plot points. Films like DARK STAR (1974) sometimes throw in some naturalistic dialog for comic effect specifically to show how unexpected it is in a science fiction film. MARS is creative for trying to bring the two types of story together for an entire film.

This is science fiction without a sense of excitement. Life is discovered on Mars by a mobile probe. We know from the beginning that this life is a contamination of Earth origin, but the characters do not know that their probe has been contaminated (in a way that is rather unlikely, by the way). Earth decides it is time to send two missions to Mars, one purely robotic and one with three astronauts: Charlie Brownsville (the same Mark Duplass), Dr. Casey Cook (Zoe Simpson) and Hank (Paul Gordon). We travel with the intrepid trio listening to their conversation, which is frustratingly banal and irrelevant. That is mumblecore for you. The brave astronauts are urged on by a southern-style President of the United States, played by Kinky Friedman in a cowboy hat.

Eventually romance blooms between Charlie and Casey. And they seal their love by peeing it into the surface of Mars (also rather unlikely, by the way). But then romance had its chance to take hold as they go from a zero-G section of the ship to the swimming pool ("unlikely" does not cover this one). While the claim was made by writer/director Geoff Marslett that most of the film follows scientific fact it really is not hard to find howlers like that radio communication between Earth and Mars is instantaneous. There are a some interesting concepts discussed, but much of the conversation leads to not very much. The humor, and there is a lot, is decidedly off-center and hit or miss.

At least the look of MARS is unusual. It uses bright colors throughout. The film is entirely done in a rotoscoped animation technique in homage to WAKING LIFE and A SCANNER DARKLY, but it is more than a step down in quality. Marslett brought in his project on a reported $450,000 budget.

MARS is a film more notable for its odd mixture of science fiction and mumblecore than for actually being a believable story. I rate it a low +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 5/10. MARS will be available on March 25 on iTunes, PlayStation, Vudu & Xbox.

Film Credits:

What others are saying:


VERONICA MARS (film review by Dale L. Skran, Jr.):

VERONICA MARS is a series about a detective who solved cases on the side while she attended high school and later college. It ran as a television series for three years before cancellation. Tremendous fan interest and a successful Kickstarter campaign led to a movie that is unique in having the first simultaneous theatrical and on-line openings. Starring Kristen Bell, this film noir/neo-noir effort combines elements from Nancy Drew, Phillip Marlowe, and even a bit of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. My wife is a big fan of the television series, but this was my first encounter with Veronica Mars. I am pleased to report that VERONICA MARS emerges as a smart, smooth, and entertaining murder mystery tale that brings an original perspective to a well-worn genre.

The general structure of the movie is similar to that of the new werewolf series BITTEN. A beautiful blond lives in big city where she has a handsome boyfriend and a growing career. A murder in her old hometown brings her back to her roots, and involves her in a deadly situation. She is forced to decide between old and new loves, and between the joys of an ordinary life and the pulsing adrenaline surge of life and death encounters. Both characters have an outward smoothness that hides a deeper darkness, a will to win, and a hunger for both justice and revenge.

Like Nancy Drew, Veronica Mars has a father who is a detective, friends who assist her, and often investigates crimes related to people who attended her old high school. Like Phillip Marlowe, Veronica Mars walks a line between the rich and poor down the sun-drenched streets of a corrupt town, where the police are no friends, and no one can be fully trusted. With her Marlowe-like sarcasm, Veronica skewers foes right and left, leaving no one undamaged.

There are curious parallels with Buffy as well, although no supernatural elements. Both series involve a blond who lives in a California town, and defends it against evil. In both cases, the police are corrupt and part of the evil that controls the town. Both blonds have a preferred set of weapons, Veronica a taser and pepper spray, while Buffy carries the Scythe and Mister Pointee, her favorite stake. There are rough character parallels, with Veronica's detective dad the sage advisor to match Buffy's Watcher, Mr. Giles, and her friend Cindy "Mac" MacKenzie every bit the computer hacker as Willow. Veronica's violence-prone ex-boyfriend turned Navy fighter pilot Logan Echolls has a passing resemblance to Buffy bad-boy Angel. Both Veronica and Buffy wield the English language as sharply as any other weapon, and both are known to break the rules to protect their friends. Finally, both Veronica and Buffy live in a grim world, where the bright sun of the California day gives way to evil most foul at night. There are even references to Buffy in the script of VERONICA MARS, with a character at one point mentioning something about a Hellmouth being under the town of Neptune.

VERONICA MARS is a well-thought out noir thriller that has an appropriately twisty plot. Kristen Bell and her friends are fun to watch, and there is some great comic relief at the expense of some famous Hollywood figures. The movie looks a lot better than it ought to for being made on a $6 million budget and the cast is excellent. I'm rating the movie a +2 on the -4 to + 4 scale. Rated PG-13 for some bad language, a sex scene, and a murder or two, the movie is fine for older teens and up. [-dls]

UWANTME2KILLHIM? (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: Based on actual events, this is a story of how relationships under the influence of the Internet. Mark, who is a reasonably well-adjusted sixteen-year-old, is pulled into a compelling relationship with Rachel, a girl his age he has never met. The two become obsessed with each other and with computer sex in their typed conversations. Rachel asks Mark to watch out for John, her friendless younger brother who happens to be in Mark's class. When Mark does that Rachel asks also enlists Mark for help against Rachel's abusive boy friend. This is a story that is driven by Internet connectivity and Britain's surveillance technology. UWANTME2KILLHIM? is directed by Andrew Douglas from a screenplay by Mike Walden. Walden plays some tricks on the viewer that are revealed at the end of the film. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10

This film is based on a true story.

In Northern England Mark (played by Jamie Blackley) has been arrested for murder by the police. He has nearly killed a man. Not contrite Mark insists to Detective Inspector Sarah Clayton (Joanne Froggatt) that he did it for the greater good, and that he is a hero. The police have no idea what he is talking about. Flash back three months. Mark now is a fairly normal sixteen-year-old whose social life is half in the real world and half in the interconnected world of the Internet. In addition to his real girlfriend he is also fascinated by a girl he knows only through a computer screen. She is Rachel (Jaime Winstone) and Mark is fascinated with her. But in some ways she is less than ideal. She has a brother John (Toby Regbo) in Mark's class who is an easy mark for the school bullies. Rachel herself is bullied by her unwanted ex-boyfriend, Mingus Johnston as Kevin. Once involved with computer sex with Rachel Mark will help her in any way he can. Soon he is involved in a much bigger game when he is asked to help out the military intelligence unit MI5.

Mark is only sixteen years old but has enough confidence in himself to try to do something that should be asked of an adult. He is excited and willing to be an agent for MI5. He may feel some trepidation, but he wants to go ahead and see if he can be his own James Bond. But he does not face the daily torment of bullies the way John does. John is quick to reason, but having been intimidated by the school toughs he lacks his new friend's confidence. Between them they have one complete person.

Director Andrew Douglas puts the viewer into the mind of Mark. Every scene is really from Mark's point of view so the viewer knows just what he knows when he makes his own decisions. Unfortunately, this technique is not sufficient to keep us strictly within Mark's head. What he only eventually discovers probably was in the viewer's mind as a possibility all along. To some degree the film looks down on Mark for being slow to understand what was happening. Still Blackley and Regbo turn in fairly convincing performances as the two teen leads of the story. While much of the cast may be unfamiliar lot of people who do not even know the name of Joanne Froggatt will recognize her instantly for a different role as Anna Bates on "Downton Abbey".

When the film is over some viewers may come away feeling that Douglas and Walton have not strictly followed the rules commonly followed by cinema. Viewers may feel they have been intentionally misled. Well, they have. But that can be a directors' prerogative. I rate UWANTME2KILLHIM? a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.

Film Credits:

What others are saying:


Numbers of Things (letter of comment by Dan Cox):

In response to Mark's comments on the number of things in Horatio's philosophy in the 03/14/14 issue to the MT VOID, Dan Cox writes:

It's true that the set of all sets of integers is uncountably infinite, but the example, which only contains finite sets, does not show why. You can list finite sets the same way you handle rational numbers:.

Listing non-negative rational numbers: 0,
2, 1/2,
3, 3/2, 2/3, 1/3,
4, 4/3, 3/4, 1/4,
5, 5/2, 5/3, 5/4, 4/5, 3/5, 2/5, 1/5

Listing finite sets of non-negative integers: empty,
{1}, {0,1},
{2}, {0,2), {1,2}, {0,1,2},
{3}, {0,3}, {1,3} {0,1,3}, {2,3}, {0,2,3}, {1,2,3}, {0,1,2,3}

Or in rough terms:, with ___ being filled in with either "non-negative rational numbers" or "sets of non-negative integers" List all ___ that can be expressed using no integers.
List all ___ that can be expressed using just 0, that have not already been listed
List all ___ that can be expressed using 0, 1, that have not already been listed
List all ___ that can be expressed using 0, 1, 2, that have not already been listed
. . .

So now it's clear what to do with the . . .

To do this, you need to know that each of the sublists generated by one of the steps contains a finite number of entries for your list. If one step produces an infinite number of list entries, you would never reach the step after it, and those entries would not be assured of a place on the list. So I cannot, for example, show that there are countably infinite rational numbers by saying "list all rational numbers 1/n for n being any integer, list all rational numbers 2/n for n being any integer, ...". [-dtc]

Mark responds:

For the sake of brevity I was just giving a simple example where the power set obviously had different and larger cardinality than the original finite set had. Since you have gone to the trouble of writing it out, I will pass it on. [-mrl]

ALL IS LOST (letter of comment by Gregory Benford):

In response to Walter Meissner's commentary on ALL IS LOST in the 03/14/14 issue of the MT VOID, Gregory Benford writes:

Liked the ALL IS LOST discussion. I spotted some seamanship errors but this is much more detailed. I too wondered about the meaning of the end. [-gb]

Daylight Saving Time (letters of comment by Paul Dormer, Keith F. Lynch, Peter Trei, and Tim McDaniel):

In response to the comments on Daylight Saving Time in the 03/14/14 issue of the MT VOID, Paul Dormer writes:

Actually had a couple of letters published in the newspaper about this last week. Someone had written to the paper to say that start date for British Summer Time should be brought forward to February as that "we would get extra hours of daylight". Well, of course we wouldn't. It all depends if you prefer lighter mornings or lighter evenings. I prefer the latter, although the line stating that preference had been edited out of my first letter.

For the record, in the EU currently, BST starts the last Sunday in March and ends the last Sunday in October. But, as the letter I was responding to points out, BST ends about a month after the vernal equinox, but starts about a week after the spring equinox. However, there is a further complication that during the winter solstice, solar noon is getting later. It confused me the first year I started work that it was dark in the evening when I was leaving work my first day, the day after the clocks had gone back, but was light in the evening when I left work the first week of February. [-pd]

Keith F. Lynch responds:

Britain could go back to the Roman system in which there were always 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of night every day. Sunrise was always at 6 am, sunset was always at 6 pm, and the sun always crossed the meridian at noon. The lengths of the hours varied to ensure this.

I assume by "vernal" you mean "autumnal."

In the United States they keep tampering with the rules. We've been on Daylight Saving Time for more than a week, and will remain on it until November. And nearly half the references will continue to call it Daylight Savings Time, plural.

[Re solar noon] Yes, which is why the earliest sunset comes about two weeks (at least at my latitude) before the longest night, which in turn comes about two weeks before the latest sunrise. That's mostly because Earth's orbit is slightly out of round. [-kfl]

Paul replies:

[Re the Roman system] Indeed, I made just such a suggestion in this newsgroup a few years ago and also in another letter to the same paper about that time. (I think I called it the church system of hours.)

As another letter in the paper (not by me) pointed out the problem for the United Kingdom is its latitude. The south of England is, I believe, further north than all of the US apart from Alaska. Around here in the south of England, it's getting dark in December around 15:30 (sunset about 15:52) and not getting light until about 08:00. Scotland and the north of England it's worse. (I grew up in the north of England, and still spend many a Christmas there.) The letter pointed out the Madrid gets 80 minutes more daylight in December than London.

Mind you, being far north has its advantages at the other end of the year. I was at a con in Stockholm just before the summer solstice in 2011 and I was on a panel at 22:00 one night - in a room lit by daylight.

[Re vernal vs. autumnal] I did indeed. Thinking one thing, typing another.

[Re rule tampering] They do here, although now I believe the date is synchronised over the whole EU. Indeed, even the hour is synchronised.

Currently, BST starts last Sunday in March, but it didn't use to be. I'm pretty sure that the 1989 Eastercon was the first time that the clock change took part during the convention, something that has happened quite regularly since. And the 2008 Eastercon was the first one held entirely in GMT, as Easter was very early that year.

And then there was the three-year experiment of British Standard Time from 1968 to 1971 when we were an hour ahead of GMT all year round. Very dark mornings in the north. When I was at school the first lesson of the day was conducted with the lights on and it was dark outside, and when I started university I remember taking the bus in from my hall of residence for the first lecture of the day when it was still dark. [-pd]

Peter Trei writes:

I'm sure employers would love [the Roman system] in the summer, and hate in the winter; hourly employees the other way around.

Daylight savings time only makes sense in mid-latitudes; its basic goal is to align people's wakeful periods with when the sun it up; since few people these days get up earlier than 5 AM, sunlight earlier than that is 'wasted', while the evenings get dark earlier than they would with DST.

This only makes sense in mid-latitudes. Near the equator, there isn't enough seasonal variation to bother about, and at high latitudes, daylight extends so far into both ends of 'night' that you don't have to move wakefulness to keep it in daylight at morning and evening.

When I lived in Sweden, I'd take a flashlight to find my way to the school bus stop in winter. In summer, night came only while I slept. Window blinds there were very well engineered--they were needed. [-pt]

Keith adds:

Is the whole EU in one time zone? If not, does everyone change their clock simultaneously, or at the same local clock time wherever they are? In the US, it's the latter. (A few states or parts of states opt out of Daylight Saving Time entirely, but none choose a different time or date to begin or end it.) The 48 coterminous US states span four time zones.

I don't recall which convention or which year, but I do remember being at a con during "spring forward." The concom had fun with that, scheduling some very weird panels for the nonexistent hour.

It's interesting how Easter wanders around. Easter computation was one of the first computer programs I ever wrote. It was then that I discovered that, barring early death or radical life extension, it would land on my birthday exactly twice. Both those Easters are now in the past.

Speaking of time zones, I see in today's news that Crimea has switched to Moscow's time zone. [-kfl]

Peter responds:

I'm surprised to see that most of Europe *is* one time zone. Central European time holds nearly all of Western Europe, and the nearest column of Eastern European countries--the WE exceptions are Britain, Ireland, Portugal, and Iceland in the west, and Finland and Greece in the east. All between are CST. [-pt]

Tim McDaniel adds:

Look at the longitudes. Today, I happened on a map overlaying an outline of US over western and central Europe (on reddit, maybe?), with the comment "I didn't realize that all of [European continental] World War II took place in an area about the size of the US South".

Warsaw is at longitude 21 E and Madrid at 3 W, and one hour is 15 degrees of longitude, so Central European Time is somewhat wider than average but not unduly so--time zone boundaries do expand if convenience is seen for it, but it's not to the extent of China, for example. [-tmcd]

Paul elaborates:

No, France, Germany, etc. are on CET, on hour ahead of GMT (two hours in summer). And I think further east, another hour.

But the change is, I believe, at the same time across the EU--01:00 GMT, both in spring and autumn.

After posting yesterday, I looked up the Wikipedia entry on British Summer Time but that doesn't seem to have the details of when the clocks changed historically, only that it is synchronised over the EU. The talk page has someone posting that they were not aware that the hour of change had moved from 02:00 GMT to 01:00 GMT and then, looking at the relevant law cited in the article, assumed that this change was made in 2002. (Used to be that 02:00 GMT became 03:00 BST.)

But I was on the committee of the 1989 Eastercon and I recall that we too decided to schedule a non-existent event for the missing hour and even back then it was 01:00-02:00. I assume that change was also part of the EU synchronisation. [-pd]

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

LONGBOURN by Jo Baker (ISBN 978-0-385-35123-2) is the "downstairs" version of the time period in Jane Austen's PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. (To emphasize this, each chapter begins with a quote from the Austen novel which tells the reader during what situation described by Austen the chapter takes place.) In this, the Bennets are the supporting characters, and the servants take center stage. The main character is Sarah, housemaid to the Bennets, and the focus is on her relationships with the Bennet's new footman, James Smith, and the Bingley's footman, Ptolemy. Much has been made of how Austen wrote her novels without ever touching on the major historical events and issues of the time, and Baker makes up for this by covering the Napoleonic War, the impact of the Industrial Revolution, and slavery in the economics of the West Indies. Ptolemy is an ex-slave, which in itself says something about Bingley, because when he brought a slave with him when he returned from the West Indies, the slave was automatically freed as soon as they landed in England. But if Bingley's character is heightened by Baker's version, Wickham turns out to be even more sleazy than in Austen's book, and even Mr. Bennet turns out to have some dark secrets in his past.

Baker writes in a modern style, not the Georgian style of Austen. She also deals with matters than Austen can only allude to (e.g., Lydia's loss of virginity before marriage), or cannot even hint at (e.g., washing out menstrual rags). This may make the book more realistic, and obviously the servants deal with the realities of life more directly than the gentry, but I cannot say it makes the book more enjoyable. This is certainly worth reading once if you are a fan of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, but it does not warrant the regular re-reading that Austen's work does.

THE RIDDLE OF THE LABYRINTH: THE QUEST TO CRACK AN ANCIENT CODE by Margalit Fox is the story of the discovery and eventual decipherment of Linear B. The three main characters are Arthur Evans, Alice Kober, and Michael Ventris: Evans discovered the tablets, Kober made the majority of the breakthroughs in deciphering them, and Ventris used Kober's work to finish the job.

There are parallels to the Rosalyn Franklin story: just as Franklyn did a lot of the work on discovering DNA but James Watson and Francis Crick got all the credit, so Kober made giant strides in deciphering Linear B but Ventris got all the credit. In both cases, the omission was in part due to the gender of the person but also in part because both Franklyn and Kober died before they could finish the job. And in both cases, there is now a belated attempt to correct the oversight.

Fox does a good job of explaining *how* Kober "cracked" the code. For example, she explains how Kober determined that Linear B was an inflected language, based on charting relative positions of syllables in words (and this in spite of the inflection often changing the final syllable of the base word!). After reading Fox's description, I feel that I understand it, even though there is no chance I could ever do it myself.

Fox also describes some of Kober innovative scientific techniques, such as her use of homemade "punch cards" to keep track of relative positions in words of the various syllables and all of which syllables are adjacent to which others. (For this, she says in a letter, "I did in on the little slide rule I just bought to hasten the arithmetic I'll have to do." I would bet that most people would not have thought the decipherment of Linear B involved slide rules.)

For those interested in archaeology, languages, ciphers, or how science is done, this is a must-read book. [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

          Things that upset a terrier may pass virtually 
          unnoticed by a Great Dane.
                                          --Smiley Blanton

Go to our home page 03/21/14 -- Vol. 32, No. 38, Whole Number 1798