MT VOID 12/19/14 -- Vol. 33, No. 25, Whole Number 1837

MT VOID 12/19/14 -- Vol. 33, No. 25, Whole Number 1837

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
12/19/14 -- Vol. 33, No. 25, Whole Number 1837

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

A Foolish Consistency (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

In "Doctor Who" they make very clear that we do not know the Doctor's name. He is refered to as "The Doctor". Fans are told not to call him "Doctor Who". So shouldn't the best-known title in the series be not DOCTOR WHO AND THE DALEKS but THE DOCTOR AND THE DALEKS? [-mrl]

Online Film Critics Society Annual Movie Awards:

(Last year, a special award was also given to the late Roger Ebert, the subject of LIFE ITSELF), "whose decades of work in criticism helped to popularize serious film appreciation to a wider audience, and whose tireless persistence in the face of cancer was as inspiring as any of the films he championed.")

Founded in 1997, the Online Film Critics Society () is the largest and oldest Internet-based film journalism organization. Over 250 members voted in this year's awards.

[Mark is a member of the OFCS.]

Philcon 2008 Con Report Available (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):

As they say, "The perfect is the enemy of the good." I have gotten several years behind in my Philcon reports and rather than give up altogether, I have decided to transcribe my notes without turning them into real sentences, paragraphs, etc. As a result, this report got done in only a few hours, rather than the dozens of hours it normally would take.


False Safety in Numbers: The Poisoned Internet (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

The big news story in the world of computers is that some unknown group calling themselves Guardians of Peace has hacked into Sony Pictures computers, finding treasure troves of private data that they are now making public in the most painful ways they can arrange. People are listening and gossiping about the information being released. This is a news story with something for everyone. Already the case is about computer hacking, movie actors, executives with enormous salaries, sexism, sex, and even international intrigue originating from North Korea.

There have been hackings of major corporations in the past with customer and employee data being stolen. The public reaction has been to grumble but to recognize that with so many people's data being stolen the odds are good that their own data is unlikely to be used for criminal purpose. These days we live connected to the Internet. We would have a hard time surviving if we had to abandon the web. If it were to disappear over night our personal economies and more generally our national economies would be in real trouble. How would we cope if we had to suddenly adapt to life without the Internet? What would we do?

At the same time we have this dependence the hacking incidents that seem to be growing exponentially in their ferocity are telling me that the Internet is made of matchsticks held together with Elmer's glue. The new equivalent of solving the Rubik's Cube is breaking into corporate databases. We are caught in a war between people trying to break computer security and people trying to keep it patched together. And in this war the hacker side has a lot more panache and potentially much, much bigger rewards.

No doubt we have some very good people designing computer security systems. You never hear about it when they are winning in the conflict. For the people on the defensive it is a quiet war. The corporations they work for do not want the world to know they have been under hacker attack. When the hackers do win they are often all too happy to let the world know about their victories. And certainly their side gets more than its share of the best and the brightest coming out of schools. And as a real advantage they get the younger people with fresher ideas. They can innovate faster than the security industry and they attack from unexpected directions.

The defenders have to face this creative and unpredictable enemy. The corporations probably recognize that computer security is a priority. And just hiring people with technical savvy is not easy. Not everybody who claims to be an expert on security really is. For that matter not everybody who believes himself to be an expert on security really is. One almost has to be an expert to simply hire experts.

What has happened is that the Internet has become a huge convenience. So many things can be done so expediently on the Internet that we all have adapted to it. We have come to love how easy it is for us to access information and to communicate with others. Unfortunately, the Internet has become a place where the information that is so easily obtainable includes information about ourselves, much of which we should be keeping private. That includes our financial information and the contents of our communications. Right now many of us are at the stage when we are telling ourselves if we just manage our passwords carefully we will be safe. We have this attitude in spite of the fact that many of the victims of hacking have done nothing wrong. Like climate change, many of us can see the threat coming, but there is a tremendous convenience in inertia, and there is little we could do to change our trajectory.

Right now what is keeping us safe on the Internet is that we are among millions of possible victims of crime, so at this point nobody has gotten around victimizing most of us. There is a false safety in numbers. How long will it be before any of us is hit hard by some Internet debacle?

So how safe do YOU feel? [-mrl]

POKER NIGHT (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: A rookie police detective has been kidnapped and is being imprisoned by a masked serial killer. He thinks about the lessons he learned during weekly poker games with local veteran detectives who talked about their police experiences. Perhaps he can find a clue to how to survive his ordeal. POKER NIGHT is a creative film and not a little tricky. Writer/director Greg Francis honed his skills on television and now that he is breaking out into feature films he proves to have a deft touch. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10

Poker night. That is the night that the Warsaw, Indiana, police detectives get together to play poker, drink beer, and talk about their previous cases and some of the lessons they learned along the way. Jeter (Beau Mirchoff) is the newbie. He mostly just listens trying to cull wisdom from the experience of veteran detectives. But we soon find Jeter is just thinking about his poker nights. The information could be really useful to him just at the moment. It seems a serial killer has kidnapped him. He will need all the wisdom he can muster to survive the night. It seems a serial killer in an ugly mask has Jeter imprisoned in the killer's basement. Oh, and his (too) young girlfriend Amy (Halston Sage) is also being held by the killer. Right now the lessons that his fellow detectives shared with him could come in really handy if he is going to escape from the killer alive.

As Jeter relives his past poker games he thinks about his friends around the table. There is the smooth-talking Bernard (Giancarlo Esposito), the cynical Cunningham (Ron Eldard), Maxwell (Titus Welliver), and Jeter's mentor, Calabrese (the versatile Ron Perlman). The poker games have been his education in practical police detective work. While Jeter desperately searches his options, the killer is telling him about his background and why he became a killer. Jeter pictures the scenes that the killer's past only since Jeter knows the killer only as the masked man, he pictures the killer going through life with that ugly reptilian mask on his face.

POKER NIGHT is a nice little horror thriller in much the same vein and some of the power of films such as THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and SE7EN. The villain is a psychotic killer nearly memorable enough to rank with the killers in those films. Writer/director Greg Francis has had extensive work writing and directing for television, but his first feature film is an auspicious start with a film that requires concentration. The viewer is jerked back and forward in time and Francis wastes little screen time explaining what is going on and why. Francis goes from comedy to horror to suspense. The visual story telling is tricky and the writing is even more so. This is one of those films fans may want to see multiple times to get the story straight. Occasionally it may even require a little eyestrain.

The viewer should be warned that some painful looking scenes. Jeter's experience is as imaginative as it is unpleasant. I rate POKER NIGHT a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.

Film Credits:

What others are saying:


Film Recommendations:

For the last two years, Mark has been running a film series at our local library. The library calls it "Critics' Choice" but it is really just films that Mark thinks have been sadly overlooked, either in general or by current audiences. Unfortunately, many he would like to show are not licensed for library showings, but we thought the list of what he has shown would be useful to people looking for recommendations besides the latest major blockbuster or Oscar hopeful:

THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (comments by Peter Rubinstein):

In response to Evelyn's comments on LA NOVIA DE FRANKENSTEIN in the 12/12/14 issue of the MT VOID, Peter Rubinstein writes:

Is the spelling "Theisiger" intentional? I thought it was Thesiger. [-pr]

Evelyn responds:

Ooops! [-ecl]

Mark adds:

Gee. I wonder why my spell checker didn't catch it. [-mrl]

Dieting (letter of comment by Gregory Benford):

In response to Walter Meissier's comments on dieting in the 12/12/14 issue of the MT VOID, Gregory Benford writes:

Good remarks from Walter Messier. The wiki link on calorie restriction is out of date; doesn't mention the chimp studies, which show no longevity benefit. So the sentence "Studies have been conducted to examine the effects of CR with adequate intake of nutrients in humans; however, long-term effects are unknown." is incomplete.

Worth noting that NONE of those living beyond 110 are on calorie restriction, to my knowledge. The oldest known person, Mme. Calment, smoked and drank red wine and never neglected her food.

The telemeres argument is good but so far not related to actual human longevity studies, to my knowledge. [-gb]

Spacecraft News (letter of comment by Gregory Frederick):

Besides the recent successful launch of the Orion space craft on a Delta 4 rocket and the Rosetta-launched Philae probe landing on a comet, there are a number of other interesting things happening in the near future related to spacecraft. Space X plans to launch another Dragon spacecraft to supply the International Space Station next week and then land the primary booster rocket on a floating platform in the ocean. They have been able to get their primary booster to come down vertically in a controlled return flight during the past few launches but they splashed into the ocean because there was no place for them to land. Returning rockets and re-using them will significantly reduce the cost of rocket launches. In March 2015, the NASA spacecraft Dawn (with an ion drive) will arrive at Ceres (the largest asteroid in the asteroid belt). Also around May 2015 NASA's spacecraft, New Horizons, will arrive at Pluto and its five moons. There could be more moons then that but so far there are five known. No one has ever seen the surface of Pluto in any real detail so this will be very interesting. [-gf]

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

The discussion group's "book" this month was the remaining thirteen articles in THE BEST AMERICAN SCIENCE AND NATURE WRITING 2012, edited by Dan Ariely (ISBN 978-0-547-79953-7). For each article, I'll give a one-sentence summary, then make some comments. "The Touchy-Feely (but Totally Scientific!) Methods of Wallace J. Nichols ("Outside") by Michael Roberts: Nichols wants to figure out what is going on in our brains when we look at the ocean.

The idea that appealing to our emotions has more effect than appealing to our reason has been pretty clearly demonstrated, so it is not obvious why finding out exactly why oceans appeal to us would improve our techniques to make people act more responsibly towards the environment. (Although, as they note, if it turns out that polluted, dead oceans would have the same effect, the whole plan could backfire.)

"The Feedback Loop" (original title "Harnessing the Power of Feedback Loops") by Thomas Goetz ("Wire"): Feedback loops can be used to improve behavior, but only if properly implemented.

"The ideal feedback loop gives us an emotional connection to a rational goal." --Sounds like the last article.

Feedback loops have four stages: evidence, relevance, consequence, action. That is, measure the behavior, convey the information to the user in a relevant way, make the user aware of their options, and have some way for the user to make a choice. The example Goetz gives that seems to be very successful are the spread of speed-sensing radar signs ("Your speed is ..."), although Goetz attributes the drop in average vehicle speed entirely to the feedback loop and assumes the drivers know there is no policeman standing by to give them a ticket. Frankly, when I see these, I assume there *is* a higher probability that there will be a policeman, since the sign is clearly gathering information which could be used in court.

Up until now the main problems have been the cost of collecting data, and the delivery of data back to the user (rather than some central repository).

"What You Don't Know Can Kill You" by Jason Daley ("Discover"): We have a hard time evaluating risks.

The fact that people obsess more over shark attacks (1 US death per year) than cattle attacks (20 US deaths per year) or even drownings (3400 US deaths per year) was not just recently discovered. Even the reason behind this--we are still instinctively reacting as our prehistoric ancestors were evolved to do--is not news. However, Daley has a few new additions. We have an "optimism" bias, and more of a fear of man-made risks or those causing dread (painful/gruesome deaths) than of natural or "peaceful" ones.

These in turn are fed by what the media covers and how it covers it. A single shark attack gets far more coverage than the 3400 drownings.

And over-reaction can be deadly. WHO estimates that 4000 residents and recovery workers for Chernobyl will develop a fatal cancer as a result of that accident. However, it has already resulted in 1250 suicides and between 100,000 and 200,000 elective abortions. (The last figure is for all of Europe, but I am still not sure I trust it.)

"Beautiful Brains" (original title "Teenage Brains") by David Dobbs ("National Geographic"): It had been thought that teenagers do reckless things because their brains were still developing, and in fact undergoing major changes during those years; Dobbs says it is more that they are adapting.

The claim had been that between ten and twenty, young brains were modifying both their physical and logical structures and this is why they seemed to do things that made parents ask, "What were they thinking?" The changing patterns also explained why the same person could make mature decisions on Monday, and completely reckless ones on Tuesday.

Dobbs claims that these traits, rather than being negative, are "highly functional, even adaptive," and that this is the correct response to the changing environment teens are undergoing.

However, when one considers this in terms of the previous article's premise (our reactions are the result of evolution for prehistoric conditions), one gets a different picture. One major result of these "reckless" decisions, for example, are a lot of pregnancies (and offspring) that with more rational thought might have been avoided. So whoever is the most reckless sexually has the best chance of producing the most offspring. Similarly, reckless driving might derive from reckless hunting--inept hunters get killed off faster, while good hunters survive (with food) to reproduce. All this is highly beneficial from an evolutionary standpoint, but not exactly the behaviors we want our teenagers to have.

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle called it "evolution in action." That was not intended as a compliment.

"The Brain on Trial" by David Eagleman ("The Atlantic"): Yet another tale of the amygdala (see Daley above) and how physical and chemical changes in the brain can affect what we think of as behaviors entered into by free choice.

This reminds me of "Reasons to Be Cheerful" and "Oceanic" by Greg Egan, in which he examines what it means to talk about free will when it is known that chemicals can affect one's moods or even one's religious beliefs.

Eagleman looks at this from a judicial point of view. If people are forced into certain behaviors because of their neurological make-up, what does this mean in terms of criminal sentencing? We now recognize that people may have all sorts of involuntary physical movements, vocalizations, and so on due to the state of their brain, and Eagleman thinks it is only a matter of time before more and more behaviors can be traced to specific conditions of the brain. While Eagleman does not advocate eliminating punishment altogether, he thinks it is important to use the most efficacious treatment. He seems to prefer the "prefrontal workout," which he admits is just the biofeedback of the 1970s, but far more sophisticated and scientifically based than it was then.

"Crush Point" by John Seabrook ("The New Yorker"): The science of how to prevent crowd disasters is more complicated than people thought.

For a long time, people believed that crowd disasters were caused by people fleeing a fire or otherwise trying to leave an area. Now scientists who have studied the phenomenon (notably Paul Wertheimer, who personally observed thousands of concert mosh pits from the inside!) have determined that these can be caused by crowds attempting to enter a space, or even by crowds simply within a space. (Crowds leaving a space and crowds entering a space are in some sense identical--both are attempting to pass from one space to another through a bottleneck. But crowds entering a space, even when attempting to get "Black Friday" bargains, are not driven by the same instincts that crowds fleeing a fire are.)

The opening of the article is an account of the 2008 "Black Friday" death of a security guard at a Wal-Mart on Long Island. Unfortunately, the article was written before the OSHA suit against Wal-Mart was decided.

"Ill Wind" (original title "Made in China: Our Toxic, Imported Air Pollution") by David Kirby ("Discover"): Air pollution in the United States is increasing because of China pollutants.

"All of the world's atmosphere is interconnected." Even if this is obvious, the idea that pollutants such as mercury and even dust could be carried to all parts of the globe came as a shock to a lot of people. Currently the increasing pollution from China is such that we have to decrease our emissions quite a bit just to stay at the same level, or as the Red Queen said, "Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere you must run at least twice as fast as that."

"The City Solution" by Robert Kunzig ("National Geographic"): Cities are good; urban sprawl is bad.

Although the wretched conditions in parts of London (and New York) in the late 19th century led planners to attempt to empty out the cities, or at least to stem their growth, it is now recognized that the response is to fix what is broken in the city. Moving people out is environmentally unsound, both from the point of view of requiring people in the distant, sparsely populated areas to rely on cars, and in requiring more resources to supply electricity, gas, water, food, and everything else to a much more distributed population. Seoul is a good example of how planners can make cities work--even if the apartment buildings are ugly blocks from the outside, they are comfortable and affordable inside, and the city provides a stimulating, thriving emotional and intellectual environment.

"Test-Tube Burgers" by Michael Specter ("The New Yorker"): We have not achieved vat-grown meat on a consumer level yet, but that is probably just a matter of time.

Specter references William Gibson's NEUROMANCER and Margaret Atwood's ORYX AND CRAKE, but fails to note that Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth's THE SPACE MERCHANTS had vat-grown meat 32 years before either of them (in 1952). Yes, Gibson and Atwood are better known to his readers, but it still seems like stealing the credit from where it is due.

Environmentally, livestock produces 20% of greenhouse emissions, and uses 10% of all fresh water supplies and 80% of all farmland. Of course, the flip side is that if we switch to vat-grown meat, why would there even be cattle, or sheep, or pigs, or chickens? And some organic farmers say that livestock provides an important part of the ecosystem, although they are very specific about how it should be raised and treated. (And needless to say, they think there should be a lot less livestock, because it is only factory farming methods that allow us to raise as much as we do.)

Most methods of creating vat-grown meat also involve using some animal cells as a "starter", so vegans (and some vegetarians) would still have concerns. And vat-grown pork started from pig cells is not going to be declared either kosher or halal in the foreseeable future. (Scientists are experimenting with starting with algae.) The techniques used are more suited to producing the equivalent of ground meat than a steak with actual structure including blood vessels, etc., but the vast majority of meat raised is used in a ground-up form.

Specter talks a lot about making vat-grown meat resemble "real" meat, in look, texture, taste, etc. But to my mind, this may be just another example of the same mistake so many vegetarian restaurants make. They take ingredients that are perfectly fine on their own, and try to make them seem like something else. I would rather have an honest bean or tofu dish, than something that tries to make them into a burger that they claim tastes like a beef burger.

As for converting current meat eaters to vat-grown meat eaters (assuming the technique is improved to production level and the price comes down), Ingrid Newkirk says that the only way would be if at the beginning of those cooking shows everyone loves, they brought a baby lamb out, killed it, beheaded it, and cut it up to make the lamb roast or whatever. Synchronistically, I earlier today listened to the commentary track of CHEF, a film about cooking in which at the beginning, a whole pig is slung up on the kitchen counter and cut up into ingredients, including bacon that we later see being cooked. (At least the pig was already dead.) Roy Choi talked about how this was the scene that would separate the true foodies from people who wanted a sanitized Hollywood studio film, and that people need to recognize that the delicious bacon they see sizzling later in the film started as this.

"Mad Science" (original title "Microsoft's Former CTO Takes on Modernist Cuisine") by Mark McClusky ("Wired"): Nathan Myhrvold has written what is McClusky calls the "Principia" of the kitchen--or will it be its "Consolation of Philosophy"?

Myhrvold has written MODERNIST CUISINE--a six-volume, 2400-page, $625 cookbook. It is more than just recipes--it goes into a lot of the physics and chemistry of cooking. However, reviews elsewhere note that the first printing is rife with errors--there is an extensive errata sheet, though it apparently still misses some howlers (such as that one cup of cornstarch weighs eight grams). There is also a MODERNIST CUISINE AT HOME for the more reasonable (though still expensive) price of $140. (By contrast, Harold McGee's ON FOOD AND COOKING: THE SCIENCE AND LORE OF THE KITCHEN is only $40.)

The food may be great, but even great French fries are not (in my opinion) worth two hours of preparation time, a vacuum sealer, an ultrasound machine, and a $2000 vacuum chamber. (Your mileage may vary.)

Myhrvold (or his assistants) did all the food research as part of a general "wild-ideas" lab where people get to try all sort of things out, from lasers to zap malaria-carrying mosquitoes to using the global cooling effect of sulphur dioxide in the atmosphere to counteract the global warming effect of carbon dioxide.

"Dream Machine" by Rivka Galchen ("The New Yorker"): Quantum computing is hard to understand.

As best as I can understand it, quantum computing makes use of parallel universes to carry out calculations. This supposedly lets you do factorizations (for example) 10^500 times faster (according to an algorithm by Peter Shor). As David Deutsch notes, since there are only 10^80 atoms in the whole universe, so the whole universe "would not even remotely contain the resources required."

This requires qubits. According to Galchen, eight cubits are less powerful as an abacus, but fifty to a hundred would be the equivalent of a laptop.

Galchen writes, "Babbage suggested rewriting 'Every minute dies a man / Every minute one is born' as 'Every minute dies a man / Every minute one and a sixteenth is born,' further noting that ... the exact figures are 1.167, but something must, of course, be conceded to the laws of metre." Never mind metre; 1.167 is one and one *sixth*, not one sixteenth! (According to one web page, this was a typo in the original, and has since become what is quoted. That Galchen fails to comment on it, however, is inexplicable.)

"The Crypto-Currency" by Joshua Davis ("The New Yorker"): Yet another article about bitcoins.

"Mind vs. Machine" by Brian Christian ("The Atlantic"): Machines are coming close to passing the Turing Test, but what does that prove?

These days, definitions of human beings seem all to be of the form "The human being is the only animal that _______." "Uses tools," "uses language," and "does mathematics" have filled in the blank in the past, but then discovered to be wrong. ("Blushes, or needs to" may still be the best answer.) Indeed, I have commented that linguists seem to spend a lot of time defining and redefining language in such a way as to allow that still to fill the blank. But Christian asks, "Is it appropriate to allow our definition of our own uniqueness to be, in some sense, reactive to the advancing front of technology? And why, is it that we are so compelled to feel unique in the first place?" In fact, given recent discoveries about Neandertals, Denisovans, and Hobbits, it is not clear that there is anything that makes us unique.

Christian feels this will not end: "The story of the 21st century will be, in part, the story of the drawing and redrawing of these battle lines, the story of Homo sapiens trying to stake a claim on shifting ground, flanked by beast and machined, pinned between meat and math." (If we ever find a way to upload consciousnesses, then all bets are off.)

The Turing Test competitions show up what our conversations look like when we have no real connection between the conversants. Consisting of dodging questions, changing the subjects, and so on, they lead Christian to suggest that "what shouldn't pass for real conversation [under the rules] at the Turing Test shouldn't be allowed to pass for real conversation in everyday life either."


                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

          I don't mind what language an opera is sung in 
          so long as it is a language I don't understand.
                                          --Sir Edward Appleton

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