MT VOID 05/13/05 (Vol. 23, No. 46, Whole Number 1282)

MT VOID 05/13/05 (Vol. 23, No. 46, Whole Number 1282)

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
05/13/05 -- Vol. 23, No. 46 (Whole Number 1282)

Table of Contents

  El Presidente: Mark Leeper, The Power Behind El Pres: Evelyn Leeper, Back issues at All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted. All comments sent will be assumed authorized for inclusion unless otherwise noted. To subscribe, send mail to To unsubscribe, send mail to

Ideas (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

Somebody once observed that average people talk about people, intelligent people talk about events, geniuses talk about ideas. Why is it then that great literature, the literature that is written by people like Shakespeare and Hemmingway is really about people? It gets more literary respect than books about events like history and current events. The literature of ideas, including science fiction, gets the least respect of all. [-mrl]

Science Fiction for Socialists:

China Mieville has compiled a list of fifty science fiction novels for socialists, available with comments at . An excerpt is also at

A small sample, some obvious, some obscure:

[Pointers to similar lists for other political stances are welcome. -ecl]

I Did the Math (or The Universe Seen as a Waffle) (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

Last MT VOID I left on a cliffhanger. In fact, it was the biggest cliffhanger I have ever left an article on in my whole history of writing this column since 1978. It was not a cliffhanger for you, but for me. I had the size of the population of China, the birth rate, and the death rate. I checked out the old adage that if the entire Chinese population were marched past a reviewing stand four abreast that the process would never finish. The birth rate is claimed to be great enough that you would never run out of people. I figured a row going past the reviewing stand every two seconds. Well as Heinlein points out in TUNNEL IN THE SKY, it is not true. He said that it would take four years, but everybody would pass the reviewing stand eventually. I assume he meant starting in 1955 when he was writing rather than in the future year that the novel is set. Last issue I verified that the process would end, but left myself the problem of calculating how long it would take using the 2004 CIA statistics for China.

This quickly turns into a nasty differential equation since the un-reviewed population is being depleted at a linear rate, but increasing at a rate proportional to the amount remaining at any given instant of time. I am not sure if I ever could solve this problem, but I did know last week that I could not. So I figuratively put a gun to my own head. I do not want to admit to myself that I have lost the mathematical reasoning power I once had. It is one of the most valuable things I have ever had, at least to me. I said I would solve the problem or admit defeat to the whole readership of the MT VOID.

So did I solve it? The answer is 7970 days or 21.8 years. (You can refer to the last issue to get the statistics I used.) How did I come up with that figure, you may ask (but I doubt it)? You can skip down a couple of paragraphs if you are really not interested. As an aside, I do notice people shy away from mathematics and it seems to me that people, especially the media, assume that the general public is ignorant of mathematics. If they are announcing on the news that a record high prime number has been found (on they rare occasions that they would announce that) they explain very carefully that a prime number is one that is divisible only by itself and 1, like 5 or 7. Then five minutes later they will be reporting sports and throwing around terms like "a touchback to the end zone" and will assume everybody knows just exactly what that is. I will not be so insulting, but you can skip the next paragraph if you like.

In solving the problem I pretended I already knew the function that was the size of the population over time and looked at its properties. I expressed it as an infinitely long polynomial that I think was called a Taylor Series. The constant term is just the population at time zero, in other words the current population. By saying it has the above properties I can come up with another Taylor Series that should be equal to the first one. But by equating the two series, knowing the first term of the original series tells me the second one. Knowing the second term tells me the third one, and so forth. But what good does this do me? It is still an infinitely long polynomial. I could never plug any values into it. Well, it turns out that the terms quickly represent adding in smaller and smaller amounts of time. Quickly you are dealing with hundredths of seconds, then a few terms farther out thousandths, and then millionths. The answer I am looking for is not that precise. The terms become negligible. I can have a finite polynomial that very, very closely represents the number of un-reviewed people. I put six or seven terms into a spreadsheet program--enough to give me an approximation within a tiny fraction of a second--and then started plugging in numbers until I found where the population was just about zero. That is in 7970.090 days. Of course things are not that precise.

Incidentally, I think this is the kind of calculation that Professor Barnhardt is doing on his board in THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. Klaatu tells him to use variation of parameters (a standard technique in differential equations) and substitute an expression. That reproduces the first order term (like I did). The terms after that Klaatu says are "nearly negligible." I went a few terms out before they were negligible. That was a real mathematics problem they used in the film and one not greatly different from mine, in the solution technique. I wonder if an alien race really would have the same techniques for solving differential equations.

Barnhardt asks the next question, "Have you tested it?" That is a very interesting question also, since the mathematics can predict things about the universe that simply are not true. Most people would consider it is the mathematics that is at fault. I guess that as a mathematician (of sorts) I take the view that it is the universe that is lacking. Just yesterday I was discussing with a friend this very issue. We had recently discussed tachyons, theoretical particles that travel faster than the speed of light, but my friend points out that there probably are no such things in the universe. You can describe matter that goes faster than light and see what its properties would be like and that mass is an imaginary number. Whether it exists in the real world is another matter. But what the mathematics predicts is possible often turns out to be true.

At the moment I see it like pouring batter in a large waffle iron. You may or may not have had enough batter to reach to the edges, but wherever the batter reaches it will have the same regular pattern of squares and you can predict where those squares should be. If the batter just does not go that far, those predictions may not apply to the waffle, but they were not really wrong. It is just true that the batter did not slop far enough in that direction. Mathematics is like the waffle iron and the universe it like the waffle. The mathematics defines the structure of the universe and as far as it goes the universe follows that structure.

The universe may or may not have created tachyons. Maybe the batter of the universe slopped far enough in that direction, and maybe it did not. If it did slop that far, it will follow the rules defined by the mathematics. The structure of the waffle iron is more regular and perfect than the waffle made on the iron. The waffle may be irregular and imperfect in its boundaries, but as far as it goes it will have the regular pattern of squares. Similarly the universe, as far as it goes, will follow the order of the mathematics.

Postscript: A longtime friend, Dan Cox, had the clever insight to do the Chinese March problem like a loan interest problem where the principle is the population, the rate of people walking past the review point is the rate at which the loan is being paid, and the growth rate is the rate at which the remaining principle is accruing interest. Doing that he could use standard formulae. (There are standard formulae. Where calculating money is concerned people quickly lose their aversion to mathmatics. Some of my students who don't under the meaning of the fraction 5/4 know that five quarters makes $1.25.)

Dan at first got a much smaller length of time. Since his technique is very different I thought it might be a problemtask finding out which of us was making an error. I quickly saw that he was assuming that 20,000 Chinese could march past the viewing post point in an hour and I was assuming only 7200. When I plug in his rate in my calculation (aren't spreadsheets wonderful?) we vary by 10 days in 7 years. At the slower rate we are off more days, but it is in 21 years. Since I am getting the lower figure it could be because I am compounding instantaneously and he is compounding once an hour. His reply is at: [-mrl]

SHORT CUT TO NIRVANA: KUMBH MELA (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: Probably the biggest human event in the world is the Hindu festival Kumbh Mela in India. This is a pilgrimage of somewhere between 20 and 70 million people attend on immense get- together and form many, many temporary communities with tens of millions of people each doing their own thing. Filmmakers Maurizio Benazzo and Nick Day cannot hope to give the viewer an understanding of the event. There are probably thousands of different interpretations of what is happening. But the film gives an amazing feel for the complexity and diversity of such a massive event. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10

The story is told that thousands of years ago there was a truce between the gods and demons so that both could cooperate to make Amritha Manthanam, a nectar that would give both the gods and the demons immortality. But gods and demons do not cooperate for long. They fought in Heaven each wanting the urn of Amritha. And fighting over the urn it spilled four drops on the ground below. The drops fell on four places in India: Prayag, Haridwar, Ujjain, and Nashik. If humans go to these sites and bathe in the waters they can partake of some of the magic of the Amritha. So pilgrimages are made to these places, first one, then another in a cycle. The pilgrimage this time is to Allahabad (a.k.a. Prayag) at the convergence of the Ganges and the Jamuna rivers. Legend has it that the river Saraswati also converges here. It is referred to in literature and myth, but nobody has ever seen it. Even for a country with a billion people an event that attracts a minimum of 20 million people would be a major affair, yet it is one that we hear of very little in the West. For comparison the Pope's funeral brought one million people in Rome. And this convergence of people is pure confusion. Pilgrimages like the Haj of Islam are much more coordinated. Kumbh Mela is much more like an immense street fair.

Perhaps one reason that this event is so unknown in the West is that it obviously would be nearly impossible to explain to Americans in one or a million sound bytes. You have the chaos of people chanting, mystics sermonizing, and theatrical plays in the street and in theater. Fakirs lie of beds of spear points. One man wraps his genitals around a horizontal bar and invites people to balance and stand on it. It is claimed that he can pull cars with it. One man offers to put his free medicine in people's eyes to stop tearing and to cure cataracts. India is apparently not a land that is rich in skepticism. Dozens take him up on it and go away rubbing their smarting eyes. One man has held his arm up in the air for twenty years. The arm has become withered and thin. He says, "God has given me a degree in willpower." Elsewhere in the crowd, kids type on computer keyboards. One person says that of course they have Yahoo and Hotmail. It is as if not just centuries but millennia have come crashing together. Everywhere there are sights, noise, music, and smells.

Filmmakers Maurizio Benazzo and Nick Day travel around the pandemonium, documenting what they see. They interview western visitors, Indian visitors, mystics, and gurus. They tell him that Japan specializes in electronics, the US is expert in being rich, and Indians are the world specialists of spirituality. Our guide though all of this is usually Swami Krishnanand, a guru in eyeglasses who explains as far as it is possible what is happening to two western women and to the filmmakers. The two women are not part of the crew but are Americans who have come independently to see the huge celebration. We are told that 80% of the self-proclaimed gurus are really fakes, but how does one decide who is in the other 20%? As the various experts and holy people explain themselves the viewer is shown many different aspects of Hindu philosophy. Generally the feeling is that they have found a truth that the West is only seeking. One guru named Ramanant Puri tells us that in America nobody has the time to sit in one posture for three hours, so they miss enlightenment. Pilot Baba tells the camera, "The West is missing the inner journey. They know so much about science and inventions, but they are missing discovery--self." Elsewhere the camera shows us the visit and speech of the Dalai Lama.

The viewer is given a heady overload of ideas, images, and sounds. The film reaches its climax as the Naga Baba, lifelong nudists for Shiva, go running into the Ganges. Their presence purifies the water for all to come into the river.

The documentary is nearly as bewildering as attending the festivities would be. This is a film for people who are attracted rather than repelled by culture shock. This world is like an alien planet and its people show that even if it is a small world after all, in this world there are people very different from us and even very different from each other. And what they believe is even further different. Benazzo and Day can not hope to convey understanding of the event. They probably do not understand it themselves. They can only give a feel for the incredible mélange of humanity that comes together for the Kumbh Mela and convey a little of the sensual overload they must be feeling. I rate SHORT CUT TO NIRVANA: KUMBH MELA a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10. [-mrl]

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

Charles Barr's EALING STUDIOS (ISBN 0-520-21554-0). Okay, that doesn't seem like much of a review, but frankly, with a book like this, either the title will tell you that you want to read this book, or (more likely) have you asking, "What is Ealing Studios?" (Or perhaps even "What are Ealing Studios?") If you don't already know something about what is one of the greatest British studio, this book will probably not appeal to you. So this is more like a "Hey, this book is out there for those who are interested. You know who you are." (But be prepared for disappointments when you want to watch a lot of the films mentioned--they're not readily available in the United States. Of the sixteen I looked up in Netflix, they had only three.)

MURDER IS NO MITZVAH (ISBN 0-312-32506-1) edited by Abigail Browning has twelve crime stories on Jewish themes. (The subtitle describes them as "Short Mysteries about Jewish Occasions", but that is not at all accurate.) Of these, I had already read three in MYSTERY MIDRASH edited by Lawrence W. Raphael's MYSTERY MIDRASH: "Bread of Affliction" by Michael Kahn, "Kaddish" by Batya Swift Yasgur, and "Mom Remembers" by James Yaffee. In addition, both have stories by Ronald Levitsky, although not the same one. This overlap indicates to me that either these stories are classics or that the pool of possible stories for a Jewish mystery anthology is fairly small. "Mom Remembers" is from 1967, so it may be a classic, but the other two are a bit too recent for that claim yet. The stories are generally good, which is not surprising when you realize that eleven of them were previously published in either "Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine" or "Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine". (The twelfth, "The Jew's Breastplate" by Arthur Conan Doyle, is apparently in public domain, not a Sherlock Holmes story, and not all that good. It is probably included on the basis of the cachet that Doyle's name has, and it is at least centered around a Jewish object.) I think that MYSTERY MIDRASH is marginally better than MURDER IS NO MITZAH, but if this is more available to you, it's a reasonable choice.

Harold Bloom's CLASSIC HORROR WRITERS (ISBN 0-7910-2201-3) has chapters on Ambrose Bierce, Charles Brockden Brown, Henry James, J. Sheridan LeFanu, "Monk" Lewis, Charles Robert Maturin, Edgar Allan Poe, Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker, and Horace Walpole. Each chapter has a brief biography, "critical extracts", and a bibliography. The critics' comments are obviously more meaningful if you are familiar with the authors and their major works, so this is more for someone who is already somewhat knowledgeable about 18th and 19th century horror fiction than for someone looking for an introductory work. [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

           Life is one fool thing after another where 
           as love is two fool things after each other.
                                          -- Oscar Wilde

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