MT VOID 04/21/06 -- Vol. 24, No. 43, Whole Number 1331

MT VOID 04/21/06 -- Vol. 24, No. 43, Whole Number 1331

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
04/21/06 -- Vol. 24, No. 43, Whole Number 1331

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

Fowl Play (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

I wrote some years ago about the loss of traditional duck values. I heard that ducks robbed a local bank. They got away, free as birds, carrying away over $100,000 in small bills. Police had to use a decoy to catch them. [-mrl]

Illegal Prime Numbers (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

[A word of explanation before I begin: in the following article I am going to mention prime numbers. Now it is customary in American writing that when an author mentions prime numbers, he should also define for the reader what a prime numbers is. In fact if they use the terms as simple as "even number" they explain that "An even number is a number that can be divided by two. Even numbers are those whole numbers that end in 0, 2, 4, 6, and 8. Even numbers the reader might be familiar with include 16 and 22, but not 5, 13, or 19." Then in the next article they will say something like, "he punted with a three-quarter touchback to the end zone in double-overtime scrimmage." There will be not a single word of explanation as to what all that verbal granola means. It will just be assumed that OF COURSE you know what that all means, because it is after all sports terms. Everybody knows sports terms. I will just say for the benefit of those readers who are unaware of what a prime number is, you guys are really thick and need to get with the program.]

It has come to my attention that there is such a thing as an illegal prime number. Well, there are all sorts of prime numbers. There are Mersenne primes and Fermat primes for example, but this was the first I had ever heard anyone refer to there being an "illegal" prime. What could that mean? Now it was immediately obvious that we did not mean illegal in the criminal sense. They cannot mean it in the sense of use-this- prime-you-might-go-to-jail. I mean prime numbers belong to everyone. No, surely there was some axiom or something that they break. There has to be some technical reason why something would be called an "illegal prime." What I discovered they mean is that these primes are numbers that are illegal in the sense that their use is prohibited by law and if you use-these-primes-you- might-go-to-jail.

How and why should a prime number become illegal? Well let us start out with whether any information can be illegal to have and to pass on to other people. Well, certainly it can. Credit card information is illegal for you to possess. And certainly you cannot make it available to other people. Some moonbat might make a case that the privacy of no information should protected by law, but few people would support such a case. I think nearly all of us believe that some information is private and should be kept from the prying eyes of other members of the public and very probably from the prying eyes of the United States Government. We all have a right to the privacy of some information, even if the current government is trying to redefine those boundaries of that information. So let us assume there is some information that it is illegal to have and to pass to other people.

That information probably can be stored on a computer. Well, any piece of information stored in a computer is stored as a string of ones and zeroes. So if possessing and sharing the information can be made illegal, possessing and sharing some strings of ones and zeroes can be illegal. Well, that seems pretty obvious also. Your Social Security number is not something that I am allowed to have and certainly making it available to other people. But it is more subtle than that. When THE DA VINCI CODE was on Dan Brown's computer, as I am guessing it once was, it was stored there as a string of ones and zeroes. If I could take that string and find the decimal equivalent of that giant binary number, I would have the entire contents of that novel encoded in a single number. If I gave that number to you, it would not be too difficult for you to write a computer program to take that giant number and reconstitute Dan Brown's whole novel. So far sharing that huge number is probably not illegal, but if you and I actually did what I describe here the courts would probably soon rule it so.

Now as to illegal primes: given an arbitrary binary string, would it be possible to find a prime number that ends in that binary string? I did not know if that was possible or not, but apparently it is by Dirichlet's "Theorem On Primes in Arithmetic Progression". This means that if there really is information that is illegal to possess and share, the courts could potentially rule that prime numbers that make that information obtainable are illegal to have and hand out.

Well, the courts have in fact ruled that a particular prime number is restricted because of information it contains. What information? Apparently someone named Jon Lech Johansen wrote a program that allowed PCs to circumvent copyright protecting software on DVDs. The program was ruled illegal as much as some hackers wanted to have it. So a mathematician named Phil Carmody compressed the program and gzipped it. (If you don't know what all that means, it just is a way to encode a program as a somewhat smaller binary number. That I was willing to explain, even if I won't explain primes.) He then found a prime number that in binary ended in that string. Supposedly it was the tenth largest prime number ever found. Whether he was open about it or not, I do not know, but word got out that this prime number has this really nice, useful, and totally illegal program embedded inside it in a way that is not too difficult to decrypt. It became a popular prime number.

The courts now had a choice. Nobody had ever thought that a prime number should or could be made illegal, but now it appeared that if all prime numbers were legal to have and to share, there would no longer be any real privacy for any information. People could take any information and find a prime number that has that information encrypted in it. Anyone with sufficient computing power could encode any information they wanted to into a prime number and publish that number to the world. Their backs against the wall, the courts set a weird precedent and ruled that the possession and sharing of this particular prime number was also a crime. I suppose the courts did not have much choice. They probably did not have much fervor for the principle that new discoveries in mathematics should be owned by everybody. Some mathematical knowledge, in fact, could be dangerous in other ways. Ask the people who worked on the Manhattan Project. So the courts decided that this particular prime number was actually restricted information and illegal to share. That does not stop some people.

The story of the illegal prime number can be found at It also flouts the law and prints the illegal prime number. Hence it strikes a blow for mathematical freedom. Yeah, baby, yeah! All power to primes! All primes to powers! [-mrl]

Poor . . . Math (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):

In the New Yorker article on poverty, "Relatively Deprived" by John Cassidy (04/03/06, available at, there are a couple of very questionable mathematical statements.

First, the author writes, "[Mollie] Orshansky used her food plans to calculate a subsistence budget for families of various sizes. For a mother and father with two children, she estimated the expense of a "low cost" plan at $3.60 a day, and of an even more frugal "economy plan" at $2.80 a day. Rather than trying to calculate the price of other items in the family budget, such as rent, heat, and clothing, Orshansky relied on a survey by the Agriculture Department, which showed that the typical American family spent about a third of its income on food. Thus, to determine the minimum income a family needed in order to survive, she simply multiplied the annual cost of the food plans by three. Families on the low-cost plan needed to earn at least $3,955 a year; families on the economy plan needed to earn $3,165."

Well, yes, the "typical" family spent a third of its income on food. But on the one hand, since the very rich clearly spend a lot less than a third, it follows that the very poor would spend *more* than a third of their income on food. On the other hand, if one is currently spending $2000 on food, one theoretically therefore needs to earn $6000. But if one decreases the food expenses to $1314 (or $1022), the other expenses would not change, and hence one would need to earn $5314 (or $5022), not the figures Orshansky gives. The first factor would push down the "poverty level earnings figure"; the latter would push it up. Whether the two factors cancel out is very questionable.

Then the author states, "In 2004, the most recent year for which figures are available, it stood at 12.7 per cent, a slight increase over the previous year, and in some regions the figure is much higher. ... Daniel T. Slesnick calculated that the "consumption poverty rate" for 1995--that is, the percentage of families whose spending was less than the poverty income threshold--was 9.5 per cent, which is 4.3 per cent less than the official poverty rate." It looks as though Cassidy just subtracted 4.3 from the figure for 1995 (which he does not even give in the article). But 4.3% less than 12.7% is 12.15%. (If you get half of something one year, and 20% less the next, you get 40% of the total, not 30%.)

All of which goes to show that mathematics education seems to be below the academic poverty level. [-ecl]

Question on MUNICH (film comment by Mark R. Leeper):

From my mailbox:

"I wasn't able to see "Munich" due to interruption of life here in Southern Mississippi by Hurricane Katrina. We are still recovering from *that*, but our Cinemark and Blockbusters are back up once again. I am planning to rent the DVD when it is available next month."

"Last week, I had lunch with a fellow who claims to have read a review that said basically that the film is blatantly anti- Semitic. Supposedly, all the Israelis/Jews in Munich are portrayed as 'bad guys,' and the terrorists are portrayed as 'good guys.' Since I did not see the film, I could not comment, but this seems, on the face of it, to be absurd."

"Since you *have* seen the film, and are a professional reviewer, I would appreciate your comments."

I might not be the best person to ask, because I consider myself pro-Israel. Ironically that makes me more tolerant of the film, not less. Israel's back is constantly against the wall and any dirty fighting they do is more than counterbalanced by the dirty fighting against Israel. This is a film that shows Mossad doing what they can to defend their country but not always getting it right. That may feed a cycle of violence, but the alternative is surrender and that would lead to greater evil.

Steven Spielberg is certainly not anti-Jewish and I don't think his film is either. MUNICH is at least in part a lament for the collateral damage that occurs because Israel is doing what it has to do to survive. In WWII when the Americans would shell the Germans in a town, it is very likely that some innocent people would unintentionally be killed. This inadvertent killing is rarely acknowledged in film. If it was acknowledged I would just consider the film more sophisticated, but I don't think I would consider it anti-American.

(By the way I am not a professional reviewer. Film reviewing is a hobby with me.) [-mrl]

Harry Potter's Age (letter of comment by David Goldfarb):

In response to Evelyn's comments in the 04/14/06 issue of the MT VOID about Harry Potter's age in the various books, David Goldfarb writes, "You recall correctly that Harry is ten at the start of book one, but we very quickly see him turn eleven, and he is eleven for the greater part of the book. Thus in the latest book he is sixteen, and you may recall mention that he is about to reach is majority at seventeen." [-dg]

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

I wanted to read V FOR VENDETTA by Alan Moore and Judy Groves (ISBN 0-930289-52-8) to compare it with the movie. But I found it very difficult. Why? Well, although the font size is about the same as most books, the vertical spacing is much tighter, with almost twice as many lines per inch, and the font is an irregular sans serif type, rather than a standard serif type. I suspect it becomes harder to read as one's eyesight gets worse, which may be one reason that graphic novels are more popular among the young. (Similarly, magazines or web pages that use odd color combinations, such as purple letters on a black background, seem to be aimed at those with perfect eyesight.) I managed to read about two-thirds of it, but it was too much eyestrain for me to finish.

I cannot comment on the actual book of THE PERIODIC TABLE by Michael Swanwick (ISBN 1-9046-1900-2), because I read it as individual pieces on the scifiction site ( Actually, I downloaded it a bit at a time to my palmtop, because each of the pieces is just the right length to read while waiting in a line or during other short periods. It consists of 118 pieces each "inspired" by an element on the periodic table. Some are science fiction, some are fantasy, some are alternate history. Some are humorous, some are serious. Some are based on the name of the element, some are based on the characteristics of the element itself, and some are fairly generic (e.g., someone is mining for the element, but it could just as easily be another element). For example, "Iridium" is about the iridium layer at the end of the Cretaceous, while "Radium" is a reminiscence of Pierre Curie, and "Radon" is about monsters in the basement. While a few of them fall flat, on the whole Swanwick does an excellent job. (And I am sure he is happy it is over!)

(After writing this, I noticed that it was mentioned in SciTech Daily,, so it may actually get an actual printing in the United States, rather than just the current British small-press edition.)

GOLEMS AMONG US by Bryon L. Sherwin (ISBN 1-56663-568-3) begins with a discussion of the legend of the golem in Jewish mysticism, and then proceeds to apply the theological and ethical implications given by rabbis and scholars over the years to modern questions of artificial intelligence, reproductive technology, and corporations. Sherwin's coverage of the Golem legend extends beyond that of the Golem of Prague (which turns out to be a recent "invention"), and it is good to see an ethical analysis of these modern issues that is not based on Protestant fundamentalism or Roman Catholicism (or indeed on Christianity at all). I recommend this as providing a counter-balance to what is usually presented as "the" religious opinion of these issues. [-ecl] [For those unfamilar with golems, there is an article about them at Modesty forbids me giving a fulsome but accurate recommendation of this article. -mrl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

           The future belongs to those who believe 
           in the beauty of their dreams.
                                          -- Eleanor Roosevelt

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