MT VOID 05/09/08 -- Vol. 26, No. 45, Whole Number 1492

MT VOID 05/09/08 -- Vol. 26, No. 45, Whole Number 1492

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
05/09/08 -- Vol. 26, No. 45, Whole Number 1492

Table of Contents

      El Honcho Grande: Mark Leeper, La Honcha Bonita: 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

1492 (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

If every issue of the MT VOID that had ever been published was sent back in time so that people in the year A.D. 1 read the first issue, people from the year A.D. 2 read the second issue and so forth, 1) they would have no idea what they were reading and for many of these years probably nobody could read it any way, and 2) Torquemada might have wondered why I mentioned him. The Moors and Jews fleeing Spain could be enjoying (?) the editorial below on statistics and the Internet. And they could have been reading this issue aboard the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.

It makes you think. [-mrl]

Getting Useful Information from Corrupted Sources (part 1) (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

I was in a discussion recently in which I quoted something I learned from reading an article from Wikipedia. The reaction I got from the other person was "Oh, well. If you are going to trust Wikipedia..." Well, it is true that a lot of people have become skeptical of the credibility of Internet sources of information. Many of these people I think may have started with inflated expectations of how useful information the Internet would be and then when they heard of credibility problems the pendulum swung in the other direction. Now they trust nothing that has come from Wikipedia.

Similarly there is a crisis of credibility with the Internet Movie Database and the value of its information and its ratings of films. Two different film critics have made the same argument at two different times. They have each said that the ratings of films in the Internet Movie Database are useless. It struck me as interesting that in different contexts both made the same comment which I know to be false. The argument goes that you can see that the latest action film will have an entry and a fair number of people will have given it a rating of 10 out of 10. That is the kind of rating that should go to CITIZEN KANE, not to some silly action film that will be all but forgotten in a few months. Even worse you get prank votes like some voters hiding behind the anonymity of the Internet, will give a rating of 10 out of 10 to a bad film like THE CREEPING TERROR. The argument given by the critics is that if people vote like that then the ratings have been corrupted and are useless. I agree the ratings are corrupted. I do disagree that they are useless. Frequently you really can get good information even from corrupted data.

There is, in fact, a whole science of how to get useful information from corrupted data. I know only a little of this statistical science, but I do know how to apply some basic common sense principles.

First realize that there may, in fact, be nothing wrong with a high IMDB rating for a film which I will call DEATH CRUSHER IV. The audience voting is (at least for now) mostly a younger audience that can appreciate the virtues of DEATH CRUSHER IV, but do not yet have the taste to appreciate a CITIZEN KANE. Any rating reflects only those people who vote on the rating. Similarly I am often frustrated at the films that get Academy Awards. But the awards really just represent the films that the people in the Academy want to recommend. Sometimes you just have to say that that is what that population of voters thought. But sometimes the data really is corrupted. Frequently it is easy to uncorrupt the data. The IMDB lets you see the distribution of votes for any film. Suppose the distribution for DEATH CRUSHER V looks like this:

          10 ********************
           9 **
           8 **
           7 ***
           6 ******
           5 *********
           4 ***
           3 **
           2 *
           1 *****

It is clear from the distribution that the rating of the film is about a five out of ten. The people who rated the film 10 and those who rated it 1 were intentionally trying to corrupt the rating. By just looking at the distribution one can get a fairly good guess what an uncorrupted distribution would look like and what the rating of the film should be.

Incidentally, more recently the IMDB people have gotten smart and decided to give more weight to votes from people who vote on many films. If some aspiring film director wants to give a high rating to his own poor film, but this is the first film he has ever rated, his vote will not count for much. That policy makes the ratings summary more reliable. It takes a lot more effort to corrupt the ratings.

Next week I some places where such crises of confidence have a bigger impact. [-mrl]

THE GHOST BRIGADES by John Scalzi (copyright 2006, TOR, $7.99, 374pp, ISBN-13 978-0-765-35406-8, ISBN-10 0-765-35406-3) (book review by Joe Karpierz):

This Scalzi guy tells a great story.

My wife and I were having a discussion in the car on the way back from Easter Dinner last month about what we like about SF. One of the things we agreed upon was that in order for a book to succeed, the author must tell a great story. Or, more accurately, he or she must be a great storyteller.

Granted, this is the opinion of just two people, but our feeling is that there is way too much stuff out there that passes for good SF but just isn't a good story. (I was actually going to write an article about this, but eventually decided to include it in here. Whether that approach is successful or not remains to be seen.). We like good storytellers, which is why we like stuff by Scalzi and Sawyer. Who cares if what happens in a novel is plausible, or if it takes an incredible convergence of circumstances to make a plot point work? Was I entertained, was it fun, did I get a big sense of WOW? If yes, the author succeeded. Was I bored, was anything really happening, was the novel "literary" without telling a good story? If yes, then it didn't succeed.

As an aside (so maybe this should have been an article after all), my daughter has some aspirations of being a writer. She's a member of the writer's club at school, she's participated in National Novel Writing Month, and she's submitted some pieces for a local literary competition. For two consecutive years, she's won a Critic's Choice Award in that competition. She was commenting on how she couldn't believe this year's entry actually won anything, because it had no plot--I guess it described an event. She said it was terrible.

That's how I feel about a lot of SF these days. But not John Scalzi's (yes, there's a book review in here somewhere).

THE GHOST BRIGADES is the second novel set in the universe of OLD MAN'S WAR, Scalzi's Hugo nominated novel of a couple of years ago. The Ghost Brigades is another term for the Special Forces, a special group of troops created from the DNA of the dead which is sent on some of the Colonial Defense Forces toughest missions. The Ghost Brigades were introduced in OLD MAN'S WAR, but now take front and center stage in the novel of the same name.

The background is this. It's been discovered that three of the races out there in the galaxy that don't particularly like us humans have formed an alliance to beat the snot out of the Colonial Defense Forces and Earth. The problem with that is twofold: 1) at least one of those races *never* allies with anyone else for any reason, and 2) the three of them are being aided by a human being, one Charles Boutin, who for some reason wants to see the CDF destroyed.

The CDF wants to know why, so they create one Jared Dirac, who is made from the DNA of Boutin and who has Boutin's memories and consciousness overlaid into his. The hope is that they will learn what sent Boutin down the path of treason and what his plans are to destroy the CDF. The problem is that the memories don't seem to settle in. As a result, Dirac is assigned to the Ghost Brigades. We follow him as he learns about himself, his mates, and what it's like to be "human". We also find out what it's like not to have choices, as everyone in the Ghost Brigades is "born" for one reason only: to protect humanity. They know nothing else, no other way to live, and they really don't make their own decisions.

Then all hell starts to break loose as Boutin's memories start to come back to Dirac. And as they do come flooding back, we find out why Boutin went off the deep end, what he plans, and what Dirac does to handle the situation. We *also* find out about the Conclave, a consortium of alien races (call it the United Nations of the galaxy) which is trying to work out a peaceful method for members of the Conclave to colonize the galaxy. Those races who aren't members won't be allowed to colonize--and guess which race won't participate?

This is a pretty darned good story. It's entertaining, fast paced, and doesn't waste any words. It's tightly written--I was *never* bored reading it. Scalzi resolves things nicely, and yet sets things up for the next book in the series, and one of the year's Hugo nominees, THE LAST COLONY.

Next up is HALTING STATES, by Charles Stross. [-jak]

THE CURIOUS CHILD by Donni Floyd (Outskirts Press, ISBN 978-1-5980-0046-7, 2008, $11.95) (book review by Mark R. Leeper):

THE CURIOUS CHILD is the first children's book written by Donni Floyd, formerly a pop music star and a model. (Perhaps it is an appropriate choice for my first children's book to review. The author and I are both first-timers.) The book is apparently for children in the age range of five to nine. The brevity is appropriate to that age group. There are nine pages of text, about right for a short bedtime read.

Floyd's intended purpose is that children should unafraid to ask questions. From the illustrations the story seems to take place on a South Pacific island that is inhabited by both people and dragons. A boy who asks many questions of many people is sent to see a wise old dragon who might have a spell to cure him of the habit. The people who send him do not know that the dragon has become old and dangerous. The dragon gives the boy three questions but will eat the boy if none of the questions stumps him. The first two questions the dragon answers flippantly and falsely, but the boy seems not to notice. The boy's third question is how many numbers are there in all. The dragon tries counting all numbers and is tied up with the problem ever after.

The book may send mixed signals about the value of curiosity. The unnamed boy finds that asking the right question at the right moment gets him out of a dangerous situation with a dragon, but he was in that mortal danger because he had asked too many questions previously. The fact that the boy nearly died as a result of bothering too many people with questions might not be quite the right idea to send to children.

On the other hand there are some unexpected positive touches in the book. The boy does not defeat the dragon by force or destructiveness. He bests the dragon by using intelligence. His question for the dragon is a simply stated but complex mathematical question and may serve to ignite some rudimentary mathematical interest in the book's audience.

I was left with two questions--and I feel impelled to ask them. On such a small island why had the people not heard that their dragon had turned deadly? And why was the dragon more willing to be more serious about the third question than he had been with the first two.

Grethel Peralta's illustrations add a definite charm to the story, though they are not entirely consistent as to how the dragon is pictured.

This lesson in asking questions may satisfy and inspire the child, but only if he does not ask too many questions.

[Incidentally the boy's third question was originally answered by the famous mathematician Georg Cantor who said it was one kind of infinity he called "aleph-one." If we are, like the dragon is apparently, interested only in the whole counting numbers the correct answer is another smaller kind of infinity called "aleph- zero."] [-mrl]

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

The Teaching Company course GREAT BATTLES OF THE ANCIENT WORLD by Prof. Garrett S. Fagan is a much better course than "Books That Made History; Books That Can Change Your Life" (reviewed in the 08/10/07 issue of the MT VOID). Maybe it is because the subject of the former lends itself to more objective lectures than the latter. GREAT BATTLES is a more difficult course to follow, and Fagan has a much drier and more academic delivery than Frears does. But I also feel I learned more from it. In any case, I am much more satisfied with this course.

There is a slight science fiction connection here, as Fagan talks about counterfactuals (what if Alexander had been killed before he started his conquests?), and even lists the alternate history/counterfactual anthology WHAT IF? edited by Robert Cowley (ISBN-13 978-0-425-17642-9, ISBN-10 0-425-17642-8) in his supplemental reading list. (Conveniently, friends just gave me this for my birthday.) And speaking of reading lists, one problem with this course is that many of the books on the "essential reading lists" given at the end of each lesson summary are available only at college libraries, or in expensive editions, if you want to buy them. (A sampling indicated that if you were lucky, you might find an ex-library edition of some of the books for under $50.) But if you were in a position to get books from a college library, you probably wouldn't be taking this course. At least some are more widely available (e.g., Herodotus and Plutarch).

So as part of listening to this, I've been reading what recommended books I could find. The first was Homer's "Iliad", in specific, the sections about battle. Now, Fagan talked about how the descriptions were an amalgam of the warfare of the time of the Trojan War and the warfare of Homer's time. For example, the social structure and some of the battle techniques are more from Homer's time, but a lot of the Bronze Age armor that Homer described was no longer in use by the time of Homer (who was in the Iron Age). In fact, some of the armor Homer described, although real historically, pre-dated even the time of the Trojan War.

One thing to be noted about Homer is how graphic his descriptions are. For example, "[The] son of Phyleus ... struck him with the sharp spear behind the head at the tendon, and straight on through the teeth and under the tongue cut the bronze blade, and he dropped in the dust gripping in his teeth the cold bronze." [5.72-75, Richmond Lattimore translation] Or, "Hippolochos sprang away, but Atreides killed him dismounted, cutting away his arms with a sword- stroke, free of the shoulder, and sent him spinning like a log down the battle." [11.145-147]

But Homer also personalizes the battle. He names the killers, but also the killed, in amazing numbers. (One has to marvel at the memories of those who recited this.) But more than naming everyone, he also describes the costs of war: "Diomedes .. went after the two sons of Phainops, Zanthos and Thoon, full grown both, but Phainops was stricken in sorrowful old age nor could breed another son to leave among his possessions. There he killed these two and took away the dear life from them both, leaving to their father lamentation and sorrowful affliction, since he was not to welcome them home from the fighting alive still; and remoter kinsmen shared his possessions." [5.151-158]

And Homer even acknowledges that the battles of his world cannot be like those of the Trojan War. He does not talk about how the gods no longer take a personal hand, but rather that men are different: "A man could not easily hold it, not even if he were very strong, in both hands, of men such as men are now, but he heaving it high threw it...." [12.381-393]

For the siege of Jerusalem by the Assyrians (701 B.C.E.), the readings were II Kings 18-19, II Chronicles 32, and Isaiah 36-37. Now Chronicles itself is more an expansion of Kings, but the description in Isaiah is in large part word for word the same as that in Kings. This indicates that the writing of one was almost certainly based on the other, and not independent.

In "Infectious Alternatives: The Plague that Saved Jerusalem, 701 B.C." (in the Cowley), William H. McNeill speculates on what might have happened if the Assyrians had taken Jerusalem. But a much better version is Poul Anderson's "In the House of Sorrows" (in Gregory Benford's anthology WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN: ALTERNATE EMPIRES, ISBN-13 978-0-743-48729-0, ISBN-10 0-743-48729-X). Anderson sets his story in something probably approximating the present, but in a very different world, where the Assyrians took Jerusalem, and the world's politics, religion, science, and everything else are very different. This is one of my favorite alternate histories, because Anderson did not pick any of the over-used points of divergence from recent history, but instead chose a very important ancient cultural turning point.

When Fagan moves to early Greek battles, the readings include Herodotus's HISTORIES (Books 6-9). In Book 7, Herodotus claims the size of the Persian army Xerxes brought from Asia to Thermopylae was 1,700,000 infantry, 100,000 cavalry (including camels and chariots), and 157,610 naval personnel. Xerxes collected 324,000 more troops as he traveled through Europe. With support staff, the total Herodotus gives for Xerxes's army is 5,283,320. Fagan points out that this is clearly a vast over- estimate--the size of the army Germany used for the WWII invasion of Russia was less than half that. (Xerxes supposedly measured his army by having the 10,000 "Immortals" stand as tightly together as possible. He then drew a line around them, dispersed them, and built a fence on the line. Then he had the troops march into this "corral" in groups of 10,000. For 1,700,000 men, this would have been done 170 times. Assuming that it took even just 15 minutes for each collection, this is over forty hours for the size given of the infantry alone. There is no indication that the measurement might have been done in parallel rather than sequential.)

Herodotus also recounts how a bridge across the Hellespont was destroyed by a storm, and Xerxes "gave orders that the Hellepont should receive three hundred lashes and have a pair of feters thrown into it." Herodotus also claims that he had heard that people were also send to brand the Hellespont with hot irons(!). Fagan described these actions of Xerxes as the "locus classicus of despotic hubris in antiquity"--a lovely phrase.

P. Green's THE GRECO-PERSIAN WARS tries to explain Herodotus's numbers for the various armies and fleets. First, Green suggests that Herodotus confused chiliads and myriads, resulting in a ten- fold increase in troop counts. Green also says that if the number given for the size of the Persian fleet includes all boats used in the bridges across the Hellespont, it is not unreasonable.

The alternate histories really kick in with the battles of Marathon (490 B.C.E.) and Salamis (480 B.C.E.): Lois Tilton's "Pericles the Tyrant" (ASIMOV'S SCIENCE FICTION, Oct/Nov 2005], Harry Turtledove's "Counting Potsherds" (Gregory Benford's WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN: ALTERNATIVE EMPIRES), and Victor Davis Hanson's "No Glory that was Greece: The Persians Win at Salamis, 480 B.C." (Cowley). Also, of course Herodotus's HISTORIES (Book 8-9), Plutarch's "Themistocles" and "Aristides", and "The Persians" by Aeschylus.

Turtledove's "Counting Potsherds" is a classic. It takes place in Hellas, with a Persian representative in Hellas trying to discover the name of the king who was defeated by Khsrish four hundred years earlier. His confusion at what he discovers is Turtledove's point, so I will not give it away. Tilton's "Pericles the Tyrant" won the Sidewise Award for Short Form in 2005, so I suppose it's a classic also.

Now I must admit that somewhere around this point, I started to fall behind in my background reading. In addition, I got to a point where most of the works were unavailable to me (except Plutarch, which I had already read). I did read Josiah Ober's "Conquest Denied: The Premature Death of Alexander the Great" and Lewis H. Lapham's "Furor Teutonicus: The Teutoburg Forest, A.D. 9" in Cowley. The latter point of divergence was also the starting point for Kirk Mitchell's "Procurator" trilogy, Robert Silverberg's UP THE LINE, and David Drake and Janet Morris's ARC RIDERS: THE FOURTH ROME.

Okay, this is probably more information than you wanted about ancient battles. But no one was forcing you to read it all. [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

           A satirist is a man who discovers unpleasant things 
           about himself and then says them about other people.
                                          -- Peter McArthur

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