MT VOID 05/16/08 -- Vol. 26, No. 46, Whole Number 1493

MT VOID 05/16/08 -- Vol. 26, No. 46, Whole Number 1493

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
05/16/08 -- Vol. 26, No. 46, Whole Number 1493

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

Getting Useful Information from Corrupted Sources (part 2) (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

Last week I discussed the Internet Movie Database ratings for films. Some film critics have criticized those ratings as having been rendered valueless because some people try to manipulate the ratings. But similar crises of credibility apply elsewhere. In the 1980s much of the public became disillusioned that some standardized tests where giving skewed results because the questions had a cultural bias. People have decided that they could not trust tests like the SATs or IQ tests because these tests are "racist" and "very ethnically-biased."

The question to investigate is just how biased are these tests and perhaps even if this bias is such a bad thing. (Hold on. That sounds like an inflammatory statement. Let me explain.) Generally it is just a very small proportion of the questions that appear to be biased. Yes, a question that has a picture of a teacup may assume that the person being tested will recognize what a teacup is. Not all societies have teacups. But still it is only a small percentage of the people taking the test will really not know what a teacup is. And these tests really are intended to predict success in our culture. A Kalahari Bushman may be an absolute genius on the Kalahari desert, but still may have no idea how to function as a corporate employee. A test that measures how well a person will function in our culture may by definition have a cultural bias. Life and strategies for success are culturally biased.

Wikipedia has also taken its share of criticism for factual inaccuracies. Some of these issues were matters of opinion or information from well-meaning people that was just wrong. Some bits of misinformation were intentional from its self-chosen contributors, much like the situation with the IMDB. The Wikipedia organization has improved its review procedures, but there still seems to be some anti-Wikipedia fears in the public. Certainly the people who think that if they see it on the Internet than it must be true are in for a shock. When they find out that some of what they read on the Internet is false they think that the Internet is what is at fault. This attitude is much like saying that the phone company is responsible to be sure that nobody lies to you over the telephone.

How much of a problem is misinformation on Wikipedia? In a comparison with the respected Encyclopedia Britannica, Wikipedia was found to have 33% more errors in comparable material. There will typically be four errors in Wikipedia for every three in the Britannica.

Considering the difference in price, Wikipedia is a bargain. And if you are reading an article about Civil War weapons the material is less controversial and so less likely to be corrupted than material about Hillary Clinton. Wikipedia has taken steps to counter the problem of misinformation with review and moderation processes. Wrong information frequently is corrected in minutes.

Information from Wikipedia and from the Internet Movie Database can be a valuable asset. Wikipedia probably will not give someone information as accurate as could be found by his doing his own research. On the other hand, even if he does do his own research he very likely will run against misinformation. Depending on how he chooses his sources, Wikipedia may have the greater accuracy. This may be more so with more recent Wikipedia article refereeing.

A healthy skepticism is just good survival strategy, but it is a mistake to decide that if a source like the IMDB or Wikipedia has been found with some false information it can never be trusted again. Most people generally do not react that extremely when a weather forecaster has a wrong prediction. Using Internet sources for information requires a little caution. This is especially true when the information involves controversial issues for which some people will have their own agenda. But never trusting a source again is an over-reaction. [-mrl]

HALTING STATE by Charles Stross (copyright 2007, Ace, $24.95, 351pp, ISBN 978-0-441-01498-9) (a book review by Joe Karpierz):

Charles Stross is a prolific writer in more ways than one--he writes novels non-stop, and he piles up award nominations like they're going out of style. He's done it again with his latest Hugo-nominated novel, HALTING STATE. I've been saying for quite a while now that whatever Stross writes is terrific, and HALTING STATE is no exception.

The setting is Scotland in 2018. Sergeant Sue Smith has been called in on a robbery case--nothing that's particularly unusual, since cops get called on robbery cases all the time. Except this one *is* unusual in that it takes place within a massively multi- player online role-playing game. You guys who play "World of Warcraft" and "Lord of the Rings Online" know what I'm talking about. The victims, Hayek Associates, keeps a central bank for its players within the game "Avalon Four", a place where you can store your stuff for safekeeping because you've got way too much to carry around with you. Well, this kind of robbery is supposed to be impossible, but it obviously happened. The problem is that once word leaks out that this has happened, Hayek Associates is going to go down the tubes financially.

So, Elaine of Dietrich-Brunner Associates gets called in. She's a forensic investigator specializing in financial issues. DBA is called in because they're associated with Hayek as their insurers or auditors or whatever (the details fade when I write a book review more than a week after I've finished it--real life gets in the way now and again). Elaine needs someone who can help her out--an expert in game programming. So one Jack Reed gets called in as a contractor to help out, which is a good thing for him because he'd just been mysteriously let go from his last position. And what they find is completely mind-blowing and out of their league.

Needless to say nothing is as it appears. As I've stated, this started out as a simple bank robbery investigation, but it turns into something much more when Jack and Elaine track down someone who is trying to sell the stolen (virtual) goods. The suspect spills the beans a little more than he plans, and we find out that this whole thing is much, much bigger than anyone can imagine, and yet the whole thing is started by a simple human emotion: greed. And it's more like world domination than it is a bank robbery.

This is a terrific near-future projection of our current technology. The idea of using MMORPGs as a setting for a crime is interesting and intriguing, if not original. The technology of CopSpace, kind of like MySpace for the police, is a real possibility. The whole of Scotland being so connected by the internet that when the security encryption keys are compromised everything is brought to a screaming halt can be easily envisioned by folks today. While we're not quite there yet, a lot of the stuff that Stross is postulating could be happening in the next decade or two. And it's very frightening.

The only thing that was a drawback is that it got a bit too complicated for me to follow near the end--maybe I was just not in the right frame of mind for it, but I found myself flailing about a couple of times going "huh?". Truly, however, I liked this book. I think it's yet another worthy Hugo nominee from Charles Stross.

Next up: BRASYL, by Ian McDonald. [-jak]

Counting the Number of Numbers (letter of comment by Dan Cox):

Dan Cox wrote an extended discussion of counting large sets that I thought was a little large to include in the MT VOID, so to find it go to:

It also contains an account of my first date, which does fit into the subject, oddly enough. [-mrl]

Mary Chesnut (letter of comment by Mike Glyer):

In response to Evelyn's comment on THE LOVELY BONES in the 04/25/08 issue of the MT VOID ("whoever copy-edited it did not catch that the name of the Confederate diarist is 'Mary Chesnut', not 'Mary Chestnut'"), Mike Glyer writes, "I guess it's inevitable that someone with my abysmal copyediting skills would have managed to own a copy of 'Mary Chesnut's Civil War' for years without realizing there's no 'T' in the middle of her name...*sigh*." [-mg]

Evelyn responds, "If I had a dime for every book or author whose name I have misspelled in our catalog, *in spite of having the book in front of me when I'm typing*, I could buy a really fancy drink at Starbucks. Start with 'Allan Quatermain', which I spelled as 'Quartermain' for years!" [-ecl]

Inter-Library Loan (letter of comment from a non-member):

In response to Evelyn's comments on the reading list for GREAT BATTLES OF THE ANCIENT WORLD in the 05/09/08 issue of the MT VOID ("but if you were in a position to get books from a college library, you probably wouldn't be taking this course"), someone forwarded an observation from a friend: "You can get books from public college libraries with your local library card."

Evelyn responds, "I can get books via inter-library loan from Middlesex County College, but I that I would have to drive to Rutgers to check books out from there (even assuming I could), and that's about an hour (or more) each way. I may see if I can check their catalog for some of the books, though, as an experiment." [-ecl]

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

DREAM FACTORIES AND RADIO PICTURES by Howard Waldrop (ISBN-13 978-0-972-05474-4, ISBN-10 0-972-05474-X) is a collection of Waldrop's stories about movies and television. Waldrop once responded to Barry Malzberg's comment that Malzberg's early ambition was to make a living as a science fiction writer--and he failed. Waldrop said, "I'll go him one better. I tried to make a living in science fiction writing short stories." As a short story writer, Waldrop is first-rate; it is just the economics of the market that keep him (or almost anyone) from making a living at it.

[Some of our readers may be wondering what a Radio Picture is. After all one of the basic facts about radio is that there were no pictures. Older readers may remember that there was a major film studio called RKO and their started with a banner called the film "An RKO Radio Picture." RKO Pictures was also known as Radio Keith Orpheum Pictures. It was formed when RCA, the Radio Corporation of America bought up the Keith-Albee-Orpheum theater chain and started making movies for it. It was an odd name for a studio since radio would be a stiff competitor for audience attention against the Hollywood studios. The RKO logo showed a giant radio antenna broadcasting over the earth. Certainly until that late 1940s with the advent of popular television radio technology had little to do with cinema. -mrl]

HOLY COW by Sarah MacDonald (ISBN-13 978-0-7679-1574-8, ISBN-10 0-7679-1574-7) is the story of a journalist's stay in India, and her quest for religion, or spirituality, or God, or something like that. What is not clear is when or how she decided this was a spiritual quest--that was not why she went to India to start with, yet it is clear that this becomes her goal, or why else would she be so diligent in seeking out every possible religion to find out what they have to offer.

That quibble aside, it seems as though every attempt by MacDonald to find something meaningful in India runs up against what can only be termed "loonies". This includes the Jews, who seem to be all Israelis or Americans, and more interested in hugging, dancing, and smoking hash than in anything that I would consider an expression of Judaism. After reading this section, though, I end up basically discounting all her other encounters with the extremes of each religion. (Trying to get the essence of Hinduism by attending the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad is, after all, like trying to understand the essence of Christianity by standing in St. Peter's Square on Easter Sunday, or understanding Islam by making the Hajj.) HOLY COW does give you a sense of India, but often a somewhat deceptive one.

We recently listened to the Teaching Company course "The American Civil War" by Professor Gary W. Gallagher, and I have a few comments (No surprise there, right? :-) ). An observation he made in one of the early lectures on the causes of the Civil War was that the North perceived the South in certain negative ways, and vice versa. For example, the South saw the North as uncultured, unrefined, and greedy. Whether these perceptions were accurate or not, Gallagher said, is rather beside the point: in generating conflict, perception is more important than reality.

Although the South maintained (even after the War) that their secession from the Union was legal and not in violation of the United States Constitution (Thaddeus Stephens wrote a very long and turgid work arguing this point), the Confederate Constitution explicitly forbade secession! I can see where the Confederacy would want this clarified, but it's ironic that the "gentlemen's club" argument seen in the film GETTYSBURG is completely negated by this. (The "gentlemen's club" argument goes like this: The states are like men who have joined a gentlemen's club. After a while, the club starts making rules about how the gentlemen's private homes may be run. Not only that, but the club refuses to let anyone resign from it.)

Gallagher notes in a closing lecture that no Confederates were tried for treason after the Civil War, and gives as possibly the main reason that no one wanted to actually argue in a court of law as to whether secession was legal. We had just finished fighting a bloody war which de facto determined it was not, and having a court rule on it at this point was either superfluous or incendiary.

The first Confederate Presidential election was held in 1861 for inauguration in 1862. In my comments on the alternate history film C.S.A., I noted a possible mistake: there would not have been a Presidential election in the CSA in 1880, because the Presidential term specified in the CSA Constitution was six years. This had assumed an election in 1860 (which is wrong in any case--secession was not until 1861). An election in 1861 would theoretically have placed *all* the elections in odd-numbered years. However, it is not clear whether that cycle was intended to be implemented from the beginning or only after the "War of Northern Aggression" was over. Assuming the latter to be the case, to have an election in 1880 would imply an election in 1868. (Anything later would imply a much, much longer Civil War than anyone expected.) In fact, 1868 would give Davis a full term plus a few months, and might be considered a reasonable time to start.

Gallagher also emphasized that to determine the true causes of the Civil War, one needs to read contemporary accounts, that is, what people said about the causes in 1861, not what they said in their memoirs twenty years later. When the Confederates wrote their memoirs, slavery in the United States was dead and was reviled by all our world allies. It was not, therefore, in the Confederates' best interests to attempt to paint their cause as an attempt to maintain slavery--even though that was what they all said in 1861, and what featured most prominently in the Articles of Secession ratified almost unanimously by the Confederate states. [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

           (Nowadays) every housemaid expects at least 
           once a week as much excitement as would have 
           lasted a Jane Austen heroine throughout a 
           whole novel.
                                          -- Bertrand Russell

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