MT VOID 10/02/09 -- Vol. 28, No. 14, Whole Number 1565

MT VOID 10/02/09 -- Vol. 28, No. 14, Whole Number 1565

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
10/02/09 -- Vol. 28, No. 14, Whole Number 1565

Table of Contents

      C3PO: Mark Leeper, R2D2: Evelyn Leeper, Back issues at All material is copyrighted 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


This week's MT VOID is brought to you by the Pre-Owned-Humvee Owners Exchange. Buy a used Humvee today. For the man who doesn't let facts (or pedestrians) get in his way. [-mrl]


Our home pages have moved to and The MT VOID archives can be found at or

[This is due to our previous provider shutting down their web pages. I will not mention it here, since many email providers think it was a spam generator and would filter out any mail containing its name.]

The New American Prayer (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

God grant me the credit to purchase the luxuries I can afford, the self-control to resist the temptation to purchase what I cannot afford, and the wisdom to know the difference. [-mrl]

Strategic Vision (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

I wrote a few weeks back about how a mathematical analysis of the Iranian election results indicated that the poll results had been tampered with.

It seems possible that the same thing is happening locally. Apparently influential Republican polling firm Strategic Vision's figures also show the same sort of tampering. Apparently the signs are (for example) that 8 appears at the end of a number 60% more frequently than 1 does. It is hard for a single human mind to pick numbers as randomly as poll results would show. Sadly, in telling people this, cheaters are also going to know how they can be caught. The following articles discuss the highly partisan brouhaha.

One thing that strikes me as very funny about all this is the name of the polling firm. It is Strategic Vision. Think about that name. My own vision is usually very non-strategic. I just want to see what is there. I have no strategy unless I want to influence what I find.

I would just like to thank Strategic Vision for being so up-front about there being a strategy to how and what they see. [-mrl]

Water and Space ... Stories Come in Threes (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

Once we get off the Earth we find space a pretty foreboding place. My vision of space was fundamentally altered when I went to 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and saw what it was like to be in space for a few moments without a space suit. Later shots we got from men on the moon made it look all the more foreboding and dry. Pictures from Mars did not help. One of the things making it look unpleasant was that just about everything we saw portrayed it look very, very dry. Well perhaps space is not as dry as we thought. Just in the past week or so there have been three stories making it look a little less nasty, and all the stories seem to involve water.

It seems almost impossible that there would be water on the moon. The moon has no atmosphere, and water vaporizes in a vacuum. Any water on the moon should vaporize and fly away. During the heat of the lunar day the radiance of the sun should also burn off any water that is there. It has long been assumed that there can be no water on the moon. Now water has been detected mixed in the top layer of the lunar surface. Multiple survey craft including the NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter report having detected small amounts of water. The source is probably comet impacts. It is not going to be too helpful for visitors however. The water is in very low concentrations. There is about one pint of water dissipated in 1000 pounds of the lunar surface. That is drier than the Sahara desert. But you never know. Some use may be found. At least the moon is a little more inviting as a place to explore and settle.


My book discussion group just recently finished taking on Robert A. Heinlein's RED PLANET, an old science fiction juvenile that involved people skating on ice on Mars. This is an absurdity. There seems to be some water under the surface of Mars, and there may have been more water in the past. But there are no ice patches on Mars. Silly Heinlein.... Okay, as you have probably guessed, there is in fact at least one ice patch discovered on Mars. There is a picture of it at

This is a crater near the North Pole with a nice round patch of nearly pure water. The article calls this an unnamed crater that contains the ice patch. If someone from NASA is reading this, may I suggest that the crater be named Cocytus? That has some class.

But the most bizarre water-and-space news story does not involve finding water as much as using what we already carry around with us. There are some bad old sci-fi space movies in which the filmmakers did not want to spend the money to show that there was no gravity in space. Sometimes they used wires to "invisibly" levitate objects in the spaceship. It was not very convincing. I just recently saw 12 TO THE MOON again after many years of it being unavailable (perhaps deservedly so, I might add). Some of these films at least acknowledged that there was a problem by claiming that they had "artificial gravity". Well, such a thing did exist, but it involved spinning the spaceship, or whatever, and letting centrifugal force provide the effect. And that, I was pretty sure, was the only form of artificial gravity. But some writers claimed that artificial gravity could be turned on and off like an electric switch. Well, it turns our there are such ways to play with gravity and we might well just have an electromagnetic version of artificial gravity or, in this case, artificial lack of gravity. I just read an article in which a mouse was levitated electromagnetically. Well, that is not quite accurate. The water in the mouse was levitated. The rest of the mouse just had to go along for the ride. The mouse at first found the experience unpleasant and no doubt a little bit surprising. But it soon adjusted and was getting used to the idea that it was floating.

Does this seem like a promising idea for creating gravity in space. If it can be used to counter-act gravity, it may be usable as a downward force. Perhaps an ersatz from of gravity can be turned on and off.

See [-mrl]

THE INFORMANT! (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: This is the mostly true story about the rising executive at ADM who turned whistle-blower for the FBI and for a few years was the best corporate inside informant that the FBI had ever had. But in the shady world of industrial espionage the truth becomes highly processed before it reaches anyone's ears. This is a complex tale that had been done well on Public Radio, but in Steven Soderbergh's hands and with some very strange stylistic choices the story becomes muddled and more confusing than necessary. Soderbergh adapts Scott Z. Burns's screenplay based on Kurt Eichenwald's book. Rating +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10

In 2000 the Chicago Public Radio program "This American Life" ran a story about Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) executive Mark Whitacre and his experiences having turned informant for the FBI. That same month Kurt Eichenwald published a book on the same story. A screenwriter, presumably Scott Z. Burns, heard the program and saw the cinematic possibilities of the story. The result is THE INFORMANT!, with Matt Damon in the title role of Mark Whitacre.

ADM is a giant conglomerate that makes additives and raw materials for grain-based food. Whitacre was an important executive in the BioProducts Division who claimed to the FBI that a spy in the corporation was sabotaging their lysine production. He said that a Japanese contact had told him that he could have the name of the spy for $10 million. Working with the FBI, Whitacre also offered them information that his own company was conspiring to price-fix. This became a long, complex, and frequently humorous, relationship between Whitmore and FBI Special Agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula). At first Whitacre is incredibly cooperative and provides superb evidence of the price fix. But with time the value of Whitacre's character and his evidence comes into question.

Having enjoyed the radio broadcast of the story, I expected to enjoy just as much the film version. Soderbergh surprisingly muddles the story, both in the writing and in his choices for the visual style. The dialog comes fast and the storyline is frequently hard to follow with cues from the musical score to indicate what just happened was really whacky. This is a current film and it covers events of the 1990s, but it has cameo roles for 1960s comics Tom and Dick Smothers. So far that is fine. But the font for the frequent labels is of the style that would have been used on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. It is sort of a psychedelic flower-petal font. And the music frequently is reminiscent of the Smothers Brothers' style. All this completely evokes the wrong era. The entire film looks dulled-out as if it had been filmed in 16mm and blown up to a larger format. Backgrounds frequently have all detail washed out in bright light. The image quality is substandard. A message at the beginning of the film that tells us that some of what is in the film cannot be taken literally ends with "So there!" That appears to be a joke borrowed from AIRPLANE!. The settings jump from country to country, not unlike films from Matt Damon's Bourne franchise, but the scenes have absolutely no feel that they really are from those countries.

On the other hand Matt Damon looks very believable as an unglamorous Every-man. This ability to not look magnetic is not easy for an actor so familiar. The ability to look non-descript served him well in THE GOOD SHEPHERD and serves him well again. Toward the end he even loses his hair to (a Ron Howard sort of) male pattern baldness. I am not always fond of Damon's acting, but I liked him here. Additional acting surprises, beyond the presence of the Smothers Brothers, are a very straight role for Clancy Brown, best known perhaps as the sadistic guard in THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. Here he is in a role that did not require his stature, but in which he is surprisingly believable. Whitacre's philosophical musings in the narration are a definite plus.

The choice of the story is quite good, but the radio version (a link is provided below) is probably a bit preferable. I rate this film a straight +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10. It is a new group running ADM these days, but I wonder how they are taking this negative publicity.

Film Credits:

What others are saying:

This American Life version:


Alphabetical Order (letter of comment by David Shallcross):

In response to Evelyn's question about alphabetical order in the 09/25/09 issue of the MT VOID, David Shallcross writes:

If Wikipedia is to be believed, there are tablets from the 14th century B.C.E. that give the alphabet in two competing sequences. So the order of the alphabet is very old. The complete idea of sorting words in alphabetical order is young in comparison. I have seen facsimiles of books from the 1600s in whose indices entries are sorted only by first letter, with no obvious order between words with the same group. And sorting books by alphabetical order of their titles or authors is another question again.

I know Japanese sorts words by a canonical order of the syllables, that is, "alphabetical" ordering of the words written in hiragana. This was noticeable in the credits of the recent Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli film, which had long lists of names in hiragana, in hiragana order. I wonder what Chinese does. [-dfs]

Evelyn responds, "Chinese sorts by stroke count. (I know this from reading dictionaries of Chinese restaurant terms.)" -ecl

Mirror Neurons (letter of comment by Andre Kuzniarek):

In response to Mark's comments on mirror neurons in the 09/18/09 issue of the MT VOID (in which he wrote, "We used to say, metaphorically, that 'I can feel another's pain.' But now we know that my mirror neurons can literally feel your pain."), Andre Kuzniarek writes:

I think lots of guys know this first hand, particularly when it comes to their privates. You see a lot of gag reels on TV about hits to the crotch that can make us flinch, but especially movies like CASINO ROYALE and EASTERN PROMISES (the knife fight sequence causes an instinctive protective response in guys).

Selfishness and altruism probably compete very closely as survival mechanisms. They both have strengths and weaknesses as such. Probably why our societies are as dynamic as they are (to put it mildly). [-ak]

The Oxford English Dictionary (letter of comment by Joseph T. Major):

In response to Evelyn's comments on READING THE OED: ONE MAN, ONE YEAR in the 09/25/09 issue of the MT VOID, Joseph Major writes:

Did [Ammon] Shea mention his predecessor, Clark Ashton Smith? Smith read the OED, which is why his stories have so many obscure words. Which makes him the first person in the field to have read Tolkien, of course.

As he had written two books about obscure words, presumably he was living off of that, though given the return on writing that day it still sounds marginal. I've looked over Robert Bloch's THE EIGHTH STAGE OF FANDOM, which has an essay on the writer and his fans. The fans make more money than he does, and all think he should make even less money than he does, because a starving writer is more artistic. Fifty years old and applicable today. Can that be said of the "serious literary" writers of the Fifties? [-jtm]

Evelyn replies, "I don't recall any mention of Smith." [-ecl]

Digits of Pi (letter of comment by David Goldfarb):

In response to Mark's comments about numbers in the 09/25/09 issue of the MT VOID (where he said, "Some numbers we can express only in words. Like "the 248465489th decimal place of pi"), David Goldfarb writes:

I'm curious to know if you've heard of the Bailey-Borwein-Plouffe formula:

It lets you calculate any digit of pi *without* having to know all the previous ones. Just one catch: that's any *binary* digit. Which obviously lets you calculate the nth digit of pi in any base that's a power of 2, but doesn't help you with decimal places. Still, we can know the 248465489th octal place of pi just for the asking, which is pretty cool. [-db]

Mark responds, "I was familiar with the result, but not the name. At first I thought that knowing the right binary digits you could trap the value of pi in a range that has only one 248465489th decimal digit. But with more thought I decided that was not true. Or rather it was, but you would still have to know the binary digits up to that point to know what range you were in. That just brings you back to having to compute all the preceding digits. So using the formula we could theoretically compute the 248465489th decimal place of pi if we had enough computing power. But we can do that already without Bailey-Borwein-Plouffe. That value is computable but probably currently unknown. I did not know how many decimal places of pi are known, but it looks like they have gone this far--and much farther. A Google search on 'how many digits of pi have been calculated' turned up a story in Slashdot saying that a Japanese team has calculated out to 2.5 * 1012 digits: . [-mrl]

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

THE CITY & THE CITY by China Miéville (ISBN-13 978-0-345-49751-2) is all about identity and duality in a very Borgesian way. (Actually, the title is "THE CITY & YTIC EHT"--but with "YTIC EHT" printed in mirror image as well, more like "THE CITY & YTI) 3HT".) I am going to try to write this review without too many spoilers. I cannot even say outright what the book is really about, for fear of spoiling some of the point.

The premise is that we have two "sister" cities, Beszel (with an accent on the 'z') and Ul Qoma. Beszel is a cross between Budapest and Prague; the accented 'z' is Hungarian; and "beszel" is actually Hungarian for "to speak". But some of Beszel's neighborhood and suburbs, such as Lestov, have more Czech (Slavic) names. However, "feld" (which is Besz for "cat") is not "cat" in either language, or any other language in my CONCISE DICTIONARY OF 26 LANGUAGES. Illitan, the language of Ul Qoma, is written in the Roman alphabet, while Besz is written in a Cyrillic-like alphabet. (Shades of Borgesian mirrors!) One is reminded of the old Yugoslavia, with Serbian in Cyrillic alphabet and Croatian in Roman alphabet, although in Miéville has the Cyrillic in the more Western-seeming city, and the Roman in the more Eastern, because there was a follower of Ataturk there who converted the alphabet to Roman, just as happened in Turkey. (Ul Qoma also uses dinari, just as Yugoslavia did.)

The pairing is not just of the two cities, or of the two languages/cultures Miéville used for Beszel. For example, in Beszel "ébru" is a collective term for both Jews and Muslims. (The narrator, Tyador BorlĀ£, says, "[Our] tradition of jokes about the foolishness of the middle child derives from a centuries-old dialogue between Beszel's head rabbi and its chief imam about the intemperance of the Beszel Orthodox Church.") And there is the Besz traditional DöplirCaffé: "one Muslim and one Jewish coffee house, rented side by side, each with its own counter and kitchen, halal and kosher, sharing a single name, sign, and sprawl of tables. ... Whether the DöpplirCaffé was one establishment or two depended on who was asking: to a property tax collector, it was always one."

Another aspect I liked was that while reading the book, I thought I knew were it was going. To some extent, it did follow the expected path, with Inspector BorlĀ£ of Besz teaming up with Senior Detective Quissim Dhatt of Ul Qoma to solve a murder with connections in both cities. Because of this, they are constantly concerned about Breach, which apparently patrols the connections between the two, and Orciny, a shadow city which may or may not exist in the gaps between Besz and Ul Qoma. The two detectives find clues that there is something much bigger and far-reaching than a simple murder here. But at some point, Miéville has his plot take a different turn than what most mysteries would, with a resolution that is both unexpected and satisfying.

All this is fascinating from a literary standpoint, and Miéville has invented some lovely words for it: grosstopical, topolganger, insiles, dissensi. And there are marvelous descriptions: "It was, not surprisingly that day perhaps, hard to observe borders, to see and unsee only what I should, on my way home. I was hemmed in by people not in my city, walking slowly through areas crowded but not crowded in Beszel."

But there is another level. Miéville is a British Socialist, and it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the two cities, each "unseeing" the other, are representative of the "haves" and the "have-nots" in our own world, living intermingled, yet neither really seeing the other. There are many other examples of unseeing in our world. For example, in a hospital, one "unsees" a person whose nightgown is open in back. (In New York, many claim, residents tend to "unsee" everything. :-) ) On a different level, consider the Jim Crow laws in the South: that is your water fountain, this one next to it is mine, those are your bus seats, these are mine, each existing among the other. And one is reminded of the Robert Silverberg story "To See the Invisible Man" in which a criminal's sentence might be for a period of "invisibility", during which everyone was ordered to "unsee" him. And, yes, there is a lot of THE CITY & THE CITY about nationalism, cultural identity, borders, and so on. (For an earlier intimation of Miéville's idea by Mark, see -- but only after you've read THE CITY & THE CITY.)

Miéville's previous book, UN LUN DUN, was in some sense a trial-run for this. The idea is that there is a parallel world with Un Lun Dun, Parisn't. Lost Angeles, the River Smeath, and so on. But Un Lun Dun is not in our world, while Ul Qoma is in Beszel's.

In a sense, this book is uncategorizable. It is not science fiction in a strict sense, but it is not fantasy either, at least not in any normal sense. One might argue that it is alternate history, but it is impossible to see how it might come about. It is also impossible to see how it might be sustained without some assumptions that are simply unsupportable in our world, Like Borges's Library of Babel, or his Babylon of the Lottery, the world of Beszel and Ul Qoma exist in their own inexplicable space. They are what they are, and have to be accepted without rational analysis.

As you might guess, I highly recommend this book. It will be on the top of my Hugo nomination list for this year.

(After I wrote of the Borgesian nature of the story, I came across the fact that Miéville said that two major influences on him for the novel were Jorge Luis Borges and Philip K. Dick.) [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

           If the rich could hire other people to die 
           for them,  the poor could make a wonderful living. 
                                          -- Yiddish Proverb

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