MT VOID 11/12/10 -- Vol. 29, No. 20, Whole Number 1623

MT VOID 11/12/10 -- Vol. 29, No. 20, Whole Number 1623

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
11/12/10 -- Vol. 29, No. 20, Whole Number 1623

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

Logical Extension (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

I keep seeing the name "Chase Bank" on various pieces of business mail. Whenever I see it somehow what I hear in my head is "Chase Bank. Catch Bank. Kill Bank." [-mrl]

Innumeracy (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

Credit card companies live and die by their ability to understand numbers and mathematical concepts and we depend on them to know them. One of our credit card providers claims that every time you use their card you get five chances to win a certain big prize. Pop quiz: how much better are your chances if everyone who uses the card earns five chances than if they only earned one chance each time? It makes you wonder. [-mrl]

A Quick Exploration of Higher Dimensional Spaces (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

My godson came to me with a plane geometry question from his Scholastic Aptitude Test. I turned it into a rather interesting question about higher dimensions and how in higher dimensional spaces it is harder to be confined by surrounding objects. I do love it when a mathematics problem has some science fictional implications.

[Sorry, without pictures I have to get by just describing the diagrams.]

The question he started with was this: You have a square four units on a side. It is divided into four identical quadrants each two units on a side. In each quadrant you inscribe a circle. Each circle has diameter two. What is the radius of the largest circle you can put at the center of the square so that it is just tangent to each of the four circles?




Okay, is everybody back? The solution is this. Draw a line from the center of one of the four big circles to the center of the big square (which is also the center of the small circle). The length of this segment is the square root of two. It intersects the large circle you chose and the small circle where the two are tangent. So the center of the large circle you chose is sqrt(2) units from the center of the square and one unit from the center of the big circle you chose. So the radius of the small circle is: sqrt(2)-1. That is about 0.41421.

So that answered my godson's question. But I was not ready to let him go yet. Suppose we were in three dimensions and you have a 4x4x4 cube with a sphere of unit radius in each of the octants of the cube. Now you have a sphere at the center of the cube that is tangent to all eight larger spheres. How much is its radius? Well, solving this the same way, we take a line segment from the center of one of the spheres to the center of the cube. How long is that segment? By the Pythagorean theorem it is sqrt(1^2 + 1^2 + 1^2). Or it is sqrt(3). The radius of the small sphere is sqrt(3)-1 or about 0.73205.

If you are having trouble seeing that, picture a right triangle, one leg is a diagonal of a face and the other is an edge perpendicular to that leg at a corner. The diagonal of the three- dimensional cube has length sqrt(sqrt(1^2+1^2)^2+1^2) = sqrt(2+1) = sqrt(3).

In fact this generalizes to N dimensions. The diagonal of an N- dimensional cube with edge-length one is sqrt(N).

And in each of these cases the radius of the big sphere is always 1. So in 2 dimensions the radius of the sphere (or circle) at the center of the cube (or square) is sqrt(2)-1 or about 0.41421.

In three dimensions the radius of the sphere at the center of the cube is sqrt(3)-1 or about 0.73205.

In four dimensions the radius of the sphere at the center of the cube is sqrt(4)-1 or 1. This means the little sphere at the center is as big as the 16 corner spheres hemming it in. There are seventeen identical spheres in the hypercube and they pack very nicely. The sphere at the center cannot move around.

When we get up to nine dimensions we are now packing a unit nine- sphere in each of the 512 corners. The sphere at the center has radius sqrt(9)-1 = 2. That means the inner sphere is now tangent to each of the faces of the hypercube. The center sphere is inscribed in the cube as well as being tangent to each of the spheres.

Let us go in the other direction. In one dimension the formula says that the inner sphere has radius sqrt(1)-1 or zero. Does this agree with what we think should happen? A one-dimensional cube with edge-length four is just a line segment of length four. A sphere of radius one is just a line segment of length two. If you take a line segment of radius four and fill it at each end with a line segment of length two, they will end up just touching at the center. The to fit between them a line segment must have length zero.

Now what does this mean? In two dimensions the circles really constricted the central sphere. It could be only about 0.41421 units in radius. In nine dimensions not only is the inner sphere much bigger than the corner spheres, it is big enough to reach the faces of the cube. It has room to get out of way of the corner spheres. In nine dimensions the outer spheres very much stay out of your way. In ten dimensions the inner sphere actually sticks out of the hypercube.

That is an insight we might not have had about higher dimensions. Essentially things much more stay out of your way. [-mrl]

Ten Things I've Learned about Inheriting Stuff (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):

As I noted last week, this is a set of rules learned from both my and a friend's dealing with clearing out our parents' houses.


ESCAPE FROM HELL by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (copyright 2009 Blackstone Audio, 9 hours 22 minutes, narrated by Tom Weiner) (audiobook review by Joe Karpierz):

ESCAPE FROM HELL is the sequel to 1976's INFERNO by Niven and Pournelle. I'd loved INFERNO when it first came out all those years ago. I was still in high school at the time, and it made me want to read the original Dante. I never did do that. So, when ESCAPE FROM HELL came out awhile back, I was torn. I wanted to read it, but I'd been disappointed by sequels too many times (yeah, I know--I've read the entire "Dune" series--we all have our weaknesses) to trust it. So I didn't do anything about it at all until I joined and saw that it was available. I downloaded it and hoped for the best. What I got was something that I didn't quite expect and was certainly, in my opinion, better than I was expecting.

Allen Carpentier--now Allen Carpenter, his real name--is still in Hell. If you remember, he watched Benito Mussolini leave Hell at the end of INFERNO while he stayed behind. Now, he's the new Benito, trying to lead people out of Hell--but I suspect with different motives than Benito.

Carpenter has decided that he must rescue all the souls in Hell that deserve rescuing (hold that thought). If you remember, Benito answered Carpentier's call for help while he (Carpentier) was stuck in the bottle in the vestibule. This time, he's free to wander Hell (we never do find out why), so he decides to lead as many people out as he can--or at least tell as many people as he can that there is a way out. He wants everyone to have a chance to get out. He is essentially trying to play savior (hold that thought too). He once again travels the circles of Hell, this time with poet Sylvia Plath, trying to figure out just what his purpose is here and what the real purpose of Hell is.

So, just what is this book about? Well, it's not like INFERNO. That book was supposed to be an adventure story that ended up being much more than that. This one? I think this is Niven and Pournelle exploring the questions and answers that many of us ask ourselves: what's our purpose in this life, should everyone get a second chance, are there really all bad people in the world, does everyone deserve his/her fate?

In many ways, ESCAPE FROM HELL is a lot like INFERNO. We have a central character touring Hell, trying to help people to get out. In fact, that part is the old and boring part. If all Niven and Pournelle had done was rewrite INFERNO, I probably wouldn't have finished listening to it. But this book *is* different. On the surface, other than Carpenter being the one trying to get people out of Hell, one of the other noticeable differences is that unlike INFERNO, where the souls trapped in Hell were all non-descript and unnamed and Anglo-Christian, this one is much more than that. We have other races and religions--and we have famous characters from history. Among the list of notables is Anna Nicole Smith, Lester Del Rey, Ted Hughes (Sylvia's husband on earth), Albert Camus, Carl Sagan, and Pontius Pilate, among others. Oh, some of our friends from INFERNO are back, but the story really is about the new characters.

What's different about this book is that Carpenter (and by extension, Niven and Pournelle), is trying to sort out the purpose of Hell and why people are there: why some people are there and not others; do certain people belong in a certain circle of Hell and not a different one; do people really deserve to be in Hell for all eternity, or should it be like a prison, where you serve your sentence and then are released?; (pick up that thought) who deserves to be freed and should stay there for all eternity, and does Carpenter have the right to make that call when he's trying to decide which souls to try and rescue?

This was a lot deeper book than the original, and in that respect was a much better one. I was pleasantly surprised how the book kept me engaged with all the ethical and moral questions that were being asked (and in some case answered) by Carpenter. The original has its place in SF history, and I think this one should too, but probably won't--I've not seen too many reviews of the book that were favorable. Finally, narrator Tom Weiner does a terrific job.

This book may not be for you, but I recommend you give it a try. You might like it. [-jak]

SOUTH OF THE BORDER (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: Oliver Stone says that there is a revolution of reform going on in South America as several of the countries have presidents who claim leftist views. He visits five countries and seven of these presidents discussing their policies. Stone never questions their policies and presents them with admiration. He does not apologize for his bias, but presents a point of view difficult to get listening only to the American media. Taken with a grain of salt, there is something of an education here in how the United States government manipulates the countries of South America and how they are fighting back. Presidents interviewed are Presidents Hugo Chavez (Venezuela), Evo Morales (Bolivia), Lula da Silva (Brazil), Nestor Kirchner (Argentina), Fernando Lugo (Paraguay), Rafael Correa (Ecuador), and Raul Castro (Cuba) Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10

Oliver Stone frequently takes the role of the United States government's loyal opposition. His films like PLATOON, BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY, and JFK take a generally leftist slant and frequently edge over into conspiracy theories. In SOUTH OF THE BORDER he takes a grand tour of countries in South America interviewing the seven presidents who take the strongest leftist slants. The better these leaders are known in the United States, the more time he spends with them. His coverage of the presidents is unswervingly positive. He seems to treat each of the presidents as if he were a personal friend and his friendship is apparently reciprocated on camera. Stone gives us positive, if not loving, looks at each of the seven presidents.

Not surprisingly, the lion's share of attention goes to Hugo Chavez, the President of Venezuela and probably the best known of the reforming--if that is the word--presidents. Footage shows his being friendly with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad--not necessarily the best poster boy for the liberal movement and not really much of a reformer either. Stone does not question the wisdom of this friendship, but uses it to illustrate that Chavez has the courage to defy United States interests. The DVD comes with 90 minutes of extras mostly concentrating on Chavez and Venezuela. The documentary's heavy emphasis on Chavez suggests that the film was originally to be about just him and the coverage of the other countries was an after thought or to extend the documentary to feature length.

This is a useful documentary if the viewer knows that what she or he is getting will not be an unbiased viewpoint. It is true that American media coverage of South America is poor in general, though not generally as bad as the excerpts from Fox News that Stone uses to illustrate how bad coverage can be: Gretchen Carlson confusing coca and cocoa. If Oliver Stone is trying only to improve on this witless news coverage he is setting the bar rather low for himself. But he is presenting the major reformers of South America in an informal way in which they can present their viewpoints to the American people.

Oliver Stone's coverage of this South American revolution is certainly better than the education one might get from Fox News. Within the United States this could be the best source for information about South American politics and still not be very good. SOUTH OF THE BORDER points to the need of a good contemporary study of South American political movement rather than actually filling that vacancy. I rate SOUTH OF THE BORDER a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10. Cinema Libre released this film on DVD on October 26, 2010.

Film Credits:

What others are saying:


Jesus Christ Avatar (letter of comment by Tom Russell):

In response to Mark's response to his comments on AVATAR in the 10/15/10 issue of the MT VOID, Tom Russell writes:

Thanks for running "Jesus Christ Avatar"--my combination thought- piece (about space exploration and the question of survival of humankind without it) and related movie comments (about Avatar).

Some of what I wrote was probably too obscure, too dated, too obtuse or just too confugled. Mark's response was helpful. May I try again?

Sure, Noah had his ark, but now we know (ever since JAWS), "We're going to need a bigger boat." Perhaps God told Richard Branson to build a spaceship? It's too bad God didn't tell Warren Buffett ... before Buffett gave his $34 billion to Bill Gates.... Buffett seems more the Noah type than Branson.

On the "science" side of things, we learn from quantum physics that the universe needs an observer to exist. And we learn from string theory that the universe has eleven dimensions. So the observer is watching us do our thing in 11D, not merely 3D (think AVATAR here.) What's such a big deal about 3D anyhow? Even back in the days when "As You Like It" was first performed it was done in "3D" (on stage). Now we have: All the world's an 11D stage....

As to AVATAR copying earlier science fiction (comment by Frank R. Leisti in MT VOID 10/22/10), how about the scene in which the human is lying soulless on the table surrounded by electrical gadgets and scientists are trying to bring him back to life? Surely straight from FRANKENSTEIN? What, no 19-gigawatt bolt of lightning?

Avatar would have been more fun--and a better movie?--if, instead of a cowboys-and-Indians battle between people from Earth and Pandora: Let the Pandorans be in an Old Testament era of their history so the Earthlings get zapped by tongues of fire from the Pandorans' Ark of the Covenant in the same way the Nazis got what was coming to them in Raiders of the Lost Ark....

At the risk of not offending, I meant the title of my earlier comments, "Jesus Christ Avatar", to be taken in the same usage sense as "Jesus Christ lizard" is used to describe the little lizard which can walk on water. Also, the words from "Jesus Christ Superstar" were easily adapted to mock the main soul-beaming silliness of the movie plot. Hence the multiply-ambiguous title of my comments.

Perhaps the thing I disliked the most about AVATAR is it portrays a future time when presumably humankind has become so advanced scientifically and technically that we have been able to move out beyond the Earth, and what are we doing? We're destroying another planet. WAR OF THE WORLDS and we're the bad guys. That vision of the future is worse than SOYLENT GREEN or Easter Island.

Possibly the movie's intent was to scare us in the same way SOYLENT GREEN did, but even if that was its intent, it was still just plain awful. [-tr]

MR. POTTERMACK'S OVERSIGHT (letter of comment by Kip Williams):

In response to Evelyn's comment on MR. POTTERMACK'S OVERSIGHT in the 10/29/10 issue of the MT VOID ("MR. POTTERMACK'S OVERSIGHT by R. Austin Freeman ... is a detective story written by the ... author of the "Thinking Machine" stories."), Kip Williams writes:

No, that was Jacques Futrelle. I love those stories. There's a novel, too, available at Project Gutenberg. I picked up a number of the stories online too, possibly from "Black Mask", or maybe Gutenberg Australia.

For a long time, I only knew approximately three of the stories. I knew the author had perished early (a watery grave) and thought those might be all. My first indication to the contrary was in a somewhat offbeat Ellery Queen anthology in which the names of the detectives were disguised and it was given as a challenge to the reader to determine who "Titus J.Z.F. DeWitt" really was. At any rate, the story, "The Superfluous Finger," was one I hadn't read before. Somewhat later, the two Dover collections crossed my path. Great stuff. [-kw]

Evelyn responds, "Mea culpa. I confused 'The Thinking Machine" with 'Dr. Thorndyke'." [-ecl]

PANDORA AND THE FLYING DUTCHMAN (letter of comment by Arthur Kaletsky):

In response to Mark's comments on PANDORA AND THE FLYING DUTCHMAN in the 10/29/10 issue of the MT VOID, Arthur Kaletsky writes:

If it's the restoration I saw at the Cambridge Arts a few months ago, it's really sumptious and deserves to be seen on the biggest screen you can get. The story is pretty much straight seafarer mythology schmaltz so see it just for the atmosphere and the pretty locations, actors, costumes and sets. The Hemingway character parallel is apt.

SPOILER ALERT: There is a link to the Greek Pandora: a dreamt Gardner is the model for a painting of her and the box. END SPOILER

Is there an open web archive of the MT VOID? It'd be a lot more convenient than the email folder I keep MT VOIDs in. [-ak]

Evelyn responds, "As we noted a few months ago, an index of back issues may be found at" [-ecl]

BRUNELLESCHI'S DOME (letter of comment by Peter Rubinstein):

In Evelyn's review of BRUNELLESCHI'S DOME in the 11/05/10 issue of the MT VOID, she wrote, "This is the largest masonry dome in the world (143 feet in diameter, beginning at 170 feet above the floor of the cathedral and with a final height of 295 meters, or 375 feet including the lantern)." [-ecl]

Pete Rubinstein writes:

375 feet? That's not 295 meters. It isn't 295 meters minus 170 feet. I got the following off the Net:

*Dimensions and characteristics*
The dome's springing point stands 177 feet above ground level, while its height from the drum base to the top is about 108 feet. The distance between two opposite edges of the exterior octagonal base is about 176 feet. The height of the lantern atop the dome is slightly more than 72 feet. The dome weighs an estimated 37,000 metric tons, and the number of bricks used in the structure may exceed four million.

I'm going to have to look at that 295 meters number askance as well. Is this dome really 7 times higher than it is wide???? Doesn't look like it in any pictures that I've seen." [-pr]

Evelyn responds, "And all this from mis-typing one word--what I should have typed was that the height was 295 *feet* (not counting the lantern). 375 feet is the height including the lantern. I think I ran into problems because the book may have given the measurements in meters and I converted them for our primarily American readership." [-ecl]

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

Continuing with my comment on research for our Italian trip...

In browsing the shelves for the books on the list, I ran across other books that seemed worth reading. For example, THE GHETTO OF VENICE: A HISTORY by Riccardo Calimani (translated by Katherine Silberblatt Wolfthal) (ISBN-10 0-87131-484-3) seemed important to read, and its was indeed a very thorough history of the Ghetto, starting in 1152 (well before its actual establishment in 1516) and continuing past its dissolution in 1797 up through World War II. It is heavily researched (the bibliography lists 400 sources!), but even so, I caught at least one error: Calimani refers to the Mourner's Kaddish as supreme Hebrew poetry, when it fact it is Aramaic. Still, it is a very comprehensive history of the Jews in Venice, so obviously it would be of interest to Jews planning on visiting Venice.

MUSSOLINI'S ROMAN EMPIRE by Denis Mack Smith (ISBN-10 0-670-49652- 9) was also not on the list, but I saw it on the shelf and thought it looked like it covered an aspect of Italy that the list overlooked. As I noted, all the books seem to cover the Renaissance or later, but they also seemed to skip a large chunk between, say, Napoleon and the present. There was one book about the World War II period, but it was MUSSOLINI'S ROME: REBUILDING THE ETERNAL CITY, which sounds like it is about Fascist architecture. MUSSOLINI'S ROMAN EMPIRE covers the foreign policy of Italy from 1922 until 1945, and there are a lot of lessons to be learned even now. Mussolini's approach was all form and no substance:

"Churchill's technique was quite different when he offered people toils, tears, and bloodshed. Mussolini rather preferred to keep the appearance of normality and whenever possible make the war seem painless and easy. Hence he made no order for general mobilisation, and newspapers were told to play down the fact of casualties. He admitted that this was no way to win a war, but thought that the major need was to keep up morale. Some Italians, on the other hand, were shocked to find so little disturbance of ordinary civilian life, and after being preached at for so long about the superb discipline and idealism of war, were disillusioned to learn of far more serious and dedicated attitudes adopted in other belligerent countries. But fascism continued to think it a matter for boasting that so little was demanded from Italians and that there was no general mobilisation. To put this differently, resources were considered to be less usefully spent in war production than in fuelling the great propaganda industry which was trying to convince ordinary citizens that all was well."

Back to the list: DARK WATER: FLOOD AND REDEMPTION IN THE CITY OF MASTERPIECES by Robert Clark (ISBN 9780-7679-2648-5) is about the 1966 flood in Florence. Yes, Florence--when one talks about flooding in Italy, Venice is the city that comes to mind, but on November 4, 1966, the Arno massively overflowed its banks, covering almost all of the center of Florence, with the Santa Croce neighborhood being under *twenty feet* of water. While in the Uffizi Museum they managed to move all the art to floors over the water (ten feet in that area), thousands of other works were not as fortunate. Clark tells the story of the recovery and restoration of some of those works, centering his attention on Cimabue's "Crocifisso" (a painting on wood). I guess my knowledge of Italian art is deficient, because I had never heard of this and still am not sure why it is so important. I did learn that it is the center of controversy because of the method of restoration, which some say ruined it.

Clark writes about the problem of raising money for art restoration. While it might make sense to spend the funds to restore (or at least stabilize) less well-known works whose need is more urgent, it is almost impossible to raise funds unless the works targeted are well-known works by well-known artists. But there were those who worked on less publicized projects. Clark's book is also about the "angeli del fango" ("mud angels")--people who just showed up and went to work. One that got very little notice was Luciano Camerino, a survivor of Auschwitz. "[On] November 6 he'd dropped everything and gone north [from his home in Rome] to Florence. He'd heard there was a synagogue in Via Farina that held some 120 priceless scrolls of the Law plus fifteenth-, sixteenth-, and seventeenth-century commentaries--fifteen thousand volumes--of inestimable scholarly and antiquarian value. Camerino arrived late that day and worked largely alone and almost continuously for the next seventy-two hours. The only way to save the 120 scrolls of the Law was to unroll each one--all 130 to 165 feet of it--and drape it over chairs, up and down the aisles, like drying pasta. He labored without food or rest or joy, as they'd labored in the camps. But he was saving the Word, the Law, and the Prophets. After the third day, he raised his palm to his forehead, staggered, and fell dead, of cardiac arrest it was said afterward. The flaw in the heart--his or the world's--that had been tracking him since 1943 had found him."

WHEN IN ROME: A JOURNAL OF LIFE IN VATICAN CITY by Robert J. Hutchinson (ISBN 978-0-385-48647-7) is, according to one of the blurbs, "a witty, delightfully disrespectable travelogue through the Vatican." Here are two samples:

"Over the years, various systems analysts and business consultants have studied the Vatican's organizational structure and concluded that it is one of the most efficiently run operations on earth--a conclusion that only causes incredulity, if not hysterical shrieks of laughter, from the jaded Vatican press corps and anyone else who has spent any time at all in curial offices."


"The mentality, rampant throughout Italy, is pretty much: Why get a fax machine when carrier pigeons have done such a magnificent job all these centuries?"

(My only complaint has nothing to do with the book, but rather with its former owner, who seemed to be on a massive underlining campaign, and at times avoided underlining an entire page only by skipping the conjunctions, prepositions, and articles, while underlining almost every noun, verb, adjective, and adverb. How useful could this possibly be?)

Having found this book interesting, I returned to "off-list" reading with some of Hutchinson source works: PETER'S KINGDOM: INSIDE THE PAPAL CITY by Jerrold M. Packard (ISBN 0-684-18430-3) and O VATICAN!: A SLIGHTLY WICKED VIEW OF THE HOLY SEE by Paul Hoffman (ISBN 0-86553-101-3). I skimmed through these, because to a great extent Hutchinson had covered the main details of the history of the Pope, the Papal States, and the Vatican. There were some anecdotes in these, and PETER'S KINGDOM had a more thorough discussion of the Vatican banking scandals of the 1970s and 1980s, but they are somewhat outdated. I realize that's an odd thing to say about books about a 2000-year-old institution, but O VATICAN! was published in 1984 and PETER'S KINGDOM in 1985 and both are heavily weighted towards describing the Vatican as it was then. (WHEN IN ROME was published in 1998.) O VATICAN!, in particular, is full of biographies and anecdotes of the people then in positions in the Holy See. And of course they both pre-date the current abuse scandals shaking the Catholic Church. Unless you're extremely interested in the Vatican, one of these three would be sufficient.

Yet more on books on Italy next week. [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

          Imagination is more important than knowledge.
                                          --Albert Einstein

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