MT VOID 11/19/10 -- Vol. 29, No. 21, Whole Number 1624

MT VOID 11/19/10 -- Vol. 29, No. 21, Whole Number 1624

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
11/19/10 -- Vol. 29, No. 21, Whole Number 1624

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

*Really* High-Definition Resolution (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):

"[An] Italian company put online high-resolution images of "The Birth of Venus" and five other masterpieces from the Uffizi gallery in Florence, including works by Caravaggio and Leonardo da Vinci. By zooming in with the click of a mouse, the smallest details can appear--even ones that aren't typically visible when viewing artworks at the distances required by museums for security. ... The images have a resolution of up to 28 billion pixels, said Vincenzo Mirarchi, CEO of the Haltadefinizione company that digitized the paintings. That's about 3,000 times stronger than the resolution of an average digital camera."

Full story at

Pictures at

SAW 3D (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

It was SAW 3D.
I saw 3D, but that's all.
There's too much there there.

(Full disclosure: this haiku is based on another review. I am expressing the sentiment of someone else without subjecting myself to the film.) [-mrl]

The Complications of Technology (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):

It used to be that you could go into anyone's house and know how to operate the TV. Even with VCRs, you could pretty much figure it out. But with DVD players, fancy TVs, etc., it is virtually impossible to operate anyone's set-up except your own.

Which is why, of course, that you end up watching so many movies in which everyone is either too short and fat, or too tall and thin. [-ecl]

The Sound of Laughter--Just the Sound, Please (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

Today I am going to discuss one of the irritating gadflies of television comedy, the infamous laugh track that so frequently makes people want to throw their shoes through the screens of their televisions.

The subject of "canned laughter" came up on a tour of the NBC studios in Los Angeles. The guide had shown us an exhibit on the canned laughter machine. This is a machine they use in making situation comedies. Somehow many of these comedies seem to have a responsive audience who laugh at jokes that somehow do not seem all the funny to the rest of us. The canned laughter machine will give the soundtrack just exactly the laughing reaction that the producers were hoping for. It is not left to chance but is actually placed in the soundtrack. First it tells the listener that even if he/she does not find the witticism funny, there is someone in the audience who was tickled at it enough to laugh out loud. But it does not just say that some nonexistent person found the last quip funny, it also has a subconscious effect to make the joke actually seem funnier. The listener is being told that he/she should find this funny and for some psychological reason the listener does. But the phenomenon of contagious laughter only goes so far and then the listener (or one with IQ above a certain level) starts to rebel and to feel manipulated.

During the studio tour the guide showed us an actual laugh track machine. But then I asked a question that stumped the guide. "When you hear the laugh track, what are the people actually laughing at?" That almost sounds existential. Like what is the sound of one hand clapping. It is easy to think of the laughter that one of these machines makes as abstract sound. It is just machine-created noise to most people. It is applied to all sorts of intended-humorous situations. Can the sound be laughter be about something in specific? The answer is "yes." The answer I gave, based on an old TV Guide article I read many years ago is "Red Skelton." Many of you may be too young to remember, but one of the famous vaudeville, burlesque, film, and TV comics was Red Skelton. Red Skelton had a television comedy and variety program from the early 1950s to the 1960s. Perhaps as a tribute to silent film comedy he would do pantomime comedy sequences on stage, frequently using his character Freddy the Freeloader. He would do these routines silently. But the show had a live audience. And he was funny (unlike some later situation comedies). But he made no noise during these sketches. What was on the soundtrack of those Red Skelton programs was nothing but the sound of audience laughter.

An inventor named Charles "Charley" Douglass realized that those soundtracks were really a gold mine. He was a sound engineer for CBS. And he recognized that live audiences were unpredictable. They might not laugh long enough at one joke, or ironically worse they might laugh for a full minute. Live TV shows cannot take a one-minute timeout waiting for the audience to stop laughing. The answer to getting a perfect audience is take all those people-- unpredictable, unreliable humans--and get rid of them. Instead Douglass listened to hundreds of hours of recorded sound of laughter and picked out and categorized the laughs from little titters to big belly laughs. It is not known exactly what all his sources were even today, but the main supply was probably the Red Skelton shows. Another possible source for some was from recorded performances of French mime Marcel Marceau.

Once he had all that the laughter sounds could be edited into the soundtrack like any sound effect. Somehow he made a machine that he kept secret under a cloak of security. But it could reproduce the sounds he needed. This was in the days before digital recording so he used recording tape and a machine that could play from any of what must have been dozens of tapes at an instant's notice. Douglas apparently played the machine like an organ.

The television industry still has not recognized how unpopular is misused laughter from a box, but it is still a big part of annoying television situation comedies. But it might not be so much of an irritant if you can picture who is really getting the response.



CRYOBURN by Lois McMaster Bujold (copyright 2010, Baen Books, $25.00, 343pp, ISBN 978-1-4391-3394) (book review by Joe Karpierz):

So, back in 2002, when I reviewed DIPLOMATIC IMMUNITY, up until now the most recent book in the Miles Vorkosigan saga, I wrote the following:

I give up. For years I've been complaining about Bujold writing nothing but "Miles Vorkosigan" books when she's writing SF. I've complained that she's limiting herself, or that she doesn't seem to be able to come up with any other kinds of ideas.

I give up.

Why? I guess I've decided that reading a "Miles Vorkosigan" novel is light and fluffy enough that it's like getting together with an old friend for awhile to talk about nothing important or particular. You just get together and blow off a few hours while forgetting about your troubles. When reading a Miles book, I can get away from the super serious (and thus completely boring and uninteresting) world that much of the currently acceptable SF has become. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: if I wanted to read "literatoor", I'd read that stuff that everyone says is literatoor. With apologies to all those who've tried to bring SF out of the ghetto, and apparently succeeded to some degree, I don't want my SF to be literatoor. I want it to be fun and adventurous, with the occasional *deep thought* to make me think. Literatoor is boring--SF shouldn't be.

Well, of course Bujold left the Vorkosigan universe after that book to work in the fantasy arena, and from all accounts she did a fine job there (I didn't read any of her fantasy novels, as you might suspect). As the years passed, I started to complain that I wanted a Miles book. I really did. This from the same guy who complained that Bujold hadn't proved that she could write anything else. Now she has, and, back in 2008 at the Denver Worldcon she talked about the new Miles book she was working on. I was happy as a clam.

So, the question you might be asking is, "Was the two year wait worth it?" Well, more like the eight-year wait, but I guess the answer is yes. Look, we all know what we're getting with a Vorkosigan novel, and as long as we get that, I think we're okay. We got that, and we're okay.

This time around, Miles is off to the planet Kibou-daini to check out one of the planet's major cryocorps that wants to expand into Barryaran space. Miles is attending a conference when that conference is attacked and he is caught in the middle of the melee, kidnapped, and eventually gets lost in the cryocombs below the city.The book actually starts with Miles lost in the cryocombs attempting to find his way out, all the while suffering hallucinations that resulted from an allergic reaction to a drug he was given by his captors. Miles eventually comes to his senses after he is rescued by young Jin, and after that normal Miles chaos ensues.

What kind, you may ask? He discovers a hidden cryofacility run under the city by a bunch of refugees; he discovers that Jin's mother was leading a group to expose a problem with cryofreezing fluid that would bring the major cryocorps down; he is bribed by the cryocorp that is making the move into Barryaran space; he is involved in kidnapping, theft, and quiet a few other illegal things; he drives the consul at the Barryaran consulate absolutely mad with his schemes (it's clear the poor fellow has absolutely no idea what Miles is like); he is described by Jin as an "insurance auditor"; and so on, and so on, and so on.

Yeah, it's a typical Miles book. Which means it's light, fluffy, fun, and funny (in spots).

I think that what CRYOBURN is is a practice run for Bujold to come back to the Miles universe; it's good, not great. As I said about DIPLOMATIC IMMUNITY, this is not a major entry in the Vorkosigan saga. Up until the last four pages of the novel I would have said nothing important happens at all--and then something *did* happen that surprised the daylights out of me and I'm sure whole bunch of other readers when they read it. I never thought I could be surprised by a Miles novel--I guess I was wrong. I believe the events of the last four pages will cause Bujold to take the Miles' story in a direction that we never would have seen it going all those years ago when she was racking up Hugo after Hugo for novels in the series.

So, what's next, you ask? Well, I'm currently listening to THIS IMMORTAL (otherwise known as ...CALL ME CONRAD) by Roger Zelazny, the novel that shared the Hugo with DUNE back in 1966. A review of that will be coming in the next week or two. Then, well, it's off to The Land. Yep, I'm gonna take on AGAINST ALL THINGS ENDING, the penultimate novel in the entire Thomas Covenant series. Until then.... [-jak]

FROM ETERNITY TO HERE by Sean Carroll (book review by Greg Frederick):

FROM ETERNITY TO HERE by Sean Carroll is a very deep book about the theoretical concepts and ideas concerning why our Universe started with such a low entropy condition and then has been increasing in entropy ever since the Big Bang. The increase in entropy is associated with the one directional arrow of time. Carroll spends most of the book trying to understand why time has one direction only and how the initial conditions at the beginning of the Big Bang had such a low entropy state. He discusses many possibly reasons to explain the initial conditions including; a space of states that changes with time, intrinsically irreversible dynamical laws, a special boundary condition, a symmetric re-collapsing universe, a bouncing Universe with and without overall time symmetry, the Boltzmann-Lucretius scenario of fluctuations around an eternal equilibrium state and (his favorite) a multiverse. He eliminates some of these possible explanations for the initial low entropy in the book. He talks about, toward the end, his favorite. The multiverse basically states that our observable Universe originated from the creation of a baby Universe which was a quantum fluctuation of a false vacuum bubble in another Universe. This baby Universe had a low entropy at its initial creation event. So, he is trying to imagine what happened even before the Big Bang. The problem with the multiverse concept is that it currently can't be tested with any data which can possibly prove it to be wrong or right. When a prediction of Einstein's theory of General Relativity was proven correct by astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington's solar eclipse data in 1920 his theory was on its way to being accepted by the science community. No such test exists for the multiverse idea to even become an accepted theory. Also, since quantum gravity is not fully understood in an accepted theory it makes the multiverse idea difficult to test even in a computer simulation. I do admit though that his idea is quite interesting and needs further study as he suggests. [-gf]

Inside the Milky Way (television review by Greg Frederick):

There was a good science show on TV last week it was a documentary about our galaxy. It title was "Inside the Milky Way". It was on the National Geographic channel. One really cool item was a discussion about how dark matter completely surrounds each galaxy and actually extends far out beyond the visible boundary of a galaxy like the Milky Way. Dark Matter is the frame work or scaffolding which ordinary matter clings to and builds on. So, the Galaxies are like grapes on a grapevine of dark matter. This explains why there are large holes in deep space with not much there. I heard of this concept before but they explained it very nicely. [-gf]

Mark replies:

I doubly missed out on the program being out of the country and do not get the National Geographic Channel. Netflix knows of the existence of the documentary and I have requested it from them if it becomes available.

This is the first time I am hearing this dark matter theory. It is fairly non-intuitive. Do you know what evidence there is for the scaffolding explanation? That seems to imply that there are far longer continua of dark matter than of anything in visible matter. On a grape vine you can find a point in a grape and there is not far away you can get from it in the same grape. On the other hand, an ant crawling on just the vine could get to points on the same vine that are yards away. The vine really allows the ant to travel with some ease from grape to grape. To further mix the metaphor the vine is a sort of highway system connecting grapes. Getting from one grape to another is not easy, but pulling yourself along the vine would make it a lot easier. By pulling ourselves along or pushing against the dark matter, could we possibly find an easier way to get from galaxy to galaxy? I have no idea, but it is an intriguing idea. [-mrl]

Higher-Dimensional Spaces (letter of comment by Peter Rubinstein):

In response to Mark's comments on higher-dimensional spaces in the 11/12/10 issue of the MT VOID, Peter Rubinstein writes, "Perhaps I misunderstood the question. The answer I came up with was about 2.41421. The circle you come up with is tangential to the four circles, but so is the one I came up with. True, the four circles are internal to mine, but I don't think that impacts their tangential quality." [-pr]

Mark responds, "I knew not having a figure would get me. Yes, I meant the fifth circle to be internally tangent. Hopefully people will be able to pick up I am talking about the internally tangent circle." [-mrl]

Italy (letters of comment by Kip Williams and Keith F. Lynch):

In response to Evelyn's comments on books about Italy in the 11/12/10 issue of the MT VOID, Kip Williams writes:

Florence was a great place to have visited, but while we were there, all I kept noticing was that it didn't pay to look anywhere but at the ground where you would take your next step. Dogs seem to have been there. It was great to see the Academy, where I searched for one end of the Vasari Corridor and never found it. Just as we were leaving, I stumbled on an exhibit on the discovery of perspective, complete with cameras obscura and illusionistic room setups. I raced frantically through it, trying to see as much as possible of the fantastic stuff (which I'd have gladly sacrificed a lot of other material for). Lucky for me there was a book. The pictures are great, and I only have to learn Italian to read it.

The other great thing, for me, was the Pianta carvings in the ground floor of Saint Roch's School in Venice (I'm carefully using English terms so I won't make a clumsy error in Italian). These occupied a dimension between fully three-dimensional and flat, using ingenious methods to make the items real. Of special interest were shelves of carved wooden books, with a pair of reading spectacles (also of wood) carelessly left on top. I started taking pictures, then saw a sign forbidding it. I should have ignored it like everybody else.

I have at least another paragraph of petty irritations, irrelevant to everything. Let these sentences stand in for it. [-kw]

This led Keith F. Lynch to respond, "Did you take a picture of the sign? :-) Did you see a sign saying to obey all signs? I saw such a sign here in Virginia last Thursday. But I don't know if it applied to signs in Italy." [-kfl]

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

And wrapping up my comments on my readings for Italy...

I read the first half of ITALIAN JOURNEY by J. W. von Goethe (in SELECTED WORKS) (ISBN 0-375-41044-9) since that covered the areas we were visiting. Goethe may have traveled to Italy over two hundred years ago, but some things have not changed. Goethe talks about picking up bits of Roman mosaics as souvenirs (!), and complains about other tourists. But he was so eager to get to Rome that he apparently spent only a few hours in Florence, a decision that seems insane given Florence's history of art.

We also listened to The Teaching Company's course, "The History of Ancient Rome", and so I read several books in conjunction with that. This course covers the period from the earliest inhabitants of Italy to 476 C.E., the date traditionally given as the date of the "fall" of the (Western) Roman Empire. (The Eastern Roman Empire, a.k.a. the Byzantine Empire, based at Constantinople/Byzantium, lasted until 1453.)

THE CIVILIZATION OF ROME by Donald R. Dudley (no ISBN) wasn't on the Teaching Company course recommended list, but it seemed to go well as an adjunct, and we had it already. But I also read a lot of primary sources, all in the Penguin editions.

THE EARLY HISTORY OF ROME by Livy (translated by Aubrey de Selincourt) (ISBN 0-14-044104-2) is listed in the Teaching Company's materials as "Recommended Reading". (We don't actually read all the "Recommended Reading" for the courses we take, in part because many are not easily available at reasonable prices.) This covered the period from the founding of Rome to right before the First Punic War (264 B.C.E.), and it was far more readable and engaging that a lot of the modern books on the Road Scholar list. One thing one discovers reading it is that some things never change. The patricians fought against every attempt to give the plebians more power and also complained about all the taxes they had to pay. The plebians complained that they had to do all the fighting ("rich man's war, poor man's fight"), and how they had no relief from debt slavery when they were conscripted. (They would be conscripted and have to go off to fight, so could not work their farms to pay their debts; then when they returned, their creditors seized them as slaves.) When at one point the Senate decided to pay the army, those who had previously served complained that they hadn't been paid, and now their taxes were going to pay other people. (This sounds like the problems of Social Security in reverse--people now complain if any cut-backs are made, they will have paid taxes that won't benefit themselves.)

MAKERS OF ROME (ISBN 978-0-14-044158-1) and FALL OF THE ROMAN REPUBLIC (ISBN 978-0-14-044934-1) by Plutarch (both translated by Rex Warner) are two volumes of the Penguin set of selections from Plutarch's LIVES divided by topic. Again, many of the anecdotes seem very contemporary.

THE RISE OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE by Polybius (translated by Ian Scott- Kilvert) (ISBN 978-0-14-044362-2) covers 220 B.C.E. to 146 B.C.E. Since Polybius died in 118 B.C.E., what he is calling the Roman Empire clearly is distinct from "Imperial Rome", the time of the emperors covered by Suetonius, Tacitus, and Gibbon.

THE TWELVE CAESARS by Suetonius (ISBN 978-0-14-045516-8) was the basis for Robert Graves's (and hence the BBC'S) I, CLAUDIUS and covers the period from 100 B.C.E. to 96 C.E. (The "Twelve Caesars" are Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Gaius (Caligula), Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian.) And in fact, Robert Graves did the Penguin translation. This is probably the most popular of the classical works, because Suetonius was much more like, say, "People" magazine in the sorts of stories he tells than are the other authors. (Or maybe it is that there just are many more such stories about the emperors than about the various consuls of the Roman Republic.)

THE ANNALS OF IMPERIAL ROME by Tacitus (translated by Michael Grant) (ISBN 978-0-14-044060-7) covers an even shorter period, from 14 C.E. to 68 C.E. Unfortunately, I ran out of time before getting to this, but I mention it for completeness' sake.

THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE by Edward Gibbon (abridged, ISBN 978-0-14-043764-5) covers a much longer period, 98 C.E. to 1453 C.E., but I concentrated only on the first part, through 476 C.E. Again, a lot of what was going on then seems similar to what is going on now. For example, Gibbon says of Julian the Apostate, "He extended to all the inhabitants of the Roman world, the benefits of a free and equal toleration; and the only hardship which he inflicted on the Christians, was to deprive them of the power of tormenting their fellow-subjects, whom they stigmatised with the odious titles of idolaters and heretics," and, "As soon as the emnity of Julian deprived the clergy of the privileges which had been conferred by the favour of Constantine, they complained of the most cruel oppression; and the free toleration of idolaters and heretics was a subject of grief and scandal to the orthodox party." The latter particularly sounds familiar, as I hear various people complaining that their inability to have their religion's prayers led by teachers in public schools constitutes oppression.

However, Gibbon also falls prey to bias when he says, "According a principle, pregnant with mischief and oppression, the emperor [Julian] transferred, to the pontiffs of his own religion, the management of the liberal allowances from the public revenue, which had been granted to the church by the piety of Constantine and his sons." When the Christians got public money, it was piety; when the pagans got it, it was mischief and oppression.

Well, that about wraps it up for Italy for books. I also listened to Teaching Company courses on Ancient Rome and the Italian Renaissance and a UC Berkeley course on Ancient Rome, and watched a Teaching Company course on Michelangelo. (Yes, maybe I did go a little overboard for a two-week trip.) I have to say I will be happy to be able to spend more time on other topics now. [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

          Nowadays most men lead lives of noisy desperation.
                      -- James Thurber, Further Fables for Our Time

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