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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
07/22/11 -- Vol. 30, No. 4, Whole Number 1659
Table of Contents
Soothhearers Beware (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I have just seen a production of MACBETH in which the title character goes to the three witches. Recently I heard the story of how Croesus went to the Oracle of Delphi to ask if he should attack Cyrus. I think that if World Literature has any lesson for us, none comes across more clearly than that the world's most over- rated and unhelpful--not to say dangerous--commodity is sooth. On any enterprise you are planning, stay away from sooth. [-mrl]
3D Printer (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
A short piece from National Geographic shows fairly impressive demonstration of a 3D printer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZboxMsSz5Aw
They do not mention the cost of the process.
[Thanks to Sherry Glotzer for pointing this out. -mrl]
[ http://xkcd.com/924/ is pertinent to this as well. -ecl]
COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT (Part 1) (retrospective by Mark R. Leeper):
[This is not a review, but a retrospective. I will make no attempt to avoid spoilers.]
Under the direction of computer genius Dr. Charles Forbin (played by Eric Braeden) the United States has completed a project bigger than the Manhattan Project and probably even more secret. A huge computer has implemented an artificial intelligence program to do the job of the President of the United States. (Overlooking a few Constitutional issues) the computer, Colossus, is to be given the most visible job in the United States. It will replace the President of the United States (played by Gordon Pinsent) in matters of defense. The reins of power are given to the machine and the President has voluntarily relinquished his office. The handover takes place and a machine is running the country. Within minutes Colossus announces that it has detected another huge computer running the USSR, Guardian. Computers are running the two most powerful nations in the world. Then the two computers begin talking to each other. With no way to regulate the information being shared the President decides to shut down the communication link. But it is too late. The two computers have merged into one and refuse to let humans restrict what they do. And with the computers controlling nuclear missiles, the humans have to submit to the will of the machines.
From there the story follows pretty much the only arc it can. Forbin who worked for years to make Colossus unassailable now has to figure how to circumvent the system. Forbin arranges conjugal visits from Dr. Cleo Markham (Susan Clark). He falsely convinces the computer that Markham is his lover. She will meet with him four times a week, ostensibly for sex, but actually so she can be a courier and planner in a conspiracy to overcome Colossus. It an end much like that of Orwell's 1984 it is discovered that the government--in this case the computer--knows all about the conspiracy and it simply squelches it and continues with its plans.
While the story is presented very credibly one is left to question how viable the computer could be ruling the defense of a country. Computers are subject to any number of vulnerabilities. Hardware parts run out. Complex software systems reach a point of diminishing returns when an effort is made to correct their bugs. It probably is not possible to make such a program reliable enough to give confidence even to its designers, much less to the people, much less technically knowledgeable, who would have the voting power to determine if the system would be used. Basically the Manhattan Project did not require congressional approval while the creation of a computer to be given complete power on national defense most certainly would. Of course the President who is currently in charge of defense would also be subject to mistakes, but we know the kind of mistakes he would make and we know how they might be corrected. We could be much less sure what kind of errors are implicit in Colossus's software. And there are certainly large parts of Colossus's logic that would never have been exercised. I am tempted to say that the computer as described in the film is a technological impossibility, but one hesitates to say anything is a technological impossibility.
In some senses the story shows a lack of imagination. It is really another rehash of Mary Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN. The computer is created by Forbin, who then does not have sufficient means to control and guide it. Given that, what sorts of problems might arise? Someone really familiar with software could probably find some credible scenarios of how rule by computer could fail. But that is not what this story does. The story has the computer doing very much what a human attempt. The computer is given power and then just set free apparently without benefit of conscience. Of course that last point is moot. COLOSSUS seems to have a Utopian vision for humanity as it gives in a speech toward the end. Colossus behaves not as a computer would in its position, but in the way dictator would have. The computer has its utopian plan for the world and lets that end justify its means. Under the rule of the computer Colossus intends humanity will benefit in every way but one, the loss of its illusion of freedom. And Colossus says that that is not a bad bargain since freedom is an illusion anyway. (It is not clear how a computer would know this.)
More on this next week. [-mrl]
A Culinary Wasteland (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
We recently went to Worcester, Massachusetts, to see the art museum there, and afterwards tried to find someplace to eat. Now, admittedly this was on a Sunday, where restaurant hours vary, but it was still a culinary wasteland.
We started at 3PM with a list of restaurants from TripAdvisor and other web sites. Smokestack Urban BBQ did not open until 4:30PM. We couldn't find Corner Grill Pizza. The Miss Worcester Diner closed at 2PM (though frankly, it looked as if it had closed months earlier). The Wonder Bar Restaurant was closed, period. In fact, a lot of Worcester looked closed.
In desperation we asked our GPS for nearby restaurants and was given the Parkway Diner. It appeared to be open, so we parked and went in. There were two parts, a diner and a sports bar. The diner was ... wait for it ... closed. Apparently it is open only for breakfast. (Mark claims one requirement for something to be a diner is that it be open 24 hors a day. Evidently this is not true in Worcester.) The sports bar had a minimal menu, maybe two dozen subs, salads, and sandwiches. However, it was clear by this point that we were not going to find anything better.
Oh, I mentioned they had subs. That was what the menu called them. Gone are the "grinders" of my youth in Massachusetts, killed by (one suspects) Subway.
I have to contrast all this with New Jersey. People say that New Jersey has economic problems, but so far as I can tell, few areas look as deserted as Worcester, or Holyoke, or other Massachusetts manufacturing towns. It could be that I just haven't traveled to similar places in New Jersey, but even towns with many empty storefronts seem to have a wide range of open restaurants. [-ecl]
ALL CLEAR by Connie Willis (copyright 2010, Ballantine Books, $26.00, 641pp, ISBN 978-0-553-80767-7) (book review by Joe Karpierz):
So, since I was going to Colorado for two weeks to the home office on business, I decided to grab ALL CLEAR, figuring I would get time to read it. And I did--a lot. And then I came home--and I slowed down. But I did finish it--honestly--yesterday. Finally.
Much has been said and written about the combination of BLACKOUT and ALL CLEAR, this year's Connie Willis Hugo nominee. It's big-- really big (I think she's met George R. R. Martin). It's sprawling, it's vast, it has a lot of characters. It's also really complicated, at times confusing, hard to follow, bloated, and overblown.
It's also pretty good.
But this review is about ALL CLEAR, so I'll try to keep myself to that piece of the monster. ALL CLEAR picks up *exactly* where BLACKOUT left off. There's no introduction, no "what has gone on before", etc. I think everyone who's reading this knows that BLACKOUT/ALL CLEAR was meant to be one book, but because of its size was chopped in an arbitrary place to be sold as two books. So, if you haven't read BLACKOUT, please, don't pick up ALL CLEAR and dive in. You'll drown.
Our three time travelers are still lost in the World War II time frame, trying to find a way home. The Oxford time travel group back in 2060, let by Mr. Dunworthy and Colin, are desperately trying to find them to bring them home. The lost travelers are trying to leave messages all over the place in an effort to clue in the retrieval teams that are supposed to be picking them up of their locations. As time passes, the lost travelers start to feel like they'll never go home. Their drops aren't opening, and the time continuum seems to be conspiring against them.
Then Mr. Dunworthy shows up, but he has bad news. He believes that the continuum is not so much preventing changes in itself as it is correcting them by shutting down the drops and getting rid of people that have come into contact with the infectious time travelling agents. And he himself is now stuck in the past as well, trying, and failing, to come back and rescue Polly, Merope, and Michael (I thought I should mention the names of our lost travelers).
Slowly but surely, Willis introduces a future timeslice which is used to tell the reader how this is all sorted out. Each chapter in both books contains the date on which it happened. This is supposed to help keep the reader on track as to what is going on when and where. However, what it also is is a clue as to how everything is put together and flowing, how everything fits, and how, if the reader actually paid attention to those dates and times, the reader could figure it out all on his or her own--or at least have a really good idea of what's going on. For the record, I didn't pay that much attention. Oops.
Once again, since I have virtually no knowledge of World War II and the peoples and places of England and what happened where, I have to be impressed with Willis' knowledge of the period. The detail is terrific. The characters are also magnificent, and not just our heroes. Characters like Binnie and Alf, the two urchins who seemingly screw up everything but really are doing quite the opposite are both annoying and funny. Lord Godfrey, a Shakespearian actor who pretty much falls in love with Polly, steals his scenes and you almost wish the crew could bring him back to the future. The list goes on.
The interesting concept to me is a sort of intelligent, self-aware time continuum that is trying to keep itself together and proper. It's a different concept, to be sure, and something that I enjoyed, although I still have a bit of a hard time getting my head around it.
All in all, I enjoyed BLACKOUT/ALL CLEAR, although it could have used a bit of editing--I don't think it needed to be this long. However, someday down the road, I might read these books again, just to get a better look at the depth of the story, and follow its complicated twists and turns a little better.
So. Four nominees complete. BLACKOUT/ALL CLEAR is definitely the best of the bunch so far, so my statement on that panel at Capricon still holds. But is it really Hugo material? I don't know. It won the Nebula and Locus Awards, so I guess it will get some consideration. Whether I will vote for it remains to be seen.
Next up, THE DERVISH HOUSE. [-jak]
Submarines and Worldcon Book Discussions (letter of comment by John Hertz):
In response to Rob Mitchell's comments on U-571 in the 06/03/11 issue of the MT VOID, John Hertz writes:
Rob Mitchell's comment ... about the film U-571 reminded me of the U-505. But the U-505 after capture was towed (1,700 miles!). The salvage crew only had to operate some of her, feat enough. [-jh]
Someone can correct me if I have this wrong, but I seem to remember the capture and indiscrete towing of U-505 and its Enigma machine was a *huge* military blunder. An Enigma machine had already been captured, and it was done with a lot more discretion. When the Americans captured U-505 it could have easily tipped off the Germans that we had an Enigma machine. Someone was grand-standing and could have done a lot of damage. Luckily, if the Germans found out we had a machine it did not seem to make the decoding task any more difficult.
Also, the British again got angry at Americans when the film U-571 suggested it was the Americans who first captured an Enigma machine. Actually it was the British. I have received complaints that the Americans were grabbing false credit when they made that film. My response was simply to point out David Lean's film THE SOUND BARRIER (a.k.a. BREAKING THE SOUND BARRIER). That film implied it was the British aerospace engineers who first broke the sound barrier. [-mrl]
In response to the listings of book discussions at Worldcon in the same issue, John writes:
About book talks at the Reno Worldcon, I've for a while been encouraging discussion at cons of s-f classics. We did some at L.A.con IV. At Noreascon IV it was irresistible to tie this to the Retro-Hugos. At Denvention III we did a set "Wonders of 1958". For Reno, I nominated WONDERFUL FLIGHT TO THE MUSHROOM PLANET, THE WANDERER, and FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON. These were adopted; I was assigned to provide notes for them on the Website[*], and lead talks of them at the con. Michael Walsh has warned of Verne translations into English; I was on a panel about this at Anticipation with Art Evans and Donald Hassler. The concom added two other books, ON STRANGER TIDES (discussion to be led by Jim Mann) and FIRE AND HEMLOCK (to be led by Farah Mendlesohn). [-jh]
[* http://www.renovationsf.org/program-books.php I note that the warning about translations is not mentioned on this web page. -ecl]
Pi/Tau Controversy (letter of comment by Dave Anolick):
In response to Mark's comments on the pi-tau controversy in the 07/15/11 issue if the MT VOID, Dave Anolick writes:
Check out the video again, at the 4 minute mark. It talks about this:
"And Euler's beautiful identity becomes e^(i*tau/2)+1=0. That is not nearly as nice as e^(i*pi)+1=0."
Euler's equation becomes e^(i*tau) = 1. Still beautiful and elegant. I'm not a math guru. I took my share in college to get my engineering degree, but since then I haven't used it much except for "fun" or to teach my kids. But the more I read about tau the more I think it is much more elegant than pi. My daughters did not pick up my love/skill for math, and teaching them, and remembering radians, I really think tau just makes more sense.
It may not be possible to change 4000 years of mathematic inertia, but it is at least an interest debate. [-da]
Ya got me. I watched only the first two minutes of the video and did not realize the video addressed Euler's identity. And she and you say what I expected: e^(i*tau) = 1. Beauty and elegance is in the eye and mind of the beholder. (And I don't really believe that it is a strong argument against using tau to say that it would devalue Euler's identity. But it is one argument.)
Let me tell you why I don't find e^(i*tau) = 1 quite as beautiful and elegant. When Euler tells us e^(i*pi) + 1 = 0, this is a rare and beautiful property of e. e^(i*tau) = 1 is not such a big deal, since it is a property of e but also a property of 1. Specifically 1^(i*tau) = 1. If it is a property that e shares with 1, it is not so rare and interesting a property.
This makes a good question to the readers. For what values of K is it an identity that K^(i*pi) + 1 = 0 and for what values is of L is true that L^(i*tau) = 1 is an identity. [-mrl]
Princesses (letter of comment by Kip Williams):
In response to the comments on princesses in the 07/08/11 and 07/15/11 issues of the MT VOID, Kip Williams writes:
Sarah is past princesses. She was given a dress-up set when she was four or five, but since then she has declared that she won't wear dresses, and she prefers playing stuff that's more often aimed at boys. In China the past couple of weeks, we sometimes took the easy way out for the odd meal--McDonald's. They had Kids' Meal toys from Kung-Fu Panda; toys that seemed nicer than what she sometimes gets. After two great toys, we went back (this was one day later than the second one) and the toy was some fluffy pink sheep-thing. We asked why it wasn't Panda related, and got a sort of shrug, though the Panda material was still on display. So we left it sitting on the counter and walked away without it. (See: Life, shortness of)
British comic weeklies, particularly the ones I've seen from the 1960s-1970s, seem to occupy a world of fantasy wish fulfillment. The general-circulation ones have kids (most often boys) being given wonderful gizmos that can make consumer goods appear in copious plentitude. You get the idea that kids were poverty stricken and longed to read about kids who had lots of junk to play with. The girl-oriented comics are all about girls who, by being meek and respectful long enough, are given Wonderful Things, perhaps by some unsuspected relative. They get tormented for a while by the snide girls and mean women, and then they Princess out and end the story smiling over their bright future. [-kw]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
WHEN ANGELS WEPT: A WHAT-IF HISTORY OF THE CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS by Eric G. Swedin (ISBN 978-1-59797-517-9) is an alternate history somewhat in the style of Robert Sobel's FOR WANT OF A NAIL, an alternate history presented as a non-fiction book written in the alternate universe (in this case, one in which the Cuban missile crisis turned out differently). But where Sobel carried the technique through to footnotes, endnotes, bibliography, etc., Swedin "breaks character" with his introduction, prologue, "further sources" at the end of each chapter, and so on. Also, the style seems a bit wrong for non-fiction, though I have a hard time pinning down why. I suppose it seems too casual and simplistic for the topic.
One specific nit I have to pick is over Swedin's contention that Torrejon Air Force Base near Madrid would not be targeted. True, Spain was not in NATO at the time, but nevertheless this was a major United States military installation in Europe. I am particularly aware of this because we were an Air Force family and at the time of the Cuban missile crisis my father was stationed at Torrejon. The rest of the family was stateside, living a few hundred feet from Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois. (My school was only about fifty feet from the base perimeter fence. We all knew that for us, "duck and cover" was pretty useless.)
Swedin also says that the Middle East was not touched by "the Fire", but he does not indicate how the politics of the region played out when the two super-powers were no longer around to provide support or weapons (or curbs) to the two sides.
GOD IS NOT ONE: THE EIGHT RIVAL RELIGIONS THAT RUN THE WORLD--AND WHY THEIR DIFFERENCES MATTER by Stephen Prothero (ISBN 978-0-06- 157127-5) gives you the premise--that contrary to popular talk these days, all religions are *not* the same underneath--in the introduction, then spends eight chapters giving the reader the basics of what Prothero has decided are the eight religions Prothero thinks are most important, either because of influence or because of number of adherents: Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba religion, Judaism, and Daoism. (Prothero bases the order on contemporary impact.)
For some of the religions, I cannot say whether Prothero got all the details right, but he did make at least one error on Judaism. He writes, "Like the term Torah in Judaism, which refers in a narrow sense to the five books of Moses ... and in a more expansive to the entire Hebrew Bible..." The "entire Hebrew Bible" is not called the Torah, it is called the Tanakh, an acronym for Torah, Nviim (prophets), and Ketuvim (writings). (It is an acronym because most vowels are not written in Hebrew.) And in addition to the Tanakh, there are also the Mishnah and the Talmud(s), which Prothero later also includes in the Torah.
Overall what is missing, I think, is a table highlighting the key differences among the religions: whether they believe in a God or gods (or no god), whether the god(s) have a body, whether humans have souls, whether sin exists, whether there is a self, whether existence is circular or linear, and so on. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: If people do not believe that mathematics is simple, it is only because they do not realize how complicated life is. --John von Neumann
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