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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
12/30/11 -- Vol. 30, No. 27, Whole Number 1682
Table of Contents
Science Fiction (and Other) Discussion Groups (NJ)
January 5, 2012: SELECTED STORIES OF THEODORE STURGEON, Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM (note different Thursday) January 12: SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES by Ray Bradbury, Middletown (NJ) Public Library, film at 5:30PM, discussion after film February 16: THE HIDDEN LIFE OF DOGS by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM (postponed from December) March 22: EXPEDITION TO EARTH by Sir Arthur C. Clarke, Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM May 24: OF MEN AND MONSTERS by William Tenn, Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM July 19: SCHILD'S LADDER by Greg Egan, Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM September 27: CYBERIAD by Stanislaw Lem, Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM November 15: TRIGGERS by Robert J. Sawyer (tentative), Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM
Northern New Jersey events are listed at: http://www.sfsnnj.com/news.html
Anticipation (Worldcon 2009) Convention Report Available (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
My full Anticipation (Worldcon 2009) convention report (with panel descriptions) is finally available at:
[If this seems late, consider that TAFF and DUFF reports (required by the rules) often take ten years or more).]
Charity Appeal (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Being sick is bad enough. Think how much more dreary it would be to have all your ice cream and cupcakes drab, naked, and undecorated. Give to the Jimmy Fund. [-mrl]
My Picks for Turner Classic Movies for January 2012 (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
This is my monthly guide to the interesting films coming up on Turner Classic Movies. Well, the first order of business is to explain why there was no similar article for the month of December. I think that the problem was, at least in part, that it was a holiday month and holiday films are usually just not very interesting and frequently they are overly-familiar, with some exceptions. In any case I did not have enough films worth building an article around, as I told the people who asked. January is looking a little better.
Fans of 1950s science fiction should take a look at a film that is neither 1950s nor science fiction. That film is THE BEGINNING OR THE END. No, this is not THE BEGINNING OF THE END, the Bert I. Gordon giant grasshopper film made a decade later. THE BEGINNING OR THE END was MGM's 1947 film that told a somewhat inaccurate retelling of the history of the Manhattan Project that did the difficult task of exaggerating the importance of harnessing nuclear power and building the bombs that ended World War II. The claim is that the film had to be scientifically accurate because the government oversaw the film's production. In fact, the government was intentionally being inaccurate so that no nuclear secrets would be divulged. Norman Taurog directed and MGM made the film out to be one of the most important films ever made. You should see the MGM short shot to publicize the movie, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wvmQWzGyVWs. In it people are interviewed as they come out of the theater having seen a sneak preview. The people are absolutely gob-smacked by the stupendous film they have just seen. The short film could only have been more effective if the theater manager did not look and sound a heck of a lot like Morris Ankrum. Some of the attendees also look a bit familiar. I have not seen this film since the 1950s so I cannot comment much on the quality, but the visual style certainly contributed to science fiction films that would follow. (Monday, January 2, 6:00 AM)
Speaking about films with terrifying new weapons, TCM will run THE SATAN BUG. Get this; the director is John Sturges just after he did THE GREAT ESCAPE. It is loosely based on a novel by Ian Stuart, better known as Alistair MacLean. Adapting it is James Clavell, who later would write the novel SHOGUN. For all that it is not really the super-thriller that I would have expected, but it is a decent suspense film. The dialog is impressive, borrowed from MacLean:
"There's something beyond botulinis?"
"Yes, the second weapon. Also a virus, airborne. But self- perpetuating. Indestructible. Once released it will multiply at a power beyond our calculations. It perhaps will never die. To this virus we have given a highly unscientific name, but one which describes it perfectly: 'The Satan Bug'. If I took the flask which contains it and exposed it to the air, everyone here would be dead in three seconds. California would be a tomb in a few hours. In a week all life, and I mean all life, would cease in the United States. In two months, two months at the most, the trapper from Alaska, the peasant from the Yangtze, the Aborigine from Australia is dead. All dead, because I crushed a flask and exposed a green colored liquid to the air. Nothing, nothing can stop the Satan Bug."
This is a film that does not need more than a mundane plot. The dialog is enough to scare you. The film stars George Maharis, Richard Basehart, Anne Francis, Dana Andrews, Edward Asner, and in a small role James Doohan. (Tuesday, January 10, 12AM).
Speaking of thrillers, TCM will run THE VANISHING (1988). This is the original subtitled Dutch version, not the remake with the ending that some dim bulb thought would go down better with Americans, and which betrays the whole story. This one is a good thriller and suspense film. A young couple on vacation stops at a service station. The girl goes in and never comes back to the car. Three years later Rex Hofman is still trying to find out what happened to his Saskia. The question becomes how much is he willing to risk and to sacrifice to find out what happened to the woman he loves. (Monday, January 30, 2:00 AM).
SWEENEY TODD: DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET (1982) is the original stage show that Tim Burton's film was based on. His version had a lot of nice visual effects, but Johnny Depp just does not have the stature to play Sweeney Todd. Todd needs to be big and imposing. Depp does not have the voice needed for the part. I saw the play on Broadway, but I was too far away from the action to be pulled into it. I liked it better when I saw a local production, but could get close enough to see the actors' expression. But the version I liked best was this one, which I think was made for cable TV. In this one gets up close to the faces of Sweeney Todd (the commanding George Hearn) and Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett. Don't reject this because it is a musical. It is still a great film. (Wednesday, January 25, 9:00 PM)
Other films recommended this month (which makes up for December) are PORTRAIT OF JENNIE; GOODBYE MY LADY; HYSTERIA (1965, not great, but notable for being a Hammer film directed by Freddie Francis and written by Jimmy Sangster); THE WORLD, THE FLESH, AND THE DEVIL (covered on the B-movie Podcast); and PRESSURE POINT.
New Year's Resolutions (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
If you are having problems coming up with New Year's resolutions, I have a couple of suggestions:
1. I will not send out cards with glitter, confetti, or anything else that will then detach itself on the recipients, their clothes, their furniture, their dinner, and anything else within a twenty- foot radius and remain visible there until at least Three Kings's Day.
2. I will not give holiday-specific gifts to people unless I know they celebrate the holiday. A Christmas coffee mug (even one with just stockings and candy canes) is not going to be used in a Jewish household, any more than a Baptist household will be thrilled to receive a mug with the Angel Moroni on it. [-ecl]
Suppose They Had a Singularity and Nobody Noticed? (comments by Dale L. Skran, Jr.):
More concretely, suppose the Vingean Singularity has already occurred. Here I am talking about the Singularity as SF writer Vernor Vinge defined it in his seminal article in 1993, a link to which can be found here: http://mindstalk.net/vinge/vinge-sing.html. Vinge is not talking about a mystical rapture for the nerds where we all become immortal and super-rich, flying around the galaxy in our nano-tech built diamond starships. Instead he has defined the Singularity as the point in history at which an un- enhanced human can no longer comprehend what is happening. Although Vinge provides some pointers to the Singularity in TRUE NAMES, his best fictional treatment is MAROONED IN REAL TIME, to which I give the highest recommendation. In his essay, he lays out four methods by which he thinks the Singularity might come about, quoted here:
Very recently a short video of Vinge has surfaced where he addressed the issue of whether you would notice the Singularity when it happens. You can find this video at the following link: http://tinyurl.com/void-obvious-singularity. I beg to differ--I think it is a lot more likely that it will be a long time before the actual moment of the Singularity becomes publically known in a widespread fashion.
In the video Vinge speculates that very obvious things might happen, such as a mountain range appearing where an island was the day before. He is certainly correct that this would be obvious, but there is no reason to think such events would immediately follow the Singularity per se. Vinge also correctly notes that if you are the Singularity, i.e., you personally become super- intelligent, then trivially you will know that the Singularity has occurred.
Let's review each of the methods by which Vinge thinks the Singularity might occur, and consider how visible they would be. In the video, Vinge splashes cold water on genetic engineering of humans as being so slow as to be the least likely path to the Singularity. It would, of course, be fairly easy to track due to the long test interval for genetic changes, and most probably highly visible. I agree with Vinge that regardless of the desirability of human modification, this is by far the least likely path to super-intelligence.
The other three examples all share the common characteristic that they will initially occur in some particular machine, or in some particular human/machine linkage. Thus, the machine, or the human/machine linkage will know that it has become super- intelligent. It is quite unclear how quickly anyone else will figure this out. It is always possible that the new ''Singularity'' will be rushed to public demonstration along the lines of the recent Waston vs. the Jeopardy champions event, but it seems just as likely that the new entity may decide to avoid publicity, or even conceal its transcendence from its makers or associates.
It is often assumed that the Singularity will occur as the result of a large government or corporate program, which by its very nature has high visibility. It could also occur in a group of graduate students collaborating on a project using the latest machine learning technology, far from the public view. What motive would such a group have to go public, when by remaining incognito, they would be free to use their superior intelligence to play the stock market, gamble, or do whatever else they might wish to do, untrammeled by public regulation or concern? Check out the movie 21 concerning card counting MIT students (based on actual events) run wild for some insight into this scenario. More importantly, how can we be confident that such transcendence has not already occurred?
If this is the path to the Singularity, my money is that we will only notice that it has occurred when a second group transcends and comes into conflict with the first. Again, this may have already occurred. We currently appear to be in the midst of a large-scale cyber war, which now and then [Stuxnet] has physical effects. The pundits blame the US and Israel, but in truth no one really knows who is responsible for what is happening. Does anyone really understand the recent economic problems? You see where I am going with this ...
The simple reality is that if the man in the street became convinced that Skynet was taking over or that weird nerds were now super-intelligent, there would probably be riots in the street and great instability. A transcended entity would seek to avoid such scenarios at all costs. Such entities might work through familiar, safe structures like corporations to achieve their ends. For example, if they wished to move to the asteroid belt, they might seek to create a series of corporations working on different aspects of moving into space, each with its own business plan and goals, companies like SpaceX, StratoLaunch, Blue Origin, Xcor, etc.. The difference between this scenario and what is actually happening in the commercial space field is unclear.
Another possibility exists. I have recently completed an on-line course in Machine Learning offered by Stanford, and it has been quite enlightening to come to a deeper understanding of how the technology used by companies like Google and Amazon really works. Absent a lot of math and several weeks of lectures, I can't prove this, but I assure you that Google page rank is in some real sense already super-humanly intelligent. It is better at ranking page hits relative to what you want to see than any human or collection of humans could ever be. It is really learning every time you try a search, continuously adjusting itself to do better at meeting your needs. How this learning works is quite different from how the human mind works, but functionally the same, and quite unlike earlier attempts at AI based on languages like Prolog and APL.
These kinds of technologies raise the real possibility of everything around us becoming more and more intelligent, even super-humanly intelligent, in some specific way, but not in any general way. The capabilities of our laptops, iPads, and mobile phones will become ever more magical, but there will not be any obvious transition to super-human general intelligence. Each of us will become like the CEO of a large corporation, directing thousands or millions of workers using high level commands and directions, but having no real understanding of how anything gets done in detail. Apple's SIRI is another step in this direction, which is also based on machine learning technology. We will be functionally super-intelligent, but not consciously super- intelligent.
The "Skeptic" column in the January 2012 "Scientific American" by Michael Shermer throws cold water on the idea of the Singularity, arguing mainly that super-intelligence is impossible without self- awareness of that intelligence. Thus, Watson cannot be said to have beaten Ken Jennings because it does not *know* that it has beaten Jennings. There is a certain vacuous triviality to this argument, rather like saying that an airplane cannot be said to fly because it does not flap its wings! Shermer also suggests that since we don't really understand how a roundworm thinks, we are a long way from understanding or reproducing human level intelligence. However, it is not required to understand in fine detail how a machine creates an intelligent result, merely that it is capable of doing so. We already have a wide array of machine learning technologies, none of which can be understood in detail in any meaningful fashion by even the most intelligent human, yet they, albeit in a very narrow domain, produce super-intelligent results. One illustration of such technology is found in the very same issue of Scientific American in an article titled ''The Department of Pre-Crime'' by James Vlahos. Vlahos describes Blue CRUSH (Crime Reduction Utilizing Statistical History), a program that predicts when and where crimes will occur. Note that unlike in MINORITY REPORT, the pattern of crime is predicted, not the name of the criminal. On first reading, it would appear Blue CRUSH is a mere statistical tool, but a more detailed reading shows that the software performs ''Rule Induction'' or the automatic creation of theories about where crime will occur. So far Blue CRUSH appears to have resulted in crime in Memphis dropping much faster than in the rest of the United States. As in all such programs, the results are somewhat controversial, but my main point is that the program produces good results and operates so that the details of its operation cannot be followed by a human.
There would be no sudden leaps in such an evolution. We would seamlessly be propelled into the future, never quite realizing how fast the train was going. THE GENTLE SEDUCTION by Marc Steigler [see the full text at http://www.skyhunter.com/marcs/GentleSeduction.html] captures this scenario to some degree. One weakness of THE GENTLE SEDUCTION is that it implicitly assumes that our greater intelligence will result in greater control over the universe and much more powerful tools. This may turn out not to be true.
Consider another example of how the Singularity may have already occurred. There are already people with vastly greater intelligence than IQ100. The feats of Gauss, of von Neumann, of Erdos, and others are legendary. Yet such individuals might be 100x of timers smarter still, and they would still be stuck in the same world with the rest of us--not immortal, plagued by outrageous fortune, etc. Mere intelligence might lead only to more complicated (and longer!) novels and cooler versions of HALO, but not any kind of useful technology.
I am pretty confident that Vinge is correct, and that a technological Singularity will fairly soon [if it has not done so already] lead to incomprehensible super-human intelligences. The question of interest is whether this will ultimately make much difference in our lives or simply lead to a long future of ever more elaborated role-playing games. Time will tell. Concretely, I don't think there is or ever will be any magical technology to transform islands into mountain ranges. Reality rules. [-dls]
THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN (film review by Dale L. Skran, Jr.):
As a long-time fan of Herge's Tintin, I was delighted to finally see this classic character brought to the big 3D screen by the team of Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson. In the spirit of most of the recent superhero films, the movie is a pastiche of more than one Tintin adventure, but it certainly captures the vibrant sprit of the adventurous Tintin. Herge, rather like Carl Barks, created realistic backgrounds and interesting stories, many of a science fictional or fantastic nature, but populated those stories with compelling cartoon characters.
TINTIN captures well the character of Tintin, a daring and capable young reporter (wherever did he learn to shoot that well?), his super-smart dog Snowy, and Captain Haddock, an alcohol fueled old salt. The voice cast is strong, with Andy Serkis playing Captain Haddock, and Daniel Craig the main villain, Red Rackham/Ivan Sakharine. Although the movie combines elements from two of the comics--THE CRAB WITH THE GOLDEN CLAW and THE SECRET OF THE UNICORN--the mixing is pretty seamless and very much in the madcap adventure vein Herge followed. Large segments are taken directly from both the comics, and these work well.
On occasion, Haddock's alcoholism is carried to an absurd level, as in the airplane scene, but this is the only excess in the movie I really objected to. I missed the actual villains from the comic, the Bird Brothers, evil antique dealers extraordinaire, but it was delightful to see so much of the comics in the movie. The motion capture works well, and if the movie seems like Indiana Jones, it's because in some large part because Indiana Jones is derivative of Tintin, and not the reverse.
It's hard to rate a movie like this, and mileage will vary, but it's in the +1 to +2 range on the -4/+4 scale. I expect TINTIN will win a lot of technical awards, and it will also be a global box office success, although perhaps less so in the US. US audiences may find its Europeanisms off-putting, and the broad humorous usage of alcohol may be jarring to some. My family loved it, and I'd recommend it as a great Christmas/New Years movie. TINTIN is rated PG, and would be acceptable to virtually all moviegoers except those who soberly object to seeing a lot of on- screen drinking. [-dls]
Top Movies (letter of comment by Art Stadlin):
Art Stadlin writes:
Question: Can you recommend a list or web site that has the top movies by year for the past, say, fifty or sixty years? Or a site that has a list of the top 100 (or whatever number) of movies of all time? [-as]
I had not thought to look for the top films for each year at a single web stop, but I figured I could find one with Google. For IMDB-top-rated films each of the last years there is a site: http://www.listal.com/list/imdbs-top-movies-year.
This is not an official IMDB site, but it has the information you are looked for. (And the first thing I see is a typo. They mean TOY STORY 3 when they refer to TOY STORY 2 in 2009.)
As for IMDB's top 100 (actually 250) films of all time, no matter what year, that is at http://www.imdb.com/chart/top. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
I was writing up the panels from the Montreal Worldcon, and the last one I attended was a discussion of the "Mundane Manifesto". This was written in 2004 by Geoff Ryman and other writers at the Clarion workshop and begins:
The Mundanes recognize
- That interstellar travel remains unlikely. Warp drives, worm holes, and other forms of faster-than-light magic are wish fulfillment fantasies rather than serious speculation about a possible future.
- That magic interstellar travel can lead to an illusion of a universe abundant with worlds as hospitable to life as this Earth. This is also unlikely.
This is a promising beginning, in the sense that having so much science fiction be this sort of wish fulfillment can lead to a sort of "CSI Effect", where the average person in the street thinks all these things are possible.
However, I disagree with a few of the Manifesto's points. It says, "That there is no evidence whatsoever that quantum uncertainty has any effect at the macro level and that therefore it is highly unlikely that there are whole alternative universes to be visited." Certainly televisions science shows seem to promote the idea of the multiverse--what we call alternative universes. I do agree with the Manifesto that it is highly unlikely we can visit these alternative universes. But later, the Manifesto says, "The Mundanes promise to produce a collection of mundane science fiction consisting of stories that follow these rules: ... no alternative universes or parallel worlds." This would seem to rule out alternative universes altogether, not just the concept of traveling between such worlds.
Similarly, it says, "The Mundanes promise to produce a collection of mundane science fiction consisting of stories that follow these rules: ... No aliens unless the connection is distant, difficult, tenuous, and expensive--and they have no interstellar travel either." Ryman here seems to have an implicit assumption that science fiction will have humans, because there really seems to be no reason not to allow aliens with no connections to humans whatsoever (e.g., as John Brunner did in THE CRUCIBLE OF TIME). [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: It is impossible to imagine Goethe or Beethoven being good at billiards or golf. --H. L. MenckenTweet
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