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Letters to the Editor, September 2001


This a traditional letter column. You are encouraged to write a letter of comment on anything that you find worthy of comment. It will (may) be published in this column along with my reply. As editor I reserve the right to delete material; however I will not alter the undeleted material. E-mail to me that solely references the contents of this site will be assumed to be publishable mail. All other e-mail is assumed to be private. And, of course, anything marked not for publication is not for publication. Oh yes, letters of appreciation for the scholarly resources provided by this site will be handled very discreetly. This page contains the correspondence for September 2001.

Index of contributors

Mark L. Olson
moneyman
Isabelle Leboeuf
JC
Olivier Bernhard
Rebj52
Bill Stark
Archrynut1
Mike
SHEIKYUSUF
Carl Howells
Mattias Thuresson
Maggy
PwC Ratings
farid.bouabdallah
john
mammoth410
nn
Paul J. Gans

Other Correspondence Pages

Archived Letters For 1996
Archived Letters For 1997
Master page for correspondence
January 2001 Letters
February 2001 Letters
March 2001 Letters
April 2001 Letters
May 2001 Letters
June 2001 Letters
July 2001 Letters
August 2001 Letters

From: "Mark L. Olson" (mlo@baskerville.org)
Date: 9/14/2001
Subj: The Death of SF

Mr. Harter --

That was a great article on the death of SF, but I have quibbles.

Of course you do. Any right thinking SF reader would.
You proclaim the death of hard SF, describing it as "almost extinct". I don't see that at all. No matter how you define hard SF, there's at least as much of it being written now as there ever was. Granted, it's not as large a fraction of the field as it was, but the field is a lot larger.

Assuming you define hard SF as SF where the science really matters, there never have been more than a few people writing it. Take 1950. I honestly can't think of anyone other than Hal Clement who was writing hard SF at the time -- perhaps Phillip Latham? Heinlein was writing social SF, Clarke shaggy dog stories, Asimov wrote historical epics, Anderson pulp adventure, Campbell had long stopped writing, and so had George O. Smith, I think. There were undoubtedly a few minor writers who wrote hard SF (and, doubtless, at least one major writer I've forgotten.)

The Xi Effect (by Philip Latham) was in ASF in 1950. In response to your citing 1950 I went back and looked at ASF for the year 1950. Some one of these days when I am done with painting and plastering and such like I will sit down and reread my run of ASF. Maybe I will even struggle through the last ten years - it is sentiment alone that keeps my subscription going.

Be that as it may, it is a mistake to say X was writing hard SF and Y was not. There were quite a few authors writing SF (few of them making a living at it) then. Any given author might write a hard SF story and most did at one time or another, particularly as short stories.

One trouble is that hard SF, like pornography, is one of those "I know it when I see it" things. [Double entendre duly noted.] If one defines hard SF as a Clementian sequence of science adventures chained together then it may be that only Clement truly wrote hard SF. Let's see. A Subway Named Mobius appeared in 1950. Unless you are obdurate about not counting mathematics as being eligible as science that should count as hard SF. What about To The Stars by L. Ron Hubbard? (Feb/Mar 1950 ASF) Relativistic time dilation is essential to the story?

It's not that different today. Depending on how you count them, there are a handful writing today: Greg Egan, certainly. Stephen Baxter, probably. Vernor Vinge? -- probably not: his science is too far-future to be hard.

If you define "hard SF" broadly enough that you've got a bunch of people writing it in 1950, you've got even more writing it today. Now Vinge's in for sure, as are Greg Bear and Larry Niven and Alastair Reynolds and a half-dozen others.

Hard SF is bigger than it has ever been, but its influence on SF has declined as the field has widened.

You may be right.
You comment that writers like Glen Cook, Steven Brust, Robert Jordan, and David Eddings are treated as SF. Well, that's part of the fantasy expansion: but how different are they than a half-century ago when a lot of de Camp's work or Robert E. Howard's were both among the first things to see print as SF hardcovers.
You have to remember that I was buying hardcover SF 50 years ago - and paperbacks and SF magazines. I don't think that de Camp had anything SF in hardcover at that time. Howard, Burroughs, and Merritt did but they were writing before SF came into being as a separate genre and were writing in an older tradition. There wasn't much available in SF hardcovers at that time. There was the Putnam SF classics series and the specialty houses such as Shasta and Gnome. The people that were being published (and the works) were mostly classics by people like Heinlein and Asimov. [A number of the books on my shelves would probably be worth a fair bit of money if they were in better condition.]

Be that as it may in 1950 you had the SF pulps (approximately 25 magazine titles) and a handful of hardcovers. For fantasy you had a handful of authors writing out of older traditions. Today if you look at the bookrack in B&N et cetera perhaps 30% of the shelf space is media tie-ins (star.*) or dragonlance equivalents shelved separately. When you look at the SFF section proper about 75% of that is fantasy or alternate history. What is left is a limp tail that definitely isn't wagging the dog.

You're doubtless right about the Singularity being really the rising part of an S-curve, but the real question there is just how high the slope is when we hit the middle. If we've already hit it, then there is no Vingean Singularity -- civilization never becomes incomprehensible to pre-Singularity cultures. But if the inflection point is still 20-30 years in the future, I think a Vingean Singularity will happen -- and we'll have the pleasure (?) of witnessing it.
The Vingean Singularity is a pleasant bit of hokum. The notion of later civilization being incomprehensible to earlier cultures is tricky. Suppose we snatch Julius Caesar to modern times. Would he really find our world incomprehensible? After all, cannot members of pre-literate hunter/gatherer tribes make the transition to the modern world? The technology of today may be stunning by their standards but it is, after all, organized around human needs and human psychology. OTOH if we alter what it means to be human ...
About thirty years ago I got a copy of Herman Kahn's *The Year 2000* which was fabulous and frustrating. Fabulous because it was a real attempt to project the future, but so damn frustrating because he dealt with simple exponentials everywhere and managed to prove what he wanted to.
I still have it. I had meant to sit down last year and go through it and score him on how well he did but I never got around to it. More ominously I'm rereading Models of Doom which was a serious critique of the Forrester models of the future (Limits to growth and the Club of Rome report). The criticisms made in Models of Doom were all cogent and acute. None-the-less we are right on track for the projections made 30 years ago. Those curves predict a quite different, ah, singularity.
(Have you read the new edition of Michael Flynn's marvelous In the Country of the Blind? Besides a fine novel, he's updated his huge appendix on mathematical history. Very interesting reading!)
Having read it in ASF (and article he wrote on the subject in ASF) I never bothered to pick up the book version. This appears to have been a mistake.

... continued on next rock ...

[ASF in the 90's]

I fear your sentiment will be spent before you finish reading the 90's. (Though at Worldcon someone noted that Analog has been running a lot more stories in the SF Romance genre lately and it was speculated that a paradigm shift was happening. If so, poor old JWC must really be spinning.)

I've read almost nothing from the 90's. However a local minister (female) who is enamoured of Catherine Asaro borrowed all of my issues containing Asaro stories. If she weren't married I'd think about getting religion.
[Old de Camp novels in hardcover]

Unless I'm misremembering, I think he had several Gnome Press editions -- some of his Viagens series. And his Unknown novels with Pratt were in print in book form very early.

I don't know about Gnome Press. I do have a copy of The Undesired Princess dated 1951 from Fantasy Press (?) so I stand corrected.
[Decline of "real" science fiction]

But there's also a second effect of the same sort. In 1950, what SF there was was ours. It was within the genre and written, edited and purchased by fans.

Today, the SF genre is only a tiny part of SF because SF has been absorbed into the popular culture. When a mundane corporation will think nothing about using a reference to alternate history time travel or an FTL drive or whatever to sell their mundane products to a mundane audience, you know that SF has made it. If you count either dollar volume or readership, our fannish-connected genre SF is only a few percent of SF, and hard SF is only 10-20% of that.

I don't approve.

That's because you're a fossil, a suit, and a member of corporate East Coast Fandom. (I've been reading Science Fiction Culture by Camille Bacon-Smith. Fascinating book - I am going to get some black leather and vampire white makeup and become a goth. One has to keep up with the times, you know.)
That's just his point. We haven't reached the Singularity yet and our culture would be perfectly comprehensible, though strange, to Caesar. His notion is that either (a) As change accelerates it eventually gets to the point where a human can no longer keep up or (b) the changes start to feed back into human nature changing it so that the post-Singularity culture isn't really human any more.
I don't think it will work that way; change will be limited in rate by human capacity to keep up.
[Limits to Growth and Models of Doom]

Are we? The predictions I recall have so far been completely wrong -- not just wrong numbers, but wrong signs. The costs of resources have dropped in real terms. Nutrition has improved essentially everywhere. Population appears to be stabilizing. Etc.

Nope. It became part of received wisdom a while back that the systems modellers were refuted and they've more or less have been forgotten. I think they were tarred with the failures of the Ehrlich predictions (famines in the 70's and 80's). The current population is greater than the predicted population in the standard run of world 2 and about the same as that predicted in the standard run of world 3. Non-renewable resource exhaustion and energy resource exhaustion are on track. This isn't too surprising. The models predicted continued exponential growth from 1970 forward until the limit factors were reached. These, however, don't become pressing until the 2025-2050 time frame. It remains true, however, that the limits are there and that as a species we aren't providing against that day in a meaningful manner.
[Michael Flynn]

If you're at Boskone and he does one of his How to Lie with Statistics one-man shows, I highly recommend that you attend it. Professionally, he's a management consultant specializing in teaching companies how to measure their processes and he's developed a wonderful repertoire of talks and illustrations. He routinely holds 40-60 people rapt for as long as he's willing to talk.

I hope to be there. If I am I will make a point of taking it in.
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From: moneyman (moneyman@ij.net)
Date: 9/13/2001
Subj: Questions about the marines

I am only fifteen and I have wanted to be a marine since I was 12 years old.I am now 15 and I still want to become a marine.But as you said when you were with the recruter he said "It is pretty hard",I still dont know what I am geting my self into.Im also in the R.O.T.C program.I havetalked to alot of recruters,I know they feed you with a bunch of crap that is not true.So I am asking you,did you baraly make it,do you need to be in vary good shape,and HOW TOUGH WAS IT? e-mail me back plese

Don't worry about it. Yes, it's tough and it's tougher than anything you are used to. You are tougher than you know and boot camp will bring that toughness out. It helps to be in good shape but, believe me, they will get you into good shape.
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From: "Isabelle Leboeuf" (isabelle.leboeuf@sympatico.ca)
Date: 9/14/2001
Subj: solve the seat problem

Have you ever seen the Bowloglow product... It solves the seat up or down problem... You can locate the toilet seat at night with this product. That was my problem because I couln't see if it was down in the middle of the night and sometimes I had surprises when I was sitting down. Now, anybody can leave it up or down and I have no problems with it...

Just wanted to let you know...

That's the trouble with the world these days - so many problems which are endless material for acrimony end up having a simple technological fix.
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From: JC
Date: 9/11/2001
Subj: Hey there good buddy!

Hey Rich! Thanks for posting my letters! I got a real kick out of them! I wanted to write to ask you some advice about girls! Let me tell you my story:

Don't thank me yet. I still have to pick a winner for the "flakiest letter of the year" contest for 2001.

I don't have any advice about girls. Women on the other hand ...

I became reformed back in '93 and I headed off to College Church in Wheaton to find a reformed chic that might be predestined to me. Unfortunatly there were only a few chics that were into all the doctrines of grace: you know, Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irrisistable Grace, Perserverence of the Saints. And then there is "neccesity of events" and the "theology of the cross" and "Sola Fide". And so on...

Any way I stalked of few of the leaders, the lonely fat ones ect.. and I got stalked by a few women myself (mostly psychologsts for some reason.) Then This girl comes up to me and blocks the door to get out of the bible study. Thre hours later she is still standing ther and ther is nobady in the church that hold 9 thousand people whe we left there was only our 2 cars in the parking lot.

Then she made we wittness to her Misoury Synod Lutheran Paster Father and Mother at Bakers Square Pie shop as if I was her boy friend.. Then two year later after I left the church she track down my parent number and asks my on a date to a church coffee shop singles function.

She was the editor of Todays Christian Women, Virtue Mag, and is now at Tyndale that has two translations including the Living Bible and The Book.

I' m Clavinist! and she won't get in the sack with me.

I might have to tell about how I'm one of the 24 elders in the book of revelations to seduce her. Do you think that would be right or not?

Probably not. I think that there is something in Leviticus about it. It comes under the category of things that Man is Not Meant to Know.
Return to index of contributors From: "Olivier Bernhard" (o.bernhard@swissonline.ch)
Date: 8/31/2001
Subj: Tnx from CH

Hi cyber-mate,

Just discovered your site while surfing the net...

Thanks for those funny moments...

That's my role in life - I'm the cyberspace equivalent of THC.
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From: Rebj52 (Rebj52@aol.com)
Date: 9/7/2001
Subj: blind robins

Where can I buy these?

You've got me boss, I haven't a clue as any number of people will tell you.
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From: "Bill Stark" (whstark@tampabay.rr.com)
Date: 9/9/2001
Subj: Guide Souds Great

I Think all family and americas problems evolve around womans rights and not having any family values, Woman should be at home if wifes not in the work place and not teahing their chilren. Thats where it all went wrong.And thers no way back now.God help us...

It all went wrong when women got names. Once women had names beyond the generic "hey you" and "wench" they got the idea in their heads that they were individuals. It all went down hill from there.
Return to index of contributors From: Archrynut1 (Archrynut1@aol.com)
Date: 8/31/2001
Subj:
Darwin Awards

Will there be any more?

Oh, yes. I've got a stack of material to add. Updating the Darwin Awards pages has slipped because of other commitments.
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From: Mike (Mresodall@aol.com)
Date: 9/5/2001
Subj: you asked....

for mail.

Stumbled across your website. Read the story about horseback riding, enjoyed it very much.

I'm a little younger (it's becoming more and more pleasant to say that) than you, having been born in '53, but if you'll wait, I'll catch up.

I'll check back on this website sometime soon and read some more.

I've been waiting for fifty years for you to catch up and you haven't done it yet. Get a move on.

Meander through the site when you get a chance. You may find something you like. Then again, you may just shake your head in wonderment.

Return to index of contributors From: SHEIKYUSUF (SHEIKYUSUF@aol.com)
Date: 9/5/2001
Subj:
I liked your website... it helped me find info I needed..

Thank you for putting up such a website. I was particularly interested in finding material on the "Piltdown Man" hoax.

You're welcome.
A bonus came in the way of the article implicating the author of "Hounds of the Baskervilles" and "The Lost World" Sherlock Holmes' own, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A fascinating intrigue to say the least.

I would have to put the "magnifying glass" to that one.

To put it politely, I do not endorse the theories that I report on.
Anyway, thanks again for some great treasures. And by way of reciprocation, why not visit my website explaining my journey from Christian preacher to Muslim chaplain? http://www.islamtoday.com/
I took a look at it. It is well done and interesting although it is not quite my cup of tea. It is the oddest thing, don't you know. Every now and then people try to get me to convert to this thing and that but somehow nobody ever asks me what they should convert to.
Return to index of contributors From: "Carl Howells" (chowells@cs.uoregon.edu)
Date: 9/3/2001
Subj:
Big O notation and the factorial function

I was looking at the page located at http://richardhartersworld.com/~cri_d/2001/badsort.html and I noticed that the timings presented were more complicated than they needed to be.

For instance:

O(n * n!) -> O((n + 1) * n!) -> O((n + 1)!) -> O(n!)

O(n! * n^4 * (lg n)^2) collapses to O(n!) the same way.

Basically, O(n!) is SO expensive that it subsumes any polynomial or smaller factor it is multiplied by.

You're quite right of course. It's one of those things that should have been cleaned up when I gathered up usenet postings and transcribed them to HTML.

If you have no objection I will add your EvilSort to the page. I suppose that now I will have to sit down and do an analysis of it. Your next assignment, if you should choose to accept it, is to convert Ackerman's function into a sort routine.

... continued on next rock ...

[re evilsort supplied by Carl]

Yeah, feel free to add it. Oh, I managed to solve the recurrance. Not formally, but sufficiently to convince myself I've finally figured out the timing. I've decided it's O(n! ^ 2). The recurrance for the recursive function is:

T(m, n) = O(m * n) * T(m - 1, n + 1)

When expanded, that leads to the m factor decreasing by one, being multiplied through, and the n factor increasing by one. So it works out to two factorial sequences being multiplied together, and since they're the same size (just about, anyway), that gives O(n! ^ 2).

Using the correct timing, I was able to calculate that sorting 8 elements should terminate in about 20 minutes on my system, so I let it run. It did finish just about then. Of course, that still leaves 9 elements taking over a day to sort, so it's still QUITE inefficient.

A sort with ackerman's function for the timing? Hmmm.... I don't think I can manage it. My EvilSort is actually based on a really bad solution I had for another problem, making a fundamentally O(n!) algorithm even worse. It's kind of just an accident that I realized I could apply it to sorting as well.

Have fun with that code.

Thanks. I've updated the page. It occurs to me that one can create arbitrarily bad sorts by setting up a recursive function with one argument bounded by [0,n-2] and the others used by the main awful recursion. The trick is that the first argument is used to swap adjacent array elements if they are out of order. This may be cheating.
Return to index of contributors From: Mattias Thuresson (mattias.thuresson@mbox300.swipnet.se)
Date: 8/31/2001
Subj:
Good job!

I just want to tell you what a good job you did with your Piltdown Man website. I am using the Internet to learn more about human evolution, and even if the piltdown man didn't contribute to the evolution, I still found reading about it very interesting!

Thank you for the kind words. It may be immodest of me to say so but I think that the Piltdown pages are a good example of the original role of the web as an information resource.
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From: "Maggy" (maggyw@home.com)
Date: 9/3/2001
Subj: Stories on the internet

Do you know of any place that uncovers the truth about a story told on the internet? I have been trying to do this myself but it just isn't working. I know the story is a lie, but I need 100% proof.

The best place that I know of is the urban legends site at http://www.urbanlegends.com/.

They do a good job of tracking down a lot of these stories.

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From: "PwC Ratings" (cricket@pwcratings.com)
Date: 8/30/2001
Subj: Road to Endor

It may have been pointed out to you that, unrelated to the book 'Road to Endor' which you describe, there is another out of print book called 'THE Road to Endor', a dramatic true account of how two WWI prisoners of war escaped from Turkey by pretending to be clairvoyants. A great story by E.H.Jones, pubished around 1920. One day they'll rediscover this book and make it into a film.

Are you sure that it has never been dramatized? I seem to recall having seen the story on TV although I don't recall the title it was dramatized under. Perhaps one of my readers will recall it.
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From: "farid.bouabdallah" (farid.bouabdallah@wanadoo.fr)
Date: 8/23/2001
Subj: DEMANDE DE RENSSEIGNEMENTS

Madame, monsieur,

Pouvez-vous me dire si l'ouvrage de monsieur Hugh Miller Ó ÚtÚ traduit en franšais. [ The testimonial of the rocks ] Si oui, auriez-vous l'amabilitÚ de me dire chez quel Úditeur je peux trouver celui-ci.
Merci d'avance.

My apologies but I do not know whether it has been translated into French.
Return to index of contributors From: "john" (john@devlin63.freeserve.co.uk)
Date: 8/24/2001
Subj:
Catching rabbits

will u please tell me how to catch a rabbit email me at smylie43@hotmail.com and write beside it for subject how to catch a rabbit. email me in the next day.

You might consult http://richardhartersworld.com/cri_b/fiction/rabbits.html.

I won't guarantee that the information given there will be useful. As an alternative you might consider using a trap.

Return to index of contributors From: "mammoth410" (mammoth410@msn.com)
Date: 8/24/2001
Subj: DR RAY AND JOHN OTT, HICKEY BRANCH MAMMOTH EXPLORER POST 410

WOULD LIKE INFORMATION RELATED TO THE SPECIMEN THAT MY EXPLORER POST 410 DUG UP AT HICKEY BRANCH, HARDEE COUNTY FLORIDA IN THE 60'S. HAVE THEY BEEN ABLE TO PUT TOGETHER A MAMMOTH SKELETON IN THE VERTEBRATE HALL? THEY HAD A MASTADON ONE WHEN WE VISITED THE MUSEUM IN THE SIXTIES. ANY INFORMATION WOULD HELP. IS DR RAY AND JOHN OTT THERE? THEY PROBABLY RETIRED YEARS AGO. BEEN A LONG TIME SINCE WE VISITED D.C. AND THE SMITHSONIAN. WOULD LIKE TO HAVE DATA ON THE SPECIMEN IN THE MUSEUM. IF I GET TO VISIT THE SMITHSONIAN THIS NEXT YEAR WOULD LIKE TO BE ABLE TO SEE THE BONES AGAIN. MY GRANDKIDS WOULD LIKE TO SEE IT TOO. REALLY ENJOYED MY FOSSIL COLLECTING DAYS AS A KID IN THE SCOUTS. OUR ADVISER WAS GREAT. MITCHELL HOPE WAS HIS NAME. HOPE TO HEAR FROM YOU SOON AND THANKS AGAIN. MICHAEL E. FIELDS

I'm sorry but you apparently have the wrong party. I know from nothing about your mammoth.
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From: "nn" (sarmiza@hotmail.com)
Date: 4/8/2001
Subj: NEED some answer

I support mutants because you cannot choose to become or not to become a mutant,What i dont understand is WHY mutants are hated? What im tryin to say is:Just because you have the ability to harm a mankind or an animal dosent mean that you DO harm them Right? The answer to why mutants are that hated is because we DONT understand them. Reply this e-mail cause i NEED some answers.

Your sentiments do you great credit. Alas, your inattention to whom you are sending emails to does not. You also lose points by attempting to respond to the mutantwatch scam a year after the X-men movie came out. Look at it this way; they will probably do a sequel. In that case you are ahead of the crowd.

PS: Take a look at http://www.tiac.net/users/cri/let00mut.html

[Yes, the date on the email really is April 8, 2001. The post office has nothing to apologize for.]

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From: "Paul J. Gans" (gans@scholar.chem.nyu.edu)
Date: 8/29/2001
Subj: Send me mail

Send me mail, it says. So I'm sending you mail.

I've noticed. I'm deuced clever that way.
Yes, I've visited your site again and I like it even more than I did before. But can you tell me why your "pointless" image has a point in it?
You know, nobody has ever asked that question before. With any sort of luck at all nobody will ask it again for the next five years. Maybe by then I will have a clever answer.
Imitation being the most sincere form of flattery, I invite you to visit
http://scholar.chem.nyu.edu
and check the "rants and other writings" section.
You need more rants and other writings. You've got the hang of the personal essay. Keep practicing and you can be a syndicated columnist like Dave Berry.

As you may have noticed I steal regularly from myself. It's so reassuring that someone is reading my stuff that I am more than willing to ignore the fact that that someone is me.

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This page was last updated April 30, 2006.

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