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Letters to the editor, January 2009

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 And, of course, anything marked not for publication is not for publication.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 January 2009.

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From: Anielka Briggs
Date: 18 Jan 2009
Subj: Kult of Hamstur

Found you through Fatmouse Absolutely hilarious. Well done!

Thanks. A chap named Steve Witham found it for me, or else wrote it - I'm not sure which. According to Google there are only two copies of the Kult of Hamstur on the web, mine and one in the Tom's Hardware forum. The only connection that I can see is that I'm into software and Tom is into hardware. Make of it what you will.

BTW, thanks for mentioning Fatmouse to me. That is the kind of page that makes the web worthwhile.

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From: Robert G. Smith
Date: 14 Jan 2009
Subj: ROCKETS

The biggest skyrockets you can buy are 16 ounce. Bigger ones are made up to what's called 6 pounders. The engine is 18 " long & 2 " wide and has about 125 grams of propellant. They are really mean ! Of coarse they are illegal under Federal Law. Also some rocket nuts make sky rockets that are 2 1/.2 feet long and 6 inches wide (engine size). I believe they are 50 pounders. They were sold to the public at the time of Teddy Roosevelt. At that time also were 18 inch long firecrackers that contained black powder. The fireworks industry , after WW I (one) limited the size of rockets and salutes to the 6 pound size and salutes were cut down to 8 inch by 1 inch. Then in 1966 the child protection act cut the sizes down way more.

Apparently amateur rocketry was a casualty of the reaction to 9/11 for a while. I don't know if that has been straightened out or not. Be that as it may, thanks for the information.
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From: meyerink
Date: 13 Jan 2009
Subj: Article sent from wtop.com

Investment: HGUE.OB

Open: 24 cents rose 10%!

Soon: $1.26

Many admire terseness in prose this is pushing it. I gather that "Investment" is a huge obstretician (I assume HGUE is a typo for huge), that "Open" is selling 24 cents roses at 10% off, and that "Soon" is offering hamstur food at $1.26 a bag. Then again, this may be a coded message from Those Who Must Not Be Named that went astray.

Incidentally a google search on "Those who must not be named" turns up some very strange pages.

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From: Anthony R. Lewis, PhD, FN
Date: 12 January 2009
Subj: Relatives

I believe the Jed Rothwell who sent you email 9 January is one of my third cousins. However, none of my relatives lives closer to you than Sioux Falls.

My understanding is that everyone outside of South Dakota is a relative of yours.
I believe Alice did not do the dust jacket design for Yes this August.
So that's the sort of thing that you believe. I suppose everyone is entitled to a belief system of some sort or another.
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From: Peter Neilson
Date: 8 January 2009
Subj: engine missing

My Dear Harter!

It is interesting that you discovered that my unwritten book, "Yes, This August," appears to be a rework of "Not this August" by C K Kornbluth. Being unread in the genre, at least compared to you and to Dr. Lewis, I've not cast eyes upon Kornbluth's story. But I find it particularly touching that you did discover I'm borrowing from the works of C K Kornbluth, not the more well-known C M Kornbluth. You have a most discerning eye, except of course for typos.

There are several other authors from whom I've also not quite borrowed.
They include:

Kyril M Cornbluth
Cyril M Kornblurth
Syril M Gormbluth

All of them have a tremendous advantage over C M Kornbluth in that they have not died. Unfortunately, George Flynn would never have approved of any of them, at least without checking primary sources.

Without much wax,
Peter Neilson

Thank you for calling this to my attention. The problem is that I was thinking of the Russian version of the the Kornbluth novel and erred in my transliteration of the Cyrilic Cyril. In deference to the spirit of George Flynn, I will correct the matter fifthwith.
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From: Jed Rothwell
Date: 9 January 2009
Subj: "Cold Equations" comment

That is a thought provoking web page on the story "Cold Equations."

Thank you.
I recall being struck by the story myself, but something about it did not sit well. In my case, thinking about it years later, I realized that it is technically wrong and morally wrong because anyone engineering a vehicle like that will realize that mistakes occur, and you must have a margin of error. No airplane pilot will fly with less than 10% to 20% extra fuel (depending on how far he or she is going, and whether it is over land or sea).

A margin of error would be needed not only for stowaways, but also for rough weather inside the atmosphere of the planet (assuming it has an atmosphere), or for computer glitches, overshooting the runway, cargo placed in the vehicle accidentally, or cargo weighed wrong. For example, during the Berlin airlift someone mistook steel mesh for aluminum mesh, and loaded a DC-3 with far too much weight. (The airplane made it.)

Many have raised this point, but it is not quite fair. The fuel margins for spacecraft are much lower than those for aircraft.
> > In real life, of course, even now in the 21st century we have automated, > computerized cross-checks and robots, alarms, and cameras to prevent this > kind thing from happening. I assume the mass of the spaceship would be > determined by some means, perhaps when it is first launched. If the mass > of a single person would be enough to endanger it, the cross-check would > have to be sensitive enough to detect that mass.
Just so. Even today, though, the automation doesn't catch everything. An alarm can fail if no one listens; a camera can fail if no one watches - this even though they work properly.
It is surprising how technologically backward most sci-fi writers of the 1950s were. They did not anticipate the benefits of automation, which is odd when you think about it. The classic example is Asimov imagining that people would still be doing manual machine language compilation years in the future. (Von Neumann complained about the first compiler, saying it was a waste of computer resources and the job should be left to grad students.)
Actually he was talking about the first assembler. I don't recall Asimov writing about doing manual machine language compilation, but that's not surprising; he wrote so much.

Be that as it may, I don't think it is particularly surprising that the SF writers of that era had a poor handle on the potentialities of technology. It is natural enough to think that they should have - after all, weren't they in the business of writing about the future?

Well, they weren't, in the sense of writing about what will happen in THE future. The future in SF was a modern version of the land over the hill, the strange and wonderful place where adventures for ill and good could happen. Science fiction as prophesy was always an illusion.

In my opinion, the only author of that era who really understood the future in depth was Arthur C. Clarke. His book "Profiles of the Future" (1963) predicted many of today's technologies. He would have known that this accident would be impossible, I think.
I've read it many times; I still have it around here somewhere in the midst of my clutter of books. I will agree that Clarke had a better sense of the potentialities of technology than most.
Clarke was my mentor and friend -- and friend of thousands of other people! I worked with him on the last edition of "Profiles" which is published only in the UK, I am sorry to say. For more information on that, see:

http://lenr-canr.org/acrobat/RothwellJreviewofpr.pdf

See also this e-book, recommended by Clarke and many distinguished professors:

http://lenr-canr.org/BookBlurb.htm

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From: Peter Neilson
Date: 5 January 2009
Subj: New san segment type

Precode - code already executed prior to execution of san program.

The code in a precode section is defined as having been executed in the past. If such code was not actually executed or defined as specified, its inclusion in a precode segment predefines it and preexecutes it.

The only communication between the precode segment and any other part of a san program (or indeed with anything else at all) is via side effects. The precise mechanism, given that san currently lacks the needed super-global scope that would be required, is still unspecified, but may yet appear on an ad-hoc basis.

Precode code is controlled by two constructs, beenthere and donethat.

beenthere

Syntax: beenthere year

The beenthere construct sets the time of preexecution. No granularity finer than a year is supported. The year is an integer in BCE-CE form, using + (or no sign) for CE and - for BCE, with 0 and years equal to or greater than the present year disallowed.

donethat

Syntax: donethat

The donethat construct contains the section of code that is to have been preexecuted.

Example:

precode
   beenthere 1983
   donethat
     # (Code necessary for writing of book "Yes, this August" goes here.)
Work currently contemplated for future includes writing an actual donethat section for the book mentioned in the above example.

Bugs:

(1) No provision has been made for reconciling the ambiguities inherent in the adoption of the Gregorian calendar and the related change in the starting date for each year. Confusion is expected. Use cal 9 1752 for a well-known example. This bug is not expected to affect work currently contemplated.

(2) The obvious companion segment, postcode, remains unspecified.

This will have been an excellent suggestion, keeping in mind that a file can contain multiple precode segments, all of which are potentially selectable in configuration segments. The important thing about precode segments is that the donethat code is not executed as such; rather its existence establishes that it has been executed. This is an important feature; the implication is that the results of a computation requiring an arbitrarily large amount of time will be immediately available as precode.

As you note, there is the issue of communicating results from the precode computations to the current computations. This could possibly be handled with an Aslan box that treats all times as now. There are some technical difficulties with selecting the desired time and result; resolving them may require implementing postcode segments.

Incidentally the Deep Underground Press counts all times as 1984.

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From: Tonya Hayes
Date: 5 January 2009
Subj: Permissions

We are trying to find the name of the author who wrote, "Just a mother", it's listed on your website as "Most Dangerous Animal". Are you the author? We are requesting permission for this material to be used in a college course pack this Spring. Please advise and we will submit a formal request.

I'm sorry, I'm not the author and I don't know who the author might be. It has circulated in email for years. I did some google searching. I believe that it first appeared on the web in 1998, already author unknown. The only attribution I have seen is to a "Dan Miller" on three pages but I am almost certain that this is incorrect - particularly since one of them claimed that he copyrighted it in 2008.
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From: Peter Neilson
Date: 4 January 2009
Subj: engine missing

The san threading engine writeup is missing from cri_a/san even though your new front page suggests it should be present. I did not find it under some other name or lying on the road somewhere behind the san.

I dunno, I just checked it and it seems to be there. It is dated January 1, 2009, so it must have been there on the 4th. I will grant that you might not have seen it on the 4th, but that must have been in some version of reality that is now null and void.
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From: tenesha
Date: 22 June 2007
Subj: funny

(no content)

I gather email evaporates when it is in the system too long.
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From: Anthony R. Lewis, PhD, FN
Date: 2 January 2009
Subj: Predictions

Okay, you had to mention no Yellowstone eruption. See http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1869313,00.html?cnn=yes

I don't worry about Yellowstone erupting; if it does happen in my lifetime it will only be in my last hour.
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From: Peter Neilson
Date: 28 December 2008
Subj: Book not written

Mr Harter!

Some time ago you reviewed the book "Door Into Winter" by A. R. Lewis, which he had at that time not written. He still has not written it.

Since it is now actually winter, it might be a good time for writing, since he would have at hand the substances to be described, and would not need to rely on a perhaps faulty imagination.

Do you have any preferred methods for causing the unwritten books of your reviews to come into existence? I'm thinking that I'll be roasting next August, and could use a cold tome or two.

P. Neilson

I appreciate your desire for a cold tome. Quite apropos of nothing it occurs to me that people who put their money in their refrigerator are keeping their cash in a cold cache. Have you considered the possibility of combining your library and your meat storage locker?

But to serious matters. I do not think that you quite understand exactly how this reviewing business works. The existence of the review dictates that the work reviewed exists in some sense. Thus, the book, "The Door Into Winter", exists in some sense. Likewise A. R. Lewis is the author, again in some sense, albeit not very much sense. It is not necessary for the author to have actually written the book; indeed authors often do not bother with the tedious business of putting words to paper, but instead leave the actual process to the paranormal.

I would not have you understand that the aforementioned A. R. Lewis cannot write, that he is illiterate. I grant you that there is strong evidence to that effect, since he is rumored to have a doctorate in physics. None-the-less I know for a fact that he can write; I have in my possession a document that he created. True, it is in crayon on an IHOP napkin, but it is in his hand and I saw him write it. I also saw his face get slapped when he passed it to the lady sitting next to him.

In any event I submit that not enquiring into reviews may be part of the path of wisdom. The consequences can be unexpected.

... continued on next rock ...

Richard, some words were missing from your reply. I've pasted them in (using *marks*) below, in memory of Dr. Flynn, who also would have corrected them. Richard Harter wrote:

I appreciate your desire for a cold tome. Quite apropos of nothing it occurs to me that people who put their money in their refrigerator are keeping their cash in a cold cache. Have you considered the possibility of combining your library and your meat storage locker?

But to serious matters. I do not think that you quite understand exactly how this reviewing business *works*. The existence of the review dictates that the work reviewed exists in some sense. Thus, the book, "The Door Into Winter", exists in some sense. Likewise A. R. Lewis is the author, again in some sense, albeit not very much sense. It is not necessary for the author to have actually written the book; indeed authors often do not bother with the tedious business of putting words to paper, but instead leave the actual process to the paranormal.

I would not have you understand that the aforementioned A. R. Lewis cannot write, that he is illiterate. I grant you that there is strong evidence to that effect, since he is rumored to have a doctorate in physics. None-the-less I know for a fact that he can write; I have in my possession a document that he created. True, it is in crayon on an IHOP napkin, but it is in his hand and I saw him write it. I also *saw* his face get slapped when he passed it to the lady sitting next to him.

In any event I submit that not enquiring into reviews may be part of the path of wisdom. The consequences can be unexpected.

The corrections have been incorporated into the official record. Since truth is retroactive there never was an error. None-the-less the report of the corrections remains as a trace of what might have been. (See Derrida for details.)

The spirit of Dr. Flynn thanks you.

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From: Angela
Date: 2 January 2009
Subj: rofl open me

hi hi 2 you
I found yer contact info online. You seem really charming and cute. I think you live about 4 miles from me.
anyways, if you want to check me out LIVE on cam goto the site below.
bye!!

I am really charming and cute; how perceptive of you to recognize that.
Unfortunately my computer thinks I am charming and cute also and can be very jealous. It won't let me go look at web cams of strange women.
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From: Peter Neilson
Date: 6 December 2008
Subj: Humor

Three of December's Humors were ones seen elsewhere, likely in Joe Ross's forwardarium. The one about deer was, however, so original that it seems well grounded in fact. I know that South Dakota has people in a wide arrangement of mental faculties, from those so stupid that they allow people to charge 30% or more interest on credit cards to those so smart that they know how to collect that very interest.

The poor deer-catching soul's brain nearly farted its way out of its temporary container. Was that an actual South Dakota cattleman's account, or did it come from elsewhere? It is too ghastly to be total invention.

Oh darn. I just Googled some of the text. It was everywhere. Your Humor is stealing from its virtual Milton Berle collection again. Earliest version I found was last January, claiming it was from a farmer somewhere in Kansas. That's even further than Nebraska.

The truth is that most of the Humors come from the JR forwardium. I'm lazy; I confess it. If I were more energetic I could steal from various witty authors, but that would mean a certain amount of work on my part to disguise the purloining.

Of course the story is everywhere. I got it in an email. Anything that good circulates with amazing rapidity, and, in this age of blogification it all goes into internet pages.

... continued on next rock ...

Just checked with Snopes. They have tracked a somewhat different version back to Feb 2007, and feel, as others and I do, that the known facts of deer behavior fit well with the content of the story. Its status is "undetermined." They suggest the author has reason to prefer anonymity.

And well he should. I suspect that something of the sort happened and the narrator provided details that added verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative. Reality is so often unaccomodating to the needs of art; it is the duty of the story teller to set things right.
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From: Logi Martee
Date: 24 December 2008
Subj: i llove you

hoho, i think ive been good i hope any way
im logie and i llove you and ill right you a letter tooo
love logie

Your love will make me ill, right?
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From: Peter Neilson
Date: 7 December 2008
Subj: A P Ershov and the mushrooms

In and around your lettercol http://www.tiac.net/cri_c/letters/2006/let06jul.html we spoke of Ershov's mushroom quote from around the time of Dijkstra's anti-GOTO considerations.

The search for "A P Ershov" + mushrooms works, yielding not only our correspondence, but Ershov's paper. The ACM has recently seen fit to make the paper, complete with mushrooms, available on line. See http://delivery.acm.org/10.1145/810000/808460/p371-buda.pdf?key1=808460&key2=9464437021&coll=&dl=ACM&CFID=15151515&CFTOKEN=6184618

Of particular interest is his suggestion for constructing traps for similar types of errors that may have occurred elsewhere in the program, suggesting a forest of error space, rather than (or in addition to) source-code space. The article also contains the infamous reference to Brooks' "Mythical Man Mouth".

Very interesting. The project itself is the clunky sort of thing that they did back in those days - and still do, for that matter.

Hunting errors in the way that one hunts mushrooms is an interesting thought. I opine that the analogy works because coding errors and design errors proliferate along "fault lines", i.e., aspects of the process that are fragile. For example, "off by one" and "buffer over-run" errors are notoriously common. People who create programming languages fiddle with the semantics and syntax in the hope of removing the fault lines. I suspect that their efforts are in vain - all that is accomplished is moving the fault lines.

"Another interesting experience is an observation that errors in a program have to be gathered like mushrooms in the forest (having found one, look for another at the same spot). This means that if an important or typical error has been identified a series of tests must be written and included in the collection to make a more detailed investigation of similar cases in other parts of the program." - A P Ershov

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This page was last updated January 17, 2009.

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