Locus Online



Science, Fiction, and points in between
August 1998

Short Stories for Commuters
Travelman Publishing, a new company in Britain run by Alexander Waugh (grandson of Brideshead Revisited author Evelyn Waugh), is publishing short-stories in folding, pocket-sized editions for easy reading on subways. ''Short stories are meant to be read alone'', Waugh is quoted in the Los Angeles Times (August 7th), rather than in huge anthologies, and they're ideal for commuter reading in place of a newspaper.

Works published so far include classic, crime, comedy, and adventure stories by H. G. Wells, Ambrose Bierce, D. H. Lawrence, and others. The stories sell for £1 through news agents and will soon be available in vending machines. Eight stories are published a week, with newer titles supplanting earlier ones like magazine issues.

So far only established writers are being published, but Waugh hopes eventually to solicit new talent. His criteria for publication: ''It's got to have a good plot. It's got have conflict, something happening. And it has to be well-written.'' And tired commuters ''don't want to be bogged down with something too mystical, too complicated.''

(Wed 26 Aug 98)

Ayn Rand Land
Speaking of Ayn Rand -- her novels currently occupy the top 4 positions in Modern Library's Readers' 100 Best poll -- The New York Times Magazine for August 9th has a two page illustrated spread about a planned Rand-inspired utopia. Called the Principality of New Utopia, it's the brainchild of Oklahoma businessman Howard Turney, who has legally renamed himself Lazarus Long after his other principal inspiration, writer Robert A. Heinlein. The new nation will be built on concrete platforms anchored in the Caribbean 120 miles west of the Cayman Islands, and governed based on the principles of individual liberty and capitalism described in Rand's 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged. Long already has $3 million in investments, 507 potential citizens, and a Board of Governers helping to write a Constitution. Long as annointed himself ''prince'' of the new nation.

(Thu 20 Aug 98)

Big Switches
An interview with Dr. Marvin Minsky of MIT addresses the disappointments of AI, artificial intelligence. Computers don't have common sense:

Common sense is knowing maybe 30 or 50 million things about the world and having them represented so that when something happens, you can make analogies with others.
What are emotions?
Emotions are big switches, and there are hundreds of these. . . . If you look at a book about the brain, the brain just looks like switches. . . . You can think of the brain as a big supermarket of goodies that you can use for different purposes. Falling in love is turning on some 20 or 30 of these and turning a lot of the others off. It's some particular arrangement.
Minsky is at work on a sequel to his 1986 The Society of Mind. What does he read? Science fiction, he says, and cites Benford, Brin, Niven, Heinlein, and Asimov.

(Thu 20 Aug 98)

Fateful Dates
Just as the end of the millennium will not be pinned down to a particular moment or a particular New Year's Eve (expect celebrations both in 1999 and 2000), so the dreaded forthcoming Y2K event is just one of a class of computer problems that will manifest effects over the coming months and years, not just on January 1st, 2000. An article in today's (Monday 17 August) Los Angeles Times outlines some of the others. Mark your calendars for these dates:

  • April 1, 1999: Start of fiscal year 2000 for Canada, Japan, and UK
  • August 22, 1999: The end of the first 1,024-week cycle for the Global Positioning network
  • September 9, 1999: 9/9/99 -- sequences of 9s used as special program markers could cause problems when the date actually occurs
  • January 1, 2000: Y2K
  • February 29, 2000: Programs not counting 2000 as a leap year will fail
  • January 19, 2038: The end of the 32-bit Unix time cycle; Unix does not accept dates past this point
  • January 1, 10000: Y10K
  • Remember the rules for leap years: every four years EXCEPT century years EXCEPT every fourth century year. Thus the year 1700, 1800, and 1900 were not leap years, but 2000 is. On behalf of programmers everywhere, Locus Online bristles at LAT's characterization of the source of the Y2K effect as a ''blunder''; the class of problems listed here can more accurately be attributed to the unpredictable pace of changing technology. It was reasonable at one time to represent years with two digits, or suppose that dates composed only of 9s were impossibly distant, just as it's reasonable now to shrug aside the Y10K problem.

    (Mon 17 Aug 98)

    100 Best Novels -- Update
    The controversy over Modern Library's list of 100 best novels (written in English in the 20th century) has revealed that the editorial board that selected them did not, in fact, ''rank'' the books as advertised. Actually the 10 panelists only checked off titles from a master list of 440 books provided by Modern Library. Books with the most checks ended up at the top of the list. This explains, for instance, how Aldous Huxley's Brave New World placed very high, in 5th place. Most of the judges felt it belonged (somewhere) on the list, though no judge felt on reflection that it deserved such a high ranking.

    This and other aspects of the ranking process are discussed in this Washington Post article from August 5th. And panelist William Styron discusses his role in the selection process in this week's (August 17th) issue of The New Yorker, page 29 (not online).

    SF folk are notorious for inventing complex voting processes (such as those for the Hugo Awards and the Locus Poll) and might have suspecting the validity of the 100 best ranking from the beginning. Since there were only 10 panelists selecting the 100 books, the only possible voting score a book could receive was a number from 0 to 10. How did those scores translate into a 1 to 100 ranking without lots of ties? (Answer: unknown brass at Random House, owner of Modern Library, somehow broke the ties and turned them into rankings.)

    100 Best Novels -- Readers' Choice Update
    Meanwhile, the Modern Library website reset its Readers' 100 Best compilation this week with new rules that require voters to register and receive a password limiting them to voting for no more than ten different titles per day. New votes will be tallied until late September. Presumably the new rules are intended to prevent the repeated voting for cult favorites that characterized the earlier version of the list -- but as of today it's unclear that the new system is producing markedly different results. Ayn Rand still has 4 titles in the top 10, and the balance of the list is sprinkled with titles by Tolkien, Hubbard, Heinlein, Card, Douglas Adams, Matt Ruff, Charles de Lint, and James P. Hogan.

    (Fri 14 Aug 98)

    Also note Michael Dirda's list of 100 comic novels, discussed in Outer Limits. (Mon 17 Aug 98)

    FTL Landis
    Physicist, Mars explorer, and SF writer Geoffrey A. Landis is profiled in the August Discover magazine, in an article about FTL, faster-than-light travel. Landis is one of several scientists who, despite Einstein, ''dare to think the great master might have been wrong''. Just as interesting as the article (which is not online) is Landis's commentary about it (on his website): he didn't know he was to be so prominently featured, and he modestly gives credit where it is due for some ideas that the article implicitly credits to him.

    (Mon 3 Aug 98)

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