Three Monkeys - Ten Minutes : Presidents Page November 2001

A couple of bits of administrivia to start off with this month. We have been hoping to get tapes of the new Trek series "Enterprise" here for Vid SIG. However there has been a bit of a glitch at the US end which resulted in our tapes being recorded over before it got sent to us. Fear not, another copy of the tape has been found and is now on its way, however we donít have any ETA for it so itís a bit hard to plan a screening. So rather than plan our regular Vid SIG for November, we are going to leave it open and see if the tapes arrive. I can then notify anybody interested in seeing them and we can arrange a screening. This means that if you want to be notified, you should send me an e-mail to that effect. I would prefer to do this on an opt-in basis rather than a general broadcast to everyone so as to make organisation easier. I cannot make any promises about this screening however as we are at the mercy of the postal services involved.

The other piece of detail is to do with the January meeting. The planned topic of this meeting is "The role of Beer in SF". This is a sequel to last yearís popular "The role of bars in SF". The more astute amongst you will have worked out that this means that Turnbull House is unavailable during the first part of January again, so we will once more be holding the January meeting at the Ferrymans bar on Waterloo Quay. This seemed to work pretty well last January, so we are doing it again. Donít expect a structured meeting, this is just a chance to socialise and imbibe of some of that life sustaining amber liquid in the meeting title.

Kath, Richard and I have been working on the quiz for the December meeting and party. Its actually quite an art to set questions in a quiz. Its not the finding of something to ask that is a problem as it is always possible to find something to construct into a question. Rather it is pitching the difficulty of the questions at the right level that poses the challenge. It is very easy to make the questions too hard - just because the answer is obvious to me, does not mean that it is obvious to anybody else. But the questions do have to be reasonably difficult as there is no point in asking a question that everybody can answer - or at least there should not be very many of such questions. It takes a bit of time and practice to work out just how hard to pitch a question.

To complicate things, we are asking questions to a team. Because the individuals in a team can cover a wider span of knowledge then we have to make the questions a bit harder. Let me give you an idea of what I mean. If I want to set a question that about 70% of teams can get correct, I can't just set a question that 70% of people can get. If you work it through, this means that there is a better than 99% chance that at least one person in a team of four people can answer. In order to get a question that 70% of teams can answer then the question needs to be pitched at a level that only 25% of individuals can answer. This is actually a pretty demanding target to hit.

If you look over my columns for the last few months it is pretty clear that I have not written any book reviews for quite a while. This is a reflection of how few books I have been reading, or at least how few that I consider worth the bother to review. But its not like I have not been reading anything at all. After all, the time when I stop reading will be pretty close to the time I stop breathing. Putting aside the non fiction, the SF magazines, the old stuff, the same-as-the-last-one sequels, the bad stuff and anything else that that I don't want to bore you with, there are three books that I have read in the last few weeks which are worth my while telling you about.

Space by Stephen Baxter is the second of the Manifold sequence. Nobody could ever accuse Baxter of thinking small. This books attempts to find an answer to the Fermi paradox. If there odds of there being life on other planets is so high given the number of planets in the galaxy, how is it that we have not seen any evidence of it. Typically, Baxter's protagonists journey through great reaches of space and see the passing of many centuries as the answer unfolds. This is the type of things that Baxter gained his reputation for and he does it so well. Over time he has branched out into other themes, but he never seems to pull them off as well as he does this great vision of the future stuff.

On a vastly different plane, Anonymous Rex by Eric Garcia has one of the silliest premises that you are likely to see for a while. The idea is that Dinosaurs did not die out, but have evolved to be smaller and now live among us in disguise. The main character is a private detective down on his luck when he stumbles into a case involving murders and strange goings on with the rich and powerful. It is a plot straight out of Raymond Chandler with style and dialogue to match. Itís a very strange mixture of fantasy and noir fiction, but the really strange thing is that it actually work pretty well. To attempt to describe it more would spoil it, but if you like strange, then give this a go.

Jack McDevitt writes hard SF thrillers in a style which seems slightly old fashioned while being pretty technologically up to date. His latest seems to owe a lot to Arthur C Clarke and Robert Forward. Deep Six relies more on the science of the situation even more than usual for McDevitt's work. While still a pretty solid work, this change in emphasis does not help the readability at all. It could just be that I have read too many books where the final climactic finish relies on the solution to a problem in orbital dynamics.