The Official Newsletter of PARSEC


February 2001, Issue 181

Kevin's Comments

By Kevin Hayes

Lots of times I have arrogantly made the statement that I could write 500 words about almost any subject, even if I didn't know much about it. And believe me there are a lot of subjects I don't know much about. With this column, it looks like I've reached a point of "put up or shut up."

Sometimes I wonder how I got blessed with the position of helping to run this club. While I've been an avid reader of S/F&F for a long time; seen a lot of movies and watched a lot of TV, I've never been as actively involved in fandom as a number of others we all know. And in some ways, I feel like I'm at a disadvantage because of it.

I don't keep up on all the latest occurrences and newest lights in publishing on the s/f&f front. Two years ago, I had never heard of Locus Magazine, or SFWA. Matter of fact, I'm still not sure what SMOF is, but as long as I don't have to feed or walk it, I won't worry about it.

Now, maybe this is my loss, since there is any number of people who take great pleasure from their association at conventions and their acquaintance with many of the aforementioned new lights in publishing. I suppose as an aspiring writer (see: Rumpled Bedfellows in "Six from PARSEC--The PARSEC Fantasy Anthology" edited by James J. Walton Jr. From PARSEC Publishing - only $6.00) I should be more aware of who writes and what kinds of things are being published where. But I have to know: how does everyone who does keep up with all this manage to do it?

In discussions with different people, invariably a comparison of recently read books is made. I'm still reading the old guys--Frederick Pohl, Gordon Dickson, and A. E. Van Vogt. I still read and re-read Robert Heinlein. The people I'm talking with are reading Stephen Baxter, Jonathan Lethem and George R.R. Martin. Names I've learned since going to Confluence and talking with other Con-goers.

Am I just an old sf fogey with petrified reading habits? I would hope not. Since my attendance at Confluence IX at the City Center Marriott, I've read Sarah Zettel, Brenda Clough, John Barnes and Paul Levinson. I haven't made it up to John Morrow yet and, I confess, I don't know if I've ever read anything edited or written by David Hartwell, our invited GOH at the next Confluence. Imagine my embarrassment. But I'm working on it. It's just that there are so many authors out there; good writers, putting out solid stories and exciting premises with realistic, intriguing characters. All I need is a little focus and a little time.

Jim Mann and Randy Hoffman are going to help all of us with our focus (we'll probably have to supply our own time) to eradicate our stone-bound reading habits by educating us about the upcoming Hugo ballots. Jim by talking about the new stuff available for voting at the World-Con in Philadelphia; Randy by talking about the older stuff, also up for a vote. With any luck, I've at least heard of some of them.

And speaking of votes, our very own Diane Turnshek is up for a vote as well. Not a Hugo--at least not yet--but she is eligible for the John Campbell Award for best new writer. The final voting is done at World-Con as the Hugos are, but they aren't a part of the Hugos. She has said she is trying to keep her self-promotion to a minimum. We will lovingly hold her to it.

One last thing: perhaps this is my self-promotion, but I want to hear from anyone with ideas for what can be done for subjects for PARSEC meetings. Sasha had some ideas about horror that can be pursued. Henry had one about art and artwork. Let's see what else we can come up with. I will warn you, though; if you come up with the idea, you may be pressed into service to organize and execute it. I can be e-mailed at or called in the evening at (412)734-3808.

(There--711 words--about not much of anything. Seinfeld, eat your heart out.)

New PARSEC baby!

Well folks, the newest future PARSEC member and potential con-runner for the 2060 Worldcon has arrived. Bobbie Nansel and his wife Shoshana are the proud parents of a brand new son.

He is 8 lb 15 oz, 21 inches long, born at 1:51 p.m. on 1/13/2001 after just 3.5 hours of labor. We've named him Nadav Amiel. "Nadav" means "generous"in Hebrew, and "Amiel" means "God of my people" (can you tell he's a rabbi's kid?).

Shoshana and Nadav are both doing great.

Heartfelt congratulations!

Last Meeting

Official Welcome to the Future meeting, January 13, 2001.

Soon after the meeting began, the suggestion was made to donate an autographed copy of "Six from Parsec," an anthology long awaited and now here. $6.00, edited by JJ Walton, with stories by Ann Cecil, Fruma Klass, Kevin Hayes, Diane Turnshek, Judy Friedl, and Nancy Hagen-Liddle.

PARSEC membership cards are not be available yet due to technical difficulties (Kira's color printer is still broken).

Kira Heston suggested a gathering to watch both the old and new "The Haunting of Hill House"movies and compare them. Many folks voiced their intention of avoiding the second version like the plague. Others mentioned that both versions also had two sequels. If you are interested, contact Kira.

Sasha Riley is still looking for submissions/ideas for her newsletter, "Consumer Punks and Cyber Sluts."

Confluence will be held the 20th through the 22nd of July at the Four Points Sheraton near Robinson Town Center. The Guest of Honor is renowned editor and author David Hartwell. See the web site or reach it through the domain, which now points to the PARSEC site.

Mia Sherman gave her final treasurer's report and passed the books to Greg Armstrong. The club managed a net $5 gain over the past year.

We had 117 members last year. According to Kira, if 300 people committed to buy them, we could get specialty license plates from Pennsylvania. While we may not be able to get enough people interested in PARSEC plates, general space or SFF plates may get more interest. So, anyone interested? Talk to Kira.

The PARSEC picnic will be either the second or third week of August (11th or 18th). We are trying for the 11th, at a location yet to be determined.

SIGMA needs Submissions! We need people to provide reviews, commentary, columns, and other interesting articles. Please send submissions to Don Cox at by the end of each month to be included in the next month's SIGMA.

Chris Ferrier won the raffle, and took the "Vanishing Acts" short story collection.

Greg Armstrong mentioned that CMU's solar sail project, Solar Blade, is having difficulty getting funding. That project needs $3 million toactually launch the first functioning solar sail propelled spacecraft. He asked if club members would be willing to pay a small fee to have their names broadcast from the unmanned craft. The response was a resounding "yes," though many people wanted other messages sent, rather than just names, one example being, "Cats Rule!"


Illah Nourbakhsh began his talk by stating that the Department of Defense funds about 88% of all robotics research. Illah has been searching for non-DoD sources of funding. Out of this the Toy Robot Initiative was born. Its purpose is to fund and build robots for educational, recreational, and artistic purposes. He went on to present some facts about the Robotics Institute, then launched into the fun part of the discussion.

The Toy Robots Initiative focuses on two things. One is, "how should humans and robots interact?" The other is, "how should robots move?" To quote Illah, "when a robot moves in an interesting way, it becomes a toy."

Hans Moravec, another CMU Robotics researcher, has said, "In 40 years computational power will surpass the human brain." Illah contends that intelligence without interaction is irrelevant, and suggests that perhaps intelligence is interaction. Thus, to be intelligent, a robot must be both perceptive and expressive. In the T.R.I., Illah has an excuse to work on this because the combination of Perceptiveness and Expressiveness also makes good toys.

One reason that the human mind has great perceptive ability is that we are incredibly good at discarding irrelevant detail. Robots can't do that.

One project taken up by the TRI was to increase learning in the entomology exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. One limit placed on Illah was that "the exhibit has to remain the center of attention; we don't want people coming just to see a robot." Working with the Human-Computer Interaction Institute and other organizations, interviews and observations were performed at the museum, creating a large model of feelings, transitions, interactions. The solution was tele-embodiment in scale at the insect exhibits. A very small robotic camera, controlled via joystick, was placed in the terrarium. Children watching on a large TV are seemingly transported into a world where they are the size of an insect. Since installing this robot, viewing time of the insects has increased from about 2 seconds to nearly 15 minutes, and often parents had to drag kids away.

Dinosaur Hall at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History has some beautiful full-scale dinosaur bones. It also has some smaller dinosaur exhibits which are rarely visited. A robotic tourguide, Chips, was placed in the museum to catch people's attention and draw them to the smaller exhibits. This is a permanent installation, capable of unsupervised operation. Educational content was designed by the Museum's Education Division, and developed by the Magic Lantern production company. Behavior specifications were designed by the Education Division. The robot can perceive humans coming, leaving, pushing buttons, leaning on, and kicking the robot. It has simulated emotion. Since its deployment on May 22, 1998, the mean time between failures has been greater than 20 days, it has been functional greater than 98% of its duty time, and it has been more than 10 months since any software has been changed. Chips has traveled ~600 km travel distance in ~11,000 operational hours, no collisions, and has received help only request by the robot for the last 11 months.

One night at 5pm, Chips was on its way to plug itself in to recharge, and the security guards turned the lights off. Unable to see in the dark, the robot stopped moving only a meter or so away from its charging station. It remained stationary, but the batteries continued to drain. After 30 minutes, it e-mailed Illah, reporting its low battery charge and asking for "HELP!" Illah rushed to the museum with a charger and his fiancee (now wife) in tow. She makes documentaries, and likened the evening to an episode of "ER."

Chips has made a distinctly favorable impression on the museum staff, especially when they looked at the statistics generated. The robot has increased the average length of time people spend in the exhibit, and especially brings a wider variety of people: Chips had higher ratios of young, women, and minorities than docent-guided tours. On a true/false pop-quiz about the material in the exhibits, the people who visited the robot did much better than those who did not.

Illah also talked about three other tourguide robots: Sweetlips, Joe, and Raven. Sweetlips is also in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, but has a larger tour area, has better interaction capabilities, and improved speech. Joe is at the guide at the Heinz History Center, with even more complex interaction. He even has an attitude; Chips discovered that some people feel the need to prove that they are better than a robot by blocking its way. This tends to disrupt tours. Joe will counter people by saying, among other randomly selected things, like "I'm a robot, I'm more patient than you," or "This isn't the parkway, and you aren't PennDOT. Please move!" One of the most effective seems to be, "Hey, all these people behind me would like to continue the tour!" Raven is still in the planning stages. It will be placed in the Aviary, and will have a perch for birds to land on. It will be possible for ornithologists to use the robot to give tours via telepresence here in Pittsburgh even though they are in, say, Seattle.

Illah continued by telling of research into robot locomotion. One example is the Gyrover, which is a teleoperated robot built inside of a single wheel. Actually, the first version was built inside of a metal salad bowl. The Gyrovers use gyroscopes to steer and keep balance.

Another robot being experimented with is a single bow legged robot. That is, the robot has just one leg that is in the form of a bow. This has several advantages. Where a wheeled robot must have a continuous path along the ground, a hopper can move from point to point in uneven terrain. Because of the range of its ballistic flight, it has a greater reach than multi-legged robots that must keep some feet on the ground at all times to stay balanced. It can change the angle of the bow leg in midair for steering, to lower the energy cost. Illah showed a video of a one-dimensional hopper; it was fixed to a pivot so that it could not fall to either side, but could hop along a circle. It did this with extreme efficiency, lasting as long as 30 minutes on a pair of C-cells, because the bow conserves roughly 85 percent of the energy of each jump. It also jumped with great accuracy, hopping along on 1x3 boards that were placed edge-up. A two dimensional hopper is in the works.

Much of the testing for this robot was done with a pogo-stick-like device called the BowGo. It uses a 3 foot bow spring, which has lifted a person 45 inches. It may be able to go higher, but at that point people start to get nervous. Not the riders, but the watchers!

At that point, Illah had to be cut off as we were out of time. Which is a shame, he was only about half done with what he wanted to say.

"Parable of the Writer": Octavia Butler at Seton Hill College

by Ann Cecil

The news that Octavia Butler was in town, and would be giving a free lecture came via an email rumor. My house gets both the Post-Gazette and the Tribune-Review, but it was the free papers: the City Paper and In Pittsburgh, that had the confirmation and the details.

Octavia Butler does not fit the traditional image of a wimpy SF writer, far beyond the minor details of being neither male nor white. She is an imposing woman, over 6 ft tall (6'3" at least), with broad shoulders and a commanding presence. Her voice is rich and throaty, pleasant to the ear but always easy to hear, and she has beautiful diction. Her books have carved an equally unusual niche; they are clearly sf, since they deal with aliens and world-changing catastrophes and immortals, all the standard tropes of sf, yet they touch on characters and advocate solutions that are blatantly, brutally different from the norm for the genre. Her work can be painful to read, but it is clearly the kind of thought-provoking, self-questioning literature that the best sf aspires to be.

Octavia Butler's talk was both an explanation of how she came to write Parable of the Talents, her Nebula-award winning novel, and a discussion of the personal significance of particular passages and personages from the book. She interspersed anecdotes of her grandmother and mother with 'lessons' read from the text of the novel.

The novel, as Ms. Butler summarized for those who have not read it yet, deals with the relationship of a charismatic female, Lauren, who succeeds in changing the world in which she lives, and her resentful daughter. The novel was always meant to be the continuation and conclusion of Lauren's story, begun in Butler's previous book, Parable of the Sower. Initially, Butler found that a straightforward telling wasn't working; "I threw away 60 or 70 pages" she said. Then her own mother died. Even though Butler and her mother had a good relationship, she found herself inventing and writing in the new point of view, the resentful daughter, which enabled her to finish the novel.

Butler says she does not rewrite, in the conventional sense. If she has a problem, she stops, starts over and fixes it, so that she can write her story 'straight through' to the end.

She cited another difference from the conventional advice to writers; she does not save up material (incidents, feelings, observations) for use in future work. Everything she currently has goes into the work at hand, so each work is a kind of summation of where she is at the time.

PARSEC Commentary

Official PARSEC Commentary from your elected Commentator, Ann Cecil

Recently I've been reading the anthology Free Spacewhich is a series of stories built around a common message: Libertarianism is good, democracy is suspect. I'm not sure whether I agree or disagree with the message, but I do notice that, as usual, a preponderance of message makes for some weighty and awkward storytelling.

It should be possible to make a point without driving it into the reader's head. Really good literature, from Aesop and the Bible on, accomplishes this. The best fairy tales and myths, the ones beloved of many generations, turn out to have messages, often not particularly sublte ones. The point in The Pied Piper of Hamelin, for instance, is pretty obvious.

So what makes them better than current 'message' stories? For one thing, as those who have looked closely at even the simplest fairy tale discover, there are layers of meaning in all the stories. The harder you look, the more you see. (I speak of course from experience, having been involved in the 'rewrite your favorite fairy tale in Pittsburgh' project, which resulted in the First Ever PARSEC Anthology.)

I think it's the lack of depth that makes the 'message' stories grate; every element, in the more determined stories, relates back to the main point. It makes them curiously flat, single dimensioned. Let me hasten to add, not every story in 'Free Space' is like this; there are good stories in the anthology. And in general I prefer stories that do have a point, even if it is one with which I disagree.

In discussions with others about stories and books, I find that establishing ground rules - or at least ground perceptions - is a good idea. My English major background tends to make me something of a relativist: compare and contrast is the approach I still use, subconsciously. I have friends who are Engineers in style if not in occupation; they measure against objective baselines.

Next meeting will be on the subject of possible Hugo contenders - evaluating last year's crop of novels, novellas, novelettes, short stories, and dramatic presentations. It will be interesting to see what style most people use to evaluate, whether relativist or objective, as well as what they suggest we should be reading!

Gordon R. Dickson


Prolific SF author Gordon R. Dickson died Jan. 31 at his home in Richfield, Minn. He was 77, according to Todd Davidson, director of the Morris Nilsen Funeral Chapel in Richfield.

In a career that spanned a half century, Dickson published more than 80 novels and many short stories, and was publishing new work as late as last year, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America reported. His best-known work is the Childe Cycle series of novels, which were intended to present an evolutionary blueprint for humanity's ultimate expansion throughout the galaxy, according to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Dickson also collaborated frequently with SF author Poul Anderson, with whom he attended the University of Minnesota, most notably on the Hoka series, about a race of furry aliens who mimic human culture, according to the SFWA.

Dickson, a native of Canada who became a U.S. citizen after immigrating at age 13, was president of the SFWA from 1969 to 1971. In the course of his career, he received a Nebula Award and three Hugo Awards. Last year, he was inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame.

News Flash

Confluence 13 is July 20th through the 22nd, at the Four Points Sheraton, near the Robinson Town Center. The Guest of Honor is Editor and Author David G. Hartwell. Other guests include Kathryn Cramer, John DeChancie, Tim Esaias, Mary Soon Lee, and William Tenn. Keep an eye on your Sigmas for further details.

Memberships for PARSEC members are still only $20 for the full weekend, $25 for non-members for pre-registrations.

"Pittsburgh, we have a convention."

Kevin and Heidi are proud to announce that on January 6, 2001, April was awarded a black-belt in Tang Soo Do.

Mary Soon Lee's story in the Age Of Wonders anthology, "Murder Absolute", earned an Honorable Mention in the annual Best Of The Soft SF contest. Tim Esaias has the poem "It's A Disaster, Really" in Star*Line #24.1.

Con List

February 16-18: Boskone, Framingham MA with George R.R. Martin.
PARSEC attendees: Jim and Laurie Mann, Mary Tabasko, Wendy Kosak (possible)

February 23-25: Ad Astra, Toronto ONT with Connie Willis.

March 23-25: Lunacon, New York NY with Charles Sheffield.
PARSEC attendees: Wendy Kosak (possible)

March 23-25: Millenicon, Kings Island OH with Catherine Asaro.
PARSEC attendees: Ann Cecil, Greg Armstrong, Mia Sherman (contact).

March 30-April 1: FilkOntario, Mississauga ONT.

March 30-April 1: I-Con, Long Island NY with Majel Barrett-Roddenberry and Harlan Ellison.

April 6-8: Contraption, Detroit MI with Catlin Kiernan and Poppy Z. Brite.

April 20-22: Eeriecon, Niagara Falls NY with Samuel R. Delany and Robert J. Sawyer.

Future Cons of interest: Randy Hoffman will have a filk concert at Balticon over Memorial Day; Xavier the Robot will be at InConJunction in July; WorldCon will be in Philadelphia over Labor Day.

Check the PARSEC Convention list at: for more information about these and other conventions!


DUES are now due.

Dues are $10 annually; if there is a second person at the same address who does not want a separate copy of SIGMA, they can pay $2 for their membership. (This is usually a spouse or children, but can be anyone.) The $2 membership entitles you to vote, get the Confluence discount, and discounts at some bookstores. But you don't get your own SIGMA.

PARSEC also accepts barter: if you have artwork or books (in mint condition) you want to donate for the raffle, they can be credited as a $10 membership (or $12) at the discretion of the PARSEC President.

Delaney at University of Pittsburgh

By Ann Cecil

It bodes extremely well for Pittsburgh fandom, and for Confluence, that not one but two major SF writers appeared at free events in the area in January of 2001.

Samuel Delaney is one of the greats. His works surpass the conventions and cliches of the science-fiction genre. While they make full use of the tropes (his heroes travel in time, wage wars as interstellar and galactic as anyone; his fantasies have creatures as strange and fabulous with plots as mythic and epic as the widest read), they transcend the limits and technological focus to attain the depth of characterization and wealth of imagery and insight that creates enduring literature.

Besides, Delaney is one of those people who is compulsively intelligent; he seems to regard it as his duty to discuss any subject, no matter how trite or stale, and make only fresh and revealing comments about it. I have heard him on panels, or giving Guest of Honor speeches, a half dozen times, and he is never dull or boring, no matter the provocation.

Unfortunately, Pitt provided a great deal of provocation. Delaney was invited in conjunction with two programs: an African-American Studies Seminar, which aired at 4 in he afternoon, and the Contemporary Writers series, which was at 8:15 pm. He was to share the podium with two other African-American men, poets, at both presentations. The afternoon program also featured a woman named Mae Henderson, a noted editor of commentary on the black literary scene. Both of the two poets called off sick.

Laurie Mann had the opportunity to attend the afternoon program. She reported that both Delaney and Henderson were excellent, sparkling and entertaining; Delaney spoke for some 40 minutes, answered questions, and generally behaved like the literary lion that he is. By the evening meeting, Delaney was evidently tired. While the presentation had been advertised as a panel, clearly Delaney could not sustain this format by himself, so he simply did readings.

Delaney read three pieces: an excerpt from Dahlgren, a piece of criticism on George Orwell's 1984 called 'Breaking the Realistic's Teacup", and parts of a novella from Atlantis, called "Model 1924". He explained that "Model 1924" is an 'experimental' work, and flourished the page format as evidence (it features concurrent columns, at some points, showing differing points of view). He also told us that "Model 1924" is based on stories his father told him, about personal experiences during the depression.

After the reading, Delaney moved down to the building atrium, which had wine and cheese and assorted veggie finger food. Those who stayed had full opportunity to ask him questions directly, or sing his praises, or (in our case) beg him to come to Confluence (he gave us a resounding maybe). In person, he continues to be intelligent, witty, soft-spoken and generally delightful.

Next Meeting

NEXT MEETING: Feb. 10, 2001 1:00 PM to 4:45 PM
LOCATION: Squirrel Hill Branch of Carnegie Library
PLEASE: We encourage people to bring a munchie or drink contribution ... pop, chips, cookies, etc.

TOPIC: Hugo Nominating

This is a panel discussion on "Hugo Nominating." Panelists include Jim Mann and Randy Hoffman (or designated substitutes). We will discuss what to nominate - novels, novellas, short stories, etc. - for the coming Millenium Philcon in both the 2000 awards and the Retro Hugo for 1950 categories.

PARSEC Meeting Schedule

March 2001
Time & Date : 10 March 2001
Discussion Topic : 'Topics' for the Millenium Philcon
Location : Squirrel Hill

April 2001
Time & Date : 14 April 2001
Discussion Topic : Aspects of Asimov by Phil Klass
Location : Squirrel Hill

August 2001
Time & Date : 18 August 2001
Discussion Topic : Picnic
Location : Bellvue Memorial Park, Bragden Grove
Note: this is the third Saturday of August.

The Editors of Sigma welcome your input! Send your columns, commentary, reviews, rants, letters, laughs, input, and throughput to us! Send art, too!

To Contact PARSEC

phone: 344-0345
mail: PO Box 3681, Pittsburgh, PA, 15230


The Pittsburgh Area Realtime Scientifiction Enthusiasts Club

President: Kevin Hayes

Vice President: "Cap'n" John Cope

Treasurer: Greg Armstrong

Editor: Don Cox

Secretary: Tom Morrow

Commentator: Ann Cecil

Meetings: The second Saturday in each month.

Dues: $10 full, $2 supporting.

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This page maintained by Greg Armstrong.