The Official Newsletter of PARSEC


January 2000, Issue 168

Ann's Agenda

Making New Year's Resolutions is a practice I abandoned years ago, when I discovered 1) how hard it was to come up with a reasonable list and 2) how hard it was to keep them. As a consequence, the same items popped up on the list each year. My old lists used to have these recurrent items: really learn Yoga, stop eating doughnuts, stop talking so much, read Lord of the Rings.

Well, I finally got Lord of the Rings read (this year!). I have taken Yoga classes (about 6 month's worth), and finally realized that 'learning Yoga' is not something you can accomplish in a year. I like doughnuts too much to stop eating them; I've comprised on avoiding doughnut shops unless they're on my way. And as for talking - sigh - I'm still working on that.

It occurred to me that this year we have a unique opportunity - we can make New Century Resolutions. Now with a hundred years to get things done in, surely even the most ambitious resolution is practically a fait accompli!

But New Century Resolutions would have to be larger in scope, impressive, wide-ranging, imaginative; just the sort of thing PARSEC members are good at. Personally, I want to start off my list with 1) live long enough to be con chair for the Pittsburgh Worldcon in 2060 [note that this is not 'live forever' - larger in scope is one thing, impossible is another]. I don't think it's cheating to sort of incorporate two goals in one resolution, either.

I considered adding goals like 'get enough PARSEC members to use the bulk permit for SIGMA' but that's not a New Century Resolution (maybe a decade, but I don't think it will take even that long).

I also considered ones involving money, but decided that money won't be any more important to me in the new century than it was in the old. My best number 2) have a robot servant in my house to do all the cleaning and repairs. It has become clearer and clearer to me that repairing houses is a time-consuming activity that really bores me silly. A robot would really be helpful there. Hopefully by a quarter century in, robots will be as affordable as cars were in 1925. The basic, comes only in black, stripped down Model A, that is.

Our speaker for the next meeting (early in January this year!) is an expert on robots. Sebastian Thrun works at CMU designing and testing new robot models. He'll be telling us about what is leading edge in this field (but probably not how to get one for our very own).

When I talked to him a couple months ago about being a PARSEC speaker, I told him not to make it 'light' - put in all the nice scientific details. So this one should be enlightening!

And before or after the meeting, we can discuss other resolutions that should be on the New Century list - maybe we should have a PARSEC list?

Last Meeting

by Sasha Riley

change to the by-laws was passed :

addition of a secretary was unanimous (yes from all who voted) Tom Morrow has the position, by virtue of being the only nominee.

addition of snide commentator squeaked through - several people voted no, and there was one abstention (Christina Schulman). There was some suggestion that the duties should be described more positively (or that there should be duties).

there was one write-in for the position of Snide Commentator - Joan Fisher, but Chris Ferrier has the position by majority vote.

The last meeting, which was the party, was on December 11, 1999 and elections were held for the various offices of PARSEC. President Ann Cecil, VIce President Sasha Riley, Secartary Thomas Morrow, Tresurer,Mia Sherman and the newest office Snide Commentator Chris Ferrier.

The party started at 2 o'clock pm, and ended at about 2 o'clock am, when people were pushed out the door. There was a ton of food, as always. Lots of people, Phil and Fruma Klass were among the guests. There were many interesting conversations.

Also there was a video room, and game room, and a few games that went on downstairs. We had in the way of food, a vegetarian lasagna, chili, wedding soup, and of course all ths basic stuff chips, and so on.

Videos ranged from the sci-fi to cartoons. Some of the games where Orks at the Gate, Talismen, and Guillotine. The party went as usual, people talked, ate,and talked some more. I was not part of many conversations, but the few I was in, were interesting, just as I would expect from this group. All in all the party was its usual succes.

[editorial comment from Ann) Fruma Klass contributed a 'pot-au-freezer' soup/stew that was really delicious; and Mark Stewart brought not only the best chili, but the great chocolate cake and the those nifty stuffed mushrooms.I don't know that we had more people, but those that came stayed longer, and there weren't any gaps this year - there were always people and conversations, steadily for the whole 12 hours.Not many people borrowed books, though a number brought some back.

Happy New Year!!

Millennium as seen by a 15 year old

by Sasha Riley

Well wow. The year 2000. Big news. Although I have only been around for 15 years of the last hundred, I look back at the 1900's with some fondness.

It was a time of great steps in the technology, medical advances, and social change. It was also a time of war, depression, and a few just really bad times. I think the 1900's should be looked at for all of it. If you just look at one of the things, or only one side of them, you will never learn anything, and there is so much to learn from the 1900's. It gave us so much.

It would be a true insult to the great people of the time, if the people now, didn't bother to look at all of the 1900's, or only looked at the good parts. I admit Adolf Hilter is not someone you look at with fondness, but don't forget him. Forgetting him would be forgetting it all happened. It's like that for everything, if you forget one side of something, then you have forgotten half of the story, the history, and then it's lost.

For a 15 year old, this change is really big. I am going to live most of my life in the twenty-first century. I admit part of me is jealous of the babies that are going to be born in 2000,2001, etc. They get to live their ENTIRE life in the twenty-first century, but then I am jealous of anyone who is going to get to see the future with out. Most of all I am jealous of those people who are going to get to see the change to the year 3000.

But all is well, I am here, and I am going to live as far into the future as I can. I have a feeling this is going to be a great time.

News Flash

Mary Soon Lee's story "Lifework" has been selected for the Year's Best SF #5 collection edited by David Hartwell. The webzine Electric Wine bought reprint rights to her story "Conversation Pieces".

Timons Esaias has the poem "The Latest Literary Device" in the February issue of Asimov's. His story "Crash Site" was Alexandria Digital Literature's #4 best seller for November.

Phil Klass would like to contact the person who was talking with him at the Christmas party about a copy of the OVA Hamlet Papers by Richard Lupoff. Phil wrote the intro, finds he doesn't have a copy of that intro (that he can find, anyway), and would appreciate a chance to make a copy.

Unfortunately, the Christmas party having been longer and more people having talked to him this year, he doesn't remember who this was.

If you are the person, or know them (and there were a few guests who are not on the SIGMA list yet) please email Phil at, or call him 412.561.0456. Or you could write him a note at 12 Hazel Dr, Pittsburgh, PA 15228.


The Drawing of the Dark
By Tim Powers
Review by J. J. Walton

Brian Duffy, Irishman and mercenary, finds himself between engagements and just this side of "down on his luck" in Venice, Italy in the 1500's. Through some very odd occurrences, Duffy is offered a job as a bouncer in a very old tavern in Vienna, Austria, charged with keeping the establishment as peaceful as possible.

Duffy accepts the position as well as a large sack of gold for traveling expenses and quickly heads off to his new employment. Just as quickly he finds himself the target of several murder attempts. Only his skill with a sword and a bit of otherworldly help allow him to reach Vienna more or less in one piece. (Don't peer too deeply into the shadows Duffy: you may actually see what is out there.)

The tavern where Duffy is to work, the house of Herzwesten, is built over a world renown brewery. Said brewery has been in place for 4000 or so years and is a power point in the eternal struggle between good and evil. (Brewing a good beer is the most noble of the ancient arts: of course it must be protected!) The beer from this ancient brewery comes in three varieties: the Light, which is the everyday beer which is served year round, the Bock, which is limited in quantity and is tapped in the Spring, at Easter, and the Dark, which is reserved for a very limited clientele.

Duffy soon finds that his employment was no accident. He is fated to play a pivotal role in ending the invasion of the West by the forces of the East.

Unfortunately Duffy enjoys ballroom brawls and he quickly develops a talent for starting them. This places a certain strain on Duffy's relationship with his employer, who may or may not be Merlin.

And what of Duffy's dreams, which show him places he has never been and people he has never known? He attributes them to over indulgence in the beer he is protecting, but he doesn't stop drinking. (Beer was much healthier than water to drink in those days.)

The Drawing of the Dark is part Arthurian Legend, part history lesson and all adventure. There were (and are) so many small wars in Europe during the time period Powers has chosen, it really does appear to be an eternal struggle. But were there really Vikings available for hire as late at 1540?

Yes, I enjoyed Dark, and not just because it is about beer. It is a humorous look at a man just trying to get by in his chosen profession despite being entrusted with the fate of the world. Certain explanations didn't make a lot of sense, such as how the beer is made and why it is so important, but we can forgive Powers the rough spots because he was so entertaining.

The Drawing of the Dark invites comparisons with Mr. Powers' later (and superior) work Dinner at Deviant's Palace. Both novels contain middle-aged men as adventurers who have seen better days and are perfectly willing to put the glory days behind them in exchange for 3 meals a day and a warm bed. Circumstances force both men out of retirement and into the strangest adventures of their careers. Gregorio Rivas, the main character in Deviant, has much more of a clue about what is going on around him, however.

Sailing to Sarantium: Book One of the Sarantine Mosaic
by Guy Gavriel Kay
Review by Wendy Kosak

I heard Guy Gabriel Kay read at World Fantasy Convention and was impressed enough to hurry out and track down all the books I could in the dealers room. Sailing to Sarantium had been nominated for Best Fantasy Novel, so I started with it.

My reaction is mixed. The story is of Crispin, a mosaicist summoned by the Emperor to do a mosaic for a newly built dome in the capital. The world is almost, but not quite our world. By jumping viewpoints we get slices of life from this world: a supporter of the Blue team of chariot racers; a royal courier; a slave; a senator. While the writing is excellent, each viewpoint change slows the plot down until it crawls. Once we settle on Crispin, things pick up, although not without a few leaps and starts afterward to expose plot twists he wouldn't normally be privy to. All in all, very little gets done in the first book. Crispin is summoned, he travels to the capital with only one notable mishap, watches a chariot race, talks to the emperor, talks to two or three other people, the novel ends.

Kay's writing is excellent enough that it took me a while to realize that he can't/doesn't write action scenes. Riots are sidestepped and talked about as past deeds. Murders are committed off screen so we only hear the screams. In one scene Crispin enrages a soldier, we then jump to the next scene with Crispin waking up, apparently struck in the face with a helmet. Except for one excellent chariot race, there are no action scenes. After a while, I found this quite annoying, especially after a main character is killed but we only witness the bloody ruins of his body.

Between the slow pace and the avoiding action scene, there are no cool parts that I would reread an entire book just to hit. My recommendation? It's a pleasant read, wait for the paperback.

Cinemania in the Hall

Mystery Men
Movie Review by Bill Hall

You've seen their special bread before. In Howard the Duck (not the so-so movie, but the original Steve Gerber comic series) we met villains like the Spanker, a vicious expelled ex-schoolmaster, and the Black Hole, who with a black hole imbedded in his chest could absorb enemies with the caption "The Black Hole sucks!" On the TV cartoon show The Tick, we met heroes like Carpet Man, who could generate enormous bolts of static electricity by rubbing his feet real hard. Now, in a bizarre place called Champion City, fresh from the imagination of Bob Burden of Dark Horse Comics (origin of The Mask), we meet seven new bargain-basement superheroes.

I will for once come straight to the point. Mystery Men is good. How good? Better than other work I've given passing grades to, like Deep Rising or Toy Soldiers. Better than both Austin Powers movies. In fact, I rate it right up there alongside that other Mystery movie (something lucky about having that in the title!), MST3K:TM. (Get someone in the know to explain it to you.) You may have to think all the way back to Buckaroo Banzai to properly express how sweet this movie is.

Champion City has been rendered virtually crime-free by Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear, playing well as a pretty-guy smart-aleck), a smug superguy festooned with corporate logos like a race car driver. In a ploy to resuscitate his career, Amazing, back in his secret identity as billionaire Lance Hunt (it's secret, see, because he wears glasses), decides to spring an old enemy to spice things up (it's tough, though; for example, Deathman is dead) and settles on Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush, whose villian's name sounds like an alias used on a Carnegie-Mellon late night student radio talk show about sex). When Casanova chloroforms (yes, chloroforms!) Amazing, the city is at his mercy, and the B-list heroes must come to the rescue.

These "wannabes" are: William H Macy (yes, Jerry Lundegaard from Fargo!) as The Shoveler (wears a mining helmet, wields a shovel like a pikestaff, has an emergency back-up gardening spade), Hank Azaria (a Simpson's voicemeister) as The Blue Raja (hurls silverware like ninja projectiles, apes a phony British accent, insists on calling himself Blue while always wearing green), Wes Studi (a player of tough guys, culminating in Geronimo) as The Sphinx (splits guns in half with his mind, master of bullkaka fortune-cookie wisdom), Janeane Garofalo (accomplished comedienne and rising actress) as The Bowler (wields a transparent bowling ball containing her father's skull, which she argues with frequently), Paul Reubens (aka Pee-wee Herman) as The Spleen (please don't ask), Kel Mitchell (some young star, I think from Nickelodeon) as the Invisible Kid (it only works if no one's looking), and Ben Stiller (The Zero Effect) as Mr. Furious (pretty pathetic, really).

Of course, the underdogs will unite and save the day, but it's the specific Hows and Whats that make up this comedy. Their scuffle with Casanova's limousine is in itself a riot.

There are also some great supporting roles. We get Louise Lasser (Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman) as the Raja's mother. Tom Waits is the quirky inventor Heller. Mr. Furious's love interest is Claire Forlani, who for once gets someone more interesting and accessible than Brad Pitt was in Meet Joe Black. Lena Olin looks as smashing as ever, though I was sad that her role as the duplicitous psychologist Dr. Leek was so small.

I dug this movie. If you delight in such torturous comebacks as "I don't need a compass to tell which way the wind shines!" or such oblique declarations as "We have a blind date with Destiny - And she just ordered the lobster!," then jog, don't walk (though busing or driving may help) to see (or, by the time this review sees print, rest - nay, buy!) Mystery Men. I pray there's a sequel - or better yet, a role-playing game.

Galaxy Quest
by Sasha Riley

This movie starring Sigorney Weaver and Tim Allen, is great. The basic plot is: a bunch of out of work actors from the show Galaxy Quest is working a bunch conventions, and a group of aliens comes down to ask for their help to save what is left of their people. Tim Allen is the first one they take up to the ship, he of course has to convince the rest of the actors that they should come along.

Continuing along the lines of predictablity they get an extra man: Crewman #6 (red shirt, in blue uniform). The move goes, well, along a very predictable route, but even so, it's a great movie. The end is of course, good guys win, and the guy gets the girl, and another gets the alien.

Please Ignore the Man Behind the Curtain...

(or: "The Article I Shouldn't Write")
by Greg Armstrong

Xavier and Florence are autonomous robots, which means they are able to do everything they are supposed to do without human intervention. Yeah, right.

Well, maybe I shouldn't be so hard on them. After all, they had just been packed into crates, rushed from Pittsburgh to New York City, and made to perform on live national television, which is a rare thing for a robot. (I'd like to say they were the first, but I can't verify that.) And for those of you who saw the Today Show on New Years Eve, they looked great. At least, pretty darn good for the 3 1/2 minutes that they were on.

But there were problems. Severe problems. I've heard that actors complain about the heat under the lights on camera or stage, and now I can truly sympathize. Actually, I prefered the lights on, because it is winter, and the studio is only heated by the lights. It was quite cozy when the lights were on, but freezing the rest of the time. I spent 14 hours on the Today show set, only that fateful few minutes with all the lights on.

But that wasn't the true problem. Consider that all of those lights are electrical. And they aren't designed to produce heat, they are intended to illuminate the set; heat is just a by-product. To get that amount of heat and light from those devices requires enormous amounts of power. At 60 hertz, that power passes through a large number of cables all around the set. While those cables pass the ower to the lights, they are also radiating some of it in the form of electro-magnetic waves; the same kind that folks living under the high tension power cables complain about. I don't think it was as intense in the studio as under those cables, but I do know that I was generating a static electrical charge even when I was sitting still.

Of course, if I were generating a charge, think about what this was doing to Xavier and Flo, who are essencially great big capacitors. Not a pretty picture, is it? Especially since these robots are controlled by some of the most delicate electronics on the open market: Intel Pentium Processors. (In all fairness to Intel, they have to be delicate to get them to run as fast as they do. The circuits are only a few molecules thick.) Actually, it wasn't too hard on Xavier, I think because he is metal all around, so his electic field is well distrubuted. Flo has a fabric skin, which is non-conductive. To make a long story short, Flo's computer crashed any time we touched her. Then it took about 20 minutes to get everything running again.

Xavier himself was not immune to the powerful EM fields fluctuating about the room. We lost one of his three computers once, and another time it crashed his sonar system. Most importantly, though, was that much of the power he picked up was channeled into his sonar ring. He was seeing ghosts constantly. that is not a problem if he stands still, he ignores them. But if he is moving, he tries to avoid them. Needless to say, he could not walk a straight line if his drivers licence depended on it.

In the end, we had two rules: Don't touch Flo, and Don't step in front of Xavier. We had to turn off his sonar system, so he was essentially blind. Did I mention that the bright lights reflected on the buffed-every-night floor confused his laser system as bad as the e-m did his sonar? That was off, too. His bump panels were active, so he wasn't completely unsafe.

But then we couldn't trust Flo's speech recognition to work perfectly. In fact, we never claimed it did. With only 3 and a half minutes to talk about two very important projects, we didn't want to have the Katie repeating one question to Flo the whole time trying to get her to understand. So we cheated. Mike Montemerlo was behind the wall, with a computer connected to Flo via a radio ethernet link. I had the same connection to Xavier. Together, we prompted the robots to take certain actions on cue. As the balloonist in Oz, we were indeed the men behind the curtain.

I take heart in realizing that even though Xavier and Flo were not fully autonomous on that short segment of the Today Show, they actually do work in more "normal" environments.

But I will be thankful if I never have to do live TV with them ever again.

Meeting Schedule

NEXT MEETING: Jan. 8, 2000 12:30 PM to 4:45

LOCATION: Squirrel Hill Branch of Carnegie Library

PLEASE: We encourage people to bring a munchie or drink contribution ... pop, chips, cookies, etc.

TOPIC: Can Robots Be Your Friend?

Professor Sebastian Thrun from Carnegie Mellon University will speak about interactive mobile robots developed for educational and entertainment purposes and for assistance of the elderly population. He'll explain some of the research challenges, and how robots are perceived by the general public.

February 2000
Time & Date : 12:30, 12 February 2000
Discussion Topic : Pre-Confluence Panic
Location : Squirrel Hill Branch of Carnegie Library

March 2000
Time & Date : 12:30, 11 March 2000
Discussion Topic : TBA
Location : Squirrel Hill Branch of Carnegie Library

Sapphire Awards

Voting for the Sapphire Awards must take place by January 8, 2000.

The finalists are:

Tamela will e-mail a copy of her story to anyone who requests it.

Also note that former Pittsburgher, and this year's Confluence guest, Jean Goldstrom is the editor of the online SF mag Anotherealm, one story from which is up for the award.

Please vote. The URL is:

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: Ann Cecil

Vice President: Sasha Riley

Treasurer: Mia Sherman

Editor: Don Cox

Secretary: Tom Morrow

Snide Commentator: Chris Ferrier

Meetings: The second Saturday in each month.

Dues: $10 full, $2 supporting.

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