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Welcome to the Zarthani.net H. Beam Piper mailing list and discussion forum. Initiated in October 2008 (after the demise of the original PIPER-L mailing list), this tool for shared communication among Piper fans provides an e-mail list and a discussion forum with on-line archives.
 
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2099
David "PiperFan" JohnsonPerson was signed in when posted
06-01-2020
15:03 UT
~
Mike writes:

> From a story telling viewpoint, maybe it would have
> made more sense for Chalmers to be buried away in a
> civilian contractor office in a basement somewhere,
> serving as a flesh-and-blood Merlin to the founders of
> the 1st Federation.

This, of course, is the most interesting question we're left with in "Edge": did Chalmers survive and, if so, was early Terran civilization able to take advantage of his "future memories."

My sense is that, at least the second part, never happened. The way the future history unfolded: U.S.-led Terran Federation, a subsequent Fourth World War, a ~second~ Federation formed--after the Northern Hemisphere is destroyed, is all within a reasonable time frame of any Chalmers-informed planners and yet events happened in a way that was disastrous for everyone in the Northern Hemisphere.

Unless Chalmers survived the Thirty Days' War and then somehow managed to make his way to Australia, South Africa or Uruguay (or, perhaps, U.S.-held Antarctica), I'm guessing he never left Northern State Mental Hospital.

Cheers,

David
--
"I was trying to show the results of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, and the partition of the Middle East into a loose collection of Arab states, and the passing of British and other European spheres of influence following the Second." - Edward Chalmers (H. Beam Piper), "The Edge of the Knife"
~
2098
David "PiperFan" JohnsonPerson was signed in when posted
06-01-2020
14:48 UT
~
Dave Eden wrote:

> Thanks to the recipe John Carr shares in his book, I
> have a tradition of having a katinka on Saturday in
> honour of Beam.

Sounds like a tradition Beam would have approved of. ;)

Cheers,

David
--
"Considering the one author about whom I am uniquely qualified to speak, I question if any reader of H. Beam Piper will long labor under the misunderstanding that he is a pious Christian, a left-wing liberal, a Gandhian pacifist, or a teetotaler." - H. Beam Piper, "Double: Bill Symposium" interview
~
2097
pennausamikePerson was signed in when posted
05-31-2020
17:50 UT
Hi David:
I gave your reasoned response considerable thought, and I guess my short reply is that every author is entitled to a klunker or two. And for me, "Edge of the Knife" is one of Piper's klunkers, made possible by the author's personal flaw, rather than good story telling.

As far as your point about the twist, you're right. Without the commitment thing, there is no twist, and the story becomes more like "When In The Course..."; a straight forward telling of interesting events. Which isn't as big a problem for me as it is for many readers. There are a number of authors (none of whom I can dredge up from my memory at the moment) whose careers are built on recounting tales of life. Maybe no twists; but problems solved or lessons learned kind of thing. That's how I've always enjoyed WItC, and that is how I would have liked EotK if Chalmers hadn't made such a bonehead move. From a story telling viewpoint, maybe it would have made more sense for Chalmers to be buried away in a civilian contractor office in a basement somewhere, serving as a flesh-and-blood Merlin to the founders of the 1st Federation.
2096
Dave EdenPerson was signed in when posted
05-31-2020
04:21 UT

Good insights, guys. I often think about how Beam could've saved himself so many ways. But he did things his own way.

Thanks to the recipe John Carr shares in his book, I have a tradition of having a katinka on Saturday in honour of Beam.
2095
David "PiperFan" JohnsonPerson was signed in when posted
05-31-2020
00:43 UT
~
Mike "pennausamike" McGuirk wrote:

> So of course the Doctor signs the papers to ship him off
> to the funny farm. WAIT, WHAT?! (Needle slides
> across the record right here!) Why in the name of Dralm
> would he DO that? And I literally mean that; why would
> Chalmers see commitment as his ticket to safety?

I have also always found this to be an absurd choice but putting aside the fact that it gives a dramatic twist to the end to the yarn--which may have been what an editor wanted--I've often wondered if this was also Beam signalling that perhaps Chalmers wasn't as sane as Chalmers believed he was after all.

I mean it's clear that throughout the yarn his "memories of the future" are getting the best of him, whether it's him believing that he wrote down "remembered future" details that he cannot subsequently find or him blathering in class again even after he realized he needed to be more careful about not doing so or recklessly rambling on to Pottgeiter even later in the yarn.

We believe Chalmers' "future memories" because we've read the other Terrohuman Future History yarns but the internal evidence in "Edge" itself suggests Chalmers is at best an unreliable narrator. It's possible both that his "future memories" are accurate ~and~ that he is, nevertheless, losing his mind (perhaps driven to madness by these very "memories of the future").

> I believe the answer lies in the psychology behind Piper's
> decision to quit the PRR when the Altoona shops got slow.
> H. Beam Piper may have only been a night watchman, but
> he worked in a Union shop, and his employment would
> have been determined by seniority. He would have had
> to bump his way through various positions as people were
> laid off. A pain to be sure, but it would have meant a
> steady paycheck, probably some version of healthcare,
> however minimal-some pension, and if carried to
> termination, an earned right to unemployment
> compensation. WELL! H. Beam Piper wasn't going to
> stand for all that inconvenience and indignity, no sir.
> He would grab the bull by the horns and handle it
> RIGHT NOW! By quitting.

That's an interesting perspective.

I agree Beam "chose . . . poorly" and that his choices were driven, in part, by his peculiar "self-reliant" philosophy but whether or not a similar sort of dynamic is how he was writing Chalmers, intentionally or unintentionally, is a good question.

I'd like to believe that Beam was writing a better story, along the lines I've suggested above (and perhaps within the editorial constraints of the story sale) but you may have it right here.

That would make the sad tale of Beam's life even a bit more sad.

> These are two instances, one real and one fictional, where
> Piper's self-reliant man crosses over into bad decisions
> based on hubris or pride-driven laziness ("I'm too good to
> be bothered with all that rigmarole) and the self-reliant man
> hands himself over to the whims and actions of others.
> Piper's better (read, my favorite) characters don't make such
> life-destroying choices, and the stories are better for it.

This is true too, so wouldn't that tend to suggest that Beam was a more self-aware and better-skilled writer than the writer who would write "Edge" the way you've suggested? Don't these many other examples suggest that perhaps Beam was doing something intentional in the way he wrote Chalmers besides simply channeling his own inner psychic dysfunction?

I suppose we'll never know but I'd like to think so.

Cheers,

David
--
"There had been the time he'd mentioned the secession of Canada from the British Commonwealth. . . ."- Edward Chalmers (H. Beam Piper), "The Edge of the Knife"
~
2094
pennausamikePerson was signed in when posted
05-30-2020
07:26 UT
I'm in the middle of re-reading my Piper collection for the umpteenth time; something I probably do every two to three years. Sometimes I read everything, other times just my favorites. This time I'm reading everything I have, including reading through the two Piper biographies written by John Carr. It is funny (to me, at least) how my favorite Piper stories mirror my favorite attributes of Piper the man, and my least favorite stories tend to mirror Piper's personal characteristics that I find the most flawed or least admirable. Which brings me to the most flawed character I think Piper ever wrote; or maybe to say it better, the character who makes the most flawed, life-changing decision Piper ever wrote. I'm speaking of Professor Edward Chalmers of "The Edge of the Knife". I think Chalmers' decision to have himself committed as insane was every bit as poor a piece of decision making as Piper's choice to just up and quit the Pennsylvania Railroad rather than let the layoffs and closings proceed naturally. Although we don't see the results of Chalmers' choice play out in the story, I think a reasonable assumption of how it played out versus how it could have been (if Chalmers simply wasn't committed) is easy to extrapolate. In both the story and in Piper's real life, I feel the protagonists (Piper and Chalmers) each thought he was making some bold choice to be the master of his own destiny, when in fact, both Piper and Chalmers blindly relinquished control of their own lives with a choice that subordinated them to the will of others.

In "The Edge of the Knife" (I'm not summarizing the whole story, assuming people on the Piper forum already know it) future-seeing Professor Chalmers is being interviewed by the state psychiatrist for possible commitment as insane. Because Chalmers is actually able to see the future and also is actually sane, he is on the cusp of being declared sane when he "sees" that in the near future the college he teaches at will be destroyed in the upcoming war he envisions, but the area around the mental hospital he will be sent to if he is judged insane will survive. "Ha Ha Ha!" he laughs manically, "you can't commit me because I'm blah, blah, blah!" So of course the Doctor signs the papers to ship him off to the funny farm. WAIT, WHAT?! (Needle slides across the record right here!) Why in the name of Dralm would he DO that? And I literally mean that; why would Chalmers see commitment as his ticket to safety? (No, I don’t believe it was to stay safe from the intelligence officer, because I believe Chalmers successfully placated him in the same way he did the state psychiatrist.) I believe the answer lies in the psychology behind Piper's decision to quit the PRR when the Altoona shops got slow. H. Beam Piper may have only been a night watchman, but he worked in a Union shop, and his employment would have been determined by seniority. He would have had to bump his way through various positions as people were laid off. A pain to be sure, but it would have meant a steady paycheck, probably some version of healthcare, however minimal-some pension, and if carried to termination, an earned right to unemployment compensation. WELL! H. Beam Piper wasn't going to stand for all that inconvenience and indignity, no sir. He would grab the bull by the horns and handle it RIGHT NOW! By quitting. And likewise, Professor Chalmers couldn't be bothered with proving his sanity, keeping his job, squaring away his personal belongings, looking for a place to live in the vicinity of Northern State Mental Hospital, getting time off work and then moving to and settling in to a new area. No sir; he'd get himself trucked right up there by the men in white coats RIGHT NOW! He then warns his friend Max of the impending disaster, so now poor old fuzzy-thinking Max is the one who has to get Chalmers' notes and belongings collected and move up to the Northern State area. Sorry, but I don't think either Piper's or Chalmers' decision was a particularly wise one.

To start with Professor Chalmers, he asks the Doctor if he can take his notes and work on them, and the Doctor agrees. But how do you think that's REALLY going to work out? My opinion is that Chalmers will be tormented and distracted in his attempts to continue recording his future history. Orderlies will keep him from working on them at the least (meal time, lights out, etc) and taunt him and take his notes at worst. And psychiatric doctors will examine his "work" and then try to medicate and shock him until his "delusions" go away. It is far more likely that Chalmers' brain would be turned to mush, than it is that he would be seen as a seer who should be released, once the wars unfold as he predicted. How much better off he would have been if he had maintained his freedom to choose his own path. Although different in some ways, the circumstances Piper thrust himself into by his decision to quit the PRR were similar in that they put him in the subordinate position to those around him. Although the effects of no-reliable income weren't immediate, Piper eventually saw his opportunities and independence whittled down to near-nothing. He lost authority to his equally strong-willed wife and he turned writing from an avocation and source of pride to a vocation from which he could not eke out a living wage. The sad part is, the Altoona shops never closed. Part of their work was sent to Juniata PA, but in the years leading up to even today, the Altoona shops were reinvented a number of times, and still employ 1,100 people. Poor Beam; if only he had exercised a bit more patience, he could have possibly worked his way into small but steady income to carry him between stories.

These are two instances, one real and one fictional, where Piper's self-reliant man crosses over into bad decisions based on hubris or pride-driven laziness ("I'm too good to be bothered with all that rigmarole) and the self-reliant man hands himself over to the whims and actions of others. Piper's better (read, my favorite) characters don't make such life-destroying choices, and the stories are better for it.
2093
Gordon JohansenPerson was signed in when posted
05-24-2020
17:42 UT
What a fun post from Jon. I had forgotten that he had gone through that. It certainly looks like he beat the curse.
2092
David "PiperFan" JohnsonPerson was signed in when posted
05-23-2020
17:09 UT
~
From the Archives: "Carr: Are They Telling Me I'm On The Wrong Time-Line?"

Below, another message to the old PIPER-L mailing list, from way back in May 2001, in which John recounts what may be a bit of interference from his favorite Paratimer:

---
SOMETIMES THEY CALL ME JOHN FORD, SOMETIMES THEY CALL ME JOHN F. LAST, AND
SOMETIMES THEY EVEN CALL ME JOHN F. CARR!

Let me preface this post with a little backstory. On April 14, 1998 I had
open-heart surgery, for a 'routine' valve replacement. It wasn't
un-expected: I was born with a congenital heart defect, a damaged heart
valve. Through luck, determination not to have my chest ripped apart, and a
healthy life style, I managed to delay this operation for about 34 years
beyond my original cardiologist's prediction in 1954 of open-heart surgery
in early 60s! To make a long story short, the operation was a success and
when I came out of anesthesia and was walked (they don't coddle heart
patients these days!) into the post-op room, I was greeted by Dr. Yan, head
of my 4-surgeon surgical team. His first words were: "You very lucky. We
found aortic aneurysm: you had between 2 seconds and 2 weeks to live. If
your aneurysm would have blown out, we could not have saved you on the
table. Very lucky man."

Well, I don't need to belabor the point to tell you that I've felt VERY
lucky ever since -- my wife calls me her "Walking Miracle." The facts that
I hadn't seen a cardiologist (or any other doctor) for 16 years before going
to Dr. Ryman, that I hadn't had health insurance at any time in the previous
33 years (since I left my parent's home!), and that the job I had with Coast
Federal Bank only lasted 4 months beyond my health insurance qualification
period of 90 days (Coast was merged in March '98 with Home Saving/then
WAMA -- as Washington Mutual Bank is know unaffectionately here on the
Westcoast by anyone who's had to deal with the bastards!) gives you an idea
of just how many odds I beat. If I did this well on a roulette table in
Vegas I'd own the whole town before I left!

On top of this, I felt in wonderful shape -- no symptoms of the failing
heart I was told by my doctors I would soon have to deal with in a year or
two, leading to congestive heart failure. The fact that is I'm one stubborn
S.O.B. when it comes to not getting myself filleted, well, you get the
picture. If Dr. Ryman wasn't equally pig-headed, I'd probably not be here!
It was when she told me "get this operation now, or you'll need a transplant
in a year-and-a-half, that convinced me to 'face reality,' so to speak.

I talked, bullied my way out of the hospital in 4 days -- my wife still
calls this my 'Exorcist' period! -- and healed at home in the comfort of my
own bed. Not having taken drugs all my life -- I sometimes think I was the
only straight rock musician in the 1960s, and certainly the only one who
remembers it all! Well, I had a very bad reaction to the pain medication,
which I didn't even need thanks to a very high pain threshold -- and got a
bit snippy in the hospital, as my wife tells it. (Actually, she puts it a
little coarser, but we won't go into that!) Victoria finally convinced the
nurses I didn't need the pain pills and they gladly let me leave early!

The doctors don't like you to do much for the first 3 months after
open-heart surgery (especially driving cars, since upon impact with the
steering wheel bad things happen and chest cavities have been know to
unexpectedly and unhappily open up -- something they don't talk about! My
wife asks a lot of questions so I got in on this little bit of information,
I'd rather not have known.) so I had a LOT of time to think over my close
call with the grim reaper and life in general.

Needless to say, my overall mood was very good. However, after 25 years of
studying Beam Piper and writing several novels in Paratime, it couldn't help
but think about Beam's own death and the Piper curse, as some people call
it -- for example, my friend Bill Tuning died less than a year after the
publication of "Fuzzy Bones." My question was: how did I escape, or did I?

Are there time-lines where John F. Carr died sometime in April 1998...?
This is why, to this day, I celebrate my Re-Birthday on May 1, which is
exactly 2 weeks from my surgery and my longest possible lifespan after April
14, 1998. Don't worry, I don't really dwell on it: it's just a day for my
wife and I to appreciate the fact that I'm in actuality a walking poster
child for Miracles of the Week! (Maybe I ought to do a television
treatment -- nah, just kidding!) No presents: we just go out for a nice
dinner and enjoy our time together. My natal birthday is Christmas so it's
not much of a birthday, even if my initials are JC... Let's not even go
there.

No religious conversions, no new truth 'to bring back from the void' -- just
a better appreciation for life and how short it can be, for any of us.

Now, what brought all this on -- besides my Re-Birthday about a week and a
half ago -- is the latest issue of 'Science Fiction Chronicle' where they
review "Kalvan Kingmaker" in Don D'Ammassa's Critical Mass: Book Reviews,
P-36. The good news is KK is the lead review and it's a positive review.
The bad news is they changed my name to John Ford about halfway through the
review -- I won't even bother to dwell on the fact that they dropped the
last half of the Pequod address and included my e-mail address instead of
the website! I know Don and I suspect it was the meddling that happens to
good magazines when you try to shorten a piece so that it fits on the page
and don't always pay attention to what gets cut.

I probably wouldn't have paid the name change much mind had Ace not also
changed my name, on the Copyright page of "The Complete Paratime," from John
F. Carr to John F. Last -- see what I mean, it's like a message.

Maybe Verkan's behind all this and letting me know that Beam wasn't just
writing fiction! John Ford, the director, has been dead for years and John
F. Last -- well that's obvious.

So maybe this is the Fourth Level, Europo-American, John Carr Time-Line and
on all the other Europo-American time-lines fate and/or the Paratime Police
caught up with me and I'm moldering in a box six feet underground --

Now hear this Verkan, wherever you are, I'm onto you and I'm not taking the
hint -- I'm going to continue writing Paratime yarns. Your agents
dispatched Beam, Bill and Richard Meredith -- I just want you to know that
I'm not going quietly into the night. I know you're behind the Ace Piper
re-issue ban and all the saucer sightings in the US. I don't know about the
cattle mutilations, but we're still investigating... This is one
time-line -- maybe the root Europo-American time-line, where you're not
going to get away with it!

Don't take this too seriously, this is just good fun. I woke up this
morning and this entire post blossomed in my mind. However, sometimes late
at night, after writing all evening, like last night -- when scenes and
visions of Aryan-Transpacific and First Level drop into my mind like I'm
patched into a 'broadcast' from another world, I sometimes just wonder if
maybe Beam wasn't onto something...

John F. Carr
Paratime Chronicler
-----

John's original message is available here:

https://web.archive.org/web/20080310041446...r-l&T=0&F=&S=&P=663

Cheers,

David
--
"Unsolved mysteries are just as good as explanations, as long as they're mysterious within a normal framework." - Verkan Vall, ~Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen~
~
2091
David SoobyPerson was signed in when posted
05-01-2020
01:24 UT
David Johnson wrote:

> ...the explanation for why Merlin can only be "spoken to" by specialists...

I submit it would be quite dangerous to give Merlin a method of interacting with normal people with a speech synthesizer and speech input. Proper inputs to Merlin must be written, or phrased, in strict rules adhering to formal logic, and the average person is neither trained in that nor thinks that way. We computer programmers have a saying: "Garbage in, garbage out." In other words, if the data fed into the computer program is erroneous or is nonsense, then the output will be too. Someone who wasn't a trained computer specialist who asked Merlin a question that wasn't phrased precisely correct might result in an answer which appeared to be reasonable, but which was completely wrong.

Not dangerous for Merlin, but dangerous for anyone acting on such an analysis or answer!
Edited 05-01-2020 05:56
2090
David "PiperFan" JohnsonPerson was signed in when posted
04-29-2020
04:02 UT
~
That's Lillian Ransby in "Naudsonce" showing Mark Howell what she's (mostly not) learned about the sounds made by Svants. That visibilizing analyzer is a remarkable machine that takes speech as an input and outputs colored images depicting the frequencies of the sounds. Some cool, speech-activated human-(and other sapient being)-machine interface there.

But it seems to be operated by manual controls. It can deconstruct speech into its component frequencies but it doesn't seem to be able to accept voice commands. The technological capability to do so seems to be there but it's not used in this application. There must be some sort of socio-cultural reason for that.

(I get it that what's really going on is that it never occurred to Beam to put some computer automation into a scientific measurement device like this because the scientific measurement devices of his era didn't have computer automation.)

But here, I think, is a bit of the explanation for why Merlin can only be "spoken to" by specialists and why Conn's modifications to "Oscar" are so surprising to his mom.

Fwoonk,

David
--
"As for the other five, one had been an all-out hell-planet, and the rest had been the sort that get colonized by irreconcilable minority-groups who want to get away from everybody else. The Colonial Office wouldn't even consider any of them." - Mark Howell (H. Beam Piper), "Naudsonce"
~
2089
David "PiperFan" JohnsonPerson was signed in when posted
04-29-2020
03:48 UT


The visibilizing analyzer
2088
Jon CrockerPerson was signed in when posted
04-28-2020
04:24 UT
That's right, I shouldn't have forgotten about the coding part, should I?

I guess that's the difference between reading about something and using it. But, I do have a few unpunched punch cards - they'd used a similar system at work back in the day, they got rid of the old system, but a cellophane-wrapped stack had been missed in a storage cupboard for a couple decades, till the day someone was cleaning it out and asked if I wented it, else they were going in the trash. They make great bookmarks.
2087
David "PiperFan" JohnsonPerson was signed in when posted
04-26-2020
18:46 UT
~
Jon Crocker wrote:

> The "translating" part seems to have been a standard
> feature across a few writers at the time - I know Asimov
> had a few stories about Multivac that involved waiting
> for the mighty computer's output to be translated from
> special codes to english.
>
> It's an artifact of the times, I suppose.

I think it's something like that.

When I first learned to program, in high school, we had a keypunch machine with a typewriter keyboard that produced eighty character punch cards. We'd spend hours typing the punch cards and then they would be bundled up with all the other kids' stacks of cards and sent to the school district office where they were apparently entered into some sort of computer which produced a printed output that came back to our class the following week. Maybe your program worked--doing something miraculous like multiplying three two-digit numbers or determining the area of a rectangle--and maybe it didn't. Maybe it didn't work because there was an error in your programming logic or maybe the logic was fine but you'd mistyped something on one or more of those keypunch cards.

Very quickly, a group of us figured out that we could test our programs on one well-to-do kid's personal computer--a TRS-80 from Radio Shack--and then, once our program was "de-bugged" and working, we'd just take turns typing on the keypunch machine which, if I remember correctly, could produce just ~one~ copy of the most recently-produced card. (That was some memory capacity there!) It worked well until the teacher figured out that a handful of us were consistently getting results back from the district office which had no errors. . . .

This, I think, was a later-day version of what "computer programming" must have seemed like to Beam writing nearly two decades earlier. The solution to the apparent disconnect for contemporary readers is to question the assumption that "coding" would become a skill that would be taught to kids in high school and something that, eventually, "everyone" would need / learn to do. Most of us use our personal computers today, from an input standpoint, just to "write," something that someone in Beam's era might have used a typewriter to do at college before going off to professional employment where there were "secretarial pools" to do the typing.

That fits with a socio-economic model where "all the smart people" have servants, whether they be non-human sophonts or, by the Viking era, robots. (It also mirrors the socio-economic model which prevailed in the New York society culture in which Beam mingled at some points in his writing career.)

So, in the Terro-human Future History, perhaps "programmer" remains a specialized role, like "millwright," and most folks don't know much more about how their computer works than they understand the Abbott lift-and-drive in their aircar. It's only when the "human-machine interface" moves into non-specialized "retail" applications--like Conn's mother's house-cleaning robot--that you begin to have input/output devices that seek to model ordinary human methods of communication.

Yash'm.

David
--
"A girl can punch any kind of a button a man can, and a lot of them know what buttons to punch, and why." - Conn Maxwell (H. Beam Piper), ~Junkyard Planet~
~
2086
David SoobyPerson was signed in when posted
04-26-2020
04:01 UT
David Johnson wrote:

>> ...it would only make sense for Merin's interface being able to interact with
>> people in Lingua-Terra, not some programmer language. Merlin's designers had all
>> that size to work with; it only makes sense that a part of it would be so a General
>> could just ask his question without needing to involve a programmer/ interpreter.
>
> This is especially troublesome given Conn's efforts to improve the ability of his
> mother's house-cleaning robot to accept voice commands. Perhaps this is a relatively
> new innovation, that Conn learned about while at university but that wasn't
> available to the designers of Merlin working half a century earlier?

The question is just how much, or rather how little, a computer (or a robot's electronic brain) understands the world on a human level.

For the house-cleaning robot that Conn's mother tries to order around as if it's a human maid with a human understanding of the world, to great comedic effect, the answer is "not at all". The house-cleaning robot isn't any "smarter" than a modern Roomba, altho clearly it is equipped and programmed to do more tasks than the Roomba does. But that house-cleaning robot does not actually /understand/ the voice commands it is programmed to respond to, any more than your car actually /understands/ when you say, for example, "increase temperature". That's a voice command that triggers a voice activated system in your car (well, some people's cars) to increase the power to the car's cabin heating system. But does your car understand that there is a human inside it that's too cold, and will be more comfortable if the heater is turned up? Of course not!

Nor does even Merlin, despite its apparent near-omniscience, have a human or near-human understanding of reality. This is made quite explicit. Quoting from the climax (ch. XXI) of THE COSMIC COMPUTER:

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
It took a long time to set up the new computation. Forty years of history for almost five hundred planets had to be abstracted and summarized and translated from verbal symbols to the electro-mathematical language of computers and fed in. [...]

Then the bell rang, and the tape began coming out.

It took another hour and a half of button-punching; the Braille-like symbols on the tape had to be translated, and even Merlin couldn't do that for itself. Merlin didn't think in human terms.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

So, it's not that it didn't occur to those who made Merlin to put in a voice interface so that a general officer could give commands directly to Merlin. It's that it simply wasn't possible to communicate with Merlin in that fashion.

I see the same lack of comprehension about the lack of understanding by computers, in current online discussions of semi-self-driving cars.

"Well, a Tesla Model S (or Model 3) can drive down the freeway all by itself; why didn't it see that fire truck stopped in a traffic lane, or see that concrete barrier, that it ran into?"

That's quite similar to the way Conn's mother thought the idiot house-cleaning robot was capable of being ordered around like a maid, just because it could respond to a few pre-programmed voice commands. "Well, if it can understand me when I tell it /this/, why doesn't it understand when I say /that/?"

Just like the robots in the manufacturing plant later in the book, it follows only its pre-programmed, taped instructions. It can't think for itself any more than your Roomba can. The semi-self-driving car is, like the housecleaning robot, capable of more sophisticated responses and actions than the Roomba, but it doesn't /understand/ the world any better than the Roomba does. Which is to say... it doesn't have even the /slightest/ comprehension or understanding of the world as we know it.
Edited 04-26-2020 04:17
2085
David SoobyPerson was signed in when posted
04-26-2020
02:58 UT
pennausamike said:

> The first part of the story logic that suffers in the face of today's computer and
> internet capability is the TIME it takes Merlin to search all data, and then form a
> (nearly sapient) conclusion. Google searches billions of gigs of data and returns a
> response in tenths of a second, even though the sources of that search are scattered
> all over the globe.

But modern microprocessors have achieved faster and faster processing speeds by extreme miniaturization. In the Piperverse, this hasn't happened. Correct me if I'm wrong, but Google also uses a massive distributed network, which is a resource Merlin simply doesn't have access to. The Piperverse is one in which computers are large mainframe machines, each of which needs an entire building to house, and are rather rare. THE COSMIC COMPUTER seems to suggest that computers are /very/ rare; as in the era when IBM estimated there was a market for all of five mainframe computers! By the time of FUZZY SAPIENS, it seems the author was suggesting all large companies would have their own mainframe, which rather contradicts the implications in THE COSMIC COMPUTER. But either way, computers simply aren't a part of everyday life for most people.

Nor can there possibly be a Federation-wide computer "Internet". Aside from starships physically traveling from place to place, the fastest communication in the Piperverse is light-speed. Our modern world uses a worldwide network of computers, the Internet, which transmits messages around the world in a fraction of a second. (In fact, the infamous "satellite relay delay" seen on news shows is caused more by electronics having to repeat and amplify the signal, rather than the actual light-speed delay.) This simply cannot happen across the length and breadth of the Piperverse, where it takes radio messages years to reach the nearest stars!

> The second issue is that after having to frame the questions in some computer
> language, Merlin then spits out an answer that needs deciphered by computer techs.
> Nope, not buying that. Just like modern computer HMI's (Human-Machine Interface) are
> no longer in DOS or some such, I likewise believe it would only make sense for
> Merin's interface being able to interact with people in Lingua-Terra, not some
> programmer language. Merlin's designers had all that size to work with; it only
> makes sense that a part of it would be so a General could just ask his question
> without needing to involve a programmer/ interpreter.

Keep in mind that Piperverse computers exist only as large mainframe devices; desktop and laptop computers don't exist, and neither do smartphones which are handheld computers. There aren't all that many computers on any planet, and there simply isn't sufficient market pressure to develop a human interface that makes it easy for the average person to interact with them. In fact, it may be that manufacturers of computers don't /want/ them to be easy to interact with, without the sort of special training described in THE COSMIC COMPUTER.

The computers used on starships seem to be more like special-use devices, the Piperverse equivalent of specialized microprocessors found in every kitchen appliance today. They are starship electronic control devices which assist with very specific tasks, such as astrogation and navigation, rather than being a general-purpose computer such as Merlin or the business company computer in FUZZY SAPIENS. That may explain why the control room of a starship uses vernier controls rather than the rather elaborate process of entering a question into Merlin and deciphering its answer. The latter is a process requiring highly trained computer specialists, as described at the end of THE COSMIC COMPUTER; the former apparently doesn't require that sort of long-term specialized training.

For story-telling purposes, Piperverse computer techs are the the white lab-coated high priests of their culture, practicing arcane knowledge to wrest near-omniscient knowledge from mysterious oracles. THE COSMIC COMPUTER takes that concept and develops it to the nth degree.

Trying to reconcile that type of culture with our modern culture in which microprocessors and computers are ubiquitous... it's just not going to work. IMHO trying to do so removes some of the charm of Piper's stories. It reminds me of the tag line for the "Space: 1889" game: "Science Fiction Role Playing in a More Civilized Time". :)
2084
David SoobyPerson was signed in when posted
04-26-2020
02:28 UT
David "Piperfan" Johnson wrote:

> It's difficult to conceive of a spacefaring civilization which hadn't figured out
> how to make integrated circuits, and then learned to make them smaller and smaller
> as has been the case in our actual, non-fictional universe. So what might be
> different?

Simple: The transistor was never invented. In fact, I've argued that Merlin was built using analog circuits, not digital ones. The term "neutrino-circuits" is used in THE COSMIC COMPUTER (ch. II; p. 17 in the Ace 40 edition). What if those are analog circuits?

Once you get transistor tech, then there is a real question about why they never miniaturized it to the integrated circuit, and ultimately tiny microprocessors. I think it's easiest to avoid all of that, and say transistors were never invented. That makes it easier to swallow the references to using vernier controls in the starship control room, in SPACE VIKING.

Now, as to WHY transistors were never invented: Is the Piperverse entirely deterministic, like the LENSMAN universe? Can it be that the Heinseberg Uncertainty Principle has little effect on reality, if it exists at all? Can it be that the Piperverse works entirely according to classic physics, and that quantum effects -- such as the tunnel diode effect, which the transistor is based on -- don't exist?

If I were running a Piperverse role-playing game, that's precisely what I would specify. It would make deciding what tech can and can't exist much simpler.
Edited 04-26-2020 04:34
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