austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,
austin_dern
austin_dern

My supersonic ship's at your disposal if you feel so inclined

Ah, old-time radio: X Minus One this morning told Ned Lang's ``Death Wish'' [1], the story of an interplanetary spaceship which had a little glitch with the engine and, whoops, they used up almost all their fuel and they're kind of going at half the speed of light. This presents problems for their reaching Mars, or any planet, even if --- as the pilot points out --- one of the outer planets should be in the right location. But there's no hope of rescue since that would require pointing out there's no way those numbers make a lick of sense.

Anyway, the conflict in the story comes not from finding a way back home but rather the question of do they dare turn on the computer in the cargo hold and see if an electronic brain can work out a solution? And there's strong resistance from one of the characters to this because, you know, computers don't have feelings and they might come up with answers that are technically correct but impractical and you just can't do anything with them. Just in case you don't learn whatever the moral was supposed to be (it escapes me), the computer is turned on and it finds a way to somehow get them home ... after about 2,300 further years of flight, which is OK because the computer treated them to become immortal and hey, not need sleep either. So, yeah, if only they ... uhm ... ... I don't know, either, except they were really weird about computers back in the early 50s.

[1] Some web sites are of the opinion Ned Lang is a pseudonym of Robert Sheckley. I do not know. I do see that Librivox has some confused idea of making audio recordings of the stories that became X Minus One episodes on the novel theory that the stories are public domain; I could buy that the X Minus One recordings have lapsed into public domain, but ``The Tunnel Under The world''? (Spelling the protagonist ``Guy Burckhardt''?) ``Project Mastodon''? ``The Old Die Rich''? I'm skeptical.

Trivia: The IBM 603 Electronic Multiplier, the first production-model electronic calculator, contained 300 vacuum tubes, had no storage, could not divide, but could multiply two six-digit numbers in a tenth the time of other hardware available in September 1946. When consumer demand proved unexpectedly strong, Thomas Watson had production cut off at 100 units. Source: The Maverick And His Machine, Kevin Maney.

Currently Reading: More Than A Numbers Game: A Brief History Of Accounting, Thomas A King. And so I run across mention of a mid-20s set of accounting scandals grown in part from the work of Touche, Niven & Company and I immediately wonder if there's a connection to science fiction's favorite Teapot Dome Scandal trust-fund baby and prescriber of behavioral modification techniques to the poor, not to mention the prime case for all sides in the ``hard science fiction, putative existence of'' question. But a casual Google search turned up nothing and now I don't know whether I'm really interested enough to do a diligent one or if I can just snicker and move on with life. (The scandal amounted to Touche, Niven & Company certifying the numbers in a company's financial statements added up without going to the bother of seeing whether the numbers had any nonzero correlation to reality, which again, mm, fine name for that sort of thing.)

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