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I believe I read it as part of a short story anthology in the late 1980s or the early 1990s, although it's likely older. The plot involves a crisis where people all over the world are suddenly going comatose, staring off into space. No one can figure out why until a researcher shows up, bearing a box of index cards that he occasionally talks to. He explains that television is the problem. The human brain retains all information and television, by flashing 60 frames every second, rapidly fills up that buffer, leaving no room for any more activity. I remember that he used the index cards to illustrate this to the President of the United States, convincing him that action needed to be taken. The story ended with the President beginning his speech, telling people they need to immediately shut off their TVs, and watching his image in the monitor, and then freezing up due to running out of storage. I believe that there was a picture on the last page of the president staring into the camera with a completely blank look on his face.

I think that the anthology also included a story involving a large-scale Maxwell's demon being used as part of a building's heating and cooling system to answer "yes or no" questions about the future. I have, associated in my head, stories about a technology allowing one to discover all of one's ancestry from a drop of blood and a man learning that he's the only person without a single distinguished ancestor and another story where a man rejected for an insurance policy learns that it's because the computers have determined that the universe will cease to exist upon his death.

  • The last one sounds familiar - and not from the Heinlein short story "Lifeline". Was it from an anthology of Soviet science fiction? The stories you describe seem to me to have an eastern-bloc feel to them. – Joe L. Jul 1 '14 at 20:49
  • There is a Larry Niven (very) short story entitled "Unfinished Story" set in the same universe as "The Magic Goes Away" which featured a demon sorting molecules at the entrance to a dwelling for climate control. It was published in American Journal of Physics and has a clever ending. Additional publication data at news.larryniven.net/biblio/display.asp?key=44 . Maybe you should look up SteelDragon from 1984. – dmckee Jul 1 '14 at 21:30
  • Ah...I see that SteelDragon was the publisher of The Time of the Warlock and no reprints are listed except in all Niven collections. Probably a dead end. – dmckee Jul 1 '14 at 21:43
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    "a man rejected for an insurance policy learns that it's because the computers have determined that the universe will cease to exist upon his death." A policy that they will never have to pay out on? Surely the Insurance companies would be chomping at the bit to sign him uP! – Chronocidal Aug 28 at 15:56
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    @chronocidal: It's the computer that's rejecting him because it has determined that there's no way the company can pay out. – FuzzyBoots Aug 28 at 16:20
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Aha! Thanks to Oldcat's post about Prototaph, I found Thinking Machine, published by Raintree Publishers, which was in a different book in the series put out by that publisher, which led me to Tomorrow's TV.

The story is A Scientific Fact by Jack C. Haldeman II. The catatonia consists of the person endlessly repeating the last word they'd said, and starts with a radio jockey who'd locked himself in the studio, with people initially thinking it was a prank that he kept repeating "hit" over and over again. I also underestimated the figures for the number of images and why it was so overwhelming:

"Exactly. You may not know this, Mr. Woods, but television is produced by a rolling scan of 525 lines thirty times a second. Although the alert mind connects all these separate things into continuous action, somewhere, deep in the brain, all these separate pictures are counted, stacked up and filed away. Soon we are all filled up like the box! And us... aha!"

For the other stories, it was indeed Prototaph for the one about the insurance policy, Wapshot's Demon for the Maxwell's Demon bit. It actually gives answers to "yes or no" questions. Man of Distinction was in the same anthology as Wapshot's Demon, Wild Inventions.

Man, those were some quality books... I'm going to have to look them up again when I get home.

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In the story "Prototaph" by Keith Laumer a man is refused insurance in a world with universal coverage by the computers because when he dies, the world will come to an end.

In Man of Distinction (1956) by Michael Shaara, the inventor of a method of finding all your ancestors finally has his own history looked up, and in 40000 years or so is the only known case where nobody famous or noteworthy turns up.

I didn't read these in the same collection, however.

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