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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
12/14/01 -- Vol. 20, No. 23
Table of Contents
National Testing and Research Center of the Consumers Union (part 3) (comments by Mark R. Leeper)
We are still belaboring the Consumers Union.
Following the question and answer session they had yet another break for eating. They served refreshments with what I believe were products that they had previously "tested" and recommended to their readers, products that had high consumer appeal. It was one place where they could actually apply the information they had collected. I had a half of a Krispy Kreme doughnut.
Each person who came had gotten a stick-on tag that assigned him or her to a tour group. The crowd must have been divided into eight or so groups. The groups then were taken to testing labs in twenty-minute sessions.
Our group first went to the dishwasher testing lab. Now there was a truly impressive sight. They have about fifty dishwashers set up in one room. You also see a bunch of dirty dishes on a table. Closer look shows you they are all soiled identically. There is a wedge of peanut butter smear, a wedge of egg yolk, etc. Plates are soiled following precise plans (or "recipes") of stains that has never varied. People have a natural reaction when they visit some place and see a dirty dish. It is somewhere between the feeling one is seeing something personal and something revolting. I suppose dirty underwear would be more so. Here that is part of what you come to see. It is somewhere between fascinating and nauseating. Actually the main group of dirty dishes they were testing with were all soiled the same way. There was dried chopped beef, corn, spinach, spaghetti, and mashed potatoes as its fixed recipe. I guess these foods are cooked and prepared only to be washed away. The tester gave a short talk on what features they found were good including a new and different silver rack that holds the utensils away from each other for better water circulation.
I asked about how they can afford to buy so many dishwashers just for a short testing period, and what do they do with them when they are done? Apparently they auction the goods to employees at typically half-price. I wonder if they auction off things like stoves that they find are dangerous.
In the lab where they had child car seats to be crash tested they start with a tape with Walter Cronkite reporting on seats being found dangerous. They talked a little about the seats and laws. In New York State a child has to be twelve years old to ride in front seat. They showed features including a car seat that cleverly transforms to become a stroller. However it is not very good car seat that becomes a not great stroller.
The human factors talk (they may not have their own room because of the global nature of their work) looks at the question "what does user expect the machine to do." They look at inconvenient control panels, products that do not do what is expected, etc. Sometime for historical reasons inconveniences come to be the expectation. On a calculator the buttons 1, 2, and 3 are in the bottom row because they evolved from adding machines. On a telephone they are in the top row because they evolved from a phone dial. Other features you look at is can you correct mistakes if you hit a button wrong or do you have to start over? How does the machine acknowledge button presses? How does one judge objectively whether a design works? These are all questions that he looks at. The speaker likes to have people do their thinking out loud so he knows how will people react to a design. He had Evelyn come up and try out a toaster oven. Evelyn could not figure out how to toast bread with the current design.
Our next lab was involved with processing foods. Having just finished a major report on tuna, they were gearing up for their study of peanut butter. They do physical testing of foods. They might look at how well does low-fat cheese melt. Does the popcorn that advertises that it pops up bigger kernels actually do so?
Much of the work is coming up with objective standards. When one opens a can of tuna fish one usually uses the lid to squeeze out the fluid. But the force uses is a variable that might effect the results. Standards have to be set and adhered to on how much pressure to use to get the moisture out. They seemed to feel that the new pouch tuna is better than the canned tuna since it was a better cut of fish and they felt the difference in weight was just packing moisture. For the tasting of food they had trained sensory panelists. Some information could be gained from just random testers, some required people who knew proper ways to taste.
There was more food work done at the next room, an analytic lab that chemically tests food products. They look at questions like are labels accurate? They had people try samples of two cranberry juice drinks. We were supposed to judge which had more cranberry, Apple and Eve or Ocean Spray. I believe people voted two to one for the Ocean Spray. They measure it by the presence of a chemical compound that is only in cranberries. They use high pressure chromotography look for this compound, quinic acid. Within experiment error both had just about the same levels of quinic acid and both have about 25% cranberry juice. I asked if they were sure both products were using cranberries with the same levels of quinic acid and they agreed that this was a consideration.
The last lecture we had a choice of several. I chose audio. Mostly the discussion was about speakers. The talk was more technical than I was expecting. The discussion was a bit over my head. From there we went into the anechoic room. This is a room lined with sound baffles to kill all echoes from the speaker in the center of the room. This anechoic room was small compared to the one at Bell Labs in Murray Hill. Testing a speaker in an anechoic room is better for hearing how the speaker will perform in a wide range of rooms.
One visitor said that he wanted them to do testing of more high end speakers. The engineer said that the budget did not allow for purchase of expensive speakers that most readers will not be buying. The visitor asked why the same logic did not apply to cars. Did we not hear earlier that CU bought more expensive cars to learn of new features? It is just a question of what strategy is most effective for getting useful information to the users.
And that pretty well covers the visit. [-mrl]
DUNE: HOUSE HARKONNEN by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson (copyright 2000, Bantam Spectra, 603pp, HC, $27.50, ISBN 0-553-11072-1) (a book review by Joe Karpierz)
In my review of the previous novel in this prequel trilogy, DUNE: HOUSE ATREIDES, I made the following statement:
"But for me, the story had no life, no excitement, nothing to cause me to keep turning the pages. To me, it didn't *feel* like Dune. And that was its failing."
"Having said all that, I'm going to keep reading these things, much like I read the original "Dune" series, hoping for it to get better. And it did. I hope this will too."
Well, it still didn't feel like DUNE, but it certainly did get better. The title of this one is "House Harkonnen", but it split its time between the Harkonnens and the Atreides, with some other stuff thrown in. The novel continues setting up what the empire and the main characters are going to look like when Dune starts up.
On the Atreides front, Duke Leto is the head of House Atreides. He has taken in Kailea and Rhombur Vernius, evicted from Ix when the Bene Tleilax took over the joint (in cahoots with the emperor). Remember, the Bene Tleilax are working on a synthetic spice melange, as good as the real thing, so the emperor can end his, and the empire's, dependence on Arrakis (and House Harkonnen) once and for all. Leto and Kailea are smitten with each other, and Leto takes her as his concubine. For political reasons, he can never marry her. She bears him a son, Victor. The Harkonnens plant a spy in House Atreides, in the form of a lady-in-waiting for Kailea, who is there to stir up trouble in the House by getting the ear of Kailea and poisoning the thoughts and feelings of Kailea toward Leto. To make things complete, we are introduced to Jessica (yes, *that* Jessica), who is introduced into House Atreides for the express purpose of continuing the breeding project which will eventually produce the Kwisatz Haderach. She is under orders to bear him a daughter, who will eventually become the mother of the Kwisatz Haderach. We all know how *that* turned out.
On the Harkonnen front, well, not that much interesting happens. The Baron's health is getting worse due to the virus like illness that the Bene Gesserit have infected him with. We spend a lot of time following around Glossu Rabban, who is really (da da) Beast Rabban, but I guess you probably knew that. And a Beast he is, too. We also eventually see the introduction of Feyd-Rautha, who is also part of the original novel, but is first seen as an infant in HOUSE HARKONNEN.
In no particular order, we also see underground attempts to reclaim Ix for House Vernius, Duncan Idaho going through Swordmaster training, the introduction of Gurney Halleck into House Atreides, and the death of Pardot Kynes, leaving his son Liet as the new Planetologist on Arrakis. So all is nearly set up for the beginning of the original novel.
What made this entry in the series better than House Atreides? I can't put my finger on it, but I suspect that part of it is that we're getting closer to the Dune universe as we know it, and familiarity is always a comfortable thing. I think the characters were more engaging this time--probably because we weren't being introduced to most of them. They already had some history and background for the reader to lean on. The action and plot seemed a bit more enjoyable as well. I was certainly more entertained and captivated than I was with the previous novel. It was a much more enjoyable read.
If HOUSE CORRINO continues the pattern of improvement, it will be a thoroughly enjoyable book. [-jak]
OCEAN'S ELEVEN (2001) (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: This supposed remake of the 1960 heist has some nice moments in its buildup but loses credibility when it takes a turn for the science fictional. The script seems more contrived than clever. Lots of gloss with nice views of Las Vegas adds interest, but as a heist film it leaves a bad taste in ones mouth. Rating: 5 (0 to 10), low +1 (-4 to +4)
If I am not tremendously enamored of the new OCEAN'S ELEVEN, it is not indignity over the remake not capturing the original. I somehow was born immune to the charms of Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack buddies. The 1960 film OCEAN'S ELEVEN was a vanity piece for the Sinatra gang but only a mediocre heist film. Compared to 1955's FIVE AGAINST THE HOUSE, it pales considerably. 1955's RIFIFI is a heist film that so far surpasses the Sinatra effort that it seems foolish to even compare them. At least most of what was in the original OCEAN'S ELEVEN was plausible.
Danny Ocean (played by George Clooney) has big plans when he gets out of prison. He wants to get revenge on Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) who stole his wife Tess (Julia Roberts) and who owns three casinos. By staging a huge robbery he plans to cut Benedict down to size. The film predictably falls into neat chapters: character background, assembling the team, planning the crime, executing the crime, and aftermath. The original OCEAN'S ELEVEN drew added excitement from the fact they were robbing multiple casinos at the same time, making the plan more complex and interesting. The remake pays lip service to this concept, with Danny claiming that the plan is to rob three casinos. This really is a cheat on the audience. The plan is to rob only one casino, but one which happens to be holding money for two others. Would the film have been twice as exciting if the vault held the cash for six casinos? One or six matters little to the audience as long as it is all in one vault.
I suspect for the original film Sinatra counted the number of people he wanted to be in the film and that was how they decided on a team of eleven. It really is too many for the screenplay to handle adequately. For the 2001 OCEAN'S ELEVEN it was an excuse to pack the film with box office actors, but it is too many people for the script to handle well. We mostly see Ocean, Dusty Ryan (Brad Pitt), and Linus Caldwell (Mark Damon). Other members of the team have much smaller parts.
The new version of OCEAN'S ELEVEN, directed by no less a talent than Steven Soderbergh (TRAFFIC and THE LIMEY) does not try to be believable. Instead, it at times plays its story like a James Bond mission. Included is the use of a device that would be more at home in GOLDFINGER than in a realistic heist film. While I admit I have not researched it, I strongly suspect there is no such portable device. If there is a portable version, there probably is no version of this device as powerful as the one in the film is. If there was a device so portable and powerful and if it was used, it would have more far-reaching effects than shown, and the effect seen in the film would immediately tip off the casino owners that what was happening was not mere chance. In other words Ted Griffin, the writer, moved the story to the realms of fantasy to get around a technical problem. Fantasy has its place, but a gritty heist film isn't it. The film also seems contrived for Ocean to know in advance exactly what Benedict is going to do and has an intricate plan which only works because Benedict does exactly what is planned.
There are a couple of thefts in the course of the film that neither Griffin nor Soderbergh planned on. Two veteran actors steal the show. They are Carl Reiner as a con man who posing as a European aristocrat and a deliciously over-the-top Elliot Gould. Nominal star Clooney is smooth but uninteresting. He fared much better in O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?
Slick but not satisfying, OCEAN'S ELEVEN offers lots of stars, some excitement, and nice photography of Las Vegas, but is let down by script problems. Ted Griffin, who wrote OCEAN'S ELEVEN, also wrote another overrated film, RAVENOUS. This script could have used another write or two before it was ready to be shot. I rate OCEAN'S ELEVEN a 5 on the 0 to 10 scale and a low +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Now we sit through Shakespeare in order to recognize the quotations. - Oscar Wilde
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