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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
03/22/02 -- Vol. 20, No. 38
Table of Contents
Hugo Nominations Reminder (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Just a reminder--Hugo nominations for this year close March 31, 2002. Now that the MT VOID is no longer associated at all with any corporation, but is a personal fanzine, be reminded it is eligible for the Hugo. [-ecl]
Early Universe Oscillation (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
A few months ago SCIENCE NEWS ran an article about measuring oscillations from the very early universe, the time just after the Big Bang. This is almost literally the Sound from the Beginning of Time. Articles on the subject may be found at:
Now another team has actually measured the sound from the last instants of time just before the Big Bang. It is "Oops. Uh-oh!" [-mrl]
Paradigms Lost (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I am going to be talking about language this week but I would like to give an analogy to help the reader understand what I have to say. Much of my career I worked with software development. Basically you are given a task that has to be done and bunches of people do it. Maybe a new telephone switch has to be developed and a team of software engineers is given the task of doing it. One thing you very quickly discover happening in such an endeavor is that you need some action done and there is a system to track the request to have it done. You have a "modification request" or MR. Perhaps what you have requested requires that several actions be taken. The original request still stands, but you have a series of sub-requests called "child MRs" They can be broken into perhaps smaller tasks so child MRs may have their own child MRs.
Eventually someone notes that the entire project of building the telephone switch can be described in a tree structure of modification requests. You start out with a really big MR. You write an MR saying "We need a telephone switch." Well there is nobody who can just say "OK, here is your switch." So you break that MR into smaller child MRs. These are sub-requests. You say things like "We need hardware to run this switch on." You need the machinery that the switch will run on. That is one sub- request--one child MR. We need the software, the computer programs, to run on the switch. Then each of these MRs is broken into smaller requests. And the request is broken up finer and finer. You are making little ones out of big ones. Eventually that gets down to "The opening screen has got to say 'hello.'" Now one guy can do that. He takes the dialog that paints the opening screen and types into it "Hello." Then he closes the MR. That request has been fulfilled. He may have about eight MRs for this screen. When he has filled all those requests and closed all the MRs, the screen is complete. He can close the parent MR that asks for an opening screen. This huge tree of requests starts shrinking as more and more of the requests are fulfilled. Finally you can say yeah, we got the hardware and close that request. Yeah we got the software, we can close that request. OK, the request that we have a telephone switch is now complete. When the last MR is fulfilled and closed, you have your switch.
You could even take it back more steps and have an MR from the Board of Directors to the President of the company saying we'd like you to run the company. He could break that up into requests like "we have to get revenue." Some descendent of that MR is "We need a telephone switch." But the whole running of the company could be resolved into a tree of MRs.
That was not how people originally thought of the task of running the company, but it is a way of thinking about it. It is a "paradigm" to borrow a phrase from philosophy. The whole constituent matter of the task of running the company comes down to a set, a huge tree, of requests. That is one way of thinking about things. My first supervisor at Burroughs way back thought that accounting was really what the company was all about. I am not sure how he defended that belief, but that is where it all came from in his mind. I think upper management is more likely to think of running the company in terms of accounting than in terms of MRs, but you could go either way with either paradigm. The whole enchilada could be thought of with the accounting paradigm or the MR paradigm.
Somebody once said that all wars are economic wars. They can be seen that way. They can be seen other ways. The idea that all wars are economic in nature is an example of a paradigm for thinking about war. Also conspiracy theories provide alternate paradigms for thinking about the world. Everything that happens is the result of sinister manipulations by incredibly subtle Latvians. You can see the world that way and it all seems to work. Nobody can prove you wrong.
But the point I am trying to get to is that language too has fallen under the sway of a paradigm. We have taken one possible simple structure for a thought and said that is really all there is. You identify a thing and you identify an action to associate with that thing. We call the thought a sentence and it breaks into the subject and the predicate. "I go to the store." What is the thing? Me. What is the action? Going to the store. All of your thoughts get framed in terms of ordered pairs of things and actions.
You stand in front of a waterfall. What is your natural thought? "Beautiful." That is what your mind and your sense of esthetics tells you. It is a thought. But it does not fit the standard model. It is just a free-standing adjective. Your English teacher cracks you on the knuckles and says that is not a complete sentence. It didn't have all the information that was required. What should you be saying? "That waterfall is beautiful." What is the thing? The waterfall. What is it doing? Being beautiful. In perfectly spoken language you force all of your thoughts into this confining structure. At some level that may be the only way you can think. It frames your entire thinking process. A novel is just a catalog of objects and their actions. Sentence 1: What was the thing? The times themselves. What were they doing? Being the best of times and the worst of times. We allow some limited variation in structure, but not much.
Is this a good way to think? Well each sentence has the predictable two pieces of information. Certainly our minds' processing centers finds that a great simplifying assumption. It knows what to pick out of the sentence. Some poetry throws the standard format away and it makes it harder to understand because our minds are not used to it. And a lot of incomplete sentences also do not convey the thought intended. Read the Usenet if you doubt that. But if you are standing next to somebody at a waterfall and that person says "beautiful," you can fill in the blanks reasonably well and assume he is talking about the waterfall and not the ground beneath your feet. In a complete sentence you would know what he is saying is beautiful. But the truth is that "beautiful" does seem to convey the information. In fact "that waterfall is beautiful" does not have the same emotional impact. It feels more distanced from the waterfall and less immediate. What gives the statement "beautiful" its impact may well be that it differs from the standard paradigm and hence seems more sincere. The speaker did not bother to form his emotion into a complete sentence, he just let the emotion out.
In any case, we have made our bargain with language long ago. Most of our language will be forming our thoughts into ordered pairs of things and actions. It does make some communication easier. Is there a viable alternative? None I can think of. About the closest is poetry. Even that usually follows the thing and action paradigm but gives the poet license to express thoughts other ways.
Perhaps there was another good alternative at one time. But if there was we probably cannot reproduce it now. It is lost to the past. [-mrl]
ICE AGE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: During the Ice Age a sloth, a mammoth, and a saber- toothed tiger join forces and go on a trek to return a human baby to its tribe. The story is weak on logic, but the writing is warm and frequently laugh-out-loud funny. Three-dimensional animation continues to improve from film to film. The short 75- minute length seems a little stingy. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), high +1 (-4 to +4)
ICE AGE is set just when the title tells you it is set, the Pleistocene Era about 11,000 years ago. There has been new interest in this period. Why? As far as storytelling is concerned, filmmakers are probably sensing that the Age of Dinosaurs has been very much mined out. Fresher and less familiar is the Pleistocene, with its own really weird animals. It is something like discovering a new age of brand new dinosaurs. Television has brought us the British import WALKING WITH PREHISTORIC BEASTS that has shown viewers, many for the first time, the strange creatures of the recent prehistoric past. Now we have a comic animated film set in this era.
The great glacier is advancing and causing animals to migrate to warmer climates. A mismatched group of Manfred the Mammoth, Sid the Sloth, and Diego the Sabertooth (voiced by Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, and Denis Leary respectively) find a human baby and go on a quest to return the baby to its parents. The story of sacrifice for a human is a bit far-fetched (not to under-rate a surprising number of documented cases of elephant altruism), but the script is good-hearted and frequently darn funny. The relationship of the strong hero and the uninvited and unwanted wise-cracking sidekick seems at times modeled on SHREK just as the relation of the shaggy beasts and the human baby will remind some of MONSTERS, INC. Skillful animation of facial expression well-integrated with voice characterizations give real personality to the principal characters. Manfred the Mammoth is outwardly as stolid as he is solid, but as the story progresses we see into his character. The story is made marginally more believable as it progresses in that Manfred starts trusting humans and not knowing of the relationship between humans and mammoths. The facial animation helps a lot as it does for Sid, a most un-sloth-like sloth. He is active and curious. Diego has his own agenda which this viewer knows but the trusting Manfred does not suspect. The other major character is really just a background creature who just keeps showing up as a running gag. The squirrel-like thing with his acorn may be the funniest thing in the film. There are some logic questions as to where he found an oak tree and why he is burying an acorn in a place he is migrating away from.
My reviews of animated films are getting a sort of sameness to them. Every new film that comes out I seem to notice new feats of animation that have not been done before. I still think of SHREK as a recent film and it was impressive that the computer could handle the surface texture of a furred animal, tracking each hair. It made a furry animal a full character for the entire length of the film. That was impressive. Now ICE AGE is an adventure about furry animals. Everything but the humans (who are minor characters) and the dodos are furry. The wizards can do that in animation now, I guess. Animated film continues to discover itself and broadens what it can do one film after another. It is going through an inventive stage that much like live action film did in the 1910s when directors were discovering things like that a film can have a close-up on an actor's face and the audience will understand it. Where work still needs to be done in animation, apparently, is in making the human figures believable. Humans know their own kind and while we accept an animation of a sloth or a mammoth, the animated humans still look a little stiff and statue-like.
ICE AGE is pleasant and funny. It offers adults a little less than SHREK or MONSTERS, INC did, but a lot more than QUEEN OF THE DAMNED or a film based on a video game ever could. I rate it a 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: The American way is to seduce a man by bribery and make a prostitute of him. Or else to ignore him, starve him into submission and make a hack out of him. -- Henry Miller
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