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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
05/31/02 -- Vol. 20, No. 48
Table of Contents
[Written Memorial Day, 2002] Ah, what a difference a day makes. (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
One of the big questions about Mars is whether there is water there. This is one of the major questions as to whether there is even any point in colonizing Mars. You obviously cannot survive on a planet without water. You would have to bring all the water you need with you. One way of doing that is to find an ice asteroid in space and drop it on Mars. But, this is a pretty big engineering feat.
We went into Memorial Day weekend with this mystery of what is the history of water on Mars being almost a mania. Was there ever water? How long ago was there water? How much water? Where was the water? Where did it go? There were signs that some places on this desert planet there were little grooves that could have been carved by water. Gee, maybe there was water. Is there any now? Were the grooves carves by water or some other fluid? It is clear there is nothing so rare and precious as water. That was yesterday. Today suddenly Mars is a planet with water. A LOT of water.
Mars Odyssey has been searching for signs that there might be water and instead has found the planet is covered with what might even be frozen oceans of water. Yes, all we have found so far is dirt and red rocks. Go down just a short distance and it is a very different story. You have on the surface some dirt on top of water ice. I guess it may be that in warmer weather that it may not safe to put down a rocket because it will sink into the swamp. The newest reports seem to say that Mars has more water than we will know what to do with. NASA supposedly will make the announcement this week, but in Europe the news of water has "leaked."
Suddenly there is a lot more reason to go to Mars. There is more that is there. You can see the report at http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/releases/2002/release_2002_121.html.
And the BBC's report is at http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/sci/tech/newsid_2009000/2009318.stm.
Why am I making such a big thing? I think the world needs a Mars program. Right now it is a luxury to move into space, but I expect in the next few centuries it will become vastly important to have already moved into space. And we have to take the first steps. It looked like we were doing that with the moon, but we let that whole capability die. We have to use Mars a little better than that. It may be the last remaining place in the solar system that we can get people excited enough to want to reach. [-mrl]
Leeper on the Leepers (interview with Mark R. Leeper):
The Leepers put together the MT VOID every week. This week we are turning the tables and interviewing Mark Leeper. (We cannot reveal the identity of our staff interviewer but he occasionally writes under the mysterious nom de plume of Pere LeMark.)
VOID: Mr. Leeper, it is a genuine honor to finally meet you.
Mark: Please, call me Mark.
VOID: All right,...uh...Mark. I won't take up much of your time.
Mark: I have plenty of time.
VOID: Well, that is really what I wanted to ask you about. You have been inferring in the notice that you are now retired. Is there any truth to that rumor?
Mark: I think you mean I have been implying it. YOU have been inferring it.
VOID: Well, not publicly.
Mark: No. I imply. You inf... Well, never mind. In any case. Yes. Evelyn and I have been retired for the better part of a year now. And it really has been the better part of that year.
VOID: So this is a genuine retirement? You are not planning to go back to work?
Mark: No plans at the moment. For years I had planned to retire at 55. I did my work earnestly and I liked the people I worked with particularly the last decade. But I never wanted to let my work become the biggest thing in my life. I don't think that I am lazy, but I am extremely playful. I lack the self-discipline to stick with one thing without my mind jumping to other things. Toward the end of my career I was in a position where I could leverage off all the little tiddly bits of odd facts I had accumulated. I enjoyed that. Then the company I worked for wanted to downsize and I found I could retire early.
VOID: Then I take it the timing of your retirement was not entirely voluntary.
Mark: No, it actually wasn't. I more or less had the choice to take an offer and I did. I was better off than some people who need to be working, partially because I was lucky enough to have made the right financial mistake earlier.
VOID: I don't follow.
Mark: Well, you remember in the VOID I had been warning people about the possible disaster that was going to come about with the Y2K bug?
VOID: That didn't amount to much.
Mark: Well, yes. I sort of ended up with egg on my face for the warnings. It was really something that had never happened before so there was a lot of guesswork and I guessed high on the damage. Evelyn and I had a strategy to get away from our dependency on stocks in case stocks plummeted due to Y2K. I really credit Evelyn for this. Well, the stocks didn't tumble. Yet. But a year later we were not back to depending on the market when technical stocks all started dropping for other reasons. We took a drubbing, but not nearly as badly as most people. When the company offered a nice retirement package partially to compensate for the income people had not gotten from stock, it made sense to take it. In a sense, it was our belief that big disasters could happen from technological causes that paid off for us. Even if we were right for the wrong reason. Science fiction thinking actually paid off.
VOID: A lot of corporations seem to be doing much the same thing. "Downsizing," a coined word, seems to have nonetheless become a common word. Many corporations are going to a small fraction of their workforce. Is that a problem in our economy?
Mark: It's a problem, but I think that it is the result of natural forces that have been discussed in science fiction for many years. I remember as far back as the 1950s, probably further, there was a concept that people would be working more efficiently in the future. The claim was that people would be able to get all their work for the day done in one hour and there would be more leisure time.
VOID: That doesn't seem to be the future we got.
Mark: Well, yes it is. In a way. What we should have realized is what would happen is the corporation would eliminate another employee and you would be doing what he would have done the second hour. Then you do some third employee's work the third hour. If you can do the work of eight employees, there is no reason for the company to keep that many employees on the payroll.
VOID: So the corporation ends us with one eighth the work force?
Mark: Well, not exactly because the increases in productivity are not always where you would choose them to be. Not where the company would choose them to be. When I started out working employees used chalkboards if they had a presentation. Eventually they went to viewgraphs that were just transparencies that we would write on with marking pens. High executives would give these beautiful presentations with colorful slides that took a fair-sized staff to produce. In fact people on my level rarely saw those presentations since they were mostly for customers. These days you have programs like Microsoft PowerPoint. Everybody has just beautiful slide presentations. Viewgraphs have moving parts. They look really nice. They are actually nicer than the executive viewgraphs the old days. And so yes you actually get much more than that eight-to-one advantage, but only if the original plan was to have enough support staff so that everybody was going to have beautiful viewgraphs. You would never have done that. If you had a choice, you would never put the extra productivity into places like making nicer viewgraphs, but that was where it turned out to be easy to put it. Or it was a place to put productivity that appealed to the decision makers.
VOID: The other thing I wanted to ask you about is you are of course half of the writing team of "The Leepers."
Mark: Well, sad to say, I am afraid that it is a little closer to two-thirds.
VOID: I noticed the name Leeper in Scientific American this month. There was an article on something called Bluetooth. Are you any relation to David Leeper.
Mark: We're brothers. VOID: Oh, that's impressive. You've been close with Evelyn for a long time now.
Mark: Since we started dating in 1968. In August we will have been married 30 years.
VOID: Actually, what I really want to know is what is the real Evelyn Leeper like? She gives the impression of being very bright and efficient and very out-going. Can you tell me what she is really like?
Mark: I'd rather not go into that here.
INSOMNIA (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Al Pacino plays a once-great LA detective, now in decline, investigating a murder in a small Alaska town near the Arctic Circle. Unable to adjust to the midnight sun, he loses sleep and begins making mistakes. The atmospheric setting and the character development are better than the mystery story itself. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), +1 (-4 to +4) Spoiler warning: Some information is revealed in this review, though none not revealed in the film's trailer.
There has been a murder in Nightmute, Alaska, and Will Dormer (played by Al Pacino) and his partner Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) are on loan from the Los Angeles police department to help in solving the crime. This means flying over hundreds of miles of trackless Alaskan wilderness just to get to the town. The two policemen already have a strained relationship having both run afoul of the police department's Internal Affairs office. Now they will have to spend some time together in one of America's most dismal towns. They are promised that in Alaska they have to worry much less about "public relations," but Alaska has its own way of making the case more difficult. This being summer the sun is not going to set for several months. This is going to make adjusting very difficult. Though Dormer has a reputation for being a superstar cop, he is getting old and tired from a long career. He is not nearly as tired as he will be since he discovers his body will not adapt to the unending sunlight. He is in a constant half-light, half awake and half asleep, and it is already beginning to affect his judgment. By the time he knows who the killer is (Robin William), he will be unable to act. Instead, he will form an uneasy and unwelcome relationship with the killer.
The film is only in small part a murder story. It is at least as much a character study of two men, each torn by positive and negative impulses. One is the hunter and one is the prey though even those roles are not well defined and reverse. The story takes place under the oppressive pall of the Alaskan wilderness where the colors of nature are shades of blue and gray. The sky that is never dark is also never bright. Both men live in a moral as well as physical half-light.
How people behave in this moral half-light is director Christopher Nolan's subject. Pacino's ironically-named Dormer is a man exhausted before he ever gets to Alaska. Nolan previously directed MEMENTO, another film in which the main character suffers a mental incapacity. At one time he was enthusiastic and brilliant about a job he considered important. When he questions a suspect we can see a little of the tricky electricity that powered his early career. We feel that the energy has gone out of him. The viewer remembers high-powered performances form Pacino in films like AND JUSTICE FOR ALL and though this is his first time playing Dormer, the energy he spent in those roles help define this character. He is a man who has cut corners before and continues to do so. Couple that fatigue with some sleepless nights and Dormer's once sharp mind is dulled.
Hilary Swank is a young detective who idolizes the famous Dormer and is emulating his early career. She is a young version of him with the energy and ideals he once had and now desperately lacks. Robin Williams plays a killer. While there is a comment that his character might become a serial killer, he is a refreshing change from the super-criminals we have gotten in films since Hannibal Lector. His Walter Finch is bright but makes mistakes. Now, though he is decent, he wants to avoid the consequences of one serious mistake. Williams is cast very much counter to type, but it still is no surprise that he is quite believable in the role. Good standup comics frequently make good and versatile actors. One can picture Williams in the future being very good in a variety of roles.
Like MEMENTO, the film is more interesting for the characters and the situation than for it being a thumping good murder mystery. I rate it a 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: To know all is not to forgive all. It is to despise everybody. -- Quentin Crisp
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