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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
06/07/02 -- Vol. 20, No. 49
Table of Contents
Books of Numbers (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I see there is a new book from Princeton Press called THE STORY OF SQUARE ROOT OF MINUS ONE by Paul Nehin. The price of the book is a pretty impressive number also, $29.95 for 257 pages. That is more than a dime a page. This seems to be the new trend in books for the general public about mathematics, to take one famous and (dare I say it) popular number and to write a whole book about it. It seems a little stingy to me. When I was in college I paid $22 for a real analysis textbook and it was about a whole lot of numbers. But nowadays the trend is to charge more and give cover just one number in detail. I find it interesting that a number gets treated as it if is a celebrity.
Amazon.com lists no less than four books about pi and its history and its uses. They sport the thrilling titles PI: A SOURCE BOOK, THE JOY OF PI, HISTORY OF PI, and my favorite, PI UNLEASHED. I wonder if that is on a double feature with HERCULES UNCHAINED? Somehow I can't really imagine pi has ever been leashed. I am sure that is not all the books about pi out there. I hope they are at least really and truly about pi perhaps in just the way the film PI was not.
Is pi not your lucky number? (Actually it probably is without your realizing it, but I won't go into that.) Then there is e as chronicled in e: THE STORY OF A NUMBER. And zero. I discover an old friend of mine, Matt Zimet, was the illustrator on another book ZERO: THE BIOGRAPHY OF A DANGEROUS IDEA. And of course there is the book that started this tirade, THE STORY OF SQUARE ROOT OF MINUS ONE by Paul Nehin.. These books generally go for the $30 range because the numbers they are about are the celebrities of the number world. These numbers have their legions of loyal fans and their books can demand big prices. Actually there is also something of a cult following for the Golden Ratio and there are somewhat cheaper books about it including THE DIVINE PROPORTION, A MATHEMATICAL HISTORY OF THE GOLDEN NUMBER, and GOLDEN SECTION. These books go considerably cheaper generally though one publisher is gambling that this number is popular enough with its fans to charge $39 for THE GOLDEN RATIO AND FIBONACCI NUMBERS. There is, of course, a big time overlap in the fandom of the Golden Ratio and the fans of the Fibonacci Sequence. (If you don't already know why you REALLY don't want me to go into that right now. Suffice it to say that phi is the favorite number of Fibonacci Sequence fans.) But these are the giants among numbers. These are the immortal numbers that will be remembered long after you and I are gone.
This may seem like a lot of books, but it is still relatively few numbers sharing the limelight. When is the last time you saw a book with a name like THE HISTORY AND LORE OF 213? Or maybe 5872. The set of numbers that have gotten the adulation and attention sufficient books or even articles about them is still a set of measure zero. People tend to be prejudiced in favor of numbers near very zero. In fact I have never seen an entire book devoted to a single number whose magnitude is more than 4. At least not in the field of mathematics. The small numbers are the numbers people have known since they were young and they are the numbers people feel most comfortable with. I suppose in chemistry there is some attention paid to Avogadro's Number, but I doubt if there is a single book devoted to the subject. When you are looking at mathematical properties, most people do not feel comfortable with numbers greater than the number of fingers they can see on one hand. You have heard it observed that all politics is local? The same can be said in spades for numbers. Considering how big most integers are you realize even experts and astronomers deal with only the very smallest. There are numbers so high only dogs can hear them but for a number to be popular it has to be less than five. (Exercise to the reader: how big are 99.9% of all integers. Or put another way, how big can an integer be and still be considered to be in the smallest 0.1% of all integers?)
Let me head this one off before it starts. I would expect someone would write me and say that they are reading a book about a very large number indeed. They are reading about INFINITY. Wow! Well, first of all infinity is not a number at all. It is a cardinality. It is the measure of the size of a set. That makes it a count not a number. Infinity is the count of items in a set that has too many elements to have an integer for a count. And I want you to know that it is just this attitude that is killing America. We are talking about real numbers here, not abstractions. These are numbers that it takes a while to count up to and think about. Now some punk comes along and with no effort wants to jump to what he thinks is the biggest number of all and trump any number I have talked about. Well, I will tell you right now that it isn't going to work. It is just this attitude, this win-without-playing go-to-the-head-of-the-line attitude that is what people hate about Americans. It is the Koboyashi Maru all over again. [-mrl]
THE SUM OF ALL FEARS (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Tom Clancy's mammoth novel about nuclear terrorism comes to the screen. This is probably the least complex of the Ryan films to date, but it is the most tense and dramatic. SUM is a whirlwind of a film with some all too possible nightmare scenarios of nuclear terrorism. The more than usually James-Bond-like counter-tactics of Jack Ryan are neither fully convincing nor reassuring. Rating: 7 (0 to 10), +2 (-4 to +4). I will avoid major spoilers making this a less informative review than it might be. There are some cryptic minor spoilers.
We are starting our fifth decade of the James Bond films, the first film series about intelligence and spies (with the possible exception of the Universal Sherlock Holmes films). Bond, however, is not the most satisfying main character because he never fails and only in DR. NO and one quick sequence of ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE does his self-confidence ever seem to flag. Some viewers want more realistic scenarios. The super-villains who want to unilaterally start wars and cataclysms were not seriously in evidence in the real world until the 21st century. For more believable spies and scenarios it seemed at the time one had to turn to Harry Palmer, George Smiley, and eventually Jack Ryan.
Actually the fourth Jack Ryan film, THE SUM OF ALL FEARS, superficially has a lot of similarities to a James Bond sort of story. One does not have to look very hard to find in the plot surprising parallels to aspects of the films THUNDERBALL and THE SPY WHO LOVED ME as well as the non-Bond film BLACK SUNDAY. The villain's strategy may be borrowed from S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and the smart Siamese Fighting Fish in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE. But it would be just as easy to miss these resemblances because the style of a Jack Ryan story is so different. The Clancy stories have a great deal of convincing detail about American intelligence and the military. The new film has a super-villain whose plan is right out of a Bond film, but he is shown with the verisimilitude of a Clancy character. And probably for the first time we are seeing it with the sadder but wiser knowledge that such people really do exist.
Our story opens in 1973 Yom Kippur War with an Israeli plane bearing one nuclear bomb, just in case it is needed. The plane is shot down over Syria, however, and breaks up in the air. In 2002 a scavenging junk dealer finds the wreckage of the plane and the bomb. Meanwhile Jack Ryan is now the new analyst at the CIA. Ryan new at the CIA? Well, in a sense they are starting the series over with a younger Jack Ryan. Alec Baldwin played Ryan once in THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER; Harrison Ford did it twice in PATRIOT GAMES and CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER. Now Ben Affleck assays the role. He may have been chosen for reasons other than that he exhibits Jack Ryan qualities. Actually, he seems to be a bit young to have the respect that he gets from foreign dignitaries. He seems to have been chosen to give a youthful image to the teen audience who does not like their heroes too well-aged. Also, Affleck can probably play the role for a good long time before he looks too old for the part. Hopefully by then he will have better grown into the role.
At the CIA Ryan is the precocious and headstrong young kid with ideas of his own who wins grudging admiration from his bemused boss and mentor Bill Cabot (Morgan Freeman). Meanwhile back in Syria our junk dealer is selling his bomb to a neo-Fascist who has some good ideas how to use it. (I am told that in the book it is NOT a neo-Fascist, but neo-Fascists are unlikely to complain if they are made the villains in this sort of film. In fact, even if using them somewhat degrades the logic of the story they probably rather enjoy being made the baddies. The Middle East connection has been minimized because the subject matter was probably considered already topical enough.)
Meanwhile in Russia a new president, Alexander Nemerov (Ciaran Hinds), has come to power and is responsible for a chemical attack in Chechnya. Ryan rather likes Nemerov and guesses that Nemerov's taking responsibility for the atrocity is political rather than factual. Nobody at the CIA or on the President's staff agrees.
I assume that in the rather long novel, all these things happen a bit less simultaneously. However, after this events start happening even faster and even faster. If you think that was bad, from this point on it's just one damn thing after another. But only at the end do things boil over the top of plausibility. Jack Ryan has to do some fancy and complex detective work if he is going to avert a major disaster.
The script by Paul Attanasio (QUIZ SHOW and SPHERE) and Daniel Pyne (PACIFIC HEIGHTS) is fast-paced, but rather than being exciting, it turns up extremely dark and grim. One novelty scene involving cell phones seems borrowed almost directly from THE SEIGE. The Jerry Goldsmith score features some decent choral pieces and does its job, but the musical centerpiece is not original and will already be familiar to opera fans. It is Puccini's exquisite "Nessun Dorma" from TURANDOT. The villain may be an inhuman slimeball, but he surely has good taste in music. I wonder what they are saying by making him an opera fan?
Morgan Freeman always adds a touch of dignity to any role he takes. Sadly, everything else he does for this role he also does for any role he takes. I have mixed feelings about him as an actor since I love this character he plays, but he plays it in every single film he is in. Do you have any other personalities inside you, Mr. Freeman? James Cromwell takes the role of the President with sufficient dignity if not much grace. Liev Schreiber plays the closest thing to an action operative in this film. I do not think of him as an action actor so it is a pleasure seeing this from him. Philip Baker Hall, like Freeman, always plays the same great character in every film, but has not done it so frequently as Freeman so it is a little more acceptable.
This is an exciting film but don't expect to leave the theater in an up mood. THE SUM OF ALL FEARS might be a little more fun if a little less of it was so possible and even likely. The scariest parts of the film are probably the reminders of what you have learned about the world in the last twelve months. I rate THE SUM OF ALL FEARS a 7 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Power operates only destructively, bent always on forcing every manifestation of life into the straitjacket of its laws. Its intellectual form of expression is dead dogma, its physical form brute force. And this unintelligence of its objectives sets its stamp on its supporters also and renders them stupid and brutal, even when they were originally endowed with the best of talents. One who is constantly striving to force everything into a mechanical order at last becomes a machine himself and loses all human feeling. -- Rudolph Rocker
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