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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
08/09/02 -- Vol. 21, No. 6
Table of Contents
Fish and Psychics (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
We were driving past a little house with a big sign out in front that said "psychic." I started to wonder what the local psychics thought of the government closing down the notorious Miss Cleo, the Queen of Psychics. You used to see her all the time on TV a few months ago. She was the one with the island accent in spite of having been born and grown up in Los Angeles. Eventually the government got after her for an incredible number of illegal and fraudulent practices.
I wondered out loud if the local so-called psychics were happy or sad to see Miss Cleo put out of business. Were they happy to see a competitor go away? Were they unhappy because it showed that at least one psychic was a fraud and sort of discredits the whole psychic "industry." Evelyn leaned toward the latter belief. I am not so sure. I think that the clientele of psychics know that some psychics are frauds but will still believe in the one they go to.
It is like fish. They can be swimming the water. "Oh, look. There is a big piece of wriggling food over there. Right there at the end of that line. And there goes Thelma to get it. There she goes. She got it. Well good for her. Whoop! Did you see that? Thelma just shot straight up. Isn't that the strangest thing? She's gone. I don't even see her up in the higher water. Where the Shark did she go? That was the strangest thing I ever saw. Well, I'm sure she'll be back. She always is. Oh wow. Where did that come from. There is another piece of food there dangling in front of me. Let's see if I can get it. Just have to pull it free from that string it is on." You can pull that trick over and over. [-mrl]
An Answer to a Question with a Twist? (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Last week my editorial asked a question. It is really a question that had bothered me for many years. The question combined the fields of mathematical topology and the biology of reproduction. The question is really a simple one even if the answer is not. If indeed DNA is a double helix, which it has been established that it is, the two chains in the helix wrap around each other some very large number of times. The winding number is, I have been told, something like 100,000. Now, most descriptions I have seen of DNA reproduction say these two chains that are in some sense complements of each other, just separate and each is used as a pattern for a new complementary chain to be made. Since the complement of a complement is identical to the original you now have two identical double helix chains with the same information content. However, my question involved the mathematical logistics of separating two single chains that are twisted around each other.
I measure the success of my editorials in part by how much comment they generate and by that measure this is certainly one of my more successful efforts. This appears to be a question that captured many people's attention and interest. It is one of those imponderable questions that stick at the back of the mind for years, an itch difficult to scratch.
Let me somewhat rephrase the question. Take a yard of white thread and a yard of black thread. Place them lengthwise next to each other and then twist them together into twisted pair or a cable. Actually their form is now a double helix, just like DNA is a double helix, though with DNA there are connection between the two chains. Your goal is now to separate the two threads again. In specific, you would like to do it in a way similar to the way DNA actually separates its double helix. (Note: This week I am not directly asking how does DNA do it because they gets you involved in discussions of what specific enzymes are involved. That in interesting information, but does not get us really closer to understanding the topology of the splitting process. In some cases it gives a false impression you have gotten an answer to the question when you have merely gotten technical detail. It is sort of like the fellow who thought he had answered the question when he said that an enzyme does it.)
Just grabbing each thread and pulling is not as good an idea as it might first seem. There is a law of conservation of twists that can only be dissipated where the thread is cut or broken. You end up shoving twists down the cable in each direction where they become denser and kink up the cable. One person suggested that is because you are pulling apart only in one place and if you do it at several points it will separate the threads more easily. Try it and you quickly see that is not what is happening. Twists just get denser between separating points, they do not cancel each other out. The only way to get rid of twists is at endpoints of chains. And when you do that you dissipate energy. Simply put, if you dissipate that much energy from the endpoint of a DNA chain you damage the cell. That cannot be how DNA handles this problem. There is some bacteria DNA that does not even have an end to use. You get the double helix but it all forms a loop or circle.
I got some side comments from one person who suggested there is a scientific orthodoxy who can dictate what is the official explanation whether that is a logical explanation or not. He felt that once it was stated that the DNA comes apart in 30 minutes, nobody would question what the mechanism is. I doubt that that is what has happened here. From the answers I got clearly people at some level had examined this question and had answered it. It was just that the answer was known by surprisingly few people. I got what are probably the most definitive answers from a biology professor emeritus who is the father-in-law of a longtime member.
Imagine you have the ability to cut and rejoin the threads. Every few twists you snip the white thread. This creates many endpoints and allows the pieces to separate with only a few untwists each segment. Then they are rejoined in the same order. But by the same token each has to solve only a tiny piece of the problem. The energy is being dissipated all over the length of the DNA, not just at the very ends.
The organization to do this is incredible, but that is, after all, what enzymes do for a living. I don't know how many breaks there are to get rid of all the twists. [-mrl]
SIGNS (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Mel Gibson plays a farmer and ex-minister in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. He must protect his family from something real or imaginary that has not shown its face but seemingly has left signs of its presence around the world that are causing international anxiety. From the first shot of the film, M. Night Shyamalan suffuses the film with tension, dread, and a feeling of alienation. The worldwide crisis almost remains of little import in the backdrop as the story focuses on the effects of fear and panic and on the relation of the Gibson character with his faith. This is a beautifully crafted and edited film that leaves the viewer very edgy. Rating: 8 (0 to 10), high +2 (-4 to +4)
Newspapers sometimes run a certain type of puzzle. They give you extreme close-up photos of common objects. It may be part of a cheese grater or a vacuum cleaner. But when we see this extreme close-up it looks unfamiliar and strange. The point is for the reader to try to identify the object from the close-up. M. Night Shyamalan plays the same game with close-up details of plots we have seen before. He will do a fascinating study embedded in what could be a familiar situation from other films. What is important is the texture of the detailed picture. He did that with UNBREAKABLE and he does it again with SIGNS. SIGNS is an in depth look within a specific type of familiar story. But it is a close- up on one terrified group of people in that bigger story. Alfred Hitchcock told this sort of story with his THE BIRDS, focusing on one unimportant household. George Romero did it with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, looking at one besieged group in a farmhouse. Shyamalan does it in even closer detail then Hitchcock or Romero in SIGNS. The outside story has a familiar ring once it is pieced together, but we are too interested looking at one small group of people who are affected by the events of the story.
As the film opens we are looking at the yard of a house. But as we watch the scene undulates as if what we are looking at is not real or not what it seems. It looks like we are seeing a distorted digital image. Almost instantly we realize we are merely looking through a window that is slightly imperfectly made and which warped something that perfectly familiar so that it looked wrong and disturbing. This one shot sets the tone for this film. Things that are normal will look subtly incorrect and disquietingly distorted. Shyamalan tells us that something is very wrong is happening to the world. Time is out of joint. Even normal things seem distorted and wrong. Shyamalan manages to keep the tension from flagging even while keeping the plot relatively static.
As the film begins Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), formerly Father Graham Hess, is already living an agonized life that destroys his sleep and warps his view of the world. (Perhaps he is in the same physical condition that the Pacino character is in INSOMNIA.) Why he is so tortured we will piece together later, for now we just know he is fighting demons of many types. As in Daphne Du Maurier's original story "The Birds," we do not know how much of what is happening is real and how much is the result of the main character's damaged mind.
Hess does not need on top of his emotional damage the strange abstract pattern that appeared in his cornfield like crop circles. "Nerds," is the explanation he uneasily settles on. Guys who cannot get a date put that pattern in his field as a joke. That's neat but unconvincing and other people have other ideas. The viewer does not know what to think. Every theory for what is making these patterns is ridiculed by someone. No sane explanation makes much sense for the system of crop patterns that is showing up worldwide. Meanwhile Graham is facing intruders on his farm which may or may not be making the Triffid-like tapping noises that Graham is hearing at odd moments. Hearing them at odd moments is almost as scary as hearing nothing. Maybe sometimes he almost gets a glimpse of part of one of these things in his cornfield. I was reminded of the old William Allingham poem about fairies:
Up the airy mountain Down the rushy glen, We dare n't go a-hunting, For fear of little men;
Through much of SIGNS we are not sure what it is we are afraid of, but we know something is out there. Shyamalan is a genuine craftsman composing scenes with strange camera angles and symbolic symmetries. His subject here is fear, and he impressively paints something as invisible as fear on the screen. So little is clear through much of the story yet we feel it is somehow scary. Even Hess's motivations for leaving the church and losing his faith are only revealed though many clues as the story progresses. Little things from his background are left unexplained, and must be pieced together. When one frustrated character shouts "What in God's name is going on?" much of the audience is wondering the same thing. Shyamalan populates the film with strange, out-of- whack characters like an Army recruiter who enthusiastically explains with an enigmatic smile on his face what strategy alien invaders would use. Shyamalan writes one character as a pickup- truck-style redneck named Ray, then the Indian director plays him himself very much against type.
This is not an action film. It is not even so much a film where nasty things jump out at the audience. It is a film with a cold metaphysical chill. I would like to say all this fine style actually built to a good story, but the story is less important and actually less interesting than the style. The explanation of what is going on is a bland cliche and Hess's own story builds to a platitude. It is like Rembrandt had illustrated a Sunday installment of "The Family Circus." The real subject is not the plot. The real subject is fear and M. Night Shyamalan has given us a film of unwavering weirdness and intensity. I give it an 8 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Enlightened people seldom or never possess a sense of responsibility. -- George Orwell
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