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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
11/01/02 -- Vol. 21, No. 18
Table of Contents
Member David Goldfarb sends some mail to keep me honest:
"You quote Damon Knight's definition of SF as being, 'Science fiction is what I point to when I say, This is science fiction.' This is a common misquote, but it's wrong -- and from what I've heard, Knight himself strongly objected to that phrasing. What he actually said was, "Science fiction is what we point to when we say it" -- the difference between first person singular and first person plural is subtle but crucial.
"What Knight *meant* by that was that science fiction, like all genres, is a fuzzy collection of tropes, settings, trappings, and modes. There is no way to obtain a single totalizing definition; rather, we each tell if something is SF by comparing it to the models in our heads of what is SFnal and seeing if it has enough family resemblance." [-mrl]
Radio Show on Lord of the Rings:
Public Radio International's "Sound & Spirit" radio show (with Ellen Kushner) will feature music and myth inspired by Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings." Check http://www.wgbh.org/pri/spirit for stations and schedules near you. (There is no webcast. If anyone in New Jersey is taping it, please let us know, as we will be busy being Guests of Honor at Windycon that weekend.) [-ecl]
Tuber Intelligence? (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I don't know if you ever gave much thought to the intelligence of a potato. I cannot say it has ever impressed me much. I just think of the interior of the potato as being a harder version of what I get in a mashed or baked potato. You burn the outside in oils and you get a French fry. It is more or less inert matter that is somewhat tasty. Then I took a potato to cook and found it had sprouted roots. That got me thinking about a potato itself. That root is made of stuff that was inside the potato last week. At that time it was distinctly not root-like. Something in the potato activated--turned on. It is not inert matter at all. It is pre-programmed with a kind of intelligence. You take a human intelligence organ, a brain. (This may be slightly gross, but to make a point.) Take a human intelligence organ and mash it up it will also seem like an inert paste. Now I have to say it kind of bothers me to eat a potato and just chew up that biological programming. I suppose it is better than eating a chicken or a steak. But if you think too much you cannot eat anything animal or vegetable. [-mrl]
Brooklyn Bridge (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Because New York City is really a World City, its landmarks have really become world landmarks. The city has several of these landmarks that are familiar worldwide. I have been to most in the twenty-four years I have lived near the city.
There are two great classic wonders in the city that are both quintessential examples of the fusion of art and of engineering. Each was built in controversy and each was victorious, capturing the imagination of the publics of their respective times. One is the Empire State Building. The other is the Brooklyn Bridge. I have been to the Empire State Building. I had never crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, even in a car. I determined a year ago that when the weather was right, Evelyn and I would walk from Manhattan to Brooklyn and back again on this majestic old bridge. And that was what we did one Sunday morning in early October. Well, sort of.
Our plan was to drive to the New York City Hall and park and walk over the bridge. We had, however, reckoned without the peculiar signage and traffic patterns of Manhattan. New York City would like to discourage people from bringing their cars into the city. They do this by playing with the tolls sometimes. But that is not going to have a whole lot of effect. If people are willing to brave the traffic and the bad signs, a little toll is not going to be discouraging.
One minute we were driving by City Hall looking for a place to park, the next we were on the bridge itself. Okay, so we would walk toward Manhattan first, and then back.
Looking for a place to park, Brooklyn looks a lot like an extension of Manhattan, which is essentially what the Brooklyn Bridge intended to make it. I guess in my mind's eye I pictured something more nostalgic, perhaps with Ebbett's Field in the background and some Dodgers running around. Of course, I know it isn't really like that any more and I have been in Brooklyn, but somehow near the bridge it seems like it should be that way. It isn't.
The Brooklyn Bridge spans the East River. That is a misnomer in itself. The East River is not a river and neither is the Hudson. The East River is really a tidal straight and the Hudson south of Albany is an estuary. But to a New Yorker this is hairsplitting. The bridge is 3461 feet long, rising 133 feet high over river from the car deck. To give pedestrians a better view, they have their walkway something like twenty feet higher than the two separated roadbeds. The problem is that are crosspieces above the two roadways and they are high enough that they block much of the pedestrian view, at least of the water. Don't worry, there is still enough to see.
In a way when you are walking you see the water directly below the bridge. The walkway is made of wooden beams with eighth inch gaps between them. Standing still and looking down you see very little of what is below the beams you are standing on. Not even enough to even make out if you are over water or land. But as you walk looking down, changing your angle to the gaps, they sweep by and reveal different lines of the image of what is below the bridge. It works like a TV screen scanning lines that your mind, using persistence of vision, integrate into a whole picture. So one gets a view of the water beneath and of the Manhattan skyline.
But the view is only one of three very different elements contributing to the beauty of this bridge. The gothic towers with their cathedral arches also contribute to the beauty. At the time they were built, they were higher than any towers in Manhattan. But in those days functionality was not everything. Style was important also. These columns have Gothic cathedral-like arches. There isn't as much Gothic design as you would find in a good cathedral. There is only just enough to give it a Gothic feel.
But ironically, neither of these elements adds so much to the majestic view as the skein of cables. Steel cables are usually not a medium for great beauty, but engineering follows the laws of physics. Physics follows the laws of mathematics. Nature says that the two major cables will hang in three perfect catenary curves. Catenary curves are similar to parabolas and hanging ropes and chains hang in catenary curves. Down from these cables hang a network of smaller cables etching perfect mathematical curved surfaces as they support the roadway. This is not done because it looks nice that way. The physics dictates the surface as it is in turn demanded by the mathematics. Just as the physics of soap bubbles dictate beautiful mathematical minimal surface forms. The art of the bridge is a fusion of old gothic forms of the towers with timeless mathematical elegance.
The pleasure of walking the bridge is in large part really the joy of walking so close to the immense planar curves whose simple mathematical perfection is forged by the physics. Mathematics has beauty and everything else inherits the beauty of the math. The three kinds of beauty come at the walker from three different realms. You have the beauty of the nature. You have the beauty of the stonework which somehow is built on top of nature. And you have the beauty of the mathematics which underlies even nature.
Cables were where it all began. They are the heart of the bridge. The bridge designer was John A. Roebling who had invented and made his fortune from "steel rope," what we would call cable. Roebling was also the major manufacturer of this steel rope and was he was the leading expert on practical applications of cable. However, part of the contract Roebling made for building a bridge using cable was that he would not use his own company's cable. When the cable he had contracted for proved to be brittle and unusable, Roebling's company supplied the cable that was actually used. And cable is really where the bridge derives its beauty. John Roebling did not live to see the bridge even started. He had a foot crushed in a bridge planning related accident and it led to his death. His son Washington Roebling continued in his stead.
It is not hard to design a tower in water. It is not hard to design a roadway, but how does one get the towers to support a roadway? Most bridges to this point were short arches, which were limited in length. Some worked by the stiffness of the roadway, like putting a board across, and these were even more limited in length. Then there were rope bridges that hung from the sides. They all depended heavily on support coming from the two ends. With the new invention of cable you could make a bridge that was not really dependent on the two ends for support. The Brooklyn bridge could have been built on flat ground and supported a roadway hundreds of feet above the ground because of the use of cable. In incompressibility of the towers pushes up and holds the structure up. The incompressibility of the roadway keeps the ends out. The suspension cables are caught in a tug of war between the towers pushing up, the roadway pushing out toward the ends, and gravity pulling down. The smallest energy curve is the catenary and the lessor cables curve-stitch to that boundary. The roadbed is hung from the two towers sort of like a painting with a wire in back is hung from two nails on a wall. When you hang a picture that way, the wire really hangs in three catenaries. But the weight of the wire is small so the segments look more like straight lines.
But as we walked across the bridge, we realized what a miracle it must have been like. Before the bridge it was a long, long commute to go from New York City to Brooklyn. I don't know how long, but I suspect in those days it might have been hours. On the day we went we walked from Brooklyn to the heart of New York City in about an hour (rubber-necking). In Manhattan we had a nice Vietnamese lunch, shopped a bit and looked at the decoration inside the Woolworth Building. Then we walked back to Brooklyn. The walk back took about half an hour and had we set our mind to it we could have done it in twenty minutes. On foot. Construction was started in 1870 and was completed in 1883, opening on May 24 of that year. Getting into Manhattan so quickly must have been like teleporting in those days. [-mrl]
THE MAN WITHOUT A PAST (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: The title tells more than expected. A man with amnesia tries to get along in a world that depends on people's memory. The accent is not on piecing together the past, it is on how he survives without a memory of the past. Perhaps his new life is better than the old. In spite of a brutal mugging this becomes one of Aki Kaurismaki's most pleasant films. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), high +1 (-4 to +4)
A man gets off a train, rests in a park, and is brutally mugged. In the hospital he dies. Then a few minutes later he comes back to life but with no memory of his past. He must start his life anew in a society that is not geared to someone who cannot identify himself. THE MAN WITHOUT A PAST was written and directed by Aki Kaurismaki, perhaps the best-known name in Finnish film. Frequently Finnish films are bred of the moods that seem caused by winter light deprivation. In THE MAN WITHOUT A PAST once the initial mugging is over, the tone is mostly upbeat and even whimsical as the man puts together a new life. The title tells much of the premise of the film. It is not so much piecing together his past and just looking at how a man functions without benefit of a past. With no past he cannot identify who he is. He cannot get credit. Nobody knows if they can trust him. He knows a little about his previous self but pieces together that he was a laborer who worked with his hands. He finds he has skills, particularly welding that he must have learned at some point from his previous self. The film has sort of echoes of BAGDAD CAFE where a stranger brings a different attitude and viewpoint to the people she meets.
First the man (the credits call him M) must find a place to live. He is shown an abandoned storage container, possibly for freight, but to him it is a new home. He is living in trash, but is able to form camaraderie with his neighbors. He has to find ways to get food and cook it. So he will have food he plants potatoes and steals electricity.
M finds the charity of a local Salvation Army troop. Their band plays spiritual and uplifting music that interests nobody. M convinces them to try a bit of rock music and it transforms the whole purpose of the band. With one woman he forms a close bond. M is able to make the best of his circumstances and find a positive side while others around him are finding life grimmer. The theme is really rebirth and finding a place to fit into the world when you have lost your own. At the center is the search for dignity and confidence in the midst of undignified circumstance. This film makes it look almost easy and rewarding, which is surprisingly optimistic for a Finnish film.
Kaurismaki tends to linger on scenes slowing the pace of the story much in the style of Jim Jarmasch. Still this is one of Kaurismaki's more pleasant and likeable films. The spirit is upbeat and whimsical rather than brooding. It almost is of the style of Frank Capra. I rate THE MAN WITHOUT A PAST a 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
KEN PARK (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Not the most uplifting film I have ever seen. From the director of KIDS comes another story, or set of stories, of teens growing up in a permissive society without direction or values. The film is fascinating, but sort of like watching a road accident. Rating: 5 (0 to 10), high 0 (-4 to +4)
From co-directors and co-cinematographers Larry Clark, the director of KIDS, and novice director Ed Lachman comes a film like KIDS set in a more suburban setting. KEN PARK is pretty nihilistic stuff. It is a view of sixteen-year-olds (or about that) growing with no values beyond hedonism. It is also very frank and explicit stuff.
The film takes place in the suburban town of Visalia, California and follows four friends, Shawn, Claude, Peaches, and Tate. Shawn (James Bullard) has been seduced by his girlfriend's attractive mother. She uses him as a sex toy and he enjoys comparing sex with mother and daughter. Claude (Stephen Jasso) is bullied and accused of being gay by his bully of a father. Peaches (Tiffany Limos) is kept on what seems like a short leash by her Christian fundamentalist father, but she still manages a very active sex life. Tate (James Ransone) is just weird. He is being raised by grandparents whom he makes no secret of loathing by cussing them out explicitly to their faces. The fifth musketeer is the title character Ken Park who shoots himself through the head in the first sequence of the film.
Supposedly everything that happens in KEN PARK is taken from a true incidents. However, this appears to be a sort of High School Sodom concentrate. The director, who presented the film at the Toronto Festival was quick to say that all the actors engaging in sex were over eighteen, but they look younger and the film is very explicit. Very, very explicit. Many of the actors in the film are first-time performers whom the directors found in a skateboard park in Visalia. And were naturals before the camera.
There could be said to be three or four story threads. One could question whether they are really stories since they do not necessarily conclude. Each is more a portrait or a situation. The threads are not particularly good as narratives. Even if the stories are all based on real incidents their density, all happening at the same time to small group of friends, seems unlikely. Three or four stories reach a climax in one night. They include murder, incest, pederasty, and a couple things not in my thesaurus. Not all films based on true incidents are necessarily realistic. If this is a realistic portrait of youth today we are all in trouble.
Whether this film has any real message or is just an exercise in bleak nihilism leavened with teenage pornography is a moot point. The film is intended to shock and drew mostly a younger audience anxious to be shocked. I rate KEN PARK a 5 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high 0 on the -4 to +4 scale. Whether or not KEN PARK is pornographic is a question not of the facts but of interpretation. The film features not simply nudity but male masturbation, cunilingus, and urination. Cheers. [-mrl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: It is better to deserve honors and not have them than to have them and not to deserve them. -- Mark Twain
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