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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
12/27/02 -- Vol. 21, No. 26
Table of Contents
THIS IS A PUBLIC NOTICE FOR ALL PEOPLE WHO SEND ME E-MAIL. There is a certain word that I no longer accept in my email. I do not have anything against this word. But I am finding it extremely difficult to deal with e-mail that uses this word. We are talking about a seven-letter word, starting with the letter "m" and that expresses the number 1,000,000. If you take the asterisks out of the string m*i*l*l*i*o*n you will get the particular offensive string. I guess, if you want to use the asterisks, that is okay then. I do not want people spelling out the m-word in normal fashion. I cannot accept e-mail with that particular offensive string spelled out that way even with suffixes like "aire." I can accept no e-mail that has that seven-letter string. It is with great sadness that I part with the usage of this word, particularly being a mathematician who has a great love of numbers, but desperate situations call for desperate measures.
The reason I am parting with all e-mail using this word will be obvious to some. It is because I want no longer to receive mail from Mr. Tim Mcquitty who calls himself a white commercial farmer from Zimbabwe; Dr Luisa Pimentel Estrada, the wife of Joseph Ejercito Estrada, former president of Philippines cannot send me e-mail either; Mr Temi Johnson of the Democratic Republic of Congo and One of the close aides to the former President of the Democratic Republic of Congo Laurent Kabila is on my don't-email-me list; Mr.James Ajah, member of the Federal Government of Nigeria Contract Award and Monitoring Committee in the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) is another. Any of the other scum-sucking weasels claiming to want to use my bank account to smuggle large sums of money out of their respective countries are also proscribed. At first I was amused by these people, but enough is enough. They claim to have m*i*l*l*i*o*n*s of dollars in their country that they are trying to smuggle out. And of all the people with bank accounts in the United States they have picked someone at random on the Internet to help them. It just happens that the person they have picked was me. As the story each one tells goes, they are going to keep the lion's share of the money for themselves, but they are willing to give a paltry $10,000,000 or $12,000,000 to me for the use of my bank account. If I play this confidence game as they hope, I will get greedy and start wondering how I can rip-off the scum-sucking weasel who sent me the mail and get the full sum of money for myself.
In fact, the e-mail does not have a word of truth to it. Well, that may be a little harsh. It does have one word of truth. When the people who are sending it imply that they are crooked scum-sucking weasels, they are expressing uncharacteristic frankness. In fact, what they want is for me to get greedy enough to be willing to send him a few thousand dollars, supposedly to be used for money laundering. The rest has nothing to do with the truth. They probably don't have a pot to cook peas in. But I get two or three of these offers a day. Most come from Nigeria, though the scam is becoming international. All kinds of different names show up as the person proposing the relationship. I have decided to have my mailer recognize these pieces of mail and automatically throw them out. I will use what is called a "mail filter" that will recognize the offensive mail based on a strong it contains.
Ah, but the mail comes from different people in different countries. So what do all the pieces of this kind of mail have in common? Most write out in words the amount of money that they are supposedly going to try to purloin from their respective countries. To do that they use the m-word. They are always stealing an ammount in the m*i*l*l*i*o*n*s. At least for now nobody could hope to find a billion dollars to steal from someplace like Nigeria. And if they expressed the money in thousands they are not going to be all that tempting. No, they like to spell out the sum of money and use the m-word. They are playing right into my hands, the fools.
I will throw out all pieces of mail that use that particular tempting word, but I run the risk that someone who really wants to communicate with me will use that word. I don't know how, but you never know. It might come up in conversation. Not many people do currently other than the scum-sucking weasels. It is probably a word I can dispense with entirely in e-mail. I mean in oral conversation it is just fine. Just if you email me and use that word, I probably won't see your message. I have given up on using that word in e-mail. That word no longer will clog up my inbox. I can get along without it. Sure.
You know, the computer age is bringing with it some problems I don't think anyone foresaw. [-mrl]
GANGS OF NEW YORK (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Martin Scorsese recreates slum and gang life in Civil War Era New York City. It is a cutthroat world where virtually everyone is a criminal and everyone is a victim to some degree. The historic background alone is worth the price of admission, even if the foreground story is a little hackneyed at times. This is an always-fascinating historical film with a lot of factual detail. Rating: 8 (0 to 10), high +2 (-4 to +4)
It is 1846 in Manhattan. There are still living Americans who still remember the American Revolution. The Five Points district of Manhattan has the worst and most dangerous slum in the world. Five roads and at least as many criminal gangs meet at Paradise Square, about as far from Paradise as any place the United States had to offer.
We open with one Irish gang's ritualistic preparations for war before meeting on the icy streets with another gang, the Nativists, dedicated to stopping foreign immigration with murder as frequently as possible. Irishman Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) is killed in the melee by Nativist Bill "the Butcher" Cutting (a swaggering Daniel Day-Lewis). Priest's young son watches his father die. Then he goes off to the orphanage named Hellgate House of Reform. Flash forward sixteen years. There is a Civil War going on. Bill the Butcher rules the Five Points with fear and ruthlessness. Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) is now about 23. He is just about old enough to avenge his father, if he can move into Bill the Butcher's organization. And once he does get in if he can shut out an involuntary admiration for the Butcher's style. He works for the day that he can kill the Butcher. Through his eyes we see this world, building to an account and dramatization of the draft riots of July 11 to 13, 1863. Immigrants who were forced into the army and used as cannon fodder protested against a law that allowed the rich to buy their way out of the draft for the cost of $300.
The plot is surprisingly familiar for a film from Martin Scorsese. The first two hours of this three-hour film bears some resemblance to the last chapters of both APOCALYPSE NOW and CONAN THE BARBARIAN. There are even more parallels to the 1959 western THE JAYHAWKERS! But the story is still good enough and that is not really the thrust of the film. Much more import is the historical background created in exquisite detail. Scorsese plunges us into what must be the worst neighborhood in United States history. Everyone fights and fears everyone else. A person's protection is not in the law but in what alliances he can make. Fire companies loot burning houses and clash like gangs. The Metropolitan police and the Municipal police compete and fight each other like gangs. And dozens of gangs fight worse than gangs, gangs like the Plug Uglies, the Bowery Boys, the Dead Rabbits, and the Shirt Tails. The corrupt police have little reason to protect any but the rich and gangs are the only way the poor can protect themselves. The events are real, though the story connecting them is fictional and Martin Scorsese is not above bending the truth for dramatic effect. (Barnum's Museum, which Scorsese would have us believe burned in the Draft Riots actually did not burn until 1865.) There was a fearsome Bill the Butcher, though his last name was not Cutting and he died before these events. The Draft riots, the fragmentation and gang war, bloody sports like the terrier and rat fights are all real. Scorsese just embeds items of the history of this urban snake pit with minor modifications into a fictional story.
Scorsese gives us an education in the history of crime and corruption in New York City. The corruption goes right up to political boss "Boss" Tweed, probably the most famously corrupt official in United States history. He is anxious to maintain the illusion of legality who raping the city's taxpayers. Tweed befriends whatever gang leader can deliver the most votes. People were paid to grow heavy beards as election day approached. They would vote in the heavy beards, collect their bribe, shave just enough off to change their appearance and vote again, collect again, shave again, vote again, collect again. This, too, was part of the new immigrant experience in New York. There is much that is toned down of the film. There is the human and animal waste in the cesspools and the streets. A bed was six cents a night in the part of town most people could not even stand to walk through, considered the worst slum in the world. It was all blacks, Irish, some native-born, and Chinese could afford. When the locals were not having a good time at the public hangings they engaged in a variety of blood sports like betting on how long it would take a terrier to kill rats.
King of this world was Bill the Butcher. Day-Lewis's performance is eccentric but memorable. He speaks from behind a big mustache in what seems to be an affected accent of his own invention. Even the various plaids of his suits seem to be in a battle for supremacy over each other. His words are extremely distinct in a film where much is said in impenetrable accents. His words are articulate and frequently chosen to be threatening. On the other hand, DiCaprio does little to characterize his Amsterdam. He leaves the scene-stealing to Day-Lewis. Neither he nor Henry Thomas is believably tough. Only a little better is Cameron Diaz as a versatile pickpocket. None of these three young actors conveys much memorable emotion. She allowed the filmmakers to give her too much makeup and plays her role a little too impishly for a woman who had had the hard knocks she had. She conveys no strong emotion. Liam Neeson has a small role as Priest, but his shadow is over the entirety of the film. Even Scorsese manages a small cameo for himself.
Multiple cultures were living in the Five Points and Scorsese show us a little of the culture of each, almost as if he had a checklist. This is a well-crafted recreation of history. I rate it an 8 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Steven Spielberg's Christmastime film is based on the true story of a young con artist who by turns acted as a pilot for an airline, practiced medicine for a hospital, and practiced law, all without authentic training. He passed m*i*l*l*i*o*n*s of dollars in counterfeit checks, all before he reached the age of 22. Spielberg directs a lower profile film than his usual fare, but one that is a pleasure to take in and be taken in. Rating: 7 (0 to 10), +2 (-4 to +4)
Famous test pilot Chuck Yeager was asked how he managed to survive what appeared to be certain death in a plummeting plane. His strategy, he said, was just to keep his head and keep doing the next thing to do. More than once that strategy saved his life. James Lovell said that was what he was doing on Apollo 13. The rules are simple: Don't panic. Think quickly. Don't give up. A similar philosophy was adopted by another high- flyer, though not one as idealistic. Frank W. Abagnale, Jr., was one of the most natural and successful con men in the United States in the late 1960s. After a six-year spree he was captured by the French police at the ripe old age of twenty-two. CATCH ME IF YOU CAN is his story and the story of Carl Hanratty, the FBI agent who tracked and captured Abagnale.
CATCH ME IF YOU CAN recalls the 1960 film THE GREAT IMPOSTER, which may well have helped inspire the real-life Abagnale. Christopher Walken plays Frank W. Abagnale, Sr., a con man who takes his son on some of his cons. For the senior Frank, crime does not pay and he ends up losing his house and his family. Son Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) takes to conning very naturally. When he is sent to a new high school, he quickly decides that it is more fun to be a teacher and passes himself off as the substitute French teacher. He manages for a week, honing his skill of appearing to know more than he actually does. Soon he is using those skills to impersonate an airline co-pilot and is flying all over the country. He funds his way by counterfeiting airline checks. And the film is a short education in the techniques of fraudsters. From there, one thing leads to another. And one thing that is led to is the FBI chasing Abagnale. In charge of the case is Agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), a low-profile but dedicated agent. From 1964 to 1970 Abagnale leads the FBI on a merry chase using his good looks and self-assurance to convince people of the most amazing lies.
Abagnale has an unerring skill for using people not quite sure themselves and convincing them that he really knows what he is talking about. We see that as a supposed doctor managing other doctors, his assumed medical skills are rarely called upon. He frequently gets the knowledge he needs watching medical shows on television. He emulates the behavior of television and even the phrasing of television doctors. People expect that behavior since, after all, that is the way the doctors on television behave. Frequently, however, he does seem to have knowledge beyond what is explainable by those means. The film implies that occasionally he has to study really hard, but his managing to collect all the information he needs about counterfeiting checks without ever making a fatal mistake along the way is still somewhat amazing.
Abagnale has only two lasting relationships. One is with his father whose life of crime has made him a failure contrasted the son who is making a success of it. Perhaps the difference is that the son is an incredibly fast learner and has an attention to detail that would probably have made him a success in a more honest enterprise. He has an unflappable cool, which he apparently bases on James Bond. We see him studying GOLDFINGER to get points from 007. The other relationship is with Agent Hanratty. Abagnale is leading a life of glamorous opulence while Hanratty sits in laundromats. Abagnale calls Hanratty each Christmas Eve initially to rub his nose in the agent's inability to catch him, but with a growing sense of friendship. Hanratty is something of a nerd with looking absurd in his tapered 1960s-style hat. He is clearly impressed with skill of his flamboyant quarry. Abagnale exploits his youthful appearance, perhaps the most honest thing about him. At twenty- eight, DiCaprio looks like he might be a teenager who might easily convince people he was in his late twenties. Christopher Walken's performance is subdued, but one of his better ones. He gives the air of a man tired out by the energy needed to be constantly leading a double and triple life. Martin Sheen turns in a half-comic performance including what looks like a fake overbite.
CATCH ME IF YOU CAN starts building its 1960s mood from the opening credits, done in animation in a style that has since gone out of fashion. One slightly artificial move along these lines, though not as extreme as we frequently see, is the extensive use of period media: TV, music on the soundtrack, even comic books, to place the setting at the right point in time. Spielberg further sets the memory feeling by using a hazy lens, perhaps smeared with Vaseline, to complete the image. Of course the score is by John Williams, continuing a partnership with Spielberg of twenty-one films over twenty-eight years.
Steven Spielberg's original plan for his 1941 was to do a small, modest film. It did not work out that way. CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, comes as close to an unspectacular film of modest scale as any dramatic work we have seen from Spielberg for a long time. I rate CATCH ME IF YOU CAN a 7 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
MAX (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: About one of the what has to be one of the world's touchiest subjects, writer/director Menno Meyjes gives us a portrait of how someone like Adolf Hitler might have gotten to be someone like Adolf Hitler. Meyjes walks a narrow line, trying to make Hitler human without making him sympathetic. There is little factual in this film and most is speculation, but it is more the story of Jewish art dealer Max Rothman who tries to help a young anti-social artist destined to be one of the most evil men of the 20th century. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), high +1 (-4 to +4)
Currently the "Star Wars" films are showing the fictional the origins of a man who represents pure evil in comic book terms. MAX tells its own fictional origin story, though the personification of evil is a person who was all too real. MAX is the story of the resolution of the conflict between artistic and political impulses in a young Adolf Hitler (Noah Taylor). This conflict will be resolved late in the film in ways that lead to a Hitler the world sadly has too much reason to remember.
MAX is a film mostly of speculation. Adolf Hitler's interest in art as a career was mostly prior to World War I. After the war, the period this film covers, he really was more involved in politics and less involved with art than shown. In MAX the suggestion is made that in the post-WWI period Hitler (strongly played by Noah Taylor) was still trying a career as an artist. This film is the story of his relationship with an aristocratic and affluent Jewish art dealer, Max Rothman (played by John Cusack). Max, who lost his right arm fighting for Germany in the war in the same area that Hitler did, has turned an abandoned railroad factory into a huge but dank art gallery filled with the likes of Max Ernst and George Grosz.
Max maintains a friendship with Hitler trying to help him develop his talents as a modernist artist, but still refusing to show Hitler's work until it improves and matures. He ignores Hitler's frequent insults, seeing a power and energy in Hitler that if harnessed would make the young man a great artist. And at this point Hitler prefers art to politics and would like to devote himself to art. But as an artist he is unable to impress anybody with the occasional exception his friend Max. As an inflammatory speaker and an agitator he has a natural and unique talent. It is a talent that certain members of the German army happily exploit. Hitler leads a double life making speeches, mostly anti-Jewish, and at the same time trying desperately to win the favor of a Jewish art dealer. Hitler tries to resolve the two lives deciding, "Politics is the new art." Max knows of Hitler's anti-Semitism but ignores it and feels that Hitler will outgrow it and one day recognize it, as he does, as an exercise in brash artistic tastelessness. He thinks it is a self-indulgence that Hitler will outgrow as he becomes a fine artist. Hitler, though for the most part a social outcast, sees himself as an artist and master builder who simply has not had the opportunity to show his ability.
MAX is written and directed by Menno Meyjes who worked on the scripts of such films as THE COLOR PURPLE, EMPIRE OF THE SUN, INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE, and THE SIEGE. Lajos Koltai films Hitler in the dark spaces that cast shadows on his face. In a marvelous way the shadows create the illusion of the familiar mustache that Hitler does not yet wear. Just by the lighting we are reminded of who Hitler will become. Dark in tone and look, his photography underlies and supports the film. Too frequently the focus of the film is not Hitler but the fictional Max. Max is the main character, but he is not the figure of greatest interest. Perhaps that is good as a portrait of what Munich was like between the wars, but one wants to see more of Hitler when he is offstage.
This is a unique film and it certainly has it moments of power down to the final bitter irony, one that may well be true even if it is not factual. But it frustratingly looks away from what the audience wants to see. I rate MAX a high +1 on the 0 to 10 scale and a 6 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
In regard to my comments about MORE HOLMES FOR THE HOLIDAYS, long-time reader Ian Gahan writes: "Did you ever read the book THE EXPLOITS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES written by Adrian Conan Doyle and John Dickson Carr? ... It consists of 12 tales that are based on the unsolved cases that Dr Watson refers to in the original tales. Adrian was the son of Arthur. To a non-Sherlock expert they seem to be well up to the standard of the originals. Some of the titles are 'The Highgate Miracle', 'The Abbas Ruby' and 'The Deptford Horror'."
Yes, indeed, I have read that. In fact, when I started reading Sherlock Holmes stories, those were the *only* non-Canonical stories available. Now I have an entire bookshelf of pastiches, and I by no means have all of them. THE EXPLOITS are still among the best, however. Among the newer ones, I find the novels add a lot of extra baggage to Holmes (romantic entanglements, political axe-grinding, etc.) while the short stories are often too light-weight and insubstantial.
I also mentioned FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON as what I was reading for my library book discussion group. One of the more interesting aspects of the discussion was talking to people who couldn't figure out why it was called science fiction. (I think it was the lack of rivets. :-) )
Not much new this week. I'm still working my way through Avram Davidson's THE OTHER NINETEENTH CENTURY. I'm also reading C. S. Lewis's autobiography, SURPRISED BY JOY. I suggested it for the book discussion group, but someone wanted me to make sure it was the sort of thing people would like. I'm not sure I can judge that, but I'm finding it quite suitable. (The discussion group has some constraints on its choices--the book must be available in numbers in the library system, not too new, and not too long. The last rules out most recent biographies. The rule about "not too new" is because those books are in too great a demand already.)
SURPRISED BY JOY is certainly more accessible than the other "religious" book I am reading, Tobias Churton's THE GNOSTICS. It's surprisingly difficult to find any sort of basic book about gnosticism, but apparently this was a companion piece to a British television series about it, and so isn't too academic. (What I'm really looking for is one of those "Gnosticism for Beginners" or "Introducing Gnosticism" graphic texts from Totem Books. (These should not be confused with the "for Dummies" series. The "Introducing Kafka" volume is illustrated by Robert Crumb.) [-ecl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Heck, if she can do it, I can too.
My current book is MIND OF THE RAVEN by Bernd Heinrich. Some of you may remember that some weeks back I wrote about a crow who (and I use the word "who" not "that"--a crow is not an object) bent a wire to forge a tool. Prior to that it was known that animals could use tools, but it was never believed that they had the intelligence to forge tools. And if any animal did, it was thought it would be a primate like a chimpanzee who would figure how to make a tool. Now we know that birds of the corvid family have more intelligence than we have been giving them credit for.
It has long been my belief that we sell animals short in our assessment of their intelligence by default. If you cannot prove that an animal is thinking, we assume it must not be. In fact, we take it a step further and say animals only look like they are reacting to pain. They really cannot feel. People who are otherwise fairly empirical in their reasoning will make statements like "dogs, of course, are incapable of thinking about death." Dogs in the wild certainly see death. They live much closer to the constant threat and frequent fact of death than we do, in fact. They recognize young dogs from old dogs. An older dog could well know that he is no longer in the role of a puppy and hence would recognize that he is aging. He might also observe that after a while aging dogs die. I strongly suspect that a wild dog knows that he will die some day. Probably a domesticated dog knows it also. I will not argue that I have evidence for it, but I suspect dogs know more about the canine or human condition than they get credit for. Certainly people who claim to know that certain higher animals are mechanistic and do not have feelings or think about death should be held accountable to back up those claims.
In any case, the Heinrich book is a disappointment because he writes less about the actual mind ravens and more just catalogs their behavior. He has long accounts of how he feeds young birds from animals he finds dead on the roads. He seems to devote most chapters to one stage of the bird's life, like birth, education, choosing a territory to live, etc. [-mrl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: The American experience stirred mankind from discovery to exploration, from the cautious quest for what they knew (or what they thought they knew) was out there, to an enthusiastic reaching to the unknown. -- Daniel J. Boorstin
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