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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
01/10/03 -- Vol. 21, No. 28
Table of Contents
Science Fiction Reading Group (CORRECTION):
The Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library science fiction reading group will have its first meeting Tuesday, January 21, at 7 PM, not on January 14 as previously mentioned. The Library phone number is 732-721-5600 (extension 5024 is the Reference Desk, who can probably verify this if you want to double-check).
Last week I discussed the question "What would Jesus drive?" We got an answer from long-time member Pete Brady. Jesus was a carpenter. He drove nails.
Techno-dweeb Stuff (Mild):
In the note send out earlier this week I pointed out that I was getting Philip Pullman's HIS DARK MATERIALS off the PC. (Incidentally, there is still time to get the first chapter at http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/arts/hisdarkmaterials. It is going to be replaced by the second chapter early tomorrow [Saturday], I think.) This is in chunks of almost two and a half hours. I am transferring them to audio-tape and listening to them later. Stephen Massie asks:
"You mention that you are picking it up from the BBC and putting it on audio tape. Is this something you can do with Internet audio? My RealPlayer just lets me hear the streaming audio and not make an audio file. Do you mean you simply attach your tape recorder to your soundcard?"
I don't create a file on my PC. It is possible, but I haven't set up the software it would require. On the PC I get it with RealONE. I run a cable from my sound card to my VCR. It is an audio mini-plug at one end and hi-fi plugs at the other end and is readily available from Radio Shack. I patch in a video signal from another VCR because I get distortions on the soundtrack if there is no picture. This allows me to put it on a videocassette. Then at my leisure I transfer it to 90-minute audio-cassettes and listen to it in the car while driving or with a Walkman while working (depending on if Evelyn is interested). [-mrl]
Magazines with Snob Appeal and Slob Appeal:
Tom Lehrer talked about the man who went to medical school where he specialized in diseases of the rich. That certainly seems to be the area of greatest interest to a large number of physicians. And even more lawyers seem to specialize in the legal problems of the rich. Magazine publishers seem to be getting the same idea of positioning themselves for an upscale clientele.
We subscribe to "The New Yorker" magazine. This is a magazine that over a proud history built up a readership of the intelligentsia. They did this publishing some very good writing. They realized at some point that their readership, who was the well-educated and well-read, were highly correlated with the well-off. The people who read their magazine seemed to be loaded. Few of their readers were a part of the beer and Monday Night Football crowd. The smell of money attracted advertisers who dealt in high-profit, high-style items like fashions, stylish liquor, SUVs, etc. "The New Yorker" came to serve the function of both a literary magazine and of "Vanity Fair," the latter being the classic magazine celebrating the victory of style over substance.
"The New Yorker," it seems to me, has made the unfortunate observation that it has two kinds of content fighting for space: literary content and style content. The style content may not be winning over the literary content, but it is making surprising gains in its battle for the hearts and minds of the editors. Formerly the home of great writers, the magazine has less and less writing these days. I suspect there are fewer really good writers to choose from, but fortuitously (?) the demand for good writing appears also to be diminishing. There seem to be fewer articles than in years past and they seem, subjectively, to be of less interest. The size of the table of contents has begun to shrink. Now there are more pages attempting to sell the stylish to the superficial. There has been a notable shift to the visual.
More and more magazines are trying to get in on the stylish, upscale market. I was sent sample issues of two such magazines. One is--get this--"Second Home Living." This is the magazine for people who can afford to have two houses. Talk about your conspicuous consumption. The magazine discusses the important issues like "Stocking a pantry for a home you don't live in all the time takes some thought." I am sure it must. This is a magazine for people who think that appreciation of the finer things in life and consumption of the most stylish and expensive is actually an accomplishment.
Even our local hospital is getting into the act. Monmouth Medical Center is now publishing a magazine called "Monmouth Health & Life." It is a guide to the exquisite aspects of living in Monmouth County, New Jersey. It runs ads for posh jewelers, designer clothing, furs, upscale restaurants, and Monmouth Medical Center. There are articles on local shops. The Monmouth Gourmet column recommends a local restaurant called "What's Your Beef?" that serves up cholesterol-heavy cuisine that Monmouth Medical can then clean from your arteries. About a half of the articles are on local shops and restaurants. About a third are about health and/or the Monmouth Medical Center. There are plenty of photos of food, women in diamond jewelry, and doctors in hospital scrubs and shower caps. The great value of this magazine is to see a doctor's view of the world.
But more and more of these magazines seem to be popping up and not one is called anything remotely like "Trailer Park Living." Uh, let me amend that. On a recent trip I did pick up an old copy of a newspaper aimed at life's little losers. It is called "The Bingo Bugle." There is almost no breaking news. It is mostly a set of columns. The "Dear Aunt Bingo" column answers your questions on the etiquette of the caller leaving on the mike when she talks to passersby. The Dream Lady interprets your dream. (Gamblers tend to be really superstitious.) There is an editorial on the bingo scene, a horoscope. The horoscope is predicting how people will fare in the upcoming month. Looks like everybody is going to have a pretty good month in September 2001. You can bet on it.
I think I am going to stick to "The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction." [-mrl]
ABOUT SCHMIDT (film review by MArk R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: This is an adult film in the best meaning of the term. It is the kind of motion picture where the viewer repeatedly sees people he knows. Jack Nicholson's repressed rage and his pitiable side have never been shown to better advantage. A great character study from Alexander Payne, the director of CITIZEN RUTH and ELECTION. Rating: 8 (0 to 10), low +3 (-4 to +4)
ABOUT SCHMIDT is a film with very little going on. It would take about five sentences to describe the plot. And it stars Jack Nicholson, an actor who seems to appeal to others more than he does to me. But it is a film that works because of the performance. This is an actor's film.
It is a statistical fact that many people die just shortly after they retire. Warren Schmidt (played by Jack Nicholson), an actuary who himself has just recently retired, can actually calculate roughly how long it will be before he will die. Actually, the viewer realizes his estimate is off since though his body continues to function, he is mostly dead already and probably has been for years. He was a dull man in a dull job in a dull industry, insurance, in a dull location, Omaha. Now that he no longer has that work he sits in an easy chair and dozes watching infomercials and soap operas. Warren has turned his tiny world into a waiting room where he relaxes and marginally amuses himself waiting to die. He has given himself over to bouts of self-pity and covert rage. His only companions are his television and his wife Helen (June Squibb) whom he has seen every day but now sees as an old woman he barely recognizes.
There is a distinct shortage of people in Warren's life. There is his wife and his daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis), professionally a functionary at a computer firm. Jeannie is soon to marry Randall Hertzel (Dermot Mulroney), a man Schmidt is sure is a useless ne'er-do-well. Each of these people Warren has kept at arm's length for so long he cannot embrace them when he needs them. In this situation, Warren finds a bargain on television. For $22/month he can rent another person in his life. It turns out to be Ndugu, a six-year old Tanzanian boy fostered by a religious charity. And much of the story takes the form of letters to Ndugu. Then Warren loses someone close out of his life and he takes to the road in his thirty-five-foot retirement Winnebago, mostly because there is not much else that he has to do. He recounts in weirdly inappropriate letters to Ndugu his adventures, incidents that are frustratingly non-transforming. Eventually we will meet Randall's family and it will be like something out of MEET THE PARENTS, but considerably more real. Warren has lost the ability to relate.
Through it all we get to know Warren. He never had to connect with people on a personal level and never admitted to himself he was lonely while he could keep busy. After years of being apparently successful in business he realizes his managers gave him comfort and job security but did not value him. He protected himself in a shell. Now that he has nothing left but the relationships with others, he cannot relate to some admittedly strange members of this new family.
"Real" is the keyword for much of ABOUT SCHMIDT. There is much more authenticity in this film than in any movie I have seen in a long time. The film does not have an amazing plot, but Warren Schmidt is too real for the viewer to not to start seeing some of people they know in him, and perhaps a little of themselves.
ABOUT SCHMIDT is a comedy, but a painful one. There are moment and characters just a little too familiar for comfort. I rate it an 8 on the 0 to 10 scale and a low +3 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
THE PIANIST (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: A violent and harrowing true account of Warsaw under the heel of the Nazis. We see the painful years through the eyes of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a brilliant Jewish pianist who survived the war as much though luck as through his own ability. Roman Polanski's film, his best, draws on his own experience to create one of the most realistic accounts of Warsaw's two uprisings. Rating: 9 (0 to 10), +3 (-4 to +4)
The Holocaust, once a subject that feature films avoided, now has been represented many times in film with filmmakers using different styles. Of course, most films about survivors distort history even if the story is true since for the vast majority of people caught up in the Holocaust the end of the story was murder. Killing the main characters makes for unpopular drama, though some films, like television's ANNE FRANK, risk telling the story to the main characters' deaths. Usually the events are seen through the eyes of one of the rare survivors of those years. Then the story is frequently told almost as a triumph. Stealth and cleverness keep the main character alive. In EUROPA, EUROPA; ESCAPE FROM SOBIBOR; and SCHINDLER'S LIST the main characters find ways to circumvent the Nazis. SEVEN BEAUTIES and LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL distort the history to cushion the viewer from the shocks that a more accurate version would have. THE PIANIST is more accurate and though it is not as disturbing as THE GREY ZONE, it is more disturbing than SCHINDLER'S LIST because of the total lack of hope. THE PIANIST is a true story about Wladyslaw Szpilman, a survivor but one who did not win through courage, cleverness, or stealth. Each of those played a small part but for the most part he survived though luck. He was one of the statistical few who survived time and time again by luck and chance. Szpilman survives close escapes, but there is no feeling of triumph and no excitement from them. The tone is more like it would be if Szpilman barely survived a disease that took so many other lives.
Szpilman bore witness to the atrocities in his memoirs, which were published after the war, suppressed by the Soviets, and finally becoming available in the 1990s. He tells how his family is forced into the Warsaw Ghetto. He does what he must to survive. He escapes, lives as a slave laborer for a while, and eventually goes into hiding. He sees the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and later the general Warsaw Uprising. Finally, looking through little holes from his many hiding places, he sees the defeat of the Germans. It is as much Warsaw's story as Szpilman's.
As the film opens Szpilman (played by Adrien Brody) plays piano for Warsaw Radio. The music is almost like an organ of his body that he cannot abandon, even as the station is bombed by the advancing Germans. Szpilman's father (Frank Finley) tries to be optimistic in the face of the mounting tragedy and horror, much as Guido does in LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL. Almost as if it is Polanski's response to LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL, the elder Szpilman finds how powerless he is to protect his family and even himself. His family has all they own stolen from them and are forced to live in a small room in the ghetto. To earn a little money Szpilman plays piano in a restaurant. Meanwhile in the ghetto disease and starvation have reduced the people to animals struggling over the little scraps of remaining food they are allowed. All of this was buffering and preparing the Jews to be transported to the camps to be slaughtered. Chance saves Szpilman and he is able to get unexpected help from friends inside the ghetto and later friends outside where he goes into hiding.
As films of the Holocaust go, this adaptation by Ronald Harwood of Szpilman's book, is one of the more grim and violent. That is no accident. Roman Polanski, a Polish Jew, was a boy in Krakow, Poland when the Holocaust came. He lost his mother to the Nazis and who went into hiding not too differently from the way Szpilman does. Polanski was apparently intent on recreating for the world the horrors he saw and experienced at that time. He shot the film mostly in Warsaw where the events actually occurred.
There are images of this film that will stay with the viewer for a long time. That may not be a good or welcome thing. THE PIANIST is a powerful and bitter account of the Holocaust, this is certainly one of the best films of the year. I rate it a 9 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +3 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
WITTGENSTEIN'S POKER by David Edmonds and John Eidinow (book review by Evelyn C. Leeper):
David Edmonds and John Eidinow's WITTGENSTEIN'S POKER spends much more time on the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Karl Popper, and other twentieth century philosophers than it does on the actual meeting of Wittgenstein and Popper in which Wittgenstein may or may not have threatened Popper with a fireplace poker. In some ways, trying to resolve what happens is representative of their philosophical differences.
(For those who don't know, Wittgenstein and Popper met once, in a meeting of a philosophical discussion group. The discussion turned into an argument and Wittgenstein picked up a fireplace poker and either waved it around for emphasis or threatened Popper with it, depending on whom you ask.)
When Wittgenstein and Popper were both back in Austria, there was created "the Vienna Circle" of philosophers. It claimed that only two kinds of statements were meaningful. The first were those "inherently" true, either by definition (e.g., "All triangles have three sides"), or as syllogisms (e.g., "All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; Therefore Socrates is mortal.") The second are those which are empirical and verifiable (e.g., "It is raining outside now.") All other statements were meaningless.
The first major problem pointed out to this was Hempel's Paradox. That is, consider the statement "all ravens are black." To verify this one would presumably go out and look at ravens. If the raven was black, this would support that statement. But the statement is identical to "all non-black objects are not ravens," so presumably anything supporting *that* would also support "all ravens are black." So looking at a red object and discovering that it was a rose rather than a raven should help verify "all ravens are black." (And it would also presumably support "all ravens are white" as well!)
There was also the observation that observing a million ravens which were black really didn't tell you anything about the million-and-first. (This is the Problem of Induction.)
But Popper really gave the theory the coup-de-grace when he pointed out that the claim of the Vienna Circle was neither inherently true, nor empirical and verifiable. Hence it was meaningless, so why were they wasting their time on it?!
(He tried substituting the notion of "falsifiability," but it's not clear that got philosophers much further.)
Anyway, the argument that Wittgenstein and Popper got into was whether there were any philosophical problems at all (Popper's claim), or whether they all boiled down to puzzles and definitons (Wittgenstein's position).
Wittgenstein is certainly the better known of the two these days, although Popper may have done work with more relevance. I would love to read his work THE OPEN SOCIETY AND ITS ENEMIES, but it's a bit pricey (and apparently only volume 1 of the two volumes is even in print--ironically, my library system has only volume 2!). One of his main points in that seems to be that it isn't as important to create a political system in which the people can choose the government so much as one in which people can *remove* the government without a civil war. (Example: Hitler was chosen by democratic vote, but there was no provision for removing him.)
One final note: The authors observe that Wittgenstein was a major philosopher of the twentieth century--perhaps *the* major philosopher--and would have been the jewel in the crown of any university, yet during his lifetime published only three works (one of which was a grammar for German schoolchildren). He would never have survived in today's "publish-or-perish" atmosphere.
All this is obviously just a sampling of the book, which I obviously recommend to anyone interested in modern philosophy. [-ecl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Well, I finally tallied up my reading (and watching) in 2002. I managed to read 256 books, about a third of which were science fiction or fantasy. (And a third of those were alternate history, mostly reading for the Sidewise Award.) Another third were other fiction, and a third non-fiction. Lest anyone think I spent *all* my time "with my nose in a book," I also saw 760 movies (92 in theaters, the rest on tape/DVD).
But I started this year with more reading. Above is my review of WITTGENSTEIN'S POKER. I also read Sophie Masson's HAND OF GLORY, and alternate history set in Australia. There aren't many of these (for starters, known history there goes back a lot shorter time than in Europe, for example), but this didn't seem to do much with the "alternate" aspect.
Mark Dunn's ELLA MINNOW PEA is subtitled "a progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable." It is set on the island nation of Nollop, whose founder wrote the famous panagram "A quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog," which is inscribed on a plinth in the center of the capital city. One day, the letter 'Z' falls off and the council decides this is a sign that means that henceforth no one should use that letter in either speech nor writing. A few weeks, later 'Q' also falls, and so on. The book is a combination of lipogrammatic writing (i.e., writing that avoids one or more letters), a cautionary tale against losing one rights a bit at a time, and also a criticism of theocracies which claim to know the will of God. However, the last two are a bit obvious, and the first starts out clever, but becomes a bit of a cheat. (At some point, the council decides that people can write words that had the forbidden letters by spelling them differently--e.g., when they can no longer use 'U', they can write "yewniverse".) There's also a secret underground trying to construct a sentence shorter than "A quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" that uses all the letters of the alphabet, because if they can, that will prove that Nollop was not divine, and the falling of the tiles shouldn't be taken as divine signs. I will leave the details of the attempt for the reader to discover. (This is in a broad sense fantasy, by the way, and I discovered it through a review in the NEW YORK REVIEW OF SCIENCE FICTION.) [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself. -- Thomas Paine
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