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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
08/22/03 -- Vol. 21, No. 8
Table of Contents
Xerxes (comment by Mark R. Leeper):
We were watching a show on the Battle of Salamis, where Themistocles sends a message to Xerxes saying that he has decided to change sides and wants to help the Persians, so if they would just attack a certain point, they could win. Xerxes thinks this is great and does ahead--with disastrous results. Mark then commented, "Xerxes was what today we would call a 'rube.'" [-ecl]
Bitter Obscurity (comment by Mark R. Leeper):
One of the more interesting science articles I read recently is about the uses of adenosine monophosphate (AMP). It is a food additive that you might be seeing more of. What does it do? It enhances the taste of just about anything. The claim is that if you add it to oatmeal it tastes better than a hot fudge sundae. Add it to cheap coffee and the coffee tastes as good as the expensive blends. The claim of the Linguagen Corporation, who patented the stuff, is that it makes spinach tasty to children.
So is it like a spice? Nope. It adds no flavor to anything. It is essentially flavorless. So what does it do that makes food taste better? It adds nothing but it takes flavor away. It is a bitter blocker. It inhibits the ability of the human taste system to detect the flavor bitter. Most foods and especially medicines that taste bad to us do so because they taste bitter. That is actually a health problem. Some people will not take a medicine that tastes too bitter to them. They will forego having medication they need because it comes with a compound that tastes too bitter. Inhibit the ability to taste that bitterness and it seems that the medicine is not so bad.
But does it really work? In fact, you probably already know it works without realizing it. Breast milk contains calcium compounds. Calcium compounds are actually very bitter. They give breast milk a very bitter flavor. Milk has a bitter flavor? Yes, but adenosine monophosphate is also found in breast milk so nobody notices. As a baby you were able to drink breast milk because of AMP. Ever notice how many foods have corn sweeteners added? You see it in some products to mask the flavor of less expensive ingredients. Spaghetti sauce made from cheaper tomatoes frequently will use corn sweeteners to hide that fact. AMP is supposedly healthier and can make the cheaper foods taste a lot better.
AMP is probably not the first commercial use of inhibitors to create an aesthetic effect. Though they have never admitted it, Airwick Air Freshener is assumed to have worked by deadening one's olfactory nerves with some mild anesthetic. In other words it eliminated unpleasant odors, and eliminated most other odors, pleasant or not. The company obliquely denies that is what they were doing, saying they used "odor counteractants" but that seems to be an industry buzzword for "anesthetic." AMP does not knock out one's entire sense of taste, because that would be obvious. For a few seconds, the bitter flavor of a food goes undetected because the bitter sensors are disabled. (It would be interesting to take a bitter medicine with milk and see if that blocks the bitter flavor.)
AMP is not the only flavor inhibitor. In India grows the Gymnema Sylvester, a plant that does the same thing for the sweet taste sensation. A real hot fudge sundae would not have sweet flavor at all with the addition of an extract from this plant. And what a waste that would be.
There is some debate as to whether use of AMP is a good thing or a bad thing. Certainly some medicines will become much more palatable if the flavor can be eliminated. But there actually are good reasons to make some foods to taste bitter. If it would have a injurious effect it is for the best that some foods taste unpleasant. Diesel oil not only tastes bad; it actually is bad for you. Bitter flavor is frequently a flag of food that goes bad. It acts as a warning alarm. AMP will turn off that warning alarm. Also there are those who dislike the idea of a cheap and underhanded way to make food taste really good. It is basically a deception. Frankly, I would risk it. I would be willing to eat only things that taste really good even if it was a fraud and a sham. I can imagine a future in which we have lost all our traditional values that making good tasting food is an art. I am not too frightened by the idea of a world where everybody eats food that tastes good. What do you think? If there was a shortcut so that all food tasted good, should we take it? Is it the unpleasant food that makes the pleasant food good? I guess that is a variation on a very old question. [-mrl]
OPEN RANGE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Kevin Costner has returned to the western with a film that has a lot of visual style but is damaged by a cliched and overly familiar storyline. At times the storytelling is sluggish with some scenes that just linger on and wear out their welcome. The film has a long build to the gunfight every viewer knows is coming, but it is worth waiting for. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), high +1 (-4 to +4)
We see fewer and fewer westerns these days, but as a genre the western refuses to die. It is too popular a genre to go way forever. And this season the western proves itself very much alive with the release of OPEN RANGE. It is not a classic western, as some are claiming, but it is worth seeing.
One of the standard plots of the Western is of the little so-called wars that took place over the use of range land. It was sheep men against cattlemen and free-grazers against homesteading ranchers. Traditionally in films the homesteaders are portrayed positively and the free-grazers associated with lawless elements. They are drifters and rustlers. Not so in OPEN RANGE. While this film has many cliches, that is not one of them. It is 1882 and times are changing. Ranchers with title to land are replacing the drifting free-grazers. The homesteaders don't want to have strangers grazing their cattle on their land. OPEN RANGE makes its heroes the free-grazers who are accustomed to grazing their cattle where they want and recognizing no claims of ownership of range lands. The villain wants to keep the free-grazers away from his town and will run off or kill any free-grazers who come around.
But cowmen with drifting herds are still common and "Boss" Spearman (played by Robert Duvall) is one of them. Boss's main hand is Charley Waite (Kevin Costner who also produced and directed the film), who has worked for Boss for ten years. Then he has the big friendly Mose (Abraham Benrubi) and the kid, Button (Diego Luna).
We see little tensions among the men. Button cheats at cards, is caught, and apologizes. Charley is not quick to forgive him. Then Mose goes into the local town and just doesn't come back. Boss and Charley go looking for him and find the town ruled by the bully Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon). Baxter owns the town Marshall (James Russo) and between him and a gang of enforcers, Baxter has things pretty much his own way. He does not want free-grazers around his town and perhaps wants to grab the Spearman herd. Baxter's men have picked a fight and badly beaten Mose and had the Marshall take him to jail. Boss and Charley spring Mose and take him to the local doctor, but the fighting continues until Boss and Charley are up against Baxter and his men. The town is polarized. Some were sick of Baxter and were waiting for the spark to move against him. Some still side with Baxter. The viewer knows by experience with western films that this whole situation can end only one way, with a gunfight.
This script by Craig Storper, based on the novel THE OPEN RANGE MEN by Lauran Paine, develops an affectionate relationship between the principled Boss Spearman and his chief hand. They kid each other and work well together in a deep respect. Charley has a dark past, but Boss knows to leave it alone. Few films want to portray close male relationships for fear the relationship will be misinterpreted as sexual. These men are good friends who know each other well.
The plot of OPEN RANGE is one that is similar to many western films of the 1940s and 1950s. You have the good guys just trying to eke out a living and the bad guys bullying them and provoking a fight. Many of the touches seem a little manipulative, like having Baxter's boys kill Mose's dog. Nobody wants to see a dog die. This is a dark film. It is dark visually and dark in tone. In moments of the character's anger we hear thunder in the background as storms are brewing. The tension in the characters is matched by the tension in the weather as we see arks of lightning in the sky. Like the buildup to the storm, this film has a long buildup to a violent, if somewhat disorganized, gunfight.
James Muro's camerawork keeps much of the film shrouded under overcast skies. We see wide vistas under heavy, ominous clouds. This keeps the color pallet limited and some scenes deliberately under-lit. Frequently Muro and Costner have the screen fade to black after a scene and allow a few seconds of pause, a style we have not seen for a while. Some of the rain imagery seems a direct homage to UNFORGIVEN, a film that has many of the same themes. But if OPEN RANGE has to be imitative, UNFORGIVEN is a good film to imitate. Still OPEN RANGE gives us more an homage to the old westerns than an original new story. I rate it a 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Simon Worrall's THE POET AND THE MURDERER starts in Amherst, Massachusetts (where I went to school at the University of Massachusetts). Daniel Lombardo, as curator of the Jones Library (the Amherst public library), buys a previously undiscovered Emily Dickinson poem at an auction at Sotheby's. Then he starts to have doubts as to its authenticity, and the story it flashes back to Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, in a strange twist that ends up incriminating a man who had forged Mormon Church documents and eventually murdered two people to cover up his crimes.
These aren't "spoilers"--this is all true.
The story is, of course, fascinating. (If it doesn't seem fascinating to you already, well, you could probably skip this book.) My quibbles are that I'm not sure I completely trust Worrall's research and statements. For example, Worrall describes where Lombardo lived as "West Hampton." There's a Westhampton in the Amherst area, but no "West Hampton." And it's not interstate 95 that one takes to Amherst, but interstate 91. Also, his statements about the Mormon Church seem to indicate an anti-Mormon bias that might have affected his approach. So when he comes down very negatively on Sotheby's, I have to wonder if there may not be another side to the story. Still, with that caveat, I would recommend this book to all those who like books about books.
AFTER THE FACT: THE ART OF HISTORICAL DETECTION (Vol. 1) is also about the sort of historical detection that Worrall was doing (and, for that matter, the sort that Mark Hofmann had done to do his forgeries). This volume has a prologue about selecting evidence, using as its topic the death of an American diplomat soon after the American Revolution. The seven sections that follow (in the third edition) include a study of indentured servitude and slavery in early Virginia, Jackson's frontier versus Turner's, the "psychohistory" of John Brown, and the difficulties in getting an accurate view of slavery through oral histories. ("Psychohistory" here refers to determining Brown's psychological state, not the predictive science of Isaac Asimov's works.) Of interest to historians (professional and amateur), I suspect this book is a bit too dry for the general public. (And priced as a textbook, it's also a bit expensive. I found it at the local thrift shop.)
And tying in with the idea of historical evidence, I recently watched the film TWELVE ANGRY MEN. If you are unfamiliar with the film, you should see it, so I will not describe it too much. The setting is a jury room for a trial where the verdict seems obvious at first but .... What is interesting is that every time I watch this now, it occurs to me that the same people who like this film also have definite opinions of the O. J. Simpson trial which are almost diametrically opposed to their views here. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: Tolerance is, of course, an extremely intolerant idea, because it means "I am the boss: I will allow you some, though not all, of the rights I enjoy as long as you behave yourself according to standards that I shall determine. --Bernard Lewis
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