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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
09/12/03 -- Vol. 22, No. 11
Table of Contents
Signs (comment by Evelyn C. Leeper):
What is the purpose of a sign on a truck that says "keep back 50 feet" if you have to be within ten feet to read it? [-ecl]
What Time Is It? (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
We have been talking about my own personal bugaboo that I want really accurate readings of the time. If you want to know why, hey, go back and read the two previous issues.
I am pleased to say that at last there are ways to get a good quote of the time from a reliable source. That source is the cesium atom, atomic weight 133. The National Institute of Standards and Technology has a device called the "Cesium Fountain Clock" in Boulder, Colorado. It is the United States's official standard for time.
Now the standard for time is the cesium atoms in this clock. Let's get through the expository lump. The clock is really called a fountain clock because it shoots up cesium atoms and then lets them fall back by gravity. Cesium gas is put into the clock's vacuum chamber. The force of light from six lasers forms the cesium into a sphere. By placing light pressure on the sphere they cause the temperature to drop to almost absolute zero, literally freezing it with laser light. Using compression for cooling works by the same principle a refrigerator does. Lasers gently pop the ball of low-temperature cesium upwards like a volleyball through a microwave-filled cylinder and then gravity pulls it back down when the lasers are turned off. The atomic state of the atoms changes as they warm up and they emit a very specific frequency of light. Well, different frequencies of microwaves generate different frequencies of light, but the greatest amount of light from fluorescence is at the natural resonance frequency of the cesium atom, which is 9,192,631,770 hertz. In this light 9,192,631,770 cycles equal one second. Cesium is special because you can reliably get it to fluoresce at a specific frequency. If you go really fast and count off 9,192,631,770 of those vibrations you will have counted off one second. How they manage to count I don't really know. Heck, I don't even know how they manage to put that atom in a vacuum or make sure they form a ball, but it works. I suppose if the cesium atom is running slow they send in a little quantum mechanic to readjust it.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology takes these readings, translates them into clock time readings, and makes them available to the public. You can get a reading from the clock at web site http://nist.time.gov/ or http://tycho.usno.navy.mil/cgi-bin/timer.pl. Of course by the time you get that screen there has been some Internet propagation delay. There doesn't seem to be much, but there must be some. It is probably too little to notice. For years I have set my watch by my PC and that seems to be very accurate.
If you want more accuracy that same organization also broadcasts a radio signal from Colorado. You can buy a clock that sets itself at night by finding that radio signal. Two years ago these clocks cost under $100, though not a lot under $100. But, things don't stay expensive for long, particularly because the radio frequency is free for anyone to use. Now you may be able to find one for under $10. I did. Until we lick the propagation problem, this is probably as good as I will get.
These "atomic" clocks only find the signal at night and probably only once per night. Other than seeing when the clock first gets the signal and suddenly becomes very accurate, the user is not troubled with the details of when the clock synchronizes. It seems that it is frequently enough for all practical purposes and in between the clock is accurate enough to keep reasonably precise time between settings. Finally I have a way to tell the time that is dependable. [-mrl]
CABIN FEVER (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
[This review ran in the 10/25/02 issue after its screening during the Toronto International Film Festival, but since the film is opening in theaters this week, we are re-running it.]
CAPSULE: A flesh-eating virus wrecks a cabin party of five college student celebrating their graduation. There are no human villains in this one, no villains big enough to see with a naked eye, but this is still a very disturbing little horror film and one that is not too far from the possible. This is a very bloody and violent film, but it is the most original horror film we have seen in a while. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), high +1 (-4 to +4)
This is an effective horror film that derives its real scariness not from inventing supernatural foes that are merely stories, but from very real fears of things that already are known to exist. With some variation the type of fearful thing that is happening in this film has happened in other countries. This is a horror film with a credibility that is lacking in most of what Stephen King writes. It is a thriller that works for the same reasons that THE CHINA SYNDROME works.
Five college friends have just graduated and are ready to go out into the real world. For their last bash of their college years they rent a cabin deep in the woods. After a little DELIVERANCE style scariness as misdirection to the viewer as to where the story is going, the group gets to their cabin. There in the woods they come across a man who without wounds is bleeding from all over his body. The group is terrified and wants nothing to do with the man, but their contact is already too much. It seems some sort of contagious flesh-eating microorganism has infected the man. What follows is a horror story that superficially looks like a lot of "horror in the woods" sort of films like THE EVIL DEAD. This one is a bit different, however, because the scare is not coming from spirits or aliens or monsters or vampires but from things that do exist and are a genuine a threat. This film does not so much recount a horror story as a very possible scenario.
Co-author and director Eli Roth does some very intelligent things with his first feature film that previous films on the subject of disease outbreak have missed. He never identifies the disease that is attacking people. Roth seems to have chosen some flesh-eating bacteria as his monster, but it could easily have been the Ebola or Marburg viruses without a lot of difference in the story. By not defining the disease, he avoids technical details. We see a lot of possible clinical effects of such a disease and it is not a pretty sight. The film deals with issues like how to treat the infected and the emotional impact and dilemmas of quarantine and being left to die. While CABIN FEVER may at first brush seem aimed at horror and thrill viewers, word of mouth could well spread interest to a more general audience interested in the very real issues the film raises of public health, disease control, and quarantine. One thing that CABIN FEVER does not have is a human villain. Roth apparently decided that the disease was a scary enough menace without adding the menace of evil people. Roth thus intelligently sidesteps the dramatic errors of films like THE SATAN BUG, THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, and OUTBREAK.
At the Toronto International Film Festival, Lion's Gate bought the film for release in the summer of 2003. It well deserves to be seen as an effective horror film that only gets more disturbing the more you know about the subject. I rate CABIN FEVER a 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
THE TERRIBLE HOURS by Peter Maas (book review by Mark R. Leeper):
Want to read a story, a true story, of people putting their lives on the line for a military objective? Do you want a story about science and about engineering put to a practical use? Do you want to read about an individualist who has to defend his ideas from a hide-bound military bureaucracy that considers him a crackpot? Well, skip THE TERRIBLE HOURS and go directly to THE DAM BUSTERS by Paul Brickhill. If you have already read DAM BUSTERS you can find many of the same virtues in THE TERRIBLE HOURS by Peter Maas, a non-fiction writer who usually delves into true crime. THE TERRIBLE HOURS is about Navy officer Charles "Swede" Momsen who against resistance from his commanders revolutionized the science of diving and especially deep sea escape and rescue procedures. The book is really mostly about Momsen's biggest challenge. On May 23, 1939, the US submarine Squalus, cruising off course, had a problem with a valve, flooded, and sank in 243 feet of water in the cold waters off New Hampshire. Squalus had no heat and no communication, and the thirty-three men who had survived the flooding had only hours to live unless the Navy could somehow deduce what happened, locate the helpless submarine, and find a way to get thirty-three men to the surface. The men on the bottom of the sea knew only too well that no such rescue had ever been attempted. Maas chronicles Momsen's career, the events leading to the sinking of the Squalus, and then more vividly the sinking and the frustrating rescue attempts. He explains the science behind Momsen's inventions to aid in rescue. The recovery of the Squalus and its surviving crew is considered the greatest submarine rescue in naval history. Maas expanded this book from an article he wrote for the "Saturday Evening Post." The organization of the book is reminiscent of the sort of documentary article one finds in "The New Yorker," knitting together many threads leading to the main body of the story. It is intriguing reading, but is not as satisfying as the Brickhill book mentioned above. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Apostolos Doxiadis's UNCLE PETROS & GOLDBACH'S CONJECTURE is a novel that started out with some intriguing characters, and I had high hopes for it. Unfortunately, it turned into a thinly veiled book describing Goldbach's Conjecture, the history of efforts to solve it, and observations about mathematics in general and number theory in particular. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but I would have preferred a straight non-fiction book for this purpose. When I pick up a novel, I had a different set of expectations than when I pick up a non-fiction book, and I had to re-adjust those when I realized what was going on. (In science fiction jargon, I guess you could say that the book was one massive infodump.)
Ann Patchett's BEL CANTO was chosen for our library book discussion group. It's not something I would normally read, and I can't really recommend it either. The basic plot is that a group of terrorists (or freedom fighters, depending on your perspective) storm a house in an unnamed South American country. (Unnamed, but it is clearly Peru.) They hope to take the President of the country hostage, but he isn't there, and they end up with dozens of hostages--far more than they expected or can deal with. The situation reminded me very much of Luis Bunuel's EXTERMINATING ANGEL, with the same sort of surreal atmosphere settling over the house, but it lacked the spark Bunuel had.
Lord Peter Wimsey is a very popular amateur detective, but reading Dorothy Sayers's THE UNPLEASANTNESS AT THE BELLONA CLUB still didn't make me put him up with Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple. (Sherlock Holmes is clearly above them all, of course.) It could be that the trendy, social set that Wimsey travels in just doesn't fascinate me as it does some others. I'm not saying the book was bad, but I would place Wimsey in the second rank of English sleuths. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. --Ralph Waldo Emerson
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