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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
11/14/03 -- Vol. 22, No. 20
Table of Contents
Accounting for Taste (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I don't think I would like to be a surgeon. One of the things that does not get mentioned about the practice of surgery that I wonder about is the smell of the whole process. Cutting open bodies to repair them from the inside must be an incredibly malodorous occupation. Usually the occupations that require you be around things that smell bad are at the bottom end of the economic ladder. They are vocations like cleaning bathrooms, caring for people who cannot care for themselves, and picking up garbage. But it seems to me that surgeons must also work in rather unpleasant and rank conditions.
I judge that the insides of people must smell bad because just about anything that has been inside and comes out smells bad. I do remember the line from early in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. Han Solo smells the inside of a creature and remarks that he had thought they smelled bad on the outside, but apparently they smell worse inside. I suspect there may be an evolutionary reason for this. Most things that smell really bad to us really are bad for us. Dead bodies are an example. It really is not a good idea to be around dead bodies and it is an even worse idea to eat them. For one reason, parasitic organisms that are well adapted to attacking other humans, even dead ones, are well adapted to attacking us as well. It is best to keep away from dead humans. The primitive mind seems to come up with a lot of its own reasons for attitudes that the more knowledgeable mind might agree with. Incest was a taboo among some long before the mechanisms that make incest a bad idea were known. Not for Pharaohs and Caesars, perhaps, but for the common people there was usually some urge to keep the genes of offspring diverse.
There seems to be some sort of evolutionary basis for our aesthetics. Things that smell good to us or taste good to us are well correlated to what is healthy for us. Or perhaps they are not so much healthy to us now, but they were when we were evolving. Sugar is a high-energy food that at one time was useful for survival. Now that large quantities of sugar are available and we live longer and we need our teeth longer, eating sugar is not the good sense survival strategy it once was. But evolution has left us with a sweet tooth from the days when eating the few sweet things when we found them was a good idea. High energy was important for survival. We discussed recently the taste of milk, which has calcium compounds that should taste very bitter. Yet milk was good for us so somehow we evolved to like the taste of milk. The mechanism that was used was that the presence of some other chemical in the milk turned off our ability to taste bitterness at all. Only now are we discovering what that chemical is. I suppose if a reptile has tastes at all analogous to ours milk would taste bitter and unpleasant to the reptile. The reptile did not evolve with the flavor of milk being at all useful so instead it would be repellent. (So much for the snake who likes milk in the Sherlock Holmes story "The Speckled Band." And in fact, snakes do not like milk. But that story has more than enough other problems nobody seems to have noticed. I commented on this in a previous editorial, available at http://fanac.org/fanzines/MT_Void/MT_Void-1821.html.)
I have often wondered why cows have a taste for bitter grass. Does the grass taste bitter to a cow, but it is a bitter taste that the cow likes? Or does the grass not taste bitter at all? Has the cow evolved with something like our bitter-blocker that makes the grass actually taste sweet to the cow. We are now getting to some testable situations. Perhaps we cannot test them at the moment, but it seems like science is moving in a direction in which we might. Can we tell from electronic impulses in the cow's nervous system if grass stimulates the bitter sensors in the tongue? What sort of activity is going on in the bitter sensors in the brain of the cow? We could ask the same question about us and drinking milk. Does tasting milk strobe the bitter sensors in our tongue? Does it strobe the bitter sensors in our brain?
My suspicion, for what it is worth, is that the cow does not have only a taste for different flavors than we do, the cow actually tastes things very differently. The way the grass tastes to the cow may well be a flavor we would enjoy. But grass just does not taste that way to us. Cows and humans have a common ancestor and that creature tasted things the way it did. But once we both split off from each other the tree cows' taste modified in one direction and ours in another. Probably we cannot eat grass and get the same flavor from it that the cow does. I probably cannot get the same flavor that you can. So on a deeper level there really may be accounting for taste, but we just do not have sufficient data.
Perhaps in time surgeons would evolve to like the smell of people on the inside. [-mrl]
Letter of Comment on SHADOWS OVER BAKER STREET (by David Shallcross):
David Shallcross writes in response to a review of Evelyn's:
Just a comment on your review of SHADOWS OVER BAKER STREET, in particular your words on "A Case of Insomnia".
(1) A lunar eclipse takes place at a particular time, as measured by, say, Greenwich Mean Time, independent of the position of any observer, depending only on when the face of the moon is in the earth's shadow. England and Egypt are not so far apart on the globe as to always prevent the moon from being seen from each country at the same time. So a lunar eclipse could be seen simultaneously from England and Egypt. Local clock time would be different.
I have a couple books by Fred Espenak of NASA, on eclipses. For the solar eclipses, there is detailed information about the times and locations of the track of the moon's shadow on the earth, where the total eclipse may be seen. For lunar eclipses, there is just information about the times of the various stages of the eclipse, and the hemispheres of there earth from which the moon can be seen at each of these times. So, in principle, the visibility of any particular lunar eclipse could be checked.
(2) On the other hand, you are right that, barring supernatural effects, it is no darker during the night of a lunar eclipse than during the night of a new moon. Nothing blocks the stars, and there is probably a little light available from the moon, since the eclipsed moon is still visible, although dim. [-ds]
Letter of Comment on CALCULATING GOD (by Richard Horton):
Richard Horton writes in response to another review of Evelyn's:
I read your CALCULATING GOD review in the latest MT VOID. Judging from past reviews I gather that you like Sawyer rather more than I do, and especially calibrated in that way, I think you got it exactly right.
I definitely thought the "gun-wielding fanatics" part was unnecessary -- my interpretation was that he included it to bulk the book up to some contractual requirement (100,000 words, maybe?), but your suggested reason may well be right. At any rate, it's a completely distracting and silly subplot. I also agree that much of the plot is too clearly orchestrated by the author (a common flaw for Sawyer, I think). And I would agree that the philosophical discussions are the best part of the book -- if they weren't so damn sophomoric! At least Sawyer's aliens are cleverly designed.
(I did review the book, in my SFF-Net topic, capsulated somewhere on Amazon.) [-rh]
GAME OVER: KASPAROV AND THE MACHINE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4)
[Preface: This film review is particularly topical this week since Kasparov is currently duking it out with a successor to Deep Blue called X3D Fritz. The first game of a four-game series was a draw; the second was won by X3D Fritz. We wait to see the results.]
This documentary by Vikram Jayanti looks at the defeat of World Chess Champion Gary Kasparov by the IBM computer Deep Blue. Kasparov says of the competition, "It's about the supremacy of human beings over machines in purely intellectual fields. It's about defending human superiority in an area that defines human beings." But it also implies that machines may be more useful and powerful tools than Kasparov would like to admit. Is machine intelligence surpassing human intelligence and if it does, is this a bad thing or a good thing? That is the major underlying question of GAME OVER. But the focus is on Kasparov and the question of whether IBM played him fairly.
Chess is a game with which cheating seems impossible. All the moves are right on the board. However, Kasparov is convinced the Deep Blue team indeed cheated. There was certainly the motive to cheat. Deep Blue's success had strong positive implications for IBM's stock and their pubic relations. The claim is that in one game the computer made a move that could have been from a chess master, but one which is not characteristic of a brute force computer. The claims, as presented in the film, cannot be evaluated by layman, but Kasparov is convinced that his response was the most important move of his career. It was followed by Deep Blue making a big mistake that would have led to a draw rather than a victory, but Kasparov was still so distracted that he missed that error and took a loss rather than a draw. His play on those few moves have overshadowed his chess-playing ever since.
Adding to the suspicion of IBM cheating is the fact that Deep Blue was disassembled shortly after the series of games of the match leaving no possibility of a rematch. Other strange behavior on the part of IBM can be interpreted as highly suspicious, but no strong conclusion can be drawn.
Jayanti interweaves the story of the competition with film footage of THE CHESS PLAYER, a 1927 film about von Kempalon's Turk. The Turk was an automaton that supposedly could play chess and was nearly unbeatable. Eventually it was revealed it was a fraud and was operated by a dwarf inside the machine who was a chess genius. The film also liberally uses scenes with a modern recreation of the Turk. Its invocation seems to be an unspoken implication that IBM's Deep Blue was also a fraud. Aside: The audience sympathies seemed to be Kasparov. I was hoping Deep Blue was really a successful chess player. [-mrl]
THE STATION AGENT (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Peter Dinklage plays a dwarf who comes to live in a small New Jersey town and in spite of efforts to the contrary becomes involved in the lives of two of the residents. There is much in this film that is reminiscent of THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER. Rating: 7 (0 to 10), +2 (-4 to +4)
Finbar McBride (played by Peter Dinklage of LIVING IN OBLIVION) is a dwarf who works at a hobby shop. He is tired of people coming into the shop look at the miniature Fin like they look at the miniature trains. Fin's stature has led him to live by himself and to avoid people since so many are rude and insensitive to him. He works with storeowner Henry (Paul Benjamin). It is not a life style Fin likes much, but it seems to be the best available to him. Then Henry keels over and dies in the store. Fin is left without a job. But Henry has left a bequest to Fin in his will. Fin is to inherit an abandoned train station in Newfoundland, New Jersey. (The film never comments on how odd it is that Henry would own such a building. Perhaps it is connected with the mania that both Henry and Fin shared for railroads and trains.) Fin decides to move into the station where he can pursue that one great interest in life, his fascination with trains. There perhaps he can escape the irritating scrutiny of the curious.
Joe Oramas (Bobby Cannavale) runs a snack truck near the Newfoundland abandoned train station and is fascinated by its new owner, this solitary dwarf who rudely rebuffs him when he tries to make friends or even to start a conversation. Joe takes on the befriending of Fin as if it were a challenge. He wants to pull this man out of his shell and give him more of a life. Olivia Harris (Patricia Clarkson) also is fascinated by the dwarf. She is a terrible driver who twice in one day nearly drives into Fin. She also wants to befriend the new resident of the town, though Fin wants nothing to do with these two people or anybody else. All he wants is to be left alone to indulge his passion for trains. But these two strangers seem determined to insinuate themselves into his life. Eventually Fin relents and Fin gets involved in their lives. Each has his problems. Joe has to care for his ailing Cuban immigrant father. Olivia has recently lost a son she doted upon. The three make a triple, caring for each other.
Fin also reluctantly attracts the attention of Cleo (Raven Goodwin), a local child Fin's size. Cleo is confused by Fin's stature, not even knowing what a dwarf is. This is a film about stigma and about friendship.
THE STATION AGENT is a simple story. At times it reminds one of THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER. But few films have so effectively shown the isolation of those people who get not enough attention of the right kind and too much attention that is either unpleasantly curious or simply patronizing. Some people treat Fin as an object. One woman takes his picture without permission as if he were a carved stone. As pat as it sounds, this is not so much a movie about the problems of a dwarf as about the function of friendship. We have a warp portrait of three people who develop a real affinity for each other. The film's best moments are not Patricia Clarkson almost slapstick driving problems but in the warm moments when the three friends can simply talk to each other. Fin becomes less the focus of the film but one piece of a friendship that nourishes each. The film is written and directed by Thomas McCarthy, who is usually an actor and who successfully resisted the temptation to put himself in his own movie.
This is a simple, short (88 minutes), and low-budget ($400,000) film. But it is warm and at the same time real. This is a film the viewer can settle into and be comfortable. I rate it a 7 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
MILWAUKEE, MINNESOTA (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Rating: +2 (-4 to +4)
Albert (played by Troy Garity, son of Jane Fonda) is a childlike man living in dingy and cold Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His mother treats him like a little boy, which is just about what he is. She ferries him to and from his job in a photocopy shop run by an overly sympathetic supervisor (Bruce Dern). His one claim to fame is that he is a terrific ice fisherman and wins tournament after tournament. His autistic mind picks up on the subtleties of fish behavior.
Albert's mother Edna forcefully manipulates Albert. She is not happy when two young drifters, Tuey (Alison Folland) and her brother Stanley, come to town and Tuey flirts with her Albert. She knows they are up to no good. Another stranger comes to town, Jerry (Randy Quaid). Then Edna is killed in a hit-and-run accident and Albert suddenly falls heir to a fair amount of money. Tuey wants to get her hands on that money and perhaps Jerry wants to beat her to it, or perhaps Jerry has another reason for being around. Bruce Dern's character also claims to be interested in Albert's welfare. Just what is going on? Whatever it is, it seems to have deep roots in the past.
The film, written by R. D. Murphy, nicely keeps the audience guessing in this feeding frenzy of crooks. A particularly nice scene has all the no-goods come together at one dinner.
Allan Mindel is a first-time director. [-mrl]
ONE LOVE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Rating: high 0 (-4 to +4)
Rick Elgood, the co-director (with Don Letts) of ONE LOVE, claims this film is a real departure because it is set in Jamaica but is not a gangster film. That is as may be, but the plotting of this film is never going to win any prizes for originality. The main, character is a Rasta with deep spiritual values. He is part of a music band and they really need money. There is a competition coming up with a US$20,000 prize and they really need to win it. Kassa knows his group can win the prize if only they can get Selena to sing for them. But the lovely Selena is the Christian pastor's daughter and he will not allow her to have anything to do with Rastas. On top of that, Selena is engaged to the obnoxious Aaron who is the pastor's choice for a husband for Selena. Making matters worse, there is an unscrupulous businessman who will stop at nothing to get Kassa's music to sell and insists on the right to modify it to take out the political message.
If you haven't noticed, this is not the world's most original plot. Nor is it the most unpredictable. This one is improved a little because it mentions the rarely publicized friction between Christians and Rastafarians. It is surprising to see such a cliched plot at a film festival. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Correction to last week's column: HERLAND is by Charlotte Perkins *Gilman*, not by Charlotte Perkins.
William Sloane's TO WALK THE NIGHT is a classic horror novel, but as with many older classics, it will probably seem predictable to today's readers. (Personally, I found myself wondering if the film UNEARTHLY STRANGER was somewhat inspired by this.) While the writing style is good, the familiarity probably works against this book for modern readers.
A few months ago, there ran on some PBS stations something called "Hitler's Victory." It was promoted as alternate history, but there was only about twenty minutes of fictional alternate history. The rest (over an hour) was an discussion of documents discovered describing the German plans for after a successful invasion, and interviews with people about what plans had been laid in place on both sides. Well, the whole thing could have been based on Comer Clarke's ENGLAND UNDER HITLER, though it apparently wasn't. Clarke's book is precisely this discussion of documents, interviews, and extrapolations from German actions in other conquered countries, and in the occupied Channel Islands. Clarke's book is over forty years old, but it didn't seem like the TV movie/documentary added much new to the story.
We just recently heard a radio dramatization of Ray Bradbury's FAHRENHEIT 451 from the BBC and I was wondering how accurate it (or the movie) were to the book. The answer is, sort of. For example, in the movie, everything is done with sound or pictures, with no writing, even in people's personnel files. The implication is that no one can read any more. But this doesn't make any sense when you consider that Montag makes off with books and reads them, and it isn't stated or implied in the book. The radio version has a lot of emphasis on children's nursery rhymes-- in the book there is poetry, but on a much higher level. There is also more of Bradbury's story "The Pedestrian" in the radio version than in the book, though there is some even there. The ending of the radio version is more accurate to the ending of the book (though I don't think the basic idea of how to save books holds up. The idea that people memorize books and then destroy the physical copies rather than burying them somewhere seems just plain foolish. Bradbury also seems to want to declare with a wave of his hand that people have photographic memories and could relatively easily memorize whole books, but I don't think that's the case. However, one point worth noting is that Bradbury specifically says the problem is not that radio and television are inherently worse media than the book, but that their nature as *mass* media makes it more likely that one will find a degraded level of discourse in them.
Andrea L. Bell and Yolanda Molina-Gavilan's COSMOS LATINOS is a good idea badly executed. I was really looking forward to the idea of seeing a sample of Latin American and Spanish science fiction, but the editors decision to put twenty-seven stories (each with a full-page biography of the author) in only 330 pages means that what you get are mostly short shorts. The longest are 36, 22, and 22 pages, meaning that many of the ones left are only three or four pages long. Jorge Luis Borges and Frederic Brown could do a great story in that length, but not many others could. (Ironically, Borges is omitted, probably because his stories are more fantastical than science fiction.) If this is a representative sampling, then my conclusion is that these authors need to work at longer lengths. If it's not, then I would have preferred longer works by fewer authors, or even (gasp!) a longer book. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: The will to win is not nearly as important as the will to prepare to win. -- Bobby Knight
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