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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
03/05/04 -- Vol. 22, No. 35
Table of Contents
Oscar Comment (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I have been asked several times what I thought of the Academy Awards. I will just make one statement here. I was a little disappointed that MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD did not get more attention than it did. Perhaps they needed a timely tagline, something to tie the film into what is happening in the world. How about a tag like "You'll actually believe the French as a military threat."
I am pleased to see a fantasy film win the Academy Award for Best Picture. I was a little astounded by the statistic that 25,000 people did work on this film. It was an incredible feat of filmmaking. Until Peter Jackson made his version, I don't think anybody thought a live-action version was even possible. In the past all adaptations had been done with animation. Animation is a good tool for visualizing what cannot be done with live action, but live action seems more believable and at the same time more respectable. Actually much of the Jackson film really is animated; it is just that animation has gotten to the point that it does not look like animation.
But as for LORD OF THE RINGS, I think the way to go from being simply a notable filmmaker to being one of the majors is to take some work that other people have deemed unfilmable and to make a good film out of it. So less than 48 hours after Jackson won big at the Oscars we have had another announcement of a film in the works. Robert Rodriguez is going to try to pull the same sort of coup. What I think was the last big "unfilmable" fantasy/SF project is going to be filmed by the man who made the EL MARIACHI and SPY KIDS series. Rodriguez is scheduled to film A PRINCESS OF MARS, the first story from the Edgar Rice Burroughs's John Carter of Mars series. Several filmmakers have investigated the series, including Ray Harryhausen, but to have six-armed frog-headed Martians as major characters is a pretty daunting task. The task does not seem as formidable as LORD OF THE RINGS and the story is probably not as compelling, but it will still be quite an impressive achievement if Rodriguez can do it.
Now get this. Rodriguez is famous for miniscule budgets. Reportedly Paramount wants something to rival a Peter Jackson production and is giving Rodriguez a hundred-million-dollar budget to do it. Not huge, by today's standards, but pretty big by Rodriguez standards. The Burroughs stuff is fun, but probably not of the profundity of THE LORD OF THE RINGS. It will be interesting to see what Ridriguez does with it. [-mrl]
The Myth of Hydrogen (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Back when I was in junior high school, I remember I puzzled one of my teachers with an observation that was both right and wrong. I thought that I was misunderstanding on a point. Now it is coming to be more important and even affecting national policy.
We were studying energy. Different sorts of energy were being discussed. You know the sort of thing, heat, light, chemical, electricity, etc. A confused Mark raised his hand. Is electricity really energy? "Certainly it is," I was told, "Doesn't it light your home?" "Is electricity energy or is it simply a medium for transporting energy? I mean we have fossil fuels in the ground. They have energy. We have light, which is a form of energy. That I believe. But isn't electricity only a medium to carry energy?"
Let me explain. I remembered visiting a recreation of an early 1900s factory. There was a time when a factory had to be built next to a running river. A big water wheel would be put into the water. Once the wheel was in place in the water, little could stop it from turning. It would be geared up and used to power a rapidly spinning cylinder, like an axle, that would run the length of the factory. The power of the water would turn that axle with a great deal of force. A belt would be put over the axle for each machine in the factory and the belt would be used to power the machine. The power of the water in the river would run every machine in the factory. But a spinning axle is not actually a form of energy; it is just a device for transferring energy. Something similar is still used today. The fan belt in you car's engine transfers energy from the motor to the fan belt. The fan belt runs the fan. But the fan belt is not a form of energy; it is only a medium for carrying force. And in your house we still do something very similar. The way I figured it electricity was like the spinning axle in old factories. It transmitted the energy, but it was not itself a form of energy.
When you run the vacuum cleaner in your house where does the energy come from? It comes from a power plant, which very likely gets most of its energy from turbines, which are just fancy waterwheels. Instead of putting the energy into a spinning axle that goes from the turbine into your home, it does something a little more sophisticated. It spins magnets in a coil and then wire can carry the power around corners (difficult to do with an axle) and over many miles to you house. It carries it through the wiring and the outlet into your house, through the cord of the vacuum cleaner, to a coil in the vacuum cleaner. In the coil is a magnet. They magnet takes energy from the water and it spins, powering the vacuum cleaner. You are taking power from a spinning axle at the power plant and using it to spin a magnet in your home. This is a somewhat more sophisticated way of putting a belt over a spinning axle. (By the way, in Massachusetts the energy also came in large part from coal burned at the electrical plant. It may not have seemed as polluting as if the coal was burned in the house, but it simply moved the problem of generating energy to another location, which did pollute the air. That distinction will be important a few paragraphs down.)
Then is the electricity really energy or is it just a medium for carrying energy? The answer, I guess, is that it is both. It is a medium for carrying energy. But the way the medium works is mechanical energy is turned into another breed of energy, electricity, that is easy to move around. In your vacuum cleaner it is turned back into mechanical energy.
There is an important distinction between petroleum which when found in the ground already has chemical energy, and electricity, which has to be generated.
President Bush has been talking about how hydrogen is a nice clean fuel that combines with oxygen to create non-polluting water vapor. The problem is that hydrogen is only a medium for carrying energy from elsewhere. We are not finding reserves of hydrogen in the ground. The real energy is created someplace else where hydrogen has to be separated from oxygen. That process is neither cheap nor necessarily clean. Hydrogen is not so much a form of energy but a medium of just transferring the problem of creating energy to a different location. It is a means of taking energy that has already been created and moving that energy to where it will be useful. But you still need more traditional energy source to power the collection of the hydrogen as well as the transportation.
I am not advocating petroleum in the long-term, but it is at least well behaved. If you put some gasoline in a bucket and it will stay in the bucket. At least most of it will. Try that with gaseous hydrogen. I park my current car next to my water heater, which has a pilot light. In a gasoline car that is not all that scary a thing to do. Even if my tank has a small leak the gasoline falls to the floor and probably no place near the flame. With a tank of hydrogen in the car, I am not sure I would feel so cushy and safe. If the hydrogen hits the flame, you could have a reaction. That reaction is what brought down the Hindenberg. It is something to think about.
So don't expect pollution-free hydrogen vehicles any time soon according to a recent panel at the National Academies of Science. It will take more than a decade to do the technology and to work out the bugs of the cars and the hydrogen production. And that is the time to introduce the first prototype cars to the early adopters. Don't expect to see a hydrogen car in your driveway much before 2040. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
In an attempt to get more people interested, our science fiction discussion group chose Carl Sagan's CONTACT as this month's book. It seemed like a good possibility to get readers who were not normally involved, given the familiarity of Sagan's name outside of the field of science fiction and the success of the film version. We did get three new people, but 1) they came only because they knew of Sagan as a scientist, 2) they said at the beginning they didn't like science fiction and that basically they wouldn't be coming to future meetings, and 3)they thought we would be reading the book at the meeting, rather than having read it beforehand and discussing it at the meeting. The last seems particularly strange--how could one read a 430-page book at a two-hour meeting. In any case, we didn't really build up our attendance and we all pretty much agreed that Sagan was not a very good science fiction writer. Many people found his digressions annoying, and one also pointed out that Sagan never really describes any action. For example, he leads up to the explosion, but then "cuts away" and resumes writing quite a bit after it occurs. This was a bestseller when it was published (1985), but I don't think it was highly regarded by science fiction fans then, and does not stand up well over time.
Another book made into a film was Christopher Bram's FATHER OF FRANKENSTEIN (made into GODS AND MONSTERS). As is often the case, I wish I had read the book first, as I found myself watching the movie in my head while I was reading it. This was pretty easy, as the book seemed to have been written very "cinematically" and the movie stuck closely to it. The book does have more background information about the making of THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN that the movie was forced to leave out (for time reasons), so I would definitely recommend the book if you are a student of old films.
For people who know about Hay-on-Wye, Paul Collins's SIXPENCE HOUSE will be of interest. Collins decided to leave San Francisco with his wife and baby and move to Hay-on-Wye. This sounds like a book-lover's dream, but as Collins discovered, there is reality to deal with as well as the fantasy.
Jen Banbury's LIKE A HOLE IN THE HEAD is a mystery centered around a bookstore and a first edition Jack London, but the first edition is more of a Maguffin than a book--it could just as easily be a bag of flints. And I guess I prefer "cozies" to mysteries with graphic violence. (I haven't gotten to John Dunning's bookstore mysteries yet--I hope they're better.)
Coming soon: After I mentioned that Alan Stockwell's Holmes pastiches were not in the first rank, someone asked me which ones I thought were. I need to think about that. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Don't do things half-assed. If a thing is worth doing at all, it's worth doing as well as you can possibly do it. Pick out something you think is worthwhile and do it or work at it with passion. Do it with all your might. -- Hugh Young
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