MT VOID 03/12/04 (Vol. 22, Number 37)

MT VOID 03/12/04 (Vol. 22, Number 37)

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
03/12/04 -- Vol. 22, No. 37

Table of Contents

El Presidente: Mark Leeper, The Power Behind El Pres: Evelyn Leeper, Back issues at All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted. All comments sent will be assumed authorized for inclusion unless otherwise noted. To subscribe, send mail to To unsubscribe, send mail to

Boca Burgers (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

I guess one of the reasons people think I am strange is that things strike me as funny that other people never think about. We get a brand of veggie-burgers that are called Boca Burgers. I find this a very strange name. Does nobody else find that a really humorous name? Boca is Spanish for "mouth." These are mouth burgers. The name implies these are the burgers intended for your mouth. One wonders what other orifices they think people make burgers for. [-mrl]

Spiders on a Bridge II, Seriously (comments by Aaron Leeper):

[Aaron Leeper (catchy name, Leeper--it has a very pleasing cadence), from Beer Sheva sends this information inspired by my editorial on spiders and bridges. I thought it was interesting enough that I would make it a guest editorial this week. -mrl]

Because my computer had been out of commission for a long time, I'm still catching up with all my e-mail. I am making headway, though. I just got around to reading your ponderings on the subject of spiders on bridges.

Spiders don't get to these remote locations by walking. They cover distances by "ballooning".

First of all you have to see for yourself how very many little spiderlings hatch out of an egg case to appreciate the number of opportunities one female spider has to cast her offspring to the four winds. Only a small proportion of her babies lands in a safe and propitious location to survive. The rest die. Those few that are lucky to find a place where food is available to trap in their webs are the ones that grow up to produce another generation. A tiny spiderling will relocate a number of times by "ballooning" if it is not satisfied with the results of its last attempt. Each time it risks being blown off course to its death, or getting lucky. They have no control over where they'll end up next.

A quality location is one that has supports close enough together for the guy-wire strands of a web to take hold. The web framework depends on this. The interstices of a bridge's construction are ideal for this.

A quality location is one that has a plentiful food supply. The water below a bridge is a wonderful breeding area for semi-aquatic insects, like gnats and mosquitoes and mayflies and midges. The supports and underside of a bridge are a great resting-place for the winged-forms of these insects to rest before they take flight in search of each other.

A brand new bridge will already be collecting its population of spiders while it is being constructed, long before it is opened to traffic. As each new span is added on, one more set of quality locations becomes available to more spiderlings. As long as the weather is good enough, spiders will produce one generation after another, so there will be a constant assault of ballooning spiders landing in its riggings.

A quality location also has variable winds. Sometimes a light breeze will send a ballooning spider across the bridge, sometimes along the bridge, sometimes into oblivion. A strong wind will shred a web into tatters, but a new one can be and usually is reconstructed every evening if the winds are calm enough.

A quality location also provides shelter. There are so many little angles and niches in a bridge's structure that any spider that can overcome all the odds of reaching a bridge is very lucky to have such an ideal location.

The fact that you have noticed how densely spiders cover the spaces on a bridge testifies to the quality of such a location.

Ballooning, if you are not familiar with the term, involves a spiderling letting out a long strand of light silk from its spinnerets. Air currents tug on the surface of this silk. The spiderling climbs to a prominent point and literally stands on tiptoe with its spinnerets high in the air before letting out the silk strand. Once the tug on the strand is strong enough to convince the spiderling that is can become airborne, it lets go of the surface it was standing on and goes sailing away. When the strand gets tangled in something at the end of its flight, the spider detaches itself from its silk and evaluates its new surroundings. If it is not satisfied, it will go ballooning again. Because the spiderling is so very light and the accumulative area of the long strand of silk offers so much surface for wind to push against, a spiderling can easily be carried aloft on the wind. If the long strand of silk collides with a nearby object before lift is achieved, the spider will walk across the strand to the other end of it.

Ballooning is performed by tiny spiderlings. Heavier growing or full-grown spiders don't balloon. They still do use the ballooning technique to send out silk that they can walk across once they detect that the silk has connected with an object at the far end. So it is critical when a spider is still very tiny that it finds a quality location because only relatively minor adjustments can be made afterwards. It's also very perilous.

And what happens if you balloon into some other spider's already- claimed domain? She makes a meal out of you. Nobody ever said a spider's life was easy.

Invertebrate biology is my specialty. Spiders have always fascinated me. I was happy to provide this information. [-al]

Editorial in Spiked-Online on Geeks (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):

Readers may be interested in Sandy Starr's "The Geek Shall Inherit the Earth", which says, in part:

"The criticism traditionally heaped upon science fiction and fantasy - that they are infantile and escapist genres - has always been fairly risible. There is no reason why science fiction, fantasy, and yes, even comic books, cannot be used in an ambitious way to explore the human condition, just as all fiction can. Science fiction and fantasy often provide a fascinating insight into the concerns of the times in which they are produced, from the progressive aspirations of the US science fiction writers of the 1950s, to JRR Tolkien's Catholic morality in THE LORD OF THE RINGS.

But the criticism of science fiction and fantasy fans--that we are infantile and escapist people, and socially inept to boot--sadly has a little more truth to it."

The problem I have with the article is that it is more about people who use the Internet rather than face-to-face interactions than it is about science fiction fans per se.

The full article can be found at [-ecl]

Comment on Energy Article (letter of comment by Mike Lukacs):

[Mike Lukacs, long-time member and friend and principal scientist at Nova-Sol, sends this comment keeping me honest after last week's energy article.]

Re: Hydrogen as a transport medium rather than a primary energy source: Partially true, but not entirely true.

If we produce Hydrogen by the electrolysis of water (H2O) then everything that you say is correct. We must put at least as much energy into the electrolysis as we get out by the recombination.

But electrolysis is not the only source of hydrogen.

"Natural gas" is a large reserve of hydrogen in the ground. It consists of a mixture of hydrogen and several simple hydrocarbon compounds. (Methane CH4, Butane C2H6, Propane C3H8, etc.) The hydrocarbons can be separated into Hydrogen and Carbon by various methods that use less energy than is released when the Hydrogen recombines with Oxygen. Also, when done carefully the Carbon from these compounds can be converted to long chain Hydrocarbons (useful in chemicals, plastics, and feedstock) which have much higher ratios of carbon to Hydrogen, rather than being released as Carbon Dioxide.

Another major potential source of Hydrogen is biomass, plants that use energy from sunlight to fix carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and hydrogen from water into Oxygenated Hydrocarbons (alcohols, sugars, etc.) These too can be converted to hydrogen and carbonaceous compounds with less energy input than the eventual energy output when the hydrogen is burned.

Furthermore, most of the benefits of burning Hydrogen in an automotive engine can be obtained by burning Methane, or Propane or Methyl CH3OH or Ethyl CH3CH2OH Alcohol. While the above hydrocarbon gasses share some of the handling problems of Hydrogen, the Alcohols are liquids which do not need to be stored under pressure and are less of a fire hazard than gasoline.

All of this "free" energy, and all of the energy in petroleum compounds and coal, ultimately comes from the Sun. The only significant terrestrial energy sources that do not derive from (our) sun are nuclear energies and part of geothermals.

Ultimately, the universe is powered by gravity and mass/energy conversion. [-mel]

[Mike also points out an article in the current SCIENCE NEWS (March 6) that a new process creates hydrogen fuel from ethanol. Ethanol is the alcohol that is produced by fermenting corn. It is conceivable that future cars will be run on fuel grown as corn. The analyses of hydrogen fuel that I have read seem to assume electolysis, but apparently other means of production are quite possible. -mrl]

HIDALGO (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: A 3000-mile endurance horse race over the sands of Arabia is the basis for this adventure film from Disney/Touchstone. Viggo Mortensen plays Frank Hopkins, who claimed it all happened. Too many bad guys, conspiracies, murders, kidnappings, Indian spirits, rescues, acrobatics, political lessons, and one genius of a horse drag down what could have been a good adventure story. Disney should have stuck to Hopkins's story whether it was true or not. Rating: low +1 (-4 to +4) or 5/10

Frank Hopkins probably had little respect for the truth and my guess is that Touchstone probably had just as little respect for Hopkins's stories. With all that latitude Disney/Touchstone could have made a better film based on the claimed adventures of Frank Hopkins.

Late in life Hopkins wrote down what are purported to be his adventures as a champion endurance horse racer. Whether the stories are true or not is a matter of controversy. Little corroborating evidence is available. But among his stories is how in 1890 he rode his mustang stallion Hidalgo in a 3000-mile endurance race across the Arabian Desert in 1890.

As the film opens, Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen) is a racer who must compete with upper class swells who look down on him and his Hidalgo because neither are thoroughbreds. He has been friends with Indians and loves their mustang horses. He has a short stint as a courier for the United States Army during which he is present to see the army's massacre at Wounded Knee. Seeing his own people commit such brutality, he is sickened in his heart. With his spirit dead he quits the army and joins Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. There he is successfully drinking himself to death when he is told of the great endurance race across the Arabian Desert. Hopkins is challenged to compete. (There is a problem in chronology. The Wounded Knee massacre occurred on December 28, 1890. Hopkins said the race was also in 1890. That does not leave much time for the race, but if the writer can throw Wounded Knee into his story, he can move events around.) This needed to be a bold, exuberant, fun adventure film for kids and adults. That sort of action does not go well with a recreation of a historical massacre. The script's reasons for Hopkins entering the race are not fully understood by the viewer until the final scenes of the film. Ironically it is actually the love of his horse that urges him to put the mustang through this grueling ordeal. The horse is portrayed as so intelligent the two may have even discussed it.

Now, this race-without-rules itself would have been a good enough subject for a film, whether it really happened or not. But for the writer to throw in all the subplot adventures makes the whole story seem rather juvenile, if a juvenile films could have a Wounded Knee sequence and graphic references to castration. John Fusco's screenplay throws in a kidnapping and rescue, fights to the death, bands of marauders, conniving females, and entirely too much else that one would be unlikely to see on the desert. If you want to see how to do a good film of an endurance horse race without padding with a lot of silly folderol see Richard Brooks's 1975 film BITE THE BULLET. The script is full of what appear to be absurdities. The viewer finds himself distracted by questions such as, would an Arabian Desert oasis hundreds of miles from anything but another oasis really have a wild rabbit? If this desert is so deadly and lacking in food, how did the rabbit manage to cross it?

Mortensen has the looks to be a rough swashbuckling hero. After THE LORD OF THE RINGS his trademark has become the two-day growth of beard. He seems to wear that constantly during the race in spite of having apparently brought shaving gear. Also present in the film are Omar Sharif and an uncredited Malcolm McDowell. Beyond that most of the actors seemed unfamiliar. The film is directed by Joe Johnston, who previously directed the very good ROCKETEER and the even better OCTOBER SKY. He had the seed of a good adventure film here. Somehow the film went wrong when someone decided that Hopkins stories were not sufficiently exciting and needed to be spiked with so many invented action sequences and overlaid the story with a political message. I rate HIDALGO a low +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 5/10. [-mrl]

THE LAND OF LAUGHS by Jonathan Carroll (copyright 1980, St. Martin's Press, ISBN 0-312-87311-5, 253pp) (book review by Mark R. Leeper):

Jonathan Carroll's THE LAND OF LAUGHS is a book I have wanted to read for a long time after I heard it recommended by a panelist at a science fiction convention. The book seems to have a very loyal following, though it itself is generally a hard book to find. Most editions of the book--and there now seem to have been a handful--have humorous cover illustrations of a smiling bulldog. They remind me of a painting that was in my bed-and-breakfast room in Australia. It showed a happy smiling girl in the woods like she was from a Grimm's fairy tale. But I realized that if you looked at the girl's face you could easily read in it a terrified hysteria. That ironic duality is what most cover illustrations for this book try to capture. That duality is exactly the tone of the novel.

Hanging over this book is the great children's author Marshall France, now deceased. Think of him as L. Frank Baum with J. K. Rowlings's success (which Baum may have had at one point). There are those who remember the happiest moments of their childhood were reading France's books. But there has never been a biography of France. A young couple who recently met each other, Thomas Abbey and Saxony Gardner, want to write just such a biography of their favorite children's author. They travel to Galen, Missouri, France's hometown, to research the man. Galen is a town that still lives under the spell of its favorite son. The magic of France's writing still lives in the town. Like picture of the girl in the woods, behind all the apparent joy lies terror. Not all the magic is so wonderful as it at first appears.

Carroll's book, copyright 1980, is full of an infectious theme of the joy of reading. There are references to several books about children's fantasy, of which all but France's books are real. It is an odd combination to be writing about the joy of reading in a tale that is in large part horror story, but Carroll deftly manages to get them to rest side-by-side.

Carroll has a nice flowing writing style matched as closely as possible to France's probable writing style. Still the final explanation of what is going on seems a minor letdown. But rare is the horror story that has a truly original concept. The interlocking aspects of style, mood, and atmosphere are much more the virtues of horror and Carroll is better than most with subtlety and wit.

I believe that in the United States this book was out of print and hard to obtain for several years. I can't say I was actively searching for the book but I probably would have picked up a copy if one appeared. None did. In 2001 Orb reprinted the book and I actually found it inexpensively remaindered. But it is easy to get a copy from Amazon. If you treasure memories of reading from your early years, this novel is worth checking out. [-mrl]

ITERATIONS by Robert J. Sawyer (copyright 2002, Quarry Press, Inc., ISBN 1-55082-295-0, 303pp, hardcover) (book review by Joe Karpierz):

Continuing the theme of reading short story collections, we turn to ITERATIONS, a short story collection from Robert J. Sawyer published only in Canada in 2002. The book has been sitting on my shelf for a very long time, and now that I've read it, I wish it hadn't been there so long.

ITERATIONS is full of short stories the way I remember short stories were written when I was younger - short, sweet, with some impact and with something to make you want to go "hmmmm". Maybe I've been looking in all the wrong places (I think there's a song title in there somewhere) for short fiction, but I just don't find much like this any more.

And there are quite a few of them, too, all with introductions by Sawyer himself, giving a little story behind the story. There are twenty-two stories in all (unless I can't count any more), and there are several gems:

"You See But You Do Not Observe", a Sherlock Holmes tale that now makes me want to go and read that two-volume set of Sherlock Holmes tales published as a Barnes and Noble Classic that I picked up over the holidays; "If I'm Here, Imagine Where They Sent My Luggage", a short and sweet take on a familiar problem; "Just Like Old Times", wherein Sawyer mixes three themes (dinosaurs, crime, and time travel) to give us a scary view of what could be the fate of humanity; "The Abdication of Pope Mary III", wherein a future pontiff decides that it's time to quit, and ends up playing the Pied Piper in the end; "The Hand You're Dealt", a story that I'd read elsewhere but still had an impact, that has a neat twist on the genetic theme; "The Contest", a new take on an old rivalry; and what I think is my favorite of the bunch, "Lost in the Mail", where our friendly neighborhood postman is a lot more than meets the eye.

In reality, they're all good, but I don't want to give one liners for all of them. This is a book that I think you'll enjoy immensely. I recommend that you go out and find this book - I don't know if any made it to libraries here in the U.S. Your best bet may be to go Sawyer's website and see if he has any left, or maybe to Amazon or Ebay. [It seems to have made it to at least three United States libraries: the University of Utah, Stanford University, and the Sno-Isle, WA, regional public library. Try or trade paperback just came out in February. -ecl]

I'll probably be leaving the short story stuff for awhile - there are several novels I've been wanting to get at, and there's this Sherlock Holmes stuff.... [-jak]

This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):

I got a couple of comments on my comments last week on our book group's discussion of Carl Sagan's CONTACT. Mark Leeper said of the idea that we would be reading it at the meeting, "Perhaps they expected excerpts. We do call it a 'reading group' not a 'discussion group.'" Charlie Harris also said this, as well as saying of the digressions, "I'd distinguish between two types of digression: the science pedagogy--which I did not find annoying-- and the routine, non-sf, not-plot-related stories involving non- central characters--which I did."

After I saw the film GLORY fifteen years ago, I decided I wanted to read the book of Robert Gould Shaw's letters, BLUE-EYED CHILD OF FORTUNE. But because I didn't want to spend the price charged by the specialty publisher who had it in print, I started looking for a used copy. I somehow managed to miss the trade paperback edition when it came out, but I did eventually run across a used copy a year ago. (This gives you some idea how large my backlog is!) I think I'm glad I didn't buy this new. The letters are certainly of interest, but I was not happy with the footnoting. It was extensive, but was almost entirely identifying the people named in the letters (e.g., the full name of someone Shaw refers to as "Aunt Jane"), and very little commenting on events mentioned by Shaw, or giving a wider perspective when he talks about what he hopes will happen or such. I realize that was the decision of editor Russell Duncan, not to "intrude" on Shaw, but given that close to a third of the book is the footnotes I felt it could have helped. My other regret is that Shaw spent so little time writing about the 54th Massachusetts--most of the letters are before he takes command of the regiment. However, for those who want more, I recommend Luis E. Emilio's A BRAVE BLACK REGIMENT--Emilio was the highest ranking officer to survive the attack on Battery Wagner. (Contrary to what you might think from the name, Emilio was not from the American Southwest or Mexico--his parents were immigrants from Spain and he was born in Salem, Massachusetts.)

Ian Watson's MOCKYMEN has gotten a lot of good reviews. I found the first part (about ancient Nordic rituals) enthralling when it appeared in INTERZONE, but I found the rest of the story, dealing with aliens who give us mind-altering drugs in exchange for the use of the eventually used-up bodies as receptacles for their disembodied minds, a bit too much of a change of direction. The whole mix of fantasy, horror, *and* science fiction seemed a bit much, even though I could appreciate Watson's skill. [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

           If you're going to do something tonight 
           that you'll be sorry for tomorrow, sleep late.
                                          -- Henny Youngman

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