MT VOID 06/11/04 (Vol. 22, Number 50)

MT VOID 06/11/04 (Vol. 22, Number 50)

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
06/11/04 -- Vol. 22, No. 50

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

Now the New York Times is Copying the VOID (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

Shortly after we ran our discussion of pizza, on June 9, the New York Times ran an article on standardization of pizza. It is "For the Pizza Makers of Naples, a Tempest in a Pie Dish" by Al Baker. It can be found for a limited time at . Included is the quote by pizza maker, Alfonso Cucciniello, "Pizza with pineapples? That's a cake."

(This article is certified to be about pizza. My article, that is. The one in the New York Times I cannot vouch for.) [-mrl]

The Times They Are A-Changing (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

I see AT&T has a new advertising campaign that focuses on--believe it or not--the ampersand in their name. No longer do they try to sell themselves on the power and the inventive record of Bell Laboratories.Nobel Prizes just don't mean what they used to. Discovering how the Universe came into existence just lacks the kind of pizzazz that sells today. Today what sells is the "&" in their name.

The idea they say is that it is you *and* AT&T or some such. They have taken something unusual in their name and accentuated it. I mean how many telecom companies these days offer you a name with a really funny conjunction? How many give you a name that you are not sure how to type into Google? There is only one that I know. That's AT&T!

There is an old rule in advertising. It says, "sell the sizzle and not the steak." In fact, there is even a chain of steak restaurants called "Sizzler". No customer at Sizzler ever hears his or her steak sizzle. That happens in the kitchen. But Sizzler offers you a steak that did sizzle. And it sizzled recently too. What you are buying is not the sizzle, it is the steak, but if the name can distract the buyer with a sensual image that the customer can imagine, much of the selling is done.

I remember hearing an ad for a car dealer that said that in the weekend sale they would be writing deals "with a sharp pencil." People who come to the sale will not be thinking about the price of the car; they will be looking for that sharp pencil point scratching the paper. That image was probably worth real money to the car dealership. And the salesman doesn't have to do anything different. Who is going to ask his salesman, "Uh, the deal is okay, but could you sharpen your pencil, please?"

Didn't there used be a pen that was advertised with "the pen that closes with a click?" Does that click really mean that much? It does to the pen company's accountant. Then there is the "simple purple pill." There is something inside of us that says forget the side effects, I don't care if after I take this pill I start growing a second nose out of my shoulder. I want to take a pill that is regal purple. I want to take any pill the color of grape juice.

Now I am picturing the hard-nosed businessmen and engineers who put together American Telephone and Telegraph and the phone network, then abbreviated the name to AT&T. What kind of morons would they think 21st century people are that they would let themselves be fixated on the ampersand in their abbreviation? That ampersand would become a big selling point? That is the 21st century we built.

And I hear things are getting nearly as bad inside the telecom industry.

The most popular comic strip in the telecom industry when I worked there was Dilbert. Dilbert is to hi-tech business what Beetle Bailey is to army life. The problem with the comic strip Dilbert is that the 21st century has gotten so weird that it has no future. No future.

I noted several years ago that my organization had reached the point of "Dilbert Envy" where the policies of my organization seemed more oppressive and callous toward employees than those of Dilbert's fictional organization. Instead of a satire on how bad it is to work in some of these companies, working with Dilbert actually started to sound good. Well, perhaps not good, but far preferable to what was happening in the real world.

These days Dilbert seems to be a success story. Dilbert has his own cubicle! He has been in the same job for more than a decade now. He is even in a stable enough situation to be working for the same supervisor, albeit pointy-haired, for that whole decade. Nobody works for the same person that long any more. In the real world some crazy reorganization would have come along and Dilbert would be working for someone new and probably worse. No, strike that. By this point Dilbert would have been downsized. Nobody is as lucky as Dilbert these days.

People who have been laid off or are just holding onto their jobs by their fingernails are starting to look at Dilbert and hate his guts. They ask, "What the hell does Dilbert have that I haven't got?" Please people, be reminded that Dilbert is just a fictional character. There may not be people so lucky in the real world. You might want to fix on a more believable hero who is not quite so dependent on pure luck. Try James Bond. Oh, and if you work in the telecom industry and you want to have Dilbert's luck, change you name. Spell it with an "&." [-mrl]

Letter of Comment on Pizza (from Peter Rubinstein):

You can't fool me. This week's "pizza" editorial is really about Bourbon! There are strict laws governing just what a Bourbon must be to be labeled as such. At least 51 percent of the grain used in making the whiskey must be corn. Bourbon must be aged for a minimum of two years in new, white oak barrels that have been charred. Fermentation will take three to four days, depending on the temperature at which you keep the mash. Nothing can be added at bottling to enhance flavor, add sweetness or alter color. Kentucky is the only state allowed to put the name Bourbon on the bottle. [-pr]

[But who enforces these laws? It can't be Kentucky. -ecl]


CAPSULE: Harry Potter is back at Hogwarts and this year he has a crack at the man who betrayed and murdered his parents. And the killer will have a crack at Harry. All the survivors of previous film are back, but the tone is darker. A new director, Alfonso Cuaron, takes the series in some different directions. Along for the fun are two werewolves, shrunken heads, a hippogriff, and an army of horrible phantom guardians. This is a family film, not a children's film. The adults may like it as much as any of the children in the audience. But the series is reaching a point of diminishing returns. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10

Are you bored in art museums? Ask the guard if they have a painting called "The Temptation of St. Anthony." I don't know much about St. Anthony or what tempted him but any artist who has every tried to paint his temptation created a weird and wonderful painting. They always have strange creatures who are fit to go bump in the night, no matter who the artist is. It is just like the fact that there is a different director doing Harry Potter films. We now have Alfonso Cuaron, the director of Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN, holding the reins. His vision for Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry may be a little darker and more menacing than that of Chris Columbus's chapters, but it is no less fun.

Harry (played as usual by Daniel Radcliff) is back living with his muggle guardians and practicing his magic in secret. He is still treated like the Cinderella or Cosette of the family and is insulted by a rude dinner guest, against whom he takes a gassy revenge. Then in anger and frustration he runs away from home to return to Hogwarts. It takes a special magical cover up to make it possible for him ever to go home again. But things may be worse at Hogwarts. Sirius Black, a friend of Harry's dead parents who had betrayed and murdered them, has escaped from confinement at Azkaban Prison. Now protecting the school are the banshee-like Dementors who suck out the soul of the evil people they catch.

Cuaron chooses a style that is darker than the previous two films. The style change (and some of the new symbolism) seems to be much like that made between STAR WARS and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. There is a bit less of the frivolous sort of jokes--talking hats, nearly headless ghosts, etc.--that punctuated the previous films as throwaways. There is much less in this film that is not central to the story. But still the plot progresses slowly and much of what Harry is able to do he does by having been given just the right magical aid or by just happening to be in the right place at the right time. Things were always a little contrived to make things work out well for Potter.

The script has a hard time deciding if Harry is an internationally famous wizard-to-be of great expectations or if he is the poor orphaned waif that the other boys like Draco Malfoy pick on. The two personas seem incompatible. If the story is slow to develop at least it gives us the usual Harry Potter toys like talking portraits on the walls and stairways that wander around. Some of these features are starting to figure in the plot rather than being temporary distractions. And we have to spend the first hour collecting clues. Why does every year at Hogwarts unfold as a detective mystery? Can't we have a good horror story or comedy once in a while?

I think the Harry Potter series will continue until every notable British actor has had a chance to show up at Hogwarts and perhaps teach a course or at least cast a spell. The late Richard Harris is not back, of course, so now the estimable Michael Gambon is Dumbledore. Maggie Smith is back as the fussy Professor Minerva McGonagall. Alan Rickman is the series's continuing red herring, Professor Severus Snape. I have to admit he is a personal favorite because he looks so sneerfully villainous and he always turns out to be one of the good guys. Disney seems to always have the bad guys repulsive or exaggeratedly manly and the good guys are usually either attractive or at least sympathetically drawn like Quasimodo. This year additions to the cast include David Thewlis, Emma Thompson, Timothy Spall, and Gary Oldman. Oldman has the other title role and once again blends so well into a role that he is nearly unrecognizable. (I got to the end of THE CONTENDER and asked, "So where was Gary Oldman?" This time I recognized him eventually, but my wife did not.) John Cleese was not present as his usual Nearly Headless Nick. It is just as well. He never fits into the plot and just seems to be plastered on as an afterthought.

The three main characters are not aging really well. Daniel Radcliff was charming as a young Harry Potter when he was cast something like three or four years ago. Now he is a teen with rather ordinary looks and no obvious acting talent. Soon he won't really resemble the character on the cover of the book. That may be a problem for the series. Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley is supposed to be nobody special in the story and so the demands on him to be magnetic are far less. Of the three central characters only Emma Watson as Hermione Granger seems to have real growth potential as an actor. Radcliff and Watson might come out of this series with career prospects like Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford respectively.

HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN is no worse than its predecessors, but there just is not enough that is new and original. If this were the first Harry Potter film it would rate considerably higher. But there is too much uniformity from one film to the next. It is another mystery set in the same environment, seen from another viewpoint, Cuaron's, but not enough different to make it absorbing. I rate this film a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10. [-mrl]

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

I found myself reading some alternate histories from Britain recently. Murray Davies's COLLABORATOR (Macmillan, ISBN 0-333-90844-9, #16.99) is a fine work in what seemed to have been an overly-mined area: what if the Germans won in World War II? This, admittedly, isn't quite that sweeping--it is focused on what might have happened if a German invasion of England succeeded. It is a very British look--much more downbeat than most American authors would write, and not relying on the Yanks rushing in to save the day. Instead, it looks at the reactions of a variety of Britishers to an invasion and occupation, as well as the possible progression of actions by the Germans during such an occupation. It reminds me of Kevin Brownlow's IT HAPPENED HERE and other well-written, low-key speculations. I can only hope that some American publisher will decide to pick it up in spite of all the "flaws" I mentioned.

The stories in the anthology PRIME MINISTER PORTILLO AND OTHER THINGS THAT NEVER HAPPENED edited by Duncan Brack and Iain Dale (Politico's, ISBN 1-84275-069-0, #16.99), on the other hand, are almost all about speculations in British politics of the sort that hardly anyone in the United States will follow them. (One is about economic goings-on in the 1970s and led me to observe that had it been about American economics of that time period, it still would have been mostly incomprehensible to me.) They may be well-written, but I can't tell. They are even more incomprehensible than the more obscure episodes of "The Goon Show" or "I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again".

Jasper Fforde's THE WELL OF LOST PLOTS (ISBN 0-670-03289-1) is another British alternate history, but completely understandable. Well, understandable if you know some basic English literature. The alternate history aspect of the Crimean War et al that was more evident in the first book (THE EYRE AFFAIR) and had been somewhat diminished in the second (LOST IN A GOOD BOOK), has almost entirely vanished here. Instead the Prose Portal and its ramifications have become the center--and a fine center it is. I'm not sure the puns come quite as fast and furious as in the first two books, but I certainly recommend this one. Caveat: read the other two first. [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

           The more things a man is ashamed of, 
           the more respectable he is.
                                          -- George Bernard Shaw

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