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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
10/01/04 -- Vol. 23, No. 14
Table of Contents
Buy the Light of the Moon (URL pointer):
The article "Buy the Light of the Moon" by Sam Dinkin should be of interest to those who are familiar with Robert A. Heinlein's "The Man Who Sold the Moon". Dinkin analyzes the technology and possible uses of "lunar advertising." See the article at http://www.thespacereview.com/article/215/1>.
Influenza 101 (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I was talking to a neighbor about flu shots and the season coming up and I made some mention that the flu had probably come from a Chinese duck. She did not know what I was talking about. I decided to try to find a good article on the Internet explaining the genesis of a flu virus. Somehow none of the articles I found seemed to be ideal to send her, so I thought I would write such an article myself. Hey, I needed an article for this week anyway.
Is influenza actually something to be that scared of? (Probably you already know the answer of this, but it needs to be said.) Most of us have had the flu and it has been a day or two's inconvenience. The problem is that there are so many kinds of flu and some are a lot worse than others. The 1918-1919 flu epidemic (if that is what it was--we still do not know) killed thirty million people, give or take ten million. That was more people than the then recently ended World War I. There was nothing that could be done to stop the deaths until whatever it was mysteriously burned itself out. Today we might be able to stop it more quickly and we might not. Nobody knows. Is flu scary? You bet. And it is important to know about it.
Most influenza viruses come from waterfowl though recently chickens have also proved a source. And scientists think they are nearly always fowl from Asia, particularly mainland China. Ducks and chickens seem quite happy with the viruses in their systems. They get passed back and forth between birds. They mutate creating new viruses. And the viruses break and swap DNA and reform. There are all sorts of what will become influenza viruses in ducks and chickens. Much of what is floating around is a virus type called Influenza A, some strains of which attack humans. This is scary, but only in a limited way. So far. Luckily there is something about the strands of DNA in these bird viruses that usually (USUALLY) they cannot infect and survive in humans. And there is something about the strands of DNA in human viruses that usually (again USUALLY) they cannot survive in birds. So all is well.
Almost. Then pigs come into the picture. Pigs are extremely good receptors of viruses. They don't live in the most sanitary of conditions. They are omnivores who eat like (dare I say it?) pigs. And unlike humans and birds, most pigs have immunity systems that never met a virus they didn't like. So pigs will get into their systems all kinds of viruses from all kinds of animals including humans. In particular the can pick up bird viruses. This seems to be particularly true in mainland China from just the way the Chinese farm. Birds, pigs, and humans really live very close to each other. So a pig's body is nature's own virus mixing machine. Inside the pig's body there are bird viruses and human viruses floating around together and getting into mischief exchanging strands of DNA. It is not unusual for a new virus to be built of parts of bird virus and human virus. Suddenly you have in the pig's malodorous body an influenza virus that can survive in humans quite nicely, thank you. This brand new virus has a head start in life. It's new and humans have never built up a resistance to it. This is like the virus-equivalent of getting a management job offer from Enron. Do you know how valuable that can be for a virus wanting to make its way in the world? It says the immune system doesn't know to look out for you. And in China where the humans and pigs live relatively close together in some farming areas, people pick up the virus from the pigs. Some of these viruses are transmitted to individual humans, but then do not transmit from human to human. Some do transmit well, and those are where the real trouble comes from, at least for humans.
This would not be quite so bad for the world if it all happened on the Fiji Islands, but the truth is that China is very cosmopolitan. Chinese come in contact with each other. They come in contact with Russians and they come in contact with Europeans. And all these people sneeze on each other. (Now don't deny it. It happens.) Or they spread virus in other ways. Contagious diseases spread easily. Yes, they come in contact with Americans also, but Americans are mostly an ocean away. Generally the influenza Americans get comes with European stickers on its luggage. ("Visit the scenic Isles of Langerhans." That sort of thing.) Europeans come in contact with Americans. So when you get a case of the flu are playing host to a virus that probably started in a Chinese duck or goose, traveled through a Chinese pig, was transmitted to a Chinese human, was handed off to a European human, traveled through another American and then over to you.
Oh, those USUALLYs above. It seems no longer to be the only case that influenza gets remixed in pigs. We are starting to get reports of bird influenza that survives in humans. A while back there was a virus mutation that went directly from chickens to humans. All or almost all chickens that were suspected of harboring the virus with killed and disposed of lest the virus get loose. As I am writing this, the BBC is running a news story, "A Thai woman who recently died of bird flu probably caught the disease from her daughter, the government has said." A virus that is not slowed down by going through the formality of porcine recombination before jumping to human is bad enough. One that can go directly from bird to human AND from human to human is really frightening. It is a threat that has to be taken seriously.
The news story I mentioned is at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/3695856.stm or at http://tinyurl.com/5pfcj. [-mrl]
Philip Roth's New Book and Stamps (comments by Charles S. Harris):
In his Sept. 23 NY Times review of Philip Roth's THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA ( http://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/23/arts/23Rich.html), Frank Rich writes:
"Since the book isn't officially published until Oct. 5, online shoppers are quite literally judging it by its cover image, a one- cent stamp of the 1930's crisply postmarked with a swastika, and the bare bones of its story. The plot of "The Plot" belongs to a low-rent genre, "alternate history," in which novelists of Mr. Roth's stature rarely dwell."
Mr. Rich got it all wrong! As any philatelist could have told him, that swastika is not a postmark--it's an overprint! It would have been applied *before* anyone licked the stamp and slapped it onto a postcard--not a letter, because a 1-cent stamp wouldn't have been adequate, and not a postal card, because a postal card would already have a preprinted postage indicium--ready to be dropped into a letter slot to be postmarked.
Mr. Rich doesn't even comment on the most glaring improbability in this supposedly scrupulous alternate history book: The 1-cent Yosemite National Park stamp pictured on the cover was issued in 1934, and therefore would no longer be available to receive the swastika overprint in 1940, the crucial election year in the novel. (It's true that stamps with the same design appeared in 1935, but that's still too early. And besides, the 1935 issue [the so-called "Farley's Follies"] was imperforate, lacking the perforations that are prominent on the cover of Roth's book.)
Now, if Mr. Rich gets such easily-verified facts wrong, I wonder whether I should trust his assertion that alternate history is a "low-rent genre...in which novelists of Mr. Roth's stature rarely dwell." Are there counterexamples?
Mr. Rich also writes:
"'Keep America Out of the Jewish War' reads a button worn by Lindbergh partisans rallying at Madison Square Garden."
This of course brings to mind the notorious German "Jewsh War" propaganda forgeries, modeled on the British George V Silver Jubilee stamps ( http://www.geocities.com/evelynleeper/stamps.jpg). [-csh]
Letters of Comment (by various people):
And catching up on some short letters....
Rudy Vener asks about the targeted warfare Mark discusses in the 09/03/04 issue:
Have you considered that it is probably because we have gotten so good at targeted warfare that our current crop of opponents have faded into the woodwork? I don't claim they are less dangerous, only that by forcing them to operate in a way that does not present us with clear targets significantly hampers their activities.
[Well, it is true that Osama has to stay on the move. It does not seem to be hampering his organization all that much. I suppose it is possible we might still be fighting the Germans if we were not so good at hitting German targets. I don't think that radical Islam is greatly intimidated by our air force. They are by nature decentralized. -mrl]
And Fred Lerner responds to Mark's comments on defense in the 09/10/04 issue:
You wrote: "Even in the 50s when a TV station would sign off at night (remember when they signed off at night?) they would play the Star-Spangled Banner." In the 70s one of the Baltimore stations, which was affiliated with that city's leading newspaper, would sign off with "Maryland, My Maryland" and then a slogan appeared on the screen; "rain or shine, the sun will be out tomorrow."
Robert Bohrer responds to Mark's comment's on fish oil in that same issue:
Regarding fish oil, some people object to puns, but I thought that was your best bit of humour yet. I read in "Science News" last month that fish oil is also thought to be helpful in countering the detrimental effects of Alzheimer's disease on memory.
Norm Marion comments on CATWOMAN:
You are lucky you did not see CATWOMAN . . . talk about boring, trivial comic . . . but, there is underneath the bad movie a very interesting folklore of felines through the Egyptian period.
David Goldfarb responds to Evelyn's comments about Heinlein's and Bujold's Hugos in the 09/24/04 issue:
Against Heinlein's Retro-Hugo we can set Bujold's Best Novella win for "The Mountains of Mourning". To be sure, when the Hugos started, Heinlein had largely abandoned short fiction for novels. If we get Retro-Hugos for 1938 through 1952, Heinlein will probably win a number of them for his shorter fiction.
[For whatever reason, Hugos for novels seem to be considered in some sense separate from Hugos for shorter works. So Heinlein's four-novel win was considered an important target, while most people don't even realize that Harlan Ellison and Connie Willis have the most fiction Hugos (eight each), with Poul Anderson right behind at seven. (Anderson may well be the only person to ever lose four Hugos in a night, this year at the Retro Hugos.) -ecl]
SHARK TALE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Dreamscape's latest animated film is set in a sort of undersea urban environment and should entertain the whole family. The story is familiar but the jokes come in a rapid fire. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
Dreamworks continues their competition with Pixar for the audience of animated films. They made ANTS when Pixar made A BUG'S LIFE. Pixar did their fish film with FINDING NEMO and Dreamworks has followed suit with their fish film, SHARK TALE. Pixar used very naturalistic artwork capturing the beauty of Australia's Great Barrier Reef in digital animation and has well-written characters. Dreamworks's film uses a fantasy urban environment under the sea. Their characters are intentionally cliched, being essentially film references. The writing team has ratcheted up the pace of the jokes to a machine gun staccato. For a story they used as a framework a story Disney animated back in 1941, "The Reluctant Dragon" (based on Kenneth "Wind in the Willows" Grahame's story). The pacifist dragon becomes the vegetarian shark Lenny (voiced by Jack Black). The timid dragon-slaying human is now a timid shark- slaying fish Oscar (Will Smith). Other popular stars doing voices include Robert DeNiro, Renee Zellweger, Anjolina Jolie, Martin Scorsese, and Peter Falk. Somehow we have come to believe that animated films need big stars to do the voices.
The film is made palatable for a wide audience not by telling one story that can be appreciate on many levels, generally the Pixar approach, but rather by planting a lot of jokes to be enjoyed only by the adults or perhaps only by fans of classic films. The distinction might be that Pixar makes family films, Dreamworks makes children's films that adults can enjoy. Quotes from familiar films abound. Product placements also are present in profusion, though always for joke value.
Stay around through the closing credits. There are still more jokes. [-mrl]
SHAUN OF THE DEAD (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: This film is like a crossbreeding of George Romero and Mike Leigh. Oblivious lower-middle-class Londoners slowly become aware that the dead are returning at trying to eat the living. This satire laughs at the tropes of the zombie movie, but even more at the foibles of English life today. The first half is very funny and the second half is at least witty. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
Shaun and his friends from a run-down part of London live from one dull night at the pub to the next. Shaun clerks in a store during the day basically to get money for ale and peanuts in the evening. Shaun's girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) is tired of their relationship and of going to the pub each night with the same friends. It looks like he will lose her and that he is a man who has no future anyway, so he does not notice when the civilization loses its future. What happens is pretty much what happened in George Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, the dead start to come back. The cause may be a returning space probe or frankenfood or maybe something else, but the dead start coming back to life to and eating the living.
The problem is that with the self-absorbed people of Shaun's circle of friends and with the number of drunks usually on the street, having flesh-eating zombies is too subtle a change to show up on Shaun's radar screen. Oh, sure, the television is talking about some sort of nasty disaster going on, but the telly is just sort of background noise to Shaun. He has too many other problems of his own to figure out what the man on the telly is on about. People staggering in the street? Well, welcome to London. But that gag can last only so long. The film stays funny even after Shaun and his pal and housemate Ed (Nick Frost) realize that this crisis really could be serious enough to affect them. Where the film really damps down is in the final third. The film references are always fun. And in a sort of scene that has been worn out, like the killing of zombies, this film brings new humor. A scene of Shaun and Ed in their backyard using familiar objects to fight a pair of approaching zombies is new and funny and also characterizes Ed and Shaun.
Unlike in most zombie films, the characters are actually developed and the dialog is good and telling. We do get to know the main characters. This is not an accident. Most of the actors and much of the production crew worked together in the British television comedy series "Spaced" and in SHAUN OF THE DEAD they continue the 30-something dialog and humor of that show. Simon Pegg again stars and co-writes. Edgar Wright again directs and this time co-writes. Several others actors are in common. (Perhaps with the popularity of this film, that series will become available in the United States.) There is, however, one welcome addition to the cast. Since some people saw Bill Nighy in LOVE ACTUALLY they have been dying to know where they could see more of this actor. Here he plays Philip, Shaun's stepfather. As soon as you see him you know in this movie he is destined to die and become a zombie. How could anybody put Nighy in a zombie film and not let him play a zombie?
This film brings to mind another odd take on Romero's zombie premise. In the 2004 French film LES REVENANTS directed and co- written by Robin Campillo the dead return as zombies who for once are benign. That film takes a serious look at the interpersonal and social effects of having the dead come back to life. Actually not all of the cleverness of SHAUN OF THE DEAD should be attributed to this production. The idea that many of the living are already zombie-like and might as well be dead really goes back to DAWN OF THE DEAD which itself had quite a bit of humor. This comedy also is reminiscent of the wickedly funny short DAWN OF THE NIGHT OF THE DEAD: THE MUSICAL.
SHAUN OF THE DEAD is a well-written satire taking the dead horror sub-genre of zombie films and, well, bringing it back to life. I rate it a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. [-mrl]
A CASE OF CONSCIENCE by James Blish (copyright 1958 by James Blish, Del Rey Impact Books (c. 2000), ISBN 0-345-43835-3, 242pp, $12.00) (book review by Joe Karpierz) :
Since I finished THE MACHINE CRUSADE at Worldcon, I wanted a significantly smaller book to read on the plane on the way home, so I packed with me the novel version of James Blish's A CASE OF CONSCIENCE. The novel version won the Hugo award back in 1959, and is an extension of his shorter work of the same name. This is another one of those classics that I had never read, so armed with recommendations from several friends I eagerly took up the task.
The story is an investigation of faith as it relates to science in the modern day world, and how it has an effect on Jesuit priest Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez. He is a scientist on a mission to explore the world Lithia as part of a team that will make a recommendation as to the suitability of the planet for human occupation. What he discovers about the planet and its inhabitants shatters his faith and eventually causes the fate of humanity to hang in the balance.
I found the first portion of the book, which I assume to be the original story, to be most engaging, thought provoking, and intensely interesting. The reasoning he uses to arrive at the determination that Lithia and its inhabitants are creations of the Devil (something else which shatters his faith, because according to doctrine the Devil is unable to create anything on his own) is a little foreign to me, because most modern day Catholics that I know of, of which I am one, just do not think that way anymore. But it's a fascinating look into Science and theology.
However, I thought the second part of the book was weak. The story picks up after the expedition gets back to Earth with a gift from one of the Lithians--his son in egg form. The gig is that Lithians go through the all the evolutionary phases in one lifetime, which is of course heresy in the eyes of the Church. The Lithian eventually becomes full grown and full of trouble, and promises to cause chaos if he is not stopped. The method by which he is stopped, and the way it is interpreted by Ruiz-Sanchez and by presumption eventually the Vatican, is a little too, uh, maybe trite is the word.
The novel as a whole is pretty good, though, once again proving that you can write a terrific novel in under 250 pages.
Back to newer stuff, I think.... [-jak]
I ♥ HUCKABEES (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: This weird comedic fantasy lampoons pop-philosophy and everything else within reach but wastes the talents of Dustin Hoffman. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
I ♥ HUCKABEES is a broad spectrum, anarchic farce taking scattergun aim at pop psychology, pop philosophy, consumerism, suburban blight, self-help programs, advertising, conservationists, Wal-Mart, and lot more. It takes special aim at the meaningless jargon and false analogies that so many use to explain the world to themselves. ("Have you transcended time and space?" "Uh, time yes. Not space.") David O. Russell co-wrote and directs. His last effort (THREE KINGS) was also weird but that was at the same time as sobering over all as this film is heady.
Albert Markovksi (played by Jason Schwartzman) is the founder of a conservationist coalition who is being forced out of his no-power position at the head by the shallow but attractive and very political Brad Stand (Jude Law). Albert wants the world to return to a clean, pure landscape, but he cannot think for two sentences without profanity. A business card in the pocket of borrowed jacket leads him to office two existential detectives who for a fee will spy on him and report to him how to align his life with their cosmic philosophy.
BEING JOHN MALKOVICH started anarchic and strange, but at a certain point stopped introducing new ideas and played with the rules it had already created. I (HEART) HUCKABEES never puts on the brakes. It is one surreal scene after another. While it seemed to be an audience pleaser, for me it never quite clicked into place, never quite worked. There were certainly some undeniably funny gags. In its unfocused way it milked some sacred cows and made cheeseburgers of others. I laughed at the portrayal of a self-help culture that reduces people to herds of sheep in search of a shepherd.
Top billing goes to Dustin Hoffman in a long 1960s hairstyle. He must have realized he was only tangential to this story and accordingly phoned in a performance well below his usual standard in better-written roles. For me this is a kind of irreverent, cynical, and bitter comedy I liked. Perhaps in a second viewing I will be able to better get in the mood. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
All too often, alternate histories focus on battles or military maneuvers. So it was encouraging to see Julie E. Czerneda and Isaac Spzindel's REVISIONS (ISBN 0-7564-0240-9), whose premise was alternate histories based on changes in scientific discoveries. Not all lived up to this, though. For example, "The Resonance of Light" by Geoffrey Landis has the scientific discovery, but then it gets all wrapped up in an assassination. It's not a bad story, but it falls into the same sort of track as so many others. Others fail because they make some unjustified assumptions, or because they fail to show how the alternate world is different from ours. There are some good stories mixed in, however. Some, like "The Ashbazu Effect" by John G. McDaid, work because simply they have an interesting scientific premise and follow through on it. Others, like Mike Resnick and Susan R. Matthews's "Swimming Upstream in the Wells of the Desert", work because they give the reader a well-drawn picture of the alternate world. And at least one, James Alan Gardner's "Axial Axioms", is very good in spite of the fact that it doesn't work as an alternate history story at all. In fact, it's not even a story, but more an alternate mathematical philosophy, or alternate philosophical mathematics, or *something*. (Read it, and then *you* try to define it.) Though the overall quality of this anthology is spotty, the fact that there is at least at attempt to look at alternate history from a different basis makes this worth looking at.
Melville Davisson Post's UNCLE ABNER: MASTER OF MYSTERIES (ISBN 0-486-23202-6) is yet another in Dover's reprints of classic mysteries. And like most of the rest, it is now out of print. Apparently the line did not appeal to enough readers, though given some of what Dover publishes, it's hard to imagine that at least some of the works included didn't reach the same level of interest/sales as an obscure tract by Leon Trotsky on why Communism was failing in Russia, or a book on the physics of soap bubbles. However, I can see why this particular volume might be discontinued. The "Uncle Abner" stories were written in the 1910s and are set in the Appalachian frontier in the 1840s and 1850s, and the setting and characters are the main appeal of the stories, rather than the mysteries themselves, which turn out to be fairly mundane.
The general library discussion group chose Kate Chopin's THE AWAKENING (ISBN 0-486-27786-0) for this month. I gather this is a mainstay in courses on feminist literature, but it failed to do much for me when reading it on its own merits. At the time of its publication in 1899, it was considered shocking, and while on an intellectual basis I see why, it fails to engage me emotionally in the main character's feelings. (This is one of that series of Dover "Thrift Editions" I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, which had a spike in sales when amazon.com was offering free shipping on orders of two or more books.) [-ecl]
[One of the books Evelyn is referring to in the second paragraph is the book SOAP BUBBLES by Boys, an important work on minimal surfaces. There would be a market among mathematicians. -mrl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Blackmore's First Law: People's desire to believe in the paranormal is stronger than all the evidence that it does not exist.
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