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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
12/31/04 -- Vol. 23, No. 27 (Whole Number 1263)
Table of Contents
Last week I mistakenly attributed a letter of comment to *Fred* Leisti. It was from *Frank* Leisti. (I did get the name right in the text body, if that means anything.) [-ecl]
The Sharper Image (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
As I write this I am on a plane to Nevada and looking at the Sharper Image catalog that the airlines has provided. I see several items for sale that tie into either fantasy or into recent issues of the VOID. One is that for $50 a piece you can get authentic drive-in movie speakers. I talked a while back in the VOID about this sort of speaker. I don't think these drive-in speakers were known for their tone. I seem to remember that if you turned up the volume frequently the sound would cut out altogether due to bad connections inside. Well, dogs chewed the cord, kids spilled their Cokes on them. You expect them to show some wear. It is a sad thing that they are disassembling drive-in theaters and selling off these parts.
In the catalog they are also selling The One Ring from LORD OF THE RINGS. They have done it in solid gold. If you are wondering, it will cost you $295 to get The One Ring but quantity discounts are available if you want to buy several of the One True Ring. Buy yourself a One True Ring and then be ready when your best friend tries to kill you for it. I wonder if they will sell you pieces of the True Cross.
The same catalog also offers "King Arthur's Excalibur--The sword extracted from the stone, making a boy a king." That's what they say. I don't know how accurate the decoration on the sword is. To me it looks like it must be from some later era. That may be acceptable. Malory's version of the Arthur story is full of anachronisms. But they will have a hard time convincing me they know anything about the Arthur legend if they conflate the two important swords in Arthur's life. Arthur received Excalibur from the Lady in the Lake in recognition of his purity. I don't know what happened to the Sword in the Stone but it did not become Arthur's legendary sword. It was not Excalibur. In the film EXCALIBUR they try to merge the two legends by saying it was Uther, Arthur's father, who got Excalibur from the Lady in the Lake and then it ended up in the stone through misuse. That is a clever idea to simplify the story. But Uther would never have been given Excalibur, the symbol of divine purity. Uther was anything but divinely pure and notice Arthur was an illegitimate son.
Flipping to later in the catalog there is a course in learning a language via immersion. You speak nothing but that language so you pick it up conversationally. The languages they offer include Latin. Is there still a conversational Latin that people learn and immerse themselves in? I mean this side of Oxford.?
Then there is a scooter offered. I am not talking about a motor scooter. I mean a scooter like I had as a kid. They have chromed it up and made it look fancy but it is still a scooter. Now almost my whole life I have thought of scooters as what kids use before they could balance on a bicycle. Showing an adult on a scooter looks a little retarded. Besides, it is not a real scooter unless it is red and ends up rusting in a garage. Besides, the scooter boom is over. I think it went the way of the Segway almost-boom.
What else do we have? Well they have a dog translator. You put this thing around a dog's neck. It fastens to his collar. It transmits to a portable pocket unit one of 200 messages your dog may be speaking to you. I wonder if one is "No, wait, that's not what I said." How do you verify what a dog is really saying? If you could tell what the dog meant, you wouldn't need a translator. I'm just suspect that if I got one for a dog all he would have to say to me is "I love you Master. You are so cool. I think you should shop at Sharper Image." I hate to be skeptical but I think that sometimes a woof is just a woof. I don't want to know what a dog is really thinking. I think that a lot of dogs are probably insincere sycophants anyway. I think what dogs tell each other is "look, he may be a turkey, but he has opposable thumbs and we don't, so stay on his good side and bide your time. Someday I have to have my own pack. Then we'll take him down and the biscuits will be OURS." I think we have only a fuzzy view of what dogs think. That would be the real sharper image.
In the meantime you can probably buy your dog a classy post for your back yard for your dog to anoint. A genuine drive-in movie speaker post. Speakers not currently included. [-mrl]
Letter of Comment (by various people):
Responding to Mark's simple question in the 12/10/04 issue ("When I decide to lift my arm there is a first atom in my arm that moves. What force is acting on that atom and how am I creating that force?"), Tom Russell writes, "All those who do not believe in 'mind over matter,' please raise your right hand."
Joe Karpierz wrote in his review of HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX in the 12/24/04 issue that he did not know what "N.E.W.T." stood for. David Goldfarb has the answer: "I don't think it's mentioned anywhere in book 5, but somewhere in book 1 or 2 it's given as 'Nastily Exhausting Wizarding Test'. (Possibly the most contrived acronym since 'Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law Enforcement Division', which has nowadays been changed to 'Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate'.)"
A LOVE SONG FOR BOBBY LONG (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: A young woman whose mother has died shares a home with two alcoholics who were friends of her mother. Their love of literature and their passion for life wears away at her suspicion and cynicism. The film has thick New O'leans texture, but there is never any question where the film is going. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
A few years ago I was asked who my screen heroes were. I chose Thomas More from A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS and Mr. Singer from THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER. When I saw the tagline for Bobby Long was "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter" I had hoped that this film would share the same style and values of that film. Sadly, it shares far to little. It has some of the tone and little else. It is thematically very different.
A LOVE SONG FOR BOBBY LONG starts out by showing us some people who you would cross the street to avoid and then tries to convince us to love these characters in spite of themselves. The action of this story begins with the death of a singer, Lorraine Will. The death brings together three people. They are two close friends of Lorraine and her estranged eighteen-year-old daughter. It takes a good long time before we realize that the title's Bobby Long (played by John Travolta) is into anything more than liquor (vodka and pickle juice???) and cigarettes and the occasional good book.
Scarlett Johansson plays Pursy Will who moves into her dead mother's New Orleans house and finds two alcoholics already living there. She resents their former relationship with her mother, their pointless existence (little worse than hers), and their vulgarity. She is determined to throw these two hangers-on from the home she thinks she has inherited.
Bobby Long it seems is an ex-professor of literature who retreated from the world into a self-destructive life style. Lawson Pines (Gabriel Macht) is an aspiring novelist whose has worked for years on a novel that is still not good enough. In this tumbledown house full of books Persy comes to know and go from hostility to love for these two devotees of great books and petty vices. Beyond Lawson's minimal efforts on his novel the two men seem to have given themselves over to drinking, sitting around, and giving each other inebriated wisdom. Persy openly resents these two men, but everybody knows or at least suspects where this story is going. The film proceeds to that end with the mood and pace of a blues song.
Travolta, with white hair, is trying to look like a man of letters who is trying to be a bum. The man of letters part seems strained but with the bum he goes over overboard. He and a circle of friends sit on junkyard furniture and Bobby pontificates, quotes major authors, and picks at a guitar. Travolta the actor is having a great time. Scarlett Johansson seems better suited to the acidic Perslane than to some of her previous roles.
In the end the film works or fails to work on the premise that someone with a love of great literature has Soul or something like it. But the film simply misses making Bobby Long as impressive or as likeable as the script calls for him to be. I suppose I consider his field of literature a better choice than rock music or drugs. But if freshman director Shainee Gabel--adapting the novel OFF EAST MAGAZINE ST by R. E. Capps--wants to convince us that Bobby Long is in some way admirable or even is not wasting his life, she fails.
The game of "identify the quote" adds a little fun to the film but over all this seems a vanity piece for Travolta. He is unconvincing as a great lover of literature. His singing sounds better to him than to me. The film is a good try, but it does not do what it sets out to do. I rate A LOVE SONG FOR BOBBY LONG a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10. [-mrl]
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: A valiant attempt to do this Shakespeare play while undercutting the story's prejudice, but Al Pacino's acting style is all wrong for the 16th century. Michael Radford tries valiantly but only semi-successfully to subvert and redirect Shakespeare's intent. Visually the film is quite impressive. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
Michael Radford adapts the controversial Shakespeare play THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, perhaps the hardest of the Bard's plays to do today. The issue inevitably arises as to the story's apparent anti-Jewish nature. Radford's adaptation tries boldly to minimize its anti-Jewishness. He shows Venetian society of the late 16th century to be far more vicious toward Jews than the Jews were in return. Short of not adapting the play at all--and nobody is advocating dropping the play from the Shakespeare repertoire-- there is little that can be done to eliminate the negativity toward Jews altogether. It would be a pleasant fantasy that William Shakespeare did not intend THE MERCHANT OF VENICE to be anti-Jewish and intentionally left ambiguity in the play so that it could be interpreted positively. In my opinion a reading of the play does not give that as the intention of the playwright. However, great actors have, from time to time, tried to take the role of Shylock and distort it sufficiently to make him seem honorable and upstanding. The simple fact is that Shakespeare was a man of his time and possessed attributes that today would be interpreted as faults. In spite of Shylock's protestations earlier in the play, in the courtroom scene it is very difficult to interpret him as having any decency. The best an actor can do is put as much emphasis as possible into the "Hath not a Jew..." speech and then underplay the courtroom scene.
Al Pacino, however, cannot underplay any scene. In the courtroom scene he is as detestable as Shakespeare would have wanted. Pacino has a very forceful presence. And though he is a good actor in a 20th century role, in my opinion he is much less appropriate for historical roles. Radford disproves the syllogism "Shylock requires a good actor. Pacino is a good actor. Therefore Pacino would be a good Shylock." He can possibly look right, but his voice style is all wrong.
Radford beautifully recreates Venice of 1586 with its somber chambers and its bare-breasted prostitutes. But the mood of light frivolity that Shakespeare intended for this "comedy" would be impossible for any director to achieve in the modern world.
The attempt to use modern diction is only partially successful. Listening seems more effort than it was in MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, which is my standard for making Shakespeare accessible. Also, perhaps Portia should have been cast as someone who could be a little more masculine-seeming. Lynn Collins is much too feminine to convincingly be taken for a male. I have said little about Jeremy Irons. His role curiously is not that pivotal. The only scene in which he does something noteworthy is when he spits on Al Pacino's Shylock. The part calls for someone who can spit on a Jew and still retain audience sympathy. Few could do it and the usually urbane Irons seems wrong. It is hard to think of Irons as anything but an elegant gentleman far above spitting on other people. Perhaps he carries with him too much dignity from previous roles. It is like seeing Laurence Olivier in a nude scene.
In spite of all Radford's attempts, this play reminds us that Shakespeare had bigoted opinions and while Radford does not, the play still has some of the original nastiness. I rate this adaptation +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10. [-mrl]
OPTICAL ILLUSIONS: LUCENT AND THE CRASH OF TELECOM by Lisa Endlich (copyright 2004, Simon and Schuster, 302pp, $26.95, ISBN 0-7432-2667-4) (book review by Joe Karpierz):
I'm fairly certain there are a lot of ex-AT&T/Lucent people that read the MT VOID. I know our illustrious leaders, Evelyn and Mark, are retirees of the place. There are others that are not so lucky--those that over the last 4 or 5 years have been let go by Lucent, as the company went from a high-flying telecommunications equipment provider to a shell of its former self, a company that once had over 125,000 employees, and now has something around 31,500. I was one of those people who was let go, back in November of 2003--and I've only recently found work, after more than a year on the unemployment rolls.
So when I found out that this book was being published, I was curious. What would an outsider know about the situation at Lucent? Many people asked me why I would care to read it; I responded that I had this insane curiosity about the story she was going to tell, and by the way, I actually did enjoy my time at Lucent. I've always said that I did great projects with fun people (hey, I know there are a few, but how many of you can say they worked on the Caller ID project?), and I still have fond memories of the place. So, while I was working my six-week stint at Barnes and Noble, I picked up the book with the help of my 30% employee discount.
I wasn't disappointed by what I read, but I wasn't bowled over, either.
Those who work(ed) there will find little or nothing new in the overall story, although some of the stuff that went on behind closed doors surprised me when I thought that nothing in this story could. There were a few things that were explained more clearly which caused me to internally go "ah-HAH, so THAT'S why that happened (in referring to the delayed spinoff of Agere and the lawsuit involving Nina Aversano, neither of which I understood fully at the time), but for the most part, the person on the inside will find this an accurate account.
Those who are on the outside looking in will find a fascinating tale of just how something that should have gone so well went so wrong so fast. The details surrounding Lucent's demise are staggering to me even now, and I lived them, as did others reading this review. Readers not familiar with the telecommunications or financial worlds will have no problems understanding what Endlich is saying--she is very clear and direct.
I do find some fault with the book, however, both in its craft and its presentation of certain individuals. As to the latter, Endlich paints the "early" Rich McGinn in a good light, and I don't remember *anyone* down in the trenches thinking that much of him back in the late 1980s/early 1990s. Additionally, many (but certainly not all) folks at my level thought highly of Henry Schacht when he took control back from McGinn, while Endlich does not paint a particularly rosy picture of him.
And here we come to the crux of my complaint with the craft of the book. It seems like Endlich decided that there wasn't much story to tell after McGinn was ousted as CEO. The book is divided into chapters that cover one year each, except for the last one, which covered 2002 and 2003. The chapters covering 2001 through 2003 seemed to be fluffy, with not as much investigation or in depth information being presented. And while the final chapter spends a goodly number of words on the Merrimack Valley manufacturing plant, no coverage whatsoever is given to what happened in other portions of the company, particularly in Illinois, where a tremendous amount of money was wasted on two gorgeous but unnecessary glass buildings (where up on the fifth floor there is a lovely little greenhouse effect that makes you want to put on a swimsuit and take a dip in a pool, or on the main level just off the lobby the bathrooms are done entirely in marble to impress customers), where the staffing levels dropped from some 12,000 or 13,000 across 8 buildings to roughly 5,000 that can't even fill 4 of those 8. No coverage was given to the outsourcing of work, which led to major layoffs in Illinois and Columbus, Ohio. Endlich focused on New Jersey but pretty much ignored the rest of the company.
Fascinating? Yes. Worth a read? Yes. Sometimes disappointing? Also yes.
Ah well, I rant. Read it--I think you'll like it. [-jak]
MONEYBALL: THE ART OF WINNING AN UNFAIR GAME by Michael Lewis (Books on Tape, pub 2003, 8 CDs, 9h36m, ISBN 0-736-69865-5, read by Scott Brick) (audio book review by Joe Karpierz):
My other passion in life, aside from science fiction, is baseball. I was brought up on the game. I played it as a child, and I've coached my children in either baseball or softball, and continue to do so. During the summer I live and breathe the game, and during the winter I can't wait for Spring Training (and can generally tell you how long until Spring Training starts). I read every bit of baseball information in the morning paper during the season, and revel in the Hot Stove League, going on right now, talking with other baseball enthusiasts about deals in the works and how the upcoming season is shaping up. I love putting on my glove and playing catch with my kids, and I love stepping into the batting cages when I take my kids there.
I dare say I love baseball more than I love science fiction.
Most folks are peripherally aware that there is yet another scandal rocking Major League Baseball right now--that of steroid use in the game. But in my opinion, in reality, the problems in today's brand of MLB stem from money. Lots of money. More money than you and I can imagine, and as science fiction fans we can imagine a lot. Player salaries are huge, and are getting larger every year. In order to convince owners to pay those salaries, many players resort to cheating, trying to get an advantage using illegal substances.
It's all about money.
MONEYBALL is all about money too, or the lack of it. MONEYBALL is generally about the Oakland Athletics and their General Manager Billy Beane, and how he builds the A's into a powerhouse without the large budgets of the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox, or the Los Angeles Dodgers. Billy Beane must make do with a very limited budget, so he sets out to change how a team is built, and thus rocks the foundations of the game.
Beane believes that the old way of building teams, sending scouts to scour the country, looking at ballplayers, getting gut feels, and sitting around a table putting together a draft list is antiquated and inefficient. Beane is new school. He relies on statistics--and not the glamorous ones of home runs, runs batted in, etc. Beane and his people are of a new breed, a breed of people that didn't play the game but understand numbers and their relationship to performance of both the team and the individual. And he builds his team around players that no one else wants because he sees things they don't, and he believes. And he should--the A's have won more games in the regular season over the last three or four years than any other team in baseball, with a significantly smaller payroll than almost any other team in the game.
This book certainly isn't for everyone. Most fans of the game should find this look at Beane and what drives him extremely fascinating. It is interesting to see how he deals with other GMs around baseball, how he convinces them that they want to give up certain players, how he swindles them, takes them for a ride. However, non baseball fans may find it a fascinating study of how to turn nothing into something, how to find holes in the existing way of doing things and take advantage of new ideas.
And Beane's ideas are starting find acceptance in the game. The Red Sox Theo Epstein, the youngest GM in the game, is said to be a proponent of Beane's methods, although he has more money to work with. And the Red Sox won their first World Series since 1918 this past season.
Again, it's not for everyone. But it's a great book.
Scott Brick does a decent and serviceable job of reading the material. Nothing outstanding, but I found no faults, either. There's not much more I can say about that. [-jak]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
"SARTOR RESARTUS is simply unreadable, and for me that always sort of spoils a book." --Will Cuppy
I picked up P. C. Doherty's THE HORUS KILLINGS (ISBN 0-425-18293- 2) at a dollar store, and while it was certainly worth that price, I didn't find it enthralling enough to recommend paying cover price. This may be a problem I have with mysteries in general. I generally see most of them as puzzles, and would not want to re- read them. The ones I would recommend would be the more literary ones that warrant multiple readings. (And I was pleased to read someone's description of John Dickson Carr recently as an author who wrote entirely for the puzzle aspect of how the murder was done, with no style or characterization or even much motivation. I thought I was the only one who thought that.) Anyway, this was what I would call a good "beach read" (or would have, before this week's events made beaches no longer the relaxing places they used to be).
Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone's previous books have been about books, book-selling, and book-collecting. OUT OF THE FLAMES: THE REMARKABLE STORY OF A FEARLESS SCHOLAR, A FATAL HERESY, AND ONE OF THE RAREST BOOKS IN THE WORLD (ISBN 0-767-90837-6) is a little about a book, but more about an important forbear of the Unitarian movement, Michael Servetus. The book was his "Christianismi Restitutio" ("Christianity Restored"), all copies of which were supposedly burned with him in 1553. However, three copies survived, and they bear witness to the fact that he not only led the way for a religious movement, but also understood the circulation of blood in the human body decades before William Harvey (who always gets credited with this discovery) wrote about it. This is a fascinating history of religion, science, and the interconnections between the two. My only complaint is the really long title. :-)
Shifra Horn's SHALOM, JAPAN (ISBN 1-57566-223-X) is a collection of essays about Japan by the wife of an Israeli diplomat who lived there for five years. The double translation (Japanese words into Hebrew and then into English) has resulted in some peculiar spellings (e.g., "Om Shinari-Kiu" rather than the more recognizable "Aum Shinrikyo"). Horn's comments are not always flattering, and many have complained about her stereotyping of the Japanese and her occasionally negative attitude. However, I found this collection valuable as providing an alternative viewpoint to the generally carefully diplomatic articles one usually sees, and Horn's negativity seems directed at societal mores that end up causing suicides or leaving the homeless to their fate rather than everything different. You may disagree with her at times, but she does give you food for thought. [-ecl] [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Sapolsky's Third Law: Often, the biggest impediment to scientific progress is not what we don't know, but what we know.
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