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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
01/21/05 -- Vol. 23, No. 30 (Whole Number 1266)
Table of Contents
For Whom the Gong Tolls (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Most people know the famous line from John Donne that says, "Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." His point is that we are all connected. We are all in this life together. It is very egalitarian. Most people never notice what a space cadet this guy Donne must have really been. Isn't he assuming that you HAVE someone to send out to waste his time appeasing your curiosity? Here is this shmoe who is so out of it he assumes everyone who matters has servants to send at his beck and call on petty errands. And he is the one telling you, "But, you know, we are all one humanity." What a twit. [-mrl]
Numb3rs (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Last week I admitted to being an obsessive-compulsive. Self- diagnosed, but it still was a little embarrassing. What hall I admit to this week? Well, since I was in junior high school I have been a mathematics geek. I think if you have been reading my columns for a while you knew that. Every once in a while I will write an editorial about how great mathematics is. I will tell how it is about the only thing you can study that will be true and useful all over the known universe. The problem is that I am not a geek because of a failing in me. I am a geek because most of the world seems to have very little interest in mathematics. It is the world, or at least the American public that considers mathematics fans as geeks. Pretty much by common consent Americans have decided that mathematics is a geek subject and people who like it are geeks. Kids who excel in sports are athletes, kids who are good in mathematics are geeks. I remember the year my high school was the champion of the Western Massachusetts Mathematics League and I was the top scoring mathematician, the principle announced the next morning on the intercom message that the high school soccer team had beat the junior high team on their own field. If we had beaten so many other schools in some sport like soccer EVERYBODY in the school would know about it and most would feel some pride. But if you celebrate sports you are celebrating young athletes. If you celebrating mathematics, people think you are cheering some pimply-faced misfits.
In the 1986 film PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED, the title character (played by Kathleen Turner) gets to go back in time and relive her senior year in high school. Given a mathematics exam she turns in a blank paper. When asked about it she says, "Mr. Snelgrove, I happen to know that in the future, I will never have the slightest use for algebra. And I speak from experience." It is the best- remembered line from the film. It is as remembered as the Barbie talking doll that said, "Math class is hard." (To which I respond, "Go for the burn, Barbie. Go for the burn.") Of course Peggy Sue never told her Phys Ed teacher that she would never need to know how to climb a rope or do a pushup again. She didn't question having to do that in Phys Ed class. Peggy Sue apparently was a woman who used her body a lot more than she used her mind.
Spurred on in part by the media Americans freely express their distaste for the subject of mathematics. And it shows. In a survey last year by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States ranked 28th out of 40 countries in mathematics for students of age 15. The results are at http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0923110.html. Look for us down there with tied with Spain and Latvia. We do much better at the Olympics. The American people would not stand for us doing equivalently poorly at the Olympics. Sports always seems to be a higher priority than mathematics in this country. I am sick of seeing mathematics run second to sports in people's minds.
This is why I am pleased to say there is finally going to be a TV program that will treat mathematics positively and will have a mathematician as a hero. Apparently Nicolas Falacci and Cheryl Heuton, a husband and wife team, wanted to make a television series with a hero like a Richard Feynman. You may remember Feynman getting up in front of the Challenger committee and demonstrating that when O-rings get too cold they get too stiff to be used and that this was the likely cause of the Challenger shuttle accident. Feynman made a heroic figure. The writers wanted a hero who used his mind to understand the world rather than his fists to fight bad-guys. Well, Heuton and Falacci could not sell a hero like Feynman to the networks. But they could sell heroes like they have on CSI. CBS likes crime shows. Their CSI: CRIME SCENE INVESTIGATION features scientific sorts of people solving crimes. CSI was so successful that it has tuned into three television series. The suggested idea offered as a hero a mathematician. Maybe they could create a sort of a mathematical knockoff of CSI.
To be fair I recently have seen two episodes of a series that shows the reasoning of a medical investigator trying to solve medical problems rather than doing something flashy like trying to catch criminals. The expository lumps are all fairly interesting and all about medicine. The program is called HOUSE, M.D. on the Fox Network and it does seem to champion analytical intelligence. It seems to be like CSI but the hero is a doctor and his opponent is disease rather than bad guys. But the network tries to hide that. Note the tagline: "Every week a new mystery...every week a new baffling case that only one team can solve." Wow!
But getting back to CBS, they were willing to buy this new cop show, NUMB3RS, in which there was an expert detective who was a mathematician who used mathematics to solve crimes. The idea is that there are two brothers, one an FBI agent and one a mathematician. They work together and use mathematics to solve their crimes. In the ad for the show they show a map of where some criminal has been operating and the mathematician is suggesting that he could work backwards to figure out where the criminal must live. The argument is probably specious, but it sounds good and it does use mathematics. Incidentally, a common panel at science fiction conventions these days is to have forensic experts tell you that CSI's science is pretty far off the mark also. Apparently CSI's detection is no more convincing to a forensic expert than James Bond's intelligence work is to a CIA operative.
NUMB3RS will premiere on Sunday, January 23 (10:00-11:00 PM) on CBS. Uh, for a show about the precise and exacting discipline of mathematics, the time that the program starts has to be only approximate. It seems NUMB3RS will be broadcast immediately following the AFC Football Championship. Dammit, there is sports stepping all over mathematics again. [-mrl]
Obsessive-Compulsiveness (letter of comment by David Kemp):
I really enjoyed your article on obsessive-compulsiveness in the VOID today. I just wanted to give you a tip: if you run the hot water tap in the bath tub to fill the watering can to water the plants first thing in the morning, then it heats up the water in the sink faster (so you don't have to wait) as well as removing the wait required for getting the water in your pipes warm for your shower. Then you can either let water the plants immediately or let the water stand so the chlorine migrates out of it and water them at your leisure later. Three birds with one stone--wonderful!!! (I really just wanted you to know that you're not alone.) [-dk]
DARWIN'S CHILDREN by Greg Bear (copyright 2003, Del Rey Ballantine Books, 387pp, SFBC Edition, ISBN 0-345-44835-9) (book review by Joe Karpierz):
DARWIN'S CHILDREN is the sequel to, or better yet, continuation of the story that began in DARWIN'S RADIO a few years back. At the time, I wrote that I really liked the novel, and thought it was the best of the Hugo nominees that year, up until that point. I'd also mentioned that there were a few things left unresolved. I'd also mentioned that it was the only stand-alone novel in that year's nominee list.
Well, if things are unresolved, a stand-alone novel won't be stand-alone very long.
And so we have DARWIN'S CHILDREN, which is every bit as good as DARWIN'S RADIO was--so much so that I'm now disappointed that it wasn't a Hugo nominee for 2003.
The setting is twelve years after the SHEVA virus was discovered and SHEVA children started being born. Stella, the child of Kaye Lang and Mitch Rafelson, is one of those "virus children", although I like the term Shevites that came up late in the novel. The children are feared and hated by "old-style" humans, who put them away in schools that are little better than prisons--and in fact some of the schools are using facilities that were old prisons. Children who are not in one of the schools are hunted down by EMAC, the emergency action committee, which is headed up at the start of the novel by Mark Augustine, who thought that the SHEVA virus was going to wipe out the next generation of children. Stella is one of those children who are not in one of the schools when the novel begins. Stella runs away from home, wanting to be with others of her kind--and this act of running away starts a chain of events that kept me wanting to read long after I should have been in bed (which is why I ended up sleeping on the train to work instead of reading).
The story is one of how two different groups of humans, who both distrust each other, through discovery and love come to realize that they should be working together instead of fighting each other and being separate. All of our old friends from the first novel are back. In addition to Lang, Rafelson, and Augustine, back for a second go around are Christopher Dicken and Rachel Browning, although Rachel doesn't have a really huge part to play.
Bear also manages to successfully weave all the scientific research he did on viruses into wonderful plot lines of the story, not the least of which is how we need viruses even to be born. That discovery, along with an archaelogical dig wherein two prior incarnations of Homo sapiens (sapiens and erectus) were discovered to be working together, and a mysterious visit from God to Kaye Lang make this novel intriguing. Now, I'll admit that the symbolism of Homo sapiens and Homo erectus working together is a bit heavy handed, but it's still a nice touch.
There are a few things left hanging again, and I wouldn't be surprised if there was one more Darwin novel. The story of the next generation of humans, the Shevites, and how they co-exist with old style humans may have some surprises in it. But the biggie is Lang's visit from God--that plot line is deliberately left hanging, and I suspect that will be the main topic of the next Darwin novel--if there is one.
DARWIN'S CHILDREN is highly recommended. [-jak]
DRACULA by Bram Stoker (Barnes and Noble Audio Classics, copyright 1980 by Recorded Books LLC, 15 CDs/18 hours, ISBN 0-7607-3477-1) (audiobook review by Joe Karpierz):
The last of my audiobook reviews (I now have a different job with a five-minute commute to the train station before an hour long ride to downtown Chicago, so I can catch up on printed books now) is of the Bram Stoker classic DRACULA.
Quite honestly, there's not horribly much to say about the story itself. Most people know it, or know of it. I had actually never read or listened to it before this--my only experience with the novel was with the Bela Lugosi film back in 1931, and the more recent film with Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins. The thing that struck me most was just how little Dracula himself is in the novel after the initial part of the story when Jonathan Harker travels to Castle Dracula in Transylvania to finish handling the purchase of an old house at Carfax for the Count. Most of the rest of story deals with how our heroes--Jonathan Harker, Mina Harker, Abraham Van Helsing (not the goofy Van Helsing of the recent Hugh Jackman vintage--and *Gabriel* Van Helsing--what was THAT all about?), Dr. Seward, Quincy Morris, and others - work their way around to figuring out how to do in the evil Count as he tries to move into London and eventually tries to get back to Transylvania.
The other thing that strikes me is just how atmospheric and psychological it was. It's amazing how a very haunting story can be mutated into some of the graphic gore that purport to be vampire stories today. The evil of the Count is more in the threat he poses--we rarely see him in the act of draining blood-- not unlike the movie "The Blair Witch Project", where all the scary stuff is happening off screen.
The other thing that struck me is how slow this novel moves at various points, mostly in the middle dealing with Dracula arriving in London, his attack on Lucy, Van Helsing confirming his suspicions that Dracula is indeed a vampire, and how our heroes go about getting on to the climax of the novel. The early entries in Mina's diaries and the letters from Lucy are awfully slow, although important. The most riveting portions of the story are the aforementioned beginning when Harker goes to Transylvania and is eventually caught in Dracula's snare, and the end, as our heroes force Dracula out of London and back to Transylvania, where they eventually slay the Count.
The real treat is in listening to the two readers, Alexander Spencer and Susan Adams. Spencer shows a wide range of vocal talent, ranging from standard British to Dutch to American while reading from the various journals and letters. I particularly enjoyed his interpretation of Van Helsing. Adams does an admirable job with the female parts, but by virtue of those parts being written is a less interesting fashion her opportunities are limited. However, her interpretation of Van Helsing as she is reading from her journal and quoting the doctor is absolutely outstanding.
This version of DRACULA is well worth a listen. Go to your local Barnes and Noble and pick it up today. [-jak]
KEANE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: A manic-depressive searches for his kidnapped daughter in and around New York's Port Authority. The film is much more realistic than entertaining. Rating: 0 (-4 to +4) or 4/10
The subject is mental illness in this film written and directed by Lodge Kerrigan. The film is set mostly in and around New York City's Port Authority building. William Keane (played by Damian Lewis of BAND OF BROTHERS) may or may not have been normal a few months ago when he lost his daughter, but he certainly is not now. His daughter was kidnapped several months earlier from the Port Authority building. Now he is fixated on finding her again. He searches the area over and over accosting strangers and asking if they have seen his daughter. In very long takes we see him stopping strangers, talking to himself, walking in traffic and in tunnels, and playing detective in his mind looking for his lost seven-year-old daughter. He seems to have become a familiar hazard to navigation in the area.
When he is not searching he is making a pest of himself haunting bars causing trouble. In one scene he goes to a prostitute and in just a matter of a few minutes himself persona non grata with her. He is the prisoner of his mania. Finally he starts to break out of this routine when he meets a young woman from the same cheap hotel where he stays. She has a daughter just about the age of the daughter he has lost. The anguish he feels for his daughter becomes a mania to help them.
Through much of the film not much happens and plot complications are slow in coming. Instead we are given long takes showing Keane behaving as a schizophrenic. His voice-overs put us in the mind of a manic-depressive and show us how he would be thinking. This is someone we have seen and most of us never look inside. But the film shows us his thought patterns in ways we have not seen before. The portrait is strong and very downbeat. It is a story rather than just a portrait of the illness, but it is too slow to be much of a story. I rate it a 0 on the -4 to +4 scale or 4/10. [-mrl]
MALE FANTASY (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Low-budget Canadian comedy has some funny moments, but is not up to the quality one would expect from a feature film. Rating: low 0 (-4 to +4) or 4/10
MALE FANTASY is yet another comedy about some luckless schnook hoping to get girls. To increase his chances he repeats over and over the affirmation "I am a god. I create this reality." Still the facts seem to bear the interpretation that he is no god. In the course of the film he tries several strategies to get women with varying success rates. Looking forlorn and asking strangers on the street, for example, gets him rejected every time.
MALE FANTASY was written and directed by Blaine Thurier who previously directed LOW SELF-ESTEEM GIRL. Some of the scenes are reminiscent of Dudley Moore in BEDAZZLED. The humor is at least at times good but the film overall is not very polished. If it was not a Canadian film it would probably not have played at the Toronto International Film Festival. Except for being a little racy, it really is very much standard fare. I rate it a low 0 on the -4 to +4 scale or 4/10. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Of the Sherlockian Canon, all are told by Watson except for three stories. "The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier" and "The Adventure of the Lion's Mane" are told with Holmes as the first- person narrator, and "His Last Bow" is told by an anonymous third-person narrator. All three seem awkward because of this; the reader desperately wishes for the "comfort" of the Watsonian narration. Theodore Riccardi's THE ORIENTAL CASEBOOK OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (ISBN 1-4000-6065-6) is a collection of stories set during the Great Hiatus (the three-year period when Holmes was presumed dead, but was actually traveling in the East). So Watson was not present during any of these cases. But Riccardi mostly avoids the problem of Holmes recounting the story as a first-person narrative by having Watson write most of the stories after Holmes tells it to him. It sounds clumsy when one describes it that way, but it is not in execution. The book is weakest when he falls back on first-person Holmesian narrative. There are also more coincidences than I'm entirely comfortable with, and given how many people seem to know that Holmes is still alive, it's amazing that word did not get back to Watson.
Aaron Lansky's OUTWITTING HISTORY (ISBN 1-56512-429-4) is the story of the National Yiddish Book Center from its origins in 1977 when he was just trying to collect Yiddish books for his classes in Montreal, through 1997, when the current National Yiddish Book Center opened. As Lansky has repeatedly said, when he started collecting Yiddish books to save them from being thrown out by people who didn't care about them, experts believed that there were no more than 70,000 Yiddish books in the world. So far, Lansky has collected, digitized, and re-distributed a million and a half. (Yiddish is the first language to have been completely digitized. All the NYBC's books are available as print-on-demand books, and will soon be available, free, on the Web.)
Lansky tells about some amazing stories about last-minute rescues, when people called in the middle of the night to say they had just discovered thousands of Yiddish books in a dumpster due to be hauled away the next day unless someone picked them up immediately.. But he tells other stories, such as being called by an old man in Atlantic City to come pick up some books. He arranged a few other stops in the area, then drove from Massachusetts to the high-rise where the man lived. He couldn't just pick up the books, though; the man insisted on serving him tea and telling him the history of each book. After a few hours, they finished and Lansky got ready to leave, but then the man tells him that he can't leave yet, because he told everyone in the twelve-story building about him--and they all have books for him. I'm sure some will see this as a very self-congratulatory book, but since Lansky has received (among other recognitions) a McArthur "Genius Grant", he's entitled. My main complaint is that there is no index.
(Disclaimer: We've been supporters of the National Yiddish Book Center for about fifteen years now, and even served as delivery agents, carrying a parcel of books to Vilnius University in Lithuania in 1994 because the NYBC could not trust the postal service there at that time.)
At $55, Tom Johnson and Mark A. Miller's CHRISTOPHER LEE FILMOGRAPHY (ISBN 0-786-41277-1) is probably too expensive for the casual reader or film-goer. (We got ours used at a convention.) But it is a valuable resource, not just for people interested in Christopher Lee, but also for people interested in the filmmakers that Lee has worked with, and in the business in general. For example, Lee recounts a couple of times when he was given a script with a part which he agreed to play, and then later discovered that his innocuous speeches were inter-cut with scenes of a Satanic orgy or some such, making it appear he had actually been in that scene. (Or the time that a still from a movie of him as a detective leaving a pornography store was printed in the newspaper purporting to be of him as himself in real life leaving a pornography store!) For each film there is a list of credits, a synopsis, commentary on the film, and comments by Lee himself. (There are a few films for which Lee doesn't comment, usually minor films in which he had very small roles.) Recommended, but expensive. (If McFarland brings out a trade paperback edition, that will be more reasonably priced.) [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Gilbert's Law: Happy people are those who do not pass up an opportunity to laugh at themselves or to make love with someone else. Unhappy people are those who get this backwards.
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