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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
02/18/05 -- Vol. 23, No. 34 (Whole Number 1270)
Table of Contents
Puppy Starter Kit (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
A pet dealer was advertising what they called a "Puppy Starter Kit." I think what they send you is two older dogs. [-mrl]
Those Eyes That Follow You Around (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I was reading an article recently and somebody talked about seeing a photograph of somebody who had died many years before. The author used a phrase that I often find applied to paintings and to photographs that always gets my goat a little. What the author said was that the woman in the photograph had an ethereal quality with a strange smile and eyes that looked at the viewer and mysteriously seemed to follow the viewer around the room. It is that last part that I want to comment on. We have all seen or heard of pictures in which one of the subjects has eyes that mysteriously follow the viewer around the room. For reasons I will explain this never struck me as being at all mysterious. I will tell you why not. The person I have to thank for making it all clear to me is a gunslinger named Paladin.
Some of you may be old enough to remember in the late 1950s on CBS the Saturday night lineup included back-to-back two Westerns. Everyone I knew watched these two programs every Saturday evening. One was HAVE GUN, WILL TRAVEL, and the other was GUNSMOKE. That was always our Saturday night TV fare. HAVE GUN, WILL TRAVEL starred Richard Boone as Paladin, "a fast gun for hire" with an aristocratic air. He dressed entirely in black and carried at his waist a black, single-action Colt .45 with a long, rifled barrel. Each program would start with a teaser. The program opened with the camera gazing at Paladin, but not his face. You were looking side-on at Paladin's midsection and the Colt hanging from his gun belt. (As just a wee lad, the Freudian symbolism in the picture never would have occurred to me.) Then Paladin draws his gun and aims it right at the viewer and delivers a teaser. The teaser is some dramatic line of Paladin's dialog from the script. Something like "You came to this town with no plan but to use that pistol of yours. You have two choices. You can leave town the way you came or you can use it--NOW." Hot Dang that was dramatic! I tell you Richard Boone can really deliver a line like he is throwing a dart. But as I say the gun is aimed right at the viewer. Wherever you are in the room it looks like he is aiming the gun directly at you. My brother and I used to run around the room for those ten seconds and verify, "Yeah he's aiming it at me here." "Yeah, he's aiming right here."
Even then we knew why that worked. When they filmed Richard Boone (or perhaps his body double) he was aiming the gun directly dead square center at the lens of the camera filming him. They filmed the front of the barrel but not the sides. And that was what was on the screen. We could run around the room as much as we wanted and we would never see the side of that barrel because it simply was not there on the screen.
And the picture with the mysterious eyes works by much the same principle. The mysterious woman in the photograph is short or in the painting is painted looking directly at the viewer. There was white painted in her eye was on either side of her pupil. If from one angle she is looking directly at the viewer, she is looking at him or her no matter from what angle she is being seen. As long as the picture is flat there is no mystery. The eyes either always look directly at the viewer or they never do.
Now in the Haunted Mansions at Disneyland and Disneyworld they manage to do something the same in three dimensions. They have in the mansion three-dimensional reliefs of human faces and as you move to the right, they move to the right to follow you. This is actually a very clever trick. How do they do this? It looks like the face sticks out of the wall and is lit from the left when it is really sunken into the wall and lit from the right. You are really looking at a hole in the wall, like the negative of a life-mask. Suppose you are right in front of it and moving to the right. Remember the face is sunk into the wall. The near cheek is disappearing behind the rim of the hole. You are seeing the far cheek more square on. The effect is that head has not just followed you but has gone beyond you. The near cheek is disappearing and you are seeing more of the far cheek. The eye sees that as the head having turned to follow you.
The effect will be somewhat better if you are looking with only one eye. If you are two close and looking with two eyes your depth perception will give the illusion away. Depth perception is a funny thing. It can easily be fooled. I have heard it claimed many times that if you have only one eye you do not have depth perception. That is absurd. It is true that when you look with two eyes the fact that your eyes are looking from two different angles gives you a lot of your perception of depth. But someone who has lost an eye has not really lost all of his depth perception. If he had he probably would be unsafe to drive. Your brain gets a lot of clues about depth from parallax, that is seeing from two different angles. But how the light plays on an object and what your eye sees as being in and out of focus will also give you clues about depth. And if your eye is moving relative to the object you basically are getting parallax from a single eye. I am told one benefit that pigeons get from bobbing their necks when they walk is that they get depth perception. Their eyes are set in such different directions that almost none of their field of vision is being seen with two eyes at once. But when they walk they bob their heads and essentially are constantly changing the angle from which they are seeing the world around them. That gives them a much better sense of depth. Your mind determines information about depth of information based on the best data it has. When you look at a photograph it looks flat to you because while focus and light are giving you information about depth. But your other eye is seeing the photograph from a different angle and since it is seeing the same scene it tells your brain to ignore the lighting and just pay attention to the angle information. That tells your brain that the image is really flat. You frequently get a better feeling of three dimensions by looking with only one eye.
I actually use this principle sometimes when I am watching a film. Particularly if a scene is spectacular I will close one eye and see it only with one eye. Having lost its parallax, my brain makes sense of the scene figuring depth based on lighting, etc. The picture pops into a better 3-D image than I have ever gotten with special 3-D glasses. For some reason I have not determined the picture looks smaller. But it also looks like a three dimensional image. And because the picture does not look flat, it is even more convincing if the eyes follow me around the room. [-mrl]
Computer Auctioning (letter of comment by Frank R. Leisti):
I read your description of computer auctioning [02/11/05 issue] and recalled that there was a book written by Cordwainer Smith called THE PLANET BUYER. The plot covers a person who has an extremely smart computer system, which when given direction to buy something big (the owner was a little drunk), spends the next 24 hours wheeling and dealing, and finally when the drunk computer owner wakes up, he discovers that he now owns the Earth. The rest of the story deals with his visit to Earth to see what it was that he purchased. [-frl]
Computer and Internet Security (letter of comment by Bill Higgins):
Mark wrote [in the 02/04/05 issue], "I asked if Netscape Navigator (Evelyn's choice) and Opera (mine) are safe browsers to use. Netscape 4.2 was fairly secure. (What are we talking? 1997?); later versions of Netscape are not. The Opera Browser actually has pretty good security, the panelists thought. That's a relief."
Bill Higgins responded, "Opera may be free of data-mining, aggressive advertising, Parasites, Scumware, selected traditional Trojans, Dialers, Malware, Browser hijackers, and tracking components. But beware. It could still have a Phantom." [-bh]
KINDLING by Mike Farren (letter of comment by Joseph T. Major):
In response to Evelyn's comments on KINDLING in the 02/11/05 issue, Joseph T. Major writes:]
I bought THE KINDLING at Noreascon, for half-price (someone was selling a review copy). Won't get the second book unless I hear it's much better. First off, it's one of those books where "The Evil Overlord is going to crush the Free People and the only ones who can stop him are a disparate band of adventurers gathered together in the face of adversity." Was this The Plot of The Year the editors were buying? There must have been a dozen books published with this plot recently. Trying to imitate Tolkien without doing the work? Second, [SPOILER] I figured out that the Evil Overlord and the Secret Good Guy are both swapping bodies to stay alive as they do. Nice work if you can get it. At the climax it'll probably turn out that they were brothers but one went Good while the other went Bad, like in those sappy family sagas. [-jtm]
The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (letter of comment by Kenn Barry):
[In response to Mark's review of THE WILD PARROTS OF TELEGRAPH HILL in the 02/11/05 issue, Kenn Barry writes:]
I'd heard of the flock, but not the film. Since I now live out in Albuquerque, I guess I'll have to wait for cable or DVD, but it sounds like something I'd like.
The way I hear it, conures were often called parakeets before Americans started using that name for Australian budgerigers. I hear (not authoritative) that "parakeet" can be applied to any small parrot with a long tail.
[Mark: "I had to do a little research for the article. wikipedia.com calls them 'large New World parakeets.'"]
There are many local legends as to where the parrots came from, but nobody knows for sure. They were probably born wild, were captured by the pet industry and taken as pets, and then escaped somehow. Either that, or were born in captivity for the pet industry, and escaped. Importing of wild parrots has been outlawed here for many years, and most parrots sold as pets were born and raised in captivity.
[Mark: "That is possible, I suppose. The film seems to say they were born in the wild, but I am not sure why they say that. It is something the subject character says."]
The film is released at a time when avian intelligence is a very topical subject. There was a good article in the NY Times about this in the past couple weeks. Don't have a URL, but it's recent enough you could probably find it.
[Mark: "I was thinking of putting a reference for that article with the review. But I did not think it would stay around. The NYT makes them available for a week or two and then charges for access. If the subject interests you, you might like MIND OF THE RAVEN: INVESTIGATIONS AND ADVENTURES WITH WOLF-BIRDS BY BERND HEINRICH. I was a little disappointed that it talked more about behavior and not a lot about the implications, but you might find it interesting."]
The idea that birds' brains are simple is giving way to increasing respect. Last year a crow was observed to actually forge a tool to solve a problem. This week I read an article that said that by some measures birds have been seen to show intelligence beyond that of non-human apes. There are birds, notably crows and parrots, that are now thought to rival chimpanzees for intelligence. Not just corvids and parrots. The starling family (which includes the Mynah) are very intelligent as well. Anyway, no news there to those of us who own (or, as we often say, are owned by) parrots. We've got a Congo African Grey named Jane.
[Mark: "Some African Greys demonstrate supposedly strong (human) language skills. Does Jane talk?"]
Bittner finds the birds to be very emotional animals, considered by some to be a controversial observation. Again, no news to parrot owners. Greys can be especially moody, more so than other breeds. Anyone who has owned a parrot knows they have feelings. Indeed, I'm surprised this is considered controversial. Sure, it's understandable that we doubt the intelligence of other species, but emotions?
[Mark: There is a strong and self-serving urge to treat animals as little machines who almost never have feelings and emotions. Certainly it is felt that their feelings need not take much consideration. I am not very active or even adamant about it, but scratch me deep enough and I think that animals are treated extremely immorally by our society. By humanity in general."]
I suspect the study of birds has been too long left to hobbyists and amateurs, people who can be ignored. I for one am glad they're becoming more a subject of serious study. I sometimes feel that knowing a bird is the closest I'll ever come to knowing an extraterrestrial. They certainly do think and feel, but the *way* they think is so different from us, different even from dogs and cats, that it remains interesting and mysterious to me to try to reason back to their thoughts from their behavior. I will never figure them out.
[Mark: "I think my wife and I may be too lazy to have pets :-). I envy your having Jane. She must be fascinating. You know what is a really fascinating animal? Very intelligent, very alien? The octopus. Now there is a really clever and curious (in the sense it has curiosity, not that it is one)."]
Other issues concerning the birds is if they should be allowed to stay in the city or removed because they are a non-native and invasive species. As I understand it, that Telegraph Hill flock has been around for many years, and has not grown noticeably. But I suppose that wouldn't stop some misdirected do-gooder from deciding Something Must Be Done.
It sounds like you must have already heard of Dr. Irene Pepperberg and her famous African Grey, Alex, but I mention them just in case.
[Mark: "Yes, but never in great detail. I want to read more. I think it was her work that I was talking about above."]
Anyway, thanks for posting the review, and I'll definitely keep my eye out for the film. [-kb]
ZEBRAMAN (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Capsule: An elementary-school teacher sews for himself a suit of a 1960s superhero and through a weird chain of events accidentally elects himself to become that superhero. This is a dark and yet playful look at the superhero genre. ZEBRAMAN is a kick. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
The year is 2010. Shinichi (played by Sho Aikawa) is a second-rate third-grade teacher who gets no respect from his family and little from his students. It is not a pleasant life and he escapes it with his hobby, a sort of media fandom. It seems that in 1978 there was a TV superhero named Zebraman on a show that was cancelled after only seven episodes. But unlike most of the rest of the world, the young Shinichi became fascinated by the hero. The show was set in 2010 so Shinichi is particularly fascinated this particular year. He sews himself a makeshift Zebraman costume. All this is intended to be just a little harmless escapism allowing him to dress up like a superhero. But he did not know that the stories of Zebraman and his strange alien enemies were actually prophecy and that by making his Zebraman suit he elected himself the fulfillment of those prophecies. Now he must be the super-hero of his fantasies or let the Earth fall to cute little green aliens bent on conquering our green world. In a way the plot is reminiscent of GALAXY QUEST. Somehow his story ties in with a series of crimes perpetrated by an evil man in a crab mask. The two connect with a secret government investigation into little green alien men who are just head, arms and legs and who can melt into a sea of protoplasm. What can it all mean? In some ways the film's surreal style evokes a sort of BUCKAROO BANZAI feel.
This is a film that takes a psychologically dark yet whimsical (and sometimes very funny) aim at Japanese superhero films and comics with a well-placed zebra hind-kick. The world it is set in straddles the gap between a realistic one and the world of Japanese superhero TV, a gap similar but much bigger than the one our Spider Man bridges. Watch for some little film references for films like THE RING.
Takashi Miike directs from a screenplay by Kankuro Kudo. Miike has directed a multitude of films in many styles, but most recently bizarre and tongue-in-cheek films that are popular in Japan. Until now his best know film from the United States has probably been the really bizarre satire THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS though several of his (yakuza) crime films are also popular, including ICHI THE KILLER. Most of his films seem to go in for graphic violence. Here the violence is more comical and never graphic enough to be more disturbing than what is in a Roadrunner cartoon. Toward the end of the film the words stop coming and the story is told mostly by images. My recommendation is not to expect too much logic. Just take the ride for the fun of it.
As of February 2005, ZEBRAMAN has officially shown only at film festivals in North America, but it is a lot of fun and deserves to be seen in release. I rate it a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. [-mrl]
IMAGINARY HEROES (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
[This review originally ran in the 12/17/04 issue of the MT VOID, but is being re-run since the film is opening this week.]
CAPSULE: Like ORDINARY PEOPLE, this is a film about how the loss of one son in a family affects the entire family, but particularly the surviving son. Unlike ORIDINARY PEOPLE, the parents are really just a little too weird and the whole film is hard to warm up to. Rating: low +1 (-4 to +4) or 5/10
A suicide in a well-to-do suburban family reveals weaknesses under the surface that threaten to destroy the family. The film written and directed by Dan Harris strongly recalls Robert Redford's ORDINARY PEOPLE but comes a long way from measuring up. The title almost sounds inspired by that film. This family is even more severely dysfunctional. Sigourney Weaver plays Sandy Travis, a woman who is irrepressible, irresponsible, and self-indulgent. Ben Travis (played in a rare unsympathetic role by Jeff Daniels) has lived through his older son Matt's glory as a champion swimmer. He never asked if Matt wanted to be a swimmer. With the loss of Matt he emotionally disconnects himself from his family. Between the two parents there was little support for Matt who eventually ends his own life. But the focus of the story is on Sandy Travis and on Tim Travis (Emile Hirsch), the Travis's other son--the one not a star at anything--who is neglected by the parents for being just average. Nobody in the family connects with anyone else and each person takes drugs of some sort to avoid his own emotional problems.
Sandy and Ben each believe in no rules but his own. Ben insists that reverence be shown for the dead Matt by serving portions for him at every meal. Sandy is shocked when her neighbor buys a new gas grill. "She doesn't have a husband and she buys a new grill!" In fact, there is a small war brewing between Sandy and the neighbor. Sandy is cold to her family but defends them like a mother bear. In one case when she thinks her son is being bullied she goes to his home and is absolutely savage attacking the bully and his mother.
Dan Harris who wrote and directed seems like an unlikely author for this material. He co-wrote the script for the film X2: X-MEN UNITED. He is working on screenplays for SUPERMAN RETURNS, LOGAN'S RUN, and ENDER'S GAME (also science fiction). Here he directs a film that in spite of the title is a drama rather than a fantasy. Occasionally his direction seems a little gimmicky. We see one subjective shot from the inside of a microwave oven, for example. It is not a grievous fault, but it was a distraction as I asked myself, "What am I doing in a microwave oven?"
IMAGINARY HEROES solicits our emotions but never really delivers the impact the film needed. The people do not really seem to know each other and at the end of the film I was not sure I knew any of them either. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Jacques Futrelle's "THE THINKING MACHINE" (ISBN 0-8129-7014-4) (edited by Harlan Ellison) includes the most famous of the stories about Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen ("The "Thinking Machine"), "The Problem of Cell 13", as well a selection of other stories. While some of the stories have interesting twists, none of them are up to "Cell 13", and all of them are pretty unlikely if you think about them. For people who are curious about the evolution of the detective story (and the puzzle story), I suppose this as good a selection as any, but I think the average reader could give this a miss. (Ellison apparently wanted to re-title many of the stories, but in several cases his suggested title gives away the "twist". so if you read this, I'd suggest not reading his list until after you read the stories.)
Our discussion group read John Steinbeck's CANNERY ROW (ISBN 0- 14-018737-5). One thing that stuck me of interest to fantasy fans was that Steinbeck's description of the "Chinaman" in Chapter 4 seemed like the inspiration for Jack Finney's Dr. Lao.
When I finished Plutarch's life of Pericles, I said, "I don't remember Shakespeare telling that story," so I re-read Shakespeare's PERICLES (ISBN 0-140-71469-3), and it was completely different--just the name was retained. Plus Shakespeare had the usual set of anachronisms: references to being within pistol-shot, Latin mottoes on shields, a whole feudal structure of knights that never existed in ancient Greece, a reference to the title page of a book (in ancient Greece?), and so on. But with CORIOLANUS (ISBN 0-140-71473-1) Shakespeare sticks reasonably close to the historical figure. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: When ideas fail, words come in very handy. --Goethe
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