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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
11/18/05 -- Vol. 24, No. 21, Whole Number 1309
Table of Contents
A Question for Bird Experts Out There (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
In our neighborhood we seem to have a lot of very clumsy birds. I feed them on the back patio and this may mean we have a lot of birds taking flight very near the house, but they seem all the time to fly into our patio window. You think of birds being graceful in flight, but in New Jersey we must have the most inept and maladroit birds in the world. We hear a bang on the window and when we go to look there is nothing to see. The bystanders are all trying to look dignified and pretending that no thing happened. I am supposed to assume the house is settling or something.
It is not like they are getting confused because the curtain is open and they think that the glass is clear air. In fact, it usually happens when the curtain is closed. From the outside the window looks like a wall. They are not getting confusing data, they are just dumb, clumsy birds who fly into windows. They are not very bright in general even with two feet on the ground. We will come home and find a lot of bird dropping on a backyard wall that were not there before. They were just playing some stupid game and we are left with the mess.
Is there any special sort of seed we should be getting to put on the patio that will attract a more erudite class of birds? Or are we forever to be lumbered with these losers? (Note I am carefully avoiding the standard cliched anti-avian epithet "b--d "br--ns.") [-mrl]
My Thoughts on Gambling (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
My friend says that she has taken up playing a few games of Bingo. Somehow that is not my kind of game. I don't think of it as much of a game at all. Think about what you do when you play Bingo. You have a set of cards and people call out numbers and you look at your cards to see if the number appears there. If the numbers appearing there line up to form a very simple pattern on your card and they do it before anyone else's do, you have won. Other than the element of luck and the very slight mathematical excitement of seeing a bunch of spots that form a straight line, it is looking for numbers in a list. It is like clerical work. It is worse than clerical work. If you had a job looking down lists to see if numbers appear there or not you would think it is dehumanizing, demeaning work. Because you have a lucky number finder who gets a prize it is considered great fun.
Maybe there is a lesson there. Well, a lot of people moiled for gold. That was difficult, painful, laborious work, but some people won a prize at the end so they figured it was worth it. In fact, Bingo is not the only example. There is a whole industry in New Jersey in which you provide people with a machine. They sit there putting in their own quarters--*their own quarters*--in the hopes that the tumblers on the machine will come up matching. And if one of a few patterns comes up they will get some quarters back, usually no more than they put in. But because there is a chance that they will get a bunch of quarters back and at the same time hear loud noises from the machine, they keep doing it. And it is even considered "a good time."
If you think about it, most gambling games have little strategy. It is just sitting there doing some demeaning laborious task, like you do on a slot machine. Some give the feeling that there is some strategy. Take Roulette. There are all sorts of people who think that there is some secret mathematical strategy. Well you have two cases. One is that the gambler is deluding himself or herself. The numbers that come up are totally random, and the house makes the profit on the law of large numbers. The rules for payoff are what would be fair if there were not zero and double-zero slots. Because there are those slots, the mathematical expectation is that overall it will make a certain percentage on average on each bet that is placed. Then the casino just sits back and waits for the mathematical Law of Large Numbers to fill their pockets. For every $38 bet they will pay out $36 and pocket $2. There may be some intervals of time in which they are not making as much due to statistical anomalies, but they will be balanced against statistical anomalies in their favor. The casino doesn't care. Over the long run they will make very close to the expected profit. And they are in it for the long run. And the gambler is really just living a dream that there is some sort of formula there.
But I said there was another case. There may in fact be some ways to beat the odds on a roulette wheel. You don't want to play that sort of roulette wheel unless you are sure that somebody like Humphrey Bogart is going to come out and ask you if you have bet *on 22 tonight*? If you don't have a Humphrey Bogart guardian angel, you don't want to play roulette with that kind of a wheel. Without the angel you are better off on a purely random wheel. I would say that in places like Atlantic City the wheels you are likely to run into are not this sort of roulette wheel, but I bet that there are some fixed wheels that are used on the public in Atlantic City. And that is one bet I think I am likely to win. There is an attitude in gambling that cheating that you are not caught doing does not count as cheating. This in itself would be enough to discourage me from playing.
There are, of course, games of gambling in which you can significantly improve your odds. There is a strategy to poker and part of it involves good acting. That probably makes poker a more interesting game, but not so interesting that it is something that adapts well to television broadcast. We were getting a sandwich at a local sub shop and they had on a celebrity poker game. BOR-ING. They finally found a televised game that is duller than golf. There is a difference between what makes a good game and what makes a watchable game. Unless you are deeply into golf or poker, you probably would do better watching test patterns. (Can you still get test patterns on TV?)
There may be a lesson in that for American management in the fact that people are willing to go through demeaning boring tasks in the hopes of winning something. More rewards might motivate employees more. Actually these days my message to American management would be that actually delivering on the pensions they promised would be a big motivator. Because these days the real high-stakes gambler is the corporate employee who has gambled his future on the integrity of his company. [-mrl]
Still Too Clever by Half (comment by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Another note on "Law in a Flash: Torts" ('95-'96 Edition) (described in the 11/04/05 issue of the MT VOID):
Card 259 says, "Pliny is driving his chariot through Pompeii, and negligently bumps into Unfortunius, injuring him. As Unfortunius hobbles away in pain, Mount Vesuvius erupts nearby. Had unfortunius not been injured, he could easily have run to the sea and escaped the wrath of the volcano; in his injured state, though, he is buried in lava and dies. Is Pliny liable for his death?"
First of all, it's not clear that reaching the sea would save Unfortunius--he would still have to contend with the suffocating ash and poisonous fumes. But the writer also doesn't deal with the question of what it means for Pliny to be liable--since he is also dead. Pliny, in fact, was one of the earliest recorded "martyrs to science", being overcome by the fumes of Vesuvius when he went ashore to determine the cause of the eruption. [-ecl]
Blood Types (letter of comment):
As a follow-up to his letter in the 11/04/05 issue of the MT VOID, our anonymous reader and Mark had the following exchange:
AR: "Back to the vampire thing . . . human blood donors and acceptors . . . . The reason your argument works with versions of Microsoft programs is because Bill Gates is an "intelligent designer" (God) who controls the content of the programs and who insists on compatibility testing."
MRL: "That is not how I picture it working. He keeps the old code (maybe tightening it a little) and adds new code for the new features."
AR: "Suppose Bill Gates out-sourced his software upkeep work to a zoo-full of monkeys sitting at computer keyboards. If a Microsoft program were subjected to modification by random change, then, ignoring "child" programs that are unable to operate at all, many child programs would be unable to "receive donations" from the original, parent, program."
MRL: "Not necessarily. It would be true if they were writing from scratch each time. That is now what is happening. The old documents are compatible with the new software because the old code is part of the new code."
AR: "Features in the parent program may be non-existent or inoperable in a child program, causing the child program to "crash" if it were to be used with data from a parent program."
MRL: "In neither software nor evolution does this happen. Generally you get positive changes by small tweaks that add up over time."
AR: "What other than a need to be compatible with older versions of the program would cause a user to throw away an otherwise perfectly operating version of the software?"
MRL: "A desire for the new features. In the genetic sense the new features come by mutation and there is no choice."
AR: "Incompatible later versions of the software would not be "selected against" in the Darwin sense."
MRL: "I cannot say I follow your argument. What point are you making."
AR: "Similarly, in human blood types what constrained the random mutations over the thousands of years of evolution to be limited in such a way that we now have 'universal donors' and 'universal acceptors?'"
MRL: "They don't have to be constrained at all to have this. Occasional random mutation does this. If one line of descent developed A factors, they are in the blood and they do not work in systems that do not have them. They may still be able still to receive blood that does not have them, but their blood is tainted with the A factors and can be given only to other people who can handle A factors."
MRL: "Another, perhaps simpler example. Suppose when I get a plate of food I always douse it in hot sauce. I can accept food from anyone in my family and getting food from them I also immediately douse it in Agonies of Death Hot Sauce. I am a universal acceptor. But once the food has touched my plate, anyone else who tries it thinks their mouths have been attacked by ravenous army ants. I can only donate to someone else as masochistic as I am and who also douses their corn flakes or whatever in Agonies of Death Sauce. Suppose Gertrude (not Evelyn's real name) likes her food bland. Anything much spicier than Cream of Wheat bothers her. Gertrude is a universal donor. Anyone can eat what was on her plate even if it is boring. She cannot receive from me but I can receive from her."
AR: "I can only think of vampires - or maybe cannibalism."
MRL: "That's a peculiar neurosis. What happens when you try to think of something else?"
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: This film would be a pleasant experience at the movies, but it suffers greatly from all of the competing versions. Pretty ladies, pretty photography, and a cute story that may have been filmed too often. This is a redundant adaptation of a story available in so many versions. Rating: low +1 (-4 to +4) or 5/10
As I left the theater I told my wife that she could see the next two adaptations of Jane Austin's PRIDE AND PREJUDICE without me, and by then I would probably be ready to see another. (This is not to imply that she was really pleased with this adaptation either, though several other people I talked to were.) Earlier this year the same story was done Bollywood style as BRIDE AND PREJUDICE. There was a 2003 version also. This version is more like the excellent BBC production. It is a pretty as a cinematic greeting card and has nice music. That would make it a very good version if there were not so much competing with it.
One thing I have to blame this film for is making me dislike Keira Knightley, an actress I have liked up to this point. This production is built around the acting talents of Ms. Knightley. She is an attractive presence, and I had liked Ms. Knightley everything I have seen her in to this point. While watching her in this role I soured on her. She knows only too well that she has an attractive smile and in this film draws her lips back in every scene she possibly can. Nobody smiles that much. Knightley is letting her nice smile become an irritating liability rather than an asset.
Seeing that problem, other things started bothering me about this film. It is set in 1797, intentionally the same year the novel was published. Yet the daughters all seem to wear much makeup including heavy mascara. I started asking myself how do two such short-necked parents have such long-necked daughters? Everything in this film is manipulated to make the characters so cute and charming and pretty. The ball scenes are sumptuous. Eventually it just cloys. Matthew MacFadyen's Hugh D'Arcy is just as earnest, unpleasant, and unsmiling as his first impression. My wife was quick to point out that the final scene is not at all in the style of the book.
That said, this film does right a lot that a Jane Austin film should. The photography is greeting card beautiful. Some of the extended tracking shots are done expertly. The musical score by Darlo Marianello envelopes lulls the viewer. The subtle humor of Austen comes through very nicely with Donald Sutherland very nice as the gentle and wise father. He seems a little pre-occupied, but then Sutherland always seems a little pre-occupied. Brenda Blethyn plays the mother without giving into the temptation of making her too much of a comical caricature. Rosamund Pike as the eldest sister actually upstages the star's grace and beauty. Jena Malone has been giving good performances since CONTACT and does no less here. Judy Dench as an unpleasant aunt adds some dignity to the production and probably not a little prestige. Director Joe Wright claims to have never seen a film version of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, but he seems to have the requisite if standard aesthetics.
This is a very manipulative film with a story that is adapted more often than it merits. Those who are not bothered by the repetition or who have never seen a previous version will find this version perfectly serviceable. In truth, there is little wrong with this film that would not have been excusable if it were the first version in two decades rather than six months. PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is competently made, but in my opinion I can rate it only a low +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 5/10. (I would swear in one scene we see a photograph over a fireplace, but nobody else seems to have noticed it. It does seem an unlikely goof.) [-mrl]
CITIZEN DOG (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Thai writer-director Wisit Sasanatieng adapts the farcical novel by Koynuch. The story is a chain of strange events and ideas. The ideas are like happy people have tails and Teddy bears smoke cigarettes. This all probably works better in Thailand than in this translation. Rating: 0 (-4 to +4) or 4/10
Comedies of the silent era, the ones featuring the likes of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin were more universal because they were more visual and did not rely on words. I don't imagine Monsieur Hulot loses much when his films are shown in the US. Humor is a very delicate thing. Even within a single language what is funny to one person will not be to another. One man's laugh riot is another man's Adam Sandler. Wit is even more perishable when translated into other languages. It frequently does not survive the transition gracefully. One finds little uproarious in the English translations of CANDIDE, for example. It is hard to imagine that the radio version of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" would have the same nuances in some other language. On the other hand apparently Jerry Lewis comedies get something of a comic boost when translated into French.
It is easy to imagine the humor of CITIZEN DOG played well in Thailand. It seems like a sort of conflation of a number of farcical premises that easily could be funny. But it has serious problems crossing the language barrier. Having a character believe the weird idea that all happy people have tails and later finding out it is perfectly true is a concept. Handled properly it might be funny. But the handling is done by a translator who gets the idea across but very probably not the all-important tone. It is about as funny as telling someone that two men hide from the Mafia by dressing as women and playing in an all-girl band.
The main character is a sort of na´ve country boy not unlike Candide. Mahasamut Boonyaruk plays Pod who escapes his difficult rustic life to come to the city. In Bangkok he works in a sardine factory. Life would be bad enough there but a less-tragic-than-you-might-think accident happens and he loses his finger. Somewhere in Thailand there is a can of sardines with Pod's finger and he sets out to find it. There he meets and loves Jin (played by Saengthong Gate-Uthong). Jin is a rabid book-reader who tells Pad that you know which people are happy because happy people have tails. Jin's Bangkok is a much stranger city than the real Bangkok, though at least in this version is not really any more interesting. Jin is an environmental activist.
The film is complete with strange musical numbers. The cinematography by Rewat Prelert heavily distorts the color. The script by Wisit Sasanatieng is full of little bizarre digressions much in the style of AMELIE. There are several irritatingly noticeable product placements, signs for a well-known Thai brand of beer. Wisit Sasanatieng, whose only other film is the popular TEARS OF THE BLACK TIGER, directed the film. Amusing, perhaps, but not funny. CITIZEN DOG (MAH NAKORN) rates a 0 on the -4 to +4 scale or 4/10. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Our science fiction discussion group discussed several stories from THE SCIENCE FICTION HALL OF FAME, VOLUME I, edited by Robert Silverberg (ISBN 0-765-30537-2). The story that generated the most discussion was, not surprisingly, Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations". As part of my preparation for the meeting, I read the article on "The Cold Equations" in wikipedia.com I also read Andy Duncan's article ("Think Like a Humanist: James Patrick Kelly's 'Think like a Dinosaur' as a Satiric Rebuttal of Tom Godwin's 'The Cold Equations,'") in "The New York Review of Science Fiction," June 1996. And then afterwards I re-read two other stories written in response to Godwin--"The Cool Equations" by Deborah Wessel (UNIVERSE 2, edited by Robert Silverberg and Karen Haber) and "The Cold Solution" by Don Sakers ("Analog", 1991)--and also watched the "New Twilight Zone" episode based on the Godwin story. (There was also a made-for-television movie which I did not see, but my feeling is that the story does not bear extension to a feature-length movie. Even the "Twilight Zone" episode seemed padded.)
For those unfamiliar with the story, the premise is this: On an emergency spaceship, a stowaway is found. The rules insist all stowaways be jettisoned, because emergency ships do not carry enough fuel for the additional weight. But this stowaway is a teenage girl trying to visit her brother.
I will start by saying that the story is engrossing, and has not lost its effect in the half century (!) since it was written. It clearly affects readers in a way that a badly written story would not. But there are still some major flaws in it. From a literary standpoint, the characters are one-dimensional and the writing uninspired. But even more interesting--considering its popularity among hard science fiction fans--are the technical faults.
Richard Harter has done a long analysis of the Godwin story in which he says, "The trouble with this story is this: From the internal evidence of this story the heroine did not die because of the cold equations of nature; she was the victim of criminal bureaucratic stupidity. . . . The flaw in the story is that a failure in government, in administration, is tacitly treated as though it were a law of nature." Specifically, even though stowaways will be killed, no particular precautions are taken to keep stowaways out (other than a fairly standard "Keep Out! Danger!" sign which does not indicate what the penalty is), and in fact the penalties for stowing away are kept secret from society in general. In addition, apparently no one even bothers to check for stowaways before taking off.
Another flaw, as Hal Clement said ("Analog", July 1991), is that "it is the height of irresponsible engineering to build an emergency ship with so little, if any, margin of safety. The slightest fault in any subsystem could destroy the ship and the people its mission was to save."
And there seems to be a lot of superfluous material in the ship that could be jettisoned instead of a stowaway. In fact, this latter problem is the basis for both the "response" stories. Of the two, Saker's is clearly the more serious of the two, but is spoiled by a "trick", where some fairly critical information is not given to the reader until the very end. Wessel's is more light-hearted, but ironically treats the situation much more rigorously.
If you haven't read "The Cold Equations", you really must. It is part of the basic vocabulary of science fiction the way that a story like "The Purloined Letter" is part of the basic vocabulary of the detective story. Even stories that don't respond directly to it have references that readers are expected to recognize. And if you have read it, seek out Saker's and Wessel's stories as well. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: Free advice is worth the price. -- Robert Half
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