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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
12/09/05 -- Vol. 24, No. 24, Whole Number 1312
Table of Contents
License Plate (question):
Someone wrote to say, "A car with license plate 'VOID' passed me on the highway. Was that you?"
In case anyone else sees it, we'll answer here: No, it wasn't. [-ecl]
Superhero Postage Stamps (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Come January 8 postage stamps will cost 39 cents, up from the current 37 cents. What will the extra two cents buy you? Well, for one thing they will offer a tribute to DC Comics superheroes.
I liked it better when they were five cents cheaper and featured images from Universal Horror Films.
Google and the Winds of Change (Part 3) (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I have been talking about how the information Google provides makes obtaining news and comparison shopping easy. And that very fact is scaring a lot of people.
There is the automobile industry. I have dealt with some car dealers who have really jerked me around before I knew better. You know the sort of thing. You haggle with the salesman and finally get to a price. Then he says he has to get it approved by his boss. As if he does not already know what price the dealership will accept for the car. But his boss says he cannot let the car go so "cheaply." So you compromise once with the salesman and again with the boss. And even then they feel they have to play with you to squeeze more out of you.
Compare that system to seeing the price on the web, take it or leave it. But they are competing with a dozen other dealers. They can inflate the price if they want; they just will not get the sale. You could have gone to twenty dealers before the Internet and you would have gotten a good price, but you did not want to spend the time. The Internet can make that all a lot easier. Getting data that the dealers all want you to have is no longer an impossible task.
The fact is that while Google makes no products you can hold in your hand, there is very little in the way of providing information on the Internet that Google is not eyeing as a possible business. They are providing users with incredible varieties of information and the only payment they are demanding in return currently is that they can put advertising on the pages of information provided. For the amount of service that they provide to their users, that is a really modest payment. And that is just what is frightening a lot of companies who probably never previously thought of it this way, but whose whole business is predicated on the difficulty for the public of getting information.
One company that sees the position of power that Google has right
now is Microsoft. They are the biggest software company now, and
they do have their own search engine at
There are, of course, downsides for the consumer. Some businesses we currently like are going to go out of business. I find that a lot of used books that were available cheaply over the Internet a few years ago are really not available any more. Enough other people were looking for them that the cheap copies have all been bought up. Other people who wanted the same books were able to find then due to services like Google's.
Just as sellers are going to be more competitive with each other, buyers will be also. This is particularly true with scarce goods. People who sell their labor, as anybody who works does, may find that they are also in competition. Many American workers do not need to be reminded that they are in competition with inexpensive labor in places like South Asia. Steve Lohr (in the article cited below) points out that many stores keep goods that they sell for low profit in order to get people into the store. When people are not coming into the store to buy goods, these products may become unavailable.
The heightened competition on the Internet and the easy availability of price information will cause price wars that will drive some sellers out of business. That may lead in some areas to less rather than more competition. There is no doubt that the information services that Google in specific and the Internet in general can bring about may well shake things up a great deal in a lot of different industries. Google seems to be the real power-player of the Internet. It will be interesting to see what new ideas they will have. [-mrl]
[This article was inspired by and drew upon, "Just Googling: It Is Striking Fear Into Companies" by Steve Lohr, New York Times, November 6, 2005]
Can't decide what to give this year? Check out http://www.entertainmentearth.com/prodinfo.asp?number=TYV12021 and http://www.entertainmentearth.com/prodinfo.asp?number=TYV08024.
Letter of Comment (by Joseph T. Major):
[All articles being responded to are from the 12/02/05 issue of the MT VOID.]
Responding to Mark's comments on "A Martian Oddity": Well, that's what you get when you depend on your great-grandchildren to get the job done. [-jtm]
Responding to Mark's review of HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE: You say: "Another piece of poor writing, by no means unique to this series, is that Harry's worst foes capture Harry and then tell him everything he needs to know assuming that he cannot possibly escape them. Of course he does escape. The talkative villain is a time-honored tradition in James Bond films, but it seems more and more ridiculous the more it is used in film." In other words: "Do you expect me to talk?" "No, Master Potter, I expect you to die! [-jtm]
Responding to Mark's review of GRIZZLY MAN: I read Nick Jans's book and concluded that Treadwell was a jackass who got what he wanted in the end (really; he once said he be happy to be eaten by a bear and he was) but killed a woman in the process. Jans also talked to scientists who had to endure his presentations and concluded that he was so scatterbrained that he couldn't have made a scientifically sound presentation, that he was actually endangering the bears, and not doing himself much good either. Also the rangers who had to recover what was left of the bodies, one way and another (the bear with, er, the fullest tum took over a dozen bullets and slugs at point-blank range to bring down). [-jtm]
Mark answers: I will disagree with you on one point. I think that Treadwell undeniably did himself a great deal of good with his obsession with the bears. He was a disturbed individual and an alcoholic. The bears gave his life meaning and at the same time gave him a surprising degree of fame and made him many friends. He had (attractive) women anxious to even risk their life to accompany him. He was admired by many people. After his death he looked like a fool, but he was not around to be embarrassed. Without his bears he would have lived his life as a loser. He very probably would have died younger. Everything else you say is probably true, and it is no defense. But by any objective measure he benefited greatly from his delusion right up five minutes before his death. [-mrl]
Responding to Evelyn's comments on BRAVE NEW WORLD: I read the book forty years ago--when I was too young to understand what "orgy-porgy" was getting at. In a sense, both Orwell and Huxley are writing "economy of abundance" stories. Other such stories are Vonnegut's PLAYER PIANO, Pohl's "The Midas Plague" and "The Man Who Ate the World", Farmer's "Riders of the Purple Wage" / THE PURPLE BOOK, and anything on nanotechnology. Orwell, Huxley, Pohl, and Vonnegut all thought that automation would create the economy of abundance. (Before you point out that Winston Smith's world is hellishly, bolshevikly poor, the abundance is in war goods; Orwell specifically states that the never-ending war is sucking up the surplus production.) Farmer (and his source, Robert Theobald) said that computerization would create the economy of abundance. Now of course you have nanotechnology, which as written is indistinguishable from magic. Huxley had expensive games and the like. Hey, he is being modern! (I saw gaming computers with fancy boxes going for $5K and this was at a computer show where everything was discounted.) [-jtm]
Aviation History (letters of comment by Bill Higgins and Keith F. Lynch):
In the 10/28/05 issue of the MT VOID, Evelyn wrote that in the "Information, Please" chapter of GALLIMAUFREY TO GO, J. Bryan, III asks: "When was the last time there was no airplane in the skies anywhere?" He said up front that he doesn't know the answer, and no one responded to the VOID. However, on Usenet, Bill Higgins replied, "It might be possible to answer with some confidence 'when was the last time there was no scheduled airline flight in the skies anywhere?' by diligent research. (Sometime in the 1930s, I suppose.) But I don't know how one would nail down the answer to Bryan's question. There were long stretches before World War I when no airplane was aloft anywhere, and perhaps some short stretches after WWI. 'When was the last time there was nobody in Earth orbit?' would be much easier to answer. Jim Oberg could do it." [-bh]
And Keith F. Lynch responded to this with:
"So can I: Thursday, November 2, 2000. I wonder if this number will ever change.
It's an interesting kind of question. Sort of the flip side of a usual list of firsts. When was the last time:
Or, on a lighter note, the last time:
Probably such questions are seldom asked because most of them are difficult or impossible to answer." [-kfl]
BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: In Wyoming in 1963, where gay men were less than popular, two young sheepherders begin a love affair that continues for several years. Though each goes back to live a normal life keeping their relationship a secret, but each remains the greatest love in the other's life. That love touches every part of those lives. Ang Lee directs this adaptation of Annie Proulx's short story with a script co-authored by Larry McMurtry. The pacing is unhurried, the characters are well realized, and the outdoor photography is frequently spectacular. This film is flawed, but it is serious human drama. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN might be called a gay Western. It has polished by the fine direction of Ang Lee. Larry McMurtry, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel LONESOME DOVE, joins fellow novelist and former collaborator Diana Ossana in adapting Annie Proulx's 1997 short story.
Two young men are herding sheep on the title mountain and in the boredom and loneliness they start a physical relationship. Heath Ledger plays Ennis Del Mar, a ranch cowboy who has lost his parents and struggles to make ends meet. He takes a job illegally herding sheep in protected area. There he meets Jack Twist (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), a rodeo rider about the same age. Under the boredom of the long hours of tending and herding sheep the two at first bond and then give in to a physical attraction they feel for each other. From the start they discover that the empty mountain was not so private as they expected.
Jack and Ennis go back to normal lives dating and marrying women, but they cannot ignore the attraction that they still feel for each other. Their brief encounter becomes more of a lifelong secret passion, competing with their relationships with their families. Neither is particularly good at keeping secrets. Ennis is a diffident and inarticulate man whose marriage has money problems and more children than he and his wife Alma (Michelle Williams) can manage. When Alma discovers Ennis's secret it makes the marriage unbearable. Jack is more outgoing and a little better at keeping secrets, but he also has a stronger passion for men that he cannot control.
The pacing of the story is deliberate as McMurtry's writing often is. He frequently creates characters who are slow, inarticulate talkers. The long silences tend to make this a longer film. The portrait of people from Wyoming and Texas is textured and well developed. There are some problems with the script. At least once in a conversation we see somebody's mental image, but it is not clear whose (and it is important to know). It is difficult to tell how much time has passed between episodes. The characters looks may change very little between episode and one can be surprised to see that two years have passed since the previous scene. Ledger in particular speaks indistinctly and sometimes unintelligibly--an important contrast to the self- assured Jack, but his words are lost. The key question of which of the lovers seduces the other is ambiguous, but it is shot in the dark making it harder to see what is happening.
The photography is dramatic, particularly in the early scenes on the mountain. Images of the stormy high country of Wyoming are simply majestic. Occasionally Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography goes a little overboard as it does in one scene with a fight occurring with fireworks in the background sky. There are not too many gay Westerns, and this is really as much just a drama set in the modern West. It is a finely drawn picture of two lovers and the attitudes of a society that cannot accept them. It is a strong piece of acting. I rate BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. [-mrl]
THE WORLD'S FASTEST INDIAN (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: This role is a change of pace for the versatile Anthony Hopkins. He plays a New Zealander grease monkey who soups up an obsolete motorcycle to make it a contender for land speed records. Roger Donaldson writes and directs. This is a simple likable film that goes from being a character study to a road picture to a sports film. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
"If you don't follow through on your dreams you might as well be a vegetable." That is the philosophy of H. J. "Burt" Munro, a New Zealander grease monkey who has consecrated his life to the god of speed. His parts shelf in the shed where he lives is labeled as offerings to this deity.
There is some sort of magic that comes from down under. Australia and New Zealand can take a simple idea that would be laughed at in the United States, and they can make a movie that just about everybody likes. STRICTLY BALLROOM had the same sort of magic. THE WORLD'S FASTEST INDIAN is a likable film about an amiable man that is based on a true story about an apparently over the hill motorcycle racer with an apparently over the hill motorcycle who sacrifices everything he has for his dream to make the bike into a formidable racer. This is an innocent film with two kinds of people, those who are supportive for Burt and those who are rude or officious and bureaucratic, but will be supportive once they understand Burt. Burt will face every sort of mishap in reaching his dream but with will face them all with heart. By every rule this should be a cloyingly sweet film, but the god of speed is watching over it and keeps it endearing. This film reaches for the same heartstrings that Steven Spielberg is accused of plucking, but Spielberg could never get away with it and Roger Donaldson does.
The year is 1962 (though through most of the film from the music we can just pick up from context that it must be the 1960s). Burt (played by the incomparable Anthony Hopkins) has spent his life souping up a 1920 Indian Scout motorcycle to get more and more speed out of it. There is little left of the original machine and Burt can always find some way to modify it and coax just a little more speed from it. Burt's dream is to take his 42-year-old motorcycle to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah to break the world land speed record against younger and more technically advanced bikes ridden by younger and more technically advanced riders.
The film is in three sharply divided acts. The first introduces the audience to the strange man who is Burt Munro. He is the kind of a man who would decide the best way to mow his lawn is to pour gasoline on it and burn it down. The second act is about Burt's odyssey in traveling to America and to the Bonneville Salt Flats. This act is essentially a road picture complete with characters stranger than even Burt. He meets the likes of a friendly transvestite and amiable Native Americans. These include the film's other two familiar faces, Paul Rodriguez and Diane Ladd. Burt makes friends at a rate that must be like one every three minutes of film running time, proving he is speedy in more ways than one. Most of these friendships leave loose ends as Burt moves on promising to return, but Burt is dedicated to his goal to get to the Salt Flats. Once he arrives the third act begins. This is a familiar sports film plot of the underdog whom everybody laughs at teaching lessons in spirit. All this is familiar stuff, but the film has a sort of agreeable style.
Donaldson had made a short for New Zealand television about Burt Munro back in 1971. In the interim he directed several major films including THE BOUNTY, COCKTAIL, SPECIES, DANTE'S PEAK, THIRTEEN DAYS, and THE RECRUIT. Here in a New Zealand/United States co-production, Donaldson returns to Kiwi hero Burt Murno. Many of the props used in the film come from the real Munro's home, now a sort of shrine in New Zealand.
By rights this film should not work, but Anthony Hopkins and Kiwi charm pull it off. Not the best film of the year, but worth seeing. I rate it a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. [-mrl]
WALK THE LINE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: It is Johnny Cash's turn to have his biography put on film. Unfortunately, he had a by-the-numbers sort of life with little cause but his music and himself. Joaquin Phoenix and especially Reese Witherspoon do their own singing and prove themselves very talented, but Cash's life simply did not supply them with any sort of unique or even engaging material. James Mangold directs and co-writes the film. Rating: 0 (-4 to +4) or 4/10
In my physics class they showed us a film of a ball shot straight up. It started with a lot of momentum, but lost it as it rose. For an instant it was at its peak. Then it started falling. When it returned it was headed down at just the same speed it had been headed up. The film was very real, but it just was not very interesting, because what we saw we had seen so often before. That is what is wrong with the film biography WALK THE LINE.
The story of Johnny Cash must be at least as old as Hollywood. It is the story of a promising and talented man who makes it and then gives in to decadence. He ruins his career and his personal relationships. WALK THE LINE is the story of Cash's career. You know the story even if you don't know the story. You may have seen it in THE JOLSON STORY or you may have seen it in SID AND NANCY. For that matter maybe it was SCARFACE. A young person from a painful background wants to prove himself in something he is really dedicated to. It turns out he has a natural talent. He starts doing well and discovers he really has something to offer. Suddenly--more suddenly than even he suspected--he is getting attention and becoming very successful. He feels good about himself and he starts celebrating with some sort of vice. Soon the good times are more important to him than the profession. He wastes his talent on sex and/or drugs or he loses the balance of his personal life versus his work. He neglects those who care about him. If the story continues he either goes out in a ball of flame or, if he is lucky, he is redeemed by the love of a good woman. Frequently, the person will have some noble cause beyond his art. It is something like wanting to entertain the combat troops or fighting prejudice or working for artists' legal rights. Cash's cause was that prison inmates need entertainment like the rest of us. The story of his life may be real, but it is still all so familiar.
WALK THE LINE is based on Johnny Cash's autobiography. Rumor has it that it is very close to the true story of the man's life. But it is about one more show biz personality bent on self- destruction saved from destruction by love and patience. The good woman here is country singer and longtime Cash partner June Carter played by Reese Witherspoon. Along the way Cash travels, hobnobs, and gets drunk with his good buddies Elvis, Waylon, and Jerry Lee. (Yes, that Elvis, Waylon, and Jerry Lee.)
It is becoming popular to have the actors in musical biographies to do their own singing. Phoenix and especially Witherspoon demonstrate that had things been different they could have been good country music singers. Their singing and most of the technical credits of this film are very good. Phoenix's harelip is a bit of a problem, since Cash did not have one. Unfortunately the camera has to show a singer's mouth which keeps reminding us that this is not Cash. Otherwise Phoenix frequently looks the role. As an odd touch, Cash's mean cotton-farmer father is played by Robert Patrick who is best known as the T-1000 in TERMINATOR 2.
Gill Dennis's and Mangold's script should show us a little more of the creative process. Here also the film shows us something a little less than credible. It seems here to be that Cash sat with friends and strummed and drank. Maybe Carter would get disgusted tells him he doesn't have the courage to "walk the line." Next scene Cash has a great song called "Walk the Line."
Cash's music is fine. We all know that. But the viewer may be disappointed to discover that most of his image was a sham. His life is less about prison and mud/blood/beer fights and more about trashing his dressing room when he gets angry and fooling around. He lived more like a rock star than like a simple good ol' boy. This is a recommended film if you have a special thing for Johnny Cash or have never seen a film biography before. Otherwise it is just well-worn material. I rate WALK THE LINE a 0 on the -4 to +4 scale or 4/10. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
In last week's review of INTRODUCING MIND & BRAIN, the author's names should have been Angus *Gellatly* and Oscar Zarate.
THEODORE REX by Edmund Morris (ISBN 0-812-96660-7) covers just the seven-plus years of Theodore Roosevelt's Presidency, though there are references to his life before then. While Morris obviously finds Roosevelt fascinating, he does not idolize him, and Roosevelt's faults are covered as well as his virtues. (And his faults are often the faults of his time--his attitudes toward race, while in some ways more enlightened than his age, in many ways are just as backward as those of other people of his time. Unless you're a history student, though, I suspect that this is more a book to be partially skimmed than read in great detail-- there can be such a thing as information overkill.
And as proof that there is nothing new under the sun, I offer this quote: "The consistent features of the political landscape, as he saw it, were fault lines running deeply and dangerously through divergent blocks of power. Political chasms lurked between Isolationism and Expansionism, Government and the Trusts, Labor and Capital, conservation and development, Nativism and the Golden Door. And since the last election, the fault lines had widened. As William Jennings Bryan kept saying, 'The extremes of society are being driven further and further apart.'" (page 37)
CELEBRATED CASES OF JUDGE DEE translated by Robert Van Gulik (ISBN 0-486-23337-5) is the only Judge Dee book available in English that is an original Chinese Judge Dee novel. (All the rest of the Van Gulik books were pastiches written by Van Gulik himself.) Even more interesting than the novel (really three interleaved short stories) is the twenty-three-page preface in which Van Gulik talks about the Chinese detective story, a genre that goes back at least a thousand years. In particular, he describes some characteristics of the Chinese detective story that differ from its Western counterpart. For example, the criminal is usually introduced at the beginning, rather than remaining a secret until the end. (So "Columbo" is very Chinese in that way!) The books also tend to be much longer than Western detective novels, with a lot of background and digressions, and often after a hundred characters (making it more like a modern fantasy novel, I guess). They also have the supernatural as a matter of course and more detail about the punishment. There are many other differences based on the underlying differences between the Chinese and the Western legal systems, and I definitely recommend that you read the preface before reading the novel.
PERFECT REASONABLE DEVIATIONS FROM THE BEATEN PATH: THE LETTERS OF RICHARD P. FEYNMAN (ISBN 0-7382-0636-9) is of minor interest, unless you are doing a lot of research on Feynman. Concentrate instead on his books SURELY YOU'RE JOKING, MR. FEYMAN and WHAT DO YOU CARE WHAT OTHER PEOPLE THINK?
THE GRIZZLY MAZE: TIMOTHY TREADWELL'S FATAL OBSESSION WITH ALASKAN BEARS by Nick Jans (ISBN 0-525-94886-4) (and the related film GRIZZLY MAN, reviewed by Mark in the 12/02/05 issue) both focus on what motivated Treadwell to live with bears for several years before eventually being killed by one. Watching the footage of him, the term that came to mind was "eco-flake": well-meaning but completely misinformed and ultimately more damaging to his "cause" than helpful. The book points out that Treadwell did manage one amazing feat: in the eighty years of record-keeping, he was the first person in the Alaska wildlife preserves to be killed by a bear. (Treadwell himself seemed to swing between claiming that the bears would never harm him and that the bears might kill him at any moment if he showed weakness.) Treadwell also claimed he was protecting the bears from poachers, though there is no evidence that there was any substantial poaching going on in the preserves, and Treadwell's "evidence" was either questionable or fabricated. (E.g., he shows a party of men photographing a bear and claims they are poachers, though they don't shoot the bear that is only twenty feet away.) It is an engrossing study of a delusional person. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: None can love freedom heartily but good men; the rest love not freedom, but license. -- John Milton
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