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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
02/24/06 -- Vol. 24, No. 35, Whole Number 1323
Table of Contents
Preface (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I went to a classical concert and the pianist finished the evening with a Chopin Prelude. Everyone just accepted that was how he was ending his concert. They all got up and left and there I was sitting there. What is the point of writing a prelude if it is not a prelude to something that comes after? Everyone seems to just accept it. I guess that is more or less how it is. If Chopin can do it, so can I. This article is a preface. It is not a preface to the rest of the issue. There is nothing in particular following it. It is just a preface. Take that, Frederic. [-mrl]
Immanuel Kant and Evelyn's Left Turn Signal (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I was driving with Evelyn recently and we came to a busy road wanting to make a left turn onto that road. There was a queue of cars facing us from the other direction, most of them also making a left turn onto the busy road. The car directly facing us was not signaling a left turn. In fact, it was not signaling at all. We passed up a space in the traffic to avoid a collision with this car and then it turned out it was making a left turn--it just hadn't signaled it. Evelyn made a nasty comment and asked why this guy didn't signal a turn if he was intending it. I gave it some thought, which is frequently a mistake, and realized that there really was a philosophical principle here.
I asked her, "Would you pay a dollar if somebody picked at random would be awarded five dollars?" Evelyn is resigned to the fact that I frequently look for philosophical principles in situations where a more normal person would just utter an expletive and move on with his life. She asked "Would I know the person?" "Probably not." She said that she wouldn't. I said that that was the reason that the other driver did not signal. Why invest the effort to signal a turn if you reaped no obvious immediate benefits from the action? Well, there are multiple reasons, why you might. First, it is the law that left turns have to be signaled, so in effect signaling may be in the person's best interests. He might want to signal a turn to avoid being punished. But what if there was no law or the law exists but is not enforced. To signal the turn is an investment in the smooth running of society. If nobody ever signaled their turns then the traffic would probably snarl. The driver would be worse off because other people would not signal him. People frequently do things that benefit themselves but lower the general quality of life for society. Littering is another example. Even driving a car which pollutes the atmosphere is harming others in the world, and even contributing to global warming. It is bad to steal since if everybody did it then it would badly damage society. People vary only to the degree to which they are willing to harm the general state of the world to improve their own lot.
One might say that in general people should avoid taking courses of action that if everybody elected the same course of action it would damage society. Immanuel Kant expressed that idea, and he called it the Categorical Imperative. He stated it as "Act as if the maxim from which you act were to become through your will a universal law."
Of course, I think there is a hole in the Categorical Imperative. (Sorry, Immanuel.) If you should abstain from any action that would cause problems if everybody did it, you could not choose to live in, say, Boise, Idaho. Think what would happen if everybody chose to live in Boise. The rest of the world would be empty and Boise would be extremely overcrowded. So some things can be done in the safe assumption that most other people will not do the same thing.
This fits into another question, something I refer to as the "Penny Box Problem." Suppose you had a box in front of you with a button. If you pressed the button a million dollars would drop out of the box and automatically everybody in the United States would be one cent poorer. The question is, would you press that button? I asked Evelyn and she thought she probably would. Now there are about three hundred million people in the United States so there would be three million dollars taken by the machine and one million would be given back. It is hard to resist pushing that button and becoming so much richer without harming anyone more than a penny's worth. On the other hand, if penny boxes became universally available to anyone who wanted them, there would soon be no money left. With each button press the general wealth of the nation decreases by two million dollars. And with a reward of a million dollars a lot of people would press the button. So it looks like Kant was right after all.
This applies to decisions we make every day. The bind is that it may be impossible to exist without violating the Categorical Imperative. Am I going to give up my car because it contributes to global warming?
As an aside, I know there are readers who disagree that the car does contribute to global warming to any serious degree. There is more data supporting it now than when I had those discussions with readers, so it would be interesting to know if some of those readers have changed their mind. Michael Crichton's STATE OF FEAR argues against global warming being a real phenomenon. But agreement or disagreement with Crichton's point of view is pretty much falling on party lines. Liberals believe that global warming is real; conservatives believe that it is a myth. That may shift with time. I personally believe that global warming is real, so that probably makes me a liberal.
In any case I suppose it is difficult to live without breaking the Categorical Imperative in some ways. The more time I waste in the car the worse I violate Kant's dictum. So, dammit, if you are going to turn left, signal. [-mrl]
Downhill (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
[If Mark gets to do editorials, why shouldn't I?]
Everything seems to be going downhill these days. Connections drop for no reason in the middle of phone calls. Books returned to the library end up back on the shelves without actually being checked back in (four times in two weeks, twice for our books, and twice with books we took to check out). In the grocery, I ask for an item that's advertised on sale, and the clerk points me to a very similar item which is not, however, on sale. Another item has a shelf label saying $1.99, but rings up at $3.99. A third item says $1.99 *on it*, but rings up at $3.99. (That one, at least, I got for free because of that.) The "olive oil" on sale turns out to be "vegetable oil enriched with olive oil." A piece of electronics we bought in one of those horrible hard plastic cases had a CD-ROM hidden between the front and back cardboard pieces (which looked like just one piece), so when we cut it open, we cut *into* the CD-ROM. (Luckily, the store agreed to exchange it.) A DVD we bought that claimed to have MUTINY and CAPTAIN SCARLETT has MUTINY and THE SCARLET LETTER--a very different movie! And our DVD of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE decided to get "DVD-rot" (the first instance we have seen). And worse still, it decided to get it on the letterbox side. Why not the pan-and-scan side, which we never use anyway? (Okay, I suppose it's possible that we have DVD-rot on another DVD on the pan-and-scan side--how would we know?)
I don't have any pithy observations about all this, except that the notion of quality in service seems to have become obsolete. Of course, the same is true of quality in products.
Of course, the argument is that consumers do not care about quality any more, just the lowest price, and that is why they buy goods imported from China instead of the same objects made in the United States. The implication (or sometimes the explicit statement) is that the United States goods are of higher quality.
But in a sense the manufacturers have done it to themselves. It used to be that the consumer would look for quality, because a purchase was expected to last a long time. But when technology got to a certain pace--and when the manufacturers started using that to build in obsolescence--then consumers started reasoning that they did not need to buy something to last thirty years, if it was going to be obsolete in five.
And because nothing is repairable for much less than the price of a new item, the consumer figures that the chances are that they will have to buy a new one in a few years anyway.
And even if none of that is true, the mobility of people means that the consumer considers that if he moves in another few years, he won't be taking a lot of items with him. So why buy something that will last twenty years if you expect to get rid of it in five? I think that we are in a situation where quality in most items has become far less of a priority to people, and the manufacturers are just going along with that. [-ecl]
Ten Best Lists (letter of comment by Dan Kimmel):
In response to Mark's editorial on Top Ten lists in the 02/17/06 MT VOID, Dan Kimmel writes:
First, I've said this to Mark but his readers should know hear it too. I've been a professional film critic now for more than twenty years. While I do not always agree with Mark I believe that despite his "amateur" standing--the old Hollywood joke is that everyone has two jobs, their own and being a film critic--he could earn a living at this trade if he so chose. The clarity of his writing and the depth and breadth of his knowledge surpasses many of my professional colleagues. While we might disagree as to the merits of a particular movie, if Mark cites a fact about some obscure movie my assumption is that a) he is correct and b) he has actually seen the film.
[Dan has told me this in private in the past, but I *LOVE* the fact that I now have witnesses. This is particularly true because I do highly respect the source. -mrl]
Second, as to the substance, Mark's support for this merging of ten best lists is valid insofar as it produces a ranking of movies that critics have praised. If BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN appears on most ten best lists, that makes it a *noteworthy* film. It does not necessarily make it a good one. (In this case, it happens to be a very good one, but I have no desire to offer a more apt example and then get into a debate about those unwatchable Tolkien movies that many other critics seemed to like.)
Ten best lists are even more subjective than reviews. Some critics make it a list of personal favorites. Some a ranking of their best reviews. Some order them by release dates, some from best to tenth best. A grouping of ten best lists will tell you what were the best reviewed movies of the year, but won't tell you anything at all as to whether you will enjoy them. There are good films that are reviewed poorly, and vice versa. (Look up BLADE RUNNER in Leonard Maltin's usually reliable "Movie Guide" if you want to see an example of a good critic not getting an important film.)
Where Mark finds the statistical data of the ten best lists--and the Tomato meter at rottentomatoes.com--to provide useful information, I see it as having very limited use. It lets you know the trend of the reviews, but provides little in the way of useful guidance. Moviegoers who want to know whether they should buy tickets (or rent videos) of a particular film would do far better to cultivate some knowledge about a critic or critics whose views seem simpatico with theirs. Is this a critic with whom you generally agree, or who offers insights into films that you find especially meaningful? I think a good review from that person will tell you far more about whether you will enjoy a given movie than a meter rating or collective ten best listing.
I don't know that Mark and I are actually in disagreement here. It may be more a matter of emphasis.
Or, it could be that he's wrong. :-) [-dk]
[I think we disagree mostly on emphasis. I said last week that a compilation of ten best lists tells me mostly what films are important, less what films are good, and even less what films I will like. I just saw NORTH COUNTRY and had the feeling it was a story I had seen many times before. I did not care much for it and thought it was a well-made cliche. But because many people rate it well I wanted to see it. Certainly I would have liked to have seen a film I liked, but it was worth watching because other people have liked it and I considered it important to know if I agreed or not.
Much like betting on the stock market I find it safer to diversify the set of critics I believe rather than going with a single winner. Actually I have not had a single critic whose taste seemed to be well-correlated with my own since Baird Searles died.
Dan Kimmel is the author of THE FOURTH NETWORK : HOW FOX BROKE THE RULES AND REINVENTED TELEVISION, a definitive history of the Fox Network. -mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
In the 09/09/05 issue of the MT VOID, I talked about Jorge Luis Borges at some length including a long commentary on "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius". At one point I suggested that if someone wanted to do a theme anthology, they could do worse than one of stories inspired by Borges. Well, they can add the title story of THE EMPEROR OF GONDWANALAND AND OTHER STORIES by Paul Di Filippo (ISBN 1-56025-665-6) to their table of contents. In "The Emperor of Gondwanaland", Mutt Spindler starts looking at web pages for micro-nations and finds a site for Gondwanaland. This site was far more elaborate than other micro-nation sites, with a wealth of detail and dozens of boards discussing all aspects of life in Gondwanaland. At first Mutt thinks that these are all people who are even more fanatic than Civil War re-enactors or Renaissance Faire types, but soon he begins to think there is something more. Certainly even at this point the elaborate imagined world is reminiscent of Borges's story about Tlon, but when Spindler goes to Buenos Aires to find the "Funes district of Tlun" I think we can conclude that Borges was a major inspiration for this story. (Strangely, Di Filippo mentions a Steely Dan song as inspiration in his introduction, but not Borges.)
Damon Runyon is a much-neglected author. Oh, lots of people have heard of him, but I suspect most of them have not read him. He is probably best known in connection with the film GUYS AND DOLLS, based on his stories. At least that is a good representation of Runyon's style. THE LEMON-DROP KID with Bob Hope is a terrible adaptation of the story of the same name. First of all, the movie has none of Runyon's distinctive cadences. And second, it completely changes the tone of the ending, turning a tear-jerker into a comedy. For a sample of Runyon's style, I'll give you the same excerpt William Kennedy quotes in his introduction to GUYS AND DOLLS (ISBN 0-14-017659-4): "He is a big heavy guy with several chins and very funny feet, which is why he is called Feet. These feet are extra large feet, even for a big guy, and Dave the Dude says Feet wears violin cases for shoes. Of course this is not true, because Feet cannot get either of his feet in a violin case, unless it is a case for a very large violin, such as a cello." If I had to describe what characterizes Runyon's writing, it would be that his narrators 1) talk in the present tense, 2) use the present progressive a lot, and 3) never use contractions. (Mark pointed out the latter when we first started talking about Runyon.) So the narrator would not say, "So we went to the race track, and whom did we see there but Dave the Dude." He would say, "So we are going to the race track, and whom are we seeing there but Dave the Dude." For a while Runyon was mostly out of print, but now he is much more available, with GUYS AND DOLLS being perhaps the best place to start.
[Mark adds, "Runyon was a popular 1930s author whose characters are mostly fancy dressers whom you might see on Broadway and in betting parlors and the occasional crap game (like maybe every night). They are not exactly criminals most days, and they are not exactly law-abiding citizens neither. And Runyon lovingly makes them hilarious." -mrl]
"Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" by Stephen King (in DIFFERENT SEASONS, ISBN 0-451-16753-8) is another story eclipsed by its film adaptation (THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION). The film is very good, but it did make a lot of changes from the story. SPOILERS AHEAD: For example, the film tightened up a plot hole about one of the characters, added a revenge plot, and put Morgan Freeman in the role of the Irish narrator. (Before someone asks, yes, I've heard of the "Black Irish" but this is not what is meant.) Interestingly, another novella in this collection, "The Body" was also made into a respected film (STAND BY ME).
The title for EVERY BOOK ITS READER: THE POWER OF THE PRINTED WORD TO STIR THE WORLD by Nicholas A. Basbanes (ISBN-13 978-0-06-059323-0, ISBN-10 0-06-059323-7) comes from S. R. Ranganathan, who was appointed the chief librarian at the University of Madras in 1924, and who wrote "The Five Laws of Library Science":
(Unfortunately, I cannot find a copy of the complete work "The Five Laws of Library Science".)
Basbanes's book covers a variety of topics: lists and collections of "great books," censorship and book monitoring, books owned by famous people, marginalia (a term brought into English by Samuel Taylor Coleridge), translating and translations, the Bible and related works, the Library of America, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Harold Bloom, the writings of physicians, and reaching the public with books. As such it is more accessible than some of Basbanes's earlier books, which focus more in depth on single topics. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Where it is duty to worship the sun, it is pretty sure to be a crime to examine the laws of heat. -- John Morley
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