MT VOID 08/04/06 -- Vol. 25, No. 5, Whole Number 1346

MT VOID 08/04/06 -- Vol. 25, No. 5, Whole Number 1346

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
08/04/06 -- Vol. 25, No. 5, Whole Number 1346

Table of Contents

      El Presidente: Mark Leeper, The Power Behind El Pres: Evelyn Leeper, Back issues at All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted. All comments sent will be assumed authorized for inclusion unless otherwise noted. To subscribe, send mail to To unsubscribe, send mail to

Just Steps Away (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

Our favorite obscure video store was not there the last time we went into Manhattan. We looked them up on the Web and found they had moved. They claimed their new location was "just steps away" from their old one. We looked at the map and it was quite a trek. I thought they had misrepresented the truth, but then I told Evelyn that technically they were correct. Of course, Moscow is "just steps away" from Paris as La Grande Armée proved. [-mrl]

New DNA Code: This Could Be Significant (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

You may remember that in the film CONTACT the scientists were receiving via the Very Large Array radio telescopes a coded message from an alien civilization. As they are examining it, they find that besides the main message there was another coded message interlaced with it. Well it seems that DNA may have other codes inside of it that we have not realized. It is something that is not genetics, but is there in addition to the genetics. The New York Times has published an article that may be significant. It is titled "Scientists Say They've Found a Code Beyond Genetics in DNA" by Nicholas Wade. See There is apparently a second code in the DNA.

Biologists at Northwestern University in Illinois and the Weizmann Institute in Israel have found the new encoding that works in addition to and controlling the genetic code of DNA. As described in the article "The genetic code specifies all the proteins that a cell makes. The second code, superimposed on the first, sets the placement of the nucleosomes, miniature protein spools around which the DNA is looped. The spools both protect and control access to the DNA itself." It seems that just having a stretch of DNA does not imply it will be activated. Only a small part of the DNA is activated, but these nucleosomes are important in controlling what part. The DNA appears to move, and some positions it can move to are more important than others are. The second code determines the movement and what nucleosomes are in the most important locations.

Some of where this fits in is the great redundancy in the same DNA code. The same information may be encoded many times in the DNA strand. One copy may mutate but there are others. But what controls which copy is the one that the cell officially uses. That may be a question of location or something entirely different, but it might be controlled by the new codes. This makes the new code seem not so much like it has its own messages but that it controls the messages of the DNA we are familiar with.

As I hope is not too obvious my knowledge in this area is less than complete, but this looks like it could be a significant new understanding. I wonder if there are smaller codes controlling the new code, ad infinitum. In any case people who are interested may want to look further into this.

This reminds me of my own pet question about DNA. I have mentioned this in the Void before. Take a yard of white thread and a yard of black thread. Twist them together so that they become one single thread. This takes a lot of twists. Now pull them apart. You've got a whole lot of untwisting happening and it is really hard to do gracefully. You have a very large winding number to deal with and it has to be resolved somehow.

The double helix of human DNA is two threads twisted around each other with what I believe to be many-many turns, perhaps in the tens of thousands. It is like a long and very twisted ladder. If you split the bonds between the two strands in a remarkably short interval of time they completely separate from each other with both threads intact. How do they do that? What happens to the huge winding number? I am not asking what agent causes it to happen. I am pretty sure that an enzyme is the agent. I am trying to imagine how two molecules so twisted around each other manage to extricate themselves from each other gracefully. It seems to require that either the ends spin very fast or that there is a lot of breaking and rejoining to allow one strand to pass through the other at thousands of locations. How exactly do the two sides of the ladder extricate themselves from each other?

After talking with biologists, and getting a response from almost none, the answer seems to be that there is no untwisting at all, but that there is a very great deal of breaking chains to let the other chain through and then reconnecting. But that raises more questions. Do both chains break? Does only one break and if so what determines which one? These seem to me like basic questions, but it does not seem that a lot of people have thought about them. [-mrl]

Western Films (comments by Daniel Kimmel and Mark R. Leeper):

In response to Evelyn's comments on western films in the 07/21/06 issue of the MT VOID, Dan Kimmel wrote:

I appreciate Evelyn's trying to work toward a definition of the Western genre. Perhaps I can shed some light, since I had to come up with a definition for my students when I taught a course on the subject.

Westerns are set in the American West, wherever they're shot. Thus THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY is a Western. Movies set in Mexico with Western characters might qualify. Movies set in upstate New York do not. (THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS is not a Western.) Movies set in Australia can be cousins to the Western, but let's respect their own history.

My own college film professor pointed out that there is a cycle to westerns (and I don't think this was his original coinage), and movies can be placed somewhere along this line:

Movies with the fort under attack by Indians are in the first category. Movies about the establishment of law/church/school are in the second category. Movies about how the old time cowboy/gunslinger doesn't have a place in the "new west" are in the third category.

These categories are fluid and may overlap. SHANE is a bit of 1 and 2, for example. The third is elastic as well. When I taught my western course I did a trio of John Wayne films (STAGECOACH, THE SEARCHERS, THE SHOOTIST) which showed not only his development as an actor but also--in the last film--a classic "closing of the West" film. But the final movie I showed was LONELY ARE THE BRAVE, which was set in the present (of 1962) and which no one questioned as not being a western.

Looking at your list, I see no problem whatsoever with DANCES WITH WOLVES. Of course it's a Western, in terms of location and fitting easily into category 1. That it has a modern sensibility is besides the point. Genre films almost always reflect the times in which they are made. Western films may be loosely inspired by history, but they are not historical films. MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, for example, is a great film, that almost completely ignores the facts it is supposedly recounting. GRAPES OF WRATH and OF MICE AND MEN are clearly *not* westerns. They have none of the motifs of the genre, and no real ties to it. Location is important but it's not enough. Is Neil Simon's CALIFORNIA SUITE a western merely because it takes place in the west? Oliver Stone's JFK? Of course not.

The two interesting films on your list (of the ones I have seen) are THE SEVEN FACES OF DR. LAO and THE MARK OF ZORRO. I think they're westerns in the same sense that A SCANNER DARKLY or DR. STRANGELOVE are science fiction. They're not the best examples of the genre (whatever their qualities as films) but they do use at least some of the trappings. It's like those diagrams from math class where you depict overlapping sets.

Hope this is of some use. [-dk]

Mark responded:

I pretty much agree with you, but I think that the boundaries are a little fuzzier than you make them out to be. Most people consider QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER to be a Western. IMDB counts it as such. I am uncomfortable with saying that we cannot tell a film is a Western if, say, we don't know if it takes place in in New Zealand or the American West. There is also a question of where the West begins. We definitely include Texas but can we include Louisiana? Ohio? At the time of THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS it took place in what was the West. I would just say that there is not such thing as a litmus test to decide if a story is a Western or not. With some films it is arguable. [-mrl]

To which Dan wrote:

I think there are a number of films (like the current THE PROPOSITION) that are like westerns in every respect but location. I'm willing to include them in a genre discussion, but I think we need to respect the difference. The "western" is about the *American* west. I'm not willing to pretend that the differences because a film is set in Australia or New Zealand don't really matter. It's not fair to the history or the mythology of those countries.

As for what constitutes the west, anything west of the Mississippi, and maybe some stuff right on the shores. But THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS fails both because of location *and* time. The western is largely from the mid-19th century to the end of it, with some allowances for movies about the "end of the west" or, like BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, people living under or against the mythology of the west. But a movie set in colonial times can't be a western any more than a story about Spanish explorers in the New World can be. Is DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK a western? Is THE MISSION? If so, it makes any attempt to define the genre impossible. Not all crime films are "gangster movies." Not all mysteries set at night are "film noir." Not every movie where someone sings a song is a "musical." That's just the way it goes. [-dk]

And Mark said:

Well, neither of us is the final arbiter. There are films that some people consider westerns because it fits their definition and others have stricter definitions. We have a CD of music from Westerns that includes GETTYSBURG and MOHICANS. I think they are stretching a point. This is why I like mathematics. Everybody agrees on what path-connectedness means in topology. Perhaps someone else has another definition of connectedness and he will have a different name for it. Mathematicians never have to argue over definitions. [-mrl]

This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):

TRESPASSERS ON THE ROOF OF THE WORLD: THE SECRET EXPLORATION OF TIBET by Peter Hopkirk (ISBN 1-56836-050-9) is about the attempts of Westerners in get into Lhasa when not just Lhasa, but all of Tibet, was closed to foreigners. However, the most interesting stories are of non-Westerners, in specific the pundits from India. In the 1860s, several Indians who had been specially trained by the British were sent to try to penetrate into Tibet, get to Lhasa, and ascertain the situation vis-a-vis the Chinese and particularly the Russians. The story of how they were treated by the British is as depressing as their adventures are exciting. First, the British came close to completely undermining their efforts by publishing the details of their training and travels in the "Journal of the Royal Geographical Society" in 1868. Only the fact that no one in China happened to read the "Journal" prevented future trips from meeting with disaster. (And you thought security leaks were a new thing!) Second, when the pundits were finished, they got piddling amounts of money (or, if they were really lucky, small pensions) and a few (oral) words of thanks. William Rockhill observed, "If any British observer had done one third of Nain Singh [or others] accomplished, medals and decorations, lucrative offices and professional promotion, freedom of cities and every form of lionisation would have been his. As for those native explorers, a small pecuniary reward and obscurity are all to which they can look forward. . . . " Sir Richard Temple asked the question of why these pundits did it, and then gave his answer, "Not to those honours which afforded an honorable stimulus to British enterprise, but only this--his zeal for the department he served, his obedience to so good a superior as General Walker, his loyalty to the public service, his firm determination to do his duty according to his poor ability and, above all things, his reliance upon the British Government which he knew would reward him generously should he survive, and would take of his family should he perish." This sounds so condescending that it is even more depressing to realize that corporations now expect this of the employees, and deliver even less after years of service.

These people were followed by a series of considerably less competent (and less prepared) Europeans, including several who decided they were called to preach the Gospel in Lhasa. Petrus and Susie Rijnhart decided not only to go to Lhasa, but to take their newborn son with them. Only Susie survived--barely. Another explorer, Henry Savage Landor, seems to have done everything possible to antagonize the Tibetans he dealt with. Today's tourists may be obnoxious at times, but the sheer presumptuousness of some of these early explorers is amazing.

The back blurb from the "Guardian" for THE BAT TATTOO by Russell Hoban (ISBN 0-7475-6163-X) says that it "completes a trilogy of masterful late works." I wish there had been some indication of what the other two books are. Internal evidence suggests that one is AMARYLLIS DAY AND NIGHT and the other is probably HER NAME IS LOLA. However, since I read the latter two years ago, and have the former still on my shelf of books to read, the trilogy aspect was lost on me. Luckily, it seems more a triptych than a trilogy, in that the books seem to be able to stand on their own. (I might compare the effect to one I mentioned in my comments on Christopher Priest's books a few weeks ago--that characters and places seem to recur throughout the different books.)

In THE BAT TATTOO, the main characters are Roswell Clark and Sarah Varley. Roswell is an artist/craftsperson who has had one big success with a toy involving crash-test dummies. Sarah is a dealer in "objects d'art" which she sells from a table at various street markets. Both of them are trying to get over the guilt they carry from their earlier relationships. The idea of two people in need, and in need of each other, is a recurring theme in Hoban's work, and he does it very well. Of course, the big problem is that most of his later works are not readily available in the United States. I bought THE BAT TATTOO and AMARYLLIS NIGHT AND DAY in Canada, and several others in Britain. The only book of his (other than children's books) that one sees here with any regularity seems to be RIDDLEY WALKER--a very good book, but very unlike any of his others. I don't think I've ever read a bad Hoban book, so any that you find are recommended.

OUTWITTING SQUIRRELS by Bill Adler, Jr., (ISBN 1-55652-302-5) is subtitled "101 Cunning Stratagems to Reduce Dramatically the Egregious Misappropriation of Seed from Your Birdfeeder by Squirrels". (The whole book is only 188 pages long, which makes it a bit title-heavy.) In addition to suggestions (most of which he admits do not work very well), Adler provides a lot of information about squirrels and their biology. It's of interest even to people like us who *want* to feed the squirrels. [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

           Any movement in history which attempts 
           to perpetuate itself, becomes reactionary.
                                          -- Josip Broz Tito

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