MT VOID 12/22/06 -- Vol. 25, No. 25, Whole Number 1366

MT VOID 12/22/06 -- Vol. 25, No. 25, Whole Number 1366

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
12/22/06 -- Vol. 25, No. 25, Whole Number 1366

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

Chili Peppers and Diabetes (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

As a fan of spicy food, I am always interested to see when hot spices show up in the news, particularly health news. For a long time spicy peppers got a bad rap as a cause of ulcers. We now know that they actually help prevent ulcers. Spicy peppers are good for you. There may be new uses for them.

One of those interesting moments in science happened just last week in Canada. It seems that diabetes is sometimes made worse by malfuctioning pain neurons in the pancreas. Scientists in Canada were investigating if this sub-condition of diabetes can be fixed by injecting capsaicin. That is the irritant that makes chili peppers hot. Under certain circumstances it can be used to fight pain. And the Canadian researchers wanted to see if they could be used to ease this condition in diabetic mice. Well, the answer turned out to be yes and no. Yes, the condition went away. No, the mice were no longer diabetic. Apparently an unexpected but notable side effect of this treatment is that it cured the mice of diabetes.

Apparently this shows that the nervous system has an important part in this (increasingly common) disease. It also suggests that what works for mice couid conceivably work for people also. There may be a Nobel Prize in this somewhere and a human cure for diabetes.

See [-mrl]

This Is Your Brain. This Is Your Brain on Christmas. (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

This time of year the stress of Christmas shopping is so mind- numbing that it just seems to just drain people's intelligence. It is something about hearing the same tired Christmas songs in every store and grocery. It turns people into brain-dead zombies. You think I am kidding? Would you believe there is one song that even finds it necessary to incessantly remind shoppers who might otherwise forget that "Christmas comes this time each year." Hey, that's right. December 25. Wait a second. Does that means it's never in the springtime???? Cosmic, man. [-mrl]

The Plot That Failed (film comments by Mark R. Leeper):

Warning: This article contains movie spoilers. (Hopefully more for viewers who have seen the films I talk about. But that is a different story.) One could say I am spoiling for a fight.

Among my favorite sort of suspense film is one in which the main character has to fight a plot that he does not understand. He knows he is involved in something sinister, but he does not know what it is. Very often the best prize of a suspense film is to find out why was all was happening. It should be rewarding enough to the viewer that he feels that the film was worth sitting through. If it is not imaginative and creative and sinister enough the viewer feels cheated on some level.

One film that lets the viewer down on some level is NORTH BY NORTHWEST. You follow the Cary Grant character through all these tribulations and near death, and what is it for? It is because the James Mason character has a microfilm of something important to him he wants to smuggle out of the country. We are not even told what is on the film. At least in Hitchcock's classic THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS he has you find out that the secret is an airplane engine. In NORTH BY NORTHWEST you just know it is some secret. That is a disappointment. Hitchcock felt it did not matter and called the thing everybody wants but the viewer does not know what it is a "McGuffin." Not everybody would agree, but I think Hitchcock's use of McGuffins is really a weakness of his films.

But one thing separates a very good suspense film from a great one is can be how clever is the revealed plot. Even in some popular stories, the secret plot is not very well thought out. In the book GOLDFINGER the title character's plan was genuinely a poor one. What Goldfinger was trying to do was obviously impossible. It was so stupid--and this is very rare--it had to be fixed up and made more intelligent in the film. The plot makes only a little more sense in the film GOLDFINGER than it did in the book. In the book Goldfinger really wanted to haul the gold out of Fort Knox. Gold is heavy and moving any non-trivial percentage of what is in Fort Knox would be a major engineering task. Ian Fleming never really figured out how it would be done. Whether he realizes it or not he counts on the audacity of the plan to stupefy the viewer so there is not a lot of thought on whether it makes sense. As an aside I have alsonever understood why Goldfinger keeps James Bond around and alive. Bond supposedly knows what the big project is about, but Goldfinger never interrogates him. Goldfinger just seems to keep Bond as a pet.

Even some of the major suspense classic films do the same and rarely do you see viewers asking themselves if after all is revealed, does it make sense. And I am talking here about major and strongly respected classics.

(Unfortunately it is hard to talk about surprise endings without spoiling them, but I will assume that people who have not seen these great films will avert their eyes.)

Consider what many have accepted as the greatest American political thriller ever made, John Frankenheimer's THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. The problem with the plot of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE is that the conspirators' plan probably could not have worked. The plan is to get a man assassinated, but that is only a means to an end. What is important to the plotters is how they intend that events will play out after that death. The problem is they chose the wrong person to be their assassin. Just about anybody else would be better.

The script explains (unconvincingly) why this particular assassin was chosen, but it is still poor planning. All you would need is one busboy seeing the shooter fleeing after the incident and it would be all over. Or one person finding the prints of the killer would ruin the entire plan. In the Kennedy assassination, Lee Harvey Oswald was really a nobody. His actual motives are still unknown and probably always will be. The intended killer in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE is not a nobody. He was very much a somebody and a somebody connected to the politics of what was intended to follow the killing. You might ask yourself what it would have done to the Lyndon Johnson Presidency if it were discovered a month into his presidency that Lee Harvey Oswald was working for Lyndon Johnson's nephew. Johnson would probably have been impeached just on suspicion. There is the same sort of problem with THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE.

Another such film is Hitchcock's VERTIGO. I have never been satisfied with the resolution of VERTIGO. The whole plan of the villain assumes that the main character will recognize a location from a vague description supposedly from a dream. It is expected after hearing the dream that the main character will go to this place in the dream at a specific time. The killer and the victim will have to be at just the right place at just the right instant of time. If the killer and victim were just ten minutes early the victim would have started questioning what they were doing there so long. Such a plot might be possible to execute today, now that we have cellular telephones for instant communication, but it would not have worked in the 1950s.

The people who write films have to be just as careful and clever as the audience demands. I think that with VERTIGO and THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE the audiences were so impressed with the directors' virtuosity. [-mrl]

KING KONG, Cheat-Reading, and APOCALYPTO (letter of comment by John Purcell):

In response to Mark's article on KING KONG in the 12/15/06 issue of the MT VOID, John Purcell writes, "Well, actually there is indeed a leading man in King Kong for that love interest: the titular character himself!" [-jp]

Mark replies, "Denham himself says that it is neither man nor beast. How can Kong be Darrow's leading man for love interest? Isn't that against the law?"

In response to Mark's article on cheat-reading in the same issue, Purcell writes, "What you are describing in your "cheat-reading" is a reading/study strategy I teach my students in my College English classes." [-jp]

Mark responds, "You teach them to cheat-read? I'm shocked. Shocked. (Wait. Am I eligible for royalties?)" [-mrl]

John goes on to say, "Considering the vast amount of reading material they will be doing in college--depending on the major, anywhere from 200 to 500 pages a week!--the thing to do is use Active Reading, in which the reader questions, debates and interacts with a text, ["Does the book ever win those debates?" -mrl] plus looks at certain textual clues and sections to get a basic understanding of the subject matter; they can dip into reading entire paragraphs or pages here and there to answer questions they have developed about the text. Your "cheat- reading" is one aspect of this. Reading first and last paragraphs, or just the first sentence of each paragraph, is one of the suggested techniques of Active Reading. And it seems to work quite well. It certainly sounds like you've found it a worthwhile method." [-jp]

Mark replies, "Depending on that material. I run into problems in saving much time with books that have one or two sentences per paragraph. It is not really effective for most fiction. I would caution people about using it much beyond recreational non- fiction reading. And definitely no Agatha Christie." [-mrl]

John continues, "Active Reading--sometimes just speed reading, too--works pretty well with all types of writing, too. I use it myself all the time, especially this semester just ended since I had to read eight novels by George Eliot in a fifteen-week time- span, plus articles and texts I researched for the major term paper for that course. If I hadn't, I would never have finished the assigned class-readings on time. She was one long-winded mid-Victorian author! I may never read anything else by or about her for many a moon, if anything." [-jp]

Mark says, "Maybe for George Eliot it would work. It seems to me that in fiction it is more likely that a plot point will occur mid-paragraph. But it may actually work, even if it is not such a new idea. Have you tried my plot graphing technique?" [-mrl]

In response to Mark's review of APOCALYPTO in the same issue, John writes, "APOCALYPTO sounds like an interesting movie to see, but it's not on my holiday viewing list. That is topped by CASINO ROYALE, and ERAGON, with a couple others that I forget at the moment. Mel Gibson as writer and director is definitely going the epic route, isn't he?" [-jp]

Mark answers, "Certainly not the scholarly route. Trust only what is in the art direction. Don't trust anything from the script." [-mrl]

John continues, "Now if only Bravo would stop showing BRAVEHEART eight times a week I might actually be more interested in seeing APOCALYPTO. I think I am all Wallaced out!" [-jp]

Mark notes, "Don't trust the history there. I was really excited about seeing the Battle of Stirling Bridge recreated. It was a good piece of strategy. They turned it into a brute force attack, even after Wallace says that you win battles by thinking rather than brute force." [-mrl]

John closes, "Thanks for the issue, and I look forward to the next installment. Keep up the good work in keeping us abreast of reading and viewing material." [-jp]

"And thank you for reading and commenting." [-mrl]

Lunch-Time Tales (letter of comment by John Sloan):

John Sloan sends us the following:

And now for something completely different from my usual blog articles, more in keeping with MT VOID:


[Go read it before continuing--it is only about two hundred words long.]

Mark replies:

What a source of energy a cow could be. It is better than the electric car. When you want to drive someplace you just place you energy cartridge (one cow) in the back of your car. When you return home you have it recharge by going out to graze your back yard.

  1. Save on gasoline costs.
  2. Save on mowing costs.
  3. Have a source of milk and beef.

And the cow gets to see a bit of the world which has to be more interesting than just grazing.

I am just wondering how to design a car to make a cow easy to install and remove. [-mrl]

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

DOM CASMURRO by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, translated by John Gledson (ISBN 0-19-510308-4) is known for its "eccentric and wildly unpredictable narrative style." I do not know if it had gone on my to-read list because someone had suggested it had an unreliable narrator (which I find interesting), or because I had read something which recommended several Brazilian authors for their odd styles. (I know I had the Brazilian author Fernando Pessoa on my list from the same time.) In DOM CASMURRO, the narrator is not unreliable, but is definitely quirky, prone to digressions, and self-aware, often addressing the reader directly.

One of the things that struck me was that in Chapter LXXII, the narrator proposes that "all plays should begin with their endings. Othello would kill himself and Desdemona in the first act, the three following ones would be given over to the slow and decreasing process of jealousy, and the last would be left with the initial scenes of the threat from the Turks, the explanations of Othello and Desdemona, and the good advice of the subtle Iago: 'Put money in thy purse.' In this way, the spectator, on the one hand, would find in the theater the regular puzzle that the newspapers give him, for the final acts would explain the denouement of the first, as a kind of witty conceit; and, on the other hand, he would go to bed with a happy impression of tenderness and love." All this is reminiscent of Philip K. Dick's COUNTERCLOCK WORLD, of Martin Amis's TIME'S ARROW, MEMENTO, and even of the much more mainstream BETRAYAL. [Mark also suggested THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING, depending on your point of view.] Of course, some of those assume the actual backwards flow of time, while others merely adopt a reversal of time in the narration. MEMENTO and BETRAYAL embody the "puzzle" aspect, but TIME'S ARROW definitely emphasizes the idea of going from unhappiness to happiness.

[As an aside, this is the third reference to Othello I read in a single week. One expects it, of course, in a book about Shakespeare, and is not surprised to find it in a book about reading literature through the lens of biology, but finding it in an 19th century Brazilian novel is a bit unexpected.]

The book about reading literature through the lens of biology I mention above is MADAME BOVARY'S OVARIES: A DARWINIAN LOOK THROUGH LITERATURE by David P. Barash and Nanelle R. Barash (ISBN 0-7394-6351-9). Before reading this, I read MADAME BOVARY by Gustave Flaubert (ISBN 0-553-21341-5), although it turns out that the Barashes spend only a small amount of time on Madame Bovary. I guess they chose her for the title on the basis of a clever word rhyme, rather than as the main topic of their book. The book is more about biology, really, and how our genes influence our actions and emotions, than about literature per se. The literature merely reflects real life. For example, there is plenty of jealousy in the real world, and "Othello" just reflects that. This seems more of an attempt to bridge the gap between C. P. Snow's two worlds (science and art) by introducing science to people who might not ordinarily pick up a science book than to preent some radically new literary theory.

Oh, and MADAME BOVARY? I think I am in the camp that asks why this book is a classic. Flaubert is very good at descriptions, but the plot is very pedestrian. BOUVARD AND PECUCHET by Gustave Flaubert, translated by A. J. Krailsheimer (ISBN 0-140-44320-7) gives Flaubert a better way to display his descriptions by doing away with plot almost entirely. The title characters are two clerks who take their savings and go off to try various professions and hobbies: agriculture, philosophy, and so on. They are incompetent at all of them, and Flaubert uses this as his means of attacking the pretensions of the French of his time. This was certainly more entertaining than Emma Bovary's peccadilloes. [-ecl]

[I would think you would have have to ask Emma Bovary how entertaining her peccadilloes were. --mrl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

           The important thing is never to stop questioning.
                                          -- Albert Einstein

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