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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
12/07/07 -- Vol. 26, No. 23, Whole Number 1470
Table of Contents
Open Letter to a Friend Who Asked How to Recycle Compact Fluorescent Lights (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Apparently in keeping with the logic of New Jersey taking care of the environment is really hard anyway, so there is no good reason to make recycling of fluorescents one nit easier. Virtue is a tough road, so each part of it should be a test of your dedication. If you want to avoid the guilt of just throwing the bulbs out, you will be able to feel very proud of yourself indeed.
The Monmouth County Household Hazardous Waste Facility accepts them for your convenience. But, gee, they have to have a life also so they are not open all the time. You can drop them off only Tuesday to Saturday. No Mondays and certainly no Sundays. But it is not all the time those days; it is only during work hours. Oh, and they take an hour off for lunch. They have to eat. And they do like to leave early, like 4 PM. That is particularly nice in the summertime. But during those hours on those days they will gladly take them.
By the way, don't just drop in on them. They don't want to be surprised. You have to make an appointment. After all they may not be around when you show up, they may have something else they want to be doing, so they need to tell you when to come. But, yes, I can assure you that Monmouth County is dedicated to saving the environment. Every good citizen of Monmouth County can feel proud for every CFL that makes it to the recycling center instead of just being thrown in the trash.
Middlesex has a facility that will accept them on Mondays, which Monmouth will not. Of course, ours is closed on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and the ever-popular Sunday. It is in Edison, by the way. But maybe there will be good restaurants out that way. We can make it a sort of fun outing. And if we get enough CFLs to recycle we might even offset the amount of petroleum we use up and the CO2 we release into the air by the drive.
By the way, we can't use the Monmouth facility and you cannot use the Middlesex facility. You have to prove that you have not crossed county lines for the purpose of illicit or immoral recycling. And we must prevent co-mingling of recycled bulbs.
That's New Jersey, doing its best to keep the environment spotless for a better future for us and our children. [-mrl]
Not Quite Human (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
With the release of BEOWULF we got a chance to see how far the film industry has gotten in the realistic depiction of humans in animation. I thought it was just a little off of being realistic and they reminded me of the way humans looked in SHREK. I read a harsh comment by somebody who wanted to be a little cruel who said they reminded him of the animation in "Clutch Cargo". For the benefit of those who missed this program, "Clutch Cargo" was a hero in an almost-animated television series from the early 1960s. Someone recognized that in animation you could save a lot of change from one frame to the next by just animating the mouth and that further you could film a mouth in live action and just superimpose it on the figure. Hence you could do this "Synchro- Vox" animation extremely cheaply if you did not mind that the end result looks so weird that it gives everyone who sees it the willies. It didn't help that the mouths they filmed, male and female, wore lipstick to make they show up better. The effect was really bizarre. Small children would be traumatized by the half-human but not quite human enough effect. The approach was successful enough (or at least cheap enough) to be used on two other series Space Angel and Captain Fathom. You can see some Synchro-Vox from the series at the address below. The lantern- jawed fellow is Clutch Cargo himself. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6MHg1-mpcUY
When I visited a museum at Mount St. Helens there was a creative display. It was supposed to be a woman lecturing to visitor and featured a mannequin that was made with a flat spot instead of a mouth. The mouth was projected to give almost the effect that the face was moving and the mannequin was speaking. Like Clutch Cargo the figure was absolutely motionless except for the face moving. It had the same sort of spookiness. The thing is that if it were supposed to be a bear up there talking it would not bother us a lot. We often see in films like THE ROAD TO MORROCCO an animal talk through animation of the mouth. It did not bother a generation to see Francis the Talking Mule or his television descendent Mr. Ed talking (with the help of a little peanut butter on his gums). Wax museums do not seem to bother people, but it might if the figures moved. It does not bother us to see a more human face talking. But there is something that is just on the edge between that we find spooky. Something very nearly human is a lot weirder than something that obviously is or obviously is not human is. And that seems ironic. This also seems to have some connection with the horror element of THE INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS where someone near to you starts seeming like a close replica rather than the person himself.
When I see a behavior that I cannot explain in humans I often think of what sort of a genetic advantage would it give humans. I probably am a little facile with my explanations. For example, why do we prefer cold beverages to ones that are room temperature? Probably when we evolved and were living more in nature cold water was freshly melted from ice. Warm water was more likely stagnant and less wholesome. That is the sort of analysis I give it. So is there a genetic reason that nearly human is more off putting than non-human is or than human is. Perhaps while we were evolving something that looked like us only too different was not a good genetic choice for a mate. Because it looked sort of like us we could mate with it. But it probably had genes that were different from our genes and we want our genes to dominate the gene pool. This explanation is very similar (like identical) to my explanation of racial prejudice. This fear of the near human is probably a phenomenon very close to that of racial prejudice. We want to preserve genes that are like our own. (I hastily add that this is not a defense of prejudice; it is an explanation of the source.)
This distaste for near human is becoming a topic for discussion among roboticists and psychologists. As robots become more and more humanlike to make them more acceptable, they are reaching this point where they are just creeping people out just like Clutch Cargo did. Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori started looking at this phenomenon in 1970. He has this graph with nice smooth curves showing the acceptability of various artificial versions of humans as they become more and more like humans. (See the references below.) He hypothesizes his data and I am skeptical of the possibility of getting real data, but it at least shows the idea that as you move from industrial robot to humanoid robot the acceptability increases. But when you start getting to corpses and zombies and prosthetic hands it drops off like a cliff. Then it increases again with a Bunraku puppet and it peaks with a healthy person. This low point of emotional acceptability is called the "Uncanny Valley".
You can find more information about the "uncanny valley" at the sites below
THE BEST AMERICAN SCIENCE WRITING 2007 edited by Gina Kolata (book review by Mark R. Leeper):
There are a lot of science and mathematics books published these days about the cutting edge thinking in particle physics, in mathematics, in biology, etc. Many of these books I find have four or five really engaging ideas that you can mull over if you want to invest the time to read an entire book. The problem is finding the time to read whole books. I am a 21st century guy with the 21st century fault that I have a hard time committing. I am not talking about my personal relationships. I am lucky enough there. But I have a hard time committing to time a book. I start an order of magnitude more books than I read cover to cover.
For my science appetite I just prefer to read short articles than whole books. There are lots of good sources for short science articles on the Internet. An article will generally have one idea while a whole book on a subject will typically have four. Reading short articles gives you more new ideas per reading hour. One exception is the annual collection THE BEST AMERICAN SCIENCE WRITING, a book that is packed with ideas. You can pick up this book just about anywhere and find ideas very quickly without having to commit to reading a whole book. The book is published annually. Each year the book has a different editor. Starting in the year 2000 the editors have been James Gleik, Timothy Ferris, Matt Ridley, Oliver Sacks, Dava Sobel, Alan Lightman, and Atul Gawande. These are mostly very familiar names in the area of science writing. This 2007 edition is edited by Gina Kolata. That is another very familiar name. I read her science writing in the New York Times.
So what does this year's edition of BEST AMERICAN have to offer? In no particular order, but the order I picked articles, first there is "Manifold Destiny," the account form The New Yorker of Grigory Perelman and his proof of the longstanding challenge of the Poincare Conjecture. He proved one of the great formerly unsolved problems and then apparently quit mathematics disenchanted over the surprisingly complex issue of who really gets credit and should get credit for mathematical proof. A mathematical proof is itself objective and mathematicians can determine if it is right. The question of who should get the credit for proving an assertion is highly subjective. All mathematicians use results from other mathematicians, some working on the same problem. What is the difference between plugging a hole in a proof and in being the person who proved the assertion?
I was attracted by Oliver Sacks's account of "Stereo Sue" whose neurological dysfunction robbed her of depth perception. But he also brings in the field of stereo photography and several other issues of interest. Sacks himself has been a longtime hobbyist in stereoscopic photography. But as a case history this goes well with the case histories that are covered in his fascination book THE MAN WHO MISTOOK HIS WIFE FOR A HAT.
On a similar neurological theme is Joshua Davis's piece from Wired about people with a neurological disorder that makes it impossible to remember faces and associate them with who it is who has that face. "Face Blind" is the nickname given to the disorder. The article looks at diverse aspects of the disorder. It can be particularly embarrassing in the dating scene.
Gregory Mone tells us about the pleasant occupation of John Underkoffler, "Hollywood's Science Guru". For films like THE HULK, MINORITY REPORT, and AEON FLUX he looks at the science in the scripts and tries to make reasonable explanations that can be used in the film. We find out how he got the job and how he goes about the job of turning absurdities into semi-absurdities.
Collections of articles, like the collection of short stories tend to put their most enticing entries in the first and last position. The Hollywood story is the last in the book. The first is Tyler Cabot's article "The Theory of Everything". For two decades the theory that will unify all physics has seemed to be String Theory. It describes everything and removes inconsistencies. It would be every physicists darling but for one problem. So far it makes no testable predictions. You might as well say it is angels moving particles around as say that particles are manifestations of hyper-dimensional strings without any way to test. The Large Hadron Collider to be completed and turned on in months will hopefully give some answers.
Perhaps the most exciting piece is "John Koza Has Built An Invention Machine" by Jonathon Keats. Koza is using Darwinian approaches in something that goes beyond Computer Aided Design to letting the computer itself try hundreds of approaches, evaluating the results, and taking the aspects of the most successful and recombining aspects of them to make to create new approaches. In other words he is using Darwinian principles for the design of non-living devices like antennae. The machine makes designs that a human would not have thought of.
These are articles that are not written for technical journals. They are written for general readers in such non-scientific journals as "Esquire Magazine", "The New Yorker", "Popular Science". There is not one mathematical formula in the whole book, I think. These are articles that can be read by just about anybody.
Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Harper Perennial (September 18, 2007)
JUNO (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: JUNO is a pleasant as light as possible comedy on the serious subject, teenage pregnancy. What happens to Juno after she becomes pregnant seems to cover a wide range of possibilities of the situation. We see what her alternatives are and how she reacts. It is a little disquieting that the film takes things as lightly as it does and the ending just does not feel sufficient to the situation. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
High school student Juno MacGuff (played by Ellen Page) has a big problem. At the beginning of the film she is just discovering from her third pregnancy test of the day that she really is pregnant. This changes everything for her. Now what? Does she tell her boyfriend? Does she tell her parents? Does she want to terminate the pregnancy? What are her options? A surprisingly wide variety of those options are covered in this story and the approach is kept breezy even if the subject matter is not. Among the alternatives that Juno considers is allowing the child to be adopted by a local infertile couple, Vanessa and Mark Loring (action-hero actress Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman). They seem like a perfect couple and Juno particularly likes Mark, but in this course in Life 101 the viewer expects there are some problems that Juno does not see. Speaking of not seeing the problems ahead, I had the feeling that writer Diablo Cody did not give sufficient thought to the emotional impact of what has happens in the story and what comes after. Juno remains flippant, but I wonder how long that will last. The end of the film is by no means the end of the story. At least the film does not give all the good lines to Page. There are several witty characters to keep the dialog witty if not always believable. Director Jason Reitman, who previously gave us THANK YOU FOR SMOKING, plays the situation for as much comedy as he can muster. The dialog is kept whimsical and breezy.
Halifax-born Ellen Page has a sort of light bubbly personality that reminds one of a younger Parker Posey. The personality is attractive, but perhaps not quite so appropriate considering the gravity of her situation and the fact she is playing with lives. She seems not quite right, but that could be just the style of the film. J. K. Simmons really shines as Juno's father. He usually seems to play abrasive personalities like J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-Man films. Surprise: He is just about an ideal father figure. He has humor and generates genuine warmth. I had mixed emotions about his daughter but a genuine affection for his character. And Allison Janney as Juno's stepmother is nearly as genial. I had just seen her in HAIRSPRAY when I saw this film. She had a very visible role in "The West Wing" and she seems to be in demand. I had the feeling that the film was aiming in a large part for a teenage audience and it is ironic that the parents of the main character are so much more likable than the character herself. Most of the other performances are also pretty much on target.
The original music is by Matt Messina, but the music seems to be mostly songs with words that occasionally distract from the action.
Overall this is a reasonable teen comedy, a cut above most teen films, but perhaps sending mixed signals. I rate the film a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
Sidenote: If "Diablo Cody" seems a slightly over-the-top name for the screenwriter, she has gone by many names. Her biography in the Internet Movie Database says that her real name is Brook Busey and that she has been a stripper under the names Bonbon, Roxanne, and Cherish. She has also been a phone sex operator. This is a somewhat atypical background for a screenwriter, but I suppose she should know something about life.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0467406/
Michael Chabon and Fritz Leiber (letter of comment by Steve Lelchuk):
In response to Evelyn's comments on Michael Chabon in the 11/30/07 issue of the MT VOID, Steve Lelchuk writes:
This is a somewhat sideslip comment/question provoked by Evelyn's comments about Michael Chabon's new book, GENTLEMEN OF THE ROAD. Is it just me, or is the premise of this book strikingly similar to Fritz Lieber's "Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser"series?
From a Publishers Weekly review of GENTLEMEN OF THE ROAD via Amazon: "Zelikman and Amram, respectively a gawky Frank and a gigantic Abyssinian, make their living by means of confidence tricks, doctoring, bodyguarding and the occasional bit of skullduggery along the Silk Road."
From the Wikipedia entry on "Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser" series: "Fafhrd is a tall (seven feet) northern barbarian; Mouser is a small, mercurial thief, once known as Mouse and a former wizard's apprentice. Both are rogues through and through ... but theirs is a decadent world where you have to be a rogue to survive. They spend a lot of time drinking, feasting, wenching, brawling, stealing, and gambling, and are seldom fussy about to whom they hire their swords."
I loved the "Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser" books, and I loved the YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION, so I'm looking forward to reading Chabon's book. I hope I'll enjoy it more than Evelyn did. [-sl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
A few weeks ago, in the 11/02/07 issue of the MT VOID, I talked about how Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch explains the problems in reading the Bible as literature. Among other problems, he says that poetry is printed as prose, paragraphs and even sentences are broken into short verses, and then we "pepper the result all over with italics and numerals, print it in double columns, with a marginal gutter on each side, each gutter pouring down an inky flow of references and cross-references." Well, in pulling out books to read along with this course, I ran across the "Extreme Word" edition of the Bible, which attempts to address at least some of these problems. It reduces the chapter numbers to a light blue background design at the start of the chapter, and verse numbers to very small, faintly printed numbers. While it does have two columns, paragraphs look like paragraphs, and there are even topic heading (e.g. "Jeroboam II Reigns in Israel"). The marginal gutters are a function of trying to get an enormous book into a single volume (hence the tissue-thin paper in most editions as well), but footnotes have taken the place of marginal notes. The footnotes are no worse than a lot of non-fiction books these days, and the sidebars are presented in the same way that one finds in news magazines, etc. There are still some random italics, though.
Before seeing the film BEOWULF, I decided to re-read the poem BEOWULF. I read the translation by Burton Raffel, because that was one of the ones in the house, but I would recommend a more recent translation: Seamus Heaney's is highly recommended (ISBN-13 978-0-393-32097-8, ISBN-10 0-393-32097-0). Mark has reviewed the film in the 11/23/07 issue of the MT VOID, but I wanted to comment on the similarities and differences between the two. At first, I was reasonably impressed with how the film stuck to the poem. The arrival of the Geats was pretty much as written, and the swimming competition included, even though it was not critical to the main plot. It was, in fact, fairly faithful up until the moment that Beowulf walks into the cave to kill Grendel's mother. Well, except for adding a fair amount of sex, and having Beowulf completely naked during the fight with Grendel. The latter change resulted in a lot of austin-power- izing, with strategically placed elbows, tankards, and so on. And the original had no hint of Beowulf and Hrothgar's wife being interested in each other. But from the point Beowulf enters the cave, it all falls apart (from the point of view of faithfulness). Grendel's mother did not look like Angelina Jolie, and the various connections with Hrothgar, Beowulf, and her were non-existent in the poem. And the dragon episode in the poem was a completely separate episode that took place back in Sweden, not in Denmark, and was completely independent of the Grendel story.
Also, they changed the "attitude" of the story. In the original poem, Beowulf and others are boastful, but this is considered a good thing. Modesty was not prized in Beowulf's society. But in the film, after Beowulf recounts the story of the swimming competition, one of his warriors says to another something to the effect that the last time Beowulf told the story, he had killed three sea monsters, and this time he claimed nine--a very unlikely thing for a fellow warrior to do in Beowulf's time.
The film--with its special effects--is entertaining, but I felt that all the added love interests detracted from the epic nature of the tale.
1945 by Robert Conroy (ISBN-13 978-0-345-49479-5, ISBN-10 0-345-49479-2) is an alternate history that takes as its premise that Japan does not surrender after the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but rather that a coup imprisons the Emperor and insists on continuing the war. The premise is fine, the way the story unfolds is reasonable, but the writing style is wooden. Conroy often insists on referring to characters by full name and military rank, even when such usage is awkward, and misuses some words as "decimated". I suppose that military strategists might find this of interest, but I cannot really recommend it for other readers. (Conroy's other books are 1901 and 1862, which are not easily remembered titles, and also liable to be confused with the 1632, 1633, 1634, 1812, 1824, or whatever from Flint and Weber. Actually, I think that Flint and Weber have multiple books titled 1634, differing only in their subtitles.)
THE YELLOW-LIGHTED BOOKSHOP by Lewis Buzbee (ISBN-13 978-1-55597-450-3, ISBN-10 1-55597-450-3) is a paean to the bookstore, through the ages and in the present. Buzbee worked in several bookstores in the San Francisco area, and has shopped in many more. While I suspect that the description of various bookstores in the last chapter may already be out of date, the book as a whole is something all bookstore lovers will want to read.
JANE AUSTEN: THE WORLD OF HER NOVELS by Deirdre Le Faye (ISBN-13 978-0-711-22278-6, ISBN-10 0-711-22278-9) is a delightful book that is divided into almost precisely two halves. The first, "The World of Jane Austen", is an overview of the England of the early 19th century: its society, its clothing, its transportation, its housing, and indeed every aspect of life of that time, with frequently references to how something specifically applies to Austen's novels (e.g. which characters drove which kind of carriages). The second half, "The Novels", is a summary of the plots of the novels, with elaborations on the topics discussed in the first half. This is a must-read for all Austen fans. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. -- Albert Einstein
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