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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
02/22/08 -- Vol. 26, No. 34, Whole Number 1481
Table of Contents
Human-Animal Relationships (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Like the number pi, the bell-shaped statistical curve shows up in a lot places you would not expect. One frequently sees phenomena that rise and fall like the bell curve. It shows up not in the animal behavior itself, but in the people who study the animals. This curve with the smooth rise and fall applies human reactions to a certain species of ape. People start indifferent until they study the animals. Once you get to know them better you realize that these are really interesting animals. The more they are studied the more human-like they seem to be. Interest levels rise as we see the habits of the ape and identify them closely with human traits. The similarity leads to a sort of bond between human and ape. The human regard for the ape peaks. This is the highest the affinity will get. With more study one realizes not just that they like humans, most are like certain humans. They are very much like everybody you can't stand at parties or have real headaches dealing with at work. And like the behavior of the party or work people they think they are being clever when they are only being tiresome. Then the interest value drops off again as you realize what real jerks so many of these apes actually are. [-mrl]
In Search of the Cheap End of Education (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
One of my parents' favorite vacation activities was to take courses at ElderHostel. This is an organization devoted to continuing learning for people over fifty-five years of age. Their main stock and trade is arranging travel tours around the world. Mostly this is traveling to other countries much as a travel agency would set up for their customers, except that most of the tours would accent learning opportunities. I do not think they do a lot of arranging for people to be out sunning themselves on a beach. When you go on an ElderHostel tour you are there to learn. They also have tours where the scenery is not as nice, but where they actually give courses in light, enjoyable education. Rather than course like "Introduction to Tensor Analysis" they would have something like "The Films of Frank Capra". They are real courses on subjects that might be taught at universities, but there they are categorized as the "enrichment courses". However, since retirees are just there for interest value anyway nobody minds. I looked forward to the day I turned fifty-five and could take some of these courses.
Well, not *too* long ago I did turn 55, but I have not gone to any ElderHostel courses. Why not? Well, the prices are a little high for the thrift-minded like myself. I quickly found out there were competing courses nearby that came at a much cheaper price. Our local community college sponsors courses for seniors. I told my mother about them and she was not impressed. It seems for a lot of the people who go to ElderHostel courses, the courses themselves are really just daytime entertainment. People go to meet other elders and to socialize. My goal was to learn. For me socializing was an okay part of such a program, but it would not be the real inducement. I really want to keep learning. One can never learn enough in life. I never thought of learning as being just preparation for work. My work was at least in part preparation for learning time. So for me the less expensive programs at community colleges were better than the ElderHostel courses. At least they were more cost-effective. The programs would be given for one week in August when the college facilities were not great demand so that kept the price down.
But the truth is that education that involves a person being there and personally teaching you is very expensive. The teacher has got to get a salary and health benefits and on and on. This is only part of the tuition costs. At a mediocre school annual tuition these days is more than $6000. If you want to go to a really good school you may be talking $40,000 a year. Of course that is not the sort of learning we are talking about, but it shows how much education costs these days if it requires a living teacher to personally teach you. These short courses for those over a certain age are much less expensive but you still pay a heavy staff cost. Where you save money is you are using school facilities that would otherwise not be used in the summer time. The school saves some money there and it keeps prices reasonable. But you have to pay somebody's salary if you want to be able to ask a question. Human interaction is really what you give up in the sources I will be listing below.
We went to a community college elder education program only once, but found it not entirely satisfactory. You choose a morning course and an afternoon course. Well, I hate to be a spoilsport, but I decided that one class was just not good enough. The one I chose *because* it was not in a subject I was interested in turned out to be the better course. I think it was "History of Photography" or some such and that one was worth taking. The history class that we were looking forward to, "Great American Presidents", was too much entertainment and not enough history. The teacher was a real entertainer, but a dubious educator. The class loved him. Evelyn and I did not. It was too much the social experience and we tend to be hard-nosed and serious. As with most education the quality of teaching is in the luck of the draw. There is no accreditation, but you do get some interaction and can ask questions.
My next approach was to check out the public library's courses on videotape from The Teaching Company. You may have seen their ads in magazines like "Science News" and "US News & World Report". The Teaching Company gets good professors from good universities and has them record their better courses in half-hour segments on various appropriate formats like videotape, DVDs, or audiotape if the visuals are not important. (As I am writing this I discover they also now have audio download of courses for a lower price.) The website for The Teaching Company is http://www.teach12.com/.
Now this was more like it. The teachers were serious. The subjects were complex. Some were profound. The one drawback is that the courses are somewhat pricey if bought at full price. There are a number of ways around this problem. They have frequent sales in which the prices of their courses are much reduced. And once I own the courses I can trade them with a local friend who is also a fan of the Teaching Company. But it gets even cheaper. These courses sell on ebay for a small part of their original price. Cheaper yet, I discovered I could borrow them freely from my public library, which I more recently found meant I could borrow them free from any library in our county library system. My library may have five or six such courses but there are literally dozens I can borrow from the library system.
But that is not all. At a time when getting an accredited education from colleges is getting more and more expensive, information flow is getting cheaper and cheaper. As I suggested getting a diploma from MIT or Yale is a very expensive proposition. However, if all you want is to learn for the sheer joy of learning, that part can be free. There are many educational sites on the Internet. And Yale and Harvard are providing courses and course materials free to anyone who wants to download them. As yet it takes a little determinism to ferret out what course materials are present. I chose and sampled an MIT course in Differential Equations. By time I actually was ready to watch a class a day, I no longer found that course available for download. There were, however, other courses. It takes a little work to find the video course you really want, but they are certainly out there. One useful site is the Courseware Finder at http://ocwfinder.com/. A short article from "US News and World Report" on how to get courseware free is at http://tinyurl.com/yo93ge. What is available is not just mathematics. Though not surprisingly the first courses seemed to be in mathematics and science. After all they were coming from MIT. But the breadth of subject matter and range of entry levels is increasing with time.
A related site is http://users.ictp.it/~stefanov/mylist.html which offers free mathematics textbooks for download. Of course if you have just a textbook you have to work a little harder to teach yourself.
And for those who are just interested in engaging ideas, I still recommend the TED talks as a very stimulating watch. These are talks of no more than twenty minutes by some of the country's best thinkers. The URL is http://www.ted.com/talks. These are talks given at an annual invitation-only conference of luminaries sharing their ideas with each other at a non-technical level.
So what we are finding now is that while formal education is getting much more expensive than many of us are used to, the Internet is making learning opportunities easier and cheaper.
[Two notes: The Teaching Company has a policy that every course goes on sale at least once a year. And if you are 65 or over, most states have a provision where you can audit courses at state colleges and universities for no tuition. -ecl]
THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: A family being torn by divorce moves into an old family house--a dark mansion miles from anywhere. It seems the surrounding area is infested with invisible creatures of Celtic faerie including an ogre who has designs on ruling the world. One by one the whole family is drawn into the battle against the invisible forces that would destroy the world. The film is an adaptation of five popular children's books by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
If one remembers the classic fantasy films, one thinks of films like THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, and KING KONG. One does not think of these as telling much of human drama. In these films a sailor saves this shrunken princess fiancée, a man goes on a quest that has something to do with winning back his kingdom, a destitute woman has to take a job that puts her in danger from a large animal. I suppose the last is the closest to being about real humans. E.T. was about a family suffering from a painful divorce. BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA was about surviving the loss of a close friend. I think I know people who have these sorts of problems unlike the problems in the earlier films. THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES has ogres and fairies and a griffin, but at base it is the story of a family being torn apart by the father leaving his family. There was a time when films did not have such realistic characters, but since kids are no longer shielded from such tawdry matters in the real world, films seem to not be worried about shielding them either. In any case, characters with such real-world problems lend the film some real-world credibility.
The Grace family is going through a hard patch. The father, Richard (Andrew McCarthy in one short scene), has gone to live with a lady friend. Mom Helen (Mary-Louise Parker) has to find a cheap place to live and that means the family's mysterious old house off in the middle of nowhere. This place is so old it still has a multitude of Celtic creatures who live all around the house and surrounding grounds. But nobody can see all these spirits because being spirits they are invisible. (Never fear, they will be more than visible enough when the time comes. The film does not waste a CGI opportunity.) It seems a giant war for nothing less than control of the world is going on here right around this old house. The key to that battle is a Book of Power written eighty years earlier by weird old Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn). (At last I get to the main characters of the story.) Pulled into the battle are the Grace twins, Jared and Simon (played respectively by Freddie Highmore and Freddie Highmore, through the magic of digital imagery). Also pulled into the fray is officious older sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger). But the real stars of the show, at least for the young at heart, are the menagerie of magical creatures from Celtic folklore. What they are all doing in (some unspecified place in) the United States is unclear. And if this is all happening in the space of a few acres, what is happening in the next county over?
Freddie Highmore (who turned 16 the day before I saw this film) seems to be specializing in fantasy films. He has been played King-to-be Arthur in THE MISTS OF AVALON, Peter (the inspiration for Pan) in FINDING NEVERLAND, Charlie Bucket in CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, Pantalaimon's voice in THE GOLDEN COMPASS, and a double role in this film. He plays both sons of the Grace family: Jared who starts the ball rolling by finding the magic book and Simon who is pulled into the adventure (figuratively and literally). In smaller roles are a number of name actors including Mary-Louise Parker, Joan Plowright, David Strathairn, Nick Nolte, and Martin Short. The latter plays the faerie equivalent of the Incredible Hulk. He turns green and inflates when he is angry. Some of the creatures are supposed to be terrible, but none is particularly terrifying for any child much beyond six or seven. Most are strongly reminiscent of the artwork of Brian Froud. Though I looked in vain to find his name appear in the credits, his influence is all over the film. Violence is kept to a minimum and the splattered red is not blood, it is tomato sauce.
The dialog is generally good, but perhaps a little too good to be coming from the mouths of average teenagers. The screenplay bears the names Karey Kirkpatrick, David Barenbaum, and (impressively) John Sayles. Side note: Sayles got his start writing the screenplay for PIRANHA back in 1978. Later he also worked on ALLIGATOR, BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS, and THE HOWLING. And he is not done writing for fantasy films. His name is associated with the screenplay for a third sequel to JURASSIC PARK.
Fantasy films are definitely having a heyday with the current ways to create visual images and with more sophisticated views of more realistic characters. THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES gets a respectable low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. The film is reputedly based on all five Spiderwick stories so there is no risk of leaving fans up in the air with a partially completed series and no more financing. It is not clear right now if the story of THE GOLDEN COMPASS will ever be completed, but this Spiderwick story is completely self-contained.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0416236/combined
DEAR MR. WALDMAN (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: DEAR MR. WALDMAN portrays a father-son relationship in which both sides are flawed and vulnerable. Hilik Waldman was born in the early 1950s to two parents who suffered greatly in the Holocaust. Ten years later Hilik wants to make his father Moishe happy, but Moishe is obsessed with a son he lost and proving to himself that the new aide to President Kennedy in the United States is actually his lost son. This comedy-drama gives us a tender father-son relationship with a believable story. First-time director Hanan Peled also writes a film with some rough edges, but also some promise. Under the comedy this is a sad and tender story. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
There are many films about the tortured lives of the people who were caught up in the Holocaust. It is much less common to see a film about the echoes that those terrible years had on the next generation born in the years shortly after those events. DEAR MR. WALDMAN shows us the family of two Holocaust survivors living in Israel. It is the story of how one son in the family tries to bring some healing and of the effects of his efforts. The message may be that love does not conquer all, but it does help in the healing.
Hilik Waldman (played by Ido Port) is a troublesome ten-year-old growing up in Tel Aviv in the early Sixties. He is obsessed with the movies, especially SPARTACUS. In many ways he is reminiscent of the rambunctious, media-loving main character of Woody Allen's RADIO DAYS. Hilik also loves his parents who survived the Holocaust. Moishe (played by Rami Heuberger) was scarred by the loss of his first wife and his then only son. It is really Rivka (Jenya Dodina) who has to keep the family together. Moishe is obsessed with the idea that his first son, who would be Hilik's half brother, somehow survived the camps and is alive. When he sees a news item that the American President Kennedy has a new aide, about the right age and also named Waldman, he is convinced that somehow this is his first son who by some chance survived and escaped to the United States. Moishe wants to somehow get to the United States and to prove that this man whose picture he sees in the newspaper is actually his missing son. Hilik decides that he needs to hold onto his father and control the situation. Inspired by the example on the screen of Spartacus, Hilik feels he has the power to control events in his own family.
While we see the story through the eyes of Hilik, he and his father are both shown to be flawed characters. Nothing in this story is idealized. Love does not conquer all, but the love of the family helps to smooth the way. In the end there are no great victories, but the viewer is left with the feeling that old wounds do heal with time. If people do not get what they dream of, maybe at least life gets a little better with time. Perhaps there is a message of acceptance in this natural healing overcoming even such unnatural wounds as the Holocaust causes.
This film is all about the generation that suffered the Holocaust and their children who grew up while the memories hung over their parent. The problems created during that chapter of history continue on. DEAR MR. WALDMAN is not really about the horrors of the 1930s and 1940s. Instead it is about a loving family and the stress that the memories place on relationships. It is a very human story. While the story is fiction, it is based on Peled's own family and his father's own quest to find a missing son. Still the relations we see could be in any family under any kind of stress.
This is a bittersweet and believable story. It holds humor, sentiment, horror and warmth. I rate DEAR MR. WALDMAN a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0823493/
Robert A. Heinlein (letter of comment by Joe Karpierz):
In response to Joe Karpierz's review of VARIABLE STAR in the 02/08/08 issue of the MT VOID, Taras Wolansky wrote (in the 02/15/08 issue), "I was taken aback by Joe Karpierz's confession that he is familiar with Heinlein mostly in his years of decline, sans the path-breaking stories and novels of the Forties and the thought-provoking 'juveniles' of the Fifties. Then again, I have run into people who love the late Heinlein; I would defend JOB and TO SAIL BEYOND THE SUNSET, myself."
Joe responds, "I got to thinking 'well, why *didn't* I make an effort to go back and read classic Heinlein?', and the answer appears to be either 'because I never got around to it' or 'I never felt the impulse to do so'. I've never read STARSHIP TROOPERS or THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS or FARNHAM'S FREEHOLD. All three of those books are on my bookshelves here at home, but why they've never made the move to the official to-read stack is unknown to me. I would ask Taras to suggest *one* Heinlein book that I should read pre-FRIDAY and not including STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, since I've read that one, and I will move it to the official to-read stack, read it, and review it. It doesn't have to be one of the three I mentioned--it can be any of his others that I'd have a decent chance of getting my hand on. Who knows-- that book may succeed in getting me to read more Heinlein."
Evelyn replies, "I don't know what Taras would suggest, but I think that you should definitely read STARSHIP TROOPERS. It may not be the best of the early Heinlein, but it is the most influential. A reading binge of STARSHIP TROOPERS, Joe Haldeman's THE FOREVER WAR, and John Scalzi's OLD MAN"S WAR would not be unreasonable to suggest."
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Two musical books this week.
KLEZMER: BOOK ONE--TALES FROM THE WILD EAST by Joann Sfar (ISBN-13 978-1-59643-198-0, ISBN-10 1-59643-198-9) has the same problem (for me) that Sfar's previous book, THE RABBI'S CAT, did. Of that, I wrote, "I am beginning to think that the audience for graphic novels must be people with good eyesight--I found the cursive font large enough, but a bit ornate, and the sans-serif font a bit small." In this one, I also found that the artwork did not add much to the story for me. It appears to be done in water colors, and in a style reminiscent of Chagall. I'm not saying I dislike Chagall--I think the problem is that Chagall's style works in a full-sized painting, but not in a one-inch by three-inch panel with a speech balloon.
There is also the problem that when the characters are singing klezmer songs it only works if you know the song. (Even having enough Yiddish to understand what is being said is not enough-- you need the tune as well.) In this regard, KLEZMER is similar to Azar Nafisi's READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN--if you don't have the background, you lose a lot.
What I did like about the book was the fifteen pages of notes about the book, klezmer, Israel, Judaism, and Jewishness. Some of Sfar's ideas come through in the graphic novel, but his straightforward writing about them conveys them much better.
OPERA FOR BEGINNERS by Ron David (illustrated by Paul Gordon) (ISBN-13 978-0-86316-086-7, ISBN-10 0-96316-086-7) treats opera a bit differently than other introductory books. It's not just that David takes a very "irreverent" attitude towards opera, or that David explains opera with references to rap, jazz, and other "popular" forms of music. It is that he also covers opera from multiple perspectives--not just the development of the art form, but also a discussion of the development of singing styles and the great singers of opera. He also gives some suggestions for starting to listen to opera, including the idea of *not* starting by listening to entire operas. While one may dispute David's aesthetic judgments, I have to say that his approach is refreshing. The real question is whether someone with no interest in opera would pick up this book to learn about it in the first place. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: We love those who hate our enemies, and if we had no enemies, there would be very few people whom we should love. -- Bertrand Russell
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