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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
07/25/08 -- Vol. 27, No. 4, Whole Number 1503
Table of Contents
Another Very Bad Sign (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
What is happening to the world? Is there nothing to believe in any more?
From the film RAIN MAN:
Charlie: Ray, all airlines have crashed at one time or another, that doesn't mean that they are not safe.
Raymond: Qantas. Qantas never crashed.
Raymond: Never crashed.
But now Qantas airplanes are falling apart in air, admittedly without crashing: http://tinyurl.com/68292f
I don't think we can blame this one on the Bush administration. [-mrl]
Repairing the Misinformation (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
As may be obvious from my review, I am not keen on the new JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH or a lot of the bad science that is in the film. Nevertheless, it is a kids' film and if they enjoy it, it can be turned into a learning experience. The filmmakers have cooperated with the American Geological Institute to make a fun little booklet that has a lot of good information about geology and science in general.
You can read about it at and order a copy.
They have a free PDF copy at the site below,if you want to print it yourself:
Education and the Internet (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
A friend recently asked me a detailed question about a subject I actually knew very little about. With a little use of Google, I was responding with a detailed answer to his question in just a matter of minutes. It occurred to me that in sixth grade how long it took me to get the information that was needed for a set of reports I was given to write to write, and how I did it. It was weeks of library work and stress. Now I was responding to a question even more complex and I was doing it fast enough that it seemed like I knew the answer all along. Those reports would be easy to do today. But the research skills of going to the library and ferreting out answers would be far less useful and necessary.
As the technology advances education has to adapt to the changing world. This puts a premium on teachers who not only teach, but who have a forward-looking view to what skills are going to be needed in the future. Unfortunately, school systems can easily be lulled into teaching the same skills they have taught the previous year and the year before. Traditionally, teaching was not a profession that required its practitioners to be highly proactive. To the contrary, the educational system discourages teachers from straying from a standard curriculum, and admittedly that is with good reason. Students are tested against the current curriculums. The "No Child Left Behind" policy more or less enforces that from one classroom to the next students are learning very much the same set of skills, but it does not guarantee that those skills are what are currently the best strategy for the student. Additionally, while some teachers may be innovative, others are anxious to use that position in order to push a particular political agenda and to even indoctrinate students to that agenda. So there are very good reasons to stick to a fixed curriculum, even if that approach to teaching is becoming less and less of a fit to the current world. But the skills required in the world are changing and even are unpredictable.
The communications revolution is changing the very meaning of what education is. Information has become much easier to obtain since the advent of the Internet and educators may not have yet shifted to new educational paradigms. Forty years ago one of the primary skills that an education was supposed to teach was how to get information in a world where it was not easy to do. Research paper projects were in large part exercises in wresting knowledge from a world where getting information was a real effort. A major assignment for students was the research paper for which students had to go to the library and ferret out information on a given topic. True, there was also the skill of organizing the information and the skill of expressing the information found. But what characterized a research paper was the research that had to be done. And doing the research was often far from easy.
Today electronic interconnectivity has changed the landscape of education and with it some of the most challenging aspects of education. Interconnectivity is breaking down the barriers between people and information. Researching a subject, a task that was the major part of writing reports, now takes just minutes on Google and educators are reacting by shifting their emphasis from obtaining information to evaluating information. Yes, you can in minutes get twenty sources on Iran, but which of those sources are reliable? Which of the writers have self- serving biases? In the 1960s there were few enough available sources of information. There was less concern about whether sources were reliable. It was difficult for authors to get their points of view before the public. There was some consciousness that one source was better than another was, but if an author was good enough to be published it was probable there was some value in his point of view. Forty years later it is little effort to put the word "Iran" into Google and to find many sources of varying quality on the subject (though Google's algorithm tends to put the most valuable sources listed toward the top).
For someone who was educated in the 1960s, it is a heady experience to hear about a subject with which one is unfamiliar and in twenty minutes to be able to wield a great deal of information on that subject. But it also means that the research skills that he learned in school are at best poorly aligned with the current information landscape and perhaps are nearly obsolete and useless. One of the major goals of education was to make the student erudite. But this capability to "flash learn" obscure subjects changes the definition of erudition. The range of subjects that one can knowledgeably discuss extemporaneously may not be increasing with time. The range of subjects that one can knowledgeably talk about after twenty minutes of Internet time has exploded.
Ironically, while the effort to do research has become easy, many students are becoming lazy. Why do a research paper at all, no matter how easy, when for a few dollars one can purchase one ready-made. Also, plagiarism is on the rise as tempting material flows easily to the student's PC screen. Teachers have to be extremely computer savvy to keep up with students' ability to get around the learning process.
But gone are the days when the Mr. Chips sort of teacher who imparts the same information from decade to decade can still be a good teacher. Education systems should frequently re-evaluate what skills would likely be the important ones for the future and re-adjust the curriculum accordingly. Unfortunately, drifts in the skill set taught are just what the education system is designed to avoid. [-mrl]
THE DARK KNIGHT (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: In a year in which one film after another is based on comic books this is a super-hero film whose depth is like no other. It plays with the whole philosophy of the superhero and the whole nature of superhero battles. It manages to bring together an action film and a thought piece. This is a lot more than we have come to expect from a comic book film. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
Spoiler warning: This review discusses more abstract concepts and issues than plot points, but they still might be considered spoilers.
In Gotham City (here apparently a visual amalgam of Manhattan and Chicago) five criminal gangs have pooled their resources only to have them stolen by a brilliant but psychotic sociopath, the Joker (played by the late Heath Ledger). The presence of the Joker brings out Gotham's other strange resident, the Batman (Christian Bale) and thus begins a giant battle between two very twisted men in costumes.
THE DARK KNIGHT is possibly the most hyped film of the summer. Surprisingly, for once, the hyped film is also one of the most serious and complex films of the year. Within the lines of this comic book story are some ambiguous moral decisions, and between the lines of the script some deep philosophical questions. This is the second Batman film directed and written by Christopher Nolan, whose films are best described as astonishing. FOLLOWING, his first, was an unconventional thriller seen by relatively few people. But his MEMENTO was an amazing introduction to Nolan for most film fans. THE PRESTIGE, his latest film before this, was an intricate puzzle box that is fascinating on first viewing and is even more so on the second. Even considering THE DARK KNIGHT, it is still THE PRESTIGE that is his best work.
As for his Batman films, BATMAN BEGINS (which preceded THE PRESTIGE by two years) has a much deeper psychological pitch than any other superhero film in memory. Nolan painted Batman as twisted from childhood and not so much a hero as a victim of his own demons. It was one of the best super-hero films, but BATMAN BEGINS still rested comfortably within the conventions of the comic superhero genre.
Nolan's second Batman film surpasses his first with a dark psychological drama that nearly reinvents the superhero film. It brings us to a land where in spite of the possible good intentions of the superhero, the innocent can become victims of the fight itself. THE DARK KNIGHT is a comment on all other superhero films and the implicit safety net with which they operate. It reminds us that with great power comes not just great responsibility but also some great psychological burdens.
The concept of Batman, as with most superheroes, has usually been that he can do anything that needs to be done to stop evil. The end of a Batman story or nearly any superhero story has traditionally been that order is restored and things have returned to the state they were at the beginning. All dangers have been averted and evil has failed. Somewhat more sophisticated superhero stories might allow one or two innocent people killed to reinforce how bad the evil is. But in general the butcher's bill in a superhero film has been small. That is just part of the formula. And we are supposed to feel fortunate we had the superhero around to keep down the killing. That was just how a superhero story works. But in THE DARK KNIGHT Batman is faced with the proposition that innocent people are killed and others will die until he reveals his identity. He must decide how valuable to him is the secret of his identity. People are dying and that rips away the traditional safety net that his protection is infallible.
With the invisible safety net of superhero story convention gone, there are collateral deaths that Batman cannot avert. They are killed because the Joker wants to show the limits of Batman's power and also for the simple abstract cause of chaos. The Batman supposedly defends order without seeing that he himself, a bat- masked, self-appointed vigilante, is a breach of that order.
THE DARK KNIGHT takes us to a new world in which there can be serious casualties in a battle between super-hero and super- villain. The Joker is attracted to fighting the Batman specifically because he is the Batman. He is not trying to get rich from the proceeds of his crimes; he is simply playing a game with the Batman. And the Batman cannot back away from the fight because he is the Batman.
For the Joker the game is mostly about Batman, but just for kicks he also adds an object lesson for the rest of us. He shows us with a psychological experiment that fear can turn many of us into mass murderers also. One of his crimes is an exercise to do just that. It is it a potent message in the post 9/11 world. But clearly this is a deeper Joker than Jack Nicholson's or Caesar Romero's Joker clown who laugh gleefully as they defaces paintings or do other mischief. It is like comparing an abyss to a little furrow. Heath Ledger gives a good performance as the Joker. He does make one the great silver screen creeps, nearly a polar opposite of his Ennis Del Mar in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN.
Where Nolan falls down is the background world for his story. At times the background has a very realistic feel, like that of a MYSTIC RIVER. Other times it seems to fall back on the less credible logic of a comic book. One case is when a character has figured out Batman's identity and is scheduled to reveal it on television. We are led to believe the station was ready to put him on television for the revelation, but they do not know whom he is going to name.
THE DARK KNIGHT has an enviable cast of usually lead actors playing supporting roles. In addition to Bale and Ledger, Aaron Eckhart plays District Attorney Harvey Dent on a strange journey from crusading public servant to the featured villain in the next Batman film. Both Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine are reduced to playing squires to the Dark Knight. Gary Oldman plays the future Commissioner Gordon who wields the Bat-searchlight. Finally, Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Rachel Dawes (the Batman's love interest) and Eric Roberts plays a mob boss. The screenplay is co-authored by brothers Christopher and Jonathan Nolan who collaborated on the scripts for MEMENTO and THE PRESTIGE.
By July of 2008 the filmgoer might not be blamed if he were a little tired of comic book action films hitting the theaters one after another. IRON MAN, THE INCREDIBLE HULK, WANTED, ... the list goes on. THE DARK KNIGHT leads the pack and is the most intelligent of the lot. I rate it a low +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0468569/
TUVA OR BUST! by Ralph Leighton (book review by Mark R. Leeper):
One of the great scientists of the 20th century was Richard Feynman. Feynman got a doctorate in physics from Princeton and went to work at the Manhattan Project. There his whimsical nature and his ability to think "outside the box" made a real reputation for himself. He taught himself to crack safes in order to demonstrate security holes at America's most secret project. By 1951 he was a professor at Caltech which he remained until his death in 1988. His lectures on physics have become classics in book and film form. Feynman Diagrams are a visual way to describe subatomic particles he invented in 1948 and remain in heavy use to the present. He also was considered a great bongo player. He had a wild sense of humor and loved telling stories about his exploits. The stories were collected by a Ralph Leighton and published in two delicious volumes, SURELY YOU'RE JOKING, MR. FEYNMAN and WHAT DO YOU CARE WHAT OTHER PEOPLE THINK? He was appointed to the Rogers Commission to investigate the Challenger Disaster. He traced the cause of the disaster to the rubber O-ring seals which failed to function in the wintry temperatures of the Challenger launch. These are just highlights of a great career. Any books about Feynman should be fascinating and most are. TUVA OR BUST! would seem on the surface to be one such book, but it is a serious disappointment.
The book is by Ralph Leighton, the close friend of Feynman who collected stories for the above two books. Leighton was something of a traveler and thought he knew geography until Feynman asked him whatever happened to Tannu Tuva. Feynman remembered from his youthful days of stamp collecting that there were triangular and diamond-shaped stamps supposedly from a place called Tannu Tuva. [See comments at the end of the review.] Leighton was stumped and the two began researching the place. When they found out that the capitol was Kyzyl they decided they had to visit any place that has such a strange spelling. It seems to have become an obsession with the two (or at least Leighton). The book TUVA OR BUST! is Leighton's memoir of his search and plans to visit Tannu Tuva with Feynman. Most of the book's illustrations are photographs featuring Richard Feynman. Leighton lets us know over and over what good friends the two of them were. He drops stories of going to parties with Feynman, playing bongos with him, having Feynman as the best man at his wedding, etc. However, little of Feynman's wit comes through in the writing.
Instead, we have a longish account of Leighton's travails in trying to arrange a trip to Tannu Tuva in Outer Mongolia, part of the Soviet Union, during the Cold War. The account is highly detailed and much of it leaves one wondering why we are being told much of what is in the book. The same story made an entertaining hour documentary for the BBC, "Horizon--The Quest for Tannu Tuva" (a.k.a. "The Last Journey of a Genius"). However that same charm spread over two hundred pages, even with wide margins, is a little thin. Much of it is about Leighton butting heads with bureaucracy heightened by international tensions. Contending with the bureaucracies is a major effort. The story is a race against time as early on Richard Feynman is diagnosed with cancer. The book does not focus closely enough on Feynman to track his failing health, but is puts some pressure on Leighton to solve the problems necessary to arrange a visit. It is hard to feel a lot of concern in spite of this because Leighton repeats over and over that one of the chief attractions for the two is the spelling of Kyzyl.
The path to arranging the trip is arduous and requires more than ten years. During this time we observe from an arm's length what is happening in the international competition between the United States and the USSR. We hear about the Challenger crash. The pair makes discoveries like finding pieces of the throat-singing music that can be found only in Tannu Tuva. Incidentally, the book comes with a plastic record of with a sample of the music. Samples can be found at . http://www.ubu.com/ethno/soundings/tuva.html.
The book is mostly about Leighton, many of whose journeys were made alone, yet it repeatedly keeps mentioning that there is a connection to Feynman, lest we forget. Leighton bets on the mentioning of Feynman keeping the book interesting and loses that bet. If the traveling partner were some unknown Joe Smith the account would probably have a very much smaller readership. Other stories include how the two go on bongo playing forays. We read about Russian restaurants and how bad the service is. We are introduced to various Eastern Europeans, some of whom are helpful and some are not.
I would recommend this book really only to people who have already read SURELY YOU'RE JOKING, MR. FEYNMAN and WHAT DO YOU CARE WHAT OTHER PEOPLE THINK? They are more entertaining and give the reader much more of a feel for Richard Feynman.
Incidentally, I am informed by a stamp collector that the Tannu Tuva stamps that started the whole proceedings probably never saw Tannu Tuva and were never used for postage. Apparently the future Nobel Prize winner was taken in by some fraudulent stamps. My friend showed me a few. Though cancelled, they have full gum on the back, indicating that they served no postal purpose. The postmarks carefully never obscure the pictures on the stamps, so that they can be sold to unwary collectors. Perhaps some government official gave permission in return for a cut of the take. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
I really like the BBC radio adaptation (I cannot find the name of who did it) of AGATHA RAISIN AND THE QUICHE OF DEATH by M. C. Beaton (ISBN-13 978-0-312-93916-8, ISBN-10 0-312-93916-7), so I decided to read the book (and possibly the whole series of Agatha Raisin books). While the book was okay--and had I read it cold, I might even have said good--I discovered that the best parts of the radio adaptation were not in the book at all. The basic plot is there: London public relations executive Agatha Raisin retires to a cottage in the Cotswolds, where she tries to gain acceptance by entering the local quiche-baking content. Her quiche, however, is actually store-bought, and what is more, has poisoned the judge! But the adaptation has an acerbic wit that is missing from the book, where the characters are flatter and less appealing, even the ones who are supposed to like. The book is very popular--there are seventeen sequels--but not up to my expectations.
THE FORGER'S SPELL: A TRUE STORY OF VERMEER, NAZIS, AND THE GREATEST ART HOAX OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY by Edward Dolnick (ISBN-13 978-0-06-082541-6, ISBN-10 0-06-082541-3) is primarily about Han van Meegeren, a painter who forged several Vermeers which fooled even the leading art critics of the day. Dolnick goes into a lot of technical detail of how van Meegeren did this, and even more on the psychology of convincing people that forgeries are real. He also explains how critics in the 1930s were fooled but we can tell immediately these are fakes. One reason, he says, is that van Meegeren's women have features that were considered beautiful in the 1930s when he painted them, but not now. So while his audience saw beauty, we do not. He actually makes a science fiction connection, saying, "science fiction always tells as much about the era when it was created as about the era it tries to imagine. In the future as it was portrayed in the fifties, for instance, husbands commuted to work in personal rockets and wives stayed home and cooked up meals in a pill. For a decade or two, readers found it all quite plausible." (page 221)
One might compare this to films. We can look at a film made about Troy for example, and be able to tell whether it was made in the 1930s, the 1950s, the 1980s, or the 2000s. Even if someone tries to make a film now that looks old, there are often things that give it away. Some are technical, but others are harder to define. The Timothy Hines version of WAR OF THE WORLDS was made to look Edwardian--though obviously no one was making color sound films then--but it is clearly a product of the 2000s rather than, say, the 1950s.
I have two quibbles with THE FORGER'S SPELL. One is that the book is told in a strange order. For the first hundred pages Dolnick talks about Nazi art looting and thefts, then he jumps back to the creation and selling of forged Vermeers in the 1920s and 1930s. As each major character is introduced Dolnick has to jump back in time again to give the background of that character, which gives the narrative a "stop-and-start" quality. Then he finishes with the discovery of the forgeries, after the war. So Dolnick tells the middle chapter of the story, then the beginning, and then the end.
It is not until the epilogue that Dolnick addresses why a painting thought to be by painter X is worth millions, but when it turns out to be by painter Y, it is worth $1.98. (Actually, good forgeries are worth more than that, but as curiosities rather than as art.) We have this idea that art should be valued as art, but it seems that much of it is valued as relic. Van Meegeren asked, "Yesterday this picture was worth millions of guilders, and experts and art lovers would come from all over the world and pay money to see it. Today, it is worth nothing, and nobody would cross the street to see it from free. But the picture has not changed. What has?"
Dolnick's answer is three-fold. First, "the world was full of people who thought of themselves as art lovers but were in fact merely snobs." Second, he quotes Alfred Lessing, who said that Vermeer was great because "he painted certain pictures in a certain manner at a certain time in the history and development of art." And lastly, Dolnick says, "When we praise a work of art, we have in mind not only the finished product but the way that product was made. ... [The] forger has the unfair advantage of working from someone else's model." (page 291)
The notion that people are too concerned with the origins and expert opinions of art and not enough with their feelings about it ties in with comments made by Tyler Cowen in his book DISCOVER YOUR INNER ECONOMIST (ISBN-13 978-0-452-28963-5, ISBN-10 0-452-28963-7). He was discussing the best way to see an art museum. Interspersed with suggestions such as to skip the first room entirely (because it is always the most crowded), he observed that most people spend more time reading the labels than looking at the art. When you enter a gallery, he said, look around, pick the one item that you like the most or find the most intriguing, and spend your time looking at that.
And speaking of art, I just watched Sister Wendy's "Story of Painting". While one can argue that one should not infer official Church theology from this film, I will observe that Sister Wendy talks about the cave painters of Lascaux as living 20,000 years ago among wooly mammoths. This is not consistent with the notion that the earth was created 6000 years ago, and that mammoths were created only as fossils, so this provides at least some evidence that the Church is not endorsing "Young Earth" creationism. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: We should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe. -- Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
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