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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
08/22/08 -- Vol. 27, No. 8, Whole Number 1507
Table of Contents
Catching Up to the iPod (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I am somewhat behind curve on new technology. I think everybody is fated to be behind the curve sooner or later. Back in the time of the first VCRs people came to me for technical advice. That was probably in the late 1970s. Sadly, technology moves faster and faster and I just do not. I may be one of the world's greatest experts on the creative uses of the HP 200LX palmtop computer. There is no prestige there. They stopped making them in the late 1990s and stopped supporting them in a year or so later. I would move on to a Blackberry, but I have so much functionality I built into my palmtop I could never give it up.
So it seem like well after much of the world is using iPods I bought myself a little 8-Gigabyte Nano iPod. Now my first observations are that you do not get a full 8 billion bytes. Some of that is to run the operating system. I am not sure how much memory is actually usable, but it has better than seven 24- hour days of audio and three hours of video. And it is not even full. I find that pretty astounding. Moore's Law says that the amount of storage you have in a given space will double about every 18 months. You wait long enough and memory makes great strides. Actually Moore stated that in terms of the number of transistors on a chip, but it has been re-phrased and generalized a lot since it was originally stated. But it says that digital cameras and iPods can have really large memories, compact and cheap.
My Nano is light, small, and very portable. I am surprised at how fast the charging of the battery is--about four hours--and how long-lasting a single charge is.
I see the iPod as a technology that if we let it can really transform life styles. Perhaps not for the better, but perhaps it is for the better. One does not recognize how much of life is spent in waiting. It is much less than it used to be, but it is still a great deal. Suppose you are going to the dentist with your spouse. You have to get dressed to go out. While you are dressing your hands may be busy but your head is really just waiting for them to finish. Then you are waiting for your mate to be ready to join you. In the car you are waiting to get to the dentist's office. You get to the office and you are waiting in the waiting room to be called. When the appointment is over you drive back home waiting to get there. Your mind might be engaged the ten minutes talking to the dentist, but you may have invested 120 minutes in appointment. Your mind was underused the other 110.
It would be nice to reclaim some of that time. Suppose eighty of those minutes could be reclaimed and used to read a good book. That can't be done. Now. But what can be done is that you can have the book read to you. You can download unabridged readings of books to an iPod. You turn is on when (it is safe and) your mind is unengaged. The little bits and pieces of time you are not using your mind add up. In the first three or so weeks I had the iPod I listened to two fair-sized books and it was probably less elapsed time than it would have taken me to read them if I had to set aside the time to do that reading.
I realize that I am retired and not everybody shares my lifestyle. But just about everybody has housework time or jogging time or gardening time when they are not using their ears. I find that I am going out walking for exercise more now that I have books read to me while I walk. And once or twice walking with Evelyn, on returning home I have told Evelyn that the story has gotten too interesting for me to stop then and I repeat the walk a second time with or without her. This is from someone who all too often shuns exercise.
There are definitely downsides to this technology. Evelyn gets very frustrated talking to me only to have me tell her to hold it while I put the iPod on pause and then ask her to repeat what she said. It seems my ears are not so unused all the time as I was assuming. They are there waiting for someone to speak to me. Evelyn at first would complain about this but of late has been more understanding. After all she puts up with a lot worse from me and I from her. And it has made me more patient. Rather than waiting for her, I can be listening to a book so the time is not wasted.
There is the problem that if you go through life with iPod buds in your ears people tend to assume you are a mentally-deficient anti-social techno-dweeb. It does not help that the Apple ads for the iPod seem to picture silhouettes of what appear to be mentally deficient techno-dweebs dancing like crazy to music only they can hear. And I am glad only they can hear the music. Before the iPod people carried these huge "boom-boxes," awkward but portable stereo systems and they would inflict their so- called music on all who surround them. The iPod is a whole lot better technology. But the ads give the impression that the listener is engulfed in orgasmic, frenzied musical nirvana. And the person in the ads does not look like the sharpest cheddar in the cheese shop.
It does not help that the basic unit of storage seems to be the "song". Most of my music is melodic and wordless. But I spend more time listening to spoken podcasts and books. I have very few songs on my iPod. I do have some operatic arias.
I talked a few issues back about the T.E.D. Talks. iTunes offers them free as podcasts. These are more uses for otherwise wasted brain-time. Overall I think this device has the potential to be very useful and not just a time waster for fans of bad music. [-mrl]
[Postscript: This is true. I wrote this editorial weeks ago and then decided not to print it. I thought I would just end up sounding foolish. After all most of my readers probably are more used to an iPod than I am. But Evelyn mentioned in the VOID that we were getting into mp3 players and a friend read that and decided to take the plunge himself. His comment to us was just what I said above that it was really good for making use of those scattered moments when one's mind would otherwise be wandering and waiting. So now I am sharing this information with other behind-the-curve folks. -mrl]
Four Short Takes (film reviews by Mark R. Leeper):
THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN
Director Frank Capra was known for his humane films. This one from 1933 gets swept under the rug. An American woman (played by Barbara Stanwick) is in China, engaged to a missionary, but held prisoner by the insidious warlord General Yen (a heavily made-up Swede, Nils Asther. The woman is attracted to Yen but despises him. And she hates him with good reason. Her window looks out on the courtyard where Yen arranges mass executions. Yen is, of course, attracted to the attractive, blond foreigner. Each feels the magnetism of the other but also wants to convert the other to his philosophy. Central to the film is a dream sequence in which Stanwick the general as sort of a cross between Fu Manchu and the vampire from NOSFERATU. Then she sees him as a high-society Englishman. The early parts of the film have chaotic images of China at war reminiscent of the opening sequences of LOST HORIZON. (The latter also had a racist air.) Those in love with Capra's more romantic images of average decent Americans may be shocked to see how nasty this film is. This was a very hard film to find, and now I think I see why. Rating: +1 or 6/10
This is director William Wyler's story of the real and notorious Judge Roy Bean, frequently a figure in westerns. This 1940 comedy/drama is told against the backdrop of the Texas range wars of free-range cattlemen against homesteaders. Gary Cooper plays the title character as Cole Hardin, a drifter who wanders too near Vinegaroon, Texas. He is arrested for horse stealing and dragged before the saloonkeeper judge. By a trick he avoids hanging and befriends Bean. He stays to mediate in the range war. Cooper is the star but Walter Brennan upstages him in an Oscar-winning performance as the self-appointed Judge Roy Bean. Bean's rulings are arbitrary and ludicrous. He also had a passion for beautiful English actress Lily Langtry whom he had never met. Contrary to the film, Bean died at 77 from drink and old age. The story plays fast and loose with history but it is entertaining. Director William Wyler would go on to make THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, THE BIG COUNTRY, and BEN-HUR. Rating: low +2 or 7/10
This is John Wayne's version of the story of the defense and defeat of the mission-stronghold. And when I say it was Wayne's I mean that he produced it, directed it, is the top billed star, and had a son and two daughters acting in the film. Also starring are Richard Widmark as Jim Bowie, and Laurence Harvey as Colonel Travis. Wayne saved the role of Davy Crockett for himself. One sour note is Frankie Avalon who just does not look like someone from 1836. The screenplay by longtime Wayne associate James Edward Grant serves Wayne's politics and incidentally his ego far better than it serves historic truth. (Part of Santa Ana's so-called "tyranny" was the abolition of slavery in Mexico, including Texas. That little tidbit was left out of the movie.) However, it is hard to imagine anyone preferring Billy Bob Thornton as Crockett in 2004 film. The film features a rousing and haunting score, one of Dimitri Tiomkin's best. The filmmaking is epic even if the story as told is heavily propagandized. Rating: low +2 or 7/10
This is a 2006 Indian Bollywood film that came highly recommended and I have to admit that for most of the film I was wondering why the recommendation. Many of the film's charms may not transcend the culture barrier. The film does rally toward the end as the pace picks up. This is a story with a female main character. I have not seen many Indian films with female main characters. The film is set in Korea, which is another unusual touch. Simram is an alcoholic who is self destructive until she meets a young nightclub singer, Akash, whom she falls in love with. She only slowly comes to trust the singer enough to tell the reason she drinks. She is also in love with a notorious gangster, Daya, whose clutches she now is trying to escape. For much of the film we see the love triangle slowly work itself out. There are action scenes as Daya does his gangstering and also is jealous of Akash. There are long poetic sequences without dialog. And it would not be a Bollywood film without song sequences. This does not leave a lot of time to develop the plot. The acting is frequently a little overripe by American film standards. But as is becoming more and more common in Asian films the photography is rich and colorful. It makes heavy use of bright red hues wherever they can be shoehorned into an image. The music seems very Indian at time and then will sound very Western. The film is short for a Bollywood film at just about two hours and even so it takes a while for the plot to get interesting. It does that late in the film. Rating: low +2 or 7/10
Fanzines, the Internet, Comic Book Films, Jorge Luis Borges, and Brother Cadfael (letter of comment by John Purcell):
In response to the MT VOID of 08/15/08, John Purcell writes:
A few comments on your latest MT Void are in order, I feel, so here goes.
First off, many thanks for expanding on your club origins and noting that this year is your zine's Pearl Anniversary. That puts you in some rarefied company; earlier this year, "File 770" celebrated its 30th anniversary, and there aren't many other zines whose names leap to mind that have such a long run. I can think of assorted clubzines and apazines; of course, Tucker's "Le Zombie" ran for ages, but it would require my opening another window on my computer to look things up. I will leave that task to others. Suffice to say that you and Evelyn have quite a history to look back on, and all I can say is "Whow!" Good show, Mark and Evelyn.
Interesting comments about the Internet and Fandom. I can see where the one has such an extensive influence on the other; it makes sense. "Homogenized," eh? Sometimes fandom gets curdled when it overheats or runs past its expiration date. I was wondering what that smell in the fridge was...
Comic book films definitely are the current riders of the wave of Hollywood's big buck generators. I still haven't seen any of them this summer--been very busy and lack of fundage, too, contributing to this state of affairs--but the film adaptations can offer interesting insights into characters and such in the comic book universe. You could easily argue that movies are the modern-day comic book. They definitely appeal to the masses and offer large-scale entertainment. At eight dollars a movie ticket (here in town, according to my kids), that's not too far off the cost of a contemporary comic book or graphic novel. Films are fun eye-candy, and if the actors & actresses are nice to look at--besides all the fun explosions and such--so much the better. Yeah, this makes sense to me.
Evelyn's reading of BORGES: A LIFE reminds me that I use a few of his stories in my literature classes. He is an interesting writer; many, many levels to dig through and interpret. Once they get into his writings, my students seem to enjoy them. Borges' style is a bit thick at times, but always worth the effort. The more I read him, the more I like his stories.
Speaking of current reading, I am back to another novel in the Brother Cadfael series (A MORBID TASTE FOR BONES) and more Hal Clement. In a week or so I won't have much luxury time for pleasure reading, so right now I'm enjoying it.
Many thanks for the issue, and keep them coming. Congratulations on the Pearl Anniversary! Where are you taking Evelyn for the anniversary dinner? Fish Daddy? [-jp]
[Thank you for the good wishes. As for films being the modern-day comic books, Perhaps. But comic books also do a good job of being the modern day comic books. Where did I take Evelyn on the Pearl Anniversary. Where else but Denvention? The dinner was at a modest taco shop in Denver and then to a bookstore. Thanks again for the comments. -mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
One reason I never catch up on my reading list is that I keep adding to it in arguably insane ways. For example, each month I have three new reading group books, and each year I have five Hugo novels (and fifteen somewhat shorter pieces). And then there are the conventions.
You see, I am just conscientious (a.k.a. crazy) enough when assigned as moderator to a panel on Olaf Stapledon to decide I have to try to re-read every I have by (and about) him. (Thank God they did not put me on a panel about Robert Silverberg or Edgar Rice Burroughs!) In any case, I managed only Stapledon's four major novels, and three books of literary criticism of Stapledon.
[I say "four major novels", but LAST AND FIRST MEN and STAR MAKER are not really novels in any traditional sense. They did not have characters in the usual sense--even the few individuals discussed in them are most archetypes than characters. Someone described counterfactuals as "alternate history with characterization" and that seems a reasonable parallel. However, I will occasionally use the term "novel" in referring to Stapledon's major works; just translate that as "long work of fiction.")
Let me start by saying that re-reading the books that one enjoyed immensely years ago may be a depressing experience, especially when supplemented by reading critical commentary. For example, I recently re-read Asimov's "Foundation Trilogy" and Joseph F. Patrouch's comments on it. Patrouch observes that the Second Foundation says that the destruction of the planet Tazenda and its "many millions" was necessary because the ends justify the means: "The alternative would have been a much greater destruction generally throughout the Galaxy over a period of centuries." Patrouch points out that this sort of justification has been used by people of less than savory reputations, and he has definite moral problems with it. And in Stapledon's work, one also finds some supposedly good (or at worst, morally neutral) acts that we would similarly condemn. So, while I loved works such as LAST AND FIRST MEN years ago, the negative aspects are now much more obvious.
First, an overview of LAST AND FIRST MEN (1930). In its Dover edition it is 246 pages, or about 130,000 words. (All page numbers given are for the two Dover omnibus editions of Stapledon works.) This is really the equivalent of a standard 500-page book. Pretty much everyone who reads this is fascinated by Stapledon's idea of "Deep Time". And it is Stapledon's idea. The only real predecessor that looked at the far future was H. G. Wells in THE TIME MACHINE, and he want only to A.D. 802,701 for the Eloi and 30,000,000, for the end of the world.
Stapledon, on the other hand, gives us five time scales. Time Scale 1 (page 56) goes to 4000 (that is, 2000 years forward as well as 2000 backward). Time Scale 2 (page 99) goes 200,000 years each way. Time Scale 3 (page 141) goes 20 million years each way. Time Scale 4 (page 213) goes 2 (American) billion years each way, and Time Scale 5 (also page 213) goes 10 trillion years each way. (On the final one a single entry on the timeline says, "Planets formed; end of Man"!) When I first read this, I fell in love with the timelines.
Of course, now I notice all sorts of problems. I must have noticed his description of the Jews (page 67) even then:
"One other race, the Jews, were treated with a similar combination of honour and contempt, but for very different reasons. In ancient days their general intelligence, and in particular their financial talent, and co-operated with their homelessness to make them outcasts; and now, in the decline of the First Men, they retained the fiction, if not strictly the fact of racial integrity. They were still outcasts, though indispensable and powerful. Almost the only kind of intelligent activity which the First Men could still respect was financial operation, whether private or cosmopolitan. The Jews had made themselves invaluable in the financial organization of the world state, having far outstripped the other races because they alone had preserved a furtive respect for pure intelligence. And so, long after intelligence had come to be regarded as disreputable in ordinary men and women, it was expected of the Jews. In them it was called satanic cunning, and they were held to be embodiments of the powers of evil, harnessed in the service of Gordelphus. Thus in time the Jews had made something like "a corner" in intelligence. This precious commodity they used largely for their own purposes; for two thousand years [sic] of persecution had long ago rendered them permanently tribalistic, subconsciously if not consciously. Thus when they had gained control of the few remaining operations which demanded originality rather than routine, they used this advantage chiefly to strengthen their own position in the world. For, though relatively bright, they had suffered much of the general coarsening and limitation which had beset the whole world. Though capable to some extent of criticizing the practical means by which ends should be realized, they were by now wholly incapable of criticizing the major ends which had dominated their race for thousands of years. In them intelligence had become utterly subservient to tribalism. There was thus some excuse for the universal hate and even physical repulsion with which they were regarded; for they alone had failed to make the one great advance, from tribalism to a cosmopolitanism which in other races was no longer merely theoretical. There was good reason also for the respect which they received, since they retained and used somewhat ruthlessly a certain degree of the most distinctively human attribute, intelligence."
[I realize that I spend a lot of time in my columns commenting on authors' attitudes towards Jews. For Stapledon, I could have pulled out passages showing his apparent prejudice against Africans, or Asians, or women. But I figure I should choose the category I know the best. There was, however, a certain irony in that all three panelists at Worldcon were Jewish.]
And Stapledon's notion of the effects of time does not seem to match our current knowledge. For example, he claims that the forms of buildings are still visible after 100,000 years (page 76). The recent documentary "Life After People" looked at the effects of time on untended building and materials. After only 10,000 years, they say, iron corrodes, concrete crumbles, and wood and paper decay. All that will remain (according to the documentary) would be the Great Wall, the Great Pyramid, Hoover Dam, and the most enduring of all, Mount Rushmore. Stapledon can be forgiven for not mentioning the last two--they were not completed until after LAST AND FIRST MEN was published. (I am surprised "Life After People" did not mention the Crazy Horse Monument, though.)
Stapledon does predict a lot of current and predicted future problems: atomic energy, oil and coal shortages, metal shortages, and so on (page 73). He even has Arctic islands and Antarctica melting, though with no comments on rising ocean levels (page 62).
In OLAF STAPLEDON (Starmont Reader's Guide 21), John Kinnaird says that Stapledon's publishers pressed him for a sequel to LAST AND FIRST MEN (page 51), proof that sequelitis is not new. I find it ironic that Stapledon wrote the entire future history of humanity/mankind all the way to its end with the destruction of the Solar System--and his publisher wanted a sequel! (Perhaps even more ironic is that Stapledon produced one.)
(Kinnaird lists Stapledon's "principal heirs" as Brian W. Aldiss, James Blish, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula K. LeGuin, Stanislaw Lem, Clifford D. Simak, and Cordwainer Smith. Many would also include Poul Anderson, even if only for TAU ZERO.)
Next week I will conclude my comments on Stapledon and his works. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: My Country, right or wrong" is a thing no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, "My mother, drunk or sober." -- G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936)
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