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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
01/30/09 -- Vol. 27, No. 31, Whole Number 1530
Table of Contents
Acknowledgement (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
This week's MT VOID is brought to you by AIG, a safe place to invest. The American International Group, Inc. is a world leader in insurance and financial services. AIG, where the strength of a great nation meets the Power of 2: 2 Big 2 be Allowed 2 Fail. [-mrl]
THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL's Equations (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Dan Kimmel sent me this article about real mathematics in science fiction films:
It is becoming sort of a status symbol to be a mathematics advisor for movies and movies are more and more getting the math write. I think I read an article by Dave Bayer, who did the math from A BEAUTIFUL MIND.
It actually is really hard on the actors to have to do things like write real math on the black board and get it right because for them it is usually memorizing gibberish and having to get it letter perfect. Jodi Foster complained how hard it was to do the excited, just-found-alien-signal scenes in CONTACT. She had to rattle off a large piece of jargon tht supposedly told the others how to search for the signal.
The math in the original DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL was basically just a differential equation. That is real math, but not very deep. Variation of parameters really is a way to solve such an equation, but telling Barnhard it just needed variation of parameters does not ring true. Barnhard would have known to try variation of parameters as standard procedure and just might not have known what specific variation was needed. [-mrl]
The Mouse and I (part 3) (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Two weeks ago I talked about the various ways of killing mice and not-killing mice, but getting them out of house nonetheless. Now we come to the unpleasant part of the story. This one made me sad and angry at the same time.
I was talking in the previous installment about how I finessed the problem of a mouse invasion into my house. I found the passages that the mouse used and stuffed them with steel wool, the mouse's Kryptonite. And I lived for several years that this problem was a one-of-a-kind. Mice seemed to be staying out of my house.
Years passed. In 1993 Evelyn and I were planning on going on one of our big trips. Our destination was India. And we were not going with a tour group. We were our own tour group. We were going to make all the arrangements ourselves. I think we knew at the time that this was going to be taxing. We were really on edge and excited at the same time. We knew that we were going to be spending a lot of time on an airplane and then released into (and immersed into) a very strange world by American standards.
So I was sitting in my den about seven in the evening and as I looked into a kitchen I saw a mouse run across the doorway. My problem of years ago had returned, but the timing was a lot worse. And it had to be solved in the next hour. There was no way I could find mouse passages and stuff them with steel wool. What about trapping the little blighters? Could I find a humane trap on short notice? What was I thinking? How humane can be a trap that holds a mouse for the four weeks or so we were going to be gone? Could I wait and catch the mice when I returned? No. A mouse in the house can do a lot of damage. There was no way I was going to give a mouse the run of my house for four weeks.
No, this was it. The problem that I had worried about years ago had come back to haunt me. Ethics or no ethics, this mouse had to die. He had to die right away. It was a horrible thought, but I had to kill a mammal. What about snap traps? That would kill the mouse, and leave him to decay, but at least he would be there in plain sight. Poisoning would leave the mouse in my walls. How much of a health and stench problem would a dead mouse be in four weeks?
You probably have seen snap traps in person or in cartoons. They have a bar on a spring. You pull the bar and secure it in place by a perpendicular bar that holds it down. That bar is held in place by a little tab of metal that has a hole for the retaining bar. And you get that pressure by putting peanut butter on the tab. Just a little pressure on the tab of metal releases the perpendicular bar. It releases the spring bar, which comes down with diabolical force just about where the peanut butter was. [Okay, if you didn't already know how a mousetrap works, you probably still don't. But I tried to explain it.] The spring trap is a deathtrap for the mouse who tries to nibble some peanut butter. Believe it or not, it also may be the most humane trap. I assume the unsuspecting mouse licks the peanut butter, feels a small split second of terrible pain, and then never feels anything again. Not knowing that anything is wrong, feeling a split second of pain, and then it is all over; I wouldn't mind going that way myself.
Certainly a snap trap was the way to go. I rushed out to the hardware store and bought five. I set four of them up in the kitchen near the walls. I put up a fifth trap in a back room. Very (very) early the next morning I headed out for India. Overhanging the whole trip was the worry about what had happened in my kitchen. It was not the only trouble we ran into this trip, but that is a story for another time. Flash forward four or five weeks. We got home, Evelyn hobbling, and the first thing I did was look in the kitchen. Had I caught my mouse? There was no mess in the house. No sign that there had been any foul play with the food. There was no bad smell. But the four mousetraps each had a dead mouse.
This I hadn't bargained on. Sure there might have been more than one mouse, but once one mouse died, the others would surely flee. I didn't want to kill one mouse, much less four. No, each trap had a dead mouse. The lure of peanut butter was just too much for them. I probably killed off an entire family of mice. I suppose this was the best result I could have hoped for given that four mice had found a way in. I put on protective gloves. Who knows what they carried? And took them out one at a time to an undignified funeral in my trash bin.
I had done the best thing, but I felt terrible. However, there were apparently just the right number of traps. No mouse came around in the weeks to come. In fact, we were years without a mouse problem. But the strangest story of me against mice was the most recent one. I learned just how humane a humane trap is.
I will discuss this next week in the final chapter of this series. [-mrl]
Dictionaries (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
When I first studied Spanish, "The University of Chicago Spanish- English English-Spanish Dictionary" was *the* dictionary, at least if one did not want to spend mucho dolares for an academic volume. My old Cardinal edition saw much use and was starting to fall apart, so when I saw a more recent [third] edition (1981, ISBN-10 0-671-50853-9) in the thrift shop for a dime, I jumped at it. Shortly before this I had bought "The American Heritage Spanish Dictionary [Second Edition]" (which is also Spanish-English and English-Spanish) (2000, ISBN-10 0-618-04873-1) there, also for a dime. Initially, I did not like the American Heritage one, partly because it alphabetized both English and Spanish sections according to the English alphabet, and I had finally gotten use to looking thing up according to the Spanish alphabet. In Spanish, "ch" is considered a single letter following "c", and "ll" one following "l", so "chiste" would be after "comprar" and "llama" after "luz". But not in the American Heritage edition. ("ñ" does come after "n", probably because it is clearly a single letter, although I believe the tilde on top started out as a second "n".) Lest you think this a trivial complaint, I'll point out that since I have one dictionary in the den, another in the bedroom, and a third in the living room, this quirk on the part of the American Heritage edition means that I have to keep thinking about which dictionary I am using in order to look up some words.
However, I rapidly changed my mind about the editions. This was perhaps influenced by the fact that the University of Chicago edition I bought was missing a signature of pages, including most of the words starting with the letter "a". But even ignoring that, the American Heritage had many more words. All too often I would go to look up a word in the University of Chicago edition only to find that it was not there, and that I had to turn to the American Heritage edition instead. (One example was "tatarabuelo", meaning "great-great-grandfather").
The bottom line is that if I had to recommend one of these, it would be the American Heritage edition.
And a side-note on using dictionaries in other languages: I never quite realized how much I take for granted in using an English dictionary. For example, when looking up a word starting with "n", I know I have to look slightly more than halfway through, while "f" is maybe 20% in. But in another language, all this changes.
For example, the halfway point in my English disctionary is "masthead", while in Spanish it is "gotera". And while the words starting with "a" are 6% of the English dictionary, they are 11.5% of the Spanish one.
(In English the letters' frequencies are in the order "etaonrishdl": in Spanish, "eaosrnidlc".) [-ecl]
Logic Puzzle (by Richie Bielak):
Here is a logic puzzle for the MT VOID.
You are standing in the circle. On the perimeter of the circle is a vicious dog. However, the dog can only move along the perimeter. It turns out that the the dog can run exactly four times as fast as you at your quickest.
How do you get out of the circle without getting bitten? [-rb]
[Answer next week.]
Top Ten Films of 2008 (letters of comment by Lax Madapaty and Arthur Kaletsky):
In response to Mark's list of "Top Ten Films of 2008" in the 01/23/09 issue of the MT VOID, Lax Madapaty writes:
Wonderful list with a 50% overlap with mine. Your rating scale was confusing for some readers. Now your ratings are confusing. Please see below. You've rated films ranked at 7,8,9, and 10 as 8/10, 7/10, 8/10 and 7/10 respectively. I am wondering if this is:
Please clarify to your eager readers awaiting for insights into what you loved in 2008 so they can try to go to the cinemas and watch as many of them as possible while there is still a chance, before Oscars night.
By the way, DEFIANCE is a good film but not worthy of a top 10. Some of the punch is lost as there is too much of a jungle adventure and survival in there. So sorry. But at least now I know that if I am lost in a jungle the next time I venture out, I can count on the Bielski brothers to rescue me with aplomb and panache. Liev is a treat to watch though. Even in sh*t movies, he is good. [-lm]
It was an oversight. DEFIANCE I uprated to high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10 but I slipped up and the higher rating did not get in the top 10 list. You probably guessed that. [-mrl]
And Arthur Kaletsky writes, "Thanks for the list, but I think you missed two really good ones (possibly due to later US release dates): WALTZ WITH BASHIR (high +3 from me) and THE BAADER-MEINHOF COMPLEX (+3)." [-ak]
Mark responds, "There are only a limited set of films I get to see. I had put WALTZ on my NetFlix list. I just added COMPLEX. But the lack of availability is why I try to emphasize it is my list based on what I have been able to see." [-mrl]
ImageNETion.com (letter of comment by Andre Kuzniarek):
In response to Mark's comments on the ImageNetion.com site in the 01/23/09 issue of the MT VOID, Andre Kuzniarek writes:
[Mark wrote,] "I think somebody just needs to write them a much better user interface. But there is a wide variety of beautiful collections of high-definition reproductions."
The interface here is probably intentional obfuscation, as surely this archive is illegal. Advertising revenue is being collected for images gathered and presented without appropriate credit or any apparent permission. If it weren't obscure, it would become an immediate lawsuit. Might be lined up for one already anyway... [-ak]
TOPIC (letter of comment by Wendy Sheridan):
In response to Mark's comments on mice in the 01/16/09 issue of the MT VOID, Wendy Sheridan writes:
I don't know if you remember this scene from THE IMMIGRANTS, a Swedish-language film about Swedes emigrating to the Middle United States around the turn of the 20th century), but of the two scenes I do remember, one of them was about a small child of around 6-8 years of age dying because she ate uncooked, dry cereal of some kind (wheat, I think) and it expanded in her belly. She didn't explode, but she died. I have no idea whether this is based on any real reports or just dramatic license. But your comments today about exploding mice and Snopes reminded me of that scene.
The other scene contained a very rude remark about why Liv Ullman's character was acting so bitchy, and the subtitle was quite explicit regarding what one of the other passengers thought would "cure" her attitude. [-ws]
Mark replies, "I will say I never used the word 'explode.' That was Tim McDaniel's word. I just said that the potato flakes expand and kill the poor thing and that I would never experiment with this myself. I do give some credence to the theory since I know that digestive gases expand enough to kill sheep and that is just gas. I never saw THE IMMIGRANTS." [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Anyone familiar with the plot of ORLANDO by Virginia Woolf (ISBN-13 978-1-853-26239-5, ISBN-10 1-853-26239-0) knows that it plays with gender: Orlando is born male, but one day wakes up to discover that he has turned into a woman. But it also plays with time, and with space.
For example, early on Woolf writes, "It [the hill Orlando is on] was very high, so high indeed that nineteen English counties could be seen beneath, and on clear days thirty, or forty perhaps, if the weather was very fine." Seeing forty counties from a hill would be impressive indeed, as according to what read when I looked it up, there were only thirty-nine in all of Britain. But even assuming that this is a rounding error or something, one clearly cannot see thirty-nine counties unless the hill extends into the stratosphere. And Woolf continues, "To the east there were the spires of London and the smoke of the city; and perhaps on the very sky line, when the wind was in the right quarter, the craggy top and serrated edges of Snowden [sic] herself showed mountainous among the clouds." Snowdon to London is about 180 miles. Snowdon is 3560 feet high, so an observer at the top with perfect visibility could see 72 miles (assuming the Earth is a perfect sphere 8000 miles in diameter, thus giving an arccosine of 0.999854, implying an arc of 1 degree 5 minutes). Therefore, the furthest from Snowden anyone could see it would be 72 miles, but that is less than half the distance to London, and London is not 3560 feet above the plain.
Woolf also intermingles space and time. On page 112 she is talking about Orlando's house (an structure in space), which has 365 bedrooms and 52 staircases (clearly references to days and weeks of the year).
Orlando is described as being thirty in the time of Charles II (1660-1685), but was alive during Elizabeth I's reign (ended 1603) and writing during or shortly after Marlowe and Shakespeare.
Indeed, the trance which resulted in the gender change started on Friday, May 4, almost definitely in the reign of Charles II, which theoretically has to be either 1666, 1677, or 1683. (page 133) I say "theoretically", because Woolf later says that June 16, 1712, was a Tuesday (page 195) when it was actually a Monday. It is conceivable that Orlando remained ambassador through a change of monarch and even through the Glorious Revolution, adding 1688 and 1694 to the list, but this just makes Orlando even older.
From the ship returning to England, the Captain claims to see Addison, Dryden, and Pope dining together. (page 167) Their lifetimes did actually all overlap between 1688 and 1700, but in 1700, Pope was still only twelve. (Woolf even points this out in a footnote, in case the reader doesn't realize it.) For that matter, this return has to be after 1702 since William III is already dead (page 165), so Dryden was also dead as well.
And the name "Princess Marousha Stanilovska Dagmar Natasha Iliana Romanovitch" is wrong--it would be "Romanova", not "Romanovitch".
Woolf's punctuation is eccentric at times. Frequently when she has a subordinate clause, she leaves off the second comma. For example, "At any rate, it was not until she felt the coil of skirts about her legs and the Captain offered, with the greatest politeness, to have an awning spread for her on deck that she realized, with a start the penalties and privileges of her position." (page 153) Or, "Nothing, however, can be more arrogant, though nothing is commoner than to assume that of Gods there is only one...." (page 173)
But Woolf is able to laugh at literary styles: she writes, "Nature, who has played so many queer tricks upon us, making us so unequally of clay and diamonds, of rainbow and granite, and stuffed them into a case, often of the most incongruous, for the poet has a butcher's face and the butcher's a poet; who delights in muddle and mystery, so that even now (the first of November, 1927) we know not why we go upstairs, or why we come down again, our most daily movements are like the passage of a ship on an unknown sea, and the sailors at the masthead ask, pointing their glasses to the horizon: Is there land or is there none? to which, if we are prophets, we make answer 'Yes'; if we are truthful we say 'No'; Nature, who has so much to answer for besides the perhaps unwieldy length of this sentence, ..." (page 78) At 197 words and 16 commas (plus three semi-colons, two dashes, and a colon), it's a sentence worthy of Jose Saramago.
The core of the novel, though, seems to be when Woolf writes of Orlando, "She remembered how, as a young man, she had insisted that women must be obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled. 'Now I shall have to pay in my own person for those desires,' she reflected; 'for women are not (judging by my own short experience of the sex) obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled by nature. They can only attain these graces, without which they may enjoy none of the delights of life, by the most tedious discipline." (page 156) This incorporates several ideas. Woolf is suggesting that what people think of as the womanly attributes are merely learned behaviors. (One can argue that basing this notion on a person who was born a man and has been a woman for only a short time is not entirely convincing.) But more importantly, Orlando (Woolf) recognizes that a culture that treats people unequally may seem good to those on top, but if there is any chance of a change in status, these people might wish for a more fair (i.e. equal) society. (This is actually a philosophical theory proposed in the 20th century--justice is what you would arrange for a society if you were responsible for setting it up *before* you knew what your position would be in it. Maybe it's just me, but I see echoes of Jorge Luis Borges's "Babylonian Lottery" in this.)
This is one of the few novels that has an index. (In fact, I can think of no others.) It's true that all that is indexed are the various people Orlando meets or refers to, and I'm sure the intent is to make this seem more a real biography. In this sense, I suppose it is an early example of trying to make a fictional story appear real--though frankly there are enough impossibilities in it to make a careful reader question it early on. Ironically, the main impossibility when Woolf wrote it was the notion that Orlando could be transformed from a man into a woman--and that is no longer impossible at all. But seeing Snowdon and London simultaneously from the ground ... no, that is still impossible. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: Without education, we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously. -- G.K. Chesterton
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