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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
02/27/09 -- Vol. 27, No. 35, Whole Number 1534
Table of Contents
The Secret Is Out (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I love it when you see an article with a title like "Six Secrets Of The Slim: Six Things You Can Do To Stay Slim." There are secrets? You mean I have been struggling with my weight all this time and all along there was an easy way to get rid of my vast waistland? I am grabbed right away to find out what other people have been keeping from me. Secret #1: Watch your portion size. Secret #2: Eat less fat. Secret #3: Exercise. Well you get the idea. The next thing I do is look to try and find the name of the author of the article. I expect it is something foreign. Well, maybe "alien" is a better word. Either that or it is somebody who has been on top of Old Smokey for a good long time. I mean who would have guessed that exercise is useful for weight control? Only someone who is from Planet Earth. Exercise! This is a secret? I hate to tell whoever wrote the article but that secret was leaked just about the time the Etruscans lost the Battle of Cumae. I think there were cave paintings that showed hunters who ran after mastodons were thin and svelte while cave women and women who sat round the camp fire became the subjects for the Venus Figures. The real Venus of the Venus figures would have capsized any half-shell in the ocean. It is the later Venus that was so disarming. Anyway, what they call secrets of losing weight are just not secrets. What I and every other person wants to find a secret like "Eat one matzoh ball a week, preferably on Tuesdays between the hours of 8 and 10 PM and you will lose three pounds a week." Now that would be a secret. Come to think of it for all I know it is. [-mrl]
And the Winner Is ... SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Well, this last Sunday the Academy Awards where presented. As frequently happens one film takes home the lion's share of statuettes. At the beginning of the evening I did not expect that SLUMDOG MILLIONARE would get much more than a nod from the Academy. But by the time the ceremony got around to giving the Best Picture award, it was clear that SLUMDOG MILLIONARE had already had a very good night, with seven Oscars so far, and that the Best Picture award would probably go to it also. So when its name was announced I was not surprised. But I would not have called that one at the beginning of the evening.
One surprise is that the Academy would want to honor a virtual Bollywood film. If you are not sure what Bollywood is, see the article "Bollywood 101" by Mark Leeper: http://tinyurl.com/bollywood-101. SLUMDOG MILLIONARE is technically a British film with a director (Danny Boyle) who was born in Manchester. But the film borrows a lot from--though it tones down--the conventions of the Indian film industry. It really is a tribute to the Mumbai (formerly Bombay) film. I reviewed this film a few weeks back http://www.geocities.com/markleeper/slumdog.htm) and gave it a somewhat ambivalent rating, not guessing that the Academy would give it a Best Picture Oscar. Now I am asking myself why it did win the world's most famous cinema award.
I think some of what sold it to the Academy was that it has an exotic flavor that fans of Bollywood films may be used to, but which not that many people in the United States have sampled. Bollywood films tend to be neighborhood films without much in the way of any aspirations but pure entertainment. They are a diversion for people who live in conditions, well, like you see in SLUMDOG MILLIONARE. For many of the poor in India films are a real escape. The poorest probably cannot afford the price of a movie ticket, but for many I am sure that a night at a movie may be the big event of their week. The conventions of Bollywood reflect that with just about every film having a heavy dose of comedy and several songs, sometimes with extravagant production numbers. And nearly every film has the comedy and songs, even if the subject is serious. (A case in point is BOMBAY, which starts out as comedy about a Hindu man who dresses as a woman to be near his forbidden Muslim love. One would hardly guess that this film would turn into a harrowing dramatization of the Bombay Riots. But the audiences got their comedy and their love songs.) SLUMDOG has not a lot of comedy and I remember only one big dance number, but the conventions are there if toned down.
Reactions to the film have been mixed in India. People who come from the slums object to the newly-minted pejorative "slumdog." Indians of a higher strata of society seem to be pleased that so Indian a film could be Best Picture in the United States. Some have commented on how in short order we elected and Afro-American President and now are giving awards to Indian (style) films. Surprisingly, I have heard nothing about the Indian police protesting the film. In the first reel, on one person's accusation, the main character is arrested by the police and tortured. It may possibly be something that could happen in India, but you would think that the police would at least be embarrassed and deny it. Actually one person commenting in the Times of India said it was unrealistic not because the arrest would not have happened but because in real life the victim would not have survived.
I think that the timing of the release of this film did a lot to make it the success with the public that it was. In a year in which a relatively small number of the wealthy in the United States have destroyed the economy for most of the average working people, this film comes along with its story about how a poor boy is ignored or exploited by the wealthy and how he fights back. I was not keen on the plot because it is highly contrived. The story is built around an ignorant "slumdog" who gets on a TV quiz show and just happens to know all the right answers because they are all little facts that were important in his previous life. To me that is the writer cheating the audience. Yes, it gives the viewer hope that if a slumdog can become successful, anybody can. But the boy is only successful on the show because of the tremendous coincidence when the quiz show asks all the right questions. It is much like the objection I had to the film ROCKY, which also won Best Picture. There a has-been prizefighter gets a chance to make something of himself because some fight promoter just liked his name. Without a really unlikely lucky break, these people would still be on the bottom. I suppose that hope inspires people, because it is the same hope that keeps the poor buying lottery tickets they cannot afford. But particularly in ROCKY, though in this film also, the contrivance undercuts the theme of the person redeeming himself through his own virtue. It seems to be saying that if you are really good and work hard you may get a one-in-a- million shot at succeeding. That is not so inspirational a message to me. I think it takes a better author--a Charles Dickens or a Jane Austen--to make it work.
So in spite of the attention the film is getting, I still call it just a mid-grade film. [-mrl]
Boston Science Fiction Marathon (film reviews by Dan Kimmel):
The older stuff consisted of films I was revisiting after a long time, like REPO MAN, LOGAN'S RUN, I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE, STAR TREK II, and RUNAWAY.
The new stuff was ALIEN TRESPASS, CHRYSALIS and ALIEN RAIDERS.
ALIEN TRESPASS opens in late March/early April and is presented as a "lost" '50 SF film. It's an affectionate homage/send-up of the kind we've seen before, but it's amusing. I'm hard-pressed to see this turning into a hit. You'll easily recognize the roots of the film (movies like IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE).
CHRYSALIS is based on a Ray Bradbury story and was the one film the audience turned on. It might play well as a 30-60 minute TV episode but at feature length it was so padded that people kept cheering everything they thought was finally an ending--and then jeered when it wasn't. This one generated catcalls (including one, alas, from me that got a big laugh; late in the film I said in response to a fade to black "End of prologue.")
ALIEN RAIDERS is a direct to video movie being released Tuesday. A supermarket is invaded in what looks like a robbery/hostage situation, but it quickly becomes apparent that the invaders have a very different agenda. It's comparable to ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. It's fast paced and entertaining, but not terribly deep. I certainly wasn't bored. If you've watched shows like "24" and "Six Feet Under" you'll recognize some people in the cast. If you haven't, they're all unknowns. [-dk]
STARSHIP TROOPERS (letters of comment by Dewey Henize and Rob Mitchell):
Evelyn's comments on STARSHIP TROOPERS in the 02/20/09 issue of the MT VOID certainly generated comment.
Dewey Henize writes:
First, disclaimer. I liked the book every time I read it.
Saying that, I wonder if there are other versions out there. I'm going to have to buy a new copy--my old ones have worn out over the years--but I don't remember it very much the way you do, obviously.
For example, on page 6, the sergeant says, "You're supposed to know the plan. But some of you ain't got any minds to hypnotize so I'll sketch it out." And then he does, even though the chances that the military would keep non-hypnotizable people if hypnosis is how they brief you for a mission is, well, zero.
a) I can't help but think there's lots of utility in going over and over a plan, regardless of how it was first presented. b) Picture a room full of young men, armed with weapons capable of being real WMD, scared so bad they can't imagine, and then tell me how to treat them to keep them from totally losing it. Maybe, like now, having the leader taking their focus and reiterating is a good use of the time?
That sounds great for morale, but terrible for efficiency. Even if one has civilians doing most of the support work (as seems to be the case later), having specially trained personnel fight as ordinary infantry seems like a waste of the specialized training.
This is the first time in the review that the difference between the MI and the overall "service" shows it got by. Are there highly specialized jobs in the overall service? Sure, examples all over the place. Are they all MI? Not only are they not, it's clear (I think) that the really specialized jobs are *not* MI. Be sure and also find a contemporary US Marine who's not a rifleman. The best way is to go up to one and say "I hear you're a Marine but not a rifleman." Step back quickly. Then extrapolate between US Marine and federal employee.
[True, the MI is just a branch of the military. Maybe the fact that Rico makes such a big deal of the "everybody fights" thing (including the chaplain and the cook) just indicates that he didn't realize that in the "old" military this was true too-if you talked only about combat units. -ecl]
In a comment in the original column, Mark says:
But in Heinlein's society you needed to actually take risks and fight to get the rights of a citizen. Spending your entire military service next to a dentist chair may not be considered sufficient sacrifice to earn the right to vote. Perhaps it is not the most efficient system, but I can see how it may be a necessity.
I missed this. The book I read indicated that you signed up for federal service, you prepared a list of occupations you wanted, and you were evaluated in that order. Nowhere did I see that you had to be in a specifically dangerous role, just a useful one. I recall the attitude of the "smart" friend assigned to research on a Pluto base, no one apparently expected that to be dangerous. Your danger seemed to be at the point you sign up for service, since you couldn't have any guarantee where you'd land.
Why is having the franchise given only to discharged veterans the best way to structure a society? Well, the basic claim seems to be "Under our system every voter and officeholder is a man who has demonstrated through voluntary and difficult service that he places the welfare of the group ahead of personal advantage."
See above and disentangle the word Veteran from Military.
[Not sure why there is a problem with "veterans" instead of "military". What distinction should I be making? -ecl]
Given that the majority of discharged veterans will be enlisted personnel, not officers, the electorate will be mostly people trained to follow orders rather than to "use their heads."
a) Could you make this a bit more elitist? Or maybe it's like the way Bell Labs works. After all, the scientists aren't really allowed to just "use their heads", except as they are expected to find out how to follow the orders from the Directors and such. (yes, that's unfair, though at least partially accurate. See how it hurts?) b) See above comments about Veteran and Military.
[You cut the part where Rico is thinking that if he were not an officer, he wouldn't have to think about all this stuff: "I wished I were back in the drop room of the 'Rog', with not too many chevrons and an after-chow bull session in full swing. There was a lot to be said for the job of assistant section leader--when you come right to it, it's a lot easier to die than it is to use your head." Rico is making this distinction; I'm just agreeing with him. -ecl]
We must have read very different books.
First negative message I've sent to you, sorry. I'll shut up now. Brace for the Heinlein haters. [-dh]
Rob Mitchell writes:
I was a bit disappointed by some of your comments concerning STARSHIP TROOPERS. Not the book so much; I think we agreed long ago that we had different takes on the book. A few of your remarks, though, merit closer scrutiny.
"On page 7 (and various times later, Heinlein makes a big deal of how everyone fights... That sounds great for morale, but terrible for efficiency...having specially trained personnel fight as ordinary infantry seems like a waste of the specialized training."
The powered armor was hardly "ordinary infantry", and Heinlein, through Rico, made the point that one armored soldier could wreak more damage than platoons of historic soldiers. That destructive potential comes at the cost of training the wearer when to use, and not use, it.
"Given that the majority of discharged veterans will be enlisted personnel, not officers, the electorate will be mostly people trained to follow orders rather than to 'use their heads.'"
You have an unfortunate, but hardly unique, view of the military and the difference between officer and enlisted. In today's military, for example, *everyone* takes orders, and yes, in general you are expected to follow them. In my extensive experience, though, following orders, even routinely does not turn off one's brain. People will complain, will question orders, will gripe to fellow soldiers/sailors, will do little things to rebel against perceived injustices in the system, etc. And with the common exception of whoever is lowest in the hierarchy, *everyone* gives orders too. Sure, the number of people to whom you can lawfully give orders to depends significantly on your rank, but being able to give orders is something the military trains its people in as part of the environmental pressure to learn ever more and accept ever more responsibility. And in any event, although the military has its share of martinets, most successful leaders (officer or enlisted) in my experience encourage free-thinking and feedback from their people.
"Given that, there are probably lots of people who would sign up, knowing that they would never qualify for anything risky."
I think one of Heinlein's claims, which is of course subject to debate, is that most people would not sign up, because they couldn't be bothered and because the franchise wasn't deemed important enough. [-rm]
FinancingFinancing (letters of comment by Andre Kuzniarek and John Sloan):
In Mark's comments on financing in the 02/20/09 issue of the MT VOID, he wrote, "But are there really people in this country who are stupid enough to finance a loan and go into debt and pay interest just to buy a nicer TV?"
Andre Kuzniarek writes, "Yes, people do it all the time, but usually on credit cards, and they do it too much." [-ak]
And John Sloan writes, "This amazes me too, but I think you've just identified one of the critical issues in the current economic crisis. Reading about these 'rent-to-own' stores you see, I notice that many of them effectively become 'rent and never pay off the principle' stores, or at least the renter ends up paying far over the retail price of the item. In one of the dozen or more episodes of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE hosted by Steve Martin, they did a skit that should be a regular TV spot. It had Martin as a 'self-help financial guru' who preached 'if you can't afford it, don't buy it'. Amen, brother. In the spirit of full disclosure, in the past 52 years I have personally financed two homes, three cars, several motorcycles, and thousands of credit card charges, although I currently have no debt." [-js]
The documentary I.O.U.S.A quoted the SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE routine. Or versions can be seen at http://tinyurl.com/37gth4 or http://tinyurl.com/68aqvv.
I agree wholeheartedly with the point of the skit, obviously. I do have to admit that the set of things that Steve Martin cannot afford is smaller than what most people cannot afford.
The rent-a-centers are really just a form of attractive loan-sharking that mostly preys on the poorest third of the population. Most of the victims of the rent-a-centers are just not equipped to understand the implications of the numbers. I may be fooling myself, but I like to think that I am actually fighting the rent-a-centers and other loan sharks to some degree with a little program of my own that I call "Teaching Mathematics. Maybe I should sell math as a form of self-defense. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
YEARS OF MINUTES by Andy Rooney (ISBN-13 978-1-58648-264-0, ISBN-10 1-58648-264-5) is a selection of Rooney's "60 Minutes" talks from 1982 to 2003. I found myself agreeing with some and disagreeing with others, but every once in a while I would run across a little surprise in the form of a very dated comment.
[Note: Rooney omits what he considers are unnecessary apostrophes. I'm not going to include "[sic]" every time he does this; take this as a general "[sic]".)
For example, in 1985 he said, "Here's [a question in a report card] from the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles. Question number five: 'Is there something about your room youd like to see changed?' Well, yes, as a matter of fact there is. Your average room costs about $125. You could change that to half if you wanted to." The current (2009) room rate at the Century Plaza is $375.
1988: "We have cable television in our house because we get better reception with it. There are fifty-three channels, not counting the dirty ones. Now, when does anyone watch fifty-three channels? I paid $500 for a videotape recorder." Digital cable now gives you hundreds of channels, and videotape recorders cost about $80 and include a DVD player as well).
1990: "A ticket to a World Series game in the third deck is $40. A ticket in the first or second deck is $50. ... The large hot dog ... is $2.75. The small one ... is $2. A large beer is $4. A small beer is $2.75." Now tickets are $125, $150, and $225, a hot dog is $7.50, and a beer is $8.75.
1991: "My bet is that in a few years, half those Soviet states that left the union will come home." He referred to "fifteen states", which would be Armenia, Azerbaijan, Byelorussia, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kirghizstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldavia, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. The last I checked none of them want back in.
1998: "It looks as if we're going to bomb Iraq. Boy, I dont know about that either. Im not for starting a war but you have to figure the President knows more about what weapons Saddam Hussein's got than he's telling us. ... I still trust the President enough to believe that if we do it, we had to do it."
1999: "The Russians almost took the world out at Chernobyl in 1986. That little part of the world is practically dead." According to a recent report 48 endangered species are "thriving" there. There are 270 species of birds alone in the area.
THE WISDOM OF CROWDS: WHY THE MANY ARE SMARTER THAN THE FEW AND HOW COLLECTIVE WISDOM SHAPES BUSINESS, ECONOMIES, SOCIETIES, AND NATIONS by James Surowiecki (ISBN-13 978-0-385-50386-0, ISBN-10 0- 385-50386-5) makes the claim that "under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them." The important phrase here is "under the right circumstances," and the problem is determining those circumstances.
For example, he gives the example of the Challenger: while minutes of the explosion, the stock value of the four companies involved-- Morton Thiokol, Rockwell International, Martin Marietta, and Lockheed--started to drop. Yet by the end of the day, Rockwell International, Martin Marietta, and Lockheed had basically recovered, while Morton Thiokol was still falling. Surowiecki gives this as an example of how the collective wisdom "knew" Morton Thiokol was at fault (albeit with some acknowledgement that it might have been just luck or some other fluke). My first reaction on reading this list of companies, though, was that before the Challenger explosion I had heard of three of them, which probably meant they were big enough to survive even if they were at fault, while Morton Thiokol was not. (Surowiecki does allow that this might have been the reason for the stock market reaction.)
So is this an example of collective wisdom, or just a fluke? Who knows? When it works, it's too easy to attribute it to collective wisdom, while when it fails, it is for unknown reasons.
When talking about stock prices, Suriowiecki says, "If Pfizer's stock price today makes it worth $280 billion, then for the market to be right, Pfizer will have to generate $280 billion in free cash over the next two decades." (page 234) Is this some rule-of-thumb everyone knows but me, or is Surowiecki assuming too much on the part of his readership?
He also says, "In starting to think about bubbles and crashes, one thing comes to mind right away: you don't see bubbles in the real economy, which is to say the economy where you buy and sell television sets and apples and haircuts. In other words, the price of televisions don't suddenly double overnight, only to crash a few months later." (page 245) Does he include gasoline in this real economy?
And Surowiecki claims that the reason movie theaters charge the same amount for popular movies as well as for duds is tradition. He pooh-poohs the idea that variation in ticket prices might be too complicated to coordinate with distributors, observing that theaters already discount matinees. Yes, but they know about that when the contract is drawn up. What they don't know is how successful a film will be, so they would have to have the freedom to change ticket prices unilaterally. What he doesn't even address is the problem in differential pricing for simultaneous movies at multiplexes. As it is, teenagers buy tickets for PG-13 movies and then sneak into R-rated ones; differential pricing will mean people will be buying cheap tickets for the duds (turning them into hits in the process!) while actually sneaking in to see the hits (which, selling fewer tickets, will become duds!).
What all this has to do with the wisdom of crowds is pretty tenuous, of course. I suppose that Surowiecki is trying to demonstrate that when attempting to make decisions, people and groups are swayed by tradition and ignore their collective wisdom, but he spends an entire chapter on it.
Collective wisdom, by the way, would say that the title is *way* too long, and that the book should have an index.
(Those unfamiliar with it will not recognize that EXTRAORDINARY POPULAR DELUSIONS AND THE MADNESS OF CROWDS, the classic book by Charles MacKay, is the inspiration for the title.) [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: The history of art is the history of revivals. -- Samuel Butler
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