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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
03/06/09 -- Vol. 27, No. 36, Whole Number 1535
Table of Contents
Brideshead Revisited (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I was watching watching BRIDESHEAD REVISITED, a story that says the super-rich lead lives of abject misery. I think that is the sort of feel-good film we need in these trying economic times. [-mrl]
Math Question (puzzle by Mark R. Leeper):
Here's a deceptively simple math problem you can figure out in your head without paper or a calculator. Let P be the 100th prime number. Assuming the calendar does not change what day of the week will it be P^10 days from now. The answer will be at the end of this VOID. [-mrl]
Project Steve (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I would like to congratulate The National Center for Science Education's Project Steve on reaching its 1000th Steve. As someone with a mathematical bent, I think it is a really great idea. Project Steve is sort of an answer to Creationists who claim that there are actually many eminent scientists who reject evolution as a theory for the biological history of species. Many? Perhaps. But then there are a myriad of scientists to choose from. The scientists who reject evolution are really still just a small fringe of the scientific community, even if a list of their names may appear long.
The Creationists publish lists of scientists who reject evolution. Then the evolutionists counter by pointing out that there are a lot more scientists who believe that the Theory of Evolution is substantially correct. They may publish their own list, which is not a difficult thing to do because the strong tide of scientific opinion in is favor of evolution. Far more scientists believe in evolution than reject it. However, there are enough Creationist and Intelligent Design scientists to fill their lists. It is hard for people outside the scientific community to recognize that even a long list in a Creationist-sponsored ad may still be a very small percentage of good scientists. So this situation sits in a standoff and some of the public is misinformed.
To resolve the argument, or at least make it a little less cumbersome, Project Steve publishes a list of now a thousand scientists who accept evolution as the best explanation of the origin of species. And every one of the scientists is named Steve. Or at least each has a name that is a variant of Steve like Stephanie, Stefan, Estaban, Stephen, etc. At first brush this seems like an odd thing to do. Who really cares the name of the scientist who has opinions on one side of the argument or the other? In actual fact nobody cares. But the fact that so many names can be collected with the name Steve is a show of strength. Only about one percent of the population has a name that is a variant of Steve. It is an arbitrary way to sample the population of scientists. For every scientist who believes in evolution whose name is Steve, there are probably about 99 scientists who believe, but whose name is not Steve. Being able to list 1000 scientists named Steve who believe in evolution is much the same thing, with a little statistical error, as being able to name 100,000 scientists of any name who accept evolution as the best explanation. This is not just countering the Creationist lists; it is beating them with class. It is a real show of strength.
There is some risk in saying that it is the same as finding 100,000 scientists who believe, of course. It is an example of mathematical sampling. People who are already pre-disposed to reject scientific opinion are just as likely to reject statistical theory. They are likely to conclude that there are just whole bunches of people named Steve who believe in evolution, but the Jeffs and Freds and Toms and Dicks and Harrys support Creationism. It is not true that there is nothing to that argument. There is just almost nothing. It is true that they chose the name Steve to honor a well-known advocate of evolution, Stephen J. Gould. There is no way to rule out the possibility that Steves everywhere saw a successful Steve who advocated evolution and out of Steve- Chauvinism they all flocked to courses in evolution in school and became sympathetic to that theory. I read one Creationist's response that science is not a popularity contest and this is like the kindergarten class voting if the class guinea pig is male or a female. But whose opinion is better in scientific matters than the scientific community? I do admit the 1000th Steve seems like less than a random choice. He is botanist Steve Darwin of the University of Tulane. He does not think he is any relation to Charles.
It has taken six years to assemble 1000 names after Eugenie Scott-- the executive director of the National Center for Science Education--initiated the project in 2003. But I want to thank Steves everywhere for the contribution that this group is making.
I heard of it at the Scientific American podcast:
The actual announcement is at The National Center for Science Education's website:
SLUMDOG Rundown (film comments by Lax Madapaty):
Member Lax Madapaty (who actually has some knowledge of India, by an odd coincidence) responds to my comments that much of SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE stretches the credulity. (There are some minor plot spoilers.):
Where do I end this string of unlikely events? It takes away a lot from the film. This is a fantasy film of the highest order, and I refuse to give it much respect. The score is terribly composed, at times cacophonic and fully undeserving of an Oscar award. "Jai Ho" is a great song though, a fitting ending to a fantasy film. [-lm]
FORBIDDEN LIE$ (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Norma Khouri became an international celebrity telling the story of her friend when she was living in Jordan. The friend, Dalia, was a Muslim who fell in love with a Christian and then was murdered by her own father and brother in an honor killing. But in all probability none of this ever happened. Norma Khouri is (probably) a con artist supreme. Documentary writer/director Anna Broinowski investigates Khouri's stories and her background and finds a bizarre story that grows ever more complex in Khouri's telling. This is a film that would make a great double feature with Lasse Hallstrom's THE HOAX. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
Norma Khouri's story is a tragedy. As a Muslim growing up in Amman Jordan, Norma's best friend was Dalia. Neither Norma nor Dalia wanted the life that had been pre-ordained for them by their families. They wanted careers, not just to be married off to men they did not choose and probably would not love. As one of the few careers that were open to them, they opened a beauty shop. After that Dalia did find herself falling in love. But the man was not one who would have been approved by her family. In fact the man was not even a Muslim. He was a Christian soldier. Dalia knew that if her father found out about the relationship it could go very bad for her. Her father believed that he was the guardian of virtue for his family. Dalia's love for a Christian would make her father very angry, and he would undoubtedly believe that it would destroy the honor of the family. So Dalia kept her love a secret from her family. One day Norma went to see Dalia only to find that Dalia was dead. Dalia's family had found out about Dalia's love and murdered her with knives. When Norma saw her dead friend laying in the morgue, Norma decided she no longer could live with her family and could no longer even live in Jordan. She fled for her life and wrote the story of the incident in book form.
That is Norma Khouri's story. She submitted it to an Australian publisher who released it widely. The book known as FORBIDDEN LOVE or HONOR LOST became a bestseller in several languages and several countries. Norma Khouri's story took great courage to bring to the world the story of Muslim honor killings. Or perhaps a better word would be that it took great "chutzpah." The story was (probably) totally fabricated by Khouri. Khouri had a history as a confidence trickster and though she denied the truth for a long time, the book is likely a total fabrication.
Writer/director Anna Broinowski delves into the life of Khouri, taking her camera to Australia, England, Chicago, and Amman. As Broinowski investigates she finds more and more contradictions in Khouri's version of the truth. And each time an inconsistency is found, with a straight face Khouri adds more to the story and makes it more complex. Each contradiction is patched with a new story tailor-made to win the sympathies of the listener. Soon the investigation turns up a story involving an elderly neighbor whom Khouri (probably) conned out of half a million dollars. Khouri claims that she was forced to steal that money and the story goes off in the direction of rape and incest. Yet she has a talent to tell her stories with a straight and attractive face that makes you momentarily want to believe her. By the end of the film Khouri's story is nothing like it started out.
FORBIDDEN LIE$ is amusing and frustrating. But it is undeniably entertaining and one gets a certain amazement at the creativity of Khouri's mind under pressure--much the same quality that Clifford Irving has in THE HOAX. I rate FORBIDDEN LIE$ a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0790808/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/forbidden_lies/
HEARTS AND MINDS (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: This is a film that is more than an evening's entertainment. It qualifies as a genuine historical document. Famous people have been inspired by it. Famous people have condemned it. But nobody doubts that it is an effective piece of filmmaking. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
A military is a machine. In wartime it is set in motion against an enemy. If it is functioning as intended the people who are doing the fighting are not making the moral decisions. They are following their procedures, collecting intelligence in a manner they have been told to follow, and they are killing in the manner they have been trained and ordered to follow. Commanders and non- military personnel far from the fighting generally make the major moral decisions.
HEARTS AND MINDS is a powerful documentary that was made by Peter Davis in 1974 to examine the Vietnam War in its last days. It is a potent film with many images that stick in the mind; some the viewer might prefer to forget. The film is being revived and re- released thirty-five years after it was made. The idea is that the same standards the film uses to evaluate the Vietnam War can be applied to wars in the Middle East. It would be foolish to say that the current war in Iraq is a repeat of the Vietnam War in a new setting. But certainly there are similarities in the two wars as striking that are as the differences.
It is probably true that every war the United States has ever fought has had fighting men who simply were not happy with what was going on. But the Vietnam War was something new for the United States. What made this war different from previous wars was advances in technology. In World War II soldiers groused in their foxholes, but almost none could send their complaints home to a wide audience. Technology was just not in a state that made it easy for the fighting man to express himself. The loudest voices commenting on the US participation in World War II were the US Government and Hollywood. And both had almost identical messages that this war was going to be the last war and the one that would set the world straight. The message was that the fighting men were doing the right thing to fight that war. And frankly I myself do not doubt that that message was substantially true.
By the time that the Vietnam War came along, the individual soldier's opinion was much more important. Any soldier might find his words on the 6:00 news being broadcast across the nation. The war was poorly run and probably with assumption and principles that were faulty. It is a little shocking to see Gen. William Westmoreland, one of the moral decision-makers of the war saying, "The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient." But the opinions of the front line soldiers and the men who were actually fighting the war became important as they never had been in any previous war.
HEARTS AND MINDS examines the opinions of the people involved in the Vietnam War. As a bit of a polemic it concentrates mostly on people who were opposed to the American policy. Certainly the people against the war are shown in a much more favorable light than those who supported it. At the time of the original release of HEARTS AND MINDS in 1974 it was very strong stuff. There were few other documentaries that presented the contrarian view. This was then a unique and powerful film. Releasing it today, when the liberal documentary is in what will probably be considered its Golden Age, cannot help but deflate the film's impact. There were many effective documentaries made in the last two or three years. But director Peter Davis's hard-hitting style is still effective. This remains one of the best documentaries about the liberal reaction to the Vietnam War. The similarities of current conflicts to the Vietnam War will still be striking. But it cannot hope to have the strength and the individuality that it had 35 years ago. Contrasts between the Southeast Asia war and the Middle East wars cut against the film. But the classic films never really lose their power for the people who saw them in their first run or who remember the historical context of that time.
Davis start with selections from World War II films showing how public opinion was orchestrated, thought perhaps no more than other countries other countries manipulated their own people. The United States left that victory with a belief they could be a force that would control the future... for the good motives, of course. Davis takes us to a short history of Vietnam under the French after WWII and how when they gave up the United States took their place. Davis then interviews allies, soldiers, commanders, Viet Cong, and civilians caught in the middle. A bomber pilot tells how he just gets the plane to near where the bombing is to take place and then turn it over to the computer to actually drop the bombs. The film goes on for almost two hours showing many aspects of the war, but few really favorable to US side.
HEARTS AND MINDS won the Academy Award for Best Documentary of 1974. A co-producer, Bert Schneider, accepted the award and read a telegram saying "Greetings of Friendship to all American People." It was from the Viet Cong delegation to the Paris Peace Accords. Later in the awards ceremony Frank Sinatra presented a disclaimer he had co-authored with Bob Hope saying "We are not responsible for any political references made on the program, and we are sorry that they had to take place this evening." Michael Moore calls the film the one movie that inspired him to become a filmmaker and calls it the best documentary he has ever seen.
Even after three and a half decades this film still will be controversial and still has a real impact. I rate HEARTS AND MINDS a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0071604/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/hearts_and_minds/
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
The science fiction group chose THE ENEMY STARS by Poul Anderson (ISBN-13 978-0-671-65339-2, ISBN-10 0-671-65339-3) for this month's book. This was not so much for any great fascination with the book as with chance. People had been saying they wanted to read a Poul Anderson book, but there was no one novel that the library system had more than one or two copies of. However, when we went to a half-price sale at a local used bookstore, we found a whole *stack* of THE ENEMY STARS. What's more, we found them on the back porch, where books are normally six for a dollar. But these were half- price, so we picked up a half-dozen copies for fifty cents total, and handed them out to the group members.
And it is certainly true that if we had to pick an Anderson to read, this would not have been it, in spite of the fact that this *was* nominated for a Hugo (under the title WE HAVE FED OUR SEA). First of all, there are certainly more well-regarded books by Anderson. For example, Anderson had six other Hugo-nominated books: THE HIGH CRUSADE, TAU ZERO, THERE WILL BE TIME, THE PEOPLE OF THE WIND, FIRE TIME, and THE BOAT OF A MILLION YEARS. Of these, THE HIGH CRUSADE and TAU ZERO are certainly better novels. But the sad fact is that even those are not widely available.
Anyway, while the basic plot of THE ENEMY STARS--starship breaks their faster-than-light matter transmitter and has to repair it--it seems to me that it is dragged out too much. (And one could quibble about the idea that four guys could rebuild a FTL transmitter practically from scratch, but that's the Campbellian tradition.) There's a subplot of one character's family problems, and a lot of not-very-subtle chacterization, which the group seemed to agree was more to let Anderson present various philosophies rather than do character studies. On the whole, I cannot really recommend it.
In writing about Kali, Carlos McReynolds says, "I rather think there's some similarities between the sort of spiritual reality that Kali implies and some of Lovecraft's fiction. Quoting Kinsley in Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: 'There is an insistence in Hinduism that the world as it appears to us is a show, that there remains hidden from our normal view an aspect of reality that is... shockingly different from our ego-centered way of apprehending it. The Mahavidyas... are awakeners, visions of the divine that challenge comfortable and comforting fantasies about the way things are in the world.' Based on that quote, I'd say the biggest distinction between the above and the sort of truth presented in Lovecraft's fiction is that the Tantrica believes that it's ultimately positive to see reality as it is, whereas nothing good ever comes in an HPL story from learning the truth. But ultimately, whether you're gazing on Kali or Cthulhu, I would argue, you're going to get a big batch of truth that is going to unsettle you."
In an essay on Jorge Luis Borges ("The Literature of Exhaustion"), John Barth wrote, "Not long ago, incidentally, in a footnote to a scholarly edition of Sir Thomas Browne (THE URN BURIAL, I believe it was), I came upon a perfect Borges datum, reminiscent of Tlön's self-realization: the actual case of a book called THE THREE IMPOSTORS, alluded to in Browne's RELIGIO MEDICI among other places. THE THREE IMPOSTORS is a non-existent blasphemous treatise against Moses, Christ, and Mohammed, which in the seventeenth century was widely held to exist, or to have once existed. Commentators attributed it variously to Boccaccio, Pietro Aretino, Giordano Bruno, and Tommaso Campanella, and though no one, Browne included, had ever seen a copy of it, it was frequently cited, refuted, railed against, and generally discussed as if everyone had read it--until, sure enought, in the *eighteenth* century a spurious work appeared with a forged date of 1598 and the title DE TRIBUS IMPOSTORIBUS. It's a wonder that Borges doesn't mention this work, as he seems to have read absolutely everything, including all books that don't exist, and Browne is a particular favorite of his. In fact, the narrator of 'Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius' declares at the end: '... English and French and mere Spanish will disppear from the globe. The world will be Tlön. I pay no attention to all this and go on revising, in the still days at the Adrogué hotel, an uncertain Quevedian translation (which I do not intend to publish) of Browne's URN BURIAL."
Whether this is the first example of a fictitious book deceiving people, I don't know, but it seems to be the precursor of "The Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred"; "A Perfect Vacuum", "One Human Minute", and others (referenced by Stanislaw Lem); and any number of books by Herbert Quain referenced by Borges.
And of course the aside, "including all books that don't exist," hearkens back to "The Library of Babel", which contains not just all books but all possible books. In the universe of the Library, there *are* no books that don't exist.
Along these same lines, Barth wrote, "Borges' favorite third- century heretical sect is the Histriones--I think and hope he invented them--who believe that repetition is impossible in history and therefore live viciously in order to purge the future of the vices they commit: in other words, to exhaust the possibilities of the world in order to bring its end nearer."
Googling indicates that Barth's hope has been realized: the heresy of the Histriones is indeed a Borgesian invention (to be found in the story "The Theologians").
I have to say that of late I have found myself trapped in my own "Garden of the Forking Paths" or Borgesian labyrinth. I started out to write about the topology of the Library of Babel. As I was writing it, I found a new book about the mathematical ideas in "The Library of Babel". The bibliography of that sent me to the local college library for four books of essays on Borges. Comments in various of *these* essays sent me to other Borges stories, various Borges essays, and stories of Franz Kafka. At the same time, my comments on Leopoldo Lugones and Horacio Quiroga have led other people to suggest other works by these authors as well as other authors such as Santiago Dabove. The one thing that saves me is that these latter are mostly unavailable except in editions from Spain that cost three times as much for shipping as for the actual book.
So if you're wondering why this column seems to be mutating into a series on Hispanic authors, that's why.
And regarding Kafka's story "An Everyday Confusion", Margaret Boegeman writes, "No one says 'How strange!' or 'How could this happen, that a journey which takes only ten minutes one day, takes ten hours the next, and but an instant to return?' The facts are given them; no one questions them." [in "From Amhoretz to Exegete: The Swerve from Kafka by Borges"] Clearly Boegeman has never dealt with American freeways. [-ecl]
Answer to Math Question (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Assuming the calendar does not change then whatever day of the week it is today it will be from now on. [-mrl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: Nine-tenths of the people were created so you would want to be with the other tenth. -- Horace Walpole
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