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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
04/03/09 -- Vol. 27, No. 40, Whole Number 1539
Table of Contents
The answer to what order this represents:
8, 5, 4, 9, 1, 7, 6, 3, 2
is alphabetical order. Correct answers were sent in by Steve Milton, Gordon Diss, Denise Moy, and John Palframan. David Goldfarb had the correct entry last week, even with the error. In the film, of course, the ordering was different because the film was in Spanish.
Faster Than Light Travel (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
A TV documentary talked about faster-than-light travel. I am convinced that the day will come when we will be able to reach the stars in ships that travel faster than the speed of light. I am just not sure that when that day arrives we will have the ships that we need to do it. [-mrl]
Hiding in Plain Sight (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I got a little FM transmitter for my iPod to play when I am in the car. I had to choose a radio station that would not interfere with my local broadcast. I told Evelyn that what we needed was a station that rarely uses its frequency like a numbers station. She did not know what a "numbers station" was. So what is a numbers station? Well, it is probably the nearest you can get to listening in on some real James Bond stuff. It seems likely spies use numbers stations, but only the spies know for sure. Or perhaps drug-runners are using them. There are only a handful of people who know what a given numbers station is doing and they are likely to keep the secret.
Some of you may remember in the film THE LONGEST DAY people in France were signaled that the invasion of France was on by hearing on the radio the phrase "John has a long mustache." They knew the meaning of that transmission, but it was kept a secret from everybody else. This way they could broadcast it and the Germans knew that it might have some meaning, but they had no idea what the meaning was. They just knew that they were hearing the real thing. A numbers station is much the same thing, but it is impossible to trace who is transmitting it and usually the messages are expressed in numbers. A numbers station will come onto the shortwave frequencies and a voice will read off numbers. That's all. They just read numbers. Then the station will go off the air. It is most frequently a woman's voice, but men's voices and children's' voices are not unusual. And they can be in different languages. Most frequently the numbers stations use English, but Cuba is thought to use numbers stations and they are in the Spanish language. Sometimes the mysterious voices read off letters, sometimes words, sometimes they play melodies, but most often they read off numbers. Numbers are versatile and make so many things easy.
People who listen to shortwave run across numbers broadcasts very commonly apparently. So we know the broadcasters are out there. But nobody admits to making the broadcasts. And there is not enough information in the broadcasts to help decipher them.
Probably they use what is called a "one-time pad" to keep the real message private. That is, there is some commonly agreed upon way to decode the message. But it only works once and for a specific message. Suppose the first letter of the message you want to send is "w". You agree with the spy in the field that you will use some specified chapter of some specified Charles Dickens novel. The chapter starts with the word "The." So the first number you send is an encrypted version of the number +3. The spy gets the message and decodes +3. He takes his chapter of the novel and finds it starts "T." He takes the letter three positions after "T" which is "W." (T U V W) It sounds cumbersome, but these days it is a breeze. Software can do all the hard work. But how secure can the message be if the numbers are broadcast to the whole world?
Well, the NSA has the best cryptographers in the world supposedly and I am sure they would say this code is completely impossible to crack. I mean like impossible and no way. Also not a chance. Why would the NSA cryptographers even think to look in Dickens? How would they know where in the novel to look? And how would they know what procedure produces the offsets.
So how long has this been going on? How long have the numbers stations been broadcasting? Well they come and go. They change shortwave frequencies and broadcast times. So it is hard to know when you have a new numbers station or when one goes away. But the history of the institution goes back to World War I. Not a lot of people talk about them because they are such a perfect scheme for sending information that there is nothing that can be done about them. Even what the subject matter of the messages is only a matter of pure speculation, but with such a secure channel, and one that requires such effort, it is probably something really juicy that is being broadcast. There is little that can be done about them so they are just endured by the governments and probably even used by them.
So if you hear one you will not know what is going on, but you will know you are hearing the real thing. To read more you can start with:
KNOWING (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: KNOWING uses ideas seemingly borrowed from THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES but as a springboard to tell a larger, more engaging, and far grimmer story. A page of digits written by a schoolgirl in 1959 seems to list every major disaster up to the present and even a little way into the future. Nicolas Cage plays an MIT professor who does not believe in determinism, but is forced to accept that a girl in 1959 knew specific data about the next fifty years. And the implications will have worldwide impact. Still, the script balances ideas, action, tension, and even horror. This is a major science fiction film that shows us some spectacular scenes of destruction but still maintains a narrow focus keeping it a personal film. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
Alex Proyas has directed some impressive films, including THE CROW and especially DARK CITY. That made it seem odd when (even) after a strange beginning KNOWING settled into a retelling of Mark Pellington's 2002 THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES. For the first hour this films seems to content to just be a remake of a film that was not that impressive to start with. During that hour he builds a feeling of dread much in the style of Pellington or of M. Night Shyamalan's SIGNS. He takes an hour to build his characters and polish the tone. Then the pace picks up and he packs a lot more into this film. Like QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, it unifies a lot disparate ideas and phenomena in a way that they have not been associated before. I wish I could say that I liked the film as much as QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, which I consider one of the greatest of science fiction films. This is a screenplay that had four different credited writers and each seem to have been contributing ideas until the film is just busting with them. I saw pieces from old "Outer Limits" episodes, from MARS ATTACKS, bits of WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, DEEP IMPACT, and even CLOSE ENCOUNTERS. This is a film that takes world history and then unifies and reinterprets it. I like that kind of film, but I am just uncomfortable with the way it was unified. Proyas directs a screenplay written by two different pairs of writers. Perhaps that is why the film does not quite feel like it gels.
In 1959 a school class leaves a time capsule with children's pictures what they thought the world of 2009 would be like. One student, the one who suggested the time capsule in the first place, chooses instead to leave a page of what appear to be random digits. Flash forward fifty years and the pictures are to be handed out to the current class. Caleb Koestler (played by Chandler Canterbury) is given the sheet of numbers. His father, John Koestler (Nicolas Cage), an astrophysics professor at MIT sees a familiar string on the page, 911012998. That expands to 9/11, 2001, 2998 killed. The paper is full of dates and death tolls of disasters that occurred in the fifty years that the sheet was buried. It even includes a few disasters that have not happened yet.
The script is an intelligent one and plays with concepts of free will, determinism, religion, predestination, and the accuracy of scientific prediction. How they get as much thought into a film that has so much action is a bit of a surprise. Still, there are problems with the writing. There are three disasters predicted, but all are in the course of three or four days. And each is within easy driving distance of where the Koestlers live. However this gives Proyas the chance to show us some spectacular disasters, but still keep this a sort of personal film, focusing on just a small number of characters.
I like the sheer quantity of ideas in this film, but I am not sure that they all fit so nicely together. I expect with some thought the flaws will seem less important and the audacity of the plot will win out. Even if you think you know where this film is going--and you may be right--that is just one of many places this film will take you. I expect that this film will be among the top ten science fiction films of the decade. I rate it a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.
Possible (but unlikely) spoiler: This film takes place, apparently, in late 2009. That is possible, but the major event of the film would be much more likely to take place in the first half of 2012. Get ready for it.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0448011/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/knowing/
MONSTERS VS. ALIENS (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: This film has a little something for the kids in the audience and a little something for the adults, but not so much both can enjoy. The film builds a story of cute monsters defending Earth from ugly aliens. A disenchanted young woman finds herself first turned into a monster and then called upon to save the Earth. The story is largely built from pieces taken from old science fiction films as if they were Lego blocks. For me they were more fun where they got them. Rating: low +1 (-4 to +4) or 5/10
I love films and I enjoy when I see a film reference in a film. Also I love science fiction films, particularly from the 1950s. MONSTERS VS. ALIENS has a treasure trove of references to monster movies and alien movies. There were truly an awesome number of in- joke allusions aimed right at me (in 3D yet). They were all on target. It is just the movie that missed me. They started with a standard feminist empowerment theme. On top of this they took a stereotypical Toho plot--aliens are invading and monsters have to band together to save the Earth. And then the filmmakers threw in one action sequence after another. The characters were mostly jokes based on ideas from the 1950s. The filmmakers literally designed their monsters to be jokes. One was basically the creature from the Black Lagoon but his origin was borrowed from THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS. One was a modeled on THE FLY, but his origin was borrowed from SHE DEVIL. Each is good for one laugh but they have no interesting personality. It is perhaps even more important in animation to give characters personalities to engage the audience.
Appropriately enough for a new 3D movie the film comes polarized. The simplistic plot is probably too childish to be appreciated by the adults, but the kids would probably like it. At the same time the film's many homages to old science fiction films will be enjoyable to adults who grew up seeing the original movies on TV, but the kids who have not seen the films will be blind to them.
Susan Murphy (voiced by Reese Witherspoon) is engaged and soon to marry Derek Dietl (Paul Rudd), the town weatherman. Derek thinks the two of them would make a good team, but he insists on being the coach. On her wedding day she will be handed by fate something old (lack of consideration from her chauvinistic fianc), something new (about 44 feet of new growth), something borrowed (a set of monsters from the 1950s), and something blue (he's B.O.B. the Blob). Just before the wedding a large meteor with strange energy (think kryptonite) falls directly on her. Not only is she not crushed (and not surprised that she was not crushed), but also she has absorbed the weird energy. So she glows and she grows like the Fifty-Foot Woman. The marriage is off, and instead she finds herself in a huge fortified government bunker where the government keeps its monsters. There is B.O.B the Blob (Seth Rogen), Dr. Cockroach with the head of an insect (Hugh Laurie), the aforementioned lagoon creature (Will Arnett), and a Mothra-like giant caterpillar.
Meanwhile on Earth land aliens who were tracking the meteor and want it for their nefarious purposes. The government decides to use its monsters to fight the aliens. This affords the script opportunities for two giant battles between monsters and aliens: one on the Golden Gate Bridge and one inside the alien spaceship.
The animation is generally good, but in an odd way DreamWorks animation seems to be better for sympathetic human characters than for others who are less so. Characters like W. R. Monger seem to be stiff in just the way Lord Farquaad was in SHRECK. Susan seems more liquid in her motion.
The jokes are good; the animation is fine; the 3-D is awesome. But still the film fails to make a monster or an alien as powerful a character as the little clownfish Marlin from FINDING NEMO. And lacking good characters makes MONSTERS VS. ALIENS no more than just a diverting little film and nothing more. I rate MONSTERS VS. ALIENS a low +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 5/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0892782/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/monsters_vs_aliens/
THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: With more the feel of a fable than of a genuine piece of history, this film tells the story of Bruno, the loving son of a father who was running an extermination camp for the Nazis. With a child's innocence he does not understand what the camp is and, he makes friends with an interned boy. If the film is a fable, it is a powerful one. Mark Herman directs from his own screenplay based on the novel by John Boyne. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
When the TV miniseries THE HOLOCAUST was made, Michael Moriarty was playing a scene as a concentration camp commandant home for Christmas. He says that the scene made him just break down and cry. How can a father in that position look his family in the eye and celebrate the holiday knowing he is a mass murderer? It is rare that a film looks at the effects of the Holocaust on the perpetrators rather than the victims. THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS is a powerful look at the same sort of family. Father (played by the reliable David Thewlis) has just been promoted to the responsibility of running a death camp. He takes his family from Berlin to the unidentified village where the camp has been located. But though the two characters of Father and Mother (Vera Farmiga) are well defined, the center of the film is eight-year-old Bruno (a remarkable Asa Butterfield, actually eleven years old). At first bored with his new home, he finds ways to sneak out the back garden and go to the fence where he meets and makes friends with Shmuel (Jack Scanlon) who Bruno thinks has a fun life on what he thinks is a farm were people wear pajamas all day. Veteran actor Richard Johnson plays Father's father and is probably the source of Father's character flaws.
There are some problems with the narrative. Bruno never realizes what a death camp really is. Of course, few of the audience members are not far, far ahead of Bruno, though perhaps nobody who did not go through the experience can really know. But the film is not about what is happening beyond the fence, but how Bruno's many misimpressions are slowly corrected. Even the suffering Shmuel from whom Bruno learns knows little more than Bruno does. Also, somewhat unrealistically, I think three people very close to Father make very clear that they do not approve of Father's career in spite of the prestige and success it brings him. It is very unlikely to have so many open dissenters in the same family as the camp commander. Multiple characters make quite a point in the film how bad the chimney smoke from the camp smells. But the production of this smoke seems be a rare event, and that really does not make sense. Also why does Shmuel have so much time to sit by the fence? Like LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL, this film seems to soften the Holocaust in order to tell a story that probably could not have happened in the real world.
It has become a convention of the syntax of cinema to have an accent substitute for speaking in a foreign language. The obvious choice would be to either have the actors speak German, or with a German accent. Instead an English accent was chosen, natural to the English actors of the film. The colors when Bruno first comes to his new home are bright and vibrant. As the film progresses those bright colors seems to drain out of the film. The colors become much more muted.
James Horner, at one time disdained by film music aficionados, gives the film a lovely melodic score with a little foreshadowing and also a feeling of innocence at times. Scores of this quality have become infrequent. Texture music scores with little or no melody have become the rule. It is nice to have melody back.
The film starts slowly and telling it tale very deliberately. By the end of the film it is moving at a breathless pace. But the film has a feel of insulating the viewer from the hard realities of life in the camps. We are told that Shmuel is hungry, but we see nobody who looks like he has been missing meals. The novel was written for young adults and the film feels like it pulls its punches. The final horrifying revelation is still a long way from the painful realities of those days. I rate THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0914798/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/boy_in_the_striped_pajamas/
Library Classification (letter of comment by Fred Lerner):
In response to Evelyn's comments on REDCOATS' REVENGE in the 03/27/09 issue of the MT VOID, Fred Lerner writes:
[Evelyn writes,] "For that matter, for reasons known only to the publisher, they have decided to give the Dewey Decimal classification as 973.5/2, which is plop in the middle of the American history section, rather than in fiction."
I suspect that you should be blaming the decimal classification folks at the Library of Congress, rather than the publisher. It's the Library of Congress that does the pre-publication cataloging that appears on the verso of the title page in most books from major publishers. [-fl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
A few years ago, Baker Street Studios published a series of short collections of Sherlock Holmes pastiches. In 2008, these were picked up by F. A. Thorpe for its "Large Print Linford Mystery Library" (under the auspices of The Ulverscroft Foundation, which deals with research and treatment of eye diseases). The first of these that I read was SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE GIANT'S HAND by Matthew Booth (ISBN-13 978-1-84782-142-3, ISBN-10 1-84782-142-1), originally published in 2004. It contains three stories: "The Adventure of the Giant's Hand", "The Adventure of the York Place Prophecy", and "The Adventure of the Hollow Bank". These are based on the following off-hand references in actual Doyle stories:
"As I turn over the pages, I see my notes upon the repulsive story of the red leech and the terrible death of Crosby, the banker. Here also I find an account of the Addleton tragedy, and the singular contents of the ancient British barrow." ["The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez"]
"Of all the problems which have been submitted to my friend, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, for solution during the years of our intimacy, there were only two which I was the means of introducing to his notice--that of Mr. Hatherley's thumb, and that of Colonel Warburton's madness. Of these the latter may have afforded a finer field for an acute and original observer, but the other was so strange in its inception and so dramatic in its details that it may be the more worthy of being placed upon record, even if it gave my friend fewer openings for those deductive methods of reasoning by which he achieved such remarkable results." ["The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb"]
"You will remember, Watson, how the dreadful business of the Abernetty family was first brought to my notice by the depth which the parsley had sunk into the butter upon a hot day. I can't afford, therefore, to smile at your three broken busts, Lestrade, and I shall be very much obliged to you if you will let me hear of any fresh development of so singular a chain of events." ["The Adventure of the Six Napoleons"]
Booth does an excellent job--he maintains the Victorian-era atmosphere and does not encumber his stories with feminists, sexual adventures, or any other "updating". The only problem for Americans is that these British imports may seem a bit pricey, running about US$20 each for about 35,000 words. If each volume were a single story, it would be novella-length rather than novel- length.
(The same day I read the parsley story, I also ran across the parsley quote in a completely different context!)
The other collection in this series my library had was SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE DISAPPEARING PRINCE AND OTHER STORIES by Edmund Hastie (ISBN-13 978-1-84782-110-2, ISBN-10 1-84782-110-3). These were "original" pastiches, in the sense that they were not based on cases referred to by Doyle. The title story is about the disappearance of the Crown Prince of Japan from Oxbridge (that marvelous merging of Oxford and Cambridge, used by writers to avoid insulting either one or the other), and is reasonably well-written. The other stories are actually fairly weak and poorly written--not too surprising when you realize that the author was fourteen years old when he wrote them. (I suppose what is surprising is that the first one is as good as it is.) I'm not even sure why it was published, as it just lowers the overall quality of the line.
SHERLOCK HOLMES: THE GHOST OF BAKER STREET by Val Andrews (ISBN-13 978-1-84782-110-2, ISBN-10 1-84782-110-3) is a bit different. It is a novel about a screenwriter who goes to London in the early 1950s and takes certain rooms in Baker Street, only to discover that they are haunted. The ghost of Holmes seems to be visible to everyone and manages to walk around, sit on a sofa, and so on, while claiming he is unable to affect material objects. I found Holmes's inconsistent "properties" to be distracting. He can be heard, so apparently he can affect air, at least to the extent of forming waves in it. Although he can be seen with no problem, he cannot be filmed or photographed (though he *can* be tape- recorded). And I don't care how eccentric the (American) narrator considers the English to be, his explanations of why his friend "Cyril" shows up all over London in the same red dressing gown would soon start to wear thin.
This volume was also abysmally proofread. I found "effect" instead of "affect", "infer" instead of "imply", "Vivienne" instead "Vivian", and "Hercules Poirot" instead of "Hercule". There is also the problem of a story supposedly written by an American, though with British spelling throughout.
Andrews has written well over a dozen other novels for this series. From their titles, it appears that at least some of them are more traditional Holmes stories, and I will probably give some of them a try if my library has them, but if they do not, I will not be terribly disappointed. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people. -- G.K. Chesterton
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