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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
07/03/09 -- Vol. 28, No. 1, Whole Number 1552
Table of Contents
Acknowledgement (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
This week's MT VOID is brought to you by the Pre-Owned-Humvee Owners Exchange. Humvee. For the man who is tired of yielding the right of way. [-mrl]
Musical Parallel (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
If a socialist believes in Socialism, does a pianist believe in Pianism? [-mrl]
NUMB3RS: TEHRAN (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I have talked several times in the past about getting students to want to learn mathematics. I try to convince them that it is useful in a lot of different ways, even though they cannot imagine them or anybody in their family ever having the slightest use for the quadratic formula. I have to admit that I do not really see how they might find it useful in later life myself. That does not mean I do not think that it should be taught. The exercise of learning and understanding mathematics will serve them well in later life. With critical thinking as well as with muscles the rule is "use it or lose it." Of course, I find the quadratic formula actually a very nifty tool, but I doubt that most people even in my readership can get that excited about it.
In this effort there are "the bad guys" and "the good guys." Anybody who publishes a book with a title like THE ONLY MATHEMATICS BOOK YOU WILL EVER NEED or ALL THE MATHEMATICS YOU'LL EVER NEED is a bad guy and not welcome in my house. On the other hand, I do have a welcome and unexpected ally in network TV. I can quibble about how the mathematics is handled in CBS's NUMB3RS, but at least they are out there on a weekly basis saying that you can do things you want to do with mathematics that you probably cannot do without the mathematics. But, of course, NUMB3RS is a fiction program. Personally I doubt that even Paul Erdos was as familiar with as many fields of mathematics as is Charlie Eppes in NUMB3RS. He is sort of the mathematical equivalent of "Our Man Flint" or "Buckaroo Banzai". One might well wonder if his sort of mathematical analysis actually is used in the real world. This made it particularly interesting to see the "Washington Post" article "The Devil Is in the Digits" by two Columbia PhD candidates, Bernd Beber and Alexandra Scacco: http://tinyurl.com/iran-math. If it was not on such a serious subject I could almost call this article a delight. They take a look at the mathematical aspects of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's supposed landslide victory in the Iranian elections.
As you probably know Ahmadinejad did far better in the polls than was expected, particularly in the urban areas which are definitely not his strongest areas of support. The pollsters had assumed he had nowhere near the backing in the elections that he showed. There were major protests that there had been election cheating to which the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, responded simply "We wouldn't do that." Of course the very secret nature of the ballot makes it very hard to prove decisively that there was cheating. But it is possible to get information out of crunching the data from the election.
When a number is presented as a vote count it could be real or it could be bogus. There is evidence in the number itself as to which is the case. And the evidence can be in the least important digits, the last two. If one were to naively write a number as a fictional vote count on the simplest level one would write round numbers, those that end in '0' or '5'. The round numbers look rigged. So someone writing fictional numbers would try to avoid those digits for the last number. But the fact is that each digit should show up 10% of the time. An honest poll counter would not avoid those numbers, but a human cheater would. It turns out that in the vote count numbers the last digit of 7 shows up more than expected--17% of the time--and 5 less than expected--only 4%. It would appear that someone is cheating and revealing himself by incompetently covering up his tracks.
Another statistical anomaly occurs with digit pairs. If you are writing a random number and write a digit of four followed by a second digit, are all digits equally likely? Again if you have a randomizing generator like a vote count, any digit can show up as the second digit picked with equal probability. If you are just writing numbers yourself that is not true. It is more likely you would pick 45 than 49, for example. From the four it is easier for your mind to pick an adjacent digit than one a few digits away. It is just easier to pick five for the second digit than eight or nine. When examining the last two digits of vote counts there are more digit adjacencies than you would expect. It seems likely the vote results were fraudulently written by someone who is not very good at writing random numbers (a talent that is surprisingly rare).
Beber and Scacco's analysis says that the probability that the figures reported were fair election results is less than one half of 1%. The probability that the protesters were correct and that there really was cheating is more than 199 to one.
Now of course there very probably is cheating in our own elections. It would be interesting to see a similar analysis performed on United States election results. And there is an unanswered question of whether the Iran cheating was enough to swing the election. There also is the consideration that Beber and Scacco may have made it too easy for future election fraudsters to see how to make their numbers credible.
But I would hope the kids I work with would get enough of a feeling for mathematics that they could understand Beber and Scacco's analysis and factor that into their political opinions. [-mrl]
The Vanishing Money Trick:
"$25 trillion of national wealth has vanished."
This was a statement in a recent editorial in US NEWS & WORLD REPORT. But what does it actually mean?
For example, Planet Money did a podcast about how much was actually lost in the Bernie Madoff scam. The investors are claiming they lost $50 billion, based on what their last statements from Madoff (before the crash) said they were worth. But others (including, undoubtedly, Madoff's lawyers) are claiming that what they lost was much less--in fact, was equal only to what they had put in.
So for example, if John Q. Investor put in $1000 ten years ago, and Madoff told him that each year he got a 15% return which John then re-invested, then John would see a statement showing that he had a little more than $4000. Since no one is getting anything from Madoff at this point, John would claim he lost $4000. But the response is that thet $4000 never existed, it was completely made up by Madoff, and all John really lost was $1000.
This is made complicated by the fact that John may have paid taxes on these "returns" over the years. In a 25% bracket, John would really have "netted" $2250 in gains, so his "loss" would be only $3250, not $4000. (He can now file amended tax returns to recover those taxes, so that at least he can recover that. If he couldn't than he could reasonably argue he had lost $1750, $1000 to Madoff and $750 to the government.)
And in fact, some institutions have released more detailed information about their losses. Hadassah originally said they lost $90 million, but then revised that, saying that they realized that much of that never existed, and their real loss was more like $33 million. American Technion revised their losses from $72 million to $29 million, and Yeshiva University from $110 million to $14.5 million.
Back to the $25 trillion of national wealth that has vanished. How much of this is "Madoff money"--money that never really existed in the first place?
Now, one argument might be that John Q. Investor actually believed he had $4000, and so did everyone else, and so he had the economic power of having $4000, which in turn is the same as actually having the $4000. But I'm not convinced.
For example, if I find someone who is very gullible, and I tell him that I have put a million dollars in his bank account, and he believes me, that does not add a million dollars to the economy. Even if I print up a fake bank statement which lets him convince someone else to issue him credit as if he had a million dollars, that does not add a million dollars to the economy.
And if someone bought a house for $500,000 several years ago, thought it was worth $1,000,000 last year, and now thinks it is worth $700,000, has the economy lost $300,000? Had it gained $500,000 before? Somehow it doesn't seem so.
What about stock prices? Well, when Enron collapsed, supposedly $60 billion disappeared from the economy. But were they ever really there in the first place? [-ecl]
[Many charitable organizations, originally publicly very irate about their losses may be less open about their losses now. The question arises why they had so much money that they could afford to take it from their supposed goals and instead invest (or gamble) the contributions with money-making schemes like Madoff's. They have really been caught red-handed misrepresenting what they were doing with contributions. Even if they had invested more prudently it was not what they claimed to be doing with the contributions. -mrl]
OFF JACKSON AVENUE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Three (or more) crime stories intersect each other in this tale set in Queens, New York's underbelly. A Mexican immigrant is forced into sexual slavery; an unreadable Japanese hit man prepares for killing; a car thief tries to steal enough to buy himself a legitimate business. The film makes a slow and grim build to a suspenseful third act. Newcomer writer/director/actor John-Luke Montias (in his second feature film) shows us several faces of crime. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
Three contiguous stories of different sorts of crime unfold simultaneously and finally tie together. Olivia (played by Jessica Pimentel) has been lured to Queens from Oaxaca, Mexico with promises of a job was a waitress in a new restaurant. Instead she has her passport taken from her and is brutally forced into sexual slavery. Her first day is shown in harrowing detail. But she is determined she will get herself out of the predicament. Meanwhile hit-man Tomo (Jun Suenaga) has been brought to Queens from Japan to eliminate a client's business competitor. The Chinese client and the client's family are clearly impressed by Tomo's cold professionalism. But under the façla;ade Tomo is a mother-obsessed English teacher in Japan. Tomo supplements his meager income as a contract killer. And he is not adapting well to the United States. Thirdly there is Joey (played by the film's writer director John- Luke Montias). Joey desperately wants respectability. He has a tire shop that he intends to buy just as soon as he can steal enough cars to earn the $100,000 to buy the shop. But Joey just does not have the kind of mind that can make it all work.
The film is shot on a low budget with no familiar faces. But that gives the film more of a realistic and almost documentary feel. A standout performance comes from Stivi Paskoski as Milot, the vicious Albanian pimp who keeps the women in line at the bordello house. It is Milot who gives the film most of its dramatic tension. He has frightened the more experienced girls into a docile compliance almost more frightening than Milot himself. Meanwhile Tomo keeps track of his ailing mother back home with a fixation that is keeping him from performing is hit. And Joey spars with his uncle who shares Joey's home and undermines the thief's confidence.
The film has a disturbing, if fascinating, first half. But Montias lightens the tone in the second half of the film, particularly with his own character. His Joey proves that car theft is not glamorous like it appears in the movies. And the main character of each story struggles to win the approval of a family member who is not about to give it.
Montias does not balance the stories evenly, not that that is really necessary. The story of Olivia really takes center stage. It is the main story and Tomo and Joey really get secondary status. It is as if Montias is really telling that story, but it was not too short a story to fill the film.
While OFF JACKSON AVENUE has that uncomfortable first half, once the film gets going it is compelling, with the story of Olivia doing most of the compelling. Finally it builds to a satisfying and almost funny dénouement with a cleverly intricate sequence involving all of the primary characters of the plot. I rate it a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
OFF JACKSON AVENUE opens at the Quad Cinema in New York July 17.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt1016083/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/off_jackson_avenue/
THE BROTHERS BLOOM (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: The second film for writer-director Rian Johnson is a pleasantly bizarre story of two international con men trying to con a wealthy and attractive widow. Or are they trying to con each other? In any case, Johnson is trying (and succeeding) to con the audience. The film is fun, but the characters are not well developed. The audience has to be onboard not for the characters but for the twisty ride. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
The most playful crime films are the ones about confidence tricksters. They could be telling a straight story or they could be pulling the wool over the audience's eyes. And the viewer never knows for sure. Some tell their story directly about people in this profession--and they usually are a fascinating subject to write about--and some pull their own hustle on the viewer at the same time they are entertaining. THE BROTHERS BLOOM is about as twisty a con man film as I have seen. It is written and directed by Rian Johnson, whose debut was the creative high school film noir film BRICK.
The Bloom brothers have been fraudsters since they were boys. We see them as young teens pulling a scam on an entire town. This is when the younger of the Blooms (apparently his name is Bloom Bloom, played by Zachary Gordon and later played by Adrien Brody) first associating a really good con game with attracting girls. His older brother Stephen Bloom (played by Max Records and later by Mark Ruffalo) plans the cons and entices Bloom into the scheme. His planning is meticulous with all the steps represented as blocks in a flow chart. The art design picks up the motif of the hand- lettered boxes and uses them as chapter titles for their story. Flash-forward several years and the two brothers are now part of a three-person team. The third person is almost literally a silent partner. She is a Japanese woman with the Chinese name Ying-Ling or Bang-Bang, as she is usually called. Rinko Kikuchi plays Bang- Bang. Their latest mark is Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz of the "Mummy" movies and the excellent THE CONSTANT GARDNER). The two men apparently charm Penelope who seems as ill-fated in finding friends and love as she is driving a car. Bloom is now in his thirties and realizes if he does not get out of the game soon these scams are going to be his whole life. And perhaps he would like to retire with Penelope. Incidentally, it is nice to see Maximilian Schell along in one of his least glamorous roles ever.
The problem with this film is that the people are not characters but plot contrivances. I guess what it means to create a character is to make the character understandable and perhaps just a bit predictable. But Johnson wants to keep his characters enigmatic so the viewer is never really sure what they will do. This means that we cannot believe we understand anyone. A film like THE STING intelligently does not make its plot too convoluted and unpredictable. Consequently its director, George Roy Hill, could develop his characters more than Johnson allowed himself to do in THE BROTHERS BLOOM.
THE BROTHERS BLOOM is as much a game as it is a story film, but then so are most mysteries. The audience climbs onto the convoluted plot and tries to hold on to the storyline. Then Rian Johnson does whatever he can to surprise them and throw them off. Right through to the end and perhaps beyond the audience is not sure who to believe. That makes for an enjoyable ride, but not enough more than that. I rate THE BROTHERS BLOOM a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0844286
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/brothers_bloom/
3-D Films 3-D Films (letters of comment by Lee Beaumont, Steve Milton, and Taras Wolansky):
In response to Mark's article on 3-D films in the 06/26/09 issue of the MT VOID, Lee Beaumont writes:
Is the phrase: "72 frames per second per eye" correct? I would think that 24x2=48 frames per second (overall) would be sufficient. If it is truly 72 frames / sec / eye = 144 frames / sec that is 6x the old rate and seems excessive. [-lb]
There are still only 24 different pairs of images per second. But each frame is transmitted three times. According to the Wikipedia article "In Real-D Cinema, each frame is projected three times to reduce flicker." So the figure of 6 is two eyes times three projections. So it is 144 frames per second of which only 24 pairs are different. See the Wikipedia article at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Real_D_Cinema. [-mrl]
Lee then asks:
Is the polarization characteristic of a frame an attribute of: 1) The image file (e.g. captured within the .jpg), or 2) The display device (e.g. the monitor, projector, filter, etc)
Okay, reading the Wikipedia article it says that the Zscreen is a dynamic filter that shifts the polarization, so it is an attribute of the display device.
However, your article says the market for this is being generated by HD TVs which cannot manage the polarization of the display. [-lb]
Yes, the Zscreen is placed right in front of the projector lens and is synchronized to the frames of the film. And the market is exploiting a capability that projected light has but that cannot be recreated with an HD TV. [-mrl]
Steve Milton writes:
There was an attempt several years ago to project 3-D without lenses by simply sending both left and right eye images alternately with a high frame rate. The theory was that each eye would seek out the image that made sense like those magic 3-pictures. I saw a demo of it. It sort of worked but the picture tended to flicker in and out of proper 3-D. I guess it wasn't considered good enough and was abandoned. [-smm]
And Taras Wolansky writes:
I was perplexed by the account of red-blue (or anaglyph) 3-D movies in the June 26th issue. As I understand it, all the 3-D information is encoded in the colors of a single image; no two projectors are required. The colored glasses are sufficient to make the single image look different to each eye, creating the illusion of 3D.
After all, the red-blue system-- unlike polarized 3-D--will work on an ordinary TV screen, or even a printed page. [-tw]
And Mark responds:
I think you are right. I got my information from a former projectionist on a podcast. I got the impression that he was talking about the original 3D, which would have been a color separation process. But even in the 1950s they should have been able to put both images on a single frame. On the other hand until recently it would have been impossible to project both horizontally polarized and a vertically polarized images from a single lens. So almost certainly that is the process that requires two projectors. [-mrl]
THE RISING: BALLAD OF MANGAL PANDEY (letters of comment by Steve Milton and Taras Wolansky):
In response to Mark's review of THE RISING: BALLAD OF MANGAL PANDEY in the 06/19/09 issue of the MT VOID, Steve Milton writes, "The 'pro-British' scene may not be intended to be pro-British, but another demonstration of British disregard for India culture and customs." [-smm]
Mark replies, "I thought about that. I have been all over the world and have never found a culture I thought was as different from the West as India is. I cannot entirely rule out that there is not somebody in India who still believes in widow-burning. But I would guess it would be as unlikely that an Indian film would defend that custom as it would be to find a current United States film that defends slavery. " [-mrl]
Evelyn adds, "There is a story--probably apocryphal--from the days of the Raj. A British officer, trying to stop an act of suttee, was told by an Indian man, 'It is our custom to burn a woman on the funeral pyre of her husband.' The officer replied, 'And it is our custom to execute murderers.'" [-ecl]
Taras Wolansky writes, "As for the movie about Mangal Pandey, my rule of thumb is, if it's in a movie, it's probably untrue. In Wikipedia, Pandey comes across more as a demented rioter high on drugs than a freedom fighter. He is symbolically important, of course, representing an Indian nationalism that did not actually exist at the time." [-tw]
I have skimmed the Wikipedia article and can find not place that it says that Pandey was demented or on drugs as you claim. You will have to point me to where you draw that conclusion. A Britannica from the 1930s is very negative on on Pandey and an Indian website is very positive. Neither opinion is very surprising.
Your rule of thumb on historical films is pretty much useless since historical fact in film is really hit or miss. Film is reasonable for getting a high-level view but not for accuracy of details. I believe GETTYBURG is quite accurate. It follows pretty closely most historical accounts of the battle. Some films are closer to the truth than others, but then some historical accounts are closer to the truth than others. I think that it is George MacDonald Fraser who points out that people would not be able to picture a lot of history without historical film. My rule of thumb is that film is a good indicator of what aspects of history would be interesting to research, but not of what I will expect to find after doing that research. You will notice that my review does not make any judgments on the historical figure Mangal Pandey. In any event you might want to have much better sources than Wikipedia before concluding that someone who may be someone else's national hero was a 'demented rioter high on drugs.' Also, I have a suspicion that many of our own national heroes would not stand up well to close scrutiny. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
MIDDLEMARCH by George Eliot (ISBN-13 978-0-14-043388-3, ISBN-10 0-14-043388-0) was published in 1872, yet well over a century later, there are some surprisingly relevant passages. For example, writing of Lydgate, the new physician in Middlemarch, Elliot says, "since professional practice chiefly consisted in giving a great many drugs, the public inferred that it might be better off with more drugs still if they could only be got cheaply..." [page 146] But Lydgate has some new ideas: "One of these reforms was to ... simply prescribe, without dispensing drugs or taking percentage from druggists." [page 147]
(I am glad that the Penguin edition has a few notes explaining the historical references--a passing reference to an act regarding pharmacists is certainly easier to research when you are told it is the Apothecaries Act of 1815. That Act set minimum standards for someone to become a physician; the Medical Act of 1858 clarified the charges allowed. Apparently before the latter act, physicians could only charge for surgeries or medicines, but not for their services in non-surgical cases.)
And there is still a lot of truth in Eliot's observations about marriage and people's expectations upon entering into it: "The fact is unalterable, that a fellow-mortal with whose nature you are acquainted solely through the brief entrances and exits of a few imaginative weeks called courtship may, when seen in the continuity of married companionship, be disclosed as something better or worse than what you have preconceived, but will certainly not appear altogether the same. And it would be astonishing to find how soon the change is felt if we had no kindred changes to compare with it. To share lodgings with a brilliant dinner companion, or to see your favourite politician in the Ministry, may bring about changes quite as rapid: in these cases too we begin by knowing little and believing much, and we sometimes end by inverting the quantities." [page 195] Of course, nowadays people who find themselves in a marriage that is not coming up to expectations can usually get out fairly easily, but in George Eliot's time things were more difficult.
And in "the more things change" category, we have a minor character bemoaning, "But some say this country's seen its best days, and the sign is, as it's being overrun with these fellows tramping right and left, and wanting to cut it up into railways, and all for the big traffic to swallow up the little, so there shan't be a team left on the land, nor a whip to crack." [page 556]
And the current economic crisis seems for many very much the same situation Lydgate finds himself in. In preparation for his impending marriage, he spends several hundred pounds on furnishings for his house, feels he must keep two horses, and says nothing when his wife insists on buying only the best quality food and throwing frequent parties. At the same time, the income from his practice has declined. He has seen lack of money in his patients, but never applied the concept to himself. Although "Lydgate believed himself to be careless about his dress, and he despised a man who calculated the effects of his costume," yet "it seemed to him only a matter of course that he had abundance of fresh garments--such things were naturally ordered in sheaves." [page 588] He does not want to ask for money from his father-in-law, but his wife does anyway--only to be told by her father that he might soon need a loan himself. If this doesn't sound contemporary, you haven't been paying attention.
This is not to deny that some of the passages are written in a very convoluted 19th century style that is hard to understand. But the book as a whole is surprisingly modern and rewarding. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: Black holes are where God divided by zero. -- Steven Wright
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