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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
07/10/09 -- Vol. 28, No. 2, Whole Number 1553
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. Buy a used Humvee today. When the balloon goes up you'll be glad you got one. [-mrl]
Explosive History (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I like some of the educational stations on the cable, but at times I think they may be trying a little too hard to get younger viewers to watch. I see The History Channel is running a new documentary: "FDR, Dinosaurs, and the New Deal." [-mrl]
Politifact Sums It Up (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
There is a site that I like to visit on the Internet. It is called PolitiFact.com. It is located at http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/. This site is like the snopes.com of political argument. It takes statements by politicians and checks them out to see if they are true or not. Each statement his a meter next to it that registers each statement with a rating: True, Mostly True, Half True, Barely True, False, or Pants on Fire. I take it "false" means wrong but perhaps misguided. "Pants on Fire" goes beyond that to intentional falsehood. They do not leave it at just the verdict on the truth scale, they also have an entire article on what the situation actually is.
I think the editors are reasonably unbiased. If they lean to the liberal side it is not by far. It certainly is not giving Barack Obama a free ride. They are tracking the campaign promises that Obama made, and the vast majority is in the "No Action" category. I think the site is reasonably unbiased and somebody must agree since it did win a Pulitzer Prize this year.
I recently noticed that they do not restrict themselves only to politicians' statements. They also have a category for "Chain e- mail." Now this is a category that immediately grabs my interest. I know several people who get political e-mail and forward it to large numbers of their friends including myself. I have a personal interest in Chain e-mail. At one point I was responsible in part for the health of my company's computers. One of the problems we had was Chain e-mail filling up the company's storage. I knew about Snopes.com http://www.snopes.com/ and would use it to investigate the truth of these e-mail messages. What I found was that of these nuisance e-mail messages, almost all were out-and-out false. I am serious that the accuracy rate is about 1%. I do not really understand the psychology of the people who forward these messages, but I can tell you that almost all of the messages are disinformation. Some of them are dangerously false like the rumor that you could save your life when you are having a heart attack by rhythmically coughing. I think most of the people who send them around are just craving attention, but doing so by spreading misinformation is a poor way to get attention. Among my friends and family there are multiple people who do this forwarding and I try to gently correct them by forwarding the Snopes pages that debunk their particular myths. I generally caution them not to send chain e-mail involving health or politics. Frequently it takes several times before I get a behavior change.
One of the classics is the rumor that Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim. Another is that Obama is not really an American citizen. The problem with Snopes is that you have to look up the chain e- mail myths one at a time. It is hard to get an overview. But that is where Politifact is useful. You can tell it to show only chain e-mail and to show only statements that are in the "Pants on fire" category. You can see the results at http://tinyurl.com/chain-fire.
There are 19 political statements labeled as intentional lies with political implications that were sent around by chain e-mail. Let's take a look at them.
So what was I asking you to note? #9 actually serves the purposes of the liberals.
#1 to #8 and #10 to #19 serve the purposes of conservatives. Most of those are false accusations about Barack Obama. The probability that the imbalance is that bad purely by chance is (1+19)/2^19 or .0038%. That is about one chance in 26,214.
I leave it to the reader to draw his own conclusions. [-mrl]
LOVELY BY SURPRISE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Newcomer writer/director/producer Kirt Gunn gives us a strange absurdist fantasy on the subject of the relation between an author and her characters. Three stories are told simultaneously. One is of an author, one of the characters she is writing about, and a third world seems to strangely link the other two. The film is bizarre and at times touching, but in the end leaves the viewer perplexed and a little unsatisfied with the stories. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
It is frequently said by authors that their characters take on a life of their own, and sometimes are even uncooperative. LOVELY BY SURPRISE is not the first fantasy in which a novelist creates characters who will not cooperate with the author. But this fantasy is a little different because the relationship between author Marian (played by Carrie Preston) and her characters Humkin (Michael Chernus) and Mopekey (Dallas Roberts) is so enigmatically set up. In many ways Marian is totally at the mercy of her fictions. In many ways she is the weakest character of the film. As she suffers from writer's block she goes for help from Jackson (Austin Pendleton), her former writing professor and erstwhile lover. Jackson tells Marian that she has no choice but to kill her main character. How this could possibly work for Marian is unclear, because in her story there are just two brothers who live on a houseboat in the middle of a field. Humkin and Mopekey live like five and six-year-olds, running around in their underpants and playing childish games. Their only sustenance is milk and sugared cereal inexplicably delivered to the houseboat. Marion knows that without Humkin she will have only Mopekey on a houseboat in the middle of a field, and no story to tell. She lets Jackson bully her into trying to kill off Humkin in her story. But by this point Humkin has more power than Marian.
Meanwhile, in an apparently unrelated thread, Bob (Reg Rogers) is a car salesman whose philosophy will not allow him to sell a car. He analyzes each of his potential customers and explains only too accurately how they need something else in their lives more important than a car. ("Buying a car will not protect you from evil.") His empathy for his customers stands in the way of his career. Yet ironically, in his personal life widower Bob cannot produce enough empathy to reach his six-year-old daughter, Mimi (Lena Lamer), who has remained silent since she lost her mother. Bob is a single character in both Humkin's world and in Marian's. He is a thread linking the two worlds together with his own world that intersects both.
Generally in fantasy film there is an underlying logic that explains the rules by which the story works. Writer/director Kirt Gunn gives us a weakly structured film with no such simple explanation of the rules. Worlds and half-worlds just intersect without explanation, as enigmatic as the houseboat in the field. One rather expects a fully developed--if alien--world as we had in I ♥ HUCKABEES or the literary fantasy STRANGER THAN FICTION. Kirt Gunn's world has logical contradictions that leave the viewer wondering if Bob can be in the same world as both Humkin and Marion, can't Marian and Humkin somehow get together? Gunn seems to want, as one of his characters says "to see things as they absolutely are not. With the possible exception of Bob, the characters are not fully fleshed out. The novelty of the world gets in the way of character development. This is not a fatal flow, but it damages the effect of the final film.
Quirky but not really engaging, LOVELY BY SURPRISE is heavy on surprise but light on lovely. Neither the idea nor the characters are fully satisfying. I rate it a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0760173/
DOG DAYS (DVD review by Mark R. Leeper):
Bill Plympton's fourth collection of his short films is every bit as creative, if not quite as anarchic, as his earlier work. It still is full of weird camera angles and lots of strange ideas from a strange mind. But in this collection he is giving more plot and the surrealism is being replaced by a more simple insanity. There is a lot in the package and it is a lot of fun.
Animation is a field of art in which just about anything that can be imagined can be brought to the screen. If the mind's eye can see it, it probably can be shown in an animated film. But very few animators can use this medium the way that Bill Plympton can. Plympton has a bizarre--some would say sick--mind that comes pouring out in his animation. While major animated films are going in the direction of 3-D effects and super-realistic visual effect, Plympton's style does not change. His images still look like flat colored pencil sketches (as probably many of them started) but his edge is in his imagination. Watching a Plympton cartoon is rarely so tame an experience as falling down a rabbit hole into a new world. Plympton's only rule is to break all the rules and the visual expectations of the audience. Humans morph into other objects or deform like Silly Putty. Giant hands of God drop from the sky. It is hard to say that most of his best animated films really have what could be called a plot. They are more sketchpads of ideas that usually become more and more bizarre. Like with no other filmmaker one has the feeling that anything visual can happen.
DOG DAYS is probably a little more reserved than some of Plympton's earlier work (though "reserved" is a relative term). He might previously have had lovers melting into each other or eyeballs turning into hot-air balloons and floating away. They were interesting ideas but they did not tell anything like a story. His work is more disciplined now, but there is still a very wild sense of humor behind it all. The ostensive purpose of this DVD is to show Plympton's seven independent short films that he made from 2004 to 2008. That is seven short animated films that total to about 45 minutes. That is 45 minutes of entertainment on a DVD listed for about $20. You say you're not satisfied? You say you want more for your money? Each of the film has Bill's own commentary. The DVD also includes music videos, commercials, and other commissioned films. The DVD case says that it is 130 minutes, and I suspect that does not include the commentaries. I have a suspicion that this is the whole Plympton portfolio for the interval from 2004 to 2008.
The first three films comprise his "Dog" Trilogy. They are "Guard Dog", "Guide Dog", and "Hot Dog". These each have several awards listed on the case. Frankly I don't see this as his best work. The three cartoons all feature the same dog trying to function in a world he does not understand. There is too much in common among the three pieces. Maybe one would have been enough.
Next, "The Fan and the Flower" is a simple fairy tale based on a visual pun. Paul Giamatti narrates. It is entertaining but better films are to come.
Plympton really hits his stride with the last three films, all unconnected. "Shuteye Hotel" is a nasty little horror story. And Plympton's style of animation is the perfect medium for this story. Trying to do it live action might not be impossible, but it would be very hard to carry off. CGI might not be much better. Ironically we learn in the commentary that this was Plympton's one attempt to use CGI. The attempt was a fiasco except that it gave Plympton a story to tell when people suggest he use CGI.
"Santa, The Fascist Years", narrated by Matthew Modine, mixes Santa Claus and fascist imagery. It could be a riff on the cooperation pacts that some religious leaders made with fascist dictators in WWII. Plympton says it was originally just an attempt to combine religious and fascist imagery on a Christmas card, later expanded to a full film.
"Spiral" is Bill Plympton's take on abstract animated mathematical films. It begins as an experiment in mathematical form but also makes a comment. (Plympton's attack on another animator's work in the commentary is surprisingly vehement.)
Included is a large slice of his commissioned work, animation he did for other people's projects and where he was probably not allowed to exhibit his special brand of weirdness. Included is a thirty-minute Christmas show that he did for the Cartoon Network and various other items he did for cable TV, including an account of Shay's Rebellion made for the History Channel. What at first looks like a short DVD in fact has a lot of material to be seen. Several of the pieces were familiar from animation film festivals, but it is good to see them collected. [-mrl]
YOO-HOO, MRS. GOLDBERG (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Aviva Kempner directs a 92-minute documentary about what was once one of America's most beloved radio and television programs, which was written by and starring one of America's then most beloved women, Gertrude Berg. Though her character Molly Goldberg is mostly forgotten today she and her fictional family have an important place in the history of American culture. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
YOO-HOO, MRS. GOLDBERG is Aviva Kempner's story of the radio and television program "The Goldbergs". It is also the story of the powerhouse woman behind that program, Gertrude Berg. This is a very well produced documentary easily of the quality of PBS documentary programs like "American Masters" and "The American Experience". The story is told using original photographs and films of the period, excerpts from the program, and interview comments by people like Susan Stamberg (of NPR), Ruth Bader Ginsburg (associate justice of the United States Supreme Court), and Norman Lear. Also included are excerpts from a 1950s interview of Gertrude Berg by Edward R. Morrow.
The first popular situation comedy on the radio was also the first popular situation comedy on television. The program was originally titled "The Rise of the Goldbergs", and later shortened to just "The Goldbergs". The program was a sort of "Mother Knows Best" with the mother being the smart, wise, and big-hearted Molly Goldberg. It was written by and starred Gertrude Berg--born Tilly Edelstein--and became a sort of comedy/drama soap opera, at first 15 minutes a day and later expanded to a half hour. The stories were about the family of Molly Goldberg, a woman who was very much like Gertrude Berg herself. It had a real feel for everyday life and was spiced with aside comments on the action from Berg to the listener who was treated much like a member of the family.
The radio program premiered November 20, 1929, on the CBS Blue Network. It ran on the radio, including a network change, until 1950. But starting in 1949 the show also ran on television until 1956. While the program was about a Jewish immigrant family it had an appeal across all ethnic backgrounds. Its story of characters trying to get along on what little they had during the Great Depression. Its portrayal of an immigrant family resonated with the public. One interviewee says that she was Greek, but she saw much of her own family in the fictional Goldbergs. The Goldberg family could get along in hard times and come out OK, even with very little to live on. This is a message that is as relevant today as it was in Depression days.
Polls at the time said that the Gertrude Berg was second only to Eleanor Roosevelt as the most respected women in America. Central to the story throughout the radio days and well into the television days were the tenement setting which allow the character Molly Goldberg to talk with her neighbors by just putting her head out the window and calling "Yoo-hoo." Later in the fifties the setting was moved to suburbia but retained much of the same feel. In the late 1930s the film confronted the problems of ethnic bigotry. Many viewers learned about Kristallnacht and what was happening in Nazi Germany but also what was happening in the United States. One program had the family's Passover Seder ceremony interrupted by a rock thrown through the window. The character Molly Goldberg always remained calm and brought her own wisdom to the incident and any situation she found herself in. Gertrude Berg (who wrote every episode) let her own personality shine through.
Eventually, however, politics did intrude, not in front of the camera but behind. The part of Molly's husband Jake was played in the late 1940s and early 1950s by Philip Loeb. Loeb was accused of being a Communist and his name appeared in Red Channels. Sponsor General Foods demanded that he be dropped from the show for being too controversial. Goldberg absolutely refused, but lost when Loeb resigned. Soon after CBS dropped the television show. In the schedule hole it left open CBS put a new situation comedy, "I Love Lucy". Eight months later the Goldbergs were back on television. NBC picked up the show with Berg, though not with Loeb.
Gertrude Berg herself probably could not have made a better documentary of her life and her creations than YOO-HOO, MRS. GOLDBERG. Through decades on the radio, multiple TV series, and two plays Berg's Molly Goldberg gave America comfort and wisdom. Yet for most of this film's audience most of what it tells will be a complete revelation. I rate YOO-HOO, MRS. GOLDBERG a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt1334479
Wikipedia on "The Goldbergs": http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molly_Goldberg
NUMB3RS: TEHRAN (letter of comment by Jerry Ryan):
In response to Mark's comments on mathematics and the Iranian elections in the 07/03/09 issue of the MT VOID, Jerry Ryan writes:
If you are generally interested in the application of mathematics and statistics to the results of elections, I *highly* recommend the politics blog fivethirtyeight.com, which is run by a fellow named Nate Silver. Silver ran a baseball sabermetrics website and got the idea to apply the same deep statistical analysis to elections and polls. The name of the site comes from the number of electoral votes that are cast in a presidential election.
Nate did a post hoc analysis of the Iran vote that claimed that the pre-election polls that were calling for a close election or a defeat if the incumbent should have been discounted because of the astonishingly large number of people that either responded that they didn't know or had no opinion, or that refused to answer. He claims that refusing to answer implies a certain degree of voter intimidation was in the system.
In any case, it's a great site for politics junkies *and* math junkies! [-gwr]
Lost in Translation and Pianism (letter of comment by Charlie Harris):
In response to Mark's question in the 06/19/09 issue of the MT VOID about translating "you say goodbye; I say hello" into Hebrew generated, Charlie Harris writes:
A more challenging question: How would you translate it into Klingon?
http://www.slate.com/id/2217815/pagenum/all/#p2 ("There's No Klingon Word for 'Hello'")
That is not at all more challenging. The answer is that I would not even try and that is an end of that. I think what you are asking is what is the Klingon equivalent, and that is much harder to answer. One thing certain, it would come out sounding like you were trying to talk with your mouth full of something that was violently fighting back. [-mrl]
And in response to Mark's comments on Pianism in the 07/03/09 issue of the MT VOID, Charlie Harris writes, "Huh? Is 'Pianism' different from 'pianism'?" [-csh]
Mark replies, "My gosh. There really is such a thing. Now I am afraid we are one step closer to the International Pianist Conspiracy." [-mrl]
Movie Rating Scales (letter of comment by David Goldfarb):
In response to Mark's film reviews, David Goldfarb writes:
"In your movie reviews, you utilize a scale from -4 to +4. I like this scale; but I can't help noticing that you often qualify your numbers with "high" or "low". Wouldn't it make sense to widen the scale so that you could just adjust the numbers? Say, multiply by three; then take your number and adjust it by 1 either way for high or low. So instead of "a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale" you might say "+5 on the -12 to +12 scale". [-dg]
The short answer is that people would find it confusing if I started changing the scale now. I f people have been reading my reviews for a while they know what a low +2 means. If that now became a +5 it would be hard for them to understand that, at least for a little while. When I started using the scheme there were no highs or lows. But that was just making a single rating cover too big a range. If you don't mind reading a pre-packaged explanation of the rating scale I use, I have one prepared at http://www.geocities.com/markleeper/rating.htm. That explains the origins of this cockamamie rating scheme. [-mrl]
3-D Television (letter of comment by Morris Keesan):
In response to Mark's comments on 3-D television in the 06/26/09 and 07/03/09 issues of the MT VOID, Morris Keesan writes:
You describe a few different ways of projecting 3-D films, but your technical descriptions don't match what I know of stereoscopic technology.
In the stereo world, we usually refer to the red-blue or red-green images as "anaglyphs", or with the adjective "anaglyphic", and although it may be true that there were some systems which projected anaglyphic images as separate beams, this seems unlikely. The major advantage of anaglyphs is that you can project them as a single image, requiring no particular expertise on the part of the projectionist, because with a single film strip and single lens, it's impossible for the projectionist to get the left and right images out of alignment.
When using linear polarization, there are indeed some systems that use vertical and horizontal polarization, but the standard method is to have both images polarized at a 45-degree angle, so that the lines of polarization on the two eyes form a V. This is particularly beneficial when handing out cheap cardboard glasses, because it's impossible to put the glasses on backwards. With horizontal-vs.-vertical polarization, if you turn your glasses around backwards, you get what's known as a "pseudo-scopic" image, with each eye seeing the image intended for the other eye, and all of the depth perception reversed. When you turn around a V- polarized pair of glasses, you get the same polarization. This system is the default for any stereo-viewing polarized glasses you can buy in the United States. '[-mk]
The red-blue error has been pointed out. I was unaware of the 45- degree feature. Thank you. [-mrl]
Morris goes on:
Fred Lerner finds Netflix a cost-effective way of seeing films. I don't -- I don't think I watch enough films in a month to justify even their lowest monthly cost. For me, the most cost-effective way of seeing films is to borrow videotapes or DVDs from the library. I watch probably 2 or 3 films per year this way. Several years ago, we had a few of the premium movie channels (e.g. HBO) in our cable service, and when a film we were interested in was scheduled it, we would tape it to watch later. I have at least 10 of these tapes that I've not yet gotten around to watching. Too many books, too little time. [-mk]
I also have too many books and too little time, but I also have a great deal of respect for the visual medium. I think a story in the visual medium is perceived in a very different way from one that is read. Other new media out there involve the viewer in more ways than cinema does, but for now I restrict my interests to books, radio, and film. With cinema the artist has more control over film than in any other media. It is very hard for an author to control how the reader visualizes characters and scenes. The author can describe physical appearances but that slows the writing. But then everybody will still visualize a scene in his own way. There is no way to be sure the reader picks up all of the description and then uses that description in his mental visualizations. A film can have a visual style that you just do not get in a book. And animation gives the artist still more freedom. With a book you get other breeds of style which may compensate, but you cannot get much visual style. People tend to naturally fall into the viewpoint that books are somehow superior to films, but I think the truth is only that they are different and each has its virtues. [-mrl]
3-D Television and Mangal Pandey (letter of comment by Taras Wolansky):
In response to Mark's comments on 3-D television in the 06/26/09 and 07/03/09 issues of the MT VOID, Taras Wolansky writes:
About goggle-less 3-D TV: There was a (dare I say) glowing article about a prototype in the "New York Times" maybe eighteen months ago. I finally recalled how this system licked the right eye/left eye problem Mark identified: by giving up the idea that every person in the audience sees the same picture. The picture is projected at the audience in vertical stripes, each giving a slightly different angle. If you're sitting in the middle of the audience, the train robber will be shooting right at you; if you're sitting off to the left, he'll be aiming to your right. A lot like watching a live performance, in fact.
By the way, the early Fifties 3-D films--like DIAL M FOR MURDER, KISS ME KATE, and THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON--were all done using the two projector, polarized system. (I had the good fortune to see these films at a 3-D film festival, a couple of years ago.) [-tw]
I have not seen KISS ME KATE in 3-D, but I have seen the other two. It seems to me that I saw CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON in red- blue 3-D. I can definitely say that IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE had been shown in red-blue. I wonder if some of these films were released in multiple 3D formats.
I am not sure people would want a 3-D that everybody in the audience gets a different image. That would have to be done more like a stage play and in doing so you probably have to throw away many of the advantages of film over stage plays. In a film you can to a close-up. You can also direct the audience attention to different parts of the scene. In other words you have no problem with the image changing scale. It is hard to say whether the audience would accept that same changing of scale if you were looking at what would effectively be an object on stage. You run into some of the same questions they faced in the early days of film. Early filmmakers asked whether the audience would accept close-ups at all. Would it look like somebody's head had just inflated? And haven't audiences paid to see the whole actor rather than just one part. And when you want a close-up, would some people feel they were just getting a good view of one ear of the actor? Also among the audience there would be more jockeying for the best seat. [-mrl]
And in response to comments about Mangal Pandey in the 07/03/09 issue of the MT VOID, Taras writes:
About whether Indian "Mutineer" Mangal Pandey is more like "a demented rioter high on drugs than a freedom fighter": According to the Wikipedia article, drug use and what we would call temporary insanity were his only defense at his court martial: "He admitted to having used bhang (cannabis) and opium of late. ... 'I did not know what I was doing. I did not know who I wounded and who I did not.'" They didn't have drug tests in those days, but his disorganized and ineffective attack on British officers suggests he was telling something like the truth. [-tw]
In your last mail about Mangal Pandey you said you assumed that any history you see in a historical film is false. I was not quite so skeptical, but agreed you had a point. Now it appears that I have distinctly come out ahead of you in the skepticism rally. Mangal Pandey was on trial by the ruling British for a revolt that was attempting to throw off those rulers. He had been the most visible participant of that revolt and probably the leader. Now he was in that enemy's hands. If he did not have a winning defense he was going to die for what he did, and he knew it. You tell me his defense was disorganized which might indicate he was desperate. But even as a confirmed skeptic you cannot imagine that his defense under such circumstances might not be the whole truth? I think that unless I had specifically chosen to be a martyr I might use a defense much like he did. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
I had read PLATO AND A PLATYPUS WALK INTO A BAR: UNDERSTANDING PHILOSOPHY THROUGH JOKES by Tom Cathcart and Dan Klein (read by Johnny Heller, ISBN-13 978-1-428-17376-7, ISBN-10 1-428-17376-5) before, but I listened to it on a recent trip. (The selection of books on CD near me is not very extensive--at least in ones that interest me--and most cheap rental cars do not have an input jack.) As I said before, the philosophy is fairly superficial, and the jokes fairly old. I had hoped the latter at least would improve by hearing them spoken rather than reading them, but no such luck. On the other hand, it was better than four hours of repetitive news radio.
I did notice a couple of errors that I either had not caught or did not remember from the book. A housewife is told that a certain household appliance that would cut her work in half. "Great, I'll take two!" she says. The authors point out that this is wrong; two would only cut it by three-quarters. Fine, but then they say three would cut it by five-sixths. Bzzzt! But thank you for playing.
Another joke has a museum guard telling someone that the dinosaur bones on display are three million four years and six months old. How does he know so exactly? Well, when he started he was told they were three million years old, and that was four-and-a-half years ago. Since the dinosaurs died out sixty-five million years ago, this is way off. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. --Voltaire
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