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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
10/23/09 -- Vol. 28, No. 17, Whole Number 1568
Table of Contents
This week's MT VOID is brought to you by the Pre-Owned-Humvee Owners Exchange. Buy a used Humvee today. Let the world know who's the boss. [-mrl]
Easy Mistake to Make (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Healthcare opponents at Investor's Business Daily claimed, "People such as scientist Stephen Hawking wouldn't have a chance in the U.K., where the National Health Service [NHS] would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless." Of course Hawking, who is British, did grow up under the National Health Service claims that he has received excellent treatment. But it was an understandable mistake for Investor's Business Daily to make. It has to be that Stephen Hawking speaks without any trace of a British accent. [-mrl]
Prime-Time Westerns (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I cannot help but notice that at one time we had a lot of Western films being made. The Western movie has been an enduring tradition in American cinema and television. At one time there were a lot of Westerns being made both for the wide screen and for television. When I was growing up I think you could see a Western every night on television and just about every week at the movie theater. The public loved this American myth.
As time goes by there not so many Westerns being made. The best days of the Western have come and gone. There are no true Westerns television series being made. The number Western films being made has become less and less with the passage of years. Some years seem to have two of them close together. Other years don't seem to have any. But the stream of them does not stop entirely. It just seems to trickle out with less and less of them. But there are always more being made. You just have to wait a year or two. Recently we had APPALOOSA with Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, and Renée Zellweger. There has not been a last one. The number of Westerns, if suitably spread out, is going asymptotically to zero.
I was thinking about this and suddenly I realized what was going on. It was staring me right in the face. The frequency of Westerns that the film industry makes decreases with time, but does not go to zero. That rang a bell. Production of Westerns seems to be distributed like prime numbers. In the low numbers there are lots of prime numbers but as you look further out in the natural numbers they too become less and less. But they do not peter out entirely. In fact if one graphed the number of Westerns made before a certain date, it would be increasing as t increases, but it increases about like k*t/ln(t), with a suitable scalar factor k. And that is exactly what prime numbers do. This formula does not tell you exactly where the primes will be, but it gives you a feel for the distribution. Similarly the model does not tell you when a Western is going to be released. That is really asking the formula to do too much for you. But it does tell you about how over the long term the Western film will peter out.
Now some Westerns tend to be real rip-snorters and some do not. Some go for a more subtle and realistic approach. The big brash ones seem to correspond to the Mersenne Primes. Those are primes one less than a power of two. The John Wayne Westerns mostly seem to correspond to the Mersenne primes, for some reason. But now this is interesting on one level. So do Tom Mix Westerns. I have not seen a lot of Tom Mix Westerns. You do not see them so much because most are from the silent film era. It is hard enough to get people to see black and white films these days. So Tom Mix Westerns are not all the easy to find. But you can verify that 2,147,483,647 is a prime and one less than 2^31, so I suspect the Tom Mix Westerns may be better than I had realized. I will have to see if Netflix carries them.
I know that some of you out there are asking if the really exciting Westerns correspond to the Mersenne primes, if there is any correlation between some types of Western and the Fermat primes. It is a good question. But I frankly do not have the computing power at my disposal to properly answer that question. No characteristic of Western that I can find corresponds to the Fermat primes. I assume I could try a regression analysis to find some sort of characteristic of Westerns that correlates to those films that correspond to Fermat primes. The truth is I just happened onto the Mersenne connection. If I had to do a regression analysis to find that there was the rip-snortocity that corresponded to the Mersennes, I might still be looking. The truth is that I just do not have the computing power to handle the regression analysis. But still the connection that I have been able to find is much more than I was expecting. It is fascinating to know that we do, in the last analysis, live in an orderly universe.
If we have two major Westerns released in 2019, and if one of them is set in Nevada, I may have a proof for the Gauss conjecture. [-mrl]
WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: A boy with emotional problems finds himself on an island with large fluffy animal people. Spike Jonze co-writes and directs this adaptation of the popular 1963 children's book. While the book works fine for the younger set, the film tries to be too much an Alice-in-Wonderland-class story for all ages, but it rarely works for both young and old at the same time. Rating: high 0 (-4 to +4) or 5/10
The Caldecott Medal Winning children's book WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE by Maurice Sendak is thirty-seven pages and only 338 words. This does not give very material to base a feature-length film upon. Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers have fleshed it out into a screenplay for a live action adaptation. That required a lot of invention on their part and the result does not entirely work.
Max (played by Max Records) is a boy with problems. He seems to have no friends and has a very short fuse. Only his mother seems to like him and then not all the time. He is reduced to threatening fences to support his sense of being someone. When his older sister's friends destroy his igloo he tracks snow into her room and jumps on her bed. Finally his anger boils over and he puts on his animal pajamas and runs away from home. Taking a small boat and sailing for open water he finds himself swept to a magic island inhabited by large animal people. He tells them that he is a king and they believe him and let him rule them.
As their king Max has all sorts of exciting plans for his people starting with the building of a mighty fortress. Unfortunately, in the animals he sees many of his own attitudes. Animal people with his own faults ruin the wonderful kingdom he had planned.
In some ways this film is a throwback to the TV show "H. R. Pufnstuf". As with that show it was decided that a film or movie could compete with animation by putting actors in cartoon- like costumes. It would not surprise me to find out that some places hand puppets were used, but for the most part the animal people are people in suits that had mechanical controls to provide facial expression. The result has gotten a whole lot better since the days of "H. R. Pufnstuf", but so has the animation competition. The live-action renderings really capture the images created by Sendak, and children may well enjoy the visuals created. But the enchantment wears off. I saw the film in a full Sunday afternoon crowd. Some of the older children might have been enjoying the film but the five-year-olds in the crowd were restless. It is not clear that even the older children would have known what to make of lines like "happiness is not the best way to be happy." (Come to think of it, I am not sure I get it.)
In addition, the film has a high level of cartoonish violence. Nobody is seriously hurt more than a boo-boo. But there is a fair amount of heavy animal roughhousing. One cannot count on a whole lot of emotion continuity in this film. Characters who do not like each other in one scene may be friends in the next sequence. Other sorts of continuity are missing also. We have the ground covered with snow in one sequence and without much feel for passage of time the snow seems to have entirely gone away the next time we look.
There are several familiar voices for characters. The animal-man closest to Max is Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini). Catherine O'Hara voices the character of Judith. Chris Cooper does Carol's best friend, the birdman Douglas. Forest Whitaker takes the role of Ira. With top-notch actors like that one would expect characters that the viewer can come away feeling he knows. Sadly that is not the case here. Human-animals remain cryptic. They talk like normal people, but not so that one can feel he knows any of them. Their lead is Carol who seems like a spoiled child. But we don't know him much better than that. It may have been a mistake for Jonze to direct his own screenplay. He knows what emotions he wanted the characters to be conveying, but he probably is not seeing the result as an outsider and realizing that they are just not connecting with the viewer.
This is a story that meanders and loses much of its audience, young and old, but perhaps not in the same places. I rate WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE a high 0 on the -4 to +4 scale or 5/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0386117/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/where_the_wild_things_are/
THE STONING OF SORAYA M (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: The harrowing true story from Iran. An Iranian woman became "inconvenient" for her husband who wants to trade her for a younger wife. He frames her for adultery, connives to have her found guilty and sentenced to death, and participates in her execution. We see the stoning in horrific detail. The story is simple and compelling and the title leaves no doubt where the story is going. This is a powerful film for those willing to see its extreme violence. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
Soraya Manutchehri was an Iranian woman who was married at age 13 to a petty thug, Ghorban-Ali seven years her senior. In 1986, after twenty-two hellish years of beatings and infidelity from her husband he wanted to take a younger wife. He could not support two wives so he decided he had to be rid of the first wife. He frames Soraya for adultery with the help of a corrupt local mullah. As Islamic law was practiced at that time the burden of proof was on her to prove her innocence and with false witness testimony against her she had no chance. It is an easy matter to have her found guilty. Then, pulling few punches, the film shows graphically an execution by stoning.
The film is told mostly in flashback the day after the execution. The mountain village, Kupayeh, is visited by a journalist in need of a car repair. He is played by James Caviezel, who was similarly martyred in THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST. A woman wants to talk to him, though others tell him she is mad. This is Zahra, (Shohreh Aghdashloo of HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG), the aunt of Soraya M (Mozhan Marnoand) who tells him the story behind the stoning.
It would be easy to identify the husband Ali (Navid Negahban) as the villain of the piece, but there is more than enough fault to go around. One judge displays a little conscience, but allows himself to be overruled. He is the only man in the village who is shown to have any objections to the proceedings. On the other hand when the village of men go to rock-throwing only one woman in the crowd seems to be enthusiastic about the killing.
The film has many images that may seem strange to an American audience. The mountain village of stone buildings is an odd juxtaposition with the modern sports car that Soraya's husband Ali drives around to impress his intended new wife.
Though the film is mostly in Persian, it is actually an American film. Cyrus Nowrasteh directs a screenplay he co-authored with his wife Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh from the book by French journalist Freidoune Sahebjam. The film they have made is strongly affecting with the stoning sequence lasting twenty minutes all by itself. The director is pulling no punches. This film grabs the emotions of the viewer, particularly anger and pity. But the film is on a strong subject. If the viewer is not angered by the situation the film has not done its job. Perhaps not wanting to leave on just the note of the martyrdom there is about ten minutes after the stoning sequence with a little action that might seem to be anti- climax.
The fact that there was one sociopath in the country, Soraya's husband, is not much of an indictment against anyone but him. But the fact that he could so easily get Islamic Fundamentalism to become his accomplice raises very disturbing questions. The film is a warning about what can happen when a people delegates their private consciences to someone else's interpretation of a book. Perhaps the most important resource that any community has is their collective private conscience. When people abandon it for promised rewards in the afterlife, the result is disaster. I rate THE STONING OF SORAYA M a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt1277737/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/stoning_of_soraya_m/
A discussion of the issues of this film: http://tinyurl.com/oak4rr
Digital Science Fiction Conventions (letter of comment by James E. LaBarre):
In response to Mark's comments on digital science fiction conventions in the 10/16/09 issue of the MT VOID, James LaBarre writes:
The problem with that is that conventions have been an opportunity to meet face-to-face with other fans. An Internet con wouldn't be any different than IRC, discussion mail-lists, etc.
I'd suggest a more "clusterized" method. Have regional sub- conventions, perhaps with teleconferencing to allow a panel to occur at multiple locations simultaneously. Small art shows at each location, with digitized displays of the artwork at the remote locations, which the sub-con attendees could view. The dealers room wouldn't be near as fun, though. [-jel]
Water on Mars and the Moon (letter of comment by Greg Frederick):
[This mail was received a few weeks ago, but got misplaced in the wrong folder. That is why things in the past are phrased as if they are in the future.]
In response to Mark's comments on water on Mars and the moon in the 10/02/09 issue of the MT VOID, Greg Frederick writes:
I read your article in the MT Void about water on Mars and the Moon. Pretty interesting stuff. I have been following the Internet articles about this and read where the molecular O-H bond was detected on the moon by the Indian spacecraft with a NASA detector onboard. They think that besides comet impacts bringing water to the moon, the sun sends hydrogen atoms streaming at very high velocities (a large fraction of the speed of light) into the oxide rich lunar rocks and soil. The oxygen in the rocks and soil are bonding with the hydrogen atoms from the Sun forming water and possibly hydroxl molecules. NASA has been developing a microwave device to extract water directly from rocks. They have been successfully testing this device on Earth oxide rich rocks which contain water. This technology does not require drilling. I guess you know that on Oct. 9, 2009, the double impact of the LCROSS lunar spacecraft will occur at a southern lunar crater. The impacts will create dust plumes which Earth telescopes and the other NASA lunar spacecraft (LRO) orbiting the Moon will scan for evidence of water ice. The LRO and LCROSS are the two NASA spacecraft launched a few months back to the Moon. These impacts should be viewable with a small telescope.
Scientists have developed a laser technology to scan ice that will cause organic life (bacteria) to become fluorescent when detected. This was successfully tested at a frozen lake in Antarctica The next robotic rover to Mars may use this technology to hunt for life or the evidence for past life there.
This is great time for robotic exploration of the Solar system. I wonder though if NASA will have the funding needed to get humans back to the Moon by 2020 as is the current plan. [-gf]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
"All reading is not migrating to computer screens. So long as books are cheap, tough, easy to "read" from outside (What kind of book is this? How long is it? Is this the one I was reading last week? Let's flip to the pictures), easy to mark up, rated for safe operation from beaches to polar wastes and--above all--beautiful, they will remain the best of all word-delivery vehicles." [David Gelernter]
In honor of Edgar Allan Poe's 200th birthday this year, our book discussion groups both read several Poe stories. The non-SF group read "Murders in the Rue Morgue", "The Gold Bug", "The Purloined Letter", "The Masque of the Red Death", "Hop-Frog", "A Predicament", and "The Philosophy of Composition". Conveniently, I had also just read Hillary Waugh's GUIDE TO MYSTERIES & MYSTERY WRITING, which was more the former than the latter and devoted a full quarter of the book to Poe and his creation of the detective story.
Waugh analyzes the various elements that Poe brought together. These include "the transcendent and eccentric detective"; "the admiring and slightly stupid foil"; "the well-intentioned, blundering officials"; "the locked-room convention"; "the pointing finger of unjust suspicion"; "the solution by surprise", "solution by putting one's self in another's position"; "concealment by means of the ultra-obvious"; "the staged ruse to force the culprit's hand"; and "even the expansive and condescending explanation when the chase is done."
Not every detective story has all of these, of course. "Murders in the Rue Morgue" has the first six elements; "The Purloined Letter" has the first two and the last four. True, Holmes had his Watson for all but one story (and that is considered the weakest of the batch). But Poirot did not have his Hastings for many of his stories, and Jane Marple had no "admiring and slightly stupid foil" at all. Not every story uses a locked-room, and so on. But all these are standard tropes of detective fiction, and all were invented by Poe. Well, one could argue that "the transcendent and eccentric detective" and "the admiring and slightly stupid foil" are really just variants on the hero and his sidekick, a pair of characters who have been around considerably longer. In fact, one could argue that they were so stock by the 17th century that Cervantes could satirize them by making the sidekick the smarter of the two. (And P. G. Wodehouse followed in his footsteps.)
And Dupin's reconstruction of the narrator's train of thought at the beginning seems incredibly forced and makes the narrator seem somewhat more than "slightly stupid." If indeed, walking on a pavement of "overlapping and riveted blocks" must bring to the narrator's mind the term "stereotomy", and that in turn forces him to "atomies", hence Epicurus, hence nebulae, hence Orion, then the narrator is a very dim fellow indeed, to have such a constrained mind.
That Poe at least somewhat identified himself with his detective Dupin is fairly clear from the following exchange in "The Purloined Letter":
In "Murders in the Rue Morgue", the detective draws an important conclusion based on a series of statements in which five witnesses each say it was not their native language, but think it was another (named) language--which they are actually unfamiliar with. For example, the Englishman says it was not English, but he thought it was German (although he understood no German). And so on. (When done in the 1932 Universal film, this was reduced to three languages and a shouting match among the witnesses added, which just seemed foolish, but in the story it was much more straightforward.) But I have to take exception with Dupin's conclusion, correct though it may be. He says, "You will say it might have been the voice of an Asiatic--of an African. Neither Asiatics nor Africans abound in Paris...." And orangutans do?
"You might have spared yourself this trouble," said Dupin. "D--, I presume, is not altogether a fool, and, if not, must have anticipated these waylayings, as a matter of course."
"Not altogether a fool," said G., "but then he's a poet, which I take to be only one remove from a fool."
"True," said Dupin, after a long and thoughtful whiff from his meerschaum, "although I have been guilty of certain doggerel myself."
John T. Irwin (in A MYSTERY TO A SOLUTION) writes that mathematics was one of Poe's best subjects and that surely he knew that the "merely general reader" is indeed correct in this scenario and the narrator wrong, and that therefore Poe is creating an ignorant or unreliable narrator rather than actually making this claim. I am not sure I am convinced of this. Consider this from "The Purloined Letter":
"I never yet encountered the mere mathematician who would be trusted out of equal roots, or who did not clandestinely hold it as a point of his faith that x**2+px was absolutely and unconditionally equal to q. Say to one of these gentlemen, by way of experiment, if you please, that you believe occasions may occur where x**2+px is not altogether equal to q, and, having made him understand what you mean, get out of his reach as speedily as convenient, for, beyond doubt, he will endeavor to knock you down." This reminds me of a line from LITTLE MAN TATE that Mark is fond of quoting as designed to demonize scientists: "I'm working on experiments involving lasers, sulfuric acid, and butterflies."
In addition, one has to say that Irwin's knowledge of mathematics is shaky, since he also says, "By definition a number is odd if, when the number is divided by two, there is a remainder of one. And by that definition the first odd number is three." No, the first odd [natural] number is one. Firstly, one has to assume that by "number" Irwin means "positive integer". There is no "first" odd number if one includes negative integers, and the terms "odd" and "even" are meaningless when applied to non-integers. But even when restricted to positive integers, Irwin has ignored the plain fact that one is odd. One suspects that he confused being an odd number with being a prime number, a category from which one is excluded.
In "The Purloined Letter", I would say that one big problem is the time the Prefect says he spent to search for letter. Even though he says he spent an entire week of nights searching each room (minus any nights the thief was actually home), the degree of thoroughness seems hard to accept. (For example, he says that his men turned every page of every book.) I was reminded of the many stories where robbers steal a huge amount of gold in fifteen minutes and a Volkswagen that in reality would take several days and a fleet of trucks.
"The Gold Bug" seems the obvious inspiration for the Sherlock Holmes story "The Adventure of the Dancing Men", though it suffers from being related pretty much after the fact rather than revealed as the story progresses. (The question of whether the gold bug is a live bug or an artifact seems strangely inconsistent as well.)
Of course, for critics (and everyone else) hindsight is easy. It's foresight that is hard. For example, H. Douglas Thomson (in MASTERS OF MYSTERY: A STUDY OF THE DETECTIVE STORY ) is very convincing in his analysis of stories already written. But then you read this: "Miss Marple is an incorrigible Cranfordian, a spinster and a gossip. The neighbors disliked her because 'she knew everything,' and because 'she always thought the worst.' ... In a mild way we are prejudiced against Miss Marple on her first appearance, and one cannot help thinking that she is not the stuff of great detectives. Inquisitiveness will not always come off, and intuitions are cheap in these days. Moreover, Miss Marple can only hope to solve murder problems on her native heath. If Mrs. Christie is planning a future for Miss Marple, as is very likely, she will be bound to find this an exasperating limitation."
Well, I guess we know how that turned out. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: One old friend is better than two new ones. -- Yiddish proverb
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