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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
01/08/10 -- Vol. 28, No. 28, Whole Number 1579
Table of Contents
The Things (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I really enjoyed the story "The Things" by Peter Watt in "Clarkesworld" this month. I recommend it. But if after the first minute you do not recognize the world you are in with the story give up on it. It strongly assumes prior knowledge.
Text version: http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/watts_01_10/
MP3 version: http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/audio_01_10/
Linguistic Problem (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Although the Aq'ta people have twelve different way to express it, there is no way in English to express their idea that
Writing Memory (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Two weeks ago I discussed progress that had been made in erasing memory. Normally this would be a bad thing. Your memory really is where your identity resides. There are some aspects in which you are different from other people external to your memory. You are probably a different height from other people you know. You may be thin while other people are portly. But those differences are really superficial. It is what is written on your memory that really determines who you are. It is what makes you you.
One of the most important things within your memory is your collection of bad experiences and what you learned from them. You don't put your hand in the fire because you remember being told that it was dangerous or you remember having learned first-hand that fire hurts. In the previous article I talked about how some of that fear can actually be erased by the drug propranolol. If a fear learned is bad enough to debilitate you, some of that association can be erased with the drug. But erasing bad memories and bad associations is really a form of destruction. Destruction is much more difficult than creation. It is easy to destroy a car. It is much harder to create one that works. Similarly, one would think it must be a lot more difficult, if not impossible, to actually write new memories. That is the other, and probably harder, side of creating memories. But over the last year, just as experiments have shown there are inroads on erasing memories in humans, it has become possible to create fearful memories and reactions in flies that behave like lessons the fly has gained from experience.
The mind and memory of flies has proven in recent years to be more complex than had been previously thought. They have been shown to have high-level behaviors of learning and memory. But they get by with just twelve brain cells that are responsible for the associative learning part of memory. It is here that flies store the knowledge that when the swatter is coming down, they should make like their name says and fly. But with techniques developed by Gero Miesenbock from the University of Oxford (UK) it was possible to activate these brain cells in ways to react negatively to a certain odor.
A chemical called ATP would stimulate the neurons to create a fear reaction. These had to be injected into the fly to give the same reaction as a fearful experience. They were bound in a kind of very tiny cage to keep them from activating the fly brain. The fly was then subjected to an odor that had never been threatening. The fly did not react. Then while in the presence of the odor they used a laser to open the cage and release the ATP. The fly flew to escape the odor. But later when the fly was subject to the odor again, it treated the odor as a threat.
To be honest, I am not sure why the interpretation of what was observed was not that the fly associated the odor with the experience of a laser boring into its little fly head. But this is all being interpreted as having put a fearful memory into the brain of the fly. Essentially the fly had been given a phobia of a non- threatening fragrance. The experimenters are chemically inducing an irrational fear purely by chemical means. They have not shown that propranolol will alleviate the fears as far as I know, but it is interesting to speculate. It probably would not work on a fly, of course.
Neither of these chemical means is really writing on or erasing from the brain, but it is a start. And it is interesting that both experiments should be done so close in time.
There is a deeper thought here. We have the beginnings of processes to reform the brain without having to go through direct personal experience. It is an old science fiction idea to chemically educate the brain. Release just the right chemicals to modify the neurons so that the brain suddenly has experienced a course in Physics I. If we could chemically induce knowledge, is it a good idea? Do we want an Economics 101 injection? Is it important that the student actually go through the effort of learning the subject? Does that effort force the student to have critical self-discipline? Is it important that students learn how to do old-fashioned research when there are new ways to get the same information from the Internet? Or is it the same information? I am not sure that anyone can decide these issues, but it looks like they will have to be decided sooner or later.
For more reading on this experiment:
PONTYPOOL (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: This is a fresh new take on a somewhat tired sub-genre of horror. At radio station CLSY in a small rural Ontario town the shock jock with the morning radio program has to cover the strange and deadly transformation of his town. This is a very low budget horror film made for cable, but it has some nice and clever ideas. This is a particularly Canadian horror film. It could have been set in the US, but there are political reasons that it works so much better in Canada. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
Spoiler warning: I will try to reveal few of the twists, but the whole premise of the film is a twist.
It was not very long ago that the United States and Britain monopolized the horror film in the world market. There was a sprinkling of films from France, Spain, and Italy, but they were not the better films available. Certainly the United States's neighbors Canada and Mexico were making films that were at best second-rate. Of course Canada had David Cronenberg and Mexico somewhat later had Guillermo del Toro. But this year Mexico's SLEEP DEALER and Canada's PONTYPOOL rank as high as any United States science fiction films I have seen. (I wait anxiously for MOON to become available.)
PONTYPOOL plays with an idea new to the science fiction field. It is telling more than I should to say that this is a film that will inaccurately be called a "zombie" movie. There are no undead zombies, however this film has parallels to zombie films. Something is loose in Pontypool, Ontario, and the concept of it is an interesting philosophical idea.
It is a cold Valentine's Day morning in the rural Canadian town of Pontypool. We are inside a radio station where the voice broadcasting is that of bad-boy host Grant Mazzy (nicely played by Stephen McHattie). Mazzy has gotten himself thrown out of larger markets because of his penchant for rubbing people the wrong way. His producer, Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle) has her hands full controlling the shock jock beneath the cowboy hat and beard. Technician Lauren-Ann Drummond (Georgina Reilly), recently returned from serving in Afghanistan, tries to stay out of Mazzy's and Briar's wrangling with each other. Mazzy thinks that getting his listeners angry is the best way to boost his ratings. And Sydney has to pull the leash on him ever few moments.
The stories this morning include a missing cat and Mazzy wants to talk about the strange woman who inexplicably attacked his car on the way in to work. These stories may or may not be connected to what the unseen Ken Loney (Rick Roberts) is observing from his vantage point in the Sunshine Chopper. He reports a mob of people has inexplicably "exploded" into the streets and is attacking a doctor's office. This is the sort of thing that just does not happen in a placid countryside town like Pontypool. Soon the radio station will be right in the middle of the action.
The pacing of the film starts slowly. Little things start going wrong. It is becoming clear that something strange and deadly has happened in town. But it is a while before there is any real kind of action. We hear what is happening in town, but never see it first-hand or ever leave the radio station building. (That gives the film a claustrophobic feel and at the same time must have really held the budget down.) The film could almost be a radio play. In fact, it was done as a radio drama played on BBC World Theatre, where I heard it. Toward the end the film version becomes considerably more visual, but both versions are surprisingly good.
Setting this film away from the action, at least initially, and having the news come in from offstage gives this film some of the feel of the Orson Welles "Invasion from Mars/War of the Worlds" broadcast. It forces the viewer/listener to create the images of what is happening. The film is worth a watch. It is currently playing on the Independent Film Channel and at film festivals, but will go to DVD January 26, 2010. I rate PONTYPOOL a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. One problem I had: Grant Mazzy reads on a sort of horrific obituary to people who had been victims of this outbreak, but there is no way he could have had the information he is reading. The end of the film also seems to be incomprehensible and bizarre for the sake of bizarre.
Pontypool. Pontypool. Pont... Pont...
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt1226681/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/pontypool/
UP IN THE AIR (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: George Clooney who has had a fairly successful 2009 killing chickens and staring goats to death rounds out the year as another suave character who flies around the country passing the bad news to people fired by their bosses. Jason Reitman co-writes and directs with a style as smooth and assured as Clooney's. Eventually the film is about good choices and bad about independence and commitment. Costars Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick hold their own playing opposite Clooney. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
Oddly enough, the film that UP IN THE AIR reminds me of is THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN. In MAGNIFICENT SEVEN you have seven gunfighters who go from town to town solving serious problems for other people. They deal in lead and worry little about their victims. The people of the village all look up to the gunfighters, particularly the children do. But the peasants are the real winners because they have roots and family. The gunfighters are just drifters. Roots, we see, are of more importance than the glamorous image. In the end that is what the film is about as much as the gun fighting. UP IN THE AIR pulls the same little bait and switch on the viewer. It looks like it is about professional corporate down-sizers. It is really as much about people in glamorous jobs who trade personal connections and any semblance of a normal life for a glitzy profession.
The profession is "corporate downsizer". What is that? They say that everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die. Business managers all over the country want to pay less in salaries by letting people go. That has been true for decades and it got much worse with the economic downturn. But management does not want to face their employees to fire them. Employees sometimes become violent, sometimes break down and cry, and sometimes make threats. And giving people bad news is simply a downer. Some employers have outsourced the undesirable task of firing employees to experts. Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), one such corporate axe- man makes a terrific living because he performs a service that business managers all over the country want. He is a professional firer. He breaks the bad news to employees he has not seen before and never will see again. Then he returns to his very fancy hotel room and sleeps like a baby. He has a nominal home to go back to, but prefers to be constantly on the road or flying up in the air. In one year he has racked up 350,000 airline miles. With his charm he has found and attracted Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga of NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH here in a star-making role). She is an attractive corporate traveler with whom he has uncomplicated wild sex whenever he can arrange it. It is a good life. There is just one problem. His expensive job may be eliminated. Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) just out of school has joined the same company. She intends to make firing even more impersonal by doing it over an Internet wire, thus saving huge travel and hotel expenses. This film is about this unlikely trio and their different philosophies of putting down roots. Ryan is so sure that his prestigious life style is perfect that he gives courses on how not to be tied down. Natalie is not so sure. Alex for her own reasons is very careful to stay out of the discussion.
Jason Reitman directs from a screenplay he co-wrote. Previously he directed THANK YOU FOR SMOKING about a lead lawyer for the tobacco industry who similarly had sacrificed his personal life for a highly remunerative job. Here he compares the firing style of the younger Natalie to the old pro Ryan. Natalie has more natural compassion for people she knows than Ryan does, but is more ruthless with total strangers. Ryan takes pride in softening the blows he brings to total strangers, even making the firing look momentarily like a positive step. He takes pride in his professionalism. But he has little more compassion for his family than he has for complete strangers.
One stylistic touch that is becoming a bit of a cliché is the montage of reaction shots. We have montages of five or six reactions of people being fired from the point of view of Ryan. We get two or three of these montages. Each employee fired takes the news in a slightly different way. Most are played by unknowns, but one is a short scene with the great J. K. Simmons, who played the father in Reitman's directly previous film JUNO.
It is odd that a film on such a painful subject in this economy can still entertain. Perhaps the economy even helps it. I rate UP IN THE AIR a low +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt1193138/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/up_in_the_air_2009/
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
QUESTIONING THE MILLENNIUM: A RATIONALIST'S GUIDE TO A PRECISELY ARBITRARY COUNTDOWN by Stephen Jay Gould (ISBN-13 978-0-099-76581- 3) is an old book (1997) in which Gould looks at "the millennium." He starts with how the whole idea of a millennium came about, how it changed from a thousand-year-period *of* Jesus's reign on earth to a thousand-year-period *until* Jesus's reign on earth, the evolution of our calendar and how it was connected to the millennium, and so on.
One passage in the introduction is of particular interest to science fiction (and alternate history) fans. Gould discusses how a thousand years as a round number is due to our base 10 number system and notes that many advanced civilizations used other bases. He then writes:
"And maybe, on a plausible alternative earth, the horse would not have become extinct in North America. The Mayans might then have domesticated a beast of burden, invented the wheel, and maybe even those two great and dubious innovations of ultimate domination-- efficient oceanic navigation and gunpowder. Europe was a backwater during the great Mayan age in the midst of the first millennium of our Christian era. Continue the reverie, and Mesoamerica moves east to conquer the Old World, makes a concordat with Imperial China--and vigesimal mathematics rules human civilization for the forseeable everafter. The millennium--the blessed thousand year reign of a local god known as Jesus Christ--then becomes a curious myth of a primitive and conquered culture, something that kids learn in their third grade unit on global diversity." [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: It is easier to square a circle than to get round a mathematician. -- A. De Morgan, 1840
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