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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
01/22/10 -- Vol. 28, No. 30, Whole Number 1581
Table of Contents
Bad Starts (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I was at a panel in which they were talking about book recommendations and introducing people to new authors. "What book," they asked, "is it a bad idea to start with for a given author?" For example someone suggested that THE SILMARILLION by J. R. R. Tolkien is a bad book to introduce his works. Do not choose that book for your first book by Tolkien. My answer was that a bad first book to start reading Ayn Rand was anything at all by Ayn Rand." [-mrl]
Chopsticks or Knife and Fork? (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
When I was a kid a company my father dealt with would send a bag each year as a Christmas gift. The bag was full of joke items. One that comes to mind was a fork with a loose handle and a crank. The idea was facetiously that you could use this to eat spaghetti. By turning the crank you could reel up the spaghetti. This was supposed to be a big improvement over the usual fork. It brings to mind the fact that we tend to assume that the standard knife, fork, and spoon we use is a constant. It is not the sort of thing that we think of improving upon. We almost come to think that that is the most natural set of eating implements possible.
A co-worker once made a comment that occasionally comes back to me. I guess we were discussing Asian restaurants. He said he was surprised that the Chinese and we still use different eating utensils. Not absolutely sure what he meant I asked did he mean that they should use knife and fork or that we should use chopsticks. I should have been able to guess since he was the kind of person whose tastes could be expected to be provincial. Indeed he thought that a knife and fork were clearly superior to chopsticks. He, in fact, seemed to think that knife and fork were obviously the most efficient eating utensils.
There are a lot of Americans who seem to think that knife and fork are the ideal eating implements. Evelyn and I always find it a little patronizing when we go to a Chinese restaurant and the staff gives us forks. Sometimes it is only forks and sometimes they will give chopsticks but also put down a fork. We usually push off the forks to an unused corner of the table with a look of disdain. It is an interesting situation where we feel very liberal saying we accept their culture, but there is also just a hint of snobbishness. Silently we are saying, "We look down our noses on Americans who have not learned to use chopsticks. Pish. Tosh. We eat like Chinese."
Actually, there are very good and selfless reasons to reach for the forks. Forks have to be washed and this uses energy. But much worse for the environment is cutting down forests, lathing chopsticks, packaging them, using them for one meal, and then tossing them. Using reusable forks is much better for the environment. Another reason why forks are better is that chopsticks are not really very good for the joints of the hand. They have been implicated in causing arthritis.
Another advantage of knife and fork eating is that it is considerably more versatile. One can eat Gung Pao Chicken very easily with a knife and fork. Try eating a steak with chopsticks. Chinese food tends to come in small pieces. The reason for this may be that small pieces of things take less energy to cook. If they eat steak they cut it in bite-sized pieces before it is cooked. Some things like spring rolls are served in large pieces, but you can break them up with chopsticks. I think just about anything served in Chinese cuisine can be eaten one way or another with chopsticks (or a spoon). There are times I have seen on menus whole crab in the shell and in sauce. I am not sure how an expert would eat that without getting sauce all over everything. Then again I am not sure how you would eat it with knife and fork. Shellfish requires special near-surgical instruments to efficiently get the meat out.
But one should not get the idea I am saying knife-and-fork eating is superior to chopsticks. In some senses chopsticks are far more natural. I do eat things by grasping them and taking them to my mouth much like I do with chopsticks. There is nothing I eat by sticking four straight, parallel fingers in and picking it up that way. The fork is a little unnatural.
I am reminded of a scene in MURDER BY DECREE in which James Mason, playing Dr. John Watson, is chasing the last pea on his plate around with a fork. He is unable to pick it up. Christopher Plummer as Sherlock Holmes takes the fork and smashes the pea, making it possible to be picked up on a fork. Watson is a little irritated that he did not want a smashed pea. For once it is Watson who is right and Holmes who is wrong. Watson was robbed of the little pop from his pea. Had Watson been eating with chopsticks he would have picked up the pea with ease.
Next week I will take a look at other eating utensils and try to draw some conclusions as to which are the most convenient, efficient, and effective. [-mrl]
THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Terry Gilliam's new film is a lot like his previous imaginative films, only perhaps more so. A small tacky traveling show in a caravan hides real magic. It has a gateway to a subjective land created by the visitor's own imagination. The show's owner is also genuinely immortal do to a pact he has made with Satan himself. The actual story is muddled, but the imagination of the visual imagery is very good. And Gilliam deserves admiration for having brought this film to fruition in spite of nearly impossible circumstances. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
In Terry Gilliam's TIME BANDITS he had a boy in his bedroom when suddenly a knight on horseback breaks though the bedroom wall and flies into the room. It is amazing. Gilliam's style is to astonish with the unexpected happening very suddenly. That has become his trademark. He did not have a strong coherent story for that film, but he did have the sudden surprises. That has become his trademark and it really seems to be the really point of his films. To much too great an extent his films are very similar. They do not tell their story well but they do have great big stunning visual surprises. That does not quite compensate for a story that is not entirely coherent.
THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS is pretty much what we expect from Gilliam. His visuals outdo Gilliam's previous work, but are along similar lines. The story has something to do with a series of bets between the title character (Christopher Plummer) and the Devil (Tom Waits). Somehow the good doctor is saving souls by trapping their owners in what appears to be a dimension of imagination on the other side of a gateway which appears to be sheets of mirrored plastic. One can be pleased when the good guys are winning, but that is not as good as understanding the game. (Of course, don't take my word. I still don't follow Quidditch.)
The film begins one night with a weird and shabby little wagon- bound show appearing in an ugly neighborhood of London all too near the raucous pubs. The show appears to be obviously a cheap fake only a little better than the sidewalk buskers. Ah, but looks are deceiving. This is a real magic show in the tradition of Charles Finney's THE CIRCUS OF DR. LAO, Ray Bradbury's SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, and Tom Reamy's BLIND VOICES. The mirror on the stage really is a gateway to a mysterious world or set of worlds where what one sees is based on one's own imagination. Later, while the show is traveling the performers see a mysterious figure dancing on the River Thames. It turns out to be the reflection of a man hanging from a bridge. (It makes no sense that the reflection would look like that, but there you have it.) The hanging man, rescued in a nick of time, is Tony (Heath Ledger). He travels with the show and starts suggesting innovative ways to modernize their image and make the show more profitable. But Doctor Parnassus resists,
We never really get a feel for what the show the traveling company puts on is really all about. It is supposed to have some magic, but the real magic is behind a gateway that the audience is supposed to stay away from. We never see much magic in the show beyond a little juggling. So what is the audience supposed to see? The audience is told about the magic of the mirror, but that makes for a show duller than having an impresario tell an audience how a giant ape was captured. Just telling an audience stories makes for very dull showmanship.
I suppose that no review of this film would be complete without mentioning that it was a marvel that it was made at all. Heath Ledger had done all the real-world scenes but none of the fantasy- world scenes when he died of a drug overdose. Terry Gilliam had the clever idea that everybody's appearance would change once they entered the magic world. So Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell completed the rest of Ledger's scenes. Curiously enough, most people find that the idea works.
Terry Gilliam makes the magical world in this film very magical indeed. And the part that takes place in the un-magical, mundane world is very mundane and un-magical indeed. I rate this film a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt1054606/
What others are saying: http://tinyurl.com/y9nhd2t
Meta-Problem (letters of comments by Pete Rubinstein and Pete Brady):
In response to Mark's question on the doors and the goats in the 01/15/10 issue of the MT VOID, Pete Rubinstein writes, "This is very complicated. In the vanilla Monty Hall problem we would need to assume that if a Ph.D. correctly understood the Monty Hall Problem, his explanation would be correct. My experience with Ph.D.'s indicates that even if the explanation was correct, it would be unintelligible. I have seen several explanations of the solution to the Monty Hall Problem and they aren't really clear. As I understand it, there is a 1/3 chance (when you picked the right Ph.D.) that you'd be switching away from the correct selection. But there is a 2/3 chance (you didn't pick the correct Ph.D.) that you will be switching to the correct one, since the remaining bad selection will have been eliminated. But all the explanations I've seen seem to be much more complicated than that." [-pir]
Mark responds, "No, that is pretty much the explanation. Maybe other people don't explain it so clearly." [-mrl]
And Pete Brady writes, "It is easy to demonstrate, using a Monte Carlo method, that the correct choice is to change your mind after Vanna White (a.k.a. Monty Hall) opens the door with the goat. [comment on linguistic problem here--see below] Now you can go back to your math. And don't tell me that I'm wrong about Monty Hall." [-ptb]
Mark responds, "You're wrong about Monty Hall. My brother tried to prove the correct answer to my father that way. The player won more than half of the time but less than 2/3. My father insisted that the probability was 1/2 and the amount off was experimental error. It was not easy to demonstrate." [-mrl]
Yet More on the Linguistic Problem (letters of comments by Michael Haynes and Pete Brady):
In response to Sam Long's comment on languages in the 01/15/10 issue of the MT VOID ("The chief meaning of the German word 'heimlich' is 'secret'"), Michael Haynes writes, "Sounds like the setup for a story of a confused spy who keeps trying to find out what the "secret maneuver" is that English (or Americans, Australians, etc.) are using to save lives..." [-mh]
Pete Brady writes, "This is really a minor point. The D-Major Singers are about to embark on new songs, one of which is "Warnung" (Warning) by Mozart. Irene will sing it in English except for a rhyming couplet at the end of the first verse:
Mädchen haben frisches blut, und das naschen schmeckt so gut! (Maidens have fresh blood, and the nosching tastes so good.)
"Naschen" is from the Yiddish, an import to both German and English (although not in everybody's vocabulary). But the more interesting word is "blut", which translates literally as "blood," but really means an inner personality, a driving force. The waltz "Wiener Blut" is usually translated "Vienna Life" rather than "Vienna blood" because "life" is closer to the meaning of "blut". [-ptb]
Evelyn notes, "This might explain why everyone seems to say "The blood is the life." [-ecl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
LINGER AWHILE by Russell Hoban (ISBN-13 978-1-56972-326-1) is Hoban's first return to science fiction since FREMDER (1996). Hoban uses a dozen points of view in this short novel, which makes it a bit hard to follow, but fits in well with the central idea of bringing a movie star to life from the "visual DNA" in the magnetic bits on a videotape of one of her films. (Okay, maybe this is more magical realism than science fiction, though the science fiction is really no less realistic than stuff that was written back in the pulps.) Because everyone has a different perspective on Justine Trimble, having the multiple points of view allows the reader to experience this, but it's hard work. However, Hoban crafts his writing to make it a joy to read:
"My eyesight was failing. Age-related macular degeneration was the diagnosis. The macula is that part of the eye that gives detail and depth perception. I frequently mistook flat surfaces for raised ones and shadows for substance."
I recently watched ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (based on ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU by H. G. Wells). One thing that struck me was its similarity in at least one regard to A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS. How, you may well ask. Well, in ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, Laughton is basically a god to his creations, and he has provided them with "The Law":
Not to eat meat, that is the Law. Are we not Men?
Not to go on all fours, that is the Law. Are we not Men?
Not to spill blood, that is the Law. Are we not Men?
When Laughton/"God" tells Ouran to kill Captain Donahue, he says that the Law does not apply this time. But Ouran and others take this, and extend it, and decide that the Law no longer applies at all.
Now, in A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, Thomas More asks Will Roper, "[Would you] cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?" Roper replies that he would "cut down every law in England to do that." And More says, "And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you, where would you hide .., the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws from coast to coast ..., and if you cut them down ... do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I give the Devil benefit of law for my own safety's sake."
And there are still plenty of examples in real life where people have decided that the laws--divine or man-made--do not apply in their special case. ("I'm saying that when the President does it, it is not illegal.")
Is all this in Wells's novel? Not in this form. The Law there is:
Not to go on all-fours; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
Not to suck up Drink; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
Not to eat Fish or Flesh; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
Not to claw the Bark of Trees; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
Not to chase other Men; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
But Moreau makes the same mistake. He shows one of the creatures, his servant, how to skin and cook a rabbit, and that is how they taste blood. But there is more the implication of the creatures being overcome by their animal nature than by having the Law explicitly nullified by Moreau. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: The description of right lines and circles, upon which geometry is founded, belongs to mechanics. Geometry does not teach us to draw these lines, but requires them to be drawn. -- Isaac Newton, 1687
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