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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
01/29/10 -- Vol. 28, No. 31, Whole Number 1582
Table of Contents
Program Item Cancelled (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
At Philcon I happened to notice that the program item titled "Writing Science Fiction For Kids" had been cancelled. I suspect it was mostly because the kids just did not have any ideas good enough to make into stories. Of course, some of the stories I see nominated for Hugos may have come from kids who went to this program item last year. [-mrl]
Eating Utensils Outside the Box (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Last week I was comparing eating with chopsticks with eating with a knife and fork, weighing the advantages and disadvantages of each.
Another limitation of either system is the ability to pick up something like rice drenched in a sauce. A fork or chopsticks will equally fail because neither is very good at picking up rice and sauce at the same time. A single, rigid eating implement is probably going to be limited and inconvenient to use. You really need eating implements with apposition. Now the Thais have licked both problems (no pun intended). They eat in a two-handed manner. A Thai will have a spoon in his right hand and a fork in his left. He will use the back of the fork to nudge food into the spoon. Then he brings the spoon to his mouth. If need be, he puts down the spoon and picks up a knife to cut. This technique is by far superior to how we eat with knife and fork. It solves the problem of Watson's pea that I described last week. It is easy to push a pea into a spoon. If I ate in the Thai manner I would get far less food on my clothing.
So what is stopping me from eating in the Thai manner? Well, I frequently do at home and away from prying eyes. In public there is peer pressure to eat like other people do. I went with a group from work to a Japanese restaurant. The restaurant served the appetizer miso soup in a bowl with an Asian spoon. I put the spoon aside and drank from the bowl like it was a cup. Someone made a comment that it was eating like John Belushi in ANIMAL HOUSE. I do not do that anymore in groups of more than my wife and me. In fact my critic was showing his ignorance. In Japan that is how you drink miso. A larger bowl you eat from with a spoon, but a miso bowl is brought to the lips with the thumb on the upper rim and fingers at the bottom of the bowl, which has its own rim to keep the fingers away from the hot walls of the bowl.
Actually, as long as there is provision to keep from burning the fingers or if the contents of the bowl are not hot, it usually makes more sense to lift the entire bowl to the lips. If one is using a Western spoon there is some danger of spilling the contents on the way to the mouth. Western spoons are also a real hazard for getting food on clothing.
Asian spoons are a much better design than Western spoons, and they are almost different enough that we should not call both spoons. The bowl of an Asian spoon is larger than a tablespoon. This means this spoon has much more capacity than most Western spoons, with the possible exception of serving spoons. But it is hard to say the exact capacity of the spoon because the handle is a trough leading from the bowl. In a Western spoon the handle is useless for anything but holding the spoon. In an Asian spoon the handle is additional storage. This combined with the higher walls on the spoon make it easier to carry more fluids with less chance of spillage.
Up above I suggested that using chopsticks might actually be more natural than eating with knife and fork. Now I am not sure in all this if it might not be more natural to use the (Asian) Indian system for eating. They may well have the most natural eating implements in the world. They use only the fingers of their right hand. Soups and beverages they take to their lips. Solid food they just grasp and take to their mouths. For solid foods with sauces they use bread as the utensil. If you have dainty manners you get no food past the first joint of the fingers. (Some sources say the second joint.) It makes sense. You probably have to clean your hands after a meal anyway. This certainly makes grasping the food easy. I am not sure it is really convenient for picking up a lot of lentils and sauce. But it is natural. And it is the most ideally environmental system of all. But certainly here it would be considered messy.
But if I were to choose the most convenient and versatile eating utensils I would say hold a fork--mostly for shoveling--in the left hand and in the right hand hold an Asian spoon, which you can exchange with a sharp knife for cutting. When I use this at home it works fairly well. [-mrl]
THE LOVELY BONES (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Peter Jackson visually overpowers what should have been a small personal story. A murdered fourteen-year-old girl is in a limbo between heaven and earth from which she tries to bring her grieving family peace and at the same time get the murderer found out. The overpowering glories of the afterlife are really a distraction from the real story that is taking place in our world. More effort was needed in telling the earthbound story that seems superficial even in a 135-minute movie. Rating: low +1 (-4 to +4) or 5/10
Fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon (played by Saoirse Ronan of ATONEMENT) is murdered by neighbor George Harvey (the great Stanley Tucci). Susie does not go directly to heaven but to a sort of limbo-world called the In-between. She is not entirely in heaven, and she is not entirely in the real world. Instead she can see her family and try to protect them. She also tries to reveal who her murderer is so that her family can find some closure. Susie's parents, played by Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz, are absolutely crushed by the tragedy. Wahlberg seems to work overtime in being the bereaved parent and Weisz seems not to have nearly enough to do. Susan Sarandon is along as the bad-girl grandmother who tried to be as bad an influence as possible on Susie.
Traditionally a story like THE LOVELY BONES would have been treated as a small personal film with just a few visual images to show the metaphysical taking form in our world. Just subtly hinting at the world beyond worked for films like Jerry Zucker's GHOST and THE UNINVITED. That might have worked for this film, but Peter Jackson was the wrong director to do that. Jackson is known for his flamboyant visual style. He created huge spectacular vistas for THE LORD OF THE RINGS and for KING KONG. There was a place in this film that it must have been irresistible for Jackson to put in visuals. After Susie is murdered in this film she goes to "The In- between." And apparently for Jackson the enticement was just too great to spend a lot of money and make The In-between about as glorious a place as his imagination could muster up. It is full of New Zealand splendor and special effects skies and landscape that changes shape. The problem is that is not where the important part of the story takes place. Most of the story takes pace in our world. The splendor of the In-between is not the point of the story. It is really a distraction. Jackson spends too much time trying to convince us it is a wonderful place for much too bizarre a definition of wonderful. It is out of place, like wearing a diamond tiara with shorts and a t-shirt.
THE LOVELY BONES is reminiscent of WHAT DREAMS MAY COME, which did not have nearly so good a story, but which gives us much more creative images of heaven and hell. The In-between seems to have lots of wide-open space, but for some reason Jackson keeps returning us to images of confined space. We see a penguin in a snow globe, we see ships in bottles, and the most claustrophobic space of all is a small bunker built by the Tucci character as a place where he can kill. That bunker may be a detail from the book, but it makes very little logic. It is awfully well built and nicely furnished. It is hard to believe he could get all the materials to built and furnish this underground room with nobody noticing. He would have had to do all this work in the middle of a very flat and open field where he could be seen from a fair distance away. The idea that he could do all this construction and not leave in it any clue for the police stretches the imagination almost as much as the concept of the In-between does.
It is hard to know what Jackson was intending to do with this film. Instead of telling the earth-story he seems to have wanted to give us some indelible images of heaven--or a place very much like heaven. He misjudged the images and made them seem banal. I rate THE LOVELY BONES a low +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 5/10. Jackson can create the images of Middle Earth in beautiful detail, but he seems to be unable to show a piece of paper carried by the wind that does not look like it is being pulled by a string.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0380510/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1189344-lovely_bones/
THE HURT LOCKER (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: An American diffuser from a bomb squad in 2004 Bagdad goes from one white-knuckle situation to the next. Just 38 days from being released to go home, SFC William James takes one risk after another because he cannot give up the excitement of the hazardous game. The film is also an education in just how the bomb-defusing job is done. We see two robots defusing the bombs and one is Staff Sgt. James. We never get to really know any other side of James. He is an addict of the game he plays, and we do not know if there is much human inside him. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
This is an almost documentary-like portrait of a man who enjoys his job and goes into episode after episode with gusto. It is a job that most people would assume nobody would like. The job is defusing or detonating bombs (technically IEDs or Improvised explosive devices) in Iraq. SFC William James (played by Jeremy Renner) likes living on the very edge. He is like a chess master who glories in keeping ten games going at once, knowing he will beat every single opponent. What is more, he is willing to play with very uneven payoff. If a bomb maker loses, he looses a few hours work and some explosives. James is betting his life and the lives of others. And he does this over and over and over under the watchful eyes of people each of whom could be a bystander or could hold the detonator. To this point he has always won. But when he worked on the first bomb he ever defused he was pushing his luck. Doing it repeatedly while disobeying orders, exasperating his squad leader (Anthony Mackie), and trying to do anything in those cumbersome padded anti-explosion suits goes beyond just pushing his luck. He is committing slow motion suicide. Why does he love this job? Is it the beauty of his surroundings, exotic Bagdad in 2004? That is not very likely. It appears to be just that he loves the competition and cannot give up playing the game. It is an obsession with him that he continues to play, like a kid with a video game. He knows he is good and that makes it impossible for him to stop.
Kathryn Bigelow, director of action films like STRANGE DAYS and K-19: THE WIDOWMAKER directs a film written by Boal. Curiously for such a tense film, the pacing is really slow. A lot of the game is standing still and sizing up your opponent(s) and jockeying for a better position and maybe waiting out a sniper. That takes time and slows the pace. The film could tell us more about what is going on inside the characters, but Bigelow passes up that opportunity.
Almost everything else is done well. The cinematography by Barry Ackroyd puts you even a little nearer to the action than you would choose to be. The style is very realistic, except for occasional touches like slow motion to show the dark beauty of a detonation. Other times James in his padded suit looks like he is walking on the moon. There are not even opening titles so that from the first frame the viewer is pulled into the action. One thing pulls us out a little. I did not recognize Renner, but several all-to-familiar actors show up in small roles and pull us out of the action with the game of "Is that... No. Oh wait, yes it is." If you think you see Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, or David Morse, yes, that is him. Go back to the movie. If you think you have seen George Clooney, he is not there.
The film opens with a quote from Chris Hedges saying that war is a drug. The drug is adrenaline and its rush does seem to be addictive for people like SFC William James. The film makes that quite clear, but I am not sure it says a whole lot more than that. The film is quite a ride, it could have said so much more. I rate THE HURT LOCKER a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. I missed where the title comes from unless it suggests that James keeps all pain locked up inside him.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0887912/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/hurt_locker/
A SINGLE MAN (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: A day in the life of a man in deep depression. Directed by first-timer Tom Ford and based on a short novel by Christopher Isherwood, A SINGLE MAN gives us an up-close and very personal look at a college professor who recently has lost the meaning of his life when he lost his gay lover. We follow him through a single day as he looks just once more for love and for life or the strength to end it all. There are good performances by both Julianne Moore and Colin Firth. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
A spoiler follows the main body of the review.
For George Falconer (played by Colin Firth) each new day is an ordeal--living in agony and in L.A. He starts the day putting on the right fashionable clothing that he uses like a mask to hide the pain going on inside him. He looks longingly at a gun and the escape that it could bring. George was deeply and profoundly in love for many years with the handsome and callow Jim (Matthew Goode), but Jim died in a car crash on an icy road and George's life just crumbled. Now he is going through the motions of his day. He teaches his class in literature and almost by habit notices the good-looking men he sees around him. He goes to a liquor store and sees another hunk there. On the other hand the women around him seem just collections of pieces to him. The camera suggests that he cannot even look at women as whole people. When he sees them he sees their hair or their mouths or their eyes--especially their eyes. He is out of touch with people and living within his mind. The camera captures his mind fog with slow motion close-ups of people he does not really care about. In other films this same camera technique has been used to show people who are drugged. And it is showing him almost in the same state.
There is no love left in George. The last living person whom George cares about was his long-time friend, Charley (Julianne Moore with a fairly convincing British accent). If George could have loved a woman it would have been Charley. He even gave it a try once, but when it failed it really ruined both lives. Charley is now always either mostly drunk or fully drunk. She still sees George for friendship or dinner, but she is only teasing herself.
Colin Firth seems to have made his reputation mostly playing solid, prosperous "Mr. Right" types like the two Darcys in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and BRIDGET JONES'S DIARY. Tom Ford co-authored the screenplay as well as directed the film, his first. His real business is as a fashion designer. His visual sense can be seen in George's unrealistically fabulous house. Just where George gets to wherewithal for a house like this on a college professor's salary is open to conjecture. The film has technical problems. We are told that it is taking place on November 30, 1962, but the television tells us that Cuban Missile Crisis is occurring. Actually the crisis ended October 27th. We are told that George and Jim had been together for something like fifteen years, but they appear not to have aged at all since they first met, as we see in flashback.
This film is based on a short novel by Christopher Isherwood whose book I AM A CAMERA was made into a film and then remade as a play and a film as CABERET. Curiously, he also wrote the screenplay for the TV miniseries "Frankenstein: The True Story."
This is a film of gay angst. There are some directors who might have tried to make a statement that George's pain is at root caused by intolerance. Tom Ford does not do that. Instead we just seem to have two people, George and Charley, who are just plainly dysfunctional. They are free to make their own mistakes, and they really do make them. I would rate this film a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
Spoiler... Spoiler... Spoiler... Spoiler... Spoiler... Spoiler... The ending of the film is telegraphed. Early in the film we see George has a physical problem that seems independent of all his other problems. That then is dropped until the very end. Curiously enough it makes the whole film a variation on a familiar O Henry story.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt1315981/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1218217-single_man/
Mayans and AVATAR (letter of comment by Taras Wolansky):
In response to "Steven J. Gould's amusing 'reverie' of a Mayan-Chinese alternative world" in the 01/08/10 issue of the MT VOID, Taras Wolansky writes:
A Mayan invasion of the Old World would be wiped out by the endemic diseases of the Old World (unless this alternative world puts Asia and Africa in the Western hemisphere). Even limited contacts with Europeans caused devastating plagues in the Americas. (This occurred to me when I read Esther Friesner's odd story about Aztecs invading Spain, a few years back.)
According to all the sources I looked at, the Chinese have used a decimal system from ancient times. Why would they go along with the Mayans' base 20? (Though the idea of a tropical culture using base 20 is somehow apt: ones toes are easily accessible!)
The idea that a Maya-based society would develop an egalitarian ethos and educational system so like ours that a "third grade unit on global diversity" is even conceivable shows a certain parochialism, to put it mildly. [-tw]
And in response to Mark's review of AVATAR in the 12/25/09 issue, Taras writes:
Mark's review of AVATAR made me laugh. I delayed reading it until after I saw the movie myself. Very good point, that it occurs to no one in the film to draw the obvious parallels with American Indians! The movie's been accused of being anti-American but I found it, if anything, anti-human. The message is: "go back to your dying planet--and die!" (Critics of environmentalism have often argued it is an anti-human ideology.) The movie reminded me of the old Mort Drucker strip from "Mad" magazine in which Native American kids are watching an old-fashioned Western, and rooting for the Cowboys against the Indians. [-tw]
"I don't think the message is, "go back to your dying planet--and die!" It is, "it is barbaric to cause this much pain because you want a mineral." I agree with that message in principle. I just think the degree of barbarism is exaggerated given the time frame. I think the overall consciousness of society has been raised (if I can borrow that metaphor) so that a minority of people would be so callous to the effects in suffering they were causing. There have been times even in American history when a majority were as vicious as the people portrayed in the film. But I don't think that a majority would be like that today mostly because people have seen more history. At the time of the Old West the general population was fairly ignorant of history. Now people have more knowledge of history due in large part to better communications. That somewhat civilizes people, and I doubt that those layers of civilization would be rolled back by the time AVATAR takes place. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
I listened to THE DRUNKARD'S WALK by Leonard Mlodinow (read by Sean Pratt) (ISBN-13 978-1-4361-6421-4), which is a history of probability and statistics, interspersed with current real-life examples. While admittedly some of the examples might have been easier to follow on the written page rather than in an audiobook, even the audiobook was quite understandable.
First Mlodinow looks at the physiology of randomness. Given a roulette wheel that comes up 75% black and 25% red at random, the optimum strategy is to always bet on black. But many people will try to come up with a pattern that will let them bet 75% black, and 25% red, and win more than 75% of the time. In particular, if one isolates brain function, the right brain will always guess the more frequent color, and the left brain will look for a pattern.
Mlodinow describes how the ancient Greeks threw animal heel bones instead of dice. They could come up four ways (with probabilities 40%, 40%, 10%, and 10%). The best throw of four bones was the "Venus cast", in which all the bones came up different. This was particularly interesting, because only a few days before, I had heard how the Mongols threw animal heel bones and thought the best throw of four dice was the one where they were all different. This is either synchronicity, or one of the authors had their information a little off.
When Mlodinow said he was going to talk about the "probability problem that has stumped the most people," I immediately knew what he was talking about--the infamous "Monty Hall" problem. For those who have been living on Planet Zark and are unfamiliar with this, here it is briefly: There are three doors. Two have goats behind them; one has a car. You pick a door. Monty Hall opens one of the other two doors, revealing a goat. You are now given the option of taking what is behind the door you first picked, or switching to the remaining closed door. Should you switch?
Mlodinow's explanation is actually clear than others I have heard. There are two scenarios. In one, the door you have picked has the car. The probability of this is 1/3, and switching is always bad. In the other, the door you have picked has a goat. The probability of this is 2/3, and switching is always good, because the remaining closed door will always have the car. So overall, switching is good 2/3 of the time (when you started with a bad door).
He also talks about Benford's Law, which predicts the sorts of digits one will find in certain types of random numbers, and is the basis of forensic accounting (e.g., how it is established that the Irnaian election results were rigged).
I did not always agree with Mlodinow's conclusions. While in general his observations about Hollywood were correct (supporting William Goldman's observation that in Hollywood, "No one knows anything"), when he said, "In spite of his or her swagger, no executive is worth that $25 million contract," I found myself thinking, "except maybe Irving Thalberg."
I was also listening to Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia", in which someone discusses at great length the universe as being deterministic: given knowledge of the (past and) current state of the universe, one could theoretically predict its future. I was reminded of the line from SERIAL about "a woman who knows where she's going because she knows where she's been." [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com 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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