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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
02/05/10 -- Vol. 28, No. 32, Whole Number 1583
Table of Contents
A Mathematical Conflict (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
When the mathematician Ramanujan was sick and in a hospital in England, his friend and collaborator G. H. Hardy visited him. He noted that the hospital room number, 1729, was a very uninteresting number. Ramanujan disagreed. It actually is a very interesting number, he said. It is the smallest number that can be expressed as the sum of two cubes. It is 10^3 + 9^3, but it is also 12^3 + 1^3. Hardy was impressed and ceded the point to Ramanujan. However, if there is anything to be said for democracy Hardy was too quick. The overwhelming tide of current public opinion, based on the people I have asked, would be that Hardy was the one who was correct after all. [-mrl]
Two Great Thrillers and Some Not So Great (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I was once discussing plays with a friend. He told me that there was one play he thought was really a very clever murder mystery and thriller. The play was "Sleuth" by Anthony Shaffer. I never did have an opportunity to see the play, but I did see the film, made in 1972 with Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. It struck me when I saw the film that that was particularly poor casting. I will not spoil the story (much) but there is a very theatrical gimmick to the story and it is betrayed by the casting. There is a piece of information that the viewer is not supposed to know and is supposed to be surprised when it is revealed. I am trying hard not to say what the gimmick is, but there is something of the casting of the film that makes it immediately obvious. I will reveal it at the end of this article after a spoiler warning. In any case I did not think it was a good thriller. It was just not clever enough. It depended on that one gimmick.
Some years later there was another supposedly clever murder mystery on Broadway, DEATHTRAP by Ira Levin. It also worked by a gimmick. It is full of major plot twists that I thought were just there for the sheer joy of having plot twists. It also was disappointing. So it got me to wondering what were the really good crime thrillers on the stage. Agatha Christie comes to mind as being really good at plotting. And I have to admit that WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION comes pretty close for me. But it the back of my mind it still does not quite measure up. I had to ask myself what I called measuring up and realized what I was comparing all these mysteries to was Alfred Hitchcock's DIAL M FOR MURDER. This is based on the play by Frederick Knott. If I had to hold up a murder story as being the paragon of the genre, this has to be the film I would choose.
Why do I hold this one film is so much esteem? I guess first it is not a mystery at all. It is really an exercise in logic. You know from the beginning who the villain is. It is Tony Wendice, played by Ray Milland. He has determined to kill his wife Margot (Grace Kelly) and his plan is simply brilliant. He did not just come up with a plan for killing her. He knows what he wants everybody involved to do and has put together an alternate reality in which that is what his puppets think is always the logical thing to do. From the very start, lots of things go wrong. Almost always he has thought out this eventuality and has a countermove to put his plan back on course. He is, however, up against a very good detective and eventually a hole is found. But I think of the film as a very intelligent battle of wits at a much higher level than the two plays I mentioned above.
A few years later I saw a sort of horror suspense film, WAIT UNTIL DARK. The plot is that a blind woman, Susy Hendrix (played by Audrey Hepburn), has come into possession of a doll that she does not realize is full of packets of heroin. (Actually she does not know where the doll is, but that is getting too much into the plot.) Two criminals (Richard Crenna and Jack Weston) want to get the doll away from her and a third who is smarter than either of them joins them. This third is Roat is played by Alan Arkin in a rare non-comedy role and, boy, is this non-comedy. Roat could be one of the screen's creepiest killers. And his mannerisms are just weird. He talks in a singsong voice as if to him everyone he talks to is a child. Roat concocts a plot to convince Susy that her husband has murdered someone and the doll is the only piece of evidence that the police can use to tie him into the murder. But it is the same sort of well thought out alternate reality that was in DIAL M FOR MURDER, reinforced by play-acting by all three criminals. But what makes it interesting is that everybody underestimates Susy because she is blind. Even without sight she is far more aware of what is going on around her than they could guess. It is not incredible like the powers of the Japanese Zato Ichi who can hear the numbers on falling dice, but it is enough to make her a formidable opponent. The film and presumably the play are very cleverly written.
So I am watching WAIT UNTIL DARK and I tell myself this is almost in a class with DIAL M FOR MURDER (a little more violent and not quite as complex, but nearly as well-done). Who wrote it? The film is based on a play by Frederick Knott. That is the same writer as DIAL M FOR MURDER? Jeez. So what else has he written other than two really great plays? It turns out not a whole lot else. Nothing of this quality. He did some TV work. Actually "Dial M for Murder" was first performed on BBC television in 1952 and then it was put on the stage before Alfred Hitchcock ever made his version. Frederick Knott died in December of 2002 having written two really excellent plays. It is a pity he did not write more along the same lines. There really are not many people who can match his writing.
SPOILER... SPOILER... SPOILER... SPOILER... SPOILER... SPOILER... SPOILER... SPOILER... SPOILER... SPOILER... SPOILER... SPOILER...
In SLEUTH a character is introduced whom we are not supposed to know is someone we have already met but in disguise. The actor who was cast has a very characteristic way of talking that, in spite of being a good actor, he could not sufficiently disguise when he did not want to be recognized. [-mrl]
Chopsticks (letters of comment by Jay E. Morris, Philip Chee, David Friedman, Lowell Gilbert, Keith Lynch, David Reitman, Kip Williams, and Wendy Sheridan):
In response to Mark's comments on chopsticks in the 01/29/08 issue of the MT VOID, Jay E. Morris writes, "I like to use chopsticks because I have a tendency to wolf down my food. Hard to do with chopsticks." [-jem]
Philip Chee responds, "Not if you are Chinese." [-pc]
David Friedman adds, "I started using chopsticks long ago on the same theory, but it no longer works." [-df]
Lowell Gilbert says, "My mother switched the whole family to chopsticks at some point when I was a child. I seem to remember it being about two weeks before my brother (Rick) and I were back up to full speed. Or more-than-full speed, as Mom would have it." [-lg]
Mark responds, "Sadly it takes only a little practice and you can wolf with the best of them. Somebody who really wants to wolf can move those sticks like lightning. :-) The Mandarin for chopsticks is KWAI-dze, which means 'quick ones'. I am reminded of FANTASTIC MR. FOX. Fox is an extremely suave character (voiced by George Clooney) until he has food in front of him, and then it takes about two seconds for him to clear a plate." [-mrl]
And Keith Lynch asks Lowell, "Was this switch intended to slow down your eating? If so, what's obviously needed is an unending variety of very different kinds of eating utensils, so that you can be switched to a new one every week or two weeks for your whole life without ever running out. Think of all the new jobs the invention, manufacture, marketing, shipping, and sale of these new utensils will create." [-kl]
Kip Williams responds, "Chopsticks should be sufficient, if you attach a free weight or cinderblock to each one. Even simpler would be to just eat with one chopstick." [-kw]
Keith replies, "That won't create many new jobs." [-kl]
Daniel Reitman responds, "Well, not manufacturing the chopsticks, but the pencil sharpeners you'd need to make one chopstick usable ..." [-dr]
And Kip Williams adds, "You can't beat chopsticks for eating food from the other side of the table. There are some Asian dishes for which I'll unabashedly go back to Yankee cutlery, of course. It never occurs to me to eat other cuisine with chopsticks. (I keep intending to draw a cartoon of a man in a restaurant being told, 'I'm sorry, but we don't provide chopsticks, Senor.')" [-kw]
Also, Wendy Sheridan writes, "The only John Belushi ANIMAL HOUSE scene I could immediately recall was the one during the toga party where he drunkenly pours mustard all over his chest (which sort of defeats the entire purpose of lifting a bowl to the lips for soup drinking to avoid getting food on one's clothes). Then, I remembered the cafeteria scene. I can't imagine you ever being so uncouth as to eat food standing in line at the cafeteria. If we ever go out for miso together, we can both drink directly from the bowl." [-ws]
Bad Starts (letters of comment by Kip Williams and Steve Goldsmith):
In response to Mark's comments on bad starts in the 01/22/10 issue of the MT VOID, Kip Williams writes:
I read ATLAS SHRUGGED first, then THE FOUNTAINHEAD. I've re-read both of them (the former almost four times, bearing in mind that at least one of those times I gave myself leave to skip The Monolog) and read other fictive items by the author. After a reading or two, I had come to the conclusion that they were enjoyable as fiction, and that was about it.
Now, if I'd read ANTHEM first, I wouldn't have read another word by Rand. It's the shortest, but it's packed with gristle and inedible pretension. [-kw]
Steve Goldsmith writes:, "I couldn't agree more. I struggled through a thousand pages of ATLAS SHRUGGED. Talk about right-wing dogma. It made me need reading glasses for the first time. Still, now that most of my South-Jersey friends are Republican, I'm trying to understand their arguments rather than dismissing them outright." [-sbg]
THE HURT LOCKER (letter of comment by Jerry Ryan):
In response to Mark's review of THE HURT LOCKER in the 01/29/10 issue of the MT VOID, Jerry Ryan writes:
I enjoyed the film; actually thought that the slower pacing of things added to the suspense. I thought that about 5 minutes after his tour ended, I knew exactly what the closing scene of the film would be... and I was right.
I was told The Hurt Locker is the hospital. From the film's website: "In Iraq, it is soldier vernacular to speak of explosions as sending you to 'the hurt locker'." [-gwr]
Mark responds, "I think that THE HURT LOCKER is really just a illustration of the quote at the beginning of the film. As soon as the main character goes home I knew where the film was going. Of course that is just the final few minutes of the film anyway. I don't remember a hospital showing up anywhere in the film." [-mrl]
AVATAR (letter of comment by Wendy Sheridan):
In response to Taras's and Mark's comments on AVATAR in the 01/29/10 issue of the MT VOID, Wendy Sheridan writes: "I don't know if you've seen the scanned page floating around the internet where a man takes the plot summary for Disney's POCAHONTAS and crosses out the names and replaces them with the names from AVATAR, but it makes a very good case." [-ws]
Mark replies, "What you say people are doing with POCAHONTAS to get AVATAR could just as well be done with DANCES WITH WOLVES or any one of several other films. I think even DUNE has a similar plot. I like to point out the that you could write a detailed description of the plot of THE GODFATHER that also fits GODFATHER II and GODFATHER III." [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
GALILEO'S DREAM by Kim Stanley Robinson (ISBN-13 978-0-553-80659-5) is billed as alternate history, but it is really more secret history. I have liked most of Robinson's work up till recently, but starting with his "Capitol Weather" series, he seems to have gotten even more into the "expository lump" mode that characterized his "Mars" trilogy. And in GALILEO'S DREAM, he continues this trend. One is taken back and forth between the minutiae of Galileo's life, and the crash course on math and science from the 17th century on that Galileo is given when he is transported to the moons of Jupiter in the 31st century. Both are way more detail than the average reader wants.
And worse, there are errors (typos rather than factual errors, as far as I could tell). On page 208, it is talking about the quanta of space and time, and says, "... these were true minimums, because further division would break either the speed of light or the exclusion principle. The minimum width established by this principle turned out to be 10/34 of a meter, and traveling at the speed of light a photon would cross this distance in 10/43 of a second." This would make a quantum of space about a foot in length! What was meant was (10 to the minus 34th power) of a meter and (10 to the minus 43rd power) of a second.
Worse, Robinson seems to have sacrificed authenticity. Early on, Galileo and his assistant talk about cardboard (a term not coined until 1858, and the substance itself as a distinct material almost definitely post-dates Galileo). During a party in which all are masked, someone hands Galileo a mask in the form of a wild boar, to which he says, "I may be a boar, but I am never boring." [page 244] Does this pun *really* work in Italian (or Latin) (especially since both "boar" and "bore" are Germanic in origin)? (In Latin, "boar" is "verres", and "boring", "importunus"; in Italian, "verro" or "cinghiale", and "annoiare", respectively.)
And when a woman from the future asks (on page 255), "That we might find out we are like bacteria on the floor of a world of gods?" how does Galileo understand this? ("Bacterium" is another mid-19th century word.)
This may all seem like nitpicking, but instances like this kept yanking me out of the 17th century in a most abrupt manner. I would have thought I would find the discussions about the philosophy of science interesting, but somehow it failed to engage me.
[And honest, the Galileo quote at the end of this MT VOID came up in the schedule independently of this review!]
One of my father's favorite books is ACRES OF DIAMONDS by Russell Conwell. I am not giving an ISBN for this, because what I am discussing here are various editions. My father had several copies on his bookshelf, and flipping through them I discovered that editors *love* to tamper.
Russell H. Conwell gave the text as a public speech more than 6000 times between 1877 and 1926. Not surprisingly, it was written in the ornate, declamatory style of the era. So I suppose it is not surprising that editors in the last forty years feel they should "update" it--after all, they are "updating" Shakespeare!
So what I had to compare were: - the 1905 Harper & Brothers Edition, printed in the 1940s, which claims "This is the most recent and complete form of the lecture." (~14,250 words) - the 1968 Hallmark Edition, "Edited for Contemporary Readers by William R. Webb" (~12,750 words) - the 1972 Pyramid edition, apparently copyrighted in 1960 by the Fleming H. Revell Company (~13,000 words) - the 2003 Barbour Edition, "A Modern Adaptation of the Classic Message" (~14,000, but hard to tell because it has rendered some key points in a different font with much more white space around them)
The first paragraph of the 1905 edition--which I would assume to be the most accurate to Conwell--reads:
"When going down the Tigris and Euphrates rivers many years ago with a party of English travelers I found myself under the direction of an old Arab guide whom we hired up in Bagdad, and I have often thought how that guide resembled our barbers in certain mental characteristics. He thought that it was not only his duty to guide us down those rivers, and do what he was paid for doing, but also to entertain us with stories curious and weird, ancient and modern, strange and familiar."
The 1968 edition renders this as:
"While traveling down the Tigris and Euphrates rivers many years ago, I found myself in the company of an old Arab guide we had hired at Bagdad. He was unusually talkative, and seemed to think it was not only his duty to guide us, and do what he was paid for doing, but also to entertain us with stories."
The 2003 edition leaves the opening untouched, but makes other changes. For example, one story Conwell tells is of A. T. Stewart who started with $1.50, but lost 87-1/2 cents on his first business venture. He learned from this and invested the remaining 62-1/2 cents wisely. The 2003 edition decided that half-cents would confuse people, so it dropped them. The result is an arithmetic error: Stewart starts with $1.50, loses 87 cents, and has 62 cents left! But I suspect the biggest difference in the 2003 edition is the formatting to emphasize the key points.
The 1968 and 1972 editions retain the half-cents. In fact, the 1972 edition seems identical to the 1905; the difference in word count is probably due to sampling error.
When you read (or watch) a work over and over, you keep finding new nitpicks. In THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, the viewer is supposed to identify with and sympathize with Paul Krempe, but he seems awfully "lookist" in his reaction to the Monster. His main concern seems to be that the Monster is not attractive-looking. And in "The Boscombe Valley Mystery" by Arthur Conan Doyle, Watson writes, "... there is every prospect that the son and daughter may come to live happily together in ignorance of the black cloud which rests upon their past." Well, there might have been but now that Watson has told the world about it in his story, it's no longer very likely, is it? [-ecl]
[Perhaps the names have been changed to protect the innocent. -mrl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: Among the great men who have philosophized about [the action of the tides], the one who surprised me most is Kepler. He was a person of independent genius, [but he] became interested in the action of the moon on the water, and in other occult phenomena, and similar childishness. -- Galileo, 1632
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