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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
02/26/10 -- Vol. 28, No. 35, Whole Number 1586
Table of Contents
Correction (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
It would appear that the news story I reported last week of the law that people advocating the overthrow of the United States government had to register is not a new law. I had heard about it on NPR and verified it with an article from BusinessWeek, but it would appear all three of us were wrong. You can see the note below by Taras Wolansky. Thanks go to Taras for pointing this out. [-mrl]
Somehow I Am Not Convinced (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I received a piece of spam mail that wanted to sell me Viagra. All the links pointed to Russian sites. It did say that it was sent from an American company. Well, what it said was:
This email claims to have been sent by: Irumohatu Company 184 Pamefyty Street, 722 Ekosen, UE 42534 USA
Overcoming Failure to Communicate (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I was watching the beautiful nature documentary WINGED MIGRATION. I notice they have a credit for "animal advisors". That is fascinating. How do they get them to take the advice? [-mrl]
Pi Is the Jesse James of Numbers (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
On January 6, BBC News reported that a computer scientist had worked out the digits of pi to 2.7 trillion decimal places. People have a fascination with pi and the fact that its decimal places almost look random and do not repeat. When I talk to kids about pi that is just about the first thing that they know about it. It seems to them to be sort of a magical property of pi.
Well, I hate to say this, but the real property they are seeing is that pi is not a rational number, but that is true of almost all numbers. Rational numbers are those whose decimal expansion state at some point repeating, and then no matter how far you go out the repeating never stops. In fact, if you look at all numbers it is the property of the decimal expansion repeating that is rare and unusual. If you took an infinitely thin dart and threw it at a dartboard that was a number line so that it hit just one number, the odds say that it would probably be an irrational number. It would seem to have random decimal places just like pi does. And what are the odds that it is an irrational number the way pi is? The odds are 100%. Let me go beyond that. The odds are 100.000000000000000% that the number would be irrational. Oh, there are rational numbers on that number line. In fact, any positive-length interval, no matter how tiny, has an infinite number of rational numbers. But they still would be nearly impossible to hit with a dart there are so few of them. There are an infinite number of irrational numbers for every single rational. We just don't deal with irrationals much because they are so hard to deal with. You tell the candy man that you want a half-pound of lemon drops. He can picture 1/2. It is very hard to ask for the square root of pi pounds. In fact, pi has a name because it is an important number, but (sadly) is irrational. You don't have to create a special name for 2.5. You call it 2.5 and that is it. To ten trillion trillion decimal places you know the value. But if you talk about pi people have only a vague idea what the number is. Some of the kids say it is 22/7 and I have to tell them, no, that is just a handy number somewhere near pi. In fact, it is not all that near. The only way to write down a number that is exactly pi is to write pi. And then you do not know the number, you just know its name.
Ask a first grader how much is two times three, you will be told it is six. Six is a nice number. You can plot it on a number line very exactly. You can plot five times six on a number line with almost no thought. But if you ask a mathematician how much is two times pi, you will be told it is two pi. That is darn close to just echoing back the original question. You can get an approximation with some work, but it will not be very accurate. You can plot pi on a number line very inexactly. You can plot five times pi on a number line probably even less exactly and need a calculator to be at all accurate.
And it gets worse and worse. The square root of two is a root of the polynomial x^2-2=0. That is, you can write a polynomial that when you graph it, it crosses the x-axis at the square root of two. And you can construct a line of length square root of two with a compass and a straight edge. You cannot construct a straight line of length pi using compass and straight edge. And there is no polynomial with rational coefficients that crosses the x-axis at pi. Such a troublesome number is called a transcendental number. And, you guessed it, there are more transcendental numbers out there than there are ones you can construct or make a polynomial with integer coefficients that crosses the x-axis there.
The same is true for nearly every other irrational but it gets even harder because so few even have names to call them by. The square root of two gets used. So does e. But pi takes the flak. It is our best-known irrational number and is famous for the trouble it causes. Pi is the Jesse James of numbers. There are others--many, many, many others--that are as bad, but that is the one people know. [-mrl]
PERCY JACKSON & THE OLYMPIANS: THE LIGHTNING THIEF (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: This film with the cumbersome title is a young adult movie from a young adult novel that reminds us of precursors like JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS and CLASH OF THE TITANS, but is set in a contemporary setting. A high school boy finds out that the root of his problems is that he is a demigod in the sense of Greek mythology. In this world that mythology was not only true, the battles of the Greek gods continue today. Percy Jackson is suspect number one in the theft of Zeus's lightning bolt so goes from being an underachiever to battling the great monsters and gods of the Greek myths. This is a surprisingly satisfying fantasy adventure. Director Chris Columbus adapts a screenplay by Craig Titley based on the popular novel by Rick Riordan. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
The trailer for JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS talked of a story set in a time of "men like gods and gods like men." The makers had me right there. The film offered special effects genius Ray Harryhausen's mythical monsters, gods that towered eighteen feet high, and the story of an epic quest of heroes. Few films have had films with so much imagination to grab me. I was reminded of that first viewing of JASON when I saw PERCY JACKSON & THE OLYMPIANS: THE LIGHTNING THIEF. This is a film that will introduce another generation of kids to new worlds of gods and monsters.
Percy Jackson (played by Logan Lerman) somehow never fit in at his high school in New York City. In fact he does not quite fit in to our world in general. Then one day on a school trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art a particularly harsh teacher turns into a harpy. Literally, she is a harpy with wings and fangs. His handicapped best friend Grover (Brandon T. Jackson) turns out actually to be a satyr. His teacher Mr. Brunner is actually the centaur Chiron (Pierce Brosnan from the waist up; digital horse from the waist down). It seems that in the tradition of Greek myths, Percy does not know his lineage. His mother is a downtrodden housewife (Catherine Keener) and the father he never met was Poseidon (Kevin McKidd). It seems there is chaos in heaven. Someone stole Zeus's lightning bolt. Chief suspect is Percy. This bolt is the key to all political power on Olympus (moved to hover just next to the Empire State Building). A rogue's gallery of gods and monsters want to get their hands on the lightning bolt. Nearly everyone thinks Percy has it. The confused teen has to learn to fight like a demigod and then go to Hades to look for the bolt. But he needs a way to escape Hades. Percy forms a team with Grover, and Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), a new friend who happens to be the daughter of Athena--enemy of Poseidon. The three must go across country and collect three blue pearls, the key to escaping Hades. Each pearl is in a different American city and each is guarded by a peril from ancient Greek myth.
Most people seem to be comparing this film, the first in a series as the title implies, to the "Harry Potter" films. Well, Chris Columbus (who directed two "Potter" films) directs it. And it is based on a young adult series and it does involve a teenager with the supernatural. Both involve boys with an unknown heritage. There certainly are parallels, but this film is set in a different sort of world and one with a little more gravitas since it is not entirely made up. The atmosphere is quite different.
Will this film be remembered as fondly as JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS? Probably not. In the 21st century it has too much competition from other CGI films. And the effects are not as much fun as those of JASON. On the other hand they are far more sumptuous. While Jason might have an animated monster in a scene, LIGHTNING fills the frame with visual effects, albeit digital effects. What surprised me is that I had some affection for an action adventure film the way I would have in the days of Ray Harryhausen's best films. I rate PERCY JACKSON & THE OLYMPIANS: THE LIGHTNING THIEF a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
One more comment on the Percy Jackson books: a friend in high school was very enthusiastic about the series and the Greek mythology he had learned from it. I discussed mythology with him and was surprised how much he knew. I gave him a gift of a book on classical mythology and later heard he wrote a report based on the book. He came away with a better understanding of the roots of Western culture. Had he been interested instead in Wolverine, what would he have learned of any comparable value?
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0814255/
What others are saying: http://tinyurl.com/perc-jack-lightning
SHUTTER ISLAND (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Martin Scorsese turns his hand to directing a psychological horror film. Two United States Marshals travel to an island off Massachusetts that is a cross between Alcatraz and an asylum for the criminally insane. The film is very moody and the plot is twisty and supremely melodramatic, though few of the twists seem like new ideas. Fans of psychological horror may have seen the material before, but rarely so much of it and rarely is the tone so perfectly presented. Laeta Kalogridis wrote the screenplay based on a novel by Dennis Lehane. I suspect this film is Scorsese's tribute to German Expressionism. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
Shutter Island is a dismal piece of rock off the Massachusetts coast. It still houses a Civil War fort, but now, in 1954, the fort and two more wards make up Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane, part asylum and part fortified prison. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Teddy Daniels and Mark Ruffalo is Chuck Aule, two United States Marshals who are sent to Shutter Island to help look for Rachel Solando. Solando is an inmate who killed her own children and has somehow impossibly escaped from a locked cell. She is either dead or still on the island some place in hiding. The two marshals will need all the help they can get, but from the first moments on the island the marshals clearly are not going to get much cooperation from the staff.
From early on, this seems to be a plot suffering from a case of extreme over-stuffedness. Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) and Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow) may be doing fiendish medical experiments on the inmates. But nobody will believe the inmates when they tell because they are considered insane. Also one of the inmates may be the man responsible for the death of Daniels's wife. Meanwhile, Daniels seems to be drifting into schizophrenia and sees his dead wife visit him. And when he dreams, his nightmares are terrible. Daniels is troubled by memories of an atrocity he took part in during the liberation of Dachau. Besides the creepy fort that is now a ward for the worst patients, there is also a creepy old lighthouse that can be reached only at low tide and which may house horrible experiments performed by the staff of the asylum. A category 5 hurricane is about to hit the island and may level the prison and/or drown the inmates chained to the floor. In the dark of the moon a beast from 20,000 fathoms wades ashore and topples the lighthouse. (Okay, I admit I made the last one up. The rest are real.) This is a longish 138 minutes of story, but it takes a director of genius to pack all of that into even a film of that length.
Most horror films have retread plots and if the plot-pieces of SHUTTER ISLAND are not so original, at least their profusion in a single story is. What is refreshing is the stylistic return to some of the conventions of German Expressionism of the 1920s and 1930s. In few films since the early Universal horror films (which liberally borrowed German Expressionism) have we seen such evocative visuals. This film seems to hark back to the German horror of NOSFERATU and THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, and to even greater German horrors at places like Dachau.
It is a surprise to see Martin Scorsese making a horror film when his most successful films have been crime stories. In fact, he seems to be a lover of all kinds of films and this film is in some ways a tribute both to the 1930s horror film and the 1950s crime film. DiCaprio and Ruffalo look pretty good in slouchy 1950s hats and coats. Scorsese even has a little nod to 1958's THE FLY when he borrows the line "I said catch them, not kill them." The film is just a little too long and the logic needs some rationalizations by the viewer, but logic problems are a hallmark of the old horror films.
Scorsese has made a horror film for film lovers. I rate SHUTTER ISLAND a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt1130884/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1198124-shutter_island/
STARSHIP: MUTINY by Mike Resnick (copyright 2005, Pyr, $25.00, 286pp, ISBN 1-59102-337-8) (book review by Joe Karpierz):
So, I was at some con that Mike Resnick was also attending, and I decided that I wanted something of his to get autographed. Now, normally I don't run out and buy a book just because I want an autograph, but for some strange reason, this particular time it seemed the right thing to do. So I wandered the dealers' room until I found these books by Resnick with some pretty nice covers, so, in the time honored tradition of picking up a book because it had a cool cover, I picked up STARSHIP: MUTINY. To be honest, once I realized it was the first book in a series, and the first three were there, well, I spent too much money on books that day.
And it sat on the shelf, waiting to be read, until all five ended up on the shelf, at which point I decided I'd better get started. (Yeah, like I do on all my series books. I'm juggling so many series right now I must have four hands occupied.)
Wilson Cole is one of the most decorated men in the Republic Navy, but he has a knack for ticking off his superior officers. Wilson wins his medals by performing greatly heroic deeds that save lives and make the Navy look good--but he does it by disobeying orders and being insubordinate. He's done more things to tick off people and yet do the most good than any man alive.
And his reward is an assignment as the Second Officer on the Theodore Roosevelt, or Teddy R., out on the Rim patrolling absolutely nothing during the war between the Republic and the Teroni Federation. The Teddy R. is a dump of a ship, crewed by a bunch of misfits who have all gotten in trouble one way or another. It's a dead end job on a dead end ship in a dead end portion of space a long way away from the action in the war.
Well, of *course* it turns out that the Teddy R. is not all that far away from some action. A Teroni ship lands on a nearby planet, and Cole takes a couple of crewmates to investigate, and ends up thwarting an enemy action. Of course, he left the ship against orders, and moved the Teddy R. without orders, and well, you get the idea.
And so the story of Wilson Cole begins. He spends the entire novel doing stuff like this, but eventually he gets in so much trouble that it's off to jail for him, but of course things can't end that way. And so I'll stop here, because telling you any more would be giving away spoilers.
Starship: Mutiny is an old-fashioned military SF novel, high on action and adventure, middling on plot, and low on characterization. Folks, this is old-school stuff--the stuff we all read as kids, when starships and aliens and wars and stuff were the stuff of wonder, the stuff we would read with a flashlight under the covers after we were supposed to be in bed sleeping.
And you know what? That's okay.
This isn't a deep and thought-provoking book by any stretch of the imagination. It's meant to be a light-hearted military action adventure story. And since it sets out to do that, it succeeds quite nicely.
This is only the second novel of Resnick's that I've read, the other being A MIRACLE OF RARE DESIGN. That one too was okay, but nothing to write home about. I guess that so far, I prefer Resnick's short fiction to his novels. We'll see what the rest of the series brings. [-jak]
Football (letter of comment by Pete Rubinstein):
In response to Mark's comments on the Super Bowl ad in the 02/19/10 issue of the MT VOID, Pete Rubinstein writes, "I am shocked and appalled at this item. Goal posts are no longer made of wood. Plastic or fiberglass, surely, are the current materials."
Subversive Activities Registration Act (letter of comment by Taras Wolansky):
In response to Mark's comments on the Subversive Activities Registration Act in the 02/19/10 issue of the MT VOID, Taras Wolansky writes:
Here's a mea culpa from one of the bloggers who spread that viral story about South Carolina's anti-subversive law:
"It turns out that the Subversive Activities Registration Act is actually a Cold War, red-scare artifact that's been on the books since 1951. What appears to have happened is that Raw Story, who is usually better about this kind of thing, mixed up last year's attempt to repeal the law with the actual enacting of the law. HuffPost ran with the story, which is how it caught my eye. ...
"Turns out this law, and a bunch like it, were already ruled unconstitutional back in the day. ..." [ http://www.youaredumb.net/node/1483]
The 1951 legislators may have been inspired by the Federal Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. [-tw]
Animal Calls (letter of comment by Tim Bateman):
In response to Al Stoops's comments on animal calls in the 02/12/10 issue of the MT VOID, Tim Bateman writes:
The generic "ribbit" frog call used to puzzle me--until I worked out that it was some peculiarity of Americans.
Later, of course, I heard that there is a reason, which is that "the 'generic' frog call comes from a species that happens to live in southern California"--next to Termite Terrace, the animation studios of Warner Bros. Everyone thinks that frogs speak like frogs in Warner Bros. cartoons, specifically "One Froggy Evening" (I hope that I have that title right).
P. S. Just checked. Opinionopedia agrees that "One Froggy Evening" is the title, though it does not mention the "ribbit" sound. [-tb]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
There is much to like about the film LONE STAR, but a somewhat (probably unintended) literary connection worth noting is to William Faulkner's observation that "the past is not dead . . . it is not even past." One of the most notable stylistic camera moves in LONE STAR is to pan without a cut from a scene taking place in the present to one taking place in the past, or vice versa. And what is that but the embodiment of Faulkner's observation? I also watched CITY OF TRUTH, ..., I mean THE INVENTION OF LYING. I'm sure people will claim that the premise is so basic--like time travel or alien invasion--that using it does not mean that James Morrow deserves some credit. I disagree. "A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People"? That sounds like something straight out of CITY OF TRUTH, but it is really from THE INVENTION OF LYING. Now, I will admit that, for example, THE INVENTION OF LYING looks at what spontaneously discovered lying would be like in a world where everyone had to believe everything you said, while CITY OF TRUTH shows someone having to learn to lie. But even there, THE INVENTION OF LYING seems to be a copy: just as in CITY OF TRUTH, it's a dying relative that promotes the development of lying. I think there is enough here to warrant Morrow at least asking the writers where they got the idea. [-ecl]
[There was a time when science fiction authors were free to play with each other's ideas. One author would write a story making a point and another writer would take a similar idea, but change it to make a different point. Certain writers wanted ownership of ideas rather than the interchange. For example, Harlan Ellison claimed that the film TERMINATOR was taken from an "Outer Limits" episode he wrote "Soldier." Actually I always thought that TERMINATOR was much closer to CYBORG 2087: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0060272/plotsummary. I am pleased that James Morrow is not suing anyone who uses the idea of a society of truthtellers. It would not be hard for the estate of H. G. Wells to put up an argument that huge amounts of science fiction used plots and ideas from Wells. -mrl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: A sect or party is an elegant incognito devised to save a man from the vexation of thinking. -- Ralph Waldo Emerson
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