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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
06/18/10 -- Vol. 28, No. 51, Whole Number 1602
Table of Contents
LIFE Magazine Looks at B-Movies (Nov, 1957) (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I have long remembered that Life Magazine did a picture spread on then current horror movies back in the 1950s. I never got a chance to see it again, but found it last night. This is very unlike what Life usually ran. You can look at the surrounding pages to see what Life usually had.
Portable Electronics (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
True story: I was listening to the radio and someone was saying they were going around the tent city looking at display stations. It sounded odd since most tent cities I knew about would no have the electricity to run a display station. Perhaps they could run them off of truck engines I suppose, but why would that be so important to report. Then it struck me they weren't talking about "display stations." They were saying "displaced Haitians." That is something entirely different. [-mrl]
Failure Will Always Be an Option (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I recently wrote about the BP-Gulf situation, but I keep hearing more about it. I think what keeps attracting me to this story is its familiarity. We have an expedition drilling for oil in some exotic place like a mile under the water. It is a place so remote only robots and other machines can visit there. In this place something terrible is happening. Human error has led forces to be released that nobody seems to know how to control. A crack (?) team of scientists and engineers are trying to stop the problem but it just keeps getting bigger. So we have people working against time to try to find a solution to the problem. If it were not so terrible and destructive, it would be exciting and even melodramatic. This is a story that someone like Lester Del Rey or someone like him could have written in the 1950s. The difference is probably that he would have started at the solution and worked back the start of the story. We unfortunately are living the story forward in time. There may not be a solution. BP's chief executive officer, Tony Hayward, puts it this way, "What is undoubtedly true is that we did not have the tools you would want in your tool-kit." Essentially he is saying is that whether failure is an option or not, that is probably what we will have.
What we are hearing is this disaster is unprecedented, and that we must make sure it will never happen again. That was what we heard after the Challenger Disaster. Facing the unknown is a learning experience. We have to have the courage to pick ourselves up and learn and be better for it. That is a very clever way of putting it. It conjures up images of oil companies out there in the void facing the Unknown. And it is a true statement that it is unprecedented. But it was not unforeseen. The possibility of a great methane blowout was foreseen. There are "blowout preventers," but they did not do their job. Right now it is being investigated whether they were properly installed. The problem with making sure this never happens again is that we thought we were making sure it would not happen the first time. Implicitly we thought that where great dangers are involved that very special care was being taken. That is the point of regulation by the Minerals Management Service. Making sure some disasters never happen again will be insufficient. That means they may happen once.
CNN reports what caused the disaster:
The survivors' account paints perhaps the most detailed picture yet of what happened on the deepwater rig--and the possible causes of the April 20 explosion.
The BP official wanted workers to replace heavy mud, used to keep the well's pressure down, with lighter seawater to help speed a process that was costing an estimated $750,000 a day and was already running five weeks late, rig survivors told CNN.
BP won the argument, said Doug Brown, the rig's chief mechanic. "He basically said, 'Well, this is how it's gonna be.'"
(Incidentally, the claim is probably not true that it is so difficult to measure the amount of oil released each day. See http://tinyurl.com/void-spill.)
I am skeptical that even closer regulation will prevent disasters like this. The point is the drilling company knew the right thing to do and the Minerals Management Service should have made sure those precautions were taken. But there are reasons why knowing the right thing to do even having government regulation will probably not be sufficient. That combination will fail again for the same reasons it did here.
Suppose a disaster like the Deepwater Horizon had is a one-in-ten- thousand shot of happening from the start of the project. If a thousand times on a thousand different wells the safeguard is badly installed to save money but then is not needed, people involved will let down their guard. Saving the expense will probably be rewarded by the company. That is why a one-in-ten-thousand chance of malfunction is more dangerous than a one-in-ten chance. With a one-in-ten chance the people involved probably know how to handle the malfunction and will more likely be expecting it. Many will have seen instances of the malfunction and certainly the procedures for handling the problem will be well known. Everyone will be more casual about the one-in-ten-thousand problems. The executive in the CNN article probably made the same sort of decision many times before and was rewarded for the profitable decision. Some of the funding saved will go to keeping relations good with the regulators. It may not be a bribe per se, but gifts and parties are de facto bribes. It is the low-probability events not sufficiently regulated that will cause the most trouble.
Few people have been put into a position where their greedy decisions have created something as bad as the BP oil geyser--a term more accurate than "spill", by the way. A "spill" is what you have when you carry a bowl of soup to the table and a little slops over the edge. A spill can usually be cleaned up relatively easily. This is at best a geyser of oil. It is worse than a geyser. Old Faithful is non-toxic and it turns itself off after a few minutes. The BP geyser is 24x7 and it is very approximately 1,600,000 gallons a day--and maybe as much as twice that. That is not a simple spill. We have no idea when it will turn itself off or how much damage will have been done.
It is a mistake to give it to pessimism entirely, but what happened with the Deepwater Horizon was probably an unlikely accident waiting to happen, and there are more out there. [-mrl]
CYPHER (2002) (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Vincenzo Natali's follow-up to the 1996 CUBE is in nearly all ways a science fiction outing superior to his previous film. Brian King's screenplay make this a fast paced science fiction adventure very much of the style of Philip K. Dick. Jeremy Northam is a total nebbish who gets to lead a double (and then triple) life in the shady world of industrial espionage. He is hired to go to business presentations that are so dull they put the participants to sleep. Then he finds out what is *really* going on. Also starring is Lucy Liu in a role that might have been better without a martial artist. This is a surprisingly deft film with a pace that just keeps building as the film progresses. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
CYPHER plays occasionally on cable and it available from NetFlix.
Many science fiction films of the last few years are based on the writings of Philip K. Dick. Somehow his paranoid view of the nature of reality, and how it can be completely different than it is perceived is an idea that appeals to filmgoers. CYPHER is not a film that is based on any Dick story, but Brian King's script captures Dick paranoid atmosphere perhaps better than any other film ever has. Morgan Sullivan (played by Jeremy Northam) is a nerdish sort dominated by his overbearing wife. But the job he is taking is anything but nerdish. DigiCorp and Sunways are among the two most powerful corporations in the world. They are vicious rivals. DigiCorp has hired him to spy on Sunways. His job is to not be very noticeable. He is to attend conferences under the false name Jack Thursby and during the conference to turn on a recorder disguised as a pen. Sullivan is fascinated by his new world of codes and skullduggery and allows himself to be pulled into the strange labyrinth of industrial espionage and the cold war of the two giant corporations. Almost immediately the boring conferences get more interesting when he starts seeing an Asian woman (Lucy Liu) who may also be playing the same game.
Though films with a similar plot have been made, I found this one genuinely exciting, and to me it has the feel of a science fiction novel. While some of the ideas now familiar, standard paranoiac fantasies, I think the execution is great, creating genuine excitement. This is a lot for a seven-million-dollar production to do. The film has little homages to films like NORTH BY NORTHWEST, SECONDS, and THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE.
There are some interesting visual tricks. The film begins almost black and white as Sullivan is unsure of himself in the shadowy world of industrial espionage. As his character develops and becomes more sure of himself the colors fill in more and more vivid. Sullivan's very world has changed. Jeremy Northam traverses the path from nerdish to superman with impressive grace. Only Lucy Liu seems a little out of place in a role that really did not need her martial arts skills, but could have used an actress that fitted in better with the story. Director Vincenzo Natali (CUBE, NOTHING, and SPLICE) has a sure hand and could be a major talent.
This film is actually much better than Natali's higher profile films CUBE and SPLICE. I rate it a +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 9/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0284978/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/cypher/
NOTHING (2003) (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: A morality tale with a word of warning about getting everything you desire. Vincenzo Natali, best known for CUBE and the current SPLICE tell the story of two boys who are the constant victims of all ages who suddenly find they have the ability to make their wishes come true. Director Natali wrote the story with the two actors who star. This is a very dark comedy. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
Vincenzo Natali could well be a major talent of Canadian cinema and perhaps even international cinema. Previously he made CUBE and CYPHER. As of this writing his SPLICE is in theaters. In between CYPHER and SPLICE he has made NOTHING.
NOTHING starts as a comedy but soon becomes an original fantasy. And few films we see really are so original. Andrew and David (played by Andrew Miller and David Hewlett) have been the picked on by others since they were boys. They have formed a strong friendship and an alliance based on self-defense. Together they live a really ugly house (uh, half a house), apparently right under a freeway. Life is not great, but at least they have each other.
But the time has come to break their partnership and for each to go his own way. David has a girl and is going to move in with her. Or so he thinks. In one day each has his world fall apart. David loses his job, and discovers he never had a girl to lose. David returns home. Meanwhile Andrew is wrongly accused of child molestation, David of embezzlement, and the city has determined to demolish David and Andrew's house. The locals are besieging the house throwing rocks through the windows. The two are left cowering on the floor. When suddenly...
There is a white flash and after it Andrew and David hear nothing. Cautiously they step outside the door and find the reason they are hearing nothing is that that is what now surrounds their house. Nothing. Beyond the property line there is a great white expanse of nothing. Alex and David have been given the ability to wish things out of existence and everything outside the foundations of their house is gone. It seems that Andrew and David have the power to erase things from reality very much like the ability that the little boy had in the "Twilight Zone" episode "It's a Good Life." And if nothing else, the film will at least show the bad end that that little boy probably had. This is a premise that rates about a B+. But Natali is quite clever in his search for implications of this strange power.
Natali's script is constantly inventive in finding implications of this power. NOTHING has the dimensions of allegory in among other things being a story that dissects human behavior and the nature of aggression. The special effects used are not expensive, but the plot allows them to be used very effectively.
This is a unique fantasy that has not been found yet by it audience, but will be enjoyed when it is found. I rate it a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
Note: NOTHING is a very inconvenient title for a film. "What did you see last night?" "NOTHING." "Then where *did* you go?"
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0298482/
What others are saying: http://tinyurl.com/24wsv9q
Neanderthals (letter of comment by Peter Rubinstein):
In reponse to Evelyn's comments on CRO-MAGNON in the 06/11/10 issue ("A. C. Grayling writes, 'An equally significant discovery, made this year by Svante Pääbo's team at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, is that between one and four per cent of modern human DNA is Neanderthal. Modern Africans share no DNA with Neanderthals.'"), Peter Rubinstein writes:
It follows from the above, that A. C. Grayling is of the opinion that Africans are not human. One wonders what he views as the distinguishing characteristics of "humans." (Unless, of course, Grayling is quoting original source from Svante Paabo or his team. It might be interesting to explore what they think qualifies as human.) [-pr]
Evelyn replies, "Well, it could be that it's one to four percent of *all* human DNA, but none of it in Africans. (For example, some small percentage of humans have some DNA marker that is not found at all in (e.g.) Maoris.) I agree, though, that it's poorly phrased (or poorly translated)." [-ecl]
Einstein's Equation (letter of comment by Robert Bohrer):
In response to Mark's comments on Einstein's equation in the 06/11/10 issue of the MT VOID, Robert Bohrer writes, "If mass and energy are equivalent, then why doesn't energy have a gravitational force like all mass does? Does energy have momentum?" [-rb]
Mark replies, "Light does have momentum, but no rest mass. But then it is never at rest. See http://crib.corepower.com:8080/~relfaq/light_mass.html." [-mrl]
THE CIRCUS OF DR. LAO (letters of comment by Charles Garofalo and Sam Long):
In response to Evelyn's comments on THE CIRCUS OF DR. LAO in the 06/11/10 issue of the MT VOID (in which she claimed the Hound of the Hedges was original with Finney), Charles Garofalo writes, "The Hound of the Hedges is also known as the Mystic Dog of China, and has appeared in some books on mystical animals. I'll go check to see if our library still has a copy. The one picture I saw of the critter was impressive, although he was not a dog version of an Arcimboldo composite man." [-cg]
Evelyn responds, "Ooops! I tried Googling it, and all references were to Finney's novel, so I assumed he had invented it." [-ecl]
And Sam Long writes:
Re Evelyn's note "Slick calls his friend Paul 'Oom Powl', which is Dutch for "Uncle Paul", which in turn is a play on the idea of a Dutch uncle--though admittedly Paul does not play that role.": Could that instead be a reference to "Oom Paul" [Uncle Paul], the nickname of Paul Kruger (1825-1904), who lead the Boer resistance to the British in the Boer War?. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Kruger.)
Some more trivia on the Dutch/Afrikaans word "oom":
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
FOOD RULES: AN EATER'S MANUAL by Michael Pollan (ISBN-13 978-0-14-311638-7) is basically a condensation/reworking of his previous IN DEFENSE OF FOOD. In that he proposed the following basic guideline: "Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much." This is so succinct that one would have to get even a haiku, such as:
"Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much." And this advice Is what Pollan writes.
Anyway, in FOOD RULES Pollan expands this into 64 rules, many of which were in the earlier book, e.g. "Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food." (One problem with this rule is portrayed in MATEWAN, where one of the Appalachian miners' wives is talking about the Italian miners' wives and complains that when they are given corn meal, they "ruin" it by turning it into polenta instead of cornbread.)
Many of the rules in this book seem repetitive or redundant. "Avoid food products containing ingredients that no ordinary human would keep in the pantry" would seem to encompass "Avoid food products that contain high-fructose corn syrup." "Avoid food products that contain ingredients that a third-grader cannot pronounce" is only as valid as the quality of education in our schools? (For that matter, how many third-graders can correctly pronounce "thyme"? My father used to tell of when he had first arrived in New York from Puerto Rico and was working in a grocery when a woman asked him for the thyme. He told her the time, but somehow this did not satisfy her. :-) )
Even Pollan admits that "Eat only foods that will eventually rot" has a few exceptions (e.g., honey). "Buy your snacks at the farmers' market" assumes you have access to a farmers' market. "Eat only foods that have been cooked by humans," "Don't ingest foods made in places where everyone is required to wear a surgical cap," and "If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don't" all seem very similar.
This seems like a "gimmick" book--a condensation of his previous book in a mass-market size (but at a trade paperback price).
In MOSES AND MONOTHEISM by Sigmund Freud (ISBN-13 978-0-394-70014-4), Freud talks about the standard myth of the hero as son of a king who is exposed/cast adrift, rescued, and brought up by peasants, only to eventually discover his royal lineage. But, he then notes, Moses was the son of peasants and brought up by a king. So Freud assumes that the Moses myth was originally composed to match the traditional structure as much as possible--given what Freud asserts is the historical fact that Moses was Egyptian. In fact, Freud seems to do most of his arguing that Moses was an Egyptian in reverse: "If Moses was an Egyptian, then that would explain X." But what he needs to do is to show that nothing else will explain X. When he does this, it is often by dismissing everything else as being made up to cover up the fact that Moses was Egyptian. For example, Egyptians practiced circumcision, so that was where the Hebrews got it. Yes, the Torah describes circumcision as occurring among the Hebrews before they came to Egypt, but Freud says that this is just because the Jews wanted to cover up the fact that their religion was derived from an Egyptian one.
In other words, it's basically a conspiracy theory: any contradictory evidence is just something that has been created and planted to deceive people.
Freud seems to commit other logical fallacies. For example, he writes, "I venture now to draw the following conclusion: if Moses was an Egyptian and if he transmitted to the Jews his own religion, then it was that of Ikhnaton, the Aton religion." This is well and good, if actually a bit obvious, but then somehow these seems to mutate into, "If there are similarities between Judaism and the Aton religion, that supports the idea that Moses was Egyptian," which is not the same thing at all.
And he says, "It must have been a considerable number that left the country with Moses; a small crowd would not have been worth the while of that ambitious man, with his great schemes." Joseph Smith led 170 people west to Utah, not what I would call a considerable number.
Having finally treated ourselves to a DVD copy of THE CIVIL WAR, and since we were planning on a trip to Richmond, we watched the series again. We have watched it three times in the last decade, and probably a couple more the decade before that, but it is a series that bears multiple watching. A historical perspective indicates how lucky Ken Burns was in making it. Not just the little things, but some of the big decisions. Could he have known how much Shelby Foote's comments would add to the series? And without the diaries of Elisha Hunt Rhodes and Sam Watkins, would he have had the thread that ran through the whole series? Did Burns realize how Jay Ungar's "Ashokan Farewell" would become a minor classic? Burns's story of the filming of 103-year-old Daisy Turner reciting the poem "The Boy We Loved So Well" about a soldier's death is a perfect example of this luck/serendipity: Apparently she just started it unbidden after her interview was finished, and Burns and the cameraman were smart enough to keep filming even though they were very near the end of the reel. In fact, they barely got the whole recitation.
In "The Star", Clarke has the Jesuit take the speed of light into account when calculating when the light of the nova would have reached Earth, yet at the end of "The Nine Billion Names of God" he writes, "Overhead, without any fuss, one by one the stars were going out," without any acknowledgement that they must actually have gone out millennia ages. In the former, one might assume that God knew when the Nativity would be and set the nova in motion the right number of millennia earlier. In the latter, though, while there is a God, one might presume it is not the omniscient God of the former and so one might ask how the stars happened to know to go out millennia ago so that they disappeared from the Earth at the right time. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: I do hate sums. There is no greater mistake than to call arithmetic an exact science. There are hidden laws of number which it requires a mind like mine to perceive. For instance, if you add a sum from the bottom up, and then again from the top down, the result is always different. -- Mrs. La Touche, 19th c.
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