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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
07/30/10 -- Vol. 29, No. 5, Whole Number 1608
Table of Contents
Instant Communication? (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Evelyn tends to ask me if I have heard the latest about such and such. Have I heard the latest about Mel Gibson--that sort of thing. It always bothers me. How could I possibly know whether I have or not? [-mrl]
Connecting the Dots (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Back last Christmas there was a terrorist attempt on a plane when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab--the so-called "underwear bomber"-- managed to get aboard an airplane and very nearly set off a bomb. He was stopped only by other passengers seeing what he was doing and preventing his success. This was nine years after September 11 and people would have thought that by this time, after years of having a department of Homeland Security and putting up with security checks at airports, that we should have been able to intercept Abdulmutallab. Certainly he should have been caught before he even boarded a plane. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano met with national derision when she claimed this was an example of the "system working". A system that called for passengers to wrestle a man with a bomb does not seem like an example of the system "working".
There was a great national expression of dissatisfaction with our intelligence agencies that had failed to recognize the danger from this radical. The government had a pretty damning collection of information bits about the bomber. They just had not coordinated the information. They had not "connected the dots." I suppose I agree with the critics, but I also wondered just what was involved in the connecting-dots task. There may well be a whole dimension to this problem that most people do not think about.
In hindsight it seems obvious that the facts about Abdulmutallab should have raised alarms, but that is after these specific clues are pointed out and brought together. Having in one place just precisely the damning pieces of information and looking only at them, the danger is obvious. But drawing that conclusion is just the last and possibly easiest step. The really tough work is to start with multiple haystacks of collected observations and pull out just exactly the important needles. That part of the task is not one that gets a lot of attention.
In a Sherlock Holmes story we see how "the world's greatest consulting detective" draws conclusions from clues nobody else would have noticed. What Conan Doyle never describes--and perhaps never even thought about--is how does Holmes know that gray clay on a boot is an important fact. At the same time he must decide that the fact Sir Hugo had fish for lunch and that the dog is lame in the left hind foot, and that a wasp has flown into the house are all non-useful facts. Holmes would have to be awash in useless observations that are never destined to be of any value. He just manages to coordinate all this data to pull out the most important facts.
Ever notice that when the CSI team finds a clue at the crime scene, that clue is vitally important in the solution of the crime. They must find hundreds of bits of potential evidence that are never useful. In real life sometimes a cigar stub found at the scene of a crime is just a cigar stub found at the scene of a crime. However, the TV program has to fit in an hour slot so they cannot show all the false leads and useless pieces of evidence. And even if they could it would be a real bore for the audience.
A lot of police work is not very sophisticated. It is like "Joe says Sam did it. You catch Sam with the gun and he confesses." That is barely any detective work. But anti-terrorist detective work probably is rarely that easy. Even if you have all the data collected in a single database--a huge mosaic of disparate facts-- what indices into that data do you have? You can index in by "name", but little else you have is that constant. Even "name" gets changed, I suspect. Put on top of all this inter-agency rivalries. If the CIA has been outshining the FBI for the last year or so the FBI is going to find it in their best interests to be less cooperative.
Having intelligence data is only the first step. And drawing a conclusion from the right set of facts is only the last step. But in between there is the task of bringing the right facts together. Computer analysis can of course be a powerful tool in that search process, but computers also make it possible to collect much more data which makes it even harder to connect the dots. You have a race between accelerating rates of collecting data and perhaps faster algorithms to analyze that data. It is not clear which is winning that race. But I strongly suspect that connecting the dots is getting harder year-by-year. And that could make it harder for the right facts to come together. I can understand why intelligence agencies would have a hard time "connecting the dots." [-mrl]
The IRS and Non-Profit Organizations (public service announcement):
I received the following info on a mailing list I'm on: "There had been some discussion earlier about groups losing their 501(c)(3) status because of the new filing requirements. The IRS has just announced a one-time extension, along with a list of everybody losing their exemption. See http://www.irs.gov/newsroom/article/0,,id=225959,00.html.
This is verified; the IRS page says:
"Tax-exempt organizations that do not satisfy annual filing requirements for three consecutive years automatically lose their tax-exempt status. The IRS is providing one-time relief for such organizations that have filing due dates on or after May 17 and before October 15, 2010. The list includes organizations for which the IRS does not have a record of a required annual filing for 2007 and 2008, and whose 2009 return, due on or after May 17 and before October 15, 2010, has not yet been received."
If you are involved in any non-profit organizations, you might want to check that they are not on the list of not-yet-compliant groups that the IRS has on their site. (There is a list for each state that can be sorted by town, which helps.) [-ecl]
THE STONE TAPE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Nigel Kneale combines science fiction and the supernatural again in this 1972 story of cutting-edge electronics research laboratory haunted by a ghost. At one time Kneale was a font of new ideas, but this play is mostly a reworking of some of the ideas from the much superior QUATERMASS AND THE PIT. Still the narrative is tense and at times unnerving. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
Spoiler: The review will be followed by a spoiler discussing Nigel Kneale's idea.
One of the most respected names in British movie and TV science fiction is Nigel Kneale. Kneale wrote some of the best BBC science fiction of the 1950s to 1970s. His calling card was his adaptation of George Orwell's 1984, a broadcast that caused nationwide controversy in Britain. But Kneale was best known for four stories involving rocket scientist Bernard Quatermass. He wrote three Quatermass television plays for the BBC in the 1950s. A fourth TV play was produced in 1978. Kneale wrote a handful of other plays for the BBC in the 1970s, including THE STONE TAPE.
Ryan, an electronics research corporation, has renovated an old building into an advanced electronics facility. Taskerland, as the estate is called, is a renovated Victorian building on a foundation going back to Saxon times. The Ryan group hopes to leapfrog the Japanese competition by developing a new recording medium with greater capacity than anything previously available. On the team is just one woman, Jill Greeley (played by Jane Asher). She seems very unnerved from the very beginning when she and her car is almost crushed between two large lorries. But she remains distraught for reasons not immediately explained. She seems sensitive to something ominous in the building. She is drawn to a chamber that predates the 20th century and there she finds a screaming ghost. She has trouble convincing the other developers but soon they too are experiencing the screaming ghost. When the scientific team can no longer doubt the existence of the ghost they decide to investigate it as a scientific phenomenon. And a scientific phenomenon is indeed what the ghosts turn out to be.
The style of the Quatermass plays is somewhat slow and talky by today's standards. They are stories with ideas, and ideas need to be discussed. THE STONE TAPE has the same style, though perhaps because I saw it several years after the Quatermass stories, the slow pacing is more apparent. The BBC had small special effects budgets so rather than showing a lot of what is going on, it is discussed by the characters. The same tight budgets make the cutting edge research laboratory seem a little sparse.
The casting of Jane Asher as Jill is an interesting trivia point: in the Hammer Films version of THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT (called THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT [sic] in Britain and THE CREEPING UNKNOWN in the United States), Jane Asher played a little girl whose tea party for her dolls is interrupted by the presence of something alien. More recently she was in the comedy DEATH AT A FUNERAL. Her discomfort with everything that is happening is intriguing at first, but becomes tiresome as the play proceeds. As with QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, a woman seems the most sensitive person to the ambient supernatural influences. In both cases the woman seems mysteriously possessed. Her acting could have been taken down a notch or two without damaging the production. But in fact, as in QUATERMASS AND THE PIT the forces strike out and affect the minds of everyone in reach. Directing is Peter Sasdy, who directed a lot of horror at about the same time including a few films for Hammer Films in their late heyday.
After many years of trying to find videos of this play, seeing the real thing is something of a letdown. It is good and without having seen QUATERMASS AND THE PIT it would be better. But the earlier play glories in more and richer ideas. This play is now quite as high in quality. I rate THE STONE TAPE a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10. The DVD was apparently at one time available from Sinister Cinema Amazon.
As I said this play's idea does not work as well as the idea in QUATERMASS AND THE PIT. It is not quite clear what causes an event to be recorded. There are decades worth of material that could be recorded, but why is it so dramatic a moment. For that matter, why is it even a human moment that is recorded? Kneale's idea is somewhat overly anthropocentric. There is no reason why a human would be more likely to be recorded than, say, a horse. One also feels that the number and location of ghost sightings does not support Kneale's hypothesis.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0069316/
COLIN FITZ LIVES! (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Two security guards have to spend the night in a cemetery protecting the grave of a rock-and-roll icon on the anniversary of the star's death. This amiable comedy was made in 1997 and won awards at film festivals but was never given a wide release. Sundance Selects has now released the film to Video on Demand. There is nothing remarkable in the plotting and not a whole lot that is unexpected, but the film entertains as it builds its characters. Robert Bella directs the script by Tom Morrissey. The best part is the frequent fan interviews on the meaning of the great Colin Fitz and really the influence of mass media on people's lives. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
[The fictional] Colin Fitz was the voice of his generation. His rock music was loved by millions of people. People who actually knew him knew he was something of a jerk, but his music is what people remember him for and in the five years since he has been dead his legend has only grown. Tomorrow will be five years since his death. Every year since he died there has been trouble in the cemetery around his grave. The fans cannot stay away. This year Colin Fitz's widow, Justice Fitz (played by Julianne Phillips), has hired a security company to guard the grave. Two guards have been picked to stay by the grave and protect it. The two guards are the mismatched pair of the meticulous Paul (Matt McGrath) and Woody- Harrelson-like Grady (Andy Fowle). Paul is new to the company and sort of highbrow. He listens to poetry on his Walkman and drinks bottled water. He tries to do everything exactly by the rules. Grady sees the night as a chance to party at time-and-a-half. He plans to buy a cache of beer and munchies and have a good time all night. As the night passes the mismatched odd-couple guards talk to each other discussing religion, celebrity, music, life, death, and the state of the world. They swap urban legends, which, of course, Grady fully believes and most of which involve the mysterious Colin Fitz. Throughout the night fans making the pilgrimage to the grave show up and make life difficult for Paul and Grady. Though the film follows a familiar route for a buddy picture, the characters are well developed.
Intercut with the main action are interviews with often-clueless fans on what Colin Fitz meant to them. The fans have an almost religious devotion to the last rock star. Stories get told about a multiple suicide of ardent fans, and there are supernatural Colin Fitz stories as well. One fan opines that if everybody got into Colin Fitz that there would be no more fighting between the Jews and the Israelis. Some fans believe he is still alive and others expect him to return from the dead. The mosaic forms a picture of Fitz reminiscent of both SWEET AND LOWDOWN and THIS IS SPINAL TAP. The supporting cast is fine and includes William H. Macy, Martha Plimpton, and John C. McGinley.
The film is underscored by constant rock music, purportedly the music of Colin Fitz. It helps to maintain the footage and is even credited to Colin Fitz in the closing credits.
Robert Bella has given us a likable film with the accent on the writing, something all too rare these days. I give COLIN FITZ LIVES! a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
COLIN FITZ LIVES! was made in 1997, but never got a general release. In 1997 it played at film festivals winning awards from the Austin Film Festival, the Long Island Film Festival, and WorldFest Houston. COLIN FITZ LIVES! is being released by Sundance Selects for Video On Demand on Comcast, Cox, Cablevision, and Time Warner where it will be available in August, 2010.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118873/
The Worst Excuse for a Book I've Ever Seen (link to blog entry by Bill Higgins):
As Bill describes it:
Here's what happened: Someone scanned the 1912 book. Someone ran optical character recognition (OCR) software on the scanned images, which results in a lengthy string of characters. General Books obtained the OCR output file. They offered it for sale as a print- on-demand book for thirty bucks or so.
When naively applied to the sort of mathematics Professor Schott was writing, OCR does not work very well. In Equation 260,
"delta d sub phi equals" becomes js 7 "two lambda double-dot prime" becomes 2a," "minus omega mu dot prime" becomes oji' "plus" becomes + (the only thing correct so far)
Page 134 of the General Books edition is, in fact, useless gibberish.
The entire book is useless gibberish. It's the worst excuse for a book I've ever seen.
[-wh] [Full text--with pictures--is available at http://beamjockey.livejournal.com/154567.html.]
NOTHING TO ENVY (letter of comment by Kip Williams):
In response to Evelyn's comments on NOTHING TO ENVY in the 07/23/10 issue of the MT VOID, Kip Williams writes:
I remember being told by one of my German teachers that in Berlin, the Easterners could receive TV broadcasts from the West side--the West (if I don't have this backwards) had PAL system, and the East had SECAM, and though the color signal didn't come across, users of SECAM sets could watch such shows as DALLAS and DYNASTY, and envy the lifestyle of those horrid people.
By the time the Berlin wall actually fell, we'd moved two more times, but I always wondered how much the ability to see those broadcasts had motivated the Easterners to be free, and eventually to reunite Germany. [-kw]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
CIVIL WAR POETRY: AN ANTHOLOGY edited by Paul Negri (ISBN 978-0-486-29883-2) is a typical "Dover Thrift Edition": everything is in the public domain, and the paper and binding are fairly basic (though I think all Dover Books are on acid-free paper). It is not as good an anthology as WORLD WAR ONE BRITISH POETS (ISBN 978-0- 486-29568-8), probably because the 19th century style often seems more trite and less sophisticated than the 20th century one. It certainly seems as though 19th century poets "cheated" more on rhyme and scansion, although the fact that by the 20th century many poets abandoned them altogether saved the latter from the necessity of cheating. (Walt Whitman abandoned them even earlier.) In "Boston Hymn", Ralph Waldo Emerson attempts to rhyme "seas" and "fleece". In "Barbara Frietchie", John Greenleaf Whittier has the verse: Fair as the garden of the Lord To the eyes of the famished rebel horde. These don't even have the same number of syllables, let alone the same meter.
OLD-NEW LAND (ALTNEULAND) by Theodor Herzl (translated by Lotta Levensohn) (ISBN-10 0-910129-61-4) is a typical utopian novel of the sort that was popular towards the end of the 19th century. The utopian society is being set up in Palestine by Jews, but that is really peripheral to the utopian aspects. The only relevance that the Jewishness of the project has is that the founders use the anti-Semitism of Europe to encourage Jews to emigrate and Christians to support them in doing so. In retrospect, this seems very bizarre--sort of like using the racism of the mid-20th Century American South to get all the blacks to emigrate to Africa.
And this is a fairly apt parallel, because one of the projects this utopia is working on is an anti-malarial drug so that the blacks in America can be encouraged to emigrate back to Africa--but even that only as a side effect of "opening up of Africa." One scientist says, "The white colonist goes under in Africa. That country can be opened up to civilization only after malaria has been subdued. Only then will enormous areas become available for the surplus populations of Europe." While it is true that at the time Herzl wrote this book, there was a strong "Back-to-Africa" movement, it was not intended as a side effect of bringing millions of white colonists there. Now this reads as the worst sort of condescension and paternalism. Herzl also vastly underestimates the difficulties caused by the influx of millions of Jews into Palestine, and their project to acquire all the land. (Then again, all utopian novels seem to gloss over the areas that people think would cause the most problems.)
Some things never change, though: "The [younger generation] were really only a kind of superior proletariat, victims of a viewpoint that had dominated middle-class Jews twenty or thirty years before: the sons must not be what the fathers had been. They were to be freed from the hardships of trade and commerce. And so the younger generation entered the 'liberal' professions en masse. The result was an unfortunate surplus of trained men who could find no work, but were at the same time spoiled for a modest way of life."
My edition of this book is also annotated with comparisons to the actual situation in Palestine at the time of the translation. However, since the translation was made in 1941, the comments are somewhat out-of-date. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: The one serious conviction that a man should have is that nothing is to be taken too seriously. -- Samuel Butler
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