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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
08/06/10 -- Vol. 29, No. 6, Whole Number 1609
Table of Contents
Science Fiction (and Other) Discussion Groups (NJ):
August 12 (Thu): THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY by Douglas Adams, Middletown (NJ) Public Library, 2005 film at 5:30PM, discussion of film and book after film August 19 (Thu): THE SURVIVAL OF THE SICKEST by Sharon Moalem and Jonathan Prince, Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM September 23 (Thu): THE DISPOSSESSED by Ursula K. LeGuin, Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM
The Natural Irony (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I saw a sign for a housing development. They have a nice natural site--or rather what used to be a nice natural site. They cut down the trees, dug up the grass, and built yet another housing development. And what did they call it? Get this. The Preserve. [-mrl]
We Almost Lost Triceratops (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Most people I meet who are of a scientific frame of mind started being interested in science when they were children, and most learned pretty much the same science. I am not saying that someone who is twenty learned the same facts as someone who is seventy, but two people who are the same age learned pretty much the same scientific facts as each other. If you are the same age you learned the same things about space and the same things about dinosaurs.
When I was a kid I thought of science as sacrosanct. To me science was another word for Truth. But every once in a while science has to change. At any given instant science is our best guess about the world. It may soon be trumped by a better guess, but it is the best guess at that instant. Those facts we learned as children may no longer be true. When I was young we thought dinosaurs dragged their tails on the ground. Today we know better. But there is still some resistance when we find out that something we learned as a fact is no longer our best guess. So what "facts" have I given up?
First it was the Brontosaurus. Movies like DINOSAURUS! or the original film of THE LOST WORLD had this thing called a Brontosaurus. It had a long neck and a long tail. Technically that made it a sauropod. It was one of the most popular dinosaurs. It turned out the Brontosaurus was a chimera that resulted from fossils getting mixed. What was supposed to be a Brontosaurus skeleton was the head of a Camarasaurus on an Apatosaurus body. There was no Brontosaurus. Oh well. Easy come. Easy go.
More recently there was the controversy over Pluto. Every good boy can name the planets. And the list ends with Pluto. The technical definition of a planet--a definition that might change with time-- includes the idea that a planet's gravitational force pulls the debris out of its orbit. Pluto does not do that, so Pluto is only a planetoid or a dwarf planet. This one got some real pushback. People wanted there to be another new definition for planet gerrymandered to allow Pluto to fit the definition. No, the decision was made that Pluto is not really a full-fledged planet. It is a dwarf planet. So it goes.
Well, get ready for one more. We could lose Triceratops. You know Triceratops. That is the dinosaur with three horns, two on its forehead and one on its nose, and a big boney frill at the base of its skull. This was a popular one. I think it was the film THE ANIMAL WORLD that showed that this herbivore was mean enough to actually take down a predatory Tyrannosaurus. That is real kip. There were a bunch of similar-looking dinosaurs. It was a whole family of dinosaur species. One beastie that looks somewhat similar was the Torosaurus. Its horns pointed different ways and its frill had large holes in it. It was thought to be a close relative of the Triceratops. Well, it turns out it is a closer relative than had been previously thought. It might even be called a parent. With more specimens to study it seems that Triceratops are juveniles who are Torosauri when they grow up.
John Scannella and Jack Horner at the University of Montana have been taking a closer look at Triceratops fossils and all indications are that a Torosaurus is what a Triceratops grows up to be. They are not two related species; they are a single species seen at two different stages of its development. So are we losing Triceratops as a dinosaur? After all you name an animal for its adult form, not its immature form. On the other hand a lot of people know Triceratops was the animal just like they knew Pluto was a planet. Torosaurus is much less a super-star.
What right now seems likely is that paleontologists do not want to risk the kind of brouhaha that astronomers had with reclassifying Pluto. It looks at the moment like the whole species will be called Triceratops. That will probably keep the controversy down momentarily. People will not feel they are losing Triceratops.
But I wonder if some may say that they know--and we all know--what Triceratops is. This whole other thing does not fit our conception of Triceratops. It is sort of a perversion of the idea of a Triceratops to call it a Torosaurus one. Perhaps what is needed is a Defense of Triceratops Act so that we can continue to have some control over just what the word Triceratops means. [-mrl]
THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: A two-lesbian-parent family is functional and stable until the children decide to meet the donor-father they share but have never seen. Meeting him upsets the dynamics of the family. What starts as a comedy about unconventional family relationships turns into a drama with ironically more conventional relationships. Annette Bening, Juliette Moore, and Mark Ruffalo star. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
Spoiler Warning: there are hints here of some of the plot complications.
Nic and Jules (played by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) are the same-sex parents of a family of four. Daughter Joni (Mia Wasikowska). 18, and son Laser (Josh Hutcherson of BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA), 15, have always been curious about the sperm-donor who was apparently the father of both. Joni is old enough to be allowed to make contact with the father and Laser convinces her to do so. That was how the kids met Paul (Mark Ruffalo)--a co-op farmer and restaurant-owner. Eventually all five get together over a table. The conversations are uncomfortable and awkward. People will start to say what they think and then pull back. Eventually it becomes clear that Nic has been the surrogate father to the family. She does not welcome the children's attention to a potential second father, a male one, who might unseat her. The presence of the children's real father strains and redefines all relationships.
Lisa Cholodenko directs from an original screenplay she wrote with Stuart Blumberg. In a year in which films seem mostly lacking in any character depth we get five complex portraits of different people. The film never passes judgment, positive or negative, on the lesbian relationship at the center of the film. It just simply accepts it and moves on. It would have been easy to make Paul a saint or a bounder. He is neither the savior nor the destroyer of the family relationships, though his presence brings to the surface some of the weaknesses of the family. It is a curious touch that both Jules and Nic have androgynous, if not male names. The dialog is particularly good at defining Choldenko's characters. There is a curious structure to the screenplay. Nic and Jules is each interrupted during sex and has to cover it. Also most of the important conversations take place over a table.
Nic and Jules, with obvious similarities, are still opposite types. Nic is a doctor and formally chooses to be in a position of authority. Nic is earthy and maybe a little New Age-ish. Together they constitute a familiar ying-and-yang bond. While the relationships seems that they would be different because of the nature of the parents, things seem to fall into more conventional and traditional situations. Nic could almost be a male father to the family and Paul could be Jules's first husband. Paul has his professional life together, but emotionally he is aimless. He has a fling with the manager of his restaurant, but eventually it is clear that it means little to him. Joni and Laser each comes under the influence of friends trying to pull them in directions they are not sure of. Laser's friend is macho and a little unsavory. Joni's best friend is fascinated by sex. Joni and Laser are each more mature than his/her friend.
THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT was made for a minimal five million dollars; it has no special effects, is not shot in 3D, and no cars were damaged in the making of this film. With some fairly deep drama it is very uncharacteristic of the films of 2010. It may even remain memorable after the December flood of Oscar hopefuls. It has some of the best writing you will find this year. I rate it a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10. It should be noted that in the words of the MPAA, "Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, language and some teen drug and alcohol use."
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0842926/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/10012141-kids_are_all_right/
SOUL KITCHEN (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: The ups and downs of a restaurant in Hamburg are the subject of this comedy directed by Turkish-German filmmaker Fatih Akin. The Greek-German owner of the restaurant neither knows what to do with the restaurant or his life. Balancing his friends, his delinquent brother, his customers and his girlfriend gives him more than he can handle and gives us the texture of multi-cultural Germany. This film is frequently likable but is never really intriguing. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
Zinos Kazantsakis (Adam Bousdoukos), a German-Greek living in Hamburg, runs Soul Kitchen, an unpretentious restaurant serving German lowbrow favorites like fish sticks, pizza, and schnitzel. These are basically all just heat-and-serve dishes. In addition to running the restaurant, he has a brother and friends who are more trouble than they are worth. His brother Illias (Moritz Bleibtreu), recently returned from prison on parole, is turning to robbery to support his rock band. His girlfriend Nadine (Monica Bleibtreu) is moving to Shanghai for an extended stay in her job as a foreign correspondent.
In the middle of this upheaval Zinos gives himself a back injury that will get in the way of him cooking. He brings in a new chef who wants to turn the menu highbrow, though the clientele still want their pizza and schnitzel. Chef Shayne (Birol Ünel), can take fish and chips and rearrange it so that it looks like something from a fancy haute cuisine restaurant. Soon Zinos is getting customers who want the very fancy dishes that Shayne can create. But this group does not seem to go with his brother's rock band. Zinos finds himself being pulled in several directions and several subplots work themselves out, perhaps a little too conveniently at times. In the back of Zinos's mind are always his tax problems and getting the restaurant going, but the script keeps several plots running at the same time. Will the restaurant go back to plain fare, turn into a music club, or be a nouvelle cuisine upscale restaurant? Or will it be taken by the Tax Office?
Director and co-writer Fatih Akin won awards including the Cannes Film Festival best screenplay award for his 2007 THE EDGE OF HEAVEN. That film was reputedly a very serious effort. While one would not call SOUL KITCHEN a lightweight film, it is a comedy with generally lighter moments. Akin keeps the pace up except when the film stops for a piece of party music. But none of the plot lines is ultimately totally satisfying. Some are downright predictable or clichéd. It is hard to feel much for anyone in the film but perhaps Zinos. Many of the gag situations do not go anywhere. When the chef puts aphrodisiac in the food the club has one night of being steamy, but there later seems to be little effect or even mention of the odd night at the restaurant. Toward the end the script starts feeling contrived. Akin knows where he wants the story to go, but it is a long way from there too near the end. One can too much see his fingerprints on the plot from pushing it toward the ending he wants.
There are endearing moments in this German-language film, but it feels like with a little more direction it could have been more than it is. Do stay for the closing credits. I rate SOUL KITCHEN a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. SOUL KITCHEN will be released to theaters on August 20.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1244668/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/kitchen-party1997/
OLD-NEW LAND (ALTNEULAND) (letter of comment by Fred Lerner):
In response to Evelyn's comments on OLD-NEW LAND in the 07/30/10 Issue of the MT VOID, Fred Lerner writes, "You didn't mention my favorite scene in ALTNEULAND--the ones in which the viewpoint characters, visitors to this Zionist utopia, are taken to a school and marvel at the ability of the children to count to ten in Hebrew. For in this Zionist utopia, the everyday language, like the rest of the nation's culture is--German." [-fl]
Mel Gibson, Connecting the Dots, Non-Profits, Scanning Books, and Civil War Poetry (letter of comment by John Purcell):
In response to the 07/30/10 issue of the MT VOID, John Purcell writes:
If you haven't heard about what's recently wriggled up under Mel Gibson's kilt, you really shouldn't concern yourself. It's pretty stupid, and just another example of modern America's obsession with celebrity. Like you, I could care less. But we have teenagers at home, so Valerie and I absorb loads of drivel through cultural osmosis. It's much more dangerous than pet dander, you should know. At least you can do something about cat and dog dander. The stupidity of the masses--well, that's another matter entirely.
You are absolutely right, Mark, about modern security needing to be able to "connect the dots" more effectively in order to deter terrorist threats. With so many entry and exit points in this country, to say nothing about how the Internet contributes to terrorism, this is a very tall order, so sorting through the chaff to find that proverbial needle in the haystack is getting harder to do every year. None of us cares to see Big Brother become reality more than it has already, but intelligence gathering must be one of the most unglorified and tedious jobs in existence. The fact that they can nail anybody nowadays says something about their abilities. It is definitely a tough job.
Say, do you think teaching at a Community College in Texas is considered working for a non-profit organization? Just a thought.
I think Bill Higgins just stumbled upon this year's best seller. Just wait until that book comes out in a movie next year. Betcha it stars Jake Gyllenhall as delta d sub phi, and his romantic love/hate interest is a space alien Mata Hari-type spy named "oji'" played by Britney Spears. Run--now--for your lives, people, while you still have feet that work!
I own a copy of Herman Melville's Civil War poetry book, BATTLE PIECES, in my office at school. Some of the poems are definitely romanticized, but many are rather effective. Haven't read all of them, but it would make a good companion volume to Paul Negri's CIVIL WAR POETRY: AN ANTHOLOGY. Judging by the review, it would best be purchased from a used book store. [-jp]
And Mark comments:
I chose the example of Mel Gibson because it was topical at the moment, but it is really scandal-sheet material. We do not follow Gibson news all that anxiously.
The task of "connecting the dots" to bring together related pieces of intelligence is probably NP-complete. There is no good way to find all pieces of data relevant to each other on a given issue and even if you bring two ideas together it take some interpretation to decide if they are relevant to each other. Though I hate to say it, it seems what you need to do is hire people who have good intuition on top of experience.
I hate to admit that I really don't understand something so basic, but I still am not sure I understand the distinction between a for-profit organization vs. a non-profit organization. If you pay the managers and staff of an organization, they are making money from what they are doing. Isn't that money a profit? It is not being plowed back into the organization, it is being given to the people who run the organization. I am sure you are not just volunteering your time to the college.
Readers interested to see more of the Melville Battle Pieces can find some of the pieces at http://tinyurl.com/24x7ou7.
The poem "The Portent" gave the name to a chapter in Ken Burns's THE CIVIL WAR: the chapter about John Brown was entitled "The Meteor".
Ray Bradbury warns that we are still headed toward the world he described in FAHRENHEIT 451. I am unconvinced. It took me five minutes to find BATTLE PIECES on line. I wonder how much time it would have taken to find a copy in 1953 when the book FAHRENHEIT 451 was published. -mrl]
And Evelyn notes, "Negri's book is a 'Dover Thrift Edition' with a cover price of $2.50, so it's not clear that it would be a whole lot cheaper in a used book store." [-ecl]
Scanned Books (letter of comment by Kip Williams):
In response to Bill Higgins's blog comments on scanned books in the 07/30/10 issue of the MT VOID, Kip Williams writes:
Sadly, there are plenty of books that are about as bad as the "worst excuse for a book" that Bill Higgins mentions. I'll agree that munging mathematical expressions is pretty grave and renders a math book pretty valueless, but they manage to do almost as much to ruin books in other fields.
In fiction, the constant running menagerie of strange typographical characters that used to be members of the set of 26 letters and 10 digits (that shouldn't be so damn hard to figure out) make insane hash of great literary masterpieces.
Scholarly books go into convulsions at the introduction of italics, and each footnote brings a seismic crash that sends ripples out for the next page or two, with broken paragraphs randomly interposed between words of a sentence.
A book that was in columns simply turns into word soup.
The laudable aim of including illustrations (I'm looking at a free download of ALICE IN WONDERLAND now) causes the interposition of entire scanned pages in the midst of OCR text. This can really throw off the rhythm when I'm reading my daughter to sleep.
The list can go on. Parentheses drive OCR crazy. Any character can end up being substituted for any other. The worst offenders are at archive.org, and the best-groomed free books are at Project Gutenberg, which has volunteers proofing stuff for them. Let the reader beware. [-kw]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
THE CUBS AND THE KABBALIST by Byron L. Sherwin (ISBN 978-0-976- 48740-1) is okay, I suppose, but had a few problems. First of all, the story involves a lot of Jewish ritual and so on. Now, when someone write a book that involves a Catholic mass, she doesn't usually explain everything to the reader--she assume that either he already understands it, or that he will figure it out on his own. But all too often, an author writing about Jewish rituals feels obliged to explain it all in infodumps. And so it is with Sherwin. In fact, he is so thorough (obsessive?) in explaining that at one point Rabbi Jay Loeb (his main character) explains to his *Jewish* guest the meaning of Succoth, the sukkah, and everything else. Connected to this (call it first-and-a-halfly), Sherwin also has massive infodumps of baseball history.
Secondly, Sherwin seems to have an agenda similar to other Jewish- oriented science fiction or fantasy (e.g., PLANET OF THE JEWS), in that it is not just about the magic but about becoming more religious. In THE CUBS AND THE KABBALIST, the rabbi does perform some "magical" rituals, but he also insists that the players must repent of their sins, give more to charity, etc.
And lastly--and this is true of a lot of authors--Sherwin is a bit sloppy with details. He needs to have someone who has no identification get from Chicago to New York. He apparently recognizes this is a problem, but then just says, "Luckily, none of the airline personnel asked Greenberg for a photo ID, as he didn't have one." Even if he is a well-known sports figure, I cannot imagine the staff at O'Hare would just let the ID requirement slide. Sherwin also seems to think that the mayor of Chicago can proclaim a city-wide day of prayer for the Cubs (First Amendment, anyone?), and what's more, get *all* the religions to agree to it.
(Oh, and the subtitle of the book--plastered across the cover-- gives away the ending. That is, of course, assuming there was ever any doubt about it.)
On the whole, then, this is probably of some interest to Jewish Cubs fans, but they will find a lot of unnecessary explanations (sort of like if in a current science fiction novel about space exploration the author felt it had to explain gravity and a detailed history of the space program). I suppose a really diehard non-Jewish Cubs fan might enjoy it and find the Jewish explanations useful, but I doubt a Jewish non-fan would find it at all interesting.
Interestingly, at just about the same time (late 2005/early 2006) Harper Scott's book HOW I HELPED THE CHICAGO CUBS (FINALLY!) WIN THE WORLD SERIES. I haven't read this; the reviews seem more negative than those of Sherwin's book. The synchronicity may have been because of the 2003 incident where the Cubs' almost guaranteed pennant win was taken from them by, of all people, a Cubs fan who interfered with the ball in an attempt to catch it. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: Playing golf is like chasing a quinine pill around a cow pasture. --Winston Churchill
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