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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
09/17/10 -- Vol. 29, No. 12, Whole Number 1615
Table of Contents
Ever Notice? II (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
"Dormitory" is an anagram of "Dirty room"? [-mrl]
Engineers of Destruction (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
On September 10 in the New York Times David Berreby says that terrorists tend in large part to come from engineering backgrounds.
I would think that you need to distinguish between small-scale and large-scale terrorists. Engineers probably do the small, quotidian terrorist acts like car bombs. For really large-scale terrorism you probably need physicists and biologists. [-mrl]
Bacterial Altruism (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
This is all going to go toward a recent scientific discovery, but I may hash over some old ground getting there. Please be patient. It seems that altruism toward one's own kind may run (much) deeper than belief, even much deeper than consciousness.
Several years ago I got myself into a debate with a co-worker who was extremely religious. He was using an arsenal of arguments that impressed me more for their quantity than their quality. I think the list of points he was trying to make were not his own because he would make an argument, I would counter it, and he would quickly move on to another argument. It is like he was asking himself, "Will he buy this one? No? Well, will he buy this one?" He was unprepared to defend any of his points if they met even slight resistance. He seemed to be arguing by checklist and it was not his checklist.
One of his approaches was why was I not willing to convert to his religion? Was I really afraid to take on the additional morality that his religion would require? What, I asked him, made him think that his religion made people more moral than they would be without it? My wife and I keep kosher, I told him, and that is mostly because of its rules for humane treatment of animals. He I knew did not keep kosher. Ah, he said, that was not necessary because people had been given dominion over all animals. Morality no longer requires that people treat animals well. It was obvious to me that he was saying that his morality was exactly the same thing as obedience to his religion, no less and no more.
Then as now I saw no strong evidence that people who were piously religious were any more moral than those who are not so religious. Actually I have to generalize that to say that people who are fanatical about any ideology, political or religious, generally strike me as no more, and frequently less, moral than the general run of people.
Still it seems a common belief--generally promulgated by religious people--that without belief in a God who enforces morality people feel that they can get away with anything. That seems inconsistent with my own personal observations. It may well be that people with extreme piety even seem to feel that that piety excuses and compensates for their having a lower level of morality. Extreme examples of this attitude is the person willing to murder to further the ends of his/her religion.
But one has to wonder why is common decency so common? Why do so few atheists turn to murder and theft, since presumably they feel there is no God to punish them? There is the legal system, but I do not see atheists being kept in check only by heavy law enforcement.
The answer I think is that we are biologically programmed for common decency. Anti-social acts seem to have negative survival value. Altruism has positive survival value. Those who behave in a positive manner have a much better chance of getting their genes into the gene pool. General decency is part of our make-up.
There seems to be new evidence of altruism even in some very basic organisms. There is new evidence that bacteria, far below the level of having any consciousness, still perform acts of altruism toward their own kind. And ironically this is a very real problem in treating infection. Mutant drug-resistant bacteria work their little overtime, at their own expense, to preserve other bacteria of their kind and to make them also drug-resistant.
In an E. Coli colony faced by an onslaught of an antibiotic there may be relatively few mutant E. Coli that by natural mutation create a chemical substance, a protein, which protects them from the drug. This will be a rare mutation, but it will be a drug- resistant E. Coli.
A very recent discovery seems to indicate that sometimes when this is the case the mutant E. Coli turns itself into a factory for pumping out this protective substance, far more than it needs. The extra protein acts as an umbrella protecting other local E. Coli, non-mutants, that very likely carry many of the same genes that the drug-resistant E. Coli does. They may not have the mutant protective gene, but there will have many genes in common with the mutant E. Coli.
The individual mutant E. Coli survives its good deed, but its growth will be stunted. It is less likely to pass on its genes directly, but with enough of its genes shared by the E. Coli it protected, many of its genes will be passed on by proxy.
Now, presumably E. Coli is far too primitive to have consciousness. But it still seems to be programmed to on occasion automatically sacrifice for others of its kind. It has a sort of common decency, or even heroism. This is bad news for humans whom the E. Coli are making ill, but it is good news for the E. Coli. It also may show that altruism may be more basic than conscious action.
MACHETE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: In the finest traditions of cheap, grindhouse exploitation films comes this story of a big, ugly Mexican ex-Federale who gets mixed up in Texas anti-immigration politics. Before long there are half-naked women firing machine guns. That is just the kind of film it is. It is hard to say this is a good film, but it is a bad film done very well. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
Finishing up the summer season we have gotten two different films intended to remind us of drive-in B-movies from the late 1960s and early 1970s. PIRANHA 3D resurrects the post-JAWS nature horror film with an attack of super-fish with razor-sharp teeth. MACHETE brings back the low-budget action-hero film. These are both films trying to look like fugitives from the 1970s drive-in screen. But each tries a different approach informed by the passing years. While the prototypes of PIRANHA 3D might have had a scene or two of quick nudity and might look away from the real visceral horror of the fish attacks, PIRANHA 3D revels in nearly wall-to-wall nudity and glories in showing pieces of people including sexual organs floating in the water and people cut in half by taut cables. Its goal is not horror but revulsion. With the exception of having more and better-known actors, and perhaps a more complex plot, MACHETE is much more true to its exploitation origins.
Machete (played by Danny Trejo) is a human mountain of ugly muscle. He had been a Mexican Federale three years earlier. Machete screwed up very badly and paid the price, losing his wife and child. And now he is trying to forget the past. He is an illegal immigrant working day labor in Texas. Machete is hired for more money than he can turn down for a contract to assassinate an aspiring state senator. The targeted victim, John McLaughlin (overplayed by Robert DeNiro), is a man with a crusade against all illegal immigrants. Whether Machete would have fulfilled is agreement is in question, but Machete finds that he was the real intended prey. Not too surprisingly this gets Machete into a fight for his life against reactionary politicians, hired hit men, and a drug lord from south of the border. It turns into a huge cartoonish battle between immigrants and the corrupt power structure.
Compared to Danny Trejo, Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Bronson, and Bogart are all pretty boys. Trejo's face is a contour map with mountains and canyons. In its most common state that face is recently beaten and bruised. Part of the pleasure of Machete is seeing familiar actors in support roles. Of course there is Robert DeNiro, but there is also Steven Seagal (who succeeded in beating up a lot of bad guys is his time, but who is losing at fighting his own paunch), Jeff Fahey, and Don Johnson. The film is co-directed by Robert Rodriguez and freshman Ethan Maniquis, with the former co-authoring the script. The film itself started as a joke. In the film GRINDHOUSE there were a series of phony coming attractions. One was for a supposed action film, MACHETE. As a coming attraction, it apparently looked good enough that they made the film just as it appeared in the trailer. It actually was more fun than either half of GRINDHOUSE. To enhance the cheap grindhouse feel, the opening credits were distressed like a film that had been abused and mishandled by dozens of half-hearted projectionists.
This sort of martial arts film has always had a nostalgic feel harking to a time and place before bad guys had good guns. I am sure Machete is good with a machete at close range. But at twenty yards, I would still bet that a guy with an assault rifle could easily out-match him. It is hard to call this a good film. But it is tough not to have a good time (your taste and politics allowing). I rated MACHETE a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10 and went out for soft tacos immediately after seeing the film.
Of interest is this quote from the IMDB about Trejo's background http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001803/bio:
A child drug addict and criminal, Danny Trejo was in and out of jail for eleven years. While serving time in San Quentin, he won the lightweight and welterweight boxing titles. Imprisoned for armed robbery and drug offenses, he successfully completed a 12-step rehabilitation program that changed his life. While speaking at a Cocaine Anonymous meeting in 1985, Trejo met a young man who later called him for support. Trejo went to meet him at what turned out to be the set of RUNAWAY TRAIN (1985). Trejo was immediately offered a role as a convict extra, probably because of his tough tattooed appearance. Also on the set was a screenwriter who did time with Trejo in San Quentin. Remembering Trejo's boxing skills, the screenwriter offered him $350 per day to train the actors for a boxing match. Director Andrey Konchalovskiy saw Trejo training Eric Roberts and immediately offered him a featured role as Roberts' opponent in the film. Trejo has subsequently appeared in many other films, usually as a tough criminal or villain.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0985694/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/machete/
THE AMERICAN (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: This film is neither a thriller nor a character study, though it has been described as each. George Clooney, the one familiar actor in the film, plays a dangerous man laying low in a hilly village in Italy. He appears to be perhaps an assassin himself or a gunsmith. We spend an entire film never finding out who he really is or why people are trying to kill him, but it is frequently pleasant just to enjoy the Italian scenery. In the end we have seen something happen, but we are not sure exactly what. Rating: low +1 (-4 to +4) or 5/10
A comment following the main review is a minor spoiler.
THE AMERICAN is a crime film that is only occasionally the action thriller it is promoted as. So it is hard to pigeonhole this film as an action film. Perhaps it is more a study of a character. But that is really not true either. The viewer has the feeling that if we are going to spend so much time with this Jack--if that is really his name--we should get to know him. However, we are blocked at every turn. Everything we ever learn about who Jack is is superficial. We don't even know what he does for a living. Is he a hired killer? We know he can make guns and is good at using them, but is that what he does? If so, why are people trying to kill him? Perhaps part of the point of the film is we are never going to know Jack. He will remain a cipher. The most substantial information we learn is that he is he is smart, he is a very private person, and he can be coldblooded when the occasion arises.
As the film opens Jack is apparently in the snowy fields of Sweden when two or three men try to kill him. We are shocked by Jack's ruthlessness and are not sure just why he does what he does, but the point is made he will do what he has to do to survive. To escape the police he flees to Rome, where a man--apparently his handler--wants him to hide out in Castelvecchio. Jack does not like the looks of Castelvecchio and goes to another village, Castel del Monte. At this point we find out this is not really an action thriller. Jack enjoys the beautiful surroundings and takes a job to engineer a personalized gun specialized for one particular killing. Perhaps the most interesting parts of the film are the wordless sequences as Jack expertly builds the gun from parts. The plot progresses a bit, but for the first hour nothing is really resolved. Jack is befriended by a local priest who tries to help Jack, but again is stopped at every turn by Jack's insistence on privacy. The priest lives up to the dramatic stereotype of priests, wise and perceptive. He knows that Jack is not what he claims to be. Jack says that he is poor with machines and the priest can tell from observation that Jack is lying. But even this cleric can find out nothing of interest about Jack.
Like Clooney's character in UP IN THE AIR, Jack has spent his life never making emotional connections to people and now is paying the price in solitude. Jack does seem to have the beginnings of a relationship with a local prostitute. We see a lot of her as well as seeing her a lot. The pacing is supposed to be suggestive of European directorial styles. Dutch director Anton Corbijn was previously known for music videos and rock documentaries. Here his work is controlled and even slow, though never tiresome. Most of the film is not action scenes, and much more is a textured view of setting. The film has not been cast with familiar faces, though both the prostitute and the assassin are played by unusually attractive women.
This film is probably not going to find a big audience after the first week for the simple reason that it does not satisfy most of the audience's expectations. In the European style the emphasis is not on plot but in conveying atmosphere. In the end we do not know who any of these people are or why what we are seeing is happening, and the setting is the film's greatest asset. I would rate THE AMERICAN a low +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 5/10.
SPOILER...SPOILER...SPOILER...SPOILER.. .SPOILER... The plot of THE AMERICAN film runs strangely parallel to that of the much better film IN BRUGES.
Film Credits: http://uk.imdb.com/title/tt1440728/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/American
FOR MY WIFE... (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: The tragedy of the loss of her life partner in a lesbian relationship was hard enough on Charlene Strong. Then the hospital would not let Strong see the dying woman because it did not recognize a lesbian relationship as giving Strong the same rights it would give a man. This is the forceful and moving story of Charlene Strong who became a powerful force in getting a bill passed for a statewide Domestic Partnership Registry for Washington. Strong's story is moving and inspiring. The film goes on to give the then current status of marriage equality in various places in the country. Writer/director David Rothmiller generally makes a compelling statement with just a few false moves. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
Imagine that you have just gone through a terrible tragedy. Your significant other of nine years has gone from vibrant life to all but the point of death by a flash flood. You had been in the house trying to help her at the moment she drowned. She had been rescued by firemen and partially resuscitated, not successfully, by paramedics. Then she was dying in hospital, again just feet away from you. And in the whole world all you really wanted was to be with her to strengthen her in her last moments which could happen any second. And the hospital tells you that you cannot be with her. The hospital does not recognize any close relationship you had with the dying woman. Members of your loved one's birth family have got to be contacted and they have to give permission. Later when your loved one is dead the funeral parlor tells you that in spite of the fact that you are paying for the funeral you have no right to the ashes of your loved one. They must go to the birth family and then the family can decide if they want to give you the ashes.
This sort of treatment would never happen to you if you and the dying woman were a heterosexual couple. It could happen and did happen to Charlene Strong because at the time the State of Washington did not recognize that a gay couple had a right to be a gay couple. In spite of nine years of deep commitment to Kate Fleming, her partner and lover, and in spite of the couple having been married in Canada, in Washington Charlene Strong had no more rights than if she had been a casual friend of the last day or two. Fortunately, Kate's family did accept the relationship. Fleming did spend her last moments being comforted by Strong.
And after this treatment Strong--true to her name--dedicated herself to fighting for marriage equality and legal protection for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transsexual families. FOR MY WIFE is mostly dedicated to telling the affecting story of Charlene Strong. Strong goes on to tell the story of her treatment to the Washington State Senate debating SSB 5336, a domestic partner benefits bill. David Rothmiller, who wrote, directed, and edited the film--a first-timer on each--tells the compelling story with few false moves. On is a sort of interlude in which we follow Strong walking the streets of Manhattan to the tune of a folk guitar and a song. In a 60-minute film, those minutes could have been better spent. And he may not have had control of this, but the first minutes of the film, the story of the flood and how Fleming became trapped in the flooding basement, are the most compelling of the film. Later in the film he gives us a scattershot status report on the state of the marriage equality movement. While Charlene's story will be of relevant interest in ten years, the status report will age much more quickly, giving the film a shorter shelf life. Nevertheless at the moment it is highly topical and promises to remain so for the next few years. In most states Charlene could have had the same experience today.
This is a moving account that has us feel the damage done by a lack of marriage equality legislation. It puts a human face on the need for and failure to pass reasonable and decent laws. I rate FOR MY WIFE... a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. FOR MY WIFE... was released on DVD on August 31, 2010. It is available from Amazon.com.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1322918/
Fads, Dentists, and Names (letter of comment by Sam Long):
In response to Joe Karpierz's review of BELLWETHER in the 09/10/10 issue of the MT VOID, Sam Long writes, "The patron saint of fads is St. Petroc (a real Cornish saint)." [-sl]
And in response to Mark's comments on naming and professions in the 09/03/10 issue of the MT VOID, he writes, "There's an oral surgeon here in Springfield named Dr. Hurt. His name is very apt for a dentist--a sort of name called an 'aptronym'--but when he did a root canal on me several years ago, I experienced almost no pain. One of the funniest aptroynms that I've come across is that of gynecologist Dr. Ovary (and his wife, Madame Ovary--Flaubert would be pleased. Dr. & Mme. O. shouldn't be confused with the DC Comics character[s] of the same name.) [-sl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
I talked at one point about how there are distinctions in English that don't exist in Spanish (e.g., both monkey and ape are "mono"). But it works both ways (e.g., in English there is only one word for cousin, regardless of sex).
But there are also words that have no parallels at all, and I was just reading about some Spanish words that would be useful in English. For example, in Spanish "cuñado" means "brother-in-law", which we have, but "concuñado" means either the brother of one's sibling's spouse or the spouse of one's spouse's sibling. (I think the definition is usually stated as "the brother of one's sibling's spouse or the husband of one's spouse's sister," but this is no longer an accurate definition in Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Iowa, New York, Rhode Island, Maryland, and several foreign countries. I will convert all definitions to gender-neutral so that they are easy to compare.)
(One dictionary I have (American Heritage) defines concuñado as "the spouse of one's sibling-in-law". This includes "the spouse of one's spouse's sibling", but excludes "the sibling of one's sibling's spouse". Another (Real Academia Espa¤ola) says it is the relationship of the sibling of one spouse to the sibling of the other spouse. That would be the exact opposite: it would include "the sibling of one's sibling's spouse". but exclude "the spouse of one's spouse's sibling". It seems as though even the dictionaries can't agree.)
At any rate, using the most inclusive definition, my father's brother's wife's brother would be my father's concuñado. (And *his* (male) spouse would be my father's brother's concuñado. You probably thought that I was just being politically correct in saying "sibling" instead of "sister"!) So at last I have a simpler relationship description for my Uncle Gus and Elmer: Gus is my father's concuñado, and Elmer is my father's concuñado's spouse (or my father's brother's concuñado, if you prefer). This is clearly more compact than saying that Elmer is my father's brother's wife's brother's spouse.
Heading in the other direction, my brother has a stepson, so I have a step-nephew. To my step-nephew, Elmer is his step-grandfather's concuñado's spouse. This is much shorter than saying that Elmer is his step-father's father's brother's wife's brother's spouse.
Of course, one may ask how often such a case actually arises.
This is all reminiscent of discussing relationship terms in Jane Austen's works. (See, I did mention something to do with books other than dictionaries here.) "The past is a foreign country," L. P. Hartley said in one of his non-science-fiction books, and it is. When one of Jane Austen's characters refers to someone as a brother-in-law, she may really mean what we call a step-brother, and half-brothers are called simply brothers. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. -- Thomas Jefferson
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