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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
11/05/10 -- Vol. 29, No. 19, Whole Number 1622
Table of Contents
Science Fiction (and Other) Discussion Groups (NJ):
November 11 (Thu): 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY ("The Sentinel" by Sir Arthur C. Clarke), Middletown (NJ) Public Library, film at 5:30PM, discussion of film and story after film November 18 (Thu): IDORU by William Gibson, Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM December 9 (Thu): THE MAN FROM EARTH ("It's a Good Life" by Jerome Bixby), Middletown (NJ) Public Library, film at 5:30PM, discussion of film and story after film January 13 (Thu): THE 10TH VICTIM ("Seventh Victim" by Robert Sheckley), Middletown (NJ) Public Library, film at 5:30PM, discussion of film and story after film
Dangerous Cuisine (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I was eating in an Italian restaurant that put macaroni in their antipasto. It created a time paradox right there on my plate. [-mrl]
In Style vs. Substance, Is Purchased Style Winning? (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
There is an old cartoon from the New Yorker with a teacher talking to a crestfallen student. The teacher is saying, "This report is very disappointing. What kind of software are you using?"
At the time the cartoon came out I think it was funny and at the same time disturbing in the way that New Yorker cartoons frequently are. Are we reaching a point when software makes a difference as to how good a piece of report-writing is? Well, I am not talking here about information retrieval software. I can easily believe that a good search engine might help in research. In fact, today I would think it is a necessary research tool. But I think the cartoon was referring more to formatting software like PowerPoint. In fact, is style becoming a major factor in what students are expected to learn? Does the kid with the best software have a leg up on the competition for the best book report? I would hope not. I am afraid that my worst fears were realized with a Microsoft ad.
The first inside page of the October 2010 Smithsonian magazine has the following ad from Microsoft. It shows three young boys in some sort of throes of joy. The ad text says:
"We want to make it great so our book reports aren't SNORE FESTS.
"I'm Cort, and my brothers and I figured out how to make homework less stinky. We do cool stuff to text like making it 3D, or add pictures with new Word 2010. You can change the color of photos, add borders and all sorts of stuff. It's really easy. And pretty awesome. Like us."
Now that leaves little room for interpretation. They do not say that formatting software will get a better grade but that without it their book reports are "stinky" "snore fests". The implication is much the same. A stinky snore fest will probably not get the good grade that same report would get if it was well-enhanced with some simple format changes. But the kids in the ad miss the point. So much more can be done with the writing to make the report exciting than can be done adding flashy margins. The flashy margins are just a superficial enhancement. As they say themselves this sort of change is really easy.
It would be nice to think that good writing would do more for them with their teacher. Their central problem is that they wrote a book report that was a stinky snore fest. But then, does this lesson apply to the real world that they will face after they leave school. It would be nice to think that if they would punch up their writing, that would do more for their report than making it 3D. But perhaps that is not as true in the real world as it is in school. In the real world style very often sells better than substance. First impressions stick with people and style has a lot to do with success. You cannot tell a book by its cover, but you can sell it by its cover. It is much easier to give it a good cover than to give the book real substance. And I cannot say that even in school I am sure the fancy dressing up of a stinky book report does not do considerable good. That is particularly a fear if the teacher is easily impressed by the superficial.
In general I do not like the concept that what you buy will make you look better academically. I do not like a situation in which a purchase that some students cannot afford gives an academic advantage to students who can afford that purchase.
I sell my services as a tutor. In doing this I will willingly help students understand the material of their mathematics classes for a price. But there I think what I am selling them is real useful knowledge. I have refused to sell my services to coach students for Scholastic Aptitude Tests. In part I am afraid that if the test is a well-constructed measure of aptitude, I should not be able to increase a student's apparent aptitude without increasing his/her true aptitude. I will gladly help a student to get more understanding, but not to simply look better on a test. On the other hand, if the test is not well-constructed I do not want to give a student an unfair advantage in return for money. In my time I took the tests without coaching, and if there is a level playing field nobody should be able to buy an advantage in return for money. Taking money to give a student an advantage without raising the student's aptitude subverts the test. [-mrl]
Ten Things I've Learned about Saving Stuff (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Here is a set of rules learned from both my and a friend's recently dealing with clearing out our parents' houses.
Next week: Ten things I've learned about inheriting stuff. [-ecl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
As preparation for our trip to Italy, I read a lot of the books on the suggested reading list provided by Road Scholar (formerly Exploritas, formerly Elderhostel)--well, actually by Trinity College (Connecticut), who does the educational part of the tour. The complete list had 49 books on it--presumably we were not expected to read all of them. And since all the books seem to cover the Renaissance or later (except for one historical novel by Colleen McCullough), if someone wanted to do any reading on the Etruscans or the Roman Empire, that would make the list even longer.
So I used a highly refined system to decide which to read: I decided to read all the books I had or my library had and if I still had the time and inclination after those, all the ones I could get through inter-library loan. So to some extent I was reading a random selection of books, but I have to say it did not impress me. There were only a couple of straightforward histories (none available in my library), but a lot of books about the "feel" of Italy and about Renaissance artwork.
I started with THE DARK HEART OF ITALY by Tobias Jones (ISBN 978-0-98547-700-1), a book about politics and corruption in post- War Italy (more specifically, Italy of the last couple of decades). This seemed like an interesting topic, but Jones has such an opaque Writing style that I had to give up. I think he is trying to be poetic, but that did not mix well with the complicated topic, and a full chapter on the world of soccer did not help. (Was it supposed to be another example of corruption? A metaphor? If I understood soccer it might have made more sense.)
ITALIAN DAYS by Barbara Grizzuti Harrison (ISBN 1-55584-311-5) is divided in eight chapters, each about a different city or region. I had decided to read just the Venice, Florence, and Rome chapters, since those were the cities we were going to visit. This was easier to follow than the Jones. However, her description of the Venetian Ghetto gave me pause: "No Italian's death goes unmarked; here, in the Ghetto, death notices posted on walls bear not the Cross but the Star of David; and there are plaques to commemorate the lives and deaths of Israeli martyrs." Given that this comes right after quoting a plaque in remembrance of the Jews deported to Nazi concentration camps, I suspect Harrison meant *Jewish* martyrs, not *Israeli" ones. Maybe this doesn't seem like a major error, but it tends to make one suspicious of all her other statements. And ultimately, I decided that while the Jones was interesting but impossible to read, this was easier to read, but uninteresting.
At last in BRUNELLESCHI'S DOME: HOW A RENAISSANCE GENIUS REDISCOVERED ARCHITECTURE by Ross King (ISBN 978-0-8027-1366-7) I found a book both interesting and readable. Filippo Brunelleschi built the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore (Il Duomo) in Florence, Italy. (Note that Brunelleschi did not actually design the dome; that was done by Arnolfo di Cambio, although Brunelleschi made several changes to the design.) This is the largest masonry dome in the world (143 feet in diameter, beginning at 170 feet above the floor of the cathedral and with a final height of 295 meters, or 375 feet including the lantern). St. Peter's in Rome is ten feet narrower, St. Paul's in London is thirty feet narrower, and the Capitol dome in Washington is only two-thirds as wide. Yes, the Astrodome is larger, but its building materials are completely different from those of Il Duomo. Nervi's Palazzo dello Sport is about 200 feet across but made of reinforced concrete *and* supported by flying buttresses. The Duomo's 463 steps to the lantern still remain for tourists to climb.
Brunelleschi's challenges were not just how to support the dome during construction (he decided against the traditional central vaulting, probably because the height would have made that impossible), but also how to lift the bricks and marble blocks up to the dome, and how to move them into place with the precision needed.
DEAD LAGOON by Michael Dibdin (ISBN 978-0-679-43349-1) is a mystery novel set in Venice. I'm sure it does a wonderful job of evoking the city for people who are familiar with the city, but for people who are unfamiliar with Venice it is merely confusing.
A VENETIAN AFFAIR by Andrea di Robilant (ISBN 978-0-375-41181-X) was catalogued as fiction by my library, but is actually non- fiction--the history of a love affair between Andrea Memmo and Giustiniana Wynne in the 18th century. This book is based on letters found in the de Robilant family attic in Venice. It is well-written, but I have to ask, "Why should I care about these people?" Shakespeare did a better job making me care about a fictional couple in Verona than di Robilant did about a real couple.
Finally in THE WORLD OF VENICE by Jan Morris (ISBN 978-0-15-698356- 7) I found an overview book that actually gave a readable overview, describing Venice in all its aspects.
I listened to CITY OF FALLING ANGELS by John Berendt (read by Holter Graham) (ISBN 0-739-30878-5) rather than reading it, because our library had the audiobook but not the regular book. It is about Venice, but focused around the story of the fire that destroyed the Venice Opera House in 1996. Berendt's previous book was MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL, and this is similar in that it focuses on the interesting, if not bizarre, people who populate the city in question while at the same time covering the investigation of a crime. That Berendt decided to write about Venice and went there *before* the fire makes the similarity even more eerie.
Somewhere around here I realized that most of what I had been able to find was about Venice, even though we were spending only about a quarter of the trip there. The next book, MOTHER TONGUE: AN AMERICAN LIFE IN ITALY by Wallis Wilde-Menozzi (ISBN 978-0-86547- 501-4), wasn't about Italy, but rather about Parma. We were not even going to Parma, and after reading pages and pages about the author's pet cats, I decided I could skip this one.
Is it me, I found myself asking, or is it the selection? In college, syllabi made sense, the books were readable, and it all seemed to click. Here some of the books seem only peripherally connected to our itinerary, and with many of the other books I feel like a middle-schooler dropped into a graduate level course on the experimental novel. I'm not used to having so many books that are hard to read--not in the sense of not being able to understand the words or even the sentences, but in the sense of feeling like there is no worthwhile content in them.
More on this next week. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: It is not a fragrant world. -- Raymond Chandler
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