MT VOID 12/10/10 -- Vol. 29, No. 24, Whole Number 1627

MT VOID 12/10/10 -- Vol. 29, No. 24, Whole Number 1627

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
12/10/10 -- Vol. 29, No. 24, Whole Number 1627

Table of Contents

      C3PO: Mark Leeper, R2D2: Evelyn Leeper, Back issues at All material is copyrighted by author unless otherwise noted. All comments sent will be assumed authorized for inclusion unless otherwise noted. To subscribe, send mail to To unsubscribe, send mail to

Presidential Pardons (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

It has come to my attention that President Obama pardoned the official Thanksgiving turkey.

While I am happy to see this turkey survived the holiday, the secrecy surrounding the pardon may set a bad precedent. This is an issue left over from the Ford administration, but a President should not be able to give a pardon without specifying what crimes the pardon is for. This is a "Nixon-like" pardon. I would like to know what were the crimes for which the turkey was sentenced to death. [-mrl]

It's Life, Jim, But Not As We Know It (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

By now the scientifically minded of the readers probably know that is very big and very strange discovery was made recently. A life form has been discovered on Earth that is not life as we have known it. Life as we know it is made of six basic elements, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur and phosphorus. These are the elements that go together to make the four bases of DNA: adanine, guanine, cytosine and thyamine. If you are going to have DNA you need all six of the elements to make up the molecules. DNA is basic to life as we know it. All organisms that are alive have DNA. Some viruses have RNA but not DNA. SARS and Hepititis are examples, but they are really too basic to be called life.

Or at least that was our understanding in November 2010. It seems not to be true in this month. Now there are bacteria, which definitely are a life form, that get along without phosphorus. Instead they have arsenic. Arsenic is a deadly poison to most life we know.

If you look at the periodic table of the elements you will see arsenic right under phosphorus. That means that the two chemicals have the same valance. They can combine to other atoms in ways very similar to each other. It is almost as if you could snap out the phosphorus in a molecule and snap in arsenic in the space that it made. Really you could take the phosphorus out of DNA and replace it with arsenic and the molecules would hold together. That is what having the same valance means. But then the resulting DNA (well, it would not really be DNA) would no longer function to create the proteins we need for life. Theoretically you could have a life form that has something like DNA, but which has no phosphorus and instead has arsenic. For such a life form phosphorus would be a deadly poison and arsenic would be part of the basic building blocks of life. This is very science-fictional or at least it would have been in November 2010. (I am reminded of a famous cartoon:

Researchers have started to wonder if there exist or could exist life forms that have near-DNA. Could there be life forms based on what would be DNA but which is built with arsenic rather than phosphorus? There was one place to go to find out. It is known that the water of California's Mono Lake is laced with arsenic. This is not a place you would want to go swimming. If anything with near-DNA that contains arsenic could be found, this is likely the place. Researchers took sample of mud collected and culture the microbes and then bathed them in even more arsenic. With arsenic of this concentration they almost all died. And that was a jaw-dropping discovery. The key word there is the "almost". There was one strain of bacteria that was not killed by the arsenic. One strain of bacteria thrived in arsenic. And in fact when its DNA was examined it had arsenic instead of phosphorus in what it used for DNA. (I guess that is kind of sad. Some of this population of bacteria survived heavy concentration of arsenic, but it did not survive the researchers who wanted to examine what it had for DNA.)

Now using November 2010 scientific understanding we would say that all life on Earth actually fits into a single evolutionary tree and because its DNA is made from phosphorus and arsenic is a poison to it. In December 2010 we know that that cannot be true. But we are not sure why it is not true. It may be that some organisms in that tree have adapted to arsenic and have become one more amazing example of an extremophile, like the life forms that survive in high temperatures like 170 degrees Fahrenheit. Organisms that can exist in spite of the presence of arsenic are called "Metallotolerant" which just means tolerant of heavy metals like copper, cadmium, arsenic, and zinc. This thing that has been found goes beyond Metallotolerant. Perhaps we have to coin a new word. It is a "Metalophile". It needs arsenic. That in itself would be pretty amazing. That is the dullest of the conclusions we can draw.

Another possibility is that there is life (currently) on Earth that does not have any ancestor in common with us. It came from a "Second Genesis." What makes this one astonishing is that it says that is a planet is sufficiently earth-like then it could create life multiple times. It would imply that nature does tend to create life and if it does it twice on this planet, it may do it on other planets. That means that we would have lots of planets out there where life has at least started. That would be an even more fascinating situation. There may be multiple trees of life.

The third possibility, and this one is more amazing than the other two, is that we may have actually found the descendents of alien life forms. "Alien" here means like "coming from outer space."

Any way you look at it, it is an amazing discovery. [-mrl]

How to Lie with Statistics (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper, with additional comments by Mark R. Leeper):

I just read an article titled "Demography and Economic Destiny: Why the Global Economic Crisis Is Really about Old Age" by Phillip Longman (). Longman makes a lot of statements that are mathematical. Some are correct, some may be correct but are poorly phrased, and some are just flat-out wrong.

Obviously what Longman is trying to say is that the proportion of elderly will be higher, and that of children will be lower, in 2050. But what he is *actually* saying is something else entirely. [-ecl]

LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS: THE OWLS OF GA'HOOLE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: Spectacularly animated, this US-Australian coproduction has a lot to offer visually, but it goes decidedly off the tracks in telling its story of an apocalyptic battle between good and evil owls. It makes an attempt at mystical magic, but it never overcomes the obstacles that the film sets for itself. Rating: 0 (-4 to +4) or 4/10

LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS: THE OWLS OF GA'HOOLE is an animated film with the main characters all being owls.

Well, to start off with, there are owls. Now I have nothing against owls. An owl is as good an animal as any. It deserves the right to its life. But it is just natural some animals inspire empathy in humans more than others. A nice mouse can get audience sympathy very easily. Humans can identify with a mouse. This is why so many animated characters are mice. Dogs and cats it is true even more so. And it is a lot easier to feel something for an owl than, say, a sea slug. But rare is the person who feels the urge to cuddle an owl. They just seem like they have aloof personalities. It is easier to identify with the mice in this film than the owls. And you see the mice for just a few seconds before fly-by owls snatch them up as a quick snack. When you next see the mice the have been eaten and the bones and fur have been regurgitated as mouse pellets. This is hardly the way to win over the audience to liking the owls. They make somewhat nauseating heroes for the film.

Then there is the problem that the viewer may have to struggle to tell one owl from another. One looks for signs that are very different from how you tell one human from another. A barn owl has a head that looks like a half-eaten apple. And they have different color trim around that big half-apple-like face. It is hard to pick up on that and really tell the owls apart. Owl faces are hard to remember. They do have some expression, but the main character, Soren, voiced by Jim Sturgess, has a face that looks like a repulsive caricature of Elijah Wood. That brings me to another obstacle the viewer has to overcome. The characters have names like Eglantine, Plithiver, and Otulissa. (One of the easier names is Bubo, which is probably homage to Ray Harryhausen.)

The plot of LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS: THE OWLS OF GA'HOOLE is deceptively simple thinking back on it. I guess it is just about a young owlet kidnapped by an evil owl army. He escapes joins a good owl army and goes to battle against the bad owls. The film just seems more complex because it is overloaded with bizarre, half- explained devices to complicate that plot. We learn that owls can become mindless robots by staring at the moon. The evil owls are trying to collect pieces of metal from dead mice so that vampire bats can assemble a force field that shoots out arcs of blue rays. This is all sort of nightmarish in just what odd touches are thrown at the viewer.

Perhaps the film should not be so dense in weird ideas, but it is condensing from three books by Kathryn Lasky in her GUARDIANS OF GA'HOOLE series. Following what seems to be the formula for animated films these days, the CGI is exquisite (or at least what used to be considered exquisite a few years ago). The owls are terrifically rendered. The mathematics to render the furry down of the owls looks perfect. And the flying scenes over spectacular scenery are terrific, rivaling those in AVATAR and HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON. The vocal cast includes stars Anthony LaPaglia, Miriam Margolyes, Helen Mirren, Sam Neil, Hugo Weaving, and Geoffrey Rush. The score by David Hirschfelder is lush, though not highly original.

This is not a children's film unless parents want to cater to children's natural love of whatever disgusts their parents. If this film intends to be taken as family fare, it is so only by contrast to director Zack Snyder's previous films, DAWN OF THE DEAD (2004), 300, and WATCHMEN. This is definitely not cute animal fare. I rate LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS: THE OWLS OF GA'HOOLE a 0 on the -4 to +4 scale or 4/10.

Film Credits:

What others are saying:


FOUR LIONS (film review by mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: This is a low-budget, dark comedy with a very clever concept behind it. Four dim-witted Jihadi warriors plan a giant terrorist attack in England, but bumble at just about every turn. Parts of the film are very funny and parts are misfires. But even on the misfires one almost feels one should laugh just to support the very idea of the film. Britain's TV director Chris Morris makes his first feature film for the movie branch of Britain's Channel 4. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10

Minor spoilers to convey the brand of humor.

Back when the telling of racist and ethnic jokes started coming into conflict with societal values I made the suggestion that if people really wanted to tell these jokes, the best thing they could do was reframe then as bigot jokes. (For example "Two bigots are building a house and one throws away half the nails...") Nobody seems to be particularly bothered if you tell jokes that are insulting to bigots. Nobody wants to admit that he is a bigot. Flash-forward to the present and not much humor is poked at the Islamic world for fear of starting riots and having fatal consequences. But British satirist Chris Morris has found a similarly ingenious way to poke fun at the Islamic Fundamentalist world. He has made a film about four would-be Jihadi terrorists who put together do not have the brains of a sheep. This film is sort of terrorist thriller crossed with THIS IS SPINAL TAP. I guess even people who sympathize with terrorist Jihadis do not sympathize with ones who have room temperature IQs.

Omar the leader (played by Riz Ahmed), Waj (Kayvan Novak), Barry (Nigel Lindsay), and Faisal (Adeel Akhtar) are angry Muslims living in Sheffield. They decide they want to give up their lives to be like the suicide bombers they see in the news. They want to strike a blow for World Islam. They have the fire in their bellies to be really great martyrs and to echo down through history. But they are not really sure how to go about echoing down through history. They have just not come to terms with the fact that they are just a bunch of screw-ups who really should not be trusted with eating utensils, much less dangerous weapons and explosives. They get bogged down in the simple stuff. When they try to do the everyday tasks of a Jihadi terrorist they are beyond their grasp. The attempts to make a threatening videotape to explain their actions turn into a fiasco of incompetent filmmaking. They meet with teachers to train them how to use weapons most effectively, but the relationship breaks down when it is time for prayer and they strongly disagree on just what direction Mecca is. Even with such a small terrorist cell there is serious dissention about what their target should be and hard feelings when not everyone can get his way.

The film makes every attempt to mimic the style of a serious documentary. It is shot with a none-to-steady hand-held camera. The second half of the film is a little more serious at the Jihadis attempt to execute their plans, but one wonders how effective this band of buffoons can be.

These Jihadis may hate everything we stand for, but like us they are victims of Murphy's Law. For them everything that can go wrong (under Chris Morris's direction), will go wrong. They may be insane terrorists, but they are all too much like us. I rate FOUR LIONS a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10. The greatest irony with the film is that when the terrorists accomplish anything at all the viewer is apt to feel good for them.

Film Credits:

What others are saying:


Turner Classic Movies in December (letter of comment by Kip Williams):

In response to Mark's comments on films on Turner Classic Movies in December in the 12/03/10 issue of the MT VOID, Kip Williams writes:

Thanks for pointing out the K. Gordon Murray special. I've already set a timer for it, and I hope it has a healthy chunk of time devoted to those whacked-out Mexican fairy tale movies. I've had SANTA CLAUS for years, and "Reel Wild Cinema" gave some good clips from RED RIDING HOOD, but it just wasn't enough. YouTube also has some of them, including the complete Riding Hood and Tom Thumb versus ... I can't keep track ... Wolfman, Dracula, and Frankenstein, or something like that. Now that's entertainment, and every single pleasure of it is a guilty one, because nobody in their right mind, etc., etc., etc.

THE BRAINIAC is strangely effective, too, even with the inflated- looking head. There's something dreamlike in it, which can be taken as a segue to Cocteau, whose ORPHEUS is of particular interest, as I admire the dream-world of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT sounds good, too. Indeed, you make me want to see several movies, as usual. [-kw]

Mark responds:

A documentary without those fairy tales would indeed be a letdown. But I have to say I am more interested in the science fiction and the horror. CURSE OF THE DOLL PEOPLE has some creepy visuals. You mention THE BRAINIAC, but don't mention the highly realistic scene of the meteor crash:

I think the film you are trying to remember (and I am trying not to) is LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD AND THE MONSTERS. But by all means see THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT.

Thanks for the encouragement. [-mrl]

This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):

In addition to all the books mentioned in recent columns as preparation for our recent trip to Italy, I also read "Inferno" by Dante while in Italy. Now, I personally prefer H. R. Huse's translation (ISBN 978-0-030-08690-8) over John Ciardi's (ISBN 978-0-451-53139-1) for readability. Ciardi's translation maintains the rhyme scheme of the original, but I find it distracting, since it is not a traditional one in English. But my copy of Ciardi's translation was about half the size of my Huse, so I took that, and I will admit that poetically Ciardi is better. For example, I was struck by this description of Dante climbing a steep hill:

"And there I lay to rest from my heart's race
till calm and breath returned to me. Then rose
and pushed up that dead slope at such a pace
each footfall rose above the last."      [Canto I, Lines 28-31]

But when I got home and looked it up in Huse, it was rendered as:

"After I had rested a little my weary body,
I took my way over the lonely slope
[climbing] so that the firm foot always was the lower."
     [Canto I, Lines 27-29]

It is clearer, but not as poetic.

At times one hears echoes of Bible verses:

"These are the nearly soulless
whose lives concluded neither blame nor praise.
They are mixed here with that despicable corps
of angels who were neither for God nor Satan,
but only for themselves."
     [Canto III, Lines 32-36]

This reminds me of:

"I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth."
     [Revelation 3:15-16]

And sometimes I see something that may be Ciardi taking his inspiration from elsewhere:

"... [I] walked at his side
in silence and ashamed until we came
through the dead cavern to that sunless tide."
     [Canto III, Lines 76-78]

This sounds a lot like:

"Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea."
     [Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "Kubla Khan"]


"We were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea."
     [Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"]

Huse renders this:

"Then with eyes ashamed and lowered,
fearing that my words might have offended him,
I kept from speaking until we reached the stream."
     [Canto III, Line 78-80]

which drops both the "dead cavern" and the "soulless tide".

The section on limbo seems to have a contradiction in it (in both translations). First Dante has Virgil say:

"And still their merits fail,
for they lacked Baptism's grace, which is the door
of the true faith *you* were born to. Their birth fell
before the age of the Christian mysteries,
and so they did not worship God's Trinity
in fullest duty. I am one of these."
     [Canto IV, Lines 34-39]

"and by himself apart, the Saladin."
     [Canto IV, Line 129]

"Hippocrates, Galen, Avicenna,
and Averrhoës of the Great Commentary."
     [Canto IV, Lines 146-147]

The problem is that Saladin, Galen, Avicenna, and Averrhoës all lived after "the age of Christian mysteries" and were aware of them, so it makes no sense according to what Virgil has said that they are in Limbo instead of lower down. Yes, it is possible that Virgil was not telling the whole truth, but you would think that the presence of Saladin, who fought the Crusaders, would seem a bit strange to Dante.

ROME THEN AND NOW IN OVERLAY by Giuseppe Gangi (no ISBN) was a book that one of our guides in Rome used as a graphic aid. A nano- description would be "time viewer in a book". It is a set of twenty-four photographs of various ruins in Rome. With each photograph is an acetate overlay that is clear (see-through) for the parts of the picture that are the Roman ruins, and painted sections that cover the modern sections with a picture of what the scene would have looked like back then. For example, all that remains of the Forum of Augustus are four columns, the crosspiece above them, and the steps. With the overlay you see those as part of a complete building in its original setting (some of the modern buildings are cleverly blocked out by clouds). This seems like a great teaching aid for history classes (though probably not at the college level). It is probably more accurate than most of the movies--I have yet to see an accurate portrayal of the Roman Senate building in one of those. [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

          Nothing produced such odd results as trying to get even.
                                          - Franklin P. Jones

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