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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
03/04/11 -- Vol. 29, No. 36, Whole Number 1639
Table of Contents
March 10 (Thu): "Paycheck" by Philip K. Dick, Middletown (NJ) Public Library, film at 5:30PM, discussion of film and story after film March 24 (Thu): THE PHILIP K. DICK READER (selected stories), Old Bridge (NJ) April 21 (Thu): STIFF by Mary Roach, Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM
Subscriber Publishes Book (announcement):
Dan Kimmel, long-time subscriber, has published his fifth book, JAR JAR BINKS MUST DIE... AND OTHER OBSERVATIONS ABOUT SCIENCE FICTION MOVIES. It is available on Amazon at http://tinyurl.com/leeper-jar-jar. [-mrl]
Science Fiction Fan Wins Oscar! (and Other Oscar Comments) (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Shaun Tan won his first Oscar this year for "The Lost Thing". Shaun was Guest of Honour at Aussiecon Four last fall, where he also won a Hugo for Best Professional Artist, so he's been having a *really* good year. (Someone has noted that this makes Shaun the first person to win a competitive Oscar; Roger Corman was Guest of Honor at L.A.con III (1996) and received an Honorary Oscar last year. Ray Bradbury has received an Emmy.)
Melissa Leo has been criticized for using the "f-bomb", as everyone is calling it. (Apparently, even the word "f-word" is now considered too strong!) On the other hand, there were some very refined speeches, such as David Seidler's and Colin Firth's for THE KING'S SPEECH. But surely I am not the only one who wishes that Firth had gotten up and delivered his practice exercise from the film, of which the only word that we can print here is "buggerty". [-ecl]
Answer to Last Week's Puzzle (by Tom Russell and Susan de Guardiola):
Last week I gave the puzzle:
Find a set of four, four-letter, words in which three of the letters are the same in all the words and the other letter position forms a four-letter alphabetic sequence. The pattern might look like this: VOID WOID XOID YOID. In this example the second, third and fourth letters are the same and the first letter forms a four- letter alphabetic sequence. Which letter position is used as the sequence is for you to find.
The answer is aves, awes, axes, ayes(!) or eves, ewes, exes, eyes. [-tlr]
Susan de Guardiola sent in:
Here are a few answers for this week's puzzle:
PAID, QAID, RAID, SAID JADE, KADE, LADE, MADE BARN, CARN, DARN, EARN EATS, FATS, GATS, HATS MOMS, NOMS, OOMS, POMS MUTS, NUTS, OUTS, PUTS AITS, BITS, CITS, DITS BANS, CANS, DANS, EANS, FANS (two runs of four) AINE, BINE, CINE, DINE, EINE, FINE (three runs of four) KATS, LATS, MATS, NATS, OATS, PATS, QATS, RATS (five runs of four)
This one is simple for anyone who's passionate about Scrabble (and thus memorizes word lists and is used to running through one-letter substitutions in one's head). One key to coming up with pairs is to identify a word with two vowels in a row, so changing one letter still leaves you with a vowel. EATS, OATS, OUTS, AITS, etc. Then test the surrounding consonants for either of the vowels.
All words are Scrabble-legal. [-sdg]
Answers to Previous Weeks' Puzzles (by Tom Russell, Arthur T., and Susan de Guardiola):
Two weeks ago, Tom Russell proposed:
Our old dictionary has the two-letter word jo meaning "sweetheart". (See also http://www.yourdictionary.com/jo) If you back up one letter in each place the J becomes an I and the O becomes an N (in the same way HAL relates to IBM), so JO becomes IN, another two- letter word. How many other such "ladder" pairs of two-letter words can you find? You should be able to find up to five more such pairs of words.
Arthur T. sent in:
Some people see puzzles like this as a memory challenge. Others see it as a programming challenge.
My program (and my database of words) said:
14 pairs found of 2 letters. 30 pairs found of 3 letters. 12 pairs found of 4 letters. 4 pairs found of 5 letters. 2 pairs found of 6 letters. 0 pairs found of 7 letters.
There are quite a few words in there that aren't in my standard dictionary, but are in my anagram dictionary (which is what I search for this kind of puzzle).
ad-be, ah-bi, an-bo, ax-by, de-ef, he-if, hm-in, in-jo, ne-of, no-op, od-pe, oh-pi, sh-ti, to-up
add-bee, ads-bet, aha-bib, ana-bob, dee-eff, des-eft, dud-eve, end-foe, eng-foh, eta-fub, her-ifs, hmm-inn, ids-jet, ins-jot, its-jut, mho-nip, nah-obi, nee-off, nod-ope, nor-ops, nos-opt, odd-pee, ods-pet, ohm-pin, oho-pip, ohs-pit, ons-pot, rho-sip, ton-upo, tor-ups
adds-beet, anna-boob, ants-bout, char-dibs, deer-effs, gnar-hobs, inks-jolt, knar-lobs, odor-peps, ohms-pint, snog-toph, star-tubs
adder-beefs, sheer-tiffs, sneer-toffs, steer-tuffs
[If, like me, you don't count anagrams, there would be fewer results. -ecl]
In response to the first puzzle three weeks ago (02/11/11), Susan de Guardiola writes:
I'm surprised that anyone who reads fantasy had to check on "pell"--it's the thing a knight hits while learning to fight.
Likewise, "bot" and "bots" are not SFnal inventions--a bot is the larva of a botfly. [-sdg]
Getting On in the World (comments by Mark R, Leeper):
Our local two-year community college has just renamed itself a University. I guess even schools graduate and go on to bigger and better things. The community colleges which served a specific function are quitting that function and trying to compete with bigger schools. Any day now I expect to see TV programs like Ding- Dong University. [-mrl]
INCEPTION Reconsidered (comments by Mark R, Leeper):
I was very much looking forward to the film INCEPTION when it came out having liked just about every film writer/director Christopher Nolan has made going back to FOLLOWING and MEMENTO. I was fully confident that he would continue to add to a string of winners.
When I came out of actually having seen the movie INCEPTION indeed I was nearly bowled over by what I had seen. This was a complex science fiction idea carried out to its ultimate implications. It was no simple film. There were even nice little bits like actually filming the unending staircase from M. C. Escher. The film was demanding of the audience to be appreciated. But it was also an interesting enough idea that I was willing to go with it. So at the time I was impressed with the film and rated it a high +2 or 8/10.
That warm feeling about the film stayed with me for about a day. Then it started to hit me that something about the film had struck me as somehow very cold and emotionless. Well, some key scenes of the film take place in snow, an image that always has a strong emotional impact on me, perhaps because I was raised in Massachusetts and have learned to hate the snow and what it does to people emotionally. I think I was meant for warmer climes. But it was more than that. The characters seemed cold and aloof. I saw little reason to worry about main character Dom's fate.
Dom (the Leonardo DiCaprio character) just did not seem to be emoting very much. Perhaps he felt the role called for him to be cold and professional. In the plot he is fighting desperately to be able to go home and get back to his children. We are told that. But we don't see his face soften when he talks about them. He does not really talk about them except to mention them as his children. Nor is there any chemistry when he is with his wife. Essentially his children become the MacGuffin of the film. Having loved ones myself I can project onto Dom my emotions, but they are not coming from the character.
DiCaprio does know how to breathe life into the people he plays. He had played characters before that one could feel for. Legions of teenage girls seem to have fallen in love with him as Jack from TITANIC. He was at least acceptably emotive in THE GANGS OF NEW YORK. And director Christopher Nolan got good performances from his two obsessed stage magicians in THE PRESTIGE. Here in INCEPTION the main people we focus on are cold chess pieces. Without characters the story cannot really be compelling, it can only be intricate and require the viewer's full concentration. That is not really the same thing.
In a later editorial I mentioned that if I were to go back and reconsider the film I might well change the rating downward. Two or three people commented on the editorial saying they liked INCEPTION as it was and did not think it should be down-rated. One friend who said this is a very vocal critic of Stephen Spielberg. But Spielberg has always been very good at developing his characters as people the audience can empathize with. Characters like Roy Neary, Indiana Jones, and Alan Grant are opened to the viewer and you see the faults and what makes them tick. You see it in their actions. Spielberg is not afraid to give Indiana Jones fear of snakes and makes him something of a jerk at times. DiCaprio's Dom Cobb reveals too little of himself to make him more than a stranger. That is either the fault of the writer or the director, but in this case both are Christopher Nolan.
So I watched INCEPTION again and was reminded of the film's virtues. Indeed this is an absurd view of the mechanics of dreams. I am not convinced that nested dreams within dreams are a phenomenon that actually happens in the real world--if that is where it would happen.
So is what is worthwhile in the film the warping cityscapes and the zero-gravity hallways or is it the people experiencing these conditions? Well, both are important. Not that it is so important what I think of the film. (I am not that narcissistic. Christopher Nolan is most definitely not hanging on what I have to say.) But my opinion of the overall value of the film has not changed. On seeing the film again it re-affirmed the faults I had originally seen, but I also see more that is good.
On a lighter note, on re-watching the film I had this image of Robert Fischer (the Cillian Murphy character) waking up on that plane and trying to tell the others with a speech like "This was a real, truly live place. And I remember that some of it was not very nice, but most of it was beautiful. But it wasn't a dream--it was a place. And you--and you--and you--and you were there." [-mrl]
Notes on Travel and Arizona (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
We recently visited relatives in Scottsdale and I found myself noticing a lot of things.
For starters, Continental Airlines is losing it.
For a long time they were one of the best airlines. They were one of the last on which food was free, for example. But now--possibly due to their merger with United--they are going downhill.
Flying from Newark to Phoenix, headsets (actually earbuds) were free, but the entertainment system cost $6 to activate for your individual screen (or audio channels). Flying back, from Phoenix to Newark, earbuds were free if you picked them up from the bin in the gate area, but $3 if you bought them on the plane. There was no activation fee; however, you did have to watch them reboot the entertainment system four times before it worked. (It runs on Linux.)
The illuminated seat belt signs did not work on the return flight, meaning you never knew when you could get up and walk around.
The aisle seats have some sort of block under them that takes up half the underseat width where you would stow your carry-on. They charge for meals. On the flight out we did not even get a small bag of pretzels.
On the Spanish version of the flight map, by the way, Los Angeles is spelled the same, but retains the accent over the 'A'. Vancouver is Vancuver, St. Louis is San Luis, and New York is, of course, Nueva York. But Georgia is not Jorgia, and Texas is not Tejas. There seems to be little logic to what is translated and what is not. Washington does not become Huashinton, but Pennsylvania becomes Pensilvania. British Columbia becomes Columbia Británica, not Colombia Británica. It is still Salt Lake City and Panama City (FL), although the latter picks up an accent of the last 'a'.
Speaking of Spanish, in Scottsdale there is a restaurant named El Loco Patron, with a tilde over the 'o' in 'Patron'. There is not such thing in Spanish as a tilde over an 'o'.
We ate at Carolina's, which has great tortillas, and good food in general. But is it pronounced like the states, or "Car-o-leenas"?
Last year I mentioned that the Tucson airport offers free WiFi; so does the Phoenix one.
The saddest note may have been the passing of Bookmaster, a great used book store. I had heard that the southern store had moved from Scottsdale Road (the thirty-mile spine of the three-mile wide town) to a presumably cheaper location, but now both locations are closed. There are still a few used and antiquarian bookstores in Scottsdale and Tempe, and still Bookman's in Tucson, but Bookmaster is a real loss. [-ecl]
The Movies of the '00s (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Mark recently (in the 01/28/11 issue) had an article on the top SF films of the '00s. (Normally I'd write a decade as, e.g., "the 1950s", but "the 2000s" is too ambiguous.) There has been a fair amount of response, so I thought I would give my own similar, but slightly different list. Or rather, two lists.
The first I'll call "The Ten Best SF Films of the '00s No One Has Heard Of"; in chronological order they are:
A note on H. G. WELLS' THE WAR OF THE WORLDS: 2005 was the "Year of Three Martian Invasions". There was, of course, Steven Spielberg's film, WAR OF THE WORLDS (no leading definite article). There was also a feature-length version by C. Thomas Howell, H. G. WELLS WAR OF THE WORLDS (no definite article, and no apostrophe). But there was also a three-hour version by Thomas Hines, H. G. WELLS' THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (apostrophe *and* definite article). (The 1953 version was THE WAR OF THE WORLDS.) It is the Hines to which I refer, the only version set in Edwardian England, and done using filmmaking techniques as true to that time as is possible, or at least to the general era. (Shortly after I wrote that, I discovered that the three-hour version was a rough cut, and that the intent was to "improve" the special effects, etc. A director's cut has been released but seems to be unavailable; frankly, I think the "primitive" special effects add to the charm of the film.)
I will admit that THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE and ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND are at least somewhat better known than the others on the list, but when compared to films like THE LORD OF THE RINGS or IRON MAN, they qualify as at least moderately obscure.
The second list is "Directors to Watch"; some of these are well established, others are still working on the fringes:
THE HUMAN RESOURCES MANAGER (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: In this Israeli comedy-drama the title character works for a Jerusalem bakery from which an immigrant worker disappeared. The bakery did not know the woman had been gone. When she is identified as being the victim of a terrorist attack two weeks earlier, the company's indifference to her becomes a major public relations fiasco. The HR Director, whose own family life is falling apart, gets the assignment of taking the body back to her remote home in Romania. This begins a whimsical odyssey in which the HR Director will himself find the resources to be a little more human. Eran Riklis directs a screenplay by Noah Stollman based on a novel by Abraham B. Jehoshua. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
With most comedy-dramas the approach is to draw the viewer in with the comedy and then once he is hooked tell him a serious story. THE HUMAN RESOURCE MANAGER works nearly the opposite way. Most of the levity is the second half of the film. Until that point and around that point it is telling a fairly serious story. But the film takes time out to take a sort of bemused and amusing look at the Romanian hinterlands. There, in some ways, this film approaches the tone of EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED. There is not so much illuminated here, but the film does build to an unexpected and poignant irony.
To start with only one character is given a name. Yulia had worked for a Jerusalem bakery for years and yet nobody seems to really know who she was. When she is identified as the victim of a two- weeks-previous suicide bombing a reporter asks how could she have been dead two weeks without her supervision knowing it, the issue becomes a serious black eye to the company. The Human Resources Manager is made a scapegoat. He agrees that he will take Yulia's body back to her home in a remote part of Romania and will represent the company attending the funeral. As an unwelcome travelling companion comes the reporter who publicized the situation. Along the way they acquire another companion, Yulia's disaffected son. The manager will remain a resources manager, but along the way he will become a little more human.
In fact, the biggest life-changes seem to be in Yulia's son. Unfortunately, we learn some but too little of his emotional state. He begins as a bit of a cliché, blocking out the world with loud rock on his ever-present earphones. He will transform, but we are never really sure what wins him over. Some how we measure the changes in the manager by how he is accepted by the boy. The manager is in a difficult position. The more he helps Yulia's family, the less likely he will be back to Jerusalem to see his daughter's ballet recital. Either Yulia or his daughter will not get his attention. He is in a position where one or the other will lose.
Knowing each living character only by their title or position was probably intended to say something about the dehumanization of our culture. That really does not work. More dehumanization does not make the situation any better. This film seems like it is trying to say something significant, however exactly what does not really come across. As a portrait of a very diverse set of people coming together in a single story, the film is amusing. But no crucial insights come out of the tale. In the end, in spite of learning more about Yulia, she is still an enigma. She is a different woman than we had expected, but we are still not sure we know who she was. I rate THE HUMAN RESOURCES MANAGER a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1311075/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_human_resources_manager/
Space Travel and Man Versus Machine Intelligence (letter of comment by Greg Frederick):
Greg Frederick writes, "By the way, 'Nova' has had a very interesting series of shows on TV over the last three weeks or so. One show was about the possibility of space travel to Mars. Another was about IBM's research into developing a computer program called "Watson" (named after an early founder of the company)." [-gf]
Mark responds, "We didn't watch the 'Jeopardy' episodes, but we did see the 'Nova' on Watson and 'Jeopardy'." [-mrl]
Evelyn adds, "And I notice that one of the Congressmen from New Jersey, Rush Holt, just beat Watson at 'Jeopardy'." [-ecl]
Greg continues, "Franklin Chang Diaz, a former astronaut and now a astro-physicist is developing a new type of rocket engine with NASA called the Vasimr. It uses plasma (ionized gas at a million degrees) as the propellant. They take Argon gas and use radio waves to strip off the electrons and ionize the gas. Then a magnetic field insulates and isolates the plasma to funnel it to a charged nozzle that repels the ionized gas out the end of the nozzle at tremendous speeds. In Chang's own words: 'We use a magnetic force field to contain the plasma and electromagnetic waves to heat it (so nothing really touches it). The magnetic field acts as an invisible "duct," which of course, being a force field, does not melt. We call this "duct" a magnetic nozzle and it is one of the key components on the VASIMR engine."' This plasma drive engine can propel a spacecraft at 35 miles a second or 126,000 MPH. The fastest spacecraft ever built so far is the New Horizons probe that is now on its way to Pluto at 35,800 MPH. The plasma drive is more than three times that speed. It can take a six-month one way trip to Mars and reduce the time to about two months. It would be like traveling from New York to LA in 1.5 minutes." [-gf]
Mark replies, "It sounds like at base it is run by electricity. What kind of consumption does it have, I wonder. Are there batteries big enough to run it? Of course it could use solar cells. That might make it more effective going sun-ward from the earth rather than to the outer planets. Does it look like they have sufficient energy sources?"
Greg goes on, "IBM has created and refined over four years a computer program along with a specially built computer called Watson to compete with contestants on 'Jeopardy'. The 'Jeopardy' shows will air on 2/14/2011 - 2/16/2011. This computer has 2800 processors and is equivalent to about 6,000 PCs. It is not connected to the internet but has stored vast amounts of data about art, films, history, science, etc. It has a voice but does not hear human speech it only receives the answers and questions from the host thru electronic data sent as an email for example. On Jeopardy the host provides an answer and the contestant must come up with a question for that answer in about three seconds. Besides all of the data it has stored there are thousands of rule sets embedded in it's programming. But it still was making dumb mistakes until a few years ago when IBM researchers incorporated new machine, pattern-recognizing, learning algorithms into it. It can learn from its mistakes and improve its performance. IBM has been having it's employees play 'Jeopardy' against Watson over the past few years and it has been getting better and better. Next week it will play against the two best money winners that 'Jeopardy' has had in the last ten or twenty years. The real reason for this is not just to beat a human at 'Jeopardy' but to get publicity for their new program that could one day be an electronic assistant for a doctor or for the military or for NASA. Tune into the show next week and see what happens on live TV when man verses machine again."
Mark replies, "I saw after the fact. When it makes mistakes they are interesting mistakes and very different from the mistakes that a human would make." [-mrl]
Hugo Recommendations (letter of comment by Dan Kimmel):
In response to Dale Skran's Hugo picks in the dramatic category in the 02/25/11 issue of the MT VOID, Dan Kimmel writes:
I'm going to disagree strongly with his long form picks but first I want to say, "Here, here" to his comments about short form. I was involved in the early discussions on how to split this--although not on the official committee--and I, too, thought that what was needed was a category for best TV show (series, not episode) to go along with a movie category. I won't go over the strained arguments that prevailed over that commonsense solution, but yes, this is broken and ought to be fixed.
Now as for long form I think HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON is one of the more overrated films of the year. It's a perfectly acceptable animated film for kids, but it's formulaic and has accents for the Vikings that were so wrong they proved distracting. SALT was a fun thriller but not really SF, unless you consider brainwashing to be "science fiction."
Clearly the year's best SF film was INCEPTION and I'll be surprised if it doesn't get the Hugo. Other contenders for the ballot include little seen films like SPLICE, PREDATORS, and NEVER LET ME GO. Among the animated films I'd go with TOY STORY 3 and DESPICABLE ME. All good films, but INCEPTION was clearly the class of the field for 2010. [-dk]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
WANDERING LANDS AND ANIMALS by Edwin H. Colbert (ISBN 978-0-486-24918-2-6) was February's choice for our [mostly science] book discussion group. I recommended it; the reason I like it is that it has an epic sweep the same way that Olaf Stapledon's LAST AND FIRST MEN has. Both cover millions of years and the evolution of species over that time. It is not the individual that is the character but the collective, the species.
Back in 1972, when this was written, continental drift (a.k.a. plate tectonics) was still relatively new, and the KT asteroid still unknown. Colbert notes that the initial paleontological evidence for continental drift, a.k.a. tectonic plates, was explained in other unlikely ways, but geological evidence suggested Gondwanaland and it explained the paleontological evidence much better as well.
Although the KT asteroid was not known in 1972, there were speculations that it was some sort of global catastrophe that killed off the dinosaurs, and Colbert asks a question still unresolved: "Why the dinosaurs should have become extinct at the end of Cretaceous time is one of the great puzzles of geologic history. ... [Why] did all of the dinosaurs die out at the end of Cretaceous history? Why did not some of them survive, as did their close cousins the crocodilians?" [page 202]
Colbert chooses his words very carefully. He writes, "A theory, to be valid, must satisfy all aspects of the subject upon which it touches." [page 13] Note that he does not say that a theory is "correct", but that it is "valid." All those who talk about how evolution is "just a theory" need to understand what a theory is and what it means to be valid.
Colbert writes about digging for fossils in Antarctica, saying, for example, "It was interesting, however, to note the variability of temperatures within the hut. At floor level, water if spilled would freeze; at waist level the temperatures were usually about 40 degrees; at shoulder level a comfortable 70 degrees was common; and at the top of the arched hut the temperature was commonly 90 degrees and more." [page 48]
On the other hand, sometimes the information Colbert had at the time was incomplete. There were many instances where fossils of a certain type might be expected on a given continent but had [have?] not yet been found. Other speculations have since been disproved-- for example, "It has recently [as of 1972] been suggested, upon the basis of geophysical evidence, that most of China, and perhaps Indonesia, may have been a part of Gondwanaland, forming a northeastern extension of the ancient continent, to occupy much of the area between Africa and Australia." [page 65, also page 152]
He has a sense of humor; after having discussed all the fossil evidence of Lystrosaurus on various continents for several chapters, he says, "By now the reader probably is sick unto the point of ennui of Lystrosaurus, yet there is no getting away from this useful reptile." [page 71]
[By the way, I indicate page numbers because the index is skimpy- there are some entries in the index for "India", but not for all the mentions of India in the text.]
When we visited Newfoundland, we saw evidence of the continental drift Colbert is writing about. We toured the Tablelands, where the Earth's mantle is exposed. Our guide used an analogy with an apple: the skin is the crust, the pulp is the mantle, and the core is the core. The Tablelands is a piece of the mantle. As he said, "Here the earth is flipped inside out." How did this happen? "Continents are big rafts floating on magma." What is now the Americas is called Laurasia, and Eurasia/Africa is Gondwanaland. The Atlantic was Iapetus. Laurasia and Gondwanaland collided a billion years ago (the sign there said 450 million years ago, though). Normally you have subduction (both plates move downward), but here parts of Gondwanaland rode up on top of Laurasia. After 250 million years, they split apart, but on a different line, leaving pieces of the mantle from Gondwanaland behind. The glaciers scoured off the crust, exposing the mantle. It is not unique, though--all of the Appalachian, Long Range, and Caledonian mountains are the same range formed from this piece of mantle.
Of course, Newfoundland is weird in many ways besides having exposed mantle and being partially covered by the European tectonic plate. It, along with Labrador, was an independent country until 1949. Its time zone is a half hour off from adjacent time zones. Its cell phone service is not shared by any other company. And its provincial flower is carnivorous. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: I can forgive Alfred Nobel for having invented dynamite, but only a fiend in human form could have invented the Nobel Prize. -- George Bernard Shaw
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