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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
03/18/11 -- Vol. 29, No. 38, Whole Number 1641
Table of Contents
Really Comforting (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
A news-item I saw said this about the Fukushima nuclear problems:
"The new setbacks emerged as the first readings from U.S. flights over the plant in northeastern Japan showed that the worst contamination had not spread beyond the 19-mile range of highest concern established by the Japanese authorities." -- http://tinyurl.com/leeper-19-mile
In fact, I am fairly certain that statement is true. And I can do better than that. I am fairly sure the worst contamination has not left the grounds of the Fukushima plant itself. The worst contamination will be within inches of the reactor. I do still have a concern that what has spread beyond that 19-mile range is plenty bad enough. [-mrl]
Failure to Launch ... (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Evelyn pointed out the article cited below that MARS NEEDS MOMS may be one of the biggest Hollywood bombs of all time. She fastened on the quote "But there was one significant problem, as Viane said, 'Not enough people came to see the movie.'" Evelyn thought that was a bit obvious.
What I would say is that what she meant is that film popularity is a lot like a chain reaction. You need enough people to see the film and like it for word of mouth to spread. Popularity of a film works like a chain reaction. This one did not receive critical mass. Or perhaps the masses were too critical.
Rocky Exo-planets Viewed from a Distance (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I was discussing with friends how astronomers are finding rocky planets in other solar systems. Is that possible? How does one see a planet across the huge gulf of space even to the nearest star? Yet I remembered hearing that indeed rocky exo-planets had been discovered. This seems incredible. I vowed to research how it is possible to detect anything as small as a planet over such a huge distance. The article that I had seen which partially explains the feat is from January 11, 2011, and it was entitled "Kepler-10b -- The first unambiguous rocky exoplanet": http://tinyurl.com/leeper-rocky-exoplanet
See also the account at physicsworld.com: http://tinyurl.com/leeper-rocky-exoplanet2
How can you tell the makeup of a planet that is too far and small to see? Let's take it a step at a time.
How do you know an exo-planet is rocky?
So far we have found gas giants, hot-super-Earths in short period orbits, and ice giants. Now we are also finding rocky earthlike planets. They can be distinguished by size and density.
How do you measure the density of an exo-planet?
You divide the mass by the volume.
How do you find the mass of an exo-planet?
You find the ratio of the mass of the planet to that of its star.
How do you find the ratio of the mass of a planet to that of its
First you find the mass of the star and then you measure its wobble as the result of the orbiting planet.
How do you find the mass of the star?
You can get that from the size and the vibrational frequency of "starquakes" on the star. I will not go into explaining that computation here, he said bluffing and hoping nobody would ask him to go into that computation ANYWHERE.
How do you measure the vibrational frequency of "starquakes" on the
star and size of a star?
You use a really good orbiting telescope. That is the mission of the Kepler telescope.
How do you find the volume of an exo-planet?
4/3 pi*r^2 (Sorry, I feel compelled to use a mathematical formula now and again.)
How do you find the radius of an exo-planet?
Divide its cross section area by pi and take the square root.
How do you find the cross section area of an exo-planet?
You measure how much the star seems to dim when the planet is in front of the star blocking light (in transit).
How do you measure the dimming of a star precisely enough to know
the size of a planet in front of it?
You use a really good orbiting telescope. Did I mention the Kepler?
One wonders how in all that there is not enough error to throw off the calculation. Well, there is one way to find out. We have to go to those other solar systems and examine the planets. We want to see if they really are rocky and that our deduction is correct. That may take a little while. In the meantime we can say that we have discovered rocky exo-planets without a whole lot of fear we will be contradicted.
The first rocky exo-planet found was around the star Kepler-10b. It was easier to make the measurements with this star than it would be the typical star. That is because that star has the tranquility that comes with great age. Kepler 10-b is somewhere near 8,000,000,000 years old (of our years, that is). The density of the planet is 8.8g/ccm. That makes the planet denser than iron. It definitely is not mostly gas. However it might have been at one time. This may be what happens when a gas giant, not unlike Jupiter, gets really close to its star. The loose gas gets blown off spaceward and you are left with the planet's dense center.
It is impressive how much can be deduced from the little amount of data we can collect from this distance. [-mrl]
BLACKOUT by Connie Willis (copyright 2010, Spectra, $16.00, 491pp, ISBN 978-0-345-51983-2) (book review by Joe Karpierz):
By now, just about every one involved in the genre knows that BLACKOUT is the first half of a novel from Connie Willis that involves her time traveling Oxford historians from the mid-21st century, and that the reason for the split is that the final novel was too big to publish in one shot. The second half is ALL CLEAR, also released in 2010, and the two together will most likely be considered one work in terms of the upcoming Hugo awards. As an aside, as to whether the novel was too big to publish as one book is hoo-hah. Yeah, the two together come in at something like 1100 pages (I'm not exactly sure what the total count is, since I have one in trade paperback and one in hardcover), but, as Evelyn said in her review of both together, it has been done before. She cites Dumas--I cite any Peter F. Hamilton book which typically clock in at something near 1000 pages and are *only part of a complete story*. I'm not as annoyed by the fact that it's not clear that the books go together as Evelyn is; what I *am* annoyed about is that, like Evelyn, I believe that the novel does not need to be that long.
I was on a panel at Capricon recently that dealt with potential Hugo nominees. I'll admit that I was in the middle of reading BLACKOUT at the time, but at the point I was in the novel I was firmly convinced that not only would the whole story be a contender, but that it would win the Hugo itself. I based this on the 2010 books I'd already read, which of course is a small sample size considering what the rest of the panelists had read, but I was convinced nonetheless.
As I continued to read, however, it continued to get longer and longer and longer and it didn't seem like much was really happening. What we do know that happened is the assignments of all the Oxford historian time travelers were getting rescheduled in a way that doesn't make sense to both the historians and the readers. It's not the only thing that doesn't quite make sense, but then again the reader has to be certain that whatever the reason is that the schedules are being messed up is the same reason that the three main characters are in the pickle they're in to begin with.
To briefly summarize, since Evelyn reviewed this just a couple of weeks ago, we're following three time travelers who are on different assignments in World War II. And things get hosed up. Circumstances prevent them from doing what they're supposed to do, being where they're supposed to be, and getting home when they're supposed to. It seems that the war itself may be getting a bit messed up because the historians themselves may be changing history, which they're not supposed to be able to do.
The one thing that is hugely impressive about this half of the book (which I'm reviewing instead of reading the whole thing and then reviewing it because at this point I don't what to read 1100 pages straight of this book) is Willis' knowledge of World War II England, the setting of this book. The details about life during wartime, the shelters, the evacuations, etc., are particularly impressive; the problem is that Willis doesn't know when to stop with the infodumps--which I didn't actually think of as infodumps at the time, but in restrospect that's exactly what they are. I had the same reaction to this as I had with the Donaldson I recently read and reviewed: get on with it already. The two differences I see here are that a) this book is eminently more readable, which makes the delay more tolerable, and b) eventually, something actually happens in the Donaldson.
Okay, that's not fair. Stuff happens here. Mostly war stuff. Stuff happens to our characters, but to me, not enough. They spend more time running around looking for each other and trying to get home than they do just about anything else. They seem to be drifting aimlessly--as does the first half of the book.
Maybe I'm being more unkind than I need to be. Maybe ALL CLEAR will make this all better. I like Connie Willis, and I really want to like this novel. I still like Connie Willis, but I'm having trouble with the novel. And if there's anybody on that panel or in the audience at that panel that's reading this, well, I'm sorry. I think I was wrong. [-jak]
CANNES MAN (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: This 1996 film is set somewhere between fiction and film industry reality. A legendary (and notorious) Hollywood producer turns a nobody into the talk of the Cannes Film Festival. Though some of the bits are funny, this is a film that would probably work for an insider in ways that might go right past an outsider. With a full slate of celebrity actors in cameo roles this romp is an education behind the scenes in how film deals are made. There is something of an eye-opening lesson here in the sorry state of filmmaking and why films are not better than they are. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
Producer Sy Lerner (played by Seymour Cassel) is famous throughout Hollywood, but there is only one thing he can do that film actors and executives would like, and he just did that. Sy Lerner has died. All his debts are forgiven just because people are just happy to be rid of the guy. His protégé Frank Rhinoslavsky (Francesco Quinn) remembers Sy and how at Cannes Sy took him from being a New York City cab driver and turned him into the toast of the Cannes Film Festival on rumor and hype alone.
Frank is visiting Cannes and sleeping on the beach when (with a nod to MY FAIR LADY) the despicable producer Sy Lerner bets one of his few friends that he can make anyone the star of the film festival. The friend picks Frank as the most unpromising candidate around. To prove his point Sy transforms Frank with the right clothing and grooming so that he looks the part of a successful new writer--new name Frank Rhino. Then he goes about trying to make a non-existent script supposedly written by Frank and using hype turn it and Frank into the hottest properties at Cannes. Sy hypes and sells these properties going around to a host of real people--many actors the viewer will recognize, some people from behind the camera who will be a little less familiar.
Perhaps the film might have worked better if Sy had had a more varied and amusing set of tricks. In fact, Sy's approach is mostly to bluff by saying that the supposed script is already being lauded all over the festival and to cite other people who have been fooled by his bluff. The people Sy convinces are people like Dennis Hopper, Johnny Depp, Benicio del Toro, John Malkovich, Dennis Hopper, and James Brolin--and the rest of an impressive set of cameos. Twenty-five of these parts are listed in the IMDB. It is likely that many of the cameo sequences resulted from director Richard Martini roaming the festival, running into stars, recruiting them for cameo roles, and shooting their scenes right there. But how many fans would recognize Harvey Weinstein or Menahem Golan?
One suspects that much of the humor here may go right past viewers not in the film industry itself. Four writers are listed: Deric Haddad, director Richard Martini, Irwin Rappaport, and Susan Shapiro. Each probably bringing his own set of stories from within the system. That makes the feel of the film a little uneven. Certainly the cameos work that way. For that matter Sy Lerner is probably based on someone or multiple filmmakers real, though perhaps Roger Corman seems the closest.
CANNES MAN is not a great film and some comedies show more of the inner workings of the film industry. I recommend Christopher Guest's THE BIG PICTURE, though Robert Altman's THE PLAYER is probably the best received. CANNES MAN may pitch more humor than most viewers will catch, but there is more than enough to make the film worth the watch. I rate CANNES MAN a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10. CANNES MAN was released on DVD and Blu-ray on March 1, 2011, from the Cinema Libre Studio.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0115818/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/cannes_man/
Efficient Sports (letters of comment by Peter Rubinstein and Lax Madapaty):
In response to Mark's comments about efficient sports in the 03/18/11 issue of the MT VOID, Peter Rubinstein writes:
Another example: Bowling--a perfect game is one where only 12 balls are rolled.
(Although technically, 9 strikes followed by an open frame would involve only 11. Generally, though fewer deliveries is better.) Competitively, a pitcher's perfect baseball game is 27 batters up and 27 down, the minimum for a 9-inning game. [-pir]
Lax Madapaty writes:
Likewise with cricket--a batsman can just stand at the wicket, hit the ball over the fence repeatedly and score, without having to run between wickets. It takes much less energy. [-lm]
Mark says, "I suppose there are some sports like golf and bowling, where you have a specific task to do and try to do it in the least amount of time." [-mrl]
Fukushima (letter of comment by Mike Lukacs):
In response to Mark's comments on Fukushima in the 03/18/11 issue of the MT VOID, Mike Lukacs writes:
My views on this topic are probably closer to your friend's than yours. But you should be pleased by the solution Winking smile emoticon given below. Risk is a fascinating topic. Every thing we do or refrain from doing involves risk. It is known that automotive accidents will kill and maim many people each year, but we still drive automobiles and use trucks, etc. Every new wonder drug involves risk of side effects, bad reactions, and unforeseen consequences. But not using such things also involve risk. For each of the above, as for nuclear power, we have various agencies and government regulators whose job it is to minimize risk, but risk is still there. It would be tragic if this incident caused the world to stop building nuclear power plants, but perhaps it is time for our government to put much more effort and money into finishing the development and deployment of the only inherently safe type of reactor.
The Thorium / molten fluoride salt slow breeder reactor will safely and quietly shut down if power is lost. (If it overheats or power is lost a salt plug melts and the fuel liquid drains into safe nonreactive storage.)
The reaction is self-regulating so it will never overheat, (hotter = slower = cooler) and it cannot be used to produce weapons grade Plutonium (which is why it was never fully developed by our
military). It also recycles its (liquid) fuel so that it produces much less waste and what it does produce has a much shorter half- life.
This link also has many links to full explanations, discussions, and advocacy groups about MFS/Thorium reactors. [-mel]
The world seems to have the dilemma that we cannot safely produce all the energy that is demanded by society. We are seeing large disasters in the energy production industry. The bright side is that we may not have reached a technical barrier. What seems to be coming out now is that like the Gulf oil spill, the Fukushima reactor had not been properly inspected and regulated. What came out after each disaster is that for a long time both the Gulf oil drilling and the Japanese nuclear industry had not been properly inspected and regulated by their governments. In both locations the management had gotten away with selfish and dangerous practices that went unobserved by their governments, in large part because of the cost of proper regulation including having people knowledgeable enough to frame proper regulations. The irony is that the energy industry produces a tremendous amount of capital at the same time that there is not enough funding to properly inspect and analyse it to make it safe. It would seem that the intelligent solution would be to tax the energy industry to fund a safe level of uncorrupted oversight. But the energy industry has sufficient government influence and political influence here and abroad to prevent that from happening. That is not the direction we seem to be going in. The problem is that the pressure will soon be off to closely examine our nuclear plants and make sure they are safe. The pressure is off to closely inspect off shore drilling. The pressure is almost always off. It is on only for a short time following a disaster when that disaster is in the public eye. For the next few months, if we are lucky, there will be closer inspections of our nuclear plants. A year from now the pressure will be off again even there. [-mrl]
Alexander Awards (letter of comment by Charles Harris):
In response to Evelyn's comment on Mike Resnick's Alexander Award in the 03/18/11 issue of the MT VOID, Charles Harris asked, "Do you have a list of winners and dates of this Alexander Award? I don't recall hearing about it, and none of the many Alexander Awards that Google lists is associated with Bell Labs." [-csh]
In 1992 and 1993, the Science Fiction Club at Bell Labs voted on the nominees for the Hugo Award for Best Short Story, and the award was named the "Alexander", after Alexander Graham Bell. The winner in 1992 was Mike Resnick's "Winter Solstice"; in 1993 it was Connie Willis's "Even the Queen". I will not say that we had huge voter turn-outs the first two years, but the third year we did not have enough to warrant announcing a winner. My notes indicate that in 1992 and 1993 all the Short Story nominees were available free electronically, but that this was not true in 1994. Now, or at least for the last few years, the nominees have been available free electronically to members of the voting Worldcon, but not always to the general public.
Winners were announced in the 08/07/92 and 08/13/93 issues of the MT VOID. [-ecl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
KRAKEN by China Miéville (ISBN 978-0-345-49749-9) was a disappointment. I loved Miévlle's THE CITY & THE CITY, and a book about a giant sea monster by him seemed really promising, but somehow it never came together for me. The writing style is probably more reminiscent of his "New Weird" books (PERDIDO STREET STATION, KING RAT, and such) than the noir style of THE CITY & THE CITY, or the more varied styles of his shorter fiction. It was supposed to be funny--at least according to the blurb--but it never achieved that for me. I suspect those who liked Miéville's earlier work will like this.
THE INVENTION OF MOREL by Adolfo Bioy Casares (translated by Ruth
L. C. Simms) (ISBN 978-1-59017-057-1) is a 1940 science fiction
novel. It was on the syllabus of "The International Legacy of
Jorge Luis Borges", a 2007 course at Penn State. I could not take
the course, but I did read the works on the syllabus, or at least
those that I could find. (My description of all the works can be
Knowing the background of the work helps. Bioy Casares was
fascinated by silent film star Louise Brooks, and THE INVENTION OF
MOREL was motivated by this. The science fictional aspect of the
novel is clearly related to cinema and our reactions to it, in
particular our tendency to see the character on the screen as the
reality, rather than just as a created image. And although the
book is seventy years old, and predates computers, artificial
intelligence, etc., there is still the germ of the ideas of
uploading personalities and of virtual realities. [-ecl]
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Quote of the Week:
Out of fifty mathematical papers presented in brief
at such a meeting, it is a rare mathematician
indeed who really understands what more than half a
dozen are about.
--E. T. Bell
Knowing the background of the work helps. Bioy Casares was fascinated by silent film star Louise Brooks, and THE INVENTION OF MOREL was motivated by this. The science fictional aspect of the novel is clearly related to cinema and our reactions to it, in particular our tendency to see the character on the screen as the reality, rather than just as a created image. And although the book is seventy years old, and predates computers, artificial intelligence, etc., there is still the germ of the ideas of uploading personalities and of virtual realities. [-ecl]
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