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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
04/08/11 -- Vol. 29, No. 41, Whole Number 1644
Table of Contents
Second Life (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Last week I asked where are all the groovy people you meet in Second Life coming from. They have to be the same bizarre cast of characters you meet in Real Life. So what is the advantage? I wonder if most people join this virtual reality world thinking it was called Second Wife. [-mrl]
This Year's Members of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Seattle's Science Fiction Museum has named its 2011 inductees to their Science Fiction Hall of Fame. This June 25 the new inductees will be Harlan Ellison, Vincent Di Fate, Moebius, and Gardner Dozois. You can see a list of the current members of the Hall of Fame and read about them at
Planning for the Unthinkable? (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
The struggles to bring the Fukushima nuclear plant under control are continuing, but public attention seems to be moving away from that particular crisis while it is still far from resolved. I may have more interest in it than most because it is a science-related crisis that is making the news. I also am finding the developments more disturbing than most other people are. We keep hearing things that make me uneasy and also I am curious about how bad this incident can get. As of today's writing they are saying that plutonium is leaking out of containment and into the soil. Workers are laboring away heroically under conditions that are probably shortening their lives. The whole incident reminds me of science fiction warnings of the past, perhaps especially Lester Del Rey's NERVES, and it may not come to so happy a resolution.
Every time there is a disaster in the nuclear energy industry you hear some spokesman pointing out that with any energy source there are dangers implicit in its production and use. The alternatives to nuclear energy also have their risks and costs. Mining coal is risky to the people who go into the ground to dig. Miners are frequently killed. It is true that fossil fuels are dirty and coal combustion is the cause of an estimated 10,000 deaths per year in this country. CO2 from fossil fuels a cause of climate change and changes in ocean chemistry. Much the same can be said for drilling petroleum. It is a good point, but the two situations are not exactly analogous. The radiation of Fukushima much more affects the previously uninvolved in the population. People fifty miles from a mining cave-in do not get cancer as a result of a cave-in, while radiation from Fukushima will be causing disease at a greater distance.
My feeling is that in actual usage (as opposed to production), nuclear energy is safer and cleaner and has less environmental impact than fossil fuels. But far worse things can happen in producing nuclear energy than in producing coal fuel. Worst-case scenarios in producing nuclear energy are much worse than in producing other forms of energy. Few industries have downsides running as deep as the downsides from nuclear energy production. Many of these downsides may result from very low probability events. For example, though the probability of a meteor trashing a nuclear reactor is small, the effect could be really bad. Is it reasonable to expect that a nuclear plant must be made safe in the event, say, of a meteor strike? Probably not. We might feel different in hindsight if it actually happens. But very low- probability events do happen. And if your standard of safety is so strict that a nuclear facility must be secure even if such a low-probability events happen then you might as well outlaw nuclear energy production altogether.
What I am reading now is that Fukushima was a very old plant and the regulation of the plant was incomplete and sloppy. And that is very similar to the official story of the BP spill, also blamed on reckless procedures. I am not sure I expect anything much different. When your corporation has been involved in a great industrial calamity are you better off accepting blame or deflecting it? Some people involved in such a fiasco might think the better policy is to claim you had done everything by regulation. But in the long term, even if what happened was not your fault it is smarter to claim the blame. Why? Suppose BP had taken the stance that they had followed all the rules and regulations. That would have sent a message to the public that the current set of rules is insufficient to avoid catastrophe. The result would have been at the least stiffer regulations and perhaps BP would lose its license for off-shore drilling altogether. It is probably smarter to accept blame, even if falsely, than effectively to tell the public that stiffer regulation is needed.
But it is not clear if anyone is to blame for the Fukushima disaster. Certainly the crisis was caused by a very low- probability event. This was a record-breaking earthquake followed by a record-breaking Tsunami. Fukushima was planned well for its time. The plant had safeguard systems for the event of an earthquake. The plant had safeguard systems for the event of a Tsunami. And they had human procedures if either system failed. The problem was that the earthquake knocked out the Tsunami precautions. Then the quake recovery was disabled by the Tsunami. The resulting radiation called for evacuation so the human procedures had to be abandoned. It was not expected that Japan would suffer both calamities in such short order. It can be noted however that they might have suspected in an earthquake area that they could get a quake that would cause a Tsunami and that would release too much radiation to allow for the human procedures. The three events were not at all independent. They were closely interlinked.
I do not know enough to judge just how bad the situation is in Japan, but it sounds like it could get a lot worse. We still could get a major meltdown. I don't believe anybody knows for sure what happens then. It seems likely that a big piece of Japan will be dangerous for a long time to come. This could be a disaster that will be ever renewing itself in the foreseeable future.
The same people in Japan who probably thought they were over- regulated are probably regretting not having more regulation and better planning. [-mrl]
LIMITLESS (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: A man whose life is a failure tries taking a drug that will increase his intelligence. It plunges him into a new world with both big advantages and perhaps bigger disadvantages. It is a race to see what grows faster, the strength of Morra's intellect or the power of the enemies he attracts. Perhaps for too much of the second half the drug could be any MacGuffin, but generally the writing is good and even enthralling. Bradley Cooper stars as Eddie Morra in a bracing story that examines what intelligence will and will not buy and what is the effect that such a drug would have on society. Neil Burger directs a script by Leslie Dixon based on a novel by Alan Glynn. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
Eddie Morra (played by Bradley Cooper of THE HANGOVER) is about thirty and discovering there is not that much he is good at doing. He thinks he could write a great novel, but for months cannot get even the first sentence written. He looks like someone who sleeps on cardboard under a bridge. His former brother-in-law gives him a tab of NZT, a new designer drug that greatly boosts intelligence. Just one freebie is all it takes to convince Eddie that he has got to get more of this wondrous drug, and when he does his novel turns to gold, he becomes a gambling genius, and graduates from betting on cards to being one of the great geniuses of the stock market. He even is attracting the attention of one of the great moguls of the stock market Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro). But two problems come along with NZT. One is finding sources for the illicit drug. The other is to avoid being eaten alive by others who are desperate to get their hands on NZT. Morra decides that he never wants to go back to being just normal again, and then discovers some of the drawbacks of using NZT.
The story is mostly told in flashback as Morra is preparing himself to throw himself off of a high building, so the viewer sort of gets the idea that there are some serious drawbacks to getting your intelligence from a pill--particularly an illegal pill. But this is not really a morality/anti-drug tale. It is more almost a superhero story with the lead character's power being intellect, and perhaps he is not so much a hero.
LIMITLESS would have had more power if we could see how it feels being a genius in a world that once did not think much of him. He could have been a sort of a latter-day Charly Gordon. But he measures his progress by financial success, by what high-paying successes he has rather than by any internal and emotional measure. Even as a genius Morra seems very prosaic, wanting nothing but more of the same things he has always wanted, money and attractive women.
Directing LIMITLESS is Neil Burger, whose previous work includes the engaging puzzle film THE ILLUSIONIST. I do not tend to see the sort of films that Bradley Cooper has been in, so to me he is a new face in film and he does seem to convey the exhilaration of his new powers. His Morra is fairly easy to empathize with even with his banal tastes. Abbie Cornish who plays his girlfriend is not given much range of emotion to put across. She is almost unrecognizable as John Keats's love interest in BRIGHT STAR. Of course, her clothing and her hair were very different in that film. For some reason Robert De Niro is cast as the great old Wall Street baron. Somehow I can see De Niro as a criminal, but he just is not the Wall Street type. Perhaps in the end (in life and in this film) there is not so much difference in the two types.
Surprisingly, LIMITLESS never sermonizes on the morality of intelligence by drug. It is a fresh and well-written thriller. I rate it a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1219289/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/limitless/
SOURCE CODE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Army Capt. Colter Stevens must relive the same eight minutes over and over to find and stop a terrorist bomber intent on destroying Chicago. From director Duncan Jones who wrote and directed MOON comes a fast-paced sci-fi thriller that keeps the viewer too busy to realize where the ideas just do not work. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
Spoiler Warning: there is a discussion of the ideas of the film following the main body of this review.
SOURCE CODE is a movie that works like a video game. Army Capt. Colter Stevens (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) must live the same eight minutes over and over until he gets it just right. Getting it right in this case is averting a terrorist bomb attack. Coulter has awoken groggy on a train into Chicago and a complete stranger Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan) is calling him Sean. Now Coulter should know who he is, but with a look in a mirror he discovers he is in the body that this Sean used to inhabit. The last thing he remembers before falling asleep was that he was serving as an Army pilot in Afghanistan and got into trouble. One would think that he was safer on a train to Chicago. Then just minutes later the train explodes and everybody, including Colter/Sean is dead. The latter wakes up in an ugly grunge-tech chamber. A television monitor in the chamber shows him Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga of NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH and UP IN THE AIR), who is telling him he has to go back and re-live that eight minutes while he searches for the bomb and the bomber. He also wants to find out why and how he has been chosen for this mission and how can he set up long-term relationship with a woman who is already dead and whose shadow he can see only in eight-minute snatches.
Apparently the government has a new technology that allows the user to go back in time and visit the "shadow" of an event that has already happened and to interact with people and objects. Shadow people see him as just one of them and can talk to him and touch him. If he can find the bomb he may even be able to disable it. The high concept of this film seems to be "GROUNDHOG DAY with explosions."
Presenting this story also involved having to solve some representation problems most directors never have to think about which perhaps delve into the metaphysics of film image. We need to see on the screen that Colter is in Sean Fentress's body. So when we see Colter he looks (a lot!) like Jake Gyllenhaal but in his reflection in a mirror we see another actor Frederick De Grandpre. To a viewer why should Colter look any different in a mirror than he does looking directly at him. Apparently when we see Colter we see him as he sees himself, or rather how he thinks of himself, but seeing his reflection in a mirror we see him as others see him. I think that the TV series Quantum Leap may have set a precedent here, but it is not one that makes any sense at all. Speaking of things that make no sense at all there is the title of this film. What is "source code?" It is text written in a computer language like C++ or Algol that will be converted to the binary language that a computer can execute. It is text written in an intermediate between human language and computer language. In the film it is a device that sends a (particular kind of) person back in time to mingle with the shadows of the past. That has nothing to do with programming languages. There is no source code in SOURCE CODE. The title is no more or less appropriate a title than would be MANHOLE COVER.
In the end this film is just a lot of silly fun. There is nothing wrong with that unless the film aspires to be a more profound piece of science fiction. A film like the current LIMITLESS may not be as much fun, but it has thought out the consequences of the development of an intelligence-raising drug. I hesitate to say the science of SOURCE CODE is impossible, but it is a whole lot less credible that that of some science fiction films. Some science fiction films are for turning your mind off and some for turning your mind on. SOURCE CODE falls into the former category. I rate it a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
In PLANET OF THE APES it is understandable that the apes speak English, but it is absurd that until the end of the film Taylor never asks himself how is it possible that the apes from another planet would know English. Similarly it is not clear why Rutledge should think it is possible to interact with things that are just echoes of the past. Without knowing that parallel universes are involved the whole idea of changing the images of the past does not seem possible. There is no reason to believe that Colter can alter and interact with the echo of what has already happened. That would be like crawling into a film canister of KING KONG and successfully convincing Carl Denham to leave Kong on his island. Not to mix my metaphors but the moving finger has already written and moved on if the worlds visited are just shadows of the past.
In SOURCE CODE the ideas simply do not bear scrutiny or are glossed over. Toward the end of the film Colter learns Source Code is actually generating the parallel universes. And that makes it a little more possible. But it raises more questions. Will Colter forever inhabit the body of another man? And does Sean have to die for him to do that? Colter was only saved in one universe. Aren't there a large number of parallel universes created and in which the train still exploded, Colter died, Sean died, and in most Chicago was destroyed? For that matter I don't remember Coulter disabling the bomb even when he knew how to do it in the "comedian performance" universe. It is not unusual to have a science fiction film that requires the viewer to turn off his mind. But this film has a lot more than most for him to turn his mind off of.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0945513/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/source_code/
Intentional Errors on Maps and Names (letter of comment by Fred Lerner):
In response to various items in the 04/01/11 issue of the MT VOID, Fred Lerner writes:
[Mark writes,] "Actually there are a lot of places where intentional errors are made. When logarithm tables are published frequently there are intentional errors around the 10th-decimal place. If those same errors show up in someone else's published set of tables it proves that they plagiarized."
Mapmakers do this, too, making up small towns and other geographical features to put in obscure places as a trap for plagiarists. And for unwary motorists, too--I was running very low on petrol on a trip through the California countryside east of Paso Robles, and was annoyed to discover that several of the promising towns marked on my map simply didn't exist.
[On another topic, Evelyn writes,] "Does it mean something that in the West we put a person's personal name before his or her family name, while in the East the family name takes precedence? [-ecl]"
And what does it mean that Hungarians traditionally put the family name before the surname? (For that matter, what does it mean that Jews and Arabs didn't adopt family names until relatively recently?) [-fl]
Names (letter of comment by gunputty):
In response to Evelyn's comments on names in the 04/01/11 issue of The MT VOID, gunputty writes:
Your question about surnames/family names is an interesting one, and I daresay a search of Google on the subject would lead you to quite a few studies of just the question you asked. The study of names is a fascinating one. China is not the only place where the "family" name comes first. This is also the case in Japan, and, curiously enough, in Hungary, and in a different form, in the Roman Empire. In most of Europe and the cultures derived from it, though, the custom has been a "given" name, to which a surname might be added; but the surname was merely an adjunct, not a clan or tribal name in the sense that Chinese ones are. Or so I understand. Certainly tribalism and clannishness faded comparatively early in Western culture (even in the Celtic fringe), so that your given name became important, not the clan or tribe you belonged to. This is not the case in most of the Arab world, I understand, which is a cause of much friction between those people and the West.
There are quite a few cultures that don't use surnames or "last names" even today. The best known is Iceland: there you use your given name and patronymic (or matronymic), and Iceland's telephone directories are alphabetized by given name. Examples: Eric son of Lars is Eric Larsson; Eric's sister is Anna Larsdottir; Eric's son Gunter is Gunter Ericsson, and Gunter's sister is Vigdis Ericsdottir, and so on. An Icelandic woman doesn't "take" her husband's surname on marriage because he doesn't have a surname. [-gp]
BLACKOUT (letters of comment by various):
In response to Evelyn's review of BLACKOUT in the 03/25/11 issue of the MT VOID, there is a *long* thread of comments at http://tinyurl.com/rasff-blackout. (Some of these were included in the 04/01/11 issue.) [-ecl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Book sale season is here again, but it seems somewhat scaled back. (One volunteer thought it might be because fewer people are moving into newer houses, and a lot of the donations came from people who were moving.)
We didn't get to the East Brunswick Friends of the Library sale until the second day and it was fairly quiet, but one of the volunteers said that even on the first day, it was not very chaotic. Prices seem to have settled in at $2 for most hardbacks and trade paperbacks, and $1 for mass market paperbacks. This is reasonable as long as the books are not all ex-library copies (which the science fiction ones have been at times).
We bought much less than in previous years--only a half dozen books. Part of this is our effort to cut down our book acquisitions, but part is also due to the smaller selection. Of most interest were Thomas M. Disch's THE WORD OF GOD and Richard Feynman's THE PLEASURE OF FINDING THINGS OUT.
We went to the Bryn Mawr sale the first day that they were not charging an entrance fee, and while we did have to park in the far lot, it did not seem overly crowded either. And there were definitely fewer books than last year--large sections of table were empty. This year they advertised that they had 80,000 books; my guess is that last year they said 100,000.
Disorder (or at least inconsistency) rules at these sales. I'm used to seeing science fiction in the mystery and regular fiction sections, but even more confusing was that there were biographies of Joan of Arc in the literature, biography, *and* European history sections. (For all I know, there might have been one in religion also.)
Again, we bought fewer books than in the past (thirteen books for $20 total). My best find was David M. Rosenthal's THE NATURE OF MIND, an anthology of essays and articles about the philosophy of mind which is an excellent adjunct to the UC Berkeley course on the philosophy of mind that I am currently listening to. I also got WHO IS MARK TWAIN?, a collection of previously unpublished articles by Twain from the Bancroft Collection (at UC Berkeley--I just cannot get away from it!).
Coming up in mid-April is a sale at JR Trading, a company specializing in remaindered books, and in June is our own library's Friends of the Library sale. I still enjoy going to all of these, even if I'm buying less.
PACKING FOR MARS: THE CURIOUS SCIENCE OF LIFE IN THE VOID by Mary Roach (978-0-393-06847-1) looks at the nitty-gritty details of space travel: space sickness, body odor, elimination, and so on. The most memorable passage is the one in which Roach talks to Jon Clark about the Columbia disaster and what happened to the astronauts in it.
As Roach tells it, "At one point Clark handed me an STS-107 mission patch, like the one the Columbia astronauts had worn on their suits. I thanked him and set it down on the desk. It seemed like a good time to ask about his work on the Columbia investigation. ... 'We had some very unusual injury patterns that were not explainable by anything that we are accustomed to.' Clark said. ... 'We know how people break apart,' Clark continued. 'They break on joint lines. ... But this wasn't like that. It was like they were severed, but it wasn't from some structure cutting them up.' He spoke in a flat, quiet manner that reminded me of Agent Mulder from THE X-FILES. 'And it couldn't have been a blast injury, because you have to have an atmosphere to propagate a blast.' I was looking at the Columbia patch. The seven crew members' last names were stitched around the perimeter: MCCOOL RAMON ANDERSON HUSBAND BROWN CLARK CHAWLA. Clark. Something clicked in my head. When I had first arrived on Devon Island, I'd heard that the spouse of one of the Columbia astronauts would be here. Laurel Clark was Jon's wife, I now realized. I didn't know whether to say something, or what that something would or should be. The moment passed, and Clark kept talking."
We recently watched the 1985 BBC version of Charles Dickens's MARTIN CHUZZLEWIT. I found an interesting contrast between Dickens's attitude toward "flighty" girls and Jane Austen's attitude. In Austen, when a young girl who is a major character cares only for dances and pretty clothes and soldiers in uniform, and looks on marriage as a way to lord it over her unmarried sisters, fate (or friends and family) conspire to make everything turn out all right. In Dickens, when a young girl has a similar attitude, she ends up as she probably would in real life: with a husband who married her only for her money, and who drinks and beats her. (I realize that the generalization about Austen is not entirely true. For example, Colonel Brandon's first love in SENSE AND SENSIBILITY comes to a bad end, but she is not a major character--indeed, we never actually meet her at all.)
And speaking of Dickens, it is clear that Tolkien got his inspiration for the hobbits' names from Dickens. Brandybuck, Bracegirdle, Sandheaver, Smallburrow ... they have a certain Dickensian ring to them, don't they? [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: A friend who cannot at a pinch remember a thing or two that never happened is as bad as one who does not know how to forget. --Samuel Butler
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