MT VOID 09/16/11 -- Vol. 30, No. 12, Whole Number 1667

MT VOID 09/16/11 -- Vol. 30, No. 12, Whole Number 1667

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
09/16/11 -- Vol. 30, No. 12, Whole Number 1667

Table of Contents

      Frick: Mark Leeper, Frack: 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

Bargaining God Down (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

They say you cannot bargain with God. Nonsense. I find God is extremely reasonable and very approachable. If you remember He was going to bring the end of the world back on May 21, 2011. It occurred to me nobody was going directly to the Big Guy to ask reconsideration. I went and found Him more than approachable. I just gave Him a little flattery. "Who is like unto You?" That sort of thing. He soon got impatient with that and asked me what I wanted. Then I could then talk to Him. He is not happy about people hurting other people and telling other people what to do in His name. Also he said he had specifically forbade the eating of Greengage plums. I am proud to say I got Him to agree with my point of view, and I successfully bargained Him down from the end of the world to a mere global economic meltdown. So when you read the papers you have me to thank. I hope that is a better deal. (I forgot to ask why or where exactly He forbade Greengage plums.) [-mrl]

Surprise! Giant Ants Are Possible After All! (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

We are taking a course from the Teaching Company on "Impossible: Physics Beyond the Edge. One of the "impossible" things the course covers is why is it impossible to have giant arthropods like we saw in 1950s sci-fi films. We saw giant spiders, giant mantises, giant dinosaurs, and most memorable of all giant insect films, THEM!

You have probably seen the argument that giant monsters are a physical impossibility. It revolves around an observation that usually goes by the name "the square-cube law." An insect, in fact any animal we know, is a three-dimensional object. For simplicity's sake let's just talk about ants.

If you double a cube's scale, you make one twice as long. It will be not just twice as long but twice as wide and twice as high. Multiply those three twos together and you get eight. Double the scale of a cube and it will have eight times as much volume. Similarly, if you double an ant's scale, you make one twice as long. It will be not just twice as long but twice as wide and twice as high. Multiply those three twos together and you get eight. Double the scale of an ant and it will be eight times as massive. It will need more strength just to carry that extra mass. Well it would have more muscle strength. The strength of a muscle is proportional to the cross section of the muscle. Our scaled up ant would be four times as strong, but would have eight times the bulk to carry. The bulk is the cube of the scale while the strength is only the square of the scale. The argument says that a giant ant would not have the strength to carry itself. Hence there can be no giant ants.

That is a very good argument.

But I do not find it a convincing argument that there can be no giant ants. Why not? Well, because there really do exist giant ants.

How's that again?

I say there actually exist ... in our world ... giant ants.

No, don't go looking in the sewers of Los Angeles. There are no ants like you saw in THEM! Do not look for big ants; look for small ants. The ant's body is a highly functional--not to say amazing--design. (No I am not saying I believe in intelligent design.) It has been around since the time of the dinosaurs when it descended from wasps. The amazing ant body is highly tolerant to variations in scale. The smallest measures 0.75mm. That is about 1/20th of an inch. Can you imagine an ant so small?

The largest ant is about 52mm. (See That is better than two inches long. It is 40 times the length of the smallest ant.

What does the square-cube law say in this case? The largest ant is 52/1.3 = 40 times the scale of the smallest ant. What does the square-cube law tell us? It is 1600 times the strength of the smallest ant. But it is 64,000 times the mass. To the smallest ant the largest is truly a huge monster. It is an incredible giant among ants.

The point is this: every body design has a range of scales through which it is structurally sound. The human design supports adults that are very small and adults who are human giants. It probably is not structurally sound enough to support a scale range like the ant body's' 40:1 range. 40:1 is just amazing. If you are used to the 1.3mm ants, then there exist giant ants forty times the scale you are used to.

Humans probably do not have to worry about ants that are twenty feet long infesting the sewers of Los Angeles. That would be pushing the square-cube law a bit too much. There probably can never be an ant too big to fit in the palm of your hand. But there are ants heavy enough to weigh 64,000 times as much as other ants do. That is like having one man 100 pounds and another man, perfectly proportioned and weighing 3200 tons.

Now comes my question. Consider the variation in size that is observable in ants, a scale of 40 to 1 is allowed and exists in nature. Sure the square-cube law is a limitation, but it does not kick in to say scale differences are impossible until they pass scale factors of 40-to-1. King Kong ranged from 20 to 30 feet tall in the 1933 film. Is a 20-foot ape possible? I don't really know. But after looking at the ant I am not going to say the Square-Cube Law gives a categorical no.

That is a much weaker square-cube law than most of us think is possible. [-mrl]

CONTAGION (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: Director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns give us a fast-paced and grim scenario of a nasty but all-too- possible avian flu was released and spread through the environment. There are about six strands of plot running through the scenario, each with a recognizable actor playing the main character. In spite of the presence of major stars Soderbergh gives us the confidence that he is not tweaking the film to exaggerate the drama or excitement. Even without the usual tropes of science fiction, this is--among other things--an excellent science fiction techno- thriller. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10

CONTAGION begins with a cough. Beth Emhoff (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) is in an airport calling on her cell phone talking to a man--not her husband--about their recent sex. Beth does not know it but she is dying. And she is killing perhaps thousands who touch what she has touched. And they are killing thousands more as the contagion spreads by touch. We see a staccato montage of the sickness being spread by touch and by air travel. And so it begins. Within short days Beth is dead, as is her son. Her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) is seeing his whole world crumble like his life just did. We see what is happening in the outside world through his eyes.

CONTAGION is a science fiction film that is almost purely science extrapolation. There is a minimum of "boy-meets-girl" plotting; there are no fascistic military megalomaniacs (as there was in 1995's OURBREAK); there is no last-minute, high-tension race to save the human race. Just about every frame of the film tells what is happening with the epidemic. The filmmakers have taken and filmed an all-too-possible chain of events that might occur if a particularly nasty avian influenza got loose on the world population. Director Steven Soderbergh's rapid-fire of events comes at the viewer almost faster than it can be assimilated. There is very little that happens on the screen that is not advancing the scenario.

The action takes place in about six plot lines, not necessarily distinct. Two pivotal characters are Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), a Center for Disease Control official charged with leading the fight against the sickness, and a popular Internet blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law). Each will be the focus of moral issues arising from the pandemic. Each will prove to be selfish in his own way and each will be a threat to the public interest. The film makes a moral distinction between them, but each is dangerous in his own way which is very different from the other's.

One slight departure from the straightforward scenario format is that we start with Day 2 when the pandemic is already out of control. It is by this point too late to avert disaster, but the size of the calamity can be affected. In this way the viewer is immediately swept into a story already in progress. But the source of the epidemic is has to be found and will be revealed to the viewer only at the end of the film. The events of Day 1 are withheld to heighten suspense.

In Soderbergh's hands the film becomes a story very much of the 21st Century. The Internet and the attitude of the public is much more crucial to this film than it was or should have been in OUTBREAK. The information about the epidemic, be it factual or rumor, is as much a virus on the Internet as the virus is in the real world. The Internet is an important player in the efforts to control the results of the situation. Soderbergh manages to give the film a subdued look to counteract the sensationalism of the subject matter.

CONTAGION demonstrates that science fiction can be used in film for a more serious purpose than telling a superhero story. I rate the film a low +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10. In a sense this film is an interesting pairing with RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. People who stayed through the closing credits of the APES film will understand how well this film dovetails with that one.

Film Credits:

What others are saying:>


Virtual Iraq (letter of comment by Fred Lerner):

In response to Evelyn's comments on THE BEST AMERICAN SCIENCE AND NATURE WRITING 2009 in the 09/09/11 issue of the MT VOID, Fred Lerner writes:

In your discussion of "Virtual Iraq: Using Simulation to Treat a New Generation of Traumatized Veterans" by Sue Halpern (May 19, 2008, New Yorker), you wrote "I would have liked more information about how likely it is to become more common, whether its funding is in danger, and a lot of other things that Halpern was not writing about."

I can tell you that we have 75 publications indexed under the descriptor "Virtual Reality Exposure" in the PILOTS Database, the online index to PTSD literature that I produce in my day job at the national Center for PTSD. As there are several people actively working on developing and testing VR treatments for PTSD, I expect this number to grow.

I once amused myself by asking one of the leading researchers in this field if she was familiar with the early work of Zelazny on the subject... [-fl]

Shakespeare Authorship (letter of comment by Taras Wolansky):

In response to Mark's comments on ANONYMOUS in the 09/09/11 issue of the MT VOID, Taras Wolansky writes:

I've seen the trailer for ANONYMOUS, and it looks great. But I won't go see it (unless I can buy a ticket for a different movie and sneak in).

Why? Because it's simply not true that "just who really wrote the plays of Shakespeare ... has been a mystery for centuries." It was only in the late 18th century, as Shakespeare began to be regarded as a demigod, that aristocratic snobs refused to believe that a middle-class guy from Stratford could have written those "divine" works.

Yet it's obvious that Shakespeare's contemporaries had no doubts about the matter. Read, for example, Ben Jonson's critique of Shakespeare's writing style, which he considered too wordy. He is clearly not addressing an Earl or Queen. [-tw]

Mark replies:

The controversy started more recently than that. At least Wikipedia says the controversy only goes back to the middle 19th century. I would still say that it has been a controversy for more than one and a half centurIES. I guess I follow the plural construction of the language and say that plural means "more than one" rather than "two or more." (Wikipedia agrees, by the way.) However, you have to do what you think is right. I would suggest just not seeing the film rather than sneaking between theaters. But if you want to avoid the film nobody can stop you.

I know another friend held it against the film DRAGONSLAYER that the trailer said that in the Middle Ages dragons were real, and they really weren't. The trailers are not made by the filmmakers. Sometimes the studio will make them and sometimes there are outside companies called "trailer houses" that make the trailers. I don't think the filmmakers have much to do with the trailer. It is sort of like blaming Connie Willis for the lousy cover on the paperback of DOOMSDAY BOOK.

For my part, it would take an issue I felt more strongly about to affect my movie ticket purchases. [-mrl]

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

MEMORY BOOK by Howard Engel (ISBN 978-0-7867-1644-9) is an unusual book with an unusual history. Engel had written several novels about private investigator Benny Cooperman, but then one day he woke up and discovered he could no longer read. It was not aphasia, but alexia sine agraphia--he could still write. So taking the advice, "When Life hands you lemons, make lemonade," he wrote a novel in which Cooperman wakes up in a hospital with alexia sine agraphia *and* amnesia. All he knows is what the police tell him: that someone bashed him in the head and dropped him in a dumpster. There's a bit of Josephine Tey here as well, as Cooperman tries to solve the mystery from his hospital bed.

(Oliver Sacks wrote about the case of Howard Engel in "The Case of Anna H." In yet another one of those weird synchronicities, I finished this book the same day Netflix delivered the film THE MUSIC NEVER STOPPED [2011]. THE MUSIC NEVER STOPPED is based on another case Sacks wrote about, in "The Last Hippie".)

I saw a recommendation for COMING UP FOR AIR by George Orwell (ISBN 978-0-15-619625-3) somewhere recently, but I cannot remember where. Orwell is known best for his bleak picture of the future in 1984. COMING UP FOR AIR shows that it is not just the future that Orwell is negative about, but also the present, and indeed the past. It was published in 1950, and apparently written shortly before that, with the main action taking place in 1938, but with many flashbacks and memories going back to the 1890s. The basic thrust of the book is that life was fairly bleak back before World War I, but it got progressively worse, and will continue to do so. Orwell describes the life of lower middle class people in England as tedious, grinding, deadening, and thoroughly dispiriting. It may be a great book--it certainly has great power--but it is also very depressing. [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

         Part of the secret of success in life is to eat 
         what you like and let the food fight it out inside.
                                          --Mark Twain

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