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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
12/02/11 -- Vol. 30, No. 23, Whole Number 1678
Table of Contents
Science Fiction (and Other) Discussion Groups (NJ)
December 8: HOGFATHER by Terry Pratchett, Middletown (NJ) Public Library, film at 5:30PM, discussion after film December 22: THE HIDDEN LIFE OF DOGS by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM January 5, 2012: SELECTED STORIES OF THEODORE STURGEON, Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM January 12: SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES by Ray Bradbury, Middletown (NJ) Public Library, film at 5:30PM, discussion after film March 22: EXPEDITION TO EARTH by Sir Arthur C. Clarke, Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM May 24: OF MEN AND MONSTERS by William Tenn, Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM July 19: SCHILD'S LADDER by Greg Egan, Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM September 27: CYBERIAD by Stanislaw Lem, Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM November 15: TRIGGERS by Robert J. Sawyer (tentative), Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM
What is the Law?
Four basic forces. That is the Law.
Are we not men of science?
What is the Law?
No faster than C. That is the Law.
Are we not men of science?
What is the Law?
Constants are constant. That is the Law.
Are we not men of science?
Universe accelerating outward!
Neutrinos faster than light
Fine Structure Constant changes.
Law no more.
[If you don't get the reference, don't worry about it. -mrl]
Math in the Movies (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Oliver Knill of the Department of Mathematics of Harvard University has collected 154 clips from feature films of scenes that have mathematical content:
Answer to Last Week's Puzzle (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
This was the puzzle I posed:
"I discovered an interesting property about 47."
"4, 7, 11, 18, 29, 47"
"If we split up the 4 and the 7 of 47 and treat the two resulting digits as the first two members of an integer sequence in which each subsequent number is the sum of the two numbers to its left (i.e. like the Fibonacci sequence), it comes back to 47. Find all integers from 10 to 99 that have the same property."
The answer is 19, 14, 28, 47, 75, and 61.
You can find the n-th member of a Fibonacci-extended sequence in terms of the first two members. Specifically let us look at A, B, (A+B), (A+2B),... The n-th term is A*f(n-1) + B*f(n). So we set this equal to 10A+B. This means that
(f(n)-1)*B = (10-f(n-1))*A
Then it is just a matter of finding A and B in proper proportion. For example if we let n=5 we get that 4B=7A. That will work if we let A=4 and B=7. So 47 has the property. We then just look at the cases n = 1, 2, ... and all possibilities drop out.
This is very similar to Dan Cox's correct solution, but I will publish my solution because it is more compact. Pete Rubinstein used an Excel spreadsheet of his own devising. Once we cleared up what the puzzle really was, also Tom Russell. [-mrl]
Inconstant Constant (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
The scientific method is to make observations of natural phenomena and build a model that seems to fit those observations. After that the model is published, it becomes open season for trying to find fault with the model based on others' observations. Many models fall. Some stand the test of time and become standard understandings for how the universe works. And some times very old models get shot down. Newtonian physics was discovered to have flaws after standing invulnerable for centuries.
Last month two very old models were called into question. One made world headlines, and one did not. The one you were more likely to have heard about was an experiment that at least superficially gave evidence that neutrinos had been accelerated from speeds beneath the speed of light to above the speed of light. In theory that should take an infinite amount of energy. As soon as an observation involves the speed of light it get attention because it has the power of science fiction behind it. People know that it is not supposed to be possible to exceed the speed of light, but the Starship Enterprise does it all the time in science fiction. There was a lot of attention given to this result. The last I heard other investigators seem to be getting the same effect. There is still a great deal of skepticism from the upper echelons of physicists. I won't argue that here.
The other discovery did not have so much science fictional excitement behind it, at least on the surface. But if this observation does prove to be true it will show we know models of the universe we use are as much oversimplifications as Newtonian physics was. And that can be fairly mind-blowing also.
There are four basic forces to the universe and a fifth that is conjectured. Those are the weak and the strong nuclear forces, gravity, and electromagnetism. The fifth force, hard to account for, seems to be pushing galaxies apart and accelerating matter outward. At least light from the most distant light sources seems more red-shifted than we can account for. But it is the electro- magnetic force that is causing the trouble right now.
You can write an equation to describe the force of electro- magnetism. You put in the various factors that control the charge and get the Coulomb constant times the square of the charge in always a certain ratio less than the Planck constant times the speed of light. (This will not be on the test, by the way.) You get a value for the ratio like 137.035999074, at least in theory. This number--well, its reciprocal actually--is called the fine- structure constant. And you should get that same value anytime you run the experiment. Well ... sort of. It turns out that when you look in space that seems only near true. The value of the fine- structure constant varies depending on the direction you look in deep space. In the direction of right ascension it varies by one part in one hundred thousand from its value if you look in the opposite direction. There was some discussion in the first decade of this century that the fine-structure constant might change deep in space. It might not be so constant a constant. A team headed by John Webb of the University of New South Wales, finds measurements also seem to indicate that the fine-structure constant is dependent on distance and direction. He published his result October 31, 2011:
So what does this mean? No big deal. That variation is only one part in 100,000. You will never notice the difference. Right? Well ... no. It is like chaos theory. A tiny difference can lead to very big differences. Our corner of the universe may be a "Goldilocks Zone". In astronomy that name refers to a region where things are just right. Tip them a little bit one way and things change very drastically. Tip them the other way and things can go very wrong in a different way. We evolved in a corner of the universe were conditions were just so. With some amazingly tiny variations life would not have evolved here. Now the religious among us might say that God set the universe up just perfect for human life. I would say more likely we evolved to fit the environment that was here by chance. We have no idea what effect changing the fine-structure constant might have. It may be large portions of the universe where the constant is just a bit different are inimical to any life as we know it. Of course, we have no immediate plans to travel to these places, but if the fine-structure constant is indeed inconstant it must mean that in physics we are only describing the very limited conditions that we can observe or deduce. Isaac Newton had absolutely no way of knowing he was describing only the physics of very slow moving objects and there was a lot more to physics that he could not observe. We, like Newton, are only writing physics to fit the extremely limited conditions that we can observe very easily and very locally. Some of these conditions we are assuming are the same all over the universe. Maybe if we get all over the universe we can find out things are very different. [-mrl]
THE LAST CIRCUS (BALADA TRISTE DE TROMPETA) (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: This is a sensational surreal horror/comedy fairy tale co- written and directed by Basque auteur Álex de la Iglesia (THE OXFORD MURDERS). It has to be the weirdest and one of the funniest films I have seen in quite a while. As time goes on, everything in THE LAST CIRCUS becomes more grotesque and dreamlike. Manic and dark and surreal but fun all the way, Iglesia's story seems like a high intensity version of a Guillermo del Toro film crossed with a Quentin Tarantino film. It is breathtaking, beautiful, and weird. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
In 1937 in Madrid a small circus soldiers on trying to make a living with the Spanish Civil War going on around it. The clown who until then only been delighting children with his jokes is drafted into the Republican army and in minutes is facing the Fascists. He is not even allowed to change out of his clown costume because he is to be the enemy's strangest nightmare, a clown with a machete. Though captured by the Fascists he becomes a local legend. Along the way the clown sees the ugly face of human brutality. When his son Javier finds him months later the son says he wants to be a clown like his father. His father just tells him that after all that has happened he must be a sad clown, not a happy one like he had been. Flash forward to 1973 and Javier joins a circus but finds even in peacetime he cannot escape from brutality. The head clown, Sergio, has a sadistic relationship with a beautiful acrobat, Natalia. Javier wants to rescue Natalia, but he is no match for Sergio. Strange plot twists and strange visuals lie ahead for him as the war of the clowns begins.
What an amazing film THE LAST CIRCUS is! You can tell immediately from the spellbinding montage under the titles that you are in the hands of a consummate filmmaker. Basque co-writer and director Álex de la Iglesia keeps changing settings and dragging us from a circus, to the streets of battle of the Spanish Civil war, back to a new circus, over the streets of Madrid, and on and on. The viewer knows only that wherever the film goes, he wants to follow. What starts as an account of a civil war tragedy transforms to a melodrama set in a foundering circus and on to a forest with a clown who has become a feral animal, to crime film, to a battle of monster against monster, on and on, surprising the viewer. Iglesia's fertile imagination seems to know no bounds. His film constantly is metamorphosing. He joins the visual imagination like that of Jean-Pierre Jeunet to melodrama turned up to Grand Guignol. Without ever lecturing to the viewer the film becomes a parable on the subject of inhumanity as the happy clown and the sad clown battle each other to the death.
In the early more rational parts of the story the style is relatively normal with some exaggeration. When Sergio hits people they slide across the floor in the manner of the 1960s Batman. Mixed with this cartoonish fighting is strong violence--some we see and some we do not see.
It is hard to imagine how this film could be more frantic or bizarre in any way. The pace is fast and the combination of styles is unique. This film really took me by surprise. It is a totally unique film. I rate THE LAST CIRCUS (BALADA TRISTE DE TROMPETA) a +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 9/10.
This film has graphic sex and even more graphic violence. For those who subscribe to Netflix Streaming the film is currently scheduled be available from now through November 17, 2014. The Spanish title, BALADA TRISTE DE TROMPETA, literally means "Sad Trumpet Ballad". Apparently that is the title of a song well known in Spain, but which would be unknown in the United States. It would not capture the feel of the film. Nor does THE LAST CIRCUS for that matter. I am not sure you can capture the feel of this film in a title.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1572491/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/balada_triste_de_trompeta/
J. EDGAR (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: J. EDGAR is a bleak, grim, and even unpleasant biography of one of the most powerful and controversial American men of the 20th century, J. Edgar Hoover. Clint Eastwood produces and directs the film with Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role. Unusual to Eastwood, the narrative becomes muddled and confused. Even the film noir lighting and the sepia tint just do not seem to work here. Worst of all the film does not really give a convincing and three-dimensional portrait of the life of Hoover. Rating: low +1 (-4 to +4) or 5/10
It has been suggested that Clint Eastwood's two most recent films, INVICTUS and HEREAFTER, have been distinctly less successful than his earlier efforts and that he probably needs a money-making film to restore his reputation. In spite of that he has produced and directed J. EDGAR, a somber and nearly humorless view of a somber and humorless man, J. Edgar Hoover, the first Director of the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation. This may not be the film his backers were hoping it would be.
When we first hear Hoover's voice, before we even see him, he is accusing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of having Communist ties and ranting against Communism as being "a disease." And as bad as that sounds today, the real Hoover might not have minded and probably would have stood by those words.
The film begins with Hoover commissioning a biography of himself to be typed in his own office and which is to give the public his side of the story of his life. As the film proceeds, it jumps backward and forward in time, sometimes being hard to keep straight. More confusing is that the film also jumps into Hoover's fantasies. The story of Hoover's life, basically his remembrances, is told in frequent flashback starting with the terrorist bombing of Mitchell Palmer, a former head of the FBI whom Hoover much admired. He tells the story about how he came to power and of some of the major cases, particularly the Lindbergh kidnapping case. We are led to believe that this will be the story from Hoover's perspective, but it also shows him having a gay (a particularly inappropriate euphemism) relationship with his assistant and partner. The film has led us to believe that this is at least from Hoover's perspective and what he wants in his biography. But it is unlikely that Hoover would be admitting to being gay and an occasional transvestite, even if it were true.
Leonardo DiCaprio gives Eastwood a strong performance and as far as I can tell authentic to Hoover, but Hoover was so secretive that we will never know. Ironically DiCaprio on the screen may look as little like J. Edgar Hoover as he would without makeup. This is particularly true in the scenes with the older Hoover. Makeup effects of aging are bad on DiCaprio and are even more pasty on actor Armie Hammer (playing Clyde Tolson), who looks almost like he is wearing a mask. Dame Judi Dench is acceptable as Hoover's mother, strong in many ways that her son only pretended to be. But willful mother is not one of Dench's more interesting characterizations. Surprisingly, Naomi Watts is along as Hoover's private secretary. Her character is there for most of Hoover's career, but her main contribution to the film is to submit to aging makeup. Her loyal secretary character takes a long time to develop any conscience at all and by the time she does it seem just a perfunctory way of making her Hoover's voice of reason. Even uncomfortable with some of Hoover's tactics, she is loyal to Hoover to the end and actually beyond. It is nice to see Stephen Root along as a strange little expert in wood. Root is probably this generation's Peter Lorre. Christopher Shyer's Richard Nixon looks so little like the original that it is hard to pick up that is who he is supposed to be.
Eastwood has the colors muted and almost all the indoor shots are film in near darkness with heavy shadow. This gives the film a claustrophobic feel with characters half in darkness so that you cannot tell where they end and the background begins. Eastwood provides the original jazz score, but there are definitely sequences in which the jazz music feels out of place and from the wrong era. The film tries to make compelling a character who actually complains the country is being overrun by "degenerates and radicals," who wages a war against them, and who by his own standards should have considered himself both. This film is a disappointment and I rate J. EDGAR a low +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 5/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1616195/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/j_edgar/
FORCE OF NATURE: THE DAVID SUZUKI MOVIE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: David Suzuki has been a political activist, a scientist, a college professor, a television spokesman for science, and the latter part of his life he has been an environmentalist and a conservationist. At 75 he is retiring from much of his work and this documentary shows parts of his farewell lecture. He covers a broad spectrum of topics dear to him. He includes his past during WWII, when the Canadian government interned him for his Japanese roots. But the endeavor closest to his heart is preventing the world from committing environmental suicide. Intercut with the lecture is documentary coverage of his past and present. The film is a little diffuse to be fully effective. While his arguments will be familiar to many there is no question of the importance of his message. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
First, who is David Suzuki? I knew when I saw his face I had seen it before. He was probably one of the scientists explaining something about science on an episode perhaps of NOVA. I knew he was a respected voice in popular science. Suzuki was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, and he hosted a Canadian science magazine program "The Nature of Things" which was not unlike our "Scientific American Frontiers". Suzuki is a very eloquent man with a gift for explaining science in terms that are easy to understand. A recurrent theme in the program was environmentalism and the need for conservation. He since has become an activist and a potent voice in the environmentalist movement as well as a communicator of the dangers of overpopulation. "We're in a giant car heading towards a brick wall," he says, "and everyone's arguing over where they're going to sit."
Director Sturla Gunnarsson covers Dr. Suzuki's last lecture, but also puts in documentary material around it. The lecture includes Suzuki's background, the political issues that have molded his life, his career as a scientist and educator, his television program, and finally his work as an environmental activist. As Suzuki explains that in his youth Japanese were rare in Canada. He talks about how even living in Canada the attack on the United States at Pearl Harbor was a defining influence in his life. Like the United States, Canada had internment camps for Japanese in spite of their being citizens. His college education was at Amherst College in Massachusetts and University of Chicago. He taught as a professor at the University of Alberta and later the University of British Columbia.
FORCE OF NATURE: THE DAVID SUZUKI MOVIE is an exploration of Suzuki's provocative ideas. Late in his life his focus has shifted from new scientific research, which he now sees as adding to a fund of knowledge that others might adapt and abuse. Now his focus is preserving the natural world so it is not destroyed for our descendents. To him humans do not live outside of nature and visit it; we humans are part of nature. His points go in several different directions. Humanity has become a major force of nature. He says that right now humans are driving species out of existence faster than any time in the last sixty-five million years. And pollution is part of the cause. He says each of us carries in our bodies several pounds of plastic picked up from the environment. And we are depleting our resources at increasing rates. But in this message he is both figuratively and occasionally literally a voice in the wilderness.
In total what we have is a complex portrait of a man ill-used by humanity in his youth and in this elder years still dedicated to convincing humanity to save itself. I rate FORCE OF NATURE: THE DAVID SUZUKI MOVIE a high +1 (on the -4 to +4 scale) or 6/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1722514/
What others are saying: http://goo.gl/0bUob
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
WHO IS MARK TWAIN? by Mark Twain (ISBN 978-0-06-173500-4) is a collection of previously unpublished works (as of 2009) by Mark Twain. Well, mostly previously unpublished--three appeared in small press publications (two of which I have, so I had seen them before), and several have been quoted at least in part elsewhere. In particular, I am sure I have read parts of "The Missionary in World-Politics" before:
"We regard as a base creature the man who deserts his flag and turns against his country, either when his country is in the right or when she is in the wrong. We hold in detestation the person who tries to beguile him to do it. We say loyalty is not a matter of argument but of feeling--its seat is in the heart, not the brain. I do not know why we respect missionaries. Perhaps it is because they have not intruded here from Turkey or China or Polynesia to break our hearts by sapping away our children's faith and winning them to the worship of alien gods. We have lacked the opportunity to find out how a parent feels to see his child deriding and blaspheming the religion of its ancestors. We have lacked the opportunity of hearing a foreign missionary who has been forced upon us against our will lauding his own saints and gods and saying harsh things about ours. If, some time or other, we shall have these experiences, it will probably go hard with the missionary."
Twain goes on in this vein, reminding one of Ted Chiang's "Hell Is the Absence of God" in his depiction of how the convert is expected to accept that his unbaptized children who have died are in Hell and he is supposed to abandon them there. [-ecl]
[Twain is right that most of us have lacked the opportunity of hearing foreign missionaries. The ones that come to my door are homegrown Jehovah's Witnesses. The ones who on New York City streets put tracts in my hand are domestic variety members of Jews for Jesus. --mrl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week:The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing? --Stephen Hawking Tweet
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