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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
02/10/12 -- Vol. 30, No. 33, Whole Number 1688
Table of Contents
Dinos Having Babies (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I was looking at a museum dinosaur exhibit and they started a section with the rhetorical question "How did dinosaurs have babies?" My answer was, "Raw." [-mrl]
An Amazement of Slime Molds??? (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
"My father says that almost the whole world is asleep. Everybody you know. Everybody you see. Everybody you talk to. He says that only a few people are awake and they live in a state of constant total amazement." That's a quote from the film JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO. I cannot claim to be one of the people who are awake by that definition, but I will say that I live in a state of frequent amazement. By that standard I cannot claim to be awake, but I am at least in a fitful sleep that I wake up from frequently. I can say I am often amazed, and if you are living life without being frequently amazed yourself you are doing it wrong. Particularly when so many things around you that are amazing you never even think about. My latest source of amazement is slime molds. Who gives much thought to slime molds?
Let's face it; the name is a little off-putting itself. Food goes bad when it gets moldy. Somehow there is a something a little disgusting about food that has started growing fungus. And if that is not bad enough to become slimy in the process is going just a few steps too far. But slime molds, I have recently learned, are really fascinating. Below I cite a really interesting New York Times article about slime molds that was a real eye-opener.
First they are not really molds. They are apparently amoebae that live off of rotting dead wood. As long as there is rotting wood around they are happy and perhaps not all that interesting, though I wouldn't bet on that. What is interesting is what they do when there is not enough food round. Do they just wither and die alone? No. They may be only amoebae, but they know how to cooperate. They form first into a mob of amoebae, a blob made up of thousands. And then the blob comes to life. It becomes a single multi- cellular creature of its own, a lot like a slug. It is a gestalt creature made up of thousands of individual cooperating cells. And this single body will feed on what wood it can find and the food gets distributed to all the cells. It becomes a society working for all its individual members. In reproduction they even divide in unison. Millions of cells and all the cells divide in the same instant, that is how synchronized they become. They are not following a leader. They just spontaneously coordinate with each other and behave even more synchronized than most multi-cell creatures.
Can you think of other examples of gestalts of cells cooperating like a multi-cell animal? You should be able to. You are one. Of course, the cells of your body are never all split up and go their separate ways. In a slime mold they just come together and form into a single body.
So what does the ad hoc creature do besides feed its members? It crawls to the surface of the ground. It then transforms itself into shoots and other slime molds climb to the top and act sticky. When an animal comes by they stick to its foot and are carried to another part of the forest where there might be some new yummy rotting wood. This is all just individual amoebae collaborating and cooperating.
Not amazed yet? How's this? If they find multiple pieces of food near each other they will swarm into something like a puddle over all. But where there is no food under that puddle the amoebae will mostly dissipate into smaller swarms. But to distribute the nutrients they leave lines connecting the small swarms. The small swarms are tentacles that are like highways. But not just randomly placed tentacles. They seem to be a very nearly mathematically perfect minimal highway system to cover the territory connecting the blobs. As the article cited below says "In 2010 [Andrew Adamatzky, a researcher at the University of West England] and his colleagues placed a slime mold in the middle of a map of Spain and Portugal, with pieces of food on the largest cities. The slime mold grew a network of tentacles that was nearly identical to the actual highway system on the Iberian Peninsula."
These are just amoebae. How much intelligence can go into a single cell? But when they cooperate as microscopic parallel processors they can design nearly perfect minimal highway systems! Humans need computers to match that feat. Adamatzky suggests that countries planning roadway systems leave the laying out of the road to slime molds. They will be nearly perfect, and what other engineer will do complex mathematical work for a few bits of oat flake?
So these really bizarre behaviors are going on in a wooded area near you. Who knew?
The article is at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/04/science/04slime.html.
See also http://herbarium.usu.edu/fungi/FunFacts/slimemold.htm.
Passwords (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Everyone has suggestions for choosing computer passwords. For example, an article in "The Atlantic" suggested:
The first two are theoretically the easiest, but there are a couple of problems:
And the problem with the third choice, the gibberish password, is that unless you are a professional typesetter, typing it correctly is really difficult, even when you are looking at it and can see what you are typing. The one above took me twenty-five seconds and I made one typo, which would be invisible if I were typing it into a password box. One could easily find oneself locked out after three typos using this sort of password. [-ecl]
Christopher Lee as Jinnah (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I was very interested to hear recently Nigel Burton's account of his ill-fated interview with Christopher Lee. Years ago I had heard that the role Lee really wanted to play was Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. I wondered how that would work, since I really do not think of Lee as looking Pakistani. Until Burton's email I was unaware that the film had actually been made. Certainly it must have crept by under my radar, and I had never heard of the film.
Wonder of wonders, it is yet another feature film that is available directly from YouTube. The film is fairly good and makes a good companion film to GANDHI. Gandhi is certainly part of Jinnah's story and vice versa. I have heard that after a long career this is the film that Christopher Lee is most proud of. People interested can see the film in English at
I feel for Nigel, but one has to remember that filmmakers and actors who become major contributors to the genre are not necessarily big fans. I think Christopher Lee at least likes horror. I believe I heard Boris Karloff was actually very indifferent to horror films. Similarly I know Burgess Meredith who was a very fine actor was very disappointed to find that many of his fans could only name one role he had played, the Penquin in TV's "Batman".
I think that Lee would rather be associated with helping people to understand who Jinnah was and why he was important to history than to be remembered for biting women on the neck. Lee undoubtedly feels he had much more to offer than his Hammer films allowed him.
Ironically there is an element of fantasy to JINNAH that is quite enjoyable, but I will not spoil it. [-mrl]
BLAKE'S 7 (Series 1) (television review by Nick Sauer):
BLAKE'S 7 is one of the more famous British science fiction television programs. The show was produced by the BBC in 1978 and written by Terry Nation who was known for creating the Daleks for DOCTOR WHO as well as the 1975 series SURVIVORS. BLAKE'S 7 ran for a total of four series (seasons). The show is a space-based adventure series that focuses on a group of escaped criminals from the totalitarian Federation. The first series stars Gareth Thomas as Roj Blake and Sally Knyvette as Jenna Stannis.
When it comes to British genre television, there are five or six series that are considered the "big" series that every fan should watch. I'm already intimately familiar with DOCTOR WHO, THE PRISONER and the various "Quatermass" serials, but BLAKE'S 7's lack of a major United States release has kept me from viewing the series until I was able to work around that. Being a fan of dystopian fiction I was very much looking forward to checking this show out.
The show is a space-based series that takes place in a stellar empire run by a totalitarian government known as the Federation. The story opens at a "hospital" where Roj Blake, a famous revolutionary, has been reprogrammed for release by the Federation. Shortly after his release he is witness to a secret anti-government protest that is mercilessly (i.e. no survivors) put down by Federation troops. Unfortunately, some of the soldiers involved see Blake as he attempts to sneak away. Blake is rounded up again and this time charged with a number of false crimes to guarantee his internment on a prison planet.
It is during the process of transport, via prison ship, to the penal colony that Blake's lot changes. The prison ship encounters a conflict between two sets of alien warships. One of the ships survives but has been abandoned and is drifting un-crewed in space. The crew of the prison ship realize that the alien vessel could have technology new to the Federation and, if they were to successfully salvage it, could improve their position in life (corruption seems rampant within the Federation, which is not terribly surprising given their form of government). After the first crew members die attempting to board the warship, the officers decides to use the prisoners instead. Blake, Jenna and another prisoner named Kerr Avon successfully board the ship which has an on-board AI named Zen. They manage to avoid Zen's defense systems and reason with it to take the ship for themselves which they ultimately name the Liberator.
The series goes forward with each episode being an individual adventure with a few on going story lines as well. BLAKE'S 7 was supposedly inspired a good deal by "Star Trek", and this is obvious from the story telling in that there is a definite sort of "reset button" vibe to the show which is strangely at odds with the continuing story lines. For those unfamiliar with the reset button concept, this means that each episode is a self-contained story with all of the characters and their environment returned to normal (i.e. how things were at the beginning of the episode) by the end.
I found the characters in the first series to be somewhat varied in quality. Blake, Villa and especially Avon are very distinct characters whereas Gan and Vila are borderline stereotypes. One aspect of the characters that was refreshing for me is that they are really not heroes. They are revolutionaries and criminals and especially in the cases of Avon and Vila, dangerous ones that would probably be imprisoned in any sort of society.
The entire first series was authored by the series creator Terry Nation and, I found the writing to be surprisingly even. While this is good in that there were no truly poor episodes, except for maybe one, there were also no episodes that I can point to as outstanding either. The one episode I wasn't happy with was titled "Duel" and was a swipe of the short story "Arena" by Frederic Brown. I hope that Mr. Brown made generous royalty money off of this story as this is the third time I've seen it used in a genre TV series, the other two times being "Fun and Games" in THE OUTER LIMITS and, of course, the "Star Trek" episode of the same name. The series felt very much like it was trying to be one thirteen- part story, but I am guessing the reset button effect was used in an attempt to make the show more episodic like "Star Trek", perhaps in an attempt to further differentiate it from DOCTOR WHO. I really feel that the writing should have fully taken one approach or the other as the two never felt like they mixed that well.
The one other big problem with the series was the quality of the visual effects. I am a long time "Doctor Who" fan, so dodgy visual effects are not something that generally bother me in a genre television series. Having said that, I found the visual effects work in series one of BLAKE'S 7 to be somewhat distracting. This was airing at the same time as the "Key to Time" story arc season of DOCTOR WHO so I have a pretty good direct comparison between the two and it's very clear that the visual effects on BLAKE'S 7 are a notch below the DOCTOR WHO episodes. The effects used for the Liberator's matter transporter I found particularly irritating, but that might just be me.
Even with these complaints, I still found the series worth watching. The whole set-up does require a bit of a leap of faith on the part of the viewer, but it more or less worked for me. The show is certainly a unique entry in space based genre television. The ideas are really good and I think that a "Battlestar Galactica"-style reinvention of the show would be an extremely worthwhile project. I'm not sure if I will ever revisit BLAKE'S 7, but I am certainly planning on watch the remaining three series of the show's run. [-ns]
ABSOLUTION GAP by Alastair Reynolds (copyright 2003, Ace Science Fiction, 756pp, $8.50, ISBN 0-441-01291-4) (book review by Joe Karpierz):
So, continuing the theme of being unable to get through my to-read stack in anything resembling a reasonable period of time, I finally was able to get to ABSOLUTION GAP, over three years after I read the previous book in the series, REDEMPTION ARK. So, all in all, it took me some eight years to get through the first four books in the REVELATION SPACE series by Alastair Reynolds. I know, some people don't count CHASM CITY in this series, but for ease of making a point I do.
I liked this book. I really liked this book. It wasn't what I was expecting, however. The previous books set up the Inhibitors to be the focal point of the series, and yet, here, not so much.
Things aren't so good for humanity at this point. The Inhibitors are rampaging against humanity. Our friend Nevil Clavain and his gang have gone into hiding on the planet of Ararat. Clavain is trying to get away from it all. He's had enough. Unfortunately for him, a ship has landed on Ararat--where Clavain and the gang are--and it seems to hold the key to the future of humanity.
Meanwhile, on the ship Gnostic Ascension, insane Ultra Queen Jasmina is in a foul mood. She has hired on a fellow named Quaiche to help her increase her fortune. Quaiche is supposed to find treasures in various star systems that Jasmina can sell. He's doing a lousy job. She's unhappy. She sends him off on one last mission to give him a chance to redeem himself, but there's a catch. She sends along his Ultra lover, Morwenna, in a torture device called a scrimshaw suit. If he fails, she dies. If he succeeds, well, he might live. While investigating a previously uncharted--well, at least unnamed--star system, he finds something that he thinks is worth investigating. However, he fails. He fails spectacularly. And thus our story is set up.
The story takes place in a couple of different timelines that of course eventually merge together. One of those timelines follows Clavain and humanity on Ararat. They discover that the ship contains Ana Khouri. who understands that her daughter is on another downed ship on Ararat, in the hands of Skade. The daughter, Aura, is apparently the key to saving humanity from the Inhibitors.
The other timeline follows a teenaged girl named Rashmika, who lives on the moon where Quaiche went down. She has an obsession with the Scuttlers, a race that seems to have been eliminated by the Inhibitors. It's a hard life there, and many try to find employment with the Cathedrals and churches along the Permanent Way. The Way was set up by Quaiche and his followers to observe the planet Haldora, which occasionally disappears. Rashmika's brother Harbin went to work for one of the Cathedrals, but hasn't been heard from in years. Rashmika runs away from home to go look for him, and to find out what really happened to the Scuttlers. As you might imagine, Rashmika gets more than she bargained for when she finally comes to the attention of the Cathedral Lady Morwenna, run by Quaiche himself.
Reynolds tells a really terrific story here. The novel is well written and reasonably well paced. I did have a couple of problems with it, though. One is reasonably minor--it's just very long. But that's not uncommon with a lot of writers these days.
The other problem was the letdown I experienced with where the whole thing ended up, and by whole thing I mean the series. I really don't want to go into more detail than that, as that would be giving stuff away that would spoil the story. Even then, it wasn't *that* much of a letdown, but it certainly didn't give me the answers I was looking for.
Even then, I would recommend this book. Then again, I like this kind of stuff. Why wouldn't I? [-jak]
ETHOS: A TIME FOR CHANGE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: ETHOS: A TIME FOR CHANGE is a fast-paced 69 minutes filled with charges of conspiracies of the rich and powerful in corporations and government in their plan to take freedom from the masses and plunge the world into a chaos of high prices and global warming. Woody Harrelson is host and the voice of writer and director Pete McGrain. There may be a lot of foolishness in the particulars presented, but McGrain may well be right about where the modern world is leading. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
"The object of this documentary is to look at the flaws in our systems that allow [bad] things to happen and the mechanisms that actually work against us and to show you a very simple but powerful way that we can actually change the world we live in." So says writer and director Pete McGrain as spoken by Hollywood's great voice of reason ... Woody Harrelson? ETHOS is a staccato discharge of conspiracy charges against the common person putting more wealth and power into the hands of a small number of very wealthy and extremely powerful world manipulators. It only vaguely tells us who these people are, but they seem to be the upper echelons of a corporate-government alliance. Among the claims is that the Rockefellers knew ahead of time that the September 11 attacks were coming and would be used to consolidate the power of the government to control the people and steal their rights. All these individual conspiracies, each damnable in itself, are just part of a bigger and more global conspiracy to control a population which will have given up all its rights for promised security from invented threats.
The thing is, I like my conspiracies with a little more evidence than McGrain gives himself time to present. He delivers a huge list of charges and backs them up with testimony of famous authors and quotes from famous people. He has Henry Ford railing against the power of financiers. Funny, I had always thought that as an expert on international affairs Ford knew a little about how to make a factory work and not much beyond that. His views of the international scene were strongly colored by his hatred and distrust of the members of one particular religion.
One piece of the documentary is devoted to politicians who flip- flop on their position or claims. We have Bill Clinton first denying that he had sexual relations with Lewinsky and then later admitting it. John McCain first saying that he thought gay marriage should be allowed and later saying that he did not think gay marriage should be legal. I am now convinced that politicians may contradict themselves and sometimes their opinions on issues actually change over time. So what? But I do not think that McGrain really minds having the viewer unconvinced of his points. He presents a shower of conspiracy theories from the Federal Reserve's power to manipulate the economy anonymously to Monsanto's part in poisoning our food. Some of his charges may be based on fact or even be true. But it is hard to tell which ones.
This film is a Chamber of Possible Horrors. A staccato listing of many possible conspiracies of varying degrees of credibility challenges us with the statement that there are real conspiracies. The suggestions have got to come fast because it is all packed into a short 69-minute film, and there are a lot of conspiracies and scary situations to get through. And no doubt some of what McGrain is suggesting is indeed true, and no doubt some of it is absolute balderdash. McGrain gives little evidence beyond quotes and questionable testimony. Before the viewer has time to think about one claim, McGrain has presented two more. What he presents lies somewhere in the twilight zone between the Washington Post and the Weekly World News.
And what is this solution for changing the world? That is something of an anti-climax, though one most thoughtful people would endorse. Even I do. It is to spend your money wisely. I think he means spend it for the good of yourself, your children, and the world. The consumer is all-powerful, because it is money that makes the system work. The way we choose to spend our money can change the world. That may well be true and I would endorse his conclusion more than his arguments for that conclusion. It would be an irony if he turns out overly optimistic about the viability of that as a weapon to be marshaled. There may just be too many of us who are too apathetic to be convinced.
Even if McGrain were wrong on most of his charges, he is probably right on a few, and that is a sobering thought. The question is which ones. I give this film a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10. ETHOS: A TIME FOR CHANGE will be released on DVD on February 7, 2012.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1707818/
Serial Killers (letters of comment by Dan Kimmel and Phil de Parto):
In response to Mark's comments on serial killers in the 02/03/12 issue of the MT VOID, Dan Kimmel writes:
I'm a big "Dexter" fan, and finding new serial killers for him to hunt down (and it's a broad definition that stretches from the classic compulsive killer to some sociopath who has killed more than once) is even more difficult than you might imagine. The first season of the show more or less tracks the first book in the series, but then the two go into alternate universes. Currently his wife is dead on the show, but alive in the books, as is a police detective who seems to be on to him, and his equally homicidal brother. He has a child who's a girl in the books and a boy on the show. His step-sister has become head of the homicide squad on the show, but not in the books.
To go back and forth between the two is fascinating. [-dk]
Phil De Parto writes:
[Mark asks, "But wouldn't be great to do a series about an Elvis impersonator who hunts down and kills other Elvis impersonators?"]
Actually, this was done as an episode of the late, lamented cop show 80's spoof, SLEDGE HAMMER. Sledge had to go undercover in the Famous Elvis Impersonators School. The killer turned out to be a Japanese man who was killing the competition because: "I can impersonate Elvis more efficiently!" [-pdp]
I guess great minds think alike. [-mrl]
Afrikaners and Western Pioneers (letter of comment by Fred Lerner):
In response to Evelyn's comments on Afrikaners and western pioneers in the 02/03/12 issue of the MT VOID, Fred Lerner writes:
Theodore Roosevelt in THE WINNING OF THE WEST (1888) describes the frontiersmen of 18th-century Kentucky and Tennessee in terms very similar to those used by Alister Sparks to describe Afrikaners in THE MIND OF SOUTH AFRICA. Which invites the question, are "boundless individualism" and "a disputatious and schismatic people" the cause or the effect of living on the edge of civilisation? [-fl]
Subtitling and Dubbing (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
In response to Greg Benford's comments on subtitling and dubbing in the 01/27/12 issue of the MT VOID, Mark writes:
You, like me, defend the practice of skillfully dubbing a film as being better than subtitling. Two films that I have used and examples of where you get much more from a dubbed film are the films Z and DAS BOOT. (It is interesting that we both picked the example of DAS BOOT.) These are films I saw first in subtitled form and then in dubbed. Each has people in the background of a scene making comments. In the subtitled film you lose the background comments. I suspect that foreign language speakers would miss a lot if they saw subtitled rather than dubbed versions of THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD or CITIZEN KANE.
The claim is made that the sound of an actor's voice is an important part of a film, so you want to hear the original actor's voice. However, I think the visuals are even more basic and subtitles tell the viewer, "This is where you must look no matter what is happening on the screen." [-mrl]
Bad Science (letter of comment by Morris Keesan):
In response to Mark's comments on bad science in movies in the 01/27/12 issue of the MT VOID, Morris Keesan writes:
Mark refers to http://www.slashfilm.com/infographic-bad-science-movies-chart/, containing a chart with a checklist of common scientific blunders in films. Unfortunately, the chart itself contains a major blunder: one of its error categories is
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Last week I talked about some of the books that I read in preparation for our South (actually, southern) Africa trip. This week I will continue that discussion.
Another personal memoir was CROSSING THE LINE: A YEAR IN THE LAND OF APARTHEID by William Finnegan (ISBN 978-0-520-08872-6). Finnegan was an American who had been backpacking around the world and ended up spending the year of 1980 in South Africa teaching in a "coloured" high school in Cape Town. As such, he saw the two school boycotts of that year from a unique perspective, and his outsider (American) status gave him some opportunities for interaction that white South Africans would not have had. For Americans, Finnegan may be more accessible than Rian Malan (MY TRAITOR'S HEART, discussed last week), because Finnegan is writing from an American perspective.
However, what is striking is that both Malan (writing in 1990) and Finnegan (writing in 1986) saw little hope for a peaceful transition to a democratic government (with "one-person-one-vote") in South Africa; both basically predicted civil war. But while there was certainly violence throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, the election of 1994 was held in relative peace, and the results--a sweeping victory for the African National Party--were eventually accepted by all. No one denies it has been a bumpy road, both before and after the transition, but one need only look at other African countries' attempts to transition power to see what a miracle South Africa has been.
THE WASHING OF THE SPEARS by Donald Morris (ISBN 0-671-20233-2) was not recommended, but since it was in the house, I figured I might as well read it. Morris is highly regarded, but seems in many ways to reflect the beliefs and prejudices of the time in which it was written (it was published in 1965). For example, he states that the Zulu (or Bantu, as he calls them) "probably entered Africa with their cattle from the Fertile Crescent something over 10,000 years ago." Now, of course, it is recognized that the ancestors of the Zulu were in Africa all along.
He also seems fairly dismissive of the "Bushmen" (also called the "San") and the "Hottentots". These days, of course, the terms "Bushmen" and "San" are each considered derogatory by some groups of people, and "Hottentots" are now called the Khoikhoi. Morris does recognize that the previously-used term "Kaffir" had become a derogatory one, which is why he replaces it with "Bantu", but the use of the term "Bantu" by the apartheid government in South Africa makes its current use problematic. Morris says that Shaka Zulu "was unquestionably a latent homosexual, and despite the fact that his genitals had more than made up for their previous dilatoriness, so that he always took great pride in bathing in full public view, he was probably impotent." Morris was only with great difficulty able to determine what battles Shaka fought in and what military innovations he introduced; the notion that he could determine that someone who lived and died two hundred years ago in a preliterate society was a *latent* homosexual can these days only be described as hubristic.
However, when Morris moves into the details of the Anglo-Zulu War it becomes much more fact-based. I can understand why this is the definitive work, and my only complaint is that there is *so* much detail that it is impossible for the "casual" reader to keep track of it all. A glossary of Bantu terms would definitely have helped, as Morris uses a lot of Zulu terms which he defines once and then assumes the reader will remember. There are also an incredible number of people to try to keep straight, and my unfamiliarity with the geography did not help. (I mean, if I am reading about Revolutionary War battles in New Jersey, and the author talks about the terrain near Princeton, or marching from Freehold to Hightstown, I can picture it. But I cannot do the same for South Africa, even with maps.)
I also read SHAKA KING OF THE ZULUS by Daniel Cohen (ISBN 978-0- 385-02509-6), again because it was in the house. This seems to be aimed at "young adults" (i.e., teenagers), although the amount of discussion about sex seems uncharacteristic of books promoted to teenagers when I was one. Cohen covers the main points without inundating the reader with details, and provides a glossary as well, so was much easier to follow than the chapters of Morris covering the same period. (Morris covers the entire period from the rise of Dingiswayo to the end of the Anglo-Zulu War.) Cohen also provides some guidance in his "Suggestions for Further Reading", with notes such as "The author tends to the view that Shaka was simply a monster" or "This is a unique treatment of Shaka as a political figure rather than as an anthropological curiosity."
Next week I'll wrap up with some comments on more books (including some southern African fiction) and movies. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in poetry, it's the exact opposite. --Paul DiracTweet
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