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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
02/22/13 -- Vol. 31, No. 34, Whole Number 1742
Table of Contents
The Depp-th of Obscurity (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I am seeing trailers for the new film version of THE LONE RANGER with Johnny Depp playing Tonto. Tonto was the sidekick, but I suspect he will be the main attraction. It is more or less like having Bruce Lee play Cato in the "Green Hornet" TV show. I find it odd that Depp would agree to be second fiddle in a film in which even the title denies he exists. [-mrl]
Interactive Comet and Asteroid Collision Simulator (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
We are becoming more aware that our solar system is a pinball game of floating debris. We just had coincidental meteor impacts at the same time as the near presence of an asteroid. Purdue and the Imperial College London cooperated to put this simulator on-line so you can play with the parameters and see what destruction would be done.
Strange Object Found on Mars (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
A strange object has been found on Mars. It appears to be metallic and it would be hard to explain how it was created by nature. See it here, and in 3D.
The Future of Newspapers (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
This is a prediction from 1981 that in the future you might actually be able to get your morning news from a computer!
It is time for my monthly recommendations for upcoming films on Turner Classic Movies. All times listed are in the Eastern Time Zone. Upcoming on TCM are three Westerns, two notable for their realism and one that is just off the wall.
Look at TERROR IN A TEXAS TOWN (1958) from a distance and it seems like a rather clichéd Western. A bad guy is trying to buy up a town. A magnate knows that there is oil under the town and he wants to make those huge profits. He will buy out or burn out all the current residents. The magnate has murdered the wrong man, however. The dead man's son comes to town for vengeance. The script could almost write itself. Get a little closer to this Western and everything is weird. The film opens with a showdown between a man with a gun against a man armed with a whaling harpoon. The jovial Sebastian Cabot, rarely cast as a villain, plays the oil magnate. The magnate's hired killer turns out to be just about the most interesting character in the film. Time and again clichés are turned on their head. That is because the writer is Ben Perry and that name is a front for the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo. The director, Joseph H. Lewis was also blacklisted, but he was retiring and realized there was not much the reactionaries could do to him. The camerawork is also particularly good. [Tuesday, March 26, 05:00 PM].
Actually for more on the blacklist and the damage it did, TCM is also running (the admittedly not obscure) THE FRONT starring Woody Allen. This is probably the best film about the evils of the Hollywood blacklist. It was directed by Martin Ritt, written by Walter Bernstein, and features Zero Mostel, Herschel Bernardi, Lloyd Gough, and Joshua Shelley--all victims of the Hollywood blacklist. [Thursday, March 28 2013, 01:30 AM]
HEAVEN'S GATE was a tremendous box-office disaster in 1980. I guess I have to say that while there are definitely some scenes that seem interminable, there is a lot to like about this film and I tentatively recommend it. Michael Cimino had two years before made THE DEER HUNTER, which was very successful at the box office. Based on its success Cimino was funded to the tune of a then unheard of fifty million dollars to bring to the screen the story of the Johnson County War. Lots of films show the tensions of (usually immigrant) homesteaders against the cattle interests. The peak of this conflict in real life was the Johnson County 1892 War when toe Wyoming Cattleman's Association hired an army of mercenaries from Texas to drive out and if necessary exterminate the homesteaders and return their land for grazing. Films like SHANE and PALE RIDER are set on a backdrop of these anti-immigrant tensions, but the peak of the hostility was the Johnson County War and Cimino really captures the texture of immigrant life under siege. The subject matter of class war with money interests against a largely immigrant lower class could hardly be more timely. This film is still controversial, both artistically and politically, but it can be a rewarding experience. Christopher Walkin plays a gunman who leads the mercenaries. Kris Kristofferson is a marshal who finds his job more than he bargained for. Turner shows the full 219-minute version. You may want to fast scan some of the admittedly over-extended scenes. [Sunday/Monday, March 3, 12:00 AM].
If you are interested in reading more about the Johnson County War see my summary at http://tinyurl.com/mrl-johnson.
Another Western that goes for a realistic feel of life in the West- -and which also has the conflict of the working people against the money interests--is MONTE WALSH. Inspired at least in part by Charles Russell's paintings of cowboy life, it goes for realism with nothing very melodramatic happening and not a lot of gunplay. It is the antithesis of Sergio Leone's view of the West. This is a film that realistically depicts the life of a cowboy, his work, his fun, and just the texture and feel of the life, even as that way of life is becoming increasingly rare with Eastern money going into buying up the ranches. It is just the story of men who like the freedom of the open prairie and a lifestyle that is being squeezed out of existence. Lee Marvin plays Walsh, and you cannot go wrong with Lee Marvin. Also featured is Jack Palance. [Saturday, March 23, 3:00 PM]
My pick for the month? There are no real gems here, but each is rewarding. I would pick MONTE WALSH as the best. THE FRONT is quite good also. [-mrl]
Streaming--*Still* Not Ready for Prime Time (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Hulu just had a "free Criterion film" weekend, where you could watch any Criterion film free on Hulu. The goal, I suppose, was to make you love watching Criterion films so much that you would subscribe to Hulu Plus, which has them all the time. But there were a few problems with this.
1) "Any Criterion film" meant "any Criterion film Hulu actually has." We went through the Criterion catalog and found ten films we wanted to watch that were unavailable on Netflix, and figured we had a really full weekend. Then we started trying to watch them. It turned out that of the ten, Hulu had only five.
2) The films were regularly interrupted by commercials.
3) The films often "stuttered" or "froze", indicating either bandwidth or server problems.
4) Bringing up the film on a full screen occasionally left the "Press ESC to return from full screen" message over the middle of the picture, and the whole page had to be reloaded.
5) We had to watch the movie on our 19" computer monitor rather than our 43" television.
6) In the middle of a couple of the movies, the picture would disappear and we would be asked to turn off ad-blocking (in one case) or if we wanted to play a trivia game (in another). In the second case, when we clicked on "no", the movie just terminated and we had to restart and then fast-forward it to where we got cut off!
Mr. Hulu, after careful consideration, I've decided not to endorse your channel. [-ecl]
SIDE EFFECTS (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Steven Soderbergh directs a script by Scott Z. Burns, giving us a suspenseful story set in the world of medicine and high-profile prescription drugs. When a doctor prescribes a new drug, is he responsible for the side effects? Jude Law stars as Jonathan a psychiatrist with a cozy relationship with a drug company and who prescribes a drug that may not behave as expected in a surprisingly complex medical thriller. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
[Spoiler Warning: I think I have avoided spoilers, but the less you know about the film before seeing it, the better.]
The pharmaceutical industry has come to be dominated by a handful of giant corporations making large profits. One has only to visit a doctor's office to see that pens, clipboards, and wall decorations all seem to carry advertising for high-profile drugs. And that is just a miniscule fraction of what the drug companies spend to woo doctors and to get them to prescribe their product. There is a lot of money to be made in and around big Pharma and that rarified atmosphere is some of what SIDE EFFECTS is about.
In this world we have Emily Taylor (played by Rooney Mara), a 28- year-old woman hospitalized after attempting suicide. Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) is a psychiatrist assigned by the state to care for Emily. Emily's depression may be exacerbated by her husband's release from prison. Martin (Channing Tatum) spent four years behind bars for insider trading. Now he is out only to find his wife is imprisoned by her own mental state. Jonathan meets with Victoria (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Emily's previous psychiatrist to discuss the case. Victoria suggests a new experimental drug, Ablixia, and suggests that Jonathan try it on Emily. After another suicide attempt by Emily Jonathan agrees. But the side effects of Ablixia may make the cure worse than the disease. What follows is a complex maze of a story that calls for careful scrutiny from the viewer to completely appreciate what is happening. Director Steven Soderbergh directs this labyrinth created by Scott Z. Burns who also wrote Soderbergh's excellent CONTAGION.
At one point Jonathan's wife asks him about a patient who is accused of committing a crime while on a behavior-altering drug. Did that person do it? Is that person guilty? Jonathan responds that those are two very different questions. That is one of the major issues of the film. Drugs change who we are. If a person has his personality temporarily altered under the influence of a drug, is that person still guilty? Can one punish someone who existed for just a few hours and now is no more?
Rooney Mara is not yet a familiar name to most viewers, but she plays or will play the complex and physically strenuous role of Lisbeth Salinger in the US version of the "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" films. Here she more than holds her own against box-office stars Jude Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Soderbergh directs from a script by Scott Z. Burns. Soderbergh has said that following this film and one other made for HBO he will be taking a "sabbatical" form film making and will be exploring his talent as a painter.
It has been suggested that this is the sort of film that Alfred Hitchcock might be making if he or someone of his talents were around today. Actually it might be closer to one of Brian De Palma's efforts. At the end of my review I have to say ironically that this is a film to be seen rather than one to be read about. There are more holes in the plot than a Hitchcock would leave, but SIDE EFFECTS seems to have a sort of De Palma flamboyance. I rate it a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. I could raise that rating on future viewings since there is a lot to take in here.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2053463/combined
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/side_effects_2013/
CONTINUUM: Any Sufficiently Advanced Technology ... (television review by Dale L. Skran, Jr.):
The SyFy channel has brought to the United States another Canadian SF series, CONTINUUM. Two other Canadian series worthy of note are the first NIKTA TV series and the more recent LOST GIRL. In CONTINUUM, a future Vancouver cop, Kiera Cameron (played by Rachel Nichols), from the year 2077, is transported back to 2012 while pursuing a group of terrorists. In Kiera's future the world is ruled by giant corporations, and democratic governments seem as distant as the feudal world seems to us today. Kiera is called a "Protector" and she serves as part of the enforcement arm of the "Corporate Congress." She is pursing a group of eight operatives who call themselves "Lieber8" (get it?). Lieber8 operatives use an extract from mutant pituitary glands to transform themselves into super-soldiers, but as a member of the 2077 version of a SWAT team, or more probably the 2077 version of SEAL TEAM 6, Kiera has more than few cards to play herself.
Kiera faces all of those standard time-travel problems. She needs to capture or kill the members of Lieber8 without changing the timeline, and then somehow return to her future using technology that Lieber8 is carrying with them. The plot of the second episode focuses on her attempts to force Lieber8 to take her into the future with them. She is not especially concerned that the future she comes from doesn't seem to be the ideal human future, at least by our standards. Mainly she wants to get back to her husband and child.
Once in 2012, Kiera finds something rather odd. Normally she communicates with headquarters via an implanted wireless device. In 2012 only one other person uses this channel other than her, a certain Adam Sadler (played by Erik Knudsen), who appears to still be alive in 2077, and may be manipulating events to create a closed time loop. Sadler is your basic tech genius, who has developed a wide array of amazing technology in a barn owned by his anti- corporate activist parents, who are so busy with various radical meetings that they don't seem to realize they are harboring the man who will found the greatest corporation of the future. Sadler quickly figures out that Kiera is from the future, and falls into the role of supporting her as she hunts Lieber8.
With Sadler's help, Kiera is able to convince the Vancouver Police Department to allow her to join as an "anti-gang" expert, paired with Carolos Fonnegra (played by Victor Webster). The main coolness in this show is that although Kiera may be an ordinary person from 2077, her technology makes her super-human in 2012. She wears what might be called a "reaction suit" that somehow generates and stores energy, perhaps as she walks, and certainly as she is struck by bullets or other objects. The suit is able to deploy this energy as a built-in TASER or as enhanced strength, allowing Kiera to throw perps around like rag dolls while being virtually invulnerable. The suit also allows her to become invisible, and has a host of build-in processing. Apparently, the entire suit is a computer and any part of it can be deployed as an interface. Using the suit, she can easily open locks and generate magnetic fields.
Kiera has eye implants that are linked to the suit, and uplinked to Sadler, allowing him to see through her eyes. The suit (or something in her implants) keep a thirty-hour video record that in the future was used as evidence, and must be periodically uploaded. Her eye implants provide super-human vision, including thermal vision. She can also isolate fingerprints for uploading and identification by Sadler, who seems to be a skilled hacker. In one scene in the third episode, she uses her eyes to upload DNA maps that Sadler then matches and sends back color-coded augmented reality overlays to allow matches to be easily identified. Oh yeah, she has a "smart gun" with an augmented reality display for targeting that can only be used by her. She hides the gun most of the time to allow her to pass as a 2012 cop, and instead uses a modern semi-automatic handgun provided by the Vancouver police.
Kiera has the disadvantage of being forced to rely on Sadler to help her fit in, and sometimes Sadler must leave his console to eat and do chores at critical moments. Her suit is not all-powerful, and seems like a real piece of technology rather than a magical device. The second episode was overlay maudlin for my taste, but on the whole this is a serious and interesting SF show. Recommended for SF fans in general. There is a good bit of action, but the show is probably okay for pre-teens and up, although younger kids might have a bit of trouble following the complex plot. CONTINUUM is much less violent and sexual (at least in the first three episodes) than the immediately following BEING HUMAN and LOST GIRL. [-dls]
COLD CITY: REPAIRMAN JACK: THE EARLY YEARS by F. Paul Wilson (book review by Dale L. Skran, Jr.):
Imagine, if you will, that Batman, the superhero with no powers, was a real person. He would not wear a cape. As demonstrated in THE INCREDIBLES and WATCHMEN, a cape can be a fatal hazard to the unwary superhero. Nor would he wear a bizarre costume or a mask covering his face. Such oddments merely would call attention to him and weigh him down. He would not be a billionaire playboy-- such a man in the real world would never be tough enough to spend his life hunting criminals on rooftops. And sooner or later, his secret identity would become known to his friends or enemies. Finally, a real Batman, like Kane's original character, would surely use a gun.
In the real world, the superhero would be an ordinary looking person, so ordinary as to fade into the crowd. Brown hair, brown eyes, average height--his disguise would be no disguise, simply to never be noticed by anyone. He would have no name, no social security number, and no fingerprints on file. Any identity papers he carried would be false. Not being rich, he would work for money as a mercenary for good. He would not often carry a gun, but when he did, he would use it efficiently and ruthlessly.
However, in common with Batman, the real hero would have a vast array of skills--the ability to fight well with virtually any weapon, or with no weapons, to pick locks and burgle buildings, to track his prey unnoticed, and to follow a trail relentlessly. If he needed help, he would have someone like Batman's Alfred that he could turn to for advice, suggestions, or a bigger gun.
F. Paul Wilson's by now iconic Repairman Jack is the Batman made flesh. COLD CITY is the first of a three-volume origin tale recounting Jack's early years. Among the items covered are how Jack started taking on "repair jobs" and what he did for money before that, how he met Abe, his arms supplier and best friend, how he came to NYC, and his first "repair job." If you are a Jack fan, COLD CITY is a must read. If you are not a Jack fan, COLD CITY is a good introduction without any off-putting horror elements. There is very little of a supernatural nature in COLD CITY. Only the hard-core Jack fans will notice a few mentions of "The One," Jack's future superhuman nemesis, or the recounting of Jack's path to NYC, which strangely relies on a woman making a phone call and a dog stopping a truck. Jack fans will realize that the woman is surely Gaia, the Earth Goddess and the dog her eternal companion, starting the process of preparing Jack for enlistment in the never- ending warfare between the Ally and the Otherness. Not simply good and evil, they are two forces beyond human understanding for which the Earth is only one of a billion battlegrounds.
Be on notice that very slowly the Repairman Jack series builds to an apocalyptic battle with the Otherness in NIGHTWORLD, but along the way there are a large number of fun reads as Repairman Jack, urban mercenary, uses means outside the law to resolve "situations." Normally Jack uses the methods of a con man to resolve problems, sometimes manipulating criminals to strike against each other. However, when the chips and down and the situation demands it, Jack is a ruthless adversary. As one of the bad guys says in a later novel after walking into a building Jack has passed through--"So many bodies. You say one man did this?"
Since the Jack series is a combination of Elmore Leonard and H. P Lovecraft, it's not completely clear to me who the audience is. Any yet Wilson keeps writing them, so there seems to be an audience. It should also be noted the F. Paul Wilson lives in New Jersey, and almost all the action takes place in either NYC or New Jersey.
Recommended for those who like this sort of thing. Adult writing with violence and sexual elements, including human trafficking. COLD CITY has minimal horror elements and is among the more realistic Jack stories. [-dls]
SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: In this comedy/drama Pat, a bipolar man with violent mood swings, is released from a mental hospital and tries to put his life back together. Moving in with his parents may be a mistake, with a father who has worse mind problems than he has. He meets an unstable woman, Tiffany, who may be able to help him get back together with his wife. There is some charm to the story, but the final act is very neat, predictable, contrived, and not up to originality of the first two. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
Pat Solitano (played by Bradley Cooper) has bi-polar disorder and has violent episodes when he is angry. He has lost his job as a teacher and has been institutionalized for the previous eight months as part of a plea bargain. This was following a rage-attack against his wife Nikki whom he found in the shower having sex with another man (while playing the same song that was played at their wedding). As the film opens Pat is being released and is looking forward to getting back together with Nikki in spite of the restraining order against him. He has to move back in with his parents Pat Sr. and Dolores (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver). It is clear that much of Pat's mental problems he gets from his father who has rages just as violent and who entertains an unhealthy obsession with the Philadelphia Eagles. Pat Sr., also unemployed, wants to pull together enough money buy a restaurant by becoming a bookmaker and mostly betting on the Eagles. In Pat Jr.'s efforts to win back Nikki he might be able to get some help from Tiffany-- also mentally unstable--but who might be able to help him get together with his wife.
Pat thinks that he has his mental problems under control. Appreciating silver linings to problems play a major part of his personal self-treatment. But he still falls into rages and he acts irrationally at times. He has taken to running as a way to keep his mind under control and for some reason not explained chooses to do wearing like a poncho a garbage bag with holes for his head and arms. And when he runs Tiffany seems to have an almost supernatural ability to run into him.
Writer/director David O. Russell (who formerly helmed THE FIGHTER in 2010) gives us another story of a violent person putting his life back together after he has mismanaged it. While the film may technically be a romantic comedy, it is one with a lot of pain that overshadows the happy and the unhappy moments. And even the happy moments at the end cannot be fully enjoyed because the plot at that point is so heavily contrived.
The film is unpredictable in the first half, but as the third act arrives everything starts falling all too neatly into place. The final act seems to gloss over Pat's mental problems by simply not showing any more violent episodes. Will love conquer all? Well, it does not seem to have for Pat's mother Dolores. Played by Australian actress Jacki Weaver, we can see in her eyes that she is paying a life-long price for her love of the explosive Pat, Sr. from whom Pat, Jr. has inherited more than just a name. We are given no reason to believe that when times get a little harder that Pat's personality problems may not rear their heads again. One rather suspects that the aftermath of this film is not going to be a happily ever after. I rate SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1045658/combined
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/silver_linings_playbook/
SUPERPOWER (2008) (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Sometimes the most stringent argument is not the most effective one. Barbara-Anne Steegmuller directs, as well as co- writes and co-produces, SUPERPOWER, a film which is virtually a catalog of charges of the United States misusing and abusing its military power all around the world with a government loyal only to the military industrial complex. To her credit Steegmuller assembles interviews from a stellar collection of dozens of experts, largely dissidents, including Noam Chomsky, Sergei Khrushchev, and Cindy Sheehan. Rating: 0 (-4 to +4) or 4/10
It is a common mistake in documentary film for the filmmaker to be enraged by some situation and to bring his or her case to the screen as a totally one-sided argument. There can be a litany of charges against some political enemy. Very little consideration is given to presenting the counter arguments. That is not surprising. The filmmaker is trying to expose some terrible wrong. Why give the other side airtime? Well, there is a very good reason to present the opposing side's arguments. It gives the viewer confidence that the opposing point of view has been considered. And if the viewer starts supplying his/her own alternate point of view it calls into question for the viewer the filmmaker's objectivity. The 80% that the viewer would trust the filmmaker on is actually discredited by the 20% the viewer questions.
"America's Quest for Global Dominance through the Military- Industrial Complex." That rather salty blurb on the box tells it all.
SUPERPOWER is a documentary fueled more by rage than by objective argumentation. The viewer is subjected to a disorganized rain of charges against the United States. Watching it I wanted to stop Barbara-Anne Steegmuller (director/co-writer/co-producer), with questions and even a few "yes, but..." comments. But of course in a film and on video that is impossible. For example in an interview one April Najjaj says that the United States claims to support democracies, but the only democracies in the Middle East are Iran and Palestine. I would say that those are highly questionable democracies at best and that if she cannot think of a third country in the Middle East that is a democracy, why would I even want to listen to her? By presenting one long catalogue of tirades Steegmuller preaches to the choir and what may be good arguments are wasted.
I have no question that Steegmuller strongly believes the case she makes, and perhaps much is true in her charges. She tarnishes her argument by not giving at least a little rebuttal from the opposing point of view and from the shrillness of her presentation. This is a film that will please those who already agree with her but will alienate at least some fence sitters.
The interviews presented in the film are from 32 different witnesses, mostly activists. Their testimony is full of indictment, but without a lot of documentation or evidence for most. This film is a scattershot look at a very large number of accusations against the United States, mostly familiar and probably no small number of them have more than a little basis in truth. It is a good summary of what arguments are being made. It could serve as an introduction of the far Left's view of the United States. But my recommendation to the viewer is to not take the charges at face value without further confirmation. I rate SUPEROWER a 0 on the -4 to +4 scale or 4/10.
[Full disclosure: I come to this film with a strong skepticism that the United States has any malicious policy to achieve the power to dominate the world. Under some leaders it does try to use its power in questionable ways, but I do not believe there is a unified conspiracy behind those actions. The United States does occasionally unilaterally elect itself the world's policeman in a world that unfortunately desperately needs a policeman. In the Bosnian Intervention Europe had wrung its hands for many long months and asked why did the United Stated do nothing to stop a conflict that was much closer to their doorsteps. Finally the United States did intervene and stopped the violence. The is a country very different from the one Steegmuller describes.]
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1311717/combined
BLIND DESCENT: THE QUEST TO DISCOVER THE DEEPEST PLACE ON EARTH by James M. Tabor (book review by Dale L. Skran, Jr.):
I'm not a big fan of reading books about adventure sports or outdoor activities, but I decided to make an exception in the case of BLIND DESCENT, a 2010 book that chronicles the efforts of two rival teams of cavers, one mainly American, and the other mainly Russian, although both are, in fact, international teams. There is one small but significant tie-in to my space interests, which I will mention at the end of the review. There is also in indirect tie, in that BLIND DESCENT has a lot of what makes sense of wonder SF work--a brave band of heroes, some with significant personal flaws, risking it all to go where no one has gone before.
In this BLIND DESCENT, the goal is to discover and explore the deepest cavern on Earth. Please note that we are not talking about the "biggest" or the "longest" cavern, but the "deepest." It turns out that such caves are carved by water, and occur in limestone. This means that in effect you are exploring an underground river that is partially dry. Thus, long descents by rappelling are followed by tight squeezes in little tunnels which lead to "sumps" of freezing water that must be crossed to reach the next section of the cave. Some sumps can be crossed by "free diving" and one of the most horrifying sequences occurs in such a sump too narrow for scuba gear very near the end of the book as the intrepid Russians get close to their goal. Other sumps involve long immersion, requiring the use of scuba tanks or special re-breathers developed for cave diving.
Cave exploration requires a large expedition, broken into separate specializations, including "sherpas" who labor to move supplies into the cave, "diggers" who clear obstacles," and "divers" who, well, dive. Mutinies sometimes break out when things turn sour, i.e. someone dies. Basically, any serious injury in a deep cave tends to be fatal since it can take days to get out of the cave, and ordinary rescuers lack the ability to reach the injured. Even taking a body out of a cave in a bag is a life-threatening activity, with the result that cavers are often buried near where they die. Also, caving season ends when the rainy seasons starts, and extending your stay by even one day can be a terminal experience.
When added to the fact that the caves being explored are in Mexico (often dangerous) and Abkhazia (located between Georgia and Russian--always dangerous), just driving to the cave mouth can be risky. Each cave (Cheve in Mexico and Krubera in Abkhazia) has their own dangers. Caves in the area around Cheve feature poisonous snakes, spiders as big as your hand, colonies of long- legged spiders the size of basketballs, bloody feces from vampire bats and deadly parasites. But Cheve is a "warm" cave--not warm by normal standards, but warm compared to Krubera, which ranges from zero degrees to freezing as a warm temperature. Cheve is shaped like a big "L" with a long series of rope descents followed by a series of passages and sumps. Krubera is one drop after another, with each connected by a tiny crawlspace. In both caves, descents are often made literally inside waterfalls.
As the cavers descend deeper, they set up base camps periodically to which they can retreat to rest. The best of these camps are in large caverns with comfortable sandbars and commodious tents. The worst of the camps are on aluminum platforms hung on a rock wall over a sump. In such a camp, a single misstep can lead to death by drowning.
The effort to explore such caves involves hardships and dangers that modern Americans can hardly imagine. In addition to all the problems noted above, cavers fear what they call the "Rapture"--a kind of insanity that takes over after a long period in a dark cave that can lead rapidly to an accident and death, given that in this sort of caving *any* mistake is usually your last mistake. Cavers often leave lights off to conserve power, but hallucinations can result, again sometimes leading to fatal accidents.
I noted that each of the exploration teams had at least one woman in the lead group, and sometimes more. Conditions in cave exploration are somewhat similar to combat conditions, in which men and women live in tight quarters together, with minimal privacy. With all the hauling and rope climbing, upper body strength is at a premium. Everyone carries a large pack--up and down the cliffs. Conditions are difficult, and cave diving is pretty much the most dangerous thing you can do short of combat. Nobody would contend that most women could do this sort of thing, but it is pretty clear that some women can, and do. I'll also note that, at least in this book, all of the fatalities were men.
It should not come as a surprise that the teams operate in rather different styles, the Americans led by the fanatical genius Bill Stone, and the Russians by modest team player Alexander Klimchouck. Stone is a technical wizard who invented and built the re-breathers used by his team, but is so dedicated to cave exploration that his crew mutinies on a couple of occasions. Both Klimchouck and Stone pay a great personal price. Although Klimchouck stays married to the same woman, he becomes estranged from his son who joins a rival caving group, resulting in a father-son battle to explore Krubera. Stone separates from his first wife, and drifts from one "cave woman" to another, each younger than the next, but all of whom discover in turn that Stone has married adventure, not them.
I'm going to leave off the details of their explorations, and who emerges as the final(?) victor. In a way, it doesn't matter. Both sides do a lot of daring exploration, see things that have never been seen before, do things that have never been done before, and put their lives on the line over and over. Alas, only one team can reach the deepest point--2,080 meters--in a chamber that they appropriately name "Game Over."
And here is where the connection to SF begins. There may be some expedition at some point that pushes one of these caves (or some other cave) a bit deeper. However, in some real sense the great age of supercave exploration, enabled by scuba tanks, re-breathers, and modern climbing gear that allows "wet descents" in waterfall conditions, is more or less over. Sadly, due to limited press coverage during the 80s, 90s, and 00s, you probably didn't know that there was a "golden age" of supercave exploration going on.
Appropriately, Bill Stone, the man who lives for adventure, has moved on to new ventures. You can check out what he as been doing lately at http://www.stoneaerospace.com/. He is building robots to explore Europa, and was involved in testing the underwater robot ENDURANCE in Antarctica. The wiki page at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stone_Aerospace has a nice summary. It appears that Mr. Stone has been quite proficient in getting NASA funding for various robots targeted at exploring the oceans on Europa, since he is currently busy on his third NASA funded project.
More recently it appears that Stone has taken on Lunar mining as a hobby. He is the Chairman of http://www.shackletonenergy.com/. Although their web site isn't very informative, the wiki page provides more info on this company. Finally, you can check out a Bill Stone TED talk on caving and lunar mining at http://tinyurl.com/void-ted-stone.
For more info on super-caving, you can check out "Call of the Abyss" in the May 2005 issue of National Geographic, and also "Cave Quest" in the September 1995 issue of National Geographic. You may also find Stone's book on some of his earlier adventures of interest: http://tinyurl.com/void-beyond-deep. [-dls]
The Verbinator (letters of comment by Rob Mitchell and Lee Beaumont):
In response to the article on the Lee Beaumont's "Verbinator" in the 02/15/13 issue of the MT VOID, Rob Mitchell writes:
I question the Verbinator... I get that it's meant largely tongue- in-cheek--perhaps for entertainment and only loosely as a source of inspiration. But I'm underwhelmed by the results of the small sample I tried. For "Democracy", the most common verb is "descry"? For "Squirrel", the most common verb is "fetch"? For "Christmas", there's no verbs at all?
Sorry, but I found it a barren source of amusement or inspiration... [-rlm]
I admit I have not found a use for it. For now I just find it a curiosity. I think its intention is to solve a problem I do not think I face. But I think it may be a "duct tape" sort of tool. One can find any number of good uses for duct tape, but it was never very good in it original intended use, repairing ducts. [-mrl]
Thanks for the prominent placement and kind introduction to the Verbinator article in the MT VOID.
I hope your readers have fun with it.
I proceeded to purchase a better word frequency database to power it. Unfortunately the provider of that database refused my purchase request (actually a licensing agreement) because he felt it would expose his database too much. [-lrb]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
POSTVILLE: A CLASH OF CULTURES IN HEARTLAND AMERICA by Stephen G. Bloom (ISBN 978-0-156-01336-9) was released in 2001 and told the story of Postville, Iowa, a small homogeneous farming town which suddenly found itself with a large Hasidic population *and* a large Latino population when the Rubashkin family bought an old meat processing plant and revived it as the largest kosher meat- processing plant in the United States. There were some rocky moments but things seemed to be working out.
Then the roof caved in (figuratively speaking). Immigration and Customs Enforcement swooped down on May 12, 2008, and arrested 378 illegal workers as well as several company officials. The result was that the main employer of the town was shuttered, and many of the illegal immigrants who were not arrested were ordered to remain in Postville as witnesses, but forbidden to work. Thus they became a drain on the community, which was given no state or Federal assistance in feeding or housing these people. The plant tried to stay open, hiring a series of groups of people who could work legally: released convicts, homeless men and women, Palauans, and so on. Not surprisingly, this merely exacerbated the situation.
POSTVILLE, U.S.A.: SURVIVING DIVERSITY IN SMALL-TOWN AMERICA by Mark Grey, Michele Devlin, and Aaron Goldsmith (ISBN 978-1-934848- 64-7) is in some sense a follow-up look at Postville. Grey et al are somewhat dismissive of earlier studies of Postville, including Bloom's, because the authors and commentators did not have the academic credentials that they do. However, the fact that this book lacks an index does not fill me with confidence in their attention to detail either. In any case, I think the earlier book, while it has its flaws, was reasonable at the time. No one could predict the immigration problems would be as severe as they were, and Grey et al try to analyze why that was the case. They dismiss the notion of anti-Semitism, and note that other raids on meat- processing plants are on large corporations where the managers can reasonably claim ignorance of corporate policy, rather than a family-owned business where they cannot. I am not sure this is entirely plausible, since there are plenty of smaller companies that also get raided.
In fact, most of what Grey et al have to say is fairly obvious, e.g., as long as people want cheap meat, companies will not pay their workers enough. And that if a company in a small town hires people from seven different ethnic groups with seven different languages and expects the town to provide interpreters for them in schools and hospitals and government offices, the town is going to go broke. And that a town that relies on a single employer to keep it afloat and pay for all the civic improvements is putting way too many eggs in one basket.
Then again, like Michael Apted's "Up" series, there is something fascinating about revisiting Postville every few years to see how it is doing. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: A publisher who writes is like a cow in a milk bar. --Arthur KoestlerTweet
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