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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
01/10/14 -- Vol. 32, No. 28, Whole Number 1788
Table of Contents
Film Trivia Answer (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Last week I asked "Wolf-human combinations appear in what two 1930s Universal horror films?"
The only response I got was from Andre Kuzniarek who said that one example is THE WEREWOLF OF LONDON. He also gave DRACULA. In the dialog somebody does say that Dracula turned into a wolf. I could disqualify saying that a mention is not an "appearance" and that Dracula is not at all human any more. But I will count it. Particularly since I was working up to a play on words. The other answer I was going for is SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. The Wolf-human combination is Wolf Frankenstein. [-mrl]
Ray Harryhausen Effects from ANIMAL WORLD (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Perhaps Ray Harryhausen's least known post-1950 film was THE ANIMAL WORLD (1956). The film was a documentary about prehistoric life on earth produced, written, and directed by Irwin Allen, who was not a scientist. As a result the film was a compendium of goofs, errors, and scientific inaccuracies. Allen's scientific accuracy was bad even for 1956, which is probably why the film was so little seen after its first release.
As time has passed it has only become more inaccurate. Almost all interest in the film today is in the dinosaur sequences animated by Ray Harryhausen and Willis O'Brien. (Irwin Allen would later betray O'Brien by hiring him as an effects technician for the 1960 THE LOST WORLD, but then using live lizards rather than O'Brien's stop-motion effects.)
I had wondered if Harryhausen's work would ever become available again. I should have more faith in the power of YouTube. The dinosaur sequence is available. The aspect ratio appears to be wrong, but the whole sequence is there.
Joys of PACIFIC RIM (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I have never understood why in movies with giant monsters, the scale of size is bi-modal. You have people the size of ... well ... people. Then you have the giant monsters. And they are all about the same size. Most monsters that walk upright are just about the same height of Godzilla, who was about 150 feet tall. King Kong was only about 25 feet tall, but when he met Godzilla, they were about the same height. [-mrl]
My Top Ten Films of 2013 (film comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Once again a year that seemed lackluster has rallied in the final month or so, though perhaps not so much as in previous years. Last year there was a better top range with films like LINCOLN, THE IMPOSSIBLE, ARGO, and LES MISERABLES. It is harder for me to be enthusiastic about the films in the top-rated range. This was just not a strong year for narrative films. On the other hand, documentaries seem very much to be coming to be a major part of film attraction. But here are the films I was most impressed with this year. I should note that this has been a tremendous year for one actor. Matthew McConaughey escaped the type-casting of the handsome lover in romantic comedies. I saw three films in which he had really good character roles. Besides the two below, DALLAS BUYERS CLUB and MUD) was perhaps his oddest role in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET. He is an actor to watch for. I would say the same about Mads Mikkelsen, (A ROYAL AFFAIR and THE HUNT), but he is now very easy to find. He is the title psychopath in the NBC TV series HANNIBAL. I have not seen it and I doubt he has good looks the way McConaughey does, but he is still an interesting actor. For me that is very important.
At the expense of dramatic impact, I will list them in the order of best to ... well ... good but not up to the best. And after the top ten I will include two honorable mention films.
1. 12 YEARS A SLAVE
This is the truly horrifying true story of Solomon Northup, a free-born black man who in 1841 was kidnapped and sold into slavery. 12 YEARS A SLAVE is based on his eyewitness account of his years of slavery, what he saw, and what he experienced. As one character puts it, "the story is amazing and in no good way." It is a powerful and important film, an unflinching look at some of (what we would hope is) the worst cruelty of human slavery in the Antebellum South. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
2. THE HUNT
In a small town in Denmark a popular kindergarten teacher is accused of sexual misconduct with first one and later with many children. Lucas (played by Mads Mikkelsen) struggles against a gossip-fed witch-hunt of hatred and prejudice that threatens to destroy his life. Thomas Vinterberg directs and co-authors a film that makes a very interesting companion piece to his THE CELEBRATION (1998). Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
3. 56 UP
Every seven years since he made 7 PLUS SEVEN in 1970, Michael Apted visits (essentially) the same set of people and he documents how their lives have changed since the last film in the series. They were all 7 years old in 1964, and they are all the same age as each other now. In this mammoth undertaking we reacquaint ourselves with the fourteen (now 13) people and get a status report of their development and see how their attitudes early in life may have shaped them. This year they are all 56 years old. The films lie somewhere in the gulf between valuable scientific study and several parallel soap operas. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
4. THE ACT OF KILLING
An oddly surreal documentary made by a film crew largely working anonymously. The camera focuses on a major executioner from the 1965 killings following the military coup in Indonesia. To get him and some of his friends to be truthful the company films them re-enacting their murders in the style of American gangster films and lavish musicals, claiming to film them for a movie. The killers apparently have never given much thought to regretting their actions. Joshua Oppenheimer, Crystine Cynn, and a third person unnamed directed this film. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
5. A HIJACKING
This Danish film covers some of the same territory as CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, but in most ways this is the superior film. A cargo ship is captured by Somali pirates. But the emphasis of the film is not on the conflict between the crew and the pirates. An executive of the shipping company Peter Ludvigsen (played by Soren Malling) chooses to negotiate for the company himself in spite of the advice of a hired advisor. That condemns him to the stress of a months-long negotiation. The emphasis is much more on the bartering and bargaining with the pirates. We see the story of each side. This is not an action film. Violence is kept off-screen and primarily is inflicted on a goat. (Well, the Somalis had to bring more food on board and their most portable food source is goats.) Unlike the Hanks film CAPTAIN PHILIPS the bargaining process drags on for long months. While various people have misunderstandings of each other, we are privy to motives that are not clear to the characters involved. And because film makes the process understandable for the viewer the film reminds one of the excellent MARGIN CALL (2011). Most of A HIJACKING is in Danish, but all negotiations are held in English, which helps a lot. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
6. DALLAS BUYERS CLUB
Matthew McConaughey dropped a lot of weight as well as his romantic image to play Ron Woodroof. Woodroof was big into cocaine and sex and (in the film) rodeo until in 1985 he was diagnosed with AIDS. He was given one month to live. The FDA-approved treatment was worse than useless so Ron set up an international network to buy in mass anti-viral drugs unapproved by the FDA. With McConaughey's role in MUD followed by this role McConaughey clearly transforms himself from heartthrob to serious actor. Jean-Marc Vallee directs a screenplay by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
Alexander Payne gives us a sad, low-key comedy/drama filmed in black and white. David already knew his father Woody (Bruce Dern) was moving into old-age dementia, but now Woody has gotten a publisher's ad claiming he has won a million dollars and he is convinced he can claim the money if he can present the ad in Lincoln, Nebraska. David agrees to have one last adventure with his father, taking Woody from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, on a fool's errand that he knows can only end in disappointment. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
8. ALL IS LOST
Robert Redford is traveling a long distance alone in a sailboat when mid-Indian-Ocean he hits a shipping bin fallen from a container ship. He knows enough sea craft to avoid drowning for eight days, but it is a battle that he loses hour by hour. Fewer than five sentences are spoken. The rest is just watching Redford doing whatever it takes and finding sometime ingenious solutions to problems nearly impossible problems cropping up. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
9. EUROPA REPORT
This science fiction indie does just about everything right. It is an account of a privately funded space mission to Jupiter's moon Europa. From the beginning we know that Europa One never returned to Earth and the film after the fact tells the story of what happened. The visuals are just about right and the dialog is very believable. Sebastian Cordero directs a screenplay by Philip Gelatt. The film makes a good companion piece to the recent GRAVITY and some scenes are quite similar. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
Jeff Nichols writes and directs a deliberate, well-textured film set in Arkansas river country. Two boys get involved helping a fugitive hiding out on a Mississippi River island and trying to collect his girl friend. Arkansas-born Nichols knows the rhythms of the South and the feel of the country and the people. The languorous setting might capture the viewer by itself if not for the strong performances set into it. Matthew McConaughey's gristly performance stands above the atmosphere. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET
Sex, drugs, the most beautiful women money can buy, expensive cars, and yachts make up the world of stock scammer Jordan Belfort. There are echoes of GOODFELLAS in Martin Scorsese's portrait of Belfort based on Belfort's own memoir. At three hours in length the film shows enough sex and drug parties that they become repetitive and for some will be unwelcome. But the film almost seems to admire the man called "the world's greatest salesman" and other titles less charitable. The film sports more humor than any Scorsese film since AFTER HOURS. The most serious problem is that the nature of Belfort's crimes afford very little visual depiction. We have to take the story's word that what Belfort did was very, very bad and forget that it looks like fun. Scorsese shows us no victim of Belfort's crimes but Belfort himself and he gets little more than a slap on the wrist from the law. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS
As a piece of intelligent science fiction J. J. Abrams's new STAR TREK film is only middling, but as an action film it is really quite good. It has some arresting images, some very engaging character development, and perhaps two or three too many explosive action scenes. A saboteur apparently within the Starfleet Command is bent on destroying it. Captain Kirk, dishonored for his handling of a previous space mission, nonetheless has the Enterprise restored to him to sneak into Klingon territory and capture the culprit. Don't like the plotline? Wait ten minutes and the story will have transformed into something else. This film has a complex plot that manages to balance character writing with slam-bang action sequences and great acting by the intriguing Benedict Cumberbatch. Oh, and as a "Star Trek" series film INTO DARKNESS ranks among the very best. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
A Recap of 2013 in Science (comments by Dale L. Skran, Jr.):
Among the various science magazines I peruse regularly are DISCOVER and SCIENCE. DISCOVER is a popular magazine that aims at an audience somewhere between SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN and POPULAR SCIENCE, while SCIENCE is one of the leading professional journals in the world, on a par with NATURE and CELL. Many of the most important scientific papers appear first in SCIENCE, which is the flagship publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
DISCOVER ends the year with "100 top stories of 2013" (January/February 2104), which I find an excellent opportunity to catch up on major events in science and technology that I may have missed. It is also a great chance to consider the achievements of the year in perspective. SCIENCE also has a year-end article titled "Breakthrough of the Year" (December 20, 2013) which names a breakthrough of the year, and also discusses runners up, creating a similar annual perspective on progress.
So, without further ado, let's take a look at what stood out in the DISCOVER article. SF fans will be delighted to see that Curiosity on Mars is the #1 story of the year, reminding us of traditional SF set on the red planet. However, story #5 recalls BRAVE NEW WORLD as it reviews stem cell progress in 2013, including the first human stem cells made from eggs (a major step toward human cloning), using stem cells to create a functioning mouse liver (great news for those needing liver transplants!), and, perhaps most fantastically, using stem cells to create mini-brains. Story #7 focuses on the often neglected field of pure mathematics, as Zhang and Helfgott report significant progress toward solving the twin prime conjecture and the equally famous Goldbach conjecture, which played a role in Frederick Pohl's story, THE GOLD AT STARBOW'S END.
Story #13 ventures deep into SF territory as scientists used both implanted electrodes in rats and EEG caps in humans to provide an operational brain-to-brain connection, allowing simple commands like "fire" to be transmitted. A major asteroid strike in Russia near Chelyabinsk resulted in story #16, and hopefully advanced the cause of protecting the Earth from future collisions by raising the profile of this vital issue. For some reason, the advent of CRISPR technology, which makes gene editing precise and fast for the first time, only made it as story #20, but it is easy to imagine that over time it will prove to be the most important scientific event of 2013. Of course, that honor might easily also go to #21, the successful search for and discovery of a large number of ExoPlanets in other solar systems by the Kepler space telescope.
The real proof we are living in the 21st century comes with story #25, the demonstration of the quantum teleportation of information over a distance of 6 mm. This may not sound like much, but it portends computers that are no longer limited by the speed of light in the transfer of data. Another SF story, LIGHT OF OTHER DAYS by Bob Shaw, becomes partially real in story #30, wherein scientists halt a beam of light for an entire minute! More good news comes in story #42, in which a new compound appears to be effective against both Ebola and Rabies, which is excellent news indeed!
A common trope of SF is growing meat in vats, see (e.g.) Isaac Asimov's THE CAVES OF STEEL. Story #58 describes the result of eating hamburgers made in vats, but based on taste, it appears that it will be quite a while before this SF idea escapes from the laboratory. Another SF idea that will take a long time to become useful is found in story #61--a technique for creating a "tractor beam" that can pull tiny Styrofoam particles toward a light source. Alas, scaling this technology up to Star Trek size lies in, at best, the distant future.
Another proof that we live in the 21st century comes from story #69, which chronicles the reporter's attempts to use Google Glass. The writer is less than impressed, but something like this will surely soon impact our lives. What science story of the year roundup would be complete without the latest "new element"--in this case Ununpentium, element 115--in story #74? Story #96--on Elon Musk's proposed hyperloop transportation system--seems like a vintage SF tale in itself. The future of this proposal for rapid transportation is uncertain, but it has burnished Musk's already vast reputation. Musk, who is CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, has been named "2013 Businessperson of the Year" by FORTUNE magazine. No real person comes closer (yet) to being Heinlein's THE MAN WHO SOLD THE MOON.
SCIENCE named cancer immunotheraphy the "Breakthrough of the Year" while, oddly, DISCOVER didn't make it one of the top 100 stories!!! Suffice it to say, this breakthrough may be the one we've been waiting for, as two different techniques fundamentally different from surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation are showing real success against end-stage cancers. The conclusion of this tale remains to be written, but SCIENCE decided, I think correctly, that it was time to declare that we have entered a new age, one in which we can, for the first time, start to imagine victory in the war on cancer.
SCIENCE lists CRISPR gene editing, the cloning of human cells, and the creation of the mini-brains as runners up for 2013. These stories were all mentioned by DISCOVER as well, but SCIENCE also declares the mole rat to be the "Vertebrate of the Year" since two studies in 2013 hinted at why the mole rat can live up to thirty years cancer free. Again, these papers hint that we may, for the first time, be really getting a handle on how to fight cancer.
SF fans will surely be fascinated, however, by the SCIENCE "Invertebrate of the Year," Issus coleoptratus, a hopping insect that turns out to have gears (yes, you read that right--GEARS!) on it's rear legs allowing them to make mighty leaps. SF fans will also be pleased to note that in another runner-up, the Fermi Gamma-Ray Telescope has proved that Cosmic Rays come from the wreckage of supernovas.
That sums up an exciting year in science, and without even mentioning a host of amazing technological feats, such as the successful completion of the Grasshopper reusable rocket program by SpaceX and the first powered flights of Virgin Galactic's Space Ship Two. So, I'll close by wishing you all a Happy New Year in 2014, and all scientists and engineers even more success in their endeavors than they met in 2013! [-dls]
BANSHEE CHAPTER (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: A writer investigates the disappearance of a friend and gets caught up in the CIA Project MKUltra and perhaps some supernatural links to other universes. Combining the authentic horrors of illegal CIA medical tests on unwitting victims and more Lovecraftian inter-dimensional horrors, BANSHEE CHAPTER delivers some cheap but occasionally effective scares to keep the audience jumping. This is a bleak and low-budget horror. But too much of the story is drag-drag-drag-BANG all taking place with eye-straining dark photography. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
One of the fastest routes into the filmmaking business is via the horror film. One reason is that that route is economical. It need not be expensive to make a film scary. Some of the most effective horror films like WHITE ZOMBIE and CARNIVAL OF SOULS were made on low budgets. It is even less expensive if you go the more recent found-footage route. BANSHEE CHAPTER a premier film for its writer/director Blair Erickson. For much of the scares it depends on intervals of nothing much happening punctuated with sudden loud noises. That approach is not as impressive as creating a deep and fearful mood, but it does work on at least some level. It will get an audience to jump.
The film starts out with actual news coverage about the all too real Project MKUltra. In the 1950s and '60s the CIA ran behavioral tests on unwitting Americans to test psychedelic drugs that they thought might have uses in brainwashing and in interrogation. The film suggests that the drug used was dimethyltryptamine--also real. The fiction kicks in when young James Hirsch (played by Michael McMillian) is years later trying to learn more about Project MKUltra and goes so far as to actually try dimethyltryptamine-19 (DMT-19) on himself. James was never heard from again.
James' friend Anne Roland (Katia Winter) decides to investigate what happened to James. Somehow mixed up in all of this is a "numbers" radio station that seems to have something to do with the users of DMT-19. Numbers radio stations are real also, by the way. Whoever runs them is unknown, and they broadcast seemingly meaningless random numbers. They are suspected of containing coded messages. The more Anne investigates the more she realizes she does not know and the more sinister things get. Involved with James' fate is a possibly-psychotic drug-guru, Thomas Blackburn (Ted Levine), who may or may not be the force behind James' disappearance.
To a great extent the story is told with grainy found footage, particularly those scenes showing the sadistic experimentation of MKUltra. The plotting is in large part just thinly disguised souped up haunted house storytelling. There are lots of dark corridors where most of the image is just this side of total darkness. This is definitely an eyestrain movie. Long dark sequences lure the viewer to almost fall asleep and then something loud and horrific happens. The images are grungy and unpleasant.
In spite of using actual artifacts of the CIA in the Cold War, the film is really a loose adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft's story "From Beyond" and there is a bit of "Whisperer in the Darkness" thrown in, if I am not mistaken. The reader can decide which is scarier, the CIA or Lovecraftian creatures from other dimensions.
One of the producers is Zachary Quinto, Mr. Spock in the new series of "Star Trek" films. It also has producers in common with MARGIN CALL and ALL IS LOST.
This is an ambitious horror film, but too much of the time the viewer is just waiting for something horrific to happen. In the end the film does little that is new and novel. I rate BANSHEE CHAPTER a 1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10. BANSHEE CHAPTER will be released to theaters January 10, 2014.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2011276/combined
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_banshee_chapter/
DARK ANGEL (Season One) (television review by Dale L. Skran, Jr.):
BLADE RUNNER is often remembered as the film that best evoked the feeling of classic cyberpunk novels like NEUROMANCER. When it comes to television, however, the series that most captured the bleak Gibsonian vision is probably DARK ANGEL, a show that ran only two seasons, starting October 3, 2000. Although best remembered as the program that introduced Jessica Alba to the masses as a global class hottie, DARK ANGEL appears in retrospect to have been doomed by the changing times. In October 2000 it was perfectly fine to have a TV series where the villains were evil US military officers and government officials, and the background of the story a massive terrorist EMP attack that put the USA into a deep depression.
On September 12, 2001, in the aftermath of a real terrorist attack that killed over 3,000 Americans and plunged the world into a new kind of global conflict, the USA needed the military to be heroes again, and a new generation of dark angels to fight the devils that attacked America. This period also marked the ascendancy of Herbert W. Bush's Leon Kass led Bioethics Commission, which spent most of the decade railing against human enhancement. Against this background, genetically enhanced Max Guevara (Alba) did not stand a chance.
Looking back from the lofty perspective of 2013 year end, DARK ANGEL survives on DVD as a surprisingly well thought out SF series with a high idea density, a dark but generally realistic tone, and some predications about drones that came about more or less as described. In the DARK ANGEL back story, in the late 1990s the US Government starts project MANTICORE to create genetically enhanced soldiers. There are a number of generations, and the X-2 group has to be "put down" except for a few examples kept for study purposes. The X-5 group, of which Max is a part, appears to have been the first really successful group. Perhaps the X-5s were a bit too successful, since in 2009 Max and eleven other nine-year-old super-soldiers escaped from MANTICORE. Their escape is facilitated by a terrorist attack using an EMP weapon on June 1, 2009, that throws the US into chaos and greatly hampers MANTICORE's efforts to find the missing X-5s.
We never hear much of the X-1s (presumably a failed generation as well), the X-3s, the X-4s, or the X-6s. The X-7s show up in the final episode of the first season and are pitted against the X-5s. The X-7s appear to be clones of the X-5s modified to have a hive mind. It is mentioned that some of the super-soldiers are deployed in the field, so it is possible that many of the unmentioned groups were successful to some degree, and were thus deployed somewhere.
The X-5s are chimeras resulting from the mixing of DNA from many humans and a number of animals. However, all of the X-5s do not have identical abilities. Max, in particular, is one of two that have shark DNA. The main effect of this modification is that Max does not need to sleep, a handy super-power that Nancy Kress explored in her "Beggars in Spain" trilogy. Most of Max's powers come from feline DNA, enabling her to leap several times her height, to always land on her feet, exhibit super-human balance and agility, and to have the strength of at least several strong men. Lest you think this is implausible, there was a recent incident in which a large adult zookeeper was killed by a child-sized chimp. Apparently he had forgotten that due to differing muscle attachments, chimps are 4x stronger than humans of the same size and weight. In addition, Max has cat-like vision, enabling her to see in the dark, and possibly into the UV/IR range as well. Additional modifications, possibly from eagles, provide super-human distance vision. It appears that she has cat-like enhanced hearing, although this doesn't have a major role in any of the plots.
Mentally, Max has a phenomenal memory, especially for numbers. From somewhere she has acquired the ability to listen to a long string of DTMF pulses and rapidly discern what numbers they represent. It also is suggested that Max has superior pattern recognition abilities and spatial processing, probably acquired from the DNA of humans who possess these skills. All the X-5s are universal blood donors, something that the military thought might come in handy on the battlefield. Finally, the X-5s have enhanced healing abilities that result from their bodies continuously producing stem cells. This healing ability, although large by human standards, falls well short of Wolverine levels.
On top of all these genetic enhancements, the X-5s have been trained from birth in a combination of Spartan and Ninja training, but using modern weapons. The result is something approximating a perfect soldier. The X-5s in particular have been trained to be leaders and officers, something MANTICORE came to regret doing.
All of this enhancement might make things too easy for Max, so she has been burdened, realistically, I think, with two singular deficits. Many the X-5s cannot produce a key amino acid, and unless they can find supplies of this acid in pill form, they are subject to dangerous seizures. Some of the X-5 also develop a form of progeria, or premature aging. Finally, Max, due to the large amount of feline DNA she has, goes into heat two or three times a year. During this period, much like actual cats, she becomes sexually insatiable and is driven to mate with any available male. The "mating season" figures large in two episodes, and is handled realistically. Her amino acid deficiency seems to wax and wane according to the demands of the script writers rather than in any kind of consistent fashion, making this one of the weaker points of the show.
Overall, DARK ANGEL may be the best TV or movie presentation of genetically engineered super-soldiers ever done. There are a host of details that make the background plausible. Among them is Alba's appearance as a person of mixed Danish/French/Mexican ethnicity, which allows her to present herself as being the result of the combination of many races. In fact, this realism may have hurt the show, since it came along just as significant parts of the American public became panicked about the possibilities of human cloning and enhancement.
The 2009 EMP pulse is a very nice touch since it allows the show to take place in 2019 with much older technology such as might have survived the pulse. It also seems likely that in the context of the Pulse, the military might have doubled down on genetic technology, since it could function in the field under EMP attacks. We also have to view DARK ANGEL as taking place in an alternate reality in which America (at least the military) was much more accepting of biotechnology than has turned out to be the case in reality. The point of divergence probably lies in the early 90s, or even earlier.
A major presence in DARK ANGEL is drones used by the corrupt police and military to control the population. In one episode, these drones are equipped with guns and an AI that can do facial recognition to turn them into assassination machines. As I'm sure you are aware, the US currently operates a world-wide network of drones, mainly for the purpose of assassination. The only difference is that we have bigger, faster, and more different kinds of drones with more different kinds of weapons, but with a human in the kill loop. A major divergence in the timelines is that while DARK ANGEL recovered from the Pulse, in the real world the US military was rapidly developing drones to fight a global "war on terror." Thus, our real drones of 2013 seem similar to or better than DARK ANGEL's drones of 2019.
Sticking to traditional super-hero conventions, Max does not use a gun, and attempts to avoid killing her enemies, although the other X-5s aren't this squeamish. Many cyberpunk tropes are on view. Max works as a bicycle messenger, surrounded by a group of quirky friends, including "Herbal Thought," "Original Cindy," and "Sketchy." Some of the plots revolve around their encounters with the law, their low-life friends, or their illegal activities. Dialog often involves an odd street vernacular. Society is dominated by corrupt police/military and dirty corporations. There is little opportunity for the average person, who must often live on the margins of society. Rather like Catwoman, Max moonlights as a cat burglar, which brings her into contact with Logan Cale (Michael Weatherly), a rich playboy who moonlights as "Eyes Only," an underground cyber-journalist who seeks to use the spotlight of publicity and a network of agents to right the many wrongs of post-Pulse society. Together they become a team, with Max supplying the muscle and Cale the cyber-skills and equipment while confined to a wheel chair for much of the season. There are echoes of THE MENTALIST here, with a brainy male who avoids, for the most part, physical conflict, and a small but tough female who revels in it. There are also echoes of the Batman/Catwoman relationship. A continuing theme is Cale's attempts to walk again, variously via advanced medical treatments and the usage of a military exo-skeleton. This exo-skeleton does not seem especially advanced compared to those we have in the real world of 2013.
An interesting thread that appears in several episodes involves South Africans who have a force of cybernetically enhanced super-soldiers who use a kind of over-drive mode that burns out their bodies but makes them super-strong and insensitive to pain. Their apparent goal is to acquire MANTICORE genetic technology and thus improve their flawed force. A consistent theme is that both cybernetic and genetic enhancements come at a high price.
As DARK ANGEL builds toward an apocalyptic confrontation with MANTICORE, Max gradually meets many of the other X-5s, and four of them assemble in the final episode for the assault on MANTICORE. Generally the other X-5s are treated well, with many interesting aspects of their existence explored in specific episodes. Some of the ideas presented, including the development of a strange religion by some of the X-5s, are realistic but disturbing.
This is about as far as I want to take this review. You can find plot summaries of the episodes in Wikipedia, or better yet, buy the DVDs and watch them all. The direction is a bit inconsistent, and sometimes an episode or two seems mainly copied from somewhere else (STRAW DOGS, for example). Overall, DARK ANGEL is worth watching, especially for its many SF elements. OK for older teens and up. There is quite a bit of martial-arts wire fighting, but not that much explicit violence. There are a few scenes, of, shall we say, vigorous foreplay. However, the dark tone and themes of many episodes may be distressing to some. [-dls] [DARK ANGEL is available for rent from NetFlix. -mrl]
E=mc^2 by David Bodanis (book review by Greg Frederick):
The following is a review of the science book titled "E=mc^2" by David Bodanis. This book takes a deeper look into the development of this famous equation from Einstein's Special Relativity theory. The history of science and the individuals involved which lead up to Einstein's equation are highlighted in this book. Also some of the ramifications of the effect of this equation are covered too. E=mc^2 is a mathematical representation of the following; energy equals mass times the speed of light squared. To fully understand the formula the book looks at each quantity in this important equation.
The concept of mass and the idea about the conservation of mass is discussed first. The idea of the conservation of mass came about from experiments which Antoine Lavoisier, a Frenchman and his young wife conducted in the late 1700s. They would put various substances in a specially built enclosed apparatus. For example, a piece of metal which was heated to speed up the rusting process would be put in this box. The sample was weighed before and after the rusting process; this included the gasses too. They found that the rusted metal did not weigh less than before the process but weighed more. Oxygen from the air had combined with the metal to form the rust or iron oxide. After seeing the similar results with repeated testing of many other materials they concluded that mass is not lost in a chemical change; it is conserved and combined into new forms.
The first time that a good estimate of the speed of light was produced was in the late 1600s. A Dane by the name of Ole Roemer discovered that there was a problem with the orbit of Io the innermost moon of Jupiter. It was supposed to orbit Jupiter every 42.5 hours. But the orbit seemed to vary depending on when you viewed this moon from the Earth. Roemer thought that this difference occurred because when you view that moon in the winter the Earth is much farther away from Jupiter and the Earth is much closer to Jupiter in the summer. So, since light has a finite speed that longer distance in the wintertime caused this apparent difference. His boss, Jean-Dominique Cassini did not believe in Roemer's conclusions Cassini like most people at that time thought that light traveled instantaneously and you could not measure its speed. Eventually, other astronomers agreed with Roemer's results and his close estimate of the speed of light.
Michael Faraday, an Englishman who worked with Humphry Davy in the 1800s experimented with electricity and magnetism and discovered that they are different aspects of the same electro-magnetic energy. Others in the scientific community began to realize that many forms of energy are connected also. For example, the energy of the blast of an explosion was the same amount of energy that was in the gun powder before that explosion.
But it took Einstein and his equation to show that there is a deeper conservation involved here. That the real conservation of mass and energy is the connection of energy and mass in E=mc . Mass can be converted to energy and energy can be converted to mass. An atomic bomb explosion is an illustration of mass becoming energy and protons accelerated in a particle accelerator (CERN has such an accelerator) will gain mass as the energy of their velocity is increased.
This book has a very good layman's approach to this subject and is enjoyable to read. [-gf]
LONE SURVIVOR (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: "The loudest, coldest, darkest, most unpleasant of the unpleasant fights," the main character says. And that may be the best description of LONE SURVIVOR, the true story of Operation Red Wings, a mission to kill an Afghan Taliban leader who had killed twenty Americans the previous week. The film is a harrowing and close-to-true account of a Navy Seal mission in which a lot went wrong and the Seals went through hell. Peter Berg co-produced, wrote, and directed the film. It would be hard to make the story any grimmer on film than it is in this account. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
Operation Red Wings, the basis for this film, took place on June 28, 2005. The mission failed and about twenty United States servicemen were killed. A link to the Wikipedia article is below.
The story is a familiar one. Four fighting men (in this case members of Navy SEAL Team 10) train brutally hard, get involved in action, and see the situation go from bad to worse until the men find themselves in a hell on earth. They have to use all their courage and training to survive as well as they can. In this case their success rate is given away by the title of the film.
The LONE SURVIVOR follows the small team of Marcus (played by Mark Wahlberg), Danny (Emile Hirsch), Mike (Taylor Kitsch), and Matt (Ben Foster) as the focus. The story is told in flashback. So we know from the beginning that these men are going into a virtual meat grinder. The film just shows them train, kid around with each other, and then go into a situation that will be very bloody, and more than a little frightening. The target is the Taliban leader Ahmad Shah who the previous week had killed twenty American soldiers.
When the men are put in danger the fault is as much from their own defense systems--like their failing communications links--breaking down as it is from the enemy. Systems failures, bad luck, and occasional mercies going in both directions do as much to seal the task force's fate as the force of the Taliban fighters.
Writer/director Peter Berg gives the film the same shocking to numbing sensibility as THE HURT LOCKER had. It is based on the actual Operation Red Wings that ended tragically. The film is told almost entirely in flashback and we know in the beginning how things will turn out. So that we do not have too much sympathy for the Taliban leader Shah we see him perform a brutal execution just off camera. He keeps the dialog realistic, even if it is occasionally inscrutable with unknown abbreviations and jargon. The story included situations where the soldiers have to make difficult ethical decisions, even while fighting. But the focus is very much on long and harrowing firefight sequences. All told there is not much in this film that we have not seen in other war films, though the degree of blood and gore may be more honest and also more horrifying than we are used to. The cinematography is by Tobias A. Schliessler who is able to give us some natural vistas of great beauty that is a welcome contrast to the ugliness of the battle.
The film does not seem to make a statement that the US should not be involved in Afghanistan, though it could be interpreted that way. I think all Peter Berg is really saying is that we are lucky to have men willing to take on the missions of Navy SEALS. We should respect and appreciate them, a message that goes back at least as far as John Wayne World War II movies. Here the message is just delivered more realistically and more brutally. I would rate this LONE SURVIVOR a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1091191/combined
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/lone_survivor/
Wikipedia on Operation Red Wings:
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
We chose THE EERIE SILENCE: RENEWING OUR SEARCH FOR ALIEN
INTELLIGENCE by Paul Davies (ISBN 978-0-547-42258-9) for our
December book discussion book, and it did a reasonably interesting
job of examining the Fermi Paradox. (Briefly put, the Fermi
Paradox is, "If there are all those extra-terrestrial intelligences
out there that we think there are, how come we haven't seen any
evidence of them?")
Davies did make a minor literary error: Wells did not have his time
machine go backwards to before it was built (though he did imply it
could). On the other hand, I found it interesting to realize that
cable television is ruining our chances for discovering other
civilizations, because while we were broadcasting television
signals into space for fifty years, that is pretty much coming to
A couple of other books I recently read ended up connected to it as
In THE NEW AMBIDEXTROUS UNIVERSE: SYMMETRY AND ASYMMETRY FROM
MIRROR REFLECTIONS TO SUPERSTRINGS (REVISED [3RD] EDITION) by
Martin Gardner (ISBN 978-0-7167-2093-0), Gardner spends an entire
chapter discussing the origin of life, including how likely or
unlikely it was, and hence how likely or unlikely it is elsewhere
in the universe. This is one of the factors in Drake's equation,
which attempts to quantify how likely extra-terrestrial
intelligences that we could communicate with are.
Gardner, amazingly, also makes mistakes, or at least has sloppy
writing. In the second paragraph of chapter 3, Gardner says,
"[T]here is a curious class of solid objects that are superposable
on their mirror images, and therefore symmetric, yet lack a plane
of symmetry." Two paragraphs later, he writes, "To be symmetric a
solid object must have at least one plane of symmetry."
And the sentence he claims is not reversed on page 25 does however
become different, because it extends over two lines, so flipping
the book around and viewing it in the mirror puts the last word at
the beginning of the sentence. (That may just be sloppy
And clever as it is, one must recognize that Frederic Brown's "The
End" is not truly palindromic (at least not in the sense of being a
perfectly normal story when read straight through). Far better
literary palindromes have been written since This 1990 edition, for
example "Lost Generation" by Jonathan Reed, "Lost" by Heather
Stephens, and "The Future of Publishing" (Khaki Films).
While in THE EERIE SILENCE Davies attempts to put bounds on the
various terms in Drake's equation, in IF THE UNIVERSE IS TEEMING
WITH ALIENS... WHERE IS EVERYBODY? FIFTY SOLUTIONS TO THE FERMI
PARADOX AND THE PROBLEM OF EXTRATERRESTRIAL LIFE Stephen Webb
(ISBN 978-0-387-95501-8) looks at the fifty most
popular/likely/frequently given answers to the paradox. For
example, number 16 is "they are signaling but we do not know how to
listen," number 23 is "they have no desire to communicate," and
number 39 is "the galaxy is a dangerous place."
Davies discusses each one, and usually ends up dismissing it. For
example, "they have no desire to communicate" is only the answer if
*all* the extraterrestrial races have the same psychology and
*none* desires to communicate.
However, Webb's solution takes all this into account, but
[spoiler!] comes up with the depressing result that there are no
other intelligences out there. And he does this with the Sieve of
Eratosthenes! (Well, it's really just an elaboration of Drake's
equation.) Basically, he starts with 10^12 planets in the galaxy.
In one solution he discusses a "galactic habitable zone"; assume
only 20% of the stars are in this zone. We're down to 2x10^10
planets. Then look at just the stars like our sun; this drops the
number again. Pare it down more by taking into account cosmic
disasters, no life developing, no intelligence developing, no
technology developing, no language developing, etc., and Webb
thinks we are down to about one: Earth.
Even if you do not agree with his conclusion, however, his
enumeration and discussion of so many of the possible answers is
well worth reading. (He also quotes a lot of science fiction
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Quote of the Week:
Even the tiniest Poodle or Chihuahua is still
a wolf at heart.
--Dorothy Hinshaw Patent
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
We chose THE EERIE SILENCE: RENEWING OUR SEARCH FOR ALIEN INTELLIGENCE by Paul Davies (ISBN 978-0-547-42258-9) for our December book discussion book, and it did a reasonably interesting job of examining the Fermi Paradox. (Briefly put, the Fermi Paradox is, "If there are all those extra-terrestrial intelligences out there that we think there are, how come we haven't seen any evidence of them?")
Davies did make a minor literary error: Wells did not have his time machine go backwards to before it was built (though he did imply it could). On the other hand, I found it interesting to realize that cable television is ruining our chances for discovering other civilizations, because while we were broadcasting television signals into space for fifty years, that is pretty much coming to an end.
A couple of other books I recently read ended up connected to it as well.
In THE NEW AMBIDEXTROUS UNIVERSE: SYMMETRY AND ASYMMETRY FROM MIRROR REFLECTIONS TO SUPERSTRINGS (REVISED [3RD] EDITION) by Martin Gardner (ISBN 978-0-7167-2093-0), Gardner spends an entire chapter discussing the origin of life, including how likely or unlikely it was, and hence how likely or unlikely it is elsewhere in the universe. This is one of the factors in Drake's equation, which attempts to quantify how likely extra-terrestrial intelligences that we could communicate with are.
Gardner, amazingly, also makes mistakes, or at least has sloppy writing. In the second paragraph of chapter 3, Gardner says, "[T]here is a curious class of solid objects that are superposable on their mirror images, and therefore symmetric, yet lack a plane of symmetry." Two paragraphs later, he writes, "To be symmetric a solid object must have at least one plane of symmetry."
And the sentence he claims is not reversed on page 25 does however become different, because it extends over two lines, so flipping the book around and viewing it in the mirror puts the last word at the beginning of the sentence. (That may just be sloppy typesetting.)
And clever as it is, one must recognize that Frederic Brown's "The End" is not truly palindromic (at least not in the sense of being a perfectly normal story when read straight through). Far better literary palindromes have been written since This 1990 edition, for example "Lost Generation" by Jonathan Reed, "Lost" by Heather Stephens, and "The Future of Publishing" (Khaki Films).
While in THE EERIE SILENCE Davies attempts to put bounds on the various terms in Drake's equation, in IF THE UNIVERSE IS TEEMING WITH ALIENS... WHERE IS EVERYBODY? FIFTY SOLUTIONS TO THE FERMI PARADOX AND THE PROBLEM OF EXTRATERRESTRIAL LIFE Stephen Webb (ISBN 978-0-387-95501-8) looks at the fifty most popular/likely/frequently given answers to the paradox. For example, number 16 is "they are signaling but we do not know how to listen," number 23 is "they have no desire to communicate," and number 39 is "the galaxy is a dangerous place."
Davies discusses each one, and usually ends up dismissing it. For example, "they have no desire to communicate" is only the answer if *all* the extraterrestrial races have the same psychology and *none* desires to communicate.
However, Webb's solution takes all this into account, but [spoiler!] comes up with the depressing result that there are no other intelligences out there. And he does this with the Sieve of Eratosthenes! (Well, it's really just an elaboration of Drake's equation.) Basically, he starts with 10^12 planets in the galaxy. In one solution he discusses a "galactic habitable zone"; assume only 20% of the stars are in this zone. We're down to 2x10^10 planets. Then look at just the stars like our sun; this drops the number again. Pare it down more by taking into account cosmic disasters, no life developing, no intelligence developing, no technology developing, no language developing, etc., and Webb thinks we are down to about one: Earth.
Even if you do not agree with his conclusion, however, his enumeration and discussion of so many of the possible answers is well worth reading. (He also quotes a lot of science fiction authors.) [-ecl]
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