@@@@@ @ @ @@@@@ @ @ @@@@@@@ @ @ @@@@@ @@@@@ @@@ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @@@@@ @@@@ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @ @@@@@ @ @ @ @ @@@@@ @@@@@ @@@
Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
10/24/14 -- Vol. 33, No. 17, Whole Number 1829
Table of Contents
Evelyn and I have a policy of printing comments from our readers in the MT VOID. We have a disclaimer in the header saying, "All comments sent or posted will be assumed authorized for inclusion unless otherwise noted." That unfortunately still leaves the problem that some mail we receive may not be intended for publication, but that neither Evelyn nor I catch as being inappropriate. It can happen if I assume Evelyn will catch any problems and she assumes the same of me.
Last week we received a comment that was intended to be confidential and neither of us caught that intention. Comments were made that were intended to be held in confidence. On behalf of Evelyn and myself I apologize to both people involved. [-mrl/-ecl]
Jumping the Gun? (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Truth: I saw that one of the local New Jersey libraries had a book on Medicare and it was numbered as a Young Adult book. Are there many Young Adults on Medicare? [-mrl]
Tree Structures in Art (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Robert Forward writes in ROCHEWORLD about a repair robot that had multiple arms as we do and each arm ending in fingers. This robot went a step beyond that and each finger had multiple tentacles. This gave the creature much more adept hands better for grasping and control. So each such robot is a tree-like structure. Do we see examples of treelike structures like this evolving in another things around us? The answer is yes. This is how films based on young adult novels evolve. These are stories like HARRY POTTER or HUNGER GAMES. They are one story and then that splits into multiple stories, each making a separate film. Then the concluding story splits into multiple films. So the young adult films are evolving into a multi-branch tree structure. [-mrl]
The Changing Canon of Horror Films (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
At a science fiction convention I went to a panel on the horror film. The panelists were discussing what were the important horror films. They considered CHILD'S PLAY (1988) and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984) to be the break-off point between "older" and "modern" horror films. They did not want to spend a lot of time discussing the older horror films because a lot of the audience would not know them. Somehow stalker and zombie films with characters under thirty years old are becoming what people think of as horror films.
I actually left with a greater respect for Forrest J. Ackerman. His magazine FAMOUS MONSTERS introduced his readers to films going back as far as THE GOLEM and NOSFERATU. Forry loved all horror and science fiction. He did not ghetto-ize and categorize old films. My attitude was, "The film is silent and has inter-titles? Bring 'em on. I want to see that vampire." Vince Rotolo's "B-movie Podcast" does much the same to get people interested in films they might otherwise never see.
What is happening is that some films very worth seeing are being de facto dropped from the horror film canon--those films the fan should know and have seen. I cannot stop that loss from happening. But I can list some of the horror films that I consider classic and canon but which are slipping out from under the umbrella of that canon. You can look at it as a list of recommendations of good films you might have missed. And this is just the right time of year for them. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it does include some of the films that I think are basic but are recognized by fewer and fewer people. Suggestions of other films are welcome.
THE BLACK CAT (1934) Two young Americans on honeymoon are pulled into the lethal fight between a Satanist and the man whose life he destroyed. This is really at least in part a dark comedy made before there was such a thing. Director Edgar Ulmer was working out his personal demons while Karloff and Lugosi were having themselves a good time. Karloff worships Satan and preserves his ex-lovers in cases in a house made from a WWI fort.
CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962) This is a classic horror film made on a tiny budget, but it is one that really works. What most people do not notice is that it really borrows heavily from three stories shown on Twilight Zone. We see bits borrowed from "The Hitchhiker," "A Passage for Trumpet," and "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." This is a film that uses its low budget to make the story seem more immediate and real.
COUNT YORGA VAMPIRE (1970) What made this film unique has become cliche, so the film can no longer be appreciated as it once was. What was new was that the vampire's minions attacked with the speed of rattlesnakes. One instant you are safe and the next you have been attacked and it is all over. Until this point vampires and zombies could be hypnotic and seductive, but they required the victim to be under their spell or asleep. The film is still a well-mounted vampire film and Robert Quarry does make a good vampire.
CRONOS (1993) Guillermo del Toro's first feature film is a very fresh take on the vampire film. The film involves alchemy, immortality, and an incredible complex and a beautiful machine from the world of art and alchemy. The film is full of very strange images and ideas presented stylishly and well-acted. It is a better film subtitled than it is dubbed.
THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (a.k.a. THE DEVIL'S BRIDE, 1968) Richard Matheson wrote the screenplay based on the novel by Dennis Wheatley. Matheson was a genius of the horror film. The film pits its heroes against a powerful adept at Black Magic. Directed by Terrence Fisher, the film speeds like a runaway train. Most films made at that time about Satanism spend the whole film establishing that there really is something supernatural going on. They save all their energy for the finale. This one assumes that Black Magic works from the very first few scenes and immediately we are forced into a breathless fight against a sorcerer who uses the full brunt of his force from the very beginning. We come face to face with the Devil himself and he is so corporeal that you can almost smell the sweat.
THE FLY (1958) A matter transmitter exchanges the head and hand of a scientist with those of a fly. Really, this is Oedipus Rex for a younger audience. A scientist who has the most enviable life possible is for one moment careless and loses everything he has. Beautifully filmed and the story is actually fairly good if you do not think too long about the science. In the world with 3D printing the premise is not as far fetched as it used to be. Another interesting aspect is that the "monster" is gentle and altruistic at all times. Really just a victim, he has merely been disfigured in a novel SF way. Not wanting to turn dangerous and quite literally lose his mind, he makes sure that does not happen.
GOJIRA (1953) This is the film that introduced the world to Godzilla. It also tells the viewer a lot about the Japanese post-war psyche. Other films in the series will be remembered, but this film rarely got seen until lately. Note I do not say this is "a.k.a. GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS" because it really has some large differences. This story of a prehistoric beast raised by the radiation of the Hydrogen bomb is a serious film about issues of the responsibility of scientists for how their weapons are used. The beast himself is beautifully realized and filmed almost always from a low angle to accentuate his huge statue. Certainly this is the best giant monster film ever made.
THE HAUNTING (1963) This is based on the Shirley Jackson novel THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE. The story is of a psychic investigation into a supposedly evil house. Director Robert Wise learned from his days in the Val Lewton stable the use of the fear of the unseen. This is generally considered one of the most frightening horror stories on film yet for visual effect it has only a piece of wood bending. The rest is left to the viewer's imagination. This is more a film about personalities, and unseen menace, and what may or may not be ghosts.
INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978) This is one of the best examples I know of a remake that stands up to the original. It tells the same story as the 1956 version but uses subliminal images and effects to make it perhaps creepier than the original. Spores from space come to Earth to replace people with shape-changing seedpods. See it with a good sound system.
NIGHT OF THE DEMON (a.k.a. CURSE OF THE DEMON, 1957) The M. R. James story "Casting of the Runes" is the basis of this film about what comes to be a duel between a scientist and supernatural-skeptic and an evil sorcerer who just might be able to call on evil powers. The director was Jacques Tourneur whose films include the Val-Lewton-produced THE CAT PEOPLE. The film starts slowly but moves to a tense (and quite famous) conclusion.
NIGHT OF THE EAGLE (aka BURN, WITCH, BURN, 1962) A professor who teaches disbelief in the supernatural discovers his wife believes she is a witch and to prove his point of view he insists that she remove from him all his magical protections, just when he needs them most. What a pedigree this film has! It is based on the novel CONJURE WIFE by Fritz Leiber. The adaptation is by two great horror writers, both veterans of "The Twilight Zone." They are Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont. The story has now been filmed at least three times, but this is by far the best version. In a small moss-covered college the wives of the teaching staff are all secretly adepts at Black Magic and use their powers against each other. The film is atmospheric and effective.
QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (a.k.a. FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH, 1967) As far as I am concerned this is the best piece of science fiction film I have ever seen. It starts with an archeological find in London and before it is over it has explained magic, ghosts, race- myth, race-prejudice, and telekinesis. The film is a bulging bag of ideas. Yet even ignoring all the ideas it is a well-paced mystery. The screenplay is by Nigel Kneale based on his own television play. [-mrl]
WAKE WOOD (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: This is a reworking of W. W. Jacobs's story "The Monkey's Paw" crossed with a bit of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." A young couple bereaved over the loss of their daughter a year earlier moves to an Irish village. Apparently the natives of the village have some sort of pagan rite that will allow them to bring the daughter back to life for three days only. One of the first of the new Hammer Films is a strong atmospheric story. There are scenes with a lot of blood, some real if not human. Those who hate blood should be warned. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
[This review is dedicated to the memory of Hammer Films lover and expert David Bara (1949-2014)].
This film is one of the first few made by the resurrected Hammer Film Productions. Why it was released without any reference in the titles that it is at least in part a Hammer Film I can only speculate.
It is Alice's birthday. Alice (played by Ella Connolly) is something like ten years old and doted on by her parents Louise and Patrick (Eva Birthistle and Aidan Gillen). Their happy world is destroyed in a moment when a savage neighbor dog attacks and kills Alice. The marriage starts to fall apart almost immediately. They move to Wake Wood, a rural Irish village, where Patrick becomes the veterinarian and Louise will run the local pharmacy. There seems to be something very strange and possibly pagan going on in the village. Secret rituals and ceremonies occur. Finally the village leader, to keep the two from separating and leaving the village, tells the couple that in Wake Wood there are rituals that can bring the dead back to life for three days. Louise could get her daughter back, albeit for just a short time.
W. W. Jacobs's story "The Monkey's Paw" updated the "Arabian Nights" idea that getting wishes does not lead to happiness. Jacobs told the story that the second of three wishes was for some dearly departed person or animal to return from the dead. This third wish is to undo the damage of the second wish. Films inspired by the story include PET SEMATARY, TALES FROM THE CRYPT (one segment), and DEATHDREAM. WAKE WOOD was written by producer Brendan McCarthy and director David Keating. Keating gets a feel that is nicely atmospheric and keeps the diction clear so that American cousins can understand what is being said. That is not always easy and realistic in a film set in Ireland.
The style of the film, photographed by Chris Maris, is subdued and stylish. It seems to be shot on real cattle farms and the film seems to use (or at least mostly use) a lot of close-up shots with real cattle. Using real cattle does not seem like it should make so much difference, but the film fully lives up to Hammer Films's reputation for gore and it is more realistic than any we have seen in the past. That is because the first gory scene is shooting what I judge to be a real cow giving birth by a real Caesarian. That sight is more grisly than any from a Christopher Lee Dracula film. Perhaps they can say that no animal was harmed in the making of this film, but some normal veterinary procedures are probably not thought to technically be harming the animal.
I did get a chuckle from what looked like a pagan data entry device. I wonder what kind to interfaces it supports.
This is a quality horror film, better and very different from a lot of Hammer Films's classic films. The end is a little pat and the story a little too predictable, but much of the film takes a tight hold on the viewer. I would give this film a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
[Spoiler... Spoiler... Spoiler... Spoiler... Spoiler... Spoiler...]
What is most interesting in the script is the use of the Timothy Spall character. In classic Hammer-period films like PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES, THE WICKER MAN, and THE GORGON the most respected member of the community is actually behind all of the evil that is being done. In this film Timothy Spall's Arthur is very much the village elder and at the same time the possessor of the supernatural secret--very Hammer-like. Arthur certainly seems sinister, but scene-by-scene he never does anything malevolent. He is really the victim of Patrick and Louise instead of vice versa and puts too much trust in them to cooperate.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1296899/combined
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/wake-wood/
ENGINEERING INFINITY edited by Jonathan Strahan (copyright 2011, Solaris, $7.99, 391pp, ISBN 978-1-907519-52-9) (excerpt from the Duel Fish Codices: a book review by Joe Karpierz):
With regard to editing short fiction, Jonathan Strahan appears to be just about everywhere these days. I'm currently looking at the list of books he either edited by himself or co-edited with such luminaries as Gardner Dozois and Lou Anders and have come to the realization that he just may be this generation's Terry Carr. Strahan has edited anthologies of science fiction, fantasy, space opera, and who knows, a whole bunch of other things I don't know about. He currently edits an annual anthology of science fiction and fantasy, and is also currently editing this series of "Infinity" books, of which ENGINEERING INFINITY is the first. He is a multiple Hugo nominee, and is one half of the duo that gives us the (usually) weekly "Coode Street Podcast". He also holds down a day job and has a family. All of which is one way of wondering when he sleeps.
ENGINEERING INFINITY is the first of (currently) three books in "Infinity" series, the other two of which are REACH FOR INFINITY and EDGE OF INFINITY. ENGINEERING INFINITY is a collection of mostly hard SF stories, and while a few of the stories are pretty good, there are a few that left me scratching my head and others that I vaguely remember reading but didn't leave much impact on me.
Strong stories include Peter Watts' "Malak", about an AI attack drone that has ethical behavior programmed into it and how that programming sometimes contradicts the orders it's given; "The Invasion of Venus" by Stephen Baxter, about the discovery of attacking aliens entering the Solar System and how the human race reacts to those attackers and their eventual destination; Hannu Rajaniemi's "The Server and the Dragon", which is just way out there enough to make me both love it and scratch my head at it at the same time; Charles Stross' "Bit Rot", a story set in the same universe as SATURN'S CHILDREN and NEPTUNE'S BROOD, but which to me is a whole lot stranger; Kathleen Ann Goonan's "Creatures with Wings", about a young man in Hawaii who is taken away from earth on its last day and shipped to a planet to eke out a meager life and try to discover the meaning of what has happened to him; and "Mercies", by Gregory Benford, about a time traveler intent on saving lives by going to the past and eradicating serial killers (which all throughout I was wondering who was going to eventually arrive and take care of him).
Serviceable stories include "A Soldier of the City" by David Moles, concerning a military man intent on vengeance against the terrorists who bombed his city and killed his goddess; and "The Birds and the Bees and the Gasoline Trees" by John Barnes, which gives us a different method by which life spreads throughout the universe.
The two real head scratchers, at least for me, were "Walls of Flesh, Bars of Bone", by Damien Broderick and Barbara Lamar, which started out as a really enjoyable SF mystery story but ended up being a forum for the authors to take their areas of expertise into realms of Weird and stream of consciousness ramblings that ruined my enjoyment of the story and lost me altogether; and "Mantis" by Robert Reed, a story which I'm not sure where it wanted to go when it started, which is okay, but didn't seem to know where it was supposed to end up, which wasn't okay. Maybe I just didn't know how to read "Mantis" - I was reading it on a flight home from Colorado, so maybe I wasn't in the right frame of mind for it - but while I was intrigued at the beginning, I was dissatisfied by the end.
The remaining stories fell into that category of "I seem to remember liking them, but I really don't seem to remember them", which is probably a way of contributing to my final thought that the stories in ENGINEERING INFINITY were of varying and uneven quality. Maybe the next "Infinity" volume will be better. [-jak]
Color Vision (letters of comment by Richie Bielak and Charles S. Harris):
In response to Evelyn's comments on color vision in the 10/17/14 issue of the MT VOID, Richie Bielak writes:
"A recently genotyped Tetrachromat, [Concetta Antico's] rare genetics provide a 4th color vision receptor. This new super vision status takes her beyond known art as it reveals she can process up to 100 million colors."
Charles Harris replies:
"Back in Bell Labs, there was a guy who in preliminary testing appeared to have a fourth color receptor. A colleague of mine was carrying out additional studies. I realize now that I never found out what the final verdict was." [-csh]
What Is Art? (letter of comment by Jim Susky):
In response to Jim Susky's comments on art in the 10/03/14 issue of the MT VOID, Mark writes:
Yes, I have heard of Landis and have the documentary in my NetFlix queue. I am amazed with his cavalier approach to materials used he is not caught more often. We at one time heard an art detective interviewed on PBS and he claimed that all forgeries are eventually found out. Evelyn and I asked the same question, how do you know? How can you know?
I got 4/6 on ape vs. artist.
You might find TIM'S VERMEER of interest:
I think your fanzine/blog is one of the best places to go for moderated discourse on intellectual topics--"slow" is good with such quality.
If I were more of a film buff I'd stack up your TCM monthly recommendations (there's still a chance).
By "best" I mean that you and Evelyn, and Skran, and others (Benford, etc.) regularly incite a response in me--it's my kind of fun.
I consider it a blessing that 30 years of it is available.
[Thank you. We aim to please. -mrl]
And now you've given me some documentaries to watch and have incited another response:
It occurs that Landis is to Museum Curators what the unknown forger/hoaxer was, with transparently fabbed-up National Guard letter to Lt. Bush, to Dan Rather and his producer (the so-called Rather-Gate mess).
They stated, in the NPR piece, that Landis knew what to say to Curators to get them to roll around in the "catnip"--that is, his forgeries. This caused them to let down their guard and get excited about them.
I speculate that Rather and Co. let down their guard, in the heat of a close Kerry/Bush race, and found the memo to be suitable to roll around in.
(But what about that 'expert', on whom "60 Minutes" relied??)
That "art detective" who claimed that all forgeries are eventually found out is guilty of hubris, overt salesmanship, or possibly politics--sending a message to forgers-at-large in the same way that a chief-of-police, a DA, or an attorney-general would "warn" criminals.
Indeed, how can one know? Scientists generally are not so rash with their blanket statements. [-js]
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and NORTH BY NORTHWEST (letter of comment by John Sloan):
In response to Evelyn's comments on CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND in the 10/17/14 issue of the MT VOID, John Sloan writes:
A few years ago I walked all the way around Devil's Tower in Wyoming. It's not really that big. I was very disappointed when I realized that there was no place for a secret government UFO base. On that same motorcycle trip I visited Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. Similarly disappointed about there being no vacation home on top. [-js]
On our 2002 cross-country trip, we went to both sites as well, and I wrote:
If you've seen NORTH BY NORTHWEST you've seen Mount Rushmore, but except for the four heads on the mountain, everything else you've seen is inaccurate. The Visitors Center and all the other supporting buildings were replaced around 1990, so the old cafeteria and viewing area are gone. The rest of the inaccuracies were inaccurate even back in 1959. I asked the ranger how many people a year ask how to get to the house shown in the movie as being at the top of Mount Rushmore. He said only about ten, mostly because it was an old movie that hardly anyone watched any more. The house used in the movie was actually in Colorado, which is *not* right in back of the heads. What is in back of the head is the canyon on the other side of the mountain. (In fact, Theodore Roosevelt's head is carved so far back that there's only about thirty feet of rock left behind it.) And I doubt that one could climb down the faces which do not have a whole lot of ledges or cracks. (The Park Service has a maintenance program to fill the cracks so that water doesn't get in and go through the freeze-and- thaw cycles that would expand the cracks. They used cables to lower themselves down.)
We took the Tower Trail around Devils Tower National Monument, a 1.3-mile trail around the base of the tower, or rather, around the outside of the ring of fallen rocks and boulders around the base of the Tower. (They say the last large slab fell off 10,000 years ago, but with the heat, cold, and moisture, there is undoubtedly more weathering going on.) We could see the wooden ladder from the early climbers, but it is no longer used. Also, the back of the Tower (meaning the side away from the one facing the Visitors Center and road) is above a much lower valley, so the landing field shown in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND couldn't have been put there the way it was in the movie. [-ecl]
Slide Rules, Nixie Tubes, and Numitrons (letters of comment by Paul Dormer, Scott Dorsey, Keith F. Lynch, Peter Trei, and David Harmon):
In response to the comments on slide rules in the 10/17/14 issue of the MT VOID, Paul Dormer writes:
Re the slide rule in APOLLO 13, I remember one review at the time it came out, in a popular science magazine I think, which pointed out that the person in question seems to be using the slide rule to add two numbers together, which they probably didn't do at NASA.
But as to whether it would be an anachronism, the Apollo 13 mission was when I was still at school (in the UK sense). I went up to university later that year, and used my slide rule for my entire three years at university, although I recall that in the first-year lab there was a mechanical calculator and later on electronic calculators with hot-wire displays were available. One was so large it was fitted to a bench but another was about the size of a modern laptop and was so valuable we had to sign it out if we wanted to use it. I was able to afford my first pocket calculator about a year after I graduated. I think it cost about 20 pounds, about 1% of my starting annual salary to put it into perspective. [-pd]
Scott Dorsey responds:
You can't [add] with a slide rule anyway, you can only multiply. You have to do the adding in your head, and keep the decimal point in your head.
I remember people using slide rules for general engineering math work well into the 1970s.
I saved up all summer for an HP34C and it was amazing. Absolutely amazing. It's still on my desk at work right now. [-sd]
[The fact about addition] was rather my point. The review was suggesting this was a goof by the film makers. [-pd]
And Keith F. Lynch says to both of them:
Correcting both of you just to be polite, a slide rule consisting of two log scales can be used to multiply and divide, a slide rule consisting of two linear scales can be used to add and subtract, and a slide rule with one of each can be used to take logs and powers.
Most serious slide rules contain two scales above the slider, two more scales below it, and two on it. And another two on the back of the slider, which is reversible. It's also possible, and useful, to put the slider in upside down. So that gives 32 ways to use it. These scales invariably include at least two log scales on the slider and at least two off it, likewise with linear scales. (The multiple log scales are to different scale (e.g., a power of 10 on one scale is as long as two powers of 10 on another), analogously with the multiplelinear scales.)
So it's perfectly possible that NASA mission control checked additions using a slide rule.
ObFandom: Not only have I seen both versions of the movie several times, including listening to both commentary tracks, and not only have I read the book it was based on several times, and other books about that mission, and watched a long-forgotten TV movie about that mission, but I discussed the mission, movies, and books with Sy Liebergot at the Worldcon two years ago. And bought another book about it from him, and read it.
My father had [a mechanical calculator] in his office. I got in trouble for dividing by zero. He said it had to go back to the factory for repair. (It just kept churning away, presumably repeatedly subtracting zero.)
[Re electronic calculators with hot-wire displays:] You mean Nixie tubes? I was amused that the CGI movie MONSTERS, INC. showed simulated Nixie tubes. They also put in simulated lens flares. [-kfl]
When I worked for the Massachusetts Mutual Insurance Company we used Friden calculators, except for the tilted keyboard they were about the size of a breadbox. Actually is was wider since it had a platen that went back and forth like one on a typewriter:
If you divided by zero it would grind away in an infinite loop, and you had to call the repair staff to fix it. The machinery was so noisy everybody on the floor knew someone had divided by zero on a Friden. [-mrl]
If I ever knew what they were called, I've forgotten it. It's over forty years ago now, but I recall they had what looked like filaments that glowed orange-red and you could see the unlit filaments if you looked closely. [-pd]
Peter Trei explains:
Nixie tubes weren't really 'hot-wire'. They used a cold cathode technique, in which a charged wire in a bulb filled with low pressure gases (mostly neon) makes the gas glow. 170V DC was required. They didn't get above 100F even in the most heavy-duty uses.
There's a modest rivial underway, but with old tubes--no one is making them. [-pt]
And although Keith says:
Yes, those sound like Nixie tubes. See the Wikipedia article on them; it has some good pictures. [-kfl]
David Harmon says:
I doubt it, they sound more like Numitrons. [-dh]
But Paul responds:
As I say, my memory is now over forty years old, but they looked more like Nixie tubes than Numitrons, though I can remember neither name being used.
Incidentally, in the English language version of Wagner's "The Rhinegold" I have on CD, Alberich's first words on seeing the Rhine Maidens is "He he, you nixies." [-pd]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
THINKING IN NUMBERS: ON LIFE, LOVE, MEANING, AND MATH by Daniel Tammet (ISBN 978-0-316-18736-7) is a collection of essays, some more interesting than others (though clearly which are which will vary from reader to reader). The "Family Values" talks about sets, and uses Jorge Luis Borges's "Chinese taxonomy." "Counting to Four in Icelandic" discusses counter words and forms used in some languages (English has only a few, such as "N head of cattle" rather than "N cattle"). Icelandic is odd in that it has different forms of the numbers depending on what they are modifying, but only up through four.
"Selves and Statistics" covers two of my favorite stories about how statistics do not tell the whole story. The first is when Stephen Jay Gould found out he had cancer, and had a median life expectancy of eight months. Gould wrote about it in "The Median Is Not the Message"--several years later, and in fact lived more than twenty years past the median. One key fact he noted was that while there was a constraint on the lower end (no one could survive less than zero time), but there was no limit on the upper end (other than normal lifespan).
The second is the story of Andre-Francois Raffray and Jean Calment. Calment was 90 years old when Raffray offered her a "rente viagere": he would pay her a certain amount a month and in return he would get her house when she died. The break-even point was somewhere about fifteen years, and the actuarial tables said a 90- year-old has a life expectancy of three years, so this seemed like a good bet for Raffray.
Three years passed, and another three, and Calment kept going. She turned 100, then 105. The payments now exceeded the value of the house, but that did not matter. At 110, Calment entered a nursing home. At 113 she was the oldest person in the world. There was a big celebration when she turned 120, but Raffray was too ill to attend. He died, and his widow had to pay the rent for two more years, until Calment finally died at 122.
Now, Tammet says, "Not knowing how to read [the mortality table's numbers] ... cost one man and his family very dear." I disagree. Yes, it cost them, but there was no way to read the numbers and think this was a bad bet. Of course the unexpected may happen; there is always an element of risk.
But the richest chapter is probably "A Novelist's Calculus". The mathematical connection is that Tolstoy applied the concepts of calculus to history:
"The movement of humanity, arising as it does from innumerable arbitrary human wills, is continuous. To understand the laws of this continuous movement is the aim of history ... only by taking infinitesimally small units for observation ... and attaining to the art of integrating them (that is, finding the sum of these infinitesimals) can we hope to arrive at the laws of history."
The historical aspect is Tolstoy's concept that "kings are the slaves of history." In other words, he believes in the Tide of History Theory rather than the Great Man Theory. And everything has many causes, no one of which can be labeled as *The Cause*. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was "the" proximate cause of World War I, but clearly there were a lot of causes before it (e.g., Germany's military build-up).
All in all, there is much to chew on in this book.
A CERTAIN AMBIGUITY by Gaurav Suri & Hartosh Singh Bal (ISBN 978-0- 691-14501-0) is subtitled "A Mathematical Novel". There is a plot which occupies at most 20% of the content, the rest of the book being lectures, essays, theorems, and proofs about infinity (and geometry). (The premise of the book is that Ravi Kapoor's grandfather was a mathematician and while at Stanford, Ravi signs up for a course, "Thinking about Infinity". Much of the book consist of the discussions in the class.) The problem with this is that mathematicians are going to find the 80% very elementary and frankly, not very interesting. And non-mathematicians will probably give up rather early, which makes me wonder who the audience for this is.
I recently discussed CAT PEOPLE by Kim Newman in the "BFI Film Classics" series, and it convinced me to work my way through as many of the series as our local library system had. I started with THE WIZARD OF OZ by Salman Rushdie (ISBN 978-0-85170-300-8). While not the scene-by-scene commentary that Newman's book was, it is certainly worth reading. Rushdie compares THE WIZARD OF OZ to the extravagant Bollywood films he grew up with, suggests that there is something wrong with Dorothy if what she is yearning for is the miserable, drab, poverty-stricken Kansas she started in, and concludes that the Wicked Witches are certainly more interesting than Glinda and may not be all that bad. As he notes, Munchkinland has supposedly been under the thumb of the Wicked Witch of the East, yet everyone looks healthy and happy and prosperous. (He does not treat the main problem of the Wizard: The Wizard sends Dorothy and her friends on a meaningless errand that he must know will almost certainly end in her death, pretty much just to get rid of her because she is annoying him. The argument that she had to learn a lot of platitudes by experience is hardly an excuse--do we let our children stick their hands into a fire just so they can learn from experience that fire burns?)
VAMPYR by David Rudkin (ISBN 978-1*84457-073-8), on the other hand, is what I feared many of this series might be: dry, academic, and hard to read. Where Newman and Rushdie seem to be talking to the reader, Rudkin is lecturing. Following the book while watching the film did enhance our appreciation of the film, but it was more difficult due to Rudkin's use of academic jargon. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: Education: that which reveals to the wise, and conceals from the stupid, the vast limits of their knowledge. --Mark TwainTweet
Go to our home page