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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
10/31/14 -- Vol. 33, No. 18, Whole Number 1830
Table of Contents
Science Fiction (and Other) Discussion Groups, Films, Lectures, etc. (NJ):
November 6: THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962) (film), Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 6:30PM November 13: TIME AFTER TIME (film) and TIME AFTER TIME by Karl Alexander (book), Middletown (NJ) Public Library, 5:30PM November 20: UP THE LINE by Robert Silverberg, Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM December 4: THE APARTMENT (film), Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 6:30PM December 11: STALKER (film) and ROADSIDE PICNIC (book) by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky, Middletown (NJ) Public Library, 5PM **NOTE EARLIER TIME** December 18: TBD (probably more articles from THE BEST AMERICAN SCIENCE AND NATURE WRITING 2012), Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM January 8: MIMIC (film) and "Mimic" by Donald Wollheim (story), Middletown (NJ) Public Library, 5:30PM January 22: KINDRED by Octavia Butler, Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 7PM Speculative Fiction Lectures (subject to change): November 1: Ellen Datlow, Sheila Williams, and Gordon van Gelder, Old Bridge (NJ) Public Library, 12N Northern New Jersey events are listed at: http://www.sfsnnj.com/news.html
HIMMELSKIBIT--For Completists Only (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
The first science fiction space adventure that we would call a feature-length film was the 1917 Danish film HIMMELSKIBET (meaning "skyship", a.k.a. A TRIP TO MARS). Made during the height of World War I, the film is a rather saccharin account of the first spaceship to Mars finding a perfected humanity on Mars enjoying the blessings of pacifism. Just about everything is overstated, but science fiction completists will be interested to see the film. The spaceship looks like a dirigible crossed with a bi-plane. Science fiction completists will want to see it. Intertitles are in Danish and English.
An eighty-minute version of the film is available on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YYflIj6QR-I. [-mrl]
My Picks for Turner Classic Movies for November (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Well, it's Halloween. Happy Halloween. The holiday brings with it the closing of October and the opening of November. A new month means that Turner Classic Movies has another month of cinema for your delectation, some actually worth looking for. I once again hope to point you to some films you may not have heard of but which are worth seeing. All times listed are Eastern time zone (daylight saving or standard, depending on when in the month they fall). Once again I have no connection to Turner Classic Movies beyond my lamentable cinema addiction. I know Turner runs a lot of what are for me unfamiliar films, so a lot of these films may be new to you. I am also happy to take recommendations from other people on what films they recommend which are coming up on Turner.
DEATHDREAM (1974) is a surprisingly creepy and effective little horror film, that sometimes goes under the title DEAD OF NIGHT. The plot you have probably seen before or one much like it. It is one of the many variants on the story "The Monkey's Paw" by W. W. Jacobs. Other films that trade on that story include PET SEMATARY and WAKE WOOD. Andy is off fighting in Vietnam. Andy's mother really, really, really wants her son to come back home. In spite of her son's death in action she puts her whole soul into calling him back until he finally does come home. Let's just say the homecoming is not the touching, happy event Andy's mother expects. The film was directed by Bob Clark from a script by Alan Ormsby. The two had similar positions for the earlier film CHILDREN SHOULDN'T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS. This is the kind of thing WOR Channel 9 from New York used to run on Saturday nights. [A curious note: there were three films titled DEAD OF NIGHT in the last century. Each of them can be recommended. The other two films were both pretty good anthology films. There was the 1945 film that really started the trend of horror anthology films and it was much imitated. In 1977 there was a made-for-TV anthology film with one story by Jack Finney and three stories by the master, Richard Matheson. It is odd to find three different films with the same title and each is good in its own way. Stay away from the 2008 film DEAD OF NIGHT, however. It spoiled the pattern.] [Sunday, November 30, 2:00 AM]
MAFIOSO (1962) starts out as a light and cheerful Italian comedy. Antonio Badalamenti is originally from a small town in Sicily, but now runs an automobile factory in the North of Italy. He decides he wants to take his whole family to enjoy the warmth of the village where he grew up. His wife is not so sure she wants to see it, but he takes the family and introduces them to see the strange eccentric people of Sicily. There are many types including a supposed "crime boss." As the story progresses there is less comedy and the story takes some dark turns. Antonio is played by popular Italian actor Alberto Sordi. This film seems to have played in the early Sixties and then disappeared. I had never heard of it until it showed up on television, and then I was greatly impressed. Where has this film been? [Monday, November 17, 4:00 AM]
The year 1960 gave us not one but two misogynistic horror/crime films. The better known was HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM, but just as gruesome was THE HYPNOTIC EYE. In a series of apparent accidents in one city several beautiful women mutilate themselves. It may have something to do with a celebrated hypnotist bringing his show to town. This film claimed to hypnotize the audience with a process called "HypnoMagic." HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM was filmed in "HypnoVista." Neither process did a whole lot for the audience except to demonstrate that William Castle wasn't the only one to know how to sensationalize a film. It is now something of a rarity since it had less luster than HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM. Completists may be happy of a chance to see it. It is of more interest because of its rarity than for much innate quality. [Wednesday, November 19, 5:15 PM]
My choice for best film of the month is FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH (1968). But I am a special fan of science fiction films. [-mrl]
DIPLOMACY (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: We see a last ditch effort to save the city of Paris from the retreating Germans who have been ordered to blow up and burn the city they can no longer hold. A (neutral) Swedish diplomat has an unannounced early morning meeting with the German commander charged with destroying Paris. How the city was saved is a little less dramatic than the viewer might have expected, but the story is suspenseful and the interplay holds the viewer. Volker Schlöndorff (THE TIN DRUM) directs. Cyril Gely wrote the film based on his own stage play, which also starred André Dussollier and Niels Arestrup. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
It is the early morning of August 25, 1944. The Germans who have occupied Paris since June, 1940 are now losing the war, their stranglehold on France is lifting, and they are ready to give up and retreat from the City of Light. Adolf Hitler has given General Dietrich von Choltitz the order that Paris as it is is not to be retreated from. It must be consigned to fire and razed to the ground. This act would have no strategic value to the Germans, but Hitler had promised that Berlin would be as beautiful as Paris. If Berlin is in ruins, Paris must not fare any better.
At 4 AM Swedish diplomat Raoul Nordling (played by French André Dussollier) pays an uninvited visit on German von Choltitz (French Niels Arestrup) in an attempt to convince him to spare the city. Nordling expects von Choltitz to be a reasonable man of responsibility albeit on the wrong side of the war. Such illusions are quickly shattered. After the heavy bombing of German cities like Homburg the general has decided that the Parisians should get no mercy. The general is neither cultured nor compassionate. He will follow his orders with no concern for the cost to the enemy. A substantial number of the 1.5 million people in Paris will be killed. The argument goes to questioning becomes a debate of obedience vs. reason.
Nordling wants to convince von Choltitz that at some point obedience ceases to be a duty. This is the same issue discussed at the Nuremburg trials. I cannot verify that this dramatic last-minute effort ever took place and if it did, surely the content would be pure speculation. There are only rumors now that Nordling had a very strong influence on von Choltitz's decision to spare Paris.
Director Volker Schlöndorff has been scarce on the American screen the thirty-five years since he directed THE TIN DRUM. This film has none of the fantastic touches that that film had. In style this film is closer to that of Oliver Hirschbiegel's DOWNFALL. Dussollier and Arestrup repeat their roles on the stage with the play written by the screenwriter of this film Cyril Gely. The film all too readily shows its stage origins, only occasionally stepping outside the room that is the primary location. This story could easily be done as a stage play.
The worst problem of the film is that it promises to come down to issues of principles and ideals in conflict but does not. The content of any such discussion is purely a matter of speculation. The arguments for the Nazi point of view should have a little more merit and indeed from the real von Choltitz it probably would have. It would be valuable to see the issues more forcefully and better presented from von Choltitz's point of view. Though we are told repeatedly of the value of the city of Paris and all that would be lost, von Choltitz simply remains indifferent toward the city. What finally saves Paris--and, of course the viewer knows something must have--is not totally banal, but in the scale of the issues a minor matter. If this could have been a story of conflicting ideas and ideals, it could have been a much more powerful experience. In any case the film does maintain an atmosphere of suspense in spite of the fact that most of the audience will know better than Adolf Hitler did the answer to his question, "Is Paris burning?" Of course, that is true of many films about World War II.
I rate DIPLOMACY a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3129564/combined
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/diplomatie/
Sllide Rules (letter of comment by Chuck Magavero):
In response to Mark's comments about slide rules in the 10/10/14 issue of the MT VOID (and comments in subsequent issues), Chuck Magavero writes:
This topic was on NPR "All Things Considered" on 10/22. I thought I would never hear about the slide rule in this age. Glad that some kids are interested in it otherwise the slide rule remains a museum relic.
Maybe someone at NPR reads the VOID. [-mrl]
Nixie Tubes (letters of comment by David Harmon, Paul Dormer, and Kevin R.) :
In response to comments about Nixie tubes in the 10/24/14 issue of the MT VOID, David Harmon writes:
Okay. Though you called them hot-wire displays and Nixie tube electrodes are neither hot nor wire. [-dh]
Paul Dormer responds:
But they looked like they were, and nobody told me otherwise. [-pd]
In response to Paul Dormer's comments in the 10/24/14 issue of the MT VOID, about nixies in DAS RHEINGOLD, Kevin R writes:
Calling them "water sprites" seems fair. I take it A isn't referring to mail at the US Post office that can't be delivered.
Sir Richard Francis Burton (letters of comment by David Friedman and Peter Trei)
In response to Peter Trei's comments about the "Arabian Nights" in the 10/10/14 issue of the MT VOID, David Friedman writes:
[Peter referred to "a sexed-up version of the Arabian nights."]
You think it was sexed up rather than not bowdlerized? [-df]
I don't know that he invented material from whole cloth. But from what I understand, he was quite selective in his quoting, going for the 'good bits'.
The Arabian Nights are not a single work, but a large corpus of overlapping stories used, added to, and modified by many story tellers over a period of centuries. Burton's collection is not representative of the whole. [-pt]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
The discussion group's "book" this month was the first eleven articles in THE BEST AMERICAN SCIENCE AND NATURE WRITING 2012, edited by Dan Ariely (ISBN 978-0-547-79953-7). For each article, I'll give a one-sentence summary, then make some comments.
"The Teeming Metropolis of You" by Brendan Buhler ("California Magazine"): You have nine times as many bacterial cells in your body than your own cells (but because they are very much smaller, they are only 1-2% of our body mass).
"Two unrelated North Americans will share only 10 percent of their intestinal bacteria, and a North American and a South American will share only 5 percent." One wonders if intestinal bacteria could be used in place of (or in conjunction with) DNA matching.
Rob Knight says that because of the ubiquitous use of laboratory mice, "We're really good at curing diseases in mice and somewhat less good at curing them in humans."
"Our Body the Ecosystem" by Virginia Hughes ("Popular Science"): This is pretty much the same basic message as "The Teeming Metropolis of You", with a few variations.
"The average human body is made up of millions of cells. The average human body also houses 10 times that number of bacterial cells." However, as noted above, the size difference means that the bacterial cells are still a tiny fraction of our body mass.
Hughes looks at surface bacteria more than intestinal flora, and sees more similarities between individuals. "For example. the bacterial communities under your arm are more similar to those under someone else's arm than to those behind your knee."
There are, of course, many other questions to be answered; for example, "[Julie] Segre doesn't know whether bacteria associated with eczema are the cause of the disease or simply a consequence of living with it."
"The Peanut Puzzle" by Jerome Groopman ("The New Yorker"): Food allergies are exacerbated by the total avoidance of some foods, and consuming them in small amounts which have been cooked or otherwise "weakened" may help acclimatize the body to them.
"The Long, Curious, Extravagant Evolution of Feathers" by Carl Zimmer ("National Geographic"): Feathers evolved a lot earlier than we thought.
Rather than "the evolution of feathers [happening] along with the evolution of flight," feathers seem to have been common even among non-flying theropods. Further study seems to indicate that they developed from patches called placodes, and while modern reptiles(*) have placodes, their genes cause them to grow as scales rather than as feathers. So, Zimmer says, "[P]erhaps the question to ask, say some scientists, is not how birds got their feathers, but how alligators lost theirs."
[*] "Reptiles" used to form a separate Class in the Linnaean system, but ever since it has been shown that birds descended from theropods, reptiles as a taxonomic group have had a somewhat shaky standing, being a paraphyletic group (defined as all descendents of a common ancestor except for a small sub-group or sub-groups). Cladistics does not recognize such exclusions, so reptiles" has to be expanded to include birds, possibly getting a new name in the process.
"How to Hatch a Dinosaur" by Thomas Hayden ("Wired"): Jack Horner thinks he can raise a dinosaur by reverse-evolving a chicken.
Horner thinks chickens are very close to dinosaurs in their DNA. As Hayden notes, though, "Human beings are almost indistinguishable, genetically speaking, from chimpanzees, but at that scale we're also pretty hard to tell apart from, say, bats." So "very close" is not necessarily very close.
Horner says the genes are in a chicken for (say) teeth, and claims, "So making a chicken egg hatch a baby dinosaur should really be just an issue of erasing what evolution has done to make a chicken."
But [Sean] Carroll, an expert in evolutionary developmental biology ("evo devo") says. "... even if you raised an adult chicken with teeth, you'd really end up with nothing more than Foghorn Leghorn with teeth, And sh*tty teeth at that." This is because, according to Matthew Harris (who is on the faculty of Harvard Medical School), while the basic genes for teeth are there, there is nothing to create enamel and dentine.
"Faster. Higher. Squeakier." by Michael Behar ("Outside"): Scientists are developing a pill that will give someone all the benefits of exercise without their even having to break into a sweat.
I cannot say I followed all the science perfectly. Behar explains, "At rest, PPAR-delta [a protein that regulates metabolism] is dormant. But during exercise it awakens to sustain a metabolic chain reaction that produces muscle fibers with slow-twitch properties, which feed on body fat. ... In his first experiment, Evans coded the PPAR-delta gene to activate only in fat cells, where he thought it would have the most impact on weight loss. ... By 2004 he'd figured out how to tweak the PPAR-delta gene to fire in muscle cells. If the muscle became oxidative, like in the fat-cell experiment, it would cultivate the growth of mitochondria-rich slow-twitch fibers, essential for endurance."
The net result (in mice, anyway) was that mice given the treatment were able to run longer and faster than mice which had not been treated, even if the latter had been training for weeks.
"The Wipeout Gene" by Bijal P. Trivedi ("Scientific American"): Scientists are trying a new genetic approach to wiping out disease-carrying mosquitoes.
Trivedi writes, "Anthony James, a molecular biologist at the University of California, Irvine, and his colleagues have added genes to A. aegypti that block the development of flight muscles in females." Although previous extermination projects have relied on releasing sterile males into the population, "... sterile insect technology had never worked with mosquitoes. Radiation severely weakens adult males, and the processes of sorting and transport kill them before they can mate."
And as proof that attempts by governments to regulate such projects may work in a limited geographical area, and for a limited time, Trivedi reports, "Beginning in September 2009, [Luke] Alphey said, Oxitec had been releasing genetically modified mosquitoes on Grand Cayman Island in the Caribbean." The reason, of course, was that Grand Cayman Island had little or no regulations controlling such experiments. The argument is that because it is on an island, there is little chance of the mosquitoes escaping to other areas. But as just about every disease and pest has shown us (with Ebola being the latest), all it takes is one plane or one ship to let the genie out of the bottle.
"Deep Intellect" by Sy Montgomery ("Orion"): Octopuses are even more intelligent and amazing than we thought.
I have been reading and learning about octopuses a lot in the last few years, so most of what this article said was not new. Montgomery starts by noting that, while octopuses had small brains, "Small brain size was the evidence once used to argue that birds were stupid--before some birds were proven intelligent enough to compose music, invent dance steps, ask questions, and do math." In fact, "Octopuses have the largest brains of any invertebrate."
Montgomery gives the example, "Octopuses even learned to open the childproof caps on Extra Strength Tylenol pill bottles--a feat that eludes many humans with university degrees."
And although it seems obvious when stated, "Octopus and human intelligence evolved independently." Most things that two species have in common can be traced to a common ancestor. We have legs and cows have legs and the most recent common ancestor of us and cows had legs. But the most recent common ancestor of us and octopuses did not have intelligence. (Even the most recent common ancestor of us and cows did not have what we would call intelligence.) Rather, what we see is convergent evolution, the same phenomenon that produced (for example) flight in bees, birds, and bats. According to Montgomery, "... the event driving the octopus toward intelligence was the loss of the ancestral shell."
There are science fictional implications: "Meeting an octopus," writes [Peter] Godfrey-Smith, "is like meeting an intelligent alien."
The octopus's camouflage abilities are well-known. "But how does an octopus decide what animal to mimic, what colors to turn? Scientists have no idea, especially given that octopuses are likely colorblind."
Not surprisingly, Montgomery alludes to Thomas Nagel's ground-breaking paper, "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?"
"Ants & the Art of War" by Mark W. Moffett ("Scientific American"): Ants wage war using many of the same tactics that humans do.
What is interesting about this is that humans seem to think they have perfected the art of war through study and intelligence, while it turns out that ants manage to discover and develop the same tactics without the benefit of an Imperial War College, ROTC, or even training by tribal elders.
"The Scent of Your Thoughts" by Deborah Bloom ("Scientific American"): Humans react to pheromones just the way other animals do.
"Sleeping with the Enemy" by Elizabeth Kolbert ("The New Yorker"): Humans interbred with Neanderthals, and with Denisovans.
Kolbert notes that our ideas about Neanderthals are almost all wrong. She says, "... there was--and still is--no clear evidence that [Neanderthals] were hairy," and "Neanderthals did not walk with a slouch. or with bent knees." In addition, in 2013 (after this article was published) it was discovered that the shape and position of the hyoid bone and the existence of the FOXP2 gene in Neanderthals would seem to indicate that they may well have been capable of, or even have, speech.
The only studies on "intelligence" done with species closely related to modern humans has been with other primates and the results were that "the chimps, the orangutans, and the kids performed comparably on a wide range of tasks that involved understanding of the physical world. ... Where the kids routinely outscored the apes was in tasks that involved reading social cues." Kolbert observes, "From an experimental viewpoint, the best way to test whether any specific change is significant would be to produce a human with the Neanderthal version of the sequence," but also notes that for a lot of reasons this is unlikely to happen. This experiment is the premise of Robert J. Sawyer's FRAMESHIFT, and while Kolbert says "such Island of Dr. Moreau-like research on humans is not permitted," she does not say who is prohibiting it. The answer would seem to be the United States government, or perhaps most Western governments, but 1) what makes her think everyone follows the laws, 2) what makes her think scientists won't just go to some country that does not have such laws, and 3) what makes her think that scientists won't just sit on a ship outside the territorial limits and do their experiments (or an unclaimed island, which they might as well name Moreau Island while they're at it)?
Tests show that "all non-Africans. from the New Guineans to the French to the Han Chinese, carry somewhere between one and four per cent Neanderthal DNA ... and ... contemporary New Guineans carry up to six per cent Denisovan DNA."
So using the "traditional" definition of species as the equivalence class of all animals able to mate and produce fertile offspring(*), it should not be Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens, but Homo sapiens neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens sapiens. So far, scientists have avoided assigning a similar designation to the Denisovans, because there is still a lot of debate about whether they are a separate species ("Homo denisovensis"?) or merely a sub-species ("Homo sapiens denisovensis"?).
(Actually, there is even disagreement on whether modern humans and Neanderthals are separate species. The "fertile matings" definition is just one of many, and people point to the wholphin (or wolphin), the fertile offspring of a bottle-nosed dolphin and a "false killer whale" (actually in the "oceanic dolphin" family). These are two animals that are not only different species, but different genera.) [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt --Mark TwainTweet
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