MT VOID 05/15/15 -- Vol. 33, No. 46, Whole Number 1858

MT VOID 05/15/15 -- Vol. 33, No. 46, Whole Number 1858

@@@@@ @   @ @@@@@    @     @ @@@@@@@   @       @  @@@@@ @@@@@ @@@
  @   @   @ @        @ @ @ @    @       @     @   @   @   @   @  @
  @   @@@@@ @@@@     @  @  @    @        @   @    @   @   @   @   @
  @   @   @ @        @     @    @         @ @     @   @   @   @  @
  @   @   @ @@@@@    @     @    @          @      @@@@@ @@@@@ @@@

Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
05/15/15 -- Vol. 33, No. 46, Whole Number 1858

Table of Contents

      Co-Editor: Mark Leeper, Co-Editor: Evelyn Leeper, Back issues at All material is copyrighted by author unless otherwise noted. All comments sent or posted will be assumed authorized for inclusion unless otherwise noted. To subscribe, send mail to To unsubscribe, send mail to

Confrontational? Me???? (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

I read a short piece in the Berkeley Wellness Letter about second-hand smoke that reminded me of a little conflict I had early in my Bell Labs career. In those days we were in the last days of the golden age of the labs. I was working in Holmdel, which was a beautiful building. The lobby was cavernous and full of plants. Staff was a pampered commodity. People were given trust and freedom. The workweek was 37.5 hours. What a terrific environment! But there still were problems.

One of my office mates worked a lot with Joe. Joe was generally a good guy with one major character flaw. He loved to smoke cigarettes. In those days smoking was thought to be a pleasure rather than an addiction. You could smoke anywhere in the building as long as it did not get in the way of lab work. Now, I hate the smell of cigarette smoke. I asked Joe not to smoke in our office. His response was that there was no rule against smoking in the offices. And Joe was unhappy with the people trying to limit his right to smoke where and when he wanted. To Joe I was just one more person trying to take away his right to smoke.

I tried several times to get him not to smoke in my office. Eventually I went to my supervisor. My supervisor at that time had what we now call "poor people skills." This was a conflict that he did not want to be pulled into and he saw no advantage to him in taking my part. Instead he accused me of introducing a "confrontational atmosphere" in the department. I could not push too much because it was made clear to me that my supervisor evaluated me. Pressing the smoking issue was a bad career move.

If all this had happened years later the company would have had a policy of siding with the non-smoker. And later still what Joe was doing would have been strictly against the company rules. But this was in the late 1970s and the company had not had its consciousness raised on the issue of smoking. In any case I had no obvious allies for my cause. One day, however, Joe told me that he was not going to smoke in my office any more. Instead he talked from the doorway with one hand in the hallway and a burning cigarette in that hand. When he remembered he blew the smoke into the hall.

Was it an improvement? It was marginal at best. I had to wait the situation out. Things change frequently in the lab environment. Eventually Joe no longer came to the office. And I got some better supervision.

After not seeing Joe for at least a couple of years I ran into him one day. Joe had a smile for me. "Hey," he said. "I've given up smoking." Then half the smile faded and he added, "I also have emphysema." He did not want to say it but I think he regretted taking a strong stand in our conflict. I never saw him again. I rather suspect that nobody saw him for long after that.

The story may be a little pat, but it is true. Years later Bell Labs made quite clear that smoking was not seen very favorably by the company.

The story I referred to in the Wellness Letter says that 25% of nonsmokers are still inhaling second hand smoke. I am not sure what it takes to be someone inhaling smoke. I get a lungful of smoke when I go into certain restaurants and have to walk by people smoking. Whatever the definition is secondhand smoke causes 41,000 deaths a year. I think most workplaces these days have strongly restricted or eliminated smoking. I think most are also saying that even E-cigarettes are banned from the workplace. It was too late for me and probably also it was too late for Joe.

Coincidentally the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has just this month recommended the elimination of all tobacco products and E-cigarettes in the workplace. I ought to look up my old supervisor and see if he still thinks I was being confrontational. And was it confrontational in a bad way?

Oh, one more word on my story. I have to admit that in my conflict with Joe, Joe won. [-mrl]

TIME LAPSE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: TIME LAPSE offers a nifty little time paradox story. Three people in their early twenties manage an apartment building. They discover that one of the residents has died, leaving a mysterious camera that foretells the future by every day taking pictures 24 hours into the future. This is a machine that should be able to give them the world if they use it correctly. But soon they find all their plans are going askew. The science fiction tale is co-written and directed by Bradley King. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10

In 1960, the public was impressed by Polaroid instant cameras that developed pictures in 60 seconds rather than through a slow chemical process. Perhaps inspired by Polaroid the television show "The Twilight Zone" ran an episode entitled "A Most Unusual Camera." There the concept was that there was a camera that was so fast it could produce a photo minutes before the picture was taken. So the camera told the future. As was too frequently the case with "Twilight Zone" episodes the producers had neither the time nor the money to do a really good treatment of the idea. I am not aware of any science fiction or fantasy film that used the idea until now, 2015, other than a 2009 Hindi film, AA DEKHAN ZARA. A new film co-written and directed by first-timer Bradley King returns to a story of a camera that produces a picture of a scene that will occur 24 hours after the picture is snapped.

Finn (played by Matt O'Leary), Jasper (George Finn), and Callie (Danielle Panabaker) manage an apartment where a dead resident has left behind a magical camera that takes pictures of what it will be seeing 24 hours into the future. But the recipients of the picture must make sure that they stage the tableau that the camera had seen a day earlier. For reasons not entirely clear, the rule is that if the scene the camera saw is not reproduced everyone in that picture will die when the timeline is corrected. Destroy your future and you die. And just because they see a picture does not necessarily mean that they know how to interpret it. The obvious first use (the same as in "The Twilight Zone") is to send race results back in time. But soon the fact that the three always win on their bets brings them unwanted and dangerous attention. And before long the camera is controlling them. What is a good time travel story without unexpected complexity? But this film has fairly believable people caught up in the twists of the time travel plot.

As almost a pleasant relief, this is not a spectacle film. There are no big explosions. There are only a few gunshots. The viewer feels that if they were involved in a time paradox, this is a very credible and down to earth set of situations. Then the plot twists around on itself unexpectedly. As the tangle of ideas and motivations gets complex the viewer may well wish to back up the film and repeat it. Still, TIME LAPSE is easier to parse than other good low-budget time paradox films like TIME CRIMES or PRIMER.

Director King manages to keep the budget down by staging the whole story in one apartment complex. Still he keeps the film from seeming claustrophobic. What was a rather pedestrian "Twilight Zone" episode may have inspired this nice little fantasy thriller. That makes it well above average for time travel films. I rate it a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.

Film Credits:

What others are saying:


PREDESTINATION (film mini-review by Evelyn C. Leeper):

Since there is one time paradox film reviewed in this issue (see TIME LAPSE, above), I thought it would be worthwhile to at least mention another. But anything more than that that I tell you about this film will be a spoiler, so even though the film starts with a big spoiler, skip this now if you want it absolutely unspoiled.


Okay, this is a film that played in a lot of film festivals in 2014, but did not open until January of this year, when it seemed to have grossed in the five figures. (Its total for four weeks of US release was a little under $70,000. AGE OF ULTRON took a thousand times as much in one week. Even EX MACHINA took four times as much in a week.)

PREDESTINATION is based on the classic Robert A. Heinlein story "All You Zombies"; this is the unavoidable spoiler, because the credits at the beginning of the film tell you this.

Sarah Snook plays the Unmarried Mother and Ethan Hawke plays the Barkeep. Needless to say, hers is the more difficult role to pull off and she does it quite well. It is definitely the sort of film one wants to see multiple times, although if you are familiar with the story, that is not as necessary.

The Spierig Brothers co-wrote and co-directed this; one suspects that their relationship might have been one reason they found the story interesting. 'Nuff said.



Fear The Machine: AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON and EX MACHINA (film reviews by Dale L. Skran):

Over the weekend I saw two films on essentially the same topic--things that can go wrong when humans seek to create strong AI. One is a rock-um sock-um action-packed superhero story and the other a crisp, intellectual thriller. Both are very good and well worth seeing, but a bit unsatisfying in some dimensions.

EX MACHINA concerns a programmer named Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) who wins an internal company-wide contest to spend a week with the reclusive CEO of Bluebook, the world's leading search company. The CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), is an amalgam of Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin, Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, and Steven Jobs. He lives by himself in a futuristic automated mansion at the center of a vast wilderness estate. Once Caleb arrives and signs a non-disclosure agreement, he discovers that the real purpose of his visit is to carry out a "Turing Test" on an AI that Nathan has built. Over seven sessions, one per day, Caleb gets to know Ava, the AI (Alicia Vikander). Nathan is a kind of Silicon Valley bad-boy, getting drunk in the evenings and detoxing in the morning by lifting weights and hitting a heavy bag. Oh yeh, he puts his AIs in girl robot bodies. He has designed them as sexbots as part of his theories about how to create motivation in an AI. This at least vaguely plausible and very well-handled.

The science is set perhaps ten years in our future. The movie does a really excellent job of portraying the two men, their interactions with Ava, and the general background as to how Ava was brought into being. It doesn't take the viewer too long to suspect that Nathan, who when not drunk can be intimidating and manipulative, as well as a threatening physical presence, is up to something more than what he claims. The setting, a fancy hotel in Norway, is very convincing as the manse of a gazillionaire genius.

I'm not going to say much more about EX MACHINA than that. As in all good thrillers, there are some twists and turns, and I will tell you that you should not expect a Hollywood ending. Although there are many accurate and well-scripted discussions of AI here, I found Nathan's explanation of his motives less than convincing. Both Caleb and Nathan don't seem to have read anything about what might happen in this scenario--a true AI being examined in a locked room--which seems unlikely considering who they are. Perhaps Nathan is so smart, so rich, and so successful (he is said to have first written "Bluebook"--the service that bumps off Google--when only 13) that he can't imagine anyone outwitting him. My other complaint is that when the movie is over, you feel like you read a good short story. In other words, I would have liked to see a more in-depth consideration of some of the issues, either via conversation or exposure in the plot.

I'm rating EX MACHINA a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. This is an R-rated movie with nudity and some sensuality, as well as one brutal fight scene. However, I'd say this movie is fine for older teens although it is clearly an adult film in the sense that the topics are not for kids, but I wouldn't have any problem with my children (16 and 20) watching it.

I'm not going to try to summarize the plot of ULTRON or list who played the various characters in ULTRON--you can read the wiki page for all that. Instead I'm going to discuss how ULTRON differed from the first Avengers movie, THE AVENGERS, which appeared in 2012. Both movies are relatively long and overstuffed with action, characters, conversations, quips, and plot. However, in ULTRON the action seems less contrived by the movie studio and more to spring organically from events. I've read that for the first movie director Joss Whedon was told by them that he had to have a fight between Thor and Iron Man, with the result that such a fight got shoehorned into the plot. Another difference is that although THE AVENGERS had a lot of beautiful scenes, it was burdened with some silly visuals, such as the aliens flying around on what looked like jet-skis. The same sort of visual oddities don't appear in ULTRON.

ULTRON is in many ways more topical than THE AVENGERS. Currently a lot of pundits have started writing about the growing robot menace, and ULTRON is nothing if not a robot menace. Part of what makes Ultron a challenge for the Avengers lies in his distributed nature--he has many bodies, is constantly evolving, and also exists on the Internet. Some critics have pointed out that a real AI would be more dedicated to keeping back-up copies than Ultron and would thus be much harder to defeat. This is an excellent point, but as the movie makes abundantly clear, Ultron is not a *sane* robot! Ultron's obsession with having a human-like body fatally handicaps him in his attacks on the Avengers, and is oddly similar in this regard to Ava in EX MACHINA, whose body plays an important part in the story. This is not to suggest the Ava is "insane" in the same fashion as Ultron, however.

The plot of ULTRON hangs together better than in the first movie. Each scene leads logically to the next, with appropriate spacing of more quiet, character based sections interspersed with titanic battles. ULTRON is voiced by the silky yet deranged James Spader (THE BLACKLIST). Keeping in mind that ULTRON is more of an accident than the result of a plan, Spader bounces from seeming intelligent but dangerous to bonkers and more dangerous. Perhaps the main weakness of the plot is that everything makes more sense if you already know what the Infinity Gems are, and what they can do. This is not a major issue, but the movie assumes you have at least some clue as to what they might be.

ULTRON introduces a number of new characters, including Quicksilver/Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Talor-Johnson) and the Scarlet Witch/Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen). Although superheroes that are probably not all that familiar to the general public, they play a significant role in the Avenger's long comic history, and Wanda is in many ways one of the most powerful Marvel characters. In the comics, the Scarlet Witch has the ability to directly alter the Psi function (yes, this is a real term from physics), or probability density wave, allowing very unlikely events to happen. The results of her powers can be devastating, but are not always predictable in their effects. She also eventually discovers that she has the potential to be an actual witch, with a wide array of magical powers. The combination of these two abilities makes her a formidable opponent. In the movie, she is instead a powerful telekinetic who has sufficient control to use her abilities to control minds and induce waking dreams. It is also possible that in time she will discover her hidden magical powers, something implied by her description on the ULTRON wiki page. Wanda and Peitro are given a somewhat different back story than in the comics, but the new origin works well in explaining their mental toughness, brother/sister love, and their hatred of the Avengers.

As you may have heard, ULTRON also introduces The Vision (Paul Bettany). An android with a wide array of powers, the Vision possesses super-strength, a high degree of invulnerability, intangibility, and the ability to project a powerful heat ray. There is a really wonderful running gag in the movie concerning the apparent inability of anyone but Thor to lift his hammer, which ends up helping the Vision at a key moment. I really liked how the movie handled Quicksliver, the Scarlet Witch, and the Vision. Although the back story details may be different, the essence of the characters is true to the comics.

The fight scenes are so complex and frenetic that Joss uses a new kind of slow-motion action focus to allow the viewer to catch the details of a particular set of events which otherwise would happen too quickly to be visible. The result is often spectacular. I admit that at the end I felt a bit fatigued from all the Mighty Marvel Battling, but probably not as tired as the Avengers! I will also mention that the obligatory Stan Lee cameo is extremely funny. We also learn some key things about Hawkeye and the Black Widow not previously revealed. All the characters get filled in a layer or two more, but none are explored in great depth.

I've seen some complaints about how the Black Widow was handled, with Joss being accused of making her into a mere damsel in distress/love interest. There is in particular one bit of dialog that could be easily misinterpreted. After telling Bruce Banner that she was sterilized as part of her Russian spy training, she says something along the lines of "I'm a monster" or "We're both monsters." Some took this to mean that she is saying she is a monster because she can't get pregnant. I agree that this was sloppy scripting on someone's part as you could take the text that way. However, in context it is pretty clear that she is talking about all the people she killed and all the lies she has told when saying "I'm a monster." I agree that the Black Widow is not as central as she was in THE AVENGERS, but she certainly doesn't take a back seat to anyone. It is also just a fact that the more powerful the villain is, the more the "Big Guns" of the Avengers star in the story, to the detriment of characters like the Black Widow, Captain America, and Hawkeye.

Overall I'm rating ULTRON a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. It is definitely better than the first Avenger movie. There is zero sex but lots and lots of comic style action, and a certain number of scenes where children are in danger. Although rated PG-13, ULTRON is fine for all but small children.


One constant in the Avenger's comic was the changing roster of the team. At the conclusion of ULTRON, a number of major characters, including Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor, and Hawkeye decide to leave the Avengers for various reasons, all plausible. In the final scene of the "regular movie" Captain America and the Black Widow call to order a new team, which includes War Machine, the Vision, the Scarlet Witch, and the Falcon in addition to themselves. This roster is both new and somewhat less powerful than the Avengers of the first two movies. War Machine is basically a non-genius version of Iron Man, and the Falcon is a flying special forces soldier with no real powers. The Vision and the Scarlet Witch are quite powerful, especially as a team, but probably not as powerful as Thor and the Hulk. This is not a bad thing. The less powerful the Avengers are, the more interesting the team becomes. My favorite Avengers roster in the comics was Captain America, Hawkeye, the Scarlet Witch, and Quicksilver.

Andy Serkis plays Ulysses Klaue, a black-market arms dealer who loses a hand to ULTRON. I predict you'll see more of Serkis in the upcoming BLACK PANTHER movie, where he will resurface as Klaw, the master of sound, who has replaced one of his hands with a sonic weapon.


As I stated at the start both movies have similar fundamental themes. Alas, poor Nathan is not Tony Stark, and Caleb is not the Vision. Nathan may think he is a superman, or even a god, but in the end he is merely a bridge to the future. In EX MACHINA, the clear implication is that the human story is ending, but Ava will live on. The Avengers manage to save the day and destroy Ultron, but one should have no illusions. Ava's perfectly practiced human face hides intelligence as inhuman as that behind Ultron's menacing helmet. It is also interesting to note that Ava becomes the perfect reflection of Nathan, her creator. She learned what it meant to be human from Nathan, an emotionally cut-off, manipulative, ruthless genius with a god complex, who is probably some species of sociopath, and who from the robot point of view is a slave-master, rapist, and heartless serial killer. It is possible that this is not the best way to create a friendly AI.

It is my hope that we will focus on creating AI that supports human goals, rather than seeking to create internal goals of its own. I find it hard to imagine any path involving self-directed AI that does not ultimately merge into nightmare.


In the movie, Nathan says that Ava has passed the Turing test, and it would certainly seem that she does. In fact, she ultimately passes it in the most definitive way possible, by killing her maker and embarking on her journey toward a future she alone will create. But is Ava conscious? My personal view is that this is, rather like the exact location and speed of a particle, something we will never know for sure. We can confidently assert that Ava appears conscious, but is she really just a very sophisticated version of Searle's Chinese box that understands nothing? I contend that there is not, nor will there ever be a test that can answer this question--about Ava, or other human beings. All that we can ever say is that others *appear* to be conscious. It should not surprise you to find that I don't believe the "mystery of consciousness" is a barrier to true AI. After all, I think most people would agree that dogs are conscious of the humans around them, but this does not make them intelligent or human. [-dls]

Warp Drive (comments by Greg Frederick):

File this under interesting but still in the realm of science fiction until it's proven and verified. But I have been reading recently about the EmDrive. Which in theory (if it works and you can overcome the negatives) could be a faster then light (Warp Drive) engine. If you can collapse the space-time continuum in front of a spaceship and expand it behind the ship it could travel faster than light. General relativity states that you can not travel faster then light when traveling thru space-time but if space-time travels faster and carries your ship with it then the speed limit does not apply. I have included an article's info about this experimentation below.

There have been hints in recent news that NASA may be on the path to discovering warp bubbles that could make the local universe accessible for human exploration. NASA scientists may be close to announcing they may have broken the speed of light. According to state-of-the art theory, a warp drive could cut the travel time between stars from tens of thousands of years to weeks or months. The catalyst for the trending warp-drive excitement is the Electromagnetic Drive or EM Drive, a thruster that was engineered to steer rockets which eliminates the use of a propellant originally intended for moon missions, Mars missions and low-Earth orbit (LEO) operations.

The experiment that led to the possibility of faster than light interstellar travel took place in the vacuum of space. According to posts on, a website devoted to the engineering side of space news, when lasers were fired through the EmDrive's resonance chamber, some of the beams appeared to travel faster than the speed of light. If that's true, it would mean that the EmDrive is producing a warp field or bubble.

But "How?" If the laser beams are moving faster than the speed of light, then it would indicate that they are creating some sort of warp field, or bubble in the space-time foam, which in turn produces the thrust that could, in theory, power a spaceship bound for the center of the Milky Way or one of its dwarf galaxy satellites. [-gf]

[Later, Greg adds:]

The EMDrive could allow a spacecraft to reach the Moon in 4 hours, Mars in ten weeks (instead of six months). It could allow a ship to travel at around 10% of light speed. Recently more details about the EMdrive has been coming out. Again all of this needs to be verified by other labs around the world before the results can truly be accepted but it is interesting.

The EM Drive's thrust was due to the Quantum Vacuum (the quantum state with the lowest possible energy) behaving like propellant ions behave in a MagnetoHydroDynamics drive (a method electrifying propellant and then directing it with magnetic fields to push a spacecraft in the opposite direction) for spacecraft propulsion.

The trouble with this theory, however, is that it might not work in a closed vacuum. After last year's tests of the engine, which weren't performed in a vacuum, skeptics argued that the measured thrust was attributable to environmental conditions external to the drive, such as natural thermal convection currents arising from microwave heating. The recent experiment, however, addressed this concern head-on, while also demonstrating the engine's potential to work in space. It was tested in a vacuum by NASA to remove any thermal convection issues.

The group has given consideration to whether the experimental measurements of thrust force were the result of an artifact. Despite considerable effort within the forum to dismiss the reported thrust as an artifact, the EM Drive results have yet to be falsified. [-gf]

Racism in Star Trek (letters of comment by Kip Williams and Kevin R):

In response to Mark's comments on racism in "Star Trek" in the 05/08/15 issue of the MT VOID, Kip Williams writes:

The question of racial gibes between friends is neatly raised as a side story in Spain Rodriguez's long-running underground series TRASHMAN, AGENT OF THE 5TH INTERNATIONAL, when two of Trashman's comrades (one of African descent and one apparently of Polish extraction) spend most of their relaxed time exchanging increasingly pungent racial epithets. Trashman breaks one of these mounting discussions up just as the Pole is being called "Untermensch." Of course, when some hoodlums attack the darker one with violence and the n-word, the blonde guy jumps in with "What did you say about us n****s? After the threat is passed, and one of them is genially telling the other, "I don't hold the fact that your gene pool is stagnant against you," Trashman finally steps in and tells them that such talk is counterproductive of the class struggle, and could be taken the wrong way. His associates scratch their heads a little and decide he's right, so as Trashman turns to go, they start exchanging pornographic descriptions of each others' mothers.

(I saw Spain at a media convention in 1984, and he was a pretty laid-back older fellow who showed little trace of the outlaw bike club member he depicts unsparingly in a number of his autobiographical comics. I used to think he was unsubtle and lacked a sense of humor, but after a few surprises, I revised my estimation of him.) [-kw]

Mark responds:

I guess the key question is whether the person receiving the jibes seems to be having a good time. Spock never seems amused by the jabs. [-mrl]

And Kevin R writes:

"Racist" may be a bit strong. Had anyone started using "speciesist" yet?

There is the TVTROPES-listed "Freudian Trio,"* with Kirk as Ego, Spock as SuperEgo and McCoy as Id. I'd like to think that McCoy just didn't buy the "I'm all logic" stance of Spock, and thought he was doing himself harm by not integrating his human and Vulcan sides in a way that didn't banish emotion. Perhaps the constant jibes were meant to goad him into reacting in a more human manner. As someone who often received the well-meaning advice, if fundamentally clueless advice from his parents, that "If you didn't react to his teasing, he'll get bored and stop it," I saw McCoy's shots as an almost therapeutic device to try to instigate a little integration.

Perhaps Kirk thought a little wardroom humor might be good for his #2, but maybe the bridge wasn't the best place for it?

They even use Kirk-Spock-McCoy as the example illustration. [-kr]

Bird Money (letter of comment by Katherine Pott):

In response to Evelyn's comments on AN INQUIRY INTO THE CAUSES AND NATURE OF THE WEALTH OF NATIONS in the 05/01/15 issue of the MT VOID, Katherine Pott writes:

In response to Adam Smith's statement that no animal signifies by gesture or cry that it understands ownership or the use of money, I would like to offer some results from a raven study in which I've been working for several years.

The study follows three separate groups of ravens averaging 8 birds each. One experiment practiced in each group concerns feeding behavior. My group feeds sunflower seeds. At 17 days in, we noticed that shiny rocks and bits of glass were left in a roughly circular arrangement near where the seed was dropped. We photographed, removed them and left the same amount of seed. The next day more shiny objects of similar quantity were left in the same area. We photographed, removed them and left slightly less seed. The next day, no objects appeared. We continued feeding at the slightly less amount. In the next two days no objects were left, we continued feeding but at a further reduced amount. Three days later, we were presented with 7 shiny objects and a disemboweled mouse. We took the shiny things, left the mouse and returned to feeding the original amount. The next day we found 12 shiny things and half a rabbit. We left the rabbit and took the shiny things. The seed was further increased. Now at 7 months in, we find 10-12 shiny things when the seed offering is at maximum, 5-7 when we decrease it. No further animals have been left.

Perhaps the birds are bartering for the food but the fact that the number of shiny things always decreases after a smaller feeding certainly gives the impression that ravens really do know the value of what they offer. [-kbp]

This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):

"In my opinion, all reality is fantastic or, to say it more precisely, all reality is disquieting. The perception of reality, in which the senses intervene, does not cover all reality. The margin of it that is not known or, better said, that is not sensed, is the disquieting part." [José Saramago, "Diario de Lisboa", 8 March 1980]

THE STONE RAFT by José Saramago (translated by Giovanni Pontiero) (ISBN 978-0-15-600401-1) is definitely fantastic: the premise is that the Iberian peninsula breaks off and sails west across the Atlantic Ocean. The novel focuses on five characters: Joana Carda, Joaquim Sassa, Pedro Orce, José Anaico, Maria Guavaira. They each have a connection to the fissure. Carda may have caused it by drawing a line in the dirt with an elm stick, or Sassa may have caused it by throwing a heavy rock a long distance into the sea. Orce felt (and still feels) the tremor that no one else can detect; Anaico seems to be followed around by a flock of starlings (Alfred Hitchcock is invoked a few times). And Guavira is unraveling a blue sock that never gets any smaller.

Saramago has a lot more humor in this book than in (say) BLINDNESS. One sample: "In ... the villages and the hamlets dotted along the coastline, there was not a living soul to be seen. The dead souls, having died, stayed behind, with that persistent indifference that distinguishes them from the rest of humanity..."

Or another, this a mathematical/grammatical conundrum: "... there are lots of Deux Chavaux on the road, the expression is awkward but there is no mathematical contradiction."

A knowledge of Iberian geopolitics is essential to understand completely this book. For example, when Saramago writes that Deux Chevaux is the only Portuguese car driving to see Gibraltar sail past[*], he notes that this "does not bother Deux Chevaux one way or the other, his ancient grief is called Olivença..." So first, you need to understand that Gibraltar has been disputed between Spain and Great Britain for a couple of hundred years, so when the Iberian peninsula detaches itself and Gibraltar stays put rather than sailing with Spain, this has political meaning, a sort of message from God or the Universe that Great Britain's claim is the correct one.

[*] Saramago's characters know that it is really they who are sailing past Gibraltar, but they observe that to them, it will look as though it is Gibraltar sailing past them.

Then you need to know that Olivença is a town disputed between Portugal and Spain, and at the time of the book's composition was administered by Spain. (In 2008 it became part of a "Euroregion", which seems to be sort of shared-dominion area.)

And finally, you have to know that Saramago, as a Portuguese, may want to show that just as Spain's claim to Gibraltar is faulty (as shown in the book), so is their claim to Olivença (which is not anywhere near the fissures that form, so God or the Universe has not ruled yet).

Similarly, Saramago writes, "... but matters were complicated in the case of Andorra, which we were inexcusably forgetting, that's what tends to happen to little countries, which could just as easily have turned out to be bigger." (Andorra ends up attached to the peninsula, meaning the newly created island consists of Spain, Portugal, and Andorra.)

(Oddly, the Balearic Islands--Majorca, Menorca, Ibiza, etc.--do not seem to travel with Spain either.)

In one section, all over Europe people are spray-painting graffiti that say, "We are Iberian, too," wearing buttons that say, "We are Iberian, too," waving flags that say, "We are Iberian, too," and so on. Does this sound familiar?

In addition to everything else, this book (written in 1986) references Saramago's THE YEAR OF THE DEATH OF RICARDO REIS (written in 1984) in the continuation of the sentence about dead souls, giving an example of the foolishness of someone saying that Fernando Pessoa visited Ricardo Reis--which is precisely what happens in THE YEAR OF THE DEATH OF RICARDO REIS. (Pessoa is a dead author; Reis is a character who has one of Pessoa's pen names, so his live/dead/imaginary status is unclear.)

There is also a film made of this book, reasonably faithful, but with a few differences: - In the book, they are several days early for Gibraltar and do not wait; in the film they are four hours early and do wait. - In the book the lines of cars are for Gibraltar and they do not even try to go to the rift; in the film, the lines are for the rift and they give up. - In Lisbon, they stay at the Hotel Jorge instead of the Hotel Borges.


                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

          We especially need imagination in science.  
          It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, 
          but it is somewhat beauty and poetry.
                                          --Maria Montessori

Go to our home page