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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society 10/09/15 -- Vol. 34, No. 15, Whole Number 1879
Table of Contents
Puzzle with Answer (sent in by Tom Russell):
Last week we asked:
What common object looks like a circle, triangle and rectangle from three perspectives?
A toothpaste tube. [-tlr]
Kevin McCarthy (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
You probably all have seen that Kevin McCarthy has declined the office of Speaker of the House. I think what has happened is that the right wing of the Republican Party has blackmailed him with pictures of him running around in traffic yelling, "They're here already! You're next! You're next!" [-mrl]
Prototype (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Back when I was in college a friend who had been in the Army said that if I wanted to know what army life was like I should read the comic strip "Beetle Bailey". I am not sure I believed it at the time. It occurs to me now that "Dilbert" is the "Beetle Bailey" of the tech environment. [-mrl]
Is Anyone Proofreading the Instructions? (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
There is a problem that people in some religions, notably my own (Judaism) and Islam. Generally it is demanded of the person in a religion to fulfill certain responsibilities. Usually these are tied into some ritual that members of the religion are intended to perform. I am talking about the sort of thing like not eating from sundown to sundown for Yom Kippur. These are rules based on a book originally written for a desert culture. And they work very well in the vicinity in which they were written. But some of the rules start to break down when moved to someplace else in the world. In Judaism where a day goes from sundown to sundown that makes a day be about 24 hours. But the exact time of sunset varies from day to day depending where you are in the season. In the spring sundown comes later day-by-day. That means that sundown-based days get longer each day. Sundown gets later. Yom Kippur is just a bit shorter than 24 hours. (Yay!) Passover, a spring holiday, is a touch longer than eight days. (Boo!)
(Side note: There is another way for the cautious to tell that a new day has started. The rule says that the new day has started when you can see three stars in the night sky. As my wife points out that is a great criterion in the desert where there are rarely clouds in the sky. In New Jersey things are a little moister and many nights you can never see any stars in the sky all night. That criterion does not work so reliably.)
The variability does not cause much of a problem where I am. I live about 40 degrees north of the equator and most of the Middle East is about 30 degrees north. Mecca is about 20 degrees. As you go north of course you can get bigger differences in the length of day. Helsinki is at 60 degrees north latitude. Once you are in the Arctic Circle you can run into daylight not making an appearance during the day in winter and you get unending daylight during the summer. You get the same sort of behavior in Antarctica. If there are Jews or Muslims in Antarctica, and there are, they are probably religious enough that they need to know what are the boundaries of a day, usually measured from sundown to sundown, when there is no sundown. I do not know when a day starts for Jews and Muslims in Polar Regions. Wikipedia's article on the subject says that Jews in Polar Regions should observe the time it would be in their hometowns. Somehow you want to be synchronized with the people around you and that solution is not very satisfying.
Usually you have to go to some religious expert to figure these questions out and they may not feel prepared to answer the question definitively in the eyes of God. Think how much harder the problem is in space or on the moon. The religion was never defined in a location where these questions were asked.
(Thank you for your patience, I am getting to the point.) News came this week of the second of two disasters at this year's Hajj in Mecca. Two weeks before the Hajj an unexpectedly strong wind knocked over a large crane and killed over a hundred people. I believe that disaster is still under investigation. But two weeks later there were 2000 people killed in a human stampede during a Hajj ritual called "Stoning the Devil." This ceremony creates what is perhaps the biggest crowd management problem in the world. There have been no less than eight stampedes since 1990. They usually take in the hundreds of lives. But what is really causing the problem seems to be that whoever created the ritual did so without considering how the ritual would scale up with a large number of attendees. The current location, at one of the holiest spots of Islam, just cannot support the volume of people that it draws. I suspect that the passion of the moment leads people to be reckless.
The problem is that we are talking about a holy site. You probably cannot just tear it apart and re-build it. It would be a very large construction job and it might even be sacrilege. Complicating matters is that not just any contractors can do the job. Mecca is closed to any non-Muslims. It is illegal for a non-Muslim to enter the city. A crew brought in to do the construction would have to be all Muslims. I am sure whoever built the place of the stoning did not plan on getting two million people there, each stoning the walls. The crowd control may be the hardest of any event in any part of the world.
So what do the ways Judaism defines a day on its calendar have to do with repeated stampedes at the Hajj? Both deal with decisions made supposedly based on religious writings from a very different time or place from where those decisions have to be executed. If God is omniscient and omnipotent, why are His instructions and even His definitions so imperfect? In fact, so much so that a small change in time or locale means that the definitions no longer work. Would God have framed a definition that fails after a few centuries or a move of a few thousand miles? [-mrl]
THE MARTIAN (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Andy Weir's popular science blog turned best-selling novel comes to the screen with Matt Damon in the lead. Ridley Scott (ALIEN, GLADIATOR) directs the tense story of an astronaut accidentally left behind on Mars whose incredible science knowledge keeps him alive. The screenplay is by Drew Goddard (WORLD WAR Z, CLOVERFIELD). The science was vetted by experts and Weir proves you do not have to bend the laws of science to tell a good science fiction story. This is the most gripping film of the year so far. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
I remember when the just-released film ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS was playing in Springfield, Massachusetts. One of the things that sold me on spending my allowance to see it was that it promised that this was the first of a new breed of science fiction films that would be sticking very close to the real science. In those days my science acumen was less than what it is today. But that was all right because the filmmakers had less science knowledge than I had. I could tell with the film that the science of getting oxygen by baking rocks was a little funky, but I set aside my objections. That was until they introduced Friday as a fugitive from an interstellar alien slaver ship. Then the film begged me to suspend disbelief. And, of course, the absurdity went along with Friday to the final frame of the story.
Suspension of disbelief is just what Andy Weir wanted to make unnecessary when in his Internet blog he told an informative story of how a man marooned on Mars might actually survive. He chose the perfect medium because one resource that the Internet had in abundance is people who would happily correct other people. And amazingly, a handful of the correctors actually knew what they were talking about. Weir chipped away at the absurdity until he got his story to actually not be too absurd. It probably was not clear that that would be at all possible. The plan was not originally to make a publishable novel, but there are more intelligent people out there than Weir reckoned on and lots of people were actually interested in whether a near-future Robinson Crusoe might actually survive on Mars. The text that Weir had been giving away free turned into a best-selling novel and a hot property that he sold to the movies.
Following Andy Weir's novel, astronaut Mark Watney is on a mission to Mars that has the bad timing to be in the path of a violent windstorm. The crew has good evidence that Watney did not survive the storm and Watney has no way to contact them. Watney finds himself left behind on the hostile planet. The good news is that another Mars mission is planned. Watney can just return to Earth with that crew. The bad news is that that mission will not arrive for four years. All he needs to do is stay alive long enough to be rescued. At the beginning we see the events only from Watney's eyes. Later we get to see more of what is happening on Earth and in space. We never do learn much of who Watney is. We have to judge him just by his actions on Mars. And the planet and the predicament do test his mettle. About the first thing we learn about the real man is that he swears a lot. Then again as the only person on an entire planet he gets the prize for the human being currently most in private when he does it. There is nobody to hear him and be offended.
Some comment should be made about our Martian's implausible luck. We expect incredible luck from a James Bond. But THE MARTIAN takes place in a more realistic world. One stroke of luck: It is not at all surprising that a mission to Mars might have a botanist. People who would be sent to Mars would have wide ranges of knowledge. But Watney survives only because he *is* the botanist on the mission. He also is extraordinarily lucky to survive the storm and multiple explosions that could easily have been fatal. There is nobody but Watney himself to perform first aid on himself. He also seems to have been lucky to avoid the expected radiation problems which are not even mentioned in the film.
What keeps the audience entertained may be as much the man as his situation. What is really useful of his traits is that he does talk to himself. That normally irritating habit is extremely useful to tell the audience what he is thinking. He may be making a log, but when he talks to himself he is more conveniently narrating the story for his audience. That is one opportune characteristic. Even with a convenient arsenal of talents he still goes from one dangerous scrape to another, injuring himself, but never quite fatally. By the end of the film he obviously has deteriorated a lot in the course of the film, but he keeps coming back and his luck keeps holding. And through it all perhaps his most valuable skill is his sense of humor that never loses its edge for himself or for the viewer.
Screenwriter Drew Goddard tampers a bit with the novel. In part this seems to be so there is a big gripping set piece at each end of the film. What is missing from the film is Watney's clever engineering and improvisation to fix the problems that were contrived to queue up to hit him one at a time rather than all ganging up at once, which might have been more realistic. In the book there are more problems that require thinking, engineering, and mathematics. Solving those problems might not be cinematic, so the film glosses over them.
Director Ridley Scott has given the film a powerhouse cast including Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain. (Weren't they just together in another big science fiction space film, INTERSTELLAR?) There is also Kate Mara, Kristen Wilg, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and the ever-Sharpe Sean Bean.
It will be interesting to see if this film will win public opinion for or against the possibility of sending people to Mars. I rate THE MARTIAN a +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 9/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3659388/combined
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_martian/
REVERSION (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: A new high-technology product will go into the user's brain and polish up favorite memories to enhance them and make them much more enjoyable. A brilliant and wealthy technologist created the device and will soon be putting it on the market. Sophie, the inventor’s daughter, will lead the sales campaign. But as the hour of the offering draws near the device is giving Sophie cryptic images of the death of her mother. The concept of the film is better than the use to which it is put in this story, which is fairly slight. But there are unexpected complications in the plot. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
Take your favorite old family photograph. It probably looks nice to you even if it is a little dull. A really good artist can take that photo and colorize it if that helps. Make the colors really bright. And voila, you have a beautiful photograph--one that is truly overpowering for you as if you are experiencing it for the very first time. What if you could do that with your favorite memories of the past? You could make each recollection bright and beautiful so that remembering the memory is a total joy. It could bring back memories and make them not just irresistible but also brand new to you. They could change your life. That is the idea behind the Oubli. We are not sure exactly what it does, but it enhances favorite memories.
A large Apple-like corporation has the Oubli and is offering it to the public. Spearheading the Oubli's introduction campaign is Jack Cle (played by Colm Feore of TITUS). Chief spokesman and public face for the new product is Jack's daughter Sophie (Aja Naomi King). As the hours to the public announcement dwindle Sophie's nerves start fading into memories about the death of her mother. To top this confusion off Sophie is kidnapped by what has to be the world's most incompetent captor, Isa (Jeanette Samano). More is going on than meets the eye. But we do not even know the motives of the kidnapper.
REVERSION was directed by Jose Nestor Marquez based on a screenplay he wrote with Elissa Matsueda. The production is economical without looking too bad. There do not appear to be any computer graphics. There are familiar faces in the cast. Colm Feore has been in many films, frequently in villainous parts. It is nice to see that Amanda Plummer ("Honey-Bunny" from PULP FICTION) is still around. Gary Dourdan should be familiar to fans of CSI. Michael Tuller provides the music with no hint of melody and only texture. There used to be much more compelling music in the old days.
The biggest weakness of the film is to not look at the societal implications of this new technology. A film with a similar device, Douglas Trumbull's BRAINSTORM, does a much better job of showing the technology impact of the Oubli, which through most of the film is just MacGuffin. I rate REVERSION a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
I have been trying to understand why the filmmakers chose the words "Oubli" and "Reversion." "Oubli" is a French word meaning forgetting, but the Oubli is a device that enhances memory, even if it somewhat falsifies the memory. "Reversion" means returning to a previous state, except that the memories one has seem to be new and happening for the first time; nobody seems to be reverting to anything.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4578084/combined
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/reversion_2015/
Aging and Traveling (letter of comment by Gregory Benford):
In response to Mark's comments on Franz Kafka's METAMORPHOSIS in the 10/02/15 issue of the MT VOID, Gregory Benford writes:
Mark wrote, "The story is about involuntarily changing physically. Through much of my life I liked traveling and have visited all fifty states and something like as many countries. And even now my mind wants to be off exploring Tibet; my body is telling me to take it easy." [-mrl]
Greg says: I've been to all 50 states and 73 countries, still travel a lot (going to Oak Ridge for first time tomorrow). But am running out of planet; not much more interests me.
Do try India--it's worth the trip. [-gb]
We went to India for four weeks in 1993; see our joint trip log at http://leepers.us/evelyn/trips/india.htm. (Warning: At about 60,000 words, it's about the length of a novel.)
I am curious how you count countries; as I noted in http://leepers.us/mtvoid/2014/VOID0321.htm#countries, it is nowhere near as straightforward as one might think. [-ecl]
Operas, Operettas, and Musicals (letter of comment by Paul Dormer):
In response to Mark's comments on operas, operettas, and musicals in the 10/02/15 issue of the MT VOID, Paul Dormer writes:
Maybe, but the 1993 Lloyd Webber musical was called "Sunset Boulevard". [-pd]
Actually, no. See the actual image for the musical at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunset_Boulevard_%28musical%29. Ironically, the article gets it wrong throughout. The Wikipedia article for the film describes it as "Sunset Boulevard (stylized onscreen as SUNSET BLVD.)." The IMDB calls it "Sunset Blvd." [-ecl]
THE METAMORPHOSIS (letters of comment by Paul Dormer and Keith F. Lynch):
In response to Mark's comments on Franz Kafka's METAMORPHOSIS in the 10/02/15 issue of the MT VOID, Paul Dormer writes:
I re-read THE METAMORPHOSIS just recently for a book club and there had been an article in the paper just previously about what type of creature Samsa becomes. Although the English translation I have says "insect", the original doesn't use the German word for insect. The word used is "Ungeziefer" which Google translate gives as "vermin". Wikipedia gives it literally as "unclean animal not suitable for sacrifice".
Incidentally, BBC Scotland made a humorous short film about twenty years ago called "Franz Kakfa's It's a Wonderful Life" about Kafka trying to write the opening line whilst constantly getting interrupted. It was written and directed by Peter Capaldi. [-pd]
It is available on YouTube in three parts starting with https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pTMHUIN6ciM.
Keith F. Lynch adds:
Then there's KOCKROACH by Tyler Knox, in which a cockroach turns into a man. Spoiler: He's very successful as a (very sleazy) man, due to his experience as a roach. [-kfl]
CONSTANTINE (letters of comment by Philip Chee and Kevin R):
In response to Evelyn's comments on ambiguous titles (in particular, CONSTANTINE) in the 10/02/15 issue of the MT VOID, Philip Chee writes:
How about a film title like "The Martian"?
I wonder how well Sting would do playing the central character in HELLBLAZER?
And I heard that there were plans for a "Constantine" (cable) TV series. [-pc]
Kevin R responds:
Because [Sting] was the physical model for the comics character?
NBC-TV did a version [of "Constantine"]:
Looks like they tried to shop it to cable after it was canceled, but there weren't any takers. [From blastr.com:]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
A SHERLOCK HOLMES DEVOTIONAL by Trisha White Priebe (ISBN 978-1-63058-912-7) consists of 60 "devotions," one for each story in the Sherlock Holmes canon, of which the first half is about the story and the second half about applying some idea from it to Christianity. I did not find in the second halves particularly new ideas, and the first halves were full of errors (and typos). For example, for "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box" Priebe talks about "the evidence of a grizzly crime." However, there are no bears in this story--she means a "grisly" crime. She claims "The Adventure of the Empty House" was "the first story published after Sherlock Holmes' death in "The Final Problem". It was the second; THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES was published between the two (though its internal chronology is before "The Final Problem"). But I completely gave up when she claimed that "in only two stories involving Sherlock Holmes is no murder committed." Even if one calls the deaths in "The Lion's Mane" and "Silver Blaze" murders, in addition to "The Adventure of the Yellow Face" there are "A Scandal in Bohemia", "The Adventure of the Red-Headed League", "The Man with the Twisted Lip", "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle", "The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor", and "The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet"--and that is just in the first volume of stories! Even if she means those in which no *crime* was committed, there are definitely more than two.
SHERLOCK HOLMES & THE VEILED DETECTIVE (ISBN 978-1-8485-64090-9) is a re-imagining of the origins of Sherlock Holmes, John H. Watson, and many of the other characters involved in several of Holmes's most famous stories. (The cover blurb, "The World's Greatest Detective Returns", is completely misleading and wrong.) If you liked the direction the television "Sherlock" has taken, you may like this, but I tend to prefer my Sherlock Holmes stories authentic. (My other objection to this is that so much of it--particularly the dialogue--has been lifted directly from the original stories, meaning this is in some sense similar to books such as SENSE AND SENSIBILITY AND SEA MONSTERS, where the majority of the book is already written.) [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: Trivial people suffer trivially, great men suffer greatly. --Bertrand RussellTweet
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