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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society 04/22/16 -- Vol. 34, No. 42, Whole Number 1907
Table of Contents
iTunes U (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Evelyn and I like the courses we get there. I just don't like the name, iTunes U. Every time she mentions it I cannot get the tune to "This Old Man" out of my head. It keeps going
We're a Happy Fam-il-ee.
At least I have no kids who watch Barney. [-mrl]
Project Breakthrough Starshot (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
When I first got interested in spaceships, outer space was a sort of fantasy place where Commando Cody could fly from one spaceship to another by benefit of the rockets he had strapped to his back. This was a year or two before the Soviets showed that you could shoot an object into space and it would stay up in the sky almost indefinitely. People suspected you could put a piece of metal into orbit, but that was only theory until the feat was achieved in 1957. In this same lifetime I am seeing the inauguration of the Interstellar Age. Real people who understand real science are developing craft that will leave our solar system and travel to another star sending back data--data that will return to Earth, perhaps arriving in that same lifetime. No humans would be going yet. But the concept of interstellar travel could well become a reality. A project called Breakthrough Starshot has already begun and its primary goal will be to send electronic devices to Alpha Centauri to explore. The project is called, appropriately enough, Breakthrough Starshot.
Now what is the point of all this? The star system Alpha Centauri is 4.37 light years away. Yes, we could have sent Voyager to Alpha Centauri. But Voyager travels at 17 kilometers every second. I suppose that is fast. However, traveling at Voyager-like speeds just takes too long. If it were going to Alpha Centauri it would take some 70,000 years to get there. By then we would likely not need the data. This for me was always a good argument that humans are too puny and short-lived to have any presence at all outside our solar system.
Even if we could achieve the fantastical speed of 1/20th of the speed of light, that speed would take you there in about eighty years. Sending back information to Earth would require another four years plus. I for one could hardly expect to live long enough to see the returning data. It is hard to get people excited about a project that takes a human lifespan to get results.
And then there is this new undertaking called "Breakthrough Starshot." How long will it take Breakthrough Starshot to get hardware to Alpha Centauri? Twenty years. We could be getting data back in twenty-five years. Breakthrough Starshot can deliver electronics to another star in just two decades and then it can get data back twenty-five years after it is launched.
Where are we going to get rocket engines that can take these big, juicy bites out of the speed of light? Well, it will not have engines. It will have sails. You see, engines have to carry their own fuel with them. Most of your fuel gets used up pushing your fuel. You can see using rockets is a losing game.
Imagine, if you will, a line of golf tees, each with a golf ball. You walk down the line, hitting each ball a very long distance. If you hit the balls straight you can knock them very near the cup. All the energy is expended within a few inches of you but the balls go fast and they travel to a destination at a great distance. The ball is an electronic module with a light sail. The club hitting the ball is really a laser beam. The cup will be Alpha Centauri environs.
Breakthrough Starshot will use light sails. Light exerts pressure. Not a lot of pressure, but light on a sail is usable. At one time it was thought you could use sunlight to push spacecraft. The pressure of the light would cause the craft to accelerate and persistent acceleration can lead to high speeds very quickly. But at these distances sunlight is not strong enough to provide enough acceleration. Instead, a very large array of lasers of 100 giga-watts could be trained on the sails and could in just a short time get the Breakthrough Starshot modules traveling at 20% the speed of light. That would do it. There would be a lot of Breakthrough Starshot modules sent but each one does not have to be big. The modules are said to be about the size of an iPhone. If a fleet of these modules could be sent to very near Alpha Centauri there is a lot we could learn.
The plan is to send small probes the size of smart phones into Earth orbit. Once there they would open their light sails. From down below lasers would be focused on the sails knocking them out of orbit, accelerating them to a fifth of the speed of light, and sending them onto their (very, very) long journey.
This may sound like a fantasy or (gasp!) science fiction, but the people behind Project Breakthrough Starshot are fairly notable for their acknowledged scientific expertise and/or the large number of zeroes in their net worth. Leading the project are Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner, Stephen Hawking, Freeman Dyson, Ann Druyan, astronomer Avi Loeb, astronaut Mae Jemison, and NASA researcher Pete Worden. Directing the project will be Milner, Hawking, and Mark Zuckerberg. The project was inaugurated April 12 of this month.
So in one lifetime I will have seen artificial orbit first achieved and also the inauguration of the Interstellar Age. [-mrl]
DOUGH (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: DOUGH is an affable if overly familiar comedy-drama about an Orthodox Jewish baker who takes a Muslim boy for an assistant not knowing that the boy is a marijuana dealer using the job to hide his profits from his illicit business. The two learn to like each other and help each other though their lives' trials. John Goldschmidt directs a script by Jonathan Benson and Jez Freedman. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
Jonathan Pryce plays Nat Dayan, the last baker in a line going back at least a century. Nat knows the bakery is failing and his son, a successful lawyer, chose not to be a baker. When Nat is gone--a time fast approaching--the bakery will have to close and the ever-diminishing Jewish community in the neighborhood will have no place to buy his quality of fresh baked goods. Nat needs an assistant and hopefully an apprentice who will continue the bakery going. Meanwhile a superstore chain is opening in Nat's neighborhood with the power to out-compete Nat at every turn.
Ayyash (Jerome Holder) is a very small-time drug dealer who may be getting a little money dealing that may need explaining. He needs a place to work. His mother suggests the bakeshop she goes to, and so an orthodox Jewish baker gets a Muslim assistant who really is up to no good. Each has prejudices against the other, but he stifles them because he has other agenda. Ayyash decides to deal drugs out of the bakeshop and it is not long before the drugs and the fresh bread get mixed. Suddenly Nat's customers find that they really have a good time when they eat Nat's bread, and nobody guesses what is going on.
There is little here to laugh out loud about, but there are some warm moments. It is hard to believe that people can be getting a (mild) drug high off of Nat's Challah bread and nobody has a clue what is going on. That is true even in Nat's family where two minor jokes have the entire table in uproarious laughter. At times the film stretches the viewer's credulity. But while the selection of characters created is far from original, Goldschmidt does give the actors some life. Jonathan Pryce may well be able to play an Orthodox Jew, and might well be capable in the role. But perhaps a less familiar actor could have been more believable. I was always aware I was seeing Jonathan Pryce rather than Nat the baker. To some degree the same is true of Pauline Collins as Joanna the landlady, but she has so much less a part in the proceedings. Jerome Holder has an advantage being by far the least familiar actor of the three. It may well be that most of us are less familiar with the nuances of African Muslim behavior and Holder seems authentic. The neighborhood, what we see of it, looks rather like the streets of London. Well, the film was shot partly in London and partly in Budapest--an economic choice.
Stories of people of opposite cultures who find they get along are common in films and only a little less common in the real world. Nevertheless they probably do some good. And this film seems to be something of an audience pleaser. That makes DOUGH one of the better films of the season. I rate DOUGH a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10. Dough opens in several major cities on April 29.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1517471/combined
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/dough/
LOVE THY NATURE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Here we have some important messages presented in what is too frequently a patronizing style. LOVE THY NATURE starts as a admiring look at the spectacular natural world and humans' position within and along side of nature. Nature really is something to love right now, as the title says. The message is true but the presentation style talks down to the viewer. It would be a sad commentary if we need to be patronized if we are going to accept the message. Sylvie Rokab co-writes and directs and is one of three cinematographers. Rating: low +1 (-4 to +4) or 5/10
This is a film that mesmerizes the viewer with some terrific nature photography to remind the observer how much he/she should be loving nature, and in doing so talks down to the viewer. I saw it on a big screen TV and I wish it had been on a full-sized theater screen to appreciate the spectacular nature photography. But when the film shows people it shows views of happy people enjoying being in nature like an illustration from a Watchtower tract.
Liam Neeson narrates the film calling himself "Homo Sapiens Sapiens." In other words, he is at times pretending to be the spirit of humanity. Yet he also is upbraiding humanity for its bad habits. So some of the message is much needed but confused. Also all too much of the message is laced with New Age ideas, some of which are actually dangerous. As an example, the film recommends natural herbal cures preferentially over mainstream medicine. It reassures the viewer that if the herbal cures do not work the viewer an fall back on mainstream medical therapy. (A woman I worked with was taking herbal medicine for her very severe headaches. She died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage.) Not all the advice the film gives is anywhere near such bad suggestions, but the viewer may do better to accept or reject points made by the film on a piece-by-piece basis. One should not accept all the ideas without some prudent skepticism.
The film is of an uneven visual style with most of the nature photography toward the beginning. The film's approach is rather scattershot. It will be talking one minute about how we have a symbiotic relationship with trees and their photosynthesis, and then it will be talking about global warming. Having an excellent actor like Liam Neeson narrate could be a real asset to the film, but having him represent all of humanity is bothersome. Elsewhere the film has major figures in conservation interviewed, including people like Andy Lipkis, founder of the tree conservation group the TreePeople. One moment the film can be interviewing a respectable expert on the science of his subject and the next we will be seeing an animated bee puppet.
This is a documentary that has its heart in the right place, presenting many challenging issues facing humanity with varying degrees of optimism. For me the film would have worked better if it had a greater degree of trust for the intelligence of its viewer. And to some extent the film also seems to be preaching to the choir. Most of the film's viewers will probably already believe the messages of the film before they even see it. I rate LOVE THY NATURE a low +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 5/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3244466/combined
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/love_thy_nature/
AI Authors (letter of comment by Neil Ostrove):
In response to comments on AIs writing fiction in the 04/22/16 issue of the MT VOID, Neil Ostrove writes:
As often happened, Isaac Asimov had already considered the implications. His short story "The Monkey's Finger" [in BUY JUPITER AND OTHER STORIES] contrasts the editor's and writer's viewpoints. [-no]
Passover (letters of comment by Peter Trei and Lowell Gilbert):
In response to Evelyn's comments on Passover in the 04/15/16 issue of the MT VOID, Peter Trei writes:
I'm slightly boggled to find that, for at least some Jews, the rules changed this year:
"The change, approved by Judaism's Conservative movement in November, lifts a rule in place since the 13th century that prohibited Ashkenazi Jews outside Israel from eating a group of foods known as kitniyot--rice, corn, peanuts, beans and other legumes--during Passover. "
Which Manischewitz goes well with sushi?
[For that matter, why is it okay to have yeast-fermented wine, but not yeast-fermented grain?] [-pt]
Lowell Gilbert responds:
That aligns the Ashkenazi with the Sephardic tradition. There's no clear reason for excluding those foods, especially if they're not made into flour.
"Which Manischewitz goes well with sushi?"
"[For that matter, why is it OK to have yeast-fermented wine, but not yeast-fermented grain?]"
Because it isn't about fermentation per se. It's about the rising of the bread. ["The Israelites had to leave Egypt in such a hurry, they were forced to bake their bread without waiting for it to rise."] [-lg]
Films' Recognition Values (letter of comment by Paul Dormer):
In response to Mark's comments on films' recognition values in the 04/15/16 issue of the MT VOID, Paul Dormer writes:
[Mark wrote,] "I certainly agree that KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS and GREAT EXPECTATIONS are fine films. I suspect that THE WEREWOLF OF LONDON and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN have better recognition value today. Universal horror films have an undying popularity." [-mrl]
Perhaps not in the UK. Ealing comedies get shown quite often on British TV--I'm sure KIND HEARTS gets shown about every six months. Universal horror films get shown less often. I did finally get to see the original FRANKENSTEIN a few years ago, but I don't recall a recent showing. (But with so many channels these days, it would be easy not to notice it was on.) I have a box set of Ealing films that has KIND HEARTS, along with NICHOLAS NICKELBY, PASSPORT TO PIMLICO and WENT THE DAY WELL. The last is almost an alternate history film with its Nazi invaders in the British countryside. [-pd]
Mark replies: "It is true I was thinking about my experience with the two films and that would have been in the US, and here the Universal Films are shown more. Of course the US outnumber Britain by about 5 to 1. So over all the Universal films still might get more play.
"WENT THE DAY WELL fits into the very large field of possible-future science fiction. I showed WENT THE DAY WELL to a friend who is a science fiction fan. She complained that the director did not do enough to humanize the Germans. Under the circumstances I think Alberto Cavalcanti, the director, could be forgiven." [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
The book and film group read "The Whisperer in Darkness" by H. P. Lovecraft, and watched the film of it produced by the HPL Historical Society.
While Arkham, Massachusetts, is a fictional town, all the places mentioned in "The Whisperer in Darkness" appear to be real. The towns of Hardwick, Montpelier, and Lyndonville are all in the north-central and north-eastern part of Vermont; Townshend, Newfane, South Londonderry, and Bellows Falls are in the southeastern. (None of them are very far from I-91.) The rivers and counties are all real. (Mount) Wantastiquet is also real, but "Dark Mountain" and "Round Hill" may or may not be--the names are a bit too generic to tell.
As alluded to in the story, Massachusetts did in fact issue a license plate with "the sacred codfish" on it in 1928, but its history is as murky as Lovecraft's forests. The Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles says:
"It was in 1928 that a depiction of a codfish, symbol of the Massachusetts fishing industry, was the first picture to appear on a plate. The image, which resembled an oversized guppy more than a codfish, sparked controversy among local fishermen. After suffering one of the worst years in fishing history, the fishermen blamed the RMV for representing the cod swimming away from the word "Massachusetts" which was printed on the plates. The controversial image was removed from passenger plates in 1929 and a more realistic and detailed codfish shown swimming toward Massachusetts appeared on truck plates in that same year."
But Chris Woodcock writes, "It is a great story and is even repeated on the current Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles web site. Unfortunately it is not at all true! The fishing was not particularly bad in 1928. The swimming away was just circumstance (note that starting in 1925 the year and 'MASS' alternate sides).'
The Vermont floods mentioned also really happened, and were the worst in Vermont's history. And there was a ninth planet; Pluto was discovered while Lovecraft was writing "The Whisperer in Darkness". (One wonders if the new ninth planet, now dubbed "Planet X", will be named "Yuggoth". And shouldn't it be "Planet IX"?)
Lovecraft tried to have up-to-date science in his works, such as including Pluto, but obviously much of it looks outdated. Nowadays he would probably have people's consciousnesses uploaded to a computer rather than extracting their brains and putting them in a jar.
The description of the structures in the forest made me wonder if Lovecraft had visited "Mystery Hill" (now named America's Stonehenge") in Salem, New Hampshire. He did, but it is not clear whether this was before or after he wrote "The Whisperer in Darkness". It is often claimed that "Mystery Hill" influenced "The Dunwich Horror", but Lovecraft visited the site to late to have inspired the 1929 story. "The Whisperer in Darkness" was published in 1932, so there is more chance for it to have occurred before this storty.
What is "Mystery Hill"? It is a site of stone structures in Salem, New Hampshire, but more small passages and cave-like structures than the great standing stones of Stonehenge. No one is sure who built it, or why. Well, that's not true. Quite a few people are sure, but they tend to disagree with each other. What the site's owners would like you to believe (and it is privately owned, rather than a national or state site) is that all this was done by European explorers pre-dating the Vikings. (St. Brendan's name comes up, though others think it was the Phoenicians.) The descriptions talk about how the bigger standing stones are aligned with the sun on the equinoxes or other special days, but there seem to be a lot of big standing stones *not* aligned with the sun, and it almost seems more like they just pick which stones are important after the fact. Also, stone quarrying and other activities took place here in the 19th century, and many also believe that the 1930s owner may have moved stones to what he believed/claimed to be their original positions, making their current placement meaningless.
(I am reminded of the reconstructed stone fort in Scotland that looked so perfect, but was completely inauthentic. While there had been a fort there, it had collapsed or been destroyed, and in the 19th century the owner of the land just took the stones lying around and built a fort from them with no concern about the original placement.)
In spite of all this, the site is an interesting tie-in to Lovecraft's work. (I should note that it is merely the best-known of hundreds of megaliths in New England.)
"The Whisperer in Darkness" was Lovecraft's most profitable work--he got $350 for it. The mention of the Hounds of Tindalos was picked up by Frank Belknap Long, who wrote an entire novel based on them. And a lot of the off-hand references here re-appear in "The Mound".
And "The H. P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast" (Episodes 74-76 at http://www.hppodcraft.com for "The Whisperer in Darkness") pointed out something true of all of Lovecraft's work--he loves hyphenated adjectives. He seems particularly fond of those ending in "ing": "hill-climbing", "wonder-loving", "night-haunting", "forest-traversing", "vista-opening", "ether-resisting", "barrier-breaking", "secret-guarding", ...
While we are talking about a work with a great sense of place, I should mention HARD LANDING by Algis Budrys (ISBN 978-0-446-36235-1), which has a major portion of it taking place in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. It is a book of characterization rather than of events, and its structure means that you will probably be lost for quite a while before things start to make sense, but that is part of what makes it intriguing. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: The perplexity of life arises from there being too many interesting things in it for us to be interested properly in any of them. --G. K. Chesterton, 1909Tweet
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