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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society 11/18/16 -- Vol. 35, No. 21, Whole Number 1937
Table of Contents
More on the EmDrive:
A while back Greg Frederick sent us some information on the EmDrive, which sounds like a crazy idea violating the laws of physics, but it seems to have some basis in fact. See:
The (Negative) Power of Technology (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Science fiction is all about how technology brings change and how that change may bring with it unintended consequences. When we think about the bad outcomes of technology we usually think on the small scale of jobs taken from humans and given to machines. Or perhaps we think of it on the large scale of climate changing. What I am finding of interest this week is the number that technology is doing on Venezuela. I am surprised we are not hearing much about it in the media. When Greece was foundering we heard considerably more. But Venezuela is in very big trouble and it is the advance of technology that is doing it.
I have always thought of Venezuela as a fairly lucky. It was in possession of the largest oil reserves in the world and that made Venezuela prosperous and even powerful in its part of South America. Venezuela could use its resources to make itself fairly wealthy. They could afford to thumb their noses at the US. But ninety-five percent of their exports are oil. A sea of oil kept them afloat. About half the capital to run the country was oil revenue. But the technology of how to retrieve the oil was changing right under Venezuela.
We now have new technologies that make petroleum easier to take out of the ground. It may be a bad thing for the climate in the long run. At least we can get cheap energy. For decades American politicians had been saying that we needed to make our country energy-independent. Well, friends, we got it.
Now with new retrieval technologies we are not only energy independent at last, we have quickly become the country with the largest oil exports in the world. Oil is in huge supply to us. And we all know what happens when the supply outstrips the demand. Just from the power of competition the price went down. And a whole lot less money was going to Venezuela. A country with really only one export of any size is finding the floor fall out from under its price.
Back when I worked at Burroughs Computer Corporation liked to use a metaphor to explain Burroughs' position. You have a watering hole in the African veldt and the elephant--IBM--comes to water. And around him the pygmies come to drink. Those are small companies like Burroughs. The elephant may not mean any ill intention, but he shifts a little to the left and crushes a few pygmies. He shifts a little to the right and crushes a few more pygmies. That sort of describes the relationship between IBM and Burroughs and also between the US oil business and that of Venezuela.
A few years ago there were people convinced that we had reached a point of "peak oil" when the supply of oil had reached its high point and was now in decline. The scarcity of petroleum would drive the price up and up. And if the petroleum was a little more than planned they oil-producers could cut back on supply. Venezuela, that had very little other little non-petroleum export figured it could throttle production to send the price back up to a comfortable level. Instead, 2014 alone saw the price of petroleum fall to a third of its former self. But the only thing that Venezuela really knew how to sell was petroleum. Most of everything it bought had to send money out of the country.
Then bad economic policy made what was already a bad situation much worse. Expecting the bolivar, Venezuela's currency, to crash, the government set the exchange rate to a fixed ten bolivars to the dollar, which stoked a huge inflation rate, 1600 percent. There were huge shortages of food and medicine. Venezuelans are abandoning their country and migrating to Colombia and Brazil. What is the cause of the crisis? It is bad government economic policy, failure to look ahead, certainly. But the base of it all is the technology of better petroleum retrieval. It is an example of the chaos that can result from technology. We may be better off for the time being, but we are allowing the world to go back to burning easily retrieved fossil fuels. That could cause a lot more trouble than a fluctuation of oil prices might cause.
[See "How the oil crisis wrecked Russia and obliterated Venezuela" by Jeff Spross in The Week, November 1: http://tinyurl.com/void-venezuela.]
ARRIVAL (film review byMark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Twelve alien craft land at apparently random locations on the Earth's surface. This creates a dangerous situation that could lead to a third world war. A linguist and a physicist are more or less drafted to head up a team trying to find why these apparently alien craft are here. Amy Adams gives a compelling performance as a woman trying to break the most important and also one of the most difficult puzzles in human history. Denis Villeneuve directs a screenplay by Eroc Heisserer based on a story by Ted Chiang. This is probably the best science fiction film of 2016. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
One of my top ten films of last year (actually #4 on my list) was SICARIO, directed by the-to-me unfamiliar Denis Villeneuve. I made a mental note to pay more attention to his films. But I did not need to bother. This year he is back with a much larger calling card. At a time when we have been getting some really good science fiction films Villeneuve has managed to have a stand out work of science fiction cinema. At one time written science fiction frequently would look at the theme of first contact with alien beings and the effort to understand aliens. Frequently these stories broke down assuming aliens were just like humans except they had funny accents or unpronounceable names. ARRIVAL is one of the rare films that has suitably alien aliens and generates a real sense of the incomprehensibility of an alien species.
Dr. Louise Banks (played with subtlety by Amy Adams) is a linguistics professor who had done some work to help the military, work she later regretted. She is at first annoyed when a news story interrupts one of her lectures. It seems that twelve huge spacecraft of unknown origin have each chosen an arbitrary place on the Earth's surface and is hovering just a few dozen feet in the air.
Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) had been impressed with Banks in the past and asks her for a small favor. Could she please be one of the two people making the first contact with extraterrestrials and at the same time head up the effort to communicate with them? How could anybody refuse such a request?
Jeremy Renner plays theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly, the other half of the communications team. Together they visit the strange inside of an alien craft and will be attempting to understand whatever they find. All the while the international political atmosphere is supercharged with the uncertainly of just what will the intervention of aliens do to destabilize the political climate.
One has only to look at INDEPENDENCE DAY to see that this could lead to a slam-bang action story, but instead Villeneuve gives us a serious thought piece, part puzzle for the characters, part puzzle for the viewer, part philosophical introspection, part imaginative look at the nature of time. While the build is slow, ARRIVAL is full of a cerebral tension. The alien is believably alien and the alien language puzzle is made nearly comprehensible. The real enemy is not someone with a gun but the unknown that has to be overcome.
There was a time when science fiction films were about flying saucers or giant insects. Or they might have flying saucers come to Earth, but then we would be treated to rays that vaporize artillery and possibly soldiers with it. There are some battles in ARRIVAL but the aliens are not participating and the fighting is kept off-screen. The film's thrills are all more cerebral and a sign that science fiction films are maturing.
ARRIVAL is based on a sophisticated story by respected contemporary science fiction author Ted Chiang. While the film is not entirely faithful to the Chiang it is told on a level matching that of the story. It is a story aimed at an adult and intelligent audience featuring an adult and intelligent performance from Adams and Renner. ARRIVAL expects a lot from its audience at the same time it is giving more. I rate ARRIVAL a low +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2543164/combined
What others are saying: https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/arrival_2016
Ratings (letters of comment by John Purcell and Philip Chee):
In response to Mark's comments on ratings in the 11/11/16 issue of the MT VOID, John Purcell writes:
Ah-hah! Thank you, Mark, for explaining your ratings system(s). When you said that you were a regular reader of CINEFANTASTIQUE MAGAZINE, a little tingle of familiarity started at the back of brain. I tried to ignore it like one attempts to ignore a pesky cat wanting to be petted, but once you said, "It really could be thought of as using the bell-shaped curve used in statistics," well, that immediately brought that -4 to +4 rating system into focus. That makes perfectly good sense to me, thanks to my having taken graduate statistics classes. I don't know why that never occurred to me before. Oh, well. Mystery solved. Now I can go back to using the 1-10 movie rating scale as a measurement of pain level a movie causes on the viewer. That likewise makes a lot of sense to me. [-jp]
I think my interest in mathematics did something to the neurons in my brain. I tend to think and even dream in mathematical images. Nothing profound, unfortunately but when I wake up I can picture some mathematical principle my dream image illustrates. [-mrl]
Philip Chee asks:
So in your rating system is 0- the same as 0+ or different? [-pc]
Actually I don't think I ever used 0-. I do say "high 0", "0", and "low 0" It is in the same vein as in school of dividing the B range into "B+", "B", and "B-". [-mrl]
Superheroes (letters of comment by Philip Chee, Kevin R, and Keith F. Lynch):
In response to comments on superheroes in the 11/11/16 issue of the MT VOID, Philip Chee writes:
And who can forget Brother Power the Geek?
And Alan Moore used Jason Woodrue in his reboot of the Swamp Thing. Of course I knew enough science to know that this was all fake comic-book biology, but dammit, Alan Moore can make anything sound utterly convincing.
Kimota! nope that still doesn't work! [-pc]
Kevin R responds:
I'll see you a Kimota! and raise you a Shazoom! [-kr]
And Keith F. Lynch writes:
I found all of Stross's Laundry novels convincing -- except the comic-book superheroes one. Not his fault; those just don't work for me. [-kfl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
We have been watching the Teaching Company course "How Great Science Fiction Works" by Gary K. Wolfe--sorry, Professor Gary K. Wolfe. But heck, we're all fans here, so we don't pay much attention to titles.
As Wolfe explains, the first lecture could have been called "The Dead Frog, the Volcano, and the Teenage Bride." Alas, the Teaching Company (a.k.a. the Great Courses) seems to have preferred a more academic title, so it is called "Mary Shelley and the Birth of Science Fiction". A list of the titles will give you a good idea of the scope and structure of the course:
This is an introductory course, and a lot of the material will be familiar to the serious science fiction fan, but even for knowledgeable fans, there is a lot that will be new and enlightening. The list price for the Teaching Company courses is prohibitive for most individuals, but every course goes on sale at least a couple of times a year, and they are also bought by many public libraries.
(I tend to keep calling the company "The Teaching Company" because that name lends itself to forming a phrase such as "Teaching Company courses", while "The Great Courses courses" just does not work.) [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: Experience is what you have after you've forgotten her name. --Milton BerleTweet
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