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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society 01/17/20 -- Vol. 38, No. 29, Whole Number 2102
Table of Contents
Apology on "Star Wars" Essay (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
In last week's issue, I accidentally omitted half a dozen paragraphs of Joe Karpierz's comments on "Star Wars".
The entire article is included in this week's issue. [-ecl]
Math Is the Safest Science (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
It is amazing to me that people are so ungrateful to mathematics. Math is at the basis of everything, and yet it goes nearly unappreciated. But math is basic to the universe. If you have a whole universe and only one particle exists in that universe, then admittedly there is not much you can say about it. Okay, well only a little can be said. But ... drop a second particle into the universe and that universe snaps open. The universe is suddenly full of mathematics. The two particles attract each and move toward each other with a changing velocity that can be computed. One more particle and you have the three-body problem which may be insoluble.
You might find a story about a mad scientist. Maybe he is causing parallel universes to collide and implode. Scary stuff. Physics is dangerous. Physics is scary. In biology maybe the mad scientist is turning the world's entire wheat crop into sloppy, gray goo. Now suppose the mad scientist is a mad mathematician. What is he going to do? His math either works or not. Anything that looks the slightest bit suspicious will be reviewed and other mathematicians caught by other mathematicians. In real math anything that looks even slightly mad would be carefully checked. Mathematics is mad-scientist-proof. Mathematicians take responsibility for what t they create. [-mrl]
[Although Greg Egan has managed to make math scary in "Luminous", and Ted Chiang in "Division by Zero". -ecl]
[Of course, it may bee true that A LACK OF MATH may be dangerous. German U-boat commanders were endangered by there being math methods to decrypt their messages. But that was not being threatened by math but by the lack of it -mrl]
STAR WARS [CORRECTED] (film comments by Joe Karpierz):
Entertainment--whether it be movies, television, radio, books, podcasts, whatever--is a funny thing. Tastes vary widely from person to person and from one type of entertainment to another. What one person likes from a particular entertainment entity may be totally different from what another person likes from the same thing, and a third person will invariably wonder if the first two people are seeing the same thing, and dislike that thing totally and completely. The key to having opinions, I think, is to be able articulate *why* you like or dislike something, not just to say that something is good or that something stinks. Tell me why you feel that way; it makes for interesting discussion. And we must realize that these are opinions.
You may be able to see where I'm going with this. :-)
Last night my wife and I went to see STAR WARS THE RISE OF SKYWALKER. Once again, this movie has divided fans (now there's a surprise), as has every movie in the sequel trilogy, and once again for different reasons than the movie that came before it. I'm going to flat out say this: We loved the movie, thought it was terrific, and felt that it was the perfect way to end the Skywalker saga.
"Okay Karpierz", I hear you say, "put your money where your mouth is. *Why* did you love the movie, think it was terrific, and was the perfect way to end the Skywalker saga?"
I'm glad you asked. If you thought I've been long winded already, you ain't seen nuthin' yet.
I liked it because it was, first and foremost, a "Star Wars" movie. It was good vs. evil (always a "Star Wars" thing). It was about family (always a "Star Wars" thing). And there's the little thing about redemption (yeah, that's a "Star Wars" thing too).
"Yeah" I hear you say, "but it's been done before." Okay, fair. Then again, so what? "Star Wars" is not meant to be some critically successful set of art films that will win buckets and buckets of awards; it's meant to be entertainment for the masses. I'm not disappointed that I've seen this plot before; heck, I'd be surprised if I hadn't (And oh yes, just to let you know, I loved THE LAST JEDI in part because it was a departure from the norm and in part because it made me think about what I expect out of "Star Wars" and it made me reflect on what it's like to be, well, old.) seen this plot before.
Let's recap: Good vs. evil (or light vs. dark. Come on, Rey wears white, Kylo wears black. How much more obvious can you get?). I like a rollicking good vs. evil story.
Then there's the family thing. Well, I can't go too deeply into the family thing because, you know, spoilers. But it's there in multiple ways, and tugs at the heartstrings (hold that thought for a bit).
Same thing for redemption. Spoilers. But it's consistent.
"Ah", you say "there's some stuff that needs explaining." You know, I can't argue against that. Once again, spoilers (my guess is that a majority of you that have stuck around this long have probably seen the movie already, but just in case, I'll keep my mouth shut on the spoilers). It's a bit frustrating to me that the movie even acknowledges that somewhat big elephant in the room but waltzes by it.
But you know, it's "Star Wars".
Which brings me around to the forty-two-year time span between the original STAR WARS (and get off my lawn, it's not "A New Hope", it's STAR WARS, dammit). I was eighteen and fresh out of high school in May of 1977. Many folks who saw it when it first came out were younger than 18, but the point is that those of us who saw the original when it *was* original are forty-two years older than we were back then. As consumers of entertainment, we almost assuredly look at things with a more critical eye today than we did back then, and we can see flaws more easily. But I claim it's also okay to look at things through the eyes of who we were, not who we are now. I still love the sense of wonder that "Star Wars" brings: the heroes, the villains, the space ships and battles, the romance, good triumphing over evil. Let's go back to that statement about winning awards vs. entertainment. This is a popcorn movie. Buy your popcorn, sit down, enjoy the show, and don't think about it that much unless you want to.
That's the way I went into this movie, and that's why it succeeded. It pushed all the right buttons for me.
"AH HAH' you say. "It's nothing but fan service." No sh*t Sherlock, it's SUPPOSED to be fan service. This movie is the end of an era. It's the fans that made the franchise successful, and if you don't cater to the fans you're doing a disservice to them and yourself. Recognize what got you here and, since this is the end, bring it on with all you can. I love every bit of fan service this movie gave me. Even the movie's final word, utterly predictable from light years away, was fan service. But it was perfect. Absolutely perfect.
And yes, this sixty=year-old man was moved to tears by this movie because of every button it pushed, and every heart string it tugged. And I really don't care what you all think about that.
No, the movie was NOT perfect. Aside from the thing I already mentioned, despite the fact that J. J. Abrams and Disney said they were not going to roll back anything from The Last Jedi, they did just that, although I suppose in one case you can call it redemption of the character. I was a bit peeved about the rollbacks, as it made it seem as if THE LAST JEDI didn't happen. That's a cop out by Disney and Abrams. And it did feel rushed at time, trying to do too much while wrapping up not only the sequel trilogy but the nine-movie sequence as a whole.
For those of you who have stayed with me until the end here, thank you. I'm planning to see it again, maybe a couple of more times. Who's going with me? [-jak]
MOBY-DICK (letter of comment by Kevin R):
In response to John Hertz's comments on MOBY-DICK in the 01/10/19 issue of the MT VOID, Kevin R writes:
[John Hertz writes,] "The Quirk glossary is helpful as far as it goes but its omissions are hard to account for. For example, starting with MD Page 1, Quirk rightly has "hypos" and "Manhattoes", but omits Cato. Melville thought his readers would probably know him; I submit that if Quirk, or Penguin, thought so of their readers, he or they were mistaken."
Readers at the time of MOBY DICK's publication would certainly have known of Cato, even if they hadn't read Plutarch. Addison's play was very popular in the Revolutionary period, and afterwards.
Several polemicists for and against independence used Cato as a pseudonym, as did one of the prominent anti-Federalist authors during the debate over the ratification of the US Constitution.
KING KONG, FRAU IM MOND, and DIE NIBELUNGEN (letters of comment by Gary McGath, Paul Dormer, Dorothy J. Heydt, Scott Dorsey, and Keith F. Lynch):
In response to Mark's comments on KING KONG in the 01/10/19 issue of the MT VOID, Gary McGath writes:
It was only eight years between THE LOST WORLD and KING KONG, and both had impressive special effects for the technology of their time, even if they don't hold up well almost a century later.
People tend to think of the movies of the twenties (I guess we now have to say the 1920s) as primitive just because they didn't have sound until 1927. THE LOST WORLD is still very much worth watching, and it was vastly better than the 1960 remake. (I was nine years old when it came out, and I could tell that they were using lizards for "dinosaurs"!)
THE WOMAN IN THE MOON [FRAU IM MOND] (1929 but still silent) was impressively accurate in its portrayal of the launch of a space rocket. It's said to be the first use of a launch countdown. METROPOLIS established the mad scientist and robot doppelganger tropes. John Barrymore's Dr. Jekyll turned into Mr. Hyde in 1920 without a cut in the shooting, relying primarily on his acting abilities. [-gmg]
Dorothy J. Heydt writes:
Hm. I shall have to look that up ... is it online anywhere? [-djh]
Paul Dormer responds to Gary:
FRAU IM MOND and METROPOLIS were both directed by Fritz Lang who also made DIE NIBELUNGEN (1924), based on the same stories Wagner used for his "Ring" cycle. I found a DVD of this on sale in Berlin last summer--bizarrely a UK import. For the dragon in that he didn't use a lizard, he constructed a life-size puppet dragon. (And by life-size, I mean huge. The actor playing Siegfried is dwarfed by it.) [-pd]
Wagner took major liberties with the "Nibelungenlied and Volsung Saga". Lang stuck relatively close to the original material. [-gmg]
Returning to the last topic but one, Wagner had a huge cast-iron dragon built for performances of SIEGFRIED at Bayreuth, and I believe it's still in use. [-djh]
Paul responds to Gary and Dorothy:
Including the second half involving Atilla the Hun, who doesn't feature in Wagner (but Verdi did write an opera about him). The burning down of Atilla's palace at the end of the film is quite spectacular.
Legend has it that the dragon was accidentally sent to Beirut, not Bayreuth. [-pd]
Returning to the original topic of KING KONG (and "image jitters"), Scott Dorsey responds:
A lot of those effects were done with an optical printer, which is a projector and camera rigged up together on an optical bench. On element was shot then the film cranked back and then the second element shot. The quality of registration has a lot to do with the accuracy of the film width, how precisely the perforations in the film are punched, and how accurately the registration pin in the camera fits the perforations.
The need for accurate high speed cameras during WWII meant that the accuracy of perforation improved a HUGE amount during the war. Not only that, but the government let out a contract to a company called Oxberry to make a standardiized military-issue optical printer for doing superimposition and other effects in the lab. The optical printer totally changed the way effects were done, and while in the thirties a lot of studios had homebrew optical printing systems (like the one used on KING KONG), the Oxberry was so much more consistent and accurate it was amazing.)
KING KONG was the first feature film to ever use compositing in the lab, and as such it's amazing that it worked at all. The difference between prewar and postwar compositing is substantial in part because of the Oxberry.
The Oxberry was still the standard for many years and was used on STAR WARS. You can see the guys at Colorlab using one to print severely damaged 16mm film in https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FWT8mbdJXpw if you are curious. [-sd]
But Keith F. Lynch writes:
Maybe so, but the same jitters appear in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968). [-kfl]
However, Scott notes:
A couple orders of magnitude reduced, but yes. You can improve mechanical tolerances only so far. [-sd]
Evelyn replies to Dorothy:
Dorothy, I'm not sure which you're asking about. But here are all three:
DIE NIBELUNGEN is actually two films: SIEGFRIED and KRIEMHILD'S REVENGE. [-ecl]
THE AERONAUTS, HOTEL MUMBAI, John W. Campbell, THE AMERICANS, Edward Gibbon, and KING KONG (letter of comment by Taras Wolansky):
In response to Mark's review of THE AERONAUTS in the 12/06/19 issue of the MT VOID, Taras Wolansky writes:
Thanks for all the great issues since November.
I liked THE AERONAUTS a lot, too.
It's interesting to contrast the film with the real, record- breaking balloon ascension it dramatizes. Alas, in real life the balloonist who took the scientist up was a big hairy guy, not a beautiful woman. (Felicity Jones, you can fly me anywhere!)
Who really did save the day, but the film has the balloonist do things that are physically impossible: climb the balloon at an altitude miles higher than the "Death Zone" on Mount Everest, and then survive a fall from the balloon, attached to a line that would have broken the balloonist's back. Just because the balloon is floating like a bubble doesn't mean the laws of gravity have been repealed.
In real life, the balloonist saved their lives by pulling the gas valve lanyard with his teeth--his hands had gone numb--and the balloon descended fast enough so they didn't suffocate, but slow enough so they didn't auger into the ground before they woke up.
In response to Mark's review of HOTEL MUMBAI in the 12/20/19 issue, Taras writes:
Watching HOTEL MUMBAI made me wonder what happened to the management and security staff of the hotel. Did they get killed in the initial attack? The fact that their fate is passed over in silence suggests they may have simply abandoned their responsibilities and run away. BTW, the NRA should distribute this film: disarmed, even the former Spetsnaz guy (Jason Isaacs) is helpless against poorly trained but well-armed terrorists.
In response to Evelyn's comments on the renaming of the John W. Campbell Award to the Astounding Award in the 11/22/19 issue, Taras writes:
Back to November: Judging from Alec Nevala-Lee's book, John W. Campbell was a philo-Semite, not an anti-Semite; that is, he considered Jews a superior race. (IQ tests persistently show the Jewish average about 10 points higher than the rest of the white population. Which may help explain how 2% of the population wins 20% of the Nobel Prizes.)
Certainly Campbell's fostering of Isaac Asimov's career makes it hard to claim he discriminated against Jewish SF writers, as Asimov himself often testified. Looking over the contents pages of Astounding in the early Forties I see stories by Asimov, Nathan "Nat" Schachner, and Alfred Bester, sometimes two of them in the same issue.
In response to Dale Skran's review of THE AMERICANS in the 12/20/19 issue, Taras writes:
Reading Dale Skran's review of THE AMERICANS, it occurred to me that what probably would have happened to such a spy family is that they would have been turned in by a defector, if they didn't defect themselves.
The first thing a Soviet spy learned on entering the United States was that everything he had been told about the United States was a lie, and that everything was better in the United States than in the Soviet Union.
Whereas in the 1940s the Rosenberg spy ring could steal every military secret the United States had, by the 1980s the Soviets were falling hopelessly behind in military technology: strong evidence that their spy apparatus in the U.S. was failing.
In response to Evelyn's comments on Edward Gibbon in several issues, Taras writes:
I love the gorgeous language of the extracts from Edward Gibbon, even if I sometimes don't understand what he's getting at. Then I gratefully read Evelyn's exegeses. Hypothesis: Gibbon assumed his readers were extensively familiar with classical literature, as most educated people were in his day.
Evelyn on Gibbon: "Europe's preeminence in the arts and learning is apparently the judgment of ... Europeans."
When Gibbon wrote that, Europe had been outstripping stagnant China and the Middle East in science and technology for centuries. In the Middle East the problem was a religion that had decided science was a blasphemous waste of time; in China, the dead hand of bureaucracy, which saw innovation as rocking the boat.
In response to Mark's comments on KING KONG in the 01/10/20 issue, Taras writes:
I don't know why I should enjoy reading technical trivia about KING KONG so much, but I do.
Here's something to mull over: given the capabilities filmmakers now have, would it be worth it to correct the technical errors in the original?
The uncorrected original will still continue to exist, of course; but it might have been interesting if, instead of a bloated remake, Peter Jackson had done to KING KONG what he did to the World War I footage in THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD. Perhaps this might permit general audiences, not just film buffs, to get the same sense of wonder the original audiences got in the early 1930s.
On the other hand, the fact that Kong varies in size from scene to scene is an artistic, impressionistic choice, not a mistake. [-tw]
Thanks for the balloon information.
HOTEL MUMBAI raises the issue tha perhaps the presentation is being manipulated to leave an upbeat ending on the film.
There are several books available on the making of KING KONG. Lots of people are interested in the history of special effects.
There already was a technical improvement of KING KONG. If you remember it was "colorization." It led to a conclusion that people really do not want their films refined into something better. They want the feel of watching the film like it was on its first release. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
THE WORST JOURNEY IN THE WORLD by Apsley Cherry-Garrard (Carroll & Graf, ISBN 978-0-7867-0437-8) is an account of Scott's expedition to the South Pole (1910-1913), told primarily in the first person by Cherry-Garrard, with extensive quotes from the diaries of other expedition members.
When you think of what supplies a polar expedition should bring, you probably don't think of what Cherry-Garrard thinks is important: "Rash statements on questions of fact were always dangerous, for our small community contained so many specialists that errors were soon exposed. At the same time there were few parts of the world that one or other of us had not visited at least once. Later, when we came to our own limited quarters, books of reference were constantly in demand to settle disputes. Such books as the Times Atlas, a good encyclopaedia and even a Latin Dictionary are invaluable to such expeditions for this purpose. To them I would add Who's Who."
Considering how bad the journey was, there was plenty of humor, such as, "It was very dark, and I mistook a small bag of curry powder for the cocoa bag, and made cocoa with that, mixed with sugar; Crean drank his right down before discovering anything was wrong."
As for why the expedition failed ... wait, let me attempt to re- phrase that. Scott's attempt to be the first to reach the South Pole failed, and his attempt to reach the South Pole and return failed, but the expedition had several other objections: to recover Emperor penguins eggs at a particular stage of development, to discover fossils (if any existed), to make meteorological measurements, to determine what was the best way to equip polar expeditions, and so on. Indeed, the title refers not to the journey to the Pole, but to the *winter* journey to the penguin nesting grounds to collect the eggs. In all of these other goals, they did remarkably well. The one notable failure was Scott's attempt to reach the Pole first and to return.
So why did this fail? The Jesuit motto is "Age Quod Agis": "Do What You Are Doing". Amundsen, who reached the South Pole fove weeks before Scott, and returned successfully, followed this motto. He had one objective: the South Pole. He landed as close as possible to it, albeit in an unexplored area, and started sixty miles closer to the Pole than Scott. Scott used dogs, ponies, and motorized transport, and was fairly ignorant of how to use any of them well. But this diversification meant he needed to carry two kinds of food, plus fuel. Amundsen used only dogs, and had experienced dog drivers plus the knowledge he had learned from the Inuit in his earlier North West Passage expedition. Amundsen had experienced skiers in his party; Scott did not. Scott changed his plans during the journey in two significant ways: at the point where the final group was to head for the Pole, Scottt decided to take five men instead of four, and he also took the dogs further than planned, requiring killing the ponies to feed them.
There were many other reasons, but the ones above all point to the fact that Amundsen had a single goal, made a definite plan based on firm knowledge, prepared for it, and stuck to the plan, while Scott had multiple goals and a plan made with insufficient knowledge that he therefore had to keep modifying, and made unnecessary modifications even beyond these. Age quod agis.
This is not to criticize Scott's bravery or nobility (or that of any of the expedition). But bravery and nobility are not a substitute for knowledge and planning. There was much that Scott could not know (e.g., the importance of vitamins in the diet, or just how many calories each man would need), but the fact that Amundsen returned says that while these were contributing factors, they were not the determining factors. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: It was like watching someone organise her own immortality. Every phrase and gesture was studied. Now and again, when she said something a little out of the ordinary, she wrote it down herself in a notebook. --Harold Laski (of Virginia Woolf)Tweet
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