MT VOID 06/21/02 (Vol. 20, Number 51)

MT VOID 06/21/02 (Vol. 20, Number 51)

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
06/21/02 -- Vol. 20, No. 51

Table of Contents

El Presidente: Mark Leeper, The Power Behind El Pres: Evelyn Leeper, Back issues at All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted. To subscribe, send mail to To unsubscribe, send mail to

Beware the Child:

In the late 1800s the weather phenomenon known as an El Nino occurred about once every decade or so. Now it is more like one every four years. The last El Nino was in 1997 and 1998. This has a big effect on our weather. There have been recent news stories about a possible El Nino coming toward the end of this year, so this might be a good time to discuss what one is. Frequently the worst effect of El Nino occurs in early winter. That is where the name comes from. It is something that comes at Christmas and the name is Spanish for "the child." Perhaps partially brought on by the warm weather we have been having the next El Nino may start next December.

Most of us know that El Nino means bad weather is coming. It is bad in the Pacific, but it brings bad conditions worldwide also. But few of us know exactly what is happening when we get this unfortunately no longer freak weather condition. It is actually fairly interesting.

First, let's talk about what El Nino is not or rather, what is not El Nino. Wind conditions affect the water in the equatorial Pacific from the northern part of South America to Indonesia. Normally in this stretch of the Pacific the wind blows westward. That does not sound like it is crucial, but it has far-reaching effects. The wind blows across the surface of the water and actually pushes the upper levels of water westward. This actually puts a sort of slant on the surface of the ocean. Sea level in the western Pacific is, believe it or not, about twenty inches or so higher than it is at the eastern end just due to the effect of the trade winds pushing water in that direction. That does not sound like a whole lot, does it? Considering the depth of the ocean that does not sound like much at all, but it causes an accumulation of warm ocean water at the west end of this trans- ocean wind belt. We get an east to west churn in the oceans with the warm water moving west. But water is, of course, fluid. Underneath the cold water moves in to replace the displaced and churning up all sorts of good stuff from beneath with deep water currents flowing east. The stuff churned up from the bottom is plant and animal life and it is food for the fish off of Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia. Now we are talking economy. The warm water toward the west of this corridor, with a five centigrade degree rise just from the effect of winds, is more likely to evaporate, bringing clouds and rain to Southeast Asia, welcome for rice-growers. Now we are talking economy and climate. South America does not normally get this rain, but their crops don't need or even want it. They are not big rice-growers. That is what normally happens. Societies on both sides of the Pacific have adapted to that condition.

What happens differently when you have the condition called El Nino? Well, there is just not so much wind across the surface of the Pacific. That's all. But not having those winds has big consequences. You lose the effect of having the winds effectively bunch up the rain clouds and the warm water at the western side of the Pacific. Of course it is not bunching the clouds themselves but the conditions that cause clouds. Each region gets the weather conditions that the other region wants. Southeast Asia, which needs the rain for rice production, doesn't get the rain, but they get drought instead. Meanwhile Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia find that what they are getting is a lot of heavy rain which frequently leads to flooding and destroyed crops. What they are not getting is all that fish food being churned up and pushed up from below. Less churned up food means fewer fish and that really hurts their economy. Upper level wind patterns are affected also. You have these heavy rain clouds over Latin America. Other wind streams seems have to go around them rather than move that moisture which offers resistance. The analogy usually given is a stream flowing around boulders. Like the boulders create downstream waves there are downstream high and low pressure areas created by the clouds.

So the question is, why should El Nino be happening so much more frequently? I have not heard an explanation and can only speculate. Normally air goes east to west over the surface of the Pacific. That air comes from someplace, probably from higher level winds going west to east over the Pacific. Think of it like a large conveyor belt. I think that this side of the Pacific is more industrially developed than the west side. We have more factories and more automobiles. The Far East is catching up but they are still behind. More industry and cars mean more heated air. Heated air is less dense and rises. It pushes back against the current of air diving down to cross the surface of the Pacific. It fights and tries to reverse the big conveyor belt. Eventually the flow may just reverse. When that happens El Nino will be the rule rather than the exception. That could mean disaster to many economies. This particularly true since the frequency of it happening is increasing. The world economy can take an El Nino every dozen years or so. But now it seems to be happening every four or so years and they are probably going to continue with increasing frequency. That could be a pretty scary effect if it really happens.

(Postscript: While I was preparing this they just happened to have a piece about El Nino on a Boston TV station. Hoping to get some information I watched expectantly. They said almost exclusively things I knew and presumably now you know. They said they would be back in a moment to tell how El Nino would affect New England weather. So I waited through the car ad and the grocery sale announcement. They had three or four ads before coming back. When they did they asked their weather person how El Nino will affect New England weather. Honest to Pete, this is the answer I waited through four commercials for. She said, "It will change the probability of rain storms and snow storms." How's that? Useful, huh? I figure that is a good note to leave you with.) [-mrl]

A Melange of Movie-Related Books (book reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper):

Given that I'm not writing full reviews of all the books I have read recently, I'm looking for some way to group them. So this batch are all connected in some way to Hollywood, even if only in having been filmed.

Sam Arkoff's autobiography, "Flying Through Hollywood by the Seat of My Pants" is a much less polished autobiography than one usually finds. It is more informal chatting than thorough, and I have to say that it doesn't necessarily paint a completely favorable picture of the man who started American International Pictures. (Of course, this may be more that's it's not the usual self-aggrandizing autobiography we have become used to from celebrities.)

Roger Ebert quotes only the best in his book "The Great Movies". (See his article on "Star Wars" for an example of what I mean.) But though his selection of a hundred films which he calls "Great Movies" is sure to generate the arguments and discussions that such lists always do, I found myself reading only the articles about films I had already seen. Maybe it was that the other films were so uncommon that it was unlikely I would *ever* see them. (Many were foreign films, and not always as well known as Bergman's or Kurosawa's.) I suppose I prefer books that discuss influences and trends rather than films in (semi-)isolation.

Ebert's "A Kiss Is Still a Kiss" doesn't have a thematic thread running through it either, but since it is a collection of interviews that were never part of a single theme, that's less of a problem. It's also Ebert's first book, so the style is a lot less polished than his later books.

A question asked on rec.arts.movies.past-films led me to read Lew Wallace's "Ben-Hur". The question was about the chariot race and its outcome. The answer is, "No, in the novel Masala doesn't die." What's more interesting, though, is that in the novel it is Ben-Hur, not Masala, who uses the spiked chariot wheels. The book is nowhere near as long as people seem to think--at 561 pages in my edition, it's certainly shorter than Tom Clancy's doorstops-- but it is written in a nineteenth century flowery style that makes for slower going. There is also a love triangle (or perhaps even a quadrangle) involving Gaspar's daughter and a lot more about a planned uprising of the Jews against the Romans. If you can cope with the language, it is worth reading if only to compare what Wallace wrote with what Hollywood did with it.

Another story much abridged by Hollywood (and, for that matter, by most publishers) is Alexandre Dumas's "The Count of Monte Cristo". (Well, okay, this ran 1237 pages in my unabridged edition.) The basic story remains in the various film versions, but a lot of the elaboration and detail is gone. Mark thinks that Bob Kane might have gotten some of the inspiration for "Batman" from this, with the idea of a wealthy man who is secretly avenging wrongs. While the movies are enjoyable enough, they can't compare to the book.

Now with H. G. Wells's "The Time Machine", it's possible that the George Pal film is as good as the book, though very different in tone. (I haven't seen the new version, but rumor has it that it comes in a poor third.) And if the length of the previous two books is daunting, this is perfect. (By Hugo standards, it is actually a novella rather than a novel, being about 32,500 words.)

You might think that the story of the Titanic wouldn't need yet another book, but Wyn Craig Wade's "The Titanic: End of a Dream" spends very little time on the disaster itself, and focuses on the aftermath, and particularly the aftermath. He spends most of the book on the hearings held regarding what had happened, but puts it in the context of the time, looking at the differing British and American perspectives, and covering the major changes in maritime law and policy that came about because of the sinking. Maybe all this is not as romantic as "The Heart of the Ocean," but it's definitely more interesting historically.

And finally there is Sylvia Nasar's biography of John Nash, "A Beautiful Mind". In this case, I think the movie, although it takes many liberties with the events in Nash's life, actually may do a better job of conveying both Nash's genius and his illness in ways the book doesn't. The book requires more technical expertise on the part of the reader and is at times somewhat unclear, while the movie uses images to convey some of the ideas more strongly. However, what is most interesting in the book is following the various treatments tried over the years, because that tells the reader as much about the development of psychiatry as Nash's work does about the development of economics. [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

           Education ... has produced a vast population able 
           to read but unable to distinguish what is worth 
                                      -- George Macaulay Trevelyan

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