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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
06/30/06 -- Vol. 24, No. 53, Whole Number 1341
Table of Contents
Tap-Tap (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I was listening to an old radio show. The hero had found someone who was unable to speak. The stranger was answering questions by tapping on the table. Depending on the question he was tapping once or twice. The hero says "I get it. You are tapping once for yes and twice for no. Is that right?" The stranger tapped once. Somehow the hero assumed that they had established communication. My question is how did the hero know that the stranger wasn't answering "no"? [-mrl]
How to Kill Bookstores (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
In the July 3/July 10, 2006, issue of U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT, Newt Gingrich is interviewed about his reading habits, and he says, "Every 10 days I walk through a bookstore, call my assistant, and say, "Would you order [these] for me, please?" Well, shame on him--does he expect the bookstore to stay open as a convenient browsing location if no one actually buys books there?
(It's not exactly like he's a poor student or on a limited income.) [-ecl]
Are We Helping the Wrong Students? (part 2) (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Last week I was talking about the deteriorating state of education and the changing position of the United States in its standing as the source of technological change.
Why are our students falling behind the best from other countries? A big problem in school is that the schools are not making effort to develop the better students. I have been asked multiple times by lower-achieving students why they really need mathematics. They are not fools. Most see that their parents have at most one use for their high school math. That is helping *them( do their homework. To them the mathematics is as arcane, as useless, and as divorced from their lives as if they were learning ancient Babylonian writing. Incidentally, I generally respond to the question of why take mathematics with a question. Why take physical education if they are not going to be professional athletes? The truth is that the medium achievers in mathematics may be better equipped to face life. But the lower achievers will probably never use it that way. A grocery clerk or a bulldozer operator does not really use algebra. They may be a little better at making financial decisions, but it would be hard to demonstrate such ability.
The lower achievers may actually have something of a point. Yes, if they put in the effort to learn the mathematics, they might have use for it later in life. But if they were the sort to put in that effort they probably would not be the lower achievers. Yet more resource is put into training them so they are not "left behind" than in developing the advanced students who might be able to really use the training. I am finding in my teaching sixteen-year-olds who cannot multiply 7 times 8. If they do not know their times tables by the time they are sixteen years old they have never had sufficient motivation to learn them. It is unlikely they will learn much more before the school system can no longer force them. The mistake is to let them soak up resources that they have no intention of benefiting from. I am not saying to remove all the effort to help the low-achievers, but putting much emphasis on them may not be the most effective way to use those resources.
Spending time with the brighter students is more likely to give a better return on that time. The eleven-year-old that I am developing is learning and grasping concepts beyond what a significant proportion of students from my high school ever learned. I was not taught these concepts until I was a sophomore and I was an advanced student in what was considered one of the best schools in Western Massachusetts. I suspect that there are more students who could comprehend the ideas much earlier than our school systems get around to teaching them. But it would take having the schools look for talent and put the effort and resource into developing those abilities.
I think it is imperative that we stop neglecting the talent in students who have the capability to make a real contribution to this country. We need to have our better students develop all the talent they have. We need to invest the time to access what their capabilities, to give them homework, and to challenge them academically in every way possible. We have to give them a learning environment that is positive and encouraging. But traditionally we have not done that and I do not expect to see it happen now. [-mrl]
Time Travel on Television (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
We just finished watching "Texas Ranch House" (or as Mark calls it, "Prairie Dog House") on PBS, and I have concluded that there are some major underlying problems to the whole notion of putting modern people in historical living conditions.
For those who do not follow these shows, "Texas Ranch House" is the latest in a series that includes "1900 House", "1940s House", "Manor House", "Regency House Party", "Frontier House", and "Colonial House". The first four were done by the BBC; the last two and "Texas Ranch House" by PBS. In all of these, a group of people "travels back in time" to live in the conditions of that period. In the end they are rated by experts as to how well they adapted. However, as I will discuss later, they do not actually interact with people from that era, which is a major difference. Still, these shows are to some extent time-travel exercises.
One problem from the start is that although a 21st century person can put on 1900-style clothes, cook a 1900-style meal, and use 1900-style plumbing, they are still walking around with their 21st century brain. Now, from what some of the participants have said in interviews, they are told that the experiment is to have 21st century people try to live in a previous era--they are not expected to abandon all their 21st century beliefs and ideas. Assuming this is true, the problem is that the narration does not indicate this at all, but rather implies the opposite.
For example, in both "Frontier House" and "Texas Ranch House", the women are given clothing of the time to wear, which consists of about seven layers, including a corset. By the end of the shows, some of the women in both shows are running around in only a couple of layers. Their attire is perfectly acceptable by 21st century (Western) standards, but the narrator makes the point that they are appearing in public in their underwear, and the evaluators give them negative points for this.
In "Colonial House", the 1620 colony is set up as a religious colony, but one couple decides not to attend the Sunday services and goes skinny-dipping instead "to commune with Nature." Just what did the producers give as the rules regarding religious worship and the actual beliefs of the participants, versus what they imply on the show--namely, that these people are not living up to their agreement?
In other words, what the participants are told is allowed seems to be more permissive that what the viewers are told, which makes the participants look bad. (The viewers may not be told this explicitly, but it is certainly implied, especially when the narration tells the viewer, for example, that what the person has just done would be totally unacceptable in the time period they are recreating.)
(I have also read that the producers of the American series not only try to pick people who will create conflict, but also sometimes even encourage them to break the rules. It has been claimed, for example, that someone on the show's staff who suggested to the women in "Frontier House" that they sew hidden pockets into their skirts so that they could smuggle im cosmetics.)
In the American shows, there is always some interaction with Native Americans. But since the whole dynamic is different, it is no wonder that the participants cannot manage to barter successfully. First, the Indians are using a couple of hundred years’ experience to drive much harder bargains than they would have back then. They have no interest in what they would have accepted as trade goods in 1620, or 1867, or 1883. And the participants have their 21st century sensibilities that force them to treat the Indians fairly--not something the original settlers would necessarily have done.
Another problem is the question of how much training the people get. It seems to be less and less with each succeeding show, but in any case it is not a lifetime. No wonder the women in "Texas Ranch House" have problems maintaining a cooking fire, or the people in "Colonial House" do not know how that oysters are valuable. Two weeks of training cannot compare with having lived this way 24-7 since childhood. (If you want a science fictional parallel, read Poul Anderson's short story "The Man Who Came Early", available in a variety of anthologies and collections.)
Another problem--and perhaps the biggest one--is the issue of how much commitment the participants have to their "goal", either the big goal (e.g., making enough to repay the Company for one's passage) or a subsidiary goal (e.g., getting the cowboy back from the Indians). The original settlers would realize that if they did not earn enough on the cattle, they would lose the ranch, and may very well starve. This would encourage them to work as hard as possible. But since the only negative result for the programs' participants is a bad evaluation, they often decide to work a few hours in the morning, take a long siesta, and maybe do a few chores in the afternoon. And there would have been a sense of real menace in the dealings with Indians in Texas, which clearly was not present in "Texas Ranch House".
The original series was "1900 House" in which a family lives as a family would have in 1900, in a house retrofitted to 1900. That worked reasonably well, and I think that was because there was only one family, and they got the most preparation. Even there, the 21st century ideas practically did them in--not their ideas, but the producers' (and the British equivalent of OSHA's). The biggest error was putting the boiler further away from the stove than would have been the case in 1900, resulting in a full week before the family had hot water. Anyone from 1900 would have known how to fix this problem in less than a week, assuming it arose at all.
And while we are talking about problems introduced by the producers, the American shows all suffer from an anachronism that is usually attributed to the perceived left-wing bias of PBS: no one is allowed to have guns. In all three American time periods, guns would have been ubiquitous, and hunting a major part of providing the food for the settlers. But PBS would not allow guns, citing both hunting laws and the refusal of the insurance companies to allow them. (Given how angry some of the people were getting at each other in "Texas Ranch House", this may have been a wise idea!) The result is that everyone is always hungry throughout the project. Someone in an Internet discussion has suggested that there could be some sort of target range where participants could go and if they scored at a certain level, they could be given some amount of meat to take back. (Though it should be in the form of a whole animal that they still have to carry back and dress themselves.)
I am still somewhat interested in the notion of these shows, but I think the implementation is faulty—-and getting worse. [-ecl]
Meet Cute? (letter of comment by Fred Lerner):
In response to Mark's review of THE LAKE HOUSE in the 06/23/03 issue of the MT VOID, Fred Lerner writes, "I know that "meet cute" is a Term of Art in film criticism, but I don't know precisely what it means. Can you enlighten me?" [-fl]
Mark replies, "I had never heard the term until Bob Devney was writing a description of Evelyn and me that mentioned how we 'met cute' at UMass. Apparently I had been oblivious because once he explained it to me I started seeing it in multiple places and now I guess I have started using it. Actually the words say it all. In romantic comedies it seems to be applied to a potential 'breeding pair' and is used to mean to meet in some cute manner. If they work in the same office and become attracted to each other, that is not meeting cute. If they meet in the hallway by one walking into the other and accidentally spilling each's lunch onto the other and then discover the attraction, that is 'meeting cute.' Wikipedia says: 'In the genre of romantic comedy film, a Meet Cute is the encounter of two potential romantic partners in unusual circumstances, a comic situation contrived by the filmmakers entirely in order to bring them together. Sometimes used as a verb, 'to meet cute,' or uncapitalized, 'the meet cute,' or hyphenated, 'the meet-cute.'" [-mrl]
Robots (letter of comment by Chris Garcia):
In response to Mark's article on the Robot Hall of Fame in the 06/23/06 issue of the MT VOID, Chris Garcia responds:
Chris: "The Robot Hall of Fame is one of those things that doesn't get enough coverage around. I'm a big robot guy (the museum where I work has a large collection, including this year's entry, SCARA, and Shakey, a 2004 Inductee to the RHoF) and I'd totally forgotten that they were announcing the new nominees until I read MT VOID. Maria is a good choice. German in design, so it's efficient and well-designed."
Mark: "I believe that Maria is the first robot in film that was not clunky. It was intended to be a little attractive."
Chris: "Gort is a good choice, and yes, it's all about peace and love and gooey feelings, but you must remember that Gort was a much more realistic robot than 90% of the movie bots around the time."
Mark: "Well, Gort was the militant arm of peace and love and gooey feelings. He represented the feeling of 'Be nice. Don't fight. The first one who fights, I break his head.' What I find most notable about him was the supposedly metal casing that bent like rubber at the joints. This definitely was not the usual hard-cased robot."
Chris: "Don't get me started on David. A.I. was slow as molasses and completely ruined by Spielberg. If it had been done by my late man Stan Kubrick, it would have been longer, slower and incredible. David as a character wasn't even the most interesting robot in the film! That teddy bear was far more interesting."
Mark: "I am in a small minority, but I liked it. I thought that it explored an interesting issue. But I had recently retired and the concept was particularly relevant to me and people I knew. From my review: 'Permanence is a major theme of A.I. I am told a glass bottle takes a million years to biodegrade. The purpose of that existence may end after a month--essentially its first moments of life, but the bottle goes on. Its whole reason for existence is just the barest beginning of its journey. This is bad for the environment, but not really for the bottle because it has no feelings. But what if a machine could be given feelings and told to love one person? What happens to a machine that has emotions, but also longevity far greater than that of its reason for existence? And can a machine really have feelings? If not, why not since an accumulation of biological cells, what a human is, can have feelings? These questions are the heart of A.I.' [http://us.imdb.com/Reviews/285/28594]"
Chris: "Fictional [robots] that deserved to be in the Hall before David include Johnny-Five from SHORT CIRCUIT, the Gunslinger from WESTWORLD, Twiki from BUCK ROGERS and Marvin the Robot from H2G2. Hell, even the Data Analyzing Youth Lifeform (D.A.R.Y.L. from the movie of the same name).
Mark: "Johnny-Five is a bit too sentimental for me. And what made him different is something magical, not something from the real world. The Gunslinger is best known for malfunctioning. Twiki? :-P I'll give you Marvin. I probably have seen D.A.R.Y.L., but don't remember it well. If we allow magic, what about the Golem of Prague? He is the father to them all."
Chris: "SCARA's one of the most important industrial arms and I've even used it! The Aibo, well I'd rather have seen them elect one like the BIPER series of Japanese Bi-Pedal walkers, the Stanford Arm, or one of the Pluto/Neptune/Uranus bots. Not to mention that there's always BigTrac, Armitron, Gyrobot and the Omnibot all introduced a generation of kids to robotics. Good issue. Thanks for covering the bots."
Mark: "Thanks for the comments."
SUPERMAN RETURNS(film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Brandon Routh steps into the cape of Superman for the first film in the series in nineteen years. Though it does not seem to hurt the film's box-office prospects, the writing of SUPERMAN RETURNS is full of holes and the film is poorly edited. Audiences may respond to the film's look at Superman's personal life, still superficial, but at greater depth than in the past. The film's subdued colors just do not work for a Superman film. Rating: low +1 (-4 to +4) or 5/10
Spoiler Alert: following the review is a spoiler section in which I will discuss problems I found with the film.
The new Superman film has dim colors and dim characters. The first television program I remember being filmed in color was "The Adventures of Superman" with George Reeves. That was a good choice on the part of the producers. Superman is a colorful character. You need to see the bright blue suit and the bright red of the cape and of the insignia. The colors really are part of the character. Every version of Superman I remember since then made since that time has the bright colors . . . until SUPERMAN RETURNS. The entire film is shot with color muting filters. The blues are drab and the reds are sort of maroon.
Back in those 1950s episodes occasionally Lois Lane might wonder if perhaps Clark Kent could be Superman, but then would cast the idea aside because they acted differently. The characters were not bright enough to figure it out, but the program was aimed at children. In SUPERMAN RETURNS, Lois and Jimmy Olson (Kate Bosworth and Sam Huntington) notice that Kent and Superman have the same height and build. Physically they look a lot alike. On top of that, they each just disappeared mysteriously for five years and each has now returned just as mysteriously. And one point in the plot of SUPERMAN RETURNS, Superman goes through a period of about a week when everybody in the public knows exactly where he is (I will not say where that is.). Daily Planet editor Perry White (played by Frank Langella) tracks his reporters fairly closely but does not notice that for that week he does not know where Kent is. The writers just seem to feel that they have handled the issue and never have to worry about it again. The staff of the Daily Planet is just going to be assumed to be terminally dense. You have to love them because they are stupid. Lois Lane is a reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper and she asks how many F's there are in "catastrophic." Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) on the other hand is not just an evil genius; he is also (gasp!) an intellectual. You can tell he is an intellectual because he listens to opera and to classical music. [At the risk of sounding like an evil genius myself, I have to admit that I myself am partial to opera and classical music.]
The title has a double meaning. In the real world it has been almost since two decades since the last (regrettable) Superman film. The loss of Christopher Reeve to play the role essentially seemed to have ended the series. Now a new actor, Brandon Routh, who sometime even seems to resemble Reeve, is cast as the new Superman and Clark Kent. Admittedly Routh lacks much of Reeve's natural charm, but then who doesn't? So, after a long hiatus Superman is returning to the screen. In the plot Superman and Kent are also returning, but for them it was only a five-year gap while Superman returned to the remains of his home planet Krypton to make some dubious connection to his own lost people. Finding the destroyed remnant of his planet and people has left him as emotionally empty as he started. He returns from space crashing his crystal ship on the front lawn of Ma Kent's farm. Eva Marie Saint (of ON THE WATERFRONT, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, and EXODUS, incidentally) plays Martha Kent. Seeing one of the most elegant women in Hollywood still acting is probably the high point of SUPERMAN RETURNS. Apparently in his absence Superman has learned to use his powers to levitate, so the trip was not wasted. Meanwhile Lex Luthor has returned to his plans to create and to own lots of beachfront property. He forms an expedition to Superman's Fortress of Solitude to steal crystals. The fortress still looks majestic, but in the muted colors of Newton Thomas Sigel's photography at the same time it looks a bit dismal. Perhaps it needs a new coat of ice.
The screenplay seems to be rather confused and confusing. The film opens with the explosion of Krypton and the escape vehicle that carries the future Superman. Under the credits it flies to Earth through interstellar space, as an amusement park engineer would envision space. When it crashes to Earth we expect to see a baby Superman emerge. Instead we see a grown man. Somewhere there was a switch and we are looking at Superman returning after his pilgrimage. Between the script and the editing the viewer is frequently confused about just what he is seeing. Much of the script is just bad writing as some of the problems in the spoiler section below indicate.
There are lots of little homages to previous Superman stories sprinkled throughout the film. Once again Superman saves airline passengers from certain death and reminds them, as the Christopher Reeve Superman, did that flying is still the safest way to travel. And he should know. Of course, for Superman there are no unsafe ways to travel. Another inside joke is to have Jack Larson as Bo the Bartender and Noel Neill as Gertrude Vanderworth. In the 1950s they played Jimmy Olson and Lois Lane. The new musical score by John Ottman borrows heavily from the 1978 score for SUPERMAN by John Williams.
Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris's screenplay lays on the Christian symbolism a little thick. Superman, we are told, is everybody's savior who will always be around. I should also mention some of the good aspects of the script. Superman is much more a three-dimensional person in this film and goes through some very human moments. In addition, Lois Lane is the vertex of a love triangle between Superman and Richard White (James Marsden), Perry White's nephew. The standard cliché would be to make Richard an obviously bad choice. In fact, Richard is a very decent person and also a good member of the team.
I suppose this is a reasonable attempt to jump-start the series again. I would rate it as better than were three of the four Christopher Reeve Superman outings. BATMAN BEGINS, however, did a much better job in restarting its series. There was a lot that was wrong with the plot of SUPERMAN RETURNS, but I will go into that in a spoiler section after the review. I rate SUPERMAN RETURNS a low +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 5/10.
These are additional script problems bothered me about the film.
A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: This is a most pleasant film that lets the audience see a live performance of the radio show, has a little bit of plot and some nice dialog, but not much extraordinary. It is just a restful interlude, and perhaps that is enough. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
Everything about A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION seems to run against the tide. It is a film based on an internationally popular radio show. How many films have been based on radio shows since the 1940s? How many popular radio shows are there any more? And how many of current radio shows have a feel of old-fashioned, down- home values? And how much do we see of old-fashioned values in a film? I almost want to rate this film highly just for the sheer audacity of its lacking any sort of audacity. For those who did not already know the radio show is the brainchild of American humorist and performance artist Garrison Keillor, a tall, beefy man with docile boxer-dog looks. It is hard to apply such a modish label as "performance artist" to such a folksy, soft- spoken man, but that is really what he is.
It probably is not fair to penalize the film A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION because the radio program it is based on is good. But the truth is that most of the entertainment value of the film is just seeing an episode of the radio program, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, done on film. Still, one wants there to be more value here than there is of just listening to the radio program. Indeed there is, but it is not enough to justify the price of a movie ticket. What else do you get? You get to see some of how an episode is performed, and many of the faces you see are the real people who produce the show. You get some dialog spoken by good actors like Lily Tomlin, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Kevin Kline, and Tommy Lee Jones. The dialog is reasonably well written, with a script by Keillor that has some okay character development. You get the lightest soupcon of a story.
The story is that this is the very last performance of A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION. The big money interests from Texas actually own the show and have decided that they want to end the show's thirty-year-run. Everybody in the cast is under the cloud of knowing this is the last time they will have the pleasure of getting up and doing the show. Only the host, G.K. (Garrison Keillor), seems unfazed by the finality. But still the production of the show is just getting some people together to have a good time, and somehow the show gets made. In that regard the production of the show is like the production of the films of the films of Robert Altman, who just happens to be the director of this film.
The film plays a little with the show. Guy Noir (played by Kevin Kline), who in this story is a real person rather than a weekly character, is the security man for the program. He knows there is something strange going on at the set. There is a mysterious beautiful woman (Virginia Madsen) in a white raincoat roaming around. He knows she should not be there, but does not know what she wants.
Most of the film takes place during the performance of the program. The camera is on the stage during the humor sections and its attention wanders away during the musical sections, which is more or less how most people experience the radio program. The viewer often wanders into the middle of conversations in progress and wanders out before they are done. We listen in on the backstage conversations of Guy Noir and the singing sisters Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson (Tomlin and Streep). There are two bad-boy cowboys, Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly). Yolanda has brought her daughter, Lola (Lindsey Lohan), a singer and poet who for no apparent reason is fixated on suicide. All the characters talk little like Keillor. Many of the functionaries putting on the broadcast are the real people from the radio show.
The movie is a lot like everything Keillor does, reliable and pleasant, but nothing very exciting or even remarkable. It is the cinematic equivalent of a dish of vanilla ice cream. Keillor and Altman give us just 105 minutes of quiet pleasure. I rate A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10. Incidentally, conspicuously absent is the "News from Lake Woebegon" section, really the centerpiece of the radio show. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
The regular book group this month read THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME by Mark Haddon (ISBN 1-400-03271-7); the science fiction group read THE SPEED OF DARK by Elizabeth Moon (ISBN 0-345-48139-9). I have already commented on both of these (THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME by Mark Haddon in the 04/23/04 issue of the MT VOID and THE SPEED OF DARK by Elizabeth Moon in the 03/28/03 issue), but I have to add that on second reading, the Haddon stands up much better than the Moon. One problem is that Moon's autistic characters have undergone a science-fictional treatment, "early intervention", which made them basically less "autistic" and more "normal". (Yes, I realize that the terms "autistic" and "normal" are both politically incorrect and medically inaccurate. But I am trying to keep this column short.) This treatment makes the story easier, but less interesting. Haddon's character is more authentic, which ultimately makes him more interesting. (I will note that other people thought the Moon was more interesting than the Haddon.) One thing everybody agreed on was that many of the symptoms displayed by the autistic characters in both books were characteristics of a lot of (presumably) non-autistic people that they knew. A lot of the discussion time, in fact, was spent discussing just what autism is and how one arrives at that diagnosis.
THE SECRET DOCUMENTS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES by June Thomson (ISBN 0-7490-0407-X) is the fourth in Thomson's series of Sherlock Holmes pastiche collections. (The first three are THE SECRET FILES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, THE SECRET CHRONICLES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, and THE SECRET JOURNALS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES.) These are among the best pastiches being written now, staying true to the tone of the originals. (Too many of today's authors feel compelled to add sex, or violence, or twenty-first sensibilities, or humor, or something else inappropriate for a Holmes story.) These seven stories (or most of them) also are based on asides or references in the original Doyle stories, giving them additional authenticity. There are also a lot of footnotes, giving this the appearance of an annotated edition, except of course, the footnotes are by the same person who wrote the text.
EXPLORERS OF THE NEW CENTURY by Magnus Mills (ISBN 0-15-603078-0) starts out as a straightforward exploration story, with two competing teams trying to reach the AFP ("Agreed Furthest Point"). The two groups land their ships on a desolate shore, unload their mules and their supplies, and start out. Some events seem almost pastiches of the Shackleton and other polar expeditions. (For example, Shackleton's ship was the Endurance; one in the book was the Perseverance.) However, as the groups progress, the similarities are fewer and various anomalies start to appear. (Actually, the changes are fairly predictable, assuming one does expect the book to eventually make its own way.) Even so, it is also a nicely compact story (at 184 pages), and I would recommend it. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: The trouble with doing something right the first time is that nobody appreciates how difficult it was. -- Walt West
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