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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
07/14/06 -- Vol. 25, No. 2, Whole Number 1343
Table of Contents
Readercon Report (comment by Mark R. Leeper):
I have just returned from Readercon, the science fiction convention with a literary bent. What a show they put on! Whether your "thing" is the Celtic imagery of Cordwainer Smith, the semiotics of Samuel Delany's subplots, the use of alliteration in pulp science fiction, or the subtext of John Crowley's LITTLE BIG, Readercon has something for just about everyone. [-mrl]
The Puzzle of Ancient Navigation by Stars (comment by Mark R. Leeper):
A few years ago there was a book by Dava Sobel and a PBS television program, both having the title LONGITUDE. (Actually, the book was titled LONGITUDE: THE TRUE STORY OF A LONE GENIUS WHO SOLVED THE GREATEST SCIENTIFIC PROBLEM OF HIS TIME.) The subject of this program was the difficulty in and before the 18th Century of navigating at sea. One would think you might be able to navigate by the stars and the position of the sun. However, it was essentially impossible to do that with any exactness until very accurate timepieces were invented. The stars that are overhead right now will be a thousand miles over to the west of where you are in an hour. It goes without saying that if you are off by just a hundred miles you can sail right past the island you are looking for and never see it. Yet somehow the ancient Polynesians were able to find specific small islands after traveling by primitive canoes across thousands of miles of ocean. I never was able to figure out how they could do that. I was curious enough about this to look it up on the Internet, but sites that talk about ancient navigation, such as the PBS site for the program "Longitude" ( http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/longitude/secrets.html), just side-stepped this question.
Simply put, to find the right island the Polynesians needed to get to the right longitude; you cannot find your longitude with any certainty. without a good timepiece. The ancient Polynesians did not have ANY timepieces. How did they get to the right longitude without even knowing what it was? Think about how you might find a specific island using only what was available to the ancients.
We were in Hawaii recently and went to a planetarium program on the subject of ancient seamanship, and now it makes more sense to me. The subject was how ancient Polynesians navigated by the night sky and still got where they wanted to go.
Well, what can you tell easily? The night sky would tell you your latitude, just not your longitude. Well, how do you find your latitude? That is fairly easy. The star we call Polaris, the North Star, is pretty near being in direct line of the axis around which the Earth spins. If you use the constellations to find the North Star you can measure the angle it is over the horizon and find out how far north or south you are. That is your latitude.
The problem, again, was that if two boats were traveling on parallel courses two hundred miles to the west and east of each other they could be at the same latitude and would see the same sky but a slightly different in time. Without an accurate timepiece you could not tell the two locations apart. Yet the differences could make all the difference of whether the island was found. Navigating by the stars will get you to the right latitude but not the right longitude. And the ancient Polynesians had no accurate timepieces.
The presentation told the story of someone trying to repeat the feat of ancient navigation in modern times. I waited through the whole planetarium show and they apparently were not going to answer how the longitude problem was solved. For me that was the big question, but they answered it with little fanfare as if it was a minor point. They had only a vague idea of the position of the island, but they knew the latitude and if you are smart that is all you need.
The boat intentionally steered well east of their destination. They did this until they were at exactly the right latitude. Again with a clear sky you can find your latitude. You can find that fairly exactly. The sailors knew they were due east of their destination. They then turned due west, again by the sky. That is, the North Star was directly to their right. In theory this would bring them to land, in practice it might be a little off.
When you get near the island you still may not see it on the horizon. At this point there is a new direction device. They waited until late daytime. When they started seeing seabirds they knew they were near land and followed the birds. The birds would be headed to land for the night. At no point did they know their longitude so they never knew exactly where they were. Knowing latitude and having a rough idea of the longitude was enough. [-mrl]
Orange Juice (letter of comment by Andre Kuzniarek):
In his article on "100% pure" in the 07/07/06 issue of the MT VOID, Mark said, "Similarly when you take the water out of orange juice and put in different water, what comes out may be indistinguishable from real juice, but it no longer is." [-mrl]
Andre Kuzniarek writes, "It's quite distinguishable for sure. Nothing beats fresh squeezed orange juice, but that is a rare treat in restaurants these days. Even the nicer breakfast specialty joints tend mix concentrate with fresh to stretch it. In stores, Tropicana and various orange growers market a pasteurized OJ that is not from concentrate, and I've heard reports it outsells the other concentrate-based juices. It's the only kind I buy because I'm sensitive to the acids in concentrate-based OJ. They grind up the entire orange, skin and all, then attempt to remove the nastiness in processing, but it doesn't work out too well in the concentrate. Perhaps they don't use the skin in the non-concentrate stuff, but even if they do, they seem to do a better job de-acidifying the result. Minute Maid and other brands attempt to compete with the non- concentrated stuff by selling theirs in the same sort of packaging and calling it 100% pure, squeezed-style orange juice, but the ingredient list explains it's from concentrate. Apparently, if you apply the modifier 'style', a product can be anything you want to call it." [-ak]
Transporter (letter of comment by David Goldfarb):
And in that same article on "100% pure" in the 07/07/06 issue of the MT VOID, Mark said, "I think every time they transport Kirk he dies and an exact replica takes his place." [-mrl]
David Goldfarb writes, "There was discussion of this question in the first licensed Star Trek novel, SPOCK MUST DIE. Frankly, I'm with Spock on this one: a difference that *makes* no difference *is* no difference." [-dg]
Mark replies, "So then you would not mind dying if you were sure you would be replaced by a perfect, scientificially constructed imposter? This is assuming he would have all your memories and was not aware he was an imposter. That is really what we are talking about here. To me it *would* make a difference even if to the rest of the world it would not. The accurate name for the device is not transporter, it is reconstructor." [-mrl]
David responds, "It seems to me that your use of the word 'impostor' is, in the exact and little-used meaning of the phrase, begging the question. Ever read Greg Egan's 'Learning to Be Me'? I've read it and thought about it, and I'd be willing to replace my brain with a Ndoli jewel. (Truly that is a story which tests whether the reader is *really* a materialist! He seems to postulate that use of the Ndoli devices is nearly universal, though; I find that unlikely, thinking that there'd be quite a few people taking positions like yours.)" [-dg]
Trailers (letter of comment by James E. LaBarre):
In his article on movie trailers in the 07/07/06 issue of the MT VOID, Mark wrote, "The Digital History web site has 692 film trailers of generally well-known films that are easily viewable. They play with the software already on most PCs." [-mrl]
James E. LaBarre says, "**BZZZZZZZZZZZTTTTTTTTT!!!!!!!!!!!!!** Wrong!!!!!! The trailers are encoded in some sort of proprietary MicroSoft format (ASF). For those of us using superior operating systems (such as Linux) which MS has decided to blacklist, the codecs are not readily available. Sure, with some hacking I could get them to (probably) work, but if some archive can't be bothered to use open standards, or at least some widely adapted specification, then *I* can't be bothered to waste my time with them." [-jeb]
Mark replies, "I stand by what I said. As a long-time UNIX-shell programmer I would like to have LINUX and someday may go to it. But Linux users are still in the minority. Unless I am out of touch I think most PC users are not that technical and do use the Microsoft that came on their PCs." [-mrl]
A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION (letter of comment by Bobbi Fox):
In response to Mark's review of A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION in the 06/30/06 issue of the MT VOID, Bobbi Fox writes:
I disagree that the movie was about the American Public Media produced show of the same name, even though its screenplay was written by Garrison Keillor, and features many of the artists and back-stage personnel of the show.
Instead, I think it was about an Alternate Universe "A Prairie Home Companion," a real (that is, a show that had begun 50 years or so ago) variety show that somehow had managed to stay on the air. (My other half Daniel Dern points out that Guy Noir being a real person was a dead giveaway, but I'm willing to waive that point, being a big Kevin Kline fan :-)
Thus, the "Letter from Lake Wobegon," whose omission you rued, would have been inappropriate--since that remains the major parodic element in the current show in *this* universe.
We talked at Readercon about Keillor's intent with the show. According to Wikipedia ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Prairie_Home_Companion), it first aired in 1974; I first started listening to it when living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1980. At that time, it definitely felt to me more like a gentle, but affectionate, parody of the "old-timey" variety shows than a show whose *purpose* was to be a variety show.
I think it was only after Keillor was reality-slapped with the realization that he was *not* going to be The Star Writer for the New Yorker (oops, was that too snarky? :-) that APHC in its revived incarnation (it "went dark" from 1987-1993) began to take seriously its role as a variety show. Obviously, there still is some parody in the show; otherwise us East Coast elites would never listen :-) [-bf]
THE GREAT YOKAI WAR (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: A war is fought in one night with an evil lord and his robotic minions against humans and the monstrous spirits of Japanese folklore. Some of the scale of this film rivals that of THE LORD OF THE RINGS. This is a wild adventure that is not always easy to follow, but it is a font of comedy and macabre imagination with a wonderful Japanese flavor. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
If I have an enthusiasm for world literature I owe it in large part to one Bernhardt J. Hurwood and his book MONSTERS GALORE. This compendium of monster lore took a kid who was really into horror pictures and introduced him to Hieronymus Bosch, Sawney Beane, Lafcadio Hearn, the "Caprices" of Goya, Elizabeth Bathory, and Japanese folk horror stories. The Japanese stories included vampire cats, and women ghosts in the snow. I now know these to be stories about monstrous spirits called Yokai. Lafcadio Hearn told such stories in his collection KWAIDAN. Now Takashi Miike has made a film that pits futuristic robots (read "Terminators") against humans and Yokai. Yokai are apparitions scary to humans--not actually malicious, but they are supernatural and danger sometimes surrounds them. Yokai take on a whole tutti- frutti assortment of forms. There are women with necks longer than a fire hose and others with heads like cats. There are people who are half-turtle (unless you are the psychological type who sees them as turtles who are half-human). There are beautiful snow ghosts and ugly ogres with ram horns. They are perhaps what we in the West might call hobgoblins. We see a few such demons in films like KWAIDAN, but never on a scale like we see here.
Takashi Miike, one of Japan's more bizarre directors, brings us a story of the Yokai being defenders of humanity against an evil genius. Like "Harry Potter" films, this is really a kids' film that is good enough for adults. The story has a calf born with a human head who warns that evil is coming. And come it does. The plot, which is not abundantly explained, has evil Lord Kato wanting vengeance on all of mankind. He is going to seize power with an army of robots, at least some of which are forged from Yokai whom he has dropped into his pit of molten metal. He is opposed, naturally enough--or supernaturally enough--by the Yokai.
Ryunosuke Kamiki plays young Tadashi Ino whose parents are separated. He comes with his mother to a new town. As with that of the girl in SPIRITED AWAY, it is not a transition he is making well, but still he is chosen to be the Kirin Rider at an annual festival. A Kirin is a dragon-like mythical beast with a single horn is uses to punish wrongdoers. (There is a picture of it on the beer of the same name.) Tadashi little realizes--nor does everyone else--that his acceptance of this responsibility will make him the key in the battle between the Yokai and the robots. The Kirin Rider, it seems, is the only person who can obtain a magic sword from Goblin Mountain where the Goblin King guards it. Well, you can see where all this is leading. Some of the imagery in this film looks like it could have come form a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. Not all the effects created are completely believable, but that is true of THE WIZARD OF OZ also.
It is good to see a film use the imps and demons that I have liked since I was a kid. As yet I am not seeing this film being released in the United States to more than a few small art houses. That would be a real loss. I rate this film a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. Parents should be warned that though the main character is a child, there are some scenes that are fairly horrific. On the other hand the American concept of horror is someone with a sharp instrument chasing young people around a room while Miike's concept here is more like showing a blank wall and then seeing two eyes open up in it. [-mrl]
THE OH IN OHIO (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: This is a lukewarm sex comedy about a Cleveland couple in their mid-30s who split up because they are sexually incompatible. Parker Posey and Paul Rudd star in this story of two people trying to find sexual fulfillment after their split. The film smolders a little but never has much fire. It has a few smiles, but very few laughs. Rating: low +1 (-4 to +4) or 5/10
We have recently seen a comedy about a forty-year-old virgin. Now we have a film about a woman in her thirties who, though married, has never had a climax. Priscilla Chase (played by Parker Posey) has a marriage that is falling apart because of her overwhelming disinterest in sex. Her husband Jack (Paul Rudd) is becoming more and more frustrated at his inability to arouse his wife. Jack's frustration is becoming increasingly obvious to the students and teachers at the high school where Jack teaches biology. It seems to be particularly obvious to Kristen, an attractive student who had been steered from drugs to academics almost exclusively by her fascination with Jack and now has a desire to know him better. His lack of fulfillment and unhappiness lead him to leave Priscilla and take up with Kristen. Jack gives in to the temptation to have sex with his student while Priscilla looks to battery-powered pleasure aids. Suddenly Priscilla finds she cannot only achieve climax, she likes it and wants more of it. Sex becomes the most important thing in her life and she begins to explore all the various sexual avenues open to a good-looking woman. These include going to a bizarre class in pleasuring herself given by a weirdo played almost pitifully by an over-aged Liza Minnelli.
Freshman screenwriter Adam Wierzbianski's script is often humorous, but more often just vulgar. When the humor does work it comes most often from one of three sources. One is Keith David, playing a high school coach who is Jack's friend and confidant. He is probably under-used in this film, though his personality is a definite plus. Priscilla has her own confidant in her friend Sherri, but Miranda Bailey just does not have the deliver that Keith David does. The other source is Danny DeVito who has just a marginal place in the film until the third act. DeVito cannot help being magnetic. The film takes some odd turns that last third which is more serious and is as much of a payoff as this film has. Even so, the viewer is left feeling he perhaps missed something when the end credits roll without the plot being very much resolved. On the other hand perhaps that is better than using a pre-packaged and over-familiar ending.
For a film with a sexy theme the only visible nudity is in silhouette. However, the dialog frequently falls into the gray area between the risqué and the vulgar. This is a first feature film for director Billy Kent from a first-time screenwriter. It has its moments, but only a few. I rate THE OH IN OHIO a low +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 5/10. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
I have been re-reading a lot of Agatha Christie novels lately, in conjunction with listening to the BBC adaptations of them. I will not comment individually on each one, but I will note a few motifs that seem to recur. (I hope these will not be considered spoilers, since I will not mention specific books for them, or even any titles at all, but if you want to avoid all possibility of spoilers, you may want to skip this.)
I have listened to nineteen adaptations of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple stories. In these, one very common "trick" seems to be the serendipitous remark or event (eight books out of nineteen). By "serendipitous remark" I mean something like the following: The murder was done with an icicle, which then melted. Later, when Hercule Poirot is thinking about the case, someone else in the room wonders, "Now where did I put that doohickey? It couldn't have just vanished into thin air." And Poirot realizes that the murder weapon *could* have vanished into thin air, etc. (I made this example up; it is not one of the ones Christie uses--at least in any of the stories I read!)
What is strange about this is that sometimes this remark Or happenstance) is omitted from the adaptation. The result is that sometimes the key clue to the solution just is not there. The writer is skillful enough to make the other clues carry the load, at least superficially, but at times one does wonder just what made the detective realize that a key witness had lied (or some such).
Another oft-repeated idea is the mis-identified body (eight out of nineteen, including one book with *two* mis-identified bodies!). A corpse is found and identified--somehow--as Fred Smith. Then later, we find the solution hinges on the fact that it is not Fred Smith at all, but John Wilson. The reasons for the mistaken identification vary, but none of them would work very well today with DNA testing. Then again, a lot of older mysteries would be solved very rapidly when the CSI team discovered that the red stain on the shirt was red ink, not blood, or that the bullet was dropped from the clock tower, not fired. (I made these up too.)
Another slightly less common but nevertheless re-used idea is the false target (six out of nineteen). This comes in two forms: the victim whose death is purely accidental to the real murder, either as window-dressing or mis-direction, or the murderer making it appear that he is the real target of the attacks.
What this means is that while each individual book seems to be a well-constructed mystery, when one reads a lot of them in a row, it becomes easier and easier to solve the mysteries. All one has to do is figure out who the corpse *really* is, assume some of the deaths are window-dressing, and wait for someone to say something just a bit too out of the ordinary.
(Then again, I have also said that theme anthologies and single- author collections are also a mixed blessing. Trying to read seventeen dragon stories in a row makes the later ones seem repetitive, even if they are not. So reading nineteen Agatha Christie mysteries in a row is really not recommended either. Having said that, with PBS now running four new "Miss Marple" stories, I will end up watching them and then reading those books soon as well.) [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Unquestionably, there is progress. The average American now pays out twice as much in taxes as he formerly got in wages. -- H. L. Mencken
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