MT VOID 03/02/07 -- Vol. 25, No. 35, Whole Number 1430

MT VOID 03/02/07 -- Vol. 25, No. 35, Whole Number 1430

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
3/02/07 -- Vol. 25, No. 35, Whole Number 1430

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. All comments sent will be assumed authorized for inclusion unless otherwise noted. To subscribe, send mail to To unsubscribe, send mail to

Classic SF Films Free Online:

The SCI FI Channel has 15 films and 3 serials available free to watch at Films include "Le Voyage Dans La Lune", 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA" (1916), METROPOLIS, KILLERS FROM SPACE, THE GIANT GILA MONSTER, ATTACK OF THE GIANT LEECHES, and THE INCREDIBLE PTERIFIED WORLD. The serials include "The Lost City", "Radar Men From the Moom", and "Undersea Kingdom." [-ecl]

Movie Star Double Standard (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

I see our local theaters have started showing messages with big name stars telling the audience to be polite and not talk during the movie and not to use cell phones. It is a good suggestion. I just want to know why when you see the Academy Awards and the camera flashes to the big stars in the audience, how come so often they are talking on cell phones or to people around them? [-mrl]

Customer Service Blues (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

I have been having some problems with my new digital camera and have sent some questions off to Kodak Support. I am getting the feeling that the people at Kodak Support are sort of "out there" somewhere. "Out there" may be the planet Gredzup in the Kodak nebula or it may just be some place like Bombay. The problem I was having the battery warning icon always claiming the batteries are fine right up to the point that the batteries run down and the camera does not work. There really is no warning. So I wrote to ask why have a battery warning icon never says the batteries are running down.

The staff at Kodak Support advised me to "Make sure that you are using a fresh and newly charge [sic] right [sic] battery for your C340 camera." They are right of course. As long as I have fresh new batteries in the camera I should never need the battery-low warning. The question is how many pictures can I take before the batteries start being no longer fresh and new. Somehow this reminds me of the bank that offered absolutely free overdraft protection as long as the customer maintained a minimum balance in their checking account.

My problems communicating are as nothing compared to those of George Vaccaro. Some of you may have heard something about the problems that one George Vaccaro has been having dealing with Verizon. (I think I referenced this incident in my editorial on the value of mathematics in an education.) I am not sure I would have believed the problem, but luckily in his frustration Vaccaro has actually recorded his interactions with Verizon. Vaccaro was in Canada and he wanted to know what was his connection fee in Canada. He was quoted a rate of 0.002 cents per kilobyte. That may seem very cheap, but George was not sure what was and was not the expected rate. Comes the time he was billed and he was charged $71 for the connection time. That worked out to be 0.002 dollars per kilobyte. Okay, it was more money, and he wanted to call and get straight how much the rate was actually supposed to be. He did not know what he was getting himself into. He told them that he was quoted a rate of 0.002 cents per kilobyte. Yes, that really is the rate. Okay, then he was charged 0.002 dollars per kilobyte. Yes, that is the rate. Which is it? 0.002 cents per kilobyte. Well he was charged 0.002 *dollars* per kilobyte. Well, of course. Why "of course"? 0.002 dollars per kilobyte *is* 0.002 cents per kilobyte. At this moment Vaccaro came face to face with the mathematics teaching crisis that this country is facing. That is not the exact conversation, by the way, but it went on for something like twenty minutes with Vaccaro talking to the woman at the desk and her manager. I think it later went higher up the management ladder.

And what did Vaccaro find out? These people who deal with the public and the rates all the time looked at only the number and not the unit. Apparently they think that the number tells everything you need to know about the rate and the unit you used is just "cents" if you are talking about small quantities and "dollars" if it is larger quantities. He was paying 0.002 per kilobyte. That is the rate. Then you put on a unit which can be either cents or dollars depending on if you are trying to make the number seem small or large.

When I tell this story to people they always respond something like, "Well, it is easy enough to fix. He should have just explained it this way...." The answer is no. The misunderstanding appeared to be genuinely fundamental. They genuinely believed that "dollar" is just a word applied to larger quantities of money and "cents" is a word you apply to smaller quantities of money like "gale" and "breeze" differ only by how hard the wind is blowing. This is an extreme form of the problem I have mentioned many times in the VOID. My local grocery put the price .59 cents on an item and they mean it to be $.59 or 59 cents. I actually had the manager there in the store and pointed out the problem and he just turned heel and walked away. The prices have not been fixed. These are probably people who said that they would never use the mathematics that they were learning in high school.

So what is the end of the story. Apparently somebody at Verizon either knew mathematics or realized that there were a lot of people in cyberspace who were laughing at Verizon. I think it was the latter. They agreed to honor the lower rate this once. Just as a follow-up George called Verizon again a few weeks later. What is the rate? It was still being quoted as 0.002 cents per kilobyte for quite a while (though they *finally* changed it just a short time ago). [-mrl]

[See for more details.]

THE ASTRONAUT FARMER (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: This film may involve rockets and exploration, but it should play better with a non-technical audience. If somewhat overly familiar and contrived at times this is a likable Capra- esque story of a farmer who believes he has the smarts to build his own low-cost orbital rocket. He finds he has to fight the system to achieve his dream. The view of small town life will be pleasing to some and cloyingly sweet to others. On balance this is just okay entertainment. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10

THE ASTRONAUT FARMER got a lot of the details very nicely. My problems with the film are merely fundamental. It is the premise of this film that one man--with nominal help from his wife and son Shepherd--has the intellectual and mechanical abilities and stamina to build in his barn his own orbital rocket, and he believes he can fly it himself. Before one can enjoy this film one has to make that great leap of faith. I am not an expert on the subject, but I know that it would take several lifetimes and a lot more money than a Texas farmer could possibly devote to the project. A human can do some pretty amazing things, but it very difficult to believe that one man has all the ability and resources that that Charlie Farmer would need to accomplish his goal and to make this film make sense. If he has that ability, he would not have to be a poor Texas farmer. Selling his expertise he could raise money for his project a lot more effectively than he is doing by farming. Once one accepts the fantasy world of this film, the story is pleasant enough, but one has to suspend a great deal of disbelief to accept this story on its own terms.

Billy Bob Thornton plays the aptly name Charlie Farmer. His name was chosen to make the title work, I suspect. That name is the first of many contrivances of this film. Farmer--even his wife calls him by his surname--is a fanatic about space flight. He was an aerospace engineer and an astronaut candidate, but personal problems got in the way of his dream. He had to quit the real space program only to start his own personal space program. He has such a mania for space flight that he works his farm wearing an astronaut flight suit. (Is that even possible?) At first he seems to the viewer to be entirely off the wall. But he is building his own variant on an Atlas missile, not unlike one from the Mercury Program. His plan is to launch himself from his barn into orbit. His dream has required all the money from his farm, and it driving his family into bankruptcy. He is oblivious to the pain he is causing as he single-mindedly seeks his goal. Goals are very important to him. As he tells a stranger, "You better know what you want to do before someone knows it for you." Yet he insists that that his family share his dream rather than have dreams of their own. His wife Audie (played by Virginia Madsen) and family still love and support him, but he seems to care little for the sacrifices he is asking them to make for his private goal.

This is the most commercial film that Michael Polish has directed. Previously he made the somewhat surrealist films TWIN FALLS IDAHO and NORTHFORK. He co-authored ASTRONAUT FARMER with his twin brother Mark. The two co-produced and Mark also appears in the film as an FBI agent. One does not know quite what to feel about Charlie Farmer. One has to admire his tenacity in accomplishing his goal, but he pursues it to the point of psychosis and requires that his family sacrifice just about all to a dream they will be able to share in only vicariously. This makes him a not very sympathetic character. At the same time the government officials that are trying to impose themselves to try to stop him have what seem like very valid concerns about Farmer's project. During the course of the film Farmer repeatedly and callously endangers people's lives without giving a second thought. On one level this can be read as a sort of Frank Capra story of a man determined to fulfill his dream, but the film also has a very dark side. Farmer's town all seem to know weird old Charlie, but also seem to let him get away with some very impulsive, unpleasant, and anti-social behavior. Some of his actions make little sense.

One sees little jokes that have been put into the film along the way. FBI agents all look a lot alike in black suits and wearing walrus moustaches. (Usually they appear more clean-cut in films.) The café where Audie works is called CALF-A. There are noticeable homages to THE RIGHT STUFF, including the tying of the space mythos to the cowboy mythos. The supporting cast includes a near totally redundant role for Bruce Willis as an ex-astronaut sent by the government to check out Charlie's space project. Also appearing are Bruce Dern, Tim Blake Nelson, and J. K. Simmons.

It is hard to tell if this film is intended as the same sort of exercise in surrealism that NORTHFORK was or if it is intended as an inspirational tale of determination or if it is simply a parable. If any of this is true it is not entirely successful. As an interesting failure it is at least worth a look. I rate THE ASTRONAUT FARMER a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.

Film Credits:


BREACH (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: The appeal of BREACH is the opportunity to look into the mind of a man of genius who is betraying his country from within the FBI. Some of the man becomes clear and some remains an enigma to the new recruit to the FBI who is forced to bring him down. Chris Cooper playing the traitor Robert Hanssen is most of the show. He gets an excellent opportunity to show off his fine talent as a very strange man who is a mass of contradictions. Ryan Phillippe plays Eric O'Neill, smart himself, but strained to just keep up with Hanssen, much less defeat him at his own game. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10

On Monday, February 19, 2001, the FBI announced the arrest of Robert Hanssen, an FBI analyst and agent who over an interval of twenty-two years had done incalculable damage to the interests of his country selling secrets to the Soviet Union. His spying from within the FBI is considered "possibly the worst intelligence disaster in US history. BREACH starts with the actual video announcement and then flashes back two months to tell the story of how Robert Hanssen was caught. Ryan Phillippe plays Eric O'Neill is an FBI recruit trying to make agent so that he can apply his intellect and computer skill. He is pulled out of training for a less agreeable assignment. He is to be a clerk for Robert Hanssen and at the same time spy on him to collect evidence that he is publishing pornography on the Internet.

Robert Hanssen is not at all what he expected. Hanssen is a fanatic Catholic who goes to church every day and prays in the office. Hanssen is himself a computer genius and an overbearing and demanding supervisor. He also decides to turn O'Neill into another fanatic Catholic and insinuates himself into O'Neill's relationship with his East-Germany-born wife. Juliana O'Neill (Caroline Dhavernas) rebels at having Eric's supervisor proselytizing her. Hanssen freely pontificates on whatever is on his mind. When he finds mistakes or weaknesses in O'Neill's work he turns on him in with a vicious anger, but he also seems to want to father him.

O'Neill has to serve him and also secretly to serve the agent investigating Hanssen, Kate Burroughs (played by Laura Linney). By any standards but comparison to Hanssen she is a hard and impatient master. O'Neill is disgusted by the clerical assignment and worse by the spying on an FBI agent until he finds out what Hanssen really is doing and why he is being investigated. We move over a two-month period to Hanssen's arrest.

While Billy Ray directs the film to work as a thriller, it is also a character study of the Hanssen character. While Chris Cooper looks very unlike the real Hanssen (see the link below), he really creates the role. He makes us sense the intelligence of the man and feel that intellect crumble as the snare tightens around him. Actor Chris Cooper has a natural scowl that worked for him as the stern father in OCTOBER SKY and works equally well for him here. This is a man one would not want to cross, but of course, crossing him is exactly what Eric O'Neill was sent to do. Speaking of crossings, my wife noticed a point I would not have. Hanssen berates O'Neill for not being devout. Perhaps he is right in one sense. O'Neill is a Jesuit-taught Catholic, but when he enters a church with Hanssen he incorrectly crosses himself. (Forehead-shoulder-shoulder-stomach rather than a cross.) Hanssen does it the proper way.

The film has recognizable actors in even some minor roles. Dennis Haysbert is no stranger to political thrillers, appearing in both television programs "24" and "The Unit". He is also familiar from television insurance ads. Kathleen Quinlin play Hanssen's wife, the real force behind Hanssen's religiosity. Bruce Davison plays Eric O'Neill's father.

The one question that remains with the viewer is why would this particular man turn into the country's greatest traitor. We get some possible explanations, but since nobody really knows the real answer, perhaps it is better that the film just suggests what it might be. But the story by Adam Mazer and William Rotko does not answer that most important question for the audience. This is certainly a much tighter film about the intelligence community than is the recent THE GOOD SHEPHERD. I rate it a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.

Wikipedia on Hanssen:
Film Credits:


AMAZING GRACE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: AMAZING GRACE is a second-class film on a first-class theme, the life of the man who changed much of the world by ending the British slave trade. This could be a very strong experience. Unfortunately the film smolders for almost two hours without ever catching emotional fire. Some enormous liberties were taken with history. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
Links for more information included at the end of the review.

"As soon as ever I had arrived thus far in my investigation of the slave trade, I confess to you sir, so enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did its wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for the abolition. A trade founded in iniquity, and carried on as this was, must be abolished, let the policy be what it might, - let the consequences be what they would, I from this time determined that I would never rest till I had effected its abolition."

- William Wilberforce, speech before the House of Commons, May 12, 1789

The hour before seeing Michael Apted's AMAZING GRACE I listened to a BBC4 historical program on the life of William Wilberforce, part of their "In Our Time" series hosted by Melvyn Bragg. Shortly after, I read Michael Apted's article on the film in the winter 2007 edition of FLM: THE VOICE OF INDEPENDENT FILM. Curiously, both point up flaws in the film.

Michael Apted, it should be pointed out, is a very fine documentary filmmaker. His series of documentaries 7*N-UP may well be among the finest and most revealing documentaries ever made. His dramatic film output is not of the same caliber. AMAZING GRACE is an account of the efforts of MP William Wilberforce to end Britain's slave trade. Apted takes liberties with the history to make what should already be a dramatic story even more dramatic and to remake Wilberforce into a dashing romantic hero. And in spite of the jazzing up, somehow his film grabs the viewer's attention but rarely grips the viewer as it should. The film's most moving passages are in descriptions of the slave trade we are told about second-hand but not shown on screen. Wilberforce is played by 5'11" handsome Ioan Gruffudd. Television viewers may remember him as the young Horatio Hornblower. Actually Toby Jones, who also appears in the film, might have been closer to being a physical match to the historical 5'3" Wilberforce who also had a bent spine.

Apted really did not need a hunk in the role to make a hero of the man who fought the British government, the then-powerful sugar industry, and the King to end the moral abomination. After a struggle of many years he convinced Parliament to pass laws that ended the British slave trade (though not slavery itself). That action had profound influence throughout the British Empire as well as greatly affecting our own Civil War. Wilberforce accurately presented would be a great real-life hero whose work had a powerful influence over the world.

The film opens in 1797 when Wilberforce is in his mid-30s but has already paid a heavy price in health for his struggle against the slave trade. He retires to recover at the home of his friends Henry and Marianne Thornton (played by Nicholas Farrell and Sylvestra Le Touzel). While there he tells his story to kindred spirit Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai). From there the film jumps around a bit in time without clearly delineating what is happening when. Apted says that he believes that it is love of one sort or another that gives a film an emotional center. However, according to the BBC, Wilberforce married the somewhat frumpy Barbara Spooner late in life. His friends did not really care for her. To make this relationship a center of the film Apted turns the story into a grand romance and has Wilberforce telling her his story in flashback. It convolutes the film and misrepresents the history.

Wilberforce has a life-long and occasionally stormy friendship with William Pitt the Younger (Benedict Cumberbatch), who became Prime Minister of England at age 24, the youngest ever. Wilberforce was an evangelical Christian and had to choose between religious work and politics. In the film Abolitionists suggested he could combine the two fighting slavery. In actual fact it was probably Pitt who made the suggestion. Apted takes us back and forth between the romance and the political battles. Notably missing from the film is the climactic incident of the campaign, Wilberforce's moving and stormy four-hour speech before the House of Commons on May 12, 1789.

Albert Finney plays John Newton, who was Wilberforce's preacher when he was growing up. Newton had formerly been a slave trader, but he gave up the dirty business for religion. He is tortured by the memories of his own barbarity, but took some comfort in his religion. Newton wrote the hymn that became the anthem of the abolitionist cause and which gives the film its title. Michael Gambon is a Member of Parliament who, after opposing Wilberforce, follows his conscience to support him. Also present in the production are Ciarán Hinds, Rufus Sewell, and Bill Paterson.

I suppose that at one time this film's liberties with historic fact would not have been really bothersome. It probably is no less accurate to the life of William Wilberforce than a film like YANKEE DOODLE DANDY to the life of George M. Cohan. Somehow with the history more easily available on the Internet, one almost expects that filmmakers would feel obliged to try to stick close to truth. This is not a bad film, but it is misleading in many ways. I rate it a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.

Film Credits:

Film site including links to study materials

More on Wilberforce:

The BBC Broadcast mentioned above


The French Language (letter of comment by Patricia King):

In Mark's article on French in the 02/09/07 issue of the MT VOID, he wrote, "I has been a while since my French class but shouldn't it be CASINO ROYAL? Don't adjectives have to agree in gender with nouns?" [-mrl]

Pat King responds, "As a Francophile, I'd like to make a comment on the "Casino Royale" issue. You are correct, of course, that "casino" is masculine and the adjective should be "royal." If the casino were named "royal" then it should be called "Casino la Royale." I guess we just have to assume that Fleming (and his publishers) did not speak French very well." [-pk]

KIM (letter of comment by Joseph T. Major):

In response to Evelyn's comments on KIM in the 02/23/07 issue of the MT VOID, Joe Major writes:

KIM: There was a boy born in India who took up a position as a undercover spy, pretending to be someone he was not. He hearkened to his Guru, and in his declining days was received in the land which had been his true home.

However, as a ferocious anti-Bolshevik, Kipling would not have been pleased with Kim Philby [Harold Adrian Russell Philby]. (His "guru" would have been his sometime case officer, the ex-seminarian Theodore Mally, who was one of those who was unmasked as a traitor, confessed his crimes, and received the supreme measure of social self-defense.) [-jtm]

LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA (letter of comment by Taras Wolansky):

In response to Mark's review of LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA in the 02/16/07 issue of the MT VOID, Taras Wolansky writes, "Reading the review of Letters from Iwo Jima, which I still haven't managed to see (it's not in my usual theater), a few lines stuck out: 'The soldiers experience and personalities are not very different from those of their American enemies. ... The majority of those on both sides are just decent people hoping to survive the war and to get back to civilian life. ... both sides are seen as noble ...' In fact, we know from the history of World War II that none of this is true. Japanese troops were much more prone to atrocities and mass murder. Their racial ideology was perhaps not as extreme as that of their allies, the Nazis, but it may have been more widely held and ingrained, being of much, much older vintage. They treated the Chinese and Koreans as subhuman, slaughtering them, subjecting them to medical experiments, making sex slaves of young women for the convenience of the troops." [-tw]

Mark responds, "And if what you say is all true, and I think you can make a case that it is, does it actually contradict Eastwood's point of view that the majority on both sides are decent? We are talking about a large population of people. I don't see any contradiction in saying that the majority of American soldiers are decent and moral people and at the same time admitting that some Americans have been responsible for some heinous atrocities in wartime. And this is no hair-splitting technicality. It is very important in people's attitudes toward the Japanese and the American people." [-mrl]

Mark continues, "This actually fits into my discussion of why mathematics education and the logic it teaches is important. If one person contends A is true and another says no B is true instead the first thing you want to do is look to see exactly why A and B appear to be mutually exclusive and decide if they actually are. In this case I think a lot rides on whether they are or not. Can atrocities be committed by a people the majority of whom are well-meaning and decent?" [-mrl]

Taras continues, "[You wrote:] 'FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS was about exploitation and dishonesty.' Clint Eastwood is a very smart guy. He understands the liberalism of Hollywood and the even more pronounced liberalism of movie critics. It was a difficult trick to slide a pro-war movie past them, but he managed it. (Though not entirely, I think: there was enough residual unease about the movie that certain very left-wing reviewers trashed it, and it was blacked out at the Oscars.)" [-tw]

Mark responds, "You seem to be both attacking and defending it. I would like to think that in the final analysis the muck-raking it did, accurate as it might have been, left a bad taste in people's mouths. Certainly that was the case for me." [-mrl]

Taras continues, "Thus the 'dishonesty'--as if we should have been honest, and lost the war! In reality, if one side in a war practices propaganda to keep up morale, while the other side always tells the truth and gives free rein to critics, the former side will almost always win (as Abraham Lincoln understood). In other words, Eastwood's point, overtly made during the movie several times, is that the dishonesty was necessary. Though, as I said, this slipped by many liberal viewers, predisposed to see the United States in a negative light. Another piece of subtext: 7000 Americans were killed in six weeks on Iwo Jima, dwarfing the death toll of several years in Iraq and Afghanistan. Conservative viewers were more likely to spot this than liberal ones, because conservative commentators had been using the same example." [-tw]

Brain Damage (letter of comment by Paul S. R. Chisholm):

In response to Mark's article on brain damage in the 02/23/07 issue of the MT VOID, Paul Chisholm writes:



"Thalamotomy is the precise destruction of a tiny area of the brain called the thalamus that controls some involuntary movements...."

Microlesion effect:

"Many times, patients enjoy a 'honeymoon' period--also called the microlesion effect--of temporary improvement after surgery ... caused by the effect of electrodes passing in and out of the area."

Steven Gulie, "A Shock to the System" (WIRED, March 2007): "... the microlesion effect. Apparently just the swelling from the poking around is enough to make things better for a while."

And in the contemporary-fiction-is-stranger-than-science-fiction department:


"An episode of HOUSE featured a patient who is treated with ECT ... to remove his memories of being in love with [a] woman." (warning: spoilers in article!)

Hope this helps. [-psrc]

NOTES ON A SCANDAL, Brain Damage, and Rudyard Kipling(letter of comment by Taras Wolansky):

In response to Mark's review of NOTES ON A SCANDAL in the 02/23/07 issue of the MT VOID, Taras Wolansky writes, "I didn't like the clever and subtle way it normalizes pedophilia. We're manipulated into sympathizing with Cate Blanchett's character, who is guilty of statutory rape, and despising Judy Dench's, who is merely guilty of not reporting the rape immediately. I'm curious about the people who got the film made, and made this way." [-tw]

Mark replies, "This is a film about one woman who does something criminal and wrong. The film never takes a viewpoint that she is right. In the end she is punished very severely for her behavior. But the focus of the film is another woman and how in her jealousy she exploits the situation. In THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION imprisoned criminals are exploited by a warden. The film focuses on the evil done by the warden and our sympathies are with the prisoners. This in no way suggests to me that their crimes were any the less bad." [-mrl]

In response to Mark's article on the upside of brain damage in the same issue, Taras writes, "You will recall Vernor Vinge's sinister masterpiece, A DEEPNESS IN THE SKY. Controlled brain damage is used by a profoundly evil civilization to create autistic savants." [-tw]

In response to Evelyn's comments on Rudyard Kipling in that issue, he writes, "Two interesting notes from the Wikipedia article on Kipling [found at]:

[On his political incorrectness:] Those who defend Kipling from accusations of racism point out that much of the apparent racism in his writing is spoken by fictional characters, not by him, and thus accurately depicts the characters. An example is that the soldier who (in 'Gunga Din') calls the title character 'a squidgy-nosed old idol.' However, in the same poem, Gunga Din is seen as a heroic figure; 'You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din.' [-wikipedia]

[On his influence on SF:] Kipling seems to have developed indirect exposition as a solution to some technical problems of writing about the unfamiliar milieu of India for British and American audiences. The technique reaches full development in KIM (1901), which influenced Heinlein's CITIZEN OF THE GALAXY. [-wikipedia]

Taras aadds: "Maybe you need the skills of an SF reader to appreciate Kim today." [-tw]

Evelyn responds, "The claim that it is Kipling's characters who are racist and not Kipling is apparently made by people who have not read Kipling's 1911 book, KIPLING'S POCKET HISTORY OF ENGLAND (co-authored with C. R. L. Fletcher). As I noted in my comments on it three years ago in the 10/10/2003 issue of the MT VOID []:

"The last chapter's discussion of the Empire can only be called at best raging jingoism, and at worst outright racism. For example, they say, 'In Canada we had really little difficulty in making good friends with our new French subjects, for they hated and feared the pushing Americans.... In Australia, we had nothing but a few miserable blacks, who could hardly use bows and arrows in fight.' Referring to Africa, they say, 'The natives everywhere welcome the mercy and justice of our rule....' And most egregious is their description of the Caribbean: 'The population is mainly black, descended from slaves imported in previous centuries, of mixed black and white race; lazy, vicious and incapable of any serious improvement, or of work except under compulsion. In such a climate a few bananas will sustain the life of a negro quite sufficiently; why should he work to get more that this? He is quite happy and quite useless, and spends any extra wages which he may earn upon finery.'" [-ecl]

Brain Damage, C.S.A., CHASM CITY, NOTES ON A SCANDAL, and a New Zine (letter of comment by John Purcell):

In response to Mark's article about brain damage in the 02/23/issue of the MT VOID, John Purcell writes, "This was the strangest thing. The same day that I read about the film THE ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND in your zine, that danged film was a question on "Who wants to be a Millionaire"? Very odd coinky-dink. Not only had I never heard of the film--and I certainly wish I had; it sounds quite intriguing--but the title comes from a poem by Alexander Pope, which I likewise did not know. And me, a college English teacher, to boot. This all just goes to prove that there is so much to learn in life that it is impossible to know it all." [-jp]

Mark replies, "I would say that ETERNAL SUNSHINE is the best science fiction film so far this decade. It was written by Charlie Kaufman, who is probably best known for his BEING JOHN MALKOVICH. I definitely recommend it." [-mrl]

John continues, "The ethical questions you raise here are excellent. It is such a science fictional concept that to think that we actually have the capability to perform such a surgery is astonishing. Your concluding question, "Who would be willing [to] intentionally damage brains for a positive effect?" is not a real stumper. People being people and thus motivated by the all- mighty dollar, there will be those doctors with scruples loose enough to perform such a procedure for a profit. Even accepting human nature as a given, the thought that it can be done is something that still amazes me. We truly are living in the science fiction future we read about as kids." [-jp]

In response to Evelyn's review of C.S.A.: THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA in the same issue, John writes, "Hey, now I really am going to have to lay my hands on that film, C.S.A.: THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA. First off, I am a bit of a Civil War buff; simply fascinated by the history of it, causes, results, and the horror of it all. Evelyn's write-up of "CSA" has really gotten me interested. Gotta check out the Netflix listing again. Good thing my daughter subscribes to it!" [-jp]

Mark replies, "I have a slightly different take on the film than Evelyn's. You can make up your own mind. I think the point that it is making is *not* that we are living in a totally different world, but that the world we are living in is too much the same. You are supposed to be amused at the racism of this alternate world and then be shocked that this racist history is taken from our world." [-mrl]

And Evelyn adds, "Even if you don't have Netflix, you can get it in Target (of all places!). And by a completely different world, I suppose a large part of what I meant was that every aspect was looked at, instead of just saying that the CSA won, but everything else in the world is the same." [-ecl]

In response to Joe Karpierz's review of CHASM CITY in the same issue, John writes, "Same result after reading the review of the Alastair Reynolds book. Now I really *must* read some of his books. They sound so danged interesting. Stop this! I am so far behind on my leisure reading it's silly. Now with my dissertation looming before me, that stack is going to be gathering dust for a while. *sigh* At least the end is in sight. Sort of." [-jp]

John also writes, "Last night I caught the last twenty minutes of the Academy Awards and saw that Judi Dench was nominated for her role in NOTES ON A SCANDAL. The movie certainly sounds fascinating, and I have always admired Judi Dench as an actress; Cate Blanchett is no slouch, either. What a pair, and what a timely story. Another DVD to rent via Netflix." [-jp]

Mark adds, "That is another worthwhile choice." [-mrl]

John concludes, "Nothing else to really add, except to say thank you for some thoughtful reading material again. Keep your eyes posted for my new zine, "Askance", due to hit the streets in the third week of March." [-jp]

This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):

THE OMNIVORE'S DILEMMA: A NATURAL HISTORY OF FOUR MEALS by Michael Pollan (ISBN-10 1-59420-082-3, ISBN-13 978-1-594-20082-3) started with an interesting idea. Pollan was going to trace four different meals from their origins to his mouth. The meals were a fast-food meal, two different "organic" meals, and a hunter- gatherer meal. The problem I had with most of the book was that it jumped around a lot, and introduced too many people to keep track of. (For example, Pollan would talk about Joe Smith's small farm, and then fifty pages later say something like, "Smith would not have agreed.")

The part that I do recommend is the middle section. Yes, a book about four meals has a middle section, because it started as three meals. Then Pollan discovered that "organic" was too broad a term. There are what people think of when they hear the word "organic": a small farm that doesn't use any chemical fertilizer or insecticides and lets its chickens roam around the farm yard. However, the government's definition of "organic" means that 1) there are a lot of mega-farms that can call their product "organic", and 2) there are a lot of small farms that the average consumer would consider "organic" that aren't. The mega-farm can claim its chickens are "free-range" if they "have access to the outdoors," which could be a small door at the end of a large chicken coop that is unlatched an hour a week, and then only for the last two weeks of the chicken's life. The small farm may be ecologically sound and humanely run, but if the feed they buy for the chickens is not certified as organic, they cannot call their products organic either.

Pollan uses Whole Foods Market as an example of the "mega- organic" food chain. He points out that a large chain cannot survive buying small amounts from a lot of small farmers, and so drives the mega-farm production. The mega-farms, in turn, have lobbied the government to define "organic", "free-range", etc., in terms that are most favorable to them. Pollan says if you want "traditionally organic" (my term, not his), you need to shop at local farms or farmers' markets. This is nice in theory, but since the "farmers' markets" around here seem to carry all sorts of packaged goods as well as produce clearly grown elsewhere (New Jersey is not known for its oranges), this is not always practical.

And in addition to the food itself, one must consider the cost to the environment in getting it to market. Pollan gives examples of how much petroleum is used to transport a steer, for example, from the farm to the slaughterhouse to the store. Which brings me to my Whole Foods Market experience. A few days after reading the book, I stopped in a Whole Foods Market to buy two habanero peppers. (No one else around here carries them.) First of all, they are clearly not a local New Jersey product, especially in February. (There is not enough market to operate a hothouse for them.) And to buy them, first I needed to put them in a plastic produce bag designed to hold a half dozen apples, rather than a smaller, less wasteful bag. And after I paid for them (all of twenty cents!) the cashier asked if I wanted a bag to put them in. I suppose they have to ask, but talk about how wasteful!

Oh, and what is the omnivore's dilemma? Well, as Pollan notes, the koala has no dilemma about food--if it looks and smells like a eucalyptus leaf, it's food; if it doesn't, it's not. But an omnivore has so many choices for food, what to eat becomes a dilemma.

[And after I wrote this column, the "New York Times" ran an article, "Is Whole Foods Straying From Its Roots?", which can be found at, registration necessary, but you can usually find passwords at]

WHY TRUTH MATTERS by Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom (ISBN-10 0-8264-7608-2, ISBN-13 978-0-826-47608-1) has what they claim as the answer on the back: "Truth matters because we are the only species we know of that has the ability to find it out." This is clarified inside as "we have the kind of brain that can conceptualize reality as existing independent of us." But first of all, whether we are the only species who can do this is certainly arguable, and second, having said this on page 21, the authors are left with the rest of the book to discuss the various ways in which people marginalize truth (e.g., wishful thinking, cultural relativism, etc.). It is all a bit unstructured, and with a lot of mentions of modern philosophers, scientists, and events that assume the reader is familiar with them. Continuum Press seems to publish books on philosophy, but I would say they are aimed more at the serious student of philosophy than at the general public.

BOOKSTORE: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JEANETTE WATSON AND BOOKS & CO. (ISBN-10 0-151-00425-0, ISBN-13: 978-0-151-00425-6) is a paean to the independent bookstore Books & Co. that existed in Manhattan from 1978 to 1997. It is not a narrative, but a series of recollections by Watson, people who worked at the store, people who shopped at the store, authors, and others. All extol the virtues of the independent bookstore, where the owner and staff love books, know just what to recommend to the regular customers, encourage new authors and marginal fields such as poetry, give fabulous parties for signings and readings, and generally are wonderful people. Woody Allen used the store as a setting in EVERYBODY SAYS I LOVE YOU, because he loved it so much. But somewhere towards the end of the book, we discover that this utopia is built on sand--it survived as long as it did only because Watson (and her family) kept subsidizing it. The Whitney Museum of American Art was their landlord, and came under fire, first for not giving them a lower-than-market-price rent, and then for not taking over the bookstore and continuing to run it the same way. The fact that the Whitney also had to deal with financial issues, and was an art museum, not a literary organization, seemed to elude most people.

Poor commercial planning caused many of the store's apparently unending financial problems. They include renting space next door to store books, paying Madison Avenue rent for what was effectively a warehouse. They spent more on refreshments for a reading than the increased sales would cover. And they had entire orders of hard covers signed by the authors *before* they were sold (meaning the store could not return unsold copies).

But almost everyone seems to want to blame the store's demise on the chains. Some independent bookstores are still going (*), so there are ways to compete, but the business model used by Books & Co. was not one. Books & Co. was undoubtedly a wonderful store run by idealistic people, but it was not a sustainable business venture.

(*) Shakespeare & Co. still has three stores, including one uptown, indicating that rents are not the only factor. But they have books that appeal to more people, while still concentrating on something other than best-sellers. Books & Co. seemed to try to have the most literary, the most edgy books and that had to limit their clientele a lot. (There were a lot of authors interviewed with whom I am not familiar.) And Michael Powell, of the still-successful Powell's in Portland, says, "Powell's had the strength of the used-book world; we can keep focusing on used and out of print, and that's something that Borders and Barnes & Noble don't have, and that gives us strength." This is ironic in two ways: Borders used to be one of those wonderful independents (one store in Ann Arbor in the 1970s), and Barnes & Noble used to carry used books, back when they had only three locations, all in Manhattan. Powell also says, "We are not prejudiced against any class of books . . . we are not prejudiced against pop fiction, romances, history. We wanted to treat all customers, all readers, as serious people." [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

           If winning isn't everything, why do they keep score?
                                          -- Vince Lombardi

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