MT VOID 07/18/08 -- Vol. 27, No. 3, Whole Number 1502

MT VOID 07/18/08 -- Vol. 27, No. 3, Whole Number 1502

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
07/18/08 -- Vol. 27, No. 3, Whole Number 1502

Table of Contents

      El Honcho Grande: Mark Leeper, La Honcha Bonita: 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

Autos (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

"At GM and Ford, the pain came quickly. Ford was first, announcing on May 22 that it would dramatically cut truck and SUV production and slash its salaried work force. Factory closures are possible when the company announces specifics next month. A week later, Ford announced accelerated plans for a super-compact car to be built in Mexico and sold in the U.S."

I had no idea about this problem. Apparently the auto companies have been forced to close down the SUV plants and open sub-compact plants in Mexico. This huge demand for fuel-efficient cars is inevitably going to hurt the American auto worker a lot. The problem is apparently with the American worker and not their management. You put an American auto worker on an assembly line and he/she will build an SUV. Force of habit, I guess. It doesn't matter that the plans call for him to make something more fuel-efficient. The poor executives I am sure plead with them to build compacts and sub-compacts, the cars that are selling, but those American workers refuse to build anything but gas-guzzling behemoths. Small cars can be built only by those clever Mexican workers apparently. American workers are, it seems, just not flexible enough to learn how to make them. The American auto worker just may not survive this sudden huge demand for cars. But they probably could keep their jobs if they were willing to commute to Mexico and work for Mexican salaries. After all, experience is a valuable commodity. [-mrl]

Is There a Value of a Single Human Life (in Dollars and Cents)? (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

I am taking a course on QUESTIONS OF VALUE (and ethics) from The Teaching Company. And I thought I had a fairly good grip on the subject matter and was just seeing other people's ways of looking at important questions of value. Instead I had the rug pulled out from under me and I realized I did not have any simple answers for some ethical questions. Putting it simply I LOVE THAT.

What was being discussed was what will seem like a very callous and unpleasant question. Is there a monetary value that we can put on a human life? I think most people would answer that all life is sacred. No amount of money is enough to equal the value of a single human life. A single human life is de facto of infinite monetary value. I think that is the conclusion that most people would come to and at the same time they would shy away from the question. Sadly in the real world you cannot shy away from this question for long. The course teacher (Patrick Grim from Stony Brook) uses the example of the Ford Pinto, a car that was made less safe than it could have been in order to save money. That made Ford seem heartless and they have taken enough licks in public for that decision. But did they have a choice? Or let us look at a more compassionate example and one that I use occasionally in my writing. An HMO has a choice of two medical tests for a condition that is fatal if undetected. One costs $50 and is 90% accurate. Another test costs $50,000 and is 95% accurate. If the company goes for the less expensive test in general, some number of people will die. If it goes for the more expensive test, there will be not enough money in the system and they will have to raise rates or cut someplace else. One of the reasons that HMOs are unpopular is that they have been delegated the task of making similar life versus money decisions where either decision seems ethically wrong. How does one measure the value of a human life?

The first temptation is to say that no amount of money is worth as much as a human life. If the HMO makes this decision it is out of business. And secondly this decision is not one that is on firm grounds to start with. Let us assume that the value of a single human life really is an infinite amount of money. What then is the value of two lives? It is an infinite amount of money. What about eight lives? How about a hundred lives? What is the value of a million lives? All of these are sacred. In each case the answer is "an infinite amount of money." Now comes the kicker. So is the value of a million lives worth no more than the value of a single life? Well that seems like a rather callous point of view. We are essentially saying that one gets no more value saving a million lives than saving one life. That may be taking too far the Talmudic statement "whoever saves a single human life is as if he saved a world." Saving one life is not enough if one can save a million lives instead. It seems to me that we want to put a much higher value on a million lives than we do on just one. This forces us to put a finite value on a life.

So what can we say then? We are really looking for a mathematical structure for our intuitive ethical system. That may seem unfeeling to people who struggled with Algebra I, but in fact we are doing it so that we can make ethical decisions rather than selfish ones. What if we say that the value of a human life is i--that is the square root of -1? Then a hundred dollars is a hundred dollars and five lives is valued at 5i and we are not putting a monetary value on life. That satisfies our feeling that a human life does not have a certain monetary value, but it still preserves our impression that ten human lives is in some way worth more than just one. But do we want to put just one i as the value for each human life? Is the value of an old man currently dying of cancer the same as that of a pretty five-year-old blond girl who has been kidnapped. The first we tend to ignore the former and the latter frequently makes national news. For better or for worse we tend to assume that some lives are worth more to the world than other lives. Also, saying the worth of a life is not commensurable with a dollar amount leaves some of the major questions of evaluating the value of human life in dollars and cents. Opening the structure of ethics to the complex plane does not help the HMO or Ford make decisions. It really is more like evading the question. Even perfectly compassionate people sooner or later have to come up with trade-offs between money and human lives. And the problem goes a lot further. We frequently see firefighters risking their lives to save trees. How many trees are worth a human life? How many goldfish are worth a human life? If nothing is commensurable in terms of anything else, is our universe of value an infinite dimensional space in which we cannot figure out the value of any trade-off?

At some point you need a unit of ethical value to compare the value of a life of a goldfish with the value of a life of a human. At some point you need a unit of ethical value to compare the value of a life of a human with the value of a life of another human. And what is our unit going to be? Is it the value of a human life, which we may jump all over the place? Are we going to say that one human life is worth exactly the same as another human life? Can we make decisions like "this forest is worth 1.7 standard human lives?" Human lives do not break nicely into units. Nor does the value of a tree. But do you know what does break nicely into standard units? Money does. It may be difficult to tell on a given day what a dollar is worth, but I think we can say pretty much unassailably that one US dollar is really worth the same as another US dollar is worth. There may be another measure that is as practical as money, but it is hard to imagines something that surpasses money as a practical measure of value, even if we are talking about the value of a human life.

As callous and unfeeling as it at first seems to put a dollars and cents value on a human life, there are perfectly compassionate reasons why we would want to do that. Ford and the HMO were not being unfeeling when they did that.

But if we accept that it is a valid thing to do to put a dollars and cents value on a human life, what is a human life worth? Well, luckily I am not called on to make such a decision. Other people are. It may well be that when they make these decisions they make them in an unethical manner, undervaluing (or overvaluing) a human life for selfish reasons. And their motives can and inevitably will always be questioned for setting any specific figure as the value of a specific human life. Any value one would choose will be hated for one reason or another. But probably it is a necessity. In some situations we have to choose a value and get on with the task of increasing the value of life. [-mrl]

Decisions (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):

Decisions, decisions. Consider eating lunch at the local fishery:

And as Mark commented, "If all this gives you a headache, make sure that the headache remedy bottle came sealed." [-ecl]

[We toured a WWII battleship now open to the public. In the galley they showed what a typical meal was. It was surprisingly large considering that they were at sea. But if you somehow could remove all the cholesterol there would not be very much left. Today a diet like that would be considered almost as dangerous as the enemy bullets. -mrl]

Libraries (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):

In the past I have complained about the problems in finding books in my public library--in specific, that some books may be catalogued in about eight different ways, and so everything has to be looked up.

But I went to a nearby town's library last weekend, and I have returned with a new appreciation for my library. Of the thirteen books I had hoped to look at there, I found five. Four more were checked out, and four were supposedly on the shelves, but they were not, or at least were not on the shelves anywhere near their correct location. (And I did look them all up, because this is a library that files Mark Twain's books under Clemens!) Even worse, though, they were having a teen event in the main meeting hall. And not just any event, but a Teen Battle of the Bands. What the flip kind of event is that to have in a *library"?!

(Admittedly, our library occasionally has music events, but not this loud or percussive.) [-ecl]

HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: Guillermo del Toro makes great horror films like CRONOS and PAN'S LABYRINTH. His graphic novel films are just not his best work. HELLBOY II's visual images are spectacular and the film is full of fights and action, but there is only a bit of plot and that involves an epic fantasy premise that would have taken multiple films to do well. The characters are flat and the film has no center. This is a film to watch, but there is not much to think about. The conclusion holds no surprises. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10

HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY has my vote for this year's "WHAT DREAMS MAY COME" Award for the most spectacular visuals in service to the least worthy story. The two films are somewhat different in that WHAT DREAMS MAY COME was saccharine while HELLBOY II has a graphic novel hero involved in a half-hearted attempt at Tolkein-like fantasy. And it pains me to say this, because HELLBOY II is written and directed by Guillermo del Toro whom I consider the best living horror film director. He makes horror films and films based on graphic novels. To my taste he is much better at the former than at the latter. Every film he makes is visually exquisite, but the graphic novel films just do not have the same quality of storytelling that he gets when he creates his own characters. He has a better touch telling stories about vulnerable characters than with invincible ones. Del Toro is probably missing the boat on the character of Hellboy also. The part-human and part-demon Hellboy should be torn between human and demonic urges. That would be a fairly dramatic premise. Instead he comes off as the brawny, master sergeant type, not very complex or very interesting. He is more earthy than most superheroes, but his character could be more engaging than it is.

Hellboy (played by Ron Perlman) is involved here in a Tolkein-like high fantasy. The film suggests there is a war between humans and the mythical creatures like fairies and elves. The adventure is a quest for the pieces of an ancient crown which gives the bearer the power to command a clockwork "golden" army. For most of the film it does not matter what they are looking for, the point is that Hellboy gets into fights to find the thing. The crown is actually the key to the war between humans and the creatures of myth. This is a big concept and one film devoted to the subject might not give del Toro sufficient time to develop the myth of the great crown or the mighty army. But it is not much of even this film. Most of the screen time is spent with Hellboy trying to clobber some great monster or with him sitting around drinking beer after beer and while bonding with his effete fish-man sidekick Abe Sapien. Sapien looks like a fugitive from Rene Laloux's FANTASTIC PLANET. The beer sessions give plenty of opportunity for a product placement of a particular Mexican beer. Hellboy's chief enemy is Prince Nuada (Luke Goss), an evil sorcerer who is tied by an invisible bond to his non-evil sister Princess Nuala (Anna Walton). Any injury to one will afflict both. So nobody wants to hurt Nuada for fear of hurting Nuala. The look for Nuada seems borrowed from Michael Moorcock's Elric.

Part of the pleasure of a del Toro film is in looking for allusions and personal touches. Del Toro seems to have two trademarks that hail back to his first feature film CRONOS. He seems to always have visual imagery of clockwork and some of insects. In this film he goes overboard on the clockwork. There is clockwork under the opening titles. The final fight is on a giant clockwork set. There are no insects but there are small crawly things called "tooth fairies" that stand in for the insects. There is a doff of the hat to Stanley Kubrick and John Landis with an allusion to the mythical and non-existent film SEE YOU NEXT WEDNESDAY.

More touches, good and bad: One might expect that after STAR TREK V a director would think twice about having drunken men bond by singing together, but del Toro tries it here and it still does not add much charm. There are also several shots on TV monitors of the Universal horror films that del Toro likes. There are supposedly scenes set at the famous Giant's Causeway. If so the "causeway" remains off-screen. The film does have a giant, but we are not told if it is supposed to be the legendary Fionn mac Cumhaill (a.k.a. Finn McCool) who supposedly built the causeway. The credit sequence at the end seems to have subliminal messages different from the credits. Perhaps people will want to rent the film to see the credits run by a little more slowly.

The visuals of HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY are a triumph of imagination, but the story is more of a failure. I would rate it a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.

Film Credits:


JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (2008) (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: Fun as thrill ride, but surprisingly poor as film, this is a story of three modern reluctant explorers who find out that the center of the Earth is just as Jules Verne described it with a lot of fast theme-park-like rides. It has even less logic than Verne gave it. Rent the 1959 version. Rating: 0 (-4 to +4) or 4/10

The 3D effects of JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH 3D are almost worth the price of admission. That means this film as a whole is almost worth the price of admission. As an adaptation of Jules Verne's novel this film is nearly worthless. In fairness I should say that no Jules Verne novel has ever been translated well to the screen and probably never will be. That is just not how Verne writes generally. Possibly the best film version of a Verne novel is the Disney 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, but that film has a lot of inventing. In the book, after the main characters are brought aboard the Nautilus they mostly just see wonders rather than have adventures. Similarly, in Verne's novel JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH there is not much action. Aside from occasional separations from the main party the characters mostly just see occasionally scary wonders. The 1959 film was one of the highlights of my youth but it made good cinema only because of heavy revisions to Verne's story by the writing team of Walter Reisch and Charles Bracket who had previously written films like NINOTCHKA and TITANIC (1953).

Strictly speaking, the new 3D version of JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH is not an adaptation at all. It is an adventure that takes place in our world with characters who are very much aware of the Verne novel. (A similar approach was taken to the 2002 version of THE TIME MACHINE.) This film is more a vehicle to show off 3D effects than it is to tell a real story. Life in the interior of the Earth seems to have aspects of theme park rides, video games, and both Disney and Warner Brothers cartoons. There are some nice renderings of engravings from Jules Verne books into real-looking albeit digital sets.

Trevor Anderson (played by Brendan Fraser) is a scientist who discovers that he has to play host to his nephew Sean (Josh Hutcherson) for two weeks. At the same time he discovers that for some reason he has a limited time to access volcanic chimneys into the center of the Earth. The reason for the rush is unexplained by it has something to do with changing numbers on a computer screen so it must be scientific.

Trevor packs up the nephew and off they head for Iceland. Along the way they pick up Hannah Ásgeirsson (Anita Briem) the daughter of a scientist who worked with Max. Max was Trevor's brother, Sean's father, and a friend of Hannah's late father. The name Ásgeirsson, incidentally, means "Son of Asgeir" and would never be given to a woman. The credits list her father as Sigurbjörn Ásgeirsson so she should have been Hannah Sigurbjörnsdottir. Briem would have known that, being Icelandic herself, but getting things accurate was just not where this film was at. The group came to study the chimneys, but soon they are trapped inside the Earth a long distance below the surface. Which brings us to the falls.

Our hearty band frequently falls distances of many miles and manages to land with no ill effects, like Alice in Wonderland. Two such falls and they make it to the center of the Earth. That saves time and story-telling, but it cuts out most of what would be interesting in the film. Admittedly, how far down the center of the Earth is a moot point. If the center is just a single point it could be a long way down. If "center" refers to a very large region it might not be that far down. (Think of it this way. The center of an inflated balloon is a pocket of compressed air that begins a small fraction of an inch below the surface.)

These are most unusual explorers. They can fall hundreds of miles and land without breaking a bone. Hundreds of miles beneath the surface of the Earth they never seem greatly concerned for how they can get to safety. In 105-degree temperatures they never seem to break a sweat or in the case of Hannah even smear her lipstick. At one point a character is jumping from one rock to the next in a line of rocks floating in air suspended by magnetism. Somehow he manages to do this without imparting any rotational momentum until he gets to the very last rock. It just plays better if only the last rock has a rotational momentum. The travelers brought no food with them and rarely seem to pass much that is edible, but they always seem to be well-fed. The film exempts itself from any laws of physics or logic. Luminous birds that glow like fireflies illuminate the world beneath the earth. These are birds from 150 million years in our past, yet they look more like modern bluebirds than like the archaeopteryx of that period. What is more, the birds seem to understand English and show very human-like expressions like some fugitives from Disney's CINDERELLA. One of the birds adopts the travelers and follows them around like Tinkerbell.

Visually the film has some nice moments, but not all of the images work. There is a large Tyrannosaurus Rex that looks like a digital animation and is not believable as a living animal the way the T-rex in JURASSIC PARK did. Too often the lighting is too dim to really see the dimensional imagery to its full effect. There is some blurring. Frequently the left- and right-eye images do not coalesce. The 3D work, virtually the film's only virtue, is a step down from that of BEOWULF. For me it would be very hard for JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (2008) to match the enjoyment that the 1959 version brought me. However, this film does not even come close. The 3D effects are actually quite nice usually, but see it for the 3D or not at all. I rate the film a 0 on the -4 to +4 scale or 4/10.

Film Credits:


THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION by Michael Chabon (copyright 2007, Harper Collins, $26.95, 414pp, ISBN 978-0-00-714982-7) (book review by Joe Karpierz):

[WARNING: spoilers ahead. -ecl]

So, as I write this, it's 10:30PM Central time on July 9. Tomorrow morning I board a plane for my first vacation in over 4-1/2 years. The last one happened just before I was let go by Lucent Technologies. This one will be a little more fun, as my family and I are going on an Alaskan cruise and land tour. As I was preparing to write this review, it occurred to me that it was just a bit strange, coincidental, ironic, or whatever you want to call it, that the setting of the last Hugo nominated novel that I'm reviewing is Sitka, Alaska. If I'm not mistaken, Sitka will be one of our stops on the trip.

THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION has already won the Nebula and Locus awards this year--the question is whether it will hit the trifecta. I think it has a terrific chance of doing so. It's certainly a significantly superior novel to BRASYL, and is one of the most well-crafted books I've read in years. The writing is absolutely terrific, the story is intriguing, the characters are interesting; so why am I wondering why this book is nominated for a science fiction award?

Okay, it's an alternate history, although it's so well-written that you would swear that the setting and events in the book are present day and real. It could probably be argued (and I'm betting that it has been argued) that the concept of the return of the Messiah and all the things that surround that event, including a red heifer, is an element of the fantastic; those who are atheists and scorn religion will certainly argue that. Chabon himself has called this novel science fiction--I just don't see it.

After the collapse of the state of Israel in 1948, Jewish refugees and descendants have lived in the Federal District of Sitka, a safe haven for Jews. The District is going to be dissolved in the near future, leaving the population wondering what will happen to them now. One of those is police detective Meyer Landsman, who lives in a flophouse hotel after his personal life has come crashing down around him in the form of his divorce. He's a drinker, and his career is a disaster. Our story opens up when Landsman finds out that a murder has been committed in the fleabag hotel he lives in. Landsman takes up the case; the victim is a former prodigy chess player. Oh, but as the novel moves on, we find out that he was much more than that.

You see, Landsman is told to lay off the case--by his ex-wife no less, who is now his supervisor, in to keep things running smoothly until the Reversion, the event which restores the Alaskan land back to the United States. But Landsman keeps investigating, and he finds out much more than he bargained for. It seems there is a plot to restore Israel back to the Jews and it involves the prophesied coming of the Messiah and a red heifer. Our dead body is that Messiah, and I'm really hung up on this heifer.

Here's the thing--I'm completely ignorant of Jewish customs and religious beliefs. I couldn't tell you how much of this stuff Chabon is making up and how much is real. I mean no disrespect to the Jewish community--I just don't know anything about it. But I really, really, really liked this novel.

And therein lies the rub.

You see, this book was probably better written than any of the other four nominees, and it certainly told a more interesting story than at least one of them. I kept wanting to get back to this book even when I didn't have time to sit down and read. It was that good. But I'm not convinced it belongs here.

So imagine my dilemma when it came time to submit my Hugo ballot. I'm not going to tell you how I voted, but I can say that I did wrestle with it for awhile. Okay, I'll tell you that I voted it higher than BRASYL.

If you haven't read this book, you should. It may not be for everyone, and it certainly isn't something that I would have picked up on my own, but I'm glad I read it.

Okay, now I'd better start packing. Before I go, I'll tell you that I'm taking a few books on the trip, so there should be a review or two coming your way after I come back. After that, it's break time. My periodicals are backing up because of the Hugo reading.

Until then. [-jak]

Western Films (letter of comment by Dan Kimmel):

In response to Mark's article on Western films in the 07/11/08 issue of the MT VOID, Dan Kimmel writes:

I think the AFI list is pretty good, but I agree with Mark that such lists are takeoffs for discussion, not decisive rankings. I would take off CAT BALLOU and BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID. They're fun films, but not *great* Westerns. The rest are outstanding examples of the genre and I've used all of them except THE WILD BUNCH and RED RIVER in my Western movies class. And that's only because they're too long for my 2-1/2 hour, once-a-week class.

Here are the films I use as important examples of the genre:

I've also used a couple of 1970's Burt Lancaster westerns, LAWMAN and ULZANA'S RAID, but with a specific pedagogical purpose in mind, not as a claim they are four star classics. (LAWMAN is the opposite of HIGH NOON, with an obsessed lawman facing a town who thinks he's out of control; ULZANA'S RAID is a good example of 1970s revisionism and is a lot shorter than LITTLE BIG MAN.)

I understand where Mark is coming from on THE SEARCHERS. It's a film like VERTIGO in that I respect it more than I like it. Now having seen it several times I've warmed up to it a bit, especially in the context of Wayne's career.

I disagree with him on UNFORGIVEN. It remains a statement against violence. Eastwood's character has to get drunk (i.e., fall off the wagon) for the violent finale, and there's no glory in it. The memorable moment is just before he shoots Gene Hackman's marshal, where Hackman says it's not fair he should die, he's building a house. He's right. It's not fair, and that's the point. The killing that Eastwood -- and Hackman -- have used to get their way is wrong, This was the film that turned me around on Eastwood, an actor and director I really disliked up until this point (except for his films with Sergio Leone or Don Siegel). In Richard Schickel's biography of Eastwood, he notes that I wasn't alone in this -- a lot of critics re-evaluated their views on Eastwood after UNFORGIVEN.

I used to think I didn't like westerns, but then I realized it was the same reason I thought I didn't like champagne. I had to try the GOOD stuff. Now I go out of my way to see a western that is touted as a good one, like the Budd Boetticher films with Randolph Scott. Saw a few of these last year and they are minimalist masterpieces. [-dk]

Mark responds:

I did not want to go into the negatives of the chosen, hence likely popular, Westerns. I am not keen on BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID with a musical interlude that just is not very good. CAT BALLOU is entertaining, but not among the best. MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER I saw only once and it did not do a lot for me. I actually think the realistic style that MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER tried to have is really done better in the famous boxoffice disaster HEAVEN'S GATE. The latter is a fairly decent telling of what happened in the Johnson County War.

Comments on your other films: MY DARLING CLEMENTINE is over-rated and an extremely inaccurate representation of a historic even. It did manage to tell a story of the OK Corral gunfight without making the flamboyant Doc Holliday interesting. That is not easy to do. STAGECOACH was not a really good story. It was an influential western because it used Monument Valley. It had been used before in two Westerns, notably in the interesting THE VANISHING AMERICAN. Using the valley as a backdrop became almost a cliche. It was used really inappropriately as a backdrop for MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, but the topography is entirely wrong for Tombstone, Arizona.

Wow! LONELY ARE THE BRAVE was not on my list because by my personal criteria it is just over the line as being not really a Western. I just saw it again last week and I had forgotten what a good film it really is. ACE IN THE HOLE is another near- Western that, like LONELY ARE THE BRAVE, is a great social comment film. But ACE IN THE HOLE is just another little bit further outside the boundary.

ULZANA'S RAID is refreshingly straightforward and untainted by a political message. Yes, Indians had been treated unjustly and the whites do not come off very good, but Ulzana shows us just how formidable a pull-out-all-the-stops Indian warrior could be. In spite of the basic justice of the Indians' cause, Ulzana was someone who had to be stopped. Once he was eliminated one could go back to considering the ultimate justice of the Indians' case. It is a much more important film in 2008 than it was when it was made.

In UNFORGIVEN, Gene Hackman played a refined sadist and murderer who used the law as an excuse to justify killing and torture. I think most people who see that film would agree that his killing was fair. This may be the first film that turned you around on Eastwood, but it is my second. I also liked a lot THE OUTLAW JOSIE WALES. But like Robert Redford and maybe Ben Affleck, I think Eastwood is better as a director than as an actor.

I have never noticed Budd Boetticher films specifically, but will keep an eye out for them. [-mrl]

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

I listened to MURDER IS EASY (a.k.a. EASY TO KILL) by Agatha Christie read by Hugh Fraser (ISBN-13 978-1-572-70490-9, ISBN-10 1-572-70490-X) on a recent trip. Or rather I listened to most of it, and then finished it in book form after I arrived. However, this was a bit confusing, as the audio version refers to the old woman as Lavinia Pinkerton (even with a reference to the name- sharing with the detective agency), while in the book she is Lavinia Fullerton. I cannot seem to find any indication of when the change was made, or why. As for the story, there may be one level too many of mis-direction for the story to be considered elegant--or maybe not.

SIMPLEXITY: WHY SIMPLE THINGS BECOME COMPLEX AND HOW COMPLEX THINGS CAN BE MADE SIMPLE by Jeffrey Kluger (ISBN-13 978-1-4013- 0301-3, ISBN-10 1-4013-0301-3) has such chapters as "Why is it so hard to leave a burning building or an endangered city?", "How does a single bullet start a world war?", "Why is a baby the best linguist in the room?", and "Why are your cell phones and cameras so absurdly complicated?" But while Kluger generally covers these topics, he often leaves out key information, while at the same time adding digressions. For example, in the chapter on leaving burning buildings, he talks about how difficult to was to evacuate the World Trade Center towers, not just because of psychological reasons, but because the four of the stairways were 44 inches wide, and two were 56 inches wide, designed in 1970 for two people to walk abreast. The problem is that people in 2001 were much wider than those in 1970, and this disrupted the flow. Interesting and important, certainly, but not a question of simplicity versus complexity. And in his chapter on "How does a single bullet start a world war?", he never actually says what he is referring to. (I assume it is the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip that started World War I.) Even with these flaws, the book is thought-provoking. And perhaps complexity can best be summed up by this paragraph of Kluger's:

"The act of buying nearly any electronic product has gone from the straightforward plug-and-play experience it used to be to a laborious, joy-killing exercise in unpacking, reading, puzzling out, configuring out, testing, cursing, reconfiguring, stopping altogether to call the customer support line, then calling again an hour or two later, until you finally get whatever it is you've bought operating in some tentative configuration that more or less does all the things you want it to do--at least until some error message causes the whole precarious assembly to crash and you have to start all over again. You accept, as you always do, that there are some functions that sounded vaguely interesting when you were in the store that you'll never learn to use, not to mention dozens of buttons on the front panel or remote control that you'll never touch--and you'll feel some vague sense of technophobic shame over this." [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

           Think of and look at your work as though it 
           were done by your enemy.  If you look at it 
           to admire it, you are lost.
                                          -- Samuel Butler

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