MT VOID 08/28/09 -- Vol. 28, No. 9, Whole Number 1560

MT VOID 08/28/09 -- Vol. 28, No. 9, Whole Number 1560

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
08/28/09 -- Vol. 28, No. 9, Whole Number 1560

Table of Contents

      C3PO: Mark Leeper, R2D2: 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

Acknowledgement (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

This week's MT VOID is brought to you by the Pre-Owned-Humvee Owners Exchange. Buy a used Humvee today. The right of way is yours. [-mrl]

Puzzle Painting:

If you're interested in a "puzzle" painting a la THE ULTIMATE ALPHABET, see

Science Visualizations (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

So far I have seen only the first, but they look like they are worth spending some time with. [-mrl]

The Lessons of Prehistory (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

If prehistory has taught us anything it is that God is on the side of the big therapods. [-mrl]

Trailer Park, 2009 (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

Each year the World Science Fiction Convention has its show of trailers of upcoming films of science fiction interest. Each time there seems to be less effort in creating the show, but that is OK because the new films seem to be less worth effort. This year there were ten trailers slapped on a DVD in (nearly) alphabetical order. The films are 2012, ARMORED, ASTROBOY, FINAL DESTINATION, PLANET 51, SHERLOCK HOLMES, SORORITY ROW, THE STEPFATHER, SHORTS, and ZOMBIELAND. This time around I will also give URLs so the reader can see the same trailers I did. That will prove I am not making this stuff up.

The premise of this film is that the ancient Mayans said that the world would come to an end on December 21, 2012. First let me set your mind at ease. Actually the Mayans didn't say that. They measured time in cycles and one giant cycle ends on that date and the next one begins. The Mayans did not say that the world would end at the end of this cycle any more than it ends at the end of every century on our calendar. Experts on Mayan culture say that the target date is every bit as meaningful as the Cosmic Convergence was several years ago when nobody really noticed. This is a genuine example of what you do not know not hurting you one little bit. There is a lot of money to be made from New Age ideas, and Roland Emmerich who brought you GODZILLA and THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW wants a cut. His film 2012 looks to have a lot of CGI- generated destruction. There will be tidal waves and things generally falling apart, not unlike what happened in his THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW. John Cusack stars. The IMDB also lists Woody Harrelson, Amanda Peet, Danny Glover, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and several other familiar names. But the real star is the spectacular CGI competing with Emmerich's previous films. For more on the coming end of the world and how people can make scads of money off of it, see
Currently scheduled release date: November 13, 2009

This film stars Matt Dillon, Laurence Fishburne and Jean Reno as three armored car guards who decide they know enough about the business to go into the business for themselves, as robbers. They intend to pull this one as an inside job. Following very good heist films like THE MAN INSIDE and THE BANK JOB this film will have its work cut out for it to meet audience expectations.
Currently scheduled release date: December 4, 2009

This is a feature-length version of the old Japanese manga and cartoon series, but using a very different and more up to date animation technique. It brings it to a new generation so it is appropriately an origin story. Astro Boy is a robot, but seems to have some emotions also. He has the power to fly and big guns in his arms. Freddie Highmore is the voice of Astro Boy. The film also features the voices of Nicolas Cage, Kristen Bell, Charlize Theron, Samuel L. Jackson, Bill Nighy, Donald Sutherland, Eugene Levy, and Nathan Lane.
Currently scheduled release date: October 23, 2009

This is another film animated in RealD 3-D. An astronaut lands on an alien planet and claims it for Earth only to discover it is inhabited by little green people with antennas who live a life much like Americans did in the 1950s. In this reversal he is the invading alien monster. The aliens from the 1950s do not know what to make of the invading human. Rather than dogs as pets they seem to have friendly canine versions of the creature from ALIEN.
Currently scheduled release date: November 20, 2009

Guy Ritchie re-imagines the Doyle detective as a super-athlete who also gets into embarrassing sexual situations. Robert Downey Jr. is Sherlock Holmes and Jude Law plays his Dr. John Watson. So far it has not been announced who plays his arch-nemesis Moriarty. See Holmes boxing. See Holmes jumping from high windows. Oh boy! I think I would have liked the film better if the detective were called Rupert Stone and was only reminiscent of Holmes. This character Downey plays is not Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and does not deserve the name. [P.S. Doyle did make some scant references to Holmes being an "expert" boxer. An expert on Holmes- -well Evelyn--says Downey looks like a kid play-acting at being Holmes and Watson would never punch Holmes.]
Currently scheduled release date: December 25, 2009

This is a remake of THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW (1983), a film I never thought was worth seeing the first time around. The sorority girls get together to teach a lesson to ones philandering boy friend. One girl seduces the boy friend and then pretends to die to scare him. The girls help the boy out preparing to bury the dead girl where she will not be found. But when the supposed dead girl stirs the boy decides that he will be in serious trouble if she ever wakes up and before he can be stopped he clubs her with a tire iron. This story was not very good to start with, but sours almost immediately and turns into a mad stalker serial killer film. The killer goes around in a hooded graduation gown and kills people with a tire iron. Hey, every serial killer needs a trademark. It may be a hook or razor claws or whatever. But this killer has a tire iron as his/her trademark. I am sure that will make the film a lot more interesting. Right.
Currently scheduled release date: September 11, 2009

This is another horror remake, this time of THE STEPFATHER (1987). Again I have not seen the original, but at least the 1987 version had a script by Donald Westlake, an Edgar-winning mystery writer. I don't think there is anyone comparable associated with the remake. The main character comes home from military school to find his mother has a boyfriend who seems to be a great potential stepfather. But perhaps the new Daddy is not as good as he is trying to seem. In fact he may be a psychotic killer the police are looking for. Thrilling.
Currently scheduled release date: October 19, 2009

This is a live action and animated comedy for pre-teens. A boy is bullied by tougher kids in school until a rainbow-colored rock falls from the sky and allows him to communicate with powerful inch-high aliens. They give him almost magical powers. Robert Rodriguez who made SPY KIDS writes and directs.
Currently scheduled release date: August 21, 2009

Woody Harrelson stars as a zombie killer (that means he kills zombies, not that he is a zombie who kills) in a post-NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD sort of world in this horror comedy. Mostly they seem to smash up grocery and department stores. Actually he has a partner zombie-killer and the two are about to have a falling out. It seems to be full of redneck jokes, zombie jokes, big guns, and everything else that could possibly make the living dead a load of fun. ZOMBIELAND stars Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, Amber Heard, Abigail Breslin a host of unknowns willing to wear old clothes, put on makeup, and work cheap.
Currently scheduled release date: October 9, 2009

This might be an apropos time to remind the reader that your public library probably has many, many good books--most of which you have not read. [-mrl]

Anticipation, the 2009 Worldcon (Part 1) (convention report by Evelyn C. Leeper):

This is a brief report on Anticipation, the Worldcon held in Montreal August 6-10, 2009. My full report will also include panel descriptions, but will probably not appear for some time (though I hope before the next Worldcon!).


We were staying in what was supposed to be a quiet hotel (the Hyatt). The only problem was that there was an outdoor rock concert going on across the street from our room from the time we checked in on Wednesday through Sunday night. This is probably not the convention's fault, but it was an omen of things to come.

(Well, actually, another problem was that the reception staff seemed very snooty. On the other hand, we were able to check in at 10AM, which was great.)

Parking seemed cheaper than what the convention web page said; maybe they were talking about valet parking. It cost us C$110 for six days (143 hours). We found a space very close to the elevators, but the layout was such that we had to take one elevator to the lobby, walk up a half-dozen stairs, then take another elevator to our room!

Convention Centre

The convention centre was about a quarter of a mile away, and reachable without ever going outside. The programming seemed very spread out, but that is just the nature of how these centres are built.

The convention provided free WiFi in the main hall, where the Dealers Room, Art Show, displays, etc. were. One problem was that it did not open until 10AM and programming started at 9AM, so one saw lines of people sitting on the floor against the room's walls trying to get connected and read their mail early.

Someone complained that there wasn't free WiFi throughout the convention centre. He wanted people to be able to "set up a Twitter backchannel" at panels, and even thought that having a screen *behind* the panelists where audience members could post comments that the panelists could not see was a good idea. The day that happens, I stop being a panelist. A panel presumes the panelists know more than the audience, and so does "privilege" the panelists. A discussion group makes everyone equal. But this suggestion privileges the audience over the panel, and basically allows them to carry on long exchanges that distract everyone while the panelists are talking. It is even worse than cell phones.

Some rooms had microphones and some not. In general, they got it right, but one small room had a panel with a very soft-spoken panelist who desperately needed a microphone.

There were complicated recycling bins throughout the centre, but there was also bottled water provided for the panelists. This seems inconsistent, but I am sure the bins are mandated by law and pitchers rather than bottles are not.


Registration went quickly at noon on Wednesday, but there were problems. There were no programme grids (which apparently took the place of pocket programmes) or restaurant guides in the registration packets. (These did show up later, and I suppose that this is just one of the downsides of early registration.) The change sheets were also not in the packets--more on this later.

There were only small generic plastic bags to hold the materials. This is not the convention's fault--I guess with the new economy, publishers and stores are less willing to donate fancy printed bags to conventions as advertising. Oh, well, we still have a supply from previous conventions (lightweight shoulder bags from ConFiction, heavy cloth tote bags from LaCon some-number-or-other, and so on).

In the bag there was a copy of what appeared to be a book of French fantasy (in translation) from Bragelonne but was actually a sampler. However, it seemed to include several complete stories in addition to an excerpt from a novel, so it was more like a "real" book.

One freebie that appeared on the "Freebie Table" was a book I had been looking for: Nick Mamatas's MOVE UNDER GROUND. Other freebies included Rich Horton's SCIENCE FICTION: THE BEST OF THE YEAR 2006, Frank Ludlow and Roelof Goudriaan's EMERALD EYE, and a 2009 Robert Jordan calendar (well, it will be accurate again when 2014 rolls around). There were also various books that members dropped off, including a lot of Stephen King in French. (I tend to drop off old science fiction on convention freebie tables rather than the local thrift shop, since there is definitely an audience for them.)

I have no idea who (if anyone) was in charge of putting publishers' freebies out on the table. I do know that the Horton did not appear until Saturday (though the boxes were there under the tables from the start), and then seemed a glut on the market. If they had started appearing earlier, this might not have been true.


There was a souvenir book, a programme book, a programme grid, and a restaurant guide. The biographies that programme participants sent in appeared in none of these. The programme grid was too big for a pocket programme and also poorly designed (each day was the back of one sheet and the front of the next instead of the front and back of a single sheet). However, the real problem was that the programme book and grid were grossly inaccurate; see my comments under programming.

Typos abounded--the best on the grid was "Editiing" for "Editing" on a panel about editing! (And, no, it was not intentional, as elsewhere it was spelled correctly.) At the Hugo Ceremony, in the necrology they misspelled Philip Jose Farmer's name as "Phillip".

Speaking of which, the Hugo Awards Program was printed back-to-back in both English and French, like an Ace Double, but very poorly assembled. It was done on regular-size paper, then stapled midway and folded in half, but the sheets were not "squared up" very well before stapling.

Newsletters came out late (for example, I generally did not see the evening editions with the list of parties until the next morning), and were not well distributed. The rack next to the Voodoo and Party Boards was frequently empty of *any* issues of the newsletter, and one would often see (for example) only issues 1, 3, 7, and 11 in a rack at one end of the hall, and only issues 6, 8, and 10 in a rack at the other.

(There was also a problem with the Voodoo Board which turned out beneficial for the members. When the sheets were first printed, there was a problem, so they reprinted them while the boards to hold them were set up. When the second printing was done, it was discovered that the font size had been enlarged, so more boards were needed. However, this made it a lot easier for members to find names on it!)

More to follow next week. [-ecl]

IN THE LOOP (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: This film is sort of "The West Wing (East)" meets "The West Wing" as Oscar Wilde might have imagined the meeting. A petty British Minister makes an ill-considered statement in public triggering a comedy of manners in the upper echelons of governments on both sides of the Atlantic. The plot of this film is impenetrable but the dialog is hilarious and comes a staccato pace. This is a comedy of political backbiting, in-fighting, and out- fighting. It is loosely a spinoff of the BBC comedy program "The Thick of It". Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10

Loose lips sink political careers and start wars. At this writing the United States has recently seen a political storm over an ambiguous statement that Sonia Sotomayor made several years ago. Frequently an innocent-sounding statement can have serious political repercussions.

At the same time as this controversy raged by coincidence the BBC Films was preparing a feature film to be released about a firestorm of political wrangling following British Minister Simon Foster (played by Tom Hollander, familiar from PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN) making a similar gaff. Foster is being interviewed in the media and says that in the current situation "war is unforeseeable." This is a flashpoint of a giant trans-Atlantic incident in both the United States and British governments just at a time when the United States may actually be sliding into a war, possibly in the Middle East. I will not even try to recount most of the plot. It is too complex to relate, but the plot is not really the point of the film.

What is the point is the dialog. This is a common British style of drama. The plot does not have to be going anywhere if the dialog is entertaining, and in this film it is riotous. IN THE LOOP is like and episode of "The West Wing", but with much cleverer dialog. This is what the dialog would be if everyone in government talked in metaphors and had the personality of a viper. Following Minister Foster's inexplicably disastrous pronouncement, the Prime Minister's director of communications, Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) flies into action to do damage control. The rings of crisis and political manipulation move onward and outward peppered with betrayals and verbal put-downs.

IN THE LOOP is the brainchild of writer/director Armando Iannucci who also writes or has written numerous BBC series, notably "The Thick of It", which has rapid-fire verbal exchanges of much the same style. The dialog is even slyer but at the same time more believable than that of DR. STRANGELOVE. Notable in the cast is James Gandolfini as an American general who opposes the war. He may be a dove, but his personal attitudes are tinged with Tony Soprano's special breed of menace.

The film has five different writers each contributing gags seemingly assembled in a style going back to Sid Caesar. The writers have honed their talents writing for the BBC comedy series "The Thick of It". They have sprinkled the storyline with tidbits that actually happened in the Bush Administration, but one just hopes that most of this is fiction. Feeding the feeling of impending doom is that on both sides of the Atlantic the staff that are handling crisis and defining policy look barely old enough to have completed college. This may have been an economical move on the part of the filmmakers in that one does not expect a twenty- two-year-old character to be played by a highly paid veteran actor.

What we see is two very confused countries' governments. The British over-extend their metaphors and Americans over-extend their psychoses, and neither has anybody whom you want to trust not to betray you. Like DR. STRANGELOVE I would call it a film of sobering fun. I rate IN THE LOOP a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10. Reportedly story of the Office of Future Plans is true. Dick Chaney set up a committee to plan possible war in Iran and/or Syria. So many people wanted to be on the committee that it was abolished and reformed with a smaller membership.

Film Credits:

What others are saying:


COLD SOULS (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: COLD SOULS is a bizarre fantasy that gives us a world where souls can be removed and transplanted like kidneys. What seems at first like a blessing causes some unforeseen and fantastic problems. The first half of COLD SOULS is inventive, but the film really loses steam in the second half. Too many technical problems went unsolved in bringing this story to the screen. Sophie Barthes writes and directs. Rating: low +1 (-4 to +4) or 5/10 Warning: This review has minor spoilers

Actor Paul Giamatti (played by actor Paul Giamatti) is getting a mid-life crisis. Shortcomings in his acting are really preying on his mind. It looks like he will be fired from performing in his upcoming production of Chekov's "Uncle Vanya". He is no longer relating to his wife (Emily Watson). Dark moments in his past plague him. Then he hears about Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn), a doctor who can remove his soul or even can transplant other people's souls into patients. First reports are that people who have had their souls removed feel very good and function better. A special option even allows patients to have their souls removed and put in cold storage to be reattached later. There is some intrigue in a Robert Sheckley sort of style when Giamatti's soul is stolen from him. But it is not fully exploited.

COLD SOULS even has an interesting theme in black market stolen souls, not unlike the one that exists with organs. This actually could have been a satiric crime thriller, but Barthes's script keeps the thriller elements to a minimum. Instead the story is more about Giamatti's introspection. He goes looking for his soul, but somehow without much energy.

The problem is that cinema is just exactly the wrong medium for this particular story. When Giamatti sits and meditates with his own soul, when he meditates with no soul, and when he meditates with another person's soul, he looks just about the same. In a story we could look into his mind and see how the soul change is affecting him. But in a film we are stopped dead at his face and can go no deeper.

The story does not really grind to a halt, because there is just not that much grinding needed. The story has already slowed on its own. We know different things may be going on in Giamatti's head, but the camera does not pick them up. Giamatti may be a good actor, but projecting different souls is apparently beyond his acting ability. And when someone else has Giamatti's soul there is nothing remotely in her behavior that suggests anything of Giamatti. The soul might as well be a piece of jewelry for as much as it affects its wearer.

This seemed like it could have been a fantasy a lot like THE ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. Certainly the setup with the peculiar doctor and his strange medical equipment telling Giamatti all about the process seems much the same. But ETERNAL SUNSHINE's operation removed memories, something that the viewer knows about. We have some idea what it would be like if some memories were taken away. But there is no common agreement on what a soul is, what is its function, and what would it be like if it were taken away. And Giamatti's performance does nothing to suggest an answer to the question. Nobody has much experience with what it would be like to no longer have a soul. We learn from Giamatti's performance that without it he goes from puzzlement to depression. This is not the stuff of good cinema. There is just too much that is too interesting about this situation, but which gets side-stepped in the script of COLD SOULS.

Fantasy films like BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and THE ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND start with a bizarre premise and then really expand on the concepts and think about the implications. This film just starts with the bizarre premise and expects that impetus and Giamatti's acting to carry the film. Neither helps this film much. I rate COLD SOULS low +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 5/10.

Film Credits:

What others are saying:


ANATHEM by Neal Stephenson (copyright 2008, Harper Collins, $29.95, 937pp, ISBN 987-0-06-147409-5) (book review by Joe Karpierz):

So, you thought I was kidding? In my review of ZOE'S TALE, written on 6/15/09 and published in the MT VOID of 6/19/09, I said "See you in August", which was, of course, a reference as to when I thought I'd actually finish reading ANATHEM.

I told you all I wasn't planning on reading it--I was ready to hate it. I figured I'd get through about a hundred pages, get all bored and tired of it, and take it back to the library from whence it came (yes, I didn't actually buy this one--I was so sure I was going to dislike this book that I didn't want to spend any money on it).

I'd disliked the only other Neal Stephenson book I'd read--DIAMOND AGE--so I thought the chances were reasonable that I wouldn't like this one either. I should have known that Evelyn not being able to get through ANATHEM doomed me to liking it--we have this history, as most of you know, of not agreeing on books.

History repeated itself.

I liked this book so much through the first couple of hundred pages that I voted it number one for the Hugo without even finishing it-- and it didn't disappoint me the rest of the way. (For those that care about such things, and for the record, my vote for best novel- -in order--was ANATHEM, LITTLE BROTHER, No Award, ZOE'S TALE, THE GRAVEYARD BOOK, and SATURN'S CHILDREN.) It started out slow--very slow--as I'm sure Evelyn will attest to. But as the true direction of the book began to appear, the pace picked up substantially, and it became something of a page-turner. And a surprise best book of the bunch of Hugo nominees, no matter what the voting body said-- they were wrong.

Our setting is an Earthlike planet named Arbre. Some 3700 years prior to the time of the story, the Terrible Events occurred, which led directly to the end of the Praxic Age (think technological) and directly into the Reconstitution, which resulted in the "learned and literate" to be separated from the rest of the masses into Concents (think convents). The avout, those that live in the Concents, do not have technology (for the most part--some things are grandfathered in after the Reconstitution), while the extramouros--those outside the Concents, have all the gadgets speelycaptors (think movie cameras of any sort), jeejahs (think smartphones), etc. Aside from the occasional visitor to the Concents, the two do not mix, other than at times of an apert--when the doors to the concent are open and avout go out and mingle and explore, and extramouros can come in and do the same. There are different groups of avout within a Concent, corresponding to the frequency of an apert. Thus, you have annuals, tenners, hundreders, and thousanders. Yes, some of the avout never leave the concent. Well, you can leave the Concent under two other circumstances--at the aut (ceremony) of Voco, where some avout is called out into the Saecular world because of some special skill he or she has, and most times they never return. The other circumstance is the aut of Anathem--the avout has done something that has warranted him or her to be kicked out of the math (concent) permanently.

Are you getting the idea that I'm just scratching the surface of the world that Stephenson has built? If you are, you're right.

So, after a tedious bunch of setup stuff we have an apert of the Tenners, and our hero, Erasmas, goes out into the town around his Concent with a friend. On the last night of apert Erasmas manages to get into a serious bit of trouble and literally has the Book thrown at him (one of the few truly funny bits in the novel, although it's not *that* funny and it doesn't last that long). While he is in confinement studying the Book and performing his punishment, he notes that there are several auts going on, including some Vocos and the Anathem of his friend and teacher, Fraa (think brother) Orolo. Not long after the completion of his punishment, he is called to the outside world with a bunch of friends in a Voco. It turns out that many avout from many maths all over Arbre are being called to a Convox, a convention of avout and saecular from all over the world. It seems there is a problem that must be dealt with, and all the knowledge of the mathic world is needed to help deal with the oncoming crisis.

I'm not going any further than that with the introduction to the story, for many reasons, not the least of which is that this review will run the risk of becoming as long as the novel itself. What I will talk about now are the things that kept me hanging in there all the way to the end, and one or two things that maybe could have been better.

Stephenson does an *outstanding* job of world building with ANATHEM. It's not just the society, but the words, terms, and structure of things that all kept my attention for over two months. The book is a terrific mix of math, science, philosophy, and religion. Yes, there are parts of the book that drag--I can't imagine a book of over 930 pages that doesn't have some slow spots. But, Stephenson mixes the various cultures of Arbre and their beliefs in different philosophies in a masterful way, and when you finally get the idea that he's managing to take the concepts of math, science, religion, and philosophy and interrelating them in such a way that he explains the existence of multiple universes, you realize that he's on to something.

I've already said that the book was slow in spots. The book also was in need of some editing. Stephenson presents three "calcas", or lessons, in the back of the book. The book could have done without them, I think. And yet, I'm not sure there was that much more that could have been pulled out. When I read a book that I deem just way too fat, I'm constantly and consciously editing it while I read it, making mental notes of where things could be cut. And while I did do that, I didn't come up with a whole heck of a lot. Probably 90% of what was there contributed to the story, mostly in a significant way.

Stephenson manages to tie things, events, and people all up in a nice package at the end of the novel. I came away very satisfied with (although I will say that I resented it taking up such a huge chunk of time, putting me even further behind on my to-read stack) the ending and the book as a whole. Was it one of the top ten novels I've ever read? No. But it's up there. [-jak]

BROKE: THE NEW AMERICAN DREAM (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: Though Michael Covel's documentary starts out looking like a study of the current financial meltdown, it is about much less and about much more. It is really a sort of scrapbook of opinions about how people make investments and how they end up making bad decisions. The film covers lotteries, poker betting, Jim Cramer, the housing collapse, baseball, Japanese fish markets, and especially herd instinct in investing. It frequently is just not clear what it is all about. In the final analysis BROKE: THE NEW AMERICAN DREAM just suggests that when people invest they should not follow the crowd but study and think what they are doing. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10

Who is Michael Covel? He is a writer of books about the stock market. And he is one of the founders of, a site that follows stock market trends, reporting how stocks are changing and what people are saying about them. I went into this film assuming that it would be a whimsical history of the financial collapse of 2008. That is part of it, but it becomes clear that director and co-writer Covel is going to stray from that topic and will be looking at financial decisions of all kinds. He strays to Tokyo's Tsukiji, the largest fish market in the world and uses it to help define just what trading is. Then he will jump to Jim Cramer, the screaming prophet of stock trading on CNBC. Then he will talk about how lotteries hurt the poorest segments of society, many of whom see lotteries as their version of financial investing. US states and other countries know that lotteries are really virtually just a repressive tax on the poor, but they have grown addicted to getting income from this sort of voluntary tax.

There is little in life as ephemeral as financial information and scenes in this film could have done well to have a date on them to tell as of when the film is taking this point of view. Some of the information already seems a little dated and I am sure that more of it will be dated a year from now. Some of the information is intentionally outdated. One moment Covel is telling us why mutual funds are a bad idea and the next he will be showing us a 1950s high school educational film with the likes of Regis Toomey or Lyle Talbot giving pre-digested, over-simplified explanations of how to manage money. Covel flashes from the 1950s to the present and back. Not all of his older footage is about finances; he even throws in an old piece telling school children that the a-bomb blast can come at any time and to be ready for it. (Side note: I think that 1950s nuclear preparedness, duck-and-cover footage is seen more today than it was at the time it was made.)

Frustratingly, Covel will show one person talking saying one thing and comments on it run in subtitles at the same time so that each distracts from the other. Sometimes he will run a message like "27% of recent mortgages put no money down." The precision of 27% is undercut by the fact we do not know when he is saying it, and we do not have any idea how recent is "recent." Would he consider 1995 recent? Is this practice still going on? We have no idea. Similarly we learn "29% of new U.S. homeowners owe more on mortgages than houses are worth." Is this people who newly own homes or people who own just-built homes? Much of Covel's point is that most investment advice should not be trusted, even his advice. If one comes away from BROKE: THE NEW AMERICAN DREAM confused and unenlightened about what it is all about, that probably is a step to enlightenment.

In the end, this documentary is informative, but by its own definition is not very useful. There is too much financial advice out there to assimilate it all. Getting financial information from television and/or the Internet is like drinking from a fire hose. And advice is usually wrong. This documentary does not do a whole lot to give the viewer any more of an organized viewpoint. Covel, in a signature outfit of a t-shirt and shorts, is more pleasant to listen to than Jim Cramer, but is no more organized. Rather than giving an orderly point of view he gives flashes of other people talking about finances to give a sort of montage of what the current economic situation is. Covel's best advice is just not to trust advice. You have to sweat the details. In the end, Covel's message can be taken from Sergeant Esterhaus's weekly message on "Hill Street Blues". Esterhaus always gave this advice to the police going out into the new day, and Covel has just exactly the same message for investors: "Hey, let's be careful out there." I rate BROKE: THE NEW AMERICAN DREAM a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.

Film Credits:

Michael Covel's website for economic trend-tracking:


Zombies and Mathematics (comments by Paul S. R. Chisholm):

Paul Chisholm writes:

Abstract: Zombies are a popular figure in pop culture/entertainment and they are usually portrayed as being brought about through an outbreak or epidemic. Consequently, we model a zombie attack, using biological assumptions based on popular zombie movies. We introduce a basic model for zombie infection, determine equilibria and their stability, and illustrate the outcome with numerical solutions. We then refine the model to introduce a latent period of zombifcation, whereby humans are infected, but not infectious, before becoming undead. We then modify the model to include the effects of possible quarantine or a cure. Finally, we examine the impact of regular, impulsive reductions in the number of zombies and derive conditions under which eradication can occur. We show that only quick, aggressive attacks can stave off the doomsday scenario: the collapse of society as zombies overtake us all.

[Hope you haven't gotten this a zillion times already. --psrc]

Mark replies, "I had seen this. It is a great counter for when kids say that math is not relevant and useful to them." [-mrl]

The Halifax Explosion (letter of comment by Fred Lerner):

In response to Mark's comments on the Halifax Explosion in the 08/21/09 issue of the MT VOID, Fred Lerner writes:

The Halifax Explosion is surely not forgotten in Halifax, where I saw a substantial exhibit on it in the splendid Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.

One thing that surprises me: in my day job, as you may know, I index literature on posttraumatic stress disorder. I reckon that I've seen more literature on the subject than anyone on the planet. But I don't recall ever seeing any publications on the mental- health sequelae to the Halifax Explosion. I suppose that any such studies that might exist were published in obscure Canadian journals, or even more obscure government reports. [-fl]

Mark replies:

Pretty much the same explanation is in my trip log for the day I visited the selfsame Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. Did you notice in their film they said that this was the biggest man-made explosion prior to the Hiroshima bomb? Not so. The Trinity bomb was bigger as I said in my article. Also I considered rewriting part of the article with some of the interesting information at the Damn Interesting site covering the explosion.

Why was there so little literature on posttraumatic stress disorder from the Halifax explosion? Could it be that it was not recognized as a disorder? Senility was considered a natural part of some people's aging until it was identified as a separate disorder called Alzheimer's Disease. I am just guessing, but it may be that then people just took it in their stride. [-mrl]

Vanishing Money (letter of comment by John Sloan):

In response to Morris Keesan's comments on vanishing money in the 08/21/09 issue of the MT VOID, John Sloan writes:

The finance guys have long had a way of computing exactly this value. It's called "net present value" or NPV. It takes into account the "future value of money" which means what it would have been worth had you invested it in something other than what you did. And even more broadly applicable, for every choice you make (in investments for example) there is an "opportunity cost", which is the cost you incur for not doing something other than what you did do. For example, if you take job A instead of job B, there is an opportunity cost associated with not taking job B. Companies deal with this kind of thing all the time when deciding how to spend their R&D dollars, for example. An R&D project has to pay off at least as well as investing the money in the stock market. I write about this at length in "Lies, Damn Lies, and Net Present Value": . [-js]

Perpetual Motion Machine? (letter of comment by Rob Stampfli):

In response to David Leeper's comments on a possible perpetual motion machine in the 08/21/09 issue of the MT VOID, Rob Stampfli writes:

[Thanks to] David for taking the time to comment.

We've perhaps beaten this subject to death, but it seems to me that when analyzing the rocket engine, one needs to take into account the entire system, which includes both the rocket and the exhaust gasses. My only disagreement with David is that the acceleration (final speed) of the rocket is limited, not by the v2 term, but by virtue of the fact that it is throwing off mass to achieve its acceleration, and it eventually runs out of mass to eject.

By the way, I found the article on the Halifax Explosion to also be quite interesting, too. [-rs]

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

As with most series, the "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" series is starting to run down. The tenth (and latest) is TEA TIME FOR THE TRADITIONALLY BUILT by Alexander McCall Smith (ISBN-13 978-0-375- 42449-6, ISBN-10 0-375-42449-X) and shows signs of being produced more because it is expected than out of the inspiration of a story. There are more--and more flagrant--red herrings than in the earlier books, as if it needed padding out. And the editing has gotten sloppy (assuming it has not been dropped altogether). For example, on page 20, Mma Ramotswe's appointment with Mr. Molofololo is at eleven o'clock; on page 29 it is at ten o'clock. (And why are some men "Mr." and some men "Ra"?) And who is writing the blurbs? "Irrepressible" is not an adjective I would apply to Mma Ramotswe-- it is far too frivolous for her. On the plus side, McCall Smith does finally give the younger apprentice a name. But the thinness of the plot makes me think it may be time for McCall Smith to put this series on hiatus, at least until he has a stronger basis for a book.

(By the way, on page 48 it is "Mafeking" and on page 52 it is "Mafikeng", but this is *not* a typo--the first (on a tea tin) was the old British spelling, the second is the current South African spelling.) [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

           When I get a little money, I buy books; 
           and if any is left, I buy food and clothes.
                                 -- Desiderius Erasmus (1465-1536)

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