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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
09/23/11 -- Vol. 30, No. 13, Whole Number 1668
Table of Contents
The Birth of Film: Eleven Firsts in Cinema (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
The Open-Culture website has compiled eleven YouTube links for important firsts of cinema. Included are the first film (arguable since it was made to look at the frames individually), the first Western (THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY), the first science-fiction film (A TRIP TO THE MOON), the first horror film (THE HAUNTED CASTLE), the first Frankenstein film (the Charles Ogle version), etc. If you are interested in the silent films that are the roots of today's cinema, it is well worth a look.
Most of these items have been available before. A few are rare. But if you are interested in film, especially fantastic film, this is well worth checking out. [-mrl]
Nozzle (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
We live in New Jersey where it is illegal to pump your own gasoline. The only other state with that regulation is Oregon. I don't how people in the other 48 put up with it. I was fueling up in another state--California actually. When the tank was full the pump said, "Please replace nozzle." Can you believe it? To me the nozzle seemed still to be working just fine. Anyway, I figured it did not need replacing, and the people who ran the gas station should be responsible for maintaining their own equipment. I left it for the next guy to replace the nozzle, which is probably what the last guy did. Bad enough we had to pay so much for the gasoline. [-mrl]
Trillion Puzzles (puzzle by Tom Russell):
[Tom Russell sends along this intriguing puzzle. I admit that I have not worked through the solution myself, but I will not hold this puzzle up longer. It was originally submitted in early August--a vacation, a Worldcon, an earthquake, a hurricane, a power failure, and several other problems ago. I apologize to Tom for holding it up.]
Here are three puzzles inspired by all the "trillions" in the news lately. They're based on the observation that the integers' names tend to get longer as the integers get larger. There are many exceptions, of course: TEN is shorter than NINE.
The puzzle requires creating a "staircase" of integer names thus:
ONE FOUR SEVEN ELEVEN FIFTEEN EIGHTEEN TWENTYONE TWENTYFOUR TWENTYSEVEN SEVENTYTHREE ONEHUNDREDONE ONEHUNDREDFOUR ONEHUNDREDSEVEN ONEHUNDREDELEVEN ...
The series skips over TWO and THREE because neither is exactly one letter longer than ONE. The series includes FOUR rather than FIVE because 4 is less than 5: each step is the smallest integer with name one letter longer than the previous step. Spaces don't count as letters.
How many letters are in the first step of this staircase which includes the word TRILLION?
To observe a remarkable feature of the English language names for the numbers, do the puzzle over again, but don't use any of the integers used the first time: the staircase is now TWO, FIVE, EIGHT, TWELVE ...
If you want to play with this puzzle idea even a little more, spell the names of the integers without their vowels: N, TW, THR, TWLV, THRTN, TWNTN, TWNTTW, ... [-tr]
[Tom's solution is at http://leepers.us/RussellSolution.txt.
It raises more questions and Tom answers them at -mrl] http://leepers.us/RussellExpansion.txt. -mrl]
There Is Nothing Like the Second Time (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
You see occasionally articles in which celebrities are asked about the film that "changed their life." Interestingly, several major figures in science fiction and fantasy give KING KONG as that film that affected them most deeply. People like Ray Bradbury and Ray Harryhausen and others saw KING KONG and fell in love with it. I have to agree that KING KONG would be high on the list that affected me, but it was not the film that I had a real mania for.
Not being a celebrity myself, I am not likely to be asked about the film that changed my life, so I have to volunteer the information. Unlike the two Rays above I did not fall in love with my film on first seeing. In fact, to be honest I absolutely hated it. Well, I had an excuse for my bad taste. The year was 1953, and I was three years old. My parents hated science fiction, but for some reason they took the family to see the most spectacular film that was playing. That was THE WAR OF THE WORLDS starring Gene Barry and Ann Robinson. This is the first film I ever remember seeing. At my tender age in 1953 I did not understand, much less appreciate, what it was that I was seeing. I remember the lesson I learned was that not all showerheads were good showerheads. These showerheads in the movie sprayed some sort of deadly red water. This kind of water can kill you instantly. According to my parents I was scared through the whole movie. I remember more being bored in non-showerhead scenes, but who knows? I think the deadly showerheads might have been too much for my young impressionable mind.
It was two or three years later that Saturday morning television would have two sci-fi (in retrospect I won't even call them "science fiction") programs back-to-back. I don't remember the order but there was "Captain Midnight" and "Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe". Captain Midnight was a vigilante with his own jet, the Silver Dart, and a scientific lab. He frequently fought science-based threats like the electrified man whose touch was death. Commando Cody was the sky marshal for the whole dang universe, but he mostly hung out mostly on just one planet, namely Earth. He had a rocket ship and--now this was cool--he had a rocket pack so he could fly like Superman. He could fly from one rocket ship in flight to another one and sneak aboard to clobber the bad guys. At age five or six I had decided that science fiction was where the action was.
And I also remembered that I once had seen a whole science fiction movie. It was called THE WAR OF THE WORLDS. And it had monsters and spaceships. Wow! I really, really wanted to see THE WAR OF THE WORLDS again. I could remember two scenes. I remember there was some sort of death-ray. (I now knew it wasn't a showerhead.) I also remember there was a scene that looked like it took place in a bunkhouse. Into this bunkhouse came a floating ball that was shiny and black and had three big lenses in a triangle: red, green, and blue. I got some of the details wrong but when I see the film today I know exactly what scenes I was remembering. I must have been about six when I decided I just had to see THE WAR OF THE WORLDS again.
But in those days you rarely got a chance to see an old movie again. They would play old movies on TV sometimes, but never the one you really wanted to see. THE WAR OF THE WORLDS became an obsession with me. By age nine I owned a copy of the Classic Illustrated comic book of THE WAR OF THE WORLDS. I tried to convince my teacher to let me read the book for a book report, but let her switch me to DANNY DUNN AND THE HOMEWORK MACHINE.
When they showed a flying wing airplane on TV I would tell people they had one of those in THE WAR OF THE WORLDS. I am not sure how I knew that, but I did know the film featured a flying wing. I avidly collected "Mars Attacks" trading cards and with ghoulish thrills I would see read about the terrors unleashed by the Martians. I know that their cards were a lot like THE WAR OF THE WORLDS. I waited and waited, but the film never showed up on TV.
Finally when I was about fourteen a local theater was showing two George Pal films on a double feature. THE WAR OF THE WORLDS was playing with CONQUEST OF SPACE. Sunday afternoon I was there. I arranged to be dropped off and picked up so that I could sit through THE WAR OF THE WORLDS twice. CONQUEST OF SPACE was okay for me at age 14. It was just a delay for me between the first and second showing of THE WAR OF THE WORLDS. I was surprised it was as good as it was. And there were the scenes I remembered. That was the most eagerly awaited film of my life. I had looked forward to seeing the film for about eight years. Then that was a big fraction of my life. I even remember having dreams about the film.
About three years later THE WAR OF THE WORLDS was shown on network television and I could see it a fourth time, but you know, there is nothing like the second time. [-mrl]
Alphas Redux (television review by Dale L. Skran, Jr.):
I am going to assume you read my previous review "Alphas" of the pilot episode of the SyFy channel summer show ALPHAS and are already familiar with the basic setup. I have now seen some more episodes, and I think this show is well on its way to being something special. I can say without reservation that this is the best SF show on SyFy during this summer, marginally edging out EUREKA, and strongly leading over WAREHOUSE 13 and HAVEN. It is much better than THE CAPE or NO ORDINARY FAMILY, and a very strong competitor to HEROES.
A comparison to HEROES is difficult because HEROES is a essentially a live-action super-hero comic, with good acting and some interesting plot threads, but still limited by the source material. ALPHAS instead reminds me of an Eric Frank Russell, Ted Sturgeon, or Poul Anderson story from the late 1950s or early 1960s more than a comic. Sturgeon's MORE THAN HUMAN or Anderson's TWILIGHT WORLD come to mind as examples. These well written classic novels focus on groups of mutants with a variety of "powers" that work together but none are as "super-duper" as a comic character like Superman or Thor. This creates a very different feel to the story. As I have said in the past--one man in a powered suit yields IRON MAN, a superhero tale, while 10,000 men in powered suits results in STARSHIP TROOPERS, an SF war story. ALPHAS, as we shall see, is more along the lines of 10,000 men in powered suits, and in the first few episodes has a lot more maturity and plausibility on display than the entire HEROES series.
Episode 2 "Cause & Effect" introduces a new character, Marcus Ayers, who escapes from an ambulance driving him from Binghamton (the prison/hospital where uncontrollable alphas are kept) to a mysterious fate. It turns out that Marcus was a patient of Dr. Rosen's in the past, but after an incident where Marcus caused a building to burn down, Rosen drugged Marcus and had him taken to Binghamton. Now Marcus is back, looking, apparently, to kill Dr. Rosen. Marcus has powers somewhat similar to Hicks, but even more so--he has a mentat-like ability to instigate long, low-probability chains of events to create large effects, like a building blowing up, or a car accident that allows him to escape from many armed men. He is also obsessed with chess, and sees all his interactions with the world as a controllable game. His abilities apparently go beyond mere projection of events into altering probabilities ala the Avengers' Scarlet Witch, making him extremely powerful. Without giving the plot away, Marcus proves a formidable foe, and one suspects that he will literally resurface later. This episode develops the idea that Binghamton and its' leadership [some of whom die in this episode] may be less than beneficial for Alphas.
In episode 3 "Anger Management" the team investigates a series of incidents where random people erupt in violent fits of rage, in some cases with loss of life. While struggling to adjust to their new offices [their previous headquarters was compromised in the pilot], the team gradually tracks down the responsible alpha, who turns out to be a troubled teen with pheromone powers. It turns out that Bill Harken, the hyperadrenal, is immune to the pheromones, which allows them to escape from a bad situation. Alas, their handler, Don, is killed by one of his own men as a side effect of the pheromone attacks. The episode has a very touching final scene where Hicks befriends Gary Bell (the transducer) by knocking out a microwave antenna that has been irritating hum. This is not a major story arc episode, but it does develop the characters and the feel of the team. I've read reviews that complain that that actors seem to be asleep and that the action is poorly done--I simply don't agree. These are professional actors trying to play fully human characters, not strutting arrogant heroes or cackling villains with handlebar mustaches. And the action scenes work just fine--but in a police procedural--which is in large part what this is--action is not the main point of the story.
Episode 4 "Rosetta Stone" greatly expands the scope of the story arc, and we learn a lot more about "Red Flag" - the main opposition to Rosen's team. The Alpha team has learned of a Red Flag safe house, and an assault is undertaken, with the Alpha team supported by a large number of heavily armed government agents. Harken and Hicks lead the way, with Rachael (who, it has been revealed by now, was a CIA translator before being discovered by Rosen) acting as an overall CapCom for the assault. The assault is less than successful, with two of the Red Flag alphas getting away. However, a third person, Anna, who at first appears completely mute and highly autistic, is found in the house. It develops that she is an omnipath--she understands all languages but cannot speak herself. She communicates by making sounds with household items around her, speaking her own language that eventually they learn to translate into English. From the materials in the house, they discover that the two escaped Red Flag operatives are planning on blowing up a drug factory that is producing a cure for birth defects. Red Flag believes that the drug will "reduce neuro-diversity." I'm not going to say how this all turns out, but we already have more new and interesting ideas 15 minutes into the show than we see in many episodes of HEROES put together.
ALPHAS is, rather like THE MENTALIST, mainly a police procedural with some kind of genre-like story arc, but with bits of spy story and post-human evolution thrown in. ALPHAS is unique in that it has pretty much the least powerful super-humans ever, and is thus actually more plausible than a Bond or Mission Impossible movie. The writers seemed to have borrowed a bit from Bruce Sterling stories like SUNKEN GARDENS, and recognize that the price of a real super-power might be a loss of something we take for granted as an every-day ability. Even if the Alphas might not naturally evolve (although some of them might), almost all of them seem like they could be designed by gene-engineers with a deep knowledge of biology and physics. This makes them quite unlike most Marvel and DC superheroes, whose powers are so vast and fantastical as to lie completely in the fevered power dreams of 10 year olds.
To put this a bit more in the context of the Marvel Universe, Captain America, Daredevil, Hawkeye, and the Scarlet Witch are among the weakest Marvel heroes. Captain America has the strength and endurance of an Olympic Athlete combined with super-human endurance and metabolism. Daredevil has super-humanly acute senses and bodily control. Hawkeye is a merely human circus performer with trick arrows. The Scarlet Witch can make unlikely but possible events happen.
The Alphas Bill Harken (hyper-adrenal) and Cameron hicks (hyper- kinesis) together about equal one Captain America. The Alphas Hicks and Rachael Pirzad (synesthete) together about equal one Daredevil. The Alpha Hicks could emulate the skills of Hawkeye or Bullseye. The Alphas' villain Marcus is a something like a combination of the Thinker and the Scarlet Witch. The point of all this is that the characters in Alphas scrape along the bottom of the Marvel Universe in terms of raw power. Only truly unpowered characters like DC's Batman are weaker.
Episode 5, "Never Let Me Go", was the first Alphas outing that I felt had a serous defect of a directorial nature. Rosen and Rachel visit a small town to investigate reports of mysterious deaths. For about 5 minutes, the action feels like an archetypal zombie movie, with dim lighting and shambling menaces. Suddenly the lights come on and we get the whole Alpha team in the small town and the story starts to make sense. I found the "zombie" sequence incongruous and it seemed unlikely that Rosen would wander around an empty and darkened police station with just Rachel as backup.
Fortunately, things get interesting after that. The menace turns out to be someone with the power, essentially, to make anyone fall completely in love with them, and then kill them by withdrawing their affections. At first this seems rather limiting, but as it turns out, it can be pretty dangerous. I really like this villain since, again, I found the power "just over the edge" of reality-- something that seems like it might be possible. The motivation is also well established--much more so than for many "comic book" bad guys.
One nice scene has Gary [the transducer] looking for the menace in a high school and finding some members of the football team who decide, after hearing his rendition of some unflattering comments about them Gary has taken off nearby emails, to teach him a lesson in manners. Hicks comes to Gary's rescue in a well directed fight scene that is well thought out in that there really isn't much fighting--Hicks never throws a punch and no one lands a punch on Hicks. It's a bit like asking how a 5 year old would fight an NBA player. The answer is that such a fight is not really possible-- the NBA player, barring tripping on a banana peel, can easily avoid the kid. And this is what you see--Hicks easily avoiding a large number of powerful looking high school athletes while responding with Daredevil-like moves that only work if you are 10x as agile and fast as your opponent.
This episode develops the Rachel/Rosen relationship, making it clear that they go way back, and that they are a lot like Jean Gray/Xavier in the X-men in terms of how they interact. Another thing that I did not like about this episode was the introduction of Lindsey Wagner [of BIONIC WOMAN fame] as Dr. Calder. This is handled very lightly, but as can be found by surfing the net, this Dr. Calder is the same Dr. Calder that is a series semi-regular on WAREHOUSE 13. SyFy has already established that WAREHOUSE 13 and EUREKA are in the same universe with a series of cross-over episodes, and it appears that SyFy intends all three shows to be linked. I like EUREKA and WAREHOUSE 13, but they are very different in tone and plausibility from ALPHAS. WAREHOUSE 13 is a completely implausible fantasy based on magic, while EUREKA is a mostly implausible set of retro-future stories based on super- science with a layer of more plausible acting and ideas. ALPHAS for the most part is straight science fiction--there really are no "impossible" powers or Star Trek "miracle particles" to explain things. Although no permanent damage was done by having Dr. Calder show up [the only hint of a link is that she asks very few questions about the mysterious doings and implies to Rosen that she often deals with things of this nature] I think fitting these shows into the same universe is basically a bad idea. Of course, DC and Marvel have both gone down this road--Dr. Strange and Iron Man exist in the same universe, and these comics are really different in tone, writing style, and ideas.
I ended up liking "Never Let Me Go" and it ends with a rather X-men like situation where some of the Alphas team up to help save one of their own using "personal energy." I'm trying to avoid saying exactly what happens, and my use of a term like "personal energy" is deliberately misleading, but I found the situation more plausible than similar events that occur routinely with the X-men comic characters.
There are four more episodes that have aired, and each is interesting in its own fashion. Episode 6, "Bill and Gary's Excellent Adventure" follows Bill Harken as he tries, with help from Gary, to solve a kidnapping and get his old FBI job back. The story concludes with the Alphas team facing off against some ordinary criminals, who, although clever and ruthless, find they have encountered something a bit beyond the normal. Episode 7, "Catch and Release," guest stars Summer Glau as Skylar Adams, an intuitive inventor somewhat along the lines of the Marvel Comics character Forge, or any number of genius-level SF characters. Skylar is caught in a cross fire between two of her customers, both of which turn out to be government agencies, and she enlists Nina Theoroux (the mental control artist) and an old pre-Rosen friend of Skylar's, to help her escape her bondage to the NSA and perform a mysterious task. In an interesting scene that shows how ALPHAS is going to differ from the X-men, Rosen destroys the device that could have become Cerebro and allowed him to find new alphas easily.
Episode 8, "A Short Time in Paradise," brings the team the closest to total defeat that it has come yet when they encounter a cult leader who appears to be an angel. [**spoiler alert ***] The cult leader has yet another seemingly minor power that leads to deadly results. The conclusion is especially shocking when Rosen ends up shooting the cult leader to prevent a Jonestown-style massacre. This endpoint is a strong signal that ALPHAS lives in a "real" world where Superman does not always save the day.
Finally, Episode 9, "Blind Spot," finds that alpha team installing a new-fangled prisoner interrogation cell. It gets used on a mysterious doctor, played by Brent Spiner, who is apparently blind. As events move along, it should not surprise you to find that the cell does not hold the prisoner and that a lot more is going on then meets the eye--literally. This episode ends up as [*** spoiler ***] a three-way smack-down between the doctor, the Alphas team, and a mercenary named Griffin. Griffin and the prisoner are both alphas, and their powers are far more plausible than the usual run of comic book stuff. The episode thickens the plot as we find that the mysterious doctor regards Red Flag as a "fringe element" not representative of the mainstream revolutionary movement, while Griffen works for an unknown paymaster, who seems to be yet another independent faction with its own agenda.
Unlike FALLING SKIES, which has a tiresome tactical feel that reminds me of some David Drake novels I never finished reading, and has taken so many episodes to get interesting that I lost interest, ALPHAS has nicely balanced introducing the characters with advancing the background story arc. So go watch ALPHAS--Monday night 10 pm SyFy--and enjoy the best new show of the summer. [-dls]
Giant Ants--And Not Just Ants (letters of comment by Andre Kuzniarek and Pete Rubinstein):
In response to Mark's comments about giant ants in the 09/16/11 issue of the MT VOID, Andre Kuzniarek writes:
I think the position of "1" on the scale of matter itself is probably another important factor, kind of like the way water does not scale when trying to film miniatures. You have to take the actual viscosity into account, and that is probably related to underlying factors ultimately stemming from the way its molecules align. Similar to how a small mammal can survive a fall uninjured that would injure us, or how a small insect can survive any fall because of a very low terminal velocity. And of course heat regulation is another factor, in mammals especially. Bigger mammals burn up, smaller ones freeze.
I would guess a gorilla's max scale factor is probably 2-1, if even that... [-ak]
And Pete Rubinstein reminds us that there is a case of gigantism in a mammal. He sent some pictures of a giant rabbit, maybe five times the scale of a normal rabbit. This is real. You can see that it is not really quite just a larger version of the rabbits we know. There is some distortion of the features. I don't know if this rabbit occurred in nature, like the ants, or was specially bred for gigantism. You can see the pictures at http://www.hoax-slayer.com/giant-rabbit.shtml. [-mrl]
Shakespeare's Authorship and Undecidability (letter of comment by Gregory Benford):
In response to the comments on Shakespeare's authorship in the 09/16/11 issue of the MT VOID, Gregory Benford writes:
I always read your fmz at fanac.com. I note you didn't take issue over Shakespeare's identity, a subject that's interested me for ages. The hardest matter to account for, to me, is the absence of a single letter written and signed by the man. [-gb]
No, I did not choose sides on the "Shakespeare's identity issue." That may be my mathematical background. I don't think there is any evidence left that tells us conclusively who wrote the Shakespeare plays. That makes it undecidable. In physics or history when a conjecture is undecidable it becomes more intriguing. In mathematics a conjecture proven undecidable loses most of its interest. No good mathematician stays up nights trying to prove the Continuum Hypothesis.
Another similar mystery is who was Christopher Columbus actually. He was supposedly Genoese. But while he was articulate in Spanish, I have read that he was inarticulate in Genoese, which would have been his native language. Columbus himself was secretive on his origins. There are several competing theories as to who he really was. It is probably true that a great deal of what we think we know about history is just not true. [-mrl]
Agree on undecidable issues ... and actually decided one [Newcomb's Paradox] recently, in http://arxiv.org/abs/1003.1343. [-gb]
Turner Classic Movies (letter of comment by Kip Williams):
In response to Mark's comments on Turner Classic Movies in the 09/09/11 issue of the MT VOID, Kip Williams writes:
Thanks again for the TCM movie lists! Every time I see THE UNINVITED in a schedule, I think "Hey, is that the one Raymond Chandler co-wrote?" As always, the answer turns out to be no, that was THE UNSEEN. And it bids fair to remain unseen, with THE UNINVITED getting a lot more showings--two in October!
I wonder if THE BAD SEED would seem any better to me, now that I've had time to get used to the performances. [-kw]
I am not sure I consider the performances so bad. Little Rhoda gets under your skin. But I think that was a conscious decision by the director. Her performance and that of the handy man are both a little over the top, but I suspect that the whole situation is supposed to feel surreal. It is the last five minutes that really damage the film. I think it was a women's film and LeRoy was playing to what he perceived was that audience. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
The Middletown science-fiction-book-and-movie group chose THE LAST UNICORN by Peter S. Beagle (ISBN 978-0-451-45052-4) for its September meeting. The book is considered a classic (it was even chosen by Lin Carter for the Ballantine "Adult Fantasy Classics" line). I found it just so-so; what seems to be the big joke--the magician being named Schmendrick--is merely puerile, and nothing else really works for me either. Even so, it is better than the movie made in 1982 based on it, which is *terrible*. To start with, it is a musical, and the songs are painful to listen to. I also found the animation primitive, but that may not be a valid complaint since someone said it was animation in the anime tradition (or perhaps that it was proto-anime). At any rate, nothing about it worked for me except the talking skull, which I did like.
Every time I read an Agatha Christie novel, or listen to a BBC radio adaptation of one, I find yet more flaws. For example, in A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED (1950), Miss Marple tells Miss Blacklock that all the friends she had as a young girl are gone and there is no one who remembers her as she was then. Then in her very next Miss Marple novel, THEY DO IT WITH MIRRORS (1952), Miss Marple is asked by an old friend whom she knew as a teenager to help another friend, who was the third member of their clique back then.
And when it comes to coincidences, A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED may hold the record. There are at least three characters whose presence in Chipping Cleghorn is completely coincidental, the circumstances that permit the third murder are very contrived, and the way Miss Marple exposes the murderer is completely out of left field. But oddly, as with similar problems in Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, somehow they do not seem to matter. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: The universal medicine for the Soul is the Supreme Reason and Absolute Justice; for the mind, mathematical and practical Truth; for the body, the Quintessence, a combination of light and gold. --Albert PikeTweet
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