January 16th, 2004

January 2, Salon, Terraforming

Sue Blom's Salon met as usual on the 2nd, the topic being "Terraforming," or how we might transform the other planets in our solar system to be homes for humans. We started of course by considering Mars, taking into account especially the books by Kim Stanley Robinson as discussing most of the likely means, but assuming that the novels were overoptimistic on the amount of available water present without doing things like bombarding the planet with ice from Saturn's rings, as other writers have proposed.

Considering Venus, we felt that science had probably overtaken the old SF writer's plan to seed the clouds with blue-green algae, but wondered if certain other organisms such as those found in the deep-sea volcanic vents might serve a similar purpose to clarify the atmosphere. We also proposed an orbiting belt of sunshades to reduce insolation and put the planetary temperature down to habitable levels—the reverse of the "solletta" proposed by Robinson to concentrate sunlight and warm up Mars.

Moving out to Jupiter, I rose to the challenge by proposing suborbital habitats that actually flew in the atmosphere scooping gases for fuel, which met with amusement, but not derision. Acknowledging that we lacked the technology to compress and ignite Jupiter ala Arthur C. Clarke, we considered the possibilities of the Jovian moons and Titan, which lead us to the concept of "habit-forming," (habitat+forming) which, rather than making the worlds earthlike, concentrated on how humans might live there. In the
case of Io, we considered how its water and ice resources might be exploited to provide energy and organics, and on Titan, the methane atmosphere.

This was a fun session, Next time we will be discussing the "top 100" science stories of 2003.

January 3, Burrahobbits Party

Saturday evening the third we met for the annual Burrahobbits holiday party at the home of Jan and Jeff Long. Although the Burrahobbits aren't shy about calling it a "Christmas" party, we found that trying to find a date in December conflicted with so many other events that we just moved it to the first weekend in the New Year as a convenience. As always, there was plenty of good cheer and good food. The meal portion is a potluck technically, but by this time we have settled into usual roles, in which Georgie supplies the torte from Clasens, I bring shrimp and "crab", Sue Blom makes eggnog, the Longs supply cold meats and buns, and so on.

Of course, being Burrahobbits, we had to have SOME book discussion. The subject for the evening was The Dragon and the Unicorn, by A.A. Attanasio, which was pretty roundly jumped on. The consensus was that Attanasio's attempt to conflate Arthurian, Celtic, and Norse mythology with science was not well done. (The "world tree" on which the various gods live is Earth's magnetic field.) In addition, the writer's attempts to express the sensations experienced by non-material beings such as the "unicorn" of the title smacked of bad drug-trip writing pompously executed. Conclusion: Not the worst thing we've ever read, but not recommended.

January 4, Twelfth Night Party

On Sunday the 4th we had a Twelfth Night party at our house (actually a "tenth night" party, but the 6th wouldn't have been practical). We have a small house, so the hardest part of preparing was paring the potential guest list down to a manageable size. We tried to get an interesting mix of our many friends, and I think we succeeded pretty well, including being able to introduce some who had not met. We probably went a bit overboard on the food, although not by much. The piece de resistance was "Lasagna Gregorio," and experimental lasagna intended to be edible by Georgie, which replaces the ricotta with tofu and the mozzarella with style-style Soya-kase. Since some of the people attending were vegetarians, I went a step further and replaced the meat layer with ground portabella mushroom tops, black olives, tomato, and zucchini. This experiment was pronounced quite successful. The main course was accompanied by my famous devilled eggs, fancy cheeses and spreads, shrimp and faux crab, and salads. Georgie was responsible for the delicious Mozart torte and a yummy orange crunch cake. The wine flowed freely, and a good time was had. The evening wound up with a short session of "Lord of the Rings Trivial Pursuit."

January 5, Ashram, Oaths

On the 5th, we met at Bob and Judy Seidl's house for the first Ashram of the New Year. The topic was, "what does it mean to make an oath?" We had an interesting time defining the concept of an "oath" as set apart from a "promise," a "contract," or one's "word of honor." We generally agreed that an "oath" involves calling upon a higher power of whatever nature to witness one's intention, and calling upon that power to punish you if you fail. (Even an oath such as "By my beard—" is a shorthand version of calling upon God to make your beard fall out if you fail of your oath.) We also discussed the general lack of oath usage in current American society (as opposed to the currently rampant cursing and profanity). We speculated that, like many things, the Puritans might have had something to do with it, with their very strong prohibitions against "taking the name of the Lord in vain," specifically, and swearing oaths generally. "Swearing" was of course not done in polite society in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and the gradual separation of church life from casual life that occurred from the 20's onward probably continued the process of taking oaths as such out of general usage except for formal occasions such as testifying in court, or taking public office.

January 9, Cold Mountain

On (an appropriately snowy) Friday night we went to the Oriental Theatre to see Cold Mountain, the sad tale of the Civil War on the "home front" in North Carolina and one soldier's attempt to make his way home. I was rather intrigued that the film begins at the climax of another well-regarded and tragic film, "Glory", which is with the catastrophic "Battle of the Crater," which was a notable feature of the siege of Petersburg, Virginia. The desperate battle is shown with a degree of brutality that made us wince, but was probably quite accurate, relieved somewhat by a series of flashbacks that show how Inman (Jude Law) had left his home in Cold Mountain, N.C. to join the "glorious" war, but not before falling in love with the sheltered daughter (Nicole Kidman) of the town minister (Donald Sutherland). In the battle and its aftermath, Inman sees the last of his companions from Cold Mountain killed, and he himself is wounded. Lying in the military hospital, he gets a months-old letter from Ada (Kidman). She is now largely destitute after the death of her father, and the entire region is groaning under the tyranny of the brutal "Home Guard" (a "homeland security" force tasked with keeping order and especially rounding up deserters and runaway slaves) and the economic hardship and privation due to the war. As one character says, "this war is lost, and lost twice at home." She begs Inman to come back to her, and he deserts. The remainder of the film switches between his torturous journey and the struggle of the women to keep a home for him and others like him to come back to.

Excellent performances by Jude Law as the simple, honest man of few words who is shattered by the war, and comes back a skilled killer but wondering if he is a man any longer; Kidman, whose upbringing has prepared her for nothing more than an ornamental existence but who must learn to fend for herself or die; supporting actors Kathy Baker and James Gammon as neighbors Sally and Esco Swanger, who represent all that is good, honest and decent in the ravaged community; and Natalie Portman, whose portrayal of another widow left wretched and destitute is very affecting. Of course, the scene-stealing award for this piece goes to Renee Zellweger as the hoydenish Ruby, whose hard life even before the war has left her with a reserve of no-nonsense drive and ability that proves to be Ada's salvation.

Minor quibbles and comments: In the opening scenes, I was surprised by the dearth of black Union soldiers (the subject of Glory) who figured prominently in the Battle of the Crater. However, checking historical references, I find that the United States Colored Troops which were initially supposed to lead the assault, were replaced with regular troops at the last moment due to higher commander's doubts about their reliability—a move which lead directly to the Union disaster, since the blacks had been trained to go AROUND the crater rather than through it. They were then fed into the battle after it had been lost and incurred heavy casualties. Since Inman retires from the field early on bearing wounded, he would not have encountered many of the "colored" troops. I don't understand why Inman's hair turned from blonde to black over the course of the film: people don't get THAT sun-bleached working outdoors. I wondered if it was intended as a metaphor for the gradual darkening of his soul as events went on. Finally, we know that North Carolina occasionally gets snow, and my recollection is that the winter of 1864 was an exceptionally bitter one, but I found the deep snow and body-freezing prolonged cold shown in the final sequences to be a bit doubtful.

But these were minor considerations. All in all, we found it to be a very well done film and an affecting story.

January 10, Cram City Chorus Concert

On Saturday evening the 10th, we drove to the UWM area to the handsome Plymouth Church for the winter concert of the Cream City Chorus, with whom several of our friends sing. The theme of this concert was "Saturday Night at the Movies," featuring songs from films (or in one case, which should have been in a particular film). The chorus was in very good voice, with only one regrettable incident of detectable off-key-ness. Their new director, Paula Foley Tillen, seems to work well with the group and has improved their "tightness" significantly. This concert had a good sense of fun as well, as they started off with a vocalization of the famous 20th Century Fox fanfare, and introduced each piece with some lead-in dialog from the movie it was from, including, in the case of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow," a complete chorus of "Follow the Yellow Brick Road," done in very creditable Munchkin voices! Highlights, in my opinion, included "Pure Imagination," from "Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," and Mozart's "Alleluia from Exultate, Jubilate," which was featured in "Amadeus." Both showed off the chorus's good voices and musicality. In the second half, "Vincent" ("Starry Starry Night'), which wasn't in "Lust for Life," but could've been, was similarly beautiful, and a blended medley of songs from "Music Man," "Lida Rose" and "Will I Ever Tell You?" showed both skill and a sense of fun.

As always, we had a very good time. Their next performances will be a spring themed concert on April 17, also at Plymouth Church, and the Eighth Annual "Gay Cabaret" titled "True Stories" on June 19, 2004 at the Village Church.