The Long View 2007-05-03: Spam, Spamalot, Spam, Nightfall


This is a pretty good quote about the attractions of sacred or magical objects:

he is as aware as Tennyson was that "Grail Questing" is a dark and even sinister enterprise, usually undertaken by dark and sometimes sinister people

Much like political office, usually the one who wants it the most deserves it the least.

John also mentions in passing the short story “Nightfall” by Issac Asimov. I haven’t read much of Asimov’s work, so I’m curious whether I would find it as remarkable as John’s description of it. My opinion of other scifi authors of that era has been dwindling as I have discovered that I liked the pulps that preceded them better.

Spam, Spamalot, Spam, Nightfall

Here is what happens when you leave your email address out where evil robots can harvest it.

For several weeks, I had been getting occasional messages with Subjects like "Message Undeliverable." Since files were often attached to these messages, I assumed that these messages were just virus-laden spam that have somehow eluded the vigilance of McAfee and my ISP. Well, I thought, these things happen. Then, two nights ago, the count of these undeliverable emails entering my Inbox rose to a dozen an hour. Finally taking a look at them, I realized that my primary email address was being inserted as the Reply address of those spam messages that include strings of random sentences. I was getting the messages that had been returned by mail systems. The next morning, I found 101 such messages.

I first made sure that my own PC had not been zombified in order to send out these messages itself. When I contacted my ISP, they commiserated (actually, I think a good robot commiserated). Yes, they said, spammers use legitimate email and website URLs to trick spam filters. Very regrettable. Perhaps I would like to tweak my own filters to keep these Undeliverables out? Later, they sent me new security software for a highspeed service other than the one to which I subscribe and which would have disabled my machine if I had succeeded in installing it.

The number of Undeliverables has fallen steadily since the peak of two days ago and now has almost ceased. The earliest messages, by the way, were almost all in English; the last few dozen were often in Spanish or Portuguese. The relatively small number of East Asian messages were scattered throughout the episode.

* * *

At the Schubert Theatre in Manhattan last week I saw the play Spamalot. It does not have much spam in it, really. And the fish used in the Finnish Fisch-Schlapping Song were rubber, not real fish. It's not a secret (indeed, it's a point of pride) that the play is essentially a musical version of the hilarious 1975 film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. There is a bit of an attempt to add a story arc, so that the play ends in the finding of the Grail and in marriages, one of them gay. (The finding of the Grail involves a bit of audience participation; if you sit in the bottom rows, dress nicely and don't drink too much during the Intermission.) The play is, of course, a musical, though not much of the music is memorable. The piece with the most energy is "You Won't Succeed on Broadway." At one point in the play, King Arthur is tasked to stage a musical, and the song explains that you won't succeed on Broadway if you don't have any Jews. The audience ate it up.

If you liked the movie, you will like this play. If you are the sort of person who would like the movie but has not seen it yet, then you will like the play much more. The only original bit of humor in Spamalot that is up to the old Monty Python standard is the Very Expensive Forest. And that's the joke: the name.

Audience members who feel that sections of the play are too familiar to require their complete attention are advised to spend the time studying the complementary copies of Playbill that they will find in the theater. They will find this information about the writer of the play discussed immediately before Spamalot:

Bin Faaarkrekkon (Writer) Faarkrekkeion's career typifies the Finnish economic miracle. Born the son of a humble woodcutter, Bin worked his way up through shrubbery management to become Professor of Treadmill Dynamics at the University of Tooti, believed to be the 28th most northerly university in the world. "I have always been interested in the relatively rapid transition from a predominantly rural agricultural base to one of the most advanced industrial economies in the Western world, and one day in the sauna, it came to me: What a great subject for a musical."

The fraud is merrily cumulative.

* * *

In the same week in which I saw Spamalot, and not altogether coincidentally, I saw Richard Stanley's The Secret Glory, which, as I have noted before in this space, is a documentary that deals with the life of Nazi Grail Quester Otto Rahn. The producer/director is to be congratulated for doing important primary historical research. He interviewed Rahn's niece (who remembers her eccentric uncle fondly) and Rahn's old publisher. Most remarkably, he spoke at length with Paul Ladame, now appearing as a merry old soul, who had accompanied Rahn on some of his spelunking expeditions in Cathar country.

Rahn and Grail mythology are special interests of Richard Stanley; the DVD I saw included a long comment from him that was almost as interesting as the documentary. He takes aspects of it quite seriously, perhaps with good reason. He describes the SS castle at Wewelsburg as, literally, a place of nightmare, the land of the anti-Grail, while Montsegur is a place of peace and comfort. He does not cite The Idylls of the King, but he is as aware as Tennyson was that "Grail Questing" is a dark and even sinister enterprise, usually undertaken by dark and sometimes sinister people. On the other hand, despite the amount of time and effort he has put into the subject, the result still lacks a critical sense.

The Grail mythology is important, but the fact is that the Grail-Cathar aspect of it was cooked up by opium-using anti-Catholic French writers in the latter 19th century. These fabulations are no better in this context than they are in their better known appearance in The Da Vinci Code. The documentary would improve with a little didactic narration to that effect, or at least an interview with a real expert. A little more disclosure would also be welcome with regard to the "footage" of the Albigensian Crusade, which was lifted from Eisensein's Alexander Nevsky.

The oddest thing about The Secret Glory is that, despite the amount of time the director has been working on it, it's still a work in progress. The cinematography is fine, and the music is suitably spacey, but the voices in the soundtrack are muddy.

Still, it's worth the price of admission when Stanley tells in his comment about his attempt to view a vase that Rahn discovered in one of the putative Cathar caves. Rahn did not claim that this is the Grail itself, but the object has been called "the Pyrenean Grail." For some years, it was on display at a museum in Tarascon, but now it is in a private collection. When Stanley asked to see it, the situation closely resembled the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (and now also Spamalot) in which King Arthur asks a castle of French knights whether they would like to join his Grail Quest. The knights say "Non."

"We already have one. It's very nice."

"Well (Arthur asks), may we come up and see it?"

"Of course not: you are English!"

Stanley does not mention any taunting. Perhaps there will be something about the trebouchet in a subsequent DVD.

* * *

Readers who cannot follow these inside jokes really do have to see the film or the play.

* * *

Meanwhile, Jay Manifold at Voyage to Arcturus holds the super-Earth model of Gliese 581c in light esteem:

[T]hat star is only 1.3% as luminous as the Sun, is substantially less enriched in "metals" (in astrophysicists' parlance, any element heavier than helium), is younger than the Sun, and is variable - thus the designation HO Librae.

He is as in favor as the next guy of building the Terrestrial Planet Finder, but suggests that hyping Gliese 581c as Earthlike is chiefly political propaganda toward that end. He further suggests we are missing the point of astronomy if we are interested only in planets that are like Earth.

These points are well taken. Still, sometimes I wonder whether Earth is the best representative of an Earthlike planet.

Readers will recall Isaac Asimov's story, Nightfall, which is sometimes called the best science-fiction short story ever written. Nightfall deals with an inhabited world in a multiple star system, where the one sun or another is always in the sky. The planet's orbit is so complicated that the people there don't develop a theory of gravity until after they have invented radio. The story is about the cyclical chaos that ensues on the one point in many centuries when an eclipse brings real night. While the characters are debating this prospect, one of the scientists mentions that a theoretically stable model for a planetary system had been developed in which a single star is the center around which several planets revolve. These planets may not just revolve, but also rotate, so any point on the surface would be in darkness half the time. He notes that life could not develop very far in such a place, even if it came into existence, because of the importance of light for biology.

Incidentally, it was only when looking for that link to Nightfall posted above that I learned that Robert Silverberg had expanded the story into a novel. That's a good idea for a novel, but not for a title: if I saw it in the bookstores, I mistook it for an anthology.

Finally, Nightfall was also the subject of a film released in 2000 that is apparently one of the worst science-fiction films ever made.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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