Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
03/24/17 -- Vol. 35, No. 39, Whole Number 1955

Co-Editor: Mark Leeper,
Co-Editor: Evelyn Leeper,
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        What Is CRISPR, and Why Is It Scaring Some People? (comments
                by Mark R. Leeper)
        DIG TWO GRAVES (film review by Mark R. Leeper)
        Selecting Words (letters of comment by Lee Beaumont
                and Philip Chee)
        THE LIFE AND GROWTH OF LANGUAGE and Chinese (letters of
                comment by Philip Chee, Steve Coltrin,
                and Radovan Garabik)
        This Week's Reading (THE MAN FROM MARS) (book comments
                by Evelyn C. Leeper)


TOPIC: What Is CRISPR, and Why Is It Scaring Some People? (comments
by Mark R. Leeper)

A while back I heard a science podcast discussing the most
important science stories of the year. It said that the most
important science story probably was CRISPR, but most people had
heard little about it.  I had read about CRISPR and was vaguely
aware it was a process or tool that allowed the editing of DNA.
But after that I heard little about it.  I was skeptical that it
was so important.   Now the Radiolab Podcast did an episode about
CRISPR, so I decided to dig into it a little more.

CRISPR seems to be a very efficient way to modify genes.  How does
it work?

Apparently in a benign bacteria's DNA one finds places in which
there is a stretch of the same DNA pattern repeated over and over.
The question is why would a piece of DNA coding have to appear many
times in the same DNA.  What is more the repeated piece of DNA was
identifiably a stretch that appears in bad virus DNA.  One would
think that this DNA is an enemy of the bacteria, but this was not
the whole virus.  It was just a small stretch that also appeared in
the enemy virus.  This was thought to probably have something to do
with a defense mechanism, but what?

Well, it was discovered was sort of like a wanted poster posted
many places in the bacteria DNA.  The bacteria cell was using this
short string to identify bad viruses and it knows how to destroy
them.  It is like in Hitchcock's THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS the hero is
told he could recognize the villain because the bad guy was missing
a finger.  The main character did not know who his enemy was, but
he knew to look for a man with a missing finger.

Now this is amazing.  If the bacteria recognizes that its DNA
matches one of these stretches, it is bad for the cell.  The cell
mobilizes enzymes that breaks its bonds on the double helix leaving
a gap, nearby DNA materials, presumably more benign material,
replace the bad sequence.  Here the defense mechanism was used to
ward off viruses, but there is no need to wait for a bad virus.
Scientists can decide what gene they want in the DNA and use this
device to remove the unwanted DNA and replace it with wanted DNA.
This technique can be used for a broad range of edits.  If you can
specify what you want to edit in the genome you can fairly easily
make what edits you want.

The official name for stretch with the repeated DNA "Clustered
Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats."  And if you think
that is awkward to say they abbreviate it CRISPR.  That they can
just pronounce "crisper" like a bin in your refrigerator.

It was realized that this is a nice, natural way to edit DNA.  Some
editing had been done in the past with a low success rate.  CRISPR
approaches are more efficient and precise than the standard
technology.  CRISPR does nothing new.  It is just a better, faster,
cheaper way to do genetic modification and manipulation using a
much more natural method.  In fact it is so much better that the
question has turned from "Can we effectively do genetic
modification?" to "What happens when it becomes frighteningly easy
to do genetic editing." This human-planned DNA will be constructed
in one human, but that human's progeny will be passing on that DNA
to future generations.

Suppose a certain genetic modification is in the short term good,
but in the long term disastrous.  This artificial mutation could
easily be spread by being passed from one generation to the next.
We could be changing the genetic makeup of humans from this point
forward.  [-mrl]


TOPIC: DIG TWO GRAVES (film review by Mark R. Leeper)

CAPSULE: Teenager Jake is wracked with guilt about her part in the
accidental death of her brother Sean.  She believes she would do
just about anything to get him back.  Then three mysterious figures
appear to her with an offer to restore her brother back to being
alive.  But for this seemingly impossible service they want to
exact a price.  DIG TWO GRAVES was written and directed by Hunter
Adams, based on his own story.  His film is moody and affecting,
but less than totally coherent, and the style of the film puts too
many obstacles in the viewer's path.  Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10

DIG TWO GRAVES is set in 1977, though it flashes back to events of
1947.  Samantha Isler plays Jake, a teenager living in a rough
mountain community.  Jake has a heavy weight crushing her
emotionally.  She had wanted proof she was brave enough to jump off
the side of a quarry into the water below.  Her older brother had
offered to dive with her.  She goes with him but in the last
instant lets go of his hand.  She stands on the edge while her
brother drops into the water never to be heard from again.  Now
Jake blames herself for her brother Sean's death.  She knows there
is nothing she can do to bring back Sean.  But then she talks to
three men, strange on several levels, who claim they can bring the
dead boy back to life.  They inform her, "He is not really dead.
He is just hard to find."  Jake has to decide if she can trust
these men to deliver.  Trying to give Jake support is her
grandfather (in a strong performance by Ted Levine, who played the
kidnapper/killer in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS), now the local
sheriff and whom the flashbacks tell us might know more than a
little about the current events.

This is a film with a strong sense of setting location, though it
is not clear what the location is.  It takes place in hill country
of someplace in the Midwest.  If it helps locate the setting the
film was shot in Marion, Illinois.  And perhaps it borrowed some of
its texture from WINTER'S BONE.

One problem for the viewer is that it is very hard to pick up on
what is going on.  That is partially intended from the story.  But
much of the dialog is spoken with a Hill Country accent that is
hard to penetrate.  To make matters worse, most of the film,
particularly the early parts when the characters are introduced
take place in the night without too much lighting. A few people
discuss the situation and they look a lot alike.  We seem to meet
mostly men in full beards.  Perhaps the best feature of the film is
the moody camerawork by Eric Maddison, catching the haunting

I rate DIG TWO GRAVES a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.  DIG TWO
GRAVES will get a release in theaters & on demand 3/24.

Film Credits:

What others are saying:



TOPIC: Selecting Words (letters of comment by Lee Beaumont and
Philip Chee)

In response to Mark's comments on selecting words in the 03/17/17
issue of the MT VOID, Lee Beaumont writes:

I faced a vocabulary challenge this week that perhaps you can help
me with.  See:

If you can suggest any improvements to what I wrote there I will
appreciate it.  [-lrb]

Mark replied:

I think you are more eloquent than I am.  I am not sure what sort
of thing you are looking for.  I will say you might want to
categorize the words as to their intended target.  When I assume, I
assume for myself.  Nobody else is involved when I make an
assumption.  On the other hand I propose to someone else.  (You
might add "suggest" which like "propose.")  Most of the words you
choose are reflexive.  Nobody else need be involved.  But I do not
suggest or propose something to myself.  I can write an hypothesis
that is for my purposes only or that I can expect someone else to
assume, so that could be for me and/or for someone else.  [-mrl]

Philip Chee writes:

The best Twain quote on the subject is probably in an 1888 letter
to George Bainton:

"The difference between the *almost* right word and the *right*
word is really a large matter.  'tis the difference between the
lightning bug and the lightning."  [-pt]


comment by Philip Chee, Steve Coltrin, and Radovan Garabik)

In response to Evelyn's review of THE LIFE AND GROWTH OF LANGUAGE
in the 03/17/17 issue of the MT VOID, Philip Chee writes:

[Re Whitney's claim that Chinese has only about 1500 words]

A Chinese university graduate is expected to recognize
approximately 8000 Han characters.  A Japanese university graduate
is expected to recognize approximately 6000 characters.

Normal dictionaries probably contain 10k to 20k characters. The
unihan codepage has ~40k characters but many of them are obsolete

I suspect that the misunderstanding that "Chinese has only about
1500 words" comes from the fact that Chinese (and Japanese)
authorities require the recognition of minimum ~2000 characters to
qualify as basic literacy.

[And re compound words:] And of course the way to create new words
in Chinese (and Japanese) is to create four character "idioms" or
compounds (I am unsure of the correct translation of this term into
English).  [-pc]

Steve Coltrin responds:

'Four character idiom' works fine; 'four character compound' is
slightly more applicable as, at least in Japanese, the meaning of a
lot of them is perfectly straightforward, rather than a reference
to warring clans of medieval Japan or some such.  [-sc]

And Radovan Garabik adds:

The situation is a bit complicated--most Chinese (Mandarin) "words"
consist of two syllables. One syllable is usually one character,
but there are exceptions.

"Word" is in quotes, because it is not as clearly delimited as in
European languages--usually, each syllable (=morpheme) keeps its
standalone meaning, and often (but by no means universally) the
meaning "leaks" into the meaning of the word.  And of course,
"words" are written without spaces between them.  It's kind of
similar to asking if in English "boy friend" or "boyfriend" is one
word or a phrase consisting of two words.  A Chinese speaker does
not intuitively think about the language in terms of words, but in
terms of zi (syllable/morpheme/character).

There are about 800 unique syllables in Mandarin (more, but about
800 is used in normal speech).  Almost all of them (if not all)
have standalone meaning, and many of them are homophones and are
written differently (with different meanings).

So you can learn 800 syllables, and the meaning for each of them,
but you would not understand almost anything--for that, you need to
learn bi- and poly- syllabic words.

If you want to read, you need to learn at least most frequent
characters (thousands of them), many of them are pronounced the

[The reference to the definition of basic literacy] of course
assumes the reader is a (native) speaker and knows the
meaning of polysyllabic words.  [-rg]


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

(ISBN 978+0+399-16054-7) is a biography of one of the important
science fiction editors, but one who is usually over-looked.  John
W. Campbell, Jr., is considered the dominating editor of the late
1930s until the early 1970s, and everyone else seems to end up as a
footnote.  Other editors from the 1930s and 1940s are almost
completely forgotten, and even those of the 1950s are rarely
remembered, with Frederik Pohl, H. L. Gold, and Edward Ferman being
the few exceptions.  (Campbell's dominance was so complete that if
one is asked to name an editor of ASTOUNDING/ANALOG, it is
inevitably Campbell, even though Stanley Schmidt was editor a year
longer than Campbell.)

But I digress.

Palmer edited AMAZING STORIES from 1938 through 1949, then founded
FATE MAGAZINE (which he edited until 1955), and followed this with
a series of other magazines dealing with the paranormal.  These
were a predictable outgrowth of what Palmer is probably best know
for: the promotion of the "Shaver Mystery".  Nadis cannot seem to
decide whether Palmer actually believed Shaver's claims, or any of
the myriad other "reports" of flying saucers, telepathy, conspiracy
theories, or secret races controlling humans, whether he was just
looking for a good yarn, or whether he was just trying to make

Alas, many of the conspiracy theories and stories of secret races
that Palmer "promoted" were basically racist and anti-Semitic.  It
is not clear whether Palmer realized this, especially given that he
tended to be very unprejudiced in what he would publish.  He
published Ray Bradbury's "Way in the Middle of the Air" (about
African-Americans leaving a Southern town en masse to colonize
Mars) in his OTHER WORLDS in 1950 when no one else would take it.
(It became part of THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES, but was dropped from
1997, 2001, and 2006 reprints!)  He also published Theodore
Sturgeon's science fiction portrayal of homosexuality, "A World
Well Lost", in UNIVERSE SCIENCE FICTION in 1953 after Campbell not
only rejected it, but contacted every other editor to ask them to
reject it as well.  So Palmer was not in general a narrow-minded

Palmer's history is fascinating, and there is a lot of detail about
the era.  For example, I was surprised to hear that editors of the
1930s and 1940s apparently gave away the originals of the cover
paintings for their magazines.  At some point, luckily, artists put
their collective foot down and retained the rights to the original
paintings.  As for Palmer's motivations, you will have to read the
book and decide for yourself.  [-ecl]


                                           Mark Leeper

                                           He seems
           To have seen better days, as who has not
           Who has seen yesterday?
                                         --George Gordon, Lord Byron