Intro

This is the blog and homepage of Mark R. Kelly, the founder of Locus Online in 1997 (for which I won a Hugo Award in 2002 — see the icon at right) and of an index to science fiction awards in 2000 that became sfadb.com in 2012. I’m retired from my day job of 30 years, from 1982 to 2012, as an aerospace software engineer, supporting the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station.

Posts here are mostly about my reading, of science fiction and of books about science, history, philosophy, and religion; and comments to articles in newspapers that I link to. Movie reviews and pics from travels are posted on Facebook.

More on my About page, including a photo of the Hugo Winners the year I was among them, and links to an index of my columns and other writings, and to my earliest homepage with links to some of my work.

Posted in Personal history | Comments Off on Intro

Links and Comments: Recent links, August 2020

Too many recently for detailed comments. Here are a bunch.

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CNN: Tucker Carlson upset that he’s told how to correctly pronounce Kamala Harris’ name. Why are conservatives upset by being asked to observe simple standards of decency and respect?

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NYT: A Bible Burning, a Russian News Agency and a Story Too Good to Check Out. Conservatives are quick to assume the worst about the Black Lives Matter protestors, and only show themselves to be dupes for Russian propaganda.

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Washington Post: brilliant (sarcastic) op-ed by George T. Conway III (Kellyanne Conways’s husband!): I believe the president, and in the president. Random excerpt:

I believe the president didn’t know Michael Cohen was paying off porn star Stormy Daniels, and that Cohen did it on his own, because the president had no reason to pay her off. I believe the president was reimbursing Cohen for his legal expertise.

I believe the president is a good Christian, because TV pastors say so, and that it’s okay he doesn’t ask for God’s forgiveness, because he doesn’t need to, since he’s the Chosen One. I believe the president knows the Bible, and that two Corinthians are better than one.

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Alternet: Experts explain the 4 main psychological factors that drive Trump’s rabid fan base. Rebelliousness and Chaos; Shared Irrationality; Fear; and Safety and Order.

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Salon: Man-baby smashes democracy: Daniel Drezner on our “Toddler in Chief”. “Tantrums, poor impulse control, short attention span, oppositional behavior — unfortunately, it all fits.”

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Washington Post: Sally Yates blows up Republican conspiracies and falsehoods.

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Washington Post: Republicans don’t seem to grasp cause and effect.

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Washington Post: The spread of covid-19 in the South shows the risks of anti-intellectualism. Subtitle: “Skepticism about science and expertise has long permeated the Bible Belt”

Where did this anti-science bias come from? It became rooted in Southern culture and politics with the Scopes Trial, popularly known as the Monkey Trial, in 1925 in Dayton, Tenn.

The trial stemmed from the modernism rising in the post-World War I era. Southern whites felt that these changes challenged their way of life, including seeing the teaching of evolution as an attack on traditional values. They moved aggressively to retain socio-cultural control in a time of transformative change by limiting modern influences.

Following the trial, anti-intellectualism became more acceptable. This was solidified with the establishment in Dayton of William Jennings Bryan College in 1930, where students and faculty must annually affirm their belief in the story of Genesis. Anti-intellectualism drew strength from the gathering of religious fundamentalists whose mission to spread their beliefs became more public as southern Whites responded to changes that occurred as the result of the civil rights movement.

When Southern conservatives lost the battle for civil rights, with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, they turned their attention to abortion, previously virtually a non-issue even in the Catholic Church, as a new issue to unite conservatives. But that’s a topic for another post.

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And if you believe in one conspiracy theory, why not believe them all?!! (Because — shh — they’re all connected, you know. Just ask Q.)

Vice: The Conspiracy Singularity Has Arrived.

Posted in Culture, Lunacy, Politics | Leave a comment

Favorite Film: Magnolia

Sunday night we caught, on one of the cable channels, the 1999 film by Paul Thomas Anderson, Magnolia (all but the first few minutes; we caught up on those the next night, since I have the DVD). It’s one of my favorite films of all time. I like the interwoven plot lines, the connections between them (that take a couple viewings to entirely perceive), and especially the film score by Jon Brion, propulsive and delicate and tad minimalistic, that does as much work as the writing and directing to indicate that all those plot lines are in some way similar and connected.

On the other hand, I reject the explicit message, suggested by the documentary-like prologue in the first few minutes, that mysterious coincidental events have some kind of deep intended meaning or intent; I on the other hand see all these interwoven plot threads as about the kinds of problems most people have in their lives, what some may characterize as sins and redemption, others simply as mistakes and attempts to do better and reform (since I think that all people think they are being good, in their different ways), that are all, ultimately, overwhelmed by random events of the universe that cannot be anticipated. Like frogs falling from the sky. The gun falls from the sky. We don’t notice the many similar events that might have happened; the random one that does happen is taken to mean something deep. That’s human nature.

Anderson’s idea is indicated by the the Aimee Mann song “Save Me”; the many characters are all broken (or see themselves as broken) in some way and need saving. It’s a different take on the same issue.

Wikipedia

The score is beautiful and one of my favorite things about the film. Start here and let it autoplay through the entire soundtrack.

Posted in Movies | Leave a comment

Link and Comments: Challenge to Conventional Wisdom: About the Nuclear Family

That long NYT news story about the religious heartland that I posted a couple days ago included this quote from a Mr. Driesen, a utility company worker:

“Unfortunately, there’s just more divorce than there used to be,” he said. “There’s more cohabitating. I think it is detrimental to the family. I just think kids do better in a two-parent home, with a mom and a dad.”

This is an example not so much of conservative myopia, but of general myopia, thinking that the way things have been, in one’s life, represent the default best way to live. (Aside from the fact that, why do conservatives presume to tell other people how to live? If more people get divorced, so what? What business is it of theirs?)

In fact, I gather, the nuclear family with two parents and their kids in a home isolated from other relatives is a relatively recent social development of the past century or two. Throughout most of human history, people lived in multi-generational, extended families, and so arguably *they* are better for kids than households with a single mom and dad.

(As an aside, the conservative insistence that children are better off with a mother (female) and father (male), as opposed to two females or two males, is bogus. Young children don’t care or understand about sex or gender; much more important to the development of children is to *how many* caregivers they are raised by, how many different adults and role-models they learn from.

On the other hand, *family* connections matter, which is why the Israeli Kibbutzes of the ’60s failed.

And even then, there isn’t actually any evidence that children raised by single parents are in any way socially or intellectually disabled.

This recalls an article in The Atlantic, that I don’t think I’ve linked to before, by David Brooks, an op-ed writer for the New York Times (this piece is longer than a NYT op-ed).

The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake. Subtitle: “The family structure we’ve held up as the cultural ideal for the past half century has been a catastrophe for many. It’s time to figure out better ways to live together.”

Now, the subject of the dissolution of social networks, of extended families and communities, is something of a hobby horse of Brooks; he writes about variations on this theme many times. I think he has a limited point, but that point doesn’t account for how people have gotten along, for millennia, in big cities, where such networks are looser than they are in small towns. But let’s just quote a bit from this Atlantic essay.

This is the story of our times—the story of the family, once a dense cluster of many siblings and extended kin, fragmenting into ever smaller and more fragile forms. The initial result of that fragmentation, the nuclear family, didn’t seem so bad. But then, because the nuclear family is so brittle, the fragmentation continued. In many sectors of society, nuclear families fragmented into single-parent families, single-parent families into chaotic families or no families.

If you want to summarize the changes in family structure over the past century, the truest thing to say is this: We’ve made life freer for individuals and more unstable for families. We’ve made life better for adults but worse for children. We’ve moved from big, interconnected, and extended families, which helped protect the most vulnerable people in society from the shocks of life, to smaller, detached nuclear families (a married couple and their children), which give the most privileged people in society room to maximize their talents and expand their options. The shift from bigger and interconnected extended families to smaller and detached nuclear families ultimately led to a familial system that liberates the rich and ravages the working-class and the poor.

It’s a long article — about 50 screens. With sections about “The Era of Extended Clans”; “The Short, Happy Life of the Nuclear Family” in the 1950s, presumably the era MAGA cultists revere; “Disintegration”; and then “Redefining Kinship” and “From Nuclear Families to Forged Families”. I’ll quote his final paragraphs.

When we discuss the problems confronting the country, we don’t talk about family enough. It feels too judgmental. Too uncomfortable. Maybe even too religious. But the blunt fact is that the nuclear family has been crumbling in slow motion for decades, and many of our other problems—with education, mental health, addiction, the quality of the labor force—stem from that crumbling. We’ve left behind the nuclear-family paradigm of 1955. For most people it’s not coming back. Americans are hungering to live in extended and forged families, in ways that are new and ancient at the same time. This is a significant opportunity, a chance to thicken and broaden family relationships, a chance to allow more adults and children to live and grow under the loving gaze of a dozen pairs of eyes, and be caught, when they fall, by a dozen pairs of arms. For decades we have been eating at smaller and smaller tables, with fewer and fewer kin.

It’s time to find ways to bring back the big tables.

The bottom line, I think, is that, despite David Brooks, despite the converatives, there is no single, right, best way to live. (Conservatives always default to what they know, thinking it the best.) There are many ways to live; it’s a feature of the resilience of our species. Let it be. Let people live their own lives, as they see fit.

Posted in Conservative Resistance, Social Progress | Comments Off on Link and Comments: Challenge to Conventional Wisdom: About the Nuclear Family

Link and Comments: The View from Down Under

Several of my Facebook friends occasionally post the entire text of this or that article or editorial in their post, or in a comment to their post, for the sake of those others who don’t have subscriptions to, say, the New York Times, or Washington Post. (Since I keep seeing this, I gather there is no coordinated copyright issue that these posts violate.) Here’s an opinion piece in the Canberra Times — that’s Canberra, not the largest city in Australia, but its capital, as Washington DC is in the US — that was linked and copied by one of my Fb friends, though it doesn’t seem to be behind a paywall.

What does the rest of the world think about Trump and the sad state of American politics, in particular its response the pandemic?

(And, are there any foreign news sources that *support* the Trump administration? …Except for perhaps the Russian ones? I’ll try to check this out.)

This dovetails with my previous post. Think about it. We’re living in history, indeed, on more than one count. But as the essay points out, it’s more than Trump, or about Repulicans; it’s about partisan politics in America, where separate bubbles, driven I think by the ease with which social media spreads lies and conspiracy theories, enable people, mostly (religious) conservatives, to live in fantasy realities and deny real solutions to problems like the pandemic. Problems that other advanced nations have solved.

The Canberra Times: We are witnessing the fall of a great power

Just how rotten is the United States’ political system? The answer is rotten, as in it will only take a small kick for the whole edifice to fall in, let alone a big kick like COVID-19.

The idea is about as fanciful as the collapse of the Soviet empire seemed in 1987, when President Ronald Reagan famously demanded: “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Yet, a short time later, a little chink in the Iron Curtain at the Hungary-Austria border saw the whole rotten regime collapse.

Almost nobody predicted it, with the notable exception of Soviet dissident Andrei Amalrik. Amalrik is not as well known as dissidents like Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn because he was killed in a car crash in 1980 – but not before his writings had been smuggled out to the West. Amalrik was unlike other dissidents, who sought East-West accommodation and a little softening of the Soviet hard line while still under a communist regime (because the end of the regime seemed a hopeless cause).

Instead, Amalrik pointed out in detail the inherent rottenness of the Soviet communist system, which he said would be gone by 1984. He was not far out. He pointed out the circumstances in which a great power succumbs to self-delusion because it imagines itself to be indestructible.

Charles King, Professor of International Affairs and Government at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., wrote an essay in the most recent Foreign Affairs magazine outlining Amalrik’s theory of great power decay, very cleverly avoiding directly applying it to the US.

King wrote: “The ‘comfort cult’, as Amalrik called it – the tendency in seemingly stable societies to believe “that ‘reason will prevail’ and that ‘everything will be all right'” – is seductive. As a result, when a terminal crisis comes, it is likely to be unexpected, confusing, and catastrophic, with the causes so seemingly trivial, the consequences so easily reparable if political leaders would only do the right thing, that no one can quite believe it has come to this …

“Viewed from 2020, exactly 50 years since it was published, Amalrik’s work has an eerie timeliness. He was concerned with how a great power handles multiple internal crises – the faltering of the institutions of domestic order, the craftiness of unmoored and venal politicians, the first tremors of systemic illegitimacy. He wanted to understand the dark logic of social dissolution and how discrete political choices sum up to apocalyptic outcomes.”

Tragically, American exceptionalism – ‘we are the first and best democracy on Earth’ – contributes to the self-delusion of indestructibility. There is nothing automatically self-correcting in US democracy.

Look at the US now. Its president is so psychiatrically disordered with narcissism that he is incapable of dealing with the COVID-19 crisis in a coherent, empathetic way. Everything he says and does is through a prism of himself. He has now turned his whole re-election campaign into one of race hate, law and order and a bizarre invention of a threat from “left-wing fascists”.

But worse, the US seems to have a national self-delusion that once Trump loses and is gone, everything will return to normal. The delusion extends to a belief that the COVID-19-stricken economy will bounce back to normal in a V shape.

Trump is as much just a symptom of the underlying rottenness as an integral part of it, even if his sucking up to authoritarian leaders in Russia, China and North Korea is unprecedented.

The underlying weakness in present US democracy is that partisanship has become so extreme that the nation is incapable of dealing with the major issues that face it. COVID-19 has illustrated that starkly, with every word and act predicated on party allegiance. Meanwhile, other problems like race, police violence, gun control, inequality, the health system, climate change and energy policy go unattended.

The motives of “the other side” are routinely vilified without evidence. The Democrats are blamed for everything. The Republicans can do no wrong. And to a lesser extent, vice versa. My side of politics, right or wrong.

In a vicious cause-and-effect circle, the imperative of winning at all costs corrodes the political process, and the corroded political process makes winning at all costs even more imperative.

The Trump presidency has made all this worse, but the seeds were there long before. He has appointed incompetent ignorant toadies to the most senior positions in his cabinet and the bureaucracy. He has undermined the Supreme Court with appointments based on politics, not law.

For a long time, the electoral process has been corrupted by state governors drawing unfair electoral boundaries so that the Republican Party is grossly over-represented in Congress compared to its vote, and has won the presidency twice this century with a minority of the vote.

The electoral process has also been corrupted by runaway bribery through political donations.

Another vicious circle has emerged. The politicised Supreme Court from 2010 on has refused to control corporate and individual political donations – thus favouring the Republicans.

Donations from billionaires, mainly to the Republicans, consequently boomed from just $17 million in 2008 to $611 million in 2018 – and rising. This results in policies more skewed to the wealthy and conservatives, and therefore greater inequality. These policies include engaging in wars in remote places where the only real US interests are those of war profiteers. In turn, these policies result in more donations from billionaires, who get repaid manyfold, and who now have as much if not more control of the process than voters.

Tragically, American exceptionalism – “we are the first and best democracy on Earth” – contributes to the self-delusion of indestructibility. There is nothing automatically self-correcting in US democracy. Even the so-called checks and balances are not working – they are causing gridlock, rather than adding a bit of mild caution to a system that is overall supposed to be geared to problem-solving, not political point-scoring.

The system has become so warped that those disenfranchised, disempowered and disenchanted are taking to the streets, questioning the legitimacy of the whole system.

The only question is whether the taking to the streets can break these vicious circles, or whether it is just another step in the decline and fall of a great power.

Whatever happens, Australia must not go any further in the direction the US has gone in the past few decades.

Posted in Conservative Resistance, Lunacy, Politics | Comments Off on Link and Comments: The View from Down Under

APOD: This is Reality: The Origin of the Elements

Click for a text description, with many explanatory links (some technical, some funny).

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Links and Comments: Trump, Evangelicals, Persecution, Fear, Withdrawal

The front page of today’s New York Times has an aerial photo of a house in Sioux Center, Iowa, with the words “In God We Trust” on the roof. The article, a long one, is ‘Christianity Will Have Power’ with the subtitle “Donald Trump made a promise to white evangelical Christians, whose support can seem mystifying to the outside observer.”

A familiar topic. I skimmed it. It begins by recalling a 2016 speech he made in that town:

“I will tell you, Christianity is under tremendous siege, whether we want to talk about it or we don’t want to talk about it,” Mr. Trump said.

Christians make up the overwhelming majority of the country, he said. And then he slowed slightly to stress each next word: “And yet we don’t exert the power that we should have.”

If he were elected president, he promised, that would change. He raised a finger.

“Christianity will have power,” he said. “If I’m there, you’re going to have plenty of power, you don’t need anybody else. You’re going to have somebody representing you very, very well. Remember that.”

What is the power he thinks Christians are deprived of? Is he not familiar with the First Amendment? Why do Christians, by far the most dominant religious group in the nation, feel so persecuted? Why do they feel so underprivileged? Why does it seem as if they need to define themselves as people who cannot civilly get along with people who are not like them? Is it just that persecution complex?

Theories, and rationalizations, abound:

That evangelical support was purely transactional.

That they saw him as their best chance in decades to end legalized abortion.

That the opportunity to nominate conservative justices to the Supreme Court was paramount.

That they hated Hillary Clinton, or felt torn to pick the lesser of two evils.

That they held their noses and voted, hoping he would advance their policy priorities and accomplish their goals.

But beneath all this, there is another explanation. One that is more raw and fundamental.

Which is

He is their protector, the bully who is on their side, the one who offered safety amid their fears that their country as they know it, and their place in it, is changing, and changing quickly. White straight married couples with children who go to church regularly are no longer the American mainstream. An entire way of life, one in which their values were dominant, could be headed for extinction. And Mr. Trump offered to restore them to power, as though they have not been in power all along.

“You are always only one generation away from losing Christianity,” said Micah Schouten, who was born and raised in Sioux Center, recalling something a former pastor used to say. “If you don’t teach it to your children it ends. It stops right there.”

Well yes, precisely. Cf. A.C. Grayling, the paragraph quoted at the middle of this post, To put matters at their simplest. Because once forgotten, any particular religion would never be rediscovered. No religion is detectable from the real world, except as a matter of circumstance, and circumstances change.

“There’s fear in the people,” he said. “The fear, the fear of losing everything —” His unfinished sentence hung in the air. The lights in the main fellowship hall were off.

Fear — exactly. Fear of losing privilege; fear of change.

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This morning Hemant Mehta posted his take on the article: White Evangelicals Love Trump Because He Feeds Their Persecution Complex.

I would phrase that differently: White evangelicals have always lied to themselves about being persecuted. Trump gives them a chance to be the persecutors. They don’t want religious freedom. They want religious supremacy. Trump gives it to them. And if a bunch of people have to die or suffer because of Trump’s malice, those evangelicals don’t give a damn.

That’s what Christianity has come to represent in the age of Trump: The people who constantly claim to be morally superior would rather have the trophy than earn the title.

If Biden wins the election, no one will show up in Sioux Falls, Iowa to force residents to give up their churches or beliefs, just as no such thing happened under Obama. All that might happen under progressive policies is that everyone, including Christians, would be obliged to get along, where civil laws apply, with people unlike themselves. Instead of insisting they know the one true way, and enforcing that upon everyone else (via, for example, the Supreme Court). Why is that so difficult for them?

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This recalls the idea of the “Benedict Option,” proposed by the conservative Christian writer Rod Dreher some years ago. The idea is for Christians to withdraw from a multicultural society and form their own isolated communities, in order to practice their faith without interference. Here’s an article in The Atlantic from 2017:

The Christian Retreat From Public Life. Subtitle – note the second sentence – “Rod Dreher makes a powerful argument for communal religious life in his book, The Benedict Option. But he has not wrestled with how to live side by side with people unlike him.”

This means deliberately sealing yourself into a bubble and ignoring any of kind of reality outside it. (As in practice many small towns like that one in Iowa are effectively already doing.)

The problem with religions is that they entail imaginary, inconsistent realities. If such a reality becomes so important that it’s necessary to block out all the others, then it’s a fantasy universe, like living in a video game. The ultimate life in a bubble. This has been possible for most of human history, when tribes lived in isolation of one another. It’s become less possible in recent centuries, as humanity has spread around the planet and previously isolated tribes (communities, nations) have come into contact with each other, and realized the advantage of doing business with each other. The only way to sustain such a global society – which cannot be undone, despite the current nationalistic authoritarians like Trump and others – is to realize that there really is a single, coherent reality, and it’s not based on anyone’s religion.

Posted in Culture, Human Progress, Lunacy, Religion | Comments Off on Links and Comments: Trump, Evangelicals, Persecution, Fear, Withdrawal

Skiffy Flix: Destination Moon

This 1951 film was the first prestigious science fiction film, its script inspired or perhaps partially written, by Robert A. Heinlein. The credits say “from a novel by” Heinlein but that’s not accurate. Heinlein had written a juvenile novel about a rocket to the moon, Rocketship Galileo, and he’d written a novella, “The Man Who Sold the Moon,” concerning a single rich inventor who builds a rocket to the moon all by himself… but neither of those correspond to the plot of this movie. (Heinlein did, however, write a prose version of this movie’s script, published in one of the science fiction magazines several months after the movie premiered.)

It’s a George Pal production, though directed by Irving Pichel; Pal later did When Worlds Collide, the 1953 The War of the Worlds, and the 1960 The Time Machine among others. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Pal. He was arguably the greatest director of science fiction films in the 1950s and 1960s.

This film stands in contrast with Rocketship X-M (http://www.markrkelly.com/Blog/2020/07/23/skiffy-flix-rocketship-x-m/), a cheaper film released a month earlier; this one is much more scientifically accurate, if nevertheless a tad less melodramatic.

Gist

The first rocket to the Moon is hastily launched in the face of legal challenges and public fears. A repair en route requires spacewalks, during which one of the men becomes untethered and is rescued. They land on the moon but use too much fuel doing so, and to return to Earth have to lighten their weight by jettisoning non-essential parts from the rocket’s interior.

Take

This is a sober, mostly scientifically-accurate depiction of how the best 1950-era writers and filmmakers imagined how the first rocket to the moon would happen.

Summary

  • Opening scenes show a desert military base, where a V-2-like rocket, with black and white fins, is launched–and quickly crashes into the ground. Watchers inside wonder, what went wrong? Could it be sabotage?
  • Later at plane factory, a General Thayer arrives to talk with Jim Barnes, head of the corporation. Acknowledging the failure of Cargraves’ rocket, Thayer appeals for Barnes’ help; Barnes is reluctant, he’s just a manufacturer. Thayer says the matter is bigger: the next rocket will go to the moon, with a new atomic energy engine. Soon there’s a presentation to a roomful of entrepreneurs. The themes in these scenes are two: only industry can do the job, not the government, and it’s urgent to establish a base on the moon to prevent other countries from doing so, and launching missiles from the moon.
  • A highlight of these scenes is a five-minute Woody Woodpecker cartoon showing how rockets work: how they launch, how they reach escape velocity, how they keep “falling.”
  • The story proceeds straightforwardly. We see a montage of draftsmen and engineers working. We see the ship under construction. The decision to launch is pushed up, as a commission denies their request, and public opinion about the risk of an atomic explosion.. At the last minute one of the crew of four has a “bellyache” and so radio operator Joe, with a broad (New York? New Jersey?) accent, and skeptical that the rocket will even take off, is substituted. (The others in the crew aren’t trained astronauts; they’re the main characters we’ve already met! The general, the manufacturer, the rocket designer.)
  • The ship launches. They discover their antenna is locked in place and need to make an excursion outside to fix it. All four of them end up outside, as one at the far end of the ship, his anchor line not long enough, comes loose from the hull despite his magnetic boots. He hangs out in space until rescue can be arranged. (Much as in the first two episodes of Lost in Space.)
  • Soon they land on the moon, the rocket descending onto its tail, but — much like the real Apollo 11 in 1969 — the pilot overshoots their target and uses too much fuel before setting down.
  • Emerging onto the moon, Cargraves speaks: “By the grace of God, and in the name of the United States of America, I take possession of this planet on behalf of and for the benefit of all mankind.” Thus accomplishing a primary goal of the mission. Subsequent scenes show the four men breaking out equipment, large cameras, a Geiger counter, to do some rudimentary exploration.
  • The whole final quarter or third of the film, though, is dominated by the problem of launching back toward Earth. Their landing used so much fuel, they don’t have enough for their planned launch. So they need to strip the rocket of every possible nonessential part–the acceleration couches, half the ladder, some control panels, all the exploration equipment. it’s still not enough. Does on of them stay behind? They debate it, each offering to be the one. Joe escapes the ship to be the sacrifice, but at the last moment Barnes gets an idea that involves dumping all four spacesuits, the last one pulled out of the ship by the weight of an oxygen tank on a tether.
  • And so they launch off the moon, and see the Earth ahead. The end. Or actually, as the credits read, “The End… of the beginning.”

Comments

  • The theme here of private enterprise building a rocket to the moon is reflected in Heinlein’s two prose stories on the first rocket to the Moon: the novel Rocket Ship Galileo, and the novella “The Man Who Sold the Moon.”
  • The technical advisor, listed in the opening credits, is (famous astronomical artist) Chesley Bonestell. And indeed, the moon’s surface is depicted here with high craggy mountains, as astronomical art of the time commonly showed.
  • There’s a modicum of futuristic set design in Dr. Barnes’ office, with sliding metal doors for the entrance and to the restroom.
  • As in most books and films from this era, everyone smokes, especially cigars.
  • In general the film is highly accurate scientifically, especially compared to its contemporary Rocketship X-M, but there are a couple scenes that aren’t quite right.
  • First, as did some other movies from this era, it presumes that magnetic boots would be needed to anchor oneself to the floor, or to the outside of the ship, in the absence of gravity or acceleration. For that matter, so did 2001, in 1968, except by then they were Velcro slippers rather than big clunky boots. It didn’t occur to anyone that there really wouldn’t be any problem just floating around, inside the ship, or even outside once secure by line or with maneuvering jets.
  • The exterior space walk scene is OK up to a point; once the one astronaut gets loose, though, he just sorta hangs out there a few dozen feet from the rocket without actually moving farther away, as he would once he began moving away from the ship at all. (Some issue in those Lost in Space scenes.)
  • For that matter, as Heinlein’s other stories did (but Rocketship X-M did not), it depicts a large single-staged rocket launching from Earth, landing on the moon, and returning—no multiple stages that dropped away when no longer needed, no separate lunar lander. (Clarke more correctly anticipated staged launches in his novel Prelude to Space.)
  • Both this film, and Rocketship X-M, have jokes about Texas and harmonicas.
  • The last-minute addition of the radio jock Joe to the crew serves two purposes: he provides some broad comic relief, especially with that accent (“the ship won’t woik!”) and he serves a narrative purpose giving reason for the three professionals aboard to explain things (to the audience), e.g., why exiting the rocket in a spaceship won’t result in falling away or being swept away.
  • The film’s trailer, shown after the movie proper, indicates that there was much publicity for this film in all the major magazines of the day.
Posted in Movies, Skiffy Flix | Comments Off on Skiffy Flix: Destination Moon

Link and Comments: Jared Diamond on Why Nations Fail Or Succeed When Facing A Crisis

Let’s do a relatively academic item today, to avoid the day to day political issues. Though of course it’s not irrelevant to those.

Noemag: Jared Diamond: Why Nations Fail Or Succeed When Facing A Crisis

Jared Diamond is, of course, the author of Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997), a big picture view of human history that identifies the victors of history not to racial superiority, but to circumstances of geography and other factors. (It’s an early example of the “big history” books like Harari’s Sapiens, that view history as about broad intellectual and circumstantial trends, not about names and dates and battles.) And most recently, Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis (2019).

Nathan Gardels: In assessing how nations manage crises and successfully negotiate turning points — or don’t — you pass their experience through several filters. Some key filters you use are realistic self-appraisal, selective adoption of best practices from elsewhere, a capacity to learn from others while still preserving core values and flexibility that allows for social and political compromise.

How do you see the way various nations addressed the coronavirus pandemic through this lens?

Jared Diamond: Nations and entities doing well by the criteria of those outcome predictors include Singapore and Taiwan. Doing poorly initially were the government of Italy and now, worst of all, the federal government of the U.S.

Because Americans think themselves exceptional, and ignore the experience and lessons learned by other countries. (Here’s a current example: NYT, When Covid Subsided, Israel Reopened Its Schools. It Didn’t Go Well. Will any Americans pay attention to this? No. Our current politicians, driven by their base, even ignore the lesson of pandemic response from 1918: The Mask Slackers of 1918 (subtitled “As the influenza pandemic swept across the United States in 1918 and 1919, masks took a role in political and cultural wars.”)

Long interview, with discussion of Germany and Japan, climate change, and much else.

Gardels: But the lesson for the U.S. these days, and for other divided democracies, is that peril beckons when the spirit of compromise evaporates. Compromise and the ability to arrive at a governing consensus fails when the civic discourse is degraded and there’s no trust in impartial institutions. The whole thing can collapse.

Diamond: I see the possibility of that in the U.S. today. It is a process of erosion that at some moment reaches a point of no return. If democracy ends in the U.S., it’s not going to be the way it ended in Chile with a military coup. It will end through a slow erosion, a continuation of trends we see now: restrictions on the ability of people to register to vote, decreasing voter turnout, executive interference with the judiciary, struggles between the executive and the Congress. I don’t take it for granted that democracy in the U.S. is going to overcome all obstacles. I see a serious risk.

Why?

So we must ask, why the breakdown? My best analysis all these years later is that we had then already entered a period of sharp decline in face-to-face communication in the U.S. — more than in any other country and before any other country. This was a result both of the culture of mobility — people moving far from their original communities, often to the other end of this large country — as well as growing inequality resulting from de-industrialization in the Rust Belt and the rise of the global economy that had the impact of segregating communities along class and educational lines.

The rise of the Internet? I have a book by Ezra Klein, Why We’re Polarized, that I will read soon.

The site Noema, that I’d not encountered before, is a magazine exploring the transformations sweeping our world, and is published by the Berggruen Institute, which happens to be headquartered in the Bradbury Building in downtown LA (the building made famous by the 1982 film Blade Runner).

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Links and Comments: About Thinking; About Research; About Orientations

First, from yesterday’s New York Times Science section: How to Think Like an Epidemiologist. Subtitle: “Don’t worry, a little Bayesian analysis won’t hurt you.”

As Marc Lipsitch, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Harvard, noted on Twitter, Bayesian reasoning comes awfully close to his working definition of rationality. “As we learn more, our beliefs should change,” Dr. Lipsitch said in an interview. “One extreme is to decide what you think and be impervious to new information. Another extreme is to over-privilege the last thing you learned. In rough terms, Bayesian reasoning is a principled way to integrate what you previously thought with what you have learned and come to a conclusion that incorporates them both, giving them appropriate weights.”

(The first extreme is that of the religious fundamentalist; the second extreme is what psychologists call the availability heuristic.)

A few posts ago I discussed how risk analysis is done, and is done in great detail within industries that depend on bringing a project in, as close to possible, on time and to budget. (As opposed to going with your gut.) Similarly, there is a rigorous, if idealistic, process for how a scientist, or anyone else, updates their (always) provisional conclusions as new evidence comes in. It’s called Bayesian analysis (Wikipedia calls it Bayesian inference), and it boils down to the couple equations in the linked NYT article, but can be described with examples to seem simple and intuitive. It’s analogous to how a detective changes his likely suspect as new evidence is discovered.

Sadly, this is not only not understood by many, but willfully misunderstood by those who dislike scientific conclusions and want to find reasons to reject them. Their take is that if a scientist says one thing today and another thing in a month, it’s because they can’t be trusted and science itself is discredited. (Peter Navarro’s attempted take-down of Dr. Fauci was like this.) This attitude is prevalent, it seems, among the religious faithful, for whom all questions have definitive answers that harbor no revision. The real world isn’t like that. Any more than when a detective shows up on scene of a crime, he is expected to be completely correct at once, before further evidence is gathered.

An example just from today: a couple lines of evidence about the age of the universe don’t exactly line up. And so as Paul Fidalgo puts it (scroll down):

There is some slight disagreement among scientists about the age of the Universe, which means of course that science is wrong and God made everything like a few days ago.

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Second: Forbes: You Must Not ‘Do Your Own Research’ When It Comes To Science.

The writer, Ethan Siegel, is a Ph.D. astrophysicist.

“Research both sides and make up your own mind.” It’s simple, straightforward, common sense advice. And when it comes to issues like vaccinations, climate change, and the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, it can be dangerous, destructive, and even deadly. The techniques that most of us use to navigate most of our decisions in life — gathering information, evaluating it based on what we know, and choosing a course of action — can lead to spectacular failures when it comes to a scientific matter.

The reason is simple: most of us, even those of us who are scientists ourselves, lack the relevant scientific expertise needed to adequately evaluate that research on our own. In our own fields, we are aware of the full suite of data, of how those puzzle pieces fit together, and what the frontiers of our knowledge is. When laypersons espouse opinions on those matters, it’s immediately clear to us where the gaps in their understanding are and where they’ve misled themselves in their reasoning. When they take up the arguments of a contrarian scientist, we recognize what they’re overlooking, misinterpreting, or omitting. Unless we start valuing the actual expertise that legitimate experts have spent lifetimes developing, “doing our own research” could lead to immeasurable, unnecessary suffering.

With this description of what many people actually do when they say they’re “doing research”:

There’s an old saying that I’ve grown quite fond of recently: you can’t reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into. When most of us “research” an issue, what we are actually doing is:

• formulating an initial opinion the first time we hear about something,
• evaluating everything we encounter after that through that lens of our gut instinct,
• finding reasons to think positively about the portions of the narrative that support or justify our initial opinion,
• and finding reasons to discount or otherwise dismiss the portions that detract from it.

Of course, that’s not what we think we’re doing. We think of ourselves as the heroes of our stories: cutting through misinformation and digging up the real truth on the matter. We think that, just by applying our brainpower and our critical reasoning skills, we can discern whose expert opinions are trustworthy and responsible. We think that we can see through who’s a charlatan and a fraud, and we can tell what’s safe and effective from what’s dangerous and ineffective.

Except, for almost all of us, we can’t. Even those of us with excellent critical thinking skills and lots of experience trying to dig up the truth behind a variety of claims are lacking one important asset: the scientific expertise necessary to understand any finds or claims in the context of the full state of knowledge of your field. It’s part of why scientific consensus is so remarkably valuable: it only exists when the overwhelming majority of qualified professionals all hold the same consistent professional opinion. It truly is one of the most important and valuable types of expertise that humanity has ever developed.

My Facebook friend who linked this article prefaced by saying, “For too many people, _research_ means ‘google stuff until you’re bored or emotionally satisfied’. I think we’re going to have to make up a new word to use when we’re talking about actual research.”

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Finally, a bit of fun. A minute-and-a-half YouTube video that asks, in Star Trek, why when two starships approach each other, they are always level to each other? My answer: it’s intuitive physics at work; it’s naive mapping of the human experience of water-going ships that move two-dimensionally, to space-going ships that can move three-dimensionally. The video’s answer is cute, but incomplete; the matter of people beaming down from a starship to a planet is still an issue.

SF writers have occasionally dealt with a related issue, e.g., if you could time travel to the past or future, how would you catch up to where the Earth will be or was? Wouldn’t it move out from underneath you? Some of these writers develop workarounds or rationales; most just ignore the issue.

(Also, as I recall from last seeing the film decades ago, the second Star Trek film, The Wrath of Khan, made a plot point of having the Enterprise approach the enemy ship from below, rather than straight-on. And thought it was being very clever to think of this ploy.)

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Links and Comments: Reputable News Sources; Conservative Animus toward Obama

Several interesting links from the past couple days, but let’s start with the most general, and pertinent.

Current Affairs: The Truth Is Paywalled But The Lies Are Free.

This makes the apt point that responsible journalism on the web is often paywalled. There are exceptions like CNN, supported by its cable network, but others, like those listed in the article, require subscriptions to see more than three or four articles a month on their websites. Where as certain…. other sites… presumably have hidden motivations, or some other way to make money (selling ads that appeal to the people who would read such sites, as Facebook does), and so provide their content for free. Here’s the opening of this (long) article, where I’ve captured all its links in the second paragraph.

Paywalls are justified, even though they are annoying. It costs money to produce good writing, to run a website, to license photographs. A lot of money, if you want quality. Asking people for a fee to access content is therefore very reasonable. You don’t expect to get a print subscription  to the newspaper gratis, why would a website be different? I try not to grumble about having to pay for online content, because I run a magazine and I know how difficult it is to pay writers what they deserve.

But let us also notice something: the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Washington Post, the New Republic, New York, Harper’s, the New York Review of Books, the Financial Times, and the London Times all have paywalls. Breitbart, Fox News, the Daily Wire, the Federalist, the Washington Examiner, InfoWars: free! You want “Portland Protesters Burn Bibles, American Flags In The Streets,” “The Moral Case Against Mask Mandates And Other COVID Restrictions,” or an article suggesting the National Institutes of Health has admitted 5G phones cause coronavirus—they’re yours. You want the detailed Times reports on neo-Nazis infiltrating German institutions, the reasons contact tracing is failing in U.S. states, or the Trump administration’s undercutting of the USPS’s effectiveness—well, if you’ve clicked around the website a bit you’ll run straight into the paywall. This doesn’t mean the paywall shouldn’t be there. But it does mean that it costs time and money to access a lot of true and important information, while a lot of bullshit is completely free.

This recalls a heuristic I’ve seen before: pay more attention to news sources that charge money for their content, than those who provide it for free, since the latter presumably have some hidden motivation for giving you free content. Another not-quite-equivalent way of saying this: trust news sources that existed before the internet, more than all the opportunistic sites that take advantage of their ability to provide “free” content. And another apt analogy: pay as much attention to what you put into your brain, as what you put into your body; avoid junk food, and junk news. Facebook posts are mostly junk news.

(Coincidentally, an analogous effect has been seen in the most popular science fiction award, the Hugos, over the past decade with the rise of free fiction websites like Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, and Uncanny; nominees in short fiction categories for many years now have been dominated by stories from those sites, rather than the traditional print magazines, which of course require payment to buy, like Analog, Asimov’s, and F&SF. The result as been a degradation of the awards to the point of meaninglessness, as debated in an online forum I see every day. The best stories of any year are rather to be identified by the anthologists who produce “best of the year” volumes, since those editors read everything, and select by quality, not by whether stories are free.)

For my part, I subscribe to the New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and (online only) Washington Post, as well as Time, The Week, Scientific American, National Geographic, Free Inquiry, and Skeptical Inquirer. Many other sites that are paywalled allow you to read 3 or 4 articles a month for free; and they all allow you to see their homepages, see their lead stories and how they frame them, for free, every single day. (Thus, you never saw any of these reputable sites mention that nonsense Pl*nd*m*c video except in articles about baseless conspiracy theories.) I keep refining the sites I look at each day, more or less, based on what I see from compilation sites, and from excerpts in my favorite print magazine, The Week (its website is a pale counterpart). It’s also worth checking out sites like BBC and Guardian to get British takes on American news, since they have a different political alignment than the US Democratic/Republican split.

As a general rule of thumb, as I think I’ve said before, check out the Media Bias Chart (there are several versions floating around out there) and avoid the extremes. (Though I tend to think that, as the saying goes, Reality has a liberal bias; or perhaps, Liberals have a reality bias; conservatives are committed to ideology despite evidence. And so I do look at some sources toward the left of this chart, and none of those toward the right.)

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One more for today. Given the conservative outrage over former President Obama’s eulogy for the late civil rights leader John Lewis, Damon Linker at The Week examines Why Obama still drives Republicans nuts.

It’s not just racism. Longish article, but here’s the key passage, considering Bernie Sanders and Obama:

Yet the difference remains: Sanders doesn’t provoke rage like Obama does. While some might point to race, I doubt those made apoplectic by a Black politician would be comparatively forgiving to a septuagenarian Jewish social democrat with a thick Brooklyn accent. Something else is going on, and I think it’s that the right accepts that Sanders just pushes his factional agenda from the socialist left and doesn’t presume to speak from outside of or above the partisan fray.

Obama, by contrast, doesn’t know how to speak in any other rhetorical register than above and beyond the partisan fray. He invariably sounds reasonable, his tone fair-minded, objective. He speaks of the grand sweep of American history, renders Solomonic judgments, and looks down on the disputants on the field of battle, even as his proposals invariably advance the liberal-progressive side of the clashes taking place below him.

That is what drives — and has always driven — the right nuts about Obama. It’s his supposed pretense to elevation, to speaking in dispassionate terms about “us,” about what’s morally righteous and true, and rendering sometimes severe moral judgments of his opponents. He’s a master of using a rhetoric of elevation to ennoble himself and his allies while casting implicit moral aspersions on his political foes, whom he portrays as self-evidently dishonorable, all the while sounding as if he’s merely reciting the indisputable facts of the case. His tone at all times is that of a disapproving parent: You should be ashamed of yourselves.

Obama speaks to the entire nation, as an adult, while Trump speaks to his supporters as a petulant child, and considers all his non-supporters enemies of the state. If some foreign adversary wanted to install a candidate to erode the American commitment to democracy, they might well have installed Trump. I don’t really believe this; it’s a conspiracy theory, and Trump and his minions aren’t smart enough to have participated in such a conspiracy. Yet Putin took advantage of their gullibility, and he’s the one who’s winning.

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