Link and Comments: School Debates and Motivated Reasoning

From last month: NYT, Are School Debate Competitions Bad for Our Political Discourse? subtitled, They can be a good credential for aspiring leaders, but they favor a closed-minded and partisan style of argument.

By Jonathan Ellis and Francesca Hovagimian, at UC Santa Cruz and UC Berkeley respectively.

Why? Because school debate ultimately strengthens and rewards biased reasoning.

That means teams start with a conclusion, whether they endorse it or not, and work backward from there, marshaling the best arguments they can devise to make that conclusion come out on top.

The goal is not to determine the most reasonable or fair-minded approach to an issue, but to defend a given claim at all costs. This is an exercise not in deliberation but in reasoning with an agenda.

This also happens to be the kind of argumentation we find so corrosive in today’s politics. Politicians and pundits have their favored view and then emphasize the information that fortifies it. Evidence that threatens their position is rationalized away. Problems for the opposing view are hunted for and magnified.

Maybe this is why I was never interested in debate club. Debates are about winning, not honing in on truth or reality. Debates train lawyers and politicians and theologians, not scientists. I’ve always been more interested on what is actually real, not what my tribe or community thinks is real.

The article goes on to discuss an alternative, something called an Ethics Bowl.

Disagreeing constructively is a skill — one of the most difficult and important there is. In encouraging students to practice this skill, the Ethics Bowl fosters what may be the most important intellectual virtue of all: openness to changing your mind.

There is something of a stigma in our culture about changing your mind, especially in politics. If you do, you are often seen as weak or branded a “flip-flopper.” The problem is, holding steadfast to a belief in the face of sound objections or contrary evidence stops conversation. It’s dogmatic and stubborn. Having the courage to admit when you might be wrong, on the other hand, helps move conversations toward meaningful resolutions.

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Robert Silverberg: REVOLT ON ALPHA C (1955)

Robert Silverberg’s first novel was published in hardcover by Thomas Y. Crowell in 1955 and then went through many printings as a thin paperback edition from Scholastic Books; see for a list of all editions, and cover images. I have the 7th, 1969 printing, that I bought from A Change of Hobbit bookstore on 31 March 1976. It’s a young-adult novel, by contemporary standards, in that it involves a young man finding his place in the world. It’s also remarkably ordinary, considering the heights that Silverberg’s literary career would later reach.

Gist: A new space patrol cadet takes his first interstellar trip to a planet of Alpha Centauri, where he learns that several of the Earth colonies there want freedom from Earth. When two of his friends defect to the rebels, and make appeals to the history of the American revolution, the cadet decides the right thing to do is to stay and help build a new planet, even though that means leaving the service, his father, and Earth all behind.

Take: An oddly political theme for a slender YA novel, though the book also has the standard adventure scene in an alien jungle, peril scene of being trapped out in space, and so on.


  • Larry Stark, new cadet for the Space Patrol, is on the ship Carden bound for Alpha Centauri, now stopping off at Pluto. Also on board is Harl Ellison, a cadet from Mars. Larry enjoys hanging out with the ‘tubemonkeys’ in the engine room; O’Hare sings ballads, and is derisive of the captain’s authority, which makes Larry uncomfortable, having his own military father.
  • A problem with the jets drops the ship out of overdrive; O’Hare, and Larry, exit in spacesuits to do the repair, and get separated from the ship, using jetpacks to get back.
  • Arriving at Alpha C, the ship is refused clearance from the “Free World of Alpha Centauri IV”; but one of the other colonies, Chicago, allows them to land.
  • The planet is in its Mesozoic Era, populated by dinosaurs; the colonies are surrounded by high walls.
  • They meet a rebel leader, Jon Browne (!), who wants a united planet so they can negotiate with Earth—familiar complaints about taxes vs. representation.
  • O’Hare gives Larry his guitar—as he leaves to change sides to support the rebels. Harl soon follows. Larry is shocked and angry.
  • Larry and another cadet are sent to follow Harl and return with intelligence. But they are imprisoned as spies. Larry persuades O’Hare let him escape.
  • Back at Chicago, the ship’s captain asks Larry to send a message to Earth, to bring reinforcements. Larry realizes he can’t do – and disables the radio instead.
  • And so he flees with Jon Browne to the rebel colony of London, realizing he’s leaving it all behind – Earth, his father, his chance to visit other stars. Finally, satisfied that his father would approve of his following the maxim that a Space Patrolman must make decisions, and keep them, — he smashes the tube to render the ship’s radio impossible to repair.


  • Silverberg seems to have named a character after Harlan Ellison, a close friend in NYC from early in both their careers.
  • We get a standard explanation for why an ‘overdrive’ is needed to travel in interstellar space, with the familiar rationale of folds in space, like pleats, to allow movement across vast distances.
  • The local landscape is jungle and dinosaurs, but the description as in the Mesozoic Era is inapt; no two planets would go through the same sequence of geological ages.
  • Again, it’s unusual that such a political theme should dominate a young adult novel, especially considering that much of Silverberg’s other early work was pure pulp adventure. Presumably he was trying for something a little more substantial in this, his first novel.


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Arthur C. Clarke, PROFILES OF THE FUTURE (1962..1999)

This is a book first published in 1962, a nonfiction book speculating on potential technological developments and human achievements. The subtitle is “An Inquiry in the Limits of the Possible.” Clarke revised it three times, the last in 1999 (he died in 2008). I first read the book around 1970, in a paperback of what must have been the original edition. Later I bought a copy of the revised edition and (unwisely in retrospect) sold off the earlier copy. Then recently I discovered the book had two more revisions, the fourth published only in the UK. I tracked a copy down on Abebooks and have now read that, checking it against the earlier, 2nd, edition I have to see how substantial the revisions were. (In some cases, from chapter to chapter, very minor; in others quite substantial. Serious updates are noted with chapter prefaces or postscripts.)

The fun of a book like this, even one just 20 years old, is to see where the author correctly anticipated the future, and where he went awry.

The first thing I noticed about this book is that the introduction advises that it was written as a series of essays for Playboy magazine. This is interesting because Playboy is and was a high-end market (i.e. despite its reputation as a skin magazine, it makes, or made, enough in advertising to attract top-drawer writers), and I hadn’t realized Clarke had that kind of mainstream success so early (in contrast to his celebrity years following 2001 in 1968). And it’s significant because the book isn’t a sustained or organized argument about various aspects of the future; it’s a collection of individual topics, without the focus or progression one might expect of a nonfiction book written from scratch. Yet I realize as I glance through my shelf of other Clarke nonfiction titles, virtually all of Clarke’s nonfiction books (except perhaps personal narratives like The Treasure of the Great Reef) are similar collections of essays.

This fourth ‘Millennium Edition’ begins by recalling Clarke’s so-called Three Laws:

  1. When a distinguished by elderly scientist says that something is possible, (s)he is almost certainly right. When (s)he says it is impossible, s(he) is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of finding the limits of the possible is by going beyond them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

The third is the most famous, of course. He further advises that this book isn’t about what’s probable, or desirable, but what’s possible.

The first two chapters (which perhaps were written especially for the book) discuss two “Hazards of Prophecy.” The first is “The Failure of Nerve.” Examples of are usually cases that fit the first law above: some authority claims such and such is impossible, without thinking through the evidence or presenting a case. Thus, fears of how locomotives would suffocate people by reaching 20 mph. How heavier-than-air flight was thought to be impossible. And how the idea of space flight was dismissed, citing one example in detail, where the math was right but the assumptions incorrect. As late as 1956 came that famous remark, “Space travel is utter bilge” – from Britain’s Astronomer Royal. As a result only Germany and Russia pursued rocketry, and Russia won the race into space.  Lesson: “Anything that is theoretically possible will be achieved in practice, no matter what the technical difficulties, if it is desired greatly enough.”

“Failures of Imagination” account for known facts but don’t anticipate things that might yet be discovered. In 1835 it was thought the composition of the stars could never be known. How the idea of harnessing the energy of the atom was dismissed, 5 years before it happened. Consider how much of today’s technology would have seemed incomprehensible in 1900; some of our machines would have seemed sensible to past minds, e.g. cars and trains, but not computers, radar or VCRs [Blu-Ray players, we might say now].

The remaining chapters jump from topic to topic.

Ch3 is on transport, noting how throughout most of human history the speed of transportation has been no more than 10mph, while the ranges of mph in the next three orders of magnitude have been achieved in the past century. Clarke concludes that in the short range (10-100 miles) it’s hard to imagine anything fundamentally different replacing cars. But—they will become more efficient, electric, and will drive themselves, and you can dismiss them. [[ Thus he’s anticipating self-driving electric cars, and the sharing economy. ]] Railroads will fade as industry decentralizes; planes for intercontinental, getting bigger; sea travel shifting to comfort and leisure. (Most on the mark here.)

Ch4 discusses Clarke’s biggest miss from 1962, as he admits in 1999. It’s about GEMs, Ground Effect Machines (what we now call hovercraft). How they can cross rough terrain without any kind of highway, travel at sea, and can transition from sea to land anywhere, rendering coastal ports obsolete. His 1999 postscript admits this hasn’t worked out: because they turned out to be gas guzzlers, were noisy, messy, and hard to control. They do have certain limited uses, like channel crossings. But they didn’t revolutionize the world.

Ch5 is about overcoming gravity, an ancient dream. Notes how small animals are unaware of it. Advises that weightlessness in orbit is not about being “beyond the pull of gravity”; that’s nonsense. If some negative-gravity matter were found, gravity control would be propulsion, to move freight, to visit Jupiter in person. Gravity belts might make elevators obsolete; our homes could take to the air and we’d be nomads, with the end of cities and national boundaries. [[ So here we have an admittedly far-fetched premise, but we see how Clarke extrapolates its consequences in unexpected ways, which is what futurists and science fiction writers do. ]]

Ch6 is more about speed. The rate increase discussed in Ch3 cannot continue. Talk of nuclear propulsion, or ramjets. But with great speed comes high acceleration. Gravity control might give rise to an ‘inertialess’ drive.

Ch7 is about a world without distance. Suppose we could teleport ourselves, like in that Alfred Bester novel [[ The Stars My Destination ]] ? Issues include how long it would take to scan a human body, and the fact that a transmitter would actually be a multiplier. [[ The issue with Star Trek‘s transporter, as James Blish explored in his one original Trek novel, Spock Must Die. ]]  The real answer may be in the nature of space; the bending of space, as on a Mobius strip.

Ch8 outlines the near future of space, from 1960. Space travel will provide a sense of wonder, but in no way a solution to the problem of overpopulation. Culture is shifting (he said back in 1962), with toys and TV shows on space themes. Space exploration might affect art: writers respond to the existence of frontiers. Space flight is less like aviation than like ocean voyaging. Aesthetics will be affected by alien environments. Alien life is unlikely in our solar system; contact with races on planets of other suns, likely via radio, would have profound impacts on our cultures, and on our religions — “if there are any gods whose chief concern is man, they cannot be very important gods.”

Ch9: Is there any place that will forever be inaccessible to us? Considers the center of the earth, Jupiter, Mercury, the sun, dwarf stars; pulsars. We can approach all of these, at least.

Ch10: We’ll never ‘conquer’ space – it’s unimaginably vast. Even if we settle the solar system, conversation won’t be possible, because of the time lag. And stellar space is millions of times vaster that solar space. That’s not to say stars will never be reached; there are various ways of achieving such travel. But interstellar empires are fantasy. Any settled planets would be independent. Even if we could surpass the speed of light, we would still have the enormity of space, considering the number of stars, of planets. Again: space will never be conquered.

Ch11, About Time. Will we ever be able to visit the past, change it, travel to it, or to the future? What would it be like to actually know the complete past? Perhaps people in the future are looking back at us. Altering the past involves too many paradoxes and contradictions. Some writers have tried to circumvent these. Many worlds; or history has inertia. [[ all common science fiction premises ]] Why have we seen there no time travelers, if such travel is possible? Clarke doesn’t take these ideas very seriously. Drugs can alter the apparent passage of time. Relativity predicts the time paradox of space travelers returning to earth. Travel to the future? Easy. Suspended animation is one way. Cryonics. Seeing the future? It was once thought that if given the position and velocities of all atoms in the universe, the future was predetermined. But not anymore. Still, we can’t rule anything out…

Ch12, Are we running out of resources? Previous worries haven’t happened yet. But fossil fuels can’t last forever. Fission is an unpleasant method. Fusion is the best solution, though likely only as very large plants. Batteries will be needed to transport that energy to cars and planes. Broadcast energy has its problems p131. Other sources? Solar. Hydro-electric. Perhaps sources we can’t imagine yet. As for raw materials, we’ve used up in a few centuries the easily mined ores that took hundreds of millions of years to form. We can get some minerals from ordinary rocks, from sea water, or from deep mining with machines. Or other planets in the solar system, transported via a ‘funicular’ to lift payload into orbit, a cable or sky-hook; space elevators [ the theme of Clarke’s 1979 novel The Fountains of Paradise ]. Ultimately, nuclear transmutation will create any elements we want. Starting with fusion; then using nuclear catalysts. With that capability, we should never run out of raw material.

Ch13, about manufacturing and the the struggle for food, shelter, and other materials. Some objects can be specified in a few words, but most can’t. still, we have techniques for analyzing objects in ways that would have amazed chemists of a generation ago. We can manufacture solid circuits, layer by layer. So consider how a three-d replicator would work. Mentions of books by Drexler and Broderick (The Spike). And why not food? Perhaps then we’d see the end of factories, farms, and transportation of raw materials. The first replicator would then create another of itself. What would remain valuable? Values would change; services might prevail. It’s a matter of being civilized.

Ch14, is invisibility possible? The notion in Wells’ Invisible Man wouldn’t work; the eye wouldn’t be able to see. Other notions involve cameras, mirrors and prisms, vibrations. But subjective invisibility is quite possible. Hypnosis. And what about matter penetration? Walking through walls. Polarization. Or the fourth dimension – as in direction. Flatland, and the analogy to the third dimensional world.

Ch15, the idea of exploring the very tiny; the invention of the microscope led to Gulliver’s Travels and the idea of levels of smaller sizes. A world in a drop of water. Alice used a drug. Cummings: the atom as miniature solar system. Incredible Shrinking Man. Are any of these possible? No, for reasons of scale. Ants. A tiny man’s bodily mechanisms would fail. In reality, humans may now be larger than they need to be. Smaller intelligent beings might exist along different lines. But all cells are about the same size. Thus very small animals are less complex; intelligent ones are larger. The downward limit for life is the size of a protein.

Ch16, Voices from the Sky – another 1962 essay here reprinted without change. The president’s Christmas message in 1958 heralded a new age—via an Atlas satellite. But great improvements are in store. The world is round… it was the ionosphere that made long-distance radio possible. That doesn’t work for TV. What’s needed instead is a single relay a few thousand miles up; three satellites to surround the world. This was Clarke’s idea in 1945. What will be the consequences of global TV? We will all become neighbors, able to see each other’s lives. There’s hope and also danger: consider a scenario of how to conquer the world without anyone noticing, p173t. Suppose Russian spread tiny receivers to undeveloped nations and quickly used propaganda for their ends. Also, we’ll see the end of hideous TV antennae. The variety of shows will increase. Shows without commercials. And relief from the “intellectual vacuum” of small towns, especially in the Deep South, p174. The end of small-town mentality. Affects on languages. What else? Perhaps personal transceivers. Be able to call anyone on earth. A positioning system. Need for transportation will decrease. Workers can live wherever they please. Wide-screen full-colour TVs, 176b. Correspondence making airmail obsolete… by writing something and having it scanned at the office. Orbital newspapers, printing out only the sections you want to read. Copies of any book anywhere. Or will the availability of all this TV destroy civilization? (Clarke’s 1999 postscript: all this happened more quickly than he imagined. But we still don’t have paperless offices.) [[ He still didn’t anticipate e-mail or the web; he imagined correspondence would be printed out. ]]

Ch17, Brain and Body. Can they be improved? The brain perhaps never completely forgets anything. But false memories can be implanted too, by fundamentalist preachers… Might we gain conscious control of our memories? A form of time travel, to bring up any recollection. Or how about the creation of new memories, i.e. education machines? Artificial memories would amount to dream factories. Our senses are easily tricked. We could manufacture new sensations. We could wire in the senses of other animals. We’re deaf and blind to a whole range that of our senses. [[ A favorite theme of E.O. Wilson. ]] Senses can be trained to make up for the absence of others. Perhaps we can control pain? Is sleep really necessary? Is dreaming? Sleep might be useful in some circumstances, leading to suspended animation. Is there a normal lifespan? But a world of immortals would stagnate. But perhaps we can improve the aging process. Might our minds move into machines? Or disembodied heads?

18, The Obsolescence of Man. Pre-humans first used tools, triggering the trend of human evolution. In a sense, tools invented modern men, who replaced the earlier ones who invented tools. This may be happening again. Biological evolution may give way to technology evolution: the machine is going to take over. This will be a turning point in history. But what is meant by a machine thinking? Turing’s device. Yet aren’t computers programmed? A fallacious argument; their sheer speed will enable them to escape our control. The argument is like the early chemists who felt something inorganic must animate life. Already machines are making progress to M. sapiens. They may be grown. Sizes shrink. Capacity grows. Comparisons with radios and hi-fi equipment. Recall the brain, life, cells, eyes. Eyes are poor compared to the cheapest camera. Some senses are unavailable to us. The greatest stimulus to the evolution of mechanical intelligence is the challenge of Space. Perhaps only in space will intelligence flourish; the dullards will stay home. Like the fish that stayed in the sea. So what happens to man? There may be an alliance for a while. Machines may take up menial tasks. Would they combine with us? Humans with machine parts. Cyborgs. The idea that intelligent machines would be hostile to man is absurd, 205b.

19, The Long Twilight. Acknowledges inconsistencies and omissions. The M87 jet. Quote from Bertrand Russell. The fate of the universe.

Finally, the book has a “Chart of the Future”, showing categories of achievement against a timeline of past and future, with significant accomplishments shown, or predicted.  (Click for larger image.) Obviously Clarke updated this chart from with each revision of the book. Note that even in 1999 he thought fusion power and weather control were imminent, while other ideas, like colonizing planets, might have happened but have not, humanity’s taste for such pursuits having waned. Furthermore, despite Clarke’s optimism, there are good reasons to think that gravity control, ‘space drives,’ and matter transmission will never be possible. But of course the point of Clarke’s book is to never rule anything out, no matter how improbable.

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Richard Dawkins: OUTGROWING GOD: A Beginner’s Guide (2019)

This book, clearly aimed at younger readers, repeats many of themes from his earlier 2006 book THE GOD DELUSION, boiled down and made even more pointed. The first part of the book is structured as a series of “but what about?” questions; the author challenges belief in God, and then answers objections along the lines of, but if there’s no God, what about this? What about that? The second part is a multi-part answer to the final “what about” question.

I’ll try to boil down the books to a simple sequence of questions and answers. [[ Some asides of mine in brackets. ]]

Part I

Q1: Do you believe in God?

A1: Which one? There’s a long list of gods of past cultures that no one believes in anymore. Yahweh, the god of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims, started out as the tribal god of ancient Israelites who, they believed, looked after them as his ‘chosen people’. Yet Christians and Muslims seem to believe in other assorted gods: the devil; the holy trinity; mother Mary; and all those Catholic saints, quite analogous to the pantheon of Greek and Roman gods. [[ It’s as if humans have never escaped the animist mindset that ascribes agency to every natural phenomenon. ]]

Q2: But what about the Bible? Isn’t it true?

A2: How do we know any book is true? We do know that the books of the Bible were written in ancient languages, from word-of-mouth storytelling, and then translated many times. The game of ‘Chinese Whispers’ [telephone, in the US] shows how stories change each time they’re told. Most likely the stories in the Old Testament are legends, like the stories of Homer. In the New Testament, the gospels were written decades after the events they portray, and after all those letters of St. Paul, who didn’t seem to know much about Jesus’ life. The Biblical canon wasn’t established until 325 AD. Other gospels were left out on the numerological grounds that there could be only four. And the four we have are inconsistent, and prone to mistranslation. (e.g that Mary was a ‘virgin’). The idea of miracles has to be carefully considered given how frequently people are mistaken, or fooled by conjurers or con-men.

Q3: What about the non-miraculous stories in the Old Testament?

A3: Consider how myths start. There’s no independent evidence that Abraham actually existed, or that the Jews escaped Egypt led by Moses; you’d think the latter would have been noted in Egyptian history. Yet there is evidence of the Jewish captivity in Babylon…about the time the books of the OT were first written down. Thus those stories are influenced by legends of other peoples, e.g. Gilgamesh and Greek mythology. No modern theologian thinks that Adam and Eve, or Noah’s Ark, are history.

Myths can begin as stories based in fact, and grow in the telling. We’ve seen this in recent history: how isolated Pacific Islands during World War II came worship American cargo planes (cargo cults) and on one island a cult formed around a visit by John Frum – “John from America.” It’s easy to see Mormonism as another modern cult, given the circumstances of Joseph Smith’s claims. People indoctrinated into religion as a child have a hard time shaking it off. Every tribe has its origin myth. Myths have poetic beauty, but they’re not history.

Q4: But isn’t it necessary to follow the Bible, the ‘Good Book,’ for its moral wisdom?

A4: Whether or not God is real or a fictional character, we can judge whether he is good or bad. The stories of Job, of Abraham and Isaac (a story involving a different son in the Qu’ran). God seems not only cruel, but insecure – he even calls himself a ‘jealous’ god. The early Hebrews were polytheistic in a sense: they didn’t doubt the existence of rival gods, they just believed their own Yahweh was more powerful. The commandment about not killing only meant, don’t kill members of your own tribe. God of the OT kills other tribes right and left, and loves the smell of burning meat. All those stories of Hebrews killing tribes in places they were told to settle would today be called ethnic cleansing.

What about the NT? Jesus said some nice things, but St. Paul dwelled on the idea of babies being born in sin. The doctrine of atonement, of God needing to sacrifice his own ‘son’ Jesus, born just so he could be tortured and die in agony, is macabre and nasty and deserves to be ridiculed. (Why not just grant humans forgiveness and be done with it? [[ Because blood sacrifices were common in primitive tribal religions of the time, and so the idea was worked into the legend of Jesus. ]] ) And how does the condemnation of Judas make sense, if his betrayal of Jesus was God’s plan?

So the character of God does not seem especially nice.

Q5: But don’t we need God in order to be good?

A5: Most people think someone of a different faith is preferable to an atheist, as if belief in a higher power is necessary to know right from wrong. Why would this be so? Because a holy book is a book of rules, without which we’d have no idea what is right or wrong? Or perhaps because people act good if they believe some policeman in the sky is watching them. Thus ‘god-fearing.’ Yet there’s little evidence that belief in God or Hell makes people nicer. Prisons are full of believers, and very few atheists. Of course, some people think *other* people need such beliefs to be good; this is the idea of belief in belief.

The traditional 10 rules (there are two versions) aren’t valuable as a guide to being good or bad; the first two are only about God being jealous. No one observes the fourth. The sixth applies only to one’s own tribe. The tenth considers the wife to be the property of the man. In the NT Jesus endorsed the OT ‘Law’, repudiated his own family, and took petty revenge on a fig tree. His ‘golden rule’ is familiar from many cultures. Anyway, if we can pick and choose which rules to follow, then we must have some sense of good and bad outside those rules.

Q6: So how do we decide what is good?

A6: Our brains have evolved to include certain tastes and desires, including the desire to be nice to other people [[ more about this later ]]. Our sense of right and wrong has changed – about slavery, the inferiority of different races, of allowing women to vote – because society has evolved, from interaction with people different than ourselves, through social debates, and so on. There are two broad classes of moral philosophy: absolutionists, who think some things just are right or just are wrong, and consequentialists, who considers the consequences of an action, who suffers or does not. –Here author imagines a long debate about abortion between two women, one on each side. Deontologists propose ideas like Kant’s categorical imperative, or the idea of a ‘veil of ignorance’ is setting social standards [[ this is the idea that you design a society so that whatever role you might play in it you would not be unhappy ]].

So even if God does exist, we don’t need him to be good.

This leads to the ultimate ‘what about’ question – doesn’t the world look obviously designed? So we move the second part of the book, about evolution.

Part II

Q7, Surely there must be a designer?

A7: Author imagines a cheetah and a gazelle and observes how each seems designed for its role. Also how a chameleon’s tongue works. Considers the complexities of the eye. These are all problems that need to be explained. The solution is evolution by natural selection. The fact that there are often flaws in these supposed ‘designs’ is evidence of that evolution: the human eye’s blind spot; the nerve that connects to the voicebox; goosebumps. History is written all over us.

Ch8: Steps towards improbability.

All of these designs seem high improbable; don’t they need a designer? No, that’s no solution at all, despite William Paley’s hypothetical example of finding a watch found on the beach. The solution is to imagine, e.g., the cheetah being change a little bit, in some random direction. The change might help, or not. The change is random, but the result is not, it’s determined by how well the animal survives in its environment. Darwin used the example of how the domestication of horses and dogs have led to vastly different breeds. Humans did that selection; in the natural world, nature itself does the selection. Thus an excellent eye can result from a change to a slightly less excellent eye, and so on, all the way to a very poor eye that’s better than no eye at all. [[ And our eyes may be excellent but they’re not perfect, which is why so many of us where eyeglasses; so much for intelligent design. ]] The problem with imagining a designer is that God himself is even more improbable than Paley’s watch; complex things take time to evolve. [[ I.e, where did God come from? If eternal, why not just allow the universe to be eternal? This is another example of human nature’s propensity to attribute agency to the natural universe. ]]

Ch9, Crystal and Jigsaw Puzzles

An ordinary rock may not require a designer; what about a cubical crystal? But crystals form spontaneously, due to the arrangement of their molecules. We can understand snowflakes similarly, and viruses, and proteins.

Ch10, Bottom up or top down?

Of course creatures don’t appear from scratch; they arise from previous generations of creatures. DNA isn’t a ‘blueprint,’ it’s more like a recipe. [[ Or like origami steps, fold here then fold here, without having any idea what the result will be. ]] Houses are build top-down, from a blueprint; organisms arise bottom-up by following relatively simple rules. An example is how birds flock. Computer programs illustrate this. DNA provides instructions for how cells divide and grow. And when those instructions change a bit – through mutation of individual genes – the child animal will be slightly different than the parent animals. And some will enable the child to live longer, or have more babies. That’s natural selection. Everything about us thus evolved, including the tendency to like music and sex, and including religion.

Ch11, Did we evolve to be religious? Did we evolve to be nice?

Since almost everyone believes in some sort of god, should this have a Darwinin explanation? Probably so. It starts with the human tendency to believe in agency – that an effect must have a conscious cause. Thus animism; how the Greeks imagined a different for thunder, for rivers, for fire, for the sun, etc. Yahweh was originally the storm god of the Canaanite people from whom the Jews descended. Sacrifices might have grown out of coincidences repeated. We notice false positives; they become superstitions. We often don’t notice false negatives, e.g. not realizing mosquitoes spread disease. Sorting these out is what experiments, and science, is all about. Skinner instilled superstitions into pigeons. Similarly, gamblers develop lucky shirts and habits. Superstitions evolved to rituals that were instructed to children – pray five times a day! Some intelligent children grow up and realize the evidence of the real world doesn’t support such advice. Religion is a byproduct of how child brains are shaped by natural selection to believe parents, teachers, and other elders.

Another explanation might be how beliefs of one tribe might prevail over beliefs of another tribe, e.g. by encouraging the sacrifice of warriors through belief in an afterlife or martyrs’ heaven. Indeed, the spread of Islam, and Christianity, came through military conquest. Also, shared beliefs and rituals bond societies together, promoting solidarity, or perhaps promoting the dominance of kings and priests.

Recall the idea that natural selection promotes niceness. But there’s a basis for nastiness too. The result is a balance, and it’s this balance that has shifted in recent centuries. So why would niceness evolve? Because natural selection favors individuals who take risks to help close relatives; even at risk to oneself, because doing so still passes on the individual’s genes. In small tribes or villages, this would tend toward everyone, since everyone could be in the same extended family. The flip side is: be hostile to everyone not in your tribe. Another behavior is reciprocal altruism: be nice to someone if they are nice back to you. This exchange of favors is the basis for all trade, and thus our global civilization, with its complexity in which each person performs only a specific role, and goods are exchanged among all of them.

12, Taking courage from science

Darwin’s explanation of natural selection was a prime example of how when we didn’t understand something, we assumed God must have done it, until someone figured out a natural explanation. Some discoveries seem to controvert common sense. But this has happened over and over. There are some examples…

  • Every time you drink a glass of water, it’s likely it contains a molecule that passed through the bladder of Julius Caesar.
  • A cannonball and a feather drop at the same rate (ignoring the friction of the air).
  • The moon is weightless and continuously falling around the Earth.
  • Earth orbits the sun, not vice versa.
  • South America and Africa were once joined.
  • Supposedly solid matter is mostly empty space.
  • Setting off on a spaceship moving close to the speed of light, you would return hundreds of years after you left.

[[ This chapter echoes Dawkins’ earlier book THE MAGIC OF REALITY: HOW WE KNOW WHAT’S REALLY TRUE. ]]

All of these are examples of how science has upset common sense. The most alarming might be quantum theory, which sounds bizarre but which has been confirmed over and over. The courage to accept these results is the courage to give up belief in God.

The insight of evolution doesn’t require high math; why didn’t Aristotle get it? Or Newton? Because, like the examples above, it meant entertaining a notion that seemed contrary to common sense. Lots of ideas seem crazy; those survive for which the evidence is there. Thus we now understand the age and size of the universe. Those clinging to God don’t need him to explain life, so they move on to other ‘gaps,’ e.g. what caused the big bang? Why are the fundamental constants what they are? This leads to ideas of an anthropic universe—because if they were different, we wouldn’t be here. Or the multiverse in which only a few are anthropic. There might be billions of unfriendly parallel universes. Is this true? We don’t quite know yet. But following the evidence where it leads has worked over and over in the history of science. So why cling to gods?


As in his earlier book, he doesn’t attempt to explore the reasons religious persist, aside from the bit about how shared beliefs and rituals bond societies together, which admittedly is most of it, but for complex reasons not explored here. The current rise of the “Nones,” people in the US who claim no affiliation with any particular religion, is I suspect mostly the effect of the relaxing of social structures, with fewer and fewer people living in tightly-knit communities where the beliefs and traditions are taken for granted and never questioned. The ones who do question them – the “some intelligent children” in the description above – move away to the big cities, where other social bonds, other than those based on shared religious faith, exist. Though some of them, surely, remain with their communities and families, following traditions and playing along with belief, because it’s easy enough to do so. (Someone once wrote a whole book about priests, never mind laymen, who’d lost their faith in God and all those Biblical miracles, but stayed on in their positions, filling their social roles, because of the great difficulty that renouncing their faith publicly and losing their social connections.)

Posted in Book Notes, Religion, Science | Comments Off on Richard Dawkins: OUTGROWING GOD: A Beginner’s Guide (2019)

Martin Rees: ON THE FUTURE: Prospects for Humanity (2018)

Martin Rees is a British astronomer and astrophysicist who looks rather like Richard Gere (see; he holds or has held all sorts of high positions in British science and academia. He’s published several books, of which the half dozen that I have are rather short, because, it turns out, they are often based on series of lectures he’s given. This present 2018 book is partially based on a series of 2010 lectures (already published in a previous book).

This book was preceded by the 2003 OUR FINAL HOUR, which explored various ways humanity might be doomed, through its own actions or through various cosmic catastrophes. That and this new book look superficially similar, but this one has a broader scope.

Much of what he says is familiar, and I’ll try to highlight those points where he comes down on one side or another of some contentious issue – or where he makes some crucial issue pointedly clearly. He handily numbers the issues in each section.

His theme, stated in the preface: the flourishing of the world’s growing population depends on the wisdom with which science and technology is deployed.”

Ch1, Perils and Prospects.

  • Scientists are rotten forecasters; recall space travel is bilge comment. His earlier book was inspired by Wells, a mix of optimism and anxiety, p14.
  • Natural threats exist – asteroid strikes, earthquakes etc – but haven’t changed. But new threats have arisen
  • 1.2 Nuclear. Recall how close we came in the ‘60s. the threat is less only in that there are fewer nukes; but political situations can change.
  • 1.3 Eco-threats. The population should level off to about 9 billion in 2050, with most living in mega-cities of 30 million or more. The issue is sustainability; means to bring that about include GMOs, insects and artificial meat, greater equality…leading to political issues.
  • 1.4 The Anthropocene. Our expanding population puts pressure on the environment. Recall E.O. Wilson’s 2006 book THE CREATION: AN APPEAL TO SAVE LIFE ON EARTH; quotes p33. To save the Earth we can rely on religious allies. The Paris agreement was significant, but needed are attitude changes across the population, e.g. that conspicuous consumption is tacky. Logos help – the bear on the ice floe.
  • 1.5 Climate change. No question CO2 is rising. We can agree, p41, that extreme weather events will become more common, and if ‘business as usual’ prevails, catastrophic warming could occur by the end of the century. Some, like Bjorn Lomberg [e.g. Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming, 2007], ‘discount’ effects past 2050 and so downplay climate change.
  • 1.6 Clean energy. Perhaps we can smoothly transition to other forms of energy. Three win-win measures should be agreeable to everyone: 1, improve energy efficiency, and save money; 2, target cuts of secondary polluters, like methane; and 3, expand R&D to all forms of low-emission energy. Electric cars; solar power; geothermal; tides, etc., have different niches of effectivity. More advanced nuclear plants.
  • What will actually happen? Most likely, by 2050 not much will have been done, but models will have improved so we know much more about specific effects and where to take action. Controversial is ‘geo-engineering’ e.g. placing reflective aerosols in the atmosphere, etc.; these would be hard to control and politically dangerous.

Ch2, Humanity’s Future on Earth

  • 2.1 Biotech. The advances of biotech, of cheaply sequencing the genome. Ethical issues of measures to take in extreme old age, or about nonviable infants. Issues about assisted dying, antibiotics, the dangers of biohacking. Mentions a 2003 bet with Steven Pinker about whether a bio error or terror would cause a million deaths by 2020. Potentials to create new organisms as with a chemistry set, and Silicon Valley notions to preserve youth or save people through cryonics.
  • 2.2 Cybertechnology, Robots, and AI. The penetration of the internet and web services has been faster than anyone expected. Example of how technology can improve lives around the world. Indians use iris recognition. Such applications use machine-learning enhanced by increased computer power and brute force data crunching. DeepMind and AlphaGo, chess masters. They consume lots of power. And such machines can make decisions for reasons we can’t necessarily understand. And there are privacy concerns.
  • 2.3 What About Our Jobs? So will the new machine age create as many jobs as it destroys? Machines can replace many kinds of jobs; others, like plumbing and gardening, not. How about truck drivers? There is debate about whether automated vehicles would be desirable. Driving, and airline flight, has gotten amazingly safer. Arguments on both sides. Would driverless cars replace train use? [[ Harari addresses such issues. ]]
  • And issues of universal income [see Rutger Bregman, UTOPIA FOR REALISTS]; perhaps subsidizing some types of jobs would work better. Such as caregivers, which is where the wealthy spend their money. Workweeks could be shortened. Arts and crafts will resurge. Life-long learning via online courses. Yet people in disadvantaged parts of the world will see what they’re missing. Migration patterns will change. International tensions will rise. [[ This is already happening and our politicians don’t realize this. ]] There are concerns about automated weapons and killer robots.
  • 2.4 Human Level Intelligence? No consensus about prospects. Machines can’t interact with people as fast as they can run simulations. Questions about goals and common sense. If humans can ‘download’ their thoughts, what about personal identity? Some say it doesn’t matter whether machines can ‘think’. Once a machine becomes more intelligent than humans, that would be the last invention humans need make. The singularity. Even if it takes centuries, that’s very fast in evolutionary terms.
  • 2.5 Truly Existential Risks? We depend on elaborate networks. A collapse would be global. It could lead to the collapse of civilization. Are there other such extreme risks? Perhaps particle research could trigger the destruction of earth, or the universe. Conversion of quarks into strangelets. Or conversion of space into some other phase. Such possibilities are beyond current experiments. We may not understand the risk for such events. Should physicists avoid such potentially catastrophic experiments? We might consider the threat to all possible future people. These issues raise ethical concerns, and questions about the extent we can understand the physical world…

Ch3, Humanity in a Cosmic Perspective

  • 3.1 The Earth in a Cosmic Context. Recalls Apollo 8, Sagan’s pale blue dot. Darwin. We understand Darwin’s ‘simple beginning’ as going back 4.5 billion years. P122. We’ve learned much in recent decades; and the public is fascinated. Everyone wonders about life on other worlds; aliens. From the 17th to 19th century it was supposed even planets in our solar system were inhabited—on theological grounds, p126. [[ I did not realize this supposition was so wide-spread. ]] All the way up to the supposed Martian canals. The space age revealed the truth. Europa, perhaps Mars, are still chances. Knowing of one other independent example would change our conception of the universe.
  • 3.2 Beyond Our Solar System. We now know that most stars are orbited by planets. How they are detected p130. Kepler. New large telescopes have the potential to see these planets directly. We estimate a billion earth-like planets in the galaxy. And the problem of the origin of life is seeming tractable.
  • 3.3 Spaceflight—Manned and Unmanned. Recalls childhood and watching the early spaceflights. The space station is anticlimactic. Unmanned satellites abound. And tiny satellites are being developed for continuous monitoring and exploring the solar system. Settlements on the moon, or a telescope, might still happen. NASA has been risk averse. Maybe the Chinese. Or privately funded. Author would not favor NASA missions—rather let them be by private companies and volunteers. Not space tourism—they are not low risk. Space travel would be more efficient with nuclear power, or by space elevator, or solar sails. But author doesn’t foresee space colonies on Mars; they’re no escape from Earth’s problems.
  • 3.4 Toward a Post-Human Era? Such explorers would have greater incentive to redesign themselves. They will spearhead the posthuman era. It might be easier to survive weightless in zero-g, if transitioning to inorganic intelligence, and far surpass their biological ancestors. But would they be conscious? In any case, they would live long enough to spread throughout the galaxy. We humans would have started it.
  • 3.5 Alien intelligence. But is there alien intelligence out there already? Life might be common, but not advance life, due to various evolutionary bottlenecks. SETI is still worthwhile, because the stakes are high. By the arguments above, such contact might well be with electronic brains. And such signals might easily be accidental and incomprehensible. We would understand only the small subset of messages that came from creatures like ourselves. We would likely be able to understand them, but communication would be slow. We might also look for artificial molecules, or Dyson spheres. Even objects in our solar system. Two maxims, 162.6 [ worth quoting: “Extraordinary claims will require extraordinary evidence” and “Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence”. Whatever happens, it seems our cosmic habitat has been designed, or tuned, to be an abode for life.

Ch4, The Limits and Future of Science

  • 4.1 From the Simple to the Complex. The most useful ‘tweet’ to send to some past scientist would be how everything is made up of only 100 or so atoms. Complexity emerges from simple underlying laws. John Conway’s Game of Life, in 1970. Mandelbrot used PCs to generate fractals. It’s been noted how remarkable it is that the universe is comprehensible through mathematics. Dirac realized that following where math leads, led to discoveries in the real world. Hypercomputers might simulate entire universes.
  • 4.2 Making Sense of Our Complex World. Paradoxically the whole is sometimes more easily understood than the tiny parts; eclipses vs. weather. Complexity can be measured by the length of a full description of it, 172b. Crystals are simple. Even stars, and black holes, are simple. Silicon chips and living things are complex. It takes 3 billion links of DNA to generate a human. Our brains are the most complex things we know. Some complexities are understood via simple rules—e.g. evolution by natural selection to explain the diversity of life. Science is a hierarchy from particle physics to the human sciences. The ones at the bottom are most fundamental; scientists are reductionists. At the same time, macroscopic systems have ‘emergent’ properties that are best understood by concepts at those levels. Complexity emerges. P177. [ This recalls Sean Carroll’s levels of complexity. ]
  • 4.3 How Far Does Physical Reality Extend? By the time the sun dies, in 6by, witnesses will be utterly unlike us. Consider the future over astronomical timescales. In 4by our galaxy will merge with Andromeda. Expansion will leave our Local Group alone in view. Dyson figured the maximum thoughts would be conducted at low temperatures and slowly. Understanding ‘empty’ space, string theory, the idea of the multiverse. In a finite universe some rare events will almost never happen. But if the universe is very big, everything could happen—it would have to be 10 to the power 100, a googol. Even that may be just a component of a multiverse. Our local concept of reality would be constricted as a plankton in a spoonful of water. Would all these universes have the same physics? Perhaps we will have these answers in another 50 years. Such ideas have shifted since author’s 1997 book Before the Beginning. Frank Wilczek has been involved…
  • 4.4 Will Science ‘Hit the Buffers’? Science keeps expanding; there are always unknown unknowns. But are there things we’ll never know because our brains are incapable of understanding them? Perhaps, just as monkeys are unaware of stars and galaxies. And aliens might have different perceptions of reality. P190. Already we can do virtual experiments inside computers. Computers might make their own discoveries. E.g. to find superconductors, or new drugs. David Deutsch takes a different view, in The Beginning of Infinity—anything can be computed. That doesn’t mean understood. We can understand simple equations without realizing what patterns they describe. “Some fundamental truths about nature could be too complex for unaided human brains to fully grasp.” P193.7 [[ This touches a science-fictional speculation: would alien intelligence perceive things we could not? Surely we perceive things dogs cannot, despite allowing a certain degree of intelligence to dogs. ]]
  • 4.5 What About God? A question commonly asked of astronomers. Author does not believe in God, “but that I share a sense of wonder and mystery with many who do.” We learn from science that even the basic atom is quite hard to understand. “This should induce skepticism about any dogma, or any claim to have achieved more than a very incomplete and metaphorical insight into any profound aspect of existence.” Creationists; can’t even refute the claim that the universe was created an hour ago, 195.7. Intelligent designers find details that remain mysterious and ‘explain’ them by invoking supernatural intervention. But such explanations are useless if they don’t integrate various phenomena to unifying principles. Gravity was the first. Recall Paley; now we have John Polkinghorne who claims the fine-tuning of the cosmos to be the creation of a Creator. Author often wonders about the ‘bottom line’ for a follower of some faith. Author is a practicing but unbelieving Christian; he participates in the rituals of the Anglican church. Hard-line atheists spend too much time seeking evidence of the supernatural in the physical world; they drive away potential scientists, 200t. Most religions prioritize ritual over belief, rituals that bind communities.
  • Can we narrow the gap between the world as it is, and the world we’d like to live in?

Ch5, Conclusions

  • 5.1 Doing Science. Summary. What is the role of scientists? By science, technology and engineering is included. The notion of the scientific method should be put to rest; scientists think like everyone else. A few philosophers resonate with scientists. Karl Popper, that a theory should be refutable. Medawar thus dismissed Freudian psychoanalysis. But interpretation depends on context, p204. And judgment applies how compelling contrary evidence might be.
  • Then there’s Thomas Kuhn, with his idea of paradigm shifts. But that idea is overused; Einstein didn’t overthrow Newton; he transcended him.
  • The sciences are as diverse as sports. Some projects require international cooperation. Varieties of scientific work. Conventional wisdom is that scientists ‘burn out.’ But there are three destinies for a scientist: diminished research; unwise diversification into other fields; or to continue to do what one is competent at, accepting that some new ideas are better assimilated by the young. Very few are late-flowering exceptions. But the demographics are changing. The expansion of wealth and leisure might lead to a resurgence of citizen-scientists.
  • 5.2 Science in Society. Our future depends on making wise choices—but not just by scientists. We need a better educated public. Science is the one culture that’s global. The key ideas of science can be accessed by everyone. The public is still in denial about two kinds of threats: the collective harm to the biosphere, and the vulnerability of our interconnected world. Unlike past ‘collapse’ events, a collapse could be global. No one understand the smartphone, or even basic iron age technology; thus Lovelock, and Lewis Dartnell’s book The Knowledge. We need to better assess global hazards and plan outside the short-term interests of politicians. We may need global organizations outside the sovereignty of nations, like the AEA, WHO. Issues about nation-states, threats to security, regulations. And gaps in wealth must be addressed…
  • 5.3 Shared Hopes and Fears. Scientists should be aware of the consequences of their experiments. Atomic scientists in the past. Rachel Carson and Carl Sagan were preeminent concerned scientists. Etc. The Long Now Foundation, 224b.
  • It’s easy to seem pessimistic. Threats have to be tackled internationally. Planning needs to be long-term, and global. Quote by Peter Medawar: “The bells which toll for mankind are—most of them anyway—like the bells on Alpine cattle; they are attached to our own necks, and it must be our fault if they do not make a cheerful and harmonious sound.”
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Skiffy Flix: Modern Times

Skiffy? Science fiction? Well, not quite, but the theme of the first part of the film, in which the main character works in a dehumanizing factory, echoes Metropolis and similar dystopias. That’s why I watched it.

While I think I may have seen part of this film before, I never saw the whole thing, nor have I ever seen any other Charlie Chaplin film before. Somehow his Little Tramp character never appealed to me.

This is a 1936 film, and while Chaplin was a famous star of the silent movie era, this one isn’t quite silent – it has music, and occasional snatches of spoken dialogue, and a song and dance number at the end—with Chaplin singing! And yet, most of the dialogue is displayed on title cards, just as it was in silent movies.

The music is credited to Chaplin, though according to sources (was it the short documentary included on the DVD? Or Wikipedia?) Chaplin wasn’t a composer; he would create themes and hum or sing them to an assistant who would write them down and orchestrate them.

  • The film opens, famously, with the face of a giant clock.
  • Then, none too subtly, we see a herd of sheep. Then, a herd of subway commuters. Then, a giant factory, where workers clock in. A man with no shirt throws a giant switch.
  • We see the president of the company in an office, apparently with nothing better to do than assemble a jigsaw puzzle. He turns on a large screen or monitor to observe the factory floors. He issues an order to Section 5: speed it up!
  • –So, there are some sharp points here, but at the same time this is much satire as social criticism. And all for the sake of various elaborate pranks and gags, in Chaplin style.
  • CC, Charlie Chaplin, works at a conveyor belt, endlessly tightening bolts on parts that speed past. Much comedy about what happens when he glances away and rushes to catch up. When CC goes the men’s room for a smoke, the president appears on a big screen and tells him to get back to work.
  • There’s a side plot about a new device brought to the president: a feeding machine, a chest-high device with revolving platters, intended to speed lunch breaks so workers can be more productive. CC is summoned to test it. It works at first: his soup bowl is held up for him to sip; a cob of corn rotates for him to eat from. But it goes too fast. The technicians try to adjust it. The soup is spilled onto CC’s chest. The technicians place bolts on a platter, and the machine tries to feed bolts to CC. (The comedy is strained here, over the top – everything possible goes wrong – in the same sense I find most popular comedies simply stupid, not humorous.) The president, seeing all this, rejects the device as impractical.
  • Back on the assembly line, we see perhaps the film’s most famous scene: CC climbs onto the conveyor belt and gets sucked inside. We see a shot of the huge machine below the conveyor belt, with enormous gears, with somehow enough space between them that CC’s body passes through and around them. A worker manages to reverse the process, and CC is returned to the conveyor belt.
  • But now he’s catatonic, compulsively twisting his wrench at everything – even a secretary’s breasts. He squirts oil at everything and everyone. And so an ambulance pulls up outside and he’s taken away.
  • Then follows the remainder of the story, with no particular science fictional themes:
    • He’s released from the hospital, but without a job.
    • He’s accidentally arrested for seeming to lead a crowd of protestors.
    • In jail he accidentally uses a saltshaker that another inmate has put ‘nose-powder’ – cocaine – into, and goes crazy, taunting guards but accidentally foiling hoodlums.
    • Meanwhile, a young woman, called here a ‘gamin,’ survives the shooting of her father. When she later steals a loaf of bread, CC is blamed then exonerated, but missing life in prison, arranges to be arrested; then the two of them escape a paddy wagon and flee
    • And so CC and the gamin try to make a life together. He gets a job as a department store watchman (there’s an amazing roller-skating near a floor-ledge scene), but is soon fired. They settle in shack along the bay. Another factory job. Arrested again.
    • Ellen, the gamin, gets a job singing, and gets him a job waiting tables.
    • CC’s films are in part elaborately staged comedic sequences, and the climax here is a scene in this café, as CC serves a diner angry that his roast duck hasn’t shown up, while maneuvering through a crowded dance hall. It’s brilliantly staged.
    • And then CC has to sing, but can’t remember the lyrics, and loses the ones written on his cuffs. So he makes them up, singing a tune with phony French lyrics and pantomimes. This is the first time CC had been heard. The crowd loves it.
    • But detectives show up to arrest Ellen, and they flee.
    • And are last seen walking down a country road. What’s the use of trying? Never say die, they’ll get along. And they walk out along the middle of the highway…into the distance. The end.


  • I was surprised to discover that the music includes the tune of the famous song “Smile,” later given lyrics and sung by Nat King Cole. Here we hear it in two key scenes, including the last scene, as CC and Ellen are determined to make their lives together.
  • One of the few sound scenes is one in which CC is visited by a minister and his wife, and tea causes their stomachs to growl. We hear the growling; minister’s wife is embarrassed. It’s a curious case of deciding where to use sound technology.
  • The ‘nose-powder’ scene in jail, with its depiction of the effects of drug use, is one of those things the Hayes Code was designed to prevent.
  • The final scene on the highway was filmed on Sierra Highway, north of LA through Canyon Country, an area I’ve driven, and bicycled, many times.
  • Numerous other locations are identified by various sources; in LA suburbs, in coastal docks.
  • CC never repeats a gag…even as you think he might.
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Skiffy Flix: The Invisible Man

This one is copyright 1932 but was released November 1933, says Wikipedia. It was produced by Carl Laemmle, stars Claude Rains, a high-profile actor at the beginning of his career (he was later in Casablanca, Notorious, and many others), and was directed by James Whale, four films past Frankenstein. Also familiar is Una O’Connor, who played the perpetually shrieking woman in Bride of Frankenstein, playing an identical role here.

  • The Universal logo in this era is a small model airplane circling a globe in a flat plane.
  • The film opens with a man walking through a snowstorm at night, following a sign to Iping, a (real) small English town. There he comes to an inn, the Lion’s Head. Inside are men playing music, smoking, and playing darts. (We see a table in a corner with several woman seated around it, quietly. Are these the wives?)
  • The strange man enters, not only bundled up for the cold, but his head wrapped in bandages and eyes covered by goggles. The room falls silent. He asks for a room and a fire, and a sitting room. The innkeeper’s wife Mrs. Hall [Una] shows him a room. When she returns with food he quickly covers his face. After she leaves, he removes the scarf, and we see his lower jaw is invisible.
  • Meanwhile…
    • In an elegantly appointed (check!) drawing room we see Dr. Cranley – played by Henry Travers, famous later for his role as the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life – and his daughter Flora –played by Gloria Stuart, famous decades later as the old lady in Titanic. We learn that Jack Griffin – the invisible man – worked for Cranley, but took off some time ago without a word. Flora is (of course) in love with him (check!), and is worried; she sobs. Cranley’s other assistant, Kemp, explains disapprovingly that Griffin was keeping secrets, experimenting with preserving food and whatnot – “He meddled in things men should leave alone.” (Check!)
  • Griffin spends time mixing chemicals in his room – he’s had trunks delivered from the train station – searching for a mixture to reverse the invisibility. But he’s making a mess and hasn’t paid his bill, so Mrs. Hall sends her husband up to evict him. Griffin reacts in fury and throws the man out. Police arrive; cackling in glee Griffin removes his bandages and reveals nothing underneath! Police flee as Griffin cackles about how an invisible man can rule the world. He runs out through the village – apparently naked, with no clothes on—knocking aside people and furniture, smashing a window.
  • Meanwhile…
    • Cranley and Kemp find a clue—a list of drugs that includes monocaine, a now disused drug that would draw color out of things, but also cause madness.
    • Later Kemp is in his study reading. (Quite a nice house for a lab assistant.) We see a French door open and close, as the radio broadcasts news about a village struck by a disease that gives everyone the delusion of an invisible man.
    • Griffin reveals himself to Kemp – moving things around, even lighting a cigarette, while invisible – and asks for help. He needs a partner; they can rule the world. Kemp is shocked, but agrees to aid him to a point.
  • From here on the two story threads alternate:
    • The police converge on the town, gradually are convinced an invisible man exists, and launch extensive searches.
      • There’s a cute collage of scenes in which various people phone the police with outlandish ideas for how to catch the invisible man – “Throw ink at ‘im!” – so that when Kemp calls to say the invisible man is in his house, he’s almost brushed off.
    • Griffin launches a reign of terror, returning to the inn for his books and causing mayhem, killing a policeman; then attacking the police searchers, finally throwing a rail switch that sends a passenger train over a cliff… just because he can.
  • Various methods are tried to capture the invisible man. Nets. Spray paint. Griffin decides to murder Kemp for betraying him to the police, and does so.
  • Finally a farmer hears snoring inside his barn one night, but sees nothing. He notifies the police; they surround the barn and set it afire. Griffin is forced to run across the snow, leaving footprints—and he’s shot.
  • In a quiet final scene, a doctor in the hospital tells Flora that Griffin, is near the end. Flora visits him. He apologies. “I meddled in things that man must leave alone.” Then, dying, he becomes visible – in a creepy transition that shows a skull before the face is fully formed, a young handsome man.


  • I’ve seen the film before, though decades ago, and read the novel somewhat more recently. What I remember noticing about the novel was that it was comedic, in a way entirely lost in the film.
  • You wonder how practical matters of being invisible would be handled. If he’s running through town and no one can see him, he’s naked, right? Yes, this is acknowledged a couple times. And what about…? Griffin explains to Kemp that he mustn’t be seen for an hour after each meal. Also, he can’t work in the rain, or in fog, and he must avoid the soot in smoky cities.
  • During an early scene in Cranley’s spacious home, it occurred to me that perhaps the size of the sets, never mind being realistic, were necessary in order to allow the bulky camera equipment of the era to move around. There’s a scene in which the camera, as if gliding across the front of a stage, moves from left to right from one large room to the next.
  • Finally, though Rains is a striking actor – even being unseen! – and the special effects are clever, in the end this is just another mad scientist movie. Why does every scientist have to be mad with power? Why would a researcher who accidentally discovered invisibility think to rule the world? Wouldn’t there be more practical issues to explore? All these films, it seems, are variations on the American fear of science in that era, the fear scientific discoveries would ruin the world, and that scientists should pay for their impertinence with death.
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Skiffy Flix: Island of Lost Souls

This is a 1932 film, starring Charles Laughton and directed by Erle C. Kenton. All these films from the early 1930s are based on novels (or are sequels to previous films) but this time they changed the title: it’s based on H.G. Wells’ novel THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU, from 1896.

  • This one is a more ambitious production than previous films, with scenes filmed at sea, on a cargo ship and a smaller boat.
  • There’s music over the opening and closing credits, but that’s all.
  • Story opens with a freighter at sea, the Covena, that spots a life raft and picks up a survivor from the Lady Vane. The man is Edward Parker, who recovers and asks to contact his girlfriend Ruth, who’s staying in some unspecified port. We see scenes of Ruth at the docks and in a hotel at what appears to be a colonial port, where she gets his message.
  • Parker notices the freighter is full of cages of animals. The captain, drunk, doesn’t like the work. An assistant, Montgomery, works for Moreau, a scientist on some remote island. The captain strands Parker with Montgomery and his cargo on a second ship.
  • Montgomery and Parker arrive at Moreau’s island, where Moreau, elegantly dressed and rather effete, lives in the inside of a volcano accessed via caverns from the coast. (The caverns and exterior scenes are obviously done on Hollywood soundstages, only the dock scenes done somewhere on location… Catalina Island, my reference book claims.)
  • Moreau occupies an elegant house, but the jungle is filled by strange looking creatures, and the servants look peculiar too. After a fine dinner, Moreau asks Parker to stay in his room, and whenever he reaches port, to be discreet about what he sees here.
  • The plot proceeds.
    • There’s just one female on the island, a ‘panther woman,’ who looks exotic but is rather simple. Moreau, we come to realize, is intrigued by the prospect of allowing her to bond to this new man. Thus he arranges his own boat to be scuttled so Parker cannot leave too soon.
    • Parker soon realizes, via screams from the room the woman calls the House of Pain, that Moreau is involved in some kind of vivisection – i.e. operating on animals, or people, without anesthetic. He condemns Moreau and tries to flee. At the beach a group of the ‘natives’ gathers. Moreau controls them with a whip, and a gong, and then engages in a ritual. He asks them, What is the Law? They respond: Not to run on all fours; are we not men? What is the Law? Not to spill blood; are we not men? And so on. Chilling words, straight from Wells. (The ‘speaker of the law’ in these scenes is Bela Lugosi, heavily made-up.)
  • Moreau calms Parker and explains: It’s not what it seems. His experiments started in London, to advance the evolution of flowers: thus, he shows, giant orchids. Then he moved on to animals: the goal of all animals is to trend in the direction of man, the highest form, he says. He had to leave London and has been on this island for 11 years. He mentions his techniques – “plastic surgery, blood transfusions, gland extracts, and ray baths” – and claims he’s wiped out centuries of evolution. Giving the animals speech was his first great achievement. He shows manual laborers, who work a mill to generate power. “Do you know what it means to feel like God?” he exults. [[ the standard Hollywood line attributed to mad scientists. ]]
  • And so…
    • Ruth arranges for another captain to take her to the coordinates of the island where Parker is.
    • The panther girl, Lota, is attracted to Parker and foils his plan to build a transmitter (she throws his book in a pool).
    • Moreau’s plan is to take her and Parker to London.
    • Parker realizes Lota is an animal-woman too—look at her sharp fingernails! Seeing these, Moreau realizes her animal part is creeping back. Should he give up? No, she weeps! She’s human!.
  • And then Ruth and her captain arrive. They are welcomed to dinner and to spend the night. They hear chanting from the jungle…the natives are restless tonight, Moreau observes.
    • One of the creatures breaks into Ruth’s bedroom. Parker shoots it.
    • Montgomery, the reluctant assistant, has had enough. He tries to help Parker and Ruth escape.
    • Moreau sends one of the animal creatures, Ouran, out to strangle the pilot so they can’t escape.
    • The other natives see this, and realize Moreau has broken the law, about killing. Is he a man like them? Then he can die! Moreau tries to control them, but they converge on him.
    • Parker and Ruth flee; Lota falls behind, killing a beast to let them escape.
    • The beasts drag Moreau into his House of Pain and attack him with scalpels.
    • Montgomery, Ruth, and Parker escape in a boat, as the island behind them burns. Don’t look back. The end.
  • The first thing to be said is that the evolutionary premises here are nonsense, and I can’t believe they were so crudely expressed in Wells’ novel. I’ll have to check. Evolution isn’t about making things bigger; and it’s not about humans as the highest form.
  • The second thing is that Laughton is a striking presence, oily and supercilious and ambiguous. Everyone else is a routine Hollywood cardboard actor.
  • And the third is that, whatever Wells’ novel may have been (I read it years ago), the result here is the standard Hollywood depiction of a scientist mad with ambition, meddling in things people were not meant to know. And so he dies at the end. It’s a familiar story, told over and over again by Hollywood in the 1930s.
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Horror Flix: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

This was released early in 1932, just a couple months after Frankenstein and about a year after Dracula. The copyright in the credits is 1931. It stars Fredric March, who won an Oscar for the role. (Actually in a tie.)


  • As in these other early films, there’s no composed score. In this one, the classic music borrowed for the opening credits is Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, which the main character is also seen playing in his mansion.
  • The director is Rouben Mamoulian, and he makes a curious choice at the start of the film: We don’t see the protagonist’s face, but rather see his point-of-view, as he plays the organ, as his servant enters to remind him he has a speaking engagement. It’s not until he walks across the room and looks in a mirror that we see him, in the mirror. This pov continues as he takes a coach to the university to give a talk. But then the angle is abandoned. It’s used again later in the film when Jekyll transforms into Hyde—and we don’t see Hyde until he looks in the mirror. What is the point of this? To make the appearance of the transition more shocking? Yet later in the film they try to show the transformation on screen, through fades from one stage to the next, rather crudely.
  • As in Frankenstein the story opens in an auditorium. Here it’s Jekyll, apparently a respected doctor and surgeon, speaking of the soul, the human psyche, and his notion that man is truly two, one striving for nobilities, the other given to base impulses. If separated, the good would be free to attain new heights! (He doesn’t wonder where the other half would go.)
  • We then see how generous Jekyll is, as he skips a dinner invitation to attend to an old woman in the ‘wards,’ apparently a free hospital for indigents. He also encourages a girl on crutches to throw them aside, and sure enough, she can walk, albeit shakily.
  • Later in the evening Jekyll joins the dance party that follows the dinner he missed. Here again, as in the previous films, we see lavishly furnished mansions and lush gardens. The plot issue here is that Jekyll is anxious to marry Muriel, but her father, a retired general, insists they wait…some eight months.
  • Next key plot point: as Jekyll and his friend Lanyon leave the party, walking through the foggy London streets, they hear a brawl and break up a fight.
    • Jekyll carries an injured woman, Ivy, up to her flat. She comes on to him, kisses him, as Lanyon enters and sees. Leaving her, Jekyll defends himself as expressing his instincts; after all, he won’t be married for months!
    • Wouldn’t the implication of these remarks have seemed rather indecent for this times? Actually, like the other films from this era, it is “pre-code,” from before mid 1934, when standards were imposed on the movie industry to prohibit innuendo, vulgarity, drug use, etc. Before the code was imposed, things got racy.
  • I’ve noted on Facebook that Jekyll here is pronounced Jee-kle, rhymes with treacle, whereas I’d always thought it rhymed with heckle. Apparently is a regional thing.
  • Next key scene; Jekyll in his lab, a typical movie lab with bubbling flasks and test tubes.
    • Apparently, judging from a couple shots, his lab is located in a separate building across an alley from his house, reached by a second-story archway.
    • Jekyll mixes solutions and checks droplets in his microscope. Finally – wait, first he locks the door, then he writes a note to Muriel – he drinks the flask. He clutches his throat, groans, changes color, falls to the floor, as flashbacks of conversations, and of Ivy, whirl before us.
    • Then his POV again…as he walks to the mirror. And now sees a squat man with dark eyes and lots of teeth. Free at last! He cackles, and puts on his coat and hat. But is interrupted by servant Poole. Reverting to his original state, Jekyll tells him that another man, um, a Mr. Hyde, was here and just left.
  • The plot develops.
    • Muriel’s father takes her to Bath, for a month.
    • Jekyll, frustrated (!), drinks his potion and turns into Hyde. He goes to a music hall where Ivy sings, orders champagne, invites her to his table. She’s horrified, he’s crude and imperious, and insists he can provide her a better life.
    • He pursues her to her flat, scaring off the housekeeper, reaching for her garter, and kissing her… Presumably we are meant to understand that he has his way with her.
    • The potion wears off; back in his rooms, Jekyll vows to never use it again, and has some cash sent to Ivy.
    • Ivy receives the money and visits Jekyll, trying to return it. She pleads with him for help from Hyde. He promises to fix everything.
  • But then…
    • The site of a cat pouncing on a bird, in the park, triggers the transformation, even without drinking the potion. It’s as if his resolve to be good is more and more easily undermined by any suggestion of the crudities of life. (As a plot point this seems implausibly convenient, but I’m not checking Stevenson’s original novella to see how his plot worked out.)
    • As Hyde he attacks Ivy in her flat, revealing his secret, and kills her.
    • Then has the presence of mind to send a note to his friend Lanyon, to fetch materials for the (reverse) potion, admitting the whole sordid situation to him. Jekyll vows to set Muriel free from him.
    • As Jekyll he visits Muriel and her father, unable to explain, insisting he must break off their engagement.
    • But the transformation happens again; as Hyde he reaches for Muriel, she screams, he flees, police pursuing all the way back to his lab, where a big fight wrecks the lab until they shoot him. He reverts to Jekyll, dead. Servant Poole weeps. The cauldron boils.
  • Despite the fact that Dracula and Frankenstein, and later The Mummy and The Bride of Frankenstein, were made by Universal, and this film by Paramount, there are all sorts of similarities.
    • The inclusion of high society people and lavish sets. Even Jekyll’s home has an enormous entry and living area, complete with that organ.
    • The running theme, here and in the Frankenstein films, is about some scientist meddling in things he shouldn’t – that are God’s provenance, or whatnot – and dying for it. As such they established the template for much of what people think horror and science fiction is: science creates a threat in terms of some frightening monster that must, of course be destroyed, and when it’s destroyed, the end. Was this some cultural reaction to scientific discoveries or social ills of the time? Or did it just take filmmakers a while to realize there were other kinds of stories to tell? Science fiction films not in this horror mode didn’t arrive until about 1950.
    • All these films have occasional full-face close-ups, even here of ordinary characters (not the monster), in ways that seem jarring by the editing standards of even a few years later.
    • Minimal or no music.
    • Like Dracula and much of Frankenstein and The Mummy, it’s almost all set at night.
  • One doesn’t examine Hollywood films too closely for plausibility, so let me just wonder if Stevenson handled the theme more thoroughly. If Jekyll thinks a man might be split into two, into ‘good’ and ‘evil’ parts, why does the story contrast the complete Jekyll with the base Jekyll? That is, isn’t the original Jekyll a combination of both? Why does the potion suppress the good and bring out the evil portion? Would another portion do the reverse and turn Jekyll into a selfless saint?
  • Fun fact from Wikipedia: when MGM remade the film 10 years later with Spencer Tracy, they tried to find, and destroy, every copy of this 1931 film. For years it was thought lost.
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Here’s a new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson, just published a couple weeks ago. It’s blurbed as a ‘companion’ to his previous book, ASTROPHYSICS FOR PEOPLE IN A HURRY; post about that one here.

This is a collection of 101 letters (or emails) he’s received over the years, with his answers. In a few cases he summarizes the original query. Throughout Tyson is polite and restrained where he could be confrontational. Keeping the outline of the book, here are some highlights.

  • Prologue is a “Happy 60th Birthday, NASA” Facebook post, from Oct. 1, 2018. Tyson was the same age, and he recalls seeing the early space missions on TV as he grew up.
  • Ethos – the characteristic spirit of a culture, manifested in its beliefs and aspirations
    • Ch 1, Hope
    • About what to hope for in a universe that seems designed to kill us. How not to fear change, or failure. About how he doesn’t intend to ‘convert’ anyone, just show them how to think for themselves. About how no one should care what your IQ is; what matters to succeed in life are many other things. About it wouldn’t matter if he, or anyone else, is president; what’s needed are voters who are not dysfunctional.
    • Ch 2, Extraordinary Claims
    • How there’s no evidence for aliens, and how UFO sightings are most likely explained by anything other than alien spacecraft. How eyewitness testimony is unreliable (especially after decades). How the world will not end in 2012, citing previous such predictions. Dismissing gravitics and astrology. How sometimes relatively small investments in outlandish ideas (the example is ‘psychic teleportation’) can be prudent. How if someone sees ghosts, try asking them questions. Why Jonathan Swift might have imagined there would be two moons of Mars, long before they were discovered (by extrapolating Kepler’s ‘laws’ given one moon around Earth, four around Jupiter). About perpetual motion: if a claimant is so certain, then just build the machine. About how the African Dogon tribe might have heard about the discovery of Sirius B and incorporated it into their mythology. About why people would believe in Bigfood, or psychic premonitions.
    • Ch 3, Musings
    • About how simple rules do, in fact, lead to complex realities—DNA; 92 elements. About why he is not particularly curious about exploring his ancestral ‘roots’. About how BC/AD, despite being religiously inspired, nevertheless represents the most accurate calendar ever devised. About an elderly lady who had never seen Venus until the high-rise outside her apartment window was taken down. Some generous advice to a filmmaker anxious to be technically accurate. And his vote for the movie with the worst scientific accuracy—The Black Hole, in 1979, and then Armageddon, in 1998.
  • Cosmos – the universe seen as a well-ordered whole
    • Ch 4, Hate Mail
    • Replies to readers upset at his support for the demotion of Pluto from planetary status. Debating a correspondent about the value of settling on the Moon. Defending his comment that, compared to Europe, the US sucks at science. Responding to an angry letter someone who doesn’t want his tax dollars going to the space program, with a list of other things everyone’s taxes pay for, and a specific list of technological devices that he would have to live without, by rejecting what the space program discovered or enables. And a long reply from a Christian who thinks scientists would feed Christians to the lions, if they could.
    • Ch 5, Science Denial
    • Defending the conclusion that global warming is human caused. Defending the pursuit of scientific knowledge. Defending evolution as a matter of evidence, not belief. Responding to a claim that the Qur’an predicted many scientific discoveries by pointing out the connections were made only after the discoveries were made; no religious text has been found to offer clues to things as yet undiscovered. And patiently explaining the evidence behind evolution and the age of the universe to a writer who thinks these must be lies because they conflict with the Bible.
    • Ch 6, Philosophy
    • About whether science deals with truth, or meaning. The difference between how and why. Rejecting the suggestion that everything in the world is a matter of yin and yang, of balance. About how he thinks philosophers aren’t of much use, since the discoveries of modern physics.
  • Pathos – a plaintive appeal to emotions that already reside within us
    • Ch 7, Life and Death
    • About a writer who thinks his dead father spoke to him: next time this happens, ask him some questions. He consoles a writer whose mother is dying with the points of his ‘cosmic perspective’ that ended his previous book. Responding to the dilemma of whether spending money on, say, space projects make sense when cancer still hasn’t been cured.
    • Ch 8, Tragedy
    • The most striking section of the book, with several letters describing the morning of 9/11, from where Tyson lived just four blocks away; each observation ends with “Upsetting enough, but then…” and is followed by something even more horrific. And later deals with a 9/11 conspiracy theoriest who thinks it was staged.
    • Ch 9, To Believe or Not to Believe
    • Does a NASA photo show the Eye of God? No, it’s just the Helix Nebula. His list of 8 great books, leading with the Bible, for a reason that upset some readers (to understand how it’s easier to be told what to believe, than to think for oneself). Does he believe in God? The evidence is against a god. He replies to a Christian fundamentalist by pointing out how many fundamentalists of other religions believe things entirely different. About another Biblical literalist who thinks science is a liberal conspiracy, with advice about how science never ‘proves’ anything. About how a numerologist ‘proof’ of the value of pi, from Bible passages, simply shows that anything can be ‘proved’ with numerology if one hunts long enough. He points out the obvious objections to notions of intelligent design. Asked about meaning of life if there is no God: how most people find meaning or purpose in life without reference to religious texts.
  • Kairos – a propitious moment for decision or action
    • Ch 10, School Days
    • How to learn: read and think and read. On the perceived respect for teachers and scientists. To a police officer, how to think about the world. About problems with ‘gifted’ students—those who succeed are instead those who work hard. About pointless accuracy in certain contexts.
    • Ch 11, Parenting
    • About motivating children: expose them to many things, but pushing them too hard in one direction often backfires. About home schooling and what he teaches his own children: how to think, how to explore, not what to believe. How Bible stories can be treated as traditional stories that don’t have to be literally true.
    • Ch 12, Rebuttals
    • Objecting to rules about taking advanced placement tests. Responding to a hip-hop artist who believes the earth is flat. Responding to an Idaho paper’s criticism of his work as liberal and therefore anti-American. And a NYT op-ed wondering why Hollywood films can’t be bothered to get various details correct.
  • Epilogue—A Eulogy, of Sorts
    • A farewell letter to his father upon his death.
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