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

Martin Rees is a British astronomer and astrophysicist who looks rather like Richard Gere (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Rees); 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.

Notes:

  • 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.

Notes

  • 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.)

Notes:

  • 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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Tyson, LETTERS FROM AN ASTROPHYSICIST


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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Links and Comments: Trump vs California; Rural America vs the big cities

Here’s another. Paul Krugman, Sept. 20th: Trump Declares War on California. Subtitled: “It’s a liberal state, so it must be punished.”

I’m on a number of right-wing mailing lists, and I try to at least skim what they’re going on about in any given week; this often gives me advance warning about the next wave of manufactured outrage. Lately I’ve been seeing dire warnings that if Democrats win next year they’ll try to turn America into (cue scary background music) California, which the writers portray as a socialist hellhole.

Examples about auto emission regulations, and making San Francisco’s homeless population some kind of environmental hazzard. Yes, the latter is a problem.

But in many other dimensions California does very well. It has a booming economy, which has been creating jobs at a much faster pace than the nation as a whole.

The nation’s second-highest life-expectancy; drops in the uninsured via accepting Obamacare; and crime near historical lows. The point:

[I]t’s a reality the right refuses to accept, because it wasn’t what was supposed to happen.

You see, modern California — once a hotbed of conservatism — has become a very liberal, very Democratic state, in part thanks to rapidly rising Hispanic and Asian populations. And since the early years of this decade, when Democrats won first the governorship, then a supermajority in the State Legislature, liberals have been in a position to pursue their agenda, raising taxes on high incomes and increasing social spending.


The striking thing about the right’s new focus on homelessness, however, is that it’s hard to detect any concern about the plight of the homeless themselves. Instead, it’s all about the discomfort and alleged threat the homeless create for the affluent.

Bottom line:

[I]t’s yet another illustration of the intellectual imperviousness of the modern right, which never, ever lets awkward facts disturb its preconceptions.

\\\\

One more, also from about a month ago. An op-ed by Sarah Smarsh, writing from Wichita, Kan. Something Special Is Happening in Rural America. Subtitled: “There is a ‘brain gain’ afoot that suggests a national homecoming to less bustling spaces.”

I find this interesting because most prognosticators feel that the only hope for the expanding population, and the reduction of humanity’s impact on the planet’s environment, is greater density in big cities, and that small rural populations will gradually evaporate. But let’s see what she says.

First, the issue of unaffordability [inequality]:

The nation’s most populous cities, the bicoastal pillars of aspiration — New York City and Los Angeles — are experiencing population declines, most likely driven by unaffordability.

But the bottom line perhaps is:

Last year, Gallup found that while roughly 80 percent of us live in urban areas, rural life was the most wished for.

People are happier in small towns, perhaps.

The writer concludes,

We need policymakers who understand this (and care about it). Good news: Progressive Democratic presidential candidates have unveiled a spate of rural policy plans more robust than any in recent political memory. They suggest actions for which rural advocates have argued — investing in rural people and economies to lead a Green New Deal, cutting out oppressive middlemen in moving food from producers to eaters and much more.

What I see here is the attraction of most people to relatively small, tightly knit communities. And that this reflects humanity’s evolutionary heritage, in which most people, until less than 10,000 years ago, lived in small tribes of a few dozen or a few hundred. The modern cosmopolis is strange. But small communities tend to be insular and tribal, hostile to people who follow different traditions and rituals. And so there’s a tension between this innate preference in most people, and the growing population of the planet, in humanity’s future.

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Status mid-October 2019

I’ve been light posting here for months now. Here’s the arc of where I’ve been this year, and where I’m going.

It’s now just about 7 years since I was laid off from my 30-year career at Rocketdyne. It’s nearly 5 years since Yeong, also laid off, got a new job in the Bay Area and we moved to our house here in Oakland. It’s two years since Locus took over the website I’d run for 20 years. It’s over a year and a half since my surrogacy plans were derailed, despite my having spent $70,000. It’s nearly as long since we adopted two cats, and a year since we took in a third feral cat, which we named Pixel, that disappeared three weeks ago.

At the beginning of the year I had goals in three general areas: 1, ‘finish’ my sfadb.com website, in the sense of completing the rankings of novels and short fiction, and displaying the results on a timeline; 2, ‘finish’ to some extent scanning personal and family photos, and posting sets of them on this site; and 3, pursue my ambitious agenda to read and reread classic science fiction, in support of my pipe dream of writing a book.

As a couple months passed at the beginning of the year, an outline of the coming months appeared. Yeong had been hankering for a trip to London for some time, and so I planned the trip, which we took at the end of April. Also, his older son James announced wedding plans early in the year for the end of August.

Thus the year seemed to be dividing into thirds.

In the first third, I spent much time reading, mostly classic SF novels, and also some substantial nonfiction. I took notes on everything, but only transferred those notes to blog posts in a few cases. I need to improve on this. I have the sense that reading books by myself is an indulgence, but if I present my thoughts about them to the world, it’s a kind of service.

Returning from London, I decided to focus on sfadb, and I have in fact made a great deal of progress in the five months since: I’ve refined the scoring algorithm and the timeline, and compiled many more anthology contents in support of ranking short fiction. And, intermittently, I’ve scanned more personal and family photos, and posted some of them on this site.

The second third I thought would end with Jimmy’s wedding, but in fact the demarcation dragged on for an entire month; two of Yeong’s sisters and one brother-in-law made the long trip from China to attend the wedding, and stayed with us for an entire five weeks. They were away on side-trips three times, for several days at a time, but even so, there was little normalcy over that entire time. Thus my retreat to watching DVDs of old TV shows and movies. (And their on and off presence over that time is what drove Pixel to escape; he was freaked out by so many strange people in the house.)

So, as of right now. The sfadb project entailed compiling contents of many hundreds of anthologies. That’s an open-ended task; one can portray the entire history of science fiction (and fantasy and horror) through trends in anthologies. But I think, as of today, I’m cutting that off; I have enough data to move on and do the short fiction rankings, and perhaps compile more anthology pages later. So I will do that next, and compile the timeline. I would say I would do that by the end of the year, but all of these projects keep expanding: over the summer my plan for the rankings is to provide paragraph-length descriptions, or assessments, of the top ranking novels and stories in the three short fiction categories. But this requires some amount of rereading, or research, and that will take a while. So we’ll see.

Will anyone care? It’s hard to know. One never knows, perhaps.

Posted in Personal history | Comments Off on Status mid-October 2019

Links and Comments: Fear and Playing Dirty

Two items from about a month ago, both from The New York Times.

Why Republicans Play Dirty. Subtitled: “They fear that if they stick to the rules, they will lose everything. Their behavior is a threat to democratic stability.”

The writers are Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, political scientists and the authors of “How Democracies Die.”

“The greatest threat to our democracy today is a Republican Party that plays dirty to win.” They give examples, such as the refusal to hear Obama’s choice for the Supreme Court vacancy left by the death of Antonin Scalia. And gerrymandering. And Republican state legislators passing laws to limit the powers of incoming Democratic governors. And Trump’s shenanigans.

Why is the Republican Party playing dirty? Republican leaders are not driven by an intrinsic or ideological contempt for democracy. They are driven by fear.

They review historical counterparts.

Republicans appear to be in the grip of a similar panic today. Their medium-term electoral prospects are dim. For one, they remain an overwhelmingly white Christian party in an increasingly diverse society. As a share of the American electorate, white Christians declined from 73 percent in 1992 to 57 percent in 2012 and may be below 50 percent by 2024. Republicans also face a generational challenge: Younger voters are deserting them. In 2018, 18- to 29-year-olds voted for Democrats by more than 2 to 1, and 30-somethings voted nearly 60 percent for Democrats.

Demography is not destiny, but as California Republicans have discovered, it often punishes parties that fail to adapt to changing societies. The growing diversity of the American electorate is making it harder for the Republican Party to win national majorities. Republicans have won the popular vote in presidential elections just once in the last 30 years.

Much of the Republican base views defeat as catastrophic. White Christians are losing more than an electoral majority; their once-dominant status in American society is eroding. Half a century ago, white Protestant men occupied nearly all our country’s high-status positions: They made up nearly all the elected officials, business leaders and media figures. Those days are over, but the loss of a group’s social status can feel deeply threatening. Many rank-and-file Republicans believe that the country they grew up in is being taken away from them. Slogans like “take our country back” and “make America great again” reflect this sense of peril.

Similarly, Paul Krugman: Republicans Don’t Believe in Democracy

Many examples.

What the stories have in common, however, is that they illustrate contempt for democracy and constitutional government. Elections are supposed to have consequences, conveying power to the winners. But when Democrats win an election, the modern G.O.P. does its best to negate the results, flouting norms and, if necessary, the law to carry on as if the voters hadn’t spoken.

What can Democrats do about this situation? They need to win elections, but all too often that won’t be sufficient, because they confront a Republican Party that at a basic level doesn’t accept their right to govern, never mind what the voters say. So winning isn’t enough; they also have to be prepared for that confrontation.

These issues remind me of the ways religious conservatives cut corners that would seem to undermine their supposed high morals, to get their way. (E.g., manufacturing fake or misleading tapes to undermine Planned Parenthood.) My impression there, and perhaps this applies to Republicans too, is that they have a sense of a ‘higher cause’ that must be served, and ordinary rules and standards don’t matter, at least when dealing with heathens. The continued support by evangelicals for Donald Trump is the most glaring example of this, and which completely discredits the religious right’s claim to any kind of moral standards. To me, all of this means, if you have to lie and cheat to get your way, your positions must be indefensible on their grounds.

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Horror Flix: The Mummy

The Mummy was released in 1932, though the copyright, curiously, is 1933, right there in the credits, in roman numerals. It was released in December 1932, according to Wikipedia, just over a year after Frankenstein’s release in November 1931. Familiar faces return: Boris Karloff is now the mummy, Imhotep; Edward Van Sloan is the local expert, Dr. Muller. Observations:

  • As in both Dracula and Frankenstein, we get repeated full face-on shots of the title monster, looking menacing. Karloff now has make-up like wrinkled paper covering his entire face.
  • This film is set in Egypt, mostly in Cairo, in contrast to the European settings of the earlier films.
  • Still, there are numerous scenes of high society here as in the earlier two, of dinner parties and receptions at the Cairo Museum.
  • Plot:
    • The film begins portentously – again using Swan Lake over the opening credits – with titles about the Scroll of Toth and how death is a doorway to new life.
    • In 1921 a Field Expedition from the British Museum digs up a mummy and a gold box with a message inside: eternal death for anyone who opens the inner casket. Local expert Dr Muller warns them not to touch the casket. He steps outside, and the junior archaeologist, of course, opens the casket. Behind him, the mummy (whose face is already visible) steps forward to claim the scroll. The junior scientist, seeing this, goes crazy, laughing maniacally.
    • Ten years later, we see a later British expedition, led by the son of the leader of the first. He is visited by a Saturnine Egyptian man, Ardeth Bey, who offers to point out a sensational find. Soon the archaeologists uncover the tomb of Princess Anck-es-en-Amon, behind seals that are 3700 years old.
    • Flash forward, through whirling newspaper headlines, to how this important discovery now resides at the Cairo Museum.
    • We see elegant people at some kind of reception; we see Ardeth-Bey lurking in the museum. We meet Helen Grosvenor, a young woman who is Dr. Muller’s patient, or ward, who is half Egyptian.
    • Ardeth Bey, the resurrected mummy, thinks Helen is the reincarnation of his ancient bride Anck-es-en-Amon, and so he kidnaps her and intends to mummify and resurrect her to be his bride. His plans are foiled and Imhotep crumbles to dust.
  • The scenes of the 2nd expedition are filmed at Red Rock Canyon, a familiar sight along route 395 in California north of Mojave on the way to the Owens Valley – those familiar hills of angled sedimentary layers, used for many film locations.
  • According to Imdb, another filming location was Rocky Buttes, a spot near Saddleback Butte in the Mojave Desert between Lancaster and Victorville, an area I’ve driven, and bicycled through, numerous times over the years. I didn’t spot in the movie where the site might have been used.
  • I think I’d only seen the first part of the movie before; most was unfamiliar.
  • The impressive set piece comes late, as Helen, somehow hypnotized by Ardeth Bey, comes to his house and is let in to see a pool of water, in which appear visions: love and crime and death; Imhotep kneeling by his bride; a funeral expedition; slaves carrying the coffin into the ground. Imhotep attempting to resurrect her; his father condemning him to death. Imhotep bound by cloths while still alive, and buried in a coffin. All the slaves are killed so no one would know; and the soldiers who killed the slaves are killed themselves.
    • Even if all the actors look like white guys in various shades of skin makeup.
  • And there is a later scene as Helen seems to revert to her role as the ancient princess, Imhotep ready to sacrifice her. Her guardians arrive to rescue her, but it is her plea to Isis, apparently, that saves her—the statue of Isis strikes Ardeth Bey and turns him to dust.
  • The film was inspired by the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 and the supposed “Curse of the pharaohs,” says Wikipedia.
  • The primary take-away, perhaps, is that Westerners should respect ancient eastern religions, and that those religions are real. Similar to Dracula, perhaps, where the Van Sloan character is familiar with the lore of Transylvania and confirms to skeptics that the legends about vampires are real. In that film the character used that lore to defeat the monster. In this one Van Sloan’s character is insistent about destroying the scroll in the first place, taking the Egyptian religion at its word.
  • Curious note from Wikipedia: “Filming was scheduled for three weeks.” They made them fast in the old days.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mummy_(1932_film)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Rock_Canyon_State_Park_(California)
https://www.rockybuttes.com/

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