“Arrival” and it’s deeper questions

I was excited to see this film for several reasons.  I have heard great things about Denis Villeneuve (his films have not, to date, made my “must see” list) and I have long had an interest in “alien visitors.”  In a note of disclosure, I have been active, in the past, in the Mutual UFO Network, and my interest in UFOs goes back to the mid-1960s as a child when I first read Frank Edwards’ “Flying Saucers-Serious Business.”  I have had the privilege of talking to the son of the USAF officer who first reported the crash at Roswell in 1947 (he says his dad let him hold some of the recovered material.  I may have to cover this issue in a future blog post), so I always love me a good “little green men” movie.

This film covers ground of a much more serious and deep thinking level than something as charitable as ET or menacing as “Independence Day.”  While the attempts to communicate and determine the intentions of the visitors in “Arrival” make up much of the film’s narrative, screenwriter Eric Heisserer’s interpretation of Ted Chiang’s short story, “The Story of your LIfe,” there is much more at stake than the usual “are they a threat or here to help” story.  That is the concern of governments and nations, but not of our team of professionals brought in to divine the “threat level” of the twelve ships who have placed themselves around the globe.

Villeneuve allows the viewer to ponder the daunting task before the scientists, mathematicians, etc.  But the focus of the film is chiefly on the contributions of the linguist on the team.  From the film’s first moments, we jump into her life very personally.  As a former teacher, I saw how she was using her work in her classroom to staunch the pain of personal loss that we see in the opening minutes of the film.  At the risk of muddying the narrative, the filmmakers draw us into the story with the feeling that we know more about the main character, played with subtlety and depth by Amy Adams, than anyone else on the planet. 

I’m going to be careful that I don’t tell too much of the story, it’s that good, because film enthusiasts will be talking about this one for a long time to come.  There are refreshing new twists in the world of the “heptopods” (7 legs) that add a unique dynamic to the “arrival” of the visitors.  The interior of the ship is a rough-hewn hollow corridor that provides gravity on all sides.  This sounds like a fun twist…until you look down and feel you should be falling.  Gravity helps us see which was is “up”; but what if ALL ways are “up?”  It’s quite disorienting to the investigation. 

Adams’ character ends up driving much of the progress the team makes in discerning the intentions of the visitors because without language you can’t have a “meeting of the minds.”  It’s the last 30 minutes of the film that make it all begin to come together, although some will walk out confused they way I did exiting “2001” in 1969 and wondering what the last 30 minutes of the light show and orbiting fetus was all about.

Arrival doesn’t hit you over the head with a “message” other than ask you to question some assumptions we make about reality as humans.  Besides challenging “up,” gravity, and “intelligence,” the most important questions to be answered relate to TIME.  Again, I don’t want to throw around spoilers, but we often speak in generalizations about our concepts of time in a post-Einsteinian world, but put those assumptions in the context of a personal journey and you get a story like the one told in “Arrival.”

Go see this film with someone you love to have deep conversations with and give yourself time after the movie to go somewhere quiet where you and your fellow traveler can bounce ideas off each other pressing the assumptions of the movie in different possible directions.  You shouldn’t be looking for a right answer, but you should be contemplating important concepts.  As you discuss time, be sure to include the language Adams’ Dr. Banks decodes, and how the “figures” tell us something of how the visitors perceive time.

The idea of time as humans conceive it has been of great interest to me throughout my life, but particularly since reading recent accounts of Near-Death Experiences by authors like Neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander and Hong Kong businesswoman Anita Moorjani.  Moorjani’s work in particular addresses how time is very different when experienced on a spiritual basis as opposed to the narrative way that humans are comfortable.  Both books are quick reads with big questions.  Take the time to read them soon.  “Arrival” takes advantage of the option of being a narrative, with flashbacks, and a very unusual wrap-up to finish the film. 

Experience it on the big screen…and be ready for deep conversations for days afterwards.  Cheers.

The difference between a “democracy” and a “republic”

The Framers of the US Constitution
The Framers of the US Constitution

It was kind of fun researching this short little civics post because something as simple as a definition of “democracy” was unclear.  Webster defines a democracy thus – “government by the people; especially :  rule of the majority.”  If you Google a definition you get – “a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.

That’s a big difference.  It’s the “typically through elected representatives” that is the key difference.  That’s actually a republic.  I used to tell my students on day one of my US Government classes that the USA is NOT a democracy.  They blanched as I paused for effect…”we are a republic.”  The difference is important.  A true democracy is simply rule by majority.  It failed in ancient Athens.  Republicanism lasted longer in Rome.  The Framers of the US Constitution never intended to create a democracy.  I go into this a bit in my post on the Electoral College as it is an excellent example of “republican” structures to our governance.

I wrote that post the day of the election assuming, as most did, that the winner of the election was likely to win both popular and electoral voting.  But I was also mindful that we have had many elections in our history where the two tallies did not have the same “winner.”  I even went into some of the reasons why it’s a good thing that it isn’t;  I welcome blog readers to review that post.  I stand by the importance of having a winning candidate not win, mainly, by heavy vote totals in a few urban areas.  Mrs. Clinton’s popular vote “victory” is solely through her heavy vote margin in California.  Both candidates knew that states, not individual votes, determine our presidential elections.  They would have campaigned differently if it had been a “popular vote” election.  We will never know for certain how that contest would have ended.

Looking at the differences of the two, republic and democracy, the most important reason to favor a republic is to keep the majority from violating the rights of the minority.  They were mainly concerned about protecting property, but today we would be concerned about religious, racial, social, gender, and other minorities having their rights protected from the majority using it’s “votes” to infringe the rights of individuals.

America’s republic is actually unique in the world, chiefly because of the unusual way the United States of America came into existence.  Thirteen individual republics of diverse economic, religious, and ethnic populations surrendered significant powers of autonomy in order to unite into a single country, but not a unitary government.  This is a key idea to understand. 

When the American War for Independence ended with Great Britain granting the thirteen colonies their statehood, thy didn’t imagine a unified country resulting.  The agreement between the states that was created right after they declared independence, called the Articles of Confederation, was openly defined as a “firm league of friendship” but also as sovereign states, NOT a single country.  When it threatened to completely unwind, the Constitutional Convention resulted in a proposed new government that would have the states surrender SOME of that sovereignty, but not all. 

Today, we have many reasons that we remain a nation of identifiably separate states.  Think about it: Texans have preserved their rights to have open beer and rifle racks in their pick up trucks, Coloradans can go to the mall to buy pot, and Californians issues driver’s licenses to undocumented individuals.  As long as it doesn’t conflict with federal law,  states have their own culture, identity, and character, as well as a division of authority in  America’s federal republic.

We are also witness to an ongoing public protest over the rights of indigenous people in North Dakota that is another example of our republican (remember, small “r!”) form of government.  The different governments all play a role (in some cases, NO role) due to the different levels of government that have an impact in the Dakota Access Pipeline story. 

Some have asked me whether the republican government will play out in the case of the election and the DAP dispute.  I think I can give an answer that I feel fairly certain of because of the way this will work their ways through the levels of authority and through our court system.

The election: The recounts won’t change the ultimate result.  Michigan has already done it’s recount because they were so thorough from the night of the election on.  Dr. Stein may file papers in court, but the courts know that the authority for determining the accuracy of the election is up to the Secretary of State’s office in Michigan.  They have announced and verified the results.  Unless Dr. Stein has widespread evidence of “hacking”, mistakes, or fraud, that one’s over.  Wisconsin will do a “recount” which is basically a re-totaling of the votes.  Actually, last reports have increased Trump’s margin by almost 500 votes.   Pennsylvania said Dr. Stein’s petition was too late.  In all three states, she can always go to court but, absent any evidence, no judge will take away the Secretary of State’s authority in those cases.  Expect the Electoral College to vote with very little controversy on December 19th.  Sure, a few electors may change their votes…but…38?

The Senate will verify the count on January 6th, and the Trump-Pence inauguration will happen on January 20th.  The reason I am so certain of this is that voting results are the responsibility of the states, NOT the federal government.  All the feds do is report the certified results that the states report to Washington, DC.  It’s a reminder that there are MANY areas that states have the authority in:  Driver’s licenses, marriage licenses, property taxes, school authority, police (we are one of the few countries that does NOT have a national police force), etc.

Dakota Access Pipeline – There is no question that a lot of attention has been paid to this dispute.  The sad thing is that the federal government has been VERY pro-active in trying to work with the native tribes in the area over recent years.  Wait, why is Keith now talking about the Federal government in this?  Because state governments have no authority in relation to the native tribes; it’s in the constitution, this is an area of federal government authority…only.  So, can the US Government stop this?  Probably not.  They can delay it, they can interfere with it, but the companies have already been granted access and ownership of certain areas.  In the end, perhaps after more negotiations, changes, and court hearings, the pipeline will be built. 

So why should we keep a republic?  Wouldn’t a democracy be “fairer?”  In some cases, perhaps, like those who take the side of the tribes in the DAP debate.  But what if what the majority wants to take next time is YOUR individual rights?  I am a member of a small religious minority.  In the 1990s there was a nationwide movement to deny us some of our most important rights of our families.  This succeeded in some laws being passed that restricted certain of our important religious principles.  Many saw this as “common-sense restrictions of ‘weird’ religious cults or sects.”  Fortunately, higher courts saw these laws as a violation of our First Amendment freedom of religion and these laws were thrown out and some members who has been convicted in court in violation of that freedom found redress under these higher court rulings.

This highlights the second, and in my mind most important, aspect of a republic.  It’s rule by law, NOT by majority.  Is it possible that the tribes might get redress because of the “rule of law?”  Absolutely, that is their best course of action, not torching construction equipment or obstructing the company workers.  The fact that they DON’T seem to be going that direction suggests to me that their attorneys have told them the pipeline company has the law on their side.

I would suggest that the best path for the tribe is to go to court, or go on TV to plead with the public to change the law.

That’s the way things are resolved, peaceably, in a republic.   Cheers.

Thoughts on – “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”

fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-themLet’s start with the obvious:  This is NOT a Harry Potter film.  Yes, it is about the world of wizardry (Think of it as alums of Hogwarts and other schools of magic) but we are mostly talking about a world of adults with professionals, officials and governing authorities, not students, professors, and institutes of magical learning.

Ms. Rowling has once again shown why her stories generally have a broad audience who enjoy her insatiable appetite for complicated characters and surprising story lines.  Her greatest success is creating persons that we care about.  Unlike the Marvel Universe, these are not one-dimensional cartoon characters but complex personalities with difficult ethical and moral decisions to be made within the strictures of world they inhabit.

I’ll just give a quick sketch of the plot since most of what appeals to the “culture viewpoint analyst” is more in the choices that the players must make throughout the film.  It’s 1926 and a Roaring 20’s version of The Dark Lord is loose in the magical world.  Separate from that story line, a young British wizard, a graduate of Hogwarts, has ventured to New York City to add a few New World magical beasts to his wizard’s suitcase.

We get magicians in a different country within a fashionable 20th century time period.  We also see how the USA might have approached the conflict between the magical world and the “muggles”(“no-majs” in the USA) in Jazz Era New York.  Rowling’s vision has a female African-American president of the Magical Congress of the United States.   The congress is a smaller and more intimate circle of practitioners of magical arts than the bureaucratic ministry portrayed in the UK realm of the Potter series.

Let’s examine the contribution to modern culture of this episode in Rowling’s ongoing world of wizards and magical creatures.  What are the key themes of the students, professors, and even the villains in the world of Hogwarts, Dumbledore, Ron, Hermione, Harry, Snape, et. al.?  If you haven’t seen/read the series (what planet have you been on?) spoilers lie ahead.  Let’s look at what is championed and valued?  Kindness, selfless behavior, teamwork (quiddich), family (Harry’s parents are themes throughout along with “extended family like Sirius Black, Dumbledore, etc)  Harry’s willingness in the final chapter to give his life for Hogwarts and his friends and to take down evil is a repeated theme throughout.  And in the end, his actions that save bad boy Malfoy, his last minute changing perception of Snape, and his decision to “return” after his otherworldly conversation with Dumbledore, after his suicide-destruction of the self-horcrux, are to be emulated and pondered.

And here it is SO important for parents to watch/read the series with their children and examine what is going on with Harry and his cohorts.  What is their motivation?  What is the risk, and why do they accept the risk and move forward with their plans.  The commonality of a shared cultural motif like the Harry Potter series is a great opportunity to dive deeper into the moral and ethical choices in a world when young people are being bombarded with selfishness and lures of material gratification over higher ideals and actions.

In “Fantastic Beasts”, we see the main characters answering a higher calling, an action to seek a proper restitution of good over a belief in the omnipotence of evil.  David Yates, director of the last few Potter movies, takes the time to let his characters reveal their unique abilities and characteristics is ways that show their “powers” as part of what makes them special, not just comic book assets arrayed against dark magic.

With films like Rowling’s magical world, Marvel’s Doctor Strange, and the ongoing super power comic book heroes and villains trend, displaying a public thirst for a world that is superior to the laws of matter, perhaps mankind seeks a more spiritual aspect to reality.  It’s not popular to believe in “God” in the millennial generation.  Popular thought about God today is, unfortunately, tied to concepts of modern organized religion, and modern religion is associated with corruption, greed, power, and secret societies (see The DaVinci Code and it’s sequels and imitators).  At the same time, there has been an attempt to portray the time of Jesus in film (Young Messiah, Risen) to allow new generations to judge the subject of the Gospels by his life and works, and perhaps, to demystify the life of the Messiah.  Perhaps more grist for a future post there…

I’m not equating the two worlds, but I am suggesting that mankind constantly seeks a better motivation for what one achieves during our time on earth.  It’s part of our core reason for existence to expect our efforts to be a legacy for good.  Is the world of Hogwarts, superheroes, and biblical heroes (as portrayed on film today) reflecting a desire to rise to our true nature of good deeds and selflessness?

Tech – What hath SEIU wrought?

Over the last few year, there has been a movement to dramatically increase the minimum wage in the USA.  In particular, the SEIU, the Service Employees International Union, has been a driving force behind this campaign.  The goal has been a $15 an hour minimum wage and there have been several communities where the campaign has succeeded on a municipal level in driving the cost of entry-level labor.  The most well-known success has been in the Seattle area where the restaurant industry has already seen businesses shut down, some anticipating that they would not be able to compete in that environment.  The SEIU has seen a shrinkage in it’s membership in some of those areas as the natural economic consequence of such business contraction has been to reduce the employment of minimum wage workers.  Some labor unions have responded by seeking an exemption from the mandatory increase for their unions.  HUH?

In the end, businesses, like people, will act in their own self-interest in order to survive.  The fast food industry is the most likely battlefield for this conflict, and a big salvo was fired Thursday when McDonald’s decided to take a 200 store technology experiment into all 14, 000 of it’s US stores.  Click on this link to view a short video on how the concept will operate.

Customers will venture into their local land of the Golden Arches and seek out several large touch-screen kiosks to order their food, pay electronically, and sit down to wait for their food to be brought to them.  For families with small children, a key demographic, this frees them up to supervise their munchkins in the play area or get them seated and prepared for food without having to wait at the counter for the meal.  You may say, “well, I wouldn’t be caught dead in a McDonald’s anyway.”  The point is that the fast-advancing technological revolution is going to lead to a huge revolution in labor intensive industries like restaurants.  You won’t see wait staff eliminated, just greatly reduced.  The demands for $15 a hour just sped up the process and eliminated a lot of the jobs for entry-level employees;  a kick in the head to those who were supposed to “benefit” from the forced increase.

McDonalds has pleased the investment community by being able to demonstrate that this system has produced an increase in both foot traffic and a significant increase in the dollar amount per order.  The fast food giant has also found that they can cut their most important cost – labor.  Today, labor cost increases are critical for competitive industries like restaurants because of the increased requirements for benefits like health care.

The laws of economics have not been repealed:  make something artificially more expensive and it will lead to the natural consequence of seeing less of the commodity, in this case, labor.

Movie Review: The Space Between Us

One of the common passions of the outgoing presidency and the incoming new president seems to be a revival of America’s space program.  Add in our fascination with Elon Musk’s Space X effort and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, it’s good to see modern society take up the concept of exploration and interplanetary settlement.  This is an effort that must first grab the public attention, because it will be expensive, long-term, and, sadly, will probably at some point cost lives.  The success of Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” has spurred some new interest in the Red Planet and if we can get the support of the millennial generation, these initial steps may actually lead to the reality of long-term settlements on Mars.

I was able to catch a sneak preview last week of the movie “The Space Between Us.  I took our oldest, Laurie, who is a freshman in high school.  I knew enough from the previews to judge that she would be a better demographic for assessing the potential popularity of this with the chief demographic group entertainment companies seek to corral:  teens.  She loved this movie!

A quick summation of the plot:  The first manned settlement on Mars has an unexpected challenge from it’s inception when the leader of the expedition discovers shortly after the beginning of the journey that she is pregnant.  I’m not giving away any big plot surprise by telling you that once he is a teenager, he journeys back to Earth which causes several fun scenes of discovery, a chance for romance, and that differences in gravity and atmosphere cause a threat to his life.  I’m not telling you anything that isn’t already telegraphed in the trailers that have been released.

I like to grade films the way I would an essay or test.  I suppose it’s the teacher in me.  The producers scored when they cast Asa Butterfield (Ender’s Game) in the lead role.  While the SFX in most films today have become a large part of the attraction (why else deal with the increasing inconvenience of seeing a movie in the theater rather than at home where you can pause, get food, eliminate waste, take a phone call, etc.), this is not an main incentive for seeing “Space” in the theater.

Director Peter Chelsom (Serendipity) gives us time to get to know young Gardner Elliot and weaves the young man’s desire to feel like a normal teenage in with a narrative that includes a young girl that Gardner is emailing.  When the surprise pregnancy was revealed to the program’s Elon Musk-esque project inventor Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman), he decides to keep it secret as he fears it will scuttle public support for moving forward with the project.

This is really a love story, with a cross-country chase and road trip, with a sci-fi backstory.  For families, there is one scene that I was concerned with how far the “relationship” was going to go.  Fortunately, while it’s clear what has happened, the filmmakers realize that they want to produce a family film (there is enough language for it to be rated PG-13).

Overall, Butterfield gives an A- performance, Chelsom get a B+ for the direction, poor Gary Oldman doesn’t have much to work with in his part but it sure beats another turn as Commissioner Gordon.  Give Oldman credit for taking home a paycheck.  Is he becoming the Michael Caine of the 20-teens?

I give the whole movie a B.  It should do ok with it’s target audience, but I don’t envy it trying to find decent numbers amongst the big films (Rogue One, Fantastic Beasts) that will be dominating the theaters in mid-December.  It isn’t an expensive production so they should be able to make a profit, but I’m not sure how this pleasant little hors d’oeuvre of a film will do overseas.  If you have some teenage girls, as I do, it should be a nice little diversion on a weekend afternoon.

Cheers, Keith

Asa Butterfield visits Earth
Asa Butterfield visits Earth