Test Post

This fascinating post is just a test, and lacks deep philosophical meaning.

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The Homer Simpson Media

Fans of The Simpsons will know that one of Homer Simpson’s signature moves is when he is in the middle of something serious, he gets distracted by a bird or something, yells “Oooh! Birdie!” then runs outside chasing it around a tree giggling.

So much like today’s media and President Trump’s tweets.

Let’s be frank here. I’m no great fan of Trump. I think he’s less bad than Hillary (let alone the execrable Sanders) would have been, but let’s face it, that’s a pretty low bar. So low that the decision of who is least bad (“better” is pushing it) is subject to quantum mechanical fluctuations. But he really has the media’s measure. Just send out a good dose of “outrageous” tweets, and the media and their adoring public are duly distracted from anything important.

Patsies.

Let’s face it, modern politics is just theatre, and Trump is its master. I don’t know what’s more amusing, the sight of the media chasing Trump’s birdies, or the pomposity of critics who accuse him of betraying the dignity of the office of President. Talk about low bars. A President pleasuring an intern with a cigar outside the Oval Office kind of makes the dignity a bit moot, no?

What is amusing is it is so much like the “not cultured” measure in Russia described in Tom Clancy novels: the rulers could be utterly ruthless, murdering thieving bastards, but as long as they were “cultured”, and properly appreciated the arts and culture, why, they are good people who could sleep at night with the respect of their peers. But be uncultured! Oh, my! Unworthy of office.

So here we have a political system that routinely violates individuals’ rights in so many ways, usually cheered on by that same media, while we vilify Trump for his boorish personality. Talk about the decline and fall of the US empire.

But Trump has done some good things. Pity the media is too distracted to attempt to stop the bad things (though frankly, they are likely to approve the bad and attack the good, such is politics these days). Maybe he’ll end up doing more good than bad. Or maybe he won’t be able to do much at all.

In any case, it’s theatre. So grab your popcorn and enjoy the ride, as Trump entertains and pulls the strings of his even more entertaining puppets.

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Passengers

Image from WikipediaPassengers.

An interesting and engaging movie. Not entirely without its flaws, but I consider them minor and not grating enough to ruin the movie, as is sometimes the case.

Rare for a “major movie”, it is not merely an interesting story with interesting characters, but intelligently looks at some interesting philosophical issues. There is the central one of the morality of what to do if you’re doomed to live alone until you die but can wake up someone you love to be with, but share your fate. There is the issue of what to do when your life plan is ruined: mope, or live the fullest life you can.  It even includes the main characters discussing the moral relationship between the company who built the starship and the passengers who chose to join it – and for once, the company is not portrayed as a villain.

It also had some nice doses of humour to alleviate the tension, including a line from Laurence Fishburne that will amuse Matrix fans.

Don’t use it as a textbook for either physics or economics, but that goes for pretty much all movies. The economic issue of how a corporation could make squillions of dollars sending enormously expensive starships (surely the fares of only 5,000 passengers could go nowhere to paying for it) on journeys that last 120 years is ignored. But hey, I don’t let defective plot backgrounds destroy a movie when they’re just a plot background.

This is the first time in a long while that I’ve been to a movie and the cinema was nearly full. Not that popular taste is any test of the quality of a movie!

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Misery Meets Mystery

10_Cloverfield_LaneIf I were to sum up the essence of 10 Cloverfield Lane, I’d say “intriguingly unique”.

The basic plot isn’t unique — woman goes off road, awakes imprisoned in a house, doesn’t know who to trust — but this one not only kept me guessing but most of my guesses were wrong.

The heroine is a bit of a “run away from problems” girl, but when she has an accident and wakes up chained to a wall in a house, running away is not an option. When she is told by the strange owner Howard (played in nicely menacing fashion by John Goodman) that he’s saved her because there has been some disaster outside and the air isn’t breathable, she is understandably suspicious. The other strange occupant of the house, who claims he built the bomb shelter they’re in and forced his way in, adds further confusion, but he does support Howard’s story.

While its genre is partially horror and has its share of frights and violence, I don’t consider it truly horrific (unlike Stephen King’s Misery, which has a similar basic plot). I don’t think you’ll be opening your eyes in the middle of the night after watching it, but it’s not something you’ll want to watch with the kids.

Throughout the movie you are left wondering what’s really going on. Howard is a conspiracy nut and is alternately reasonable and threatening, so you don’t know what of what he says to believe. Some evidence points to his telling the truth. But other evidence points to him being a mad killer. I won’t tell you what happens as I think this is a movie worth watching. And I will merely quote what the heroine says when she discovers the truth: “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

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The Caped Marauders

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41557090Another movie available during our recent globe-trotting was Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

I wasn’t expecting too much from this movie, but the trailers looked like it had potential and I was in the mood for some excitement, so decided to give it a chance.

I guess the Batman/Superman/League of Justice universe is trying to jump on Marvel’s Avengers universe bandwagon — not surprisingly from a commercial point of view.

In basic plot this one is like Captain America: Civil War: even the movie posters look the same. But it just doesn’t manage it. By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48646207My complaint about Civil War is that it set up the opportunity for a deep (without sacrificing entertainment) exploration of the issues of freedom, responsibility and political control in the exaggerated context of super-heroes saving the world but with collateral damage while doing so — but dumbed down that discussion so much that it really disappointed. But Batman v Superman doesn’t even try.

The motivations for the “v” are weak. Two super-vigilantes, both highly intelligent, are really going to fight each other to the death because they don’t approve of the other one being a vigilante? Seriously, script writers? As with Civil War, we see “the people” objecting to the perceived failings of their super-heroes: but when handed an opportunity to discuss that, the plot can’t wait to blow the place up without hearing from Superman, who one would hope has something to say about the issue (personally, I’d be tempted to say “In that case, I’m out of here and you can all rot”, but perhaps Super is more patient than I — though we aren’t going to find out, are we?).

Basically, this movie is whiz-bang with lots of special effects and exciting action, but really kind of pointless, and doesn’t even try to address the issues that form the basis of its plot. So if you want some exciting eye candy, go for it, but don’t set your expectations too high. If this is DC Comics’ attempt to challenge Marvel, they have a long way to go.

 

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Eye in the Sky

One of the bonuses of By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49024042international air travel, especially if you have a busy life, is the option of seeing movies you normally wouldn’t get around to watching. Sometimes the experience is one you’d rather have gone with out. Other times, you find a surprising gem.

Eye in the Sky, starring Helen Mirren as a tough-minded colonel hunting US- and British-born Muslim terrorists in Nairobi, and the sadly late Alan Rickman playing, well, Alan Rickman in lieutenant general garb, is one of the gems.

With the quality of movies these days, I expected at best a cartoonish “us versus them” movie or at worst another “it’s all the West’s fault, who are all a bunch of jerks” movie. But no. No sympathy is given to the terrorists, but the local people they live and hide among are portrayed as sympathetic people living their lives as best they can. The people hunting the terrorists are portrayed as people with a moral compass, entirely willing to kill terrorists but torn by moral dilemmas when innocent people get caught in the radius of destruction. The politicians are an interesting mix of craven buck-passers and ones with a clearer-eyed vision (“I don’t care if they’re US citizens – they gave that up when they joined the terrorists”, to paraphrase).

The best part of the movie is the “trolley dilemma” that is central to the drama of the plot. (The Trolley Dilemma is a moral dilemma where you have to choose between letting a runaway trolley continue on its course and kill some people, or switch its track so it kills fewer, different people). Normally I find trolley dilemmas unrealistic — as when, in real life, is it ever going to happen to you and why? But this movie shows how it can happen — in war. In addition to the random chance of people maybe walking by when the missile hits the terrorists’ house, there is a young girl actually sitting outside the compound selling bread, whose chances of survival are slim. But against that, if nothing is done, two suicide bombers are about to leave, and instead of one death there will be dozens, probably including many other children. So do you attack, knowing that one girl will probably die; or save her, with your inaction enabling many more deaths? Do you accept the blame and criticism for killing her? Or defect the blame and criticism to the terrorists you could have stopped?

Eye in the Sky does a good job on this, maintaining the suspense all the way through.

Does this movie answer the trolley problem? There are no good answers, only better or worse ones, and it answers this version the way I would. Are politicians really that craven? Surely many are. Are the military, both the leaders calling the shots and the men and women doing the shooting, as concerned with the lives they are affecting as portrayed in this movie? I hope so.

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Abortion Rights

Views_of_a_Foetus_in_the_Womb_detailIn an earlier article I have argued for a woman’s absolute right to abort her embryo or foetus. This was based on the fundamental principle that the origin of rights is not a human shape or a human genome, but the possession of a thinking mind. The same reasoning implies that a newborn also has no rights – but except in special circumstances the mother no longer has the right to end its life.

Recent discussions indicate a need to clarify what this actually means in practice.

A critical point is that we must distinguish between rights and morality. It is important to properly identify where rights lie, because that defines what laws are proper: where it is proper to use force to stop or impose certain actions. Since rights stem from a thinking mind and a foetus doesn’t have one, there should be no law limiting a woman’s right to abort, even late term. However her rights after birth extend only so far as abandonment (giving up the right to look after the baby). But that means giving up all rights re the baby: so she then has no right to stop another person from taking over its care. The one exception is where ending its life is actually good for it (mercy killing): in other words, the mother has the right to do what is best for her baby – or give it up. Obviously such cases would have to be subject to objective medical advice.

Many people react emotionally to such ideas, but a little thought indicates how little a problem it actually is. The very fact that they would recoil from allowing an infant to die from neglect just because its mother doesn’t want it shows that there are plenty of people around to take over its care: including them (I will leave it to you to consider the morality of someone who wishes to force someone else to do what they are unwilling to do themselves; or the wisdom of trying to force a mother to look after a child she would prefer to be dead!).

In practice, in our technological society most births are prevented by contraception, and the great majority of abortions are early term. The few which are late term are generally medical in nature.

As for the rest: again, that is the mother’s right. However note that there is an extra dimension here. Somebody has to perform the abortion, and in a free society that can only be by voluntary agreement. If I were a doctor and a woman asked me for a late term abortion without any good reason, I would instead advise her to have the child and give it up for adoption; in fact I would refuse to perform an abortion under those circumstances. The reason is that any healthy human life is a value to me, and to plenty of others (it can be very hard to find a child to adopt): therefore if a mother doesn’t want her baby and it makes no medical difference to her whether it is aborted or adopted, I would opt for adoption.

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A Night at the Synagogue

399px-Aeish-sheliTwo of our daughter’s friends were having their Bat Mitzvah (the female version of the better known Jewish Bar Mitzvah coming of age ceremony, normally held when they are 12), to be held on the Sabbath at a Jewish Orthodox synagogue. Never having set foot in a synagogue, let alone attended a service, we all took the opportunity to go. So in the grand tradition of “naive European abroad writes of his ignorant impressions of strange lands”, here is my dispatch from the front.

First impressions: certainly friendly people, ever ready to shake the hand of a stranger, albeit the “enforcer” (official title apparently “President”) ensuring stranger plonks a kippah (the Jewish skull cap) on his head.

Second impressions: much bobbing, weaving, bowing, mumbling, chanting and clapping by the Rabbi, who, unlike in a Christian church, spends most of the service with his back to the audience. The Rabbi has been doing this so long that he tends to bob around even when he isn’t doing the service.

With the women safely separated behind a stained glass partition, from which they could really only view the proceedings in the parts where everyone stood up, it was interesting to observe the goings on. My impression of the proceedings were the women spent most of the time chatting while the men engaged in a mixture of participation and chatting to each other; how many business deals were concluded that night, I can only guess.

It was an interesting mix of rigidly orthodox beliefs and relaxed attitudes. There appear to be three kinds of hats: the luminaries, like the bearded black-clad Rabbi, wore a broad-rimmed black hat. Most of the men wore the kippah but a few wore baseball caps. Nor were the latter riffraff off the streets: one, who frankly looked like one, was reading from an all-Hebrew book and turned out to be grandpa. Apparently frayed baseball caps are kosher. As noted, they are even relaxed about chatter during the service. Only when it got too loud would the Enforcer (a rather grim-looking man during the service, but at the party after, affable and prone to sharing around out of his bottle of Johnny Walker) pound on the furniture and shush them; and when someone’s mobile phone went off loudly (very naughty) he muttered “Unbelievable! There’s a sign at the entrance and they still do it!” (I could hear this because he was sitting behind me: I do wonder whether that was because that’s where he sits, or so he could keep an eye on the gentile who came in without a hat). Most charming was the attitude to children, who not only occasionally rambled across the room, but when the Rabbi’s little daughter (he has 10 or 11 children) was sitting up in his little area and getting antsy, he just stopped in the middle of what he was saying, kindly picked her up and told her to go play with her sister, then continued where he had left off. No fuss, nobody minded.

Finally the glass partitions came down and the Bat Mitzvah girls were allowed in to receive their certificates and give their talks. They acquitted themselves well.

Afterwards was a big party. Unfortunately there’s usually music and dancing with a Bat Mitzvah, but since it was Shabbat electronics weren’t allowed, so it was just eating, talking and drinking (thank God, as it were, the Jews don’t mind alcohol, unlike a certain other Abrahamic religion). Apparently they always do this after the service, but it was bigger this time because of the Bat Mitzvah.  That was another thing I found strange: the Shabbat insistence on no electronics – yet there were women serving the food and carting off the dirty dishes, which is surely more “work” than flipping a switch. I guess practicality has to win out sometimes but not always. Maybe that’s what the Talmud is for.

We sat opposite some 12 year old boys, including two twins born a minute apart who looked completely different (different eye colour, body and face shape, hair colour…). Very Jacob and Esau but they looked at me blankly when I said that. Either my pronunciation wasn’t Orthodox or when they said “boys can’t read the Torah until their Bar Mitzvah” they meant not at all. But interesting conversations with one of them (the “oldest” twin):

Boy runs down the list: “So, you are Christian?” No. “Hindu?” No. “Buddhist?” No. Finally:
“We just believe in one less god than you do.” “Oh”. Me, for once being diplomatic: “We regard all gods as equal.” True, but inoffensively so. What is happening to me??? Then:

Boy: “God created the world and Adam and Eve in 6 days.”
Me (smiling): “You shouldn’t say that to an evolutionary biologist.”
Boy (somewhat more forcefully): “But God did create the world in 6 days.”
Me (arch diplomat): “That is what is written, yes.”
Boy (having none of it): “It is true!”

It was also interesting reading their book during the service (I think it was a chumash, which contains the Hebrew and English text of the Five Books of Moses). Very praise God this, God is great and wonderful that, though I did wonder how they cope with the cognitive dissonance of God is the King of Kings who protects us from our enemies, and Hitler (who was mentioned in the “sermon”, with what sounded suspiciously like a Jewish swear word after his name). And an interesting mix of writings about God and very specific, detailed instructions on where and how many times to bow at what stage and what to leave out in certain circumstances. In a way, looking at how related religions do things is like studying related languages: clear similarities, with odd or even jarring differences where they have diverged over time.

The other oddity to me was that they and their book called God “Hashem” (or plain “God”), a term I have never heard before but I now know is used in Judaism when avoiding God’s more formal titles.

All in all, an interesting experience of a foreign culture preserving itself in our midst. Indeed, that was the point of the Rabbi’s sermon (I guess it was a sermon, though whether he always does one or it was just for the ceremony, I don’t know): that we live in a democracy, which is great, but that the majority aren’t always right and we minorities should maintain our identity and morals, and the girls should keep that in mind.

Shabbat shalom!

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Atlas Shrug

AtlasShruggedMovieWe just finished watching the Atlas Shrugged movie trilogy. Very interesting. It was much better than I thought it would be, though not without flaws. Would I recommend it? Now that’s a difficult question…

Why better than I thought? I hadn’t expected much, partly because of the poor reception it’s received, partly because how do you compress a thousand-page novel of ideas like Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged into about 6 hours of movie, without literally losing the plot?

And there’s the rub. I enjoyed it, but I’ve read the novel. It would be interesting to see the reaction of someone sympathetic to Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, or its core ideas of reason, individual rights and capitalism, who hasn’t read Atlas Shrugged. It might be hard to find such a person. I myself didn’t read the novel until some time after I became interested in the ideas, but some people think there aren’t many people like me around…

Then again, to my surprise our 11-year old daughter enjoyed it, though she did have the benefit of her godlike father being there to explain some of the action 🙂

On the good side, at least for someone who’s read the novel and doesn’t get lost, many of Rand’s ideas came through and some of the good quotes were there and delivered well. When you are already familiar with the story, you don’t notice the plot gaps so much.

On the bad side: where do I start? Not all is the producer’s fault: compressing a work of such scope into a 3-part movie isn’t easy. On the other hand, others seem to have managed a similar task much better with Lord of the Rings. The script direction was a bit spotty: sometimes it is mystifying why they left some things out in favour of others. Changing practically all the actors from Part I to Part II to Part III is jarring, especially when even their ages varied enormously. But perhaps we can put these flaws down to a small budget.

Speaking of the actors, it is so jarring that it is a game in itself watching the changes and picking your favourites. Dagny Taggart? The third, I’d say, with Dagny I a close second; though of all the characters, the Dagnys were the closest to each other. Hank Rearden I – definitely the best. Francisco? Definitely II. Francisco looked too much like a hobo who didn’t have it, and Francisco III was awful: too old, not at all dashing, and totally lacking in passion. And don’t get me started on Ragnar, whose only good point in the movie was that he had hardly anything to do in it (he is a far more engaging and important character in the book).

(This paragraph contains some spoilers…) The worst for me was the scene in Part III where Francisco finds Dagny in the Valley. Consider that he thought she was dead, and had spent ages searching for her, hoping to find her, fearing to find her dead body. Then he discovers here alive, and it is pretty much, “Hey, nice to see you breathing. See you later!” Sheesh. Sorry guys, that was the worst failure to take advantage of high human drama I’ve ever seen. John Galt, the main if shadowy hero, wasn’t that much better. For a man of high passion, brilliance and drive, he mainly came across as made of wood. Though I did think he did a creditable job delivering his keynote speech, and (unlike Francisco) an excellent job dragging Dagny into his room when she finally tracks him down in his garret.

The trilogy certainly could have benefited by a more rigorous control of the script including seeking (and listening to) input from advisors with a better grasp of the essentials of the novel and a greater artistic flair than the production displayed. But for all its flaws, bravo to the producers for making the attempt, not entirely bad by any means.

Would I recommend this trilogy to someone interested in what Ayn Rand is all about but hasn’t yet read Atlas Shrugged? Possibly, but with the proviso “don’t expect to fully understand the plot or all the complex sub-plots, and if you like any of it – read the book.” Definitely do not judge the book by the movie, unless you positively hate the thoughts even in the movie (in which case why are you even here?).

Would I recommend it to someone who has read Atlas Shrugged? Yes, because if I enjoyed it, you might too. Just don’t expect it to equal the novel.

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Django Unhinged

DjangoWell, the premise sounded interesting, with an escaped slave teaming up with an anti-slavery white guy to seek his girl and justice. But with Tarantino involved, I guess I should have known better.

I suppose if you like mindless violence and your definition of art is “lots of squirting blood” this might be the movie for you.

Spoiler alert for the rest of this, though I would actually advocate being spoiled so you don’t have to inflict watching the movie upon your soul and its limited time on this Earth.

The movie did have some good bits. The violence wasn’t too excessive early on – distracting but not ruining, and not so bad compared to a lot of other movies. The German bounty hunter Dr Schultz was an interesting character, rather mild and even gormless in many ways yet not in his actions. Django had a threatening, powerful presence. And there was some good humour, notably the scene with the Ku Klux Klan and their ill-fitting masks, though I thought that scene did go on too long.

But the ending was terrible, just a pathetic excuse to substitute violence for art or sense. Even the trigger for it all was stupid. Schultz, previously showing a good degree of brains, decides shaking the hand of the admittedly rotten scoundrel Calvin Candie (played by Leonardo DiCaprio in another poor movie choice, sorry Leo) is too much to handle. So much so he would rather die just to kill him instead – despite the fairly easy to predict further consequences. Especially pointless when they could have killed him later at their leisure, having had no qualms about that in the rest of the movie.

Then it is just ridiculous levels of violence, to an extreme of blood and pointlessness. And the feeble attempt at the end at a bit of light-heartedness and humour with the prancing horse as Django shows off to his girl – totally out of place after what they’ve just been through unless you  they’re both psychopaths – just underlines the insanity of the exercise.

With themes like these – slavery, emancipation, the search for a stolen love, the help of a white anti-slavery bounty hunter: so much could have been done with this. It is a pity the director is more interested – obsessed? – with violence for the sake of shock.

If I was Django, I’d burn the cinema down.

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