Flowers for America

Over the last few years I have blogged and tweeted about shows from HBO Now, Youtube TV, Acorn, Britbox, and briefly the Mhz channel. In response to the pandemic, we dropped all those pay channels and have been streaming free channels like Roku, TUBI, FilmRise, etc. I rewatched UFO, a paranoid 1970 sci-fi series by the team that had produced marionette series like Fireball XL5 and Thunderbirds, and later Space 1999. I am rewatching Merlin, too, which presented the Arthurian legend as a mix of adolescent comedy and melodrama.

I had seen parts of the first Hunger Games film, but TUBI had the entire series for nine more days, so we started watching those, and comparisons to the current economic landscape are inescapable. We’ve also been watching the Genius of the Modern World series on Netflix, which my stepson has not dropped. The first two episodes featured Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzche. We watched Nicole Kidman in Bewitched, and last night my wife found a 1990 Cinderella-type flick called, If the Shoe Fits, starring post-sex tape Rob Lowe and post-rhinoplasty Jennifer Grey. That was terrible, but I owed her for sitting through Marx and Nietzche.

One film we enjoyed was Flowers for Algernon, a 2000 TV movie starring Matthew Modine. I saw Charly in theaters when it first came out in 1968, and found it very moving. Cliff Robertson played Charlie Gordon on TV in 1961, and again in the film. I thought Cliff Robertson deserved his Oscar, but there was one scene where he plays the developing Charlie Gordon being “groovy” that was tough to watch. Later I ran across the story in a scifi anthology. I hadn’t initially thought of it as a science fiction tale, but increasing his intelligence got Dr Morbius in all sorts of trouble in Forbidden Planet, and there were the Outer Limits episodes, Expanding Human and The Sixth Finger, where Skip Homeier and David McCallum ran afoul of their experiments in increasing intelligence.

Daniel Keyes was an experienced author and editor of pulp magazine and comic book science fiction, horror and fantasy, but also spent some time teaching English to special needs students. He reportedly developed a synopsis, Brainstorm, at the request of Galaxy Science Fiction into Flowers for Algernon, whose editor then requested a happier ending. Keyes published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction instead, and won a Hugo award for Best Short Story. Keyes later expanded it to a novel, which I have not read, which shared a Nebula Award, and was nominated for a Hugo. Again some publishers requested the happier ending, but Harcourt Brace published as written.

Anyway, we enjoyed Matthew Modine’s performance. There were staging differences from Charly, but the story was essentially the same, and at the end we had to wonder how we would deal with a loss of intelligence. We each have relatives who are dealing with this in a very real way.

As I drifted off to sleep last night, it occurred to me that our nation-state is facing an impending decline of intelligence with far less grace than Charlie Gordon. We’ve witnessed an experiment in which a surfeit of natural resources – taken from around the globe – fueled a massively prosperous middle class, but the experiment is being carefully wound down, and we are being made to forget all the rights and prerogatives we once took for granted.

Spurious Job Adverts

My wife and I watch a lot of documentaries, and just watched The Social Dilemma [youtube trailer], which is trending on Netflix. The film interviews former execs from Google, Facebook, Instagram, etc, who wonder how firms that worked under mottoes like, “Don’t Be Evil,” created a social media environment that is so addictive, divisive and demeaning. Short answer: as with drug dealers, their earnings depend on modifying the behavior of the users, whether it benefits the users or not. A screen quote claims that drug dealers and software developers are the only ones that call their clients, “users,” though network administrators also use the term. Many of the interviewees claim that they now restrict their children from using the platforms they developed. The film is worth watching, but they scarcely mentioned the workplace media sites, LinkedIn or Monster.

Until recently, I was employed – busy with renovations and new buildings for colleges and universities – but nothing stops architectural projects cold like uncertainty, and college administrators don’t know quite what is hitting them. After being laid off, I updated LinkedIn with my new status, and applied through them to the few firms that were advertising, two of which were employment agencies. I then received an email thanking me for joining Startwire, which I hadn’t realized I was doing. My profile/resume must have been sent to quite a few places, too, because over the next several weeks I was besieged with useless and repetitive emails. I divide these into two groups: irrelevant listings, and scam offers.

I am a building architect, and am used to confusion with my work and software architect positions, but Career Builder sends me scads of emails to be a Customer Service Representative, or even a Border Patrol Agent. Nexxt forwards all sorts of engineering jobs, but I’m not an engineer. Gpac submits project manager positions from any industry. Monster perhaps saw that I had worked on hospitals and suggested Licensed Healthcare Insurance Agent, but also many, many grocery shopper positions. Artech offers clerk positions. AllRetailJobs is always showing me posts for Amazon shoppers and Uber Eats drivers. Maybe these are the only jobs out there.

Worse are the dicey offers. An email from, and referencing Master Coaches Association, suggested I become a business coach. ActionCoach is a franchise business that seems to resemble a multilevel marketing scheme. I plan to avoid it.

I have gotten many, many copies of the, “We are considering you as the new Quality Control Inspector for our company,” sort of offer from fairly anonymous email addresses, which always seem to involve handling shipping from my home address. Very often there is an attached pdf named something like, Description_684. This is known as the reshipping scam, and can land you in jail for handling stolen goods.

I was told several years ago that most firms don’t bother with rejections, but I did get one polite acknowledgement, followed by a polite rejection from Larson Design Group.

Years ago, I used to joke to coworkers that I had joined LinkedIn even though I didn’t know what it was for. I have posted industry articles, which seem to have been read, and I have read similar posts from former coworkers. I do also have the feeling that I am sorta, kinda keeping in touch with former coworkers. But I’m losing any expectation that LinkedIn will be an asset in searching for a job.

How long will Black Lives Matter?

A week after our office day of reflection on anti-racism issues, we met again (via Zoom) for a discussion of learning and next steps facilitated by Larry Roper. I had been pondering the question, Why is an anti-racism movement finally gaining some traction now, centuries since what Dr Gerald Horne and others call The Construction of Whiteness? But one of our number raised another excellent question when she recounted that people on what she had watched were quite matter-of-factly discussing how to keep the BLM movement going when the powers-that-be lose interest.

As to the first question, my theory is that BLM is at least partially a useful rallying cry for the resistance against the Trump insurgency, using those terms as defined by John Robb in an interview early in Trump’s presidency:

The concept is that the American political scene is now the battleground between two weaponized social networks that have taken over the political process. It started with the insurgency, which is the rejection of the establishment that voted and put Trump into office. The insurgency is a maneuver base. It disrupts systems, causes chaos and because of that chaos, it disrupts the decision making process of the opposition, the established opposition as well as any network opposition. It’s been fairly effective. It put Trump in office. It’s maintaining his popularity. Trump is a natural in terms of that maneuver based disruptive strategies. He has lots of what’s called a fast transiency. Moves from one topic to the next, one disruption to the next. There’s never really any time for the opposition to build a momentum in terms of opposition on any specific point.

The resistance is the network that’s been most effective at combating the insurgency. It found its purchase in the identity side, very values focused. Its pure tunicle. In many respects doesn’t put up with violations of values. It’s in the process of taking over the democratic party and we’re seeing the compromise mainstream candidates being thrown to the side like Biden and anyone who’s tried to straddle the middle ground. AOC for instance, is the perfect example of the resistance participant. Both of these networks are open source. Meaning there’s not anyone specific person that’s leader. Those people that you see at the front tend to be more like a weaponized version of the network. There’s lots of conflicting ideas within these open source networks but they’re all agreed on a single animating purpose. That’s just the, the core of the idea.

Poli Sci and Econ professor Mark Blyth believes that swing state voters went for Trump to make themselves heard in an economic system that was ignoring and savaging them but the Donald also clearly caters to and is popular with white nationalists in the US. The resistance has searched for a mode of attack, such as MeToo, Russiagate, etc. – none of which gained real traction – but BLM is a pill he cannot swallow without alienating that racist base. Between BLM and his boneheaded lack of response to the pandemic, Trump appears poised to lose to Joe Biden, who is feeble, but far less offensive to Democratic donors than Bernie Sanders.

Certainly many people are honestly appalled by the recorded evidence of official violence against people of color, but I suspect that once Trump is out of office, BLM will no longer enjoy the media focus it does just now. Hopefully I will be proven wrong.


Personal Day

My employer, Credo, consults for colleges and universities, many of whom were spurred by the protest movement in response to George Floyd’s murder to spend some days in mid-June in reflection and discussion of what led to the racism in our world. Credo decided to do much the same, and today is that day. There were, of course, preparations and meetings with lists of readings and podcast resources in the weeks before. Someone suggested “journaling” which to me meant adding another blog post. Beyond that, simply having a day like this on my schedule brought back memories.

My mother used to tell a story that a stranger rang our doorbell when I was very young, and that I ran to tell her that there was a chocolate man at the door. I’ve often wondered if I really made that connection between skin color and food color. We lived in a mostly white Long Island suburb, but I recall there was at least one little dark-skinned girl in kindergarten, Felicia. I remember talking to Felicia, probably teasing her like all the girls, but her quietly responding, “I’m tellin’.” Which was no fun at all.

Later we had a sitter who if we didn’t behave, punished us with a drop of hot tabasco sauce on our tongue. So we behaved. As I recall, she worked for us for quite a while. But then my folks took two of us on a vacation, and we came home to find my younger siblings and about two dozen of Mrs Brown’s family in our swimming pool. I had never seen so many dark bodies. That was the last we saw of her.

I was around ten when we moved to a still-rural (but soon to be suburban) area in Maryland, and a lot of things changed. My teacher went from being Mrs Grant to Mrs Lee, which I thought was enormously funny. At school, we stuck out with the NY accents we didn’t realize we had, and the other kids called us, “city slickers.” At the ES, our classes were perhaps a quarter to a third black students. For some reason many of the black boys sat in the back row. A few of them could barely read aloud, which puzzled me because they could talk like anyone else. Mrs Lee was local and read to the class from Huckleberry Finn, but her pronunciation of the Southern dialect didn’t sound like it had in my head.

Later I had Mr Jackson, my first black teacher. I truly believe he liked me, but I wasn’t particularly observant of rules, and he often punished me and sometimes my unlucky friends with the long, flat Board of Education across my backside. I remember he broke it on one of us once, and wrapped it back together with masking tape. After that broke, too, he taped three yardsticks together. For music we had Mr Thacker, who would play standards on the piano, by ear, while we sang along. He sent Mr Jackson among us to remove those singing off-key, and I got culled. For three decades I was convinced I couldn’t sing.

Junior High was more of the same, except different teachers. We had a black art teacher, Mr Washington, who used to do silk screens while we were sketching or painting. He also let the black girls bring in their record players and play 45s, so I heard a lot of music, like Grazin’ in the Grass, that they never played on middle-of-the-road radio. (Until they played the Hugh Masakela instrumental cover.) One day he came in wearing sunglasses. The talk was that he had been tear-gassed while marching in DC. It was truly amazing to me that such a laid-back man would have been marching in the streets.

My father had attended a private, Jesuit-run school in NY, so my folks sent me to Georgetown Prep, which is now famous for spitting out two conservative Supreme Court Justices but used to have somewhat liberal professors and teachers. Prep’s student body was diverse, but there weren’t that many African-American kids, and there were no girls. We had boarding students from South and Central America, the Philippines, India, Vietnam, and Iran but a lot of the day students already knew each other from Mater Dei School, a Catholic 1-8 boy’s school in Bethesda. One black fellow joined my class in a later year, though. When he played basketball, I heard that one of my ex-roommates responded to his baskets by shouting out, “three-fifths of a point!” Later we elected him the first African-American President of the Yard.

While I was at GP, my brothers and sisters were encountering racial tensions at the Jr and Sr High Schools. I suspect that a lot of city slickers from a lot of ethnic and economic backgrounds  had moved to new developments in the area, and the rural strategies of coexistence weren’t working as before.

At Prep, I read Travels with Charley. In his road tour of the US, Steinbeck only hints at racial troubles as talks with an old man he calls, Monsieur Ci Git, who dismisses it as a problem for later generations. I spent a lot of time then trying to figure what Ci Git means in French, but read now that it was used instead of, “Here Lies” on grave markers. Though I believed Steinbeck then, this reviewer convinced the publishers that most of the book was actually fiction. Later we read Black Like Me, and it seemed too simple that a Caucasian man would really be seen as black simply by darkening his skin. Eddie Murphy did a reverse skit on that theme on SNL, right? But thirteen years before that, in 1948, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter who had exposed Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black’s KKK membership, also passed, and wrote Thirty Days a Black Man: The Forgotten Story that Exposed the Jim Crow South, which I suppose I’ll have to find and read now. Reason review and podcast here.

I already told some of my coworkers this story, but when my folks began bugging me about what I wanted to do, I told them Architecture. They thought that was great, but my father told me that Yale or Harvard would want me to attain a Bachelors (non-professional) degree, then get a Masters in Architecture. With six siblings behind me, he couldn’t afford to send any of us to college for multiple degrees. So I got this big, fat green book of college statistics from the College Board, and started going through looking for schools that had Architectural programs, had swimming teams, didn’t cost a fortune, didn’t require public-speaking (I was still very much an introvert) and had a reasonably even male-female ratio. After four years of all-male high school, I wanted to meet some women.

As I recall, Dad forbade me from applying to Stanford, probably because it was so far away, but possibly because he had read about their integrated coed dorms. Dad wanted me to look at Catholic University, as a commuter, and he wanted me to get accepted at William and Mary because a guy at work claimed I couldn’t get in there. There were cards in the back of the big green book that you could send to colleges for additional information. Rice University and The Hampton Institute also met my criteria, and Hampton wasn’t that far from DC. When a thick envelope arrived, I started looking through Hampton’s brochure, with pictures of students and buildings and facilities. Even in the 1970s colleges were trying to show some diversity, but it dawned on me that almost everyone in the brochure was black.

Hampton had been founded after the Civil War to teach freed slaves. They later included Native Americans, but were criticized for racial-mixing. Native Americans found that they couldn’t get jobs with a degree from a black college, so that enrollment dried up. I frankly don’t recall if I even showed the brochure to my folks. I couldn’t imagine going to a mostly black college, and I couldn’t imagine them paying for it. Based on my SATs, Carnegie-Mellon sent me a small brochure and also fit all my criteria, and that is where I went. I have thought back over the years on what it would have been like to be in the minority on a campus.

Fast forward to Baltimore in 2018. I moved from the Mt Washington suburb to an apartment downtown, and began walking past The Real News Network (TRNN) offices on my way to the farmer’s market. TRNN featured a live talk by Dr Gerald Horne, so I dropped by to watch, Why Black Lives Don’t Matter. Horne recounted many of the points from his book, The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America.  I bought this book for my stepson, who is widely-read in American history. You can sing Molasses to Rum all you want, but Horne claims that the Revolutionary War was an attempt to preserve the cash cow that slavery represented to wealthy people in the American colonies.

Last week I was telling a friend about this day of reflection, and he told me that he had recently watched a talk by several speakers, the best of whom was a black woman. A questioner noted that a review called her, “articulate,” and asked if she was offended. She replied something about enduring microaggressions (PDF). My friend, and his partner, couldn’t get their minds around interpreting a compliment as an insult, but as described in this legal reference site, they are very real to minorities.

Anyway, coworkers suggested many pieces for us to watch or read. I got a jump last night and watched 13th on Netflix, which explains how the prison-industrial complex has evolved to replace slavery. I also watched the first of a series of NY Times podcasts called 1619, which asserted that Lincoln, after freeing the slaves, hoped to return them to Africa, and indeed had a Commissioner of Emigration for that purpose. But it is clear that this subject cannot be dealt with in just one day or several. I will have to keep reading and watching for probably the rest of my life.

Planet A of the Humans

“I wanna decide who lives and who dies.” Crow T Robot

In the late 1980s, I took a very smart woman to Michael Moore’s film, Roger and Me, showing at a small theatre in NW Washington DC. As the lights came up, we found that Moore had been watching along with us. He was friendly and accessible, explaining that he wanted to see the audience’s reaction to different scenes. I’ve seen almost all of Moore’s subsequent films.

I recently watched Planet of the Humans, which has become controversial for its accusations that environmental groups and CleanTech businesses are promoting ‘green’ industries that promise a renewable future but actually exacerbate energy depletion and climate change. On Earth Day, the film was posted for free on youtube, and will be available for a month. Jeff Gibbs is credited as writer, director and producer, and Ozzie Zehner was a producer, while Moore’s name is on the film as Executive Producer. Like Moore, Gibbs hails from Flint MI, and has been involved in several Moore projects since serving as Field Producer on Bowling for Columbine. Zehner is also the author of Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism (Our Sustainable Future).

Some notable environmentalists and groups were called out in the film and in response, Gasland documentarian Josh Fox called for Moore to retract it. The Guardian quickly offered a mostly favorable review, as did blogger Travalanche, though he noted the film offered no solutions. Forbes couldn’t resist a smirk at any attack on environmentalism, but felt the message was too apocalyptic. Six days later Vox called the film a gift to big oil, as The Hill’s Saagar Enjeti and Krystal Ball invited Moore, Gibbs and Zehner to Rising to defend the film, and the following day, brought on Josh Fox to explain his criticisms. One of Fox’s accusations was that the film advocated population control/eco-Fascism, which he reiterated even after Ball and Enjeti reported that Moore had denied it the day before. 

Several days later, Jacobin offered a strangely critical article, Planet of the Anti-Humanists, which admitted that film point after film point was true, but ultimately concluded the film was too Malthusian. (I’ve argued before that Malthus himself wasn’t all that Malthusian – if you bother to read what he actually wrote.)

On May Day, Rolling Stone posted, A Bomb in the Center of the Climate Movement: Michael Moore Damages Our Most Important Goal, in which Bill McKibben responded angrily and called out several errors in how he was portrayed in the film.

On Cinco de Mayo, Moore, Gibbs and Zehner hosted a livestream discussion with Clare Farrell of Extinction Rebellion. Moore explained once again that the PotH team respected and felt kinship with environmentalists like Josh Fox and Bill McKibben, but simply had disagreements as to the severity of the situation and the efficacy of the solutions. But the film’s errors were an own goal that will help critics.

I’m not familiar with Extinction Rebellion, but I have encountered a few serious doomers in my research on energy depletion. Guy MacPherson and Carolyn Baker spoke at Age of Limits II in 2013, but either declined or weren’t invited back for the session I attended in 2014. They remind us that “Nature Bats Last” and believe that humans face Near-Term Extinction (NTE) and will soon disappear from the earth. Two of the 2014 AoL attendees told me that the NTE folk were a cult-like presence, but another said Baker offered counsel about dealing with loss.

We do face loss. The Planet of Humans viewpoint is not quite as apocalyptic as NTE, but they do feel that we need to advocate more serious change than trying to continue business as usual by clear-cutting forests for wind turbines, or buying cheap PV panels that entail dumps of unregulated waste products somewhere in Asia. They don’t think technology has improved that much in ten years that we can continue our present levels of consumption.

In The Life of Brian, the Pythons offered a lasting joke about there being more enmity between Judean factions than for the Romans who enslaved them. So perhaps it is not a surprise to see a scathing battle between optimistic and pessimistic factions in the climate movement. We do have a thriving youth movement against climate change, talk about a Green New Deal, etc, but we have yet to see them win any significant battles or reduce consumption. And there is a thriving CleanTech industry with the ear of government that is burning through tax revenue and investment capital. That is the battle this film tried to address.


Almost four year ago, I wrote Clinton vs Trump, in which I considered both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to be very weak candidates for President in an open field. I wrote then, “After a spirited primary season, it comes down to an establishment neoliberal candidate and a populist moderate candidate, both of whom are widely disliked and distrusted outside of their loyal core.” Clinton carried the popular vote, but failed to win the electoral college, failing to inspire rural voters in supposedly “blue wall” states Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Some pundits claim she hadn’t even campaigned in Wisconsin because she took it for granted.

Once again, Bernie Sanders ran an inspiring campaign but currently trails an uninspiring establishment neoliberal candidate, in this case his “good friend” Joe Biden. Sanders devotees are again stunned, again feel cheated (denial) and accuse Bernie of being too nice to rivals Biden and Elizabeth Warren and lacking a killer instinct (anger). Now some are claiming that Sanders has pushed the party left just by running (bargaining). Left-leaning sites claim that Sanders was actually out-maneuvered by former President Barack Obama, who orchestrated the withdrawal of other establishment candidates to allow a Super Tuesday surge for Biden. Centrists claim that Sanders’ call for a political revolution frightened moderates. Funky Academic, Irami Osei-Frimpong opined on Rising that,”black people look(ed) at Bernie Sanders the way most of America looks at Marianne Williamson.” – meaning I suppose, someone with good intentions, but who could cause serious turmoil if elected.

Though he was never as disliked as Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden is also a vulnerable candidate. One subplot of the failed impeachment effort was a cushy board position given to Joe’s troubled son, Hunter. Photographs of Joe Biden invading the personal space of various young women have been buttressed by a formal charge of rape by Tara Reade, a former staffer. The #MeToo movement has essentially disgraced itself as establishment Democrats refuse to take Reade’s accusations as seriously as those of Christine Blasey Ford.

Biden was once a snappy debater but now has to be led through interviews by his wife, Dr Jill. Though he is being touted as some sort of progressive, his record is conservative. After serving as VP in an Obama presidency that failed to deliver on the change part of “hope and change,” Biden has been widely quoted as assuring wealthy donors that, “Nothing will fundamentally change.”

As with Clinton, Biden’s only strength is that Trump is generally worse. But the smartest comment to come out of the hectic stage debates was Andrew Yang’s, “Donald Trump is not the cause of all of our problems. We’re making a mistake when we act like he is.” In contrast to the dominant theme of the DNC primary, Yang felt that Trump is, “a symptom of a disease that has been building up in our communities for years and decades.” Yang eventually dropped out and endorsed Biden, reportedly in exchange for the promise of a cabinet position, so now Yang seems to be a symptom as well.

In the runup to the last election, the press could not stop covering what certainly seemed to be a reality show masquerading as a presidential run. Trump got the nomination, Trump won the presidency, and even the media couldn’t deny that all the free coverage handed to the Donald had played a part in his victory. But they’ve obviously learned nothing. Trump has wildly mismanaged the US response to the worst pandemic since the Spanish flu and the establishment press has rewarded him with hours of airtime to drone on about how well he and his people are handling the situation. Reporters try to criticize him without realizing that the public trusts them even less than they trust politicians.

Some pundits who have seen it all remind us that defeating a sitting president is always a tough task. Since Jefferson in 1804 incumbents have won 60% of the time, and the only incumbent loss in the 20th century was Ronald Reagan defeating Jimmy Carter, who was a very good man, but a very unpopular and weak president. But Biden is not at the head of a strong movement like Reagan, and Trump, though incompetent at many things, is not as obviously ineffectual as Carter.

Once elected, Trump very adroitly abandoned his promise of being a populist bringing change. Once he fired Steve Bannon and stacked his cabinet with military-types, Trump was essentially absorbed by the establishment, and even though he makes a lot of populist and anti-immigrant noise, he essentially has done the establishment’s bidding where it counts: tax cuts and corporate largesse. Joe Biden has never not been a tool of the establishment, and would certainly also do their bidding, if he can get elected, and would stop the harassment of the mainstream media. But he has to hope that Trump’s popularity really suffers from the enormous economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic. By November, though, Trump could be taking credit for a world and nation returning to normal, or could be burnishing his image as commander-in-chief by managing a small war somewhere. Or simpler yet, as many left-leaning pundits have noted, Trump could simply use the pandemic crisis to appear to adopt some of Bernie Sanders’ proposals, beating the Democrats to the punch.

Biden can’t beat Trump; Trump has to beat himself.

The Fun We Had

I’ve been thrust into social distancing, working from home, etc. I consider myself lucky because my wife was recently relieved of caring for her aunt, and so has moved back in with me. So I’m not completely alone. Still I miss the little conversations I had with coworkers during the day. Oh yeah, so far I still have a job. So, I’m really lucky.

My mind soon turned to some science fiction I had read as a child. It always does. One was a mystery about a murder in a future society where Spacers, on colonized planets like Solaria, dislike seeing each other face-to-face, instead preferring viewing each other on holographic screens. Hardcore SciFi fans probably remember The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov. I had to do a little digging. I remembered the name R Daneel Olivaw, which led me to all the rest. The R meant that Olivaw was a humanoid robot, but the detective was a human, named Elijah (Lije) Baley. They had previously worked together in The Caves of Steel, which my mother and I both read. These two novels are now considered part of Asimov’s Robot series, beginning with the short stories in I, Robot, and hew to his Three Laws of Robotics.

So these spacers – living far apart on low population planets – hated and avoided being in each other’s presence, making grudging exceptions for procreation, and even more grudging exceptions for being interviewed by Lije Baley. Conversely, they had little modesty while being viewed holographically, which seems unsurprising in the age of selfies and dick pics, but made for spicy reading material in 1956. Spacers were also not averse to being around robots – in a later book, one woman considered herself married to a robot. I guess we aren’t at that stage, though I have seen reports of guys who are very attached to their adult sex dolls, like Julietta and Saori. Man, how did I get there?

The other story I thought of also turned out to be by Asimov, his 1951 short story, The Fun They Had. You can read it from an instructional PDF, with a series of questions afterwards. Essentially a young girl of the future is surprised to learn that students used to gather in schools led by human teachers, instead of learning at home from machines.

The Fun They Had strikes home more than ever, as I am currently designing buildings for colleges and universities, most of which have sent their students home, and are rapidly implementing distance-learning for the time being. One of our core beliefs in campus planning, architecture and other services, is that students learn a great deal from residential life as well as from the academic curriculum that we usually see as the goal of education. I suppose I did, though I didn’t know it at the time. So while I suppose there may something to be learned from distance-learning as well, especially if that becomes the norm in business, I can’t quite imagine colleges churning out students that view each other, but rarely ever see each other.

On Friday afternoon, many of my coworkers logged in for social gathering via the Go-To-Meeting app. It was fun. Some had pets in their laps. Several of us were drinking beer and wine. We said goodbye to two employees leaving for other opportunities, one of whom was drinking tequila. We ended up wearing funny hats, which had nothing to do with drinking, of course. But again, I do still miss the small interactions when I am simply walking around and asking someone how it is going. I suspect that will be true for college students as well, when all contact is intentional rather than incidental.

Hey, Venus

I started to write this piece quite a while ago, but got distracted. I was reminded of it while chatting with a coworker who is a big time Star Wars and scifi fan.

Having gotten tired of insanely high cable tv bills, I cut back to internet-only several years ago. But I did have an apartment-style antenna, which pulls in broadcast stations like Comet TV for free. Comet shows all sorts of low-budget sci-fi, fantasy and horror films, many of which I have blogged about here already. A year or so ago, I happened across a 1960 spacefaring film called First Spaceship to Venus (FSTV).

FSTV’s plot was that an artifact found within an asteroid implied belligerent intentions on the part of intelligent beings on Venus. Earth’s scientists organize a truly international crew – African, American, Chinese, French, German, Indian, Japanese and Russian – to investigate. This diverse crew predated Uhura, Sulu and Chekov on Star Trek by five years. Unfortunately I fell asleep halfway through and woke up towards the end. But I was intrigued.

Some research revealed that the film’s original German title translated to The Silent Star, and was based on Stanislaw Lem’s novel, The Astronauts, or Astronauci. Lem wrote on the other side of the iron curtain, which explains why I had never heard of him during my peak sci fi reading years. Lem is famous for Solaris, which spawned three movies, but many of his other works are still difficult to find translated from Polish to English.

I also found that the East German and Polish co-production of The Silent Star (SS) had been heavily edited for American audiences. Crew nationalities were changed and all references to the US atomic bombing of Japan had been removed. That sort of piqued my curiosity. Amazon was no help, but DEFA, an East German film club at U Mass Amherst, offered a DVD in the original German with English subtitles.

I stayed awake this time, and found that SS was a very solid space opera with an antiwar, antinuke message. It wasn’t as flashy as Forbidden Planet, but comparable in quality to The Angry Red Planet.

Sometime later Comet showed Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women, from 1968. Even the title sounded cheesy, but I watched it. Scenes of a serious space voyage to Venus were interspersed with scenes of Mamie van Doren and other pretty blonde women lounging on a seaside wearing tight white slacks and clamshells over their breasts. These native Venusians were supposedly mentally monitoring and challenging the male intruders, but they never actually came into contact with each other.

I had to look this one up, and found that one of Peter Bogdanovich’s first jobs was to remake the 1962 Soviet film, Planeta Bur, or Planet of Storms, into something they could show at American drive-in theatres. So Peter airbrushed out the Soviet logos, and inserted all the blondes. Amazon did have Planet of Storms, in Russian with English subtitles in a bundle with two other Soviet films, A Dream Come True and The Sky Calls. All of these arrived just in time for my Christmas vacation, so my wife got to watch them, too. Wasn’t she happy!

Planeta Bur was a very solid space flick, again, not too different in tone from The Angry Red Planet. It was interesting in that the crew’s robot saved crew member’s lives, but was ultimately unwilling to sacrifice itself to save them again. The Sky Calls was about a race between a government ship and a corporate ship to be the first to get to Mars. The corporates are in the lead, but falter, and the crew is saved when the cosmonauts do the right thing and rescue the corporates instead of going for the glory. 1963’s A Dream Come True (Mechte Navstrechu) involves cosmonauts going to rescue aliens from another system stranded on Mars.

At the time I would have seen these cosmonauts as the Enemy, but after all this time I could see that they mostly had the same hopes and dreams for technology and the future that we did in the US.

Tonto & Flike

I added the 1952 film, Umberto D, to my Youtube TV watch list months ago, and finally watched it last weekend, commercial-free thanks to TCM. The title character was a retired public servant trying to maintain a precarious life for himself and his little dog, Flike, as the lire in his fixed pension were rapidly devaluing. Afterwards I tweeted, “Boy, things haven’t changed much.”

The film is in Italian with subtitles, and I didn’t realize that neorealist director Vittorio de Sica regularly cast non-actors in all the roles until reading reviews. Reportedly de Sica searched for months to find just the right man to play the lead.

A few days later, TCM was showing 1973’s Harry and Tonto, which I had seen years ago. But this time, the opening scenes of an old man living with and talking to his cat, Tonto, couldn’t help but remind me of my own father who lived with and talked to his white cat, Mu. The cat lived a very long life, but passed away several years ago. My Dad followed him a year or so later.

Mazursky and Greenfeld wrote a fantastically touching road movie, but even though he was evicted from his apartment, retired teacher and widower Harry was wealthy and successful compared to Umberto. Even though 1973 was the beginning of a period of stagflation, Harry (Art Carney) had benefited enough from the post-FDR period of prosperity that he could travel across the country, buy a used car and eventually loan one thousand dollars to his son struggling in LA.

Yet, if they made a similar film today, I suspect it would play more like de Sica’s. Some old man, or woman, would have lost everything in the Great Recession, and would be fighting a losing battle against opioids and homelessness.

Streaming of Consciousness

After signing on to HBO Now to get the disappointing last season of Game of Thrones I firmly intended to drop the service. Really. But then they advertised the new His Dark Materials series from studios in Great Britain. I read Philip Pullman’s trilogy almost twenty years ago after catching a review of his middle novel, The Subtle Knife. Like most people I was underwhelmed by plotting failures in the third novel, The Amber Spyglass, but overall Pullman created a fascinating world. The major motion picture version was really OK, but ended strangely and didn’t do well enough in theatres to justify a sequel. The new series is keeping my interest. As Lyra Belacqua, Dafne Keen is a can-do heroine, along the lines of Emma Watson, Maisie Williams and Bella Ramsey. Ruth Wilson is delightful as a can-do villain. I’m not sure if Lin-Manuel Miranda was the best choice to play an alt-universe Texan, but he’s not pissing me off. The Gyptians are all great. I particularly like how race doesn’t seem to matter in this series. Heroes and villains come in all skin tones. But the daemons steal every scene.

Since I have HBO Now, I’ve been watching some of the other offerings. I already knew that Westworld was awfully violent. The Watchmen turned out to be almost as violent. A friend and I took in the first two episodes, but despite the dramatization of the Tulsa Massacre, I haven’t felt like watching any more. My youngest is always after me to watch The Walking Dead, which is a fairly good show except for all the people getting stabbed or shot or clubbed in the head. I can only watch so much of that gratuitous violence. Even though it is supposed to be zombies or robots getting killed, it bothers me.

I also watched two episodes of Divorce, which was not too bad, and one of Euphoria, which was disturbing because it might be accurate. I tried watching Succession, which is well-liked on twitter, but after the first episode, I didn’t like anybody. I also tried watching Mrs Fletcher, also a fav on twitter. I might show Mrs F to my wife and see if she wants to keep watching.

I raced through the season of the Japanese series, Miss Sherlock. I always appreciate a fresh version of the Holmes stories, and besides, Elementary is over, and Sherlock is on semi-permanent hiatus. Yūko Takeuchi plays Sara Shelly Futaba, whom the police refer to as Sherlock. Does that mean the Conan Doyle stories exist in this universe, or does it leave the door open for Benedict Cumberbatch to drop by? Dunno. Futaba-san is joined by Shihori Kanjiya playing Dr Wato Tachibana, recently returned from volunteer medical duty in Syria. So we have Sherlock and Dr Wato-san, and characters roughly equivalent to Mrs Hudson, Inspector Lestrade, and Mycroft Holmes. Takeuchi’s Sherlock is more brusque and socially inept than most Western versions, and that means something in Japan. Her playing a stand up bass instead of a violin is a nice touch, but I do wish they would find some less familiar pieces than The Passing of Time for her to play. I did guess a major plot twist. Can’t wait for the second season.

I then watched Teenage Psychic, which has a bit of a misleading title. Filmed in Taiwan, the heroine, Xie Yazhen, is actually a Temple Maiden: a medium who can communicate with the dead. When she’s not earning her keep consoling bereaved and troubled folk at the Taoist temple she is, however, a typically troubled 16 year old high school girl confounded by social expectations and one boy in particular. Played by Kuo Shuyao, she appears very homespun Chinese in contrast to some of the more Western-looking popular girls.

Finally, as a guilty pleasure, I’ve been watching a series that ran from 2011-2014 called Hung. Like Breaking Bad, Hung features an antihero high school teacher fallen on hard times. Thomas Jane as Ray is a former star athlete, current coach and history teacher, but his wife has left him, his house was damaged in a fire, and he lives in a Detroit long hollowed-out by neoliberal politics. Ray’s worries include paying support to his ex-wife, played by Anne Heche, and staying in the lives of his unhappy teenaged son and daughter (Charlie Saxton and Sianoa Smit-McPhee).

Instead of selling drugs, he decides to sell his well-endowed body, and with the help of two odd women, lines up wealthy clients willing to pay him for sex. If the genders were reversed, this would be entirely believable, but I take it in as a dark comedy.

Ray happens to be an escort with a heart of gold. An Atlantic review praised the show as featuring men who were competent instead of idiots, but I wouldn’t go that far. These men have a lot of blind spots, but they usually want the right things, while many of the women are batshit crazy, particularly his unofficial pimp, Lenore, played by Rebecca Creskoff. His official pimp, Tonya, played by Jane Adams, is a mess, but generally means well. Lenore calls her, “Tea Brain,” and muscles in on her business relationship with Ray at every opportunity.

I think my next attempt will be Catherine the Great, who according to Helen Mirren, was savaged as sexually-obsessed by political rivals like Frederick of Prussia, but who was in fact simply a competent female ruler with a few lovers.