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The Angry Blue Planet

My weekend morning ritual has been to watch reruns of Men Into Space (1959) at 7:30 AM on Comet TV. Although I was completely unaware of the show until a few years ago, I’m sure I would have loved it as a boy. Essentially the show presented space exploration as a serious military project with very little tolerance for any speculative elements and roughly zero dissenting social commentary. The technical aspects seemed real enough for the time, though the space suits are obviously not pressurized. The show revolved around Air Force Colonel Edward McCauley, who was Ward Cleaver in a uniform – an authoritarian, by-the-book officer that always turned out to be right about everything. When not traveling into space, the Colonel and his subordinate officers enjoyed cookouts with their wives and girlfriends, who were extraordinarily attractive despite wearing pointy bras and way too much makeup. On two occasions women astronauts made it into space, but the writers couldn’t let us forget just how different they were from men.

I watched The Angry Red Planet again last weekend, a well-meaning scifi flick also from 1959. My siblings and I watched this flick in the 1960s, and thought it exciting then. As an adult it is harder to ignore the flaws, but even though it relies on stock sets and characters that wouldn’t last a day under Col. McCauley, the special effects weren’t bad for the time, and the plot was straightforward. Basically, four Terrans travel to and land on Mars, where they are beset by bizarre local flora and fauna and are finally told to stay away by advanced inhabitants. Even with a doctoral degree, Iris Ryan didn’t fare much better than the women on Men Into Space. Colonel Tom could hardly stop hitting on “Irish” throughout the mission. Warrant Officer Sam is a fairly goofy sort who is in love with his ray gun, and Professor Gettell is one of those 60s scientists that apparently doesn’t specialize because he knows everything.

I also watched a recent apocalyptic scifi short called Rakka, starring Sigourney Weaver, which is available on youtube, and runs about twenty minutes. Rakka is set in 2020, and opens with narration by Weaver:

We were once mankind. We were humanity. And now, we’re no more than pests, vermin. They came here to exterminate us. They took our history and culture. They covered our landmarks in dying humanity. … They killed us in waves when they first arrived. They built these megastructures that spew methane. They’ve sewn their crops, snuffing out our plant life. Raising the global temperature, causing our cities to flood. They waged war on Earth. They set fire to our forests. It’s already hard to breathe, impossible to breathe if you are close to the stacks. … They hack into our psyche, into our minds, paralyzing us, taking control of our cerebrum and limbic systems, rendering us as slaves.

It occurred to me that much of this could have been a speech given by any of various indigenous peoples about more advanced conquerors. It could also be a speech about what the well-to-do are doing to the Earth right now.

 

Tranzit.ro has just posted two hour video of two short lectures and a panel discussion called Europe: Economic Crisis and Political Alternatives. I gather the lecture series took place at or near Petru Maior University in Romania.

As you watch the video, from left to right sitting at two flimsy tables are the moderator: Alex Cistelecan (Petru Maior University, CriticAtac)

Michael Roberts, a Marxist economist living in London, author of The Great Recession (2009) and The Long Depression (2016).

Mark Blyth, economics professor at Brown University and fellow at The Watson Institute, author of Great Transformations: Economic Ideas and Institutional Change in the 20th Century (2002) and Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea (2015).

On your far right is another moderator: Cornel Ban of Boston University, author of How Global Neoliberalism Goes Local (2016).

The sound quality is uneven, and photographer spends a fair amount of time scanning the crowd instead of the screen, which is hard to see. But some Romanian girls are quite attractive.

Where is Europe going and what can be done about its economic malaise? The final instalment of our series of lectures ‘Culture and Politics of Crisis’ focuses on the current European political and economic deadlock. As such, it sets the stage for a dialogue between two of the most important political economists of our time: Mark Blyth and Michael Roberts. For Roberts, the European crisis is diagnosed from a Marxist perspective. For Blyth, the analysis is infused by heterodox Keynesian views. Consequently, the two scholars diverge both in terms of situating the main cause of crisis and the main solution to it: for Roberts the emphasis falls on the general fall of the rate of profit affecting capital in our time, with anti-capitalism as the solution. For Blyth the crisis is caused by a lack of demand and investment and the way out is a different kind of capitalism. Between these diverging diagnostics and challenging solutions affecting the global and continental predicament, the fate of the East of Europe will also come in the spotlight: what are the limits of the semi-peripheral condition of this region and what remedies does it permit – Lexit, national sovereignty, regionalism à la Visegrad? Is a reformed, more social and egalitarian EU possible? Or, if not, how – or even why? – should we stop its nationalist disintegration?

Forty Years Later

The movie Star Wars opened in theatres about forty years ago. It was later called A New Hope, but then it was just another summer movie. I have run across several articles proclaiming how great it was, and asking people to comment on how it changed their lives. It always reminds me of a girl.

That summer, I got a letter from my college roommate who had seen it already, and he said despite all the hype, it was actually pretty good scifi. Technology showed signs of wear and tear, and even had dust and dirt streaks. He recommended it.

I was working in Southern Virginia, moving from town to town managing a crew of other summer interns. We were all architecture or engineering majors who had gotten work with the Corps of Engineers. There were two groups, one was guys from Maryland (me) through Massachusetts. Another was guys from Virginia through Texas. I put in a few weeks with the Southern group, then took over the Northern group.

At the end of the summer, we all came together for a few weeks. Before that, the guy from Notre Dame, Larry, wanted to visit his friend in Augusta, Georgia over a long weekend. He couldn’t rack up that sort of mileage on his government car, but I was using my own car. Coincidentally, my college girlfriend was visiting my previous college roommate who was interning in that same city. She had only given me his phone number but not his address, and I thought I might be able to call them up when I got there.

So I agreed to drive us down there. Along the way I was surprised to discover he didn’t believe in evolution. It wasn’t a bad drive. His friend’s name was Leonard, and they knew each other from track team, both doing long distance running. He was an in-your-face extravert. “Two Words!” he shouted at Larry when we got there, “Two words and you’ve got it made here: All Hail!”

“All Hail?” I thought, but he was really saying, “Aw Hell!” in an exaggerated local accent. I told him I was there to try to find my girlfriend, and he asked, “Is this bad news?” Anyway I never connected with her, but we men had a good time, played some tennis, and drank some beer. Now, Leonard had a girlfriend, a buxom local gal, I forget her name, but she had a roommate, Anne, who was a visiting student from Belgium, who was the thin, pretty sort that I always notice. She spoke English but was generally quiet.

So the five of us went to see Star Wars. Somehow I ended up sitting next to Anne at the theatre, and was very conscious of being near a pretty girl who wasn’t my girlfriend. Star Wars, as you probably know, is a very American movie. Parts of the film echo both Western gunfight serials, and old WWII dogfight flicks. I laughed at the more obvious references, but Anne would just look at me with a puzzled expression. I don’t think she understood why a guy would laugh during a battle scene.

Afterwards we all went to a big old bar with loud music. Larry and Leonard were reliving old times. I tried to talk to Anne, but it was tough sledding with the noise and language barrier. By that time I had completely forgotten about the movie.

Now I can’t remember how we got to the next situation, but somehow, Larry and Anne were in my car and we were following Leonard’s car. He had accused his girlfriend of steppin’ out with someone else, so they were having a fight, and she was going to take off in her car, and he was going to follow her. Poor Anne suddenly realized she was in a car with two American guys she hardly knew and panicked. I was trying to think of some way to assure her that she was perfectly safe – even though I didn’t really know the route back to their apartment – but I realized it probably looked pretty bad to her. She got out and yelled the other girl’s name. I don’t actually remember what happened next, or how we made it back to Leonard’s place, but that was the last I saw of Anne.

Today she probably tells her grandchildren scary stories about American architects. I look back and wish I had had a chance to just talk to her. Yeah, the movie was good, but the only life-changing drama was in the real people I was meeting.

5ive

The first post-nuclear apocalyptic film I ever saw was Five, or 5ive, which was on television one evening back when showing a movie on TV was a big deal. Mom let me stay up. I remembered the general plot (but not the characters’ names). There was one man (Michael), more or less the hero, in a beach house. A pregnant woman (Roseanne) found him. He was attracted to her, but she was hoping that somehow her husband also survived. An affable old white man (Oliver) and a young black man (Charles) showed up, saying they had survived the radiation inside a bank vault. Then they found a man washed up on shore (Eric). He had been climbing a mountain when it happened. It was implied that these were the last five people on earth. Or six if you count the unborn child.

Four of them were trying to survive, grow crops, etc, but Eric was nothing but trouble. Oliver succumbed to radiation sickness. I remember him saying, “It looks like I’m bleeding under the skin,” while Roseanne swallowed back a sob. Michael and Charles buried Oliver. The baby was born – I think it was a boy. Eric hated Charles for being black almost as much as he hated to work. He got drunk and drove a jeep over their crops. He stabbed and killed Charles. He argued that since they hadn’t died, they all must be immune to radiation, and convinced Roseanne to leave with him to look for her husband. Eric wanted her, but mostly wanted to loot the stores. When Roseanne found her husband, he was just a skeleton in a suit. Eric saw that he had radiation sickness and ran away screaming. She returned to Michael, but on the way bathed her baby in a stream. Later it started to cry. She was flustered and tried comforting him, but eventually he died. So the film ended with just Roseanne and Michael.

Promotional posters made 5ive seem like a sexy potboiler with a love triangle – I had forgotten the scene where Michael tries to seduce Roseanne – but reviewers said the characters were flat and spent a lot of time reciting deep philosophical thoughts. TCM claims 5ive was the original post atomic bomb movie. It was subtitled ‘A Story About the Day After Tomorrow’ (the 1983 post-apocalyptic tv movie with Jason Robards was called The Day After). It was shot in 1951 at Eaglefeather, a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed cliff house that belonged to the writer-director, Arch Oboler. Film code officials objected to the realistic depiction of Roseanne’s labor, so some of that scene was cut, and 5ive was distributed as an art-circuit film.

Writer and Director Arch Oboler started in radio, and had already destroyed the world once – in the ‘Chicken Heart’ episode of Lights Out that was lampooned by Bill Cosby. He often worked anti-Fascist propaganda into his stories. Three of the actors were former USC film students. William Phipps (Michael) started in cheap scifi flicks but had a long acting career. Susan Douglas Rubes (Roseanne) worked on Broadway, in soap operas, and on network television and founded Young People’s Theatre. Earl Lee (Oliver) had a very brief career and died the day I was born. James Anderson (Eric) played a lot of cowboys, and even a farmer in To Kill a Mockingbird. Charles Lampkin (Charles) convinced Oboler to include lines from the poem “Creation” by Harlem Renaissance poet James Weldon Johnson in the opening. If you can trust wikipedia, Lampkin has the distinction of being the first African-American actor in a substantial role on a Hollywood movie that was not playing a singer, dancer, athlete or buffoon. (The Emperor Jones was made outside the Hollywood system). Lampkin was a debater, musician, lecturer, actor and once directed Paul Robeson in a concert.

Stumbling Through the Portal

When I was a kid, my mom, brother, sister and I watched a scifi B movie called The Time Travelers late one weekend night. Two university scientists, an assistant and a technician climb through an experimental time portal into a grim future, where the remnants of mankind are beset by starving, bald mutants who all wear the same ragged jumpsuits. The surviving humans have a fortified underground city where they are building androids and a space ship to escape an Earth devastated by atomic weapons. That wasn’t exactly an unusual premise for 1964. We loved it, especially the weird looped ending.

Comet TV showed that film a few weeks ago, followed by Beyond the Time Barrier, which was shot in ten days in 1959. In this grainy b&w flick, an Air Force pilot testing a sub-orbital jet somehow lands in a future where most humans are deaf-mutes hiding in a fortified underground citadel. They, too, are beset by angry, bald mutants, but in this case there had been a cosmic ray plague – resulting from nuclear weapons testing. My sister would have cried at the sad ending.

There’s a great scene near the beginning of The Time Travelers. The technician has stumbled through the portal, then unnaccountably runs out of sight behind some rocks. The two male scientists call out, and then go looking for him. The female assistant scares off two hostile mutants with a fire extinguisher (not too believable). Then she goes through to warn the scientists that the portal is unstable. As the three of them head back, the portal suddenly implodes, and the camera lingers on each of their stunned faces as they process what just happened. And it occurred to me that I and a lot of other people probably looked just like that while we were watching the election returns last November. Because we can’t go back, either. We have crossed into the future.

We’re also beset by angry hordes, some of them the working class in this country, and some the displaced immigrants from countries that we have reduced to failed states, and some displaced immigrants from areas dessicated by the changing climate. Some of us live in cities where everyone seems to be happy, and prosperous, and where they are building robots to take us to a new future. We’re not deaf-mute, but we might as well be because we don’t listen very well. Like the humans in both flicks, we just can’t understand why the hordes are so angry at us, and we can’t imagine reasoning with them. We haven’t gone underground, but we talk about closing borders, building walls, banning protests and running over demonstrators.

I sometimes think we’re the mutants.

A Bit Sore

On Friday, Baltimore saw afternoon sun instead of the predicted thunderstorm. I biked my usual route up Eutaw Street towards Druid Hill Park. Traffic seemed light. At the end of Eutaw I would have taken the brick sidewalk along the Druid Park Lake Road, but it is being repaved, and is closed. From the sidewalk you can wait for the light, then cross onto Swann Drive, into the park, and on to Greenspring Road. Otherwise you have to mix it up with traffic for a hundred yards on the Lake Road, or cut up Cloverdale, a quiet, narrow brick road which takes you to Madison Avenue, which becomes Swann Drive when you enter the park. While recovering from Deep Venous Thrombosis, I’ve felt less like trying to keep ahead of impatient commuters, so I’ve been choosing Cloverdale.

On Madison one has to drive through one of two monumental brick archways facing the park. For quite a while the closer of of the arches was closed to traffic while they repaved the cobblestones, so I’ve gotten in the habit of looking through it to see if anyone is coming through the next arch. But on Friday, both arches were open again. So just as I biked up a car came charging out of the nearer opening. I said something deeply ironic, like “Aaaah!” and squeezed the brakes, but my front tire hit the guy’s door and I was knocked over.

The driver did stop, but I told him it wasn’t his fault I hadn’t anticipated that the road might be open again. I have a bruised right knee, a puffy left elbow, and a sore lower back. The bike seemed OK during a painful ride home. The back felt better when I was sitting against a bag of ice, and ice packs helped the knee and elbow, too.

I decided to spend Saturday morning in bed. While watching Madison Keys play Garbine Muguruza on the Pietrangeli court in Rome, courtesy of TennisTV, I also watched The Minotaur, originally Minotaur, the Wild Beast of Crete, a dubbed 1960 Italian flick that bears only the faintest resemblance to the Greek myth as transcribed by Edith Hamilton.

Madison and Garbine are lovely young women, even compared to the pinup girl extras in the Minotaur movie. And they both play crunch tennis. A lot of people consider Madison mixed-race because one of her parents is dark-skinned African American and the other is light-skinned German-Irish. But current science believes almost all of us are Sapiens, with smidgens of Neandertal and Denisovan. She says, “I’m just Madison.”

The plot of The Minotaur centered around an ambitious, evil woman using the threat of an even worse monster to control the people. So it was related to current events. Then a hero rode in and both the woman and the beast were slain. We can only hope.

Imitation of Turing

I watched The Imitation Game last weekend. Benedict Cumberbatch did a good job of not playing the somewhat autistic Alan Turing just like his somewhat autistic Sherlock Holmes. All the actors played their parts well, and the film was very believable, though not quite accurate.

Early on in the film, Charles Dance’s character, Major Denniston, interviews Turing and tells him, “Enigma isn’t difficult, it’s impossible. The Americans, the Russians, the French, the Germans, everyone thinks Enigma is unbreakable.”

In reality, three Polish cryptologists, taking advantage of poor German operating procedures, had broken Enigma in 1932, long before WWII. They even designed a bomba kryptologiczna (cryptologic bomb) machine for breaking ciphers faster. Six were built. But enigma devices were then made more complex, and decryption became increasingly difficult and expensive. So the Poles shared their techniques with the French and British.

In the film, Turing joins the British team under Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) after the war has started, dismisses the team’s cryptological efforts as too slow, and by letter implores First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill for funding to build a codebreaking machine, a forebear to the modern computer. After the machine itself, which he names after a schoolboy crush, proves still not fast enough to perform the bazillions of operations required to crack an Enigma cipher, Turing is accidentally inspired to start the machine searching for expected words and phrases, like Heil Hitler, which codebreakers called ‘cribs’.

In reality, Turing had been working with the British government for at least a year before the war, using cribs and building on the work of the Poles. In addition to many theoretical strategies, Turing conceived of a new ‘bombe’, a machine that could decrypt Enigma with what we now call more brute force methods than the Polish bomba, but which were still based on looking for a crib. One was built, and was successful, and a few more were built. He, Alexander, and the team together wrote a letter to Churchill asking for additional funding to build many more such machines. Along with the two hundred bombes approved by Churchill, British intelligence never stopped using cribs, and exploiting other German slipups, for every small advantage they could get.

While watching the film, I was wondering if the presence of Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke was a romantic fabrication, but Clarke was actually a very real and highly-regarded cryptanalyst at Bletchley, was briefly engaged to Turing despite knowing about his homosexuality, and did remain his friend after he broke it off.

Of course I recognized Allen Leech, who played Tom Branson on Downton Abbey, and Charles Dance, who played Tywin Lannister on Game of Thrones, but I didn’t recognize Matthew Goode as having played Ozymandias in Watchmen, though he did look familiar.

The Ugly Little Boy

Way back before the internets, Isaac Asimov wrote, The Ugly Little Boy, which he included in his anthology Nine Tomorrows. Robert Silverberg later expanded the short story into a novel, which I have not read. In 1977, Barry Morse and Kate Reid starred in a TV version, which is supposed to be very faithful to the short story and is available on youtube.

The boy was a neanderthal (or neandertal) child, brought to, and kept in, the future at great expense of energy by a corporation for scientific research. In the years after the story was written, I read that one scientist claimed we probably couldn’t tell a well-dressed neanderthal apart from anyone else on the street, but knew that when the lay person heard, “neanderthal” they saw a dim but muscular caveman with a sloping forehead. And that is how most popular culture has portrayed them, one example being Jean M Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear books and the 1986 film starring tall, pale, blonde Darryl Hannah as a Cro-Magnon, adopted by a tribe of stocky, swarthy (but not black-skinned), black-haired Neanderthals.

But if one were to recast Clan of the Cave Bear based on the latest information, one should cast light-skinned people as the Neanderthals, and a taller, darker-skinned woman (perhaps Rosario Dawson) as Ayla the Homo Sapiens Sapiens or Early European Modern Human (EEMH). It is now suggested that populations of Homo Neanderthalensis had already adapted to Northern climates over some three or four hundred thousand years, and that the still dark-skinned Homo Sapiens benefited by acquiring those traits through interbreeding as they displaced the older species. [It is also counter-suggested that the neanderthal DNA remains from before the two species diverged from Homo Erectus.]

It is currently thought that humans (except those strictly descended from sub-Saharan Africans) have between 1% to 4% of neanderthal DNA and that some Melanesians and Australian Aborigines have Denisovan DNA as well. In other words, most of us humans are actually ugly little boys and girls, too.