Thursday, July 23, 2009

Philosophical differences underlying the secular in-fighting

The most recent flare-up in a long running personal battle between PZ and the co-authors of Unscientific America is just one instance of many between concerned secularists.

These arguments between the 'appeasers' and the 'fundamentalists' have intensified since the release of the New Atheist books. But they do have a far deeper and broader origin than one of just messaging and presentation.

Yes messaging is important. If the aim is to promote secularism and atheism then the most effective means should be identified and pursued. For me, it was the science that pushed me in the right direction. In particular it was reading A Brief History of Time and other popular physics.

Pushing Atheism and ridiculing religion would have had a counter-productive effort. I would have gotten defensive. I would have retreated back into my faith and wrapped it around me even more tightly.

Suggestions of positive and hopeful alternatives are almost always a better motivator for change than attacking the current status quo.

But having become certain of Atheism, I was still reluctant to come out and say it. I was a closeted Atheist for a long time after. I would call myself an agnostic without really knowing what that meant. I would play nice.

So maybe 'rounding up the base' is more fruitful than converting new people from scratch. Maybe the majority of efforts should be to get the closeted atheists to come out in force. If that is the aim, then PZ, Dawkins and Hitchens are on the right track. It was Dawkins' books that made me drop the agnostic label and come out as an Atheist.

For some of us it is the scientific method that is the ultimate goal. We want people to respect science over anything else. Dawkins would say the main obstacle to science is religion. So we need to attack religion first, then proceed to replace it with science.

Eugene Scott would say science education is the best way to get people to stop believing in superstition.

And I would agree. It worked for me.

If the end goal is science, are we reducing its credibility by conflating it with Atheism? But on the other hand, can we lie and say science and religion can be at peace, when we truly believe they are not? PZ would say a scientist should not lie. Lies damage credibility more than anything else. Lies are the tools of the religious, and us rationalists should not sink to their level.

Thus the 'appeasers' are not appeasers and the 'fundamentalists' are not fundamentalists. They both have their persuasive moral reasons for their respective strategies.

In addition to the messaging problem, we also have the disagreement over 'how bad is religion anyway?' I have a feeling that if we summed up quantitatively all the ill-effects of religion and subtracted all the positive effects of religion then it might turn out to be a wash. I am sometimes one of those that Daniel Dennett disparagingly calls 'believers in belief."

Until there is quantifiable evidence that swings one way or the other, I'm not going to get all flustered up about that argument. In the end, we have to be scientific about this. It is after all the way of knowing the truth.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Michael Collins from the Moon.

There are some brilliant essays and accounts all over the web commemorating the moon landing. But none of them got to me more than Michael Collins' own words as quoted in an Atlantic article on heroes.

"I really believe," he said, "that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of 100,000 miles, their outlook could be fundamentally changed. That all-important border would be invisible, that noisy argument silenced. The tiny globe would continue to turn, serenely ignoring its subdivisions, presenting a unified facade that would cry out for unified understanding, for homogenous treatment. The earth must become as it appears: blue and white, not capitalist or Communist; blue and white, not rich or poor; blue and white, not envious or envied."

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Obligations to the future

One of the main considerations in ethics is the 'Veil of Ignorance', a concept put forward by John Rawls in Toward a Theory of Justice:
no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance.

Racism and sexism are bad for many reasons, one of them being that they violate this social contract. Reasoning from the Original Position also leads me to support public education, and public health care, especially for children and those with genetic disorders.

It is obvious to see why people should not be discriminated on the basis of where they are born. But how about when they are born?

We are polluting the world today, and incurring debt, all at the expense of people who are born 10, 20, 30 or a hundred years from now. They do not have the choice as to when they would be born. They are people just like us, albeit located in a different time.

So when we dismiss their concerns and well being, when we harm their interests to gain immediate benefits for ourselves, are we making a moral mistake somewhat akin to racism?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

US response to Iran

A bullet has been collectively dodged here. Just think of the damage a Bush administration would have done with their predictable reaction to this situation. It makes you feel a little queasy even now.

I actually suspect that President John McCain wouldn't have done what Senator John McCain is now advocating. There aren't too many people left in positions that matter who would be so ignorant of Iranian domestic politics as to advocate America lending its official weight behind the protesters.

All through their lives Iranians have been subject to anti-American propaganda. They are told that the United States is run by 'rich Jews' who want to destroy Islam and the Iranian republic. And they have a whole list of reasons to believe so. Everyone remembers the disastrous policies and interferences by the United States. Even the moderates, the relatively pro-American ones, remember Mossadeigh, the Shah, the war against Iraq and the axis of evil.

When Khāmene’i claimed that the British and the US were pulling the strings, it is like saying Obama was backed by socialists and Islamists. Except the former claim would be accepted by a far greater percentage of the Iranian population than the latter would be by Americans. They have real cause for such beliefs.

There are many Chinese who are certain that the Tienanmen Square rallies were engineered by the CIA. Historical grievances are not forgotten as easily as we would hope, and they provide an unfortunate context to the assessment that an average Chinese or Iranian will make on the cause of various events.

The current US policy towards Iran is almost pitch perfect. Can you imagine the protests even occurring if Bush was still in power? Or McCain with his 'bomb bomb bomb Iran'? The moderates in Iran would have been sidelined into nothing. Achmadi would have won his second term with ease. Hardliners of one camp foster the hardliners in the other.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Movie Review: Revenge of the Sith

Episode III posed an unenviable challenge for Lucas and Co. They had to depict some of the most significant moments of a well-loved cinematic mythology. The film had to deliver a long anticipated emotional payout. It had to convincingly depict the transformation of Anakin Skywalker, the end of the Republic, the fallout between Anakin and Obi-Wan Kenobi, the exile of Yoda and the almost-complete extermination of the Jedi.

The filmmakers were in very easy danger of overshooting the mark. They could have ended up with an overly sentimental and clichéd (recall RotK) transition. On the other hand the filmmakers also had to be careful not to rush through the most important moments. They had to take the time to provide the set-up and structure that is necessary for the credibility of these transformations.

There is no doubt that Lucas delivers a film that is visually spectacular and wonderfully choreographed. The pacing of the action is quick and the screen is always packed with detail and movement. Lucas gets a lot of things right in this department.

However he also gets a lot of things wrong and these mistakes come at the most critical points of the story. The expectations from the film required subtle writing and skilfully consistent acting performances. Instead these legs crumble under the weight of the burden. The uneven acting of all the major characters and much of the clichéd dialogue mar what are sometimes competently built-up moments.

The central arc of the story, and one which the movie needs to get right, is the creation of Darth Vader.

The plot gave enough reasons for Anakin to join the Dark Side. His mother’s death and the massacre of the Tusken raiders should have been the launching pad that I expected this episode to capitalise on. They should have started with an ostracised Anakin. They should have begun by portraying his relationship with Obi-Wan and the rest of the Jedi as distant and cold. This, in addition to his doubts about the motives of the Jedi Council, his fears for Padmé’s life, his frustrations at not being able to control his ego and his other failings as a Jedi, should all be enough to lead to The Fall.

Instead we find him being on the best of terms with Obi-Wan, Windu and Yoda. Lucas had just wastefully reverted all that progression made in Ep II.

The overwhelming feeling, helped none by the acting, was that there just wasn’t enough of an impetus for him to attack Mace Windu or to commit those atrocities. It is true that losing faith in one’s own goodness can lead the person to do terrible things. However Christensen fails to sell this resignation and as a result I couldn’t buy the fact that he would submit completely to the Dark Side or massacre the younglings in the Jedi Temple.

The realisation of Palpatine’s betrayal and deceit should have driven Anakin away from his secret mentor and back to the Jedi fold. His continued allegiance to the chancellor was confounding.

All this made what was always going to be a challenging problem impossible to overcome. It would have taken a special performance by Christensen to make the transformation work but he isn’t up to the task.

The fault doesn’t lie with actor. It lies with the direction and editing. And it lies with the writing. The lines get so clunky that no one can deliver them without engendering a snicker (“from my point of view the Jedi are evil”).

Also, having gotten used to the cold ruthless half-man-half-machine of the Black Suit, that reaction to Padmé’s death was comical. The reaction to Padmé’s death should have been dealt with while he was being operated on, before he gets into the suit. Once he is in that suit he is restricted by the imprinted image of who is possibly the most famous cinematic villain.

The scenes between him and Natalie Portman, even those that were meant to be the most poignant, ended up inducing smirks. The chemistry between the two was non-existent and the uninspired writing of these scenes made it seem like a corny chic-flick.

Cheesiness pervades most of the dialogue, especially the ones given to McGregor. Although I liked the way he manages to change Obi-Wan from being an impatient Jedi Master to the Ben Kenobi of Alec Guinness (the beard probably had a lot to do with it), his reaction to the security hologram, a major emotional point in the film, was given too little time and directed in exactly the wrong manner. Again we are left without the required emotional payout.

The other pivotal character, Palpatine, was given some justice this time round. McDiarmid was poor in Ep II, but I think he manages to regain some lost ground with his performance in this film. His seduction of Anakin is admirably and seductively rationalistic. On this I must commend both the actor and Lucas, who chose not to take the easy way out on this particular point.

Unlike Anakin Skywalker, Palpatine remains a worthy villain for this epic. His deceit is subtle and ambiguous, his reason is almost justifiable, his motives almost understandable and as a result, his character, on a majority of occasions, remains credible.

On to the secondary characters.

Samuel Jackson is thankfully given a larger role. If I had my way it Samuel Jackson would be given all the roles. He is awesome and so was the duel. Jackson should be happy with Mace Windu’s death, it established him as the most powerful Jedi (although the possibility that Palpatine might have lost to sucker in Anakin is interesting to consider).

You know who else is awesome? Yoda. Yoda is super-awesome. Yoda is awesome incarnate and that’s all I have to say about Yoda.

General Grievous on the other hand sucked. Starting with that stupid name, General Grievous annoyed me constantly. Even the scenes without him were scarred by the memory of that annoyance. I laughed out loud (with much annoyance) when Grievous comes to the rescue by saying something that went along the lines of “I’ll take him myself”.

Bail Organa’s character conveyed the correct sense of stateliness and calm and his increased role was much appreciated. However he made me miss Mon Mothma. (She is credited on IMDB but I can’t remember her being there. Did she have a “Captain Antilles” type cameo?)

Speaking of cameos, I loved the opportunity to see Kashyyk but the way Chewbacca was introduced felt a bit forced. The collective “look it’s Chewie!” gasps from my fellow audience members would suggest that they disagreed with me.

As it has become typical of Lucas, the best parts of the films are those that rely on visual effects. The CGI, although not quite as seamless as in that other major motion trilogy (you know, the one that won 17 academy awards), it is still quite breathtaking. The two highly anticipated lightsaber duels between Kenobi and Skywalker and Yoda and Sidious was choreographed and edited with skill. They were brilliantly inter-cut and well set; one in the volcanic planet of Mustafar and the other on the very floors of the Galactic Senate. What could be more poignant?

A lot of the visual allusions in the final three films to the original trilogy were tastefully done. For example there was a sequence in Ep II where the camera scans through a large army of Clones and then rises to the sky, capturing the sinisterly familiar triangle shapes of Republican Assault Ships carrying them to battle. It made the hairs stand up. However that final shot of Lars and his wife looking out at the Tatooine sunset was just hammering it over out heads.

The opening sequence was thrilling. I had to take in a breath when the camera followed the two Jedi over the Star Destroyer and into a very full battle sequence. Then it started dragging on for a bit. The part where those droid thingies got onto Obi-Wan’s ship was unnecessary and a little bit silly.

So was that giant iguana.

And so was the dialogue. One of the reviewers felt that Star Wars would be a perfect candidate for a silent movie. I would’ve agreed if it weren’t for that fantastic score.

The criticism over the overbearing politics in Ep II arose mainly from the poorly written and delivered lines. I like politics and I saw great potential for Ep II and III to explore the way the senate had been crippled, the reasons behind the separatist movement, the increasing mistrust in democracy and the birth of the Empire. But again the execution was clumsy. The whole “you are either with me or with the enemy” allusions get was far too obvious for my tastes. I was wincing through most of that “so this is how liberty dies” stuff.

The clumsiness and heavy-handedness of the film does have one positive effect. It makes one appreciate the light-footed grace of the original trilogy. There was something in the banter of Han, Luke and Leia that all the advanced CGI just could not re-create.

It is true that the prequels, by the very nature of the plot, had to be darker, heavier and more ominous. But did it also have to be so plodding and forced? It felt like we were just slowly ticking off a list of things to get through before we can arrive at that ‘this-is-were-we-came-in’ point again.

6/10 stars

ED: This was written right after release. Reposted.

Movie Review: Frost/Nixon

I walked into Frost/Nixon thinking it was going to be a dry, 'let's watch this cos it's good for you' kinda film. I was surprised to find myself completely engrossed from beginning to end.

Frank Langella's Nixon is a fascinating exposition on a politician's psyche. He takes out the archetype and wrings it for all its complexity. I'm not sure who is more responsible for the nature of this portrayal, Langella or Ron Howard, but this is exactly the kind of thing artists should be working on; taking pieces of history and illuminating them with an intuitive light not available to those with journalistic constraints.

My favourite scene was one that never actually happened, in which Frost receives a call from Nixon. This occurs well into the second half of the movie, and Frost has spent every trick in the book trying to get Nixon to open up. The President seems completely out of Frost's league by any stretch of the imagination. The producers are facing an impenetrable stonewall, and Nixon is getting his way. He is on the road to the 'rehabilitation' that is dreaded by the journalists.

Then out of the blue, late at night, Frost recieves a call from Nixon. As Frosts stands there, not knowing how or where to lead the conversation, Nixon talks on. His old voice and hunch betrays the unsteady weight of his experience and you can just tell that he wants to let go of all the things he had long learned to suppress so masterfully.

Nixon quizzes Frost on his time at Cambridge then asks the single most revealing question in the film, "did they look down on you too?" He then devolves into a monologue, the performance of which was Langella's finest moment. The ego, the emptiness, the anger and the ambition are all laid bare, and it is truly a spectacle.

Anyone who becomes a president is hyper-ambitious. More ambitious that 99.9999% of the rest of us. They seek to be loved, they seek approval to a much greater degree than you or me. They are far more emotionally vested in their own success than we are. That is why they strive so hard on such a singular goal. Now imagine the psychology of such a person being hated by the entire country.

Anyone who has any kind of success as a politician also must love being with people, have that charm, or 'facility' as Nixon says, to get people to like you. The second revealing question comes again from Nixon to Frost; "you know those parties of yours? Do you actually enjoy them?"

A president never has a private moment, every action is under scrutiny, performed to the benefit of others. Imagine the stress of such a performance when you don't particularly like people. As a private person myself, I understand that tiredness. I feel it every time I'm at a party for a little too long. I'd imagine the weariness to be a hundred-fold for someone in Nixon's position.

The film is an excellent character study. The themes that I've described above are only the most prominent of a multifarious and intertwined exposition by Howard, the writer and the actors. There is a genuine good-hearted curiosity motivating their efforts, and it comes through very endearingly in this story. 9/10 stars.