Monday, July 31, 2017

Big Pharma, The Triangle Of Death, and AI: Three Documentaries You Should See in 2017

This past week, Etcetera's podcasting crew had the opportunity to interview writers, producers and directors associated with three documentaries showing at the Traverse City Film Festival:
producer Andrew Grant and director/writer Anniken Hoel (Cause of Death: Unknown); director Zaradasht Hairan (Nowhere to Hide); and producer Greg Kohs (AlphaGo). You can listen to the podcast on Soundcloud; as always, we welcome your thoughts on our Facebook page and on this post!

To give you an idea of where the conversation ranged on these three films, here are some observations and questions that worked their way into our discussion with them, as well as some links with which to pursue each topic. I think you will find what our guests had to offer as fascinating and insightful as we did!

Monday, July 24, 2017

War For The Planet Of The Apes

War For The Planet Of The Apes has received widespread accolades, and rightly so. More importantly than the remarkable special effects, it tells a thoughtful story about war, morality, revenge, justice, goodness, and hope. And it once again features apes riding horses, which is hard to beat in terms of sheer entertainment value.

What stood out to me in this final (?) installment of the series was the remarkable biblical imagery. I said to my son after I watched it, "That was a story of Caesar, the Ape Moses, leading his people to the Promised Land." I went home and jumped online, and sure enough - that's what the director had in mind:
In Reeves’ mind, the character’s death was almost biblically preordained. “He was sort of this ape Moses, so for him not to be able to be in the Promised Land with them — I thought reaching this place could be tremendously emotional,” he said.
 Director Matt Reeves told EW:
“We watched Bridge on the River Kwai...We watched The Great Escape. We watched Biblical epics, because I really felt like this movie had to have a Biblical aspect to it. We watched Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments. We didn’t go, like, ‘Let’s take a little bit of this, a little bit of that.’ When you surround yourself with something that feels emotionally right, there are connections that make sense to you that somebody else might not see…[the films] informed the vibe we felt about this thing.”
The parallels to the biblical epic of Moses are unmistakable.

The Shape Of Reality: What Is Justice?

As noted in the opening post in this series, I believe Christianity offers compelling reasons to believe that truth is found most fully and consistently within the framework of a Christian worldview. The second post addressed the need for an objective foundation for morality. The language of morality only makes sense if we are significant moral agents who have an obligation to choose good and avoid evil, so the third post addressed the issue of whether or not we are really free.

The concepts of freedom and moral obligation brings with them the idea of justice. If right and wrong are objectively real, and we are people deserving of praise and culpability based on how our choices align with moral goodness, then part of the morally obligatory good would be to treat people justly. So, what is justice?

Thursday, July 13, 2017

SpiderMan: Homecoming

Spiderman: Homecoming, the latest movie in the Marvel Universe
franchise, is getting great reviews (93% at Rotten Tomatoes from critics, 92% from the audience). It’s not the best movie Marvel has done, but it’s solid. This version of Spider-Man is going to be an interesting addition to the Avengers: he’s lighthearted, somewhat na├»ve, and not yet jaded (matured?) by life; he’s also strong, fast, brilliant, and incredibly excited about fighting evil and injustice with his heroes. But, as this movie makes clear, he’s got some growing up to do.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Etcetera #3: What Comic Book Superheroes Tell Us About Ourselves

Thanks, Karl Meszaros, expert on "everything that could stop you from getting a date," for joining us for this podcast's discussion of comic book superheroes heroism, and the impact is has in both society and individuals. In this episode, we look at several different aspects of this cultural phenomenon:
  • the rise of the superhero genre
  • the changing nature of what is considered heroic (how did we get from Superman to Deadpool?)
  • the reflection of and impact on readers and viewers
  • the benefits and pitfalls that this type of storytelling has to offer
You can link to the podcast on Soundcloud here; you are also welcome to join a post-podcast discussion on our Facebook page. Meanwhile, here is a list of related articles that you may find helpful.

In an act of bald self-promotion, here are links to some of my reviews, which include occasional guests appearances by both Beth and Karl (whose perspective influenced probably all of these reviews):

Friday, July 7, 2017


“There are two freedoms - the false, where a man is free to do what he likes; the true, where he is free to do what he ought. “ Charles Kingsley

“Order without liberty and liberty without order are equally destructive.” Theodore Roosevelt

“Freedom, like any other virtue, does not exist in a vacuum. It must be worked and practiced to exist at all. And like any other virtue, it imposes upon those who would have it the unpleasant tasks of discipline and sacrifice. A materialistic people do not learn these tasks by reading posters or listening to pep talks, any more than you can learn to play the violin by the same methods.” Ralph Austin Bard, United States Assistant Secretary of the Navy,

“What is this liberty that must lie in the hearts of men and women?
It is not the ruthless, the unbridled will; it is not the freedom to do as one likes. That is the denial of liberty and leads straight to its overthrow. A society in which men recognize no check on their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few — as we have learned to our sorrow."  Learned Hand, in "The Spirit of Liberty"

“The basis of self-government and freedom requires the development of character and self-restraint and perseverance and the long view. And these are qualities which require many years of training and education.” John F. Kennedy

“The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning.” Nelson Mandela, in Long Walk to Freedom

“Only free peoples can hold their purpose and their honor steady to a common end, and prefer the interests of mankind to any narrow interest of their own.Woodrow Wilson, address to Congress.

* * * * * * * * * *
Freedom in our culture often means the right to be and do as you please, how you please, when you please, where you please. It means doing your own thing, being your own boss, looking after number one first. The Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary says it means “exemption from necessity in choice and action.” It is the right to any choice so long as it is your own personal choice.

I’m not so sure this is the deepest, truest form of freedom. It’s probably better described as license. John Milton wrote in Tenure of Kings and Magistrates that “none can love freedom heartily, but good men; the rest love not freedom, but license.” As is easy to see simply by surveying our world, license results far too often in an exploitative callousness that objectifies others and deadens one’s own conscious.

We can fill our brain on fake news sites; we can engage in addictive behavior; we can blow every paycheck rather than make long term plans; we can tweet whatever we want or troll any social media site; we can watch all kinds of pornography; we can use dating apps to go through people as if they were playthings; we can pollute; we can support entertainment that spoils the moral fabric of our culture; we can take all the toilet rolls in a portable toilet and throw them into the toilet (sorry...recent experience that really peeved me); we can gorge yourself with food or drink ourselves into a stupor.

We can do all that. But at what cost? Check out Chase Holfelder's rendition of "My Way." He captures the ambivalence well - it's supposed to be a song celebrating radical license, but  it's sung through tears, with some regrets, with an acknowledgment that at times he bit off more than he could chew. This version lingers: it's not the breezy, careless Sinatra version. It's a haunting reflection of one who is desperately - and uneasily - wondering if "my way" was the right way to live.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Etcetera #2: Travel Bans, Immigrants, And Refugees

The President's recent 'travel ban' and the Supreme Court's partial affirmation of it have been front and center in the news lately. In this week's podcast episode of Etcetera: More Than Talking Points, we take a look at several aspects relevant to this discussion.

  • The details of the 'travel ban'
  • The ruling of the Supreme Court
  • The Trump Administration's use of the Immigration and Nationality Act to define "bona fide relationships" as it applies to family members
  • The threat to national and personal security (or lack thereof) posed by refugees and immigrants

You can link the the podcast on Soundcloud here; you are also welcome to join a post-podcast discussion on our Facebook page. Meanwhile, here is a list of related articles that you may find helpful.

The Shape Of Reality: Are We Really Free?

As noted in the opening post in this series, I believe Christianity offers compelling reasons to believe that truth is found most fully and consistently within the framework of a Christian worldview. The second post addressed the need for an objective foundation for morality. Of course, using the language of morality only makes sense if we are moral beings - that is, if we are significant moral agents who have an obligation to choose good and avoid evil.  This can only happen if we are free to make that choice, and therein lies another key question: Are we really free?
Generally, people believe that at some point everyone freely chooses  to make good and/or bad choices. Jaegwon Kim, philosopher at Brown University, has noted,

"We commonly think that we, as persons, have a mental and bodily dimension.... Something like this dualism of personhood, I believe, is common lore shared across most cultures and religious traditions." 

 Mind and Language published a paper in 2010 entitled “Is Belief in Free Will a Cultural Universal?” After studying a broad sample of people in the United States, Hong Kong, India and Columbia,
“The results revealed a striking degree of cross-cultural convergence. In all four cultural groups, the majority of participants said that (a) our universe is indeterministic and (b) moral responsibility is not compatible with determinism.” 
Consensus is not an air-tight way to arrive at truth, of course, but it is an insightful way to see what experiences humanity in general share. Most people believe we exercise some form of free will.

Not everyone agrees. When Rodney Brooks and Rosalind Picard debated the question, “Can Robots Become Human?” at a Veritas Forum at MIT in 2007, the following exchange took place (as recorded in “Living Machines” and published in A Place For Truth) :
Brooks: “ I think of myself as a robot, as a bag of skin full of biomolecules, and if I step back, that’s what [my wife] is, that’s what my kids are. But I have this completely different way of interacting with them, with unconditional love, which is not part of that scientific view. So I have multiple views I operate under every day.”
Picard: “I don’t just call those multiple views, I call those inconsistent views…so there’s no purpose, there’s no meaning, there’s no free will.”
Brooks: “That’s why I said I have a set of inconsistent views that I live under, because that’s really desolate, but it’s the truth.”
Picard: “Yeah, that does seem pretty desolate, and I wonder how you – why you care?”
Brooks: “I live in a fantasyland. That’s the fantasyland I’ve chosen to live in…”
So what is actually happening?

Monday, July 3, 2017

The Shape Of Reality: Identifying Evil

As noted in the opening post in this series, I believe Christianity offers compelling reasons to believe that truth is found most fully and consistently within the framework of a Christian worldview. Considering what we read in front page headlines, it seems appropriate to begin by looking specifically at ethics and morality.
In the aftermath of the Penn State scandal, everyone agreed that a long-standing taboo ought to remain: child molestation is not good. The case involving Dr. Gossnell’s butchery of newborn children, as well as terrorist incidents such as the bombings at the Boston Marathon  engendered an additional outcry against the presence of moral evil in the world.

People from all walks of life have found common ground in their stand against this type of injustice. However, it is increasingly difficult to find a consistent explanation for why these are examples of objectively bad things - that is, actions that are wrong irregardless of individual feelings and preferences.