Sunday, February 12, 2017

Unnatural Empathy



(Picture from here.)

The eastern gray tree frog (Hyla versicolor) and the Cope’s gray tree frog (H. chrysoscelis) are closely related. They look identical. Yet they only mate preferentially with each other. Why? You might ask. The Cope's frog has a higher pitched and faster paced call. Each species prefers its own species' call.

Cope's frog also has only half the chromosomes of the gray tree frog.

Sometime in the past, a Cope's frog spontaneously doubled its chromosomes and its offspring had a different call. In this case, it was matched by the female's preference for the same call.

Reproductive isolation is what defines a species and these frogs were isolated by a behavior rather than a physical trait. They were defined by an invisible uniqueness that they perceived easily but was difficult to penetrate without thorough examination. (See here, here and here.) Though they look alike, both species of frogs are unique.

The forefoot of the horse is actually its middle finger. The hoof is made of keratin—the same material of your fingernail. So, in one way the horse shares its foreleg structure with us. In another, it is unique. Other animals have hooves but the hooves aren’t quite the same. Other animals run but not quite the same as the horse. The horse, as I said, has commonality and uniqueness simultaneously.

Humans are a unique species.

Oh, I don’t mean that we have a Single Qualifying Trait that Signifies Our Specialness—there is no such trait. We have history and heritage from our relatives back to the fishes that, in part, share all our qualities. But that doesn’t detract from our uniqueness.

So we are with our brains. All vertebrates have vertebrate brains. All mammals have mammalian brains. All primates have primate brains. All humans have human brains. We can’t say humans don’t have mammalian brains in contrast to having human brains. That’s not a fact. That's not even an alternative fact. What we can say is that the set of characteristics that we use to define mammalian brains (and, for that matter, the set of characteristics we use to define mammals) encompasses the set of characteristics we use to define human brains.

There are additional brain characteristics shared among humans that are not shared with a chimp brain in the same way there are characteristics of the human shoulder that are not shared with the chimp shoulder.

I think it’s important to keep these sorts of things straight because we humans tend to expect biology to reinforce our cultural image of ourselves rather than tell us the truth. And, these days, truth is in short supply.

I’ve been reading Frans de Waal’s  book, The Age of Empathy. I’ve been a de Waal fan ever since I read Chimpanzee Politics. (Which, by the way, I highly recommend. It follows the rise to power a particular chimpanzee male to alpha, his loss of power and how he regains it. After reading this book you’ll never watch House of Cards the same way again.)

Reading the Empathy is a little sad because it was published right in the aftermath of Obama’s first election and there’s a little glow of optimism all through it. Which is hard to take right now.

But the issues are still relevant. He points out that the individualistic, Ayn Rand-making-it-in-spite-of-all-odds-solely-on-our-own myth has very little basis in biology. Sure: individuals succeed. That’s how evolution works. That’s how human culture—not the same thing at all, by the way—works. But, for human beings, individuals succeed because of our cooperation not despite it.

Think of Andrew Carnegie. He starts off poor when he arrives in the USA. He works hard in the textile mill, learns telegraphy, gets promoted and does well. Educates himself and then invests in various things with profit and becoming, ultimately, one of the wealthiest men in the world. Was this due to his own efforts? Sure. Was it due solely to his own efforts? Maybe not.

Carnegie worked in a textile mill. Such a mill operates on the idea that many people must work together to produce product. They are paid in a fungible material called money—which operates because people agree on the rules by which it works. He educates himself using a library—a cooperative enterprise where the common material (books) is shared among a group of obligated individuals for the common good. He makes much of his fortune selling bonds—a group enterprise where a collection of people donates money to an endeavor that must be cooperatively achieved in order to profit on the result.

Carnegie could not have attained the wealth he achieved without his own drive and ambition. But he also could not have achieved it without a society of super-cooperative monkeys that agreed on the rules by which the society operated.

Here’s a quote from de Waal on the wiki page:

“Being both more systematically brutal than chimps and more empathic than bonobos, we are by far the most bipolar ape. Our societies are never completely peaceful, never completely competitive, never ruled by sheer selfishness, and never perfectly moral.”

America is an interesting place. It is a continuing tension between individual opportunity and the common good. A tension between doing what is morally right and what personally profitable. Much of our literature deals with this dichotomy. Every human society is a blend in balance but most places rely on homogenizing factors: race, religion, tribal heritage. America is based fundamentally on leaving the past and heritage behind and embracing who we are without past and heritage. It is also, fundamentally, based on preserving and nurturing the ideas and heritage we feel is absolutely essential.

The Puritans didn’t come over here to be rugged individuals. They came over for their own religious ideals. Even so, out of that came the Mayflower Compact and Roger Williams’  Providence PlantationsJohn Adams wrote a beautiful tract, Thoughts on Government, where he described good government as the mechanism for achieving happiness and virtue for the greatest number of people. As president, he also signed into law the Alien and Sedition Acts, which made it harder for immigrants to become citizens.

Jon Stewart said it best here: “This fight has never been easy…America is not natural. Natural is tribal. We’re fighting against thousands of years of human of human behavior and history to create something new.”

I think the fact that we—and by “we” I mean any group of human beings, American or not—can attempt to create something this unnatural is what makes us human.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Boskone 2017

I will be at Boskone in a couple of weeks. Here is my schedule. Come on out and have fun with me.

Great Fantasy Worlds
Friday 19:00 - 20:00, Marina 3 (Westin)
A satisfying fantasy world is more than the obligatory map at the front of the book. What makes such a world appealing to the reader? Does that appeal correlate with the depth and complexity of the fantasy writer's creation?
Ms Melinda Snodgrass (M), Mary Kay Kare, Vikki Ciaffone, Justine Graykin, Steven Popkes, Julie Holderman

Autographing: Craig Shaw Gardner, Steven Popkes, Melinda Snodgrass, Walter Jon Williams
Saturday 12:00 - 13:00, Galleria - Autographing (Westin)

Making Things Out of Trash
Saturday 16:00 - 17:00, Galleria - Makers' Space (Westin)
Have you ever found an odd item in the trash that you were sure could become something cool, but you couldn't figure out what to actually do with it? Join Steven Popkes for a fun discussion of "deep recycling" and learn how you too can have some fun with .... stuff.

Chemistry: Spec Fic's Critical Compound
Sunday 10:00 - 11:00, Marina 2 (Westin)
It's got a long history within speculative fiction, but it's often overshadowed by biology, physics, and astronomy. From transmutating metals to creating fuels, gunpowder, poisons, and (in The Martian) oxygen, chemistry is often the unsung science of our genres. We'll discuss chemistry's practical aspects, and how they are successfully applied within a story. We'll also look at a few bang-up examples where the science went wrong ...
Milton Davis, Kristin Janz, Mark L. Olson (M), Justine Graykin, Steven Popkes

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Old Man’s Judo


(Picture from here.)

When I was in grade school, in California, my father enrolled me in a judo class. I have no idea why he did it—in fact, it was done so early in my life it seemed completely natural. Who wouldn't, right? I never even thought to ask him why he did it until after he was dead and I couldn’t. 

I loved it. Imagine wrestling as an art form. Chokes and pins as things of beauty. Learning to fly to the air and fall without pain—well, mostly without pain. I don’t remember much pain then. I had to grow older to get that.

I revisited Judo briefly in college and then left it until about six years ago. My son had left gymnastics and asked what sport he could try. I mentioned Judo and he tried it and stayed with it for a while. He was beautiful at it. About a year later I succumbed to the draw and started as well. He left it later but I’ve kept at it.

But it’s hard to talk about judo without knowing what it is.

Judo (pronounced Joo-doe) means “Gentle way” in Japanese.  It was invented by Kanō Jigorō in the 1880’s in Japan. He founded his own school in 1882. He was 22.

Kanō had studied jiujitsu—an older form of Japanese unarmed combat—much of his life. This turned out to be difficult because many Japanese thought that jiujitsu was outmoded and no longer useful. Kanō didn’t agree. When Kanō opened his school he called is discipline judo, in part, to break the association with jiujitsu. But also because he’d come to embrace two concepts that he felt had relevance to modern Japan and the world:


  • seiryoku zen'yō (精力善用): maximum efficiency, minimum effort
  • jita kyōei (自他共栄  ): mutual welfare and benefit


Kanō had adopted three basic categories of techniques from jiujitsu: throwing techniques where an opponent was brought to the ground, pinning techniques and submission techniques including chokes and joint locks. But he adapted them to be used safely.

For example, one jiujitsu throw involved using the arm with the elbow open—pretty much insuring that the joint was broken in the throw. The throw was modified such that this didn’t happen. Joint locks were restricted to the elbow only—much more easily controlled—and done in a manner that allowed the opponent to surrender. Chokes were changed from the windpipe to the neck—carotid pressure which can cause unconsciousness if the opponent does not submit but doesn’t cause permanent injury. Teachers step in to prevent even that. Throws involve falling from height so Kanō introduced ukemi—the technique of falling. 

A side note: about two years ago I stepped off the curb, slipped and fell forward. Instead of a face plant involving at the very minimum a broken nose, I hit the concrete in a perfect judo front fall. It hurt but I was without injury. Judo works.

Judo techniques are much more about timing and leverage than strength. It doesn’t have to be a young man’s sport. In my current dojo, one sensei (teacher) is in his fifties and the other is seventy. We have two other seventy year olds, one is a beginner and the other is a brown belt studying for black. It's no secret I’m not young. We also have a thirty-three year old who regularly mops the floor with me but sometimes I get him back. The fact that there is a discipline where I can compete with a younger man nearly half my age and do okay is pretty amazing. 

This all goes back to Kanō's two principles. The techniques reflect maximum efficiency and minimum effort. But they are connected to mutual welfare—you can’t play with an opponent if you break him. And you won’t get better without an opponent. Judo requires two players. It is an intimate discipline: you spend a lot of time in close physical contact with your co-students, teachers and opponents. It’s impossible to play judo alone.

This is what attracted me to judo all along. Few human endeavors are without ego. Judo is no exception. But judo is one of the few disciplines that structurally embodies cooperation. You must help your fellow student learn—he is essential for you to learn. And you must protect your opponent from injury insuring that he will protect you from injury.

Kanō realized that the physical concepts he was teaching in his dojo had a larger philosophical and moral dimension. This is an excerpt from what Kanō said in response to judo being considered as n Olympic sport:

“... judo in reality is not a mere sport or game. I regard it as a principle of life, art and science. In fact, it is a means for personal cultural attainment...Judo should be free as art and science from any external influences, political, national, racial, and financial or any other organized interest. And all things connected with it should be directed to its ultimate object, the ‘Benefit of Humanity’.”

This concept is attractive to me.

There's a tendency—at least in the United States—to narrow the definitions associated with affection. There's family bonds, some kinds of friends, bands of brothers and sexual love. I think human beings are far more diverse in their emotions. What ties together a judo dojo is a bond of affection that is local to the dojo but extends from it. It's not the band of brothers military thing where other people are willing to die for you. And it's not an intense colleague relationship where people on a project put their marriages at risk for some accomplishment. 

I've done other martial arts and it's been an intense experience—notice, please, that I've not called judo a martial art—but this is different. There is a close and personal bond based on something that we are all aspiring to do and for which we are all absolutely essential to one another. Is that love? I don't know.

There’s a free sparring component to judo called randori. At this point, people pair up and use what they’ve learned against one another. We get thrown, pinned, choked and locked a lot. But if you go to a boxing match or MMA fight or wrestling or tennis match and watch the losers you see anger, grief, humiliation, embarrassment. In randori, you see someone say nice. That’s the difference.

That happened to me last Thursday when Young Steve (I’m Old Steve) took me down in a yoko wakare. (Picture at left.) I was saying nice! as I was going over. Then, I got up and we went at it again.

It’s not all roses and carnations. As my sensei says, we’re not playing badminton. I’ve had some injuries in judo. Usually it was because I did something stupid. For me, half of understanding judo is learning not to do something stupid.

But it certainly feels great when my opponent—or my teacher—says nice when I do something right. It feels even better to say nice to someone else for the same reason.


And that’s why I’m there.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Kissing 2016 Goodbye

Yeah, yeah. I know the drill. I'm supposed to write about the year and how to look forward to the next.

Frankly, this was a kidney stone of a year and I have little to say about the next one.

So, like all writers, I steal when I have to.

Here's John Oliver's good by to 2016.

And here's one of the more articulate discussions of the turn of the year.

I'll get back on track next year.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Consideration of Works Present: The Jungle Book



(Picture from here.)

When I grew up there were four books I read over and over:


Crazy Weather was never made into a film but the others have been made into several. In my humble opinion, every one failed in one way or another. The best adaptation of Finn might be the 1920 film-- the wiki synopsis seems to do the least damage to the novel.

None have failed more spectacularly in their adaptation than all three Jungle Books: 1942, 1967 and 2016.

But to see why we have do talk about who Mowgli really is.

Mowgli was the son of a native. The native was killed by a tiger and Mowgli raised by the wolves and his three best friends: Bagheera, the panther, Baloo, the bear and Kaa, the rock python. This last character is very important. Kaa is one of Mowgli's closest friends. He is older and wiser than any of the others in the forest-- included Hathi, the elephant, who is considered the highest authority in the jungle. Kaa is at least a hundred years old and possibly a great deal more than that.

Mowgli grows up. His sworn enemy is Shere Khan, the tiger. Shere Khan (or Lungri, as some call him. "The lame one.") is a hunter of men. There's some implication that Shere Khan is the tiger that killed Mowgli's family. Regardless, he regards Mowgli's existence as an offense and spends a good deal of time attempting to kill him.

Mowgli, ultimately, leaves the jungle (shunned by the wolves) and returns to the world of human beings for a time. This doesn't work out and he ends up leaving the village in ruins, punishing them for their misdeeds. However, during this time he kills Shere Khan and returns to the wolves, laying Shere Khan's skin on their ceremonial rock and breaking their fellowship for casting him out. He lives in the jungle with his sibling wolves until one day he moves on, finds a mate of his own and takes up residence in a Indian park.

If you've seen any of the Jungle Book movies you can see the problem right there. Mowgli is an interesting and flawed character. He is very tough-- not surprising since he was raised by wolves. He has his own agenda. Even stories of his childhood have a thread of blood and mortality in them.

The two Disney Jungle Book movies (1967 and 2016) pull (roughly) from Mowgli's Brothers, Kaa's Hunting  and Tiger! Tiger! These stories start with Mowgli's adoption, where Mowgli gets abducted by the monkeys and is saved, and when Mowgli kills Shere Khan. The 1942 version borrows Mowgli's Brothers, Tiger! Tiger! and some of Letting in the Jungle. All three versions only bear a loose connection with the original material. At lease the 1942 version preserves a little of Mowgli and Kaa's relationship.

The 1942 version isn't so bad. The special effects are laughable-- it was 1942 after all-- and Zoltan Korda added a whole lot of new material that was pretty useless. At least it got most of the animal relationships right. But the new material detracted from the original.

My biggest issue is with the Disney versions. They just got the animal relationship wrong.

There are really five sets of important animals in Mowgli's story: the wolves (especially his mother, Raksha and the pack leader Akela), Bagheera, Baloo, Kaa and Shere Khan. They all mean very different things.

The wolves are important as Mowgli's parents and brothers. Akela is, essentially, the wolf authority of the pack. This is Mowgli's family and community. Mowgli's introduction to this community ultimately destroys it-- Mowgli is not personally responsible for that destruction but it does happen because of him. Shere Khan is Mowgli's enemy. He is the personification of the jungle's destructive power. His animosity towards Mowgli reflects his own injury by man-- he represents the jungle as wounded animal.

What makes Shere Khan interesting is he really has a case against Mowgli. The jungle is in equilibrium without human beings. Mowgli brings disequilibrium with him-- and, in fact, Shere Khan's fears ultimately come to pass.

Bagheera, Baloo and Kaa represent the attractive parts of the jungle-- the aspects of the jungle that human beings need to fully realize themselves.

Bagheera is the most approachable of these. He had been a captive panther in Ooodeypor-- this is a secret no one knows about him. It is Bagheera-- along with Shere Khan-- that realizes both Mowgli's potential power to be in the jungle and his danger. At one point, he is trying to explain this to Mowgli and Mowgli-- being a child-- does not listen. Bagheera has him feel under his chin for a bare spot. It is the spot where the collar had chafed away the hair. Bagheera had been content until one night he realized who he was, smote the lock and was free. This is what he is attempting to bring to Mowgli, Mowgli's self-realization.

Baloo is the teacher of the law of the jungle. He's not some lazy bear. He represents-- and communicates-- the order of the jungle. When Mowgli is abducted by the monkeys in Kaa's Hunting, he uses the knowledge given him by Baloo to send word. It is in this story that Bagheera and Baloo realized they are outclassed and go to Kaa for help.

Kaa is the ancient wisdom and ancient mystery of the jungle. He knows things no one else knows. He acts on things no one else can see and has mysterious powers that no one realizes until he shows them.

These are Mowgli's fast friends and they are why he becomes a realized human fully capable in the jungle.

Consider this in the light of the two Disney Jungle Boooks. Bagheera is exasperated parent-- Mowgli's wolf parents barely show in the first film and have a small role in the second. Baloo is a fumbling clown and Kaa is the Mowgli's enemy-- second only to Shere Khan.

Clearly, I do not recommend these films.

But the problem is deeper. It lies in what is currently thought to be a "children's film" and "children's literature."

The Mowgli stories are dark in that they deal with death, meat and blood. Kipling doesn't shy away from the idea that these animals (and Mowgli) are killing prey. While Mowgli can communicate with all of the animals he is only friends with predators. (Hathi the elephant is a possible exception to this but the elephants are god like in their powers and are above these distinctions.)

There's a powerful scene at the river where the drought is so severe that a rock normally unseen is exposed. (This is well done in the 2016 film.) It is regarded as a symbol of peace: everyone must drink and so prey animals drink next to predators. Regardless, the power relationships are clear: the predators are giving the prey a break but the prey are nervous.

So when the Disney films were made, this relationship between predator and prey was deemed inappropriate-- except for Kaa who appears to prefer little boys to all else.

There is a terrific character arc in these stories: child reared by wolves finds himself and takes on his human identity and power-- and there is absolutely no question that the animals of the jungle recognize that this puny little grub of a thing represents great power. He grows from a child into an adult. It's the hero's journey.

And it's entirely ignored in these films.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Evidenced Thinking and Writer Naivete


(Picture from here.)

I haven't been talking about science much lately. Heck, from the activity in my blog here, I haven't been talking much about anything.

To be frank, trying to fill this blog has, of late, been difficult. Not because I don't have anything to say. But it's been hard to talk about things given the current climate. Not just the current disaster of an election but the whole nature of discourse has undergone a shift over the last twelve years or so.

The result is not reassuring.

As my two readers know, I'm passionate about science. Scientific thinking is a subset of evidence based critical thinking and that approach has been pretty much my compass over most of my life.

Such thinking involves looking at evidence and proposing models to match the evidence and discarding them as more information becomes available. It's a very satisfying approach to life but it's not terribly comfortable. After all, it means that assumptions you make about institutions you love are subordinate to information you find out.

I've always known that there is an undercurrent of true craziness in American society. When I was living in Alabama during the sixties I saw some of it first hand. It's not limited to any particular region. We have craziness everywhere. It peeks out under our skirts all the time. I was naive.

About twelve years ago something changed for me. For the first time--to me, at least-- the craziness seemed to become institutionalized. This was the Kerry/Bush election and I'm speaking of the Swiftboating incident. (The wikipedia article on the actual allegations is pretty good. See here.)

Political smear campaigns are nothing new. I had low expectations of the Kerry campaign. I remembered his anti-war activities and rhetoric and thought it fairly unlikely he could ever overcome it. Still, I never thought that the actual facts of his service would be questioned. The Armed Forces are pretty thorough when they investigate for medals. As I said, I was naive.

The problem, for me, resides in the nature of the facts. Lots of people investigated and the result, from pretty reputable sources, was that the allegations were fabrications. (Check the annotations in the wiki article.) But here's the part that bothered me: it didn't matter. Myth and narrative trumped investigated results.

Fast forward through the Obama elections and we have the birther fabrications. The deliberate and obstinate refusal to accept facts. Obama was born in this country. What a surprise.

When the internet first hit the world I was ecstatic. We would all have information at our fingertips. It didn't take long to realize that information was not truth and that many people would propagate lies they liked over facts they didn't. Thus, Snopes, Politifact and Factcheck.org were born. These are great tools. But the fun fact about the internet is that it's not all that hard to ferret out what is fact and what isn't. All it takes is critical thinking and evidence. Or lack, thereof.

Carl Sagan popularized the idea that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. (See here for the phrase's history.) Nowhere is this more necessary than in evaluating political candidates. If they make bizarre claims, then they should be checked out. If the claims don't hold up, that should be evidence against them. If they do, that should be evidence for them.

Starting about two years ago in this election, I found in myself a profound faith in the American electorate. In the Jefferson ideal of democracy. The flagrant untruths of the election (and Trump was by no means the only propagator of these) would not stand. After all, it was so incredibly easy to determine truth from fiction.

As I said, I was naive. The evidence has demolished that particular myth.

Jon Stewart gives me a little encouragement in his reaction when interviewed by Charlie Rose. (See here.) "This fight has never been easy." He was talking about a diverse political environment-- the ideal of American democracy. This is what Martin Luther King, Jr. meant when he said, "I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." (See here.) We should all be judged by the content of our character.

I suppose I can extend somewhat from their words. Evidence based thinking-- the willingness to allow our most cherished beliefs be scrutinized under the harsh light of evidence--  is not easy, either. Science is hard because we don't want to be wrong. We want our beliefs to be right. We want our thinking to be correct. To submit it to scrutiny means accepting that we might be-- or are-- wrong.

I have friends, people of good intelligence and good will, that do not believe evolution happened, that climate change is real and who voted for Trump. These are indisputably smart and good people. People who I'm proud to know. I cannot callously dismiss them for these beliefs and decisions. If we lose indisputably smart and good people, what are we left with? Indisputably stupid and evil people who happen to agree with us?

Every four years we execute the largest social sampling poll in the country. This time 46.6% went for Trump. 48% went for Clinton. (See here.) There were not 62 million racist idiots voting for Trump any more than there were 64 million saints voting for Clinton. The evidence does not bear this out. (See here.)

The problem is more complex than that and I do not have an answer.

But I will be donating more to the ACLU (among others) than I did before.

Additional sites of Interest:
John Oliver's analysis
Salon's analysis
James Fallows Trump Time Capsule
Atlantic Clinton Analysis
Gin and Tacos: Unpleasant but rational political analysis

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Consideration of Works Present: The Arrival


(Picture from here.)

Anyone who hasn't been living under a rock for the last several years must have noticed that we're in the boom times for films of the fantastic.

We haven't seen such a bumper crop of science fiction films since the fifties of the last century and most of those are worth watching only for pure nostalgia. We have never seen the fantastic embraced by so many large budget efforts prior to now.

SF, fantasy and horror were the orphan step children in movies for a long time. This hasn't been true for horror for a long time. Fantasy has been big budget for a bit and now, in the last number of years, science fiction.

By SF I do not mean fantasy using technological trappings such as Star Wars or its quirky sibling, superhero movies. I mean real SF where the trappings of the fantastic have scientific, technological and secular metaphors.

There have been a number of quirky, independent SF films for a while now (Think Primer and Frequently Asked Questions about Time Travel) but most of the large budget attempts have been leavened by safer fantastic fare: hints of a deity as in The Adjustment Bureau, or mixed with adventure as in Paycheck or Blade Runner. (For a long time it seemed that every big budget SF film that was actual SF depended on Philip K Dick. I really wish someone would actually make a film of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.)

The Arrival opened last Friday (November 11, 2016) and the SF book club saw it together. It is a good film (mostly) and it is actual science fiction. There are no hidden references to deities, the Force or other non-secular mechanisms to take the edge off. There is actual science involved. The script is good. The special effects are limited and well done. It's a character driven story where the actions of the individuals derive carefully from their motivations. The actors are good.

It is well worth seeing. From now on I'm going to talk spoilers so if that bothers you leave now.

The Arrival is based on Ted Chiang's The Story of Your Life. TSOYL won the 2000 Nebula. I would have gone to see The Arrival for that alone. I haven't read TSOYL yet but this is the theme sentence for the story: "The major themes explored by this tale are determinism, language, and the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis."

How could I not see it?

In the film, Louise Banks is a linguist that is tapped by the military to attempt to communicate with one of twelve alien spacecraft that have appeared on earth. She, and physicist Ian Donnelly, attempt various ways to communicate and settle on learning their language. At first the countries where these craft have landed cooperate. But then, different countries decide that the craft are hostile for one reason or another and opt out.

Meanwhile, Banks starts to crack the language and in so doing begins to have hallucinations of a life with a child. The child in the hallucinations eventually dies of an incurable, genetic disease. Eventually, this becomes clear to Banks that this is the future she is experiencing. She's also divorced in the future in part because she told her husband she knew the child would die before they conceived it and he doesn't take it well.

While this is going on, the tensions build up until war is declared against the craft. Banks remembers a future event where she meets with the Chinese general at a party of earth unification and he tells her that she called him and that changed his mind. As she experiences this as a future self, she uses it as a present self to actually call him and avert war and catastrophe. The aliens leave. She is gifted with both knowledge of the events of the future but also the knowledge of a book she's written in the future that enables her to read the alien language.

At the end, she embraces Ian Donnelly, who's to be the future husband.

Okay. There's a lot to unpack here.

There's an obvious paradox here in that the knowledge she gets from her future self is what she uses to decode the writing in the present. This makes that knowledge an object that passed from future to past and without actually having any creation outside of the time loop-- a paradoxical object. It has no independent creation outside the time loop. That's not a terrible thing but it is never acknowledged in the framework of the film.

There's also a problem with Ian D in the film. His main purpose (in large part his only purpose) is to serve as future husband. He also utters a couple of clunkers that don't stand up under even the slightest scrutiny. At one point he proclaims that the mark of civilization (not great civilizations or modern civilizations) is science. Immediately I thought: ancient Sumer wasn't civilized?

He's there as a foil for Banks. It's also important in the context of the narrative. If Ian shows up in the flash forwards it's an instant giveaway to Banks (and the audience) what's going on. Having him not there preserves the mystery for just  little bit. Not that the mystery is preserved all that long-- SF audiences are condition to accept a fantastic element as true in the narrative even if everybody in the narrative thinks the fantastic element is just crazy talk.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, as described in the film, suggests that the individual mechanisms of language modify thought and that learning a new language modifies the thinker. This is a good idea to talk about in the film and it would have been nice for it to have had more than about five minutes.

At least it fares better than determinism in the film which gets no discussion. I mean the underlying narrative of the film essentially presumes determinism but it's never really discussed.

In point of fact, there are several points of the film that suggest that time is not so deterministic. The paradox mentioned above is one. Another is that when Banks learns of the phone call in the climax scene, in the future, it appears that she is learning it for the first time. Either Banks is experiencing the events non-linearly-- which isn't really supportable elsewhere in the film-- or time is being modified as it happens in two time points. Which is interesting but never addressed or discussed.

It's a good film but it's also a romantic film-- not in the sense of male-female relationships but in the sense that the feelings of the film sometimes overcome its good sense.

It does raise a question about film making in general. Can we have a film that engages intellectual discussion in SF? We can have it other places. The Big Short-- a terrific film-- embraces the technical and intellectual issues of economics in a novel and interesting way. Why can't we do that in SF?

So: it's the heyday of SF films. This is a good one, though flawed. It doesn't presume its audience is stupid-- though it does take them a bit for granted. Say, 4/5 stars if you're into that sort of thing.

I have a different scale. It's how much I would have paid to see the film and not feel ripped off. The film cost me $14.50 but I had people with me. If I'd gone by myself, $10. That, for me, is a pretty good number. There are other films I've seen were a buck would have been too much.