A pitch for the feel good science movie of the year

The Martian“I loved it, I really loved it.” Michele Stern while walking out of the theater
“I’m goin’ to have to science the shit out of this.” Astronaut Mark Watney

Michele and I saw The Martian, by director Ridley Scott, last Friday night and we both loved it. I loved it because it is a visual delight – like most of Scott’s movies – and I loved it because I want to love Scott’s movies. This is the first Science Fiction movie that I can think of that really has science at its core. By that I mean all the science in it is real. The movie is also bright, cheery, and often funny; a feel good science movie that takes place in a near future in which science and NASA are well funded (that is the fiction part).

Even without this movie, Ridley Scott is one of my favorite movie directors. He can build a densely layered photographic picture better than anybody (and it is a moving picture, after all).  Scott started his career in TV advertising where the budget per minute is usually much higher than a movie and that density of detail, that voluptuousness of the image, is one of his hallmarks. He packs the frame with such care that even his bad movies are visually interesting. The overall cheer of The Martian surprised me a little because I think of Scott’s movies as usually brooding and atmosphericly dark and, even, somewhat nihilistic like Blade Runner or Alien or one of my very favorite movies, The Duelists.   

But what makes me want to like Scott is his strong feminist credentials. He is the producer of The Good Wife, he directed G.I. Jane and Thelma and Louise, and Ripley is one of moviedom’s most memorable heroes. In The Martian, Matt Damon is the center of the story, but the mission commander is Jessica Chastain. There are more women and actors of color, in noticeable  roles, than in any movie I can think of and they all have actual personalities and make major, plot changing, contributions  (and I’m not sure action movie is an accurate descriptor and – again – actors of color sounds pretty stilted, sorry).

I think that we will go back and see it again, it was really that enjoyable a movie.

The Carrizo Plain on the way to Fresno to pick up the V dub

Gerhry Trip (1 of 1)-2When we left Fresno last Thursday, the Volkswagen still wasn’t repaired. Or, more accurately, they repaired the water pump only to find out that the radiator had started to leak  and they would need until Monday to fix it. Since we had an Enterprise rental car – with unlimited mileage –  for a week and Los Angeles was only about 425 miles out of the way, I decided to run down to Los Angeles to see the Frank Gehry show at the L A County Museum. To keep costs down, I was going to camp at the Carrizo Plain north of Los Angeles and go into town in the morning. Courtney Gonzalez volunteered to come along for company if we could take the time to visit her niece.

Driving south on 101 and the 58, California looked dry and the Golden Hills were a parched dun. Gerhry Trip (1 of 1)As we got close to where we were going to camp – camp is way too grandiose, all we really planned on doing was throwing our bags down on a flat spot with a view – we saw a tarantula crossing the road, then another one, then several more, then lots more. It was a tarantula migration! and we were in the middle of it. Courtney said, We don’t have a tent and I don’t want to sleep out with tarantulas crawling over me in the dark. I didn’t either but I was still in denial, thinking we would soon enter a tarantula free zone in which we could sleep without worries. We didn’t. Gerhry Trip (1 of 1)-3As an aside, I haven’t seen a tarantula, in the wild, since the fall of 1981 when I was moving into my Portola Valley home. That fall, I saw three; two near my home and one on a back road to Mt. Hamilton. In the thirty four tarantula-free years since, I would sometimes wonder at the oddness of that year of seeing tarantulas crossing the road and how it must have been a once in a lifetime event. Now Courtney and I were seeing hundreds and it turns out that this is an annual event. It is not a migration but late September to early October – in dry grassland areas – the males go hunting for girlfriends. Tarantulas live from six to twelve years, mate once near the end of their life and – presumably – die happy (sometimes, but not usually, the girlfriend will kill the male after mating). End aside.

Discretion being the better part of valor, we opted out of spending the night on the Carrizo Plain. Instead we wandered around for a while and then drove back to Civilization in the fading light. Fortunately, the late afternoon light was golden and I did get lots of pictures. Gerhry Trip (1 of 1)-6 Gerhry Trip (1 of 1)-7 Gerhry Trip (1 of 1)-8 Gerhry Trip (1 of 1)-9Gerhry Trip B (1 of 1)Gerhry Trip B (1 of 1)-2

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Random thoughts on the road to and from a memorial

Trip South (1 of 1)We drove down to Escondido last week for a Memorial Service and drove back home last Thursday…in a rental car. The Memorial was for Tom Halle and it was more an anthem of his life than a dirge. Still, we all knew we would never see him again and that cast a  pall over the Service and the whole weekend.

Driving down, we were constantly reminded of the drought and how everything, eventually, becomes political.Trip South (1 of 1)-2Trip SouthA (1 of 1) Trip South (1 of 1)-4
We seem to live in a time when everybody wants individual rights over the collective well being and is going to have a hissy fit if they don’t get it. As a liberal, it seems crazy to me that a person’s right to own a gun, without any restriction, should trump public safety. For a conservative, it must seem crazy that the left goes ballistic over Kim Davis’ private meeting with the Pope. All this being played out center stage, in front of  Europe starting to close its borders, Russia jumping into the quicksand of Syria, a growing Civil War in Libya, and Afghanistan convulsing back to tribalism.

The day after the service, we comforted ourselves by spending the morning at one of Southern California’s great beaches. Or, I should say that I spent the morning at the beach with Ophelia Ramirez while Michele and Peter Kuhlman spent it in the water, Trip South (1 of 1) Trip South (1 of 1)-2
and then, for our last night in Southern California, we joined a birthday dinner for Ophelia, in a restaurant…wait for it…in a Lexus dealership. The food was great – no kidding – and we ate outside, in a half tent on the rooftop parking lot near a lovely group of Lexi. It both seemed like an incredible Southern California cliche and a totally unique place and experience.

The pall returned when we were driving home. Michele’s trusty Volkswagen GTI ate its water pump while we were leaving the In-N-Out Burger in Kettleman City and we ended up across the Valley in Fresno saying Why did our fucking water pump give out? and, by the way, how can VW blatantly cheat and think they are going to get away with it? 

Both questions have pretty much the same answer. Volkswagen wanted to be the biggest automaker in the world and they pushed hard to make that goal. A big part of that push were diesels, clean and powerful diesels. We all thought that the diesels were clean and powerful at the same time – and so, probably, did the head of VW and the company even ran a Super Bowl ad showing its engineers sprouting angel’s wings for that incredible accomplishment – but, we now know, the diesel engines were programed to be clean or powerful, not both. They did this on purpose, so on purpose that it was wired deep into the software.  Trying to make as much money as possible does not promote morality, it promotes making as much money as possible and that translates to pushing people to get desirable results.

What fascinates me is Who was the highest guy in the Volkswagen hierarchy to know?  Presumably, some software engineer realized that they could cheat the tests – after all they cheated before (and got caught and fined only $120,000 in 1973) – and told his boss. It might have started innocently You know it is possible to tweak the code to make the car act differently on a dynamometer, wouldn’t that be a great rf and it would serve them right for these stupid rules and the more possible it became and the more seemingly impossible, or very difficult, to to be caught, the more plausible a solution it became. At some point, somebody must have said – or thought – You know, I don’t think I am going to tell my boss about this, he wouldn’t want to know. And he probably didn’t want to know, he wanted a cheap, powerful, and clean diesel; he wanted to be a hero in the Becoming the Biggest Company Game.

The disgraced CEO said he didn’t know, and he probably didn’t, but he set the tone of the company. He didn’t say We want to make the best cars in the world or We want to be scrupulously honest or Saving the planet for our children is our top priority, he said We want to be the biggest company, make the most money. It is sad, it is sad for our increasingly endangered Planet; it is sad for Germany and her vaulted automobile industry, but it is also sad for Volkswagen.

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Reading ‘Sapians’ while watching the Tahoe Iron Man Race

Iron Man (1 of 1)[As] human societies grew ever larger and more complex,while the imagined constraints sustaining the social order also became more elaborate. Myths and fictions accustomed people, nearly from the moment of birth, to think in certain ways, to behave in accordance with certain standards, to want certain things, and to observe certain rules. They thereby created artificial instincts that enabled millions of strangers to coöperate effectively. This network of artificial instincts is called ‘culture’.
Sapiens A Brief History of Mankind by Yuval Noah Harari

We went to Michele’s family cabin at Squaw Valley over the weekend just to have a change of pace. When we got there, we realized it was the weekend of the second annual – they call it Second Annual but it is the third year as smoke from fires cancelled last year’s event – what is billed as IRONMAN LAKE TAHOE. On Sunday, after mistakenly not recording the Singapore Grand Prix – in which Hamilton DNF’ed – and not liking the start of a bad 49er game, we walked along part of the course to the finish area. It was a warm day, probably in the low 80°s, and the air had the familiar dry smell of the East Side, atleast until we got to the golf course. It was a perfect day for a walk

The Tahoe Ironman starts with a swim in Lake Tahoe of 2.4 miles, then a 112 mile bike ride – it’s not really a ride ride, the contestants are the peddlers – and ends with a marathon. (In my old, out-of-shape opinion, any section would require an Ironperson.) The first finishers started drifting in a little after four in the afternoon, after starting with a 6:45 AM swim!, and they looked to be in shockingly good shape. The winner had a time of nine hours and thirty nine minutes and he did a little jig as he crossed the finish line. Ironman (1 of 1)-2

The most memorable moments – and by moments, I mean sights in time – were not the guys at the front of the race but the guys at the end of the pack. The marathon is two laps from Squaw to almost Tahoe City, on the bike path by the Truckee River, so there are people going both ways for a large portion of the race. After watching at the finish line for a while, we started wandering back to the cabin, stopping to admire the high tech bikes, Ironman (1 of 1)and then walking back to the cabin along the race route. It was getting towards evening and we watched one guy – who looked to be in great shape – ride in on his bike. That meant that he still had a marathon to run and it was almost 6.

As we walked, I began to watch the runners. It was impossible to tell if they were on their first lap with about sixteen miles to go or on their last lap with one mile to go and in my imagination I thought about how discouraging it must be to be that far back. It was getting dark and the runners left were few, they looked beat. In my imagination, they were discouraged by how much longer it took than they expected. It got darker and as we walked by the lonely water girls, Ironman (1 of 1)-3

something amazing started happening. Runners started putting on headlamps. My imaginary runner disappeared, replaced by the real runner who knew, when she started, that she would be running in the dark, in the mountain cold, on an almost empty course, on an almost empty tank. That takes an amazing spirit, I think more than the guy who won.

But that spirit is not enough because people are not equal – they are not born with the same abilities or have jobs that allows for equal training time – and an amazing spirit is not enough to overcome that.

I have been reading Sapiens A Brief History of Mankind by Yuval Noah Harari and parts of it have rocked me. When Harari compares The Code of Hammurabi to the Declaration of Independence, by comparing If a man destroy the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye. If one break a man’s bone, they shall break his bone. If one destroy the eye of a freeman or break the bone of a freeman he shall pay one mana of silver. If one destroy the eye of a man’s slave or break a bone of a man’s slave he shall pay one-half his price to all men are created equal, and then says that both positions are equally valid from a biological or evolutionary point of view, I am rocked. When he says neither is more moral, I think, How can that be?.

Years ago, I did a little bit of volunteer work on several Spiritual retreats for shell shocked, body bashed, veterans and their equally shocked families. During a break, a guy I was working, another ex E-5 type, said something like There is no morality without God. I wasn’t particularly shocked even though the group leader was a Buddhist, but I was a little offended. My world view does not include a God who makes rules about morality – or chemistry for that matter – and passes them down to mankind. But if neither biology or evolution make rules on morality, if the only natural rules are what works to pass on DNA, where do I get my rules? (And, man! do I have rules.)  Where do those rules, that I believe in the core of my being, come from?

If they are only constructs and those constructs are no better than, say, a Afghan tribesman’s construct, let’s say a tribesman who is trying to sell his thirteen year old daughter who he owns, where does that leave me? It is hard to be morally superior if those morals are not morally better. Without God, where does that morality come from? It obviously isn’t self evident. If nature gives different individuals different abilities and different chances, who are we to say that people are equal and should thereby be treated equally? Where does the authority for the morality we know to be right in our very being – in our soul, if you believe in that sort of thing – come from? Surely it must be more than just culture.

A couple of thoughts after watching most of the world’s longest debate

Repub debate (1 of 1)My first impression of the Republican Debate last Wednesday is that the candidates live in a different world than I do. In their world, the economy was doing great until Obama became president, 9-11 apparently happened on Clinton’s watch after which Bush the Younger did keep us safe, and the possibility of making a deal with Iran will result in the end of the world as we know it. Trump even said that, if Israel goes to war against Iran, we will have to take Iran’s side.

Everybody expected the debate to revolve around Trump and he did get the more airtime than anybody else – to a great extent because the debate rules gave everybody the time to answer attacks and the other candidates were constantly attacking him – but I don’t think he was the center of the debate. Watching Trump, I was reminded of  the George Cohan quote, I don’t care what you say about me, as long as you say something about me, and as long as you spell my name right. I went into the debate thinking that Trump is an egomaniac and I was not disappointed but I also kept thinking Trump has hit a nerve and the Democrats keep thinking that there is no nerve there, I think that is a mistake.

At one point, Trump and Carly Fiorina tussled and I was surprised at how much Trump knew about Fiorina’s Hewlett Packard career  disastrous experience (I was also surprised that he knew the word persona). We live less than ten driving miles away from HP and Fiorina’s mistakes were big news here and I think Trump was pretty much right. About the time the smart money was realizing that computers were becoming a commodity in a saturated market, Fiorina forced a $19 billion merger with computer manufacturer Compaq that is still haunting the company. If I were going to vote for a business person for President – and I won’t because government and business are very different, business is a dictatorship designed to operate in secret to make money and government should be open and transparent, helping people; it is a stupid idea, just look at Chaney – I would vote for Trump over Fiorina.

As an aside, that is not to say that either Trump or Fiorina are stupid. They both know how to take care of themselves: Trump bankrupted four companies while making money for himself and Fiorina was fired and given a Twenty Million Dollar severance package to get her out of the trashed HP. End aside.

The three people I liked the best were Rand Paul,  Ben Carson, and John Kasich, the Governor of Ohio. Maybe I should say The three people who I started out liking best because each of them would start out saying something that make sense and then they would wander off into fantasyland. Like Rand Paul saying For every Kentuckian that has enrolled in Obamacare, 40 have been dropped from their coverage, or, from Ben Carson, A lot of people who go into prison straight, and when they come out they’re gay, or my fave from Rand Paul, again, saying The president is advocating a drone strike program in America. 

The three people I liked worst were Jeb! Bush who wants to put Margaret Thatcher on the ten dollar bill – WTF? – Mike Huckabee who wants to make the USA a theocracy, and Ted Cruz who wants to shut the government down.

It is a sobering thought that one of these guys will end up actually running for President.