Lawrence of Arabia

I must have been 6 or 7 so years old — I don’t really know for sure — when my parents brought me to a drive-in theater where this film was playing.  I believe it was a double-feature, playing as the second feature to one of Dean Martin’s silly Matt Helm films. (you may have caught one or two on television — films like “The Silencers”, or “Murderer’s Row” that were the kind of silly parodies of James Bond that were popular around that time.  My parents had thought (or maybe hoped) that I was asleep, when Maurice Jarre’s booming overture started, and then proceeded into that majestic theme.  My guess is that those drums just woke me up.  I was rapt from the very start.

Ever since that moment, David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” has held a very important place in my heart.  For a long time, I became obsessed with it, in ways that maybe Star Wars fans of later generations might understand. “Lawrence of Arabia”  was the very first tape I got, when I moved into an apartment and bought my first VHS tape player.

The cinematography arguably produced some of the most gorgeous and sometimes iconic scenes ever filmed.  It’s influence on the filmmaking of later directors, such as Stephen Spielberg, George Lucas, and others, cannot be underestimated.  I dare anyone to watch “Lawrence of Arabia”, and then “Star Wars: A New Hope”, and not see that influence.

The story is mostly a true one, and is based on both historical fact, and the memoirs of Major T.E. Lawrence, a British soldier during WWI — granted, Lawrence was prone to exaggeration and romanticism, and some of the characters in the film are actually constructions based on multiple real-life people.  But the historical events depicted are considered by historians to be relatively accurate.

The film starts with Lawrence’s death in a motorcycle accident only two years after leaving military service.  We see people being interviewed about him after his funeral, with people who didn’t know him talking about him like he was a saint, a superhero who did no wrong.  And then you hear an opposing viewpoint, and you realize that this is going to be a nuanced view of a far more complicated person.  That idea of the deeply flawed hero has affected my taste in writing and movies to this day.

This was the film that put both Peter O’Toole, and Omar Shariff on the map.  Both of them, but O’Toole in particular, have tremendous performances.  O’Toole plays Lawrence himself, an odd, minor member of General Murray’s staff  the General perceives him as being disrespectful, but Lawrence says that ‘it’s his manner’, that he really isn’t.  It seems that when the Arab Bureau (represented by the perceptive, but enigmatic, Mr. Dryden, played quite suavely by Claude Rains) needs someone to meet with Prince Feisal to ‘appreciate’ the state of the Arab rebellion, that Murray is almost thrilled to get rid of him.  Omar Shariff plays Sherif Ali, an underling to Prince Feisel, who at first resents Lawrence and the British in general, but Lawrence eventually earns a kind of respect from him. Sherif Ali is a kind of foil to Lawrence’s ‘loyal British officer’, who has to keep reminding him that there is more at stake than just British interests.

All of these people are just great in their roles, even Alec Guinness, who is on the screen for only a few minutes in the whole movie (near the beginning, and near the end) as Prince Feisal, is superb.  But for me, my absolute favorite performance is that of Anthony Quinn as Auda Abu Tayi.  Auda is the leader (shaikh) of the Howeitat, a Bedouin tribe, who Lawrence needs to recruit to help him capture Aqaba.

T.E. Lawrence: My friends, we have been foolish. Auda will not come to Aqaba. Not for money…

Auda abu Tayi: No.

T.E. Lawrence: …for Feisal…

Auda abu Tayi: No!

T.E. Lawrence: …nor to drive away the Turks. He will come… because it is his pleasure.

[pause]

Auda abu Tayi: Thy mother mated with a scorpion.

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A film like “Lawrence of Arabia” could never get made today.  For one thing, it is too long, clocking in at 222 minutes for it’s original theatrical release.  It really does not feel that long, but the intermission does help a lot.  Furthermore, a lot of history has happened between 1962, when it first premiered, and today.  Certain generalizations and prejudices, that certainly existed to some extent back then, have become rampant. The film is very smart about how it presents the competing interests of the British and the Arab rebellion, and how the Arab Bureau exploited that rebellion for its own purposes and to an extent, betrayed their ‘allies’.  It’s a pattern that appears frequently in history, whenever a colonial nation needs something from a people they see as ‘inferior’.  I think that it could be made, but it certainly would have been a far different movie.

In short, I would argue that “Lawrence of Arabia” is one of the greatest movies ever made. It’s certainly in my top 3 favorite films.  Keep an eye out for future articles where I’ll talk about other favorites of mine, and not just movies, but my favorite things in general.  It’s too bad, but really the movie suffers from seeing it on a small screen.  If you EVER have a chance to see it in a theater or on a large screen, with good speakers, and capacity crowd, THAT is how to watch it.  But, if a small screen is your only means of viewing, then this is still a film that no film lover should EVER deprive himself of.  I am not exaggerating when I say that this is one of the greatest movies ever made.

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Hail, Caesar!

I’m going to make a confession — as I’ve gotten older, I sometimes have a tendency to fall asleep in the movie theater.  What hasn’t helped is that the theater I most often frequent went through a complete renovation a ways back, making all of the seating much more comfortable.  You never ever have to deal with the old problem of people behind you kicking the seats in front of them, disturbing everyone in that row from the vibrations.  It feels like you are in a really comfortable recliner at home — you can even rest the container of popcorn on your stomach (if you are a popcorn person).  I never have to deal with feeling cramped because I have no leg room, like I’d sometimes have to.

So when I say that the very first time I went to see this film, I practically slept through more than half of the movie is not really a reflection on the movie itself, but on the comfort I was feeling and maybe a little bit of a lack of sleep.  However, I enjoyed the movie well enough that I swore I’d go back and see it again, this time without drifting off into oblivion.  And I finally got to do that earlier this evening.

“Hail, Caesar!” is a film written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.  I’ve been a fan of the Coen Brother’s work since I saw their first major film, “Blood Simple”, a thriller about jealousy and revenge.  “Raising Arizona”, another early film of theirs, is, in my opinion, one of the most hilarious comedy films ever made.

“Hail, Caesar!” is a comedy about the movie business in the 1950s.  Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, a troubleshooter for Capital Pictures.  One of his stars, Baird Whitlock (played by George Clooney) has gone missing in the middle of filming a biblical epic of the same name as the film we are watching.  The studio wants singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (played by Alden Ehrenreich) to star in their new romantic drama — slight problem though, is he can’t act.  The star of the studio’s popular aquatic musicals, DeeAnna Moran (played by Scarlett Johansson) is pregnant and everyone is afraid of the scandal she may cause for the studio by having a baby out of wedlock.  And twin gossip columnists, Thora and Thessaly Thacker are snooping around the studio looking for dirt.   It’s enough that Mannix is considering quitting to take a cushy, and relatively easy job, in the aerospace industry.

I found the movie to be quite funny and entertaining.  It includes old-fashioned dance and musical numbers like you might see in Gene Kelley films.  I also really enjoyed the scenes between Hobie, the singing cowboy, and the director of the ‘high society’ drama, Laurence Laurentz (played by Ralph Fiennes).  It reminded me totally of “My Fair Lady”.  George Clooney is also quite funny as the talented, but totally clueless movie star.  I enjoyed this film from beginning to end.  But I suspect that older people, who actually used to watch more of the kinds of films that the movie depicted being made might like it even more than I did.  Everything from the acting to the writing was excellent. I’m not saying this as a negative, just an observation — I suspect that some of the humor may be a bit subtle for the younger, Judd Apatow crowd.  It’s a smarter kind of comedy than you usually encounter today.  And I suspect that it will hold up for multiple viewings.

Yet another thumbs up review from me.  Go see it.  You should especially see it, if you were a fan of the hollywood musicals or sandal-epics of the 1950s.  It’s just a lot of fun.

Ignostic

I debated ever since I started this blog, whether or not I would delve into the thick morass of religious belief.  Almost everyone in my life has told me at one time or another that you cannot discuss religion, that it is dangerous, that it can break friendships, that it can be like a minefield.  I thought that I’d simply write my occasional article about all of my other interests, including skepticism, but somehow avoid religion in those discussions.  But, I also remember having great fun in late-night discussions in College with people of diverse beliefs and backgrounds.  So, to hell with it.  This may be the last time that I write about religion.  But my beliefs are part of who I am, and I’m not ashamed of that.

I’ve asked people about what they believe, because I’ve always been curious.  I think it’s a fine topic to discuss — I don’t attack, but I do question.  Especially when I was in college, and while I probably was subconsciously forming my own beliefs, I was fascinated in the diversity of opinions that existed.  There were things that I didn’t understand — words and concepts that kept coming up, and I was never quite satisfied with the explanations that I heard.  Because of the diverse nature of my friends and acquaintances, I found that even when I was talking about the same things, it became obvious that there was no one consistent answer.  Those questions included a very basic one “What do you think God is?”.  People SAY that they believe in God.  but if you ask two of them, especially, but not exclusively people of different religious foundations, how do you define the term “God”, you can get some very distinct, and sometimes difficult to understand answers. Sometimes those answers are not answers at all, because of their vagueness.   It troubled me that some people had a difficult time putting it into words.  How can you claim a belief and not even know what it is that you believe in?  I’m not talking about doctrine here.  I’m talking about what people actually believe.

Obviously, there’s the traditional Judaeo-Christian-Muslim belief that God is – by definition – the creator of the universe.  The problem is that it creates more  questions than it answers (it brings everything that we know to be true from direct observation and logic and science into question to the point of absurdity).  But that’s not the only definition I’ve heard.  I’ve had people tell me that  while they aren’t sure that God created the universe, they do believe in a ‘Higher Power’.  Higher Power is a term that has confused the hell out of me. It’s so vague that I once joked that “I don’t know if there’s a God.  But I may have a neighbor is smarter than anyone I know, and is great with his hands — certainly he’s a higher power.  I definitely believe my neighbor exists because I see him trimming his lawn.  Maybe he’s God.”

Then there’s non-western Gods.  When people around here talk about God, they often forget that the concept of God existed before any of the western religions.  And there wasn’t just one God, so clearly the definition of God cannot include ‘the creator of the universe’.  That certainly is one ATTRIBUTE of God that some people believe, but it CANNOT be the definition.  Hell, some Gods actually DIED in the stories that you hear.  One of my favorite stories from Norse mythology was of how Loki tricked Hodur into killing his own brother, Baldur, with a spear made out of mistletoe.  Heck, the whole legend of Ragnarok says that all of the Gods are mortal.  So there goes immortality as a requirement for Godhood.

Now, my point isn’t that belief in God is somehow ridiculous, no matter which God you believe in.  My point is that there have been in the history of the world, numerous beliefs.  And that is a problem to me. When someone asks me if I believe in God, what they are ACTUALLY asking me is not whether I believe in God, but if I believe in the same God as they do.  And in the history of my hearing that question, the answer has always been “No”.  There are things that I KNOW to be true, through my education in science and my experience as a human being that tell me that, for example, the concept of omniscience violates everything we know about quantum mechanics.  If you believe in an Omniscient God, you have to throw everything you know about the Uncertainty Principle into the trash and start again from scratch.  If you believe in an Omnipotent God, you have to pretty much trash ALL physical laws, everything from Newton to General Relativity to the conservation of matter and energy, and start from a belief in magic.  Science, among other things, gives you the boundaries of what is and is not possible, and if there is even one entity that can violate all of those boundaries, then those are not boundaries at all.  And as to the proposal that my neighbor is God, well I obviously was being facetious.  But I’d still sooner believe in that than I would accept that all of science is for nought, because I know for a fact that science works, that it results in reproducible phenomenon that obey regular rules of behavior.  Science gives us an orderly universe.  Once you claim that all laws are violable, then there are no real laws.  I simply cannot accept the kind of chaotic universe without rules that a Judaeo-Christian deity would require.

Does that mean that I am an atheist?  For a very long time, I wasn’t exactly sure what I was.  Sometimes I’d say I was agnostic,  sometimes an atheist.   I used to joke that “If it’s Thursday, then I’m an Atheist”.  And then, I discovered a word that totally encompassed my struggle with the concept of belief.  And that word is the title of this article:  Ignostic.  I had never heard that word before in my life.  Ignosticism basically says that you cannot answer the question of belief until you have a definition of God that is unambiguous.    And there is nothing more ambiguous, in my mind, when talking about UNIVERSAL truths, than a definition that varies based on what culture you are in.

When it comes to any particular God, my belief varies from Agnosticism to Atheism.  But one day, I know that someone is going to come along and say that their neighbor is God.  And he will introduce me to his neighbor.  And I’ll ask him “How do you know he’s God’, and he’ll tell me.  And I’ll probably say that that’s the dumbest definition of God I’ve ever heard.  And then I’ll think… But that guy certainly does exist.  And while it may not fit my definition of God (because I don’t have one, really), it certainly fits that guy’s definition.  So yeah, I guess I can buy it on the principle that given a  million impossible things, and one improbably thing, that I’m more willing to accept the improbable over the impossible.

Skeptic: Viewing the World with a Rational Eye by Michael Shermer

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Michael Shermer’s newest book is a collection of 75 of his earliest skeptical essays from Scientific American. Some of the articles include additional comments due to new information. In some cases, the original articles had to be trimmed for length to meet SA’s requirements, so extra material may be included in these versions.

I first discovered Michael Shermer when I found one of his books, Why People Believe Weird Things in a big pile of science fiction books at a science fiction convention (this is actually less strange than it sounds — many people who read science fiction also tend to be deeply interested in science, and consequently, skepticism). I simply devoured that book. I also strongly recommend Why Darwin Matters

As a casual reader of “Scientific American”, I was well aware of his column in that magazine — quite often, I would jump directly to it after receiving each new issue. The articles are always intelligent, and concise, mostly entertaining, and they tackle interesting topics, sometimes in ways that I had not anticipated. This collection includes articles covering a diverse set of topics, including human nature and psychology, intelligent design, medical quackery, religion, the parapsychology, and so on.

One of my favorite articles — one that really stood out because of how it related to a recent on-line conversation I had, was actually about probability and the Law of Large numbers. When people talk about miracles, they usually refer to things happening that are not impossible, just extremely unlikely. What Mr. Shermer does is that he uses the Law of Large Numbers to explain that such events aren’t actually unlikely at all, but are, in fact, inevitable.

For example, a common story (and actually, a friend told me of his own similar experience) is that a person has a dream about someone, and the next day, they receive a phone call telling them that the person has died. On the surface, this seems to be most improbable.

“…suppose you know of ten people a year who die, and that you think about each of those people once a year. One year contains 105,120 five-minute intervals during which you might think about each of the ten people, a probability of 1 out of 10,512, certainly an improbable event. However, there are 321 million Americans (in 2015). Assuming, for the sake of our calculation, that they think like you, 1/10,512 x 321,000,000 = 30,537 people per year, or 84 people per day for whom this improbable premonition becomes probable.”

The book is very fast reading, largely because of the brief and concise nature of each article, and because Michael Shermer can present his ideas (and those of others) in very entertaining ways. The articles are divided up into chapters, entitled “Science”, “Skepticism”, “Pseudoscience and Quackery”, “The Paranormal and the Supernatural”, “Aliens and UFOs”, “Borderlands Science and Alternative Medicine”, “Psychology and the Brain”, “Human Nature”, “Evolution and Creationism”, and “Science, Religion, Miracles, and God”. Overall, there’s something for almost everyone interested in science, skepticism and why we often stray away from logic and sensibility in our beliefs. I highly recommend it, and I look forward to future collections of his SA articles.

Deadpool

I have a confession — I’m a nerd, and I love comic book movies.  I’m neither a Marvel, nor DC fanboy, and I don’t like EVERY comic book movie (Green Lantern wasn’t very good, nor was Thor: The Dark World to name 2).  But for the most part, I know that I can go to the theater and just have a good time.

Well, I’m happy to say that Deadpool is one of the good ones.  It’s R-rated “for strong violence and language throughout, sexual content and graphic nudity”, and it certainly earns its rating — so this is probably not a film that you will want to bring your children to.

First of all Deadpool is very funny — not every joke worked for me, but enough of them did that I laughed a lot.  In some ways, it was a typical superhero origin story, but Deadpool (aka Wade Wilson) is not a typical superhero — he’d claim that he’s not a hero at all.  He’s an assassin, a hired killer, and he finds humor in others suffering (well, the bad guys at least), and he kills a whole lot of people in the film, joking and wisecracking through much of the over-the-top violence.  And he frequently addresses the audience directly (‘breaking the 4th wall’).  A lot of the humor is also directed at movies, and actors (even Ryan Reynolds, himself, who plays Deadpool).  The movie actually references Green Lantern (who also was played by Reynolds), Wolverine: Origins (which introduced a  Deadpool, also played by Reynolds, who had his mouth sewn shut).  And there are frequent jabs at Wolverine and Professor X and the X-men in general.  In fact two X-Men make an appearance in this film: Stefan Kapicic as Colossus, and Brianna Hildebrand as “Negasonic Teenage Warhead” (whoever made up that name either deserves to be fired, or promoted — and I have yet to make up my mind about that).  There’s a running joke through the movie that  Colossus keeps criticising Wade/Deadpool about his foul language, and keeps trying to convince Deadpool to be a hero, and maybe join the X-Men, but Dead keeps insisting that that’s not him.

The Morena Baccarin plays Vanessa, Wade Wilson’s love interest in the film, and the love story between them is quite believable.  When they find out that Wade has late-stage cancer and not a lot of time to live, both of them are crushed by the news.  Wade gets an offer from a stranger, telling him that he represents an organization that can cure him, but not only that, turn him into a superhero, and as he’s running out of choices, he reluctantly accepts that offer.

Ryan Reynolds fought to get this role, and fought to get this movie made, and his dedication, and he’s perfect for the role.  I also really liked Morena Baccarin (who I’ve been a fan of ever since I saw her in the TV series Firefly).   I always love seeing her on the small and big screen, no matter what the role.  I will say that, as in a lot of Marvel films, the villains were the weakest link.  But that’s Marvel’s style, and Ed Skrein (as Ajax), and Gena Carano (as Angel Dust) were adequate, but not particularly interesting.  I will say that the fight scenes involving those two with Deadpool, Colossus, and Negasonic Teenage Warhead were kinda fun (I particularly liked the last two and how they interacted with Deadpool).

And in case you are curious, yes, Stan Lee does make his obligatory cameo in the film, and there is a short after-credit scene.  I won’t say more than that.  My final verdict is — if you are old enough, go and see it.  There’s nothing deep here, no complex plot, no life lessons taught, no inspiration or deep thoughts will be inspired by the story.  It’s simply a good time at the movies, and nothing more.  But that’s good enough for me.

 

The Benefits of Skepticism

Do you trust people?  How well do you trust them?  I ask this because, really, I’ve come to the conclusion that you can’t make it through life without giving people your trust.  But the question is, who do you trust, and for what?

I’ll give you an example of a time when I was younger, maybe 23 or so, when I was a bit more trusting.  I was on vacation in Acapulco, and during a long hike to an outdoor market, I met this attractive young German woman, maybe also in her 20s, or early 30s.  We spent some time walking and shopping together, and at some point she mentioned to me that she had been unable to cash a check at her hotel, and asked me if I could cash a check for her.  As I said, I was trusting and we had spent sometime together, and I enjoyed her company, so I cashed a check for her for $100.00.  I didn’t even take the time to look at the check after she gave it to me.  Then she asked me what I was doing on Monday, so I told her that I was planning to visit Taxco (a really pretty silver-mining town  up in the mountains).  I told her how much it cost, and she said ‘why don’t I join you then’, and I said sure!, of course!.  This was someone I wanted to spend more time with, so why not?  We were getting along so well, I thought.

The next day, she didn’t show.  As the time for my departure neared, I decided I’d try to call her at her hotel, but she was not listed as a guest there.  So I immediately thought I had gotten the hotel name wrong.  I found one that had a similar name, but she wasn’t there either.  So I went alone, feeling depressed.  Still overly optimistic, I tried to deposit that $100.00 check, and of course it bounced.

I’ve thought about that incident quite often now.  I realized that I had been conned.  I was so gullible that I hadn’t even looked at the check, which had some other woman’s name on it, a “Mr. and Mrs.” from a Midwestern state.  I’m not a stupid person, but I really felt stupid.  I came to the understanding that I didn’t make a mistake because I was stupid, but because I was too trusting.  This was someone that I had known for no more than an hour and already I’m trusting her with my money.  She seemed trustworthy, she was nice, she seemed to like me, we were having a good time, and I realize that that’s how con people  work.  They gain your confidence, and they are very good at it.

It’s how a person like Bernie Madoff was able to convince people that he actually could make them a lot of money.  He mostly victimized fellow Jews because there’s this psychological affect that says that people tend to empathize more with those who they see similar qualities in.  Those qualities can include religion, but also nationality, race, politics, and so on.  Most of us simply WANT to trust other people.  And USUALLY that’s a good thing.  But it’s also a way that people can take advantage of us, telling us things we want to believe.  Madoff was everyone’s best friend, and he was so good at gaining people’s confidence that his victims were introducing their own friends to Madoff.

My point is not that you should never be trusting.  My point  is that maybe you should use a bit of skepticism.  Maybe I could have saved $100 that afternoon.  I might have said that “I don’t feel comfortable giving you money, having just met you” — that would have been the smart thing to do.  And those people who Bernie Madoff tried to take advantage of, if they had been more skeptical, maybe they would have been more skeptical of the unbelievable earnings that the guy was claiming for his clients.

Now, it’s not just con men who may tell you things that just aren’t true — very often people actually believe the untruths that they tell you.  My own mom used to tell me that if I didn’t dress properly before I went out, that I’d catch a cold.  She really believed that. But it actually isn’t true.  Colds are caused by a virus, which means that if you catch a cold, it’s probably more likely that it happened when you were indoors with someone else who carried the virus.  Maybe that person sneezed on you, or on your food, or wiped their nose with their hands, and then handled the food that you ate.  And thus, you caught a cold.  Most people with a child in public school will tell you about how the kids keep sharing their colds and flus and passing it on to their families and so on in a vicious cycle.  How do we know this?  We know  because we have science to thank for that knowledge.

The importance of understanding how disease is transmitted is essential to our well-being.  We learn to cover our noses and mouths when we sneeze or cough, because we don’t want to spread whatever it is that we have.  It’s a social obligation — don’t make your friends and family, and even strangers sick, if we can avoid it.  But the fact that our own mothers told us things that aren’t true (falsehoods that we took for fact, and possibly spread to others, like a disease would spread), how many other things that we hear are actually true?  And isn’t it important in many cases that we actually understand how the world REALLY works?  In the case of colds, it directly has an effect on the quality of life of us and our neighbors — you don’t want people sneezing on you, we want our cooks and waiters to wash their hands before serving you.  But similarly, we want don’t want to be afraid of ghosts, if ghosts don’t exist, or foods, if those foods are actually safe.    There’s enough real stuff out there that we really should be avoiding, that worrying too much about fake stuff costs our attention to.

Back in 1983, there was a newspaper article published in Durand, Michigan.  It included the following:

Dihydrogen monoxide:

  • is also known as hydroxyl acid, and is the major component of acid rain.
  • contributes to the “greenhouse effect”.
  • may cause severe burns.
  • contributes to the erosion of our natural landscape.
  • accelerates corrosion and rusting of many metals.
  • may cause electrical failures and decreased effectiveness of automobile brakes.
  • has been found in excised tumors of terminal cancer patients.

Despite the danger, dihydrogen monoxide is often used:

  • as an industrial solvent and coolant.
  • in nuclear power plants.
  • in the production of styrofoam.
  • as a fire retardant.
  • in many forms of cruel animal research.
  • in the distribution of pesticides. Even after washing, produce remains contaminated by this chemical.
  • as an additive in certain “junk-foods” and other food products.

This was on April 1st, April Fools Day, and was meant as a joke.  In fact, it was published in the April Fools Day edition of the newspaper, and never intended to be taken seriously. If you haven’t figured it out yet, Dihydrogen monoxide  (aka DHMO, or Hydric Acid) is H2O — in other words, water.

Since the initial joke, though, there are people who keep falling for this.  Politicians have agreed publically to support the banning of DHMO.  After hearing that there is DHMO coming out of their faucets, people have complained to their water companies, who simply insist that their is no danger.  49% of candidates for a Finnish Parliamentary election said they would support restrictions on the use of Hydric Acid.  In California, there was a proposed ban on the manufacture certain foam containers when it was revealed that DHMO was an intrinsic part of the manufacturing process.

So what makes people fall for things like this?  It’s fear — fear of anything that sounds too technical (when I told friends about the DHMO hoax, one young woman, very seriously asked me ‘why are you calling it DHMO’, and thought I was somehow at fault for making it sound scary.  But no, that scariness is in people’s minds.  I did not make it scary. Everything in the above quote about the dangers of water is true.  But we don’t ask the right questions.  That DHMO is responsible for many deaths every year is true (it causes car accidents and drowning).  But how does that translate into being afraid of it in our junk  foods or coming out of our taps?  It shouldn’t.  We don’t ask the right questions.

Knowing that we are talking about water makes it easy because we are all familiar with water in our every day lives. But we don’t ask the questions about all of the many other things that people want to avoid or get rid of.  Some stuff IS deadly  (you don’t want to drink bleach, and some places, bleach is being sold as a cure).  But there’s a lot of stuff that we eat every day that doesn’t actually kill us, that people call poisons.  Wouldn’t it be better if, before we panic about that stuff, that we ask the right questions about it?  And shouldn’t we want to know what the scientific consensus is (if there is one)?  Shouldn’t we figure out, BEFORE we do something stupid and ban water, just how dangerous something is, and put that in the proper perspective to every other thing that we eat every day and does not kill us?

It all comes down to trust.  Don’t trust what your mom told you, because she might be mistaken.  Don’t trust what Dr. Oz or Oprah says, because both of them have a very poor record of spreading untruths and recommending products that simply don’t work.  Trust, but verify what your doctor tells you — he’s just one doctor, and he can be mistaken, or he can be receiving money from a pharmaceutical company, so verify that what he’s telling you is not a mistaken or outdated idea that he believes in out of habit.  And doctors are NOT scientists.  What you want to see is an actual consensus of scientists — particularly independent scientists.

It’s vital to know what is and is not true in this world.  It may or may not save your life. But it certainly can save you from a lot of stress.

XCom 2 — An Introduction and Early Review

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I have been a huge fan of Firaxis since they released the computer game, “Alpha Centauri”.  It was one of my favorite computer games of all time.  If you like turn-based strategy and/or 4X games, you can still purchase it on-line, along with its unnecessary, but still interesting  at gog.com.

I also was very impressed with their reboot of the Microprose X-Com series, with their XCom: Enemy Unknown and the excellent expansion to it, XCom: Enemy Within.  I enjoyed the X-Com series in its day.  I have to admit that I did not play the whole series, but stopped with X-Com: Terror from the Deep.  X-Com presented a unique combination of global strategy and turn-based squad-level tactics in a science fiction universe.  I can’t think of any other game that did it better — up until the reboot.

Now I know I may be considered a blasphemer by many of my fellow X-Com veterans.  But I’m a big fan of elegant design — maybe it’s my background as a computer programmer, but I always feel that the best games are ones where complex strategies or tactics arise from simple rules.  As much as X-Com was a great tactical game, with decent strategic elements, it was quite a bit ‘fiddly’.  Certainly, the fact that you had to account for every bullet, that anyone could pick up anything dropped by anyone, if they had room in their inventory was more realistic than XCom’s fixed inventory slots.  But given a choice between playability and realism, I usually go for the latter.  I’m not going to dispute that X-Com has a more realistic feel to it and gives you more options.  But I LOVE streamlined gameplay, as it peels back the levels of fiddliness to get to the essence of the game — the raw tactics.  I totally understand people who disagree with me — I’m not saying that I’m right or wrong, only that it’s my personal preference.

But there was more.  I didn’t care for the strategic level of the X-Com games, for the most part.   In particular, I disliked the mechanics of shooting down UFOs.  I’m a turn-based gamer at heart, and those mechanics went against my grain (plus, against my total incompetence at anything requiring hand-eye coordination).  It is part of the reason that I never completed the early games.  I’ve had an issue since grade school with the muscles in my eyes,  which means that my eyes do not easily track objects moving on a screen. They just do not focus quickly enough for many video games.  I loved the fact that the aerial combat in the rebooted games were more of simply pressing buttons to utilize one of a variety of combat boosts.

Well, my wait for a new XCom game ended Thursday at midnight.  XCom 2, a game for PC-only, so far seems like a worthy sequel to XCom: EU / EW.  The premise is simple: all of the events of the previous games actually happened in this game world… except that XCom failed, and the aliens have conquered the earth.  You are (essentially) resurrected by the remnants of XCom team 20 years after the war was lost.  There is a fragmented resistance, spread around the globe, and you are tasked, with the help of whats left of XCom, to unite the various underground cells, and fight a guerilla war against the aliens.

But you are not completely helpless.  You now command the “Avenger”, a huge alien ship that was captured during the war.  It is so big, that you’ll need to excavate areas in order to repurpose them towards being labs, workshops, communications relays, training, and so on.  To aid you, you have science and engineering teams, led respectively by Tygan and Shen but a real sparsity of an actual engineering or science staff, so you’ll have to somehow recruit more.  You have Central Officer Bradford as your main strategic coordinator.  And that faceless, nameless, deep voiced U.N. representative will let you know pretty early on, that he’s the only surviving U.N. supporter of XCom left that has not sided with “Advent” (ie. the aliens).  Like in the previous games, he appears now and again to offer missions.

There are other significant differences between XCom and XCom 2.  In XCom 2, your strategic choices do not stop with deciding what to build, and what to research.  It quickly becomes apparent that you have SO MANY different choices to make that it becomes hard to decide which should take precedence, because almost everything you decide to do uses up time, and time is your most precious commodity in this game.  Not every decision requires you to send a team into combat.  Sometimes you merely must move the “Avenger” to a different location around the globe and do research towards setting up communications with an underground cell, or gaining intel, or waiting for a supply drop.

The nature of your missions has also changed.  Many of your fights will start with your team hidden, and you’ll be able to set up ambushes against the alien forces.  You may be tasked with destroying or stealing an alien object, or kidnapping or assassinating a VIP, or rescuing someone who’s been captured.  Sometimes when you kill an enemy, he will drop something useful — maybe intel, maybe a weapon mod, maybe a useful resource, and maybe even several different things.  Your soldiers will automatically pick up anything dropped, if they are near enough to the body.

And the soldier classes available to you have changed.  The main classes that you can play with at the start include:

  • The Ranger: A close-combat specialist, similar in some ways to the Assault class from the previous games, who carries a sword and a gun.  With his powerful sword, the Ranger can attack ANYONE he can move into range of, even while dashing.  And his chances of hitting in melee combat is almost certain.  Skills that they can obtain tend to either help maintain and/or reinstate stealth, or can improve their close-combat skills.
  • The Sharpshooter: This is XCom 2’s version of a sniper.  Like the Sniper, he excels at hitting targets at a distance, even those that he cannot see directly (teamsight is the default starting skill for all Sharpshooters, and allows him to hit any target, no matter how far away, that he has line of sight to, so long as a teammate can see him.).  But Sharpshooters also can obtain some really excellent pistol skills.
  • The Grenadier: Grenadiers are, at first glance, similar to XCom’s Heavy class.  By default, they can carry, in addition to their powerful minigun, a grenade launcher and 2 grenades (by default, other soldiers are limited to 1).  Their grenade launcher will allow them to lob the grenade of choice much further than usual.  Also, they are experts at demolitions, allowing them to remove obstacles, to either clear a path, or ruin an enemy’s cover.
  • Specialist: Specialists combine the skills of XCom’s Support class, with something completely new.  Specialists all have a little flying robot that they command, and can be used to hack into computers, or to aid their allies to increase their defenses.  Depending on skill choices, the gremlins can also be used to attack enemies, to heal allies, and maybe even take control of alien automated units.  Although their hacking skills are a bit risky (at least at first), the benefits of successful hacks can include restoring stealth to themselves and/or allies, or to give a variety of different combat bonuses.  Unfortunately, unsuccessful hacking attempts can result in bad things happening.

One other class has been revealed, but is not available by default (you’ll have to do some research and training to gain them), and that is the Psi Operative.  In the first game, you could train any soldier that showed psi talent (after lengthy testing) to gain Psionic skills in addition to their normal class skills.  Apparently, that has been changed.

Note that it’s also possible to enable soldiers to gain skills outside of their class, but to do so requires special actions that I have not unlocked yet.  HOWEVER, something that I did experience is one of my soldiers being revealed to be low-willed, and thus, especially susceptible to panic.  If you’ve played the first game, you’ll know that panic is often bad in a soldier.  And it can be contagious.  You will not be able to control a panicking soldier — his actions can vary between running away, or hunkering down, or shooting wildly at enemies.  However, such panic is temporary.

Note also that there have been numerous changes to enemy units as well.  Thin Men have been replaced with Serpents, snake-like enemies who can grab your soldiers (even at a distance, dragging them away), and strangle them.  Sectoids have been upgraded, and now have a wider variety of psionic attacks.  There are also Advent soldiers — grunts and captains.  The basic soldier is a weak, easily killed grunt — basically an altered human who works for the aliens.  The captains are a bit harder to kill, and are capable of marking your soldiers, so that he and his allies will gain combat bonuses against them.  There’s lots more, but I’m treating those as spoilers (plus I haven’t gotten far enough into the game that I could tell you much anyway).

I know that some veteran players will disagree, but I feel that the game has gotten a lot harder.  The AI is certainly decent, and will do its best to flank you, or to do area attacks to hit multiple soldiers, whenever possible.  The shear number of strategic choices can be overwhelming at times.  There are a number of ‘doomsday counters’ that are associated with revealed alien plots, that if completed, can result in a really bad day.  All of this leads to a much more intense experience, to frequent second-guessing as to whether or not you made a good strategic choice (because you will never have enough time or resources to do everything that you wish you could).  That was one weakness, I felt, of Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within — the strategic choices were there, but I didn’t feel like my time was running out, as much as I now do with XCom 2.

With the little that I’ve played of the game, I can’t in all good conscience, give a full review.  That said, from what I’ve seen, if you liked the previous games, you’ll LOVE the new one.  I cannot comment on how the game progresses later on.  I don’t play computer games as ravenously as younger people do — I can’t sit up all night in front of my computer playing games.  I tend to play in smaller bursts.  So it may be a while until I finish my first run-through.  But preliminarily, I will say that I can recommend the game for anyone who likes turn-based tactical combat, or who liked the previous games.

Splendor

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“Splendor” is a board game for 2 to 4 players, designed by Marc André, published by Asmodee.  The digital versions are published by Days of Wonder — versions are available for PC (on Steam), iOS, and Android.  I am going to talk about the physical and PC versions.  Unless I specify, you can assume that everything I say in this post refers to both versions.

The general ‘theme’ of Splendor is that the players each represent wealthy Renaissance-era merchants, acquiring Gems, in order to purchase mines, ships, and the backing of nobles.  In practice, though, except for the beautiful artwork on the cards, the theme is pretty thin.  If you are looking for a strongly thematic game, this may not satisfy you.

The goal of the game is to collect victory points — once any player reaches 15 points, you are in the last round — the game will continue until every player has had the same number of turns.  At that point, the player with the highest score, wins.

The game consists of 6 piles of different-colored poker chips, each representing either Diamonds, Rubies, Onyx, Emeralds, Amethysts, and Gold, 3 decks of development cards, divided by general quality, and 10 noble tiles.  On a turn, you can do one, and only one of the following:

  1. You may collect up to 3 (non-gold) gems, none of which are the same color.
  2. You may collect 2 (non-gold) gems of the same color, so long as there are at least 4 gems of that color available.
  3. You may reserve any development card on display OR the top hidden card of one of the three undealt development card decks.  If you reserve a card, you collect a gold token.  Gold tokens are just like other gems, except they are wild, and can be used in place of any other color gem.  You can have up to 3 development cards reserved.
  4. You may purchase any one development card on display or that you personally have reserved.

Note also that you can never have more than 10 tokens (including gold), so if you go over 10, you will be forced to discard the excess.

Development cards have 3 relevant stats — purchase cost, point value (which if not shown, is zero), and bonus value.  The bonus value is the displayed gem on the top-right-hand corner of the card, and this bonus is cumulative, and can never be lost.  It is used to reduce the purchase cost of all future development cards.  So while the top-tier cards may seem really out of reach as far as their purchase cost is concerned, as the game progresses, they will become more readily affordable.

And there’s just one more thing — there’s a random selection of nobles who can join your faction once your accumulated bonus matches or exceeds the required bonus printed on his tile.  No more than one noble can join your side on a given turn.  However, if two nobles qualify to join you on a turn, and the second one is still available on the following turn, you’ll get that one as well.  Since every noble is worth 3 victory points, you should definitely take them into consideration when plotting your moves.

The PC version is very faithful to the board game.  BUT it does not support on-line multiplayer.  You can play hot-seat games, or you can play against the AI.  Hopefully, on-line play will be added sometime in the future, but it’s not available now.  One thing that the PC version DOES add are challenges.  Challenges are very fast-paced, often timed puzzles where you are given a goal and a deck with a fixed order, and must achieve that goal within the specific time period or turn limit.  And I will say that I found most of them to be VERY challenging (and not only because I’m not a fast thinker).

The game itself, whether you are talking about the board or computer game, is very easy to learn, and plays relatively fast (once everyone is used to the rules).  While there is certainly luck involved in the game, you’ll find that there are a lot of meaningful choices that can make the difference between victory and defeat.  Do you buy the cheap cards that aren’t worth points, to build up your bonus, or do you collect gems towards more expensive cards that give you points up front?  Do you aim for the bonuses that are most desirable on the noble cards, or the ones that are rarest or that you need the most for future purchases?  Do you reserve a card to prevent another player from taking it, or do you risk leaving it out there, to collect even more gems, so that you can purchase it outright?

Splendor is an INCREDIBLY elegant game.  What I mean by this is that the rules are deceptively simple, but it still has as somewhat rich complexity that arises out of that simplicity.  It’s a very clever design, and the game is addictive as hell.  It lacks the depth and thematic atmosphere of many other games, and it is very light.  But I still enjoy it.

If you have friends to play with, get the board game.  If you don’t mind playing against the AI, and don’t mind about hotseat being the only multiplayer mode, or if you like the idea of the challenges, then certainly consider the PC (or mobile) versions.  I have not tried the mobile versions but I understand that they are pretty much the same as the PC version.  If you are still uncertain, check out any Youtube Video for the game in the version of your choice.  But I give it a definite thumbs-up.

Spotlight

For many years, it was a badly kept secret that there had been numerous incidents of child abuse by Catholic priests. When the Boston Globe, in 2001, decided to write a story about it, that was nothing new. What WAS new, was the revelation of the extent of the problem, that the abuse was systemic, and that the church had been covering it up for many years. The movie “Spotlight” tells the story of the Boston Globe’s investigation of the abuse, and how they managed to discover just how bad the problem was.

The title of the film refers to a small team of investigative reporters at the globe who would pick and choose stories of interest to them, and spend, sometimes as much as 2 years, digging into a specific story. The team was ably played by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian D’Arcy James. Also of note, in a fairly low-key role, was Liev Schreiber, as the new editor of the Globe, and John Slattery as the editor in charge of the Spotlight team.

Truth in advertising… while I really liked this movie, during the film there was this older gentleman sitting in my row to my right that kept laughing inappropriately during this quite serious movie. Normally, I enjoy watching movies with a crowd — I’ve found that seeing a movie at a theater — any movie, not just a blockbuster — can be the best way to experience a movie. But this inappropriate laughter, sometimes at people telling stories of abuse just drove me up the wall.  The problem is that a review has to reflect ones experience watching a film, and in my case, that experience was not what it might have been had that couple not been in the same theater as me.  You may say that I should try to be objective.  But really, there’s nothing objective about a movie review.

Enough about that. The acting, writing, and directing was all very good. But having seen other films this year that were much better overall, I don’t quite understand why this is considered one of the best movies of the year. It was good, and I definitely recommend it, and the story is fascinating. I just don’t get the hype. Maybe if my experience at the theater were better, and I was able to focus on the film better, instead of the disturbances to the right of me, I might understand it. I do not know. But go see it before it’s out of theaters (it won’t be there much longer). It’s a story that everyone should know about so that things like this can never happen again.

What is Skepticism to Me?

In a recent article, I told a brief story about my discovery of Carl Sagan and how I admired his use of logic and physics to uncover the falsehood behind Velikovsky’s weird ideas.  But it could have just stopped there.  We all have experiences and encounters in life, but they don’t all result in evolving a life philosophy.  And for me, there was a lot more.  I’m going to talk about a few of my experiences in a later article.

But first, I just want to make certain that I’m speaking the same language.  I find that when I use the word Skepticism (or Scepticism, if you are British), that people confuse the word with Cynicism.  I want to correct that — you can be a skeptic or a cynic, or both, or neither one.  They are not the same.  A cynic is someone who tends to believe the worst in others.  If a person approaches a cynic on the street and asks for money for bus fare, the cynic may automatically assume that the beggar actually has money, that he’s chosen begging because he is lazy, and can make a decent living just sitting begging on the street (I’m not making this up — I know a couple of people who believe this automatically).  A cynic will assume, without evidence, that a politician that he doesn’t like already, is always lying, never stating what he really believes. Even if that politician says that the sun is going to rise tomorrow, you know for a fact that it won’t.  If that politician says something, then the opposite must be true. The problem with that is that even a known liar is capable of telling the truth. The source of an assertion is not proof of its truth or falsehood. It might be evidence, but it’s not proof.

On the other hand, a skeptic will not make up his mind without evidence.  That beggar — he’s not going to assume automatically that he’s lying about needing bus fare.  It may or may not be true.  But unless he actually sees the beggar continuing to beg elsewhere after he receives the money, or he actually sees that beggar get on the bus after receiving the fare, he’s not automatically going to make either assumption.  When he hears those statements from the politician, he may say that ‘well that guy has been caught in lies before, so I’m not going to trust him.  But that doesn’t mean that he’s lying now.

In other words, a skeptic doesn’t automatically believe everything that they hear or they read.  A skeptic always wants to know more before he makes up his mind.  He knows that almost nothing can be known to a certainty, but at the very least there should be evidence. And the more unusual the claim, the more evidence there should be before a skeptic will say, “Yes, that is probably true”, or “No, that is almost certainly false”.

I’ll give you an example.  I have a weight problem, as do a lot of people.  And I do my best to avoid sugar.  I don’t mean that I’ve managed to totally remove sugar from my diet, because that would be nearly impossible, and undoubtedly unhealthy (you don’t want to cut fruit out of your diet, for example).  But I’ve been criticised because I love my flavored waters.  They taste sweet, and the labels claim that they have zero calories.  But what they do all have is artificial sweeteners.  And I was kind of gullible about this, and I TRIED to eliminate them from my diet, and stick with only drinking water.

But humans are complicated beings, and we are evolved to crave sweet things.  And the result of denial is even greater desire for that which we are denying ourselves.  And one day I just bought a bunch of sugared soft drinks.  Willpower is a resource that we all have, and it can be used up.  And mine got used up, and when it did, I was suddenly drinking even less healthily than I had before.

So what I did is I did some research, particularly the Science-Based Medicine website. That website talked about the origins of the belief that artificial sweeteners are unhealthy. And one of the things that it said was that there was NO evidence that any of the claims regarding the dangers of artificial sweeteners, in general are true.  This is coming from a medical doctor, who has reviewed the studies.  At one point, there were studies that showed that a particular sweetener, aspartame, in absurd volumes over long periods of time, had caused rats to grow tumors.  BUT (and this is a very important but), in none of the studies involving human subjects, was there ever any evidence of a link between aspartame and tumors.  So I went back to my flavored water.  And since I’ve done that, I haven’t had another incident.

But there’s more…  one thing that made me HIGHLY suspicious of the claims of the dangers of artificial sweeteners is that none of the people who told me to cut out artificial sweeteners EVER specified WHICH artificial sweetener.  It would be like someone saying that you shouldn’t eat at restaurants because restaurants spread disease.  OK… but all restaurants?  Am I going to get sick every time?  Or is it more dangerous to eat the lettuce from the supermarket (because, of course, that happens also)?  And which diseases do they spread?  One thing that being a skeptic does to you is that it creates a kind of intuition. Generalized, non-specific claims ALWAYS come from non-expert sources.  They come from some guy who heard something but didn’t quite make note of the specifics. Furthermore without knowing the original source AND the actual details, there’s NO WAY you should trust such a warning.  ‘Some guy’ may be a doctor, or a scientist.  Or he may be a self-proclaimed expert.  Heck, he may be me.  And I’m nobody — you shouldn’t trust me, nor should you trust a celebrity, or a random clickbait website, even one professing expertise on a given subject.  But knowing who to trust is something I’ll save for a future article.