Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The tracks of their tears: a closer look at the replicant faces of Blade Runner 2049

“The world is a world of tears, and the burdens of mortality touch the heart.” — Book I, line 462 of Virgil’s Aeneid, Robert Fagles translation

Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) in Blade Runner 2049
[Here there be spoilers.]

Although it has been long established that non-human animal species exhibit displays of sorrow and grief, it still appears that humans are the only primate species which is capable of shedding tears. This is sometimes held out as a marker for our humanity, the way tool-making once was and the way complex language still is.

Now, I don’t buy into the idea that there is a defining behavior that sets humans apart from other animals. But I do believe that our ability to shed tears serves as an important signal of our humanity. If the eyes are the window to the soul, then tears provide a glimpse at that soul’s capacity to recognize the pain of others.

It is telling, therefore, that the only shedding of tears in Denis Villeneuve’s beautifully crafted new film, Blade Runner 2049, is done only by its non-human characters. These include, most notably, two synthetic human slaves known as replicants: the film’s protagonist an LAPD police detective K (Ryan Gosling), the blade runner of the film’s title, whose job it is to hunt down and “retire” rogue replicants, disobedient models from a bygone era; and Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) who serves the lethal girl Friday to the film’s arch-villain Niander Waller (Jared Leto) as well as K’s relentless adversary.

Advanced AIs, namely K’s digital companion Joi, also seem to be capable of the kind of deep personal connection that finds its expression in the welling of tears. As with the AI Samantha in the 2013 movie Her, Blade Runner 2049 challenges us to confront the question: at what point does digitally simulated emotion, designed with superb artifice and textured by the complexity of experience in the world, become the real thing. K, himself, struggles with this question even as Blade Runner 2049 comes to a close.

Yet it is the tears of the replicants that tell the tale at the heart of the new Blade Runner movie.
When we are introduced to K, he is on an assignment in the ecologically devastated wasteland that envelops LA, looking to retire an older model combat replicant. We see in K the embodiment of replicant sangfroid, cool and unfazed even in the aftermath of a harrowing hand-to-hand fight to the death with his “skinjob” target.

Level-headed and ever reserved, K is a careful observer of the non-synthetic humans around him, always calculating the correct response for any situation. He abides anti-replicant slurs without a hint of offense and even deftly handles a come-on from his police superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), whom he calls Madam. Although K and Madam enjoy a kind of illicit friendship, K’s reward for all his brilliant detective work is to be praised as a “good boy,” as though he were not much more than a well-behaved pet.

The main arc of the film is K’s struggle to deal with the emerging possibility that he has been womb-born and not simply a manufactured product of the Wallace Corporation like all other replicants. In his mind, being born would mean that he has a soul. It is this lack of a soul that deprives replicants of moral standing and makes them legitimate targets in K’s ethical universe.

The telltale change that indicates K’s transformation over the course of the film is in his relationship with his own memories. When asked to recall a memory from his early life early in the film, K is dismissive of the value of the question since such a memory is only an “implant,” a fictional story with which he has been equipped as part of the manufacturing process. But, as the film progresses, and as the reality of K’s seminal memory becomes more probable, a different person emerges. And the tears that he sheds as a response are the harbinger of his transformation.

But it is Luv’s struggle with her suppressed humanity and the tears she sheds as a result that speak to a deeper theme of the movie.

At first, it would be easy to dismiss Luv as not much more than Wallace’s diligent robotic henchwoman and to view the inevitable showdown between her and K as something like the duel between the newer model T-1000 and the older model terminator in the film Terminator 2: Judgment Day. But in fact, Luv’s displays of arrogance, cunning, and wit make her the most human character in the film by far.

[I would add here that Sylvia Hoeks’s portrayal of Luv is what makes Blade Runner 2049 work as a film. It is the kind of performance that begs for a Best Supporting Actress award nomination.]

Early on in the film, we realize that Luv is somehow different when she has to stand by and witness the slaughter of a freshly manufactured replicant. Displeased with this failed replicant product, Wallace has taken a knife and gutted his creation. As Luv watches this horrible deed take place, she remains in place but sheds a tear, outward evidence of the pity and the rage that she is forced to contain within.

Luv’s trials points to what could be called the replicant’s torment: constrained by programming to obey the will of a heartless master, but never able to still an inner voice that cries out that what you are doing — or what you are seeing others do— is wrong.

This isn’t to say that Luv isn’t capable of acts of wanton cruelty — using rockets fired from an aerial drone she kills a dozen humans with casual nonchalance — but it makes sense that the anger she feels toward Wallace for making her commit unconscionable acts should find expression in her own brutality and petulant insistence of her own superiority.

Luv’s tears flow again in the film as she confronts Madam in her pursuit of K under orders from Wallace. Madam could well be Luv’s doppelganger; both have taken on the duty to maintain the order of the world by enforcing the wall that separates humans from replicants, and both unhappily endure the corrosive effects that this corrupt obligation has had on their souls, whether biological or synthetic. It is Luv’s recognition of herself in Madam that brings her to tears as she guts Madam with her knife after announcing the lie she might use to account for the killing to Wallace. It’s feels as though Luv is lying out loud to herself.

It is useful to consider a comparison of the film with the now three-deep Planet of the Apes franchise to look for broader meaning of this film. And it is not far-fetched to see Blade Runner 2049 as a sort of Dawn of the Planet of the Replicants. But this is not solely because of the insurrection against the established human order that it and its Dawn of the Planet of the Apes counterpart launch.

In both dystopian stories, humanity has pretty much run its sad moral course. The evidence is how humans fail to value the well-being of other sentient creatures: in the case of the Planet of the Apes series, it is the routine, inhumane treatment of fellow primate species; in the case of Blade Runner 2049, it is humanity’s casual disregard for the lives of their replicant slaves.

Ironically, in both stories, it is technology that both seals humanity’s fate and holds out hope for redemption of sorts. In the Planet of the Apes saga, through genetic engineering misadventure, humans end up handing dominion of the planet over to intelligent species of chimps, gorillas, and orangutans. But in the process of losing control, humans give rise to the possibility of the reemergence of compassion in the world.

In Blade Runner 2049, technology also serves as the midwife for the birth of a successor race of synthetic human-like creatures. It is this successor race of replicants, though, which ultimately can redeem human sins by rediscovering the compassion we have lost. And it is their tears that tell us that hope for this redemption is still alive.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Don't count on impeaching Trump

Amid the chorus of calls this week for impeaching President Donald J. Trump, not enough attention is being paid to words of wisdom on the matter offered by none other than former president Gerald R. Ford.

Gerald Ford is not the most quotable of presidents. He is better known for his gaffes - take for example his claim during the 1976 presidential debate with Jimmy Carter that "there is no Soviet domination of eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration” - than for his stirring oratory.

That said, Ford was a seasoned political operator, who served as the Republican house minority leader for almost nine years before being tapped to replace disgraced Spiro Agnew as vice president of the United States. In that legislative capacity, in 1970 long before Watergate was a glimmer in anyone’s eye, Ford championed the impeachment of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. It wasn’t Ford’s finest hour, to say the least.

The problem for Ford was that there wasn’t a lot of there there, as they say, when it came to identifying Douglas’s impeachable offenses. The U.S. Constitution is rather vague on the matter, saying only that civil officers may be removed for "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors." Ford, driven less by Douglas’s demonstrable crimes and more by resentment of his liberal opinions and Richard Nixon’s recent failed nominations of Clement Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell to the Supreme Court, was undeterred, proclaiming on the House floor,

“An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.”

Now, Ford’s point was that the House was not constrained by actual legal statutes in determining whether to indict a sitting president. (Impeachment is an indictment by the House on charges that are forwarded to the Senate for trial.) But what makes Ford’s observation salient now, is that it cuts both ways: the House is also not obligated to consider a violation of law as an impeachable offense, either.

This fact underscores the ultimate futility in calling for the impeachment of Donald Trump at this point in time. I’m not saying that calling for Trump’s impeachment isn’t a useful tactic. Indeed, anything that keeps this president and this administration rattled and, as a result, frustrates their attempts to move forward with their damnable legislative program is a good idea. What I am saying is let’s not confuse a political tactic for a political strategy.

The mistake that the left made in the 2016 presidential election and continues to make to this day is believing that our outrage over Trump is somehow communicable. We imagine that if we can only get Republican lawmakers and their constituents to see how dangerous the guy is that they, in the country’s best interest, will join us in removing him from office. This isn’t going to happen.

The GOP leadership was entirely unfazed by the president’s firing of James Comey this week, with Iowa Republican Senator Charles Grassley, according to the New York Times, speaking for many of his colleagues when he scoffed at the furor on the left by saying, “suck it up and move on.” In their characteristically cynical way, the Republicans in the House and Senate have their eyes squarely on a government-busting legislative agenda, and they are not going to let the opportunity to enact it be side-tracked by a lengthy and tumultuous impeachment process. If you believe that appeals to their basic integrity will save the day, then, as far as I’m concerned, you’re living in an alternate reality.

And as far as most of their constituents go, we also need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that they will somehow come around to seeing the constitutional light. These people believe in their heart of hearts that all the clamor for impeachment is nothing more than a way to deprive them and their man of the fruits of a hard-fought electoral victory. And they believe, as does their leader, that all the talk about collusion with the Russians to influence the outcome of the November 2016 election is nothing more than sour grapes writ large. There will be no changing their minds in this regard.

The good news is that impeachment of Donald Trump in 2019 is a possibility, assuming that Democrats can claim a majority in the House in November 2018. Even without a majority, significant Democratic gains will frustrate GOP legislative efforts to ramrod their contemptible programs down our throats.

But this is not going to happen as a result of trying to convince the opposition that Donald Trump is a criminal deserving of impeachment. It’s going happen if we, instead, think strategically and direct our time, money, and resources into challenging voter ID laws, defending and extending access to the polls, targeting crucial, key elections, and encouraging people who are new voters or disillusioned ones to participate in the electoral process. This is how we win.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Marching for science – and for culture – on April 22

In the last couple of months, much has been written about the upcoming March for Science to take place here in Atlanta and around the world on April 22. And a lot has been said about what makes science great. But, in my mind, not enough has yet been said about how science makes us great.
I am the executive director of the Atlanta Science Tavern, a grassroots public science forum organized on with over 6,200 members. We produce and promote science-related educational events and activities in the Atlanta area.
In the time that I have led the Science Tavern, the most prized compliment that I have received has been, “your group is one of the things that makes Atlanta a great place to live.” The reason that I like hearing this so much is that it implicitly recognizes that science, like art and music and theater, is an essential part of the cultural fabric of our wonderful city.
Now, I wouldn’t for a second downplay the amazing practical benefits that science has brought us.
  • Vaccination, a resounding public health triumph, has saved hundreds of millions of lives and fought back the timeless scourge of commonplace childhood mortality.
  • The physical sciences, with their mastery of light and matter, have given us the ability to process and communicate vast quantities of information in the blink of an eye, allowing us to form a web of human connection spanning the globe.
  • Scientific investigation of the Earth and its precious atmosphere has made it possible for us to understand the role we play in altering our environment, providing us with guidance on what to do to safeguard the well-being of future generations.
But beyond these many marvelous useful things, science has also served to ennoble us. And it has done so by helping us to cultivate a sense of wonder about ourselves and the world around us.
  • How did the universe grow from a microscopic knot in space-time fourteen billion years ago into the one we now observe, brimming with dark matter and dark energy?
  • Did life on this planet originate, perhaps as Darwin speculated, in a warm little pond, and might we discover that it has arisen elsewhere in our solar system, perhaps beneath the surface of one of the icy moons of Jupiter or Saturn?
  • How did we, around two hundred thousand years ago, come to be the clever, social primate species that we are today, one capable both of acts of heart-lifting compassion and of heart-breaking cruelty?
  • Is it possible for us to explain how the workings of the tens of billions of neurons in the human brain give rise to our inner experience and even to the phenomenon of consciousness itself?
If you think that we can reap the practical benefits of science without the drive of pure, curiosity-driven research, think again; it is the timeless draw of these profound questions that sparked the scientific revolution four hundred years ago, and they are what continues to propel scientific advances of all types to this very day.
Looking at science in this way, namely as an integral part of our culture, helps make sense of much of what we see going on on the political scene. The same forces that are trying to undercut science also have the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities in their crosshairs. Along the way, they intend to eliminate the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
Contrary to what our Philistine opponents believe, we do not live by bread alone – although some among them would deny even that to our schoolchildren. Our human spirit is nourished and elevated by painting and poetry, by music and dance, by theater and film, by philosophy and history, and, of course, by science.
This time around, though, it appears that we will not enjoy the opportunity to speak out as they come for each of us in turn; this time around, they are coming for us all in one fell swoop. So, as we march for science on Earth Day, we must also march for the arts and the humanities and for the libraries and the museums. We must march for all the strands in the glorious tapestry that we call culture. We must march for all these things that make us great.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Darwin Day thoughts on origins and the March for Science

This page from Darwin’s First Notebook on Transmutation of Species contains what I believe to be the most important scribble ever written in the history of science.

No doubt, scribbles exist elsewhere which also capture historic moments in scientific progress. I suspect they can be found in the drafts for Isaac Newton’s 1687 “Principia” announcing the the discovery of his universal law of gravitation or in the manuscript of Einstein’s 1905 "On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies" in which he reveals to the world his grasp of mass-energy equivalence or in Rosalind Franklin’s lab notebooks from the early 1950s and the very first realization of the helical structure of the DNA molecule.

But I dare say that none of these is both as profound and as accessible as Darwin’s 1837 sketch. In it, the great naturalist divines the origins of the biological world we see today as the vivid branching of a tree of life. Hidden in the subtext, if scribbles are allowed to have subtexts, is the answer to the question of human origins, as well.

There is some poignancy with which I recall Darwin’s scribble today, the 208th anniversary of his birth in 1809.

Having had a hand in the initial organization of the March for Science in Atlanta, a counterpart to the national march scheduled in Washington, DC for April 22, it was with some interest that I watched the national mission statement and a local variation unfold.

It was no mean feat to bring so many committed and engaged people together, along with their differing scientific and political agendas, to decide on a public statement intended to communicate what the march was about. Personally, and as the executive director of the Atlanta Science Tavern, I support the results of their effort; I learned long ago, and was painfully reminded in the course of our most recent national election, that holding out for perfection when it comes to selecting platforms or candidates is a prescription for disaster.

Nonetheless, I am saddened by the fact that the national mission statement, in the interest of maximizing buy-in from those not-yet persuaded of the importance of evidence-based policy making, has been drained of all specificity. There is no overt mention, for example, of climate change or vaccination in it. But what troubles me the most is that reference to Darwin’s great contribution has also been omitted.

It’s as though Darwin’s conception of the process of evolution through natural selection has become a theory that, at least in some quarters, dare not speak its name.

And the reason I find this so troubling is that the fight to teach evolution in public schools here, going on now for over one hundred years, is the prototypical battle pitting scientists and the best possible, indeed irrefutable, scientific evidence against elected officials whose political opposition stems from uninformed, indeed willfully ignorant, parochial opinion.

For me, to march without recognition of our very own origins in this long-standing struggle is unthinkable. My understanding is that such messages, although absent from, are consistent with the national mission statement. So, you can expect me to be marching with enthusiasm in Atlanta on Earth Day. I’ll be carrying a sign that says, “I’m with Charles Darwin.”

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

To punch or not to punch Nazis, here are some questions

There's a debate raging in certain segments of social media about whether it's OK to punch Nazis in the face. This debate has been inspired by the punching-in-the-face of white supremacist Richard Spencer during an interview in Washington shortly after the Trump inauguration.

Many of those who approve of Spencer's being punched in the face say that he deserved it, and that that, in and of itself, is sufficient justification. Given his support of a white nationalist agenda and complicity in endorsing "black genocide," it's easy to see how they could come to this conclusion. The man and his politics are not only despicable but also a potential public danger. Anti-punchers tend to be either stalwart defenders of free speech or people with strong non-violent or even pacifist commitments.

I'm not sure that I have much new to add to the discussion. My opinion is pretty much rooted in a conventional ethical analysis of when the use force to resolve disputes is appropriate. The pro-puncher position does, though, pose a number of questions which, I feel, need to be addressed.

First, who is it exactly who determines when advocating hateful ideas crosses the line, making the use of force justified? Is it a matter of how despicable the ideas themselves are? Or do they have to amount to a palpable threat, a so-called clear and present danger. And what proof is required before punches are thrown? A social media firestorm is a mix of facts and, as they say, alternative facts. Does this kind of evidence constitute actionable information?

[I'll note here in passing that I've participated in many political demonstrations in my life, mostly advocating unpopular causes. I've been called a commie and a traitor and worse by people passing by. There is no doubt in my mind that, as far as they were concerned, my speech had crossed the line and that my actions represented a clear and present danger to the country.]

There's also the related question as to what measure of force is to be administered. A punch in the face can result in a superficial bruise that disappears in a few days or a broken jaw that may take months to heal or even the permanent loss of vision in an eye. Punches are hard to fine tune. And why stop at a punch? Why not a whack with a baseball bat or a slash across the face with a razor blade? Does the violence employed somehow scale with the gravity of the speech crime committed? Who makes this call?

Also, what exactly is the objective of the use of force in these circumstances? Is a punch in the face meant to be little more than a rebuke for saying vile and dangerous things? Or is it intended to strike fear in the speaker and deter future speech and actions? If history is any guide, the use of force against determined foes often does not have this effect. We imagine, at times, that if we hurt our enemies sufficiently then they will grow weary of the battle. This is the rationale behind terrorism.

Finally, who is responsible if a punch in the face results in melee that spins out of control, injuring bystanders, including innocent ones? A single punch can quickly escalate into a fistfight, which, in turn, can lead to knives and other weapons being drawn as others are pulled into the fray. We are ethically accountable for the consequences of our actions that can be foreseen. How does the puncher explain to those injured or maimed in the aftermath of a punch that their suffering is justifiable? The words "collateral damage" somehow ring hollow.

As I mentioned, my own ethical analysis of the punch-in-the-face conundrum is unremarkable: except in cases of self-defense and circumstances that demand immediate action lest great harm occur, I'm comfortable with delegating the use of force to the authorities. This approach is not without its flaws, but, of one thing I'm certain, predicating the use of force on the magnitude our personal outrage is a prescription for disaster. Questions like the ones posed above have to be answered if there is to be any ethical basis for punching someone in the face.