Sunday, August 16, 2015

Rebooting the Sixties: "The Man from U.N.C.L.E."

Like ham and cheese, summer and movies just go together.

Ideally, movies heavy on entertainment and action. It's the time of year that's hot and boring. Give us dinosaurs, and Arnold, and throw in some aliens or spies. Don't preach, and spare us "based on a true story" or "inspired by true events." If we wanted that, we would stay home and watch CNN.

While this year's crop has been lean, there have been some standouts that fit the tried and true Hollywood summer formula. Like "Jurassic World," that proved dinosaurs  running amok still can generate box office $billions. And Tom Cruise was back to wow us with his stunt work in "Mission Impossible -- Rouge Nation." We haven't seen the Marvel entry, "Ant-Man," but we are huge Paul Rudd fans (ever since "200 Cigarettes") and it's definitely on the list.

One film we did see that just hit the screens is "The Man from U.N.C.L.E," based on the 60s hit TV show of the same name. Directed by Guy Ritchie (he did the recent Sherlock Holmes movies, among others), it checks just about all the summer movie boxes: Entertaining, witty, fun and lots of action. And while maybe inspired by the Cold War, pretty sure it's made-up.

Starring in the title roles are Henry Cavill as Napoleon Solo (he was Superman in "Man of Steel") and Armie Hammer as Russian agent Illya Kuryakin ("The Lone Ranger"). They are forced to team up to stop a sinister plot involving ex-Nazis and atom bombs (always a great combination for instant mayhem).

Joining them is Swedish actress and dancer Alicia Vikander, playing Gabby Teller, who we find out isn't all she seems (no spoiler alerts here). Ms. Vikander is a refreshing choice for the role. You may remember her as the captivating robot Ava in "Ex Machina," a fascinating exploration of where A.I. (artificial intelligence) could lead us.

While there are some places where the plot lags, you'll enjoy the ride, thanks to a script that offers both wit and laughs (the boat chase scene is a classic) and enough twists to keep you guessing. But the real star of the movie is how Ritchie has captured the look, feel and fashion of the Sixties. He nailed it.

It's a reboot of which I think the original TV series stars would approve. In that show, Solo was played by Robert Vaughn, and Kuryakin by David McCallum. Here's a recent interview with Vaughn on the subject. And just for fun, here's a clip of the show's opening:

Not since Ian Fleming and his creation, James Bond, launched the genre, it's doubtful movie-goers will ever tire of spy movies -- serious, fun or campy. (In fact, Fleming had a hand in creating Napoleon Solo. Check it out.)

We love our spy gadgets, femme fatales and action heroes. Hey, I'm shallow that way.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Are we alone?

"I read the news today oh boy," The Beatles asked in the song, "A Day in the Life."

In between all the usual crime and mayhem, and the Donald Trump-isms, the space beyond our world was making a lot of headlines this week.

There was NASA's successful fly-by of Pluto, giving us our first close-up look at that distant mini-planet.

Then the announcement that "Earth's cousin" had been discovered a mere 14 light years away, and the probability billions more just like it remained to be found.

And how about that ongoing juicy mystery over those lights on Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Just crater haze, or something more?

But the topper may have been this announcement, as reported on the website, "Science Recorder:"

"A Russian entrepreneur named Yuri Milner has recently announced a financial partnership with famed scientist Stephen Hawking, in an operation the two have dubbed ‘Breakthrough Listen’. This $100 Million dollar investment – according to a recent report – will produce both software and hardware designed to plumb the depths of space in search of telltale disturbances on the radio frequency potentially indicative of sentient life."

SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence) has been going on for some time. In fact, according to Wikipedia, "As early as 1896, Nikola Tesla suggested that an extreme version of his wireless electrical transmission system could be used to contact beings on Mars." All around the world, giant radio telescopes are constantly monitoring the skies, searching 24/7 through millions of frequencies for proof we aren't alone.

In fact, China is furiously working on construction of what will be the largest radio telescope in the world, 500-meters (equivalent to 30 football fields, the preferred standard of measurement in this country), which will dwarf the Arecibo dish in Puerto Rico. The bigger the better for detecting messages from space.

Some believe we have heard from our alien brothers. What Robert Gray recorded in the summer of 1977 from a radio telescope in Ohio has come to be known as the "Wow" message. A vertical sequence of six numbers and letters that Gray thinks fits the MO of a cosmic text message. So much so he wrote "Wow" beside it.

Experts agree actually having indisputable proof of intelligent life beyond our planet would trigger a seismic shift in Mankind's history. Governments, religions, our whole world order would be shaken to its very foundations.

To be sure, there are those who advise we should stop looking. As in, what if there are aliens and they don't come in peace? It brings to mind an old issue of "Mad Magazine" where the aliens gave Earth an ultimatum: "People of Earth, we acknowledge your accomplishment of Telestar, but if you keep sending us reruns of 'The Gale Storm Show,' we have no choice but obliterate your planet."

Even though we may be looking harder, the odds seemed to be stacked against us. What if there are billions of planets like ours out there, and a fair percentage of those harbor life -- maybe even civilizations thousands or millions of years advanced beyond our own. The fact is, our universe is insanely big, and that's just the part we can see. Objects in it do obey a speed limit. It just doesn't seem very likely our receivers and their transmitters will line up.

But that won't stop us from asking, just as our ancestors who gazed into the same starry blackness did, "Are we alone?"

We'll keep our listening devices pointed at the Heavens. Waiting. And wondering.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Distracting ourselves to death

Is the whole world suffering from one giant case of ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder)?

Judging by a recent slew of articles on the subject, you might say yes.

One author calls it "The Age of Distraction." Others point out, "Multitasking is killing your brain." Or even more scary headlines, like "The Internet is Rewiring Your Brain and You Don't Even Know It."

Yikes. Has it gotten that bad?

All signs say it has. As we stay glued to our electronic devices, constantly gazing downward at the glowing screens (what one person called the "smartphone prayer position"), we ignore the world around us, often to our and someone else's peril, particularly if we are operating a motor vehicle or charging down the street or a shopping aisle.

Attention spans have gone to zero as we spend more times in our virtual worlds than the real one.

Some years ago I read a fascinating book by Neil Postman called "Amusing Ourselves to Death." The late New York University professor related how American attention spans have changed. He pointed out in the 1850s, people would sit for almost eight hours to hear the Lincoln-Douglas debates; fast forward 100 years and the average attention span had dropped to 15 minutes, then five minutes. Today it can't be measured in minutes.

Each day we are presented with an "all-you-eat" buffet of information choices. Every possible niche interest or topic, regardless of how obscure, is there, along with news, pseudo news and those millions of friends on social media vying for your attention. Along with those ever-present concerns over basic human needs -- food, shelter and clothing -- we have added a new worry: Please don't unfriend me.

But is all this really a bad thing? To have all this knowledge at your fingertips? Billions of people connected instantly via social media? Each one of us like the conductor of an orchestra, creating an information and communication symphony from a desk in our pajamas. Undreamed of personal power the world has never seen before.

Yes, but like everything in this life, it comes with a price.

Going back to the article on how it's re-wiring our brains, Francis Bea writes:

"A 2009 Stanford study concluded that people who were incessantly plugged into the Internet were 'suckers for irrelevancy.' Media multi-taskers performed poorly compared to the test subjects that weren’t frequently online in three different tests that gauged their memory and monitored how they filtered out irrelevant stimuli and switched between tasks. 'The high multi-taskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can’t keep things separate in their minds,' researcher Eyal Ophir says.

Then there's this from the "Age of Distraction" author John Rennie Short:

"There is also something sadder at work. The constant messaging, e-mailing and 'cellphoning', especially in public places, may be less about communicating with the people on the other end as about signalling to those around that you are so busy or so important, so connected, that you exist in more than just the here and now, clearly a diminished state of just being. There’s greater status in being highly connected and constantly communicating. This may explain why many people speak so loudly on their cellphones in public places."

Amen, brother. If they ever allow unlimited cell phone use on airplanes, how long before we have the first passenger riot?

Okay, the doomsayers have been with us since time immemorial. Every new advancement in science or technology breeds dire warnings and hand-wringing. We well know the price of progress is pain. But as it pertains to the Internet, it's rarely been so widespread and directly rooted into the fabric of our brains. Some are even predicting in the very near future, artificial intelligence and human intelligence will merge, and at some point down the line, humans won't be needed at all.

Now there's a cheery thought.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The big problem: Consciousness

"How small is small?"

"How big is big?"

"How real is real?"

All silly questions, one could argue. Questions kids might ask.

But strangely, questions without answers. Ask our best physicists, mathematicians, philosophers and scientists. They don't know. Nobody really knows.

There are a lot of theories. A lot of speculation. Some wild guesses. But nothing we can prove.

It kind of boils down to how far down the rabbit hole you want to go.

That was the premise of the 2004 film, "What the Bleep Do We Know?" Critics skewered it as "pseudoscience." But was it wrong? Who knows?

What we do know is one of the hottest debates raging in scientific circles these days is over the nature of consciousness. What is it; where does it come from; how are consciousness and reality connected and what role does quantum physics play?

I am reminded of this quote, more or less, from the 1956 movie, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers:"

"In time the human mind will figure out everything from the atom to the universe. Everything except itself."

Pretty deep, huh? And we haven't even started down that rabbit hole yet.

While my better half hates nothing more than an unsolved mystery, I have to admit I find the whole discussion fascinating, even if I have only the barest understanding of physics, mathematics or quantum states. I was an English major, okay?

But there are plenty of very smart people trying to solve what they call "the big problem."

One of them is Dr. Robert Lanza, who has written a book called "Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe." In a nutshell, Dr. Lanza postulates creation flows from consciousness; not the other ways around. Without a conscious entity to define reality, the universe exists only as a set of probabilities.

Whoa. That raised a few eyebrows in the scientific community for sure.

With co-author Bob Berman, he melds biology and quantum physics, citing the famous double-slit experiment that light and matter can be either particles or waves until observed or measured. It's one of several "spooky" findings that govern the universe at its smallest levels.

Lanza's premise is something like the old axiom, "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" You can argue the answer form many points of view, but trying to find a definitive proof is a slippery slope.

So where does consciousness come from?

Logic might say our brains. "Cognito ergo sum." "I think, therefore I am." The famous words of French philosopher Rene Descartes, which became a fundamental tenet of Western thinking. Where else would the seat of consciousness be?

How about outside our body? At least that's the view of physicist Dr. Alan R. Hugenot, who is quoted in "Epoch Times" that, "The nexus of my consciousness is in my head, but the locus of my consciousness -- where is it really? It's outside my body. Because inside and outside are just an illusion."

He also thinks of consciousness as functioning like "the data we store in the cloud." That data can be accessed on multiple devices. Maybe our bodies are just one of many devices that can host consciousness, which also speaks to an afterlife, or certainly an existence beyond this one.

Now I think we can safety say we are down the rabbit hole.

Any way you slice it, consciousness does qualify as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, as the saying goes.

In some ways, it's also connected to another great mystery: How did life begin? (For our purposes, we are addressing it from the scientific and not the religious point of view.)

We all know you and I, this computer, this desk, everything we can see see, touch, feel or smell is made of atoms. And atoms consist of sub-atomic particles: Protons, electrons, neutrons. Those particles are formed from even smaller particles. As we continue to smash them together in the Large Hadron Collider, we discover new particles that are even smaller -- teensy, tiny bits that are the basis for all matter, and in turn, life.

So now we're back to "how small is small?"

One theory that has gained a lot of converts is called "string theory," which basically says everything at its base level consists of "vibrating strings," and these strings exist in 10 dimensions. And that's about as far as I go with that one. Sorry -- math was not my strong suite. But it does beg the question, "So what are strings made of, and how did they get here in the first place?"

All that aside, how do a bunch of atoms (which are, BTW, 99 percent vacant space. Weird, right?) get together to create living, breathing entities, that by the way can think and ask questions like this one. I think even our smartest thinkers would concede, "You're making my head hurt."

Of course, we don't really have to know the answer -- if it is, in fact, even knowable. Surviving day-to-day is a little bigger priority for most of us. But at one point or another, the rabbit hole beckons all of us.

If all of this does make your head hurt, I recommend finding a quiet place and re-reading Hermann Hesse's journey of self-discovery, "Siddhartha." It may not have all the answers, either, but it will leave you with a sense of peace and the belief we are all connected -- one to another -- with the cosmos.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Visit the Facebook version of 'GPG'

Blogs are good when you want to post something longer in length, or more thoughtful. But there are a lot of times when you just want to post a "content snack." A quick mental "hit and run" if you will. That's what I'm doing over on the Facebook version of "GPG." Please pay me a visit there, and join my little circle of friends. You've heard Google's mission statement is "Don't do evil." At GPG, we live by this: "Don't be boring." See you on Facebook.

Monday, June 29, 2015

My Brother, Ron

Me on the left, Ron on the right,
with Dad
Let me tell you about my brother.

Ron was younger, but not by much; we were separated by 15 months.

Growing up in Fort Worth, we shared a lot of common interests. Like sports, fishing, playing cowboys and Indians. And bugs.

Our insect collection, housed in cigar boxes we got from our father, was even the envy of college students, one of whom did in fact borrow it for a class project.

We both loved to fish, and Ron was better at it. He knew how to mix the right amount of cornflakes and syrup to catch those "lunker" carp living on the lake bottoms.

Another common interest was horror movies.The local TV station, Channel 11, aired a show every Saturday night called "Nightmare Theater." It provided a steady diet of classic horror: Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolfman, the Mummy. We ate it up. We even went so far as stage our own production in our grandparents' backyard. I was a mad scientist, Ron the Wolfman and our cousin was the Mummy (we wrapped him in strips of cloth cut from some sheets). We heard later the neighbors were curious about the makeshift tombstones we erected behind the garage.

One of Ron's first cars was a Pontiac Tempest convertible. He souped up the engine and jacked up the tires. Mom never liked that look much. But Ron always had a knack with engines, and was a damn fine mechanic. Good thing, too. That Tempest had a habit of breaking down with some regularity.

After high school, we found ourselves on very different journeys. Ron joined the Navy, and I pursued a career in journalism. But before our paths diverged, Ron was involved in the most important day of my life. That was the night he and Rhonda, the girl he was dating, invited me on a blind date with Rhonda's friend, Pam. You have to understand Pam didn't really do blind dates, so Rhonda had to do some major arm twisting before she reluctantly agreed.

The rest, as they say, is history. If it wasn't love at first sight, it was close. Pam and I got married less than a year later.

As for Ron and Rhonda, they went their separate ways. Through the years they would touch base now and again, but that was about it. Until a year ago, when our Mom passed away. Rhonda was there, offering her support. Both of them were single. And after all those years, they reunited. Four months later, they got married.

It was a fairy tale ending, except for one thing. Ron had been diagnosed with cancer, the serious kind.

I know having Rhonda in his life over the past year gave Ron hope and inspiration, and something to live for. During that time he even rediscovered his love of horror movies, and we watched a few together as Godzilla laid waste yet again to Tokyo. He became a huge fan of "Svengoolie," who hosted weekly horror movies on TV, as well as "One Step Beyond."

Since we lived in different states, we talked on the phone just about every day. With Rhonda's help, he mastered messaging as well.

Ron fought the disease with all the strength he had, until he didn't have any more. He left us on June 23. Thank you for the memories, brother, and the love. And thank you Rhonda, for coming back into his life.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Read of the Day: The Centennials are coming!

You have no doubt heard, and heard, and heard about the millennials -- people born anywhere from the late 70s to the late 90s. They are the topic of endless research reports; lusted after by every advertiser; courted by every retailer. But now we learn they may be all that and a bag of chips.

Business Insider is reporting advertiser sights are shifting to an even newer group, dubbed the "Centennials," aged 0-18.

Unlike the millennials, they value their privacy and are reportedly shunning Facebook in favor of Snapchat. In their words, "millennials are already toast in the eyes of advertisers." Get the details here. In the meantime, we'll do some market research on our grand-daughter Cate, almost 3. Results so far are what you might call inconclusive.