Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Science Fiction

This week, a tiny corner of the Internet flipped its lid. And that lid-flipping reminded me of some writing that I did awhile ago about first impressions.

Recently, a documentary has been produced on the subject of geocentrism. I confess: I had to go look that one up. Not many words in the English language give me pause – which I don’t say with hubris; it’s just that in my life, I’ve read a lot, so I’ve banged into arguably the majority of useful English words. Geo-, having to do with earth. -Centric, having to do with perhaps an overemphasis upon.

Geocentrism, as a concept, is at odds with heliocentrism. Heliocentrism has to do with the idea that stuff revolves around the sun. Therefore …

Wait wait wait wait. Geocentrism: a belief that all cosmic stuff revolves around the Earth??

Is this not still 2014? Have not Copernicus, Kepler and what remains of NASA not weighed in on this issue?

For context, we note that this is the year 2014, and yet science has been taking it on the chin lately. There are a bunch of people in positions of policymaking authority who are challenging the scientific method and its recent results (e.g. stuff we’ve had figured out since the seventeenth century) … and whether they’re doing it for political reasons, or at the behest of organized religion, or because they genuinely didn’t pay attention in class all those years ago … well, I bet a lot of my science teachers have been grinding their teeth a lot.

Enter this particular documentarian, or polemicist, or whatever we shall wish to call him. Robert Sungenis is his name, and he funded the making of this film called “The Principle”, whose tagline is “Everything we think we know about our universe … is wrong.”

That tagline smacks of Buzzfeed hyperbole, of course, and that stands to reason, because otherwise who would pay two eyeblinks of attention to a science documentary? I mean really.

But Sungenis had previously published a book called “Galileo Was Wrong, The Church Was Right”, which claimed to “give Scripture its due place and show that science is not all it’s cracked up to be.”

Just so we’re clear on who and what we’re dealing with here.

The makers of “The Principle”, backed by Sungenis’ money (which, even before Citizens United, has aphoristically talked), have been accused of a number of procedural no-no’s, not the least of which is “quote mining”. That’s an editing technique: cherry-picking bits of information and assembling them so they appear to support one view, even if in their context those bits of information would support no such view. I wonder where I’ve heard of that happening before …

Statements were allegedly taken from an interview with noted theoretical physicist Laurence Krauss that made him appear to be supporting the idea that everything astronomical revolves around the planet Earth. Krauss issued a statement that put a super lot of distance between himself and “The Principle”. Its tone of recoil was reminiscent of many muskets I have seen at Fourth-of-July parades: sharp and unmistakable.

Krauss’ statement insists that he was featured in the film without permission, and that he concurs with the scientific community’s contention that geocentrism has been debunked. He hoped that people would ignore it; “maybe then it will quickly disappear into the dustbin of history, where it belongs.” A number of other scientists who were in the film also have insisted that they were misled about “The Principle”’s agenda, and that they would never have taken part had they known about it.

One of the producers of “The Principle”, in a publicity statement interview this week, said this about Krauss’ participation: “Lawrence says he has no idea how he ended up in our film. I can tell him how he ended up in our film. He signed a release form, and cashed a check.”

What has gotten me to the keyboard, though, is the similar apparent participation (and subsequent reversal of gear) of the nice lady who contributed a very small amount of narration to the film’s promotional trailer.

Her name is Kate Mulgrew, and she portrayed the captain of the nearly-ill-fated Federation starship Voyager, a decade and a half ago.

She is an actor. Significantly, she is an actor who has participated in “Star Trek”.

When you do that, you become part of a piece of entertainment which, for all its inherent fluffiness (it IS part of American television entertainment), has gotten credit for causing many, many Americans in the last half century to think about science. Several US astronauts have cited their childhood viewing of “Star Trek” as one of the major influences in their lives that caused them to consider science as a profession.

Star Trek” is a lot of things, and as science fiction, one of those things is fanciful. Light-speed travel is something that, according to august scientific minds, only light can do; so the initial premise of the show (warping around the galaxy, rather than just crawling around the solar system) is presently a scientific non-starter. And most of the techno-babble that Spock and Data, and Scotty and Geordi LaForge, and just about every other Trek character ever, spout when faced with a cosmically daunting plot-resolution challenge is – to be charitable – somewhere between intensely theoretical and a writer’s desperate invention. “In this one particular episode,” say the producers, “we have to be able to transport Captain Picard from one ship at warp speed to another ship also at warp speed without lowering the deflector shields (which goes against a rule that’s been in place since we were on NBC in 1967), because otherwise the severance package for Patrick Stewart after we kill off his character will bankrupt the studio outright.”

But “Trek” has invited many people to go look up some actual scientific things. So by no fault of any “Trek” actor’s own, they are part of that show’s legacy, which includes advocacy for and advancement of the study of science. Thanks to the importance that American society puts on entertainers, those “Trek” actors often become more prominent symbols of scientific study than do a lot of actual scientists.

They’re not scientists, though.

One of the things that actors do is portray characters. Someone who plays the part of Jack the Ripper presumably does not espouse the views of Jack the Ripper in real life. (Or if they do, they tend not to get a lot of acting work after that.)  Someone who portrays Gen. George Patton may actually in fact be a screaming pacifist.

Another thing that actors have to do is eat. For that to happen, they need money. And most actors (I hear) have a great deal of experience with poverty, or at least with knowing that they’ll never retire and draw a pension. Every job is finite. Even while you’re working on one project, you’re looking for the next one. Only the most absurdly lucky actors finish a job knowing that they’re set for life. Guaranteed, very few people probably knew who (for example) Nichelle Nichols was, before she spent three TV seasons opening hailing frequencies for Captain Kirk. Now? She’s part of that Trek legacy, and her name gets her in the door – the same door that would slam in the faces of the vast majority of working actors.

So even the terrific actors like Kate Mulgrew, who will forevermore draw residuals from being Captain Janeway, are conditioned to take work whenever they can find it.

And sometimes, I imagine this can get them into tight spots like this.

A website that breathlessly reported Mulgrew’s “Principle” trailer narration said, “To be fair to Kate Mulgrew, she’s not a scientist, and as an actor she’s not required to make sure that her paychecks are coming from factually accurate sources. But you’d hope that she’d be a little more discerning as a former member of the Starfleet Federation. After all, Star Trek did and continues to do so much for the advancement of science and space exploration, and getting involved with a movie that outright denies one of the most fundamental facts about our solar system is upsetting, to say the least.”

On her Facebook page, Mulgrew released a statement disavowing the film. “I am not a geocentrist, nor am I in any way a proponent of geocentrism. More importantly, I do not subscribe to anything Robert Sungenis has written regarding science and history and, had I known of his involvement, would most certainly have avoided this documentary. I was a voice for hire, and a misinformed one, at that. I apologize for any confusion that my voice on this trailer may have caused.”

I’m split on this one.

I’m somewhere between “say it ain’t so, Joe” and “do your homework”. I’m working to find out whether her contribution to this film is anything more than the opening voiceover sentence in the trailer. The Internet Movie Database lists her as “Narrator”, but doesn’t get any more explicit.

The comments that followed Ms. Mulgrew’s Facebook apology post contained an awful lot of (forgivable) blanket-condemnation of the documentary producers and blanket-approval of Ms. Mulgrew. A lot of “Star Trek” fans rose to her defense.

Oh thank God. I felt so betrayed there for a little bit.”

Kate Mulgrew’s part, so far, is that one sentence about everything we know about the universe being wrong, at the very beginning of the trailer. And, again, that sentence could be about anything. All they have to do is fill the narration with vague statements like that, then put any images they want over it. And include commentary by geocentrists making it look like she’s supporting their statements. … Because the only part of the script that she’s going to get is the narration. And since the documentary isn’t out, and all you have to go on is the trailer, those of you who insist on giving her crap about it really have no idea what you’re talking about. You just like kicking people when they’re down. You gotta be mad about something, and this is it.”

The trailer I saw was a blatant hack job. You shouldn’t need to apologise, you’re a victim of a fraudster and should have support from your fans. Thank you for clearing it up, I hope you aren’t too badly affected by this.”

[E]veryone makes mistakes and gets reeled in by the worst of people, accidents happen. [T]he fact that you admitted your [sic] wrong and told us you don’t believe in what was said is enough. [L]ive long and prosper[.]”

No need to apologize. You’re an actor. It’s what actors do. If Patrick Stewart narrated Doctor Seuss, that wouldn’t mean he’s promoting a fear of green eggs and ham. Your fans understand. Don’t sweat it.”

Additionally, the follow-up post by the website which had initially posted about Mulgrew’s involvement with the project was entitled “OH THANK GOD: Kate Mulgrew Is Mad About the Geocentric Documentary, Too”.

Some Facebook commenters weren’t quite as starry-eyed though.

I think sometimes people forget that actors, by definition, say things they don’t believe for a living.”

Didn’t you read the words on the page? I get you did this for the money, but still do not claim to be ‘misinformed’ when the words were on the page you were READING!”

Finally, this comment was combination reality check and fanboy defense:

This reminds me of the Congressional committee that had Meryl Streep testify on agricultural matters. She was an expert because she played a farm wife in a movie. Come on, people. You regard Kate Mulgrew as a Voice of Science because she played a starship captain once? And it’s her *duty to you* to do in-depth research on *every* script she’s offered so she doesn’t accidentally *deceive* you?”

Maybe not, but it may represent an added layer of responsibility when you’ve been part of “Star Trek” and you’re considered, rightly or not, a science role model.

Perhaps what this boils down to is our desperate discomfort about finding that one of our first impressions might be mistaken, and/or finding that something or someone we admire isn’t as admirable as we thought (if all that indeed turns out to be so). And, justifiable or not, the feeling of betrayal that we as fans feel about the objects of our fandom.

It’s unnerving when it seems possible — even for a moment — that, to paraphrase the tagline of “The Principle” … everything we know about our favorite actor … is wrong.

April 10, 2014 Posted by | celebrity, entertainment, Famous Persons, film, Internet, media, religion, science, science fiction | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Unpaid Political Announcement

The quickest way to get comments, both polite and rude, in our current age is to express a political viewpoint.

Of the hundred and forty-two essays that I have posted on this blog in the 26 months of its existence, only a handful have been overtly political. A few others have appeared, to the untrained eye, to be so – but in fact my point was something other than political. To do with manners, perhaps; or civility; or something else.

Even as the general election has gotten closer and closer, I’ve resisted posting every other day about the latest Obama vs. Romney micro-burst (or megaton) issue. This post here has to do with matters that are other than strictly political, but of course it boils down to politics anyway. It has to: it’s now the time of the quadrennium (the rest of you can look it up when you get home) where deciding where you stand is crucial.

So, slings and arrows, I am prepared to suffer you.

Of course, I will also accept plaudits and other similar currency. If you choose the sling-and-arrow route, just don’t be abusive. If you are, you won’t see your name in print. Those have been the rules since day one of this blog. And no trolls allowed. You wanna invoke bile and slander, go post on Fox Nation. They eat that stuff up.

In my adult life, I have found it a relatively rare thing to step into a voting booth during a Presidential election and actually vote for someone, as opposed to voting for anybody but that guy.

The process of choosing party nominees for this week’s Presidential election, which began most of two years ago, and which at times swerved across the line into the lane of unintentional parody, has yielded two candidates. On Tuesday I get to choose which one I think is most deserving (or, as some might view it, which one is least undeserving) of the opportunity to be The Leader Of The Free World.

As often happens with those of us who four years previously voted for the incumbent, I could mention a few promises upon which I thought the incumbent hadn’t quite followed through, and a few decisions that I wish he had made (or had not), or behaviors that I wish he hadn’t insisted upon exhibiting.

[In the ensuing paragraphs, a gentle note to the Pronoun Police: historically I have been very good about s/he, and him-/her-self, and band alumni/-ae, and all that. But this time around, the incumbent and the challenger are both men, and this will read more fluidly if I reflect that.]

We all have ideal visions of what “our guy” might do … will do … could have done … should have done, in his four years in office. And, since “our guy” is always a human being, and since he is not (according to the Constitution) able to just issue a royal decree but instead has to work with the rest of our system of government to make things happen, most times that ideal vision stands no chance of coming to pass comprehensively anyway. Many times, he probably knows that his ideal vision isn’t going to be realized, either. Politics is “the art of the possible”, and not everything is possible.

My decision about whom to vote for will have lots to do with what policies “my guy” espouses (ideal vision or not) … and lots to do with what sort of Supreme Court justices he might nominate, given the opportunity … and lots to do with how “my guy” will probably interact with the rest of the world on behalf of his countrymen. (Countrywomen.) But this year, my decision will also have an awful lot to do with something as ephemeral and conjecture-based as how I feel about the guy … about what I think he’s like, when the spotlights and cameras are off him; when he’s just whatever kind of human being he really actually is. And how I feel about the other guy.

Since I’ve never been in the same room with either of them, let alone met them personally, this is all conjecture, buttressed by a whole lot of merely-circumstantial evidence. Ironically, the only times I’ve been able to gather this evidence have been when the cameras are, in fact, on the candidates. Recognizing that nothing that is observed remains unchanged, nonetheless, as we used to say in ninth-grade English class, each gentleman has created a “dominant impression”. And as the 1970s shampoo commercial used to say, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

So I’m voting based on an impression?

Yes … among other things. But in the run-up to this particular election, I’ve gotten especially strong “vibes” from these two. In past years, this sort of litmus test has been summarized as, “which candidate would you rather have a beer with?” As if a drinkin’ buddy is the kind of person I want in charge of the largest economy and military machine in the world. But as long as we’re electing a human being who, by definition, is full of strengths and weaknesses, admirable qualities and flaws … my litmus test ends up being similar but hopefully with a bit more depth: “which candidate is my kind of human being?”

Some years, this question’s had something of a toss-up answer. “I’m voting for the lesser of two weevils, thank you.”

But, having had an opportunity to listen to and watch Mr. Obama operate, over the last few years … and having had an opportunity to listen to and watch Mr. Romney operate, both in the last two years of campaigning and during his time as governor of our faire Commonwealth (God save it!) … I feel as if I’ve got enough evidence, circumstantial though it may be, to make a few conjectural assertions about each. With your (assumed) forgiveness, I was thinking of framing my assertions with some memorable Thoughts from a particularly astute teacher of mine.


A good leader is one that can adapt and overcome in the face of adversity.”

I suspect that Mr. Obama has a better idea of what it’s like to be in debt than does Mr. Romney, and I get the impression that he views people who are in debt with a good deal more empathy, too. Mr. Romney, according to his very own biographical sketch, has wanted for very few things in his life.

The easiest way to mask insecurity is to cut other people down.”

I suspect that Mr. Romney is less likely to have been bullied as a kid than was Mr. Obama. Reports of how he treated the reporters assigned to his primary-season tour bus (not to mention how he reportedly held down and cut off the hair of a fellow private-school student) give me the impression he’s much more comfortable in a situation in which he is “one-up” on people.

Go out of your way to treat people kindly.”

Mr. Obama very rarely seems to “talk down” to people, even if he is on a higher social stratum than they are. In another online space, I complained a bit about Mr. Romney’s mid-debate advice to Mr. Obama: “You’ll get your chance in a moment. I’m still speaking” – in a snap of a tone that I would hesitate to use on the President, no matter which President it was with whom I was speaking.

Surround yourself with positive people.”

This one is a bit subjective, but … here are two campaign advisors employed by Mr. Romney: Former UN ambassador John Bolton, who never met a military intervention he couldn’t support, and former New Hampshire governor John Sununu, who by almost any metric, strikes me as just unpleasant.

Know when the spotlight is on you and when it isn’t.”

I suspect that Mr. Romney is less likely to function well in situations where he isn’t in charge – where he’s not the boss. At one campaign rally shortly after Congressman Paul Ryan had been named as Romney’s running mate, the audience started chanting “Ryan! Ryan! Ryan!” – and Romney stepped in and tried to encourage them to chant “Romney! Ryan! Romney! Ryan!…”

Being Drum Major does not make you the best! Learn from those who are better than you.”

Mr. Obama has chosen a running mate who is older, more experienced, and quite possibly more politically savvy than he is, and who in an emergency could conceivably do Mr. Obama’s job.

Be a builder, not a wrecker.”

Mr. Romney’s business experience seems to involve a lot of examples of situations in which he had more of an eye toward what he could take out of it than an eye toward what he could build with it.

A Drum Major is a role model, a friend, servant, mediator, teacher, protector, and follower.”

I suspect that Mr. Obama would be a better mediator; more likely to settle an argument in such a way that both arguing parties would go away feeling like they’d gained something. (Some have suggested that he’s too good at this for his own good.)

By contrast, I don’t suspect that Mr. Romney’s business dealings or upbringing have offered him any experience with service (the day after Hurricane Sandy, he held a “storm relief event” that honestly looked much more like a photo op, and was lated revealed to be even more staged and craven than it looked), mediation (Bain Capital was not in the business of negotiating agreements that benefited anyone but itself), protection (Mr. Romney has consistently advocated directing funds away from agencies or projects that would protect the citizenry from natural disasters), or certainly following.

Never assume anything.”

Never assume anything.

Last night, over on Fox News, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee declared that in this election, “we’re not just voting on a personality … we’re voting on trust.”

I think that by accident, Mr. Huckabee got that right – although not in the way he intended. No indeed: I’m not voting just based on personality. But elements of a candidate’s personality – how he thinks about other people, what he thinks about other people, how he treats other people – can go a long way toward informing a voter about how he is likely to govern people, about what decisions he will likely make that will affect people.

So, again, although I have rarely gone into the voting booth during a Presidential election and actually voted for someone, as opposed to voting against someone … this time, I’m doing both.

Mr. Obama is my guy.

November 4, 2012 Posted by | Famous Persons, government, news, politics, Starred Thoughts | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment