Airport (1970) and Its Legacy

Airport-FilmA few days ago, my wife had  Arthur Hailey’s Airport on an old retro movie channel. That movie began a lifelong aversion to plane travel. My parents took me to every one of those air disaster films throughout the Seventies and to this day they can’t understand why I detest any form of plane travel.

All joking aside, though, Airport is interesting to me not only in terms of how it reflected prevailing social views of the era but also how it pointed toward toward the future of screenwriting.

First, the movie’s (and, I presume, the novel’s) plot still embraced modern as opposed to post-modern views – interesting, considering that many movies that were coming out at roughly the same time exhibited discernible post-modern traits. At the top of the list of these emerging post-modern films: The dystopian Planet of the Apes, which was released a couple of years earlier and that took a very dim view of where science and technology were taking humanity.

Interestingly, Airport foreshadowed the release some 25 years later of Apollo 13 – equally remarkable when one considers that the move was released the same year as the Apollo 13 incident which could have easily ended up as one of history’s most conspicuous scientific disasters. Yet, Airport, much like Apollo 13, released a quarter century later, affirmed the blessings of modernity – not only how science and technology enhanced the quality of life but also the role that specialists (in this case, airport administrators, pilots and mechanics) played in ensuring this success. The staff at Lincoln International Airport played as integral a part in guiding the damaged plane back to safety as the specialists at Mission Control served in bringing the shattered Apollo 13 command module safely back from the Moon.

The movie is also interesting in the way it unintentionally foreshadowed profiling. One conspicuous achievements of the film was the casting of renowned stage actress Helen Hayes, who subsequently won an Oscar for her portrayal of the endearing septuagenarian Ada Quonsett, an unusually resourceful stowaway who had eluded the airport security system countless times in her quest to visit her daughter and family. She obviously got away with it because people seldom suspected an elderly lady capable of such wrong doing.

In one scene a young, perceptive airport employee fascinated with Quonsett’s success, questions her about the ruses she has developed in the course of eluding airport security – an amusing foreshadowing of the 2002 biographical crime film “Catch Me If You Can,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio.  In a post-9/11 world, a successful petty criminal such as Quonsett undoubtedly would be regarded as a goldmine of insights among airport security professionals.  But we are talking about an era long ago when a disturbed man like D.O. Guerrero, portrayed by Van Heflin, could walk onto a plane with a bomb completely undetected – small wonder why ingenious criminal innovators like Quonsett were considered little more than quaint oddities.

The film also wove seven stories into one – a device frequently used in films today but still considered a bit of a novelty in the early 1970’s.

And, of course, there are the depictions of ancient sexual relationships – notably the extramarital affair of pilot Vernon Demerest (portrayed by Dean Martin) and Chief Stewardess Gwen Meighen (played by Jacquelin Bisset).  In one scene Meighen explains to Demerest that her unplanned pregnancy is entirely her fault, having quit taking birth control pills to ensure that she remained suitably svelte.  She then ensures her philandering fly boy that she would soon be paying a visit to a doctor in Sweden to make all things right.

Almost fifty years later, such a flagrant depiction of white male privilege would never be written into a film, unless the heartless male malefactor were consigned to a fiery death later in the plot.

Posted in Jim Langcuster, Science, The Passing Scene | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Largely Secular Journey


Robert Wright. Photo: Courtesy of CardsPlayer4Life

I feel a bit of a kinship with Robert Wright, the author of the recently published book “Why Buddhism is True.”

Roughly a decade or so ago, Wright also published a book titled “The Evolution of God,” which complemented another superb book published at roughly the same time: “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation” by Steven Berlin Johnson.

The two books helped me gain a keen insight into how human experiences and insights have been networked through language, writing and, more recently, digital technology, and uploaded into a kind of cloud that I’ve come to call the “Noncorporeal Human Exoskeleton.”

But I feel a special bond with Mr. Wright, having experienced a religious upbringing and pilgrimage quite similar to his. As a teenager, he was converted by a fiery but charismatic Southern Baptist evangelist named Homer Martinez, who also passed through my boyhood church in the late 70’s.

Wright and I seem to have undergone similar epiphanies.  Wright abandoned his Southern Baptist religious legacy long ago for a largely secular  worldview that has taken on discernibly Buddhist hues.

As he sees it, human beings have been hardwired by evolution not to be satisfied.  Excuse me if I’m mangling the teachings of Darwin, but evolution, in a manner of speaking, strives to keep us unsatisfied so that, in the course of which, we continue to, well, strive. And amidst all this perpetual striving, happiness remains elusive.   Many of us spend a lifetime never seeming to achieve happiness or anything approaching it.

We crave things, but once we attain them, our happiness seems fleeing, and we’re left striving to acquire or achieve the next thing.

Wright contends in his book that the ancient teachings and practices of Buddha can provide a healing balm for this restiveness.

As Wright observes in a recent NPR interview:  “I think of mindfulness meditation as almost a rebellion against natural selection,” he says. “Natural selection is the process that created us. It gave us our values. It sets our agenda, and Buddhism says, ‘We don’t have to play this game.’ ”

My own journey, which I would describe as a secular rather than a spiritual one, involved reconciling my Christian cultural inheritance with the cognitive behavioral techniques I developed in my late 20’s to rewire my brain to cope with the effects of a rather debilitating anxiety disorder. And much of this involved coming to terms with the reality that many of the things in life that can’t be resolved simply must be endured.

I owe my insights to three teachers:  Dr. Claire Weekes, an Australian physician and general practitioner who wrote a series of books that emphasized the value of cognitive techniques in overcoming nervous illness; Dr. M. Scott Peck, a psychiatrist who is best known for his bestselling book The Road Less Traveled; and finally but certainly not least, Dr. Viktor Frankl,  the founder of logotherapy and author of Man’s Search for Meaning.

I suppose my exposure to these three individuals and their teachings amounted to something akin to an epiphany, resembling in some respects the insights that Wright has acquired in the course of his own pilgrimage.

They helped me understand that life was a difficult and often heart-rending journey, as Peck relates in this first sentence of The Road Less Traveled.  In a real sense, my Southern Baptist upbringing had insulated me from this vital truth.  My exposure to these three people helped me understand that religion, particularly fundamentalist religion, often blinded people to life’s hard, incontrovertible truth.

I had come to regard my conservative Christian faith as a sort of lucky rabbit’s foot. Instead of coming to term with the hard truths of life – a hallmark of adulthood –  I always assumed that a close, personalized relationship with a deity would somehow cordon off all the sadness, disappointment and random tragedy bound up with human existence. To put it bluntly, I practiced a form of faith that was inherently neurotic.

I finally became an adult when I was able not only to view life but also to embrace it in all of its damnable complexity – all of its sublime beauty inextricably bound up in its random, unfathomable injustice and ugliness.

Somewhere along this journey, I, like Wright, also learned that something approaching happiness was achieved by learning how not to be spooked by the emotional reactions to stimuli that we have acquired through eons of evolutionary hard wiring.

I can’t say that my life journey took a Buddhist turn, as Wright’s apparently has. Mine has assumed a form that, while respectful of its Christian influences, is largely secular,  though it remains open to and respectful of the potential for spirituality.

Posted in History, Jim Langcuster, Religion, Religion and Culture, Religious Faith, Science | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Some Disparate Thoughts on Language Learning


Ludwik Zamenhof, Father of Esperanto.

Aeon an digital magazine committed to spreading knowledge and a cosmopolitan world view, recently carried a piece about the struggle under way throughout the world to preserve so-called minority languages.  In some cases, the term minority is applied generously.   Many of these languages have declined to only a handful of speakers.

Boa Senior is mentioned.  She was the last member of an Andaman tribe believed to be one of the oldest cultures on earth.  She was also the last speaker of Aka-Bo, her tribal language.  She was forced to learn an Andamanese version of Hindi simply to converse with others.

The writer, Rebecca Roache, a lecturer in philosophy at the University of London, asks whether it’s really worth spending immense amounts of money to preserve these languages. Wouldn’t it be better for language learners, especially young ones, to invest their time  learning global languages (e.g., English, French and Mandarin) that not only will enhance their lives and, but also, perhaps, their prospects for employment?

Roache is right to stress that the extinction of a language is a sad thing. It marks not only the passing of a language but also of a cultural ecosystem of which this language once served as the cultural wellspring.

Yet, even the cultural changes that overtake more viable language also strike me as sad. As someone – Foucault, I think – once said, we live in language. And any significant change associated with language implies equally significant change within the cultural ecosystem from which it sprang.

The Evolution of Gaelic (Irish)

Gaelic (Irish) has undergone a sweeping transformation now that it has become a language spoken predominantly by educated Irish citizens who learn it in the classroom rather than from daily discourse with family members and other native speakers. In a very real sense, Gaelic no longer is a peasant language, and, consequently, it no longer is quite the indigenous language it once was. One additional complicating factor: Now that it is more of a book language than one rooted in an indigenous culture, Gaelic arguably lacks much of the nuance that characterized it a century ago.

Reading the article prompted another observation: It will be interesting to see how AI will be used to preserve languages in the future. More than decade ago, linguists, aided by computers, extrapolated Virginia Algonquian, a dead language, from other extant Algonquin languages to create part of the dialogue in The New World, a 2005 movie about Pocahontas and the English settlement at Jamestown.

We are likely to see more of these sorts of computer-aided revivals of ancient languages. But this raises the question: How close do these languages come to the originally spoken languages? In the vast majority of cases, we will be dealing with resurrected languages that provide only imperfect insight into the original language and the cultural context in which it was spoken.

The Exaptation of Experanto

What we have learned about language within the last century has driven home other vital lessons, too.

Language usage has lent fascinating insight into a phenomenon known as exaptation. Throughout history, we humans have taken things that were originally conceived or that had evolved for one purpose and adapted it to another – hence the term exaptation.

In the 19th century, a Jewish-Polish oculist (glasses maker) and amateur linguist named Ludwik Zamenhof developed an artificial language known as Esperanto with the hope of its becoming humanity’s universal language. (Incidentally, Esperanto literally translates as “one who hopes.”)

Shortly after its establishment, the League of Nations seriously considered adopting Esperanto its official language.

Esperanto is a cleverly designed artificial language that combines a very simplified grammar with a vocabulary constructed from many European languages – German, Polish, English and the Romance languages. It is still spoken by a million or so language enthusiasts around the world. Many of these speakers still hold out the hope that it will someday be accepted as the universal language. George Soros, incidentally, is one of a handful of people on the planet who grew up in an Esperanto-speaking household.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Esperanto in the 21st century is not its viability as a universal language but rather how it’s being “exapted” by linguists for an entirely different purpose: To provide elementary school children with a rudimentary foundation in language to enable them learn living languages, such as Spanish, French and Italian.

Watch this interesting TED lecture below by Esperantist Tim Morley, who contends that Esperanto should be adapted to language instruction in the same way that the recorder is used in music education to provide a basis for mastering many musical instruments.


Posted in Jim Langcuster, The Passing Scene | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Cult Leader or Simply a Frightened Little Man?

DPRK-missilesEarlier this morning, I finished a rather fascinating article exploring whether the Kim dynasty has essentially managed to construct nationwide cult, one so entrapped in its dogma and mysticism that it would gladly sacrifice itself in the face of American aggression.

I’m reminded of a remarkable video posted a few years ago on an official North Korean YouTube site of Kim Jong-un greeting a welcoming delegation of uniformed young people at a massive young rally in Pyongyang’s sprawling Rungrado 1st of May Stadium. The standing ovation droned on and on, and it became obvious that Kim was itching to sit down and commence the festivities.

Finally, he grew exasperated, pointing and shouting at the kids to sit down. He finally resorted to pushing them into their seats. This reminded me of a fascinating account I once read about the Stalinist era in the Soviet Union. Delegates at party congresses and other official mass meetings were careful not to stop clapping, lest they be perceived as lacking enthusiasm and bearing malice towards Stalin.  Consequently, the applause could last for as long as a half hour.  A bell was eventually installed.  A single ring was enough to ensure the participants that it was safe to cease clapping and to be seated.

Whether or not the behavior at the Pyongyang youth rally supplies evidence of a Kim Jong-un cult, there is the strong likelihood of growing discontent among both the ruling class and rank-and-file North Koreans. In fact, the Rungrado 1st of May stadium was the site of the public immolation of generals involved in a plot to depose the Kim Jong-il regime in the late 1990’s.

It seems likely that Kim Jong-un is embroiled in a desperate dance with fate amid deteriorating conditions in the country. Based on my limited knowledge of the situation, I speculate that Kim is engaged in the hot pursuit of two objectives: first, the acquisition of a nuclear arsenal to secure a means of insurance that other one-man despotisms (e.g., the Saddam and Gaddafi regimes) have lacked, and, second, to keep his increasingly restive elites and rank-and-file focused on a palpable threat, namely long-term American hostility toward toward North Korea.

Despite all the opulence surrounding Kim Jong-un, I would not wish to be in his shoes.
Posted in Jim Langcuster, The Passing Scene | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Westworld: An Enduring Science Fiction Legacy


Photo: Courtesy of Source.

Last night, I watched the troubling and highly dystopian film Westworld.  A long time has passed since my first viewing in 1973 in the Cinema Twin Theater in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, with my old boyhood chum, Joey Johnson.

The movie deals with a giant android amusement park run by a company known as Delos. For a thousand dollars a day, guests can engage in all sorts of interactions with sophisticated androids – gunfights, brawls, and even sexual encounters.

I was struck by a couple of things: First, how the film’s plot attests to the growing number of people in the early Seventies who already were reflecting on the risks associated with the routine use of highly sophisticated machines partly conceived and designed  by other machines, beyond the purview of humans.

As the plot unfolds, Delos technicians monitoring the amusement park interactions between androids and humans begin to discern a growing number of troubling anomalies. And these problems seem to spread like an infection through the two themed parks: Westworld, Medievalworld and Romanworld.

As these anomalies multiply, one troubled scientist observes: “We aren’t dealing with ordinary machines here. These are highly complicated pieces of equipment, almost as complicated as living organisms. In some cases, they’ve been designed by other computers. We don’t know exactly how they work.”

Even so, the humanoid machines in the film appear to be entirely that: machines. The malfunctions struck me as the result of a computer virus rather than signs of incipient consciousness on the part of these machines.

Yet, a couple of scenes sow doubt – for example, when an attractive young android maid spurns the sexual advances of a guest and when one imprisoned android damsel pleads for help but refuses water at the very end of the film. And to be sure, scientists and science fiction writers way back then already were devoting considerable thought to the implications of artificial intelligence – thinking reflected five years earlier in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” developed concurrently with Arthur C. Clarke’s novel of the same name.

In time, could sophisticated machines eventually attain something resembling human consciousness? Many smart people were raising that question, even back then.

Still, I do think that the case could be made that the remarkable insights we’ve gained within the last generation, largely through our day-to-day interaction with and growing reliance on smart technology, account  for the unusually nuanced treatment of consciousness and perception reflected in the current HBO version of Westworld.

In fact, the treatment of these issues in the series troubled me so much that I quit watching it after the first couple of episodes.

Westworld Trailer, 1973.

Posted in Artificial Intelligence, Cultural Evolution, Jim Langcuster, Science, The Passing Scene | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Bittersweet Cruising Memory

Every time I watch American Graffiti, the classic movie about American cruising culture, I’m invariably reminded of our own cruising tradition in my hometown of Russellville, Alabama.

Some long-term courtships and even a few marriages were forged during those long Friday and Saturday night cruises.  I wasn’t quite so lucky, though I always held out hope that I would meet the ultimate dream girl on one of those Friday or Saturday night cruises.

One experience I still recall as bittersweet.  I was riding “The Strip” in Russellville in the summer of ’77 or ’78 with my old and dear friend, David Hester. We chatted up some girls on his CB radio. After some rather earnest negotiating, we agreed that we would drive to my house and stand out of the car while these two girls drove by for an inspection.

We waited patiently and after a few minutes we could hear the hum of a car engine a few hundred yards away. My heart raced with anticipation as the car ascended the steep hill beside my house.

Yet, before we could even lift our arms to wave, the car rushed past us – time enough to spot two really attractive young women laughing uproariously. They never stopped. It was an ego-diminishing experience, to say the least. But like brave little troopers, we got in David’s brown Oldsmobile coup and headed back for some more “action.”

Posted in Jim Langcuster, The Passing Scene | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Memes and the Human Exoskeleton


One of history’s most noteworthy and conspicuous memes. (Photo: Courtesy of J.-N.L).

I’ve posited before in this forum my theory that much of human destiny is bound up in what I call a “Noncorporeal Human Exoskeleton (NHE).”

This exoskeleton is comprised of all sorts of things – culture, political ideology, religious beliefs and, most important of all, language, which has been chiefly responsible for the formation of and sustenance of this exoskeleton. Much like our human genome, the elements of this exoskeleton are networked, interacting among themselves to produce relentless change.

An article posted recently in the Science section of The New York Times, which explores how viruses have contributed to the evolution of our human genome, prompted some thoughts about how memes have served an equally significant role in the evolution of our noncorporeal exoskeleton.

Researchers have discovered that over the course of eons, viruses have attached to the human genome, producing both good and bad effects. In fact, viral DNA comprises roughly 8 percent of the our genome.

One conspicuous example of a good effect is Hemo, a blood protein that is produced in the fetus and placenta and  that originated from a virus that affected our mammalian forebears some 100-million years ago. Hemo proteins apparently serve a critical role in enabling the embryo to develop a variety of tissues.

However, other viruses apparently have produced a myriad of deleterious effects. Our genome apparently contains about 100,000 pieces of viral DNA.  Only now are scientists beginning to account for how all of these elements affect us.   Some may be safeguarding our health, while others likely contribute to cancer and other diseases.

Back to my exoskeleton argument: Much like the human genome our exoskeleton is comprised of countless memes. Some have described memes as viruses of the mind. They are ideas, behaviors or styles that attach to our minds and, ultimately, become networked within the human exoskeleton.  In many cases, they mutate over time and also mate and morph with other memes.

The human exoskeleton teems with memes as well as with the memetic mutations that have followed. And, yes, they have been as indispensable to the evolution and expansion of our exoskeleton as viruses have been to the human genome.

Like viruses, they have also produced both good and bad effects. They have steered our species toward the development of more benign forms of political ideologies and faiths as much as they have contributed to the formation of virulent and destructive ideologies and religious beliefs.

Posted in Cultural Evolution, Evolution, Jim Langcuster | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment