Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Message to Saudis: Three cheers for simplistic naiveté

Perhaps whistling past the graveyard, the Saudi Oil minister had this to say about the prospects of  U.S. oil independence from our friends the Saudis:

"Newly commercial reserves of shale or tight oil are transforming the energy industry in America -- and that's great news," he told an audience of policy makers and academics at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington.

"It is helping to sustain the U.S. economy and create jobs at a difficult time."

"I welcome these new supplies into the global oil market," he added.

On the other hand, he said, it was not realistic to believe this would help the U.S. eliminate imports of oil, a goal of some Americans who argue energy independence is crucial for the country's security.

Despite the domestic production gains, U.S. imports of Middle East oil in the second half of 2012 were higher than any time since the 1990s, Naimi said.

The U.S. "will continue to meet domestic demand by utilizing a range of different sources, including from the Middle East. This is simply sound economics.

"I believe this talk of ending reliance is a naive, rather simplistic view."
 How realistic is the prospect according to those in the know?  Here's a CNBC story on that:

As detailed in the first two installments of Power Shift, an NBC News/CNBC special report, the United States is reaping the benefits of an energy boom created by new drilling technologies that have unlocked vast domestic oil and natural gas reserves. Coupled with decreasing demand due to energy efficiency and continued cultivation of alternative energy sources, an increasing number of experts believe the U.S. could achieve energy independence by the end of the decade—realizing a dream born during the gas crisis of 1973.

Why would the Oil Minister dismiss the chances of such an eventuality? Doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to figure that one out. From that same story:

"A dramatic expansion of U.S. production could … push global spare capacity to exceed 8 million barrels per day, at which point OPEC could lose price control and crude oil prices would drop, possibly sharply," the U.S. intelligence community's internal think tank, the National Intelligence Council, said in its "Global Trends 2030" report in December. "Such a drop would take a heavy toll on many energy producers who are increasingly dependent on relatively high energy prices to balance their budgets."

With some analysts predicting that oil prices could drop as low as $70 to $90 a barrel—down from the current price of nearly $110 per barrel of Brent crude oil—a "scramble" among OPEC members for market share could ensue, said Edward Morse, an energy analyst with Citigroup and co-author of a recent report on titled "Energy 2020: Independence Day."

It would be nice to be in the catbird seat.  Or as C.J. might put it: (skip the video to the 13:32 mark)

"One, two, three, four, make them sweat outside the door. Five, six, seven, eight, always pays to make them wait. Nine, ten, eleven, twelve, COME!"

Theodicy in "Signs"

The last film we discussed this term in the through Film class I teach is M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs.  A quirky film, and favorite of mine.

A synopsis from the always reliable Wikipedia:

Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) is a former Episcopal priest. His wife Colleen (Patricia Kalember) was killed in a traffic accident caused by veterinarian Ray Reddy (M. Night Shyamalan). Graham's younger brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) helps run the family farm in rural Pennsylvania and care for Graham's two children, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin).

 A mysterious crop circle is found in the cornfield. Bo wakes Graham up saying that there's a monster outside her bedroom window. Graham looks out the window and sees the silhouette of someone standing on the barn roof. Alarmed, he fetches Merrill and they try to scare away the figure, believing it's Lionel Pritchard, a local prankster. The brothers run screaming around the house to frighten off the intruder.

 The next day, Sheriff Caroline Paski (Cherry Jones) stops by to investigate the incident. Their conversation is interrupted by Bo, saying that the TV is reporting numerous crop circles appearing all over the world. The family takes a trip into town the following day.

 That night, the dog Isabel barks incessantly towards the cornfield. Taking a flashlight, Graham walks into the cornfield and yells that the intruders are "wasting [their] time." As Graham walks back to the house, he hears a noise and spots a thin green leg among the cornrows. He runs back to the house, terrified. Later the family watches the television about reports of several unidentifiable and mysterious lights hovering over Mexico City.

 The following morning, Graham receives a cryptic phone call from Ray, the man who killed his wife. Graham goes to see Ray and finds him sitting in his car wearing a bloody shirt. Meanwhile, a frightened Merrill watches news footage capturing the image of an alien at a child's birthday party in Brazil. Ray tells Graham that he is going to the lake, since none of the aliens have been seen near water. Before leaving, Ray pauses to apologize for the accident that killed Colleen and tells Graham that he trapped an alien in his pantry. Investigating, Graham uses a kitchen knife to see the reflection of the alien under the door. A clawed hand reaches out and a startled Graham cuts off two of its fingers.

 Back home, Graham gives his family the options to stay at the house or head towards the lake. They vote to stay, not wanting to leave their home. They board up the windows and doors, preparing for any possible attack. Meanwhile, news reports indicate that more mysterious lights have been spotted worldwide and that the aliens are becoming hostile. Merrill suggests that the crop circles are serving as navigation markers.

Graham prepares a "last meal" for the family, with each picking their preferred dish. They are interrupted when they hear Bo's baby monitor, which they had earlier discovered could pick up the aliens' communications, alerting them that the aliens are approaching. They listen as the aliens, seeking a way in, walk around the house. Merrill suddenly realizes that the attic was left unprotected and they quickly move to the basement, barring the door. The aliens can be heard inside the house and try to enter the basement. An alien grabs Morgan from the disused coal chute. It is driven away, but Morgan has an asthma attack. Graham realizes his inhaler was left upstairs, so he calms Morgan, hoping that the boy's breathing would return to normal. The next morning, Morgan's condition has improved and the radio reports that aliens are retreating. They return upstairs but are ambushed by a lone alien, who takes the comatose Morgan hostage. Graham notices two fingers are missing, meaning it was the alien trapped in Ray's pantry.

 Graham suddenly remembers the night that Colleen died. She was pinned by a car and Caroline tells Graham that when the car is moved his wife will die. He talks to her and she tells him to let Morgan have fun and be silly, and for Bo to always listen to her brother because he will take care of her. She then tells Graham to "see" and "tell Merrill to swing away."

 Graham finally realizes there was a specific, logical meaning to Colleen's final words. Looking around, he sees Merrill's wall-mounted record home run bat. He tells Merrill to "swing away." Merrill understands and grabs the bat. Sensing an attack, the alien sprays a toxin into Morgan's face. Merrill swings at the alien, who then drops Morgan, causing one of Bo's water glasses to spill on it. The water acts like acid on the alien's skin. Merrill then slams the alien into a table containing more unfinished glasses of water. The impact causes all of the liquid to spill directly onto the alien's face and head, and the diabolical creature finally expires.

 During the fight, Graham takes Morgan outside and administers an Epi-pen injection to stop the asthma attack. Morgan regains consciousness, his obstructed lungs having saved his life by preventing him from inhaling most of the alien's poison gas. Having realized how an inexplicable series of wildly unlikely coincidences ended up saving all their lives, and that Colleen's final words meant something after all, Graham's faith is restored. A season later, he is shown donning his clerical garb as a vicar just before heading out to his church.

The film is, at its core, a meditation on pain and suffering, as it has effected Graham’s personal religious convictions and through him it offers a portrayal of at least one theodicy, contrasting it with a naturalistic response to the existence of pain and suffering.

The naturalistic point of view can be roughly stated with the  truism ‘stuff happens’ (plug in the R- rated equivalent of ‘stuff’ if you wish). According to this world view, outside of actions undertaken by human beings, there are no intentionally created evils or benefits in the world. What is more, none of the actions of persons are being forced or manipulated by any supra-personal force or guiding hand.

Theodicies, on the other hand, are exercises in reconciling the existence of pain and suffering with belief in the existence of such a being, in particular a God possessed of all the omni-properties (omni- benevolence, omnipotence and omniscience being chief among them).  Theodicies come in more than one variety and are often not as neatly separable as a list would lead you to believe. More often than not, people who hold to a theodicy hold to more than one in the list at the same time, and will argue for inter-relations between them.  It’s also the case that you can subsume some on the list under others as species to genre. Nevertheless, it is useful to have a list of variants. Here is one such list, with brief explanations (apologies to Jack Webb for the names of the variants):

1. The big plan (there is an over-arching purpose in light of which individual suffering is necessary to bring about a greater good)

2. The big test (pain and suffering are intended as test for individuals, to reveal whether or not they have faith or some other attribute)

3. The big crucible (pain and suffering are intended as facilitators of character formation, virtue development or maturation)

4. The big unifier (pain and suffering bring people  into loving relationships with each other and/or God, relationships of such quality as would not be possible via other means)

5. The big drawback (pain and suffering are inevitable and unavoidable negative consequences of freedom, which itself is of such value that its existence outweighs these drawbacks)

6. The big punishment (pain and suffering are punishments for wrongs we have committed either individually or as a race)

7. The big fall (pain and suffering are due to human beings having a ‘fallen nature.’)

8. The big ignorance (we consider pain and suffering to be avoidable and consider God as wrongly allowing them to exist because we are vastly ignorant when compared to God’s level of knowledge)

9. The big contrast (pain and suffering are needed as contrasts, either in order to allow goods to exist, or in order to allow for human knowledge of them)

10. The big demon (pain and suffering are not caused by God, but by Satan)

I don’t know if this list is exhaustive, but at least two theodicies are portrayed in Signs. The first on our list is given great play in the script as a contrast to the naturalistic point of view. The film’s action culminates in Graham coming to regain a big plan point of view. The dying words of Graham’s wife take on such significance in the last scene of the film, as being not only prescient, but allowing Graham and Merrill to kill the alien that threatens Morgan’s life. Graham also comes to believe that Morgan’s asthma was intentionally allowed and his latest attack also timed to prevent his death at the hands of the alien.

Before all this happens we also see that the character tied to the death of Graham’s wife suspects that it was more than coincidental that he fell asleep at the wheel when he did. Finally, and most importantly to the positive outcome, the daughter, Bo’s, obsession with collecting water filled glasses throughout the house allows Merrill to kill the alien by shattering those glasses with swings of his bat, thus spraying it with water, which acts as a sort of acid, burning it to death. In the world of Signs, this all was arranged by God.

The pivotal philosophical scene in the film occurs earlier. We see the family, in an epistemological state more like ours; not at all sure there is some guiding and protective force. We watch as they learn of the alien invasion via television news. Late at night Graham and Merrill are still up, pondering the events.  Graham presents a sketch of the two basic outlooks or world-views we have been dealing with in this post; the  ‘big plan’ point of view and its naturalistic alternative.

Actually, there is more to this scene. Merrill presses Graham to state his own view, and he does, quite forcefully. Unfortunately I cannot find the balance of that scene, but we find out that Graham places himself in the second naturalistic camp with some vehemence, due to the loss of his wife. As the film progresses we learn what you’ve seen in the first clip; that he had lost his wife to a freak auto accident.  She had been walking at night, and was hit by the local veterinarian’s car because he fell asleep at the wheel. This caused Graham to stop believing in God.  Instead, he has come to subscribe to the naturalistic view that such events are nothing more than accidents, sometimes fortuitous, sometimes horrible, and that there is nothing more to such apparently unplanned or ‘random’ events in our lives than that. There is no guiding force that causes these events to occur, nor, obviously consequent to this, are there any purposes behind them, outside of any human purposes there may be. In terms of overarching plans that unify and explain the apparently random or painful in terms of some greater goods, Graham no longer holds to such beliefs. Nor does he have truck with the notion of a guiding hand that steers human action for greater goods.

Not quite so obviously, the film portrays theodicy #4. We see the family unify not only as a response to the death, but under the threat of the invasion. This unfolds while we also see #1 exemplified as Graham ultimately reconciles with God due to his having come to see the unifying thread that connects the various accidents or coincidences in the film. So, the film engages theodicy #8 as well.

The film allows for discussions along the lines presented in that pivotal scene, discussions that will elicit statements of the 10 theodicies as well as the naturalistic alternative. As such a spur, the film engages the two most common world views held by people today; the naturalistic and the traditional theistic.  A good way to end a semester; hashing out of such “big picture” questions.

I cannot leave the subject of this film without some levity. First, my favorite comedic scene 

“Move Children! Vamanos!

..which as noted before, has spawned its own Facebook presence.

And, Scary Movie 3 relentlessly parodies:

 Exit question: About one premise of the film - If you were the Commander in charge of this rather large fleet, from what is, no doubt, a technologically sophisticated civilisation for whom water is toxic and lethal, even if the planet offered the prospect of taste tempting human snacks, wouldn't you think twice about the wisdom of the move as you approached the planet seeing that it is about 70% water. Just a bit obvious from orbit isn't it?  And how would you deal with things like..oh I don't know...rain and fog.. hurricanes?  Pretty dim or incompetent aliens, I'd say.