Friday, August 18, 2017

The President of Fake News

MMU series logo
During a press conference this week, the embattled president answered a query from a CNN reporter by asserting: “You’re fake news.”

Fake news—it’s not a term The Donald invented. According to a dictionary reference cited by the Huffington Post, the term fake news became popular late in the 19th century—which is not exactly a shock. That was a time of yellow journalism, of sensationalism in the news media, and some writers  then decried the trend and hoped the public would grow weary of the hype—of the false narratives, of the fake news.

The Telegraph, a national newspaper in Great Britain, posted an interesting analysis of the roots of the term fake news and its use by Donald Trump. I’m exploring the term “fake news,” its modern use and origins, as part of a presentation I’ll do in early September at Mount Mercy University. This year’s Fall Faculty Series is about our current era of divided politics. Entitled “Divided We Fall: Finding Common Ground in a Fractured Age,” the whole series seems suddenly more relevant.

The idea of a fall series itself is relatively young—the first one took place in fall 2014 and covered the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. Since then, each fall the faculty at MMU has presented a series of public lectures by MMU professors and guest speakers on various big topics. We covered the legacy of the Vietnam War in 2015 and the debate over immigration in 2016.

I coordinated those first three series. Now, the series is under the leadership of Dr. Joy Ochs, professor of English and immediate past chair of the faculty. So this year, I get to watch rather than getting caught up in all of the details of putting on the series. That’s good news, not fake news, to me

On Sept. 7, I am taking on the topic “Fake News and the Free Press,” a rumination that will cover the president’s use of that pejorative term vs the traditional role of the press as a vital part of our democracy.

I am looking forward to this fall’s faculty series. I hope you’ll come hear me try to illuminate and explore the idea of fake news and what it means, and that you’ll also come to our many other speakers. We’re covering important topics that need to be talked about in our country now.

No faking.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Make Me A Robot—Amelia 2.0 is Compelling Movie

Art used on movie poster, from Facebook page for the movie.

“Make me a robot, take, take my soul.” Tessa Violet.

I had hoped to go to the premiere of the movie “Amelia 2.0” at Collins Road Theater, but did not make it. But I did see the film Aug. 10, when my wife and I attended the 4:50 p.m. show.

At the showing, there was a fairly small audience, and that seems a bit of a shame. “Amelia 2.0” is a well done, compelling movie the raises life and death questions. From a play produced in Cedar Rapids called “The Summerland Project,” “Amelia 2.0” tells the story of Amelia Summerland, a woman who dies of a brain aneurysm. But as she slips away in a coma, a high tech corporation, with HQ in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, makes Amelia’s husband an offer.

Sign a nondisclosure form and medical release, and we’ll scan your wife’s brain into a robot.

That’s the vehicle for the movie to explore basic questions. What does it mean to be human? If thoughts of a human brain could be mechanically reproduced, would the machine have a soul? If you could preserve the consciousness of a loved one in a robot, would you?

The answers are neither simple nor straightforward, and different characters in the movie are allowed to react in different ways. For example, there is a conservative senator from Iowa who leads a crusade against the project—but he’s not an evil character at all. He has decent motivations, and his own mortality is an important plot point. One of the scientists working on the project basically falls in love with Amelia, even though he helped create her as a robot. Her husband ends up not being to accept that she’s human, while one of her creators develops feelings for her as if she were.

And maybe she is. The movie steers away from presenting a final answer. It’s the same question posed by Robert Heinlein in what I think of as his best book, “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.” If a machine can think and feel emotions, is there a point where it’s no longer a machine?

Given the nature of the “Amelia 2.0” story, it seemed inevitable to me that the project would go wrong. Frankenstein didn’t exactly have a happy ending. This movie is a tragedy in a classic Shakespearean sense.

Anyway, if you haven’t seen it, I urge you to do so. And I hope the popularity of the movie will spread. I hope future showings at Collins Road will be packed. You’ll see some familiar faces—the movie stars some actors that have been in major films—and it’s nice that local actor Angela Billman moved from the play “The Sutherland Project” to play Amelia is “Amelia 2.0.” The Gazette reviewer enjoyed this film, too.

It was also fun to Cedar Rapids on the big screen. There was a movie of that title (“Cedar Rapids”) several years ago that was cringe worthy, and seeing the city in a movie of more depth was nice. The cameo by Mercy Medical Center and the Cedar Rapids Public Library as key locations was fun to watch. And I did like the embedded plug for TCR.

But I would have liked the movie, I think, if it had been filmed in Madison, Wisconsin, or Austin, Texas. As a narrative, it holds together well and provokes many reactions. Don’t go thinking that you’ll see a light comedy. Do go, expecting to see a compelling story.