The Dude, the Tao and the Dharma

The DudeI suppose it all began with Benjamin Hoff. Hoff was one of the first contemporary writers to attempt to distill Taoism in a lighthearted form for Westerners when he wrote The Tao of Pooh in 1981, a very successful book still in print. It was on the New York Times bestseller list for 49 weeks. A decade later, he followed with The Te of Piglet, less successful (its message somewhat diluted by Hoff’s extraneous political and social commentary) but also still in print.

Not that Hoff was the first Westerner to attempt to explain Asian philosophy and religion. That goes back to Marco Polo. However, it really got a head of steam in the late 19th century when there was a flurry of translations of almost all of the Asian classics, from the Vedas to Zen stories. A lot of these translations are still in print, although newer, better ones are available. And in the 1950s and 60s came a second wave, first as the beatniks, then the hippies adopted some of these beliefs. Sometimes even seriously and sincerely.

But not everyone was Jack Kerouac. Most of these books were serious stuff: the work of scholars and translators determined to open the intellectual doors for Western minds. Similar efforts were undertaken to Anglicize Greek, Roman, Hebrew, Sumerian and other classics. It was an intellectual exercise, which often only confounded the average worker.

In 1971, Be Here Now, a seminal work by Baba Ram Dass (aka Richard Alpert) presented the ideas of Asian philosophy in a graphically entertaining manner (it’s still in print). It did a remarkably good job of clarifying and distilling a lot of ideas and practices. However, it was still stuffier than Hoff in its presentation of those ideas.

Hoff made it fun, made it easy to read. He disarmed readers by explaining everything in comments and discussions by the lovable A. A. Milne characters, and who can’t love a cuddly teddy bear discussing the meaning of life with a stuffed toy pig? The dialogues went like this:

Rabbit’s clever,” said Pooh thoughtfully.
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit’s clever.”
“And he has Brain.”
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit has Brain.”
There was a long silence.
“I suppose,” said Pooh, “That that’s why he never understands anything.”

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It’s Not a Wonderful Life

It's a Wonderful Life
I’m convinced many Americans – Donald Trump among them – think Frank Capra’s famous film, It’s a Wonderful Life, was a documentary, not entertainment. It has all the elements of Trumpist utopia: a white, Christian, unquestionably patriotic, male-dominated, patriarchal culture where the bad guy gets away with stealing from others, and making himself rich at everyone else’s expense. No one stops him and everyone still lives happily ever after.*

Married women in the film are mostly housewives; those women who work are secretaries and clerks while men are the bosses. There is little traffic: no hopped-up cars, no street racing, no motorcycles or biker gangs. Streets are broad and tree-lined; no apartments or highrises. The pretty downtown would be a heritage district today, frozen in time against modernization and change.

You don’t see teenagers loitering around coffee shops obsessed with their cell phones. Younger kids have jobs and even run businesses. There are no unions. Everyone dresses modestly, clothed from neck to ankle to wrist. Children appear in families without the messy, distracting business of sex (although there is a suggestive kiss in the film). There isn’t even a honeymoon for the newly married couple.

People of colour appear in it only as polite servants, employees or entertainers. From my count only five black people are in the film: the family servant, a couple in the high school dance scene (possibly the same couple who appear on the street in the background of a scene where George and Violet flirt), a delivery person who appears only in the final scene and a piano player in a honky tonk a la Fats Waller. Only Nora, the black servant, has any lines. The rest are mere background.

No Mexicans, Asians, Indians or other ethnicities. No Thai food restaurants or Chinese or Indian, no fast food drive-throughs. The downtown has no graffiti, no litter, no stray dogs or homeless people. You can drink and drive without consequences since the police are aw-shucks-just-folk torn from the set of Andy Griffiths’ Mayberry. There are no drugs, no drunks, no social housing. No strip clubs.

And of course it is watched over by a jovial, benevolent god who appoints a happy, somewhat feckless angel to make sure things go right.** George Bailey, secular at the start, learns to pray by the end. Every time you hear a bell, an angel gets its wings. No place in Bedford Falls for the unbeliever. Or the Jew. Or the Muslim. George prays, muttering his own version of Oh, Father, why hast Thou forsaken me? And he gets results. God is always on hand to absolve the faithful of their folly, just as long as they ask nicely. You don’t even need to believe, just make a show of doing so.

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Godless – The Truth Beyond Belief

Religious tolerance?“Godless – The Truth Beyond Belief” investigates one of the last frontiers in civil liberties and human rights: Atheism. So reads the opening sentence on the website of a new film about atheism and society. It asks, “can you be good without god?”

Well, yes, you can. That’s the whole point of secular humanism, philosophy and the entire Buddhist faith. Morality is a choice we make, not a divine command.

It also hides another question within its folds: can you be good and still have free will? If you need a god to be good, that suggests you don’t have free will. You’re simply some deity’s meat puppet. If you have free will to be evil, then morality is clearly a choice, a human construct, not divine.

Despite what the religious right say, being good is not necessarily a part of being pious. I briefly mentioned this in the footnotes of my previous post on Horace’s Ode 2.14. The two attributes may be complementary (in some people), but history is equally replete with examples of pious people who were predatory, con artists, killers, torturers, rapists, thugs and murderers. They call their evils “doing God’s will.” Atheists never have that hypocritical motivation.

The two attributes of goodness and piety don’t always coincide, and as noted above, religious belief can even make it worse. Just think of the Spanish Inquisition and the witch hunts of the Reformation or anything ISIS does. As Blaise Pascal, said, “Men never commit evil so fully and joyfully as when they do it for religious convictions.”
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Transcendance

TranscendenceIt’s not surprising that AI replaced the biological form in the popular Frankenstein monster trope. In fact the smart-evil-machine scenario has been done so often this past decade or so that I’m more surprised any film writer or director can manage to give it some semblance of uniqueness that differs it from all the others.

Transcendence tries, tries very hard and almost makes it. But the brass ring remains out of reach. Still, it’s worth watching if you’re a scifi buff because, well, it’s scifi.* And even bad scifi is better than no scifi at all. Well, maybe not the Transformer franchise, but pretty much the rest of it.

More than that, while it doesn’t tread a lot of new ground, it does use a lot of nifty sets and special effects, even if the topic isn’t all that new.

The evil robot has been with us in film for a very long time. Fritz Lang’s 1927 film, Metropolis was the first to portray a sentient robot (the ‘Maschinenmensch’). That robot was created to “resurrect” the creator’s former lover. In Transcendence, the character of Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is similarly “resurrected” but in virtual space: inside a computer. And of course he/it evolves/develops within those confines to something more than human.

Angry non-techies storm the castle with pitchforks and burn the whole place down. Well, okay it’s an underground data centre in the desert and they use artillery, but it’s basically the same thing. It’s a monster movie with CGI lipstick. And better yet, it’s in the $8 bin (with both Blu-Ray and DVD editions in the case…) at Wal Mart. But be prepared to question the premise. And a lot more.
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Power, ambition, backstabbing

Hollow CrownPower grabs. Backstabbing. Lust. Ambition. Conniving. Hypocrisy. A weak but well-meaning ruler. A grasping second in command who viciously usurps power. A bureaucrat jealous of the nobles, jockeying for power and trading favours to get his way. Sleazy nobles selling their loyalty for petty trinkets. A cast of despicable, grasping characters all out for themselves, oblivious of the cost of their machinations on the common people, and willing to tread on anyone who gets in their way. Machiavellian plots and secret meetings. The destruction of state institutions and facilities. Heads rolling.

Collingwood Council? No: Shakespeare’s three-part extravaganza, Henry VI. Although you have to admit I had you there, since the resemblance seems so uncanny. A Readers’ Guide to Shakespeare (ed. Joseph Rosenblum) notes of part III:

Hatred ambition and greed are keynotes, while duty, trust, tradition and self-restraint are increasingly rare.

Boy, doesn’t that sound just like Collingwood Council? In Part I, Richard Plantagenet says of the recently deceased Mortimer that he was, “Choked with ambition of the meaner sort.” Sure sounds to me like someone – or ones – we know at the council table. And this description of Henry Beaufort, the Bishop of Winchester (from part I), also has undeniable echoes in a local personality (or maybe personalities…):

Winchester is portrayed as a corrupt, power-hungry bishop who buys his elevation to cardinal and who seeks to overthrow the rightful, secular authority of the Protector.

But of course, it’s not about them. The Protector is the Duke of Gloucester, by the way (okay, you already knew that…).

Henry VI forms two of the three movies in the latest Hollow Crown series, presented by the BBC. Two, you say? I thought there were three parts… well, yes there are, but the directors pruned away some of the slower bits and condensed the whole thing into two parts. Probably a wise move; the latter two parts are considered great plays, but the first (actually written later than the first two) is considered on of the Bard’s weaker efforts. But recent revivals of the trilogy, no matter how long, have drawn praise.
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Mildly Angry Max

Mad Max: Fury RoadThe latest Mad Max movie isn’t so much about Max as it is about the political-feminist message of the film. Max himself seems somewhat perturbed, sometimes cross, but not really mad in the sense of going berserk. Mildly angry most of the time. Grumpy Max.

Not like the original, fast-quipping, fast-shooting, troubled character played by Mel Gibson in the B-flick that went viral back in the late 1970s. The new Max is more phlegmatic. And not nearly as good a shot. Despite some great effects and photography, Mad Max: Fury Road doesn’t hold a candle to the originals, mostly because of the thin characters.

Well, Mel Gibson is too old to reprise the role, and his subsequent anti-Semitic outbursts and rabid, fundamentalist Christianity have put him into the “no-film” zone for Hollywood these days. Or at least relegating him to modest roles in films of great mediocrity. But as the original Max, he was pretty damned good in the first three films of the franchise.

Mad Max was a story about a loner trying to survive in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic world. Sort of like the Conan series of films, set a few millennia in the future, with guns instead of swords. It was a wild, exciting, scary place.

The new Mad Max is set in an even harsher version of that world, but one that begs more explanation. And the plot is thinner than a corn tortilla.

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Cowboy Noir

John Wayne

I hadn’t previously considered western movies as film noir – I always thought of them as crime dramas – until I watched The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance over the holidays, perhaps my third viewing of the 1962 movie. The gloomy shadows, the dark sets, the agony of the characters. And then it struck me: cowboy noir.

But why not? Noir is, after all not a theme as much as an atmosphere. As one reviewer of cowboy noir put it,

Noir is like a disease. Its symptoms are moodiness, despair, guilt, and paranoia… The tropes of the Western—sunlight, open spaces, nature—would seem to immune to the noir disease. But make no mistake, the Western caught the disease. A genre that seemed to be the quintessence of American optimism, a genre that seemed to embody the notion of moral clarity, slowly gave way to darker themes and more neurotic characters.

Yet among his eight films chosen, TMWSLV isn’t to be found. In one IMDB list of 100 western noir films, it squeaks in at number 99. In this one and this one, it doesn’t even rate a listing.

Imogen Sara Smith, writing in Bright Lights film journal, 2009, noted,

…westerns have always encompassed more complexity than the simplistic “oaters” made for children’s matinees,2 and after World War II some westerns took on a new tone, borrowing the themes, plots and look of film noir.

For me, it’s a classic, close the being the classic, western and certainly I think John Ford’s best western. Others differ (The Guardian, for example, doesn’t include it in its list of top Western films). Some dismiss it as a failed attempt. Me, I enjoyed it more this time around than any viewing in the past.

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The Last Case of Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes. Iconic detective, 93 years old. Tending his bees in bucolic self-exile near the Dover coast. Mycroft gone. Watson gone. Mrs. Hudson gone. Even the band of villains and criminals who made him who he was are gone. All he has left are his memories and his bees. And his memories are failing.

It’s 1947 and the countryside still bears the visible scars of the recent war. Holmes (Ian McKellen) has just returned from a trip to Japan to see a mysterious contact who promises a rare, native plant will help him with his senility. In England, Holmes raises bees to harvest the royal jelly, then touted as a miracle cure, but so far it hasn’t worked. He travels to the far side of the planet to find another cure, but instead is confronted again with his past. A past he cannot clearly recall.

Holmes returns from Japan to tackle his final case: wresting the truth of his last case from the vault of his own brain. It’s a story made famous through Watson’s tale, itself turned into a popular movie in the 1930s (and you get a brief view of that film, with Holmes in the audience smiling wryly at his fictional self onscreen…. the fictional character watching another fictionalization).

This isn’t a film about a new case, or even about an old case with new evidence. It’s about Holmes trying to tell the truth about a case long since solved and almost forgotten. To tell the truth about a case that touched his heart, not just his brain.

Tell it to whom? To himself.

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0G1lIBgk4PA] Continue reading “The Last Case of Sherlock Holmes”

The Signal

The SignalOne of the oddest – but most intriguing – scifi films I’ve seen recently was the 2014 movie, the Signal. It is a small-budget film that premiered at the Sundance Festival last year and seems to have gone to DVD soon after. I picked up a copy recently at a nearby HMV and watched it over the weekend.

It stars Laurence Fishburne as the only big-name actor, while the main role is played by newcomer Brenton Thwaites.

The film reminded me somewhat of George Lucas’s first big film, THX-1138, in its minimalist production and sets. But they’re not otherwise alike. THX-1138 was overwhelmingly white: in The Signal the sets are dingy, drab and dreary.

It also uses some of the shaky-cam techniques that made Blair Witch Project standout but has been overused ever since. But not enough to make my eyes hurt and head ache, and reach for the remote to turn it off.

The movie takes three young university students on a cross-country journey during which you learn they were accused of hacking a university server, but apparently cleared somewhat. As they drive through the American southwest, they decide to chase down the hacker who was really behind the attack, using the IP of a message to locate him/her.

All of which takes some time. Probably half the film is a road trip/coming of age movie in which the backstory slowly emerges and the characters are gradually developed. There are some technical elements thrown in to remind viewers there is some science in here, however thin.

I was almost tempted to turn it off and watch something else, something more exciting, but the DVD case had a photo of Fishburne in a biohazard suit, so I knew there was more to come.

When it does arrive, it’s a strange blend of Kafka, THX-1138, ET, The Shining, and other popular cultural and literary themes. I won’t spoil the movie, except to say that it isn’t ever really clear for most of the remainder what is going on. In fact, until the final scene you never quite get the point. It keeps throwing hints at you that never quite stick and make you wonder more.

I can’t get it through my head that it’s supposed to be a metaphor for love and emotion as it is claimed to be. When I think of that notion in scifi, I think of Spock and Kirk. But it does explain why the director put so much vacillating about love and feeling, especially in the first half. There’s some love-redemption going on, sure, but it didn’t strike me as the foremost theme.

Stay with it. It’s not the best scifi film I’ve seen, nor the most well-constructed story and the pacing is too slow at the start. Still, it redeems itself towards the end with some action, suspense and surprises. And like I said, it makes you think.

My final comment is that the last shot, that final glimpse that explains it all, is too fleeting. It should last another minute or so, just enough for the audience to take in the whole picture.

Ex Machina

Ex MachinaEx Machina – “from the machine” – is a British film that is more about philosophy and morality than science. It opens a can or worms, philosophically, that underscores issues now being raised by advancing and increasingly intelligent technology. Its spare but crisp production reminds me of George Lucas’s first film, THX-1138.

Spoiler alert, by the way…

It is, in its essence, a modern exploration of the themes presented in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein, using artificial intelligence as the  fulcrum, rather than the reanimating of dead tissue.

The film poses questions that are current in all AI research, but are also important on the larger ethical scale about how we treat intelligence outside our own, robots in this case being metaphors for companion and food animals:

  • How do we define sentience?
  • How do we recognize sentience in others?
  • How do we treat sentience?
  • Is there a separate morality and behaviour for our interaction with non-human intelligence?

None of these are answered in the film, although the quest for the answers is part of the plot (which is also part-thriller). And lingering over all of it is the Turing Test: is it real sentience or simply the illusion of it? And how can we tell the difference?

It also suggests the question of what exactly emotions are:

  • Can emotions be programmed?
  • Are emotions predictable and quantifiable?
  • Can a machine experience emotions?

Then there are the questions about gender and sexuality:

  • Is gender programmable?
  • Does sexuality reside in the intellect or the physical appearance? or both?
  • What attracts men and women?

The film also poses the question that is paramount in Frankenstein:

  • Is the human creation of an intelligence moral or ethical? Can it ever be?
  • What treatment or response does the creation deserve?

And as a sub-theme, the film throws in the morality of slavery and male domination: earlier models of robot appear to be kept as sex slaves by their designer (particularly Kyoko, the assistant and cook, who is revealed to be a robot only half-way through the film – and is perhaps more enigmatic and interesting than Ava, the lead character).

Are these merely sexbots: tools and devices for use, or are they sentient beings? Plus, the main robot, Ava, has evident and expressive sexuality. Is it real/authentic (i.e. a native response) or simply programmed? Are the males  – who both play a dominant role – sexist or sympathetic in their responses to the female robots?

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The Missing Frankenstein Movies

Legacy Collection: FrankensteinI was worried when I saw a new package for the Frankenstein films in WalMart recently. Labelled the “Complete Legacy Collection,” it offered eight original films on the Frankenstein theme, from 1931 to 1948. I snapped it up and read the back. I had to have it. (I always check the films they bring in pre-Halloween, in case they have any classics I don’t yet have….)

Oh oh, I said to myself as I read the cover. I had purchased all of the Legacy monster movie collections a few years back (they were first released in 2004)  and my set of Frankenstein movies had only five films in it. This one had Three More Monster Films! True, one of them as Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein, but even if it was a comedy, it did include some of the great stars (Lugosi, Chaney and Glenn Strange, who replaced Karloff as the monster in later films of the series).

If the entire series had been re-released with additional films in each set, I thought to myself as I stood there, it mean I would have to buy all the sets all over again. Susan wouldn’t be happy. I put the box into the cart, and looked for the others. Fortunately for my wallet, there were none. Yet.

A little reading online made me realize this was simply a repackaging of the entire 30-film one-box collection that had been released in late 2014. Universal has repackaged the films in several versions with varying numbers of movies since the first release, from four to 30 in each. Some even have the 1943 Phantom of the Opera movie, one of the few Universal horror of that era titles I lack.

The Legacy Collection first packaged 14 films from the original Frankenstein, Wolfman and Dracula series made by Universal, in three boxed sets. The originals star the actors who would become famous for their roles in the first of them, all shot in the early 1930s: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. The sequels didn’t always include the original actors, however (and some of the replacement actors – like John Carradine as Dracula – are poor choices). But these are the films I treasure.

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Victor Hugo’s Hunchback

HunchbackI have just finished listening to a well-read audio book (in English) of Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, Hunchback of Notre Dame, or more properly, Notre Dame de Paris, as the original title was written. I had read the novel several years ago in a more recent Penguin edition, but hearing it on my peregrinations around town with the dogs gave me time to focus on some sections I had glossed over in the written form.

Unlike the abysmal Disney animation of 1996, and unlike all the films and TV series that have been made of the story since the first (Esmeralda, 1905), the novel doesn’t have a happy ending. It’s a sad, bitter tale. And Quasimodo, the hunchback, is not the main character. It is only in part his story. The happy, dancing hunchback of Disney’s tale is a cruel abomination of the tragic figure in Hugo’s novel.

Lon Chaney’s 1923 version was the first truly great portrayal of Quasimodo, but the censors of the time, under the Hays Code, forced the writers to recast several characters – Claude Frollo goes from villain to virtuous, and his brother, the drunken scholar Jehan, goes from vain bumbler to villain. The plot is also twisted to include bits Hugo never wrote, including a Pygmalion-like ball where Esmeralda is disguised as a noble lady.

If you don’t mind silent film, you definitely should see it for Chaney’s portrayal, but it isn’t the story Hugo wrote.

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Rethinking John Carter

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8FekiAVioSg]

After recently going through the first five of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 11 Barsoom books, I decided to give the 2012 Disney film, John Carter, another viewing. This two-hour-eleven-minute film bombed at the box office, and when I first saw it, I was deeply disappointed. But on reflection after a second viewing, it isn’t all that bad. It’s not great, but it deserves a better rating than it received, and it wears well in a second viewing.

It isn’t quite the Barsoom I grew up with, true, but it borrows heavily from Burroughs, enough to make it a close cousin in many parts. It’s the parts where the writers went off to play mix-and-match with other scifi franchises and stories where it’s actually weakest. That’s where the storyline unravels, but not so much it falls apart.

And, of course, no film or TV series can ever live up to the books, if for no other reason than that no matter how spectacular, no film cannot live up to imagination. Reading always wins, hands down, regardless of the film’s budget.

I initially saw John Carter through my own lens as a lifelong fan of ERB, who had grown up reading and rereading Burroughs’ tales and still has a substantial library of his novels on my bookshelves. That’s a mixed blessing, because while it allowed me to immediately understand the story, setting and the characters, it made me overly sensitive to that context. I compared the actual novels and the plots to the film from a purist perspective and found them wanting.

I should have been looking at the film more as a tribute, set in the Barsoomian universe, rather than a strict retelling. The film plays homage to the first two Barsoom novels, but also takes many liberties, conflating plots and characters and adding extraneous non-Burroughs elements. I didn’t like these additions at first, but now I understand better what the writers and director were trying to achieve by enhancing the drama.

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Pompeii: Swords-and-Sandals Flop

PompeiiAs a film setting, the town of Pompeii in the first century CE is a lot like the deck of the Titanic in 1912: no amount of special effects or clever script writing is going to save it from the disaster awaiting. As a film, Pompeii has a lot of the former, but precious little of the latter to rescue it. That’s probably why it’s in the $7 section at the DVD store.

Let’s start with the history. Pompeii was a Roman town on the west side of Italy close to the slopes of an active volcano, Mount Vesuvius. The recipe for disaster starts with the question: why would anyone build on the slopes of an active volcano? You might ask that of the many towns and villages that currently encircle its slopes, including the city of Naples, a mere 9 km away.

Vesuvius has been active for most of recorded history. The biggest eruption took place about 1800 BCE and the last one in 1944, with many, many in-between. None of the post-Pompeii eruptions have been as violent as the one on August 20, 79 CE, however. None, however, were as great as the eruption of Thera in 1570 CE, which destroyed the Minoan civilization and radically changed the face of civilization in the Eastern Mediterranean, but I digress.

The great drama happened in 79 CE when Vesuvius exploded spectacularly, and in doing so wiped out the town of Pompeii, killing an estimated 16,000 people. Good setting then for a disaster film, right? But it wasn’t quite like in the movie – well, nothing ever is.

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Lucy and the 10% Brain Myth

LucyWe watched the film Lucy on iTunes last night and, while reasonably entertaining, its plot is founded on a persistent bit of pseudoscience: that people only use 10% of their brain capacity. It’s so widespread a myth that Wikipedia has a page on it that opens:

The 10 percent of the brain myth is the widely perpetuated urban myth that most or all humans only make use of 10 percent (or some other small percentage) of their brains. It has been misattributed to many people, including Albert Einstein. By extrapolation, it is suggested that a person may harness this unused potential and increase intelligence.

Sure, we all know people who don’t appear to use much of their brain’s potential power, but the simple truth is that we all use all of our brain’s capacity. We evolved a big brain to handle the growing demands of increased consciousness, speech and sophisticated motor control, and that’s what it’s for.

Sure, not all of it is used in a conscious manner. Much of the brain’s function is taken up in processing, storing and interpreting the huge bandwidth of information that is fed to it every second of every day. Even acts we do daily and take for granted – like walking upstairs with a cup of tea in one hand while talking – take a huge amount of processing power. Sight, balance, motor control, memory, logic, vocalization, muscles control… the brain takes care of it all without spilling a drop.

Your consciousness – the ego – doesn’t see all this work going on and never will because you would quickly be overwhelmed by the huge amount of data being managed by your unconscious. Yes, yes, a lot of people don’t appear to even use the whole capacity of their conscious brains – anti-vaxxers, chemtrail wingnuts, creationists and some local bloggers come to mind – but that’s just a portion of what the brain does. Critical thinking is a skill one has to acquire and practice, not an inherent brain function.

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