Category Archives: Movies – Documentary

Summary of “Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria”

EscherichiaColi NIAID.jpg

I recently watched the PBS “Frontline documentary “Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria.” It investigates the rise of deadly drug-resistant bacteria. As the world health organization has recently reported, we may be heading for a post-antibiotic world where common infections will again kill.

Most of us realize that a big part of the problem is that most antibiotics are fed to livestock. Everyone knows that we shouldn’t engage in that practice but the agricultural and pharmaceutical lobbies are just too powerful to defeat on this issue. And those lobbies are interested in profit, not public health.

Perhaps lesser known is that few drug companies are developing new antibiotics because it is less profitable to develop antibiotics which are taken occasionally, as opposed to drugs that need to be taken regularly for conditions like blood pressure, cholesterol, hair loss, or erectile dysfunction. This is a classic example of how the market doesn’t always serve the individual’s best interests. We may get erections and hair but die from the effects of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

How real is the problem? The CDC claims:

Each year in the United States, at least 2 million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of these infections. Many more people die from other conditions that were complicated by an antibiotic-resistant infection.

Only government research supported by tax dollars is likely to solve such large problems. The purpose of good government is to act in the interest of the common good. This is their raison d’être.

But private corporations answer to their shareholders—profit is their only concern. Need evidence? 1) Consider that while tobacco killed millions over decades, the tobacco industry actively covered up the problem since tobacco was a profitable product. But government slowly exposed the problem by placing constraints on the sale of tobacco and publicizing it as a public health hazard. 2) Consider that after decades of polluting the air, earth, and water, only the creation of the EPA stemmed the tide, successfully enacting measures to clean up the environment. 3) Consider the deadly effects of leaded gasoline, lead paint, and other lead products. Again industry profited, people died, and government saved us. Today, as global climate change proceeds unabated, fossil fuels companies and their allies again lie and deceive. And why not? It is profitable to burn fossil fuels. Only governmental power is likely to stop the ruination our fragile climate.

From an economic standpoint, even larger steps are probably needed including the creation of a new economic system or at least serious changes to our current one. Politically we needed more global cooperation or we should grant intergovernmental bodies like the IPCC or UN more power to make states comply with international law. The fact is that many problems we confront today cross international borders.

So thanks PBS for an informative documentary. It wasn’t profitable to investigate this for a small audience, and without adequate public funds you are forced to beg for money, but this broadcast performed a great public service. Thanks “public broadcasting system.”

Note – The NY Times published this op-ed about the documentary.

Movie Review of “Life Itself”- The Life and Death of Roger Ebert

I recently watched the movie of film critic Roger Ebert’s illness and death, Life Itself. It is one of the most moving depictions of the end of a well-lived lives that I have ever watched.

I first encounted Ebert arguing about movies with his partner Gene Siskel in the 1970s. I enjoyed their sophisticated banter about movies. Ebert was a superb prose stylist who really loved literature. (I have written about him previously on this blog.)

A warning though. The movie is not for the faint of heart. Ebert wants us to know what death is really like. I was edified by watching the film.

Review of “Exile Nation: The Plastic People”

I have recently watched the documentary: Exile Nation: The Plastic People. It is about U.S. deportees in Tijuana who struggle to survive a cartel war zone, and who live in cardboard boxes and sewer pipes, in an ever-expanding underworld of exiles. Most of the deportees have lived in the US since childhood, have extended families in the US, have no relatives in Mexico, and speak no Spanish. Many have waited for citizenship for years but multiple roadblocks block that path. Many of these deportees do the migrant farm work without which Americans wouldn’t enjoy low prices for their food. Here is the trailer for “Exile Nation.”

I encourage my readers to watch this moving film and, if possible, work for solutions to human degradation in the US and elsewhere.

Command and Control: Damascus Titan Missile Explosion

Last night I viewed the new documentary film, Command and Control from director Robert Kenner. It was released January 10, 2017, and broadcast by PBS as part of its American Experience series. [11] The documentary is based on Eric Schlosser’s book, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. The book focused on the explosion, as well as other Broken Arrow incidents during the Cold War.[6][7] It was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for History.[10]

The Damascus Titan missile explosion refers to an incident where the liquid fuel in a LGM-25C Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile exploded at missile launch facility Launch Complex 374-7 in Van Buren County farmland just north of Damascus, Arkansas, on September 18–19, 1980. The initial explosion catapulted the 740-ton silo door away from the silo and ejected the second stage and warhead. Once clear of the silo, the second stage exploded. The W53 warhead landed about 100 feet (30 m) from the launch complex’s entry gate; its safety features operated correctly and prevented any loss of radioactive material.

However, we came frighteningly close to a nuclear catastrophe that night. Had the warhead detonated, millions of people would have either been killed outright or died shortly thereafter from the effects of the radioactive fallout.

The documentary is riveting, especially when your realize how many times we’ve had nuclear close calls, incidents that could start an unintended nuclear war, and nuclear accidents, incidents involving nuclear material that led to, or could have led to, events significant consequences to people, the environment or the facility. Examples include lethal effects to individuals, large radioactivity release to the environment, or reactor core melt.”[4] The Chernobyl nuclear accident would be a quintessential example.

The simple fact is that we have so far avoided more costly failures primarily because we’ve been lucky. It is also ironic how the having these weapons poses as much threat to those who have them as to those at whom they are aimed. It’s reminiscent of the idea that the more personal guns we have the safer we’ll be—which is self-evidently absurd and contradicted by all available evidence from societies around the world.

Of course superpowers with thousands of nuclear weapons find themselves in a version of the prisoner’s dilemma. Russia and the USA, who possess more than 90% of the world’s largest nuclear arsenals, find themselves in the following situation: If they both disarm they both do better, they can spend that money on their societies; if they both arm they both do worse, they must spend that money on nuclear weapons and face mutually assured destruction. But both fear that they will disarm and the other side won’t, which would allow the other side to dominate them.

In matrix form, where B = best; S = second best; T = third best; and W = worst; and the first outcome in each parenthesis is the USA outcome, and the second is Russia’s outcome, the situation looks like this:

Russia

Arm                 Disarm

Arm             (T, T)                  (B, W)

USA

Disarm        (W, B)                 (S, S)

It is easy to see here that both do better and neither does worse if they both disarm, but disarming without assurance that the other disarms risks being made a sucker. Still, if each can be assured that the other will comply with an agreement to disarm, both sides should. The alternative is the inevitable nuclear wars and accidents that will result.

All of this reminds me of reading Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth years ago, when he warned of the existential threat posed by nuclear weapons. Then, in today’s New York Times we read that ” Thanks to Trump, the Doomsday Clock Advances Toward Midnight.”

It is now two and one-half minutes to midnight. Our organization, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, is marking the 70th anniversary of its Doomsday Clock on Thursday by moving it 30 seconds closer to midnight. In 2016, the global security landscape darkened as the international community failed to come to grips with humanity’s most pressing threats: nuclear weapons and climate change.

There can be little doubt that humankind threatens their own existence. How things will turn out or whether there will be anyone left to read these or any other words is unknown. The chances for using these weapons, either on purpose or accidentally, is almost certain given sufficient time. And when you consider even more deadly technologies in the future, the situation is truly dire. As for me, I’m not optimistic.

Review of “No Place on Earth”

I saw the moving and profound documentary “No Place on Earth.” It tells the story of caving enthusiast Chris Nicola 1993 visit to the Ukraine to explore the Verteba and Priest’s Grotto caves. There he found evidence that they had recently been inhabited by Jews escaping The Holocaust. He then embarked on a decade-long quest to find survivors. The film features interviews with survivors and their descendants, now living mainly in New York City and Montreal. At the end of the film Tobias brings some of the survivors, now in their 80s and 90s back to the caves.

It is an incredible story of human survival which really makes your typical first-world troubles trivial in comparison. But it also reminds us how terrible life is, how filled it is with suffering, and how we are all obligated to make a heaven of our universe—the only real place such a heaven could ever exist.