Arrival: Language and thought


Alien encounters and the study of language.

The theory of Linguistic Reality, expressed by  19th century thinker, Wilhelm Von Humboldt, tells us that language shapes our worldview and cognition. Language is a construct with intricate patterns that is heavily ingrained in our cognitive process, making it possible to influence our thoughts and decisions.

Other civilizations have language construct that may appear strange to western speakers. Quechua—an indigenous language spoken by the people of the Andes— never developed into a written form until the Spaniards arrived. It was always seen as an oral language that was kept alive by the descendants of the Incas. One can only imagine how it feels to know a language only through its oral form without ever having learned an alphabet system.

Arrival is one of the few films to explore connections between language, thought process and worldview. The work presents us with a realistic alien encounter that is relevant despite its futuristic elements. Arrival was directed by Denis Villeneuve, and is based on the 1998 short story, “Story of Your Life” by science fiction writer, Ted Chiang. Villeneuve also directed Enemy in 2013, which has been compared to Memento for it’s Kafkaesque style. Similarly this film carries flashbacks not always appearing in linear order. We meet Louise Banks, a linguistics professor, played by Amy Adams, who is the sole communicator between an alien species and the befuddled, and easily agitated human population. As the irrational generals and political pundits carry a message of fear, the populous tend to follows, but there’s a push and pull between the science community and elected officials. The scientists and linguists have less time to study the aliens than it would take for the military to blow the aliens’ heptapods (a gray structure resembling a pill) that floats over grand natural landscapes.

In the beginning of the film, we see glimpses of Banks playing with her daughter and subsequently learning that she has a rare disease. Though the film never explains the connection between the present and the past, we assume it’s her daughter, and believe those are memories.

When communicating with the aliens, Banks has a seemingly simple question, “What is your purpose on earth?” She breaks down the complexity of the question, that would hardly baffle an earthly being, but could be taken as something else entirely by an alien from another planet. They must first understand that a question demands an answer, Banks explains. We don’t know if “Your” for them means the individual or a collective group. She says what if they think of themselves as a collective body and not individuals? The idea of purpose may also be difficult to grasp, since that concept may not exist in their world. What if there is no such thing as reasons or outcomes for them?



When communicating with the aliens, Banks tries to find commonalities between the two worlds. In one scene she uses basic name introductions that may produce commonalities. Her study requires patience to understand the new language and their way of thinking, so she can phrase her questions properly. The scene is a reminder of compassionate forms of communicating. Irrational fear doesn’t play into Bank’s study until some soldiers, after having listened to an angry radio pundit, decide to take matters into their own hands.

Banks is the only woman among many men trying to influence the powerful to base their decisions less on fear and more on reason. What does that say about the role that women can play in society? How can we influence society to use language that is appropriate and helpful? The film draws a powerful connection to the current political climate. The shortsightedness that is present in the movie is one we see time and time again. We would gladly bomb an alien species that could help us, rather than understand their language. If the generals had their way Ian, a theoretical physicist, working alongside Banks, would have never realized the circular symbols were related to the concept time.

Arrival seems to appear in waves, carrying us through contemplative, foggy blue-gray skies and ongoing flashbacks. The way Banks stares out towards the endless fields of Montana is similar, as when she’s in front of the aliens; it’s a moment of awakened knowledge and peace. The film does leave out some logistical explanations, especially when the scientists suddenly arrive at fully interpreting and translating the alien symbols. There seems to be no eureka moment when they discovered how to decipher the circular symbols that have no correlation to anything human.

The hosts are not real


We speak the right words, and create life—out of chaos,” Ford says. “You can’t play without being acquainted with the devil.

The mind of a human is complicated; it’s filled with cells, nerves, connectors and concepts less tangible: memories and stories we tell ourselves over and over. Those layered parts make up a human mind. When a robot is made in our image, programmed to have similar characteristics, there’s always a final piece: consciousness, that sense of awareness that is either a result of those layered parts or the initial piece of constructing a sentient being, one who has the ability to distinguish between the different levels of morality on its own. Philosophers throughout history have struggled to define the nature of consciousness. If indeed consciousness is a mechanistic output, then it’s possible AI can mimic this output, even in its basic form.

The engineers at Westworld, essentially built computers in the form of humans, from scratch, coding their individual narratives.  At the helm is the pragmatic Ford, the AI creator at Westword, a western theme-park. He understand that controlling the AI (hosts) while also giving them a natural quality warrants some risk, but believes he can control them. When he explains his reasoning for applying reveries to the hosts, he tells Bernard, “You’re a product of a mistake…evolution creates mistakes.” The creator insists that guests come back because of the subtleties of these characters and their interesting storylines. Guests want to be the first to discover those subtleties, and possibly fall in love with those characteristics. Guests may know who they are, but they go to Westworld to get a glimpse of who they could be in an alternative world that’s filled with danger. Some hosts seem happy being idle and picking easy characters to interact with, others like the man in black, need to find purpose and control in a game that is meant to trick new visitors.

Though we keep hearing these artificial creatures are not real, they are too lifelike for us not to become enchanted as the guests do, and we end up rooting for them to escape. What’s scary is how often science fiction predicts future technologies. Realistically we’re not far from creating this type of AI.  But the questions gnawing robotic engineers has always been how to create artificial consciousness. Westworld seems to go further by adding that if true artificial consciousness was possible it would be a cause for alarm, especially in a world where the hosts are not supposed to be free, but subservient to the guests (the real humans).

Dolores, one of the oldest AI (host) from Westworld.


We see the hosts through the eyes of the guests, but also the lab workers who interview them and update them with their touch screen pads. The hosts and lab workers don’t run parallel lives, since the background of the hosts can be altered during review sessions, making it possible to erase their memories. The hosts consider morality, but their deaths are not final, they simply get fixed after being “killed.” The only real death is decommission.

Westworld dives not only into the realm of humans building AI, but the implied ethical questions, especially when the hosts go rogue, disobeying their narrative boundaries. Westworld is a made up world, yet everything seems so real. What does it mean to be human? Do AI have rights? Do they have free will? Do the guests have free will? They too are control by the boundaries of the park. Finding control within the game is an illusion, because the real decisions come from the creators, the masters of code.

As proposed by Hegel, it’s evident that the timeline of history shows us there’s a movement towards freedom, true freedom. Individual have come to understand and master the world of illusions we created for ourselves or others. He believed that humans created God, to pretend that God created us so someone could be responsible for us. This may not be a mistake necessarily, but it demonstrates we are the creators of our own narrative, no matter how deluded it turns out. We turned the idea of God into a convenient story, filled it with commandments and rules, that we sometimes don’t understand or obey. We are the slaves of our own deluded fiction, and Ford is no different. He says, “Self-delusion is a gift of natural selection as well.”

In one of the earlier episodes we find out about the original creator, Arnold, who had devised a pyramid to explain the AI’s internal workings: memory, improvisation, self-interest, but the top was left blank. Ford explains, “He had a theory, based on the Bicameral mind. The idea that primitive man believed the voice they heard was the word of god. It was the blueprint for building a cognition mind. Their own voice would later take over.”

Ford values the art of creating interesting storylines, and indulges in watching the AI integrate a nuanced narrative. This behavior pattern of Ford, foreshadows the final moments of the first season. In the last episode, Westword seems to be driving this point home: the real god is the human mind. If the second season carries the theme of chaos, it seems evident we will witness most of the hosts making independent decisions apart from the creators, a true slip of evolution’s leash.




Bloodchild, by Octavia E. Butler



Reading Bloodchild makes one feel sticky and gross, as if having small aliens growing inside your stomach. Just thinking about humans being implanted with larva that grow into giant creatures with tentacles can make anyone cringe.

This science fiction tale is told from the POV of a young boy named Gan, who will no longer be a child after the day is done. The boy is finding out what it means to be a Terran and how his role as a host will come to fruition. Butler has subtle ways of unfolding the back story, as Gan embarks on a new phase of life—adolescence.  The narration absorbs us into an alien world where there’s sensual, violent, and territorial action. Butler creates a complex society without interrupting the story’s flow and gradually expands the character’s thoughts with few instances of exposition, cleverly layered. What could take many pages, the author does in a few pages. Her sentences are short but they reveal the depth of the character’s reservations about how Gan’s life will change.

There’s a whole society being explained from one small scene in the living room, through the character of Gan who is eating some eggs with his siblings and mother. The eggs allow them to fall into a slumber, hallucinate, and prolong life making their suffering less present. But Gan’s mom doesn’t want to eat them, which leave us wondering: why would she refrain from prolonging her life? In one instance Gan says, “T’Gatoi meant to cage my mother,” as the creature enveloped the mother with its limbs.

The layering of exposition, dialogue and action seem effortless from the part of the author. The set-up of the story unravels through action and dialogue, as the conflict unfolds, and we begin to understand the balance of power between the Terrans and the Tlic that allow both to exist peacefully in the Preserve. Both sides have something to gain from peace. Gan understands this dynamic when T’gatoi, the Tlic creature finds him with a gun under his chin. This moment serves as a way for Gan to bargain for something beyond his position as a host, but he also doesn’t want to suffer. He wants his people to have an easier life, and T’ Gatoi can help since she’s a government official. T’Gatoi is the only one standing between the Terrans and the desperate masses who will treat them as animals. Although, she is manipulative, she values diplomacy in order to further her agenda.

In the past, Terrans rebelled against the Tlics, but a more holistic approach to implant eggs and keep the host living emerged, allowing them to coexist. The Terrans feel awful about carrying this burden, but do not want to abandon the Tlic since they depend on them for survival. Gan has spent most of his childhood with the creature, T’gatoi instead of his mother. He was raised to host her babies. Gan is part of the alien’s sustenance, and he too feels close to T’Gatoi, as she mentions here: “You know me as no other does,” she said softly. “You must decide.”



credit: @iamsteelberg

Stranger Things: The Flea and The Acrobat

The truth about the woods

What is roaming around, creeping in the corners of these dark woods and stealing kids away? On this episode we get a closer look at the odd things happening in the woods. There’s some validity to the voices Joyce Byers is hearing and the lights turning on in her house. Nancy and Jonathan realize they both saw something in the woods. Jonathan Byers’s photos reveal a figure emerging from the dark, and Nancy swears she saw someone moving when she was searching for Barbara.


Tiny detectives

The mysterious, murky happenings in Hawkins, Indiana are becoming undone. Just as a funeral seems the likely reaction to the discovery of Will Byers’ dead body, his best friends discuss the possibility of an alternate world. The three are in Mike’s basement, believing Will is alive somewhere, and wondering how to reach him after having heard his voice through a radio transmission.

Based on that evidence, they conclude that Will must be in another world, similar to the Valley of the Shadows from Dungeons and Dragons. They make the connection between their game, and a place that is “an echo of our world.” The kids become more than side players in the story, and are determined to solve the puzzle, using the people and objects that surround their childhood: their game, bikes, walkie talkies, neighborhood hideouts and a friendly science teacher. As a throwback to childhood adventures, and 80s films such as The Goonies, Stand by Me, and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, in a similar fashion these kids are caught up in their own mystery, and rightly so, grownups should not underestimate them because of  age or lack of experience.


For the longest we doubted Joyce Byers’ claims that she could communicate with her son through the lights in he house. Though she tried to tell everyone that Will was alive, no one believed her. Others thought she was going crazy, buying lights, and running around the house using code to communicate with Will. But in this episode we realize her paranoia was based on something real though unexplainable at first. Winona’s portrayal of Joyce made me jump up from the start, her emotions are raw and disturbing and absorb you into the story; they convey something primal about a mother loosing a child. It’s rewarding to see she she won’t stand for her ex-husband’s sugary coated words as he tries to persuade her to forget her motherly instincts.


Adventure girl

During the night, Nancy and Jonathan explore the woods for the first time. Nancy is no longer hanging out with the cool kids or with “bad boy,” Steve Harrington. We see Nancy in a different light: she’s not the kind of girl who will sit by while her friend is missing, which allows her to make some aggressive choices, like target practice with Jonathan in the woods or crawling through a questionable tree passage. This one lead her to the Upside-Down world. Nancy is feisty and independent without giving away her feminine, docile side. She doesn’t want to be like her parents who settled for a normal suburban lifestyle. But when she begins defending her boyfriend, Steve— Jonathan contradicts her, and tells her, she’s settling for normalcy like her parents and will probably end up marrying a typical high school jock.

The flea and the acrobat

“We’re in mourning,” says Lucas awkwardly to his science teacher, Mr. Clark. Lucas, Dustin, and Mike are trying to hide their suspicions about Will’s whereabouts, who is probably in an alternate world, but how does one to travel there? Mr. Clark is an honest adult figure—at times naïve but ultimately caring about his students. The boys make a reference to Carl Sagan’s Cosmo and Hugh Everett’s many-worlds interpretation to get Mr. Clark on the right path to an answer. Mr. Clark uses the metaphor of an acrobat walking a tight rope to tell them, the acrobat can only go forward, but a flea would be able to go anywhere, even upside down. He informs them that in order for the acrobat to get to the other side, a massive amount of energy would be required to make a tear in time and space, creating “a gate”. “We would know if there was something like that,” says Mr. Clark. “Science is neat but not very forgiving.” This ultimately sparks a light bulb for the kids, and off they go.


Image: Cynthia Via

A Wrinkle In Time

She had something IT didn’t have.

More than a year ago I was on Oak Street in New Orleans walking around on a hot day. It was the dead of afternoon, and most stores were closed. Why had I come here? It was a Monday, the last day of my trip, and I wanted to explore uncharted territory—except there wasn’t much open minus a thrift store that sold Hawaiian shirts and a male clerk with a 1980s hairstyle. I walked around under the sun contemplating whether I should head back for the coffee shop I had seen along the way. Instead I continued to walk until I saw a Little Free Library. I stopped to check for books; there were less than five, and none of them seemed interesting except for a tattered book, titled A wrinkle In Time. The cover displayed a white Pegasus creature with the face of a human and rainbow wings, flying around the murky clouds of some distant planet. The creature was hovering above dark mountains and a blue orb surrounding a wrinkly man’s head with red eyes. I didn’t know what to make of it.  Could this be about space travel? Above the title it read, “ The Newbery Award Winning Classic.” I’d seen this before in other youth novels when I was teaching elementary kids, but I don’t remember ever encountering this book. The front cover was wrinkled and the back was nonexistent. It was written by Madeleine L’s Engle in 1962. I opened it and found a page that displayed the author’s other books and on the bottom was a stamp, that read “this book rescued from the refuse by Philip Garside,” dated 4/28/11. “Please re-gift; do not throw away.”

While reading the book, I thought how great this would be as a movie. Recently I found out that Ava DuVernay (Selma) is directing an adaptation to be released next year, and she had a casting call in Nola! The book was written at a time when not many children’s novels had female heroines. As a science-fantasy story, it’s interesting for kids and adults with themes of time travel, space exploration, mind control, dystopian societies, and some odd mix of spirituality. The plot revolves around Meg and her brother Charles, who search for their missing father with the help of a friend and three beings that have the ability to change forms and travel through time and space.  Their quest is to defeat a bodiless, telepathic brain called IT that controlled the people of Camazotz. Charles told Meg individuality had been done away with in this planet, and only a display of mechanistic behaviors were allowed. “Camazotz is ONE mind. It’s IT. And that’s why everyone’s so happy and efficient.” Before departing to Camazotz, which had been lost to darkness, Aunt Beast (another creature/alien friend) tells Meg,

For the things which are seen are temporal. But the things which are not seen are eternal.

Mardi Gras floats?

This was the loveliest surprise one could get. I took the book and kept walking to the end of Oak Street until I saw a warehouse and some parade floats standing outside. I thought they were Mardi Gras floats being stored away for a near date. But it was June and Mardi Gras had already passed months ago. I assumed I would not be back again, so it was a treat to see them. I entered what appeared to be a thrift shop from the outside but was actually a small sign and billboard store. I talked to the owner, asking him if there was anything open on Oak Street. The guy on the laptop had long white hair. “Everything is mostly closed today, but I’m sure you’ll find something on the main avenue.” What brings you down here,” he asked. They had some used clothes hanging on a rack. I quickly glanced at them and talked to him for a bit longer, then went outside to face the hot sun. Someone walked by and said, “How are you?” I barely had the energy to respond. I finally walked back to the coffee shop I avoided and asked for water, sat down to cool off, and later ordered ice-cold tea and read my new book.

Ex Machina’s sensitive robot: More human than us?

Alicia Vikander plays the female robot, Ava.
Alicia Vikander plays a  female robot, named Ava.

Ex Machina’s femme robot, Ava, is captivating and thoughtful. Could it be, she’s more human than we are?

At the onset of the film we meet Caleb, a young coder, somewhat naive though witty. He uses the language of a seasoned programmer to form elaborate conclusions yet ignores basic human instinct. After winning a competition he gets flown to a secluded research facility in the middle of a forest. His sole job—give the Turing Test to a functional humanoid with Artificial Intelligence, named Ava.

The creator of this humanoid is Nathan, a straight forward, CEO-genius-programmer, with an appetite for alcohol and secrecy. He’s not interested in the technicality of the test like his guest, Caleb, instead tries to discover human frailties. Nathan has carefully orchestrated a plan for Caleb, but on the surface calls himself “a friend.” The interactions between Caleb and Nathan are amusing to watch, since one is without malice, functioning structurally, and the other is functioning instinctively as a snake.

Upon meeting Ava, Caleb — and I imagine everyone else in the audience, was pleasantly captivated. Ava has the ethereal face of a young girl, skin on her hands and feet but the rest of her body is that of a cyborg. She moves delicately across with soft agility and purpose. As she turns or walks her interior wires make noises . The fluidity of her words are alluring, chosen carefully for the viewer. I get the feeling she’s just toying with us all.


The concept of Alex Garland’ s film is thrilling. Watching a human investigate a robot and vice versa is transcendent, similarly the questions that ensue between Caleb and Nathan. Does Ava know she’s playing chess or is she just following the rules? Does she have feelings? Do you need human interaction to determine consciousness?

It forces us to question our own understanding of what it means to be human: a kind of study into our own psyche within the walls of a futuristic research facility controlled by buttons and a central computer. It’s one of those eerie and claustrophobic places you can’t freely move from room to room.

Nathan showing Caleb “the brain” of a robot. Photo:

Garland’s film is not without misses. Formulaic dialogue runs rampant in the beginning. Though some reviews claim  the whole film falls into a predictable laundry bin. I wouldn’t go that far. The tale of a single man meeting a sexy femme bot is a gimmick at face value, and problematic for an accurate Turing Test, since the tester has a clear bias.  The dynamic between Caleb and Ava is tricky, often running into irksome territory.  There are other scenes in this laundry bin, but I leave those for you to decipher (since I don’t want spoil all the fun).

As the movie progresses it becomes suspenseful, gaining speed once Nathan reveals the outer edges of his mind, as well as Ava’s. The film overall is studied, analytical and profound at times. I wonder if this movie isn’t so much a test for the robot, but for the humans involved in performing the test. We are walking around with consciousness after all, and it’s our responsibility to curve our unruly emotions and be objective.

Walking out of the theater after watching Ex Machina, I had the kind of thoughts you get when looking in front a mirror. Who am I? A robot with fake skin walking around, or a real person with feelings and morals?