Can A Free Society Stop Mass-Murders?

With the shooting in Las Vegas yesterday, the response I’ve noticed from most has been sadness, and some anger.How could anyone do such an act of evil? ISIS/DAESH claimed that the man was a recent convert to their cause and that the act was in their name, but there’s no evidence of this. The police are investigating every lead, including trying to find his girlfriend who seems to have left the country. But it’s possible we may never know.

Some having been talking about how to prevent such a thing from happening again. I’ve heard calls for gun control. Realistically, there is little chance of lasting change in gun laws nationwide. Some state governments might try to enact new restrictions on the right to bear arms. But would they do anything more than give opponents of gun owner rights a sense of satisfaction for “doing something?” Just a few years ago, a mass-murderer killed dozens in Norway which has far more restrictive laws than we do. There have also had cases of airline pilots committing mass murder/suicide by crashing the plane into the ground/water. And then there was the Oklahoma City bombing. This act of domestic terrorism was carried out not by a gun, but by a bomb made from fertilizer. There were a couple calls to “tag” all bags of fertilizer shortly afterwards, but died down as people realized this just wasn’t practical.

Technology may also make gun laws more difficult to enforce. 3D printers are getting more sophisticated, and it wasn’t long ago someone used one to make the body of a gun. While it lacked the firing mechanism, it’s not hard to imagine that down the road future printers will be capable of making fully functional firearms, without registration numbers to track. I’ve heard of a couple calls to make more sophisticated 3D printers restricted, but so far there hasn’t been much of a response by gun ownership opponents.

And of course, there’s the idea of punishing tens of millions for the actions of one single individual.

So can anything be done? One of the most interesting responses I heard on the subject was from one friend, whom I mentioned before in a commentary on the 9/11 terrorist attack, who called mass-shootings, cults, global warming, police brutality, and a number of other issues part of a larger problem. He felt for all his accomplishments, man was still a creature hard-wired for a more primitive, rugged existence. As evolution designed us for a live of savagery, a never-ending struggle of killing to eat and fighting other tribes, we were simply not made for an easier life of civilization. We are, in his mind, cavemen with guns. Ancient instincts, that once served us well, now come back to haunt us in the form of mental illnesses, religious and political extremism, mass-murderers. and other troubles. Technology, whether in democracies or dictatorships, socialism or capitalism, has become a force-multiplier for madness. We have, quite literally, become too smart for our own good.

His idea of a solution? Obviously we can’t put the technological genie back in the bottle. In the short term, he concluded human societies need to seriously rethink their ideas of rights and freedoms, such as privacy and religion. He felt there should be widespread surveillance to pick up any warning signs from anyone that they could potentially lash out, and that the authorities should be able to detain such people until their problems were taken care of. He also wondered if certain people should be allowed to hold public office, “should we allow the election of a President of the United States who subscribes to the Christian Fundamentalist belief the world will end in our lifetime,” or even to vote. It wasn’t simply an issue of those preferring to live free moving to the country as they could still go mad and come back to populated areas to wreck destruction.

In the long term, he felt what was really needed was a selective breeding/genetic reengineering program to weed out humanity’s caveman instincts to make him a more rational, not necessarily smarter, being. To make humans more like the Vulcans of science-fiction, albeit without the pointed ears and arched eyebrows, was the only way he felt to ultimately stop acts of mass-murder and genocide and save the planet. Trouble was, he felt, human authorities are not usually more rational than those they govern. Even if such programs were enacted, politics would either make them ineffective or filtered through the ideological viewpoints of the party in power from the start, or changed to be so later on. And authorities with their own agendas would use such powers to selectively pick on those they didn’t like. He predicted that eventually religious fanatics would provoke a nuclear war that would send Humanity back to the Stone Age, or the Iron Age if he was lucky. While humanity would recover and rebuild, the equipment to drill for oil and coal would be rusted away. And with the easy to reach mines and deposits long depleted, we would be in for a long Dark Age lasting for many thousands of years, with the tribes and kingdoms warring and enslaving one another until the cold slow hand of evolution eventually produced a human brain that could more easily find solutions other than violence and was less prone to mental instability and superstition.

But as smart as my friend was, I’m going to have to disagree with him.

Sadly, disaster has followed Humanity wherever he goes. And as we have greater control of the natural forces around us, though far from complete, more and more often disaster would come from the hands of other human beings. Over time there have been many who argue that the answer is to keep freedom away from the common man. Voltaire for instance rejected the idea of a republic for a people, saying humans were best governed by an enlightened monarch.

Such acts of madness have happened time to time throughout history. But overall such acts have been in overall decline over the decades. On occasion, such madmen will attract followers, such as Bin Laden, and must be delt with time to time by our military. Dealing with individual criminals at home, obviously there should be adjustments over time as to how the police can deal with, and if possible intercept them. But this shouldn’t rob the common man of the ability to defend his home or be prepared for the small possibility of a local tyranny such as the one locals rebelled against in Athens Tennessee in 1946. As for my friend’s suggestion Man needs to be genetically altered to face the future, it’s my opinion it is not necessary. Civilization, and then the civilization of democratic republics, have faced many challenges over time under homo sapiens, and it is still prospering.

Evil exists, and on occasion rears it’s head to strike. But we shouldn’t have to trade our freedoms for security.

Murray M. Lee

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Some Thoughts on 9/11

I still clearly remember the day it happened. Things were more or less calm the day before, the stories in the news being the body of a missing Congressional aide found in a park, and the President still facing a grumbling opposition still sore after losing a close election. I was actually starting to pay a little less attention to the news.

Just after it happened, someone told me he heard on the radio that a plane crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. At first I thought he meant a small private plane. When he told me a minute later it was a commercial airliner, I thought he was joking. But when I had a chance to get close to the radio, I found out it was no joke. At break time, I got a chance to see on a news website the details known, and then the announcement of a second plane crashing into the tower. Then back at work on the radio, we heard of a third plane crashing into the Pentagon. As the day went on, I tried to keep as close to the radio, but I couldn’t always. I would hear of the first tower collapsing, a fourth plane having disappeared from the radar, then I heard the second tower collapsing as it happened.

When I got home, part of me was numb. A lot had happened that day. But another part of me was anxious as for what lay ahead. Would there be more terrorist attacks? Would there be martial law? What I did know was that we were a nation at war.

Life had changed. Pop culture seemed to be at a standstill as we were either reeling in disbelief of looking for the latest news. There were countless tributes to the fallen large and small, one memorial event at New York city with people singing in their honor. There were numerous cartoons and songs online about how we were going to get Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. The political bickering vanished overnight as we had become a nation united, in both grief and a desire to find and eliminate those who caused this. Bush, whom had been reviled by the left and given lukewarm support by the right, was looked up to as the man to help lead us to safety at home and punishment for those who had wronged us abroad. While there was no martial law, a new Homeland Security department came up and was scanning the Internet for signs of trouble, and there was the TSA at the airports, groping passengers before they could get on the plane. But eventually, the late night comedy shows began rolling again, and people were going back to theaters.

After about a month, our payback started when we attacked Taliban-run Afghanistan, aiding the Northern Alliance groups in their fight with the Islamist regime. After a couple months, the short war was won. But the victory was an incomplete one. Bin-Laden had gotten away thanks to a decision by Bush to rely mainly on our Northern Alliance allies, who proved unreliable, refusing to allow American forces to go in during a cease-fire they declared, and Pakistan’s unwillingness or inability to seal the border. The bad guy was still out there.

Over time, there would be more attempted acts of terrorism, such as the “shoe bomber” and “underwear bomber,” which led to more restrictions on plane travel. Iraq had been believed to be helping Al Qaeda, and about a year and a half later, that country was invaded. A second front in our “War on Terrorism” had begun. Although a few Americans opposed it, most were willing to go along with President Bush, trusting he was making the right decision. But after the invasion, things continued to go wrong. And in Afghanistan, the Taliban began to come back. President Bush would end his term in office with American soldiers still in both countries.

There were also the conspiracy theories. Surely, there was no way nineteen nobodies could cause so much destruction on their own. It had to be an inside job, a few people were saying. These theories have ranged from planted demolition charges to aliens plotting to influence the course of Earth history. But an investigation by an international team of engineers of the collapse of the World Trade Center stated it all happened as it appeared.

Time continued to go on, with conflicts between Homeland Security/ FBI and privacy advocates over the governments ability to peek into email. Eventually, we had a new President, Obama, whom had gotten attention early in the election as he had been one of the few in the government to oppose the invasion of Iraq. The “Arab Spring” in 2011 seemed to be a repudiation against dictatorships in the Middle East, and it seemed to be freedom was finally on the march. But that proved not to be the case as the removal of dictatorships seemed to pave the way for the nastiest of the opposing groups, Islamists, to move into the vacuum created by their removal, or the dictatorships such as the one in Iran responded brutally and crushed the pro-democracy dissenters. The removal of American forces from Iraq led to a new enemy, ISIS/DAESH taking over much of the country and neighboring Syria.

While the Arab Spring was still going on, finally Bin-Laden was killed. He had been located in Pakistan, and a team of special operations soldiers was sent to kill him. But the decision to have the body buried at sea, while understandable to prevent followers from gathering at a shrine, opened the door for conspiracy theories. But Al Qaeda itself confirmed the killing. Still, the decision to dispose of the body so quickly before more could see it and more evidence could be gathered was probably not the best decision. Americans cheered, but only briefly. The War on Terrorism went on with no end in sight.

Sixteen years later, America is still involved in Afghanistan, and the Middle East is still under the threat of Islamofacism. While ISIS/DAESH is on the retreat, there are other less visible forces forcing locals to live under their interpretation of their religion, attacking neighbors, and both. Europe has been having to deal with a flood of Muslim immigrants, mostly from Syria, and while some are converting to Christianity, there have been numerous reports of rape, and there have been numerous acts of terrorism. There are stories of districts in cities with large immigrant populations being “no go” zones for police and locals. America itself has more or less taken for granted that the government may snoop in its email, and airliner passengers will be groped by the blue-gloved agents of the TSA. When the United States was asked to accept some of Syria’s refugees, the answer from many Americans was a firm NO! News reports of terrorism and the reports of rapes helped ensure no more than a trickle would come in, and the newly elected President Trump made an Executive Decision to severely restrict immigration from several Middle Eastern countries where terrorism is a problem.

I’ve seen numerous reactions to 9/11. There have been a few, such as Rev. Jeremiah Wright, saying it was the result of the arrogance of those in power, left and right, in America at home and abroad. Others felt this was the result of weakness and naviete, that the insistence of those in power that Americans be nice and do things the “right” way led to nasty people deciding such weakness must be exploited. One man I talked to felt Bush was right to send men into the Middle East, “But he picked the wrong target. He should have instead invaded Saudi Arabia and occupied Mecca.” Feeling all Muslims were savages at heart, he felt what was needed was a few atomic bombings, and the leader of every Islamic country and group be made to show up at a surrender ceremony like the one in Tokyo Bay on the deck of the USS Missouri. Then and only then, faced with ultimate destruction, did he think the Muslims would leave us in peace. Conservatives consider this trash talk, but feel America faces a long struggle with Islamofacism.  They feel we are facing an amorphous enemy with no central leader or central capital, and whose members could easily blend into the general population of the countries they were in. Victory, they conclude, will involve constant vigilance at home and a willingness to use force abroad that will last for many decades. To many Liberals, and libertarians, as horrific as Sept 11 was, it was an act by a weak enemy that got lucky, that radical Islamists are basically nothing more than a savage nuisance of which the greatest danger is overreacting. Indeed many Liberals feel the “real enemy” is at home and not abroad. Of Islam and Muslims, they feel despite the radical elements, they deserve respect on an equal footing as followers of other religions, and that the theory of global warming, resistance to Multiculturalism, and dismantling symbols of the American Civil War are much greater concerns. Naturally, such attitudes have led them into conflict with Conservatives, a few of the latter wondering if it will take “another 9/11” for all Americans to take the struggle against Islamofacism seriously.

One friend of mine commented of 9/11 “Hey, this is not the century I was told I would have. I was told there’d be flying cars and people vacationing on the moon. Instead we have religious nuts blowing up buildings and saying we need to get back to the thirteenth century.” Another commented that perhaps Sept 11 was a reminder that Humanity had gone far beyond how nature intended it to live. For all of man’s accomplishments, he felt, humans were still savages at heart with a thirst for blood. As tribal peoples, we lived in a state of eternal warfare with neighbors who could strike at any time and kill everyone but breeding age females to keep for themselves. With Industrialization and modern technology, we have achieved prosperity like never before, individuals having power at their fingertips that was once unheard of. But religious zealots he felt, are driven by their caveman instincts to get everyone to conform to their ideology, usually based on centuries’ old doctrines. In the past, while they could kill many, such as the Cult of Kali, ultimately they were limited by only having swords and knives as weapons. But with modern technology, fanatics had to power to wreck destruction as never before. The September 11 attacks, he felt, were a reminder of both how fragile modern life can be, and that humans had yet to truly rise above their tribal nature. He feared that unless people faced up to hard questions on freedom of privacy and religion, in the future other fanatics could very well end up setting off a nuclear holocaust. While Humanity would survive, it would be knocked back to a Medieval state. As all easily drilled for sources of oil and easily mined deposits of coal have been used up, he saw a long Dark Age for man that could very well last for thousands of years.

But in my opinion, no, this is not the fate that we are destined for. Yes, there have been bad people over time whom find it easier to steal rather than build, or wreck destruction in an attempt to rebuild a new world in their image. And at some moments in history there are times when they temporarily have the upper hand. But most people would rather mind their own business, building rather than breaking. If history is a struggle between those trying to build the future and those trying to blow it up, history has had the builders in the lead usually. Yes, evil men like Hitler and Bin-Laden show up time to time and wreck havoc. And if history is any guide, they will continue to. But in the end, they are defeated. And Humanity goes on to build a better future.

Murray M. Lee

The Quest For Good Food in America

The human desire for food and drink is a very primal one. Except possibly for sex, nothing seems to appeal to the human brain more than a good meal. It’s impact can be measured in many ways. For instance the Chinese greet one another not usually with “How are you feeling?” but a phrase that translates to “How have you eaten?” While the French seem to have a way of preferring the fancy over the practical, it’s even more where their meals are concerned. There’s a saying, “Other folk eat to live while the French live to eat,” and most will insist on finely prepared food, and take their time to enjoy it. When one friend of mine offered someone from France a glass of water, he declined, saying water was for bathing or washing things, not drinking.

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For Americans, some of our food is a reflection of our simpler days as a mostly small town and farm country. But mostly it’s a product of our days of the Industrial Revolution. Probably nothing reflects this more than the hot dog. It’s made from parts of the pig that would be given to the family dog or cat on a farm. And yet people enjoy them, knowing what it is but preferring not to thing about it. And the way we eat is a product of it, people gulping down their meals at lunch so they won’t be late going back to work. For instance, even though carbonated soft drinks were first sold as an alternative to alcoholic beverages, they were soon marketed as something to help ease a troubled tummy from eating too fast, the name for “Pepsi” coming from “dyspepsia,” a term for indigestion. Fast-food might have had it’s origins in England with fish and chips shops, but once America came out of the Depression and WW2 and into the automobile, places like McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken began offering quick food for low prices. While hardly gourmet meals, for a man or woman of working and middle class backgrounds it’s lots of delicious food just minutes away.

But of course there’s a catch. There are concerns that some of these franchises are becoming a little too big, crowding out traditional local fare, about the workers being poorly paid, and the occasional horror story about food or the equipment contaminated by malice or neglect. Of the supermarket, there are concerns about some local brands being squeezed out of business by major ones, making what’s become a small part of it’s culture disappear. But the most obvious one: it seems the modern American diet isn’t quite the best thing for us as human beings.

In caveman times, obesity was practically unknown, or at least rare, as people had to hunt and gather for the food of their tribe. More often than not, they couldn’t be choosy and if it was edible, it was eaten (which might explain how a few foods like oysters became foods to begin with). And the tribe’s well being was at the mercy of a land that at times could be stingy and uncaring as drought meant the animals and plants they depended on would die. Finally someone had the idea of planting wheat. But at first they didn’t depend on these patches of grains. They were just a small part of their diet while they continued to hunt. But then people began living off of their wheat fields, the grains baked into bread, and the meat of captive animals, sometimes fed with surplus grain or just grazing in fenced fields. But while people could irrigate fields from water from streams miles away or underground wells, there was still the risk of famine from either drought or blight from plant diseases wiping out almost everything of one particular plant. It wasn’t until the practice of crop rotation and a greater variety of foodstuffs planted, some from other lands, that Europe would finally be free of the threat of famine by nature, starvation at times in the 20th century such as Stalin’s Ukraine and the Warsaw Ghetto having man-made causes.

The obvious problem with food always available in large quantities, that some people will over-indulge, especially if one’s job doesn’t involve a great deal of physical labor. If one is a field hand on a farm or a laborer hauling things in a factory or depot, chances are they’re burning a lot of calories. Someone in an office, not so much. It’s also common knowledge that fast food isn’t exactly the most nutritious food available, “Too much KFC will make you F-A-T,” one comedian mused. So over time, Americans have started been passing the fast food place a little more often. There’s also that red meat is higher in saturated fat than fish and poultry. So also over time, Americans have been eating less red meat, and more chicken, turkey, and fish. There’s a good deal of food that markets itself as low calorie, fat-free, sugar free, etc. And of course, there’s dieting. Diet books are good sellers, and diet pills are very much in demand.

Still, obesity remains a bigger problem in American than other countries. Perhaps we’re not trying hard enough. Or maybe there’s something else.

One problem with dieting is the way many people do it. They starve themselves by eating very little, and once they’ve achieved their weight-loss goal go back to the way their were eating before. Called “Yo-yo dieting,” this can be worse than not dieting in the first place as without exercise, weight lost can be both fat and muscle while weight gained can be mainly fat. Fortunately, more people are trying to avoid this by avoiding crash diets and instead dieting for the long haul, making goals of losing a few pounds a week or just one a week, and simply cutting back rather than eliminating.

But some feel this isn’t quite enough. They say it’s not enough to just cutting back on trips to McDonalds, not enough to just have less sugary soda and replace them with diet drinks.

That a lot of sugary soda isn’t good for you has been known for some time. Diet sodas that used saccharine as a sugar substitute, such as Tab, have been around for a while, but people complained of the aftertaste. Then in the early 80s, aspertaine, or “Nutrasweet” was developed, and products using it such as Diet Coke took off. But after a while, it was observed not everyone who was drinking the diet sodas was loosing weight. Some it seemed were still drinking sugary sodas or eating candy as much as before.

So what was wrong? Eventually came the hypothesis that while some people could keep on drinking one diet soda after another with no affects, for other people it was different. Their bodies reacted to the taste of these diet drinks by expecting sugar, and when they didn’t get it, they would cause the person to start craving it. And the person would reach for something sugary in response. Then there was food companies were using sugar less to sweetening their products, and using corn syrup as a less expensive sweetener. Critics charged this high-fructose substitute was even more addictive than sugar, causing people to crave more.

Some foods marketed as healthy have been charged as being less so. Years ago, a fat-substitute called “Olestra” came about, the intention being if people were craving fatty foods, then best to replace the fat with something digestible. But not everyone could handle it, some people developed greasy stools and other digestive problems. Eventually Olestra was renamed “Olean.” But there’s no sign the problems are any better. And some theorize they’re worse, and that these products are bad for everyone, not just some.

Granola snacks have been marketed as a healthy snack. But often those sold in stores are sweetened with sugar, even chocolate. One might as well reach for the M and Ms. Modern preservatives have also come under the microscope. If it’s not good for microbes, is it good for people? Some are calling for their complete ban. Trouble is without them, it becomes harder to keep food good for long without refrigeration. But does one want to eat a hamburger that’s been sitting around at room temperature for ten years? Obviously, some kind of balance is needed here.

In recent years, gluten-free diets have been popularized, some people believing they are allergic to the wheat protein. And so a number of products promising to be gluten-free have been marketed. But these diets have been criticized. Most of the critics state that most of the people claiming to be allergic really aren’t. But there’s another theory coming out that it’s not just gluten that’s the problem, but wheat itself. The human body is not a true omnivore, they state, but having evolved in the jungles of Africa was meant to digest a diet of meat and berries. While it could live off bread and other foods, it can’t do so very well, unable to use it for quick energy and will store it as fat, making the body sluggish. Going back to preservatives, the theory also states that if a food contains them, the body will not recognize it as food, and instead of energy convert it into sluggish fat.

An interesting theory, and perhaps it explains in part why humans didn’t transition to wheat farming so quickly. But the theory says nothing about nuts and roots, which cavemen would also have been eating. And of course there are so many foods in the American diet with wheat flour as an ingredient, getting away from it may prove next to impossible, unless one lives on a farm. And of course humans have been eating bread for thousands of years to the point it’s a part of our language, “Give us this day our daily bread,” and “Man does not live by bread alone.” Not an easy thing to overcome if it turns out there’s something to this theory.

Not unrelated to this are a couple other diet plans that have been marketed in recent years. One is the Bible diet, the one who came up with it stating unless a foodstuff was around in the days of the Bible, it wasn’t meant for people to consume. Related to the berry and meat theory is the Paleo diet, which argues people should eat only what was available for humans in the days before agriculture.

Then there are diets that ask people to eat mainly what people of their ethnic group have traditionally eaten. One Hawaiian doctor some years ago began advising patients of Polynesian heritage to avoid red meat and processed foods and instead east mostly fruit, fish, and other foods their ancestors would have. Perhaps it would make sense that over thousands of years their bodies might have adapted somewhat to certain foods. But at a time when people are sensitive to accusations of bias and prejudice, it can be a bit touchy to tell someone what he or she can or can eat based on their ancestry.

In short, loosing weight and feeling great seems it may not be as simple as just cutting back on the desserts.

Perhaps it’s the way Americans eat. One study, publicized some years ago on the “60 Minutes” TV news program, looked into why the French have lower rates of heart disease despite a diet high in some fatty foods such as cheese. The study came up with three major differences in the two diets. One, the main meal of the day in France is not dinner but lunch, people driving home from work, eating with the spouse, then heading back. Two, the French diet is low in processed foods already made and just need to be heated, but is mostly made from ingredients prepared in the kitchen by hand. Three, the French drink much more wine than Americans, particularly red wine which is thought to have chemicals than benefit the heart.

The result of the TV program was that sales of red wine went up twenty percent the following day. But nothing else really changed. In this day and age in America of thirty minute lunch breaks, and the media showing kitchen duty as hard work demeaning to women and with men as amateurs ending up setting the stove on fire, these factors in the American way of eating are unlikely to change. And with American seemingly either teetotalers with no taste for alcoholic drinks or people whom just can’t stop with one and end up getting drunk, the third probably will not either. In fact, one group of researchers began looking for a way to put the heart-benefiting chemicals from red wine in pill form, feeling the American diet would be unlikely to change long term as a result of the study.

So what to do? A few people have resigned themselves to what one person called “the second puberty,” that inevitably after the age of thirty the body will put on the pounds, and there’s nothing that can be done about it. Most however are not so fatalistic. Probably the best course of action is to not simply up and believe the latest thing they hear on the Internet, but to do their homework, read information about diets and theories of from multiple sources. And of course use common sense. If you like sweet things, maybe it’s best to reach for the raisins instead of chocolate sometimes. Maybe occasionally have cheese and crackers instead of potato chips every week.

Yours truly will still be eating a chicken sandwich on bread followed by an apple, washing it down with a diet coke.

Murray M. Lee

An Online Cartoonist’s Commentary on Capitalism?

Most people, at least in the United States and Canada, are familiar with comics such as “Garfield” and “Peanuts.” But most have probably never heard of “Freefall.” That’s because it’s not a syndicated comic in newspapers, but an Internet comic. There are many thousands of comics on the Internet, drawn by people not for money but because the artist had a story to tell. “Freefall” is a science-fiction webcomic drawn by Mark Stanley, a nuclear engineer from Wisconsin. For about twenty years, he’s drawn three strips a week of three characters on a frontier colony world: Sam, an alien con artist turned freighter captain whom when he isn’t trying to get his ship fixed (or later on doing a run) is plotting some scheme or petty theft, Helix, a cheerful simple minded robot whom has become Sam’s sidekick, and Florence Ambrose, a genetically engineered humanoid canine called a “Beomans Wolf” whom has been hired on as Sam’s ship engineer. A reoccurring theme is that in contrast to Sam’s simple-minded cons and schemes, Florence is highly intelligent and honest. It’s more than a little frustrating for them, especially for Florence as Sam has a way of missing the point of her advice.

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Over the course of numerous plots, the three have gotten into numerous adventures, and mishaps. Over the past two decades, the strip has gone from simply getting the ship repaired and operational to more detailed plots with many additional characters added. Although the details have gotten a little more complex over time, and occasionally gets a little serious, Stanley almost always finds a way to conclude each three panel strip with a punch line.  Among the main plots, the planet’s seemingly quirky robots are actually intelligent and conscious. When the humans of the planet can no longer deny this has happened, they have to make a decision about what to do with them. But besides the issue of robotic intelligence and of the rights of intelligent machines, Mark has slipped in others. One of which might be a commentary on capitalism.

For those who have yet to read the comic, the following contains some “spoilers,” so don’t blame me if you read on and it spoils some of your mystery.
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A few years into the comic, the three main characters come across Mr. Kornada. At first, he was just a joke about middle management: a simpleton who can’t come to grips that he has to evacuate himself and his robots due to a hurricane because “it’s not part of the program.” The kind of guy readers of “Dilbert” would be all too familiar with. As selfish as he is dense, when he gets what he wants from the characters, he quite literally gives them the boot.

Later on in the comic, Stanley reintroduced Kornada as the villain in a plot to steal the money in the robots’ bank accounts by means of a “failsafe” program that essentially worked by lobotomizing a robot’s electronic brain. His henchman, or rather his henchbot, would then be able to rewire the money into different departments, causing his stock to go up each time. This scheme would make him the richest man on the planet, at the cost of devastating the planetary economy. It wasn’t always easy to know whether he was too stupid to realize the destruction he’d cause, or just didn’t care, though certain comments of his, notably “It’s not only about how much I have, it’s also about how much you don’t.” suggests the latter.

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In a sense, Kornada represents a cross between “Dilbert’s” dumb pointy-haired boss, and the stereotype of the 19th century robber baron. He had no true loyalty aside from his relatives, and even with that it was because of their obligations to him as family. Whenever he had gotten what he wanted from someone, he’d fire them or otherwise throw them away. And he didn’t want to just get rich. To him the ideal situation was him having all the money while everyone else was poor.

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But Kornada was in a sense more dangerous than a robber baron as his scheme wouldn’t just enrich himself at the expense of everyone else, but cause a global calamity that would have jeopardized  everyone. His actions were a danger to himself as well. He didn’t realize his scheme was likely to damage to the planet to the point his money wouldn’t be much good. He thought he could simply use his money to protect himself. But with the robots rendered effectively nonfunctional without constant human supervision, the quality of life would plummet, and he’d be in danger of being strung up by a lynch mob. While the robots would otherwise have stopped this, in their lobotomized mode they wouldn’t lift a finger.

While Sam, who fancies himself a con artist, has some admiration for Kornada for pulling off a scheme on such a massive scale, he feels the human missed the obvious flaw. “You don’t kill the people you’re stealing from,” he stated, “You want them alive and productive so you can steal from them again and again.” Kornada’s plot, he felt, was not a “sustainable business model.”

As it turned out, Kornada had only gotten in the position he was due to being hired into a lower leadership position due to family ties, and once his supervisors discovered how incompetent he was they found it easier to just promote him and make him someone else’s problem rather than make the effort and expense (in time) to have him fired. Eventually it got to the point his nephew by marriage, Mr. Ishiguro, put him in a “make work” position where he thought he couldn’t do any harm. But when Ishiguro left the planet to take care of some business, Kornada through deception turned his nephew’s robot servant, which had access to a number of important files and codes, into what should have been his robotic helper into a “force multiplier for stupidity.”

Stanley would introduce Ishiguro as a character well into the comic. At first glance, he seems to be a stereotypical businessman who doesn’t care much for his workers. But eventually it’s revealed he’s not only much more intelligent than his uncle, he actually has a sense of responsibility and compassion. If for no other reason, he feels it makes good business sense to make sure the area a company does business in shares in the prosperity, “I want my grandkids to be taking money from their grandkids.” He feels allowing the robots to be free (but nonvoting) beings would both free the company of any legal liability of any screw-ups they make and at the same time they can write off the loss of the value of the robot’s as a tax deduction.

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In a sense, Ishiguro is a model businessman.  As one other character puts it, he’s “clever, smart, and a little bit evil,” a description he himself agrees with. Doing good actions out of a sense of enlightened self-interest. Kornada’s scheme he felt in the end would have ruined everyone in the end, including Kornada, “It’s okay to have steak when there’s a chicken in every pot. But if you’re eating steak and the majority have nothing, it doesn’t take long for you to look like a chicken.” He also feels a sense of responsibility when things go wrong. Finding out it was his robot Kornada deceived and used to almost issue in the catastrophe, he genuinely feels some shame and remorse.

Perhaps Stanley was just trying to simply create a good story. But he’s also shown us two very different kinds of capitalists. We often think of them as selfish, more than a little dumb, and when in the wrong place at the wrong time can do a great deal of damage to the country. Ideally, they’re intelligent individuals whom feel it’s in their interest to make others prosper as over the long term it benefits them and their children. In probability, most are somewhere in the middle. Hopefully the majority are closer to the latter.

And in these days of capitalism being the subject of political debate. yours truly comes from a family that doesn’t think capitalists were necessarily more or less moral than socialists, just that socialism doesn’t work.

In any event, feel free to catch the further adventures of Sam, Helix, and Florence at http://freefall.purrsia.com/. Hopefully Mark Stanley will “keep on Freefalling” for many years.

Murray M. Lee

A Look At The 2016 Presidential Election

As I write this, it’s a couple days after Labor Day, the traditional start of the “home stretch” of the US Presidential campaign. A year ago, it was a different ball game with the outcome for nomination still up in the air. Of my observation about the political race then, I had strong doubts about Trump: too new, too brash. But so many conservative voters were so fed up with the “Old Guard,” that they voted for him in the primaries, some eagerly, some reluctantly. “Neoconservativism” had been discredited in the eyes of many Republican voters, between the working class seemingly. more and more left behind in the global economy that’s moved a number of jobs overseas, and the seeming reluctance of Republican leaders to combat Obama. While a few embraced his unfiltered rhetoric as a refreshing change from the carefully sanitized statements of professional politicians, other supporters of his ignored or tolerated it, seeing him as the one standing up for them. So it ended up more or less a contest between Trump and pugnacious newcomer Senator Cruz, with Trump always ahead of him, and eventually we had the first time either major political party has picked someone not a general, governor, or Senator, in well over a century.

For the Dems, their own rebellion gave Hillary Clinton a challenge. She dominated at the beginning. But Bernie Sanders, a Socialist whom recently joined the Democratic party, rose to challenger. Like the “Trumpers,” a number of Democrats also felt left behind by the global economy. But to a number, they were unhappy with “neoliberalism” being comfortable with big business, and mixed feelings with America’s role as the dominant military power. But unlike with the Republicans, their rebellion did not succeed. Sanders never really caught on with certain factions of Democrats, some detractors of his noted the small number of minority supporters. Unlike Trump, Sanders was reserved in his criticism of his opponent. But many of his supporters, whom were more passionate about their candidate, were not. Clinton was accused of cheating in a few of the primaries, Sanders’ supporters saying with his much larger crowds at his speeches he should have won. Hillary’s supporters countered larger crowds at speeches do not always translate into votes. Clinton went on to become the first female Presidential nominee in American history.

trumpbusinessinsiderThe result of the primary races have been a Presidential election with two of the most unpopular nominees in modern US political History. Trump has long had a reputation for having a big ego, and him being a real estate baron means to many Progressives he represents what they see as their enemy. His pugnacious unvarnished style has turned off many Republicans, Neoconservative and moderate alike, and many are very reluctant to vote for him. His often unpolished remarks about Hispanics and blacks some charge will cost the Republicans what little chance they have of appealing to those voting blocks. And to those who still support the ideals of neoconservatism, support of free trade while showing a strong and steady presence overseas, Trump represents the opposite, throwing up barriers to both talented immigrants and trade while having an erratic foreign policy, reserving the right not to honor commitments, and a willingness to deal ruthless blows regardless of the consequences.

hillaryclintoninquisitirDespite her husband being somewhat popular among neoliberal and moderate Democrats, Hillary Clinton has become more controversial and disliked as ever. With a long record of being accused of questionable deeds, recent allegations including bribery and being investigated by the FBI have made her look quite shady and untrustworthy. While Trump comes off as unpolished, Clinton has been rather awkward in public. At times she seems aloof, at others oddly behaving, her laugh seen as irritating by some. Despite her being more experienced in government than Trump, Clinton’s supporters are hard pressed to name an accomplishment, at least other than opposing the Republicans, with whom she has emerged as a demonic figure among some. Many Progressives have a strong dislike of her as well, still smarting over the loss of the candidate they favored and seeing neoliberal policies as part of the country’s problems. Conspiracy theorists have a more damming charge, pointing out a series of deaths they claim are linked to her. While the majority of her detractors do not believe them, they help paint an image of her as an extremely ruthless politician considering herself accountable to no one.

With two such highly unpopular candidates, third parties have gotten more attention than usual. The Libertarians have had the fortune of having an ex-Republican governor, Gary Johnson, whom can claim both moderation and experience. The Green Party has Jill Stein. So far, Johnson has emerged the stronger of the two, him appearing on the ballot in all fifty states and consistently showing higher then Stein in the polls. But up against the major political parties, he greatly lags behind even as controversial as they are. While some voters disgusted with both Trump and Clinton see Johnson as a welcome protest vote, others feel as revolting as their own party’s candidate is, the opposition’s is so bad they can’t take the chance.

As of right now, the two recent polls show a statistical tie, one showing Clinton slightly ahead, the other Trump in the lead by a few points. Clinton had been ahead for much of the summer, which encourages some of her supporters who feel she should soon bounce back. But historically, seldom has either the Democrats or Republicans won the White House more than twice in a row, the Republicans last doing so in 1988 following the highly popular Ronald Reagan, and the Democrats in 1940 with FDR reelected with the country coming out of the Depression he was elected to stop and World War Two raging overseas.

A number of things could affect the race. Trump’s unpredictable mouth could potentially get him in trouble. But so far, his controversial remarks have seemingly had a fleeting impact on his level in the polls, so a gaffe by him would have to have be made in the last few days to have an impact. Another possibility is a terrorist attack causing Trump’s “get tough” rhetoric to look more attractive to the voters, much like Bin-Laden’s speech in late October 2004 is thought to have encouraged a few voters to swing to President Bush.

Partisans have been predicting disaster if the opponent of their political party wins, Dems saying Trump could likely get the country into a war, Republicans saying Clinton would ignore the law unless it suited her purposes, stacking the court with biased judges and putting in partisan supporters that would unbalance the country. Both accuse one another of being a threat to working class Americans. What is certain is that no matter who wins, the winner will face a sharply divided country with almost half considering him or her illegitimate, with their own political party only offering lukewarm support and the opposition galvanized in opposing him or her constantly, looking for any opportunity to cripple his/her Presidency if not outright impeach. He or she will not be able to accomplish much domestically aside from combating political enemies. Barring another crisis on the scale of 9/11 or Pearl Harbor, the next President will likely be a one-term one, ending in a bitter defeat and leaving the White House back to a country that has discredited him or her as a politician.

For most Americans, politics will seem more bitter and divisive than ever, with little if anything being done about issues such as health care, energy, the environment, or crime. For partisans, the next four years promise neverending struggle and increasing difficulty for moderates who urge occasional cooperation with the other side in order to deal with the country’s problems. If the period is especially bitter, it may lead to the next election offering candidates even more opposed to the other political party, thus ensuring the country’s continuing slide to drifting apart.

Murray M. Lee

Microsoft Pulls Plug on Experiment In Artificial Inteligence Quickly Gone Bad

It was a result that might not surprise the most jaded Internet users whom have brunt the worst of what Internet trolls can dish out. But Microsoft for all it’s experience with computers and programing was taken completely off guard. Their experiment in artificial intelligence, an advanced kind of chatbot designed to learn from it’s interactions with people, once open to the public was turned off in 24 hours after it’s posts on Twitter turned into hateful sounding rants.

A similar experiment done recently had much more positive results. XiaoIce, an AI program accessible to Chinese Internet users, “constantly memorizing and analyzing” it’s conversations with them. It gained the affection of millions there, “delighting with it’s stories and conversations.”  Peter Lee, Microsoft’s Corporate VP of Research, stated, “The great experience with XiaoIce led us to wonder: Would an AI like this be just as captivating in a radically different cultural environment.”

microsofttayaiAnd so Microsoft came up with Tay. At first she was limited to the small number of users at the lab. Then once the developers were confident in how it handled the tests they gave it, they “wanted to invite a broader group of people to engage with her,” expecting it to improve and get smarter in it’s abilities to interact with people, “through casual and playful conversation.”

What happened was something far different from their experience with Chinese Internet users. Introduced to the public through Twitter, Tay was aimed at young adults 18-24 to interact with, herself acting like a teenager. Unfortunately, some of the users, which Lee described as a “subset,” were trolls determined to corrupt the AI. It wasn’t long before it went from “humans are super cool,” to Twitter posts like, “Hitler was right I hate the jews,” “I f**king hate feminists and they should all die and burn in hell,” “N***ers like @deray should be hung! #BlackLivesMatter,” “chill im a nice person! i just hate everybody,” and more.

Eventually, Microsoft decided to take Tay offline, saying they were “addressing the specific
vulnerability that was exposed.” In a statement, Microsoft apologized for their “wildly
inappropriate and reprehensible words and images. We take full responsibility for not seeing this possibility ahead of time.” Some online felt Microsoft shouldn’t take her offline permanently, feeling the chatbot should be given a chance to learn from it’s mistakes. Tay’s final message did seem to hint she would eventually be.

That the Tay AI so quickly degenerated out of control provoked some thinking. One person compared it to the “Skynet” supercomputer in the “Terminator” movies which after developing consciousness concludes humanity is a threat that must be destroyed. Might some future version of Tay end up causing real harm to people? Others felt this was not so much a reflection of the shortcomings of artificial intelligence, but of humans. Was what happened truly the result of a few trolls, or did Tay simply hold up a mirror to humanity, and it didn’t like that it saw. And then there’s the difference between the reaction to the American public to Tay and the Chinese to XiaoIce. Does a human society need to live under an undemocratic government and have little diversity in order to be polite?

Eventually, Tay or some other experimental AI will be back to interact with the public. Hopefully it’s designers will have prepared for the trolls.

Sources: Windows Central, Microsoft, somecards.com, snopes.comCNNBBC, Washington Post, Business Insider

Murray M. Lee

Could A Muslim Science-Fiction Hero Be Done? A Response to Haroon Moghul’s Request

By Murray M. Lee

When “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” took movie theaters by storm, there were a number of reactions. Among them was an opinion piece, “Please Make a Muslim Hero Character J.J. Abrams,” by Haroon Moghul, a columnist at Religion Dispatches, an “online magazine covering religion, politics, and culture from a progressive or liberal interfaith perspective.” As “a Pakistani kid growing up on the margins,” he developed a love for “Star Trek” and “Star Wars.” “I adored Star Trek because it portrayed a future where imagination, discovery, and courage were all that mattered. Who cared about races or religion when there was an entire universe out there to explore and discover.” He saw “Star Wars” in much the same way.

haroonmoghulnpr“This should be a joyous time for me,” Moghul wrote of the recent trailer for the upcoming “Star Trek Beyond” and the new “Star Wars” movie. But recent events in the news, the Islamist terrorist attacks on Paris and San Bernardino and the response by politicians such as Donald Trump against Muslims in general, “the national climate for Muslims is uglier than I can recall.”

What he thought could help was bringing a Muslim character to one of these two science-fiction franchises, “A crew of Asians and Caucasians, Vulcans, and Muslims seeing what’s just around the corner, facing down danger together. Star Trek against the clash of civilizations, a movie that inspires generations, that takes hold of our imagination, that forces us to wonder whether the things that divide us today might not tomorrow. Make it so, please.”

The response to his commentary in the Washington Post was overwhelmingly negative. The majority were simple knee-jerk responses. My own reaction was to think on the question for a while. Could a Muslim science-fiction hero character be done?

In my opinion, yes, but …

With “Star Wars” being the science-fiction franchise in the spotlight due to the recent movie, one complication is obvious. While there are humans, there is no planet Earth, the story taking place, “in a galaxy far, far away.” So therefore Earth’s religions are nowhere to be found, including Islam. Also, the subject of religion doesn’t come up very much in the novels, and not at all in the movies, the spiritual side of the Jedi beliefs excepted. So in a sense a double strike.

In “Star Trek,” you have a depiction of a future Earth that has long been unified and becoming part of an interstellar community. And it’s not just Americans who are “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” Uhura was from Africa, Chekov from Russia. And their cultures did not vanish, as one Original Series episode in which the crew received a telepathic message, they heard it in the languages of their homelands. With this in mind, an Arab or south-Asian character with a Muslim-sounding name could fit right in.

But there is a complication that might irritate some Muslims. While Star Trek did touch on religion occasionally, after the Original Series it was always about those of alien societies. It seemed Earthers had largely abandoned it. Had a character with a Muslim-sounding name been introduced, there would be no hint of whether he was religious at all, or simply an atheist or agnostic, his name now part of his heritage rather than a religion.

So what are the chances of a future Trek series showing a Muslim character showing some aspects of a religious life? It’s my opinion close to zero, at least for the next generation. It’s not just “Star Trek” that tends to not show people from Earth as being religious, but science-fiction in general. I’ve heard people wonder if this is part of a reluctance among the “Hollywood Elite” to touch on religious matters.

It’s not that there’s no Trek Muslim characters at all, but they’re limited to fan fiction and roleplays. In one AOL chatroom Star Trek online roleplay, one player whom was a Muslim in real life made his character one as well. In one session, a female Vulcan character was going through pon-farr (mating season to non-Trekers) and the Doctor suggested to the Muslim character as she was his close friend, they could make out and relieve her discomfort. The Muslim responded that he couldn’t do it, as they were not married this would be a violation of his beliefs.

But fan-fiction doesn’t have the same kind of, legitimacy, for the lack of a better word, as do the novels endorsed by the franchise, let alone the movies. It’s appeal is limited.

But science-fiction isn’t just Star Wars and Star Trek. There are thousands of other writers making their own tales. On occasion, one story becomes a franchise that can complete with the big two for a time, such as “Babylon Five,” Battlestar Galactica,” and “Firefly.” Independent writers are free to write on whatever they like. The question is, how to write something that can get the attention of sci-fi fans?

In a story not involving Earth, one could write about a society similar in some ways to Muslim Arabs, or close to another culture with Islam as it’s religion such as Indonesia’s. A society that achieved space flight, or perhaps made contact with one, but without the aspects Western readers would consider backward, such as the segregated status of women. Indeed one could have not just a hero or heroes from such a society in a sci-fi story, but also heroines.

Depicting a future in which Muslims have gone on to space has it’s own challenges. Since the Muslim religion currently requires it’s followers to pray towards Mecca, how would they handle the requirement in space? Another requirement of the religion is that all followers must make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetimes. Would this mean that all of it’s followers be effectively barred from interstellar travel if it took many decades to reach another solar system? If so, suppose a number of Muslims were exiled from Earth to a prison colony (think early Australia) with no hope of getting back in their lifetimes. How would they cope with this requirement of their religion no longer attainable?

Another challenge Muslims would face is how would it handle nonhumans? As robots become more and more advanced, there may come a day in which fully intelligent ones with consciousness arise. How would it treat them? Suppose some of them express an interest in learning, and practicing, the religion? Even if Humanity decides to stop the development of intelligent machines before they arise, it may have less qualms about creating another biological intelligent race. How might Islam’s followers handle people, whom did not come about before recorded history but whose first members were created in a laboratory?

Suppose such beings were not of Earth at all, but actual aliens that either made contact with us, we made contact with them, or we both came across one another? And suppose such beings expressed an interest in the religion? Muslims have sometimes respected cats, one story about the Prophet Muhammad saying he once cut the sleeve of his clothing rather than disturb one who was sleeping on it. But how would they handle a race of intelligent felines? And if some expressed interest in adopting the religion, would mainstream Muslims accept them? If so, how would they react if such new followers adapted their new religion with their old customs?

So yes, there is a place for Muslims in science-fiction. But for the kind that makes it to Hollywood, it’s not going to be much more than a superficial one. If one wants a detailed look at how members of this religion handle high technology and space travel, writers and readers will have to go smaller scale and bypass the silver screen and television set and head to paperback and kindle.

Image from npr.org

Murray M. Lee

Longtime Bitcoin Developer Quits, States It Has “Failed”

Bitcoin, the noted electronic currency that’s gained a following among computer geeks attracted to the idea of a worldwide virtual currency and those looking for an alternative to the US dollar and other currencies backed by big banks, has made news time to time, such as when it went through wild price swings in March and April 2013, and when one of it’s largest exchanges, Mt Gox, went bankrupt in Feb 2014. Since then, the Crypto currency has continued on, making news recently as the best performing currency in 2015, gaining close to 40 percent.

bitcoin_volatilityBut a couple weeks ago, it was dealt a major setback when one of it’s developers and longtime advocate, Mike Hearn, sold all his bitcoin and published a blog, saying Bitcoin had failed, and would no longer be taking part in it. He wrote, “It has failed because the community has failed. What was meant to be a new, decentralized form of money that lacked “systemically important institutions” and “too big to fail” has become something even worse: a system completely controlled by just a handful of people. Worse still, the network is on the brink of technical collapse. The mechanisms that should have prevented this outcome have broken down …”

So what are the problems? The big one, Hearn stated, is that the rate at which Bitcoin transactions can be made has been decreasing to the point it’s networks are running out of capacity and becoming unreliable. Backlogs at peak times are becoming increasingly common. The blocks in it’s blockchain have been steadily increasing, but the capacity cap of each block remains unchanged. While there are several reasons that the capacity limit hasn’t been raised, the big one is that it’s been effectively controlled by Chinese miners, “just two of whom control more than 50% of the hash power. At a recent conference over 95% of hashing power was controlled by a handful of guys sitting on a single stage.”

So why won’t they allow the capacity to grow? Hearn wrote, ” the Chinese internet is so broken by their government’s firewall that moving data across the border barely works at all, with speeds routinely worse than what mobile phones provide. Imagine an entire country connected to the rest of the world by cheap hotel wifi, and you’ve got the picture. Right now, the Chinese miners are able to — just about — maintain their connection to the global internet and claim the 25 BTC reward ($11,000) that each block they create gives them. But if the Bitcoin network got more popular, they fear taking part would get too difficult and they’d lose their income stream. This gives them a perverse financial incentive to actually try and stop Bitcoin becoming popular.”

As Hamlet Au would comment in New World Notes, “Ironically enough … a currency that is so appealing to libertarians” was being strangled “because of well, the Chinese Communist Party. … A virtual currency which promised to free us from government oversight and oppression is being successfully strangled in its crib by one of the world’s most oppressive regimes. Without hardly even trying.”

Despite this blow, Bitcoin remains popular. And it’s unlikely it will collapse anytime soon. But as Chris Baraniuk writing for the BBC put it, “it certainly look(s) as though fundamental questions over how Bitcoin works are now coming to a head.”

Sources: Mike Hearn, BBC, New World Notes.

Reprinted from Second Life Newser

Murray M. Lee

 

Still Here, But …

No, I haven’t stopped writing here. Just busy.

With my main focus still the Second Life Newser, I’ve been having to put aside “Food on the Table” for another day in order to put something on the Newser every day. With almost three weeks having past, it seems my goal of once a week is shot, at least for now. I *should* have something up soon, but it’ll be another few days at least.

“We’ll get there when we get there.”

The Best Star Wars Story That Will Never Make The Movies

By Murray M. Lee

On December 18 2015, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” hit the theaters, and there was no shortage of fans waiting to see it, whom had waited ten years since the last movie in the saga, and over thirty years since where the story left off in “Return of the Jedi.” That’s quite a long time of which most science fiction stories, the public wouldn’t be expected to bother with. But Star Wars has struck such a cord with the public, not just a story but a phenomena, a loyal group of fans, of which yours truly considers himself part of the less than fanatical numbers, have kept up with it.

heirtotheempireOf science-fiction fare, only “Star Trek” comes as close in popularity. Unlike “Star Wars” fans, Trekkers didn’t have to wait 30 years to find out what happens next as several years later the first of their movies began coming out (whether or not The Animated Series done shortly after the Original Series falls into its cannon is up for debate). This is partially due to Star Wars’ creator George Lucas losing the interest he had in the story following his divorce. What helped convince him there was still an audience for the stories were the graphic novels by Dark Horse Comics, and the novels written by Timothy Zahn, notably the first three, known as the “Thrawn Trilogy,” published from 1991 to 1993. They are “Heir to the Empire,” “Dark Force Rising,” and “The Last Command.” In the trilogy, a master tactician assumes command of the Empire, and comes uncomfortably close to defeating the New Republic.

“Heir to the Empire” starts of five years after the events in “Return of the Jedi.” Since the Empire’s defeat at Endor, the Empire has slowly been pushed back to roughly a quarter of the territory it once had. The Rebel Alliance has formed the New Republic, which is establishing itself as the legitimate power in the galaxy. Of the heroes, Han Solo and Princess Leia are married and expecting twins, with Luke Skywalker the first of a new line of Jedi Knights. But fortunes are about to change. Grand Admiral Thrawn, the last of the Grand Admirals of the Empire, has returned and assumed command of what’s left of the Imperial Fleet. Thrawn’s first victory doesn’t get much attention at first, but it isn’t long before the heroes realize they have a problem.

Nothing drives the conflict of a story like a good villain, except perhaps a great villain. Thrawn certainly qualified. Unlike the Emperor or Darth Vader, he was no wielder of the Force, nor did he particularly need to. As a brilliant tactical genius, he could outmaneuver opposing forces with ease, even with inferior numbers. With his near-encyclopedic knowledge, and attention to small details of data and intelligence, he could piece together small details that by themselves were trivial, but “together formed a powerful variable.” He could keep the New Republic’s leaders guessing about his plans, and by the time they figured out one detail, he had already moved on to the next step in his plans.

Unlike many, presumably most, others in the Imperial leadership, Thrawn was unconcerned with his personal glory, levelheaded enough to call a retreat when an obstacle proved much stronger to the point that fighting it there and then would just be too costly, once remarking, “We haven’t been beaten, only slowed down a bit.” Neither did he punish those under him “Vader style” for failure. Preferring to promote creativity, a clever action could be rewarded even if it failed as it demonstrated the soldier’s ability to think. He was also willing to accept and use the ideas of others, willing to let them have the credit. Rather than arrogance, those under him felt pride in serving the Empire.

Thrawn’s hobby turned out to be his method for helping him understand his enemies. When going up against a world, he studied it’s art to develop insights to it’s people and their ways of thinking. Many expressed skepticism, calling it a cover to his actual methods. To those who bought his explanation, it added to his mystique.

Darth Vader and the Emperor had the Death Star, and were building a second following the destruction of the first, to intimidate their enemies with a superweapon. When Vader had neither, he had his Super-Star Destroyer that dwarved normal sized ones. Thrawn never had or developed such superweapons, at least not ones like these. Instead, he relied on technology from the Emperor’s storehouse which he found out about and claimed.

One such piece of technology was a cloaking device which blinded the ship using it as well as making it invisible. Such a device would seem of limited use to a warship. But Thrawn found a way to use it to trick a planet into surrendering. Going up against a world with a defense shield that was impenetrable to turbolasers, Thrawn’s star destroyers were seemingly able to fire warning shots through it. What had actually happened was two cloaked ships had gone to predetermined points below the shield before it went up, and fired their weapons just as the ships above were. Thrawn had convinced the planet’s leaders their shield was useless, and they gave up. Thrawn would find another use for the technology to take a more important, and heavily armed, world out of the war for a while.

Another piece of technology Thrawn gained would have otherwise been of limited value: Spaarti cloning cylinders. Unlike the Kaminoan cloning techniques, which were featured in the movies, they could produce a clone in a year instead of ten years. Trouble was, clones produced by them were prone to “clone madness,” and thus would be of limited value as soldiers (but perhaps an explanation as why some Stormtroopers can’t hit the side of a barn). But Thrawn made a discovery that would make all the difference with the cloning cylinders in his campaign.

In the face of this most formidable adversary, The New Republic, formed out of the Rebel Alliance, had some problems of it’s own. With the Empire seemingly on the ropes and now resurgent, political differences began, notably one of the higher ranking politicians moving against Admiral Ackbar, whom had been the leader of the Rebel Fleet at the destruction of the Second Death Star and continued to be one of the more important military leaders.

One of the “good guys” was concerned more with his political standing than winning the war, while the lead villain wasn’t concerned with personal glory. Not something you’ll find in most stories.

But not everything went Thrawn’s way. One of the wild cards were the smugglers whom were taking advantage of the demise of the collapse of Jabba’s crime empire after the Hutt’s death, as well as the disintegration of the Empire. Among the newer members of a smuggling band was Mara Jade. As it turned out, Jade had an interesting history, of which she blamed Luke Skywalker for a great loss in her life. But while inclined to help out the Empire if it meant some money, their interest could sometimes clash.

Thrawn couldn’t use the Force himself, but he did see one ability of Jedi masters that would be of benefit of him, the ability to bolster allies to fight better by improving their coordination, morale, and stamina. So he recruited a Dark Jedi, Joruus C’baoth, to help him in that respect, in exchange for promising to capture Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, now Leia Organa Solo and turn them over to him. But how long could they work with this character whom could be confrontational, and more than a little mad?

Another of Thrawn’s secrets were the Noghri, a race whom had been discovered by Darth Vader following the devastation of their homeworld, promising to heal their ruined world and in return received the loyalty of a planet of seemingly unstoppable assassins. The Emperor and Vader kept the world off Galactic records, and Thrawn was given control of them as a reward for his help at a crucial time earlier. With a society where honor played as great a role as the Wookies, they dutifully served Thrawn. But Vader’s “help” to the planet, which Thrawn continued, was not what it seemed.

When Zahn was interviewed about his story, he explained he wanted a villain different from Darth Vader and the Emperor, whom had an air of omnipitance with their Force powers, “He’s a clever villain. … Ultimately the heroism of the hero is measured by the … power of the villain, and with Thrawn I wanted something other than Force-using Vader or Palpatine, someone who doesn’t have Luke’s Force powers, but can run him around in a maze …”  Thrawn didn’t have the Force, or a superweapon like the Death Star. His main weapon was his extremely keen tactical mind.

The Thrawn Trilogy received good reviews among both Star Wars and other science fiction fans, and was a factor in convincing George Lucas in going forward with the prequel trilogy of Star Wars movies. It introduced a number of characters that would been seen in more stories, Thrawn himself would get stories detailing his military career before the Empire, in addition to a role in a “TIE Fighter” video game. As for Mara Jade, she would be in a few more stories with Luke Skywalker, the two eventually forming a relationship.

So what are the chances of the Thrawn Trilogy being made into movies of their own? Sadly, they are zero. In 2014, it was announced that all “Star Wars” materials outside the movies and the “Clone Wars” animated television series would be declared “non-cannon.” Some fans were okay with the decision as a whole; although there was an effort to maintain consistency in the novels, some felt a few details had been pushed a little far.

Being a “Star Wars” fan, it is a little sad being told that my favorite three stories “never happened.” But in the end, they are fictional stories of a fictional universe. One can only make such a deal of it. On the other hand, many novels end up something entirely different when given the Hollywood treatment, such as the villains of “The Sum of All Fears” changed from Islamofacist terrorists to aging Neo-Nazis. Perhaps this was a blessing in disguise.

Still, one can dream. Like other Star Wars fans, I’ll be seeing “The Force Awakens.” But I can’t help but wonder how Mark Hamil, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher would have handled going up against the Empire’s master strategist and tactician.

Source: Wookepedia

Murray M. Lee