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

Man Buys Google.com For $12

googledotcomforsale

This Internet news story is several weeks old, but still worth talking about. It seems Google briefly lost the ownership of it’s Internet domain name to a man in India, albeit for just a minute.

“I was learning more about the Google Domains interface,” Sanmay Ved of Mandivi India would write in LinkedIn, “and typed google.com and clicked search domains. To my surprise, Google.com was showing as available!” He then used his credit card to purchase the domain, documenting his transactions on screenshots, and his transaction was confirmed, making him the new owner of Google’s web domain.

But his ownership was brief. A minute later, he received an email stating his purchase was canceled, which Google could do as they owned the registration service, unlike a similar incident with Microsoft and it’s domain in the United Kingdom. Some days later, he was contacted by their security team, stating he would get a reward for finding the error. Ved requested the reward go to charity, an educational group that runs 400 schools in India, “providing free education to more than 39,200 children in the slum, tribal and rural belts where child labor and poverty are widespread.” Google agreed and doubled the amount.

I can’t shake that feeling that I actually owned Google.com,” he was quoted as saying.

Sources: LinkedIn, Business Insider, BBC News, PCmag.com 

Murray M. Lee

Of Generations and History

 

By Murray M. Lee

Yours truly has enjoyed reading history all his life, both in reading the facts, but also sometimes looking at why things happened the way they did. So when I heard about the book “Generations: A History of America’s Future” in 1991, I went ahead and got a copy. It’s remained one of the books I recommend those interested in history have a read.

Written by William Strauss and Neil Howe, the central point of the book is what’s come to be called the Strauss-Howe Generational Theory, that generations more or less repeat themselves in a pattern, and influence history’s patterns of “Spiritual Awakenings” like the Great Awakenings of the 1740s and 1820s and the 60s Counterculture movement, and “Great Crises,” such as the American Revolution, Civil War, and Great Depression/WW2. Generations, the authors stated, can be grouped as four types, appearing in a cycle: Civic-minded generations, such as the “GI Generation” of which was the generation that was fighting age around WW2, Adaptive generations, such as the “Silent” generation that came of age in the late 40s and 50s, Idealistic generations such as the Boomers whom came of age in the 60s and 70s, and Reactive or realistic generations, such as “Generation X.” Over a course of about eighty years, they appear in a pattern: Civic/Adaptive/Idealistic/Reactive.

And just as there are different generations, American history follows a pattern. Times of crisis, such as the Second World War, are followed by a time when the country is united and society is more conformist. What follows is a time in which the norms of society come increasingly into question, or a “Spiritual Awakening,” such as the 60’s and 70s. What follows is a time in which the country is less unified, the people more individualistic. Times like these are known for rugged individuals such as the 49ers who sought their fortunes in the Old West, barnstormers and stock-market moneymakers in the 1920s, and the dot-com Internet enterpenurers of the 1990s.

In the last Great Crisis, the Depression WW2, you had an Idealistic generation, what they called the “Missionary” making up most of their elder statesmen (Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Douglas MacArthur), a Reactive generation, the “Lost,” making up lesser leadership roles (Harry Truman, George Patton), a Civic generation, the “GI” generation, as the young adults fighting the war, (John Kennedy, John Glenn, George Bush), and an Adaptive generation, the “Silent,” in their childhood (Walter Mondale, John McCain), who could only watch as older generations served in a global conflict.

In the Postwar era of the 1950s (termed the American High by some), a time when the country was unified by some were starting to get uncomfortable with the conformity, the Idealist Missionary generation was passing into history and the Reactive Lost were now making up the elder statesmen. Members of the GI generation were getting elected to Congress and other government positions, as well as working their way up corporate ladders, the Silent generation were now young adults, serving in the Korean War or entry level jobs in businesses, and a new Idealist generation, the Boomers, were growing up as children in a time of prosperity and conformity.

In the “Spiritual Awakening” of the 1960s and 70s, members of the GI Generation were assuming the positions of elder statesmen, with members of the Adaptive Silent rising up to leadership positions just under them, or leading movements themselves, the Boomers now as young adults and their numbers swelling the ranks of counterculture and civil rights movements, or serving as the foot soldiers in Vietnam, with a Reactive generation, Generation X, in a childhood in which the outside world seemed more than a little chaotic at times.

In the 1980s and 90s, a time of rising individualism and less of a sense of a united country, the Adaptive Silents would assume some positions of elder statesmen (although the Presidency itself would elude them), with the Boomers taking some positions of leadership in politics and business (Newt Gingrich, Al Gore, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs),  Generation X now all grown up was entering the working world or starting their own companies, notably those in technology such as the dot-com businesses, with a lucky few making names as singers or athletes (Philip Rosedale, J.K. Rowling, Michael Jordon), and the Millennial generation (Mark Zuckerberg, ) as children, watching the Cold War come to an end with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and seeing politicians become increasingly bitter to one another.

Just as history isn’t always cut and dry, the cycle isn’t a perfect one. It was broken once during the Civil War, which was characterized by people identifying with the Idealistic “Transcendental” generation for a longer than normal time for a generation, and the absence of a true Civic generation. Strauss and Howe wrote that during the Civil War Crisis, the Reactive generation of the time, which they called the “Gilded Generation,” took on some of the attributes of a Civic generation. But after what they had faced, they would be more distrustful of moral zealotry and more willing to accept less than perfect institutions. The generation following the Gilded, growing up in the shadow of a destructive Civil War and in a land where corruption was becoming more of a problem, would become an Adaptive generation, whom Strauss and Howe termed the “Progressive.”

My own knowledge of history is lacking in places, but I don’t recall the 1880s, 1890s and 1900s having a time of spiritualism as the US had several decades before and after, though more were drawn to missionary work overseas as Africa and much of Asia fell under Western control, and there was the Progressive movement in politics.

And of one generation giving way to another in positions of leadership, there has been one noteworthy hiccup: no Silent generation US President. Although they fielded a number of candidates from Walter Mondale to Michael Dukakis to John McCain, none would get the job, becoming the first generation to fail to get to top political office in America, the job in the 80s and 90s going instead from GI generation to Boomer.

One thing that marks Generation X is having a rougher time economically than their parents at their stage of life, enterpenuers of the dot-com era ending up going bankrupt and houseowners losing big in the housing bubble of the later 2000s. Previous Reactive generations have had troubles not dissimilar. Members of the Lost generation would make fortunes in the Stock Market in the 1920s, only to lose them in the crash, spend a decade of their prime working years unemployed or making depressed wages in scarce jobs, and getting the short end of the stick for the new Social Security program. For the Gilded generation, thousands took part in the 1849 California Gold Rush hoping to strike it rich, but most would find no gold and had to settle down to take whatever job they could, such as farming.

So what does this cycle of generations and history mean for today? Well, according to the theory, we’re right on the verge of a Great Crisis, which could he several months or several years away. The American Revolution, American Civil War, and Second World War, are roughly eighty years apart from one another: 1780/1860/1940. So the next one should be around 2020, give or take a few years.

What this conflict might be like, or what kind of generation the Millennials are likely to become will be the topic of  a later commentary. For now, I’ll leave you to a video of the authors of “Generations” discussing their book (Click here).

Murray M. Lee

About This Site

Many of you know me by my online pseudonym, Bixyl Shuftan, which I’ve been more or less known online for several years. Others, especially those who know me on the other side of the computer, know me as Murray M. Lee. As both, I’ve been known as keeping an eye on the news, having read a number of history and science fiction books in the past, a love of computer games, and a corny sense of humor.

murraymlee2013I’ve been writing for fun since childhood, as a kid homemade comics and fanciful tales that were the byproduct of a kid’s imagination. As a young adult, science fiction short stories for Creative Writing Class. From about 1999 to 2007, I self-published a number of short stories and a couple short novels on a website, “A Writers Block.” Over eight years, it would get thirty thousand hits. After I got a new computer, the File Transfer Protocol program stopped working. But it was about this time I was thinking I needed a new focus.

I soon found another subject to write about later in 2007 in in the virtual world of Second Life. I was invited by the owners of Second Life Newspaper to write for them, and I began writing nonfiction stories about the virtual world, it’s people, places, and events. In 2010, Second Life Newspaper folded as it’s owners departed the virtual world, and me and most of the other writers began a new one: Second Life Newser. It has become one of the leading sources of news for those interested about the virtual world, with twenty-two thousand readers checking the paper every month.

While my online friends were interested in the Newser, those on my side of the computer were generally puzzled, or disinterested in the newsletter. What they did pay attention to was the cartoons, of which even the inside jokes were laughed at, and that I was actually getting paid for what I was writing, indirectly through advertising, with what was left over after paying the staff going to charities in the virtual world. Good, I was told, but couldn’t better be done? Second Life is fine and dandy, but this does not put food on the table.

So I’m going to try something new.

While still doing the Newser, and still doing science-fiction stories on the side. I’m going to try my hand at writing at least once a week about things besides Second Life. Sometimes a joke or two, sometimes a commentary about something in the news, sometimes reflecting on history, and more.

What to call this something new? Thinking about it, I kept recalling people suggesting that I write to get businesses to want to advertise on my pages and pay me good money, so it would put food on the table.

And so, that’s what the title of this site will be: Food on the Table.

Hope you enjoy my writing, and if you run a business, please consider advertising here.

Murray M. Lee