A Plethora of Links to End 2014

2014 is just about gone, and for the large part, I say: Good riddance. In many ways, 2014 was an awful year for civil liberties, freedom, and for people in general. Yet on the other hand, there are some positive things to report.

One of my 2015 resolutions is to stop posting so much political stuff. I know, I know – I say this almost every month, and yet it never happens. I'm going to try, though, this year, especially since I'm making the effort to make some resolutions. (I'm even going to print them out and put them up on my wall in my bedroom and in my office.) So in honor of that, I wanted to post some last political and semi-political links before the year ended, links that have been sitting on my mind:

THE BAD

2014 was a really rotten year for privacy, civil liberties, and in particular for public-police relations. For a long time I thought of writing up a list of all the issues of police overreach and brutality, but I don't have to. Radley Balko, one of the best journalists on the planet, rounded up 2014's civil liberties violations as a "Let me give some predictions for 2015" post. It's chilling to think that, in the nation that is supposedly the leader of the free world, we have so many horrible things going on – most, but not all, being conducted by state and local governments.

I mean, seizing someone's assets, then charging them with a crime, so they can't pay for their own defense? Arresting parents for letting their kids play without supervision? Claiming that your SWAT team is a private corporation and is thus immune to open records laws? Push for extrajudicial tribunals for people who may or may not commit crimes against a certain class of individuals, tribunals where "innocent until proven guilty" and the rule of law are thrown out the airlock? Punishing people who haven't been convicted of a crime?

These are not the signs of a healthy liberal democracy, they're the signs of a damaged one that needs repair, fast.

One story in particular has stood out to me. As many have defended the police in the recent incidents and stories, one thing they may have failed to notice is that even black police officers feel threatened by the "boys in blue". I think once cops are fearful of other cops, then we have indisputable proof that there is a serious problem. And yet people still ignore it. Read the link above for a maddening, frustrating look at what is wrong with policing today. (That one really grinds my gourd, because I think it will be ignored by most.)

Meanwhile, on the other side of the coin, in 2014 progressives became nattering nabobs of negativity – or, in other words, conservatives. reason magazine highlights how 2014 heralded the return of "Neo-Victorianism", and I'm thankful that Elizabeth Nolan Brown wrote that article because I've been struggling to find the right word for this new trend. It's the trend of using coercion and bullying to enforce a set of social norms, mostly deployed by feminists, it seems. The four major areas are increasing art censorship, a hysteria over sex-trafficking (that trampled over individual rights while simultaneously punishing sex workers, many of whom don't think they're victims and like their jobs, thank you very much), a dragging out of hate speech to absurd lengths that means you shouldn't say anything that could potentially offend anyone at any time, and a trend of treating women as dainty little flowers that need to be coddled and protected rather than being allowed to develop into strong and independent individuals.

It's all rather sickening. It too, is not a sign of a healthy democracy.

And let's not get me started on the various abuses by the NSA. Let's just not go there for once.

The Good

There are, however, some great things to look forward to in 2015 that continue from 2014.

The first is in terms of war and crime. Steven Pinker, a wonderful academic, details in a great article for Slate that planet Earth is actually becoming a very peaceful world. I found the article particularly interesting for the following tidbit:

But the red curve in the graph shows a recent development that is less benign: The number of wars jumped from four in 2010—the lowest total since the end of World War II—to seven in 2013. These wars were fought in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Sudan, and Syria. Conflict data for 2014 will not be available until next year, but we already know that four new wars broke out in the past 12 months, for a total of 11. The jump from 2010 to 2014, the steepest since the end of the Cold War, has brought us to the highest number of wars since 2000.
[…]
The 2010–2014 upsurge is circumscribed in a second way. In seven of the 11 wars that flared during this period, radical Islamist groups were one of the warring parties: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Israel/Gaza, Iraq, Nigeria, Syria, and Yemen. (Indeed, absent the Islamist conflicts, there would have been no increase in wars in the last few years, with just two in 2013 and three in 2014.) This reflects a broader trend.

That "broader trend" being religious hostilities, with "all but two of these countries" having those hostilities being "associated with extremist Islamist groups." I always find myself on a narrow tightrope when it comes to Islamism; on the one hand, I always find conservatives are far too hostile and kneejerk when they want to just fight Muslims and bomb them; on the other hand, I think that many libertarians and leftists slide Islam's problems under the rug and prefer not to notice. Don't kid yourselves, guys: although Christianity has issues, it has largely been tamed and neutered by modernity. Islam hasn't. And Islam has got loads of problems.

But even despite that, the world is far more peaceful than the news reports make it out to be. Outside of the Middle East, we have the conflict in Ukraine – and that has basically been frozen. The drop in oil prices has crushed the Russian economy, so I don't know if Putin will continue to help his "allies" in Donetsk and Lugansk. There are conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria, but to be honest I know very little about them.

Meanwhile, Fraser Nelson in The Spectator (UK) reports on how we're winning the war on disease. In 1990, diseases claimed roughly 37,500 years of life per 100,000 people; now they claim only about 26,000 (judging by my eyes on that chart.) Starvation has dropped by over ten percentage points. Infant mortality has plummeted. These are all extremely good news to hear.

The last one is a story on upcoming disruptive technologies, many of which are going to build on 2014 discoveries. I post this one because I have a bit of a quibble with the author, Vivek Wadhwa. Although I think most of his points are relatively sound, inasmuch as I, not being an expert in these areas, could judge them, his section on energy has problems. First, he leads off by saying that fracking is a harmful technology – newsflash, it isn't. Second, he says that solar power will hit grid parity by 2020, which I think is unlikely considering how expensive solar power is. (Seriously, the people I know who study energy saw a similar story by Wadwha and they claimed it hurt their brains.) Third, Wadwha claims that if we have unlimited energy,

we can have unlimited clean water, because we can simply boil as much ocean water as we want. We can afford to grow food locally in vertical farms. This can be 100 percent organic, because we won’t need insecticides in the sealed farm buildings. Imagine also being able to 3D print meat and not having to slaughter animals. This will transform and disrupt agriculture and the entire food-production industry.

Wadwha might be right about unlimited energy and unlimited clean water, but even if he is, the rest doesn't follow. Water isn't the only resource. Why would we grow food locally? It's not necessarily more efficient than growing food on larger farms elsewhere. Secondly, what about the time involved? When Wadwha says "locally," I see the localist woo argument about people growing food in their backyards. But that takes time, and who wants to waste time growing your own food when you can buy it at the store and instead spend your time going to sports events, watching TV, writing blog posts, or going on romantic getaways? Wadwha ignores that, and it hurts, both his piece and my head.

I'm also a little miffed he didn't mentioned Lockheed Martin's new fusion reactor project (more on that later), but I totally agree with him on synthetic meat – which I think will be a huge advance – and he makes good points about 3D printing, finance, and healthcare. In all areas, we're talking about some radical decentralization.

The Awesome

Okay, the last bit. The really cool stuff.

Scientists did some really cool things in 2014. I mean, some really scifi things. Quantum teleportation for instaneous communication, blood based nanites to repair your body, 3D food printers, hoverboards – 2014 was a really cool year for tech.

Meanwhile, the one news item that really made me jump was Lockheed Martin's announcement that in five years they'll have a prototype for a commercial fusion reactor. There are a lot of questions and criticisms of this, with many having doubts – but if anyone is going to deliver a power source that is clean and nearly limitless, it's going to be Lockheed Martin. And I hope it turns out correct, because I think that:

  1. It would provide enough energy to avoid the coming energy shortfalls as our iCivilization keeps getting bigger
  2. It would go a long way towards making climate change a nonissue
  3. It would go a long way towards getting the US out of the Middle East as we wouldn't have to worry about the oil reserves there
  4. It would weaken OPEC, Venezuela, and Russia (yes that's a cheap geopolitical shot but I think it's valid)
  5. A fusion rocket could get us from Earth to Mars in 30 days rather than six months
  6. It could power the warp drive that NASA is working on
  7. As energy is one of the largest input costs, this could make everything cheaper across the board by a considerable factor
  8. Bonus – Gundams.

I'm really hoping that 2015 will turn out to be even cooler.

And finally, for one last speculative item, there's a guy in Nebraska building a warp drive in his garage. Okay, okay, it's pretty far out there, man, but when you read stuff like this:

He turns around and points to the back of his garage door, where a red laser — beamed at the weight and reflected back against the door to demonstrate the movement happening in the case — drifts from its original spot. Slowly, in incremental amounts, the weight is drawn toward the V-shape motor.

You gotta wonder.

The Force Is Still Strong With the Star Wars Expanded Universe

A not so long time ago, in a boardroom not all that far away…

So the news is out. The Star Wars Expanded Universe – all the books, games, comics, etc beyond the movies and the Clone Wars show – is essentially being put into storage. It will still be available, printed, and even to be used by authors and creators in the “new” timeline. Already, some fans are complaining hard about this, feeling they’re being Force choked by this decision. Things like “I invested years and lots of money into this!” are getting bandied about.

These complaints are really childish, and I actually think this is a good decision for Disney to make.

First, why the decision is good. While I certainly have my favorites from the EU canon – the X-Wing series, Young Jedi Knights, anything by Timothy Zahn, and I, Jedi all stand out – we must face the fact that a great majority of the Expanded Universe is, to put it frankly, bantha poodoo. I said as much back in January, and I just want to reiterate it more now. The Courtship of Princess Leia is as schlocky as they come, and The Crystal Star is…well, perhaps the less said about it, the better. There are many horrible Star Wrongs in the EU. In no way, shape, or form should J.J Abrams and the crew working on the next trilogy be beholden to them. I’m glad they won’t be!

But then, that’s the thing, isn’t it? The EU was always secondary canon. Even though it was canon – unlike, say, Star Trek, which basically said that it’s “extended universe” was not canon, no way, no how – it was always secondary to the two film trilogies and later on Clone Wars. (Ugh.) So even they technically were not really Star Wars. And for the vast majority of people who have watched the movies, they aren’t, because they’re not the movies. How many people read Star Wars novels? I’m sure it’s a large number, but it is nowhere near as large as the many who have watched the movies and never delved into the EU.

Now, why the complaints, in most cases, are pretty childish: because this decision in no way takes away from your enjoyment of those stories. We are dealing with a fictional universe, and you know where fictional universes live? In your mind, and in your heart. And nothing that Disney can do can take them away from those places. Sure, they may not exist in the same timeline as the new movies…however, fiction loves alternate timelines, so there is nothing saying you can’t just push the old EU to a different timeline and enjoy that. People are doing it with Star Trek, why not Star Wars?

Fact is, the Star Wars universe is one you make of it. I myself have completely disavowed anything from New Jedi Order onwards and most of the stuff set between the Exar Kun saga and the earliest “Last Days of the Old Republic” type material. (KOTOR, KOTOR II, The Old Republic, etc – all that stuff doesn’t exist for me, because it is all hilariously dumb.) Does that mean that content doesn’t exist for other fans? Of course not.

I really think fans need to get over themselves. Saying “the death of the EU hurts” is almost pathetic. Having your dog die hurts. Having a friend or family member hurts. Losing a job hurts. A company making a change in what novels it will accept as a backstory to a movie series doesn’t hurt, and if does you may be overly attached. Sorry if that sounds harsh, but come on. I love fiction as much as the next guy, and I love writing it and yes I do get attached to things sometimes, but at the end of the day these are all stories that exist in your mind. (Well, until Heinlein’s pantheistic solipsism is proven correct, that is…)

It’s whiny, entitled bullshit. I see this all over the ‘Net on all sorts of topics, and when it comes to something as silly as this – yes, “silly” and Star Wars do go together in this case – it just makes me sad. Sad that people are wasting their time on this. Move on, you have more important things to do. The Expanded Universe you love will always be there for you, forever.

(And before you say “But Jeremy – shouldn’t you have more important things to do than write a blog post like this?” why yes, yes I do. Which is watch the rest of Gundam Unicorn.)

5 Reasons Why The Star Trek Mirror Universe is Stupid

In the interest of getting away from political content on this blog, I want to write something I’ve been dying to write for awhile now–a critique of the stupidest thing in science fiction. No, it’s not Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda (though that’s close.) No, it’s not Star Trek Into Darkness, though that is one epically stupid movie by anyone’s standards. It is Star Trek related, however, but it has nothing to do with the transporter problem, everyone being a rubber forehead alien, time travel shenanigans, any number of nerdgasmic miniutiae about the warp drive, or Wesley Crusher.

Wesley Crusher Being Smug
Still, like most people, I want to punch him in the face.

No, it’s actually one of my favorite things about Star Trek–the Mirror Universe.

Now, I’m a huge fan of parallel realities, alternate histories, and other dimensions. Get me a dimension hopping story and I am just about guaranteed to read it. And I actually do like the Mirror Universe, a parallel timeline that, throughout the entirety of the franchise, is considered to be something more than just a parallel timeline (or quantum parallel, as in that episode where Worf jumps around and ends up in a universe where he banged Troi. Now there’s a time you really need to be using protection.)

I simultaneously wish more stuff was done with the Mirror Universe, and perhaps other “parallel universes,” but at the same time, I must admit…the Mirror Universe is pretty fricking dumb. I mean literally, there is no way that it should happen. Even by “Relax, it’s only a TV show” standards, it should have never come to pass. Only by the most radical version of Many Worlds Interpretation, where every single path is taken, is the Mirror Universe even feasible. Feasible, mind you, not definitely existing. I’ll explain why now. Let’s get the big thing out of the way first.

5. Spock With A Goatee

Is it the Mirror Universe that makes you evil…or the goatee?

This one is just straight dumb. Spock, in a goatee? What the hell were they thinking? It’s just as ridiculous as saying that Twi’leks serve in Starfleet. Oh, wait….

Continue reading 5 Reasons Why The Star Trek Mirror Universe is Stupid

Advertising? Slick design? Who needs it?

About a week ago, I was at my sister’s house in upstate New York visiting, and she told me about this wonderful thing called X10. It’s a company that develops “home automation systems,” allowing you to control your lighting, doors, appliances, and everything remotely, or set up schedules for turning things on or off or doing other crazy things. Her example was using a TV remote to control the lighting in her home theater, which, actually, was really neat. I mean, she had those light cables they string down the aisles at the movie theater, and she could dim them so it looked like Regal Cinemas…you just have to trust me on this one. It was cool.

But then she showed me their website, because, well, it’s not what you expect.

For a contrast, let’s take a brief look at the Apple website. (I’ll move past the special splash page about Steve Jobs–not to belittle him, but simply because that’s not the regular design.) Slick, eh? It’s pretty, clean, and, if you’re a Firefly fan like me, deserving of the descriptor “shiny.” It’s like everything else with Apple–very pretty packaging.

Now back to X10. Now back to Apple. Back to X10. I think you can see the difference.

My sister said she thought that X10 was originally scam of some sort, with all of this “Buy this! Sale now! Speaker Palooza!” malarkey. Yet, it apparently worked, since my sister and her husband have already bought some of their products and, I think, they’re looking to buy some more. Another thing they told me is that you won’t see their ads on TV, or around the Internet, either–I’m not exactly sure how they found out about it, but it looks like our winner is “word of mouth” (followed by a ding! ding! ding! noise.) Of course, I’m helping it along too. I know that. Really.

So, basically, these guys have a really cool product, which they are apparently making a good deal of money off of (enough to sell their own $200 Android tablet, which I’m sure would also have their apps for controlling your garage door from work), and they don’t spend a great deal of money on either web design or advertising. I would really like to see their profit margin–I don’t do stocks, but if I did, I might invest in these guys. Oh, and better still, they offer a way to kill their ads if they appear on your machine. A company offering to take out their own ads for you? Holy moly! Finally, someone who understands the average American! (Yes, I’m sure there’s a catch of some sort, but still, the intention is quite noble and refreshing.)

And here I was, thinking we needed all that extra stuff, needed to take extra special time to think about how I would write something or design the presentation. Apparently, not so much.

Personally, if I got a house, I would get their intercom system and make the kids call me Captain Kirk:

Child: Bridge to Captain Kirk.

Me: Kirk here.

Child: Captain, we’ve just run out of toilet paper, and sensors have detected more Klingons coming from Uranus.

Me: Go to Red Alert and take evasive action. I’m on my way.

God, I would be so annoying.