Star Wars 7 Is An Amazing Movie. There, I Said It.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is an amazing movie.

There, I said it.

Most publications agree with me, but several of my friends on social media and elsewhere disagree. Many have called The Force Awakens “recycled”, “too derivative”, having “zero creative ambition”, and basically being terrible, largely because they think it cribs too much from A New Hope and that it’s uninspiring. Many don’t like the characters. Many think the plot is stale. And at least one has actually said that it’s worse than the prequels.

This is all utterly bunk.

I am not going to say that The Force Awakens is some marvelous exemplar of serious cinematic quality and technique. Well, actually, it kinda is, but just not like a serious, Cannes Festival, critic type quality. That’s because Star Wars itself, while imaginative and creative, speaking to our inner children, it’s still a schlocky comic book story. Yes, it relies on deep mythological themes, but just how deep is Star Wars, really?

In other words, people have seriously missed the point about this movie, and perhaps, the series in general.

I’ve now seen The Force Awakens three times (all in 3D, I might add, and twice at the Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum, which has a six story tall IMAX 3D screen powered by laser beams and radness.) Now that’s it been out for two weeks, I think it’s okay to mention spoilers, so there will be some in here. To be courteous to those who haven’t seen it, I’m going to use a snippet cut here, but beyond there, spoilers abound. Tread carefully.
Continue reading Star Wars 7 Is An Amazing Movie. There, I Said It.

People Should Stop Pontificating

My mother has a funny quote: “Opinions are like armpits. Everybody has two, and they usually stink.”

I can’t argue with that. Over the past few years I’ve lived in the DC area and become more involved in public policy debates, philosophical discussions, and politics, I’ve seen this ring true dozens and dozens of time over. Everybody has an opinion. And, with few exceptions, these opinions are generally awful.

I don’t mean they’re awful in that I disagree with them. I don’t mean they’re awful in that they come to the wrong conclusions. I mean that they’re awful because of shoddy reasoning, faulty premises, and often just kneejerk, instinctive responses rather than anything genuinely intelligent. You can be a smart person whom I respect even if we fundamentally disagree on certain points. But I won’t respect you if your logic is rubbish, you resort to fallacies, and you demand others do the research for you.

Why am I saying this? I guess it’s because I’ve been looking at myself in the mirror lately. I have a few posts in my drafts folder about a few high octane topics. One – which I will still likely publish soon – is over the whole “climate march” BS and the “Flood Wall Street” nonsense that went on last week. Let me be clear: I think climate change is happening. I don’t think it is anything to be worried about, and I most certainly do not want the government trying to “fix” it. But do I really have the grounds to be pontificating about climate change, on my personal blog? At most, I think what I can do is point out the absurdities and contradictions in the arguments and actions of the climate protestors, note the evidence we really have, and then just point out the potential consequences of undoing capitalism and trying to embrace some form of eco-socialism (which I personally think would be disastrous.)

But then that raises another question: even if we are not an expert in field X, does that preclude us from giving our opinions on field X? Must we refrain all the time?

I used to look at it as “Well, you can offer your opinion, but it will be weighted less than an expert in field X.” That seemed to make sense. But now, I’m starting to think that people outside a field might, in some circumstances, actually have a more valuable or intelligent viewpoint. But only in some cases. One case was when, for a group political blog, I wrote about an article where a college professor recommended that we get rid of the United States Air Force and roll it’s operations into the Army and Navy. I added on to that with some musing about whether or not we still needed the Marine Corps. Cue tons of angry commentators who said that I had obviously never been in the military and had no idea what I was talking about, but they had been in the Corps for years and knew exactly why the Corps was a necessity in this day and age. Yet, despite this, none of them presented a cogent argument for why it needed to be around. I look at the Corps, and what I see these days is a second Army, albeit one with more aviation assets and supposedly tied to the Navy. It looks redundant, and there is no reason that it’s “unique” features (namely, fast assault) can’t be rolled into the Army and redone there. (Wrong culture was one reason given; okay, then, change the Army culture.) Basically, their arguments were emotional appeals to tradition and patriotism, not logic.

I think that’s a problem when looking from the inside on any issue. You need people who are looking from the outside, who don’t necessarily have “expertise,” both to bring you back down to earth and to bring up things you may not have thought of. How many times have experts been so caught up in the weeds of their profession that they’ve missed the pasture, the river, and the neighboring forest? It happens all the time when I start programming, then I realize that nobody else knows how the heck I’m doing something, so I have to go back and make it easier for them to use. I also see it with scientists, who say “The data is saying X, ergo we must do Y” but they completely ignore A-W and probably Z, then get all pissy when people who aren’t scientists say “No, we shouldn’t.” “But you’re not scientists, you don’t understand!” Well, actually, we do, we just understand a broader context.

But overall, I’m not so confident that people should be voicing their opinions all the time. I’m not calling for restrictions on the First Amendment here; this has nothing to do with laws and regulation. I’m just talking about individual practices. Many look at Twitter and Facebook as “democratizing” the Internet, and think this is a good thing; what I see these days is that a lot of rather stupid, lowbrow people whose ill-thought opinions were restricted to themselves and a few others in their close social circles now have a platform to fling them out there into the world. Worse, a lot of these people have found others who are like them, and have banded together to promote this kind of content. Look at the calls for anti-elitism, anti-intellectualism, and populism. Not necessarily good things. The lowest common denominator now drives our discourse. Rather than actually research the topic at hand, be humble about what you’re putting forward (i.e., open to being proven wrong), and then present an argument based on the evidence, it’s all kneejerk opinionating with very little to back it up but more and more decibels. I mean hell if you can’t even be bothered to look up the basic facts of the subject at hand, you shouldn’t really be talking, just as a courtesy to everyone else.

Was there really a point to this blog post? I don’t know. It is awfully rambling. I guess what I’m trying to say is:

  • I don’t publish things immediately because I like to stop, think about them, and come back to them later…which other people usually do not;
  • There are an awful lot of people out there who really have no idea what on Earth they are talking about but pontificate as if they are serious philosophers;
  • Social media has turned me from a somewhat egalitarian “voice of the people” dude into an almost aristocratic conservative who thinks the peasants should really shut up now because they have no idea what they’re doing;
  • I am not above being one of the idiotic peasants.

So, basically, can everyone just shut the hell up for a little while? You’re all idiots. Myself included.

Artificial Wombs & Virtual Childhood

About a month ago, transhumanist Zoltan Istvan – who created a bit of an unrelated bruhahaha in my Feedly – wrote about artificial wombs, saying they were inevitable and would do a lot of good for society:

Of all the transhumanist technologies coming in the near future, one stands out that both fascinates and perplexes people. It’s called ectogenesis: raising a fetus outside the human body in an artificial womb.

It has the possibility to change one of the most fundamental acts that most humans experience: the way people go about having children. It also has the possibility to change the way we view the female body and the field of reproductive rights.

Naturally, it’s a social and political minefield.

The whole article is a fascinating read. I don’t really have a stance one way or another towards it. I think many women would be happy to have their biological offspring be raised outside their body, if only because of the physical strain that takes place. Others (both women and men) probably would find that very notion offensive and decline to partake. Whatever. But I’m not here to really critique Zoltan’s particular view of transhumanism (other than I think his timetable is way too short.)

It was just, looking at this article, it made me think of another idea of transhumanism that has long bounced around inside of my brain. In a fictional form, it would go somewhat like this:

Ectogenesis was the first step towards radical reproductive liberation. The first two generations of ectogenesis children – derogatorily called the “pod people” by many – suffered social ostracism and persecution, but within fifty years roughly two thirds of all children were born in pods and the stigma disappeared.

But it wasn’t enough.

Ectogenesis was still time consuming, and you still had to raise the child after decanting. Studies in virtual brain emulation had long ago bore fruit, to the point where a identical simulation was possible. Scientists began a brave experiment where they took the genetic samples of two volunteers, combined it to form a zygote in a pod, then simultaneously created a virtual copy in a virtual environment. The virtual brain developed while the physical brain was not allowed to develop consciousness; the virtual brain was then, through nanoprobes, downloaded into the fetus after nine months of development.

That didn’t really change anything, but it did prove that virtual brain development was possible. The next generation of experiments went farther. Incorporating growth acceleration technology that had originally been perfected for orbital agriculture habitats, scientists were able to take the zygote straight to twenty years of age in only nine months. They also sped up the virtual environment, creating an entire society (complete with eidolons of the parents and relatives and real world people) that would be an effective “proving ground” for the growing mind. When all was said and done, the body and mind that emerged from the pod was chronologically only nine months old, but had twenty years of subjective physical and mental experience, and was ready to enjoy real life society immediately.

Of course, there were criticisms. More biological, “natural” humans saw this as too much of an aberration; the virtuals scoffed at the notion anyone would want to live in meatspace. Yet over time this mixed virtual-biological lifestyle took hold. Within six generations, roughly 85% of all humans had spent their first twenty subjective years in a virtual simulation before being downloaded into a specially grown body, derived from the genetic samples of two or more “parents.”

However, now the definition of human had changed dramatically. No longer were the “naturals” considered “natural,” they were merely “full-stack biologics” living mostly in segregated neighborhoods and even in some cases reservations. The virtual born – or “Virtborn” – became natural, but with it was a loss of emotion, a growing collective mindset, and a subsequent decline and fall in the arts and science. The “biologics,” in turn, began to develop increasingly eccentric cultural traits in order to “prove” they were the true humans, including bringing up ancient human practices such as zoot suits, black coffee, and a particularly brutal form of physical competition designed to identify “manly” qualities among males called “hockey.”

Okay, so I kinda let myself go at the end there. But the idea has been in my head for some time. I don’t know if it’s feasible – though it probably is. I’m also certain I didn’t come up with it and read about it elsewhere, though I can’t find anything about the topic at the moment.

I thought about it again when I attended a event on Sam Harris’ book tour. He was asked a question about computers and ethics, and he stated that (and here I must paraphrase for my memory is terrible) that, if we could replace a malfunctioning neuron in our brain with an artificial neuron that completely replicates the replaced neuron’s behavior, why not over time gradually replace all of them? And in that case, would we not have a fully artificial brain? And would not that brain be conscious?

That idea of just gradually replacing all our biology until we’re completely metal fascinates me. I mean, if that’s not “transhumanism,” I don’t know what is. Instead of an apocalyptic war between humanity and the machines, we instead have a gradual evolution from biological to synthetic life. Aside from the fascination, I’m not sure how I should feel about that. Is it a good thing? What will we give up to do that? But, since I’m a libertarian transhumanist, as long as it’s voluntary, it should be okay. I think most aspects of transhumanism are glorious and want to see them come about, to alleviate suffering and create more enjoyment. So long as we don’t have early adopters and retros blowing each other up…

Progress Has Been Made

Finally. Finally, a honest-to-goodness non-ideological post about my writing progress. It was, after all, why I originally started this blog, although it later morphed into other things and almost took on some web programming stuff when I started doing that last year.

So far, I’ve been working on both a short story and a novel, that are completely unrelated. The short story I actually finished a couple of months ago, but I haven’t gotten around to editing it yet before I try to send it somewhere. Meanwhile, I’ve been getting in time working on my novel, and using the awesome program that is Scrivener. One thing I have noticed, however, is that I’ve been using more of it’s basic word processor functions, and haven’t been taking advantage of its project management/plotting functions. I’ve been mostly filling in things I’ve already plotted out, but as I do so, I find the original plot needs significant rework. Which is a good thing, I think, because trying to stay to the original plan is usually not a good thing. You have to adapt to new ideas and new data, and while sometimes that can be a big problem, particularly if you just randomly go off in different directions, often it really improves.

One thing I did was follow the idea behind the book Write Your Novel From The Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between (although, I really haven’t read it yet, just the description, but it was enough.) Write the turning point in the middle of the novel where the hero comes to the critical realization, and then revolve the story around that. I went a step farther and also wrote the ending before I had written the rest, and focused on writing key pieces I will then later string together. It’s a very different and interesting feeling, because the text is now even more fluid and open to revision than it ever has been before. And I’ve never written the ending of a story before I had written the rest of it. I was always very chronological in my writing, seeing where things go as I trundle along. I actually do like some outlines and plotting, but a lot of plotting frustrates me. Stories aren’t history, they’re much more fluid than that. What James Scott Bell has in this book seems to be the ideal balance.

Scrivener has also been a godsend, though one thing that I am trying to figure out is just how to break between scenes. Should a scene end on this line, or the next? It matters because if I move scenes around, will lines be out of place? Well, I suppose it can’t be helped. It will be interesting to see how that will work, however. So far, I haven’t had a real need to actually move scenes around. I actively look forward to the day when I do.

Me and the Angry Atheist: I’m On a Podcast

I am so terrible at selling myself. It’s almost embarrassing.

In any case, earlier this week I had the pleasure of joining the Angry Atheist on his podcast, the Angry Atheist Podcast. You can check it out here.

Looks like I’m moving up in the world. And yes, I do apologize to those Angry Atheist podcast listeners who have come here expecting something interesting…I’m kinda not.

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.)

Why Gundam Build Fighters Ending Is The Worst Thing Ever

I’ll just say it: I’m an anime fan. I’m probably not an otaku – I don’t worship it that obsessively – but I do love Japanese animation. One of the first cartoons I saw as a child was the original Digimon, and from there I went into the Japanese Transformers, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and all sorts of things. Recently, I’ve been watching the Gundam franchise, and finding out the latest series will have only one more episode has really made me have some profound thoughts.

Yes, Gundam Build Fighters, the dorkiest, lightest, and just utterly most un-Gundam of Gundam shows has made me have deep thoughts.

It’s okay if you think I’m crazy. I probably am.

Gundam Build Fighters is, from the surface, aimed at children. Even with the battles and the skullduggery that goes on in the background, it is a lighthearted romp through a massive fandom that has touched on Japanese and Western audiences alike for 35 years. (Build Fighters is actually part of the 35th anniversary celebration, which will continue with the next series, Reconguista in G, being created by Gundam’s original creator, Yoshiyuki “Kill Em All” Tomino. Yeah, that’s not a misspelling; Japanese audiences prefer the hard “g” sound than Reconquista. Figures.)

Set in near-future Japan, it takes the real life industry of Gunpla – plastic Gundam models – and using magic (basically) animates them inside of special playing boards, letting their weapons actually fire lasers and bullets and missiles, and they actually explode when destroyed. Nobody, though, is actually harmed, though they take it very seriously. The series itself engages in a ton of lampshading and parodying Japanese anime shows where the basis is on collecting and winning in tournaments, over just how silly it is to be so super serious about playing tournaments with toys. It does so not in a blatant way, either, although I’m not sure “subtle” would describe it either. It merely makes it all work in a spectacularly entertaining fashion.

Here’s the weird thing, for me: I am a 25-year old white male, one who has lost a good amount of weight in the past couple of months and doesn’t look like he lives in his mother’s basement, and here I am being very unhappy that this show is ending.

What kind of a person am I?

There’s a small bit of me that looks at the rest of me and wonders, “Jesus, man, are you ever going to grow up and get into the adult world?” I shouldn’t really care about this show. It is entirely fictional. It’s definitely a niche thing. And yet I am still rather pissed that, in all their wisdom, Sunrise is only giving it 25 episodes. That will make it the shortest Gundam TV show by far, with the next shortest, After War Gundam X, coming in at 39 episodes. (Note: I haven’t watched Gundam X, so I have no idea what it’s like. Other than it’s post-apocalyptic. Sorta.)

This show deserves, at the very least, a second season. There are so many questions left unresolved. For instance, one of the protagonists, Reiji, comes from another world (and so does the “big bad”.) We only see him disappear in a flash of light once, although his other world is talked about a bit as a subplot. But ending it now? We have no idea what is going on with that! It’s barely even touched upon, only enough to make us wonder “What?” And maybe that is the point, that not everything should be explained, that there should still be some mystery in life – for else, why live?

To be fair, though, I don’t think the creators of this show were going anywhere that philosophical.

But what really makes this show so wonderful is that it is a total release. Living in the Washington DC area, in a place where a hotdog costs one and a half reverse mortgages, bombarded every day with politics and scheming and BS, Gundam Build Fighters is my little escape valve. I can watch a brilliantly colorful world come to life and just forget about all the insanity going on in 3D land. I can cheer on the protagonists, Reiji and Sei, as they fight to win the championship. I can curse their opponents for underhanded moves. I can laugh at the zany jokes and awe at the cool moves.

At the end of the day, Gundam Build Fighters is pure catharthis. In many ways, it’s therapy.

The weird thing especially for me is how I have come to care about the characters in a real way. I’ve always known that an author’s first job is to make the reader care about a character. This is one of the ironclad rules of writing. But for me, I never had the reactions others had. For example, some people said they cried when reading the last Harry Potter book. I don’t think I could do that. Harry Potter is, after all, fictional. And yet here, I am practically crying over the end of this series. I don’t want it to end. It needs to go to at least 50 episodes. That makes me feel quite sad.

In many ways, it reminds me of the first anime I ever watched: Digimon Adventure. I saw that in second grade, and I remember being quite teary eyed as a child over the ending. I wanted it to go on forever. And now I want this to go on forever. I hate goodbyes. I hate endings. I just need that release to keep going. I need something to keep my sanity in a world gone completely insane.

That’s why I love Gundam Build Fighters, and ultimately all Japanese animation. It is a total cathartic release from the world in ways that I cannot obtain as readily from Western media. Don’t ask me why or how. I don’t understand it either. Maybe it’s because Hollywood has just completely run out of ideas. I don’t know.

But, for whatever reason, Gundam Build Fighters has helped me keep myself intact in this world by giving me a portal to another. That’s a very useful thing to have at any age.

And with that, my friends, it is now time for me to go watch the final episode. It’s going to be a good one.

I AM NOT A COMMITTEE: Disney to form group to kill Star Wars Expanded Universe

Disney appoints a group to determine a new, official Star Wars canon.

Well, we all knew this was coming eventually. And to be brutally honest, it is way overdue. The Star Wars Expanded Universe has a lot of stuff in it that really shouldn’t be there, whether some poorly thought out children novels in the 90s (looking at you, Jedi Prince series) or, you know, the entire “New Jedi Order” era. Or really anything off of this list.

The sad thing is, though, the EU is probably going to just be killed off entirely, at least post-Return of the Jedi, because let’s face it, the EU’s fanbase is about as valuable as sand on Tatooine. Vibrant as it is, the vast majority–we’re talking about 99 out of 100, here–of Star Wars fans do not care about the EU, and indeed think it is an international alliance of Old World socialist nations that in 100 years will be fighting with the Asians over the last scraps of this planet. I mean I love it, there are other nerds who love it, but then they dress up as Twi’lek girls and it just gets awkward.

Besides, it would totally get in the way of JJ. Abrams’ lens flares, and we can’t have that!

Now, Leland Chee, the Keeper of the Holocron (and thus, for several years now, effectively the Director of Continuity Management at Lucasfilm Licensing) will be in on this, which means that all of us EU fans will be appeased like the good people of Alderaan…before our jewel is blasted to tiny, tiny bits. Remember, lens flares. Can’t get in the way.

But you know, maybe that’s a good thing. I have a list of things we could easily kill:

  • The New Jedi Order Series
  • Legacy of the Force
  • Fate of the Jedi
  • Courtship of Princess Leia
  • The Force Unleased (as well as its sequel)
  • Knights of the Old Republic
  • The Crystal Star
  • The Jedi Prince series
  • Galaxy of Fear series (seriously, what a joke)
  • The Ewoks series and movies

Well, that’s all I can think of at the moment, but I am sure there are more. There have been a flurry of Star Wars novels lately, many of whom involve Han Solo, that I hear aren’t that good. (Like one that was going to be Ocean’s Eleven but with Dash Rendar, but turned out horribly; and a couiple of ones with zombies. Look, I like zombies, and I like Star Wars. But unless your name is Eden Studios, Inc., you don’t have permission to mix the two. Or into the Sarlacc with you.)

But yeah, it’s not really a bad thing. I would like a fresh start. Still skeptical that whatever JJ will do with that galaxy far, far away will actually be good (I’m really not a fan of his Star Trek reboots) but I will give a shot. And by a shot I mean a dram of Corellian whiskey, because that is always good.

Can we just stop making stuff up?

The title of a recent article at The New Republic reads:

The Period Is Pissed
When did our plainest punctuation mark become so aggressive?

The author then goes on to assume that adding a period at the end of your texts indicates you’re angry.

This is one of the plainest cases of someone just making shit up. Ok, so he cites a professor of linguistics and the editor of something called the Awl (presumably short for “The Awful,” judging by the editor’s comments.) But this guy is definitely smoking something.

Look, a period at the end of sentences is not indicating aggressiveness. It is proper grammar. Nothing more, nothing less. Yes, some people don’t do that and use line breaks because it’s more efficient to type that way on mobile phones. Not technically proper, but it’s a convenience to use such a wonderful device. I have no problem with that. But if you start assuming that using periods in a message indicates “anger,” well, then you’re going to have a lot of problems in your life. You’re probably going to end up hating a lot of people or feeling really bad about yourself. And then your life is going to get worse.

Do yourself a favor. Don’t assume. It makes an ass out of you and me.

EDIT: I am now very angry at my high school for making me think grammar is spelled with an “e”.