Olympaid

OK, before any of you say anything, this article isn’t going to be about Science Fiction failing anything. This is about the Olympics. But I have to name the articles something, and I like the theme.

Anyway, like most Americans… and everyone else in the world… I’ve been watching the Olympics this week. An event steeped in history and decorum; an idea rooted in some of our most ancient cultures. I could bore you with paragraphs about the history of the Olympic Games. There was a time when they were so important that the Greeks used them to track the passage of time. That’s right, no years, no BC, no AD. If you were a time traveler, and you asked what year it was, they would say something like, “It’s 3 years after the 117th Olympiad.” Yeah, they talked like that.

I would post the actual rings, but I don’t want the IOC to serve me with a C&D. This is what Londoners have been reduced to…

Anyway, this piece is less about what Olympics were and more about what they’ve become. A lot can change in 4 years. Remember the halcyon days of the 2008 Beijing Olympics? Remember how good China suddenly was at not being a total douchebag to the world (and it’s own people) for two weeks? Ahh, memories. Back then, we had to wait a whole day to find out what was going on. Twitter was still an infant and didn’t have the reach or the clout that it has today. Social Media was in it’s adolescence; hell half of us were still using MySpace, and we were still just learning what a meme was. Now the Olympics are in London (I’m still pissed Cincinnati didn’t make the cut), and Social Media is a pervasive part of our everyday lives.

The reason I’m bringing this up is because of recent events in the news regarding Olympic athletes being barred and punished because of things they said on Twitter. Now, before I continue, I understand that as an American, I’m used to being able to say whatever I want without fear of prosecution. And I understand that when you’re trying to peacefully create an environment where people of different cultures meet and compete, you have to curtail speech in the interest of keeping things friendly. The rules of conduct are created and enforced by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and their subordinate national committees (each country has its own committee that is responsible for selecting athletes to represent them in the Olympic Games). In the past, the IOC has shown itself to be biased and liberal to the extreme, with a clear interest in making money over any other consideration. I’m sure people would disagree, but I’ll explain my thoughts.

I started paying attention before the Games when I read about a Greek athlete who was dismissed from the Greek National team because of a tweet. Twitter seems has created a niche for itself as the place for us to express our internal monologue; that is, those things that we think, but normally wouldn’t say. The athlete in question, βούλα Παπαχρήστου (Voula Papachristou), was immediately dismissed after posting the following to her ~9,000 followers on Twitter: “With so many Africans in Greece … at least the West Nile mosquitos will eat homemade food!!!” Now I’m not familiar with the political situation in Greece, aside from their economic troubles, but it seems that they have an issue with illegal immigration much like the US does. However, I’m not sure that calling someone from Africa an African is technically racist, no more than calling a Mexican a Mexican is. Her tweet could be seen to imply that… no, fuck that. Her tweet doesn’t imply anything… unless maybe you’re Greek. The only thing she’s guilty of is being bad at jokes. The GOC disagreed, though, and they destroyed her dreams in an instant. That said, I don’t know what their stated policy on tweeting is, and they made it clear that they think the tweet was racist, but it WAS in line with her previously well-known political views. Why even let her compete for a spot if you knew what she thought before she started? Of course, the Greeks can do whatever they want with their own team.

So the next thing that stood out was the news story about the IOC’s strict rules against Olympians tweeting about their sponsors, even if those sponsors are local, or even family and friends. They can’t promote themselves, or anyone who sponsors them in any way while they are at an official event, including trials. Some of these kids don’t have big name sponsors paying their way. They rely on donations made to personal websites and social media campaigns by their friends and family. But if they aren’t allowed to promote using Social Media avenues, or post pictures of themselves at the events, it makes it harder for them to do so. The kicker here is that it has nothing to do with the image of the Olympics or the athletes themselves, it’s all about money. Here is a statement the IOC made on the issue:

“Ambush marketers have, in the past, used their association with athletes to suggest or imply that they have an association with the Olympic Games,” reads the code of conduct. “This undermines the exclusivity that Organizing Committees can offer official Games and team sponsors, without whose investment the Games could not happen.

“The implication of an association with the Games through use of athletes is particularly powerful during and immediately before the Games. Participants who do not comply with Rule 40 may be sanctioned by the IOC in accordance with the Team Members’ Agreement which provides for wide ranging sanctions, including amongst other things removal of accreditation and financial penalties.”

So here is the scenario in a nutshell: Let’s say that a server from Terry’s Turf Club was a member of the US Olympic Team, and in support of their employee, paid for their travel. That employee couldn’t tweet a “thank you” to Terry’s because the IOC thinks that it would hurt their relationship with McDonald’s, who is an “official sponsor” of the Olympics. Does anyone really think that giving Terry’s a little promotion will hurt McDonald’s sales? How many people are going to McDonald’s just because they sponsor the Olympics? Shouldn’t they be giving money to the IOC in the spirit of supporting peaceful competition and sportsmanship? Since when is a “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” arrangement? Hercules would be rolling in his grave if he had one. Some of the Athletes are staging a protest, but if they push too hard, they’ll be removed.

That ties into the picture above. That’s a real T-Shirt being sold in London. The IOC has been downright draconian in their enforcement of their copyrights. One shopkeeper had a hand made paper-machete display of the rings and some torches and was told to remove it or face a lawsuit. They weren’t claiming to be an official sponsor or affiliated with the Olympics. They were showing their support for an international organization that’s supposed to be doing good things. Instead, they are forced to remove their harmless display and are left with a bad taste in their mouths. I chose not to use an image of the actual rings, not just to illustrate a point, but because I don’t want to get served. I understand that the IOC doesn’t want people making a buck off their trademarks, hence the extreme lengths the t-shirt designer went to in order to disassociate themselves: square “rings”, London and Olympics spelled incorrectly, and 2102 instead of 2012. The IOC pays a lot of money for their trademarks any copyrights, so I understand that they want to preserve them. But they could make it easier to get licenses, so that local business get a benefit from the Olympics being there.

My final thought on the Olympics revolves around the concept of fairness. There is a long-standing rule in the all-around gymnastics competition that limits the number of participants a country can field. It prevents the power-house countries from dominating the event. But I’m not sure why that matters. Their argument is that it would be bad for the sport, but I’m struggling with the “how”. If you finish 5th in the world, but your two teammates are 2nd and 3rd, you don’t get to play. Even though the people between 6 and 24 aren’t as good, and your elimination only allows someone who wasn’t as good as the other 24 to compete, it’s “fair”. It’s sort of like the idea of not keeping score, or giving everyone a trophy, regardless of how well they do. Sure it allows countries with less advanced programs to participate, but then it stops being about who the best in the world is. And isn’t that what the Olympics are about?

I think we’ve lost the spirit of the Olympics. The ancients suspended everything, including wars, to participate in the games (by contrast, we canceled the games in 1916, 1940 and 1944 because we wouldn’t stop fighting). It wasn’t about making money, or controlling who could sell what. The men who participated wanted to know who was the best, strongest and fastest. There were no silver and bronze medals. If you didn’t win, you got nothing. We seem to have forgotten the point.

Zeus would not be happy.

Road Warriors

Now, I’m not talking about the movie. I’m talking about us. Road Warriors each and every one of us. It’s been estimated that the average American will spend nearly an eighth of our lives in our cars. That’s an average of 8 to 9 years – that’s a lot of time. So that got me to thinking about the automobile and how it came to be so central in our lives. And that led to my disappointment with the current state of the automobile, at least compared to what we were supposed to have according to our Science Fiction.

They have three years come October 21st. Every real geek in the world is counting.

Probably the most recognizable of the future’s cars is the Delorean from Back to the Future. I remember watching it fly at the end of the movie, and all of the flying cars in the second movie and I totally suspended my sense of disbelief (not quite as much as I did for the hoverboard, but that’s neither here nor there). In 1985/89 it seemed completely reasonable that cars would be able to fly by 2015. But unless Detroit is hiding something up it’s sleeve that we don’t know about, it’s just not going to happen. There have a few forays into the “flying car” arena, but none of them is really viable, at least in the sense of them being readily available and usable by the general population. I want a car that can be flown like driving a car, just like I saw Doc Brown do.

In that vein is the flying cars in The Jetsons. I know it’s a cartoon, but damn it, it takes place in the 21st century, and it was in the imagination of the people in the 60′s that we would have flying cars. Flying cars that folded into briefcases. And while that would require instant miniaturization along the lines of what we saw in the original Transformers cartoon (remember how Megatron was huge as a robot, but when he transformed, he fit in Soundwave’s hand?), but I think we’re still entitled.

But the car I REALLY wanted was K.I.T.T from Knight Rider. A car that could drive itself AND talk, and it looked cool as shit to top it off. It’s really the gold standard for Sci-Fi cars, in my opinion. I mean the voice left a little to be desired – I would have given K.I.T.T a female voice I think – but who didn’t want to be Michael Knight? They even made attachments for your car to give it that pacing red “eye” to make your car look like it could talk too. How can you not want a car that has a Turbo Boost? Now they have cars that park themselves and my car’s bluetooth talks to me, and it’s cool, but it’s not the same. More modern Science Fiction remakes, like I, Robot and Minority Report, give us a seemingly plausible look at cars that move at high speed being controlled completely by computers. To the point that human control of the vehicles, while possible, is inadvisable. If Will Smith can’t control one, I know I can’t.

When we look at cars today, it seems to me that they are basically the same as they were 100 years ago. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve added a lot of gadgets to our cars – we’ve made improvements on the original designs, but I think Henry Ford could get into a car, drive it, and understand how it works with only minimal instruction. They use the same fuel, and operate on the same basic principals as the model T’s of so long ago. We’ve tried electric cars, but they don’t seem to have enough OOMPH for us (mainly because it take a lot of energy to propel a 2,000 pound vehicle at highway speeds – more energy than most batteries can produce). But I don’t think the means is what we like. I think it’s the motivation.

Listen, I’ve never been one to buy into conspiracy theories, but if there is one I could believe, it would be that the automakers and the oil producers are in bed together. The automakers have no reason not to explore developing REAL innovations in automobiles, like power by Hydrogen fuel. And yes, I know there are Hydrogen and Propane cars on the road, but they are far too few. And yes, I know Propane is still technically a fossil fuel, but it’s a byproduct of Natural Gas and Petroleum refinement and as a result, much cheaper. It’s also a much cleaner fuel than diesel and gasoline, but burns just as well, if not better. It is more volatile than the others, sure, but safety is the easy part. Granted it isn’t the perfect solution, because it still produces greenhouse gases, but it does it in far lower amounts, which would buy us time to perfect hydrogen fuel and fusion.

Why won’t we do it? Back on the conspiracy bit; I think we don’t have it because there’s not enough money in it. I normally don’t was political here, but there’s a lot at work here. There’s a ton of money to be made in oil, and very little in renewable and alternative fuels. That’s why these technologies are so expensive; they have to recoup the loss of futures. Let’s assume that automobile manufacturers are invested heavily in oil companies and visa-verse. It’s in the best interests of both to keep cars inefficient and dependent on oil. Yes, hybrid cars exist, but they are expensive, and they only became more affordable when gasoline prices rose past $3.00 a gallon. The American automobile industry was given an infusion by the government, and seems to be healthy enough now. Why were they unhealthy? Bad investments in part. But mainly, they were making expensive cars with poor gas mileage at a time when fuel prices were skyrocketing. Foreign cars were already getting better mileage and were better managed, so they suffered less. But they aren’t racing to make better cars either. Then again, it’s not like we stopped buying them.

So who wants to buy me a flying Delorean with a flashing red “eye”?

Ride Sally Ride

This week has been good news for people who like bad news. Between the mass shooting in Aurora and the still-festering mess that is State College, PA, it’s sad to me that the loss of an American… no… a HUMAN pioneer was presented as second-rate news. So I’m going to take some time to talk about how I feel about Sally Ride.

This is my favorite photograph of Dr. Sally Ride – Requiescat in Pace, Sally.

I was 8 years old when Sally Ride became the first American woman, and just the third woman ever in space. It was June 18th, 1983 (yes, I’m 37), and back then, I watched every Shuttle launch. I even woke up early on a Saturday to watch it. I didn’t understand the significance of the event then, but looking back as an adult, I think it’s neat that I have this memory. There was always a sense of youthful optimism surrounding the shuttle flights. America was sticking it to the Soviets (they were still sending people up in Soyuz spacecraft – think of a Russian version of Apollo/Gemini craft), we had an awesome reusable spacecraft for the first time in history (Ride’s first mission was just the 7th shuttle mission), and we were going to live in space.

Of course, we didn’t quite live up to that last one.

Sally Ride represented everything positive about the Space Program. In a country that still fights with misogyny and sexism, having a woman so prominently in the Space Program showed that women could do anything men could do (though the Soviets beat us to that punch by more than 20 years). Even in the early 80′s, she was subject to intense media scrutiny, suffering through questions like, “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job.” As if that were something exclusive to women… I know I’ve had those days, and I’m a man of action. Another little-known fact is that at she was (and still is) the youngest American to go into space, setting the low bar at 32 years of age (Damn, I already missed it). She had double majored in English and Physics, then went on to get her Master of Science and PhD, both in Physics, knowledge she used to help design the robot arm the Shuttle was famous for. She went into space twice (STS-7 in 1983 and STS-41G in 1984) and was training for her third trip when Challenger exploded and the world stopped in 1986. She was assigned to the Presidential investigative committee and headed the Operations subcommittee. One of her most important achievements while with NASA was the founding of the Office of Exploration.

After leaving NASA in 1987 (she left before they restarted the program in 1988, thus never going into space again) she did a number of things, but most importantly, I think, was being a professor of physics and space science at UC San Diego. In 2003, she was asked to serve on the Space Shuttle Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which she did, mirroring her efforts on the Rogers Commission in 1986. She was also (according to him) the only person who publicly supported Roger Boisjoly’s warnings about the equipment prior to the Challenger disaster. Additionally, it’s worth noting that Dr. Ride was the only person to serve on both boards of inquiry. I think that speaks volumes about what people think of her opinion and expertise, and how committed she was to the Space program, even after her departure from NASA.

In 2001, she founded Sally Ride Science and served as the President and CEO. This is a great company that produces educational materials for elementary school students focusing on science and female roles. From their website, “A key part of our corporate mission is to make a difference in girls’ lives, and in society’s perceptions of their roles in technical fields. Our school programs, classroom materials, and teacher trainings bring science to life to show kids that science is creative, collaborative, fascinating, and fun.”

Sally died of Pancreatic Cancer on July 23rd, 2012. She lived a life full of achievements, wonder and tragedy, and at the end of it all, it can be said that she used her awesome powers for good. My life is better because of Sally Ride – all of our lives are better. She will be sorely missed, and the only fitting tribute is that we teach our children about her and what she stood for and accomplished. Because I want my daughter to be like Sally Ride.

We all should.

Tragedy in Aurora

This is dedicated to the people of Aurora, Colorado.

For those that don’t know me, I’m a night owl and a Redditor, so the news about Aurora got to me very quickly. I had almost attended a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises myself, but I ended up going this past Saturday. I happened to be browsing Reddit when the news broke and I was beside myself (which is saying something because I’m a pretty big guy). I’ve been around, but I still find a hard time wrapping my brain around an event like this. This is one of those incomprehensible acts that defies any attempts to rationalize or understand. As I watched the drama unfold (in a way previously unseen) I started thinking about how we react to this type of violence today, as opposed to how we have in the past.

A Fitting Tribute

I’m not going to go over the details, because I believe the devil is in the details and there’s a lot we still don’t know, most important being the “why”. This sort of thing has happened before, though not quite to this magnitude, but this time, something feels different this time. That’s not to say that if this had been a midnight screening of the latest Sex and the City, that we wouldn’t be talking about it the same way, but the way the geek community immediately responded on this makes it feel different to me – more connected, more concerned and more involved. I just think back to the somewhat recent shootings in Oakland and Seal Beach and I can’t find nearly the same amount of coverage on them. Is it the fact that it happened at a highly anticipated event? Is it the fact that geeks (who truly rule modern media) were closely watching the event? Or was it really more chilling and awful? It’s difficult to say. But just to give some perspective, here’s a link to a list of the Mass Shootings in the US since 1991 as provided by the L.A. Times (Deadliest U.S. Mass Shootings). I wonder how many you remember.

As I was saying, as I watched this unfold, I noticed something that really bothered me: political and ideological grandstanding. As with most shootings, the more liberal among us (read: Democrats if you’re in the US) immediately call to ban guns, or at least make them harder to get. Then the conservatives (read: Republicans in the US) go to the other extreme and say that if there were less controls and more people were armed, the effect would have been lessened, or the threat removed altogether. Of course the entire argument is ludicrous because it only happens when something like this occurs. We don’t have any meaningful dialogue about gun control because our nation is so polarized right now that we can’t heave meaningful dialogue about ANYTHING. But let’s face facts: Legally or illegally, if this man wanted to hurt people as badly as it seems clear that he did, getting the guns wouldn’t have been a problem. And even if he couldn’t get guns, he seems more than capable of using other means to kill lots of people. I mean hell, his apartment was not only rigged to blow up anyone who came in (and his stereo was set to play loudly at midnight, ensuring someone would try) but also burn down the whole building. If he’d have gone into that theater with pipe bombs, it would have been a lot worse.

The other thing that seems to be happening falls into ideological grandstanding. I’ve seen tweets and posts along these lines: “12 people died in Aurora, but 6000 children die every day because they don’t have clean water” or “hundreds of people die everyday because of poverty, where is the outrage there?!” Perhaps my own experience has jaded me, but I don’t see how those types of comparisons don’t trivialize the event. Yes it’s sad that 6,000 children a day because they lack clean water, but in my mind, that’s a predictable event and not tragic; at least not on the same level. To me it reduces the importance of an event like this one to compare it to other kinds of sadness. People aren’t suddenly going to go, “I lost my best friend to a maniac, but shit, that’s nothing compared to the suffering of the children in Syria.” It’s apples and oranges, pure and simple, and shame on people who trivialize the pain of the families involved by trying to guilt us (and them) into caring MORE about something else completely unrelated.

I don’t like that this happened, and I like less that we will blame everyone in the world except the man who pulled the trigger. We’ll blame the guns because they fired the bullets. We’ll blame the government for not banning the guns. We’ll blame the gun makers for… well… making the guns. We’ll blame the theater for not having metal detectors or more police. We’ll blame the shooters parents for raising a loon. We’ll blame everyone but him; the one man who planned and devised and schemed to kill as many people as he could for a yet unknown reason. I don’t get that. We turn victims into criminals and criminals into victims. The guy that shot all the people in Seal Beach pleaded not guilty. People SAW him do it. I’m sure his lawyers will paint him as a victim of some sudden mental illness. The guy that shot all those people at Ft. Hood; they didn’t blame him, they blamed his religion. Religion is just philosophy with some divinity added for flavor. It can’t make choices for you. We’ve become a culture where people don’t have to be responsible for themselves, they can blame their environment, or their parentage, or their movie choices.

Ah, that opens another can of worms doesn’t it. There are going to be people who blame this on the violence in movies, and to an extent, at least I can understand that. There have been crusades against comic book and cartoon violence since I was a small child, mainly for fear that it could adversely affect the impressionable mind of the children that were watching and reading. The target audiences for Warner Brothers and MGM cartoons were adults, but they played the old cartoons from the 40′s alongside newer ones from the 60′s, and even though I didn’t understand a lot of the references, I still laughed when Daffy had his face blown off. And there were stories of the children who killed other children trying to act those things out. But seriously, where was the supervision? How were they allowed to do those things without someone noticing?

As for comic books, the Comics Code doesn’t monitor acts of violence in and of themselves, it only prevents the actual show of the violence (so you could have a criminal commit a mass shooting and the aftermath, and you can show him shooting, but you can’t show victims being shot). And since the Aurora shooter identified himself as “The Joker” I’m sure they’ll find a way to blame comic books and the movies they inspire too. But really, Science Fiction hasn’t failed us here. There’s plenty of this kind of depravity in Science Fiction. Heath Ledger’s “Joker” rendition, the final portrayal of his career, was so spot-on, and the movie so senselessly violent, that people immediately assumed that it was connected to his untimely death. Movies like The Road Warrior and The Book of Eli portray acts of violence like this one as ultimately evil and they people who commit them always meet a justifiably horrific end.

If only that happened in real life.

To all those who lost their lives because they went to the movies – Requiescat in Pace.

How Science Fiction Failed Neil Armstrong

Today is July 20th. Four days ago, 43 years in the past, 3 men with cast iron balls a big as basketballs set off on a journey to make history. Those men: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, didn’t do it to become famous, and they didn’t do it just because they had to. They did it because they could. And after their 4-day journey through the near-emptiness between our planet and the closest body to it, they finally detached the lander, and set it down on the surface of the Moon. And as Neil Armstrong stepped off the lander and onto the dusty satellite, he uttered the most important phrase in modern history:

“It’s one small step for (a) man; one giant leap for mankind…”

Buzz Aldrin as photographed by Neil Armstrong. You can see Neil and Eagle Lander reflected in his visor. I dare you to tell either one of them that they faked it.

One of the men named the “Father of Science Fiction”, Jules Verne, dreamt of a world in which traveling to the Moon was not plausible, but an achievable goal. In his 1865 work, De La Terre à la Lune (From the Earth to the Moon), he presented the idea of traveling to the Earth’s celestial neighbor propelled by a canon. Later, in 1901, H.G. Wells wrote his own version of a Moon landing story which he titled, The First Men in the Moon, which itself lent to the idea of the Moon being inhabited by extra-terrestrials. Granted, both stories were a little tongue-in-cheek, and they were clearly works of fiction not to be mistook for Science, but isn’t that how most great ideas start? I mean while the people paying for the Moon landing were clearly motivated by a need to humiliate the Soviets, the men planning and building it were inspired, at least in part, by this book. They weren’t the only ones, either. In 1902, the very first Science Fiction film, A Trip to the Moon, (which was itself based on both Verne’s and Well’s stories) was about this very topic. I think it speaks volumes that the first Sci-Fi movie was about a Moon landing.

There’s a bit of a sad undertone to this achievement, though; we haven’t duplicated or surpassed it in the 40 years since it took place. Just six times in three years did we put men on the Moon (Apollos 11, 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17 – unless you buy into the recent Sci-Fi fakumentary Apollo 18). Randall Munroe, author of the webcomic XKCD (which is fantastic – if you haven’t bookmarked, it, go to the page and bookmark it right this second) put it much better than I ever could. While we have had some pretty neat achievements in the past 40 years, if the Earth were the size of a basketball, in that time, a human hasn’t been farther than a half-inch from the surface. And without the Soviets to drive us on, and no publicly funded space program for the foreseeable future, I’m not confident we will in my lifetime.

XKCD on the Moon Landing. The mouse-over text is written by Randall Munroe.

In Science Fiction, though, traveling to the Moon (and beyond) was a foregone conclusion. In Star Trek: The Next Generation, Commander William Riker (played by Jonathan Frakes – as if I need to tell YOU that) was born on the Moon, and even comments in First Contact how different the Moon looked in the mid-21st century because no one was living on it. That paints an interesting picture. In Arthur C. Clark’s magnum opus, 2001: A Space Odyssey, they discovered the first Monolith on the moon because we had colonized it. Honestly, as a kid, people loving on the moon was a foregone conclusion in my mind, an idea probably put there by the Science Fiction I was reading (which included Jules Verne). It concerns me that in half that time, we’ve advanced computers exponentially, but we still haven’t found way to effectively travel in space. And we’ll need eventually, because there’s enough Deuterium and Tritium on the Moon to power a fusion on the Earth for thousands of years. We need to have a way to get there, extract it, and get it back… if we needed to get back at all (or there was a place to get back to – let’s be honest… it’s been getting really hot).

I know that something horrible happened early in the morning in Colorado, and I’m not going to discuss it here. Instead, I’m going to focus on the history of the day. There will be time to talk about what happened later. For now, let’s celebrate our ingenuity; celebrate our achievements; celebrate those men with balls of solid rock.

And above all, find a way to thank one of these fabulous men while we still have them.

When in Doubt, Reboot

With the recent release of the rebooted Spider-Man franchise (this time it’s “Amazing”… Marvel Pictures is taking a cue from the Comic division), and the impending end of the latest Batman reboot, I started to think about the current trend of rebooting and retconning and rebooting. I discussed this topic in the past (Tales of Future Past was written on 4/26/11), but it was more about creators changing their own work.

So many of you know what retconning and rebooting are, but just for the sake of being thorough, I’ll go over them quickly. The term “Retcon” is short for Retroactive Continuity; it’s the idea of a creator (or in far too many cases owner) of a story changing key plot or back-story elements in order to pursue a new idea. Generally retconning is what I would call “eye forward editing”, meaning that while they change plot elements from the past, it’s unusual to go back and redo previous works to include the retcon (unless you’re name is George Lucas). It’s more common to simply act as if the change was always the truth. Star Trek is lousy with retcons. Rebooting is when a franchise is taken back to the beginning and completely re-imagined. Major plot elements are may be left intact, presumably to keep the end product recognizable to fans, but there is no regard for previous work done, unless it’s tongue-in-cheek. A good example of this, honestly, would be the latest Spider-Man movie. Hollywood is very guilty of this, as are comic books and professional wrestling (I don’t know why I added wrestling, but it’s a true statement).

Retconning annoys me, but rebooting pisses me off, even if it’s awesome.

This is Tim Drake. He looks a lot like Robin to me, Mr. Lobdell.

Yes, I paid to see The Amazing Spider-Man and yes, it was appropriately amazing. But it still pisses me off. Comic book movies are a different breed, too, so it pisses me off even more. Why? Because comics have history, a history that the fans love (or they wouldn’t be fans). Changing that to relate to today’s readers, and ignoring decades of previous readers is irresponsible and arrogant. In the comic universe, they learned the hard way, and deal with the reboots by continuing old story lines later and creating “alternate” realities. In the Spider-Man example, the Sam Raimi movies actually were based on the character in Ultimate Spider-Man (technically Earth-1610; the traditional Spider-Man is an inhabitant of Earth-616 and we inhabit Earth-0000 or Earth Prime), which was started 2 years earlier at the request of publisher Bill Jemas. Joe Quesdada (Marvel’s then Editor-in-Chief) almost didn’t do it because previous attempts at re-imagining the Spider-Man origin were failures (which should tell them something).

Comic books companies have gotten away with retconning, because let’s face it, sometimes stories need to be updated because superheroes don’t age.  Back to the Spider-Man example; in Spidey’s origin, he used his new-found superpowers in a wrestling contest; the kind where they would dare people from the audience to come in and try to last three minutes with the champ).  In the 1960′s, no one but the wrestlers and promoters knew that wrestling was rigged. Most of the times, those types of challenges were themselves part of the event, with the person who comes in a worker too (anyone who remembers the debut of the old WWF wrestler “Earthquake” knows what I’m talking about here). But since Stan Lee didn’t know that, he wrote it into the Spidey origin. Seeing it applied in a modern setting in 2002′s Spider-Man I nearly laughed out loud. As much as I hated the idea of a Spider-Man reboot, I like the updated origin story a little better (I mean if you’re going to reboot, at least do it right). Comparing that to the Star Trek reboot; they didn’t just reinvent the wheel here, they gave some plausible (well in Star Trek terms – anything Spock says is plausible) reasons for the changes in look and feel. I’m actually looking forward to the retelling of the Khan story (even though, in my heart of hearts, Ricardo Montalban will ALWAYS be Khan). But at the same time, TNG and everything after proved that there are still stories to tell. Hell, even Star Trek Online (which continues the original universe after the destruction of Romulus and Spock’s disappearance) has a decent story.

The reason I decided to write this was that at the San Diego Comic-Con, Teen Titans writer Scott Lobdell revealed that Tim Drake (the third person to wear the mantle of Robin), was never actually Robin, essentially rewriting over two decades of stories. This is what happens when comics “relaunch”. The new writers think they have better ideas than the old writers and make changes. This was a totally unnecessary change. Seriously, why did they feel the need to change this? I have this image in my head of a writers meeting where they said “Dick Grayson and Jason Todd were the real spirit of “Robin”. You know what? Fuck Tim Drake; he was never Robin.” Forget that Tim was arguably the best Robin. Forget that an entire generation of readers think of HIM when they think of Robin. Nope. Wasn’t Robin. He was “Red Robin”.

Yeah.

On the reboot front, one of my favorite Sci-Fi flicks of all time, Total Recall, is getting a modern makeover this year. I suppose you could call it a “remake”, but the point is that it’s a vastly different story from the original (which is, itself, a re-imagining of the Philip K. Dick short story We Can Imagine It for You Wholesale). All right, I’ll say it. They took out Mars. I know, right? As much shit as I give them for the googly eyes, swollen tongues and alien machines that fill the atmosphere with oxygen in under a minute, Mars was almost it’s own character in the movie. Honestly, the only story with a more iconic image of the Red Planet was  Doom (the video game not the movie). And Ridley Scott entered the debate with Prometheus, the prequel that wasn’t a prequel. It’s been called a rebooting of the Alien universe, but really, it’s just a prequel that went too far into the past (a la Lucas’ Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace).

The reason these things bother me is because as creative as some of these retellings are (and I acknowledge that some of them are arguably better than the original), I’ve always felt it’s less creative to rewrite someone else’s work than to come up with something on your own. I mean any writer can find a thing, tweak it, and call it better; we’ve been doing it as long as we’ve been writing. Most of Shakespeare’s works were retellings of older tales (Romeo and Juliet comes to mind). But there are so many great franchises out there that have never resorted to “reboots” and “retcons” to tell their continuing stories. Doctor Who is probably the most well-known, but I don’t really count it in the “no retcon” camp because when you can travel through time and make changes along the way, retconning IS the story. However, they’ve been through 11 doctors now, and have not ever felt the need to retell the beginning of the story. In fact, NOT knowing the beginning of the story is one of the things that makes the franchise great. Another long running series that hasn’t felt the need to reboot (even though they called it a reboot, it was by no means an actual reboot), is James Bond. They avoid difficulties by simply avoiding making references to previous adventures in later movies. The only real exception to this is the latest rendition (played flawlessly by Daniel Craig), in which Quantum of Solace was in fact a direct continuation of the story from Casino Royale (which itself is a remake – the original was very campy, but lends to the idea that James Bond isn’t a name, but a persona adopted by many different agents).

I suppose my point is that there isn’t a real reason to retell the story from the beginning. Sure, people today would have a difficult time relating to the concept of Batman’s parents taking him to the movies and getting killed while being mugged… wait that can happen. People can’t relate to the difficulties of being a teenager thrust into an adult role after the death of a loved one… wait that can happen too. Oh yeah, people can’t relate to struggling with the loss of a mentor while dealing with the egos of the other people he’s mentored… shit. Seems to me like writers need to forget their own egos, leave the origins alone, and just keep telling the awesome stories. If they can’t think of new stories, and have to retell old ones, then they aren’t really writers, they’re parrots. It seems to me that they wouldn’t have to reboot entire universes if they just told good stories to begin with.

Now to find my copy of the Crisis on Infinite Earths compilation…

Getting Old

This past week has been very rough for me, but since you are my friends, I wanted to share it with you. Very few of you know me personally, and since I don’t make it a habit to go spouting off personal details every chance I get, many of you don’t know about my father. I don’t talk about him much because, frankly, there isn’t much to tell. We never had a great relationship, at least not since I was a child, so we were never very close. He left me live with him for a short time as an adult (I’m not proud of needing the help), but it didn’t end well. So I kept my distance, leaving my sister to deal with him. He started having health problems a little over a decade ago. He never lived a healthy lifestyle; he was a weekend alcoholic (not to lessen his alcoholism, but he only drank on the weekends – so it’s more an identifier than an excuse), and a chain smoker. He had to quit drinking because drunk driving laws were getting harsher. He had to quit smoking, but he replaced tobacco with caffeine. So the congestive cardiopulmonary failure wasn’t a surprise.

The dementia was.

Now I will tell this part of the story with a bit of a caveat; Anne, my sister, has dealt with much more of this than I have, and she knows this tale far more intimately. I’m telling much of this second hand. It started small, like these things always do. We didn’t realize anything was the matter with my father until he kept being admitted into the hospital for high blood sugar and congestive heart failure – his sugar was off the charts and his Diabetes was 100% preventable.  My sister and I dug into his cabinets and discovered that he was eating the worst sort of food imaginable and wasn’t taking his medicine. At first, we just thought it was because he didn’t have money (another issue entirely), but he was forgetting to take it. The bottles were mostly full and some of them expired. Then he started to tell the nursing staff that he was an engineer at Wright-Pat (Wright-Patterson Air Force Base – it’s in Fairborn, the town he lived in). My father never went to college, and certainly wasn’t an engineer. And he hadn’t been on the base since my Grandfather worked there in the 60′s and 70′s. He’d always been a fantastic liar, but he would never have done something like this unless he was no longer able to tell the lies from the truth. Then on one visit, he told my sister that the guy was really nice (meaning his roommate in the hospital), but that he wasn’t going to keep letting dad live in his garage forever. He started babbling incoherently, having trouble completing thoughts. He wouldn’t call me by my name, though he knew I was his son. After he had a small stroke (and being told that he’s probably had dozens of TIA’s – Transient Ischemic Attacks or mini-strokes), we tired to put him in a care facility. In the end, my sister decided that she would care for him at home, even though I’m pretty sure that he wouldn’t have done the same for her. She’s a saint for doing this, considering the shit he’s put her through over the years. Quite honestly, I would have left him in the home, but I’m really not that great of a son.

Boy, were they wrong…

Well, in any event, it’s coming to an end. He won’t participate in physical therapy anymore, and he won’t acknowledge my sister, so she needs to move him into the care facility permanently. He doesn’t have Alzheimer’s Disease, he has Dementia, brought on by the combination of poor lifestyle and the cumulative damage of all the TIA’s. My father is 67, hardly an age we heavily associate with geriatric disease. Most people his age are just starting to retire and complain about their arthritis. He can’t remember what arthritis is.

All of this got me thinking. I’ve talked about Medicine as a general topic in the past, but I’ve never really been as personally connected to one of my topics as I am this one (though “Soldiers” hit a little closer to home than most). The idea of escaping death is as old as humanity itself. The paragons of our collective consciousness are either immortal or have cheated death (by any number of means). Our religious icons are immortal, our superheroes rise from the dead (and not in the bad way) and the heroes in our stories seem to live forever. Seriously, did it ever cross your mind that Luke might actually die on the Death Star II? Of course not. Did we really believe that Superman was really dead? Not for a second. The final Act in Serenity? We all knew Mal would beat the bad guy, and that when the blast doors opened, River would still be standing. I suppose that’s why they never really tackled the idea of aging, and the diseases of aging.

Even in Star Trek, they hadn’t solved the problem of aging, though they often skirted the subject. The episodes  “Return to Tomorrow” and “The Schizoid Man” featured the idea of immortality by preserving our brain wave patterns (and subsequently uploading them into another vessel) and more than once the crews of the various versions of the Enterprise were faced with the prospect of rapid uncontrolled aging. In the Star Trek episode, “The Deadly Years”, McCoy comments that Kirk is showing signs of aging that included Rheumatism, implying that in the 23rd Century, we haven’t conquered this painful dilemma, even though we can travel faster than the speed of light. Another anomaly is that while they previously had the technology to preserve people (presented both in the OS and in TNG), it seems to have been something they no longer had a need or desire for. To the other extreme, in Logan’s Run, people were killed off before they had a chance to get old and experience any of the inconveniences of old age. A similar idea was presented in the 2011 Justin Timberlake  vehicle  In Time, in which people stop aging at 25, but are genetically engineered to only live one more year beyond that. Living longer means that you have to purchase time, so only the rich have long lives, and some are essentially immortal (because you have more time to make more money to buy more time to make more money to buy more time… you get the picture).

Our Science Fiction is also filled with the idea of being frozen (either cryogenically or accidentally). One of the more well-known instances of living beyond one’s time is that of Buck Rogers, who was frozen in space (or trapped in a radioactive cave, depending on which story you read) for nearly 500 years. Perhaps one of the most famous villains in all Science Fiction, Khan Noonien Singh, was also a man displaced in time. In the original Star Trek episode, “Space Seed”, Khan and his merry band of genetic supermen were found, still preserved, on a pre-warp “sleeper ship”. They were put to sleep while the ship traversed the long distances of space travel during a time that such travels would have taken a lifetime (the S.S. Botany Bay should have left Earth in 1996). The technology doesn’t become any more advanced in the 21st century because the Enterprise-D encounters another sleeper ship (this one for people on death’s door) and of the 12 original passengers, only 3 survive (in contrast to the 72 of 84 from the Botany Bay – presumably because the world’s smartest people were on board and knew how to make it work better before they launched). Those survivors were cured of their previously incurable ailments (an aneurism, heart disease and cirrhosis). I would like to think that something like Alzheimer’s would be on that list, but in the very final episode of  TNG, Picard’s time jumping as seen to be just his old mind playing tricks on him, implying that Dementia is still something humankind can’t solve.

I know that we live a lot longer than we used to (in the First World), and that we’ve made a lot of advances in medicine in the last 100 years. But more often than not, we allow out superstitions and worse, our greed, get in the way of real progress. Curing an illness isn’t as profitable as profitable as treating it. And despite what Futurama would have us believe, freezing people isn’t a particularly practical solution in the long term. In a spritual sense, why would you try to prolong life when the whole goal is immortality in the next life? It’s difficult to watch Dementia ravage the once vibrant and intelligent mind of my father knowing that there could be a solution hiding somewhere in Science Fiction that we just haven’t developed yet.

Unless I can find a transporter buffer to keep him in for the next few decades, well… I’ll be over here, missing a man who’s still with me, but isn’t really there.

How Science Fiction Failed Nikola Tesla

Today, July 10th, is informally known in the Geek world as Nikola Tesla Day. Why is this important? Because Nikola Tesla basically invented the world we live in. And the world part about it is that we don’t even know it. Hell, most people on the street have no idea he existed at all. Oh sure, they know who Thomas Edison was, and some of them might even know who (Guglielmo) Marconi or (Wilhelm) Röntgen were. But most of them would have no idea who Nikola Tesla was, or what he did for them.

Nikola Tesla – Inventor, Genius, Madman.

So let’s talk about the man for a moment. Nikola Tesla was born on July 10, 1856 in the Croatian village of Smiljan, which was then part of the Austrian (and later Austro-Hungarian) Empire.  Now, many sources cite him as being Serbian, and that’s probably because his father was a Serbian (read: Russian) Orthodox minister (most Croats are Catholic). Despite generations of political and religious separation, one of the few things the Soviets got right was that Croatians, Serbians, Montenegrins and Bosnians are all ethnically the same. They speak the same language and they have the same genetic traits. They are one people, to the point that the language is officially called “Serbo-Croat”. Trust me on this. This is a topic I know a lot about. Besides, I’m 1/4 Serbo-Croat myself (my paternal grandfather’s parents were from Croatia).

OK, so Tesla was a Serbian (Croatian, Yugoslavian… whatever…), and supposedly graduated from Austrian Polytechnic in Graz, though the university itself denies this. They say he stopped attending lectures in his third year. Degrees are overrated. Especially for geniuses. Anyway, he cut ties with his family and moved around Eastern Europe until about 1882, when he moved to Paris and began working for the Continental Edison Company, a power company that was using Edison’s ideas and paying for use of his patents. It was during this time that Tesla developed the idea for devices using rotating magnetic fields (for which he filed patents in 1888). His claim of development of the idea in this year gave him the patent over Galileo Ferraris, who displayed his version in 1885.

In 1884, Tesla began his love-hate… well hate-hate really… relationship with Thomas Edison. Tesla came to New York with just a letter from a former employer. He went to work for the Edison Machine Works in 1885, and while there, offered to redesign Edison’s very inefficient direct current generators. The story goes that Edison offered Tesla $50,000 if the problems could be solved, which was noted as highly unusual, since Edison was a well-known skinflint (and the company didn’t have that kind of money). When the work was complete, Tesla asked for payment, to which Edison famously replied, “Tesla, you don’t understand our American Humor”. Edison instead offered a $10 a week raise (Tesla was making $18 a week – not bad money for the 1880′s – this would have been a significant increase), but Tesla immediately resigned, igniting a feud between the two.

Among the scientific community Edison himself is surrounded by a cloud of controversy. He’s considered to be the 4th most prolific inventor of all time, but some argue that he did very little of the inventing himself. As a businessman, he had a staff of engineers at his disposal, so the idea isn’t out of the question. But the patents are filed in his name, and patents are what matters. The primary fuel for the Edison/Tesla feud was called the War of Currents. After he perfected the light bulb in 1879, he then went about creating the first power company, the Edison Illuminating Company in 1882. The main problem, though, was that Edison was using direct current (which we use in batteries today). DC can only be transmitted over short distances, on the order of only a mile or two from the power generator. After leaving Edison’s employ, Tesla developed a system for power using Alternating Current (AC), which was superior because the power could be amplified to travel great distances, and then reduced again at the receiving end. This meant fewer power stations. Edison went to great lengths to discredit Tesla and prove AC was dangerous. This war led to the development of the Electric Chair (to prove AC was fatal while DC was not – mainly because AC power was high voltage), and resulted in the systematic execution of countless animals (including an elephant).  Tesla, and his financial backer, George Westinghouse, actually won a contest  by proving that Niagara Falls could be used to generate electrical power. In 1893, they built the first Niagara Falls Power Station and it used AC power. Over the tears, AC systematically replaced DC power until the final holdouts in New York were converted in 2007 (that’s right… 2007). Many years later, near death, Edison admitted that one of his few regrets was not respecting Tesla and his work.

Tesla dabbled in many fields, and he ran into Edison often. Marconi was the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1909 for the creation of Radio (which at the time was called wireless telegraphy). Marconi didn’t invent the Radio, though, he just discovered a practical use for something other people already knew about. When Tesla was asked about Marconi some years earlier (1901) he is quoted as saying, “Marconi is a good fellow. Let him continue. He’s using seventeen of my patents.” Of course, in 1904, the U.S. Patent office gave Marconi a patent for the Radio, meaning that he no longer had to pay Tesla for his patents, even though his design utilized many of Tesla’s principals. There was never a reason given, but it’s probably because Marconi was well funded and Tesla wasn’t. Score another one for Capitalism.

Tesla is also often credited with the invention of modern RADAR, though historically, that honor is given to Sir Robert Watson-Watt. RADAR is a bit trickier to actually pin down, even more than Radio, because so many people were developing it at the same time. Further, Tesla himself was only further developing ideas pioneered by others. However, he was the first person to develop a practical system using radio waves to detect objects. In some circles, it’s said that he pitched the idea to the U.S. Navy, but that Edison was the head of R&D, and convinced them that the idea wasn’t practical. Who knows if that’s really true. What’s documented is that RADAR wasn’t deployed by the US until World War 2, nearly 30 years after Tesla made his pitch.

Tesla is probably most famous for the development of a wireless electricity system using something called the Tesla Effect. If you’ve ever touched one of those giant balls that made your stand up, you’ve actually touched a Tesla coil and experience a wireless transfer of electricity. Tesla’s system was incredibly practical and he actually developed his own lamps to use with it. His entire lab was powered wirelessly, in fact. The only reason this wasn’t developed into a power system we could all use is that there was no way to regulate the power (which means you couldn’t keep people from connecting and you couldn’t track how much they used for purposes of billing – it would essentially be free power).  There is a famous picture of Tesla holding one of his electric lamps being powered by wireless electricity.

Tesla and Twain

Even Mark Twain knew Tesla was a badass.

Tesla was a man displaced in time. He developed a system for vertically lifting an aircraft off the ground (VTOL), years before it became practicable. He even developed a system for Ion Propulsion (TIE Fighters, anyone?). He WAS Science Fiction. He was also bat-shit insane and had frequent conversations with pigeons. Pigeons he loved. He lived the last ten years of his life in the Hotel New Yorker, room 3327, feeding his favorite pigeon. In what we be one of his last interviews, he said, “I have been feeding pigeons, thousands of them for years. But there was one, a beautiful bird, pure white with light grey tips on its wings; that one was different. It was a female. I had only to wish and call her and she would come flying to me. I loved that pigeon as a man loves a women, and she loved me. As long as I had her, there was a purpose to my life.” He mentioned that her eyes lit up, more powerful than any of the lamps in his room/office, and that her death was a final blow to his work. Like I said, bat-shit insane. But a genius. And when he died broke and alone in that hotel, the world began to forget him.

Well, I won’t forget him.

Here’s a link to a comic written by the great folks at The Oatmeal honoring the REAL father of the modern world.
Why Tesla is the Greatest Geek who Ever Lived.

Happy Birthday you fantastic lunatic. We live better lives because of the world you dreamed.

 

Tin Soldiers

Every year at this time, I begin to wax a little nostalgic and think about my time in the Air Force. I had the good fortune (depending on how you look at it) of serving during the Clinton Administration, so we didn’t go to war, per se. But I can relate to those poor guys and gals who do. And I will always be grateful and mindful of the burden they bear so that the rest of us don’t have to. That in turn got me thinking about how Science Fiction looks at the military, and specifically soldiers.

Now, I wasn’t really a soldier, but I got to spend a lot of time with them. Technically, you’re only a soldier if you’re in the Army. Each branch of the service has it’s own designations for individuals; everyone in the Air Force is an airman, the Navy is full of seamen (get the innuendo jokes out now, please), the Marines are… well… marines, and the Army has soldiers. But for the average person, the collecting consciousness takes over and we tend to lump similar things together. So, for all intents and purposes, all military members are “soldiers” to us. Military service has a long and grand history. You could assume that as long as their have been people, there have been soldiers (of varying levels of expertise), but without a doubt, since man has been “civilized” we’ve organized groups of armed men to defend that civilization. It’s in our nature. If you look at our closest relatives, Bonobos and Chimpanzees, each family group will commonly have an organized group of enforcers, usually males, that defend the group and enforce the rules. That’s how armies begin.

Will soldiers in the future look like this? Damn right they will!

Soldiers and armies are so important to us as a species that the bulk of our technological developments have gone into the development of better ways to kill one another. More often than not, we take military technology and adapt it for other uses. I mean, when they discovered that combining charcoal, salt peter and sulfur, they didn’t say, “Hey, this would be great for mining and clearing large areas.” I’m thinking they probably said something more like, “Hey, this would be great for blowing up the walls of the castle over there or blowing the hell out of our enemies.” When people figure out how to forge iron into steel, they didn’t make cooking utensils out of it, they made swords and armor out of it. Then they beat those swords into plowshares, etc, etc. So it makes sense that we would look to Science Fiction for advances in soldiering before we would look to improve our lives.

Think about it; we have satellites that can tell the color of your eyes from 60 miles up, but your car’s GPS doesn’t know that the road your on doesn’t go through because they built a railroad 150 years ago. We are generating power the exact same way as the first AC power station built in 1893, but in that same amount of time, we’ve had dozens of generations of technology advancing guns, vehicles, targeting, and computers; all to make it more efficient to kill one another. And when it comes right down to it, much of the technology our military takes for granted today was science fiction just a generation ago. I can’t imagine how the Vietnam Conflict would have been different if we’d had access to unmanned drone aircraft or laser guided missiles. Or maybe if we’d had the M1-A1 Abrams tank in World War II. Of course, that takes us down the path of Alternative History, a genre I adore, but isn’t really what I’m talking about. However, Harry Turtledove has covered some of these ideas, particularly well I might add, in the book The Guns of the South in which time traveling members of the white supremacist group Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging provide the Army of Northern Virginia with automatic rifles (specifically AK-47′s). They defeat Grant’s army at the Battle of the Wilderness and go on to capture Washington, D.C., which ends the war with a Southern victory (a common theme in alternative history). It expresses a particular idea, though; that technology as a tool of war is more important than the men fighting (an idea that I think many soldiers would disagree with, particularly Marines).

When we look at our science fiction, we find that Soldiers themselves are often targeted for advancement; meaning we want better soldiers. In the 40′s, Timely Comics (the predecessor to Marvel Comics) produced the first Captain America comic, which featured the story of Steve Rogers, a previous frail graphic arts student who became the subject of Project: Rebirth. He was given a “super-soldier serum” and subjected to “vita-rays”, which turned him into the aforementioned Captain America. Another popular concept is the idea of reanimating or recovering dead soldier and turning them into cybornetic super-soldiers. This was presented in the 1992 Jean-Claude Van Damme classic, Universal Soldier, in which Van Damme’s character (who died in Vietnam, but whose death was covered up) is genetically  enhanced and brought back as a member of an elite group of soldiers called “UniSol’s”. It’s arguable that even Robocop had more military applications than civilian. In the Terminator series, the primary antagonist of the series, Skynet, is a military satellite that develops cyborgs (though it’s through a process that’s the reverse of what we would normally think of – Skynet took machines and added human genetic components rather than starting with a human and adding machine parts). If we go farther ahead, the spectacularly awful Starship Troopers showed us a future in which interplanetary travel is possible, but soldiers still operate the same way, and with basically the same weapons. Let’s be honest, it was Starcraft without the Protoss.

Another popular concept, and one with historic context, is that of the “Spartan”; a person who has lived their entire lives as part of a military organization, so that they know nothing else. In the movie Soldier, Kurt Russell’s character, Sgt. Todd, was taken at birth and raised to be a soldier. As you can imagine, living as a soldier for one’s whole life would give them a very different value to life in general, and much different code than we are used to. This harkens back to the Spartans, and before them the Myrmidons, who would actually discard children who were “unfit” and raised children as part of the military. In Sparta this system was called the “agoge”, and it was the core of existence for Spartan men. While it isn’t totally accurate, and tends to the dramatic, Frank Miller’s 300 does a good job showing how boys were taken from their mothers at age 7 and raised to be fighting men. Even the more fantastic Star Wars presents the idea of cloned soldiers that know no life other than one in which they a re trained to kill in the name of the Republic (and later the Empire). Of all the possibilities, we find this the most unsettling, but honestly, it’s the most plausible. While it would be a great expense to house and train a person for their entire lives, it’s easier to train young minds than old ones. We just hate the idea of separating children from their parents.

Back to reality. All in all, if you’re into this sort of thing, it’s an exciting time. To the credit o our military leaders, they seem to be doing a lot to preserve the lives of their soldiers, though I imagine it has more to do with their value in terms of the cost to train and educate them than the actual value of their lives (sorry to be that way, but I lived it). In one way, all of these advancements hinder us. The reason our ground forces were ineffective in Vietnam is basically the same reason we weren’t very effective in Iraq and aren’t very affective in Afghanistan; out guys are weighed down with armor and tech while the enemy is just a guy with a gun (or RPG, or IED, or dynamite strapped to his chest – you get the picture). You would have thought we would have learned that lesson well, since we taught it to the British when we fought for our own independence, but it seems we didn’t. Aside from that, if I had to pick who would wil in a fight between a well-trained soldier being paid to fight, or an armed individual fighting for something they believe in, or to save their home and family, I’ll pick the latter every time.

Every. Single. Time.

So where are we headed? Why is Science Fiction teaching us about how to soldier? We’ve seen the advent of the powered exoskeleton  – a concept already popular since the 80′s in comic books. Ratheon/Sarcos and Berkeley Bionics have both been developing models that would accomplish a multitude of tasks, including allowing the user to carry heavy loads with little effort without sacrificing agility (the links go to videos depicting their models). I also recently saw a preview for an upcoming Science Fiction film titled The Prototype, which is currently in post production (I’m plugging it because it’s been written and produced by native Cincinnatians). You can look for yourself on the Variant Entertainment site. The basic idea is that a drone soldier (a remotely operated or completely autonomous humanoid robot) goes haywire and escapes from his creators. This is important because it seems that the man who created the drones also figured out a way to import a human mind into the drone body (which has implications far beyond just the military). It’s a little unsettling how real this movie is (or rather will be – it’s salted for release some time next year). I mean we seem to be a far cry from the laser guns in G.I. Joe, but cyborgs and exoskeletons may be normal in our lifetimes. And I haven’t even scratched the surface on warfare as a concept. I’m only talking soldiers here.  Warfare is a whole different topic.

By the way, if you haven’t lately, you should find a veteran, give them a hug and thank them. You owe them more than you know.

I (Don’t) Have The Power

On Friday, June 30th, 2012, A line of thunderstorms marched its way across Ohio. I live in Cincinnati, a beautiful jewel on the Ohio River that sits blissfully in a time warp 20 years behind the rest of civilization. I live on the outskirts of the city proper, but like Chicago, there is a blurry line between incorporated city, unincorporated township suburb. Since I live closer to a suburb and I’m essentially surrounded by unincorporated township, we’re a bit of  an afterthought when it comes to city services. So after this bit of wind and rain, we lost power. A surprising happenstance considering how many millions of dollars Duke Energy (that’s right, I’m calling the sons of bitches out) spends on mutilating any tree within 100 feet of a power line (in many cases after the city spent millions of dollars planting the tree in the first place). In 2000-something we had the remnants of a hurricane pass through and we lost power then. After that, Duke made sure they trimmed every tree and checked every line. But yet, here we are again. For 17 hours, I was without power. During one of the hottest June’s on record. Read that again; SEVENTEEN HOURS. I live in the cussing city! I would expect to have long term outages in the country, or even on the outskirts of the suburbs. But not in the city. Frankly it’s unacceptable to lose power this way. I would get it if lightening struck the transformers, or someone blew up the high voltage lines. But that said, we’re now well into the 21st century, so I don’t think I’m well within my rights to say…

I SHOULDN’T LOSE MY POWER EVERY TIME THE EFFING WIND BLOWS!

This is a picture of Nikola Tesla sitting next to one of his Tesla Generators. What you see there is called the Tesla Effect – the transmission of electricity without wires.

All right.  I feel better now. Time to move on.

I started thinking about this in greater detail after reading this great comic about Nikola Tesla. Since most of my loyal readers are geeks, they’ll know who Tesla was, but for the sake of you who aren’t, I’ll give some basic information. It’s easiest to describe Tesla WAS everything great about Science Fiction personified. You could say that he was so smart that it didn’t matter that his ideas were decades from being feasible; he made them reality anyway. Tesla conceptualized most of the electronic devices we use today, sometimes decades before they became practical or more importantly in America, marketable. His feud with Thomas Edison is the stuff of legend. In 1893, he publicly demonstrated the wireless illumination of phosphorescent lamps of his own design at the  World’s Columbian Exposition (better known as the Chicago World’s Fair). Tesla was a vocal proponent of wireless electricity, to the point that he powered his entire lab that way. But no one would buy into it (partly because of Edison) because there was no way to regulate who used it, meaning that you couldn’t charge for it the way you could conventional wired electricity. Yeah.

Tesla deserves his own article. Maybe on Tesla Day.

Anyway, it’s not just how we get out power, though, that bugs me, but how we generate it. I read once (and I wish I could find it again so I could cite it properly) that if we had taken all the money spent on prospecting for natural gas and oil in the last 15 years, and put it into  researching fusion, we would have it by now. That’s the real answer isn’t it? A reliable, cheap, limitless power supply that requires fewer plants, has no pollution and can power all of our devices. Back to the Future tells is that we can expect portable fusion-powered devices by 2015. Mr. Fusion was powerful enough (with just some flat beer – with can – and a few banana peels) to supply the 1.21 Gigawatts of electricity needed for time travel. If it can do that, imagine for how long it would power your cell phone or laptop. Imagine how many homes a fully functional fusion reactor could power and how cheap it would be. According to some esitmates, there’s enough Deuterium (Hydrogen 2) in the Earth’s oceans to power the planet for centuries, not to mention the moon and other planets of the solar system. And Tritium (Hydrogen 3) a natural byproduct of our current fission reactors, can also be used for fusion. Why don’t we have this yet? The same reason we don’t have wireless energy – there’s not enough money in it.

If we look at our science fiction, we can see that some of the more dystopic visions of the future have some validity in them, based on our current reliance on fossil fuels. In the universe of Mad Max, vehicles are a sign of power, but keeping them fueled can be difficult, if not impossible. In the less plausible Waterworld, the antagonists work hard to gather all the “black stuff’ up, which implies that they are so far removed from the concept of oil, they don’t know what to call it, but still have managed to find a way to refine it into gasoline, which they use to power their Mad Max themed jet skis. It’s Mad Max meets Sea World, really. In I am Legend, we see the price of Gasoline in New York was over $6 a gallon before the place became a ghost town. Often, in these apocalyptic futures, the gathering and hoarding of gasoline and batteries seems to be a central theme, but it only works because we haven’t mastered fusion. That kicks my ass. We can advance computing technology at an exponential rate, but we can’t figure out how to smash two Deuterium atoms together and create Helium.

And it Science Fiction has taught us anything, it’s that mastering fusion is the key to leaving this planet. You know, if the Earth were a basketball, in the last 40 years we haven’t made it more than a half inch off the surface. And even before that, only 8 times, and those occurred in a 3 year period. If we want Star Trek, people, we need fusion. And while it’s never specifically mentioned, the bright futuristic worlds we all want to live in  are most likely powered by fusion, or at least a power system that evolved from it. You want flying cars and highways in the sky? Fusion. You want a Black & Decker Food Hydrator? Fusion. You want fully functional androids that look and act like people? Fusion. Space Travel? Fusion. Let’s face it, we aren’t going to get these things with 89 Octane Unleaded.

Do you all realize that like so many other areas in our lives, the way that we produce power is basically the same as it’s always been? Do you even know HOW we generate electricity? It doesn’t matter what the fuel source is (be it water, coal or nuclear power), the fuel is user to power turbines that generate the power. It’s essentially the exact same process Tesla pioneered in the 1880′s and put into practice first in 1893 at Niagra Falls. A system that while modernized a little, is still in use today. Even with the massive energy capable with fission, we only use nuclear energy to create steam, which in turn powers the turbines. That’s hardly an advancement. It’s just a really dirty way to generate power. The only advantage is that it requires much less fuel to generate the steam than, say, coal, which works on the same principal (they burn the coal to heat water to steam, etc., etc.) Coal isn’t as good for the atmosphere, but I’m thinking that the people of Fukushima, Japan, were wishing they lived near a coal plant when a tsunami caused a loss of power to the cooling system which led to a meltdown. I think the fictional residents of Springfield, and their fish, would agree.

I bet if we had wireless fusion powered electricity, I wouldn’t lose power every time the wind kicked up.