Where No Han Has Gone Before

Shit's about to get real.

One of the unwritten rules of geekdom is that you have to pick a universe to be your favorite, and that you will defend it tirelessly against the non-believers. Nowhere is this more evident than with Star Trek and Star Wars. Anyone who’s been following me for a while will know that this is a repost of sorts – I’m updating a piece I wrote for Geek Shui back in July of 2010. It’s a popular topic; and by popular, I mean it makes people want to hack off each other’s limbs with light sabers and set phasers to kill.

Shit’s about to get real.

OK before we continue, I wanted to go over a few Rules of Engagement (who knew I would find a use for the Law of Armed Conflict outside the military… and yes, there is such a thing… and yes, they enforce it… back on topic now):

  • First, there will be no “magic” or bending of the physical “laws” of the universe. No Jedi. No Sith. No Q – we’re pitting tech against tech, here, not mythology against mythology. Besides, the Q are all powerful and could simply will the force out of existence or, for that matter, will everyone into sponges
  • Second, while I might mention the Borg, they will not be a player, mainly because they don’t play nice with anyone and would likely just end up a third faction – besides, the Borg would likely win in a “Mary Sue-less” environment. Why? Because one cube would be all they need to adapt to the technology and more cubes would come. ‘Nuff said
  • Everything considered MUST be canonical. We’ll talk about that in a moment
  • Lastly, everyone has their own opinions on this – if you plan to comment, please try to back up your arguments with some sort of data. And for the Yoda’s sake, be respectful

Comparing Star Trek and Star Wars is a popular concept. The battle cries are many, and the banner has even been flown at the highest levels (I’m talking about the famous interview exchanges that went on between Bill Shatner and Carrie Fisher). There are a few sites that have already gone into great detail about how the Empire would trounce the Federation (and anyone else in the Trek universe), but I found that a lot of it is based more on guessing and fanaticism than an actual impartial view of the “science” involved. In doing research on the topic (both in the past and again as I write this), here’s what I discovered:

Taking the incredible lapse of time out of the equation (mostly because quite honestly the tech in the Star Wars universe has been mostly stagnate for at least 40,000 years), the science used in each of the Universes is very different. This is probably because Lucas was writing pulp science fiction based on old-time serials, and Roddenberry was creating an idyllic future for mankind. Those very different motives meant very different approaches to the “science”. Roddenberry was bound by what he knew our technology was in the 60′s, and where it could possibly reach in 300 years. Lucas was only bound by his own imagination.

What that means for the “science” is that while Star Trek is lousy with scientific theory and rhetoric, Star Wars has very little. For example, we hear all the time about Warp Drive and the principles of Space-Time. There are technical manuals and jargon and all sorts of explanations as to how things work. But we have no idea how FTL travel works in Star Wars, only that they call it “traveling through hyperspace”. We know they have red laser and green lasers, but no idea how light sabers contain the energy into blade form. Lucas, quite simply, didn’t care. It didn’t add to the story. It was a Space Opera, not Science Fiction.

That doesn’t mean the fans didn’t have at it, though. Both universes have spawned countless variations and tales, add-ons and continuations of the original stories. Star Trek had “The Animated Series“, Star Wars had “Droids“. This gets us into a discussion on what is canon and what isn’t. With Trek, canon is defined as anything that appears on film or television with the exception of The Animated Series, which is very specifically non-canon (despite their use of the original cast for voice-over work). Additionally, Paramount (who owns the property), has licensed the name and intellectual property for non-fiction reference books which are also tied to the canon (though not always canon themselves). Further complicating the matter is the fact that the Star Trek canon often contradicts itself, mainly because Gene Roddenberry had no idea his show would mean so much to people. He wasn’t worried about keeping the integrity of the timeline intact. One example would be in the episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, Spock mentions that “one of his ancestors” was human – later it was his mother (hardly an ancestor). Further, the character is smug and demeaning. Also, it mentions that they were traveling outside the galaxy, which was later changed because of the immensity of that prospect. So in trying to keep it simple, after Roddenberry left us, his legacy was managed so that we could make sense of it. So, in essence, if you didn’t WATCH it, and or it wasn’t live actors, it isn’t canon.

In Star Wars, it’s different. George Lucas is still alive and very much a part of defining what is in isn’t canon. In his mind, the only canonical items are those from the movies (i.e. the movies themselves, the radio play and the novelizations – and any work that comes from them specifically). Lucasfilms has said that with so much work out there, they do their best to reconcile everything and make it work. I think the best example of this is when George Lucas was asked where Anakin got his scar in Episode III. His reply:

“I don’t know. Ask Howard. That’s one of those things that happens in the novels between the movies. I just put it there. He has to explain how it got there. I think Anakin got it slipping in the bathtub, but of course, he’s not going to tell anybody that.”

I think that explains a lot.

So let’s look at the universes themselves. Star Wars tends to do things on a massive, epic scale (which is why I think people choose them as the favorites to win in a confrontation). But with that in mind, there seem to be come major inconsistencies as it relates to the power output of their ships, – which is what makes an “apples-to-apples” comparison so difficult. Star Wars measures its power output in watts (W), which is a concept with which most of us are familiar. It’s the unit that measures how much work it takes to move an object one meter in one second against a force of one newton (N). Ooooh, science-y. Star Trek on the other hand, measures the power output of its craft in dynes (dyn)(which actually makes more sense from a propulsion standpoint). A dyne is the unit which measures how much force it takes to accelerate a mass of one gram one centimeter per second per second. Brain hurt yet?

What we need to know, then is how watts compare to dynes. In relative terms, a newton is equal to 100,000 dynes. So that means it would only require a single watt to move an object one meter per second against the force of 100,000 dynes. You have some grey matter leaking from your ears – you should take care of that.

Now, let’s get to comparing ships. A single Imperial-I Class Star Destroyer (which is about 1600 meters long – a little more than twice the length of Enterprise-E) has a reactor that produces 7.75 x 1024 W of power. Just to provide a little perspective, the flux capacitor from Back to the Future only requires 1.21 x 109 W of power to TRAVEL THROUGH EFFING TIME. The Sun – the life giving orb of boundless energy at the center of our Solar System but out about 4 x 1026  W of power, a mere 100 times that of the ISD. I don’t think that the materials they used could contain that amount of energy, but what do I know. Meanwhile, a standard Federation ship, in this case the U.S.S. Voyager, can produce roughly 4 x 1015  dyn of power (so using the earlier equation, about 4 x 1010  W). The ships in Star Wars ARE more massive, on the order of 10 to 20 times more, but that hardly requires 100 TRILLION (1014) times more power.

Maybe the Emperor wasn’t confident in his manhood…

I’ve just illustrated the first problem in comparing these two universes. And really, I think it’s because Star Trek is fundamentally different than any other type of Science Fiction involving space craft. Star Wars is more typical of the genre as it related to space battles, with said battles being more along the lines of those we are familiar with (you know, with fighters and large ships with marines and landing forces, etc). But Star Trek battles play out more like gun duels or barroom brawls. It wasn’t until much later in the history that space battles started to take on a more familiar (and massive-scale) approach, with the inclusion of smaller craft and large group tactics. Even then, ship-to-ship combat seemed to be the order of the day. To make a more naval comparison, Star Trek battles play more like submarine battles (with their heavy use of torpedoes and ship-to-ship tactics), while Star Wars battles play more like surface ship battles (with air/space fight support, landing forces and battle formations).

So what we’re left with is this: Star Wars overestimates and uses impossible physics while Star Trek just makes up units and particles, like “isotons” and “rapid nadions”. Comparing these two is like comparing Barack Obama to Mitt Romney; they’re both full of crap, but different kinds of crap. The last time I did this, I presented a scenario, but I feel like that it’s too easy to assume I’m not being objective, so I’ll just offer some basic comparisons and give example scenarios.

OK, so let’s look at tactics first. The Imperials strategy is based off of their numerical superiority, even when facing enemies in their own space. Star Warsis presented as being more populous than Star Trek, but I honestly think their Galaxy is much smaller than ours. There are about the same number of worlds in both universes, but it takes longer to get around in Star Trek and they only occupy about 5% of the galaxy. By comparison, the populated area of the Star Wars galaxy is about 50-60% of the total space.

Most of the races in Star Trek are humanoid, and they haven’t mastered automatons, like in Star Wars. That said, computer technology in Star Trek seems more advanced, particularly in the tactical sense. While computers are used in Star Wars the amount of missing going on in the blaster arena seems to allude to the idea that they aren’t computer guided. They may provide tactical assistance, but it’s never really seen. Scanners, likewise, seem to be more advanced in Star Trek, with an ability to scan for even very small items, inconsistencies in hull composition, propulsion trails, etc.

The weapons themselves are also very different. The beam weapons in Star Trek produce a beam of high energy particles called “nadions”. In the Star Trek Universe, they have the unique ability to affect nuclear bonds, which is why they create heat. In Star Wars, the weapons are actually plasma-based, though it’s never really discussed in detail. I’m assuming that based on the fact that they need to refine tibana gas for the blasters to work, and they can run out of “ammo”. That also means that the blasters aren’t just direct energy weapon, meaning that the shields on the Trek vessels might not be as effective, since they are designed to dissipate high energy weapons, not plasma. This is evident in the fact that the Romulans use plasma torpedoes, and they are highly effective. Ironically, those shields would be highly effective against Ion cannons.

The torpedo and missile type weapons are also completely different. Proton Torpedoes are slower and more like traditional warheads than Photon or Quantum Torpedoes. The Star Wars heavy weapons were designed for a multitude of purposes, including planetary bombardment, but were typically slow moving. They are traditional warheads; explosive, but because of standard ordinance. Photons, on the other hands, were actually more destructive because they used the annihilation of matter/anti-matter as the catalyst. They also moved at near light speed – too fast to be targeted and shot down. A single photon torpedo could destroy an entire city, while a proton torpedo would be more like destroying a few city blocks. Even from a capital ship.

So at the end of the day, Imperial ships are more powerful, but are inefficient at targeting because it’s hard to miss such large ships. Federation, Klingon and Romulan ships are smaller and produce less power, but have better weapons and targeting on the whole. The personnel are more plentiful on the Imperial side, but it seems like the Federation is better trained, Klingons have more will, and ROmulans a stronger sense of survival than the Imperials do. The Imperials have fighters, but the Trek side doesn’t need them because their ships are far more agile and capable of FTL speeds over shorter distances.

This is a “to-scale” representation of smaller ships and landing craft.

This is a scale representation for the larger vessels. See, a Romulan Warbird is nearly as large as an ISD.

I imagine it like this: A Sector Group of Imperials (for reference, the fleet at the Battle of Endor was a Sector Group – about 2,400 ships, including fighters) against a combined battle fleet of Federation (about 100 ships), Romulan (about 30 ships) and Klingon (about 40 ships) forces. The size of the ships isn’t as big a deal as you might think, making the fighters much less effective. The Trek computers track them too easily and they can’t outrun the beam weapons that don’t fire bolts, but rather continuous streams. Wide dispersal blasts of photons and phasers make being in an unshielded fighter a bad thing. Smaller Trek ships are easy pickings for the larger Imperial ships, though, and a Super Star Destroyer would make short work of any ship that approached too closely. I can imagine a couple of NeghVar battleships ramming into it and taking it out, though.  All in all, I think the Imperials would win in a single engagement, but a prolonged war would end in a Star Trek victory, mainly because they are more adaptive and would find ways to creatively destroy even the largest Imperial ships. I’m interested to know what you think, but rtemember, be respectful and try to stick to canon.

That means Han shot first, and Khan was the biggest badass of them all.

It’s in the Genes

A worker poses for a photograph in the anti-doping laboratory which will analyze samples from athletes during the London 2012 Olympic Games, in Harlow

Normally, I don’t update my posts in this fashion, but the relevance of the Lance Armstrong controversy demanded that I do so.

In a week that also saw the loss of the first man to walk on the moon, I saw it quipped that “it wasn’t a good week to named Armstrong”. And while I am more saddened about the loss of Neil, I think that Lance Armstrong’s issue will have farther reaching implications. And I’m adding it here because the relevance this situation has to the subject matter.

On Friday, August 24th, it was reported that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), the organization charged with managing all doping tests for U.S. athletes participating in Olympic and Pan-American sports, has banned Lance Armstrong for life and stripped him of his record since August 1, 1998, essentially wiping out a career that has helped to bring his sport back into the main stream. Like I said… far reaching implications.

There’s a lot going on here, more than I think is being fully reported. Lance has been in the news for a while now about these allegations, and I think he’s finally giving up. And base on what I’ve read, probably because he feels there’s no way he’ll get a fair hearing if the same people who are accusing him are the ones who make the decisions (and they are). Any why would they think he’s been blood doping and taking synthetic EPO and testosterone? Because the evidence is not even circumstantial – it doesn’t exist. Armstrong has never failed a doping test, yet his accusers have been. Odd.

The USADA based it’s entire decision on “witness” testimony, which, honestly, considering the nature of competitive sports, seems short-sighted. This is probably why the UIC, the international body that governs the Tour de France, a contest Lance won a staggering seven times – in a row – is holding judgement until they see the entirety of the USADA’s case against Armstrong. The sad thing is that it is unlikely that the  UIC will counter the judgement because it would create a division in the sport at an international level.

What bothers me about this is that it seems like there’s a personal vendetta at work here. When Armstrong tried to bring suit against the USADA, it was thrown out on the grounds that his contracts stipulated that he must arbitrate with the USADA. However, the presiding judge was worried about the striking conflict of interest involved and the fact that Armstrong was never allowed to see any of the evidence being brought against him. Worse yet, they are destroying the reputation and legacy of a man who has done so much good. The USADA is only worried about their own reputation – they don’t see the larger picture. Who wins if Lance Armstrong is disgraced? Cycling? Dope-free sports?

It certainly isn’t Cancer Research…

This past Sunday (8/12/12) marked the end of the Games of the XXX Olympiad. Whether you watched or not, you cannot deny the impact the Olympics has on our society. Olympians are venerated and scrutinized in way that other celebrities aren’t – I’m reminded of the incident where a photo of Michael Phelps taking a hit off a bong, something a lot of people his age do, turning into a media circus – and the expectation to perform is higher than that of even paid athletes. This is why there is so much testing for “performance enhancing” drugs, though they test for other “illicit” drugs, like marijuana, as well. And despite this well-known policy, and the IOC’s well-documented record of stripping medals and sending participants home on the first jet out, people STILL do it.

A worker poses for a photograph in the anti-doping laboratory which will analyze samples from athletes during the London 2012 Olympic Games, in Harlow

That’s how high the pressure is. And you can see how far the events themselves have come, just based a comparison of modern competitors with those from the same events in the past. There’s a GIF making the rounds that compares the vaults from McKayla Maroney (her vault from the Team All-Around competition in which the American team won gold) and Larisa Latynina(from a 1956 performance – she won gold in the All-Around, Team All-Around and Vault that year, so it could have been from any of those competitions – She was the most decorated Olympian until 2012, when Michael Phelps passed her 18 medals with his 22). When you see the difference, it’s not just striking, its like comparing a beginner to an expert.

This animation shows gold medal vaults from Larissa Latynina (top – 1956; All Around, Team All Around – I don’t know which this shows) and McKayla Maroney (bottom – 2012; Team All Around).

With the constant pressure to improve upon what’s been the accepted standard in the past, I can see why athletes would feel the need to “juice”. But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to do so as the major governing bodies have banned practically everything, even if it doesn’t improve performance (I can’t imagine anyone who’s smoking marijuana performing better because of it – unless it just mellows them out so they don’t over-stress – honestly, if you can smoke and still win the gold, you deserve it).

So what else is there? It’s obvious: gene doping. That’s right, genetic manipulation through virus injection is very real and very plausible. How does it work? Well, I won’t go into all the details here, but Alexis Madrigal wrote a great article for The Atlantic on this topic. In it he describe the process of how viruses are “defanged” (i.e. made inert) and inserted with DNA that is designed to produce a desired effect. In the example of Erythropoietin, or EPO, (which increases red blood cell counts, and thus performance – there are synthetic drugs that do this now and for which can be tested) the body can be tricked into producing more of this hormone. Current EPO dopers use synthetic EPO, which can now be detected (earlier tests used a hemocrit percentage, but unless tests are done immediately, they can be wrong). The allure of gene doping is that since your body produces EPO anyway, and you’re just finding a way to have it make more, it’s natural and not doping at all. It should be noted that the use of  EPO also falls into the category “blood doping”, and is very common with endurance athletes.

Of course, this is just one example. You could, conceivably, create a vector (a virus carrying DNA) to do lots of things, since they can be used to create hormones. Maybe you want one that increases muscle mass or metabolism. The danger here, aside from the obvious illicit aspect, is that our bodies are incredibly efficient machines as it is. And one could argue that this is even more true for Olympians and Professional athletes. Messing with the source code, as it were, only seems like it would increase the likelihood of dropping dead. The use of synthetic EPO has been linked to dozens of deaths over the years (mainly because it thickens the blood, which, as you know, can be dangerous), and that’s just one example. But as the pressure to perform increases, and the penalty for doping increases, I think we’re going to see more and more examples of this.

It doesn’t help when you have powerhouses in a field, like the Jamaicans were with the running events this year. Amazingly, genetics seems to be involved, at least somewhat, when you look at what countries do well in what events. West Africans (and their descendants it seems) do well in the short distance running while East Africans excel at the longer events. It seems to dispute the Tabula Rasa theory that dominated sports philosophy for so long (which is to say that each person is a “blank slate” and there is no inherent talent – anybody can be trained to do anything well – and that personal drive means more than genetics). Is there a way to ethically reproduce what Usain Bolt has genetically and pass it on to other runners to give them a chance to compete?

Science Fiction has approached this subject to a certain extent, but not so much from the stance of athletics, but more the stance of soldiering, which makes more sense in that venue. The Farscape episode, “Throne for a Loss”, covers the idea of soldiers being enhanced, and ultimately dependent upon a drug injected by a weaponized gauntlet. The drug is powerful enough to cause near immediate addiction, and makes the wearers (usually the Tavleks) incredibly powerful and difficult to reason with. They aren’t genetically dependent upon the drug, and it doesn’t alter them genetically, but it’s worth mentioning because, to me, it’s one of the rare occassions with Science Fiction addresses performance enhancement in a realistic sense. Another well-known treatment is from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. After encountering a Jem’Hadar newborn, it is discovered that they are genetically dependent on a drug that makes them compliant and enhances their physical abilities. In their case, they are bred to be dependent on the drug and will eventually die without it.

It wasn’t difficult see a world where this could happen. We’re already indoctrinating our children at extremely young ages so that they can compete at this level. Female gymnasts are usually below adult age as an average, and Michael Phelps is retiring at the ripe old age of 27. I won’t argue that sports shouldn’t be the province of the young, I’m saying that at 27, Michael Phelps was expected to perform as well as he did at 23, which most of us realize isn’t realistic. It’s worse for gymnasts.

And if you don’t think they aren’t “selectively breeding” and training children beyond their abilities, I want you to think about this: the Chinese woman who won the gold in the 400 meter individual medley, Ye Shiwen, ran the last 50 meters faster than the men’s champion (Ryan Lochte, who is 28) in that event (there are some who say that isn’t unusual, and I get that, but his overall time was 25 seconds faster – there’s no reason she should be faster on the last 50 meters, even if she was behind) and she’s only 16. She broke the World Record for women in that race. I’m not accusing her of doping, I’m only pointing out that an incredible performance by a 16 year old has set the bar for everyone, including her, for years to come. There will be pressure to match or beat that performance, and the athletes will do whatever it takes to get there.

Who knows, maybe she’s half mermaid.

As I Understand It

This has to be one of the most profound things I've seen on this topic. And it scares the crap out of me to know that we have a capitol filled with people who "Believe".

As you know, I normally don’t wax political in these posts. Just once in the past have I focused an entire article on the concept and this post isn’t specifically about politics. However, it was inspired by events in the political arena. And I have a feeling it’s going to piss a few people off. But I think there are some things that need to be said, and some questions that need to be asked, and I’m tired of seeing this side or that side make wide-sweeping comments that seem to apply to anyone. So since no one is being objective – I will. Next article will be lighthearted, I promise.

So, my question is: when did science become opinion?

This has to be one of the most profound things I’ve seen on this topic. And it scares the crap out of me to know that we have a capitol filled with people who “Believe”.

Seriously. Twice in the past week, my good sense has been attacked by politicians, who in an attempt to pander to the base of their party, made comments that have no basis in reality. Not only were they scientifically inaccurate, but they were presented as being factual, and in both cases, buffered by the concept of “personal understanding”. It’s as if saying “the way I understand it” automatically gives credence to what’s said, and that it should be accepted as factual rather than opined. The way I see it, saying “the way I understand it” has become media code for “I’m an idiot, I have no respect for actual facts, and I’ll say anything to justify my archaic and uninformed stance”.

Rep. Todd Akin actually said, in response to a question about abortion in the case of rape, “It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that it’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” You can’t make this stuff up. This man honestly believes that a woman can willfully shit down her body in a way that can prevent pregnancy when she’s raped. I’m not sure what qualifies as “rare”, but it’s estimated that about 5% of rapes end in a pregnancy, and that women who are raped are actually more likely to conceive because they can’t choose not to copulate during a fertile period, and younger women in the peak of fecundity are more likely to be raped (credit ERIKA CHRISTAKIS - Todd Akin Fallout: Rape, Abortion and the Dark History of Qualifying Violence Against Women). This smacks of a man using his religious belief to justify a political stance. He’s since recanted a bit, and even said that he misspoke (he meant to say “forcible” instead of “legitimate” – as if there were “non-forcible” rape), but even after repeated attempts to ask him to step aside, as of this writing, he’s refused “on principle”.

Then just today (Wed. 8/21), State Senator Stacey Campfield of TN said, “Most people realize that AIDS came from the homosexual community. It was one guy screwing a monkey and then having sex with men. It was an airline pilot if I recall…My understanding is that it is virtually — not completely, but virtually — impossible to contract AIDS through heterosexual sex.” I wonder who he means by “most people”, because no one I know realized this. I thought we covered this in the late 80′s. AIDS is an indiscriminate disease. It is just as likely to proliferate among heterosexuals as homosexuals, when they aren’t protecting themselves. It’s just that heterosexuals are more likely to use prophylactics to prevent pregnancy – which as we have been told isn’t a concern among the homosexual set. As a result, AIDS rates have tended to be higher in the gay community. That doesn’t mean that you can only get AIDS from a gay partner. That’s ill-informed and downright wrong. And don’t even get me started on the first half of that statement. While we know that HIV (the precursor virus that leads to AIDS) originated as SIV in apes, there is no evidence that “screwing a monkey” is how it jumped species. It’s far more likely to have come from eating poorly prepared monkey innards and brains, since organ meat is a great way to spread disease (I’m not saying this is how it happened – just that it’s a far more likely scenario). Further, I don’t know about you, but I’m not about to try to have sex with an animal that can rip off my limbs without even trying. Apes aren’t always friendly when it comes it sex, and they have a nasty habit of biting off the genitals of their enemies. Not sure I’d want to risk that just to get off… especially when I still have my hands.

Now, I’m not discussing this to get into the specifics on the statements themselves. I’m really more interested in the reason the statements were made. During a lapse of activity on the last day of Gen Con, my friend and I were discussing the problem with trying to insert a religious code into the political system. He said something very profound and I’ll do my best to relate it back to you. He said that human brains are basically unreliable things. We think we know things, we can be sure of it to our core, and be totally wrong. And the danger in that is that when we believe something in our heart of hearts, we stop thinking and accept what our (or someone else’s) unreliable brain says is the truth. Science is basically just people knowing that their brains actually suck, and relying on one another to fact check what said brains come up with.

One of my favorite writers, Terry Goodkind, put it another way. In his book, Wizard’s First Rule, he addresses this concept in singular fashion. The namesake rule is as follows: “People are stupid; given proper motivation, almost anyone will believe almost anything. Because people are stupid, they will believe a lie because they want to believe it’s true, or because they are afraid it might be true. People’s heads are full of knowledge, facts, and beliefs, and most of it is false, yet they think it all true. People are stupid; they can only rarely tell the difference between a lie and the truth, and yet they are confident they can, and so are all the easier to fool.”

Now THIS is a Presidential Ticket I can get behind. Because I’m positive they know the difference between actually understanding something and just believing.

There is a culture of anti-intellectualism building in our nation. At some point, these people, all of us really, are going to have to face the unpleasant reality that we don’t really know everything. And what we think we know is highly suspect. Faith is good, but you can’t ignore facts because they disagree with what you think you know. I’m not anti-religion, I’m anti-ignorance. And for God’s sake, if you think women who were raped were “asking for it”, or you think that an airline pilot had unprotected sex with a monkey because gay people do that sort of thing, or you think the Earth is flat, keep your damn mouth shut and stay away from my Congress.

No, seriously. Stay. Away.


Define “Geek”…

Just a few kinds of geek. What kind are you?

As many of you know, I spent the weekend, neck deep in the revelry that is Gen Con. I don’t have a great deal of time for gaming, and honestly, I don’t have anyone to game with, so I went mostly to spend time with my oldest friend, John (@Cmaaarrr). I had been to Gen Con in the past (also with the intention of meeting people from Twitter), but it was only for a single day, and the last day to boot, and I’ve also been to Dragon*Con, but I honestly wasn’t totally prepared for the event. In the end much fun was had by all, and I even made some new friends and have a few stories to share.

But that’s not the point here…

Lately, as I’m sure you’re all aware, there has been a rather large discussion about what it means to be a “geek”, and who should be allowed to call themselves such. The entire concept strikes me as ludicrous to the extreme, and I haven’t said a whole lot on the topic, even in conversation. I did write about the seemingly rampant misogyny that seems to be infecting the “geek” community of late, but that’s its own issue. So then I saw this tweet:

A thought provoking tweet

There’s nothing wrong with this tweet. Nothing at all. But it brought to mind a particular conversation in the community after Comic-Con about who is and isn’t a geek. I’m not going to go into the particulars, because most of you are probably already familiar with the subject, and I don’t want people to confuse my position on this. It’s just that this tweet got my gears turning.

A long time ago, when I first started writing for Geek Shui, I also wrote a small piece for G33kMade on the topic of what I thought it meant to be a geek. It was a short few paragraphs on what I thought it meant to be a geek. I don’t have the original text anymore, so I will do my best to hit the high points.

To me, a geek is someone who is passionate about a “thing” and that “thing” can be ANY “thing”; be it cars, motorcycles, computers, comic books, gaming, whatever. Although, I think I’ll let YOU call the Bikers “motorcycle geeks”. Labels aside, though, it’s a simple truth. And there will always be those people who really geek out, and those that just enjoy whatever it is they geek about about to be called a geek by people who don’t. We all know the various levels and everyone is a geek to some extent; they just may not call it being a geek.

Just a few kinds of geek. What kind are you?

I knew this kid in high school, Mike DeBiasi, who was probably some flavor of autistic. He was “slow” in school, but you could ask him anything about Star Trek: TOS and he could answer it. Seriously, if you gave him a number between 1 and 79, hew could name the episode, when it aired, who directed it, who the guest stars were and what the basic plot was. I’m a BIG Trekkie and I can’t do that. He quoted obscure lines to test me, and often he stumped me, and he loved every second of it. And he didn’t care that people thought he was a dork or whatever. He liked what he liked and to hell what anyone else thought.

We all should be so strong.

So when I saw the diatribe about the “booth babes” at Comic-Con and the question as to the “geek cred” of Felicia Day, it didn’t really sync with me. I don’t see the world that way, and I would never look at a person, or their work, and decide whether it was “geeky” enough. Being a “geek” isn’t defined by set parameters, nor should it be. It’s simply label; one we all apply differently. There is never a reason for anyone to try to force someone else to label the way they do. We get enough of that with media and politics and bad television.

I milled around the Indiana Convention Center for 3 and a half days, and I saw every kind of geek imaginable. I saw people who geeked over Magic the Gathering (which reminded me that I should really sell my cards). I saw people who geeked over hand-stitched leather bags (made by Mad Girl Clothing and sold by Pendragon) – I’ll admit I was one of them. I saw people in costume (my personal favorites were the Steampunk Ghostbusters) and people carrying large bags of games. It was a total geek fest. And two blocks over and up, I saw hundreds of testosterone junkies geeking out over motorcycles (though, again, I would never say that to their faces – but it’s true). And there were even people geeking out over swimming. And there were beautiful girls, and men with questionable hygiene habits; groups wandering the exhibition hall endlessly, and people who holed up in a room and role played all weekend. And the Lord saw that it was good. And there was evening and morning, and evening and morning, and evening and morning. Thus was the Con.

I never thought I’d see the say that a geek would tell someone that they weren’t good enough or geeky enough. I remember wishing I could just have a conversation with someone that understood what I was talking about. Hell, I still wish for it. I think we all need to get over ourselves a little bit. I mean isn’t there a certain amount of irony in all of this? I suppose you could call it poetic justice when a dorky guy tells a pretty girl she’s not geek enough, but at the end of the day, we all know that 20 years ago, the same people bashing the beautiful woman would have done anything to carry her books to class.

Damn right, I would have.

The Irony of Hate

Something happened this past Sunday. You may have heard about it, but you probably aren’t talking about it. A lone man, armed with a handgun, walked into a Sikh temple and began shooting people; 7 of them to death (including himself). So before I continue, I want to take a moment to express my heartfelt sympathies for the families of those killed.

The reason I’m writing this is because this story barely made the news. And while there are updates and the news does sort of cover it, it’s not getting anywhere near the coverage that the Aurora shooting got. So, I started comparing the two events in my mind and thinking about what we can do to keep this stuff from happening over and over again. I know I just talked about this – I talked about Aurora, but to be fair, I think there’s still a lot to discuss – but please hear me out. I think it’s important.

Stuffed animals and flowers adorn a makeshift memorial near the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2012, in Oak Creek, Wis., where a gunman killed six people this past Sunday

My first questions is: Why isn’t this being covered the way Aurora was? For over a week after the shooting in Colorado, Aurora news dominated the front page of just about every news media outlet. Yahoo had 3 or 4 spots in it’s news story slider dedicated to various aspects of the shooting. This week we have, “Star Trek Mansion“, “Mysteries at the County Fair“, “Woman Turns 555 Ikea Blue Bags Into Dress” and “Meet Kourtney K.’s Baby“, just to name a few. There are quite a few about the Olympics, which is understandable, but the Sikh Temple shooting isn’t on the slider at all. It is in the “News” section, but honestly, I think something of this magnitude is important enough to be more prominently displayed. CNN did a somewhat better job, giving the “Massacre” it’s own section, but it’s not prominently displayed for easy navigation. Fox News didn’t do any better. On their site, a story about political ads is the feature while the shooting is given the same importance as a story about country music singer Randy Travis’ DUI Arrest. Yeah, because apparently the personal life of a washed-up entertainer is as important as the deaths of 6 innocent people.

And where are the ribbons? Aurora had a few. You know what I’m talking about because my piece on Aurora used one of them. Where are the public memorials? Not like the one above, I mean the kind of prayer meetings and public announcements of support for the Sikh community. I’m not saying there hasn’t been any, I’m saying that Aurora was compared to 9/11… the Temple shooting was treated like just another hate crime.

My next question, and it will likely not be answered with any satisfaction is: How can we keep this from happening again? I don’t know that there is a way, honestly. I already went over my feelings about gun control in my piece on Aurora (I’m generally opposed to it – though I am for tight control of assault rifles and other military grade weapons). Making guns illegal doesn’t prevent bad people from getting them. In this case, the gunman was affiliated with hate groups, who probably already have lots of channels for acquiring things illegally. As I said with Aurora, if this man was intent on causing harm to people, he would have found another way to do it. Then we’d be talking about banning THAT thing. There’s no quick and easy solution here. I do know that whatever solution we come to, it will not include making guns illegal. To do so would require a paradigm shift in the way Americans think; something I don’t foresee happening.

It concerns me that we don’t care more about the Temple shooting, both generally as a people, and more as a community of geeks. The conspiracy theorist in me (it’s time we admit we all have one) thinks that the only reason Aurora was so shocking and so well covered is because we don’t really know why it happened. We expect people from hate groups to commit hate crimes, and that expectation comes with a certain amount of apathy. There were children involved in Aurora, as well, which makes it worse from an emotional standpoint – unless your a Sikh. But what of the reason we don’t care is because, deep down, we don’t see the Sikh’s as “US”. And there is a percentage of people who will read this (hopefully a very small one) that have no pity or empathy for the Sikh because they are not “US”. For the past decade, we’ve had an alarming trend of disliking, ignoring or otherwise not paying attention to anything that isn’t “US”. Even the recent Olympics broadcast has been edited for our consumption, with NBC deflecting critics by saying “we’re focusing on what Americans want to see.” Of course, by doing so, the miss moments like members of the North and South Korean teams shaking hands – moments that are iconic and significant.

Science Fiction doesn’t hold any answers to this. We can’t imagine our way out of a problem like this one. The Sikh Temple shooting seems to be simply about hate – something of which we’ve become far too accommodating. I don’t have a solution. I wish I did. What I do know is that is starts with us. Each and every one of us – Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jew, Black, White, Asian… human. We are all the same and when we attack each other, it diminishes us all. Hatred stems from ignorance. Ignorance of the fact that Aryans (academics call them Indo-Iranians or Indo-Europeans) – the so-called “master race” that Hitler and the Nazis venerated – came from India. That’s right, natives of India are Caucasian, despite their dark skin and hair.

So the “white-supremacist”, because of his hatred and fear of other races, killed 6 people of his own race.

Irony has a new poster boy.

One Ringy Dingy

For the first time, I’m going to recap a topic I’ve covered previously; the very first one I did, actually. When I started writingHow Science Fiction Failed Us two years ago, I tried to stay true to the title as much as possible. I was inspired to write it after seeing some git nearly wreck his car because he was texting while driving, which made me think about the origins of the cell phone and how the idea had been inspired by science fiction. I don’t look at it quite that way anymore, I suppose (not the texting while driving part – anyone who does that deserves to be forcibly removed from the gene pool – I mean the articles). These have become more “op-ed” pieces; a place for me to share my thoughts on a given subject in a way where I don’t have to worry about who I might offend. It’s been a long journey, and I hope it gets longer.

Anyway, back on point. When I look back at that first piece, it was rather short, and really only focused on the aspect of us really being too irresponsible to have that level of technology, which is still true. But I wanted to look a little more at the subject.

Gordon Gecko – Trendsetter. Who knew we’d all look this stupid in 20 years?

So the other night, I went to the remake of the Total Recall, which I’m not going to get into here, but there was some great technology “previews” that got me thinking about where we are today, and where it appears that we’re heading. I re-watched the original 1990 version, and while I know that our collective vision of the future adapts as we create new technology, the differences between the two were striking, considering 1990 wasn’t all that long ago. What am I saying? It was over 20 years ago. Anyway, one of the more striking differences was in communication.

As you know, cell phones revolutionized communications in the early 90′s. We all watched Wall Street in 1987 – I’m thinking of the iconic scene of Michael Douglas on the beach talking on his DynaTAC 8000 – and suddenly we wanted to unplug. Cordless phones were already common, but going completely wireless was still out of reach for many. Most of us had to go through that awkward “pager” phase, which if you had one, you know was something akin to being “all knees and elbows” in a wireless sense. It let you keep in contact, but you still needed change for a payphone, or you had to constantly ask, “Hey, do you mind if I use your phone.” When I was in the Air Force in the mid-90′s, pagers were near the end of their life-cycle. Lots of places still had payphones, but those that didn’t usually has signs along the lines of “No you can’t use our phone”. What was really funny was watching someone with a pager borrow someone’s cell phone.

Cell phones have come a long way since the days of the DynaTAC. Even my first cell phone, which was the Nokia 239, is extremely primitive by today’s standards (though it would probably still work – those Nokias were nigh indestructible). And it’s not just about the device itself, the entire system is better than it was. Many of the phone lines today are the same ones we used 30 or 40 years ago, though most telephone companies are upgrading to deal with the demand for high speed internet demand. Cell phones, though, while supporting older technologies, have been on a steady forward progression at a very rapid pace. Look at it this way; land line phones worked on the same equipment for decades, with the only noticeable difference on the customer end being the change from operator managed exchanges to automated switches. Cell phones have progressed to a new generation of technology about every 10 years. And you can bet your bottom dollar it’s being doled out to us – the technology moves much faster than that, but they don’t want to risk alienating customers who just laid down money for a “cutting edge” phone by bringing out new tech right away.

Back to Total Recall. So in the old movie, Quaid (played by the brilliantly vacant Arnold Schwarzenegger) was contacted by an operative using a payphone outside his building. Interestingly, the phones in the original version were all Video Phones (which was a Sci-Fi staple from the 60′s through the 90′s – mainly because it let you see the person who was on the other end, and it seemed a logical progression from the land line phones at the time). In 1990, they couldn’t have know how popular cellular phones would be. They were even rare among Hollywood types back then. It’s worth noting, though, that car phones (which were very popular in the 90′s – because that would never be a bad idea) were very prevalent in the film, and were so powerful that they could contact Mars without any delay in the signal, which is something that isn’t possible unless we learn how to send radio signals faster than the speed of light – at best it would take about 5 minutes for a radio signal to get to Mars from Earth.

The new film had possible the coolest interpretation of future phones that I’ve ever seen. Quaid (this time played by the equally vacant Colin Farrell), was called by his HAND. That’s right, his hand. It lit up, and he held it to his head, not like you would hold a phone, but as if you would rest your head in your hand. And when just talking wasn’t enough there was this interactive glass… well… everywhere, and he put his hand on it, and it activated UI on the glass that included video. Damned impressive. More impressive was that the phone seemed to be implanted in his hand, and they were able to trace his location by it. He removed it (which looked painful) and gave it to someone else, which seems a bit odd, but who am I to judge who people buy and sell in the future?

It paints an interesting picture, though, about how ingrained the cell phone has become in our daily lives. On one hand you can see that even in the 90′s they had some idea how important staying in touch would be. They just thought it would be with car phones. It’s amazing how delightfully inventive our science fiction can be, but at the same time, incredibly short sighted. It makes me wonder if in 20 years time, we’ll be watching the new version of Total Recall and saying, “Can you believe they thought we’d need glass? GLASS?! Really?!”