Monday, April 29, 2013

The more you think about it...

Yeah, I've already said my piece about the lock-down during the manhunt for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, but I'm going to add a little to it. You see, upon reflection, the whole thing just really grates at me.

Can I just say how annoying it is to find myself agreeing with Ron Paul? The former representative and serial presidential candidate came out today pointing out what seems to be the inevitable truth about this whole encounter: that it's a dramatic over-reach for law enforcement. He called it an occupation, which which while an exaggeration still makes a valid point. I salute the men and women of law enforcement  who had the dangerous and difficult task of finding the alleged younger bomber, but I can't help thinking where does this all end? Must all normal commerce and activity cease whenever one deranged individual detonates a bomb or fires a gun? Are really this terrified?

Videos like the one below show that the house-to-house search was anything but voluntary. Police officers ordered residents, with hands-up, out of the house and then searched it. I understand that this was an extreme event but there really needs to be more of a public discussion about how and why one of these shelter-in-place requests gets handed down.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The End of a Series

I've spent the past few days thinking about the ending of "Blue Mars," the final book in the Kim Stanley Robinson Mars series. It took me a while to decide what exactly I felt about the book. On one hand, this book had perhaps the best writing of the entire series. The characterizations were sharp and memorable, the long descriptive passages evoked times and places with poignancy, and the various themes of the previous two books of the trilogy really did meet a satisfactory conclusion.

On the other hand, this book felt like an elaborate and prolonged fade-out, one enormous epilogue that never quite came into focus. Partly, this was by design. One of the themes of the series, overall, appears to be tracing the emergence of post-scarcity, peaceful paradise throughout the human solar system. You can't have much of a paradise when things are blowing up and falling apart.

Most of the conflict of this story revolved around the remaining characters of the story: Sax Russell, the terraformer, Ann Clayborne, Nadia Chernyshevski, Maya Toitovna, and Nirgal. Sax and Ann show the most growth in the story, Sax becoming increasingly committed to finding some middle path between the transformative science he pioneered in the earlier books and a more hands-off approach of Ann. The final section of the book is almost entirely told from his perspective and it functions a little like the Molly Bloom segment at the end of Ulysseus, rambling, pensive, and ultimately optimistic. In book a the traces the inflexible and humorless Red environmentalist Ann path towards acceptance of the human role in the universe, that's not a bad summary of the story itself.

But I should be clear, the purpose of this book is reflection. While the book details the slow-to-build tensions between Mars and the overpopulated and chaotic Earth, the real struggle is how to manage life on a grand scale. What if you continued to live past your ability to remember your own life? What if every moment took on that 'already experienced before' nature of deja vu? What would it mean to be human if that term had to take into account life on planets as diverse as Mercury, rotating asteroid colonies and Uranus' shattered moon Miranda. While many of the chapters end with a sort perfunctory survival threat, none of this is very, well, exciting.

On the other hand, by simply letting the melancholy centuries coast past, the book really establishes a sense of place and time. I found myself constantly returning to the events of the first and second novels with a renewed appreciation of the scale of Robinson's work. The work is really one of the most fully realized examples of 'future history,' I've ever read, not merely recording events or tracing their causes, but spending time to have the characters consider their own roles within the context of that history.

One last effect I particularly enjoyed, one that I find a little bit mysterious, is how Robinson is able to evoke Mars as a setting. I found myself routinely swept away into the epic vistas of the crater seas, rugged greening terrain, and artificial habitats established throughout the solar system. I think partly this comes from the pacing of the book, because it takes such an unhurried stroll through the distant future, you really have time to meditate on just what this future might look like, sound like, feel like. That's probably the ultimate value of this book and the series its part of, a vision of a future that realistically achieves escape velocity, accelerating into the outer limits of what is humanly possible, carrying with it a weary, hopeful confidence.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Mouseguard

This is somewhat belated, but a couple of weeks ago I GM'd for a unique role-playing game. One of my friends +Aisha Cruse has been going on a You Tube chronicled resolution binge this year, attempting all sorts of novel activities. One of her resolutions was to play a table-top RPG. Cue me.

+Matthew McComb suggested Mouseguard, which I think is a great choice for a first time RPG experience. The game, based on a comic by David Petersen of the same name, allows players to become a mouse warrior in service of a paramilitary organization protecting the mouse territories. Basically, in Mouseguard, you get to play mice armed with swords. This would all be very cute if it wasn't for the superior production quality of the book (seriously this is the best looking RPG I've ever seen) and the fact the rules were written by Luke Crane of Burning Wheel fame. The basic mechanics of the game, earning passes and fails on skill checks to simulate the slow increase of abilities, team-based conflicts, all work ridiculously well together. I explain this a little bit more in the video so check it out:


Sunday, April 21, 2013

Oblivion

Oblivion marks the unofficial beginning of the 2013 Summer Spectacular season. Iron Man 3 is a couple of weeks away and then Star Trek somewhat beyond that. I have mixed feelings about blockbusters; on one hand they do tend to be the only times when Hollywood invests money and effort into science fiction, but the type of SF on display is almost always a 1) sequel, 2) played for laughs, 3) poorly conceived, or 4) all three. So, first off I want to make it clear that simply having an original, fairly coherent science fiction movie, is in itself a welcome development. If you like movies that attempt, however feebly, try to stake out some new speculative ground, you should show a little support to this film.




A little support.

This is not, when all is said and done, a very good film. It has its charms, which I will quickly summarize shortly, but it has more than its fair share of defects. The largest issue is the question of basic storytelling. I enjoyed the first half of the movie more than I thought likely simply because it moved with a definite purpose and economy. We get the outlines of the world quickly enough, become invested in Tom Cruise's character ('the world's best astronaut,' Jack Harper) and the strangely clinical relationship/partnership he has with Victoria. Harper's job is to service drones protecting the infrastructure of humanity's resettlement, a job made more difficult by the remnants of the alien horde, the Scavengers, who constantly harass and sabotage. But something is off, vaguely menacing about the technology and set-up of the film. We're told that humans had successfully fought off an alien invasion decades before but then why does humanity have to depart for Titan? How can humanity have barely survived and yet have advanced its technology to such an impressive degree?

The film makes the mistake of wanting to answer every single question it poses, at the expense of momentum and even good sense. This would have filled 90 minutes in a stellar fashion, and even shed a few of its bare-bones cast with little detriment. Instead we follow Harper from revelation to the next, trapped in the same convoluted rat maze. By the time we get to the ending, I was still left with an appreciation of some of the concepts of the film, but no lingering desire to see the film again.

On the plus side, this movie largely shows how to handle 'twists.' First off, we don't learn of the earth-shattering mystery in the last five minutes but relatively early on, early enough that we have time to process the consequence of the discovery, and see some of its more disturbing implications. 

Also in its favor is the beauty of the film. While nothing in the film seems all that innovative (the sterile malice of Harper's flight pod and the drones owes a lot to the Portal games), it is rendered with care and style. I also enjoyed the scoured wastelands of New York and Washington D.C., the monuments half buried in dust and sand,  cave entrances opening into ruined sky scrapers. I'm not exactly sure what kind of disaster buries the Empire State Building all the way up to the antenna without simply collapsing it, but it works on the elemental dreamscape level.

Also, Tom Cruise turns in another classic Tom Cruise performance. There is really only one mode for Cruise in these types of films, the tortured 'best whatever' protagonist who has his confidence shaken with an unexpected discovery, only to find himself in time for the last reel. It's the same role he's been playing since Top Gun and if you can simply enjoy this nutcase for the work he does, then he does add a certain forward momentum to a film simply by virtue of playing well a very familiar character. But that's a more subjective judgement.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Locked Down

It has been, to say the least, a busy week.

With the capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the events seem to be heading towards the inevitable long epilogue of legal proceedings and analysis. I haven't really had time to process all of this, but obviously, for someone with simultaneous interest in history and technology, there was a lot to ponder about this week.

I have been in shock for my city since hearing the news about the bombing on Monday. The images and suffering from the attack are hard to wrench from my mind. The deaths of a small boy and two young people so filled with promise and life is an enormous tragedy. The number of casualties  maimed, lives forever altered, is profoundly disturbing. This is terrorism. This was done to subvert our sense of meaningful lives and replace it with a crushing scene of senseless murder.

But in the more than 10 years since 9/11, one gets the sense things have changed in America. While the media quickly started chasing its own tail waiting for actual news, I was gratified that there wasn't an immediate call for additional 'security measures,' or new anti-terrorist laws. The system went forward with the tools it had and, as we know, that worked out reasonably well. The culprits were identified and dealt with. One can even hope that something approximating regular justice will be brought to the surviving Tsarnaev, a most welcome development.

Other aspects of the case seem more ambiguous.

Digilantes. Almost immediately after the bombings on Monday, various social media sites (Reddit, 4Chan, others) began to comb through the released footage and pictures of the moments before the bomb, looking for suspects. In retrospect, even if we do not consider the obvious examples of witch hunts, out-sourcing murder investigations to anonymous amateurs is mis-guided at best. None of the faces I saw on r/FindBostonBombers were those the FBI released. On the other hand, it was clear that the release of the FBI photos began to tightened the noose around the Tsarnaev brothers almost immediately.

One gets a renewed appreciation for having trained, responsible professionals conduct criminal investigations.

Lock Down. I'm less appreciative of the lock-down on Friday. That the Tsarnaevs posed a clear and present danger is not in doubt; they showed little hesitation in murdering an MIT police officer, or tossing bombs and improvised grenades at pursuers. Was this, though, such a unique threat that an entire city had to 'shelter in place?' And if this was such an obvious and transcendant crisis why did they lift the request in Watertown around 6pm before finding Dzhokhar? In what was was the threat of one individual bleeding out in the back of boat more than a gang of bank robbers tearing through the Northshore? I want to stress that I feel an enormous amount of pride for the police and investigators in this case but I do sincerely hope that these lock-down orders do not become standard practice for any suspects labeled terrorists. The bar needs to be very, very high for these types of actions.

I also think the same is true for loose talk of "enemy combatants." My opinion of Lindsey Graham, Senator of South Carolina, veers between bewilderment that he now represents the moderate wing of the Republican party and absolute contempt. Why do we listen to politicians with so little respect for our notion of justice? Why do we elect law-makers with so little belief in the rule of law?

Layers of Online presence. One last thing brought to my attention was this article in the New York, a short piece on the public life of the Tsarnaevs. I gave a the younger brother's Twitter the obligatory scan on Friday and was struck by the same sense Remmick captures so eloquently: the banal, disaffected life of a fairly typical young man. Given access to Twitter when I was 19, I can imagine writing down ideas identical in tone if not detail. So where do we look for the darkness that lead him to help his brother murder and maim so many? Looking back on this in a decade we might be surprised at our own assumptions that killers must reveal themselves on social media, that there is no deeper level to a person other than what they are able to confine to 140 characters.


Sunday, April 14, 2013

Aaron Swartz

Yesterday I took part in a protest over Aaron Swartz's unjust prosecution at the hands of US attorney Carmen Ortiz. I had followed this story this winter as the details emerged of an obvious case of prosecutorial over-reach. I hope that Swartz' death will ultimately provide the impetus to reexamine some of the unbalanced priorities in the Federal judicial system, particularly the amount discretion allowed prosecutors in deciding who in this society gets treated as criminals.




Aaron Swartz used the unsecured MIT networks to download a massive amount of legal documents from the online database JSTOR and make them available on peer to peer networks. JSTOR declined to press charges, but federal prosecutors Carmen Ortiza and Stephen Haymann ultimately levied the full weight of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act against him, charging him with crimes that could have resulted in a million dollar fine and up to 35 years in jail.


Aaron Swartz' 'crime' was paying for the right to download publicly available legal documents and then making those documents available for free on the internet. This is certainly illegal, in the sense that the JSTOR prohibits this use of its documents, but let's keep in mind, these documents were made free and available to the public anyway shortly before Swartz' death.

Swartz was making a point about the access that the public should have in a democracy. In any sane system, Swartz would have been given a slap on the wrist or community service and he could have continued his remarkably promising life. After all, during the 70s, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were involved in the phone phreaking subculture, using technology to get long-distance phone calls for free.  When caught, no crusading prosecutor hounded them into ruin. They were given community service and went on to create Apple. The same could be said of Mark Zuckerberg. If given the same treatment as Swartz, Zuckerberg would've crashed and burned in the first 10 minutes of the 'Social Network.'

On a larger point, the legal system of the United States no longer much resembles the procedural shows on TV. We don't live in a society where 'Law and Order,' trials happen routinely. Trials are the exception.


The basic problem is that over the past thirty years there has been a steady creep of laws governing what can be considered criminal activity on the web. The way the law currently reads, any violation of a website's Terms of Service agreement can be considered a felony. That means that fake Facebook profile you created for your cat is a felony. That means the 'disrespectful' comment you left on Washingtonpost.com article is a felony. The reason you never hear about people being brought up on charges on these trivial but very real crimes is that the government relies on prosecutorial discretion in who is gets arrested and charged.

But that faith in discretion is severely challenged when prosecutors like Carmen Ortiz and Stephen Haymann arbitrarily decide who will be brought up on charges, and what they will be charged with. The whole notion of innocent until proved guilty is rendered meaningless when the state coerce confessions with ridiculously severe penalties for the most trivial crime.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Sad news

I heard news that Ian Banks, author of the classic Culture series of science fiction novels and Wasp Factory, has announced he has late stage terminal cancer. Banks is a gifted author,  probably  single-handedly rescuing the moribund space opera genre in the late 90s. I give my best wishes to his family in this difficult time.