Sunday, June 26, 2016

June is Firefly Season

The decade of the naughties (2000-2009) was a rich one for science fiction on the small and large screens. There was so much, in fact, that even a lifelong scifi fan such as myself couldn’t possibly watch it all – at least not while maintaining a life beyond the screen. TV offerings alone included Star Trek: Enterprise, Battlestar Galactica, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Caprica, Andromeda, Lost, several Stargate SG1 spinoffs, Tripping the Rift, Eureka, Sanctuary, and Torchwood, among many others. Viewers had to pick and choose, and, if critics are to be believed, they didn’t always choose wisely. They kept alive mediocre entries while leaving well-written shows in the lurch. I was one of those viewers, and therefore through my inattention bear some small part of the blame for the cancellation of Joss Whedon’s critically acclaimed Firefly, which in 2002 lasted a mere 14 episodes including three unaired in the original run. A larger part of the blame belongs to Fox, which in fairness was also responsible for financing the show in the first place. Hot off his success with Buffy and Angel, Whedon was given a sizable budget to bring his offbeat science fiction vision to life.

Before video players became de rigueur home accessories, the philosophy of evening TV show producers was that each episode of a show should be stand-alone. A few nighttime soap operas were exceptions, but by and large the producers demanded this strategy. This is why it doesn’t matter in what order you watch Star Trek: The Original Series, Charlie’s Angels, or Columbo. There is no continuous story arc that develops from one episode to the next. The idea was that any new viewer who stumbled on the show wouldn’t be confused by arriving in the middle of a complex story he or she didn’t understand; winning over new viewers thereby would be easier. The artistic advantage of a multi-episode story arc, on the other hand, is that it allows scriptwriters to develop richer plots, themes, and characters; a commercial upside (long exploited by soap operas) is that regular viewers are enticed back to find out what happens. Until the 1990s the prospect of capturing new viewers outweighed the advantages of teasing old ones. In the 1990s, however, commercial considerations tilted toward continuous story arcs as technology made it easier for new viewers to catch up on previously aired episodes both online and offline. The order in which one watches episodes of a show made after 2000 almost always matters. So, it didn’t help that Fox chose to air Firefly out of sequence.

The Fox suits were not simply crazy. They reasoned (with some justice) that an audience had to be hooked with the first few shows or the ratings were doomed. Consequently, instead of beginning with the lengthy two-episode pilot that explains the setting and introduces us to the nine major characters, the first show that aired was an action/adventure episode involving a train heist. There are indeed more thrills and chills in the train job episode, but a lot of viewers must have asked themselves, “Who are these people and why should I care?” If those viewers returned the following week, they also must have wondered about the disjointed timeline. Maybe airing the pilot first would have helped. Maybe it wouldn’t. In any event a large enough audience to prevent cancellation never did show up, leading to Joss Whedon’s remark, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the road less traveled by and they CANCELLED MY FRIKKIN' SHOW. I totally shoulda took the road that had all those people on it.” Firefly’s audience might have been modest but it was enthusiastic – enthusiastic enough for Whedon to tie up the loose ends of the TV series with the sequel big screen movie Serenity and to make money doing it.

A couple weeks ago I decided it was long past time to see what the fuss was about. Firefly including the unaired episodes is available on DVD as is the movie Serenity. Amazon delivered both to me. OK, I’m impressed.

The setting for Firefly is a distant solar system where a substantial number of planets and moons have been terraformed. The humans who settled there from earth have a culture that is mostly an amalgam of American and Chinese. The core worlds of the system are rich, advanced, organized (some might say over-organized), and civilized. The outer worlds and moons are frontier areas that look much like the 19th century American West, albeit with anachronistic tech. In the outer worlds the rule of law is tenuous where it exists at all, though officially (despite a failed bid for independence) they are part of the Alliance that governs the whole system. There are no alien races. This a 100% human future although a crazed and terrifying faction of spacefaring humans called Reavers show off only their most horrid traits. The character Zoe explains the Reavers to a passenger from a core world: "If they take the ship, they'll rape us to death, eat our flesh, and sew our skins into their clothing. And, if we're very, very lucky, they'll do it in that order."

The crew of the Firefly-class space freighter Serenity are not the heroes of Star Trek or Star Wars. They are less high-minded folk and their ambitions are much smaller. While they hope to get rich they don’t expect it. They are satisfied to live their lives aboard the ship so long as it is in a manner independent of overweening outside authority. They work together but do so by choice: any one of them could leave at any port if he or she wishes. The captain/owner and crew take honest freight jobs but are just as likely to smuggle or even stage robberies. Yet, they have standards. They are no Robin Hoods – they rob to enrich themselves – but, like less competent versions of Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat, they target those who can afford the loss. There is a superb cast (Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Adam Baldwin, Jewel Staite, Sean Maher, Ron Glass, Summer Glau) for nine characters with nine distinct personalities and motivations. The wild card is the passenger River (Summer Glau): Alliance doctors have tampered with her mind in some secret and nefarious way.

I was hooked midway through the pilot. The series ends with all the major questions unanswered, so seeing the follow-up movie Serenity (2005) was a necessity. Some of the reviews of Serenity suggest that watching Firefly isn’t a precondition for seeing the movie. Don’t believe them. Oh, the film contains enough exposition to make sense without exposure to the series, but a newbie will miss all the subtext: for example, that Captain Mal Reynolds is uncharacteristically harsh and hardnosed because Inara is not on the ship. Watch Firefly first. But then, definitely see the movie.

There is an anarchic streak in the politics of much scifi, and it is present here. Also commonplace within the genre is an expressed worry that the human impulse to reject authority might die out. Aldous Huxley warned in Brave New World Revisited (1958) that as propaganda becomes more nuanced, pervasive, and scientific (and unrecognized by the targets of it), “most men and women will grow up to love their servitude and will never dream of revolution…Perhaps the forces that now menace freedom are too strong to be resisted for very long. It is still our duty to do whatever we can to resist them.” The Alliance political elite in the Firefly/Serenity universe behave just as Huxley would expect. For the populus’ own good they plan not only to run citizens’ lives in ever more minute detail but to alter the very natures of the governed to make them better people, even if achieving this beneficent end requires casualties in the meantime. The Serenity crew, very much against their unheroic inclinations, find themselves drawn into a seemingly futile resistance to the Alliance’s plans when they discover something about the Reavers.

Thumbs Up both to series and film.

Serenity (2005) trailer

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Illiberal Thoughts

Among the many delectable tidbits in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is the Babel fish, which is placed not in a frying pan but one’s own ear. There it modulates brain waves and consequently makes it possible for its host to comprehend any language. It thereby promotes understanding among people and peoples with dire results: “Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.”

Indeed. More often than not problems between people arise not because we fail to understand each other, but because we understand all too well and don’t like what we hear. Incivility in political discourse is much in the news these days – and of course especially is a fault of the other side, whatever side that may be. Rampant incivility is far from just an American issue. It is present in all the liberal democracies, but in the midst of a particularly wonky presidential election it is harder to avoid here than usual.

Politics are not really more divisive than in the past. During my teen years there were anti-war riots, a major war, race riots, political assassinations, police riots, and outright insurrectionists such as the SLA and Weatherman. (See Divided They Stand by British author David English for a very good contemporary account of the 1968 election.) Matters today are mild by comparison. Yet, there was more fraternization across lines (which often were drawn on the same dinner table) at the time and no running for safe spaces. The fraternization went beyond casual friendships. With a persistence of habit I picked up more than 40 years ago, of the five serious romantic relationships in my life not one has been with anyone who remotely agrees with my first principles or practical political views. I often affectionately addressed my companion in the ‘80s as (jokingly but accurately) My Favorite Marxist. [I’ve belonged for decades to a third party that doesn’t win major elections, I probably should mention, though I’ll leave the propagandizing (in the literal sense) for it to others.]

But while fundamental divisions may be no greater, there has been a shift in verbal tone over the decades. The supposedly fiercely reactionary utterings of Spiro Agnew (e.g. “nattering nabobs of negativism,” “Pablum for permissivists,” “pusillanimous pussyfooters”) sound quaint today. In 1970 people very well might have called their opponents insane, stupid, criminal, and treasonous, but mostly sotto voce or just within their own circle of like-minded folk. Face-to-face with opponents they were more reserved.

What has changed in the past two decades is the virtual Babel fish, otherwise known as the internet. Nowadays we broadcast defamations to everyone across social media. Two facebook political posts on my wall yesterday posed as open letters, one beginning “Dear gun nuts” and the other “Dear leftist loons.” These clearly were not intended for those they supposedly addressed. Calling anyone a nut or a loon at the outset is not a way to get that person to listen, much less change his or her mind. You don’t win over potential allies by kicking them in the face. But if a post is intended only for those who already agree, what’s the point?

I suppose the point is that such posts are emotionally satisfying to those who make them. That is legitimate in its own way. Yet it is well to remember that a political philosophy radically different from one’s own still can be rational and coherent if it starts from an alternate set of first principles regarding the nature of man (in the old-fashioned sense of the word – the nuances of gender-neutral synonyms are slightly askew). The person who holds such an alternate philosophy isn’t necessarily stupid or evil. It seems silly to have to state that, but I feel it bears stating.

Besides, most Americans do not hold views as radically different from each other as they like to imagine. A book worth reading for those interested in the state of liberal democracy and how we got here is Liberalism: The Life of an Idea by Edmund Fawcett. Fawcett uses the word “liberal” in the broad historical sense rather than in the narrow one of 21st century American common political parlance. He counts Calvin Coolidge, FDR, Pat Buchanan, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama as liberals in this sense – both free marketeer Margaret Thatcher and social democrat Willy Brandt too. They all believe(d) in individual rights including property rights and democratic institutions. (Neither an autocracy that effectively protects individual rights nor a democracy with unrestrained authority counts as liberal – you need both parts.) The differences among liberals are at the margins, which seem wide to those inside but narrow to those outside. Just what is the proper balance of rights and governance? To what extent are rights negative (“leave me alone”) and to what, if any, positive (entitlements)? As a history of an idea, the book focusses primarily on the philosophers and social scientists who molded liberal thought from the 18th century to present (e.g. Mill, Popper, Keynes, Friedman, Rawls, et al.) rather than politicians. Everyone’s personal views leak into their analyses, intentionally or otherwise, and Fawcett’s come through as being on the center-left. He doesn’t let his own position narrow his vision though; he sees the full liberal spectrum as part of the same tradition.

Fawcett doesn’t speculate on the future, but notes that the widespread smugness among liberals at the end of the Cold War (remember “the end of history”?) about the inevitable success of their ideas has dissipated. Powerful illiberal states coexist with liberal ones and it’s anybody’s guess if that ever will change or, if so, in what direction. So too is whether different shades of liberals, with their newfound understanding of their differences, can learn to stand each other.

The One on the Right Was on the Left (1967)

Sunday, June 12, 2016


Very little could have kept me away from a local roller derby double header this weekend except for the sort of thing that did. I attended a splashy wedding and reception at the Minerals Resort in Vernon NJ. Recent prior weddings I attended included ceremonies in a private home living room, a Nevada theme motel, and a parking lot outside a roller derby rink, so a more traditional blowout was a change of pace. I do have to give the young bride credit for nontraditional music: Star Wars, with the Darth Vader March in place of the usual Bridal March. Apparently she is an Empire girl.

The couple are bucking two long-term trends regarding marriage and age. The marriage rate is lower than it ever has been and, for those who do marry at all, the median age of first marriage (29 for men, 27 for women) is higher than it ever has been. There are other notable demographic trends, too. For example, until the 21st century, women with college degrees were the least likely to marry. Now they are the most likely, but not because the marriage rate for this group has gone up. Rather, the rate for everybody else has collapsed. Also, the college-educated tend overwhelmingly to marry the college-educated; since these folks have higher incomes on average than the rest of the population, this tendency perpetuates and exaggerates class differences. The divorce rate, however, is back down to where it was in the late 1960s (see Washington Post chart), apparently because chancier couples are less likely nowadays to wed in the first place.

One factor in this decline of marriage might be that more men are poor prospects than once was true. While the upper 20% of men do very well indeed and still dominate corporate boards and legislatures, this is not the typical male experience. The other 80% are very far from the corporate board office. Median male wages peaked in 1973 in real terms. Since 1980 according to Time, median male wages are down 20%. The male labor participation rate is at an all-time low. The current ratio of employed men to employed women is 91:100. Men also are lagging academically: they make up barely more than a third of this year’s college graduates. At least on practical considerations, staying single is a better bet for many if not most women.

We don’t make our personal (in particular, connubial) decisions based on statistical considerations, however – at least not consciously. We make them one-on-one for (usually) romantic reasons. We are individuals, not medians. Besides, whether the odds are in our favor or not, a lot of us will always beat them.

As for the couple who wed in Vernon, they have no need to concern themselves with odds. Plainly the force is strong with them.

Vader’s tune

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

By George, She’s Got It

The 2009-2010 TV series Dollhouse (reviewed in my May 14 blog), starring the fetching and throaty-voiced Eliza Dushku, prompted me in the way that one thing leads to another to look up two other items.

One was literary. Not until the next-to-last DVD in the Dollhouse pack spun in my player did “Rossum Corporation,” the company that runs the Dollhouse in the TV series, ring a bell with me. The bell was R.U.R (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Karel Capek, a reference that, as a self-styled sci-fi fan, I should have caught much sooner. The 1920 Czech play is famously whence the word “robot” entered popular culture. (The word was invented by Karel and his brother in an earlier and obscurer short story.) It’s a play I’d seen referenced all my life but somehow never got around to reading. So, last week I decided it was long past time to rectify that.

While in some ways (notably gender interactions) R.U.R. is very much of its time, the play prefigures every subsequent sci-fi trope involving robots. It raises questions about artificial intelligence that we still ask today. Capek’s version of a robot, it should be noted, is not a clanking metal automaton. It is a synthetic creation that looks human: rather like an advanced Cylon of the 2004-2009 Battlestar Galactica series. However, in the original form that it appears in the play (which has a ten-year timeline), a robot most definitely is not human. It has intelligence in the same way that a modern computer does, which is to say that it can solve complex problems, perform complex tasks, and communicate with its user, but it has no real sense of its own identity. It has no goals other than what its user gives it and no fear of its own death: robots that are damaged or that malfunction recommend to the user that they be returned to the stamping mill. They are perfect workers. All the robots are produced by a secret industrial process on an isolated island owned by Rossum.

The Rossum officers and scientists have various goals, but none is evil. Harry Domin, the corporate director, reveals his hopes to create a world of plenty in which humans are freed from toil: “There will be no more laborers. No more secretaries. No one will have to mine coal or slave over someone else’s machines. No longer will man need to destroy his soul doing work that he hates.”

The robots prove to be a huge commercial success, used in manufacturing, accounting, and war. Trouble arises when a visitor named Helena Glory comes to the island representing a do-gooder organization attempting to promote robot rights. She learns that the robots have no concept of what she is talking about. In an odd twist she marries Harry Domin but – because she thinks it is the right thing to do – she works with one of Rossum’s engineers to upgrade the robots to include self-awareness and a sense of their own interests so that rights do matter to them. The engineer cooperates and succeeds partly to indulge her and partly just for the scientific challenge. Any reader (or viewer) of more recent sci-fi knows where this is heading: the robot uprising. Since humans already employ robots in war, there is a ready-made robot army.

Upshot: Thumbs up, but – as with any older sci-fi – make allowances for the ways R.U.R. doesn’t transcend its era.

** ** ** **

The second prompt was to an earlier Dushku vehicle. In 2003 Eliza turned down Faith, a proposed spinoff of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in favor of a new Fox series Tru Calling. Though cancelled six episodes into the second season, Tru Calling currently is available on DVD for any interested binge-watcher.

I almost can hear the pitch the show’s originators must have made to Fox: “The Sixth Sense meets Groundhog Day.” Eliza plays Tru Davies, a med student and nightshift morgue attendant with a gift. Every now and then a corpse will ask for her help at which point she wakes up at the beginning of that same day. Sometimes she can alter events on the relived day enough to prevent the death. Whether she experiences actual time travel or just has some psychic ability to foresee a possible day in her sleep is not explained.

Some TV series start out strong and fade (e.g. Lost and Heroes) while others start out shaky but improve (Star Trek Next Generation and Parks and Recreation). Tru Calling is one of the latter. Though watchable from the beginning thanks to Eliza Dushku, Zach Galifianakis, and Shawn Reaves, the first half of Season One is formulaic and no more than serviceably entertaining. It gets better. The show doesn’t really hit its stride until Tru’s nemesis Jack (Jason Priestley) shows up in episode 14. He is a Dark Side version of herself. He also relives days, but whereas Tru tries to save lives Jack believes fate should not be thwarted – which is to say he wants to ensure the same victims die on the relived day, too. His philosophy is that there always are unintended consequences to changing fate.

By this point in the series, however, audiences had drifted away. They didn’t return in numbers to prevent cancellation.

Upshot: Thumbs up, but patience is required with the early episodes. These cannot just be skipped, however, since they provide important information about Tru and her family.

At present Eliza Dushku has a recurring (but not starring) role on Banshee, a Cinemax series I’ve never seen but which is well regarded by critics. A future binge-watch might be in the making.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

June 4 Bout

The NJRD (New Jersey Roller Derby) on its home track in Morristown racked up a victory last night against Suburbia Roller Derby, the very strong visiting team from Westchester. Tough defenses on both sides caused both teams generally to pursue “hit it and quit it” tactics whereby the lead jammer would pick up a few points and then call off the jam before the opposing jammer (seldom far behind) could catch up. NJRD slowly built an early 16-point lead but a power jam by Suburbia #92 Partygirl Accelerator closed the gap to a negligible 65-61. Multiple grand slams by NJRDs #44 Maulin’ Rouge soon recovered a 20 point lead. Both teams fielded several good jammers, but #33 Force Majeur did exceptional work for Suburbia despite solid opposition including one very hard takedown by #88 Bitty Boom Boom. At halftime the score stood at 114-91, far from a secure lead in derby. In the first ten minutes of the second half, a series of effective jams by Maulin Rouge, Sukkubus Strike, and Chase Windu built the lead to 157-98, but Suburbia never allowed the spread to widen further. In the final jam Maulin Rouge broke out as lead jammer and ran out the clock before calling the jam. Final score: 236 – 194 in favor of NJRD.

MVPs: #33 Force Majeur (jammer) and #1921 Krazy Legz Nikki (blocker) for Suburbia; #5 Chase Windu (jammer) and #88 Bitty Boom Boom (blocker) for NJRD.


The second match of the evening was an intraleague bout of the NJRD Junior Division: . Divided into well matched White and Blue teams, they demonstrated firm skills on skates. Other obligations prevented me from staying through this bout, but I remained long enough to see some fancy footwork by #21 Breezy, effective jams by #666 Little Red Devil and #6 Luna Chick, and solid blocking by #11 Scarey Carey. Whatever the final outcome may have been, I look forward to seeing them on the track again – in the short term in the current division and in the long term on the adult team.     

Thursday, June 2, 2016

All That Glitters

I’m not by nature an early adopter of technologies, fashions, products, or processes. I’m seldom at the very back of the line, but seldom in front either. I didn’t have a personal computer until the early 1990s, 15 years after they became available. I connected to the Web somewhat on the early side for general users: 1994, which is why I still have a Prodigy address (Prodigy was absorbed by Yahoo in 2001). This was for business though – not because it was the trendy thing.  I had no cable or satellite TV connection until 1998 and no cell phone until 2000. There are some advantages to this. The format wars are usually over by the time I buy a product, so I didn’t find myself with a Beta VCR or an HD DVD player. The disadvantage is that pretty much everything I own is already obsolescent. A parallel mix of positives and negatives turn up in my work and investments, which also tend to exclude the latest things. In consequence, the direction of my financial fortunes has closely tracked that of the S&P 500 – neither beating the market nor lagging it.

While this habit sometimes saves me from bad mistakes, it also causes me to miss golden opportunities. One of the latter was the electronic currency Bitcoin. The first purchase to use Bitcoin was 10,000 Bitcoins for a $25 pizza in 2010, which established a value of US $0.0025 per coin. Today a coin trades at $529.20. Not a bad appreciation. One reason I long ignored the quasi-currency even though it has been in the news for years is that I didn’t really understand it – always a good reason to be cautious. So, latish in the day I’ve read up on it. In atavistic fashion I did so in a paper and ink book rather than online: Digital Gold by Nathaniel Popper. I still don’t pretend to understand the algorithms and codes underlying Bitcoin, but at least I have some idea what they do.

The notion of a fully digital currency has been around for more than half a century. The problem always has been a vulnerability to hacking. After all, what computers do best is copy, manipulate, and move around data. If your money is nothing but data – well, you see the problem. In 2008 a workaround for this weakness was described in a white paper by Satoshi Nakamoto, a pseudonym. The real identity of Satoshi Nakamoto never has been established definitively, though he is probably a Californian. In that same year, in order to put the white paper ideas into practice Neal Kin, Vladimir Oksman, and Charles Bry filed for an encryption patent and registered the site A number of other enthusiasts contributed to the project. The originators were not primarily motivated by riches; most were libertarian ideologues who wanted to create a secure private unregulated cryptocurrency independent of central banks that could be used online as anonymously as physical cash or gold can be used in the real world – unlike standard online banking and credit which leave clear records open to government supervision and taxation. Later users and developers (including the Winklevoss twins of Facebook fame) liked the anonymity, utility, and investment potential without concern about ideology.

What gives a Bitcoin value? After all it is not backed by anything. Ever since the end of the gold standard, the same question can be asked of any government sponsored fiat currency including the US dollar. In the case of the dollar, the force of law is the big factor; by law dollars are legal tender for all debts and taxes. In the case of Bitcoin the value lies in the secure accounting system. For the details of how this works, I refer the reader to Popper’s book. Suffice to say that individual coin “wallets” are anonymous and that the blockchain of what coins are in what wallet is distributed among the computers of all the users. Any glitchy (or malevolently inspired) disagreements among computers are resolved by majority computer rule. There is no central data center to hack as there is in a bank: there are millions, thereby creating a robust and secure trading system. Users of Bitcoin are able to create coins through mining (arbitrary intensive computer processing), which provides an incentive for new users to sign up, but there is a hard cap of 21,000,000 coins. Once this number is reached no more may be mined, which eases concern about future runaway inflation. Despite a few well-publicized problems with Bitcoin exchanges (online Bitcoin trading places that by their central nature are more at risk of hacks), the fundamental system works well. Direct trading between individuals – one wallet to another – is well-nigh incorruptible. There is no central registry of owners of wallets. Each wallet is identified only by two 64 character codes. Users of coins value them for anonymity and security.

There are limits to anonymity, of course. If you buy something online with Bitcoins the product still has to be delivered somewhere. This is what brought down the infamous Silk Road, a site which sold illegal drugs for Bitcoins. You can’t deliver drugs to a digital wallet; they are delivered to a physical address, which was all the authorities needed.

Official reaction to the cryptocurrency has been guarded. Some countries simply ban it, though bans are hard to enforce. Ben Bernanke, past head of the Federal Reserve, has spoken positively of it. The most common reaction by law enforcement and regulatory bodies has been to try to subject it (mostly through the exchanges) to the same regulation as the banks and financial industries. If this succeeds it may make Bitcoin more mainstream but would undermine the purpose of the founders.

Other than regretting having missed out on an investment that increased in value by a factor of more than 200,000, I’m not really sold on Bitcoin or its competing cryptocurrencies at current prices. The value of digital gold might not have a ceiling, but there is no floor beneath it either. Besides, it still troubles me somehow that Bitcoins don’t consist of anything I can hold in my hand. Yes, fiat currency is mostly digital in practice too, but in principle you can hold it as pieces of paper. I suppose that means I’m a dinosaur. Ultimately, I still prefer physical gold (atomic number 79), not that I own any of that at present either. But I’m beginning to think I should.

The Black Keys – Gold on the Ceiling