Monday, December 19, 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Rougue One takes place immediately before the first Star Wars movie (A New Hope.) We see a society that still has degenerated under imperial control, yet still has some bits of republic and Jedi remaining. The Republic has for all intents and purposes fallen, yet people still cling to the hope that it is still functioning. The Rebel Alliance is for the most part solidified, yet still has some splinter groups. In this backdrop, we have the valiant quest to uncover the Death Star plans to be able to uncover its weakness and save the galaxy.

The story is fairly exciting and feels like a decent middle ages war movie. However, it tries too hard to not be a "star wars" movie. The opening credits lacked a star wars crawl or anthem. (Even clone wars cartoons had this!) The music as a whole was just a little bit off. You could feel bits of Star Wars motifs, but they didn't seem right. Only the Imperial March and closing credits pieces felt right. This was the first score not made by John Williams, so that may have accounted for some of the differences. However, I think there may have been a further deliberate effort to be "outside the canon". The casting also felt like a blatant attempt to pander to ethnic groups, while still falling victim to stereotypes. (There is an Asian character! However, he is a blind monk who is an expert at martial arts.) There were also cameos from characters in the other movies. R2D2 and C3PO felt fine. Darth Vader felt a little off. Some of the human characters looked pretty good - in spite of being CGI assisted.

The movie ended moments before the start of Episode IV. There is never any doubt that they will succeed. (That would put a sever kink in the Star Wars storyline.) However, there are plenty of suspenseful moments. (Though it may be better if a few of the more manufactured ones were left out.) A new droid provides the best comic lines. The human leads have some complexity to them as they struggle between individual and group needs. However, there are few surefire action figures. We also get a large scale destruction inflicted by the death star. It would be nice to come up with another evil force to fight against, but I'll give this one a pass since the whole point is to still the plans for the weapon. I did like the scene where are heroes get to make peace with each other as they witness the end of the world. Their place in the Star Wars universe is now complete and we can go on to wait for the next rehash. Disney owns Star Wars and they know how to milk things for all they are worth, playing on nostalgia and blowing up lots of things. It can keep you occupied for a bit, but leaves you wanting in the end.

Debt: The First 5,000 Years

The history of "debt" predates the introduction of money. Even today, people will often say they are "indebted" to you due to a favor or other action performed. In Debt, David Graeber explores the history of debt and the origin of money. He presents a view different than the commonly described story. He wasn't able to find viable cases of money rises out of the "barter economy." Instead, he found it rising more out of the "human" economy. People would become indebted to others due to an accident, murder or taking of a spouse. The monetary instruments would come about as a means to satisfy these debts (and help but an end to the cycle of endless retribution.)

The evolution of standardized currency allowed greater exchanges with unknown people. (Now the trust was placed in the type of currency rather than the individual person.) Standardization also better facilitated warfare and plunder.

Slavery was also tied to debt and money. Slavery initially arose in a somewhat positive context. Rather than kill an enemy, they could be enslaved for a time period. Slaves could live relatively normal lives and in some cultures eventually obtain freedom. Slavery became common in societies that undertook large scale projects. Eventually, it fell out of favor in Europe of the middle ages. However, with the plantation demands of the new world, there was a need for increased labor. Slavery had to be "forced" back upon a society that had given up on it. To do this, a racist story had to be introduced to portray the slaves as less than human. As long as people bought this tale, slavery could exist. However, as people realized they had been duped (and the need for slave labor decreased), slavery fell out of favor. It was eventually abolished, yet we are still living the legacy of the marginalization of a group of people and the culture that grew out of it.

Wage labor also grew out of the needs of large scale industry. It bares many similarities to the slave system. The key difference is that people are free to move around and "move up." However, in practice, most people remain wage laborers for their lives. They may move from job to job, yet these jobs tend to be very similar to each other. They are required to do work to pay off their many debts (houses, credit cards, etc.) The many transactions performed also tend to be done in a more anonymous fashion. People rarely communicate directly with an individual holding their debt or producing their product. Debt has become a unifying instrument of an anonymous society.

The Crash Detectives: Investigating the World's Most Mysterious Air Disasters

Crash Detectives looks at some of the "unsolved" mysteries of aviation. One of the key points theories of the author is that hypoxia (lack of oxygen) is the cause of many airline incidents. The decreased oxygen makes people "stupid" as they lose cognitive ability. However, the rapid depressurization that leads to lack of oxygen requires quick thinking to resolve. And to make it even more challenging, pilots often think they are performing well, even when performing poorly in low-oxygen conditions. Thus, getting that oxygen mask on quickly can be the key to survival.

Crash Detectives looks at many aviation disasters, including a mix of ones that have been definitively "solved" and those that are still "open". The author tends to favor explanations of equipment failure or human error over terrorist activity. (However, press coverage can lead us to believe in "missile strikes" or hijackings even when there was no conclusive evidence.) The disappearance of MH370 is seen as a hypoxia event. The inexperienced pilot may have been at the controls and hit the wrong switch, thus cutting off communications. Attempts were made to fly to known airports, but they did not succeed. (The experienced pilot may have not been able to make it back from a bathroom break in a fully functional condition.)

In most crashes, there are significant efforts to determine the objective truth. However, human factors also come into play. In Air New Zealand 901, there was outright lying and misleading in an attempt by the airline to save face. Initially, they tried to pin a crash into an antarctic mountain as pilot error. However, the cause was actually a programming error that led the plane on a wrong course. For the de Havilland Comet, a lack of understanding of the stresses of actual flight led the company to initially blame pilots for what turned out to be design problems.

The aviation industry displays a positive example of learning from past problems to limit the chance of repeating them. Planes have become smarter and smarter with built in abilities to respond to "resolve" common problems. However, the human element is still needed to help resolve the "non-standard" problems that do occur.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016


Infomocracy is a political story set in the near future. The world has fractured into a number of "microstates" that elect their own governments. The leadership can range from entities that look like today's political parties to corporations (like Phillip Morris) and even "Hello Kitty". "Information" is the readily accessible source of all information anybody could need.

The many parties are also vying for a "supermajority" that has additional power. The existing leadership has also talked about building a super fast transportation system that goes deep into the core of the earth. Others, however, have environmental concerns about this.

The story primarily follows a political operative for an "up and coming" party as well as an information worker that is trying to ensure that the upcoming elections are carried out properly. Things are running relatively smoothly, until a giant calamity hits Japan immediately before the election. This leads to a postponement and an investigation. Some electoral fraud is discovered, coming from "information" itself. The calamity is also found to be caused primarily by the actions of man.

"In this book, the plot is primarily a device to hold together a look at a possible future. Information becomes so accessible and abundant, but people don't know what to make of it. They split up into many small "echo chambers", ruled by their common interests. (The government is of the European parliamentary style, fitting the author's roots.) However, in spite (or perhaps because) of the preponderance of technology, people are prone to their shenanigans to grow power at the expense of others.