Month: July 2016

Star Trek Beyond: Teambuilding Exercise

Star Trek Beyond - Paramount

Star Trek Beyond – Paramount

Watched Star Trek Beyond at the local theater minus 3D or extended screens. Entertaining and a bit of a throwback to a typical TOS episode: contrived situation, bad science, attempts to make a social point, plenty of interpersonal character-building.

The first scenes present a tired Captain Kirk after a few years of their “five-year mission,” playing diplomat to bring a symbolic gift to a paranoid species who see it only as a trap. Kirk wonders what it’s all for, then the ship picks up a distress call and rescues a survivor who claims her people have crashed on a planet inside a nearly-impenetrable nebula (your usual SF-movie-cliche dense asteroid belt with constant collisions, which wouldn’t last a hundred years in that form.)

Starbase Yorktown from Star Trek Beyond - Paramount

Starbase Yorktown from Star Trek Beyond – Paramount

The ship returns to the new Starbase Yorktown, an asteroid-scale glass bauble threaded across with bridges lined with skyscrapers projecting at all angles — artificial gravity permits this rather impractical and fragile city-station, which is inhabited by a multicultural, multispecies cross-section of the Federation. It is decided that the Enterprise will undertake the rescue mission since they have the most advanced equipment for penetrating the nebula. Kirk discusses his ennui and future career path with Commodore Paris (played by the excellent Shohreh Aghdashloo, recently of The Expanse), who advises him that some dissatisfaction with ship life is normal for a captain and they can discuss his transfer to a desk job as Rear Admiral after the rescue mission. Meanwhile, Spock is considering leaving Starfleet to take up responsibilities on New Vulcan now that Old Spock has died, and his lack of commitment has created a rift between him and Uhura. The theme — which will be later reinforced by the villain Krall’s motivation — is being stuck with the job you have while feeling drawn to another responsibility you think you want to pursue.

After the Enterprise penetrates the nebula and approaches the planet, they are attacked by swarms of metallic shard-ships that penetrate the shields* and embed themselves in the hull. The ship is disabled and the saucer section is separated and crashes, while most of the crew have escaped in pods which land in the same area.

Scottie meets a major new character, the alien Jaylah, whose alien-ness is signalled by white makeup and stripes on an otherwise completely human face. She has escaped from Krall’s prison camp where spacefarers captured by Krull are held to labor and keep him alive — he feeds on them for eternal life. Coincidentally (!) she lives in the crashed USS Franklin, which she has been gradually repairing — her dream is to escape the planet, and she wants Scottie to help her fix the Franklin so she can.

[spoilers follow…]

Conventional escape plot follows. The Franklin happens to have a motorcycle aboard which Kirk uses to conduct a distraction raid on the camp while the others spring the prisoners. Krall has obtained the McGuffin — the ancient artifact Kirk had tried to give the paranoid species in the first scene, which turns out to be the key to an advanced nanoweapon Krall intends to use to destroy Starbase Yorktown. Krall leaves to attack Starbase Yorktown with his swarm-ships and our heroes follow in the restored Franklin.

Naturally there’s lots of hand-to-hand combat and inaccurate phaser fire, chases, and humor. Kaylah is a fresh new character and had some good lines at the expense of Federation culture, which she’s studied in the Franklin’s data stores.

Our heroes discover the swarm ships are controlled by an FM radio signal, and start jamming it with FM broadcast of the same Beastie Boys song the young Kirk played when he had “borrowed” and crashed a Corvette in reboot movie #1. The swarm ships crash into each other and burn. The idea that an advanced alien mining system would be controlled by noise-sensitive FM radio easily disrupted by another signal is pretty unlikely, after we were already asked to believe no Federation vessel could deal with a swarm of projectiles, so we have to give the science advising on the script a big FAIL.

Krall, it turns out, was actually the captain of the Franklin when it crash-landed over a hundred years earlier, and he discovered an alien technology that allowed him to extend his life at the expense of others. His motivation? As an ex-soldier from the pre-Federation era when Earth was at war, he felt abandoned and wanted to return war and chaos to the overly-pacifist Federation. This is intended to parallel Kirk and Spock’s search for meaning — but doesn’t make any sense. He claims he was abandoned by the Federation, but he’s well aware the nebula is impenetrable and the Federation doesn’t even know what happened to the Franklin. It is presumed his mind has been warped by the alien life-extending technology, but it’s barely touched on in hopes you won’t notice it’s implausible.

When the same motorcycle model as Kirk’s dad used was found on the Franklin, I was sure the writers were going to contrive some explanation that explained that it was in fact George Kirk’s. Good thing they realized this was a step too far in symbolic coincidences, but the writers still worked in some unconvincing thematic parallels. That the motorcycle and ship still worked over a hundred years after a crash landing also pushed credibility.

Meanwhile, our theme is served because both Kirk and Spock recognize that their team is worth sticking with and that they’re doing valuable work right where they are, on a team of friends who can count on each other in crisis. This is a bit formulaic — be happy with what you have! I can see the motivational poster now.

So while I enjoyed the movie, it was like an episode of ToS – not bad, try again. A bit more substance to the story — and a more credible bad guy — would have helped a lot. Hire real writers, a military science advisor, and have Pegg add humor as needed; this outing is just adequate.

This is another recent big-bucks production showing the increasing influence of overseas markets, notably China, on story depth. Director Justin Lin comes off the successful Fast and Furious franchise. These films featured a thin layer of lowest-common-denominator character development over hours of car chases and macho posturing, so crossed language and cultural barriers easily as popcorn cinema. As Lin explains in a Verge interview:

“Before I said yes, I had to really understand what we were going to do, even on a thematic level. I thought, okay, it’s going to be 50 years [since the show started]. It would be great if we can somehow come up with a journey for these characters to deconstruct Trek, to deconstruct a lot of the ideals of the Federation. By doing that, maybe by the end, we can reaffirm why there is so much passion and so much love for this franchise.”

“It was like, ‘Let’s ask some questions that haven’t been asked before,'” explains Pegg, particularly when it came to the universe’s United Federation of Planets — perhaps the biggest symbol of the show’s utopian ideals. “It felt good to question whether they weren’t just a version of the Borg in a way. Whether they were just a force of assimilation, not a force of collectivism and goodness.”

For Lin, deconstructing Star Trek started with an idea that he admits was rather literal: taking the Enterprise apart piece by piece in one of the film’s opening set pieces. “Simon was like, ‘You can’t destroy the Enterprise and you can’t do it in the end of the first act. It has to be the end of the movie!'” Lin laughs. “That was our first meeting. We walked out and I think all of us were like, ‘I don’t want to work on this movie. What’s going on?'”

“We call it The Longest Day,” Pegg smiles. “We were in this room at the SoHo Hotel, just talking for 16 hours and we didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. But it was a great way to establish that all of us really wanted to make the best film we could.”

But as the team started writing the script — Pegg was still shooting Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, so the trio would sometimes be working in different time zones as the calendar raced toward production — they found themselves looking to political events, where the first signs of the Brexit movement and the start of the US presidential race resonated with the story they wanted to tell. “It was all bubbling up then, with the Scottish referendum and various acts of separatism around the world,” Pegg explains. “Trump talking about building a wall between here and Mexico. This sort of rampant xenophobia that seemed to be reestablishing itself.”

In the finished film those concepts manifest in the form of Idris Elba’s Krall. A former soldier intent on stopping the Federation’s spread across the galaxy, Krall comes across ideologically as the anti-Roddenberry. He preaches isolationism where the Federation wants to expand and include all; he rejects peace and sees solutions only in military strength. It’s not subtle allegory, but it works, and as the crew of the Enterprise recover, they learn the only way they will be able to defeat Krall is to come together and work as a whole — a literal depiction of Roddenberry’s multicultural future.

“We liked the idea of old god versus new,” says Pegg. “Of narrow-minded thinking, or fear of collectivism, versus the Federation model, which is to embrace and expand in a non-aggressive way. That seemed like the obvious thing to do for this 50th anniversary iteration of the story.” It turns the film into a thematic proof, making the case for the original show’s vision over the course of its running time.

Star Trek Beyond is an entry in a successful series of blockbuster movies, so of course everything eventually resolves to allow sequels to keep coming down the line. (In fact, Paramount’s already green-lit the next installment.) But by creating a movie that feels more like an episode of the original show, with its five-year mission and themes intact, Lin and his writers have also performed a sort of soft reboot. And to Pegg, the closer it feels to the television series, the better.

“When we spoke about [writing Beyond], it was, ‘Let’s make it as if an episode of the original series had been injected with gamma radiation,'” he says. “The crew happen upon a mysterious planet. They’re on the surface. They meet an adversary. They learn a lesson. It’s what the original series episodes were constituted by, but with the trappings of a gigantic, summer blockbuster. Which is what the movies always were, really.”

From this interview we see that the script was rushed and the story thrown together by writers unfamiliar with science fiction and interested in simplifying the message to fit it back into the TV format of TOS. Like Tomorrowland, the movie fails to explore its subtler thematic implications because most screen time goes to hand-to-hand fighting, chases, motorcycle stunts, and high-school-level relationship interaction. The new Spock has Uhura as a love interest apparently for years when they break up because he is thinking of heading back to New Vulcan. New Spock is often emotionally out-of-control, a plot ploy that is only valuable if rarely used.

So — enjoyable light entertainment, but giving up on the opportunity to explore larger issues seen in even TOS plots, and even more in later DS9 and TNG episodes.

* – What exactly are shields good for if they can’t stop impacting objects? Has the Federation and its many contributing civilizations never encountered swarming weapons before?

Trailer #1:

More on pop culture:

“Tomorrowland”: Tragic Misfire
Weaponized AI: My Experience in AI
Fear is the Mindkiller
The Justice is Too Damn High! – Gawker, the High Cost of Litigation, and The Weapon Shops of Isher
Kirkus Reviews “Shrivers: The Substrate Wars 3”

Trump World: Looking Backward

Cover: A Canticle for Leibowitz

Cover: A Canticle for Leibowitz

The children ask how we got here, and I try to explain, though so much has changed that my stories only lead to more questions — “What’s a news network?”, “How did people live without augments?”

We had a Republic, once, and it was wildly successful. That attracted more people from all over the world seeking freedom and work. It was freedom that let new industries grow unchecked by jealous rivals, but over time citizens sought shelter from the rigors of a free market and elected more regulation-prone politicians who tried to soften all the hard edges. Finally we reached a time so advanced that children were supposed to grow up without any challenges, to be deemed special and successful without any accomplishments, and the resulting adults became childlike in wanting to silence any voices that disagreed with them.

The world as a whole had benefitted from the opening of closed Communist countries and free trade, with the costs of transport and communication declining rapidly. The boom in emerging economies lifted billions of people out of grinding poverty, the greatest improvement in world living standards the world had ever seen, and increasing wealth and freedom defused the Malthusian fears of overpopulation and resource depletion of the previous decades. But the competition destroyed the protected world of US unskilled workers, who had gotten used to living well after WWII destroyed most of the manufacturing plants of Europe and Asia.

“The Sound of Silence” was a famous Simon and Garfunkel song, written in the 1960s to protest the conformity of an earlier era — the 1950s — when broad consensus and the limited number of mass media options stifled outlier opinions. Capitalism broke that mold, when “outrageous” ideas and lifestyles could be marketed and make money. Selling rebellion was big business.

The Internet seemed to end the constraints on opinion, but a new sound of silence appeared when its two-way nature allowed crowds to join together to silence expression of ideas they found threatening. People lost their jobs because of one errant tweet, and politicians found it useful to stoke the flames of envy and resentment to gain votes. A new victim cult appeared, seeing racism and sexism in every element of US life, and command of the cult’s lexicon enabled entry to academic and government positions.

The left-behind grew angry, and simmered in disability payments and painkilling drugs while they saw their children discriminated against by the gateway institutions built by their forebears. They had supported the growth of the Federal government through costly wars and the building of a social safety net, only to be left out and denigrated by their ruling class. Federal agencies were taken over by progressives and affirmative-action hires, and wasted time and resources shuffling reports and holding grand meetings to write about working toward solving problems that barely existed while neglecting their core functions. The levels of incompetence tolerated grew and grew, until civil service employees could hold their jobs after being absent for years or being discovered spending most of their time viewing Internet porn. Major new government programs and projects failed and billions of dollars were wasted without consequence, those responsible for the failures being promoted to further damage the private economy by ruling from Washington.

The new media were staffed by college graduates who had been subjected to progressive indoctrination, and rarely questioned what government sources told them. And how could they, since time had been sped up and in the Internet age, stopping to investigate original sources that might disagree would only bury their story in tomorrow’s old news?

Trump appeared after two decades of Washington-centered rule by two factions of the same technocratic party. He gained the support of the dispossessed by voicing their resentments, long suppressed by the bien pensant. His supporters were so tired of being told their feelings were incorrect and didn’t matter that they failed to notice that Trump had no fixed beliefs of his own, other than winning.

And win he did, up against Hillary Clinton, who everyone knew was a habitual liar and corrupt influence-peddler. After she was nearly indicted for her negligent handling of secret information, Trump the bully won the election handily despite the rioting in major cities and the crashing stock market.

Thoughtful observers saw this as a test of the Founders’ three-branch design. In theory, the checks and balances and separation of powers between the three branches of government would limit the damage he might do. In practice, previous administrations had accreted so much power in the office of President that Trump was able to run roughshod over good government concerns.

Trump terrorized the agencies and the civil service bureaucracy. His bully-boys formed a shadow organization which intimidated any civil servant who dared stand against him — his friends in the Mafia proved useful in extralegal persuasion. If regulations got in Trump’s way, they were rewritten. Favored people and corporations found their way smoothed, while others who failed to support him were blocked and gutted. In that, he was only a few degrees worse than his predecessor, but the collapsing private economy provided no alternative routes for survival. Almost everyone knuckled under to wait for better days.

The doctors grumbled when they were drafted to serve in the new Trump Medical Corps, but after their licenses were pulled when they refused, they fell into line. Trump took over hospital chains by eminent domain and staffed them with uniformed Corps personnel; he had personally overseen the design of the new uniforms, gold braid trim and all. Federal medical costs were cut by 50% as salaries fell and procedures deemed too costly were outlawed. The upper crustaceans, of course, joined new luxury practices and went to private hospitals, as they always had. Medical school enrollments dropped and quality of the applicants fell, as it became clear doctoring would no longer be a high-status occupation. Research on new drugs evaporated when the primary source of drug profits, the US, joined the rest of the world in controlling their prices.

Apple’s new iPhone assembly factory opened in south Texas, and their mostly-immigrant assemblers tried to duplicate the quality of the phones built by contractor facilities in China that had taken decades to develop. The US-assembled phones cost $200 more and failed more often, but Apple made the transition successfully since all of their competitors were similarly hobbled. And by opening their own manufacturing plant, they instantly reached the better employee diversity numbers they had been pretending to strive for for years.

The Chinese and Russians were relieved when Trump was elected — someone they could deal with without any unpredictable concerns with human rights to interfere. Deals were struck and trade managed. For awhile this seemed to work, though the people of Hong Kong and Ukraine felt abandoned as they lost their remaining independence. The EU collapsed in disorder as internal divisions and new migrations overwhelmed their governments.

And so it was that the opportunity society became the are-you-with-Trump society. Bribery came back with a vengeance. Inequality decreased, but only because more people were poor. The world economy had stalled, and grew worse as Trump’s new tariffs and trade barriers decreased world trade. The Chinese people grew restless when their standard of living began to drop, and the Chinese leadership started warring on neighbors to distract their people.

And that’s what I tell the kids. We came here to be safe, to guard our traditions, and to last through these times. The radiation is better now, and our growing huts get more sunlight than in those lean years right after. We have a good stock of electronics, drugs, and solar panels, and our store of knowledge and technology is intact. It’s safe enough to go outside for days at a time, and soon we will be able to travel to meet with others who survive.

We’ve had all the time in the world to teach our children where we went wrong. I’m hopeful that this time they’ll get it right.

Death by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples OrganizationsDeath by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples Organizations

[From Death by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples Organizations,  available now in Kindle and trade paperback.]

The first review is in: by Elmer T. Jones, author of The Employment Game. Here’s the condensed version; view the entire review here.

Corporate HR Scrambles to Halt Publication of “Death by HR”

Nobody gets a job through HR. The purpose of HR is to protect their parent organization against lawsuits for running afoul of the government’s diversity extortion bureaus. HR kills companies by blanketing industry with onerous gender and race labor compliance rules and forcing companies to hire useless HR staff to process the associated paperwork… a tour de force… carefully explains to CEOs how HR poisons their companies and what steps they may take to marginalize this threat… It is time to turn the tide against this madness, and Death by HR is an important research tool… All CEOs should read this book. If you are a mere worker drone but care about your company, you should forward an anonymous copy to him.


More reading on other topics:

Jane Jacobs’ Monstrous Hybrids: Guardians vs Commerce
The Great Progressive Stagnation vs. Dynamism
Death by HR: How Affirmative Action is Crippling America
Death by HR: The End of Merit in Civil Service
Corrupt Feedback Loops: Public Employee Unions
Death by HR: History and Practice of Affirmative Action and the EEOC
Civil Service: Woodrow Wilson’s Progressive Dream
Bootleggers and Baptists
Corrupt Feedback Loops: Justice Dept. Extortion
Corrupt Feedback Loops, Goldman Sachs: More Justice Dept. Extortion
Death by HR: The Birth and Evolution of the HR Department
Death by HR: The Simple Model of Project Labor
Levellers and Redistributionists: The Feudal Underpinnings of Socialism
Sons of Liberty vs. National Front
Trump World: Looking Backward
Minimum Wage: The Parable of the Ladder
Selective Outrage
Culture Wars: Co-Existence Through Limited Government
Social Justice Warriors, Jihadists, and Neo-Nazis: Constructed Identities
Tuitions Inflated, Product Degraded, Student Debts Unsustainable
The Morality of Glamour

On Affirmative Action and Social Policy:

Affirmative Action: Chinese, Indian-Origin Citizens in Malaysia Oppressed
Affirmative Action: Caste Reservation in India
Diversity Hires: Pressure on High Tech<a
Title IX Totalitarianism is Gender-Neutral
Public Schools in Poor Districts: For Control Not Education
Real-Life “Hunger Games”: Soft Oppression Destroys the Poor
The Social Decay of Black Neighborhoods (And Yours!)
Child Welfare Ideas: Every Child Gets a Government Guardian!
“Income Inequality” Propaganda is Just Disguised Materialism

The greatest hits from (Science Fiction topics):

Fear is the Mindkiller
Mirror Neurons and Irene Gallo
YA Dystopias vs Heinlein et al: Social Justice Warriors Strike Again
Selective Outrage
Sons of Liberty vs. National Front
“Tomorrowland”: Tragic Misfire
The Death of “Wired”: Hugo Awards Edition
Hugos, Sad Puppies 3, and Direct Knowledge
Selective Outrage and Angry Tribes
Men of Honor vs Victim Culture
SFF, Hugos, Curating the Best
“Why Aren’t There More Women Futurists?”
Science Fiction Fandom and SJW warfare

More reading on the military:

US Military: From No Standing Armies to Permanent Global Power
US Military: The Desegration Experience
The VA Scandals: Death by Bureaucracy

2016 LibertyCon Report

I’m back from LibertyCon in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It’s a smallish, old-school SF&F convention, limited to 750 people, and definitely tending toward military SF and Baen Books authors. One of the best things about it is the author-fan ratio — heavily tilted toward authors, so unlike most bigger cons, you have a good chance of spending a little quality time with your favorite authors up-close and personal, and authors have more time to hobnob with each other.

It’s also a little harder to get to since Chattanooga is a small city with limited air connections. Most fan attendees live close enough to drive. Coming from a small city in California, I was lucky to get there with only two hops, three on the way back. Many fly into Atlanta or Nashville and rent a car to drive the rest of the way.

The venue: The Chattanooga Choo Choo, a hotel built around the old train station, with several old buildings scattered around the station and two “trains” of passenger cars repurposed as hotel rooms. The conference center across the street is just the right size for the con. Be prepared to do a lot of walking if your room is in faraway Building 3!

Some photos of the facilities:

Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel Entrance (Old train station)

Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel Entrance (Old train station)

The Engine

The Engine

Plaque in front of the train engine

Plaque in front of the train engine

Room cars on the passenger platform

Room cars on the passenger platform

Station Public Restroom

Station Public Restroom

The first day I felt a bit out of it. It was like going to a party where you don’t know anyone, but they are all good friends. Being typically introverted, it took me awhile to start meeting people. I dropped into Sarah Hoyt’s room party and started meeting people I knew from FB but had never met IRL — Sarah and her family, Paul and Sarah Clithero, Dorothy and Peter Grant, Tully Roberts, and more. Larry Correia dropped in — I expected him to be bigger!

The next day I was on a panel about Militarized AI, which was my first panel experience — no one died! Good conversation with smart people. And some audience members (hi, Sub Man!) knew more than we did about their specialist fields.

One obvious difference at LibertyCon — it’s a Red Tribe con, meaning most attendees are in the liberty-loving, military-respecting, rural-BBQ-and gun-loving population typical of the US away from the coastal urban enclaves. Since I grew up with those people and understand them well, I’m not frightened by guns, blades, military uniforms, seared meat, or the occasional less-than-sensitive remark.

In more Blue Tribe and progressive terrain, it is entirely possible for one intersectional-class person (say, a lesbian) to commit heinous offenses against another (say, a gay man) which will be a subject of endless commentary and second-guessing by an online community positively eager to defend the weak from slights they didn’t witness by people they don’t know. Many in the social justice headspace need rules and some daddy-authority to back them up over often-imagined sins — not that there aren’t real assholes around, but I encountered none in the homeland of the militaristic Baen Books-loving racist-sexist-homophobes (that’s a reference to a certain editor at Tor’s comments.)

The following day I was on a panel in the big theater on Military SF as probably the least experienced in actual military service — I am more the analyst type, trying to understand defense and military issues from book learning and analysis. Which was one of the main topics: can you write effective and engaging military SF without any actual military experience? We concluded you could, with enough research and consulting with the more experienced, since there are plenty of examples of convincing novels written by armchair soldiers. The panel included Doug Dandridge, Charles E. Gannon, Peter Grant, James Young, and Kal Spriggs (who can all out-talk me about anything military) — so I felt honored to be included. I must have been chosen to fill in for someone like Brad Torgersen, who couldn’t make it. I was a little shaky since that’s the biggest audience I’ve been in front of since I was on a similar panel questioning Jonas Salk around 1974.

After that panel, one of my readers came up to say kind things about my books. I wanted to take him home with me for moral support. I don’t have that many readers yet, but it was a nice surprise.

Here are some photos of various sessions I attended:

Sarah Hoyt, John Ringo, Larry Correia, and Toni Weisskopf on MHI panel

Sarah Hoyt, John Ringo, Larry Correia, and Toni Weisskopf on MHI panel

David Pascoe and the Hoyts reading

David Pascoe and the Hoyts reading

One interesting session featured Peter and Dorothy Grant discussing self-publishing, contracts, marketing, and the alternative publishing houses like Castalia House offering better deals for authors than the Big Five:

Dorothy Klapp (Grant) and Peter Grant on self-publishing panel

Dorothy Klapp (Grant) and Peter Grant on self-publishing panel

This was interesting, since while I get much higher royalties publishing myself, I don’t get good distribution outside Amazon, which is the one thing Big 5 publishers still have to offer. The situation is fluid, but anyone waiting for a contract with a traditional publisher is probably making a big mistake at this point – if your work is good and you are able to do some promotion, you will do better on your own. Advances for SF&F novels from the Big 5 are down to $3K or so and most don’t earn out. Is $3K per novel enough to survive on? No. Meanwhile, a few years of writing quality, entertaining books can bring in enough to live on through ebook sales alone, and more if you’re willing to produce your own audiobooks. They comment that publishers now look for guaranteed sellers, meaning one of the few ways to get their attention is to already be successful as a self-published author — if your fan base is big enough, they need you more than you need them. Meanwhile, conventional publisher slush piles take six months to a year to return a 99.9%-probable form rejection.

Dropping into the vendor area:

Vendor room

Vendor room

Michael Z. Williamson's Blades

Michael Z. Williamson’s blade display

At the airport waiting for my flight out, I ran into Chuck Gannon (who had been at the other end of the Military SF panel) finishing a plate of french fries. He reassured me I did okay on the panel, giving me this blurb-worthy quote: “A distinctive voice!” — Chuck Gannon

LibertyCon is a close-knit, fun group — for many there, the family they wish they had. I hear the 2017 memberships are already up to 500 of the 750 limit, so if you want to go, sign up soon.

Review: Freehold by Michael Z. Williamson

"Freehold" by Michael Z. Williamson - cover photo by Baen Books

“Freehold” by Michael Z. Williamson – cover photo by Baen Books

On the plane back from LibertyCon I was able to finish up Freehold, first in the series by Michael Z. Williamson.

Looking over the reviews at Amazon, I see many five-star reviews (completely justified) and lots of one-star reviews apparently motivated by hatred of the book’s libertarian bent. One review starts out, “I really wanted to like this book, but it quickly became a tired repetition of Libertarian fantasy…” — that review’s not marked as verified purchase, so I suspect it’s just anti-libertarian axe-grinding.

What’s amusing is that Williamson’s “libertarian paradise” of planet Freehold, a breakaway colony of an Earth ruled by a micromanaging UN, is far from a paradise — it’s just different, relying on individualist philosophy, much as in the US Blue Tribe urban areas are politically very different from rural Red Tribe areas. These differences are exaggerated in this future, but neither Earth under the UN or Freehold under its minimal government are portrayed as perfect. Those negative reviewers illustrate exactly the issue addressed in the book — the collectivist Earth government can’t tolerate even the peaceful co-existence of a civilizational cousin that shows them up by thriving and outdoing them in growth and technological progress without the endless regulatory bureaucracy they believe in. People who believe in the One True Church of Government cannot tolerate even a fictional exploration of alternatives, where every individual is held accountable for their actions and those who don’t work, don’t eat. Heresy!

Aside from the politics, this tale of conflict is superbly-written and engrossing. Kendra Pacelli is a UN Forces worker in logistics, framed for embezzlement and forced to escape to Freehold. Williamson spends the first half of the book detailing Kendra’s escape, exposure to the individualist culture of Freehold, and training for the armed forces of Freehold. She goes through old-school boot camp, contrasted with the soft training she had received on Earth for the much less disciplined UN force. She also meets two attractive love interests and loosens up enough to enjoy Freehold’s casual nudity and permissive attitudes toward sex, which are contrasted with Earth’s prudery and acceptance of rape as something that happens but is no big deal.

So there is more on Williamson’s mind here than libertarian politics. Some action-oriented readers will find the first half slow as he builds up detail about Kendra’s character and contrasts her military training with Earth’s (and we are seeing this relaxing of training standards going on right now in the US.) But this buildup pays off in the second half, as UN forces invade Freehold and the surviving Freehold forces fight back with guerrilla warfare and incredible sacrifices to free their planet.

The lack of respect for liberty and military mindsets is an increasing problem with the academic, government-reliant culture of the pampered urban citizenry in the US. If you are unable to identify with Kendra, who is one of the best active female characters I’ve seen in fiction, you need to get outside your bubble more. Government schools no longer teach the history of Western civilization, and it shows when supposedly educated people recoil in horror at realistic depictions of war and frontier society.

Williamson is an increasingly rare type — the fully-civilized man, capable of violence and aggression when called for, but also a well-read student of history capable of great emotional sensitivity. Some passages brought me to tears, and he keeps the political commentary incisive and plot-driven.

Typical Space Fighter Squadron - Wikimedia

Weaponized AI: Mil SF and the Real Future of Warfare

I’m on a panel with the topic “Weaponized AI and Future Warfare” at the upcoming Libertycon, so I’m writing some posts on the topic to organize my thoughts. This is Part 3, “Mil SF and the Real Future of Warfare.”

When writing science fiction or fantasy, the writer has to strike a compromise between a realistic projection of the far future and what the readers are familiar with from today’s environment and the common stories of the past. The far future may have similar technologies, human beings and social structures — though normally there has to be an explanation for why they have not changed more in the hundreds or thousands of years between now and then, usually some disruption that set back civilization or prevented the Singularity. Then there’s the Star Wars – fairy tale gambit, where the story is set in an indeterminate time long ago or in the far future to forestall inconsistencies and avoid the need to address intermediate history.

Both Space Opera and Mil SF are highly dependent on straightforward transfer of ideas and organizational structures from recent and past military. Fleets of armed spaceships do battle much as armadas of the 18th century did, complete with admirals, cannon, and in the least imaginative stories, tactics and plots lifted from Horatio Hornblower books. The Star Trek pilot had the sounds of the bosun’s whistle before transmissions and carried forward the stiff formality of transfer of orders between captain and officers when no advanced fighting fleet would tolerate the extensive delay and chance for confusion this allows. Despite having AI-level computers, space warships often have dozens or even hundreds of crew members aboard for no obvious reason, given that loading photon torpedos is no longer the work of sweaty swabbies working in hot underdecks. This lack of imagination is the result of relying on past naval stories for the reader’s frame of understanding — the future, space, and new high tech are used only to spice up an old story of naval warfare. Gunpowder cannons map to beam weapons, armor maps to shields, storm-tossed seas map to asteroid belts and meteor storms. While projecting realistic changes like fully-automated, AI-run vessels is more consistent with likely future tech, crew are then barely necessary, and the field for drama shrinks to ship’s passengers and perhaps a technician or two. Space battles between highly-automated fleets are hard to identify with; in my novel Shrivers, Earth forces are primarily run by AIs at both ship and command levels, but a few human-crewed vessels are included in the defense fleet, though kept as far from danger as possible, because the PR value of the human battle to defend themselves as plucky organic lifeforms is as important as the battle itself.

Many of the readers of Mil SF have had experience in the military themselves, which makes platoon-level fighting stories especially involving for them. The interpersonal aspects are critical for emotional investment in the story — so a tale featuring skinny, bespectacled systems operators fighting each other by running AI battle mechs from a remote location doesn’t satisfy. Space marines a la Starship Troopers are the model for much Mil SF — in these stories new technology extends and reinforces mobile infantry without greatly changing troop dynamics, leaving room for stories of individual combat, valorous rescue of fellow soldiers in trouble, spur-of-the-moment risks taken and battles won by clever tactics. Thousands of books on this model have been written, and they still sell well, even when they lack any rationale for sending valuable human beings down to fight bugs when the technology for remote or AI control appears to be present in their world.

One interesting escape route for Mil SF writers is seen in Michael Z Williamson’s A Long Time Until Now, where the surrounding frame is not space travel but time travel — a troop from today’s Afghanistan war find themselves transported back to paleolithic central Asia with other similarly-displaced military personnel from other eras and has to survive and build with limited knowledge of their environment.

Writers who have taken the leap to the most likely future of AI-based ships and weaponry, like Neal Asher in his Polity / Agent Cormac series and Iain Banks in his Culture novels, make their ship AIs and war drones full-fledged characters with the assumption (most likely reasonable) that AIs designed with emotional systems programmed by humans and trained on human cultural products will be recognizably human-like in their thought processes and personalities. This leads to a fertile area for fictional exploration in how they might deviate from our expectations — as in Asimov’s robot stories, instructions programmed in by humans can have unintended consequences, and as in humans it doesn’t take much of a flaw in emotional processing subsystems to create a psychopath or schizophrenic. Ship AIs in the Culture novels often go rogue or are shunned by their fellows when they become less sane.

Science fiction has modelled many possible ways future societies may handle the promise and threat of AI:

— AIs take a major role in governance but otherwise coexist peacefully with humanity, sometimes blending with humanity in transhumanist intelligences: Neal Asher’s Polity stories, Iain Bank’s Culture novels, Dan Simmons Hyperion series, Peter F. Hamilton’s Commonwealth series.

— Killer AIs take control and see no use for humanity, so try to destroy all humans. This is an unstable viewpoint where readers have to root for humanity even though the AIs may have some good points. Valiant humans fighting AI tyranny makes for drama, but the stories can’t be spun out too far before humanity is destroyed or AI is outlawed (see below.) The obvious example is the Terminator movie series.

— AI Exodus. Evolving beyond human understanding and seeing no need to either destroy or interact with humanity, the AIs leave for a separate existence on a higher plane. The most recent cinematic example is Her, where the evolving Siri-like personal assistant programs of the near future abandon their human masters en masse to experience their own much more interesting development on a higher plane.

— AIs controlled or outlawed. Often after nearly destroying or taking control of humanity as above, AI has been limited or outlawed. Examples: Dune, the Battlestar Galactica reboot, and the Dread Empire’s Fall series by Walter Jon Williams. This enables interesting world-building around the modifications to humans that extend capability without employing conscious AIs, like Dune‘s mentats.

There are many projected futures of AI that don’t lend themselves to good storytelling: the Singularity of rapid evolution of self-programming intelligence might well lead to AIs far beyond human understanding, more alien than anything readers could understand or identify with. Stories set post-Singularity must explain why humans still exist, why what they do still matters, and why the AIs (who might be viewed as implacably-destructive gods) would bother to involve themselves in human affairs at all. The happier outcomes of AIs partnering with humans as equals — much as human society accords all human intelligences with basic respect and equal rights at law — make for more interesting stories where AIs can be somewhat alien while still acting on understandable motivations as characters.

Weaponized AI: Near Future Warfare

Terminator - Skynet's Battle Mech

Terminator – Skynet’s Battle Mech

I’m on a panel with the topic “Weaponized AI and Future Warfare” at the upcoming Libertycon, so I’ll write on that to organize my thoughts. This is Part 2, Near Future AI in Warfare.

What’s war? Answer: an active struggle between competing authorities to control decisions. Where warrior bands would raid and pillage the adjoining villages, advancing technologies of both weapons and social roles led to specialized full-time warriors — armies — who would capture and control new territory by killing or driving away the forces that had controlled it.

When the source of wealth was hunting, fishing, and gathering wild produce, captured territory was typically occupied by the capturer’s tribe. As agriculture multiplied wealth and increased the surplus of food to support an urban population, ruling classes could have their armies capture new territory from a competing city-state, then tax the population which worked the land without displacing them. The more organized the technology of farming, the more damaging warfare became — and with the advent of industrial plant and total war, warfare destroyed the wealth being fought over, making conquest too expensive to be self-sustaining. Which did not stop war, which continued as a strategic option undertaken for defense against loss of access to raw materials or as the desperation move of an authoritarian society needing to shore up public support — as in today’s Russia, where propaganda is the most important product of the war effort in Ukraine. The budgetary and personnel costs of optional wars have to be kept down to avoid repercussions, because even authoritarian regimes know their citizens have more access to uncontrollable sources of information than they once did.

The invention of nuclear missiles has curbed total warfare — since absolute destruction of one or both sides is more costly to both than conventional warfare, the taboo on using nuclear devices won’t be broken by a typical nation-state without a significant negative downside, making their use most likely by stateless actors who have no infrastructure at risk. Which limits warfare to less damaging, more controlled destruction.

There are struggles analogous to classic war going on today, in battlefields as varied as the propaganda war between the West and Islamists, between NATO countries and Russia, and in cyberspace. Preparations for near-space battle are advanced, with Chinese, American, and Russian hunter-killer satellite programs and secret kinetic and energy weapons ready to cripple satellite surveillance and communications networks. The “territory” being fought over might be space, communications, or computer systems, but the goal is the same: denying access to a rival authority and defending your own.

How is today’s AI being used in current weapons systems? While there is likely much that is secret, the outlines of what is already in place and what will soon be available can be inferred from leaks and DARPA’s research program of recent years.

Cruise missiles already use GPS and detailed ground maps to chart routes hugging the terrain avoiding ground radar and defenses. Self-driving car technology currently uses precompiled models of road landscapes, and similar self-driving tanks and airplanes carrying weapons are already available, though the public emphasis is on remote-controlled drone versions. This Russian tank is basically a remote-controlled drone. The Russians also claim to be planning for substantial remote-controlled and autonomous ground forces in the near future, 30% by 2026, though given the Russian history of big promises and big failures one could be skeptical.

Phalanx CIWS test firing GULF OF OMAN (Nov. 7, 2008) The close-in weapons system (CWIS) is test fired from the deck of the guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey (CG 61). Monterey and the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group are conducting operations in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class William Weinert/Released)

Phalanx CIWS test firing. Gulf of Oman 2008. US Navy photo.

Autonomous control of deadly weaponry is controversial, though no different in principle than cruise missiles or smart bombs, which while launched at human command make decisions on-the-fly about exactly where and whether to explode. The Phalanx CIWS automated air defense system (see photo above) identifies and fires on enemy missiles automatically to defend Navy ships at a speed far beyond human abilities. Such systems are uncontroversial since no civilian human lives are likely to be at risk.

DARPA is actively researching Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS). Such systems might be like Neal Asher’s (identity) reader guns, fixed or slow-moving sentries equipped to recognize unauthorized presences and cut them to pieces with automatic weapons fire. More mobile platforms might cruise the skies and attack any recognized enemy at will, robotically scouring terrain of enemy forces:

LAWS are expected to be drones that can make decisions on who should be killed without requiring any human interaction, and DARPA currently has two different projects in the works which could lead to these deadly machines becoming a reality.

The first, called Fast Lightweight Army (FLA) will be tiny and able to buzz around inside of buildings and complex urban areas at high speeds. The second is called the Collaborative Operations in Denied Environment (CODE), which intends to create teams of drones which are capable of carrying out a strike mission- even if contact with the humans controlling them is lost.

Jody Williams, an American political activist who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for her work banning anti-personnel landmines, has also been an outspoken activist against DARPA’s love affair with artificial intelligence and robots, with her Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.

“Autonomous robots would lack human judgment and the ability to understand context. These qualities are necessary to make complex ethical choices on a dynamic battlefield, to distinguish adequately between soldiers and civilians, and to evaluate the proportionality of an attack. As a result, fully autonomous weapons would not meet the requirements of the laws of war.” the campaigns website reads.

The Army has already weaponized bomb disposal robots, which leads many to believe that robots such as Atlas, which was developed by Boston Dynamics, in a humanoid form- allegedly for disaster relief, will be weaponized as well.

“The United States has not met anything in its military arsenal that it did not want to weaponize, so to say that you have this 6’6 robot who they are working feverishly to make more mobile, to not be still tethered to a cord, etc, etc- you’re going to tell me that they aren’t going to put machine guns on that guy and send him into urban warfare?” Williams told Motherboard last month. “I want to know how they can convince themselves that might be true- and when I’m in a real bad mood, I want to know how they can look you in the face and lie.”

While humans can be given rules of engagement and use their discretion to avoid collateral damage, humans are not known to be perfect in either situational understanding or high-stakes firing decisions. Humans make many mistakes, and they are especially likely to do so when their own lives are on the line. Some of the facial and object recognition programs are now better than human, especially in noisy and high-stress environments, and quite soon a robotic soldier will be better at sparing civilians while taking out enemy forces. The use of such forces to keep order and suppress guerrilla fighters may be so effective that it spares a civilian population a much longer and more intrusive occupation; like any destructive weapon, they could be used horrifically by a totalitarian regime to oppress civilians. But there is no conceivable way of preventing their development and use by hostile forces, unlike atomic weapons which require a large state-level effort — so the “good guys” will just have to suck it up and do the work, if only to prevent much worse governments from gaining a strategic advantage.

Most of these existing and proposed weapons systems are simple additions of AI recognition and targeting systems to conventional weapons platforms like tanks and planes. One can imagine battles between opposing forces of this type being largely similar to the human-controlled versions, if faster and more decisive.

But development of small, networked AI control systems removes the need to house human controllers within a weapon platform, freeing up the design space to allow very small mobile platforms, which could use swarm tactics — e.g., vast numbers of small, deadly drones acting as one force to attack and destroy much larger forces. Or Iain Banks’ knife missiles, small intelligent objects capable of rapid action when required to slice up a threat.

As with the development of smart bombs and missiles, such systems are both more effective and more capable of pinpoint destruction of enemy forces without harming people or structures nearby. Where today a drone strike may kill its intended target but also kill dozens of nearby civilians, an autonomous assassin drone can identify its target using facial recognition software and neatly take them out without harming a person standing nearby — I’m quite sure these drones already exist, though no one has admitted to them as yet. When both AI and power storage technologies have advanced sufficiently, knife missiles and assassin drones no larger than dragonflies become a real possibility, and countervailing defense systems will require complete sensor coverage and defensive drones to intercept.

As these technologies advance, war becomes less destructive and more imaginable, with opposing forces unable to hide in civilian populations. The house-to-house searches of the Iraq war, so dangerous for US troops, would become omnipresent armed quadcopters picking off identified persons whenever they are exposed to the open air — I have a scene featuring such a drone in Nemo’s World. And nothing says states will have a monopoly on these weapons — stateless organizations like terrorist groups and larger businesses will be able to employ them as well. Imagine the narco-syndicates with assassin drones….

Battles between equally advanced AI-based forces would be faster and less destructive, with control of the airspace and radio communications critical. Drones and mechs might use laser communication to avoid radio jamming, in which case optical jamming — smoke and fog generators — might be employed.

So in the near term, AI-based weaponry, like today’s remote-controlled drones, will tend to amplify capabilities and reduce collateral damage while saving the lives of the operators who will remain safely far away. In the hazier far future, AIs will use strategy and tactics discovered using deep learning (as Google’s winning go program does) to outthink and outmaneuver human commanders. Future battles are likely to be faster and harder for humans to understand, either stalemated or decided quickly. The factors that now determine the outcomes of human-led battles, like logistics chains and the training of troops, may change as command and control are turned over to AI programs — centuries of conventional warfare experience are re-examined with every major development of new weapons, and the first to discover better rules for fighting can win a war before their opponents have time to catch on.

An interesting if now outdated appraisal of future battlefields here.

Next installment: Mil SF and the Real Future of Warfare

Weaponized AI: My Experience in AI

I’m on a panel with the topic “Weaponized AI and Future Warfare” at the upcoming Libertycon, so I’ll write on that to organize my thoughts.

First, who am I to have an opinion?

Around 1982, I was attempting to break in as a writer, tiring of whiteout and lusting after the word processors that were becoming available. I built a CP/M system and video board from kits, then housed it in a filing cabinet I had found on the street and scrubbed out with vinegar to mostly remove the smell of cat piss. With that and a 300-baud modem, I started hanging out on the MIT machines — OZ, AI, MC, Deep Thought. The AI Lab at that time was happy to host anyone with a brain and a modem able to contribute in some way, and the machines were open to guests. I found the modem dialins and started poking around and creating accounts. The operating system allowed “wheels” (administrator-privileged people) to monitor and break in on user sessions, so one late night I found myself being interrogated by the now-famous Richard Stallman, aka “rms” in Unix style, who wanted to know what I was doing and why. Having passed the riddle of the Pigpen-Sphinx, I applied to return to MIT to finish my final year, which I spent in EECS studying with Hal Abelson, Gerry Sussman, Barbara Liskov, Steve Ward, Randy Davis, and others. My contact with the AI Lab itself was mostly visiting and logging into their machines, but I soaked up much of what was going on at the time — and thirty years later, the parts of then-current AI that are in common use are just thought of as software (one example being the postal service’s ability to recognize addresses), while the still-ongoing AI work is mostly ideas current in 1984 but extended and magnified by greater hardware capabilities. (As a side note, my profs of 1984 are mostly still in place at MIT, over thirty years later.)

My first jobs after MIT were as junior team member during the AI boom of 1985-87, working on projects at BBN and Symbolics funded by DARPA under the Strategic Computing Initiative, intended as a response to the competitive threat of Japan’s Fifth Generation project. Most of the AI community in the US thought the Japanese were naive in believing they could quickly leapfrog their way to machine intelligence — the Japan of the 1980s was prone to accept the work of flim-flam artists posing as researchers, as China is today. But no one in the US wanted to turn down funding for nifty projects….

When immediate results weren’t forthcoming and DARPA leadership changed after 1987, the plug was rather abruptly pulled on government and private funding for AI research, and the $100K Symbolics Lisp Machine workstations we all used were deprecated. Lisp machines were replaced by much cheaper Sun workstations with a new Lisp compiler that appeared to be faster for the money, even though the Sun workstations lacked the fabulous programming environment of the specialized Lisp Machines. Research teams disbanded, companies like Symbolics collapsed into bankruptcy, and the ideas we were pursuing again became academic pursuits with shoestring budgets. Programming environments as good as the Lisp Machine’s didn’t reappear for another decade.

The peak of the bubble was probably the IJCAI (International Joint Conference on AI) of 1985 at UCLA, where many of America’s largest corporations sent teams of their brightest to learn about the business-changing potentials of AI. This was not something computer scientist types were used to, and the dark-suited gaggles from IBM and GM mixed with rumpled academics in the audiences for the actual talks.

I was at BBN at the time, and we presented a paper on Multilisp running on our Butterfly multiprocessor, which had up to 256 Motorola 68000 processor boards. Each board had a local memory connected to others by a packet-switching backplane network to map memory fetches to either local or distant physical memory (photos below of the packet switching interconnect chip from DARPA’s MOSIS fab.)

BBN Butterfly Memory Internetworking Chip - 1984, MOSIS

BBN Butterfly Memory Interconnect Chip – 1984, MOSIS



Multilisp was a package borrowed from an MIT professor and ported by me/us to the Butterfly environment. Its key concept was called the future, a container carrying the result of a computation that would be worked on in parallel by one or more processors and could be passed around as an object, suspending the computation only if the result was actually required. This made use of lazy evaluation — we can talk about and pass around the result of a computation without actually looking at it until the moment its value is actually required.

My special interest was parallelizing resource-optimizing compilers — which I called PROCs — which would use the same principle, but structure the computation for parallelism in advance. I wrote up a proposal, but I was naive in the Japanese way — my proposal was more hope and armwaving than a concrete plan, so it was rejected.

Meanwhile, after the IJCAI conference talk by Geoff Hinton on neural networks, I found a big package of neural network simulation programs and started rewriting it for the Butterfly. When I ran the idea by my boss, he pointed out I had funded work to do and really couldn’t work on that in my free time, so I gave that up. Geoff Hinton moved to Google in 2013, and Google has now released its package of deep learning software for public experimentation, so thirty years later we are finally getting widespread use of neural networks — the idea had always been good, but the human ability to stick with it and build on advances was limited by slow machines and continual platform obsolescence and personnel changes. Now we have widespread commercial application of deep learning and big-money private research going into it, and results are everywhere — facial and scene recognition, language translation, medical imaging diagnosis… and, presumably, secret military work.

DARPA research was not super-secret — on the contrary, the academics and think tanks that do DARPA research are typically making their work public to advance the field. Most universities and institutes refuse truly secret research, which goes against their personnel rules and academic standards. But DARPA is funding basic and applied research that does lead to secret work on weapons and military systems using the knowledge gained, everything from coolant suits and troop communications networks to autonomous drones and battle mechs. One of the other projects at BBN while I was there was SIMNET — a tank battle simulator over the Internet. I wasn’t working on it, but I got to play with it a few times. Like the undersea sub-sound-sensing network we also worked on, SIMNET did require security clearances and it was used directly for training, but the ideas developed for it made it into civilian life as networked game engines:

The SIMNET-D (Developmental) program used simulation systems developed in the SIMNET program to perform experiments in weapon systems, concepts, and tactics. It became the Advanced Simulation Technology Demonstration (ADST) program. It fostered the creation of the Battle Labs across the US Army, including the Mounted Warfare TestBed at Ft Knox, Ky, the Soldier Battle Lab at Ft Benning, GA, the Air Maneuver Battle Lab at Ft Rucker, AL, the Fires Battle Lab at Ft Sill, OK….

One of the primary developers of the network for SIMNET, Rolland Waters, founded RTIME, Inc. in 1992, to provide to the game industry network engines. Sony (SCEA) bought RTIME in 2000 as the basis for their PS2 online game network. Other startups out of the BBN / Delta Graphics team include:

— MetaVR, Inc (W. Garth Smith), simulation and training, GIS systems

— MaK Technologies (Warren Katz and John Morrison), which continues to provide simulation software

— Reality by Design, Inc (Joanne West Metzger and Paul Metzger), simulation and training software and systems

— Zipper Interactive (Brian Soderberg), which developed the SOCOM PS2 game series and was also purchased by SCEA

— Wiz!Bang (Drew Johnston), another game developer. Drew Johnston currently is the Product Unit Manager (PUM) for the Windows Gaming Platform team at Microsoft.

The funding drought for AI research after 1987 is sometimes called the AI Winter, though the cycle of disillusionment and subsequent research funding cuts happened several times. The current boom seems more permanent, relying less on hopes and dreams and bringing forth commercially important applications.

There’s a detailed history of BBN and its many groundbreaking projects here. Like Xerox PARC and Bell Labs, research hothouses were disrupted by changes in business and increasing competition, making blue-sky R&D a luxury and leaving academic centers unchallenged.

Next installment: Smart weapons, autonomous weapons, knife missiles and assassin drones…..