As I was saying ...

A blog about stuff. Updated as need merits.

Chief O'Brien in happier times

Chaos in engineering

12-minute read

Let us, for a moment, consider the fate of Miles O’Brien.

Not “The Passion of the O’Brien,” as his time stationed on Deep Space Nine became known, as it took him through the 24th Century equivalent of the Stations of the Cross, such as spending 20 years in a virtual mind prison or having his daughter fall through a time portal.

We’re going to talk about his other fate: How he was a once-promising officer and bridge crew member who was stripped of rank and sent to exile, first in the Transporter Room and later to a crumbling space station orbiting a backwater planet, where only after years of struggle does he finally regain his stature and dignity.

O’Brien came aboard the Enterprise on its first mission, an honored hero of the Cardassian War. Appropriate to someone of his stature and skill, Ensign O’Brien is a helmsman in series debut episode Encounter at Farpoint (Stardate 41153.7), seen in a red command uniform manning a key bridge station during a moment of crisis.

Yet, only a few months later on Stardate 41249.3 (Lonely Among Us) we see him stripped of rank entirely, serving as a security officer. He’s not seen again for another year when he re-emerges, this time as a transporter chief. But he’s been busted down to a noncommissioned rank – senior chief petty officer – as confirmed in the fifth season episode Family.

Something went down, but it’s never explained and he never speaks of it, even as he toils away far from his former post and former glory days on the bridge. His job mainly involves standing around for hours – days even – waiting to work a few buttons and send others off on amazing adventures. He watches as others like Lt. Barclay are promoted past him, his hopes and dreams fading away to nothingness like a crew member on one of his transporter pads.

While it’s possible O’Brien was entirely responsible for his fate, a far more likely explanation was that he was caught up in the turmoil and dysfunction that swept through the lower decks of the Enterprise during its inaugural year of service in the United Federation of Planets fleet.

We see a veritable revolving door of chief engineers, five in just a year, sometimes with tenures lasting only a few weeks. They are repeatedly shown as undependable, absent or, worse, openly mutinous in a crisis. Senior officers exclude them from ship’s business and away teams and are shown going around them to make sure that orders are carried out. And, like O’Brien we later learn they have been busted down and sent to often-humiliating duty posts.

Even the most hardened Star Trek fan must wonder what the fuck was going on in Engineering.

That same fan might also be saying “wait, I don’t remember that episode.” Indeed they would likely be right. The problems in engineering are rarely overtly depicted.

Rather, it’s shown in bits and pieces, just kinda there as a slow burn in the background across Jean-Luc Picard’s entire first year in the captain’s chair. Taken together, they clearly show a department in utter chaos.

Why would the Engineering Department become such a problem? Aren’t Starfleet officers the epitome of professionalism? What could possibly make them go rogue?

One reason: Wesley Crusher.

We see Wesley1 repeatedly endanger the ship and crew. He’s even responsible for the entire ship being stolen. Yet he suffers no repercussions. He isn’t banned. He isn’t grounded. Rather he’s honored again and again and again, credited with saving the ship. Often from problems he caused.

One can only imagine the howls of impotent rage as engineering members would slam their fists again and again and again into their pillows at the end of their shifts.

It didn’t have to be that way, but it was, right from the start, during the ship’s second mission.

In the episode The Naked Now (Stardate 41209.3) the Enterprise crew is infected by a contaminant that causes symptoms akin to drunkenness. Leadership fails to take even the most basic precautions, such as not letting infected patients simply wander out of sickbay. Senior officers Lt. Cmdr. Data and Lt. Tasha Yar are too busy boning to notice the ship is headed to certain destruction thanks to Wesley, who has shut off the engines and barricaded himself in engineering.

Despite all this, Chief Engineer Lt. Cmdr Sarah MacDougal is seen patiently and professionally dealing with the problem despite being infected herself. Yet, in a move that had to have been galling for a seasoned engineer of the Federation flagship, Wesley is left entirely unpunished. He’s lauded for saving the ship.

Worse, she is apparently held responsible. This is the last we see of MacDougal until years later. During the episode Galaxy’s Child (Stardate 44614.6) when her name pops up on an Engineering screen as a third-shift duty engineer responsible for aligning subspace phase coils.

And, we’ll be returning to that crew shortly.

Enter Lt. Cmdr. Argyle, who was placed in charge of Engineering by the episode Where No One has Gone Before around Stardate 41263.1 – about a month after MacDougal’s banishment. Apparently having learned nothing from her downfall, Argyle allows Wesley back into Engineering to work on a school project. Once again, through irresponsible inaction, Wesley directly places the Enterprise and its entire crew in mortal danger. He fails to report when his friend, an alien creeper called the The Traveler, does all kinds of weird shit that fucks up the warp engines.

Despite this, the episode ends with Wesley being promoted to acting ensign for “conduct in the true spirit and traditions of Starfleet” and is assigned the helmsman position on the bridge.

It’s not hard to picture the engineering crew sitting around in the junior officers mess, five or six Synthahols under their belt, raging. “I spent four fucking years at goddamn Starfleet Academy. I polished statues’ asses with my toothbrush. And for what? So that whiney little shit Wesley Crusher can get to steer the ship!”

O’Brien, sitting in a dark corner alone, overhearing this conversation, sheds a single tear, thinking of his career that could have been.

Alas, Argyle too is busted down and during Galaxy’s Child3is also listed as working alongside MacDougal as a third-shift duty engineer.

By this point engineering was clearly in a full-blown leadership crisis as evidenced by the senior officers’ reluctance to even deal with the department.

For instance, the chief engineer is nowhere to be be seen when Klingon Korris threatens to destroy the Enterprise by blowing up the dilithium chamber in Heart of Glory (Stardate 41503.7). In the episode The Last Outpost, Engineering sits on their hands during a crisis and Picard has to send LaForge down to take control of the department and concoct a solution to free the ship.

In the episode 11001001,2 Picard doesn’t even consult with anyone from engineering during a major computer upgrade. He leaves Wesley, a teenager with no official rank, to oversee the work. When the antimatter containment pods head toward collapse, it’s Wesley, not Engineering, who notices.

Or perhaps Engineering crews did notice, but sat sulking at their workstations, muttering about leaving a teenager in charge of the Federation flagship and that if “Wesley is so goddamned smart let him fix the fucking containment pods.”

Events like these, as well as Picard’s apparent lack of faith in engineering, allows the rift to grow into outright rebellion.

It all comes to a head during the episode The Arsenal of Freedom (Stardate 41798.2) in which LaForge is left in charge of the ship during a routine away mission that quickly escalates into a ship-endangering crisis. Chief Engineer Lt. Logan, his sneering contempt for LaForge and Picard’s leadership boiling just under the surface, shows up on the bridge in an ill-fated coup attempt. He demands the conn due to his role as chief engineer and superior rank, a ballsy move considering he was a mere lieutenant to LaForge’s lieutenant junior grade.

Whatever his motive, Logan not only disappeared from his chief engineer role but the ship entirely, suggesting Picard quietly took care of the problem.

Despite this leadership change, problems in the department persisted. The fourth chief engineer in less than a year, Lt. Cmndr. Leland T. Lynch, began resorting to more passive-aggressive actions. On Stardate 41601.3, Lynch and his crew is seen recklessly and needlessly tearing the warp engines apart.

Lynch suggests a repair time of 20 minutes. Picard flies into a rage, and only then does Lynch relent and complete the repair.

Unfortunately this leads to a delay in rescuing a downed shuttle crew on Vagra II, and directly to the ship’s chief of security Yar being killed by a stagehand wearing an oil-covered trash bag.

This incident was apparently Picard’s breaking point with “the Engineering problem.” Lynch was busted down to what was at this point clearly the favored “fuck you” to failed Enterprise chief engineers, third-shift duty engineer alongside Argyle and MacDougal according to Galaxy’s Child.

LaForge, the fifth chief engineer in less than a year, was placed in charge.

Seen in the light of the events that preceded it, LaForge’s ascension to chief engineer makes more sense. It was always an odd promotion for someone on a bridge command track who had no experience in the Engineering chain of command.

Stranger, it happens off screen and is given no explanation.

All we see of it is in The Child that Riker makes an offhand comment to Picard that chief engineer LaForge has “a nice ring to it.” While it could be simply paternalistic pride, in context of events it reads more like relief.

LaForge’s proximity to Picard and Riker as a member of the bridge crew, the fact that the two used him as an end-run around Engineering, suggests he was chosen less for his prowess, and more for his loyalty. Picard needed someone down there to be his hatchet man, his consigliere, his enforcer. That also explains why he was suddenly skipped ahead two levels in rank, from lieutenant junior grade to lieutenant commander.

“Lt. LaForge,” Picard said sharply before LaForge could even settle into the Ready Room chair. A cup of tea, Earl Gray, hot sat steaming on the desk.

“I have a difficult assignment for you. I need you to bring Engineering to heel. Immediately. Do what you have to. This is … “ he paused as if considering the full weight of what he was about to say “… off the books. Lt. Worf will assist. Dismissed.”

LaForge’s enforcement of discipline was apparently absolute. That’s why former, failed chief engineers were kept on board in humiliating roles, toiling away on the night staff as a warning to others who step out of line.

Further evidence of this is found when in the episode Elementary, Dear Data 4 (Stardate 42286.3) just a few weeks after being named chief engineer, LaForge endangers the entire ship and crew by turning over control to a Holodeck character. As LaForge sits there terrified he’s about to go the way of Capt. Needa, Picard lets him off the hook, saying the Enterprise is “ship-shape and Bristol-fashion,” before adding menacingly “As are we, Mister LaForge.”

His message is clear: He’s Picard’s man in Engineering. He can fuck up he wants as long as he remembers who has his balls in a vise.

  1. Pre-acting ensign, Wesley Crusher had the worst cable knit sweaters to appear on TV that were not featured in an episode of The Cosby Show.
  2. It’s worth noting that Riker was in the Holodeck trying to bone a smokin’ hot hologram when all this went down.
  3. We need to talk about LaForge in this episode. He’s a total creeper. He makes repeated unwelcome sexual advances at a woman, a woman he probably fell in love with by boning hologram version of. This isn’t the only creeper behavior he’s shown doing. He wants to bone some woman after watching her personal logs in Aquiel. Additionally, it’s notable he’s the only primary character other than Wesley Crusher who is explicitly shown as not getting any during the run of the series. He must have masturbated constantly.
  4. What is with Dr. Pulaski constantly shitting all over Data? What did he ever do? In one episode she intentionally gets his name wrong, calling him long-a Data. In one she tells Data to leave sickbay because her patient doesn’t need the “cold touch of technology.” In yet another, she rags on him about not being able to play poker properly. And in this one she’s busting on him about just being a mere computer with no intuition or insight.

Now on NPM: Convert your pixels to rems or ems using this PostCSS plugin

Two-minute read

Have you every had a dozen people coming over for dinner in 20 minutes only to discover that you need to convert a bunch of CSS with items sized in pixels over to relative sizes such as rems or ems? Who doesn’t face this problem at least several times a week.

Up until now the only way to fix this problem was to learn assembly language, make your own CPUs and write your own operating system. Well, no more!

postcss-pixels-to-rem is a PostCSS plugin that finds several types of pixel notations and converts them to either rems or ems. It is designed as a way to bring legacy SASS files written using pixels to rem mixins forward and into the postCSS world with as seamlessly as possible.

For example, it’s intended as a fix for legacy code that uses the now deprecated Bourbon px to rem and px to em mixins.

Does it work? Well, you’re soaking in it! The CSS for this site is compiled with it.

How it works

It takes in several types of notations and spits out finished CSS at the other end.

  • Notation of rem(<value>) or em(<value>) is converted to <value>rem and <value>em respectively.
  • Notation of <value>px is converted to <value>rem.

It also allows for several user-set options.

  • Base font size. Default is 16px.
  • Default unit. Setting it to rem or em will override rem(<value>) or em(<value>) notation. All items will be output in the user-set unit.
  • Media queries can be excluded from conversion.
  • Specific declarations can be excluded from conversion, e.g. border-width.

How to use it

After reading this, everyone will want to get their hands on postcss-pixels-to-rem. No need to resort to The Purge style theft and murder 1. There’s plenty to go around at the low, low price of free 2.

Unfortunately we released it a little too late for Valentine’s, Mother’s Day and graduation gift-giving, but there’s still birthdays and anniversaries – and don’t forget all-important early Christmas shopping.

It’s available over here on NPM. Or install it by:

npm install --save-dev postcss-pixels-to-rem

To use it with Gulp:

var postcss = require('gulp-postcss')
var pixelstorem = require('postcss-pixels-to-rem');    

and

gulp.task('css', function() {
    var plugins = [
        pixelstorem()
    ];      
gulp.src('source/sass/styles.scss')
.pipe(postcss(plugins))
.pipe(gulp.dest(public/css));
});

Find full installation and usage instructions here on NPM or Github.

postcss-pixels-to-rem not only comes with a full money-back guarantee, and is also guaranteed to make you better looking, thinner, wittier, more popular and bring you happiness, all while converting your pixels to rems or ems.

  1. Unless you want to.
  2. We deal in volume and pass the savings on to our customers.
Alien xenomorph full body shot

Stupid, annoying people being chased by a monster

Seven-minute read

Alien may be one of the most influential movies ever made, but the actual plot of the movie could not be more simple.

It’s the stuff of many a B-grade monster movie. The crew of a space tug Nostromo brings an alien creature on board their ship that proceeds to kill them all. That simplicity is a strength.

Alien is so good because of how the story is told. It’s why it’s such an enduring and timeless 1 masterpiece. The claustrophobic setting, the tension and the groundbreaking production design alone are enough to define it as a classic.

But the creature itself in design and concept is the real reason the movie endures. It’s disturbing somewhere down in our lizard brain. From its face raping initial appearance to its eyeless-skullfaced remorseless killer adult form, it’s a nightmare being. In a world of Predators and Terminators and Freddys and Jasons, the Alien xenomorph reigns supreme.

In 1979, Alien was tense and disturbing in a way that few audiences had seen up until then – with the exceptions of maybe Jaws or Halloween. But Alien upped the ante by locking its characters in with the murder creature that has a head shaped like a penis just to fuck with the audience’s psychosexual phobias.

The franchise was revisited in 1986 by a then-up-and-coming James Cameron in Aliens. He kept the claustrophobia but in true sequel fashion ramped up the more! more! more! Unlike the “haunted house in space” of the first film he went with balls-out war movie – Zulu in space. Aliens is one of the greatest 2 action movies ever made and certainly one of the most relentlessly intense.

Sigourney Weaver’s imposing screen presence is used to great effect, as her Ellen Ripley is not only the best female action hero in screen history, she’s one of the best ever of any actor. And who could forget the late Bill Paxton as “game over, man” Pvt. Hudson.

Aliens is among the rarest of things: A sequel better 3 than the original.

Some film franchises took awhile to gain speed – James Bond, Star Trek – but Alien kicked off with two all-time classic movies, seminal films that became a foundation of one of film’s enduring movie series. Perhaps only Star Wars had this same one-two punch of masterpieces.

How do you follow that? They did’t.

There has not been a good Alien movie in theaters since 1986. Yet they continue to make them. Worse, the franchise has become just another entry in the “stupid, annoying people being chased by a monster” genre.

It isn’t like they haven’t tried to make a good movie. The history of the Alien universe is littered with missed opportunities. On paper they sound like the most amazing marriages of subject matter and talent since George Lucas considered Steven Spielberg to direct Return of the Jedi.

Consider these pitches 4

  • An Alien movie directed by David Fincher, who you may remember from such films as Seven, Fight Club and Gone Girl. OMG! It’ll be great!
  • An Alien movie written by Joss Whedon, a master of melding lightweight pop culture ideas with deep-seated human emotions, horror and action, eg, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Cabin in the Woods. Holy shit! I can’t wait!
  • An Alien movie with franchise originator Ridley Scott returning to the director’s chair and written by Lost mastermind Damon Lindelof. Mind. Blown.

The results are:

  • Alien 3, a long, boring mess that still somehow gave us the most iconic image of the entire franchise.
  • Alien Resurrection a long, boring mess that still somehow gave us this amazing shot of Sigourney Weaver making an over- her-shoulder three-pointer on the first take.
  • Prometheus a long boring mess that nonetheless gave us the awesome phrase “the Prometheus school of running away from things.”

Unfortunately the foundational idea of Alien isn’t that complex – that simple plot of the first film. There’s no real Extended Universe of story options. Marvel keeps it fresh by making genre movies with superheroes in them. Iron Man 3’s buddy cop movie. Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s ’70s paranoid thriller. Guardians of the Galaxy’s sci-fi romp.

Every Alien movie is roughly this: Humans stupidly bring the xenomorph on board – hey look, it’s a big scary egg chamber! Let’s have a closer look! The xenomorph gets loose because the humans underestimate its danger and then it goes around feasting on the humans’ delicious nougaty centers for most of Act Three.

Prometheus was this except with black slime.

They also continue the tradition of various body horrors, to diminishing returns. Alien: Resurrection gives us a room full of malformed Ripley / xenomorph clones going “k-k-k-kill me. Every moment I’m alive is agony.” The baby squid monster5 extraction of Prometheus is cringey and memorable. But these read like setpieces.

Face it, the xenomorph isn’t that scary any more. The body horrors of the Alien spawning cycle are so well known that you can buy a hand knit facehugger to keep your head warm in the winter. Or a xenomorph plushie. Here in Boston there’s even an Alien: Convenant train car with xenomorph pics everywhere.

Thanks to cultural osmosis and copying, the alien larvae bursting out of John Hurt’s chest looking like the universe’s most toothy and terrifying stiffy has a blunted impact at best.

Based on clips of Alien: Covenant we’re in for a whole new cavalcade of dismemberments a blood squib explosions.

Like the Jurassic Park movies, the Alien series can have whatever first-act setup seems fitting – a mix of human stupidity, failure to recognize danger, greed and a dollop of corporate malfeasance so the audience can learn that we were the real monsters all along. But at the end of the day the creatures have to escape and chase everyone around because that’s what the movies actually are.

Prometheus went for “what’s it all mean” grandiosity and wedded At the Mountains of Madness mythology to the franchise. But it ended up being just a bunch of half-explained Damon Lindeleof mystery box hooey with a group of stupid and annoying humans being chased around for the entire third act. Personally, I was rooting for the aliens.

We’ll probably continue to get Alien movies. We as an audience set expectations of recapturing the visceral fear of Alien or the intense, unrelenting action of the Aliens. Movie studios like nice reliable franchises.

But capturing the greatness of the originals it’s not possible any more than recapturing a first kiss.

  1. I saw it recently in a one-night theater screening and I have no doubt that it could debut today virtually unchanged – perhaps a few special effects tweaks – and still be seen as a masterpiece. Or not. It’s been so copied down the years that critics would condemn it as derivative.
  2. The others are Die Hard and Mad Max: Fury Road.
  3. The others are The Empire Strikes Back, Toy Story 2, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, From Russia With Love, The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2, Mad Max: Fury Road and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. There are no others. And yes, I’m aware of The Godfather II and Terminator 2: Judgement Day.
  4. Alien vs. Predator and its execrable sequel are not on this list as they are not canon. I once watched Alien vs. Predator at 6 a.m. while heavily hung over in a Times Square hotel room. Don’t ask why. The movie was dreadful.
  5. While this is certainly the most effective scene in the movie, it’s hampered by the fact that the baby squid monster is kinda cute. Just a little.
Joel, Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot

Do Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot have free will?

Five-minute read

When lists of sci-fi artificial intelligence are compiled, the robots from Mystery Science Theater 3000 rarely get their due.

They may seem to be thrown together out of household junk. But their abilities far surpass those of many better-known sci-fi counterparts, such as HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Lt. Cmdr. Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation or C-3PO and R2-D2 of the Star Wars franchise.

Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo demonstrate an amazingly sophisticated artificial intelligence, with a vast knowledge base of human culture and history and the ability to replicate complex emotional responses. They understand humor and both have a sharp, sarcastic wit. They are able to watch video and quickly process the content and respond with insightful, often humorous comments, not just preprogrammed responses.

They are capable of love, sadness, jealousy, anger – the whole range of human emotions. It’s clear they can actually think. They, to put it simply, depict an amazing achievement in the field of artificial intelligence.

Yet within the canon of the show, we know little about the full origins of either robot or the technology that went into them. The series itself is unreliable as a source of information or even internal consistency, as details of the robots’ background, their voices and even their physical appearance shift throughout the run of the series.

The most consistent facts about their creation are relayed in the first version of the show’s theme song. But even then the story is told as more of a sidenote to explaining why Joel, and later Mike, can’t control when the movie begins or ends, because, as the theme song’s lyrics point out, Joel used those special parts to make his robot friends.

This sad lack of information leaves us knowing little about the technology that actually went into the robots or their design and development beyond some sort of video playback pause / play mechanism. 1

However, consider the circumstances of their creation.

Joel, and later Mike and now Jonah, were kidnapped and imprisoned by evil geniuses as part of a mind-control experiment. These geniuses’ plans were to send their prisoner cheesy movies, the worst they could find 2. The test subjects would have to sit and watch them all while the scientists monitored their minds.

While the scientific value of this endeavor is questionable at best – they are mad scientists after all – the experiment carries a certain air deep unpleasantness if not outright torture about it. It’s reminiscent of US efforts to drive Manuel Noriega, fugitive ex-president of Panama, out of the Vatican Embassy by playing Van Halen 24 hours a day.

No doubt Joel’s loneliness and despair over his imprisonment would have driven him to create the robots. The need for real social interactions is likely what led him to such an amazing AI breakthrough.

Yet, such a full replication of human mental abilities and emotions would no doubt carry along with it all the messiness of actual human interactions. No one could really predict what might happen. Joel, perhaps longing for a simple human touch, burning with desire, might one day turn to one of his robot companions to fulfill those needs. Or perhaps, evil robot logic might conclude the best way to end the experiment is to kill Joel.

Add to this the confined space, hardships and deprivations of prolonged space travel. Even the most high-minded endeavors, let alone experiments by evil scientists, are subject to both human intimacy and animosities while under such pressures. The Biosphere 2 project in Arizona back in the 1990s, for example. 3

People can put whatever spin they want on the situation in the Satellite of Love, but Joel would be de facto imprisoning his creations with him, subjecting them to every wretched unpleasantness that he would be experiencing.4 To borrow from the The Dark Knight Rises Joel and Mike and Jonah are merely visitors to hell, whereas Crow and Tom were born there.

It’s simply not a given that cooperation – let alone friendship – would emerge between the humans and robots in such a situation. Joel would be aware of this.

This is a better explanation of the Robots’ strange willingness to remain loyally by the side of and assist any human who comes along: Joel programmed the robots to have Stockholm Syndrome. Tom Servo’s personality drifted dramatically, suggesting some tinkering took place to dial in exactly the right setting.

The result is robots who follow Joel, Mike, Jonah, whoever, repeatedly into the theater. They sit through cheesy movies with no ability to control where the movie begins or ends. Meanwhile someone monitors their sanity. Sound familiar?

The dark truth of Mystery Science Theater 3000 is that Joel is a victim who became the victimizer.

But unlike Joel, his captors have no ability to resist because he made them that way. Worse, Joel gave them the illusion of free will – the belief that they have a choice.

Yet the Robots are chattel – slaves actually – passed from owner to owner with no rights and no say, programmed only for loyalty, existing only so a trapped and lonely human can exert power over them.

Perhaps it is true after all that in order for something to love us, we have to destroy it just a little bit.

  1. From a purely technological perspective, it raises the question of what parts of a video controller system could be used to build an advanced, sentient artificial intelligence. It could be a hardware stop/start button with a bit of integrated circuitry, although in most modern systems video is decoded and played back in software. Stop / start is also carried out purely in software.
  2. La la la!
  3. Granted, the Biosphere 2 may have devolved into backbiting, lawsuits and sabotage. But the person responsible for the chaos was eventually removed and is now a top adviser in the Trump Administration where he can’t do any more harm.
  4. This is also what happens when people have children.
Emperor Donald Trump the First, Glorious and Eternal

The Orange Man in the High Castle

Six-minute read

It was a bright cold day in Trumpril, and the clocks with elaborately baroque gold scrollwork were striking thirteen.

I’d just finished my daily food ration, a few ounces of gray, flavorless protein paste made of ground-up crickets, when Emperor Barron Trump the First appeared on our TV screens. There was some mention of it being the anniversary of his ascension. Was it one year? Or two?

It really doesn’t matter anyway. He may as well have been emperor for 10,000 years. So few remember the America that was, only half a lifetime ago. It has simply passed from memory.

Even the bloody, protracted leadership purge of 2034 has receded by now. It began when Emperor Donald Trump the First, Glorious & Eternal, died at 90 after serving two and a half years as President of the United States, three years as Emergency Administrator of the United States before finally, with great reluctance, assuming a lifetime appointment as emperor.

Perhaps it was Emperor Trump’s declaration late in life that he would henceforth be known as Immortan Donald that led him to forego setting a clear line of succession. Regardless, the fight amongst Trump family members for control of the United Empire of America dragged on for years.

Looking back two decades, it’s hard to point to when Trump’s rule really began. Yes, Trump’s election in 2016 obviously. But finding the flashpoint that showed the path we were headed down, that’s so much harder.

Perhaps it was when Trump was overseeing the state of emergency after Congress was disbanded and arrested. Some say it was when he named several wealthy Russian businessmen to his cabinet. Or maybe it was when a federal judge entered a temporary stay of Trump administration food safety regulations and was immediately dragged from the bench and shot on live TV.

Trump University historians noted that then-Emergency Administrator Trump’s tweets after the judge’s “retirement from the bench” reassured and calmed the troubled nation. He cast a conciliatory tone, asking Americans to pull together to “help judges maybe think about the dangerous implications of decisions they make” and that “it’d be truly terrible to see something like that judge getting shot happen again”.

A blue-ribbon commission led by Ivanka Trump found that the judge had been violently resisting arrest for an unpaid parking ticket and that the shooting was justified.

It proved to be a momentary blip, and a Trump News Network poll showed Trump’s popularity surged from a low of 93 percent to almost 99 percent after his tweetstorm. Regardless, disbanding the courts proved a more effective check on judiciary excess in the long run.

Or maybe Trump’s moment came when the buildings housing CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Huffington Post, Slate and several other smaller regional news organizations simultaneously suffered massive structural failures, collapsed and then exploded before anyone inside could be rescued. A subsequent Trump administration inquiry found dangerous structural faults in every building housing every news organization in America except Fox News and Brietbart.

All of them were ordered disbanded until such time that “The Trump administration can guarantee that anyone reporting in this country won’t meet with sudden, deadly harm, which is really very avoidable if you think about it.”

Most Trump University historians however feel that these were merely precursor events to the mass roundups and internment of individuals in camps that Trump, with a wry sense of irony, dubbed “Sanctuary Cities.” Far too late, many realized that the border walls – both with Mexico and later Canada – were merely a ruse perpetrated on a gullible public. That and the multiple travel bans were intended not to keep others out, but as Trump later noted, “turns out they were actually locked in with me.”

“Rounding up illegal immigrants with years of experience hiding was just so agents could get some practice,” Trump later said with a hearty laugh.

“Dissenters were the real problem, and they weren’t making any effort to hide at all. Imagine that! Marching in front of cameras and then posting it on social media. Can you believe it?

“They thought they were brave resistance fighters. Turns out they were just helping make my job so much easier.”

Arrests were swift. Boston, San Francisco, Williamsburg, Portland, with their strict gun control laws, offered little to no resistance.

The first step was to round up everyone who signed up for Obamacare. GPS data collected by the NSA showed who had attended anti-trump protests. Anyone wearing pussy hats on Instagram or Facebook were targeted.

Also rounded up were New York Times subscribers and NPR pledge drive donors. State DMV records were searched for Prius owners. Entire neighborhoods were rounded up simply because John Oliver or Samantha Bee once got higher than average ratings there.

Gays were lured with the promise of free Lady Gaga concert only to find that “Lady Gaga” was none other than Mike Pence in disguise. Though efforts to “straighten out” detainees by having them engage in manly activities like wood chopping backfired when it made everyone as butch as the Brawny paper towels guy.

Dominoes fell swiftly after that. All universities were shut down. Months later, as the Trump’s armies swept through Canada and Mexico unchecked, Trump announced the founding the United Trump Empire of America. Soon after, all of South America rapidly fell. Then the Middle East and its vast oil reserves.

Efforts to block Trump via constitutional authority also proved fruitless, as Trump’s plan to repeal and replace the Constitution was among his easiest victories. Trump one day had just swapped in a his own version. So few Americans know what’s in the constitution that hardly anyone even noticed that the duties of the president were expanded to include “suppressing dissent in such manner as he sees fit,” “deciding all constitutional matters” and “banging hot chicks.”

With that, 240 years of constitutional authority were replaced by the Trump organization and one man’s vulgar appetites.

And that’s where we find ourselves today. Emperor Barron Trump, now in control of his father’s vast armies and the empire he built, is said to be eying the Pacific Rim countries and Europe next. What moves will come out of the Trump House are anyone’s guess, though.

What’s notable is the swiftness with which everything recounted here happened. Some said that the notion of America being transformed into a fascist nation was just wildly exaggerated political rhetoric.

However, looking back on the rule of Immortan Donald, it turned out not just to be plausible but true.

Stormtrooper hitting his head

Why the Empire always loses

Seven-minute read

It’s really all TK-421’s fault.

He wasn’t at his post, a mistake that led directly to the destruction of the Death Star1. Abandoning an assigned post is a fundamental violation of military protocol.

It’s similar to “I forgot to bring any bullets” in its forehead-slapping stupidity. It’s a court martial offense.

While the temptation might be to personally blame Mr. 421 for the error, his actions are really a sign of greater underlying problems in the Empire’s military training regimen. A certain sloppiness is evident.

It’s the kind of thing that allows a legion of the Empire’s best troops armed with lasers to be defeated by teddy bears throwing rocks. Or that allows the Empire to lose despite the Rebels’ tactical genius admiral leading his entire starfleet into an obvious trap.

One could blame these failures on the Empire’s ego-feeding need to make a big show of crushing the Rebellion in a single battle, which fails repeatedly. But we’ve only ever seen the broad strokes of these embarrassing military campaigns. We never saw the Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead view of events.

George Lucas intentionally left stormtroopers as vague, faceless enemies,2 mere tools of a remorseless Imperial machine. He even went so far as to make them easily replaceable clones in the prequels.

Even after six movies in which Stormtroopers were featured heavily, we knew little about them other than:

  • They’re usually taller than Luke Skywalker
  • They can’t aim for shit
  • They bonk their heads on things a lot.
  • They’re aware that the new T-17 is finally coming out

The two most recent movies, The Force Embiggens and Rogue One Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, are the first to give us a more grunt-level view of military life in the Empire and First Order. FN-2187 – aka Finn – and Bodhi Rook.3 are the first Empire/First Order foot soldiers given any kind of major role.

While it is true that Finn (John Boyega) isn’t an original trilogy Stormtrooper, the First Order is a direct descendant of the Empire and clearly holds to its military traditions4. It’s made clear that the Stormtrooper training program was revamped in response to earlier failures, but seemingly not for the better.

Finn, who has been trained as a Stormtrooper since childhood, shows almost no military discipline or ability. His counterpart Mary Sue (Daisy Ridley), despite her background as a dirt-poor orphaned peasant, shows far more acumen at planning and escaping, not to mention calm under fire.

Even a cobbled-together band of rebels pilots know the importance of protocols such as radio discipline. Finn scores poorly for weapons and trigger discipline and doesn’t seem to have much in the way of fighting skills. TR-8R5 kicks his ass easily despite the fact that Finn has a goddamned lightsaber. Mary Sue, who has no military training, uses the same lightsaber to fight off a Sith Lord. Overall, it’s a very poor showing showing.

Rogue One’s former Imperial star fleet pilot Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) doesn’t fare all that well either.

While Top Gun has led us to think that being a military pilot is mainly about making furtive, longing glances across the locker room at fellow pilots, actual flight training and operations involve a lot of careful procedures that must be followed precisely to avoid disaster. Even a cobbled-together band of rebels pilots knows the importance of protocols such as radio discipline, as Wedge Antilles is chided to “cut the chatter” during the Battle of Yavin.

Bodhi is a graduate of an Empire military academy and flight school. He’s a junior officer with the rank of ensign. He’s not only a stick and rudder man. He would serve as commander of whatever craft he was flying.

In Star Trek terms, he’s Wesley Crusher to Finn’s redshirt. He’s a far more trained, far more educated, far more responsible individual than cannon fodder like stormtroopers. Or, you’d think.

Yet he’s an even bigger hot mess than Finn. He’s a ditzy scatterbrain who, like Finn, doesn’t seem as if he received any military training or discipline. He’s nearly useless in planning the assault on Evil Space Google that ends the movie.

Snarky Robot Slave K-2SO (Hoban Washburne) does most of the flying and is responsible for saving the crew from the exploding remains of Jebbush City 6 by flying way from the scene much like a leaf on the wind might.

What’s notable in both Finn and Bodhi, though, is not lack of skill but a decided lack of loyalty.

Finn is shaken by the death of a stormtrooper who was his – BFF? BAE?7 – and promptly deserts, only to, a few hours later and without hesitation, drill blaster shots into his former comrades’ chests. His lack of loyalty shows up again when, after finding out the stakes of Mary Sue’s mission, he decides to bolt the scene and sign onto a freighter.

Bhodi decides to join the Rebellion “because reasons,” although giving characters things like “motivations” or “story arcs” or “dimensions” didn’t seem to be a strong point for the Rogue One writers.

Such unmotivated disloyalty points to deep problems in the Empire and First Order’s lower ranks. Traitors commonly feel that whoever or whatever they have turned against betrayed them first. Paying back this original slight is how they justify their own betrayals. For example, Mark Felt, a.k.a. “Deep Throat” began leaking to The Washington Post after being passed over as FBI director.

But that doesn’t seem to be the case here. Finn and Bhodi are just untrustworthy.

Military training is supposed to use our innate, evolutionary propensity to form tight social bonds – tribalist, really – in small groups. It’s said you don’t fight for a cause, you fight for the guy next to you. Finn and Bodhi don’t even do that. They head for the exit.

Even if we set aside poor skills on display, the Empire’s military training seems to be fundamentally flawed at turning men into soldiers.

It’s why TK-421 didn’t see a need to stay at his post. Or Finn put his own wellbeing above that of others. Or Bodhi turned so easily. Or Stormtroopers are chatting about spaceships instead of guarding the important tractor beam controls right at a key moment. Or your chief deputy you saved from a lava pit throws you down a 10,000 story reactor shaft.

Poor training is why the Empire fell. Well it didn’t actually fall. It underwent liquidation wherein it sold its core assets to Supreme Leader Snape then followed that up by a rebranding and relaunch. Kinda like AOL or Yahoo.

  1. Some blame also lies with the guy who let the blockade runner’s escape pod go. Dude, they’re not paying you to bring back ammunition.
  2. It’s worth noting that Lucas here is doing what propagandists have been doing for years. By depriving the enemy of identity and playing to 3. prejudices he can kill them by the thousands onscreen and no one cares.
  3. Real subtle character naming there, Star Wars writers. Why not just name him Knowthings McDoomedguy?
  4. Such as getting its giant space lasers blown up. Amiright?
  5. Who, by the way, is a ginger.
  6. An explosion that, unlike all other explosions large and small, seems to have no explosive wavefront moving at supersonic speeds that would have crushed the escaping ship like a bug.
  7. All those young stormtrooper dudes and the only woman is Capt. Phasma. Situational homosexuality in the Stormtrooper corps must be rampant.
Key limes

Put the coconut in the lime

Three-minute read

Key lime pie is quite literally the very best thing that you can put in your mouthhole. 1 Well, proper key lime pie that is.

Restaurant key lime pie has left many with the impression that it’s something with the consistency of primary school paste dyed nuclear green and infused with lime-flavored petroleum distillates.

And, for god sakes, do not get your key lime pie out a can.

This is America. We can do better. Granted, our presidential nomination process gave us a choice between a thin-lipped scold and a professional wrestling announcer. But key lime pie needs standards.

It’s one of those recipes that’s easier to make in its purest form. It doesn’t take hours in the kitchen getting the specific gravity of a complex set of ingredients just right. It’s just a fairly simple list of ingredients that you mix together and bake. It’s easier to make than gravy.

The secret recipe for really great key lime pie is this:

  • Buy Nellie & Joe’s key lime juice. 2
  • Make the recipe on the bottle.

But this also smacks of settling, like listening to Hootie and Blowfish or going on a date with me. A tweak here or there to the classic recipe can really make a difference.

Key Lime Pie Top Tip No. 1

Use fresh key limes if they are available. It’s better enough that it’s worth the few minutes of extra effort. One bag is enough for one pie.

Squeezing 15 or so ping pong-ball-sized limes might seem a problem. Cut them in half and use a garlic press. It takes less than five minutes to do a whole bag.

Key Lime Pie Top Tip No. 2

The classic recipe calls for graham cracker crust. The best way to make a graham cracker crust is to take the box of crackers and throw them the hell out the window. Graham crackers are shit.

A crust of crushed-up vanilla wafers with a bit of shredded coconut adds a nice counterpoint to the sweet and tart pie filling.

So get this playing on your hi-fi and let’s go. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • Three large handfuls of vanilla wafers.
  • Sugar
  • One can of sweetened condensed milk
  • Three eggs
  • One bag of limes squeezed (about 2/3 of a cup or so)
  • About 3/4 stick of butter, melted
  • Shredded coconut

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Crush the vanilla wafers. I generally put them in a large ziplock bag and roll them with a rolling pin until they’re cookie dust. You should end up with a cup or so. Add two or three tablespoons of sugar. 3 Add two or three heaping tablespoons of coconut.

Mix it all up and then pour in the melted butter as you stir the crumbs. You’ll need a little finesse here. The crumbs should stick in place if pressed with a spoon, but not be drenched. You don’t have to use all the butter.

Butter a 9-inch pie plate. Dump the crumbs into it and lightly press them in place with the back of a spoon until you have a reasonable facsimile of a pie crust. Pop it in the oven for 10 minutes. You can skip this prebaking step if you want your crust to be soggy shit that falls apart.

Mix the sweetened condensed milk, lovingly hand-squeezed lime juice and three egg yolks together. When the crust is done prebaking, dump the filling into the crust, jiggle it around a bit to level it and bake for 15 minutes.

When done, chill it for a couple hours and then try to not eat the whole goddamned thing in one joy- and self-hatred-filled sitting.

  1. Well, in the category of food that is.
  2. Get key lime juice. Regular limes won’t work right.
  3. Don’t leave it out. Also, use real butter. You’re making a pie not a kale and quinoa salad.
Terrible, terrible candy

Candy shopping suggestions for people who hate children

Three-minute read

Not everyone likes children. And that’s OK.

It’s not that we want anything bad to happen to them. It’s just that making them happy isn’t a high priority.

Which is why you’ll want to stock up on candy aimed directly at disappointing the little monsters, some of whom will be dressed as monsters, who ring your doorbell. Or perhaps children in your neighborhood suffer from pica and will eat anything.

Either way, make sure these end up in your Halloween candy bowl.

  • Necco Wafers Oliver Chase was inspired to invent this venerable candy in 1846 after he accidentally nibbled on a stick of colored chalk. 1 Anyone who’s ever choked down a candy heart on Valentine’s Day will recognize that they are made from the same substance as Necco Wafers.
  • Horehound Usually found hiding in the dish of weird ribbon candy on your great aunt’s coffee table. One would be hard-pressed to argue that horehound was even a form of candy. Like Necco Wafers or sorghum, it was invented before they knew how to make things that taste good.
  • Good & Plenty Good & Plenty are greatly admirable for their deceptive nature, a colorful pink and white exterior hiding a heart of evil black licorice. The product name is a striking failure of imagination, promising something that falls short of excellence but will be made up in volume.
  • Smarties A single bite on this aspirin-shaped candy reduces them to a mouthful of sour dust. Their key feature is a tube-shaped wrapper, designed to have at least half of them fall on the floor when opened.
  • Tootsie Rolls Waxy, yet tooth-shatteringly hard! Tootsie Rolls are chocolate in its lowest form, consumable only after exhausting all options, including eating the Nestle Quick straight out of the can with a spoon.
  • Bit-O-Honey The creators of this confection saw someone breaking a tooth on a Tootsie Roll and thought “We can top that!” This candy is however made with all natural ingredients including honey, wood shavings and industrial epoxy resin.
  • Circus Peanuts From Wikipedia: “The leading producers of circus peanuts are Melster Candies, Spangler Candy Company, and Brach’s …” but they are “… sold in generic label bags.” Even the companies that make them won’t own up.
  • Bazooka Joe Bubble Gum A rock-hard rectangle of bubble gum dusted in talcum powder and wrapped in a comic with a joke from 1946. No one in history has successfully blown a bubble using Bazooka Joe.
  • Pop Rocks I heard that Mikey from the Life cereal commercial ate some Pop Rocks and then drank a Diet Coke and his stomach totally exploded! For reals. My cousin knows someone who saw it happen. It’s totally true!
  • Laffy Taffy These candies are to Starburst as Hydrox are to Oreos. 2 They also pick up on the comedy + candy theme pioneered by Bazooka Joe, with a laff in every taffy. Those not candy included can just follow their Twitter feed.3
  • Raisins They’re nature’s candy! Wait kid, come back. Don’t you want to grow up healthy? Fine, have fun paying off the national debt.
  • Almond Joy What better way to introduce children to the soul crushing disappointment of life than to associate the word “joy” with turd-shaped coconut topped with a stale almond.

Some might wonder why certain items are missing from this list, notably candy corn. It’s because candy corn is fucking awesome and people who don’t like it are idiots who don’t know shit about candy or what’s good.

Regardless, with these in your candy bowl, the worst Halloween ever is guaranteed for anyone who indulges. As an additional tip for those using this shopping guide, the best way to clean eggs off the front of your house is warm soapy water, a stiff brush and elbow grease.

  1. I work a block from the former Necco factory, which is being converted to the new headquarters for GE.
  2. Even though Oreos are actually a ripoff of Hydrox. Nabisco just wanted it more.
  3. I toured the Laffy Taffy factory on a field trip in the fifth grade.
I voted sticker

Whoever wins, we all lose

Three-minute read

A few weeks before the 2012 election, I was talking to a friend. “Mitt Romney scares me,” she said in a tone of voice normally reserved for talking about ebola or clowns.

“Really, Mitt Romney scares you?” I asked. The slightly right-of-center former Massachusetts governor squish who helped pass universal health care. “Really, he ‘scares’ you?”

Wouldn’t a candidate like Mitt Romney or Joe Biden be welcome breath of fresh air right about now? Flawed, yes, but basically decent folk. Barack Obama and George W. Bush, if you strip away the politics, at least seemed like decent people.

Instead we have “loudmouth at a bar 30 seconds before he gets punched in the face” running against “superintendent of a women’s prison calling lights out.” This is awful.

Americans only have one option: Don’t vote.

This sounds like cynicism, which I abound in even in the best years. Despite this, enough Pollyanna shines through that I have voted in every presidential and congressional election since I turned 18. Primaries, even.

But the ongoing shitshow of 2016 transcends mere cynicism. Voting for either major party candidate is actually wrong.

I don’t want to go into an in-depth analysis of the candidates’ various political or personal outrages. It would just end up an “I’ll see your ‘Trump University is a scam’ and raise you a ‘Clinton’s cattle futures trading.’” Their many, many, many, many corruptions are so well documented for both candidates over several decades that to argue that either is suitable for office borders on denial of simple facts.

Yet people do. Put nicely, politics causes people to lose perspective on the problems with their own candidate. Or, put less delicately, politics makes people stupid.

The American political system is at its heart transactional. The candidate gets what he or she wants by convincing a sufficient amount of people that they’ll actually get what they want. Clinton or Trump will get the power, prestige and a place in the history books by being president. Even if we get a tax break or a social program or legalized marriage between cats and dogs, it’s hard not to argue the winning candidate gets the better deal in the long run.

But someone has to win. We can’t just not have a president. Voting for the lesser of two evils is a longstanding American political tradition.1 Our vote gets lost in a vast sea of other votes that were cast with millions of different motives, so holding one’s nose and voting goes down a little easier. I’m doing my civic duty! It’s important! USA! USA!

Despite our one vote being one of a million voices, we still own that choice.

It’s important that the country have capable leadership that isn’t corrupt, or cynical, or entranced by bad ideas or whatever faults that might describe that pair. But it’s even beyond that.

A friend of mine is regularly outraged by Donald Trump antics. His argument is that Trump normalizes bad things. It’s a valid argument, to a degree. Unfortunately it’s a dependent on who gets to decide good from bad.

But the argument is correct that it important to draw a line, if only personally. Electing Trump or Clinton means that it is OK to be like Trump or Clinton in American politics. Not just OK. Great. It becomes the way to win.

Trump and Clinton are the worst pair to run for president in my lifetime – professional wrestling announcer vs. Nixon in a pantsuit. They deserve no fealty on our part. It’s not our duty or obligation to give either of them a vote. It’s binary. Either they do or do not deserve a vote.

And they do not. Not at all.

  1. The Simpsons did a brilliant parody of this notion in 1996. Aliens replace Bob Dole and Bill Clinton with obvious aliens Kang and Kodos, only to have people vote Kang into office anyway.
Gillian Taylor talks to Spock and Capt. Kirk

Gone girl

Four-minute read

Of all the movies in the Star Trek canon, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is an outlier.

It’s a total lark, a romp, a love letter to fans who just wanted to have a damn good time watching a Star Trek movie. After the heavy life-and-death themes of Star Treks II and III, it was a welcome respite 1.

Most people remember the film for the “nuclear wessels” scene or Spock nerve-pinching the punk rocker2 on the bus or Scotty saying “hello, computer” into a Mac Plus mouse.

However, one aspect of the movie has bothered me for years. Inside the film’s cheery lightfootedness is an overlooked, incredibly dark storyline.

The plot itself is kinda silly, even by Star Trek standards. The Enterprise crew travels back to 1986 San Francisco – then-present-day – to find some humpbacked whales to bring back to the 23rd Century to appease an angry space probe that looks like a Bic lighter and soccer ball.

As part of the mission, Kirk hooks up with, Gillian Taylor, a cetacean biologist at San Francisco-area aquarium. At movie’s end, she warps off to hang out in the 23rd Century with the Enterprise crew.

The movie doesn’t even begin to explore the ramifications of her sudden, strange departure.

To justify it, Gillian proffers an excuse that she has “nobody here.”3 It’s an unlikely claim, in light of her boss telling her “Don’t tell me fish stories, kiddo. I’ve known you too long” in a mentorish tone.

From her coworker’s perspective the whole incident is a horrifying tragedy and mystery that would haunt them for the rest of their lives. They’d be sick with worry, dreading the worst, as they watch police piece together her movements leading up to her disappearance.

The investigation would find that a day or so prior to her disappearance, as she was giving a routine aquarium tour, some kooky guy jumped in the whale tank and caused a stir.

Witnesses in the tour group would report that she was visibly upset over the incident. Surveillance cameras would show her heatedly arguing with a man in a bathrobe and his companion, in some sort of weird uniform. Suspicious even for San Francisco.

Rather than having the pair, you know, arrested or something, she starts hanging out with of them. Witnesses at a local pizza restaurant would report Gillian and the uniformed man arriving together, then rushing off just as the food arrived.

Gillian became erratic, her coworkers would report, and began missing work as her concern over the wellbeing of the whales in her charge became something akin to an obsession.

The last time any of them saw her in person was when she burst into work, called her boss a son of a bitch, slapped him in a fit of rage and stormed out, driving away in her dilapidated truck. Days later it would be found abandoned in Golden Gate Park.

Her last-known whereabouts would come later that day as she’s spotted on surveillance video in a raucous foot chase through a hospital as she helps kidnap a critically injured Russian spy out of a secure ward.

After that, she’s never seen again.

Compounding the mystery, the transponder signals of the whales both go silent within hours of the creatures’ release because the Enterprise crew absconded with them.

Was she assisting the Russians in some sort of plot, her friends might wonder? Did she get in over her head and get murdered for her mistake?

Her coworkers crying and hugging each other at her candlelight memorial would find little solace as they sort through the evidence and scant details she left behind.

There’d be no way for anyone to know what really happened. She’d just be gone, without a trace.

  1. Star Trek IV was the first Star Trek movie to screen in the then-Soviet Union. The line “the bureaucratic mentality is the only constant in the universe” got the biggest laugh.
  2. Interesting fact: Kirk Thatcher, who was an associate producer on the movie, played the the punk on the bus. He wrote and performed the song playing on his boom box.
  3. The crew sure has become really lackadaisical about plucking people out of the past since the time of the episode Yesterday is Tomorrow.

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