Captain Uhura


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The chain of command on the Kirk-Spock version of the U.S.S. Enterprise is stupidly sexist.

After Captain Kirk and First Officer Spock, who takes over? Chief Engineer Scott, Helmsman and Weapons Officer Sulu, and in one episode of the original series, Assistant Chief Engineer DeSalle. But what about Communications Officer Uhura?

In movies and TV, Uhura has commanded the Enterprise just once, in an episode of the animated series when every man on the ship was unavailable — as if Uhura ranked under even the lowliest yeoman swab, as long as he was male.

I can understand Scotty taking command before Uhura. He outranks her and seems to have more seniority.

But Sulu? The guy who’s in charge of steering the ship and firing weapons would deserve to take over if the Enterprise were a warship constantly speeding into battles, firing on enemies, and evading attack.

It’s not a warship, though. One of the Enterprise‘s top missions is contacting civilizations new to the Federation — a job of communications. The chain of command should be Kirk, Spock, Scott, Uhura, Sulu. (I get the feeling that TOS’s producers installed DeSalle simply because they needed someone in charge and didn’t think about putting Uhura there.)

If we see future movies featuring the original characters, I want to see Uhura in the command chair.


The droid and the Dark Side


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What turned innocent Ben Solo into evil Kylo Ren? I blame C-3PO.

As little Ben grows up, mommy Leia’s busy as politician and diplomat, spending long days and long voyages to build a new republic and leaving daddy Han Solo as the family breadwinner. So Han’s gone a lot, trading and smuggling with Chewbacca all over the galaxy. Meanwhile, Uncle Luke’s off X-winging with R2-D2, seeking young adepts for his new Jedi academy.

Thus Leia and Han leave much of Ben’s upbringing to the nanny who knows etiquette and protocol: C-3PO.

But C-3PO, hard-wired to be a servant, isn’t great at handling the willful, emotional Ben. C-3PO knows only one way to calm Ben’s frequent tantrums: Tell him stories like the one he told the Ewoks about Luke, Leia, Han, and grandpa Darth Vader.

Ben’s in no mood to consider the often absent Mom, Dad, and Uncle Luke as heroes — but C-3PO’s tales of Vader captivate him. Mom’s trying to patch together fragile coalitions with demagogues and ward-heelers, Dad’s dickering for scraps and running from customs agents, and Uncle Luke’s begging children to go to school; but Vader was a Force-choking badass who could’ve ruled the galaxy.

C-3PO’s not very shrewd about human emotion, but eventually he notices Ben’s Vader-worship. He refuses to reveal more about Vader, which only fires Ben’s fascination higher. So by the time Supreme Leader Snoke comes to tempt Ben into joining the Knights of Ren, the young man is primed to go.

And it’s all the fault of the family’s loyal droid.

What will topple Trump? (It’s not what you think)


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US-VOTE-TRUMPWhenever Donald Trump says something offensive, some of his opponents say something like, “That’s it! This time, his supporters will turn on him!”

But it doesn’t happen. Some supporters make the turn, but a gigantic amount don’t. See this story from CNN and this one from the Washington Post.

No, what turns supporters into opponents isn’t what a president says but what he does.
• The first George Bush lost popularity among his fellow Republicans because he broke his promise “No new taxes.”
• Jimmy Carter practically encouraged members of his own party to become Reagan Democrats because he failed to rescue American hostages in Iran and revive the economy.
• Richard Nixon lost Republican support because he led the Watergate criminal conspiracy.
• Lyndon Johnson lost favor among his fellow Democrats because he couldn’t win or pull out of the Vietnam War.

Compare those guys to Bill Clinton. His sex and perjury scandal was as big a controversy as Watergate. Why didn’t Democrats abandon Clinton?

It’s not because Democrats are more loyal than Republicans. Look at how Democrats treated Carter and Johnson.

The difference is that most Democrats never saw Clinton’s scandals as huge, crucial matters of governance and politics. But Bush’s tax hikes, Carter’s failures to fix the economy and the Iran calamity, Nixon’s attempts to undermine a presidential election and federal investigations, and Johnson’s murderous war — everyone argued about them, but very few called them unimportant. At least not for long.

So Trump can probably say what he wants. His supporters won’t abandon him — until he does something as Chief Executive (and not just as a talking mouth) that they can’t stand.

The rambling wreck of Star Trek


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Star Trek’s U.S.S. Enterprise is a masterpiece of design, one of the great icons of 20th century design, up there with the crown of the Chrysler Building and Paul Rand’s logos.

But nothing’s perfect.

Take the weapons array, on the underside of the saucer section in most versions.

ent_phasers_blue 7e9dd4947d1ec1b75f2f847492ad52f3

Its death rays can shatter anything that flies through space — as long as they’re somewhere below it. A tiny Klingon vessel flying over the Enterprise can fire disruptor cannons and photon torpedoes at the bigger ship’s bridge (inconveniently located atop the saucer), and old NCC-1701’s mighty weapons can’t do a damn thing about it.

And look at the struts holding up the Enterprise’s nacelles.


Pretty thin, considering that the nacelles push the ship through space and make it capable of warp speed. And the struts aren’t exactly a tiny target; they look nearly as long as the nacelles. Cut those sticks — a few disruptor blasts from any Klingon or Romulan warship would do it — and the Enterprise is a paperweight. (Okay, a paperweight with impulse power, but impulse is watery sauce compared to warp power.)

Now, let’s go inside the ship. Over the years, bad guys and equipment malfunctions have cut off the bridge and other parts of the ship from the rest of the vessel, depriving our heroes of necessities like, say, air.

Well, that’s kind of dumb. Every cabin, corridor, and crawl space (except maybe the brig’s prisoner cells) should have an independent air supply, canteens full of fresh water, at least one phaser, a first-aid kit, and other prerequisites for keeping oneself alive in unpredictable situations.

I love the Enterprise, I really do.

But nothing’s perfect.

“Whores” scores


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I recently finished P.J. O’Rourke’s Parliament of Whores, which I recommend. Though the book is more than 25 years old, and O’Rourke is as conservative as I am liberal, which is a lot, I found it hilarious over and over.

A lot of the appeal is O’Rourke’s honesty.
• He despises government but can’t stop noticing that a lot of people who comprise it are likeable, sincere, and hard-working.
• He makes fun of people who petition the government for a redress of grievances but admits that he’d impose his own desires and quirks on the political system if he had half a chance.
• He knows that neither liberals nor conservatives are solely and wholly evil: “The Democrats are the party that says government will make you smarter, taller, richer, and remove the crabgrass on your lawn. The Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work and then they get elected and prove it.”

And unlike a lot of political grumblers, he goes on the scene — in Washington or in a war zone — to look into what he’s griping about.

Good stuff. Read it.

The movie trailer drinking game!


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My wife and I have invented a virtual drinking game. It’s virtual because it’s to be played in movie theaters, which don’t usually allow alcohol.

It’s the Movie Trailer Cliche Game. Take a sip every time a trailer includes:

“[Name] was just an ordinary guy — until . . .”
“I Feel Good” by James Brown, “All Star” by Smashmouth, “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses, or “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana by Carl Orff
Fast fades in and out of black
Person in front of explosion
Slow-motion walk toward the camera
People looking up in shock or awe
Three-word sentences (e.g., “This ends now,” “Let’s do this.”)
Two-word sentences (“Let’s roll” or, before a fight, “Let’s dance.”)
White or pale gold credits on a black background
Poop joke or fart joke in a kids’ movie
Black screen with voice-over

By the end of the trailers before most movies, you’ll be smashed silly.

Death that keeps coming back


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Trigger warning: This post is about a sad subject.

When you’re in touch with someone often, and she dies, her death confronts you all the time: You realize that you would have talked with her today, you would have eaten dinner with her tomorrow night, you would have seen her this weekend. Even if at first you can’t believe that she’s dead, the loss hits you and hits you and hits you until it becomes part of you.

Then there are the loved ones whom you don’t see so often, like the ones who live far away. They’re not part of your daily life, but you’re happy to know that they’re out there, and you look forward to your next contact.

When someone like that dies, the recovery process gets strange — especially if the deceased’s funeral takes place so far off that you aren’t there for any of its cathartic healing.

While your friend was alive, you got so used to her being away that when she leaves you forever, it’s almost as if nothing has changed. Her death doesn’t confront you, and it’s easy to let it slip out of your mind.

Eventually, though, you accidentally drop into an old habit and think of contacting her. That’s when you run headfirst into the heartless reality, and you’re sad all over again. Recovery takes you longer because the reminders of her death hit every few weeks or months, not day after day.

Losing someone you see all the time is harder — much harder, desperately harder, monumentally harder — than the pain of losing someone who was only occasionally a part of your life.

But the latter seems to linger forever.

The trouble with the Spectre


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The Spectre is one of DC Comics’ problem children.

The Spectre is an actual specter. In deathly pale flesh and ghoulish green cloak and hood, he’s a ghost whom God has granted near-infinite power to wreak vengeance on evil.

The Spectre has carried out his role by turning bad men into inanimate objects (and then destroying the objects) or simply scaring them to death; he’s also fought cosmic opponents. But he’s always had two problems from a story standpoint.

First: too much power. It’s hard to come up with challenges to create dramatic tension when the hero can do anything.

Over the years, writers have tried to limit the Spectre’s power. But his near-omnipotence is part of his attraction. A merciless spirit who can crush planets raises an exciting thrill of fear that other heroes can’t match. Weakening his abilities would weaken his appeal.

The Spectre’s second problem is insufficient depth. He’s been God’s instrument of vengeance; but the urge to vengeance is only one emotion. The Spectre’s narrow range of feeling keeps a lot of his adventures emotionally monotonous and repetitive. It’s hard to find enough variations to keep the Spectre interesting in story after story.

Writers have occasionally tried to fix this problem by giving the Spectre a love interest or other emotional connections; but those connections have pulled him from his mission. And his mission — to punish evil in the grisliest ways imaginable — pleases readers. Distracting him from it reduces their pleasure.

Thus the problems that make the Spectre appealing also force his stories into repetition and sameness. How can you fix his problems without undermining his appeal?

My answer: Satan.

The Spectre discovers that he’s unknowingly been serving the devil, not God. Whenever the Spectre thought he was hearing God’s voice or visiting heaven, he was falling for a deception that Satan had set up.

Why would Satan build such a cruel illusion? To reduce humanity’s trust in God. When the Spectre performs horrendous violence and calls it God’s will, he makes God look monstrous and unworthy of worship.

For the first time in a long career of horrifying others, the Spectre is himself horrified at what he’s done.

Not to worry, Satan says. You’ve done great work for me, so I’ll keep you on the job. But if you refuse, I’ll have my demons kill you.

Of course, the Spectre refuses, but we now have a setup for a universe of stories.

The Spectre is as powerful as ever, but Satan’s demons are nearly as mighty, and they vastly outnumber him. Some even have abilities that the Spectre has never developed. For instance, the Spectre is not especially nimble; alacrity is not his strength — but Satan has demons who come and go in an instant, harrying the Spectre into furies that could destroy continents.

And when the Spectre defeats the demons, he wreaks vengeance on them more ghastly than anything that he ever inflicted on human beings.

Why does he get so mad at them? Because they keep him from his new mission: to win God’s forgiveness for his sins.

The Spectre calls out to God, but God doesn’t answer his pleas any more than He sits down to chat with you or me. So he tries other means to reach Him. The Spectre is on the hunt for supernatural beings who’ve won God’s favor and who could intercede on his behalf. He also tries to atone by helping human beings, but his terrifying demeanor, intimidating power and deathly reputation scare them away. What’s a repentant ghost to do?

So that’s the new Spectre: as powerful and vengeful as ever, but facing formidable adversaries and a wider range of stories.

Of course, I don’t expect DC to offer me authority over its big, green ghost.

But it’d be fun to have the chance.

The people who are watching you


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Here’s a theory: Women in male-dominated cultures usually know more about guy stuff than guys know about women’s lives. Non-Christians in Christian countries generally know more about Christianity than Christians know about other faiths. People of color in white-dominated places often know more about white ways of life than whites know about P.O.C. cultures. Gays tend to know more about the hetero world than heteros know about gay life.

More broadly: People on the lower rungs of society — P.O.C.s in white-majority places, women in a man’s world, gays in a straight society, non-Christians in Christian countries — tend to know more about the culture of the more dominant group than people in the dominant group know about the culture of less dominant groups.

It’s unavoidable, because the dominant culture tends to, well, dominate. Its influence pervades the entire populace. Unless your group isolates itself completely from the rest of society, you can’t help but hear about how Christians celebrate Christmas, how heteros date and marry, how men run businesses and governments, and how white people do just about everything.

And if you want to thrive, prosper, and succeed in a society where your group isn’t in charge, knowing how the dominant group does things isn’t just unavoidable. It’s necessary.

But the people in the leading group don’t usually have to know so much about the people less dominant.

And when dominant-group people do try to learn about other groups, they have to work hard at it, because the less dominant culture gets less time on the airwaves, less space in print, and so on. Besides, people in subordinate groups don’t always trust someone from the dominant culture poking his nose in and looking around.

So if you’re in any strong group and you’re ever tempted to think that people in a minority or other less-powerful group seem ignorant or uneducated, consider how much or how little you know about their culture.

And then maybe think about how people on the lower ends of any group don’t always love the people on top.

You may not understand freedom


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goldfish jumping out of the water

We have at least two kinds of freedom, and I think we often misunderstand them.

Take the First Amendment. We think of it as a “freedom to” law: freedom to speak, to assemble, to worship, and so on.

But that’s not what it says.

It says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of relisgion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble . . . .”

That’s not “freedom to.” It’s “freedom from” — in this case, freedom from Congressional interference.

And that makes sense, because “freedom from” comes before “freedom to.” You can’t exercise your freedom to do something until you get freedom from whatever’s blocking you.

Another example: the Civil War. It gave African-Americans some freedom to determine their own destinies. But they couldn’t exercise that freedom until the war freed them from slavery.

Jump to the next century. Ronald Reagan felt that businesses could exercise their freedom to prosper only after they received freedom from over-regulation. Again, “freedom from” came before “freedom to.”

And when Franklin Roosevelt gave his famous speech about “Four Freedoms,” two of them were “freedoms from”: freedom from want and freedom from fear. People have to be free from illness, starvation, and neediness, and from terrifying war and invasion, before they can exercise the freedom to do — well, almost anything.

Which brings us to Obamacare.

Obamacare has helped to free people from awful medical conditions and heavy burdens of medical debt. This “freedom from” has increased their “freedom to”: the freedom to enjoy what America’s founders called the pursuit of happiness.

I’ll admit that Obamacare may have interfered with some freedoms as it expanded others. Creating freedom for one group often reduces freedom for another.
• In the early 1860s, some Southerners considered Abraham Lincoln a tyrant because, in their opinion, his desire to outlaw slavery would steal their freedom to enslave.
• By mandating safe food and medicine, the Pure Food and Drug Act reduced the freedom of businesses to peddle hidden poisons. But it freed Americans from the fear that the next thing that they’d put in their mouths might kill them.
• World War II’s military draft stole freedom from millions of men so that they could win a war to free millions of other people from tyranny.

So I don’t blame people for opposing Obamacare. I just think that it provides more freedom than it removes.