Tuesday, December 29, 2009

What Will We Call The Last Decade?

The first decade of the Twenty-First Century is in the bag. We had the pop cultural “-ies” of the 20th Century. (Fifties, Sixties, Seventies, et al.) but is this kind of branding of the decades by the “-ies” over? What are we going to call the last decade? The Aughts? Seriously?

I’ve been thinking about this for more than ten years. It seems just yesterday that it was the last year of The Nineties and we were worrying about Y2K and surfing the web on Lycos or Ask Jeeves. Times have changed. One thing we’ve never really gotten a handle on is what to call this last decade.

On Twitter and Facebook I finally proposed the question. I mean, where else can I get a good feel for what to call this unnamable decade except by crowdsourcing? The results were staggeringly diverse. Some were funny. Some political. Other just clever.

The first response I got on Twitter was from @profnet who asked, “How about The Zilches?” Good one. A contender for the top ten list. @ruthseely chimed in with an interesting term I hadn’t heard yet. “I thought they were called the naughties,” she tweeted. “A term at which I always giggled although I didn't witness much naughtiness.”

“Here is the name for the past decade,” @OneCauseATATime suggested. “Death of Common Sense” Funny, perhaps, depending on which side of the political fence you stand on, but probably not going to make the list by most standards.

Keeping with the political tone, @cpmomcat suggested that the Aughts was actually a good term for the last decade: “The Aughts seems appropriate,” she tweeted. “We aught to have elected Gore or Kerry, we aught to have regulated, etc. I know ought is not spelled with an ‘a’ - but it still works for me.”

A couple of people suggested “the 0’s (ohs not zeros)” which prompted a follow up by @profnet: “I also like the "Uh-Ohs" (play on the Oh-Ohs). :-)”

My Facebook friends were a little more acerbic. A college buddy of mine said: he liked “The ies-less-ies”? A former coworker of mine voted for “The Single Digits.”

No matter what we end up calling this decade my college friend put it best when he said, “Anyone who calls it ‘The Two Thousands’ sounds like a moron!”

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

2010 Wish List

It's that time of year when people get all starry eyed about the coming year while getting misty eyed about the one that just passed. In the middle are the predicitons and wish lists. Here I present my wish list for 2010:

1) The cure for some deadly disease spurred by stem cell research, specifically ALS because I work for The ALS Association Greater New York Chapter. While I realize an outright cure is virtually impossible in the next 12 months the least I can wish for is a breakthough in treatment to help prolong life or raise the quality of life for people with ALS (PALS). I'd also like to see some promising research for a cure on the genetic level.

2) The discovery of an earth-like exoplanet in the "goldilocks" zone" where we find some form of primitive life at least. This year was another banner year for finding exoplantes, especially earth-like ones with water. For most astrophysicists, finding water on any exoplanet in the habitable zone would be the most promising precondition for then finding life of some sort. I doubt we could find Yoda hanging out on Degobah but even some sign of an atmosphere where evidence of life exists on a watery world would be miraculous and astounding.

3) The unveiling of an Apple tablet that kicks a**. I hear the Kindle is a great product. Sadly, I can't afford one because I can't buy something that pretty much only reads books. It has to be multifunctional and technology is passed the point where I'd buy JUST a book reader. Meld my other media passions with book reading and you just might have yourself a winner there buster. And if it came from Apple? Grand Slam. (Books. Music. Movies. Apple!) I'd probably dig deep into the wallet and pull out my credit card for a really useful Apple Tablet. One that I can read Kindle book files on (because I already shop extensively on Amazon) and with ability to play music, watch movies, surf the web, check emails and with at least minimal word processing and photo editing power. I want the iTouch but bigger and better. I'd pay $499 for this device if I could stop lugging around my laptop back and forth to work everyday.

4) Change. I want change. The change I voted for. Congress seems to miss the point of the 2008 election. People really did want change. We certainly didn't want Republicans (the party of zero ideas) putting the kibosh on every single darn thing the president proposed. We didn't want rude Sentaors shouting "liar" in congress. We didn't want Health Care Reform hijacked by crazies. We didn't want bank lobbyists and CEOs derailing regulation. We wanted America to become number one in the world for economics, research, science, politics, the environment and commerce. How are we going to get there arguing with ourselves looking like fools? We wanted change. Are we getting it? We need to look at 2009 as a benchmark and ask if we're really heading in the direction that we wanted to go.

The above are some ideas I had off the top of my head that I expanded on for this blog post. It came about when someone tweeted about a public Google Wave on imagining 2010. I went there and dashed off a list for the science and technology section. That inspired this post. So a fifth wish would be for much more of that type of stuff. Ideas, conversations and the like extended and shared through innovative web-based software.

So there's my wish list for 2010.

Do you have a wish list? It's probably better than mine. So please feel free to share your wish list in the comments below or link to your own 2010 wish lists on your blog. I'd love to hear them.

Enjoy your holidays and have a Happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

What is your favorite b-movie villain(s)?

I was watching the old Mighty Morphin Power Ranger movie with my 7 year old son. He loves this movie. I was always very much too old for this series thinking it silly and childish (unlike my fascination with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which came out when I was in college.) Anyway, what makes this movie watchable (actually there are two things) is the villain, Ivan Ooze. He's a cross between Batman's Joker, a glam rocker and Carl Reiner. He's deliciously evil and deliberately campy. What other evil villain bent on world destruction can hock a luggie that creates an army of evil henchmen?

The other reason the movie is watchable (for the men at least) is Dulcea, master warrior on the planet Phaedos.

So my question is, what other b-movie villains are your favorites?

Monday, November 30, 2009

Post on banking and jobs

I also have a blog called "Mortgage Maven" where I post about issues in the banking industry to supplement my freelance writing for banking trade magazines and other bank/economic related issues and information.

Read my latest blog post called "Jobs, cash and credit"

Friday, November 13, 2009

MLB.com coverage of the 15th Annual Lou Gehrig Sports Awards Benefit Dinner

Williams, Gossage honored at ALS benefit
\Yankees legends feted at 15th annual event in NY
By Mark Newman / MLB.com

NEW YORK -- Yankees legends Bernie Williams and Goose Gossage joined the New York Jets' all-time rushing leader, Curtis Martin, and NBA Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins as honorees at the 15th annual Lou Gehrig Sports Award Benefit on Thursday night. The event was put on by the ALS Association's Greater New York Chapter, which raised $700,000 toward the fight against amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

Click here to read the full story on MLB.com

Thursday, November 05, 2009

American Anarchists Bomb Wall Street

No. That’s not the plot of the next blockbuster movie (though it should be) and it’s not a political statement (though it should be) or a controversial newspaper headline (New York Post, perhaps?). It is a statement of fact (historical fact). Anarchists once blew up a bomb on Wall Street to destabilize the economy and overthrow the capitalist regime. In a note left by the perpetrators they proclaimed: Remember we will not tolerate any longer. Free the political prisoners or it will be sure death for all of you. American Anarchists Fighters.

Everyday I pass the façade of 23 Wall Street on my way to work. Right in front of the area where I get my coffee and where thousands of people pass every day, some with suits and briefcases and others with cameras and “I Love New York” t-shirts is a pockmarked section of stone on what once was the headquarters of J.P. Morgan & Co. With all of the construction on the street installing automatic traffic barriers on the newly laid cobblestones you’d think someone would think to fix the deep craters and scattered pits on the stone wall of this historic building. They’re not going to anytime soon and it’s no real secret that the building owners purposely left this evidence of anarchy for all to see almost 90 years ago.

On September 16, 1920 at around lunchtime a horse and wagon was parked across the street from the building at 23 Wall loaded with “100 pounds (45 kg) of dynamite with 500 pounds (230 kg) of heavy, cast-iron sash weights” according to Wikipedia. Set on a timer the explosion blasted the horse and wagon to bits, ultimately killing 38 people and injuring 400, making it the most deadly bombing on US soil up to that time. In an article in L Magazine it was said that some of the largest remains of the exploded horse and wagon included “two charred hooves, which landed in the cemetery at Trinity Church, three blocks west.” The blast also caused about $2 million in property damage, destroying much of the interior of the J.P. Morgan building.

Italian anarchists were blamed for the attack. The FBI stated a few years later "the best evidence and analysis since that fateful day of September 16, 1920, suggests that the Bureau's initial thought was correct—that a small group of Italian Anarchists were to blame. But the mystery remains."

Some say that the bombers were mad about the murder charges brought up against a duo of Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. The pair was accused of killing a clerk and a security guard during an armed robbery. It seems from historical accounts that Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty by their association to the anarchist organization and that was enough to bring about a conviction and execution. Their trial is infamous for the gross mishandling of the case by the prosecutors, defense and the judge. It was such a well-known debacle of justice and the rule of law that in 1977 Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis declared, "Any stigma and disgrace should be forever removed from the names of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. We are not here to say whether these men are guilty or innocent. We are here to say that the high standards of justice, which we in Massachusetts take such pride in, failed Sacco and Vanzetti."

The 1920 attack brings to mind of course the September 11, 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers (and elsewhere) by zealots with no less of an objective than the 23 Wall Street bombers to destabilize the capitalist regime as well as take American lives. The great economics commentator, Daniel Gross wrote about this parallel of historical tragedy in an article in TheStreet.com just after the 2001 attacks.

Walking down Wall Street toward the New York Stock Exchange you can see to this day—just east of the corner of Broad and Wall Streets—the historical damage of this 1920 explosion. While tragic and sad, it is another testament of the stoicism of New York City and the important history that pervades this downtown area.

Most people walk by that corner everyday on the way to work without knowing what happened right under their feet almost 90 years ago. When I see the tourists taking pictures of the New York Stock Exchange and Federal Hall I want to turn them around and march them only a few feet to what must seem now a mundane detail, a piece of a structure that to them must need maintenance but once represented the deep philosophical battle that was waged between anarchists and capitalists on our own city streets in modern times. Sure, it makes for a boring picture, but it’s really a great story.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Review: Mercury by Ben Bova.

When I first picked up this novel I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I had read his book Orion years ago and didn’t really love it even though I had heard it was sort of a classic. But when I came across this paperback book a while ago I thought I’d give him another chance. I was very interested at the time in reading some science fiction in the harder vein. I wanted to stay away from anything that hinted of epic or space opera for a while. This seemed like a nice addition to a universe Bova was creating among the solar system. For science fiction playing in and among the planets of our own solar system seemed downright cozy.

Well, I had the book on the shelf for a while. I picked it up the other day and read it in about four days during my work commute. I was very impressed. This was a solid story told very patiently with enough twists and deep character development to keep it interesting.

Bova takes his time developing the story in such a plainspoken fashion that you practically forget that he’s dealing in millions of miles between the planet Mercury, a space elevator on planet earth, Mars, a moon base and a cargo ship traveling between earth an the asteroid belt. The characters are extremely well drawn, with enough flaws and desires to make you believe in their every intention. The settings are dramatic and involve all the standard science fiction elements of space ships, exotic locales and high technology. The science seems very solid and doesn’t go so far so that it need pages of info dump to explain but when explanation is offered it’s pretty well engrained into the storyline.

There are a few places where Bova has to use fortunate coincidence to move the story along but none where it’s so important to the story that it bothered me for long. The human drama is the center of this story and I have to give it high marks for making the trials and tribulations of the people the centerpiece of the story, including love, mystery and murder.

It’s a good science fiction tale told by what is obviously a master storyteller. I will be picking up his other novels about the planets, including Titan, Saturn, Jupiter and Venus. His bibliography seems to be chock full of good books. I may just have found my newest science fiction author.

Buy Mercury (The Grand Tour)

Guest Post on The Grass Stained Guru

I'm really very excited about this. I was invited by the amazing Bethe Almeras to write a guest post article on her brilliant blog, The Grass Stained Guru. Please read and share with other:

The Mighty Crayon

What’s the first thing a kid learns to draw with? A crayon. You may think crayons are the mundane stuff of childhood picture projects or the appliqué of refrigerator faire, but they are much more than that. They are the stuff your imagination was first made of. The humble crayon is the most joyful instrument of a child’s mind. It’s blunt enough so as to not require great skill to master yet subtle enough to produce a masterpiece.

Click to read the rest of the post at The Grass Stained Guru.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Main Street Built Wall Street.

I read this article on the Washington Post website today about how Wall Street bankers are getting obscene paydays but prudent savers around the country are still getting almost zero interest on their savings. The article is titled “Uncle Sam's gift to the prudent saver: Less money” and written by Allan Sloan. Read the article and see below for my response.

Where's the public outcry against this? We've not seen this kind of unbalance in Capitalism between the rich and the poor since the days of the robber barons. This is the conversation we should be having, not shouting matches over fictitious "death panels" and silly congressmen carrying on in sessions of Congress. Seems that the only ones who get riled up when they take a hit to the pocketbook are Wall Street bankers. Then things get done. But let Mom & Pop savers lose 40% of their safe investment income and nobody bats an eye.

I see a lot of people saying that the people who bought houses and used credit cards are getting bailed out. That's not exactly true either. Many people are underwater in their homes because they were advised by mortgage lenders to get into exotic loans to purchase houses that surely would continue to increase in value.

After the market went bust foreclosures are on the rise yet the banker who are supposedly holding the bag on these loans are getting extremely significant bonuses only a year after the bailouts began? Seems the savers and the spenders are being screwed here and the government only put aside enough money to help the big giant banks become zombified yet strangely profitable again. Sure many banks failed and continue to fail but those are the smaller ones, and they may get sold off to bigger "healthier" banks anyway, with the help of the Fed or the FDIC.

So banks are profitable, the Stock Market rallies yet joblessness is at almost 10% across the US. Seems cutting the consumer out of the picture on both sides (workforce and lending) is profitable for corporations, huh?

Obviously banks and business can't cut their way to profitability forever. Funny, I hear all kinds of crying from the right about a "socialist agenda" but I see nothing of that coming to the people of the United States, only the bankers and big businesses.

So much for socialism. I believe the ideal in socialism was for the people to benefit, not businesses. We could use a little of that corporate socialism in health care and jobs for real people please so we can work to live. For some reason our government can't get over the hump of helping companies and get to the work of helping its people.

Main Street is more important than Wall Street any day. Main Street built Wall Street.

Main Street is where the businesses are built that become listed on the stock exchanges of the world. It's the garages and home offices that ideas are hatched and things are still built that become the next big thing. It's where people who go to work everyday pay for the things that fuel our economy. After all our economy is consumer driven and that's not the small percentage of CEOs and executives that get big bonuses, it's regular folks who make modest salaries and buy things like clothes, food, gas, cars and iPods. It's also small business owners who employ people, buy supplies, and service the local economies.

Everyone needs to remember this: Main Street built Wall Street. It continues to build Wall Street and without Main Street, Wall Street will not survive. If we don't start to realize this very soon, things will get worse, much worse.

Buy Wall Street (20th Anniversary Edition)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Wall Street Journey

My stop on the subway is at Wall Street. It’s a cliché. You know the “Wall Street” type who gets off at the Wall Street stop and goes to work on “Wall Street” with a “Wall Street Journal” tucked under his arm. I’m not that guy. I just get off at Wall Street station. I walk past all the kiosks selling actual newspapers made from dead trees to Broad Street and the New York Stock Exchange. No. The New York Stock Exchange is not really located on Wall Street. The side of the building is but the big front part you see in pictures with the flags is on Broad Street.

The intersection of Broad Street and Wall Street is a pretty historic place. It’s a stone’s throw down Broad Street to Nassau Street to the New York Federal Reserve building, an impressive piece of architecture in its own right. The building looks like a fortress. But the real thrill is standing at the intersection of Wall and Broad where you can see the giant statue of George Washington in front of Federal Hall. The spot is the place where Washington was sworn in as president and served in various capacities for the nascent U.S. Government. Among them were the first Capitol of the United States, the place where the Bill of Rights was passed, and the first United States Customs House. It’s a monument now. Less famously, I was interviewed by Robert Scoble there for his web show on Building 43.

On my way to work, I usually pause to look up at the exterior of the Exchange as I thread my way around the real Wall Street types, the NYPD armed teams (yes, if you go to the Stock Exchange you will see fully armed NYPD, armored police vehicles and K9 patrols) and the tourists taking pictures in front of the Exchange or Federal Hall to see what big company or sometimes which country has sprung for a humungous flag to advertise on the outside of the building. Otherwise it’s a pretty impressive American Flag. I prefer the patriotic uniformity of the all American Flag motif.

After passing up the Stock Exchange and its security checkpoints to enter the building I take the back way up Exchange Street off of Broad Street up to New Street to my building. Up to the Seventeenth Floor I go where I work as the Director of Online Communications for The ALS Association Greater New York Chapter.

History surrounds my day as I work at a nonprofit helping people with ALS, a disease whose namesake is one of the greatest Yankees to every play baseball, Lou Gehrig.

Some times you get up, go to work and pass by all these great historic places and events and never bat an eye, too busy in your own thoughts or daily routine to notice. Other days you can look up and see that the place where you live and work is surrounded by history. I happen to be lucky to work in one of the greatest cities in the world, whose shape and character constantly evolves over time, but even in the face of great tragedy, we try to both honor the past and look to the future.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Making of Star Wars: in Concert

I had the opportunity to preview the half-hour behind the scenes making of Star Wars: in Concert that will broadcast on WLIW21 Saturday, October, 17 at 9:00 p.m. Below is my review:

Star Wars: in Concert promises to be a tour de force (puns intended) of Star Wars music, images and props. WLIW will premier a half-hour behind the scenes look at the creation of the live show. Star Wars: in Concert is like a rock concert for selections of Jon Williams’ music from all six Star Wars films accompanied by specially cut video footage from the movies performed by a full live orchestra and choir. Star Wars theme music has always been a blending of the cool and the classical. Music was as Lucas puts it, “one of the main legs that Star Wars stands on.” In fact, legend says when the first movie was completed—Episode 4 in the maddeningly illogical way Lucas produced the films out of order—the only thing he was really completely happy with was John Williams’ score. Star Wars theme music is instantly familiar to many people, even those who have never watched the movies. (Yes, I know, but they do exist.)

Called by the producer of the event, “a symphonic concert in a rock venue” this traveling show will be narrated by Anthony Daniels himself—what no C3PO suit? Williams chose sixteen selections that he felt identified the thematic musical thread throughout the films. John Williams is arguably one of the most successful and most popular movie theme composers of all time. The list of fantastic and fantastical movie themes you know because of him is long: Star Wars, Jaws, Close Encounters, Indiana Jones, Superman, Jurassic Park, and Harry Potter to name a few.

The technical difficulties the producers had to overcome are highlighted in this show. The video editor timed scenes to the music selections and then a 100 piece orchestra and a 30 piece choir had to perform the selections live timed exactly to the film clips. Steve Cohen (no relation even though that's my father's name too), the show producer, points out the difficulty of getting them to “nail rhythmically” the timing live for the video.

In true Hollywood fashion and typical of Lucas productions every detail of the stage has been designed to match the Star Wars visual theme from the conductor’s podium to the laser lights. Star Wars: in Concert was premiered at the O2 Arena in London on April 10 and 11, 2009 and now is on tour.

This special is a good behind the scenes look at the difficulties in bringing together all the components to make the magic happen. To hear the music performed live and see the gigantic images on the screen along with the ability to really come up close to the film props will be an awesome experience and this video will certainly get you hyped up about it. Seems from this video special that it’s going to be an amazing production and I can’t wait to see it performed live.

The Star Wars in Concert half-hour broadcast will air on WLIW21 Saturday, October 17 at 9 p.m. Encore presentations air Saturday, October 17 at 9:30 p.m., and Sunday, October 18 at 8 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 5 p.m.

One more thing. In Lucas’ revisionist mentality, there will be a premier during the live shows of a new, digitally created Yoda for the Episode 1 scenes that originally featured a puppet. I’m not attached to the Episode 1 puppet version of Yoda at all but I hope that he doesn’t then decide to go back to the Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi to replace Frank Oz’s brilliant original performance of Yoda. They were classic and still hold up surprisingly well, the puppet a well as the voice acting.

The Star Wars in Concert broadcast special also previews the exclusive exhibit of Star Wars costumes, props, artifacts, and production artwork -- many of which are leaving Skywalker Ranch for the first time -- that accompanies the concert tour, which will come to Nassau Coliseum on November 21.

Lucasfilm, STAR WARS™ and related properties are trademarks and/or copyrights, in the United States and other countries, of Lucasfilm Ltd. and/or its affiliates. TM & © Lucasfilm Ltd. All rights reserved. All other trademarks and trade names are properties of their respective owners.

Buy the Star Wars Trilogy

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Can't A Guy Just Enjoy His Nobel Prize In Peace?

So I wrote the above comment on Facebook and as usual a deluge of my Republican friends' responses followed. Most asked what he did to deserve it. I really had to true answer yet. The comment was my usual tongue-in-cheek status updates that takes a political issue and tries to make a joke about it. Not everyone was laughing. So when people started posting on my Facebook page asking what he did to deserve it, I answered truthfully, that I didn't know and they should read the news to find out. A couple of people didn't like my answer, posting "well, excuse me" type of responses. Granted my tone was a little short. I like debating but can't stand all this Obama bashing.

Seriously, people out there are just getting a wee bit outlandish, considering all that America suffered under eight years of Bush. But I had to respond and after a day it hit me why Obama was so different and possibly deserving of this Prize. Time will tell if Obama lives up to the hype and there will be those who never will admit he either succeeded or failed. History will be the judge. In the meantime, below are my thoughts on the subject if you care at all.

I have to apologize. I thought you were being facetious with your comment. Bear with me here while I explain myself.

First, this is a long response. Most people will probably not agree with it. I could be wrong about everything I wrote here but to paraphrase an old song, it's my Facebook page and I'll cry if I want to. So here it goes:

What I mean is that, nobody knows what was going through the minds of the Nobel committee when they gave this honor to Obama, especially since the voting apparently happens in February, meaning less than a month into his presidency they already decided he should get the Peace Prize. I agree that it seems very odd and weirdly anticipatory of them. To see what Obama has accomplished (admittedly even as a Obama supporter, I have to say it’s not very much since he’s been President for less than a year though I give him kudos for the direction he’s been shifting America in since January) you’d have to follow closely in the news of where he’s been and what he’s been doing and what, if anything, he’s gotten done.

That said, I can only speculate on why they gave him the big prize. We are unarguably the most powerful, freest, richest, and greatest country in the world. We have a system that is flawed but works pretty well for what we have to deal with. For the past eight years we had an administration that did what it thought was in the best interest of the United States of America at the expense of the goodwill of most of the rest of the world. It was a mentality that I argue was highly visible satisfying certain very real fears and urges of Americans, but ultimately cost us dearly. We took the eye off the ball and fell from the high moral ground we had been taking.

By 2008 the world blamed us for a devastating war in Iraq, missing opportunities to quell terrorists in Afghanistan, illegal and embarrassing acts of torture, destroying the writ of habeas corpus and degrading the very principles of our own Constitution—what had made this country great and so powerful on the world stage. You can argue the facts but you can’t deny that the rest of the world turned a very dark eye on the United States over the past 7 or 8 years.

What makes this country so great is that, on a dime, we can in fact turn our political course around, which is in fact what we have just done, with no bloodshed, no violence and no subverting of laws. Obama won a clear victory, a mandate, if you will. In the past 8 or 9 months the President has been traveling the world, addressing people, sending his dignitaries out, giving speeches to the Muslim world and the UN with a clear message that the United States wants to be a respected player on the world stage again, not a feared or loathed player and that everyone is expected to do their part and make hard choices. His message is that great things can come if you stand with America and do the work needed to make peace to rebuild communities.

The trust and goodwill that he’s garnered in such a brief time is building political capital in the countries of the world not seen in many, many years. What he does with this goodwill has yet to been seen. Yes, he may fail but he is taking the country on a path to become a mover on the world stage. It’s clear that the Nobel Prize committee feels that by giving Obama this honor they have given a vote of confidence in his administration and the things that they promise to accomplish. It’s also a clear indicator that the world is ready to look to America to lead it out of the many problems plaguing the globe from economics to terrorism to health and human services.

We’ve been given a huge gift by the Nobel Prize committee and we should accept it graciously and humbly. We should see it for what it is, a commitment by a distinguished body that believes that America can be looked up to as an example to the people of the world.

And that’s all I want to say about that.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Are Birthers Vicitms Of "Implicit Social Cognition"?

I read this article in Scientific American titled "Birth of a Notion: Implicit Social Cognition and the 'Birther' Movement." As you can imagine the comments got heated but not too crazy since nobody broke Godwin's Law and called anyone a Nazi. Oh wait, the writer did mention Nazis in the article so maybe that's a good strategy: mention Nazis in the blog post so no crazies start calling others Nazis.

Read the SA post and then come back to read my response.

The reasoning people in the comments section have expressed against the Lipinski/Kwan example is really flawed. One commenter said that if you rooted against Kwan you were labeled a conservative racist but that's not what the writer implied. The example showed how Kwan was label by a supposedly edited and vetted media outlet as not and American. What could have led to this assumption when the facts are easy to look up? (Watch the Olympics and the flag next to the contestant's name easily shows which country they represent.) The point was that a person named Lipinski vs. a person named Kwan made someone in the news organization assume that Kwan was not an American, thus the headline “American Beats Out Kwan” It did not say if you rooted for Lipinski you hated Asians or if you rooted for Kwan you hated the Polish. It simple showed how this assumption was made. It did not in any way make a judgment in that example as to whether the writer of the headline, fact checker or editor was Republican or racist.

In the end this article was about "Implicit Social Cognition" of people who believe the birther argument. Most people don't believe it and if you can argue that it's NOT mostly Southern, White, Conservatives who perpetrate this rumor and believe in it, then I'd like to see that evidence. So while, the opinion piece does draw some strong conclusions about racism using some questionable anecdotal examples, it is hard for any reasonable person to dispute that many if not most or all of the birthers are in fact racist. Otherwise they'd just say, I don't agree with the president of the United States, not question the entire legitimacy of his election based on thin rumors.

I definitely don't agree with the people who say that if you replace "birthers" with "truthers" you get the same logical results since the whole point of the piece is that a minority of people still cling to a belief that seems like an absurdity to a majority of people. I also defer to the fact that this minority is very vocal and gets lots of attention (squeaky wheel theory applies here.)

I think that there is scientific merit to this piece and because it addresses issues that are contentious (especially now with the news of how people are acting in town hall meetings and in sessions of Congress) it brings up intense debate.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Why I <3 Star Wars

Well, that's personal. But since social media is the place for transparency, I'm going to give you this one.

It all started a long time ago in a town on Long Island. (You though I was going to say that other thing, didn't you?) It was 1977. There was a driving rain and my mother along with her friends decided to take the kids to the movies. My mother was a bit of a Trekkie, had tackled an engineering degree at CUNY before getting married to my father. Unfortunately the marriage ended after only a few years leaving me and my sister with my mother in a suburb of Long Island in the mid 1970s. We made our way the best we could. We saw my father frequently but when you're about 6 or 7 years old, there's no replacement for the real thing. Needless to say, it wasn't the happiest of times in my life.

Luckily I had a good imagination. I was an artist and would draw, create, and dream my days away, still as you might expect, there was something missing in my childhood.
That summer in 1977 when my Trekkie mom and her friends took the kids to the movies on one rainy day, they decided on the latest blockbuster movie when summer blockbusters were still something new that Spielberg and Lucas were helping to define. While the other single-mothers weren't so sure (they probably and rightly though that the kids might enjoy a movie more along the lines of Pete's Dragon rather than a strange space movie starring Sir Alec Guinness) my mom convinced them to take us to Star Wars. There I was, waiting in the rain, on a line that wrapped around the one screen movie house, oblivious to that something was about to change my life forever.

Let me digress here to say that before Star Wars came out, there was arguably nothing else like it on the big screen before. I had no real affinity to any movie up to that point. Perhaps there were stories that had captured my imagination, but nothing like the world - no the universe - that was the Star Wars story. I went into that theater a lonely little boy and came out a dreamer, a storyteller, with a world in which the good guys won (well, usually) and the bad guys wore black. A universe so different and so wonderful and so remarkable that it would forever control my destiny.

I was hooked. It was a place I could go to experience extreme joy and happiness to escape the times when real life was, well, not so hot. There were lightsabers to take care of the monsters, beautiful princesses I could help rescue and all types of wondrous creatures to keep my mind occupied for a while at least until the melancholy lifted from my brain. From the cacophony of the orchestra during the opening scroll it was like a revelation, a baptism of special effects and pseudo religious mumbo jumbo set against a universe that was strangely lived in and familiar, yet amazing and technologically superior.

This movie came at exactly the right time in my life. It was like George Lucas told the story just to me. I also felt immediately comfortable with everything from the shapes and sounds to the music and dialogue. It all went directly from the screen into my soul, no need to translate it or figure it out. I just knew. I felt like the characters, the worlds, the ships, the story was my story of a young boy feeling lost and shiftless in his own home, wanting something grander for himself, something where he could become more than just the pieces of his life that were left for picking up after, to be powerful and wield a Force to mold and shape the world around me. I was Luke Skywalker.

The tale only grew in the telling, as more episodes were introduced and in each one no punches were pulled. Darth Vader was Luke’s father – boy and I though I had father issues! Obi Wan lied to Luke about just about everything, manipulating the poor boy for his own endgame. Even Yoda was not entirely trustworthy, withholding the truth from Luke. The universe itself and everyone in it conspired against young Skywalker. But you know what? Despite everything, Luke became master of his own destiny.

It cost him, no doubt. He lost a part of himself, his innocence, most of his family and friends died in the epic journey but he also gained much. He gained ultimate victory, grabbing it from the edge of defeat, throwing away the one weapon that could help defend himself against the Emperor, putting all his faith in humanity of his father, trusting his instincts and feelings that someone who everyone else had written off for dead might come back and redeem himself. Not only for himself but for his son and daughter and the rest of the galaxy.

In the end, it was the boy who triumphed over everyone’s doubts. Luke ended up growing from the innocent farm kid stuck in his mundane life, unable to influence the world to the one with the ultimate power to save the galaxy. Not just brute strength, but faith, understanding, empathy and ultimately love.

How can you NOT love that movie.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Kanye West Was So Wrong

Kanye West was flat out disrespectful and wrong.

Regardless of whether Beyonce had a better video or not. It happens all the time on the Academy Awards where some movie I think should have won doesn't and you don't see me running up there pontificating on which movie I think is better and should have won. Well, not yet anyway! But one day people will be saying, "Man. That Lon S. Cohen is such an idiot. Star Wars Episode IX is not better than the romantic dramedy, Bosom Buddies - The Movie!

UPDATE#2: As @Thandelike very rightly pointed out to me: "Kanye wasn't just expressing his opinion, he stole someone else's moment. ripped her joy out of her hands in front of millions."

Here are a few facts that may be overlooked in this case:

1) The VMAs are decided by a popular vote. Obviously the other nominees had split the popular vote and with Taylor Swift getting mostly all the country genre vote plus some of the popular vote, that put her over the edge to win.

2) Beyonce's video was much better but that isn't the point.

3) Yes. There really is a Wikipedia page discussing the long rumored Star Wars Sequels XII - IX

4) Bosom Buddies did indeed launch the wildly successful career of Tom Hanks so never rule anyone out.

NEW! 5) The MTV VMA should really be called the MTV VM-less A since they really don't show videos anymore. (That's for the Generation Xers who actually remember when MTV videos were a really huge freakin' deal.)

The video from the 2009 MTV VMA when Kanye made his d**k move:
(Thanks to @therealsb419 for the link to this video.)

Friday, September 11, 2009

What Do I Think Of Socialized Medicine?

I have a lot of Republican friends for some reason. It might be the area where I live (Suffolk County, NY) which I find to be very conservative. Anyway, I’m always debating politics with friends in an agreeable manner. You can imagine what it was like around November 2008! I enjoy my friendly debates. A conservative friend of mine recently asked me on Facebook the following question that prompted a long response:

“I have been meaning to ask you how you feel about socialized medicine? Are you on board with it?”

My Answer:

I'm not sure what you are asking. If you mean like they have in Canada then I'm not sure if I agree with socialized medicine. I like choices, which is why I like the Obama reform because it keeps choice in place while ensuring that the uninsured and sick can get access to healthcare. As for socialized medicine in the USA, Medicare is an example of socialized medicine we actually have in place now and the people who are on it seem to like it enough and it works so that's a model to follow for a public option. Stressing the option part. (For other examples: Social Security, pensions, organized police, military, firemen, and public schools are also socialized institutions.)

I find "socialized" to be a loaded term and don't use it. But of course health care reform I am all for as are most people I talk to. (Except one guy in my neighborhood and he said that's because he works for a health care insurance company!) We're the strongest and wealthiest country in the world and we can't take care of our sick children? US citizens go to the ER instead of a clinic or doctor because they can't afford to pay! And the hospitals get stuck with the bills, which in turn means higher insurance rates for me. I'm already subsidizing people to get health care but ER visits are expensive and well-care visits are proven to help keep costs down. I hate hearing stories of people who can't work because they are ill and can't get care because they don't have insurance. (Remember, I work for a health care non profit so I see this and we have programs to help subsidized what insurance companies won't pay for or what people w/o insurance can't afford.)

I do think that changing insurers every time I change jobs is bogus and an unnecessary hardship. Read this article, which I found helpful in sorting out what other countries do for healthcare.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Three Science Influences

Steven Hill from the Testing hypotheses… blog wrote about his three science influences in a post titled, "Science inspirations." Alerted to this post by my one of my Twitter Profs (See my Mashable.com article), Andrew Maynard on Twitter (he's @2020science), I immediately wanted to comment. Although I am not a scientist in any way whatsoever, my deep love of science is evident to many who know me. Below I list the comment I made to his post about my three influences. I can't tell you how many more should be added to this list and I've probably forgotten a few that may or may not deserve to be in the top three besides these but I can annotate the list or do another one in the future.

I'm not a scientist at all but have a deep interest of science in all forms from the sidelines. That said, I was influenced by these three people in my love of science:

1) Carl Sagan - When I was in high school I read Contact and it's still one of my favorite books & I think a decent movie despite the flaws. Then I found out that Sagan was not only an author but a real astronomer and that "Cosmos" guy. It started lifelong love of learning about science that continues to this day.

2) Steven Spielberg - OK. Don't kill me for not picking all scientists for this list. But Spielberg's movies instilled in my a sense of wonder about the natural world. Jaws made me love the ocean animals, both scary and benign. Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial made me wonder what was really out there in the canopy of the stars overhead as a kid. Indiana Jones made me think about cultures, myth and archeology. Fiction may not always get the scientific facts all right, but they do provide a great jumping off point for young minds to go further and find out about the physical world and sciences in real life.

3) My mother - My mom has always taught me the importance of education. She kept the house well-stocked with books that I discovered at appropriate times growing up (including the Carl Sagan book mentioned at #1 on this list.) She also was a bit of a Star Trek and Sci-Fi fan herself so I grew up with a parent who encouraged both critical thinking and fantastical imagining. She influenced me to aspire to many of the things I am today (for better or for worse) but one thing I know is that it is because of my mom that I love to read and learn as much as I do. Both are endeavors that bring bring me great joy and satisfaction no matter what.

Alternate: My high school Marine Biology teacher - This guy was funny and his passion came out in a way that I never expected. He was so into his science that he would crack bad jokes and puns about the subject even if he was the only one to get the joke. Everyone got a good grades in his classes because he really made learning about science fun, not rote.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Photos of the Moon-Venus conjunction

This morning I had a little extra time so I was able to snap a few digital photos of the "Spectacular Moon-Venus conjunction at break of dawn" that I wrote about yesterday. It was even better this morning, which I was glad for. I also quickly grabbed my binoculars to see if I could tell the phase of Venus through them but I wasn't able to. Binoculars are very unsteady so you have to be sitting or better yet laying down to really be able to spy something as small as a speck of light in the sky with any clarity. (Which is why we use mounted telescopes for sky gazing.) Just wanted to share my photos. I did adjust the colors in Photoshop to make the Moon and Venus stand out better.

One day when I can afford it, I'd invest in a good telescope. For now, I'm in a light polluted area of Long Island, as I mentioned, so I'm in no rush.

Enjoy the photos (Click on them to make them bigger.):

Monday, August 17, 2009

Spectacular Moon-Venus conjunction at break of dawn

Saw a beautiful sight at about 5:40am this morning going to work. Amazing. Spectacular Moon-Venus conjunction at break of dawn. (No, I'm not in India. It's visible all over the world. Want to take a look? Got to get up early in the morning.)

Wish I had time to get my binoculars. Still a great view with the naked eye. It really is a great way to start the day and I was pleasantly surprised because I had no idea that this was occurring. Had I known, I might have been prepared and taken a few extra minutes in the morning to sit and observe or tried to photograph it. Since I live in a pretty light polluted area on Long Island, I take any unusual sky gazing events that I can get and this is always one I enjoy whether it's at night or early morning.

Why does Venus appear in early morning and evening? Click here to find out.

Nighttime Moon-Venus conjunctions usually happen just before or after sunset. It's most beautiful when you get to see a crescent moon next to a bright Venus. Ironically, we see Venus at its brightest when it is in a crescent phase (Venus has phases like our moon.) When its in full phase Venus is further away, thus dimmer. Watch a cool animation of real photographs capturing Venus going through its phases here on Astronomy Picture of the Day.

The reason we see Venus as such a bright shining object in the sky is because it is covered with clouds that reflect back a lot of light. And it's very close to the Earth. Of course underneath the cover of clouds, there is the nightmare of all enviromentalists, extreme global warming because of a gren house effect as the layer of clouds traps in the heat underneath.

Don't let that information distract you from enjoying the beauty of Venus. The planet is called the evening star or the morning star and used to be thought of as two different planets. A couple of other interesting facts to enhance your viewing pleasure:

1) Venus rotates in the opposite direction from all the other planets. See from the sun's north pole (as compared to Earth's own north pole) all the planets rotate counter-clockwise, but Venus rotates clockwise. If you lived on Venus, the sun would rise in the West and set in the East!

2) Venus is named for the Roman god of love and beauty but it has been observed since prehistoric times.

3) Venus is sometimes called Earth's twin or sister because Earth and Venus are very similar in size (Earth is slightly bigger.)

4) Venus has no moons.

5) The first man-made object to land on another planet was the unmanned Soviet Venera 3 probe in 1966. It crashed on Venus and never gave back any data about the planet.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Star Wars vs. Star Trek

Wired Magazine is holding a survey: Star Wars vs. Star Trek. Everyone know which side of the fence that I am on. But head on over to the Geek Dad blog to see read the entire post and then offer your two cents.

One note, the image that they have on the blog for Star Wars is a pretty cool collage of Star Wars characters from all six films. I downloaded it as my desktop. It's worth the trip over there just to check it out. IMO, it blows the Star Trek image they have there away.

From @wired:

World peace be damned — it's time to take a stand! Star Trek or Star Wars? Cast your ballot at http://tinyurl.com/n5864v

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Does Michael Jackson's Death Usurping Coverage Of Iranian Protests Show Our True Values?

Neal Jansons who according to his friendfeed profile is a Writer, Web Developer, Geek, New Media Consultant and blogs at http://WriteNewMedia.com asked this question on his friendfeed stream recently: While Iranians suffer systematic oppression, the internet becomes obsessed with the death of a pop icon. Talk about showing your true values.

Many people agreed with his assessment or were sympathetic.

For example one commenter wrote: The news cycle is totally idiotic. There's absolutely no sense of any journalistic prioritization.

I didn’t think that was true. I think there is a priority and it is right in line with what we as Americans would want to see and read about. My comment to Neal's post is below:

I'm sympathetic to your POV on this, Neal but I'd argue that Iran's systematic oppression is not news—it is, in fact, old news to say the state of Iran mistreats its citizens. The protests against the election are the news. Michael Jackson was not much in the news before he died (I didn't even know he was planning a major tour in a month!) but his death is very big news considering his past and the circumstances. These items have a life cycle in the mainstream media and on the minds of Americans (I'm going on the assumption that you are referring to US news not international). Michael Jackson was a uniquely American icon with a uniquely American story. He influenced popular culture in the US for decades.

His death, tragic, as it was, and his life, twisted, sad and unfortunate as it may have been, doesn't belie the point that he had a tremendous role in American life for millions and millions of people for a very, very long time. I'd argue (as other have) that Iran is getting a disportionate amount of media (and social media) attention while similar and even more tragic abuses are occurring all over the world at the same time. It is human nature and the nature of the news cycle that tragic events closer to home (no matter how unbalanced you may think they are) claim more attention to people than events halfway across the world. And as we all know very well, celebrity gossip and news is a huge distraction for us. The lives and deaths of people we see on television, on the big screen and hear on the radio are fascinating to most of the population because we either resent them and glory in their misfortunes or envy their fame and fortune and live vicariously through their every moment.

The actions of the people protesting in Iran are sympathetic, inspiring and important but they are not the cult of personality distraction that Americans (and probably not limited to us but the entire world) love to hear about. Michael Jackson was a true cult of personality (he appointed himself the “King of Pop”) and some of us of a certain generation grew up listening to his music and following the twists and turns his life took over the years. His death became more than the unfortunate end of one man, just as Neda came to symbolize the entire Iranian struggle and epitomize the tragedy of a young, liberalized populace as many others were also dying on the streets.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Two Discussions I Had Recently About Iran On And About Social Media

Facebook Discussions About Iran

I’ve been discussing Iran and Neda on Facebook with some people who are obviously hardliners about this current Iranian crisis. A person even called Neda a “media darling saying, “The fact is she became a media darling bc so many people want mahmoud out, they will rally around any of his enemies.” He also said that no one knows anything about her – which I pointed out was not true and was very easy to find out.

I posted that, in fact, there’s been a lot of investigation into Neda's life since her death.

“I'd say she's become more of a martyr for the cause than a media darling since she's dead and was randomly shot on the street, when it turns out, she wasn't even protesting.

“She was a young, educated woman from Iran who runs atypical to most people's perception of the average, fanatical, anti-semetic, "death-to"America" shouting, nut ball Iranian that is Ahmadinejad and the Ayatollah. Whether she was protesting or not is actually irrelevant and whether she is being used as a symbol for the opposition is also irrelevant.

“What matters is the people she represents: young, educated, Iranians with hopes and dreams like everyone else who also want at the minimum a voice in their government. People who never occurred to exist in the minds of I'd say 90% of Americans until these protests.”

Twitter And The Green Tinted Avatars

On Ari Herzog’s blog he wrote a post, “Why Twitter Goes Green and Why You Should Too” which inspired a very lively discussion about the tinting of people's avatars in support of the Iranian protesters. I commented in reply to @waynejohn who questioned the motivation and effectiveness of people tinting their avatar green on Twitter in support of Iranian protesters.

In his comment he wrote that he does hope “that they get what they want. In the meantime, I’m keeping my nose well out of that mess. Not my problem, nor any of the people that hopped on the next do-gooder bandwagon.”

He also wrote:

“You’re latching onto a cause that will ultimately mean absolutely nothing to you only because everyone else is doing it.

“How is this more important than our population growth? Or cutting down the Amazon. I’m not a tree hugger, but those seem like bigger issues that we should be….I don’t know , wear brown for?

“Seem silly and elementary to me.”

I replied to him and here it is in full:

"I see your point Wayne, but I disagree. The people in Iran were Twittering and making themselves heard for a reason. That reason is they want solidarity from the world for their cause. When they hear that others are behind them across the globe they may become empowered, realize they are not alone int his fight and institute real change.

"Symbolism is a powerful thing. I personally did not change my avatar. I don’t take up causes very easily but I respect and admire the people who have changed their avatars to green to show the people across the world and in Iran that they (we) are with them in this fight. It is not stupid, silly or worthless. It is powerful and important.

"And thought there are a thousand other causes to get behind some people pick one over another because it touches them in some way. For some it’s hunger. For others it’s the fight against ALS (my company). And still others, it’s standing behind people halfway across the world as they fight against oppression. It may end up that things do not change in Iran tomorrow or next week but if young people over there know that good people are wearing or tinting their avatars green in support, that may have an affect that resonates for years or generations to come.

"Imagine how powerful that one picture of that student standing up to Chinese tanks was 20 years ago. Did that symbolic moment institute wholesale change? Did it inspire people? Also, remember back to a time when you were younger, more idealistic. Didn’t symbolism mean a lot more to you than it does now? It did to me.

"I’m happy people still carry that meaning in their lives despite the problems we have here. I think that the Iranians are inspiring us to be better. And all round, that’s a good thing."

I think the symbolism is important. The green avatars may do nothing substantial in Iran but they do bring light to the cause and hopefully some people in the U.S. with little knowledge or wrong assumptions about Iranians may get an education. I know I did.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

It Takes A Community… To Fight A War

By Lon S. Cohen

Go back a few short years ago. Who knew that people all over the world wanted to share information in a mere 140 characters on Twitter or to gather around Causes as grim as Cancer to ones as lighthearted as “Drinking is Cheaper than Therapy” on Facebook? Apparently just as financial experts misread the dangers of subprime mortgages and credit default swaps, pundits missed the simmering underground of geeks and technophiles creating a powerful means through which a smart candidate might just get millions of people to rally around his vision of change. Barrack Obama (or more accurately David Plouffe) saw this undercurrent not as just a passing fad but as a middle ground where people were crying out to be given a voice on everything from gadgets to politics. His strategy was wildly successful as is evident from his victory in November 2008 at the polls and it legitimized Social Media in the process proving its power. But what was there all along was the fact that people always formed communities, not just inside websites, in forums and chat groups but in real life as well. This is the keen insight that Barack Obama had about the American people.

Barack Obama’s past as a community organizer taught him about the need to bring people together to advance a cause and the power that community can wield once the momentum gets going—for good and for evil. This is why the foundation of that community needs to be strong, educated, moral and most of all led by a person of good character. This what President Obama brought to the table when he spoke in Egypt. It’s what so many past diplomats did not or could not even being to understand.

The previous administration faced one of the most tragic and direct attacks on the United States in modern history. They reacted quickly and with the certainty that what they were doing was right. Putting aside all the missteps and misinformation, what the Bush administration failed most to understand is that when they were framing their campaign as a “War on Terror” they had made a huge strategic mistake. What they should have recognized was that this was not a war on terrorism but a battle with terrorism, for terrorism is merely a symptom of a larger and much more complex problem than routing out the bad guys and brining them to justice. The battle against terrorism has not been won. It has mitigated some of what the terrorists tried to do but at a high premium in blood and money. The war has still yet to be fought.

By going to the Middle East and presenting himself to the Arab world with a message of understanding President Obama has shown that he knows where the war really is and he has the experience and background to fight. The Arab world suffers from some of the deadliest afflictions known to mankind: lack of education, poverty and oppression. The terrorists know that this where the real war is fought and they’ve been winning, getting stronger and better at it because they have “boots on the ground” in the real battle zone, recruiting form the disenfranchised, exploiting weaknesses, transmogrifying the shield of faith into a sword of vengeance while we fight the terrorists that they produce on the other side of that process to stalemate because there is no lack of resources in the Middle East when it comes to frustrated young men looking to make a mark on this world.

What Obama brings with him is the knowledge that while building a strong community in an American city like Chicago may not be the same as building a strong community in Kabul or the West Bank, the lessons learned and the hopefulness that makes a person better, stronger and smarter when he is part of a community larger than himself is universal. This is where the “War on Terror” will finally be won, not on the battle fiends of Iraq or even in the mountains of Afghanistan but in the community of men.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Is Verne's Nemo Original Steampunk?

Mike Perschon, a self described "hypercreative scholar, musician, writer, and artist" who also happens to be a fan of steampunk wrote a presentation for the 2009 Eaton Science Fiction Conference. In his blog where he posts the text and images he cites my interview with Bruce Sterling that I did for The British Science Fiction Association's media magazine, The Matrix.

Finding Nemo: Verne's Antihero as Original Steampunk - Eaton SF Conference, 2009

I'm still working on the next of my reports from the Eaton conference. I'm working furiously to do final revisions on my Steam Wars paper (which looks at the Steampunk Star Wars art at CGSociety) for submission to the Journal of Neo-Victorian studies, so updating the blog, as always, is what suffers. Rather than leave the site without content this May long weekend, I'm posting my images and text from the paper presentation I gave at the Eaton conference. Feel free to use the images, so long as you provide me with a link. Thanks again to Art Donovan for the use of his Shiva Mandala images, which provide a visual link to the three identities of Nemo I explore in this paper, and to Greg Medley, who is the visual Nemo of my research. I like him better than Mason and Shaw.

Head over to the Steampunk Scholar blog top read his full dissertation.

Monday, May 18, 2009


The search engine created by Stephen Wolfram author of "A New Kind of Science" has gotten much media attention. It launched on Friday, May 15, 2009. I am still playing around with it to find its utility besides simple curiosity. I am confident I will eventually find a real world use for it.

The website about page says that "Wolfram|Alpha's long-term goal is to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable and accessible to everyone." Sounds good to me.

Stephen Wolfram is a pretty smart guy so I am sure this website can be put to good use. In the meantime I proposed this question:

"answer to life, the universe and everything"

To which Wolfram|Alpha responded:


So far, so good.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Star Wars Deserves A High Place In Science Fiction

Keith Olexa, whose LinkedIn profile says he’s a Managing Editor and Contributing Writer at Starlog. He started a discussion on the Science Fiction readers, writers, and collectors Group. The below is my long winded answer to what he called “a saucy send up.”

A saucy send up: STAR WARS is the farthest thing from Science Fiction...

... and IMHO, has been the most damaging influence on the genre... agree? disagree? Discuss.

And here is my answer:

Star Wars Deserves A High Place In Science Fiction
by Lon S. Cohen

Seems that the bigger a franchise becomes the harder or less reluctant fans and writers are to bring it into our little ghetto of a genre. We Science Fiction fans are a fickle bunch. We bristle at any perceived criticism of our beloved worlds. We try to make geekism an exclusive club only open to those who truly get it. If there is anything that we fans have in common with religion it’s that we’re fanatical in our beliefs sometimes to the point of extremism. The masses don’t truly understand that Science Fiction is not just about laser swords and ray guns and flying rockets. It’s about possibilities and the human condition. What will or might be.

But you have to admit, it’s really cool if it also has an evil sentient computer thrown into the mix, right?

So where does Star Wars fit in? Both vilified and glorified, this little film that almost didn’t get made starts a lot of fights around fandom. In my opinion, Star Wars is Space Opera. It spans an entire galaxy, bringing us to worlds chock full of furry, scaly creatures with any number of eyes, limbs and skin tints. There’s good versus evil. We have all the elements of the classic tales from Sword and Sorcery to Westerns. The characters are archetypical and the themes are grandiose. It has become a behemoth franchise at the box office. Coming on the heels of Jaws it didn’t invent the summer blockbuster so much as put a definition to it. It has become the model for almost every whiz-bang popcorn flick since the year of our Lord, nineteen hundred seventy-seven. It has invaded the culture, the language and even the politics of everyday life. For this reason people tend to want to tamp down its importance, pushing it out of the Science Fiction realm.

Here’s why: Star Wars is dumb.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a true Star Wars geek. I have all the figures stashed away. I can probably recite every line from both the original trilogy as well as the much-maligned prequels. Like every other fanboy, I expected the second coming when Episode I came out and when I didn’t get it I made up excuses why it was going to one day be justified as a true work of genius. Yes. I know I’m wrong. And I don’t care.

Because the reason we fans love Star Wars is not because it’s smart. Not because it says something about mankind and our place in the universe. It doesn’t even pretend to be speculative. We love Star Wars because it’s cool. The themes are simplistic, easy to grasp and uplifting. The story is trite and pedestrian but it’s wrapped in a really rich universe. The characters are sexy, familiar and dangerous. The designs are complex and exciting yet functional. The sounds are bold, exotic and inspiring. The milieu of Star Wars appeals to a wide swath of the public. But in the end, it is not overtly intelligent.

Have you ever sat down to learn the origin myths of some foreign culture and been utterly floored by their simplicity and seeming lack of originality? The world is held on the back of a turtle and was germinated by a woman who fell from the sky in the religion of natives from the northeastern portion of the Americas. God got mad at people so he instructed Noah to build an ark to save two of every animal. This is not high literature worthy of the Nebula, the Pulitzer or even the Mann Booker. These are not stories that strike us as particularly deep or telling of man’s nature. Yet they endured through the centuries, even the millennia. Why? Because they tell a simple story, one that many people can imagine and take something away from without investing too much mental capacity. They are direct and to the point. Does this make them good? Not necessarily. Are they important? Absolutely. Why? Because the people have held onto these stories for a reason. They are simple and they speak to a simple childlike part of our soul.

This is something of what Joseph Campbell was getting at when he wrote his book on comparative mythology, “The Hero With A Thousand Faces.” A simply told tale that speaks to the deepest part of our psyche will always grab the attention of the masses and has throughout time if you look at the myths developed in cultures around the world. It also explains why Star Wars is an important and worthy contribution to Science Fiction.

That is what storytelling is all about. It occurs in every genre. Star Wars has not damaged Science Fiction. Some will always see Star Wars as a screen that hides the true nature and richness of Science Fiction. Because this is what people who don’t like Science Fiction hold up as an example of the generic Science Fiction story. Star Wars has been accused of perpetrating the stereotype of the outsider’s view of SciFi. It has all the elements after all: Lasers, robots, aliens and space travel. But what some people don’t understand is the inclusiveness of the broader genre.

Some people love classic Science Fiction but hate the hard stuff. Others like a good near future tale while others want a story set as far away from planet earth as the universe will allow. What Star Wars does well is resurrect the classic elements of SciFi from days gone by. It is, dare I say, homage to the golden years when pulps and movie reels featured the space explorer du jour for the young ones. (The oft-told tale is that George Lucas wanted to remake the story of Flash Gordon for the screen but stymied by the copyright sought to make his own version. A few years later we ended up with a version featuring a Queen soundtrack—though that’s a story for another day.) Many of those young ones become inspired by these broadly painted themes. With an education in basic plotting, character development and wonder, they are free to take their own Science Fiction story making to the next level.

So the answer to the question of whether Star Wars has been the most damaging influence on Science Fiction is no, it is not. I make my case that it is more likely the inspiration for a whole generation of Science Fiction stories of high quality. Star Wars is also firmly in the realm of the Science Fiction genre.

And anyone who says different is probably a Trekkie. IMHO. ;)