Oppression makes a wise man mad

“It would certainly prove nothing as to what part I might have taken had I lived during the great controversy of 1776. To say now that America was right, and England wrong, is exceedingly easy. Everybody can say it; the dastard, not less than the noble brave, can flippantly discant on the tyranny of England towards the American Colonies. It is fashionable to do so; but there was a time when, to pronounce against England, and in favor of the cause of the colonies, tried men’s souls. They who did so were accounted in their day plotters of mischief, agitators and rebels, dangerous men. To side with the right against the wrong, with the weak against the strong, and with the oppressed against the oppressor! here lies the merit, and the one which, of all others, seems unfashionable in our day. The cause of liberty may be stabbed by the men who glory in the deeds of your fathers.”

Root and Branch

In this wittily written piece in the Washington Post, by its Pakistan bureau chief Tim Craig, a diplomatic controversy concerning trees in Islamabad shades, as trees tend to, the presumably undisclosed reason why the US embassy there is expanding. This expansion is cleverly hidden like a nugget in the article, halfway down at least, after a charming picture is painted of the city as one of the greenest, where landowners must get state permission to remove trees, all set in a palace of alternating parkland.

The description of ecological regulations in the city didn’t surprise me but did seem slightly at odds with what I’d heard about some unchecked urban development and so on in, I guess, the rest of the country. Indeed, careful to avoid the impression of being a PR job for Pakistan’s ecological reputation the article concludes by drawing attention to Pakistan’s ecological problems; deforestation and the possible relationship with flooding.

Nevertheless this due journalistic diligence does seem a little like a segue away from the key question, only briefly considered in Mr Craig’s piece: what drives the US embassy to expansion, and is it really that secret?
https://www.washingtonpost.com/…/pakistan-suspects-u-s-ill…/

Against Empathy

Just thought I’d post an interesting sub-polemic Against Empathy, by ace Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, which I read last year when the world was a different place. I remember thinking, in that phantasmagoria we call 2014, that while I wasn’t convinced at all by Professor Bloom’s application of his firm stance against the false guide ’empathy’ in the political sphere, on the everyday personal and/or professional sphere his argument seemed more solid. I especially liked the importance of the distinction between ’empathy’ and ‘compassion’. The article didn’t disappoint when Buddhist practitioners appear, their brains being scanned by psychology labs to find out what conscious compassion looks like, as brain data.

Medicine without frontiers

The Crow word ‘bacheitche’ apparently means ‘good man’. President Obama used it to characterise Joe Medicine Crow, last warrior chief of the Plains Indians, hero of WW2, the ‘first person from his tribe to earn a’ masters degree, anthropologist & historian, and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Mr Crow died yesterday aged 102, according to this fascinating obit from the Washington Post.

Zbigniew Brzezinski

Always been fascinated by Brzezinski, who has just died; a sort of liberal version of Kissenger. Reading his obit here in the Post, I discover that as well as a shared Polish heritage we share a birthday! Explains a lot…
Anyway, it’s an informative piece but rather glosses over Brzezinski’s role in the Afghan conflict o the 1980s. His power games there, as well as Poland, Iran, China etc, for good or for ill, helped birth the world we live in today. Key figure.

the accidental anarchists

Just a “grain glitch” in the matrix, nothing to see here.

According to one journalist, they say of the Washington Post: ‘it’s a great paper; you never know which page will have the lead story’. True to form, the current lead headline might appear predictably anodyne: “Democrats balk as Republicans try to use must-pass spending bill to fix tax law“. On examination, the story proves more interesting, even amusing.fact

Seems the current crop of Republican legislators accidentally passed a tax break which encourages farmers to deal with co-operatives over traditional agri-business, seemingly due to the law being unable to distinguish between gross sales and net income on this occasion. Once agri-business pointed it out, Republicans immediately promised to fix it, but there are signs of resistance from Democrats who are kicking up a stink. That’s the gist of the story. What interests me is the irony, the inept element of it, and the way it’s written. The discourse, perhaps alien to an English reader, is very much of the minutia of House Democrats seizing on an issue purely as part of the game. Pelosi’s words notwithstanding, theres certainly no sense of Democrats seizing the possibility for a national debate about the general benefits of co-ops for organising trade, which i suppose inheres in their self-organising capacity.
And finally the story descends into remarking that the apparently numerous typos and omissions in the new law are par for the course.
So that’s alright then. We can, at least for today, confirm the lead headline in the Post will always leave us with ennui and disappointment after all.
 
What probably should be the lead story covers leading Republican opposition to Trump, in the form of the perfectly-named Arizona senator Jeff Flake, passionately defending the judiciary, the First Amendment, and describing the Trump administration as “chaos for its own sake, projected onto the world”. Stirring stuff but, as the reporter points out

The question remains: Where do Flake and like-minded Republicans go — to a new party? To permanent political exile? Much depends on whether the Democrats make a foolish choice in 2020, opening up space for a third party. In any event, Flake implicitly (and I think, unintentionally) makes a powerful argument that the first step is the complete demolition of a reckless, soulless party.

Remote Control?

Many of us, in the current conditions, will be home working if not for the first time, then more often than usual. Automattic, the company that owns wordpress.com, WooCommerce and Tumblr, has distinguished itself by hiring many remote workers – indeed, much of its workforce is globally distributed.

Not one to let this wealth of experience or, it may be said, let a clickbait opportunity like this go to waste, the WordPress.com blog leads on Working Remotely: An Automattic Reader

The post seems like a useful collection of resources on this subject though, with tips and tricks to help everyone, whether it be the humble worker or the team manager. So I pass it on. Happy home working!

During the pandemic, the online tools so assiduously created by third parties can come into their own, and not just for work. Two yoga teachers of my acquaintance, not as far as I know known to each other, are independently using the video conferencing application Zoom to run online classes.

Indeed, on Thursday the Electronic Frontier Foundation noted Zoom “has quickly become a popular option to work and keep in touch with others in the midst of social distancing and shelter-in-place protocols”, in a great piece entitled What You Should Know About Online Tools During the COVID-19 Crisis. The piece also reproaches Slack for it’s data retention policies, points out the growth of surveillance in schools, and most pertinently in the current crisis, points out a potentially dangerous regulatory change.

The US department of health is “allowing health care providers to use applications such as FaceTime, Facebook Messenger, Hangouts, Skype, Zoom, etc so they are able to provide care to patients remotely”.

The EFF suggests that if our healthcare is conducted remotely in this way, we should check what safeguards they have in place to ensure patient privacy.

In other COVID-19 surveillance-related news, the EFF also report a tweet sent by the Deputy Executive Assistant Commissioner of the US customs and border agency, who co-incidentally shares a name with one of the co-creators of Judge Dredd:

The EFF repeat their call for a ban on facial recognition technology, under the headline Face Surveillance Is Not the Solution to the COVID-19 Crisis

The Picard Manoeuvre

In Review: Star Trek: Picard

I want to review CBS’s latest Star Trek series, Star Trek: Picard. But first I have to set the scene, about my relationship with Star Trek, and a potted guide to its history for those unfamiliar.

Prelude: Star Trek in a nutshell

When I was born, the BBC were three-quarters of the way through their first-run British broadcasts of the original Star Trek series, some two years later than their US broadcasts. Apparently a big hit in Britain, the series was repeated often through the 70s and early 80s. That success, now I come to think of it, may have influenced the commissioning of Blake’s 7, the BBC’s adult-oriented space opera, in 1978.

While I was an avid viewer of Blake’s 7, I never took much to Star Trek. The vision of a multi-national crew, represented by multi-ethnic Americans, nevertheless remains admirable for the times, and it was certainly politically engaged. The series stands as a curious and pioneering attempt to smuggle somewhat cerebral, literary sf concerns into a mainstream show, with a character-based warmth at its heart. It’s a good recipe, with some great ingredients. It addressed very American concerns of the late 1960s, but maybe felt a little bit dated for my generation.

Meanwhile, in the US, Trek also became a big hit in the 70s, re-run in syndication, bigger than it ever was during its original late-60s run on NBC. It grew not only its mainstream audience, but generated a qualitative change in the nature of audience itself, with the emergence of Star Trek fandom. The idea of an organised television audience, with their own voice and ideas, was so far outside of their reality tunnel, the story goes, that industry representatives, on seeing the much larger than expected numbers at the first fan convention, simply left the event, unable to deal with the implications and potential shift of power. The significance of this event for the changing nature of media audiences over the past 50 years bears consideration, as fannish cultural practices slowly, insidiously some might say, became mainstream. These days everyone binge-watches, over-analyses, reviews and makes their own fiction about their favourite TV show. That’s pretty much our culture now. But once, it was a sub-cultural sociality known as fandom.

The success of Star Trek: The Next Generation proved the importance of audience. The idea that Star Trek was a very liberal and progressive – and even in some areas a radical – enterprise, isn’t especially valid for the original series. Many of the ideas we associate with this interpretation of Trek derived from the fan culture of the 70s and 80s, who saw in Star Trek the potential for a radically inclusive and progressive futurism. The idea that poverty, hunger and racism have been eliminated in the future, within an enlightened, yet Earth-centred galactic federation, simply isn’t present in the original series. Indeed, it’s implied Earth is a colonial power. It’s now thought Roddenberry saw these more Utopian, progressive ideas emerge from the fan audience, and adopted them. The development of Star Trek was led by the remarkable creativity of its fan audience. The Next Generation also seems to me influenced by new age culture, surging in late 80s California, where as Dennis Potter once remarked, ‘every nut rolls’ sooner or later. By 1987, Paramount was still making $1 million per episode in syndication. The arguments for a new series were overwhelming.

Star Trek The Next Generation’s cultural influences can be read into the initial decision to dispense with a regular Chief Engineer, but insist upon a regular Counsellor character on the bridge of the new, pastel-shaded and softly furnished USS Enterprise. This reflects the caring, sharing, person-centred, eco-conscious culture of liberal America of that time.

Next Gen had a hard job convincing fans of the original series attached to the idea that Star Trek could only incarnate in the Kirk-Bones-Spock triumvirate. Indeed that idea had been established early in Star Trek fandom’s literature, that the heart and essence of the series lay in the interplay of these three characters. Mr Spock representing the emotionally repressed, logical, thinking element, Dr ‘Bones’ McCoy representing its counterpart, the emotional, feeling man. According to this theory, Kirk represents the perfect integration of feeling and intellect in a man, and thus is fit to both mediate between the forces represented by Spock and Bones, and lead them as their Captain.

The characters of the Next Generation were developed by Gene Roddenberry and DC Fontana, and thankfully don’t attempt to replicate this formula precisely. However, we have a female Doctor, hilariously named ‘Crusher’, and the android Data, who acts as a mirror of Spock in some ways. Unlike Spock, Data has no emotions to repress, so his desire is to become more human, not less. And so we come to Picard, who is presented as an idealised, integrated man. Cultured, intelligent, an explorer interested in poetry and drama, inclined towards the diplomatic and consensus solution, but entirely able to use maximum military force with ruthlessly effective tactics when necessary.

This triumvirate is backed by a slightly larger regular ensemble cast than the original series. By accident or design, the cast assembled had genuine chemistry with each other, forming close real life bonds which persist to this day, and this factor had a lot to do with the success of the series.

After a shaky couple of years, but with a base level of quality and moments of brilliance, Next Gen’s third season, with the writing drastically improving by the week, established the series in its own right. The events of that third season had genuine weight, affecting the characters, Picard in particular, in ways that are still being explored, most recently in the 10 part CBS series Star Trek: Picard that aired earlier this year.

There were times when Stewart had me crying my eyes out as Picard, most notably during the season 6 episode Chains of Command, in which Picard is tortured by David Warner. Picard gives an incredibly sensitive performance, informed by research undertaken with Amnesty International into people’s experiences of torture. Here’s a great Picard moment, from the best Star Trek movie, in which Picard reveals the extent to which his traumas still motivates him several years later.

The state of Trek

After the 2009 cinematic reboot, the Star Trek Universe split into two parallel universes. The new movies occur in the ‘Kelvin’ timeline, while the original universe maintains its existence as the ‘Prime’ timeline. As if mirroring this, the film and television rights split apart when Paramount Pictures’ parent company Viacom dispensed with CBS, who hold the television rights. It was in this environment CBS decided to return Star Trek to television, some 12 years after the last Star Trek TV show, the prequel Enterprise, ended after four seasons. The commercial circumstances were remarkably similar to those that conditions the return of Star Trek to TV back in 1987. The audience for genre film and TV had expanded, fandom now enjoying the kind of relationship with the industry which would have been a mad dream in 1972. Moreover, the back catalogue was finding a new audience on streaming services, just as the original series had found a new audience in syndication back in the 70s, increasing the commercial pressure for new content.

CBS hired Bryan Fuller, who’d worked in his younger days on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Voyager, and who’d now made a name for himself as the showrunner of the Hannibal Tv series, to develop new Star Trek shows. His winning idea was to create an anthology show which would start in the years before the original series, but progress through the Prime timeline, giving fresh takes on different eras of the show. While there were creative tensions between Fuller and CBS, it seems his early departure from the production of Star Trek: Discovery was more down to scheduling conflicts, with CBS and Netflix keen to get the series quickly while Fuller was tied up on prior commitments to adapt Neil Gaiman’s American Gods for television.

CBS brought in Alex Kurtzmann, who’d worked on the new movies, to oversee Star Trek for them.

I’ve never seen Star Trek: Discovery, although I have seen a couple of the Short Treks anthology show that spun off from it, a show which seems to fulfil Fuller’s vision of a show that can explore any bit of Trek it likes. And Star Trek: Discovery, having explored and reinvented the back story of some of the original series characters (like Christopher Pike, Kirk’s immediate predecessor as Enterprise Captain, and Spock), has now been flung forward to a century after the time of Next Generation, much as previous prequel series Enterprise brought in a plot elements from the far, post-Next Generation future too. This also fulfils Fuller’s plan to have the early seasons set before the original series, and later seasons set in advance of the later spin offs. But much of this has passed me by. I gave up on Star Trek sometime during Voyager, a show with a lot of unfulfilled potential, and saw little of Enterprise. But a little bit of Star Trek, thanks in large part to Patrick Stewart’s Jean-Luc Picard, stayed with me.

And so the announcement last year that Stewart would be reprising Picard, in a new TV series focused on that character’s life 16 years after the end of the Next Generation, excited me. I figured if Stewart was involved, that suggested quality, and the potential for surprising quality.

So what’s Star Trek: Picard like? Was it a joyful reunion, or a disappointing afterglow? Join me next time to find out.

This post’s featured image is by JD Hancock, and used under license.