Star Trek's Radical Cast→

At the time, though, this was disconcertingly radical, it didn’t respect conventional norms. There was a black woman who wasn’t a cook or maid; there was a Russian (the Enemy of the current Cold War), and a Japanese (an Enemy from a previous war). Sulu and Chekov looked like the Bad Guys – but they weren’t. Spock, too, looked weird, alien, almost devilish – as though he, too, was supposed to be a Bad Guy.

From here, the author veers into goofy fanfiction, recasting and gender swapping the parts in JJ Abrams’ Star Trek in ways that would be as radical to modern audiences as the Original Series cast was to 1960s audiences. In the fantasy cast, there are no white males, and supreme effort is taken to have ethnically appropriate actors for every role (rather than fudging English for Scottish, this Asian for that Asian, etc).

The author’s approach is too nerdy even for me and gives zero deference to the financial realities of Hollywood filmmaking. But there’s an interesting point here.

Star Trek is about the future. But more specifically, Star Trek is about a radically utopian and progressive future that goes much deeper than transporters and warp drives. Recreating the relationships and stories from the original cast is fun and makes for entertaining films. But it also turns the franchise into something harmless. It makes the whole thing retro rather than radical. And something important is lost in the process.


Rick Perry Vetoes Buy American Bill→

“Gov. Perry by his veto has undercut the creation and preservation of manufacturing jobs in Texas and the U.S.” Texas AFL-CIO President Becky Moeller said. “These jobs are critical to our economic success.”

I noticed some sturm und drang online about Texas Governor Rick Perry vetoing a bipartisan “Buy American” bill.1 Interestingly, people angered by the bill include both liberal labor unions and nationalist conservatives.

I think “Buy American” bills encourage shoddy governance. Supporting US manufacturing is a noble goal, but it shouldn’t take hostage all other government responsibilities. If the federal government or a state or a city wants to build a train system, for instance, they should focus on hiring vendors who will do the best possible job building a train system. Many of those vendors will be American and will generate jobs in the US, but the point of building the train should be to improve transportation, not to create those jobs.

Adding rules like “Buy American” encourages every government project to focus on local cronyism, rather than building whatever the hell they’re supposed to build.


  1. Texas already has a “Buy American” law. This bill just added more types of goods.


How Rob Ford Got Elected→

Under our antiquated electoral system his government enjoyed virtual dictatorial powers winning 64 per cent of the seats in the legislature with only 45 per cent of the popular vote – most of this support concentrated in the right-leaning suburbs. He didn’t need to represent the province, just his political base.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford smokes crack. Allegedly.

Almost every story of incompetent governance or corruption in politics is really a story about bad political institutions. In this case, an outdated electoral system that favors suburban and rural voters over urban voters has led to cosmopolitan Toronto being ruled by a series of right-wing suburban mayors, ill-equipped to run a major city.

Political institutions are boring and almost no effort is spent campaigning for their reform. Often that’s because the institutions favor one party over another. But how we vote, what bodies we vote for, and how the votes are counted are actually much more important forces than individual candidates and campaigns.

That’s why the most populous city in Canada has a drug smoking racist for a mayor.


Conversation Tip for Weirdos

Or How to Make People Seem Interesting

I am not a social person and do not especially enjoy social events. For years in college, I would repeatedly say the wrong thing to people, horribly offending them with no idea how or why it had happened. My friends would then laugh and remark how I’d “done it again.”

But I have cobbled together one simple strategy that my fellow weirdos may find helpful.

How to Talk to a Stranger

Ask questions. Then ask more questions. Then keep asking questions.

“Oh, you work at X? What’s that like? Uh huh. So what companies do you represent? Oh really. What are they like? Oh really? What type of software do you use for that? How did you get that job? Oh you used to work at Y? What was that like? What’s the craziest Z you’ve seen?”

This sounds stupid. In fact, it’s basically the way computer chatbots operate.

But it is remarkably effective. And it’s not as creepy as it sounds. I’ve found that by asking many questions, I can eventually land on a topic that genuinely interests me and have a real conversation.

Here’s why it works. Everyone you meet is an expert in something. It may be something seemingly trivial, like mall security procedures1 or class action lawsuits, but no one’s made it 20+ years in life without learning a lot about something.

If you can find that hidden expertise, you’ll be amazed at the level of detail and character you can get out of someone about their job, their life, or their hobbies.


  1. Actually I love expertise like that. I love it when someone knows everything there is to know about a topic to which I’ve applied zero thought.


PA Report: Xbox One Will Kill Used Games→

Once that secondary market is removed you can suddenly profit from every copy of your game sold, and as profit margins rise it’s possible we’ll see prices drop. Some stodgy publishers will likely stay with the $60 model, but they’re dead companies walking already. The smart companies will see this opportunity to play with pricing and see what works and what doesn’t.

Ben Kuchera at Penny-Arcade has an optimistic take on Microsoft eliminating the used game market.

I’d love to believe this, but I think the carrot and stick are out of whack here. If you’re going to eliminate the ability for me to buy and sell used games, then you have to offer a reasonable tradeoff. “Oh, I can’t resell my game anymore, but now my game is cheaper/downloadable/more convenient.”

What Microsoft is offering is a step backward from Steam. You still have to buy a physical disc, only now that disc is just an installer and your copy is linked to your $50-a-year Xbox Live account. But what if you lose the disc? Do you have to re-buy the physical disc? Can you just download it? And what happens in the future when Xbox Two comes out? Will my games still work/still be tied to my account?1

All of Microsoft’s responses are about ways you can kind of, sort of approximate the convenience of the current setup with their new system, but they don’t actually explain why their new system is better for me as a consumer.


  1. Probably not, since Microsoft has already said that Xbox Live Arcade purchases made on the 360 will not play on the Xbox One.


Club-MST3K→

When I was in middle school, my brother and I used to record every episode of MST3K onto eight-hour VHS tapes. The show was on late and the jokes were fast, so we wanted to be able to watch them over and over again.

In high school, with the show cancelled, I felt certain that it was going to disappear and I’d never be able to see it again. So I started downloading the episodes from a peer-to-peer network, with a 56kbps modem, and archiving them one by one on custom-labeled CD-Rs. My goal was to have the entire show stored for posterity. By college, the CD-Rs had degraded and the whole collection was worthless. I gave up.

Now it’s 2013, and I can dial up every single episode instantly via YouTube whenever I want.

Huh. Starting to realize I wasted a lot of time.


Wired: Xbox One Revealed→

Wired.com has an exclusive look at the design of the new Xbox. More interesting to me though, is the web design of the Wired article itself. There are some clever presentational elements, including a scrolling effect which reveals an image of the new Xbox at the same moment you’re reading the author’s description of a Microsoft executive pulling a cloth cover off the prototype.

I usually dislike attempts to make magazine articles into interactive websites, but this is an interactive element that compliments and enhances the actual content of the article, creating an experience you couldn’t get in print.


Star Trek Into Darkness Review

Not Everything Should Be a Remix

NOTE: This review contains spoilers and nerdery.

Star Trek (2?) Into Darkness is a good, fun movie. The pacing is excellent, the characters are charming, and the design and look of the world is deep and engrossing. This is not faint praise. It’s very difficult to do all these things well and the filmmakers deserve to be commended for it.

But…

Into Darkness is not a great movie.

Most negative reviews have focused on the film’s dumbness: Its plot holes, its frenetic action, its weak grasp of what makes Trek Trek.

These don’t bother me. Much.1

The real problem is deeper. Star Trek Into Darkness borrows haphazardly from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan without understanding how or why that film works. As a result, Into Darkness lacks a coherent theme.

“Aren’t You Dead?”

Wrath of Khan is beloved because it has a powerful thematic story that is appropriate to its characters and its context.

William Shatner was 51 when the movie was released. The original series had been off the air for 13 years. Faced with an aging cast and a franchise better known because of nostalgia than quality, the writers leaned into the problem and created a film centered on death, aging, and rebirth.

Every element in Wrath of Khan is almost ludicrously on theme:

  • The film opens with a simulation in which the entire Enterprise crew is killed.
  • The dialogue constantly remarks on the crew’s age and Kirk’s mortality (his fading eyesight, his love of antiques, his birthday, etc).
  • Kirk dismisses space travel as an adventure for the young.
  • The film’s science fiction gimmick, the Genesis Device, is literally a machine that creates life from death.
  • The film’s villain is an old foe from Kirk’s youth who blames Kirk for the death of his wife.
  • Kirk reconnects with an old flame and a son he never knew he had.
  • Kirk faces death for the first time as Spock sacrifices himself to save the Enterprise.
  • And in the final exchange on the bridge, Kirk reveals that his journey and his loss have made him feel young again.

Wrath of Khan knows the story it’s trying to tell and it selects every element to further that story.

“Khaaaaaaaaaan!”

Compare this to Into Darkness, which remixes the elements and climactic scenes from Wrath of Khan using a cast of 30-somethings going on their first missions.

Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk is introduced as young, inexperienced, and brash. He’s a risk taker who has never had to face the consequences of his actions. Someday, we’re warned, his brashness could get his entire crew killed.

So what does the story do? It sends him on a revenge mission in which he succeeds by… taking wild and dangerous risks and going with his gut. Then in a funhouse mirror version of Wrath of Khan’s climax, Kirk sacrifices himself to save the Enterprise (a dubious piece of character growth considering Kirk would’ve certainly sacrificed himself at any other point in the film to save his crew). The film’s final message is that we should not let attacks on our homeland cause us to become worse than the enemies we face. Also, Spock learns to get angry, shouts “Khaaaaaaaaan” for some reason, and then beats a guy up. And oh yeah, Kirk is revived by magic space blood.

This is thematic spaghetti. It is a messy collection of ideas that do not resonate or hold together. Into Darkness2 attempts to use images and scenes from Wrath of Khan with characters, contexts, and themes to which they do not apply.

Spock’s death in Wrath of Khan is significant because the movie is built on themes of mortality and aging. And because we the audience have a long and deep understanding of the character and his relationship with Kirk and Bones. It is the ultimate test for Kirk in the movie, confirming the film’s theme that “how we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life.”

Fast forward 31 years: Kirk’s death in Into Darkness is a third act twist designed to inspire an action sequence in which Spock fist fights Khan on top of a flying garbage truck. A good remix should redefine or add to the original, creating a contrast (or unexpected similarity) that generates new meanings. Star Trek Into Darkness remixes Wrath of Khan’s ending because it’s a cool idea, not because it has any thematic connection to its characters or its story.

This new Kirk and new Spock do not need to face their mortality. Each has seen loved ones die (in this same movie in fact). This Kirk and Spock are different, younger characters who need to learn different lessons.3 Putting these characters in the climax from Wrath of Khan is an empty exercise.

The Future

Star Trek Into Darkness is solid popcorn fare. I’d be very happy if future Star Trek movies maintained this level of fun, humor, and action.

But I also hope that future sequels will aim higher. There’s a moment in Into Darkness when Uhura angrily accuses Spock of feeling nothing when faced with death. Spock explains that he chooses not to feel because his emotions are so painful and potent, not because he doesn’t have them. Death reminds him of the overpowering grief he felt watching his planet and his mother die in the previous film. This is a new (but completely valid) take on the character that uses the same science fiction premise (a species that suppresses their emotions) to tell a meaningfully different story about the human experience.

That’s Star Trek. And I’d like a sequel to move forward with that sort of confidence. To tell a story that fits and serves the new characters, rather than endlessly remixing and rebooting the past.


  1. The film is particularly bad at Trek science, doling out magical (and universe breaking) science fiction inventions to solve minor plot problems. I don’t object to changing the rules of a fictional universe, but you can’t change them for every action scene.

  2. Even the title itself, Star Trek Into Darkness, feels muddled. What does it mean?

  3. That’s a good thing. It’s an opportunity to tell new stories with new ideas and situations.


Craigslist Tips

Avoiding Morons

Photo Credit: wonder_al

There are a lot of sites out there offering tips for selling on Craigslist. Putting pictures in your ad, setting a reasonable price, deciding on a public place, etc. That’s all fine.

But they don’t mention the most important Craigslist tip: How to Avoid Morons.

And it’s actually pretty damn simple.

Pick Up a Phone, Call Someone

Craigslist requires human interaction, and trying to avoid that interaction with emails or txt messages is self-defeating.

Think about it. Craigslist uses an anonymized email system that reduces each email address to a string of randomized characters. Would you try to negotiate a sale and meeting via the anonymous comments section on YouTube? Of course not. Because SpunkyChowChik89 is not a person and cannot be trusted.

To successfully set up an exchange with minimum bullshit you have to break down the anonymity by picking up the phone and talking to a human being.

In thirty seconds on the phone you’ll instantly get a gut feeling about whether you’re dealing with a moron or a serious buyer. Just as importantly, you will become a person in the buyer’s mind rather than an anonymous douche.

Almost every Craigslist meeting I’ve set via txt message has resulted in the buyer flaking out. Almost every call has resulted in a quick and easy sale. It’s much harder to ignore a commitment made with your own voice.

Craigslist is about trading time/convenience for cash. It’s not always worth it, but don’t make it harder on yourself by pretending you’re dealing with Amazon or an ATM machine. You’re not. You’re dealing with a weird guy named Chaz who wants to buy your used Blackberry Playbook. Give Chaz a call.


Coding vs. Screenwriting

Fear of the Blank Page

There are two types of writing that consume most of my time. One is a passion and something I hope will be my career, screenwriting. The other is a hobby, coding.

But even though creative writing is so much more important to me, I start and complete far more coding projects. Why?

Coding Never Starts from Scratch

Coding is less intimidating than screenwriting because my tools are more expansive and my goals more limited. When I get an itch to code something (for instance a script to convert iCal calendar entries into Markdown), the goal is small, obvious, and concrete. But more importantly, I never have to start from a blank page.

Depending on what tool I’m using, there are thousands of projects, gems, or code snippets to pull from. I can “hack” a script to do what I want while outsourcing all of the heavy lifting. All I have to do is stitch together pieces created by far smarter, far more skilled programmers.

Creative Writing Means Reinventing the Wheel

But screenwriting means facing the blank page. You have language, formatting, and conventions to build from and little else. It’s more akin to programming in something like machine code.

There’s no Bootstrap story you can load and tweak into a final product.1 Sure, you can build off the structure or character or ideas of others.2 But a good screenplay is driven by theme. Those basic story elements shouldn’t be interchangeable. They should be carefully chosen to develop and further the core idea.

Aiming Smaller

I can’t add functions or loops or libraries to screenwriting, but I can aim for smaller more concrete goals. I’m writing more tweets, more blog posts, and also reading up on short fiction. My hope is that by writing more small creative projects, I can feed off the same sense of satisfaction I get from solving small, everyday annoyances with code. Maybe if I do it for long enough, I’ll even forget to be scared of the blank page.


  1. Some screenwriting books like Save The Cat offer pre-made outlines for writing films. Having read hundreds of scripts as a working coverage reader in Hollywood, I can say that screenplays written this way are almost always hollow, predictable, and unsatisfying.

  2. Everything is a Remix