Star Trek and the cloud city

Enterprise in orbit around Ardana. Image courtesy Memory Alpha
Enterprise in orbit around Ardana. Image courtesy Memory Alpha

I’m re-watching old Star Trek episodes and yesterday was “The Cloud Minders“. For being aired in 1969, it seemed… sadly all too relevant to recent events in our country and specifically in Missouri.

Briefly, the episode is about Kirk and Spock trying to get a consignment of a vital mineral from rebel miners on one planet, to stop an agricultural plague on another planet. They are drawn into the politics of the world, which feature staggering inequality, racism, brutality, torture, environmental inequality, unsafe working conditions for the poor, a technologically-dependent city, and more.

The “more” is an eerily prescient story element that sounds like the recent discovery that environmental lead closely tracks violent crime. There’s no way that the writers could have known about it in 1969, but the gist is that much of the racism derived from the aphorism “All they understand is violence!” It turned out that much of the violence was caused by exposure to a toxic gas in the mines. And the rest of it, by economic desperation.

The scene where Spock ruminates on conditions there is worth the price of admission. Kirk is sleeping and Spock is… thinking. His narration:

SPOCK [OC]: “This troubled planet is a place of the most violent contrasts. Those who receive the rewards are totally separated from those who shoulder the burdens. It is not a wise leadership. Here on Stratos, everything is incomparably beautiful and pleasant. The High Advisor’s charming daughter Droxine, particularly so. The name Droxine seems appropriate for her. I wonder, can she retain such purity and sweetness of mind and be aware of the life of the people on the surface of the planet? There, the harsh life in the mines is instilling the people with a bitter hatred. The young girl who led the attack against us when we beamed down was filled with the violence of desperation. If the lovely Droxine knew of the young miner’s misery, I wonder how the knowledge would affect her.” (Chakoteya.net)

This is followed by a hilarious scene where the lovely Droxine tries to seduce Spock – and makes quite a bit of progress before they are interrupted by Kirk. I half expected Spock to say “Jim, do you mind? Can’t this wait?”

There are Star Trek TOS episodes that are just staggeringly dumb, but this one is highly recommended. I just wish it weren’t still so… relevant.

NOTES

  • My first thought on seeing the city floating in the clouds, held aloft by an anti-gravity system, was that the city was always one technological failure away from catastrophe. But there are contemporary cities no less dependent on large systems. Most of them, in fact.
  • I have seen far too many comments about #Ferguson, Missouri, that amount to “They are animals, and all they understand is violence!” The leader of Ardana said almost exactly those words about the Troglytes. 
  • Most bad-ass quote in the episode. Kirk stops the torture of one of the miners: “The only way you’ll use that device again is on one of us!”
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12 Years A Slave, the book

Twelve Years A Slave cover
I literally read this book in stunned silence. Months ago, because at first I could not process it at all.

I first learned about Twelve Years A Slave by watching the Oscars. I hadn’t known about the book, or about Solomon Northup, or the awful injustice* done to him, or that a movie had been made about it. Later some of my friends highly recommended the film, which is not to say that they thought I would enjoy it.

But… a book lay behind the movie. A book written 161 years ago by a man taken from his family, his life, and from all hope. However great the movie might be, this book was its source. It is a first-person account of part of our history.

I can say with some confidence that many white Americans do not really believe that slavery existed. Engage them about it if you like, but they will straightaway begin making excuses: “It wasn’t that bad. It was different in biblical times. We fought a war over it, which should pay up any debt. We didn’t fight a war over it; the real issue was state’s rights. Slaves loved their masters, and were better off than they would have been in Africa. It was long ago and it shouldn’t have any effect on race relations today. Plus, you know, we have a black president.”

This is a narrative told to children, but unlike Santa Claus it is genuinely harmful. It is whitewash on a monstrous evil, and Northup lays that evil out exposed in the hot Louisiana sun. Most of the book is the telling of his story, but there are also passages of exposition:

“Happiness, in her mind, was exemption from stripes – from labor – from the cruelty of masters and overseers. Her idea of the joy of heaven was simply rest, and is fully expressed in these of a melancholy bard:

“I ask no paradise on high,
With cares on earth oppressed,
The only heaven for which I sigh,
Is rest, eternal rest.”

“It is a mistaken opinion that prevails in some quarters that the slave does not understand the term – does not comprehend the idea of freedom. Even on Bayou Boeuf, where I conceive slavery exists in its most abject and cruel form – where it exhibits features altogether unknown in more northern states – the most ignorant of them generally know full well its meaning. They understand the privileges and exemptions that belong to it – that it would bestow upon them the fruits of their own labors, and that it would secure to them the enjoyment of domestic happiness. They do not fail to observe the difference between their own condition and the meanest white man’s, and to realize the injustice of the laws which place it in his power not only to appropriate the profits of their industry, but to subject them to unmerited and unprovoked punishment, without remedy, or the right to resist or to remonstrate.”

Northup was abducted, and whipped into terror of the consequences should he ever dare to say that he was a freeman, then sold into slavery. His deeper story is about the mental discipline of keeping alive an ember of hope, and keeping it hidden. In one instance he sought the help of an apparently sympathetic white person to deliver a letter to his family in the North; to let them know he was alive, and of his circumstances. The man said he would think about it, then told Northup’s master, leaving him in peril of his life. Only quick thinking and reasoning saved him, but what then? How would he ever get word to his family?

“I knew not now whither to look for deliverance. Hopes sprang up in my heart only to be crushed and blighted. The summer of my life was passing away; I felt I was growing prematurely old; that a few years more, and toil, and grief, and the poisonous miasma of the swamps would accomplish their work on me – would consign me to the grave’s embrace, to moulder and be forgotten. Repelled, betrayed, cut off: from the hope of succor, I could only prostrate myself upon the earth and groan in unutterable anguish. The hope of rescue was the only light that cast a ray of comfort on my heart. That was now flicking, faint and low; another breath of disappointment would extinguish it altogether, leaving me to grope in midnight darkness to the end of life.”

 It is no spoiler to say that he eventually did find someone to deliver a letter; he could not possibly have ever written the book otherwise. An educated man, he was forced to feign illiteracy. It had taken him years to acquire that first piece of paper and write on it, and to save his life he had to quickly destroy the letter when the person in whom he had trusted betrayed him.

To me the most suffocating part of the story is that enslaved persons were expected to act like they were happy about their lot in life. Even to entertain their masters, enthusiastically, or face severe flogging. Enslaved persons learned to keep hidden their soul, their hopes, their discontents.

Individualism is a cherished religious belief in our country, whatever confession an individual may embrace. We fancy ourselves masters of our own fate, and morally responsible for only our own decisions. Somehow, we tell ourselves, if a person suffers, it must be in some way their own fault. The reality that the sins of our fathers, or our father’s fathers, or many generations behind them could still poison the air we breathe today is heresy to the faith of our democracy. It is even worse to think that injustice affects everyone, and not only the straight line descendants of slaves or slave owners. Even today we fear to look deeply into the darkness of our recent past. It raises too many questions for which we have no answers.

Having said all these things, I do not know how to tell you what it was like to spend time with the words of Solomon Northup. The story is more or less irreducible, and I have no personal experiences that can even serve as a metaphor, or as a unit of measurement, of what he experienced.

All I can say is; read it. If you dare. It won’t stay in a sealed compartment called “history” though.

NOTES:

  • Wikipedia article on the book and its history
  • The slave economy most assuredly affects politics today. And in turn appears to have been affected by ancient geology. Where you can grow cotton | Where it made economic “sense” to have slaves | Voting patterns in the 21st century.
  • *So, was the injustice done to him worse because he was a free man, who was kidnapped into slavery? Because he was an educated man, a musician, a family man? I hope this question would not be difficult for anyone.
  • I didn’t watch the movie. Maybe someday.
  • I often hear the words “white guilt” bandied around by people who want to build a generational firewall around past injustice. No, I am not personally guilty for slavery; that would be idiotic. But yes, I have enjoyed all my life the privileges of social position that derive from nothing more than being white. Why pretend otherwise?

Hitting

NoRightWayToHit_aWoman
Sure there is, captain. Just be a popular athlete.

I really wasn’t surprised that Baltimore Ravens’ running back Ray Rice got a standing ovation from fans, after returning from his too-brief suspension for knocking out his girlfriend. My experience of sportsball culture is that athletes are held to a much lower standard than the rest of us. They expect it. They’re allowed to cut in line, break the rules of decency, and sneer at any expectation that they be expected to face consequences. And their fans seem to like it that way. Hence the standing ovation.

The reason that men don’t go around hitting other men, though, is that most men can credibly hit back. Which makes hitting women all the more craven. We keep our testosterone in check when our dental work is at stake. And I believe it’s a component of the contempt that certain men hold for women of strength – either physical or relational.

Sometimes I think that testosterone culture* doesn’t so much celebrate strength and aggression as it is terrified of weakness, of losing power. This is why certain people compare other men to a woman… as an insult.

Few people (of either gender) will physically attack anyone they believe can really defend themselves. Effeminate men seem to be targets, and children, and the elderly, the disabled, and people who are not in a legal position to defend themselves. Such cowardice extends even outside our species; during WW I, some men kicked dachshund hounds because they were  “German dogs”. No record of them attempting the same thing on German shepherds.

Libby Anne of Love, Joy, Feminism asks; “How about people don’t hit people?” (Good article, as is the article she links to.)

“And exactly why can’t we instill in boys that real men never hit people? Why should it be okay for men to hit other men? I am not okay with that being okay.”

 Adlai Stevenson famously said that a free society is one in which it is safe to be unpopular. I would like to add that a free society is also one in which it is safe to be poor, to be physically less than powerful, to care about others, or to be shy or non- aggressive. I would welcome attempts to distill that into a statement as pithy as Stevenson’s.

NOTES

  • *Testosterone culture, of course, extends way beyond sportsball. That’s just the example which prompted this rant.
  • News creatures say “alleged domestic assault incident”. Bullshit: he was recorded on video knocking out his girlfriend, and dragging her away unconscious.  There’s nothing “alleged” about it.
  • Remember the mass protests at Penn State, in defense of Jerry Sandusky? Beloved sportsball figure!

Back when people used typewriters

Mark Twain was a famous early adopter of fancy technology, and he helped to popularize the typewriter. Isaac Asimov, author of more than five hundred books, had two IBM selectrics; if one broke, he shoved it aside and kept writing. It was a different time, when most information was distributed on dead trees. You know, right up until 22 years ago, before the World Wide Web.

Check out this video of kids reacting to a typewriter. Funny how a couple of them… want to keep it. It is sort of magical, letters appearing on the paper like that. The sound, the mechanism; this thing has authority.

I had a very difficult time with fine motor coordination* as a kid, and my handwriting was terrible. My sister taught me how to use a typewriter; home row, hands in position, strike the key – magic! A crisp letter on paper. I could get my thoughts out, finally.

I got very good at typing. In college, I made spending money typing papers for grad students who couldn’t spell. You kids, remember this: Spell Check won’t save you from using the correctly spelled wrong word. Homophones lurk, waiting to make you look like an idiot. But I will be sympathetic, pat you on the back and say; “There, they’re, their.”

Here’s what I like best about a manual typewriter: it has infinite patience. While you compose your next words (and you do compose, because it has no error correction), it waits, silent, wanting nothing. No electricity, no software patches, no pop-up ads. It offers no half-assed electronic opinions about your spelling or grammar. It has nothing else to do but wait for your next words. Now, that’s power.

NOTES:

  • Dave Hill compares his Smith Corona typewriter to a firearm… (Give me the typewriter any day.)
  • *Spinal meningitis, age 4. I was “lucky” but effects persist to this day. My handwriting has improved. The typewriter was a godsend.
  • Today I use a computer. My favorite is my Chromebook, which has a very long battery life, and no fan.
  • Next time you have some serious writing to do, instead of a word processor, try a code editor in “clean screen” mode. It’s the closest thing on a computer to using a typewriter. My favorite is Notepad++.