Peter Thiel, Star Wars, and Capitalism

Peter Thiel, a Trumpist who does libertarian impersonations, has argued that Star Trek is communist while Star Wars is capitalist. He may have a point, but his example on the latter is a seriously poor choice.

On Star Trek he repeats an often-made and valid point. According to Gene Roddenberry, the Federation doesn’t use money because replicators can make anything without limit. This ignores the fact that there are other kinds of scarcity besides goods. Starfleet needs highly trained people who are willing to spend years away from home. They can’t just run a James Kirk or Jean-Luc Picard through the transporter and then produce additional copies. If they could and did, they’d be the Borg.
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On the Sad Puppies

I’ve kept my distance from the “Sad Puppies” controversy in the Hugo Awards. I’m not registered for the upcoming World Science Fiction Convention, and I don’t follow a lot of current science fiction, so I couldn’t cast an informed vote without a lot of extra work. I have noticed quite a bit of nastiness from the anti-Puppy faction, including sniping at the people nominated because of the Sad Puppy and Rabid Puppy slates. If you dislike the methods of promotion, that’s fine, but attacking people for being nominated and failing to decline the nomination isn’t. It exemplifies the growing illiberalism and intolerance that I’ve seen in fandom.

I’d like people to read Gray Rinehart's article on this year’s Hugo situation. Though we’re both filkers, I don’t really know him personally, and his Christian philosophy is quite different from mine, but his core point is important:

Suffice it to say that various people, in various places, have characterized the “Sad Puppies” ringleaders and their “Rabid Puppies” counterparts — as well as those of us whose works were nominated — in … uncharitable terms. Words like racist, misogynistic, homophobic, and even neo-Nazi have been bandied about. Likewise, strong and often unduly harsh language has been used against those on the “anti-puppy” side, i.e., toward those on the side of the Hugo Award traditions and WorldCon fandom. …

I will, however, say this: I find myself somewhat ambivalent about the possibility that people I do not know might characterize me in unfriendly terms, whether directly or through guilt-by-association. The fact is that most of the commentators do not know me, personally or even by reputation, and their reports can hardly be taken as reliable. I admit that I am somewhat concerned that other people, potential fans or potential friends who read such things, could come away with a false impression; however, I am confident that those who know me, who have interacted with me on a personal basis, will not be fooled into believing falsehoods about me.

I also recommend Jeff Duntemann’s series of posts on the controversy. He clarifies the distinction between the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies, which some people, including me before I read his posts, have had trouble following.

There’s an outside chance that my Tomorrow’s Songs Today could be nominated next year in the category of “best related work,” and I’ve thought about whether I’d want that. Some people would very likely lump me, because of my views, with the Puppy faction, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few alleged friends turn on me. If it happens, I think I’d do more good by giving them reasoned responses than by running away from the situation.

Noah (spoilers)

It’s been a while since there’s been a really impressive disaster movie, but this weekend a big one is opening. It’s a bit reminiscent of the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, where an eco-terrorist from space threatens to destroy all human life for not being better stewards of the planet. In this movie, based on the book Genesis, the alien terrorist (called “the Creator”) succeeds. All human life is wiped out, except for one family. All the animal life in the world is drowned, except for what the protagonist Noah can save in one boat. The Creator does all this in the name of “saving the environment.”

The decision to set this movie in ancient times is an odd one. The Creator doesn’t face any noticeable opposition. There are no planes for him to blast out of the sky. There are no scientists hopelessly rushing to find a way to prevent the global disaster. There’s just the wholesale slaughter of helpless, primitive people.

What would this alternate world be like after such an event? After the Creator’s done with his mad ecological crusade, the waters recede onto the worst scene of global devastation since the last Yellowstone super-eruption. All that’s left to repopulate the world is a boat in the Middle East with a cargo of animals, mostly just two of each kind, seven of some. The human race is down to a genetic bottleneck of one family. Most of the surviving species would probably go extinct in a generation. Many of the drowned plants would reseed themselves; in fact, the world would likely turn into a jungle planet from all that watering. And the Creator is still around to inflict further horrors on the survivors. (Later on in Genesis, he turns a woman into salt when she witnesses his firebombing a city.)

Personally, I’d rather see the Hulk meet the Creator and give him what he deserves. But then it would be a rather short movie.

Gravity and music

When I went to see Gravity yesterday, it was the first first-run movie I’d seen in a theater since The Hobbit last year. I don’t enjoy the movie theater experience, with too-loud sound and endless trailers, but this was a movie worth seeing in a theater. It easily has the best physics of any space movie ever made. Almost all of it is set in a free-fall environment, and everything is right, down to tiny objects floating around. If anything was wrong with the physics, it was too subtle for me to catch. Gravity poster

The story is about the ability of the human mind to cope with disaster and with its own fears. The entire cast consists of two people, not counting voices on radio. It deserves to be a Hugo nominee. Is it science fiction, though, or just a movie about current technology? Its driving premise is that the destruction of a single satellite by a missile could set off a chain reaction of careening space junk that would wreck a sizable portion of what’s up there. I’d call that a science-fiction premise.

On the negative side, the ISS is supposed to be within spacewalking distance of the Hubble and a Chinese space station just a hundred kilometers beyond. The Hubble’s orbital altitude is about 350 miles and the ISS is about 260. That’s a 90-mile spacewalk even if their orbits are perfectly lined up.* Still, it’s hard to complain when Gravity comes so much closer to being right than most “sci-fi” movies. There’s also a sequence which at first seems even more wildly improbable; it isn’t what it seems, but it undercuts the sense that Ryan Stone is solving her own problems.

In the evening I went to a concert by Symphony NH, a really high-quality orchestra right here in Nashua. Ruth Palmer joined them for a performance of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. I loved the sound of her instrument and the acoustics of Keefe Auditorium. There’s even a tie-in to space movies. Conductor Jonathan McPhee told us that the main theme from the concerto was used in The Right Stuff, which won an award for Best Original (!) Score.

The concert ended with Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. I know that symphony inside and out, but every performance is a little different, and live performances let me see the effort that goes into them. I could go on for a long time about this one, but I’ll just mention one bit of subtle humor that goes all through it, a sort of running gag with obsessive chromatic bass lines. Near the end of the first movement, the cellos and basses keep repeating a short figure while the orchestra builds to a climax. In the third movement, the horn does a G, F-sharp, G that turns into what’s been described as a “coughing fit.” In the finale, the cellos and basses just can’t keep their footing. First they’re oscillating from G-sharp to A, then they slip down to G to A-flat, to E-flat, D, and C, before finally catching themselves on alternating E and D-sharp, which they hang on to as the bass while the orchestra builds up to a big climax. If you listen carefully, you’ll notice they stay on that D-sharp even after the rest of the orchestra has placed itself firmly in A major!

Not a bad day at all.

*Update: Come to think of it, the presumed relative positions of the Hubble and ISS do imply a physics problem in the plot, apart from whether such a long spacewalk is possible. It would be too much of a spoiler to spell it out here, but if you see the movie and then think about how orbits work, you’ll probably catch it.