Lightsabers Considered Insufficiently Cool

The lightsaber: an instantly recognizable symbol of all things Star Wars. A blade of pure light, capable of slicing through nearly anything, and, in the right hands, of deflecting energy blasts away from the wielder and right back at the enemy. An elegant weapon, for a more civilized age. It’s pretty awesome.

But it’s not awesome enough.

Mediocre!

Let me explain. Like many socially awkward white males with a taste for fedoras, I am fond of many Japanese television shows and video games. Among these shows and games, there are very many people with magic swords, or with magic powers expressed through swords. Consider Link, who can whirl his sword about him in a glowing cyclone of death, cutting anything close to him, or else shoot his sword forward like a bullet. Pretty handy abilities, no? And he’s not alone. Chrono from Chrono Trigger can also spin about to slice multiple enemies at once, and he can also shoot with his sword, cutting anything in his way with a slash made of wind. (See also: Jubei from Ninja Scroll and Inuyasha from, well, Inuyasha) And those are just the guys who specifically use wind to cut up their foes. Ichigo from Bleach just slashes with spiritual energy. And while I’m on the subject of Bleach, how about Ichimaru Gin, whose sword can suddenly extend forward to incredible length, putting everyone within stabbing distance? (Related: Goku’s Power Pole from Dragon Ball, and the Monkey King’s staff from Journey to the West) Or Hinamori Momo, whose sword can throw fireballs, or Kuchiki Byakuya, who can split his blade into a thousand remote-controlled razor-sharp flying petals, or… I could go on about Bleach, but I’ll spare you. The point is that all these swords and swordsmen have excellent offensive capabilities, striking down enemies in a manner and efficiency usually reserved for machine guns. When these guys bring a knife to a gunfight, the gunners are afraid.

Now compare this to lightsabers. For the most part, lightsabers have equal or better defensive powers than the swords I’ve just listed, but they fall behind in offense. When Jedi get into a firefight, they have to wait for their foes to shoot them, so that they can throw the shots back, or for their foes to get close enough to cut, so they can cut them down one by one. This is a very inefficient and vulnerable position to be in, compared to everyone listed above. And these are supposed to be superior to blasters? If the Jedi in Attack of the Clones had used blasters along with their blades, they could have cut down their foes much more quickly (and reduced their own losses). If Finn had found a blaster in addition to his borrowed lightsaber, he could have shot TR-8R before the angry trooper tasered his former comrade. So why are the Jedi putting themselves at a disadvantage? Couldn’t they carry guns and swords, like Gundams do? Or how about following Squall Leonhart’s example, and using gun-swords?

(I might also note that there is one circumstance where Jedi exclusively use blasters: vehicular combat. Whether they’re flying space fighters or snow speeders, Jedi use guns alongside everyone else, and they seem to like it that way.)

I don’t wish to discount the many things that lightsabers do well. Unlike normal blades, they are all edge and no face, so whichever way you swing it, it’s guaranteed to cut. Plus, since the blade has no mass, you can swing it about with ease and never lose control, and when you’re done with it, the blade just disappears, leaving a light and compact cylinder that’s easy to transport and store. Then there’s the way they burn and cut at the same time, for extra destruction, and they’re really, really good at defense. But I still maintain that all this is not awesome enough.

Star Wars is not a hard sci-fi setting, but it is still subject to Clarke’s third law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. And the tech in Star Wars is magical indeed; handheld objects that can shoot blazing projectiles of pure energy, defensive walls that can hold off staggering impacts while remaining invisible, mechanical golems that think and act as humans do, vehicles that can float like balloons, fly faster than the wind, soar into the vacuum of space, and then rush faster than light to traverse the vast blackness between the stars… If actual magic wishes to hold its own against such powerful techno-juju, it’s going to have to up its game. We might as well start with improving our magical weapons.

First, lightsabers’ offense should be as good as their defense; if you know how to use a lightsaber, you’ll never want for a blaster. Second, lightsabers should be more unique. Notice all the different styles of attack I mentioned above? This variety is the norm in many fictional settings, especially those that involve martial arts, and it should be the norm in Star Wars. Not only will different lightsabers have different handles and colors, but they will have different attacks. Some will fire stabbing bolts, some will throw arcs like Guile’s Sonic Booms, some will flow like long streamers or dance like arcs of lightning, and some will do other things entirely. Ideally, the style of the blade will tell us something about the personality of the wielder. But whatever they do, they will be dangerous, and when soldiers anywhere see a stranger with a saber, they’ll be very, very careful about engaging them.

It’s too late to change what has already been written, but it’s not too late to change what will be written in the future. I propose that we all incorporate this more magical style of lightsaber into all Star Wars fiction. Leave a comment to let me know what you make of my proposal, and May the Fourth be with you. (It’s 11:25pm where I’m writing this, so this is my last chance to say that.)

P.S. I suggest that this same kind of change (making something more powerful and more individualized) should also be made to Force powers. Even without a weapon, a Jedi can wield the Force, and if it’s powerful enough to levitate X-Wings, it’s powerful enough to deliver deadly punches, and range attacks too. (Why should only the Sith get ranged attacks? Ryu’s a good guy, and he gets to throw fireballs.) And we’d never put up with a group of superheroes who all had the same powers, so why put up with it from a group of Jedi? Everyone should have different strengths and weaknesses, and some way of using the Force that’s uniquely their own.

P.P.S. While researching for this piece, I came across a fascinating item: the gun axe. The world is full of wonder.

The Illusion of Guilt

There is a sickness in our minds, and it runs deep. It is a desire to force the facts to fit our opinions, rather than force our opinions to fit the facts. This madness is especially dangerous when the facts in question are related to crimes and justice. Our institutions have a terrible tendency to force people to appear guilty instead of determining whether or not they actually are guilty.

One area where this tendency manifests is in the way cops interrogate suspects. The Reid Technique is currently popular among American law-enforcement agencies as a way to get suspects to confess. It is a powerful technique, with a proven track record of getting people to confess to crimes that they could not possibly have committed. FalseConfessions.org describes how this can happen on this page. Here’s a typical example:

Martin Tankleff had just turned 17, when he found his mother brutally murdered and his father clinging to life after being attacked. After calling 911, he was immediately taken to police headquarters and underwent harsh interrogation by homicide investigators. He was told that his hair was found in his mother’s dead fingers and that his father awoke from his coma to identify young Martin as his attacker. Although he was never Mirandized and maintained his innocence, police finally convinced Marty that he must have blacked out. Confused and scared, Marty came to believe his interrogators that he blacked out and committed the crime. Although not one bit of forensic evidence linked Marty to the crime scene, he was convicted and sentenced to fifty years in prison. After serving close to 18 yeas, his conviction was finally overturned in 2007. (see www.Martytankleff.org)

A recent scientific study, reported here by the Star, concluded that it was extremely easy to get people to believe themselves guilty of a crime: 70 percent of participants in a study were persuaded that they were guilty of a crime, with only minimal suggestions from the researchers. To make matters worse, some of the fooled participants became so convinced of their own guilt that they could not be re-persuaded to believe themselves innocent, even when the researchers revealed the ruse! The scientists prematurely ended the study, frightened of their terrible discovery, but the techniques they used remain common practice in police departments all across America. In fact, the Reid Technique was first developed in 1942, so we have several decades’ worth of false confessions on the books. How many people have already died, wrongfully convinced of their own guilt? I can only guess.

It’s worth noting, as Brian Gallini does in this paper, that the Reid Technique was based off of polygraph techniques – the so-called “lie detector”, which happens to be based on a pack of lies. Gallini observes that the polygraph’s credibility was already in question in 1942, so the Reid technique was in trouble from the start, and yet it has become common practice, in spite of evidence that it does not work! And speaking of the polygraph, that one hasn’t gone away, either: California is now requiring paroled sex offenders to take the test. Apparently, it is too much to ask that our governments refrain from using methods that routinely incriminate innocent people.

The Reid Technique and the polygraph are not alone in the government’s arsenal of methods for conjuring up guilt. Let us not forget that our forces are fighting a War on Terror, and to fight such a war, they must sometimes use “enhanced interrogation techniques” to get critical information out of terrorist suspects. Torture, in other words. But does torture work? There is precious little evidence in its favor. There are many who claim that it is effective, but, as former FBI agent Ali Soufan notes in this op-ed, they have a track record of lying. The US Army’s own field manual on intelligence interrogation notes that “the use of force is a poor technique, as it yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say whatever he thinks the interrogator wants to hear”. Alas, it is that final property of torture – that it can induce someone to say whatever the interrogator wants to hear – that makes it so useful to its practitioners. When you want to force the facts to fit your opinion, waterboarding people into submission seems like a great idea. (For a good examination of this mad way of thinking, read this piece by Major Anthony Milavic.)

There is one other information-gathering technique that I wish to discuss: mass surveillance. This one stands out from the others I’ve mentioned because it’s so much less personal, and it doesn’t appear to force anyone to lie. And yet, it suffers from the same failures as torture, polygraphing, and Reid Technique: it’s terrible at getting the truth and great at creating the appearance of guilt.

In defense of the first assertion, consider this post from WashingtonsBlog, in which the author notes (among other good points) that even before the 9/11 attacks, there was plenty of mass surveillance going on, and plenty of data being gathered about the people who would eventually carry out the attacks, but none of that data was able to prevent the attack. Why not? The author quotes from this piece by Nassim Taleb: “Big data may mean more information, but it also means more false information.” Perhaps this is why the NSA’s bulk metadata collection program has failed to prevent even a single terrorist attack.

As for creating the appearance of guilt, we need look no further than the strange case of Brandon Mayfield:

But there’s another danger that Snowden didn’t mention that’s inherent in the government’s having easy access to the voluminous data we produce every day: It can imply guilt where there is none. When investigators have mountains of data on a particular target, it’s easy to see only the data points that confirm their theories — especially in counterterrorism investigations when the stakes are so high — while ignoring or downplaying the rest…

Mayfield had converted to Islam after meeting his wife, an Egyptian. He had represented one of the Portland Seven, a group of men who tried to travel to Afghanistan to fight for al Qaeda and the Taliban against U.S. and coalition forces in a child custody case. He also worshipped at the same mosque as the militants. In the aftermath of 9/11, these innocent associations and relationships, however tangential, were transformed by investigators into evidence that Mayfield wasn’t a civic-minded American, but a bloodthirsty terrorist intent on destroying the West…

FBI agents broke into Mayfield’s home and law office. They rifled through documents protected by attorney-client privilege, wiretapped his phones, analyzed his financial records and web browsing history, and went through his garbage. They followed him wherever he went. Despite all this, the FBI never found a smoking gun connecting him to Madrid. They did, however, find Internet searches of flights to Spain and learned that he once took flying lessons. To FBI agents already convinced of his guilt, this was all evidence of Mayfield’s terrorist heart…

While it may seem like there were a freakish number of coincidences here, when the FBI was confronted with evidence that demonstrated Mayfield’s innocence, they twisted it to support their original theory of his guilt. With no evidence that Mayfield had traveled internationally for years — his passport had expired, and the last record of foreign travel was during his military service in 1994 — the FBI simply concocted the theory that he must have traveled overseas as part of this terrorist conspiracy under a false identity…

Because of mistakes made by the FBI — they left shoe prints in the carpet of the Mayfields’ home and broke in one time when Mayfield’s son was home alone — Mayfield concluded he was under surveillance by federal authorities. Paranoia set in. When driving, he would look to see if someone was following him home or to the office. The FBI took his skittishness as more evidence of his guilt.

There is a saying, which some attribute to Cardinal de Richelieu: “Qu’on me donne six lignes écrites de la main du plus honnête homme, j’y trouverai de quoi le faire pendre.” Translated: “If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.” (Hat tip to Cory Doctorow for telling me about that quote) In other words, it’s easy to make people look guilty. And if six lines aren’t enough, then collect six hundred, or maybe six million. That is what mass surveillance offers: enough noise to cherry-pick any data we want, and invent guilt in any target we choose.

This all has to stop. We have tens of thousands of people being wrongfully convicted, and millions of people being pointlessly spied on, all because our institutions refuse to admit that they can be wrong. I don’t know how to put an end to all of this, but I know we need to do it, and as soon as possible. It is time to stop supporting the illusion of guilt.

The Rights of a Rabbit

In the course of my research for my upcoming post, I came across an unusual story. It is part of the larger story of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, one of the first “characters” created by Walt Disney. If you’ve never heard of Oswald and you’re wondering why rabbit is so obscure while the mouse is so famous, the reason is that Walt lost the rights to draw the rabbit. Walt didn’t like the deal he was getting from Universal Studios, and they refused to pay him any more, so he left, but they kept Oswald. Walt went on to create Mickey, and Universal cried in their beer.

Time went on, and Mickey rose to a great price while Oswald languished in obscurity. The Walt Disney Company decided that they wanted the rabbit back, and Universal was willing to let go, for a price. So Disney and Universal made a trade: Disney got the rights to Oswald, and Universal got the contract for Al Michaels, plus some other stuff related to sports coverage.

Now, both Disney and Univeral seemed happy with this deal, but it strikes me as very strange. Consider what Univeral got: a valuable new employee, with decades of experience and a large fanbase. Consider what Disney got: the right to draw pictures of a certain kind of made-up rabbit.

How does this make any sense?

But to answer my own rhetorical question: Disney didn’t just get the right to draw a rabbit, they got the rights to prevent other people from drawing that rabbit. That’s something worth plenty of money, and that’s how the trade makes sense.

Perhaps, one day in the future, a generation wiser than ours will look back on our strange permission culture and wonder why we did such a thing to ourselves. Will we be able to provide a meaningful answer? Or will we have to confess to a kind of madness, that compelled us to prevent each other from doing harmless things, out of some strange idea of propriety?

I don’t know what the future will bring, but I sure hope it’s better than what we’ve currently got.

All politicians are Nazis (thoughts on the death of irony)

There’s a fellow running for State Senate not far from where I live, by the name of Steven Zachary. I don’t know much about his platform, but I do know his motto: “Family. Community. Jobs.”

There’s nothing particularly special about that motto. You’ve probably heard variations on it dozens of times already, in previous political campaigns. In fact, when I first read that motto, it reminded me of another motto that’s over 70 years old: Travail, famille, patrie, the motto of Vichy France. Travail (work), famille (family), patrie (homeland): all good things that a politician would want to promote, right?

But there’s a problem with borrowing Vichy France’s slogan: Vichy France was a puppet government, a fascistic regime installed by German occupiers. And not just any Germans, but Nazis, who they actively cooperated with in suppressing dissent and exterminating Jews. Thus, Reverend Zachary’s motto comes off less like the mantra of a trustworthy statesman and more like the snake-oil promise of a quisling. Is Reverend Zachary aware of this resemblance?

Alas, it probably doesn’t matter. Steven designed his slogan to have a shallow appeal, and the irony of a black man sounding like a Nazi collaborator won’t reduce his appeal to the people he’s trying to appeal to. For comparison, consider this magazine cover advocating “the case for Romney”. The resemblance to Soviet propaganda is obvious, even without the side-by-side comparison offered in the link, and yet that picture was on a conservative-leaning magazine in favor of a Republican presidential candidate; these are folks who pride themselves on being anti-Communist! And yet there they are, looking to all the world like the Glorious People’s Revolutionary Central Planners, and loving it.

All the irony has gone out of American politics, and we are poorer for it.

On a related note, Century Link is offering a television service called “prism”, and they’re inviting everyone to see prism tv. It seems they are unaware that in Soviet Amerika, PRISM sees you.

Lies Are Bad

In my last post, I noted that Alexander Baker had a rather odd view (in my opinion) of the value of honesty. Quoting from this post:

Is the plagiarist wrong simply because plagiarism is dishonest? No. Lying is only wrong when done to deprive another person of property. Deceiving a robber about the location of your valuables is virtuous.

This acceptance of dishonesty caught me off guard. But it turns out that Baker is hardly the only one arguing such a thing. Here’s Murray Rothbard arguing something very similar in The Ethics of Liberty:

We have therefore affirmed the legitimacy (the right) of Smith’s either disseminating knowledge about Jones, keeping silent about the knowledge, or engaging in a contract with Jones to sell his silence. We have so far been assuming that Smith’s knowledge is correct. Suppose, however, that the knowledge is false and Smith knows that it is false (the “worst” case). Does Smith have the right to disseminate false information about Jones? In short, should “libel” and “slander” be illegal in the free society?

And yet, once again, how can they be? Smith has a property right to the ideas or opinions in his own head; he also has a property right to print anything he wants and disseminate it. He has a property right to say that Jones is a “thief” even if he knows it to be false, and to print and sell that statement.

We can, of course, readily concede the gross immorality of spreading false libels about another person. But we must, nevertheless, maintain the legal right of anyone to do so. Pragmatically, again, this situation may well redound to the benefit of the people being libelled.

The thought that keeps running through my head as I read these statements is this: What is WRONG with you people!?

Of course, I’m reacting out of anger, not rational disapproval. But I think I at least have a good reason to be mad. I don’t like being lied to, and here these guys are, saying that lying is not wrong! What gives?

Giving my opponents the benefit of the doubt here, it seems to me that they’re arguing that lies do not necessarily cause harm. Thus, while lies may be disgusting and immoral, we shouldn’t automatically treat them like crimes. Alexander even goes so far as to offer a situation when lying could be considered just and moral.

But I think these guys are missing something. I think that they are missing the fundamental nature of lies. To me, the important point is this: lying is for enemies.

Consider our friends in the animal kingdom. They lie to each other, and they do it quite often. A crab spider, disguised as a flower, is lying to any nearby insects about its true nature. And why not? It’s not trying to cooperate with the bugs, it’s trying to eat them, so open and honest communication would not serve the spider’s agenda in any way.

Picture taken by Jeffrey C. Oliver, 2000
“Sorry, pal, but you should have read the fine print more carefully.”

It’s not just predators who lie, of course. Prey lie, too. And why not? If a creature is trying to eat you, do you have any obligation to give it an honest account of your true nature?

But Rothbard and Baker are not talking about predator-prey relationships between animals. They’re talking about human relationships. And not just any human relationships, but peaceful human relationships, the sort that we’d like to permit under any circumstances. In situations like these, there should be no enemies. I may not be friends with everyone, but I seek to be an enemy to no one, and I consider that to be a reasonable standard for all people. If someone lies to me, or lies about me, then my default assumption is that they are an enemy to me, and therefore they are an active danger, requiring appropriate response.

The nature of lying becomes more apparent when you look at the sort of lies that people defend. Crosbie Fitch has a particular lie that he likes to use as an example: “There are no Jews in this house”. The implication, of course, is that the liar is speaking to a Gestapo officer or some other anti-Semite, and is concealing the existence of Jews in order to protect their lives. Now tell me this: would you say that the liar has a friendly relationship with the Nazis they’re lying to? Of course not! They’re enemies with the Nazis, and they’re acting like enemies by actively obstructing the Nazis’ efforts to achieve their goals. We say that the lie is just because the liar is justified in treating the Nazis as enemies (hardly a controversial position, to be sure). But in a situation where the questioner is not worthy of being called an enemy, would we still justify the liar?

Now, having said all that, I must concede that there are many, many, many circumstances when punishing a liar is simply not possible, let alone desirable. If I actually had to enumerate when you could and should punish a liar, my position might not be so far from Rothbard’s. But I still think that Rothbard and Baker are far too cavalier about lies and liars.

The fact is that, as humans, we rely on each other. We need the knowledge that other people have, so we count on each other to tell the truth. Thus, we are generally justified in ostracizing liars simply because they lied, even if the lies had no effect. And if the lies did in fact cause measurable damage, then the liar has to pay. Rothbard is right in noting the problems that can come from libel laws (and he’s quite right to reject any right to “reputation”) but he’s wrong to reject libel laws entirely. Lying hurts, and lies are bad, and any society made of humans is going to recognize that.