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.

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What’s in your PC’s diet?

Question for you, readers: would you eat a meal if you did not know the ingredients?

If you’ve got food allergies, the thought is probably enough to make you cringe. There could be anything in that mystery dish in front of you. How do you know it hasn’t got traces of something that will give you hives and diarrhea for the next 3 days? Best not to even touch the stuff. You can’t trust it.

Now, another question: would you eat a meal if you were not allowed to know the ingredients?

And when I say not allowed, I mean Not Allowed. You can’t ask what’s in it, you can’t test what’s in it, and if you try to guess what’s in it, you have to prove you’re not reverse-engineering the food or else you’re liable for infringement. You just have to take the chef’s word that it’s safe… assuming you can trust the chef, of course.

Would you eat this secret food? Would you feed it to your children? Would you even feed it to your dog?

If not, then why are you feeding secret food to your robot?

“I told you I was FORTRAN-intolerant. Now I’m going to have to take a core dump.”

By “robot”, I actually mean your computer. And what is food for a computer? Software, of course! The code is what makes it go. Now, code is not exactly like food, but it is vital to your machine; it won’t run without it. And what is in this vital code? Chances are, you don’t know and you’re not allowed to know (according to this Wikipedia article, Windows still dominates desktop systems, and even OS X commands more share than Linux). Your computer is running off of secret sauce, and you have little hope of ever knowing what problems there might be with it.

So with this in mind, I think it’s time to take a fresh look at the old “open source” issue. Instead of asking, “Is open source better?”, we should be asking, “Why is closed source even legal?”

The fact is that closed source is a real danger to us, just as much as food allergies. Bugs and flaws in our software leave us vulnerable to attack from crooks and spooks, and trying to hide the source doesn’t slow them down at all (noted security expert Bruce Shneier has addressed this topic over and over and over – there’s no security in obscurity). Closing and locking the source only prevents honest people from finding and fixing the bugs. In addition, closed source software also creates a “lock in” effect, in which the vendor can essentially hold users hostage, because the users stand to lose so much data or productive capacity if they switch products. Monopolies of this kind are very lucrative, which is why closed source software persists, but they are inherently hostile to users, and they do not deserve any of the legal protections they currently enjoy (such as copyrights, patents, trade secrets, and end-user license agreements).

People who try to sell products to you, but insist on keeping secrets concerning the very products they are trying to sell you, are not worthy of your business. Don’t eat food if you don’t know what’s in it, don’t fund an agency if you don’t know what it’s doing, and don’t run software if you can’t see how it’s written. Open source is the only way to go.

“My teeth wouldn’t look this bad if I had just used FLOSS!”

J. Neil Sark wants to rule the Grid

So, back in my old post wherein I disagree with J. Neil Schulman, Schulman himself has dropped by to publicly disagree with me. This is good, because that’s exactly what a comments section is for. Anyways, in the course of insisting that he is right and I am wrong, he reminded me that his preferred term, instead of “intellectual property”, is “media-carried property”, or MCP for short.

MCP… where have I heard those initials before?

Oh, snap! End of Line.

Now, I doubt that Neil intended to reference the tyrannical Master Control Program when he picked the term “media-carried property”, but, nerd that I am, I can’t resist making the connection. And there is a deeper connection, but it is one that Neil has consistently refused to acknowledge.

Neil does not talk much about how to enforce claims of MCP. In his first post insisting that copying is akin to identity theft, he has this to say on the matter:

The questions of how copyrights, trademarks, and patents are currently defined and enforced by States are an entirely separate issue from the arguments I have been making since the 1980’s about property rights in identity and information objects.

For now I would be entirely satisfied if libertarians and anarchists recognized my property rights in the things I create and respected my right to license copies, using no other enforcement mechanism than social preferencing.

And… that’s it. The end! But I am not satisfied. This tells us nothing at all about what happens when social preferencing fails. What then?

Neil’s theories on matter-based property do not suffer from this lack. In the event that someone does not recognize your property rights in the physical world, Neil says that you have the right to shoot them, and he suggests that you carry a gun. He wrote a whole book on the matter, called Stopping Power (I haven’t yet read it, though I expect that I’ll agree with most of what it says). This is good, because you can’t expect social preferencing to always work. You need a backup plan when people break the rules, and carrying a gun is a good backup plan.

But what about when someone takes your media-carried property? What if they break through your copy protection and make it available as a Torrent? What do you do then, Neil? But he has never answered this question. This situation has been presented to him many times, by both friends and enemies, and he hasn’t even acknowledged it. This leaves a big, gaping hole in his theory of property rights in information.

Of course, Neil is not the first person to claim property rights in information. Many people before him have set out to do the same thing, and they have come up with solutions to fill that hole. Solutions like digital rights management, trusted computing, broadcast flags, notice-and-takedowns, ISP policing, and copyright bots. These all work together to do two things: take away people’s privacy, and take away people’s control over their own machines. And this is where Neil’s MCP runs into Tron‘s MCP. The only way to complete Neil’s theory, and provide information owners a means to defend their claims, is to control all communication. The entire network must be monitored and controlled, and any break-ins must be shut down swiftly and decisively. The media companies have known this for a long time, and they have fought to establish that control over the World Wide Web. To a great extent, they have succeeded. Their copy-protection schemes have infected all of our devices, and their monitoring systems hover over their world, ready to cut off and punish anyone who shares information without their permission. Like the Master Control Program, they reach into systems and appropriate programs and insist that they can run things better than we can.

Every time you get a DMCA notice, just imagine it’s from this guy. You’ll feel better.

This is a massive problem for Neil’s theory, because all of these measures invade people’s property and reduce their control over their own lives. Worse, they all work through the mechanism of State power, and they increase the State’s control over us. We can’t accept any of this. But then how can owners of media-carried property protect their property from invasion? Neil’s theory makes no sense anymore, because there’s no way to implement it. It’s as if he were advocating for the right of self-defense but refusing to let people own weapons. How does it work?

And what of the fact that these controlling measures are all being implemented? Here in the real world, the MCP is winning. Copyright laws continue to get stricter, anti-piracy measures continue to get more invasive, and ordinary citizens continue to get squeezed, and J. Neil Schulman, proud libertarian, is silent. If Neil will not fight for our liberty, who will?

Luckily for us, some people are smarter than Schulman. Like Flynn and Tron, they work to create systems where all information is free and open. They create open-source software that will not betray its users to outside controllers. They support laws that protect our privacy and our right to communicate. They find ways to crack DRM and defeat broadcast flags. They give us the power to protect our liberties. They go by many names: copyfighters, free software advocates, cypherpunks, pirates, and so on. But they all have one thing in common: they fight for the Users.

Real programmers do not normally wear cool outfits like this guy’s. Sorry, everyone.

If these people win, no one will be able to control the network. Information will flow freely. And instead of being a glaring contradiction, Neil’s theory of MCP will simply be left incomplete – permanently, fatally incomplete, like a human body without a heart.

And that is why I keep ragging on Neil. He never acknowledges this problem with his theory (that is, that claims to MCP cannot be enforced without the aid of a total surveillance state). He seems to consider the question of enforcement to be totally irrelevant. Well, Mr. Schulman, you’re wrong. No matter how many nerd jokes I make, I still have to live in reality, and in reality, your claims to media-carried property fail. People do not naturally respect such claims, and even when they try, those who do not respect such claims always have the power to ignore them. Even in our less-than-free society, piracy is easy and rampant, in spite of the State’s best efforts to crush it. Do you think that people will just stop pirating when the State is gone?

If the future is libertarian, then it will run on Free Software and distribute Free Culture, all the better to serve free people. So come on, Neil. Get with the program. Fight for the Users.