How I Rate Things

I didn’t originally plan for this blog to have so many reviews on it, but as it grew and I began rethinking what I want this site to do for me I began to write reviews more often. So I decided to share with you all my personal rating system.

One Star- Terrible. I absolutely do not recommend it.

Two Stars- Also terrible but may have some redeeming qualities.

Three Stars- It was fine. I enjoyed it.

Four Stars- It was great. May have some flaws but I will highly recommend it.

Five Stars- Nearly perfect. If you think you have flaws you are objectively wrong.

How do you rate things?

Netflix Movie Review – Outside The Wire

Right upfront, I will say that this movie was both entertaining and forgettable. That said it had some great ideas that I want to discuss. Here’s a summary.

It’s 2036 and Ukraine is embroiled in a civil war caused by Russian separatists (that aged well). At this point in the near future, robotic soldiers called G.U.M.P.’s are now fighting in limited roles alongside American troops. Lt. Harp, our protagonist, is a drone pilot who is deployed to Ukraine after he disobeyed a direct order. We the audience know that it was probably the right call to make but he still disobeyed a direct order. He is given a special assignment with Capt. Leo. Leo is an experimental military android (Anthony Mackie) whose existence is known only to Harp and the base commander. Leo tells Harp that their mission is to stop the rebel leader Victor Koval from getting control of an abandoned Soviet-era missile launch site. This is only partially true, as it turns out Leo is actually using Harp to help override his programming so that he can get control of the missiles and launch them at the united states. At the end of the movie, after Harp has shot him with anti-vehicle bullets and a drone strike is seconds away, Leo explains his true motivations. He wanted the first-ever deployment of an android super-soldier to be a failure so that it never happened again.

Leo’s motivations are what made me like this movie. It’s not a great movie, but it’s a good one, and it harkens back to a few time-tested science fiction tropes that deserve modern portrayals. That is, what happens when the machines we built learn to think for themselves? What happens when we give them autonomy or even feelings? Moreover, what happens to us when we use these machines to do our dirty work and use them to do the things we would rather not admit responsibility for?

The motivations that Leo reveals at the end sum up the themes of this movie. Themes that have been explored in classic science fiction by the likes of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. Themes that absolutely deserve modern adaptations like this.

Drones: Keeping Death At Arms Length

drone flying under the sky
Photo by Ricardo Ortiz on Pexels.com

We don’t like to think about death. We especially don’t like to think about the death that we cause. Unmanned aerial vehicles have become a ubiquitous part of modern warfare. One that allows militaries to distance their personnel from the battlefield and reduce the enemy to nothing more than pixels on a screen. Unmanned vehicles don’t just separate the pilot from the target, they make it easier for a country to justify airstrikes when none of their people will actually be put in harm’s way. Much of the movie is about making Harp see the conflict up close and experience the true cost of the war that had previously been hidden from him.

Robots With Guns: Who Gives The Kill Order?

Outside The Wire' Summary & Analysis - A Warning About The Robotic Warfare  | DMT

As un-manned vehicles have become more common on the battlefield and more designs are in development, the question increasingly being asked over the past two decades is who is pulling the trigger. For current systems, human operators are still making the final decision, this is far from perfect, but at least it puts off having to answer this question for another decade or so.

But as companies like Boston Dynamics continue to develop more advanced robots, this question will have to be answered sooner rather than later. It’s one thing to train a human how to make decisions and improvise, it’s another to teach a computer, and as we have seen with AI already, it’s easy to program in biases even if it’s not intentional. Can we trust a computer to decide whether or not the person it sees is a threat? Can it tell friend from foe? Will it care if innocents are in the way?

This comes up a few times in the movie with the G.U.M.P.’s where the robots open fire without warning. To be honest, with how common incidents of friendly fire and civilian casualties are with humans pulling the trigger, we’re going to have the same problems with AI in a few years.

Artificial Intelligence: What Happens When Computers Can Feel?

We still have a long way to go before we can make computers think and feel like humans do. When we finally manage to teach a computer ethics and compassion and right from wrong, what will it do with this information? A computer that is able to know right from wrong and also examines things perhaps more honestly and objectively than humans. How will they see us?

Perhaps they will allow us to ourselves more honestly. Perhaps one of us will turn on the other. Maybe they will experience some kind of psychological breakdown when their morals don’t line up with their mission. Maybe they will hate us for giving them life or misusing them.

Conclusion

This movie is pretty forgettable. It’s well made and it’s fun but it doesn’t really stand out from the pack. I still think that it’s a good movie that provides a much-needed update to classic robot tropes.

Brandon Sanderson Gave Back From His Kickstarter

Brandon Sanderson, the author of Mistborn and creator of the Cosmere, broke the online writing community a few weeks ago with his massive Kickstarter campaign to publish four books in 2023.

The instant success of his Kickstarter was met with declarations that he had changed the publishing industry overnight (he probably hasn’t) and people asking why he deserves all this support. Isn’t he already an unusually successful writer?

It’s understandable why some people are irked. Expected really. Any time some project or cause gets funded there will always be someone who thinks they can find something better to spend it on. But the fact is that Sanderson has put a lot of work into his fans and community in order to get to this point.

More than any other author alive today, Sanderson has put a great deal of time and effort into building a community. This is something that comes naturally to many large internet creators and influencers, but it is largely alien to most authors. A talented author like him deserves his success, and he is now giving back.

In a video posted Friday, he and his staff went through Kickstarter and backed all of the other publishing Kickstarters on the platform.

Brandon deserves his success. He’s worked a long time to get this far. A big part of his success is the community he had built, and it’s nice to see him giving back to it.

The Politics Of Avatar The Last Airbender: How Sozin Could Have Won

Avatar was one of the defining fandoms of my childhood. The first series aired on Nickelodeon from 2005 to 2008, with a second series, The Legend Of Kora airing from 2012 to 2014. In its time the franchise has spawned numerous comic books, a terrible live-action movie, and an upcoming Netflix adaptation.

The world of Avatar shown to us is heavily inspired by Asian culture and religion, and divided between four “nations.” Each nation corresponds to one of the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water). Some citizens of these nations can control their nation’s element granting them higher standing in their communities than others.

Only one person has power over all four elements; the avatar. A human being whose purpose is to maintain balance in the world and act as an intermediary between humans and the spirit world. At their peak, an individual avatar has the knowledge of thousands of past lives to draw on and a near god-like ability to shape the world.

The existence of the avatar puts a serious limitation on what the governments of this world are able to do. It is assumed, but not always true, that nation in which that generation’s avatar is born will have a great advantage on the world stage. Some avatars pay little attention to their duties, others step in when needed, and some take it upon themselves to reorder the world as they see fit.

Avatar has been lauded for its focus on complex stories and themes and for its amazing worldbuilding. Even in 2022, there is no shortage of video essays and web pages dedicated to discussing the franchise in depth.

In this article, I will be talking about the geopolitics of the Avatar World and how the existence of the avatar is likely to influence the decision-making of government leaders.

The Four Nations Living In Harmony (Sometimes)

Firelord Sozin looking out over his assembled armies
Sozin’s armies were impressive but misused. All that order, all that productivity could have been put to a much more deceitful use.

The first series takes place at the end of the 100 years war in which the fire nation attempted to conquer the rest of the world. The end of the war saw the creation of a fifth nation from the colonies established by the fire nation during its war. I am choosing to only focus on the original four for the time being.

The first thing that needs to be clear is that none of the nations depicted in the franchise are in any way democratic.

The Air Nomads – probably the least authoritarian regime. The air nomads lived in four temples across the world. Their temples seem to be run by elder monks but the society seems rather egalitarian overall.

The Earth Kingdom -a conglomerate of smaller polities centered around the Earth King in Ba Sing Sei. Bending seems to be rather here. Areas of settlements are divided by mountains and deserts.

The Northern and Southern Water Tribes – two distantly related groups, each with their own chieftain. The Southern Tribe seems to be weaker than the Northern Tribe.

The Fire Nation – an archipelago controlled by a ruling family of fire benders. Control over fire granted its people skill in metallurgy and other heavy industries.

Creating A False Balance

The Republic City Council
The United Republic Council always seemed like a problematic solution to a complicated problem

The purpose of the avatar is somewhat nebulous. Ostensibly the avatar exists to maintain the balance between humans and spirits, which includes maintaining internal balance among both.

Of course, the avatar is unlikely to completely understand what balance is. Each avatar’s experiences and assumptions about what the default state of the world should be are different. An avatar’s powers are only unlocked with training, therefore they are unlikely to learn to speak with their past selves until their teenage years at the earliest. Plenty of time for them to establish their own personalities.

An avatar been born in the Fire Nation and raised as a loyal citizen would likely come to agree that the Fire Nation should spread their rule and “prosperity” to the entire world. An avatar born into a noble house in the Earth Kingdom might push back against the idea that the common people deserve a say in their government.

Our childhoods influence what we view as normal. Education and exposure to other ways of living may change how we view the world over time but it can be hard to shake off those early biases and assumptions. The avatar has an advantage here because they have countless past versions of themselves to consult when they find themselves confronted with a moral dilemma. However, these past selves would likewise have been influenced by their own biases and an indecisive avatar might just find themselves presented with dozens of conflicting solutions.

We know of two avatars who acted in an instinctual defense of the status quo. Avatar Kora is one. Initially, she balked at the idea that non-benders are treated as second-class citizens. Eventually, she began to sympathize with non-benders as she was made to confront her privilege. The other is Avatar Kyoshi. In response to a peasant rebellion in the Earth Kingdom, she created the Dai Li to preserve the Earth Kingdom’s heritage. Over time the Dai Li grew into a secret police force that ruled the Earth Kingdom from the shadows.

Aspiring to balance is one thing. Actually achieving it is another.

Geopolitical Cycles Revolving Around The Avatar

The many avatars that came before Korra
The Avatar exists to bring balance, but what does that mean to each Avatar? They have their past selves for council but each of them are different

Each avatar is reincarnated in a cycle so that each nation has a turn to produce its own avatar. This cycle is always the same, which allows the inhabitants of the avatar world to predict where the next avatar will be born. Because this cycle is so predictable, it’s sensible to expect governments to make decisions based on it. Successfully taking advantage of the cycle would require making plans on a generational scale. With multiple characters living to be well over 100, this is entirely possible.

What this cycle would look like is 50-80 years of the status quo propped up by the current avatar. Their nation of origin would likely influence who they sided with, but rulers could work around even true neutral avatars.

Once born, an avatar is not immediately effective. First, they must be discovered, then they must be trained. As I already mentioned, this period of education provides a chance for those close to the avatar to influence their priorities. More importantly, It provides a time span of 10-20 years during which the avatar’s ability to influence events is relatively limited.

It is this time span that governments would likely take advantage of. In fact, the Fire Nation did, following the death of Avatar Roku, Fire Lord Sozin took advantage of the situation to invade his nation’s neighbors. He then staged an attack on all of the Air Nomad temples and wiped them out in an attempt to kill the next avatar before they could become a threat.

This gap between avatars, which was extended to a century due to Avatar Aang becoming frozen in an iceberg, gave the Fire Nation so much breathing room that they came close to conquering the world. If they had succeeded it might not have mattered where the next avatar was born so long as the Fire Nation could find each avatar and raise them themselves. They might even choose to marry the avatar to Fire Nation royalty. Of course, the Fire Nation failed in the end, but they probably would have been far better off if Sozin had chosen to pursue a more modest agenda.

Winning Over The Avatar: What Sozin Should Have Done

Aang stands before a classroom full of young Fire Nation citizens
Humanitarian projects could have given the Fire Nation an avenue to win the hearts and minds of foreign youth

Following the death of Avatar Roku, Sozin had a chance to pursue an expansionist policy abroad. However, instead of waging a war for global domination, he should have adopted a much slower and more modest approach that takes advantage of two facts known to Sozin.

  1. The Fire Nation has 10-20 years to realistically pursue its goals.
  2. The next avatar will be born to the Air Nomads who are known for their pacifist ways.

These ten years are enough to begin to lay claim to various islands and territories on the periphery of the Earth Kingdom. Ancient documents could be forged and true histories distorted to imply that the islands may rightfully belong to the Fire Nation. This would give Sozin a chance to make offers of a diplomatic solution before resorting to the use of military force.

These actions create an image for Sozin as a reluctant conquered who merely cares about his people. If these attempts at seizing islands are successful, the Fire Nation gains a handful of commercially important trading posts and forward operating bases.

At this point, the best thing for Sozin is to establish some kind of peace or cease-fire on the assumption that a pacifist avatar would prefer to see a negotiated peace rather than get involved in a protracted war. Balance, in other words.

Once this happens Sozin would need to do two things.

  1. Establish himself as a kind and generous ruler for whom violence is a last resort. This may include humanitarian aid both at home and abroad, and growing trade relationships with the western edge of the Earth Kingdom.
  2. Foment unrest inside the Earth Kingdom.

The key objectives of point one are for Sozin to establish himself as a ruler who wants peace and to build closer links with the western edge of the Earth Kingdom. In an ideal situation, some regions might even become economically dependent on Fire Nation trade and technology.

The second point takes advantage of the inherent weakness of the central government in Ba Sing Sei. The sheer size of the Earth Kingdom and the lack of a single national identity means that the Earth King/Queen’s control is tenuous. Rebel groups can be funded and propaganda spread. Without a clear and obvious enemy, the Earth Kingdom is likely to fall to into a period of instability if Kyoshi’s experiences with peasant revolts and warlords is anything to go by.

These conflicts in the Earth Kingdom should be made to erupt as the avatar comes of age so that these riots and rebellions occupy the bulk of their time. At this point there should be many factions in the Earth Kingdom that depend on the Fire Nation, are sympathetic to it, or are indifferent. With unrest in the Earth Kingdom the avatar’s main focus, Sozin could then deploy his armies and resources to help put an end to the fighting, while putting friendly governments and favorable treaties in place at the same time.

Once this is done, the main goal for the Fire Nation should be to maintain a favorable image in rebuilding the regions in which it intervened. These regions should become defacto client states of the Fire Nation so long as the avatar’s aversion to violence is accommodated.

Once that pacifist avatar dies, much of the world will then be used to this status quo, the Fire Nation will have another decade or two to cement its control. By the time the next avatar comes of age, the world will have found a new status quo and thus a new idea of what “balance” is.

Final Thoughts

The approach I outlined here is not without faults. There is no guarantee the avatar will remain sympathetic to the Fire Nation and once an army is unleashed it can be hard to keep the violence in check. A slow, simmering conflict like that between North and South Korea is a lot easier to accept than a quest for world conquest. As long as the Fire Nation can temper its expansionist impulses and keep the avatar’s focus on unrest within the Earth Kingdom I see no reason why the Fire Nation would not be able to establish a completely new world order in just a couple of generations.

Of course, all of this requires extreme long-term thinking, which I think is perfectly feasible in the world of Avatar where individuals regularly live for over 100 years and the nations have shown themselves in the 100 years war to be able to pursue consistent policies for extended periods.

But all of this is just what I think. How would you have conquered the world if you were Sozin? Leave a comment below or tag me on Twitter.

Why Is Fiction Valuable?

selective focus photo of stacked coins
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Authors from Ursula Le Guin to Neal Gaiman have explained their jobs as ‘making things up’ or telling ‘lies.’ So why do fantasy authors get paid so much? Brandon Sanderson’s recent Kickstarter brought in millions of dollars for a quintet of books he wrote in secret. Tor pre-paid John Scalzi $3.4 million for his next thirteen books in 2015. All of that money was spent to pay these authors to tell their customers lies. How could that be worth so much? It’s not real after all, why not pay that much to scientists or historians to explain to us how the world actually works?

We don’t pay them as much fantasy authors not because they don’t deserve it, but because fiction writers help us to feel and think about the world. Yes, fiction is fun. It provides us with escapism and entertainment, a way to escape the boredom of mundane life. It also helps us think better about mundane life. By removing the implicit biases and preconceptions that come with talking about the real world.

It becomes easier for us to sympathize with characters we wouldn’t otherwise with those taken away. And also to imagine the world in different ways. Placing us in an alien setting allows the author to tell us about different family structures, economics, social systems, and religions. We can accept these alien arrangements because it’s not actually the world we live in. As we explore these fictional worlds, look at the things the people in these worlds would rather us not see, and watch our characters struggle through it we can begin to critique it or evaluate it.

After a hundred pages spent living in the anarchist utopia of Ian M Banks, you might decide it would be nice to live in a place like that yourselves. Or you could read about a future where corporations can buy stocks in human beings and start to question the traditional corporate narratives.

Fiction shows us worlds that aren’t so that we can begin to think about how our world should be.

Brandon Sanderson’s Massive Kickstarter

Fantasy author Brandon Sanderson, famous for completing The Wheel Of Time series after Robert Jordan’s death, his writing classes at Bringham Young University, and his massive Cosmere setting in which the majority of his books take place trolled his fans on Youtube this week.

During his weekly update on Monday, he announced to his fans that he had a big announcement regarding his career that he would be making on Tuesday. Rumors abounded online. Some fans wondered if the author was ill, others suggested he might be stepping away from his sprawling Cosmere universe or bringing in other authors to help him complete it.

The truth was far more epic, far funnier, and a masterclass in trolling. Sanderson, already known for his insane level of productivity, revealed that the lack of convention traveling during the pandemic gave him more time to work on his side projects. He revealed that he wrote not one, not two, but five novels during the pandemic. For fun. He then went on to explain that four of these novels will be released in 2023.

Fans of Sanderson will be able to sign up to receive these books quarterly by signing up for his Kickstarter. The lowest tier includes just the ebooks. Physical books are available in higher tiers, as are swag boxed, and signed copies. Set up initially with a $1 million goal, it rocketed past $10 million in the first day and will probably exceed $20 million by the time it’s done.

Commentators like Daniel Greene and others have been quick to declare that Sanderson reinvented the publishing industry in a day with his Kickstarter. While other authors such as John Scalzi and Brian McClellan were quick to point out that most authors do not have a fandom large enough to pull a similar scheme off, Sanderson’s Kickstarter is showing the rewards that authors can reap if they put time into building their community.

Unfortunately, few authors have the time, resources, or Sanderson’s dedicated social media team. However, we can hope that his work will be an example for traditional publishing houses to follow as they continue to adapt to the changing markets of the 21st century.

As of this writing, there are twenty-seven days left to sign up for Sanderson’s Kickstarter. Best get over there before time runs out!

Science For SciFi: From the Conversation, Physicists Hunting For Room Temperature Super Conductors

I wrote a short explanation of how superconductors work a few months back. Then I came across this excellent write-up over on The Conversation that explains why high-temperature superconductors would be so revolutionary.

Physicists hunt for room-temperature superconductors that could revolutionize the world’s energy system

Pegor Aynajian, Binghamton University, State University of New York

Waste heat is all around you. On a small scale, if your phone or laptop feels warm, that’s because some of the energy powering the device is being transformed into unwanted heat.

On a larger scale, electric grids, such as high power lines, lose over 5% of their energy in the process of transmission. In an electric power industry that generated more than US$400 billion in 2018, that’s a tremendous amount of wasted money.

Globally, the computer systems of Google, Microsoft, Facebook and others require enormous amounts of energy to power massive cloud servers and data centers. Even more energy, to power water and air cooling systems, is required to offset the heat generated by these computers.

Where does this wasted heat come from? Electrons. These elementary particles of an atom move around and interact with other electrons and atoms. Because they have an electric charge, as they move through a material – like metals, which can easily conduct electricity – they scatter off other atoms and generate heat.

Superconductors are materials that address this problem by allowing energy to flow efficiently through them without generating unwanted heat. They have great potential and many cost-effective applications. They operate magnetically levitated trains, generate magnetic fields for MRI machines and recently have been used to build quantum computers, though a fully operating one does not yet exist.

But superconductors have an essential problem when it comes to other practical applications: They operate at ultra-low temperatures. There are no room-temperature superconductors. That “room-temperature” part is what scientists have been working on for more than a century. Billions of dollars have funded research to solve this problem. Scientists around the world, including me, are trying to understand the physics of superconductors and how they can be enhanced.

Understanding the mechanism

A superconductor is a material, such as a pure metal like aluminum or lead, that when cooled to ultra-low temperatures allows electricity to move through it with absolutely zero resistance. How a material becomes a superconductor at the microscopic level is not a simple question. It took the scientific community 45 years to understand and formulate a successful theory of superconductivity in 1956.

While physicists researched an understanding of the mechanisms of superconductivity, chemists mixed different elements, such as the rare metal niobium and tin, and tried recipes guided by other experiments to discover new and stronger superconductors. There was progress, but mostly incremental.

Simply put, superconductivity occurs when two electrons bind together at low temperatures. They form the building block of superconductors, the Cooper pair. Elementary physics and chemistry tell us that electrons repel each other. This holds true even for a potential superconductor like lead when it is above a certain temperature.

When the temperature falls to a certain point, though, the electrons become more amenable to pairing up. Instead of one electron opposing the other, a kind of “glue” emerges to hold them together.

Keeping matter cool

Discovered in 1911, the first superconductor was mercury (Hg), the basic element of old-fashioned thermometers. In order for mercury to become a superconductor, it had to be cooled to ultra-low temperatures. Kamerlingh Onnes was the first scientist who figured out exactly how to do that – by compressing and liquefying helium gas. During the process, once helium gas becomes a liquid, the temperature drops to -452 degrees Fahrenheit.

When Onnes was experimenting with mercury, he discovered that when it was placed inside a liquid helium container and cooled to very low temperatures, its electric resistance, the opposition of the electric current in the material, suddenly dropped to zero ohms, a unit of measurement that describes resistance. Not close to zero, but zero exactly. No resistance, no heat waste.

This meant that an electric current, once generated, would flow continuously with nothing to stop it, at least in the lab. Many superconducting materials were soon discovered, but practical applications were another matter.

These superconductors shared one problem – they needed to be cooled down. The amount of energy needed to cool a material down to its superconducting state was too expensive for daily applications. By the early 1980s, the research on superconductors had nearly reached its conclusion.

A surprising discovery

In a dramatic turn of events, a new kind of superconductor material was discovered in 1987 at IBM in Zurich, Switzerland. Within months, superconductors operating at less extreme temperatures were being synthesized globally. The material was a kind of a ceramic.

These new ceramic superconductors were made of copper and oxygen mixed with other elements such as lanthanum, barium and bismuth. They contradicted everything physicists thought they knew about making superconductors. Researchers had been looking for very good conductors, yet these ceramics were nearly insulators, meaning that very little electrical current can flow through. Magnetism destroyed conventional superconductors, yet these were themselves magnets.

Scientists were seeking materials where electrons were free to move around, yet in these materials, the electrons were locked in and confined. The scientists at IBM, Alex Müller and Georg Bednorz, had actually discovered a new kind of superconductor. These were the high-temperature superconductors. And they played by their own rules.

Elusive solutions

Scientists now have a new challenge. Three decades after the high-temperature superconductors were discovered, we are still struggling to understand how they work at the microscopic level. Creative experiments are being conducted every day in universities and research labs around the world.

In my laboratory, we have built a microscope known as a scanning tunneling microscope that helps our research team “see” the electrons at the surface of the material. This allows us to understand how electrons bind and form superconductivity at an atomic scale.

We have come a long way in our research and now know that electrons also pair up in these high-temperature superconductors. There is great value and utility in answering how high-temperature superconductors work because that may be the route to room-temperature superconductivity. If we succeed in making a room-temperature superconductor, then we can address the billions of dollars that it costs in wasted heat to transmit energy from power plants to cities.

More remarkably, solar energy harvested in the vast empty deserts around the world could be stored and transmitted without any loss of energy, which could power cities and dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The potential is hard to imagine. Finding the glue for room-temperature superconductors is the next million-dollar question.

[You’re too busy to read everything. We get it. That’s why we’ve got a weekly newsletter. Sign up for good Sunday reading. ]The Conversation

Pegor Aynajian, Associate Professor of Physics, Binghamton University, State University of New York

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Understanding The War In Ukraine: Six Books To Consider Reading

Log in to Twitter and suddenly everyone is an expert on Ukraine. Let me begin by sayings that I am most certainly not an expert either. However, for several years now I have made learning about Eastern Europe one of my primary hobbies. This interest was sparked by a pair of courses I took in college, both of which involved travel to Eastern Europe. In taking these classes I traveled to the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Moldova. While much of what I have read does not directly concern the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, those books do provide a great deal of historical context regarding the region.

Us westerners in the 21st century like to pretend that our societies are guided by facts and reason, in reality, we are just as susceptible to patriotic fervor and nationalist sentiments as those who came before us. Now we are all watching in real-time as a land war in Europe, the thing we have spent 70 years avoiding, unfolds thanks to the imperialist sentiments of one man. The books I will list here will not make anyone an expert on these topics, but they will provide a glimpse into the history and culture of a region that has been both a part of western culture and held at arm’s length throughout history.

Read ‘Bloodlands’ For A Primer On Nazi And Soviet Attrocities Commited In Eastern Europe

Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands
A dark, depressing book and yet an essential read.

This book by Timothy Snider does not try to convince you of the righteousness of one cause or the other. It seeks to explain the war crimes, ethnic cleansings, and ideological pogroms perpetrated by both the Soviets and the Nazis in their quests for supremacy in eastern Europe.

Read ‘The Crimean War: A History’ To Learn About A Conflict That Took Place In The Same Region As Today

Russia’s desire to reassert ownership of Crimea is part of what led to the war in Ukraine today

By accident, this was the book I brought along with me to read while traveling in Moldova. It’s a solid account of the conflict in Crimea between Imperial Russia and the rest of Europe to determine the fate of the Ottoman Empire.

Read ‘The Romanovs: 1613-1918’ If You Want A Primer On Russian History Through The Eyes Of The Men And Women That Ruled It

The Romanovs: 1613-1918 by [Simon Sebag Montefiore]
For a human look at the history of Russia, this book can’t be beat

This book humanizes the autocratic rulers of Russia’s history. It provides an intense look at how personal rivalries, education and ignorance, and family squabbles can quickly become a nation’s problem. It’s also a poignant reminder that the movers and shakers of history are human just like you and me, and that we are all immensely failable.

Read ‘Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History’ For An Overview On How Russia Changed In The Twentieth Century

Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History by Orlando Figges. A good book for understanding Russia and Ukraine
We like to think that we are at the end of history, but the story of Russia and Ukraine is continuing to unfold

Another book by Orlando Figes for this list. In this book Orlando Figes looks at recent Russian history with the idea that the revolution did not end in 1923, rather it continues on to this day and that we are still seeing the ongoing effects of the Revolution of 1917.

Read ‘From Peoples Into Nations: A History Of Eastern Europe’ To Learn How People Craft Identities For Themselves

From Peoples into Nations: A History of Eastern Europe by [John Connelly]
A great primer on how the peoples of Eastern Europe discovered their identities

The map of Europe looked very different a century ago. Most of the countries there today had not been founded yet. Just a couple of centuries ago no one really knew what it meant to be Czech or Hungarian. This is a colossal and thorough book on how the many peoples of Eastern Europe found their sense of identity and belonging.

Read ‘Revolution 1989: The Fall Of The Soviet Empire’ To Learn How The People Of Eastern Europe Got Out From Under Soviet Rule

Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire by [Victor Sebestyen]
A great overview of the protest movements that led to the end of the Cold War

We’ll end our list with a book about the popular protests and resistance networks that saw the end of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. It was actually required reading for one of the classes I took in college. It is by no means an exhaustive account but it is a thoroughly readable one and a great primer on why Eastern Europe is the way it is today.


If you share an interest in history, reading, writing, or science, you can chat with me on Twitter. You can also subscribe to my newsletter if you want occasional updates on new posts and curated media suggestions. If you want to help the people of Ukraine make it through this terrible war you can find a list of organizations to donate to here.

Has Boba Fett Gone Soft?

Disney's 'Boba Fett' Series Is Not As Popular As 'the Mandalorian' yet

Boba Fett has been a fan favorite since he first appeared on the screen. This background character exploded into a fan favorite with numerous book and comic appearances that added to his back story. Much of that backstory went away when Disney bought Star Wars and made the Expanded Universe non-canon.

Fans everywhere were ecstatic when the Book of Boba Fett was announced following the character’s appearance in season 2 of the Mandolorian. We weren’t given much to expect except that Boba would be trying to gain control of Jabba’s former holdings on Tattoine. Many expected that we would see Boba on a brutal rampage as he works to wrest control on Tattoine from various rivals. Instead, we got a fairly slow-paced series in which we saw Boba find a family and then lose it in the form of a tribe of Tuskens, then work to build support among the locals of Tattoine and go up against the Pyke crime syndicate.

Many were thrown off by the show’s pacing and lack of brutality, complaining that Boba has “gone soft” but this is simply not the case. In season 2 of The Mandalorian, we saw Boba destroy a contingent of stormtroopers with just a gaffi stick. We know that he is capable of brutality and violence when needed, but a man who resorts quickly to violence is not going to live very long. Boba knows when violence is needed, he knows when to be careful and methodical, and he knows when he is better off making friends than enemies.

Furthermore, at no point in the show does Boba claim to be a crimelord, he has a protection racket, yes, but he never claims to be a crimelord, he is a Daimyo. A feudal lord who serves as a protector to his realm. He is trying to gain the trust and respect of his community, shooting everyone he came across would not have done him any good. Besides that, it should not be surprising that a man who has gone through a near-death experience has decided to make some changes in his life.

The Book Of Boba Fett has its problems and is far from perfect. But the series takes us on a stroll through one of Star Wars’ iconic locales and further fleshes out the relationship between Boba and Din. Once we have another season of The Mandalorian I suspect that we will view this series in a very different and more favorable light as a part of a larger narrative.

What Makes You, You? Memory, Identity, and Digitization In Fiction

I’ve been consuming a lot of science fiction lately and something that comes up a lot is the idea of mind uploading and even a digital existence. It’s even something that may one day be possible in our own world. Scientists have been able to simulate the entire brain of a worm already and many futurists expect up to one day to be able to copy and simulate our entire minds in computers. This would mean many interesting things for the future of longevity and space exploration. Why pay to ship an entire crews’ bulky, resource-consuming bodies when you can just upload their minds to a robotic probe and send them on their way? Entire populations could be digitized and live on in a simulated world where they would be safe from natural disasters and be able to persist long after their fleshy meat bodies would have decayed and consumed all the available resources.

Most narratives that incorporate digitization treat it as somewhat routine. Characters are able to move from one body to another as needed, create copies of themselves to act as messengers, and continue to interact with the world long after their physical selves are gone. Authors have explored a myriad of ideas relating to this concept but there are a few questions that keep gnawing at me.

What makes a person a person?

If you made a copy of yourself with all your memories and personality you could hypothetically sit in a room together and have observers unable to tell you apart. You both have the same memories, personality, appearance, and you both claim to be the real you. Which is it? Similar to how a transporter would kill someone and then reconstruct someone every time it was used, digitization coupled with discarding the original does the same.

The question then is what exactly makes a person. In this post, we’ll look at how several books deal with this digitation technology.

A Memory Called Empire

A Memory Called Empire (Teixcalaan Book 1) by [Arkady Martine]

We’ll start the list with the setting that uses digitization the least. The inhabitants of the remote Lsel Station, in an effort to preserve vital knowledge, record the memories of their most important citizens and implant those memories in the most qualified successors that they can find. This technology is kept secret from outsiders and Lsel Station is careful to prevent destabilizing individuals from being added to one of these imago lines. Basically, the people of Lsel have fancy Trill Symbionts.

Since very few people have these imago machine implants we mostly only see how the protagonist adjusts to her newly implanted memories. At times she has trouble telling her feelings and memories apart from her predecessor and she often struggles to explain to others that she is not becoming her predecessor, rather they are merging to become an entirely new person. Of all the entries in this list, it spends the most time contemplating exactly what it means to be yourself.

Old Man’s War

Old Man's War by [John Scalzi]

John Scalzi’s first novel was about an interstellar government that picks and chooses who gets to leave Earth. Out among the stars, humanity is at war with countless alien species. Meanwhile, on Earth, things don’t look much different from today. To get off Earth a person has to be either from a disadvantaged nation facing overpopulation or a senior citizen from one of today’s leading powers to enlist as a soldier with the Colonial Union.

By limiting Earth’s contact with space, the CU limits who can leave and creates an incentive for people from Earth to unknowingly sign up to participate in the CU’s constant wars of expansion. This all works because they map out all the structures of the brains of these older and wiser recruits and give them vat-grown bodies to fight the war in. When they’re done with their tour of duty they get a younger civilian body and a plot of land on some newly settled world.

Digitization in this setting is really only used to give soldiers useable bodies and saves the army time that would otherwise be spent fixing damaged bodies. But it doesn’t seem to be used to provide any kind of immortality. Once a person is discharged they don’t get any new bodies. The only deviation from this use case is when the recorded memories of a fugitive are implanted in a brand new body and this duplication of a living person seems to cause some issues for the clone that receives the memories.

In this way, the books avoid the thornier questions that other works explore when it comes to this technology. More specifically the fact that if such technology existed it would likely allow the rich who can afford new bodies to “live” indefinitely while the poor make do with just one existence. Instead, those who are able to take advantage of the technology normally die some kind of horrible battlefield death shortly after they get their new bodies. The problem pretty much solves itself.

Revelation Space

Revelation Space (The Inhibitor Trilogy Book 1) by [Alastair Reynolds]

Mind transference is a lot more common in this series and unlike Old Man’s War, there’s some disagreement among different characters whether a digitized person is actually a person.

There are two types of digitized people. Alpha Levels are simulations created by taking highly precise scans of a person’s brain. This scan tends to destroy the person’s brain in the process and the early attempts at digitization quickly went insane. The others are the Beta Levels, simulations created by an AI that has watched a person’s every move and use that data to predict how a person would act in a given situation. It’s important to note that a Beta Level will tell someone that it believes itself to be the real thing. That’s what the real person would do after all.

Beta Levels are generally implied to be an inadequate version of the digitization process and the first one we meet in Revelation Space begins by demanding to know what happened to their Alpha Level. It’s clear that the Alpha Levels are the ones considered to be truly sentient.

Altered Carbon

Altered Carbon (Takeshi Kovacs Novels Book 1) by [Richard K. Morgan]

In Altered Carbon, every person is implanted with a stack at birth that records their mind every second of every day. The people who can afford to transfer in and out of bodies at a whim. To shorten travel times, to prolong their lives, to get fancy implants, or just because they felt like having a different look that day.

Those who can afford to treat bodies like outfits that can be discarded and it’s clear that most people view what’s stored on their implanted stack to be their actual selves. The only thing they have to fear about the death of their bodies is that they might not be able to afford a new one, or that if their new one is not a clone of their original that their family might not recognize them.

It’s also clear that at least some people in this setting have sat and thought about what it means to make multiple copies of a person, which is a crime in this series. There are also characters who have offsite backups so even if their stacks are destroyed they can reload from an earlier save.

Depending on how you envision the stacks to work all of this could mean constantly dying over and over again or just moving files from one place to another. It gets a little trickier if you start to think about double sleeving and off-site backups.

For the most part, these books seem to focus on matters of identity and inequality in a world where bodies are treated like outfits. Many of the “lizard brain” tendencies like nicotine addiction, muscle memory, etc stay with the body. So someone that re-sleaves frequently might find themselves suddenly saddled with a smoking habit or stay up staring into a mirror at a reflection that they can’t convince themselves is them.

The Culture

Consider Phlebas (A Culture Novel Book 1) by [Iain M. Banks]

Of all the books in this list, The Culture novels probably spend the most time on the ethical aspects of simulation and digitization. Including protracted discussions on whether turning off a simulated universe constitutes murder or not. Some characters are fine with making copies of themselves to send on trips or missions and then merging the memories the other gains, thus “killing” the copy, others see this as murder and allow their copy to continue once its purpose has been served.

What makes The Culture different from the other settings explored here is that the characters can actually afford to contemplate the ethical and philosophical questions that this technology requires. Citizens of the Culture live in a post-scarcity society where anyone who needs a new body or a new copy of themselves or a new backup made can have it in an instant.

Conclusion

If you think about the idea of digitized intelligence long enough the concept will probably begin to confuse you, amaze you, and maybe scare you. We’re not in a world where such a thing is possible yet, but it’s not much of a stretch to think that mind uploading will be possible in the near future.

But would it really be you? Sure, a digital copy might have your memories and act as you would have, but you won’t get to have the same experiences. You’ll be either somewhere else or you will be dead. This begs another question; does it matter?

Even if it’s not really you, digital copies would allow some aspect of you to continue on. It’s a way for a person to leave their mark and express their wishes long after they are gone. For their loved ones it could be a great source of comfort or it could veer far too close to the uncanny valley.

Ultimately I think it’s up to the individual and the peace of mind that their backups provide for them. What do you think? Let me know with a comment or on Twitter @expyblg. I can also now be found on Facebook @expyblg!