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One of the most popular comic books during the horror boom of the 1970s was The Tomb of Dracula, which from issue #7 on was written by Marv Wolfman, with art throughout its run by Gene Colan, both grandmasters of the field. Focusing on Marvel’s version of Bram Stoker’s creation (itself inspired by the historical figure of Vlad the Impaler), Tomb of Dracula had as its heroes a collection of vampire hunters, some of whom were members of the Harker and van Helsing family from Stoker’s novel, as well as (among others) a reluctant vampire named Hannibal King and an African-American vampire hunter who simply went by the name Blade.
In 1998, a feature film starring Blade was released, only loosely based on the comic. It was only Marvel’s second actual theatrical release (after Howard the Duck in 1986, also a product of the 1970s comics market), and first success, as the film was a huge international hit, spawning two sequels in 2002 and 2004.
In the comics, Blade was one of a team, who hunted vampires because one killed his mother. He favored knives made of teak (hence the name “Blade”) and also was immune to vampire bites. Preferring to work alone, he did find himself allying with other vampire hunters on a regular basis, even befriending King, despite his being a vampire. (King only drank from blood banks and never took a human life.)
New Line picked up the rights to do a Blade movie in the early 1990s, originally conceived as a vehicle for LL Cool J. David S. Goyer was hired to write the movie, and he moved away from the studio’s notion of a spoof film, preferring to play it straight. Goyer’s wishlist for casting included Denzel Washington, Laurence Fishburne, and Wesley Snipes, with the latter actually being cast. Snipes, a big comics fan—and also a martial artist, so he could do most of the combat scenes himself—took to the role quickly and enthusiastically.
The film version of Blade differed in several respects from the comics version. He was a “daywalker,” a person whose mother was turned while pregnant with him, so he’s an odd halfbreed vampire. He subsists on blood and heals quickly, but he ages normally and can walk in daylight safely. The obsession with hunting vampires remains from the comics, but only select other elements from the comics show up: Deacon Frost in the first movie (as in the comics, it’s Frost who killed Blade’s mother); King and Dracula in the third. However, the huge success of the movies led to the comics character being altered somewhat to more closely hew to Snipes’s version.
Snipes also was a producer of Blade and its two sequels, with Goyer writing all three, and sitting in the director’s chair for the third. Behind-the-scenes difficulties plagued Blade Trinity—Snipes clashed with director Goyer throughout filming, Snipes was under criminal investigation for his security firm the Royal Guard of Amen-Ra, and then in 2006 he was arrested, convicted, and imprisoned for failure to pay his income taxes—which kept there from being a fourth film. However, there was a short-lived TV series in 2006 that aired on Spike in the U.S., based on the films, with Kirk “Sticky Fingas” Jones in the title role. As of 2011, the rights have reverted to Marvel Studios, but nothing has been announced with regard to working Blade into the MCU.
Written by David S. Goyer
Directed by Stephen Norrington
Produced by Robert Engelman, Wesley Snipes, & Peter Frankfurt
Original release date: August 21, 1998
A young woman brings her date to a rave in an underground club in Los Angeles. It turns out to be a vampire club, and the sprinklers spray out blood (there’s a big sign behind the DJ that reads “BLOODBATH”). Blade, a vampire hunter, shows up and, despite there being only one of him and at least a hundred of them, he kills tons of vampires, though most just run away, no doubt frightened by his reputation.
The club is owned by Deacon Frost, and the rave is being supervised by his right hand, Quinn. Blade uses his garlic-filled silver stakes to pin Quinn’s shoulders to the wall and also cuts off one of his hands, then sets him on fire.
The cops arrive, and Blade beats a hasty retreat. He later goes to the hospital to finish off Quinn—who, despite being crispy fried, reawakens in the morgue. He kills a coroner and bites a hematologist. Blade rescues the latter, Dr. Karen Jenson, and brings her to the warehouse headquarters from which Blade and his weaponsmith Whistler are waging their war on the vampires.
Frost is called to a meeting of the vampire elders, where they chastise him for his activities. Things like the rave draw attention to vampires and spoils the harmony they’ve established with humans over the centuries. Frost, though, has little patience for that—to his mind, they’re predators and humans are just prey, not to be catered to and hidden from, but enslaved and eaten.
To that end, Frost has dug up an ancient text that Dragonetti, the head of the elders, says is untranslateable. Frost soon translates it, determining that he can summon the power of the Blood God to himself, but he needs the blood of a daywalker.
Blade and Whistler inform Jenson of the world behind the world, as it were, where vampires exist and exert huge influence over politicians and law-enforcement. Blade himself was born as his pregnant mother was being bitten by a vampire, so he’s an odd hybrid. Whistler treats Jenson in the hopes that she won’t be turned into a vampire, but Jenson takes matters into her own hands, using her mad hematologist skillz to try to find a cure.
Blade takes her home, and then a cop shows up, seemingly to question her about what happened in the hospital, but actually to kill her. Blade then shows up and beats up the cop, though the cop gets away. Jenson is pissed that Blade used her as bait to draw one of Frost’s familiars (a servant who isn’t actually a vampire—Jenson doesn’t realize he isn’t a vampire until the garlic-tinged mace she squirts him with has no effect).
The serum Blade uses to tame his bloodlust is starting to lose effectiveness. Jenson continues to work on a cure, but she also discovers that an anticoagulant, EDTA, has an explosive effect on vampire blood. You inject a vampire with EDTA, the vamp will explode. Blade likes this notion, and adds it to his arsenal.
Reluctantly allowing Jenson to tag along, Blade tracks the familiar to one of Frost’s holdings, a night club, where he finds out about Frost’s big plan. Quinn and Frost’s vampires try to stop him, and Blade cuts off Quinn’s other hand. Whistler shows up with a big van through the wall to rescue them.
Frost kidnaps Dragonetti and exposes him to the sunrise, burning him to a crisp. He also kidnaps the rest of the elders and proposes to Blade that he join him. Blade refuses, viewing Frost not as the messiah Frost believes himself to be, but just another dead vampire. Frost then goes to the warehouse, biting Whistler and leaving him for dead, and kidnapping Jenson, though not until after Jenson has found a serum that cures people who’ve been bitten and turned, reverting them back to human.
Frost’s terms are simple: Blade comes to his penthouse or Jenson dies. Whistler urges Blade to walk away—without Blade, Frost can’t do the ritual—but Blade can’t let Jenson die. He leaves Whistler a weapon with which to blow his own brains out lest he turn into a vampire and then heads to the penthouse.
However, Blade is captured—Quinn shoves stakes into each of his shoulders out of vengeance—and the ritual commences. To Blade’s disgust, one of Frost’s vampires is his mother—he turned her and brought her into his gang, and she’s been a happy vampire for the last thirty years.
Frost starts the ritual, draining Blade of his daywalker blood and killing all the elders, thus giving him the power of the Blood God. Among other things, this means he can’t be killed in the usual manner. (At one point, he’s literally sliced in half, and he puts himself back together without effort.) Jenson manages to free Blade and offers to let him suck her blood to restore his strength. He then takes on Frost, injecting him with several vials of EDTA, which makes him explode. (He also beheads Quinn.)
Jenson offers to cure him, but he needs the gifts his daywalker status gives him to continue his fight, so instead she creates a better serum for him. The next time we see him, he’s taking on vampires in Russia…
Written by David S. Goyer
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Produced by Patrick Palmer, Wesley Snipes, & Peter Frankfurt
Original release date: March 22, 2002
It turns out that Whistler didn’t kill himself when Blade left him with a weapon. Instead, he was kidnapped by the vampire leadership, on the orders of Damaskinos. They tortured him for information, but he never gave anything up. They also kept moving him around, but Blade finally finds him in Eastern Europe and brings him home, curing him of his bloodthirst with Jenson’s cure.
In the two years since Whistler was taken, Blade got a new weaponsmith named Josh, nicknamed “Scud.”
Shortly after Whistler comes home, two vampires, Nyssa and Asad, break into the compound. They’re emissaries, not there for a fight—thought they fight anyhow, as this movie never passes up an opportunity for a gratuitous fight scene. Damaskinos wants a temporary truce and alliance to deal with a greater threat: Reapers. Damaskinos tells Blade that they’re the next step in vampire evolution. They have a greater thirst for blood (human or vampire), and they turn their victims almost instantly, not in 72 hours.
Blade is put in charge of the Bloodpack, a strike team of vampires ironically created to deal with Blade. None of them particularly like Blade—though Nyssa and Asad, at least treat him with respect, unlike Reinhardt, who starts right in with racial slurs—and Blade’s response is to go alpha-dog, and also put an explosive device on the back of Reinhardt’s head, to which Blade has the trigger.
Their first stop is a vampire night club in Prague. Sure enough, the “patient zero” of the mutation, Nomak, and a bunch of Reapers show up to chow down. However, it turns out that they’re immune to garlic and silver. The only trick that works on them is sunlight, they’re still vulnerable to that. Blade and the Bloodpack manage to defeat and kill many of the Reapers, though one of the Bloodpack is infected, and they kill him before he can turn completely; another, Lighthammer, is injured. They also capture one Reaper that got stuck and started feeding on itself, showing that the Reapers’s metabolism is so supercharged that they have to feed constantly, which doesn’t say much for the future of the human or vampire races. They bring the Reaper back to Blade’s compound.
Nyssa examines the Reaper, and it turns out its heart is encased in bone, so they’re impossible to stake—except from the side, where there’s a small opening. That will probably be important later. Nyssa is also able to extract pheromones from the Reaper, and the plan is to go into the sewers the next day and lure them in with the pheromones. Scud and Whistler also create a cache of UV flashbangs that will destroy the Reapers—but also the vampires, so they have to be careful.
The vampires dress in full body gear, but leave their heads unprotected because they are played by actors whose faces we need to see, so screw story logic. In the sewers, Lighthammer turns out to be infected, and turns into a Reaper, killing Snowman—Verlaine throws a sewer cover open, sacrificing herself to take them both out. Eventually, all the Reapers are killed, but so are most of the vampires—Asad and Chupa are overwhelmed by Reapers (the latter while beating up Whistler just for the hell of it). Nyssa only survives because Blade lets her feed on him, and Whistler only survives because Nomak deliberately leaves him alive to pass on some intelligence.
It turns out that Nomak isn’t a mutation, he’s an experiment—and also Damaskinos’s son. Nyssa is appalled to realize that her own father sent her and her team on a mission that got most of them killed based on a lie. Whistler is appalled to realize that Scud—whom he was just starting to like—was a mole from Damaskinos all along, as was Reinhardt.
Blade and Whistler are taken back to Damaskinos’s headquarters. Damaskinos still needs to breed vulnerability to sunlight out of his Reapers, and he sees Blade as the key. However, Nomak tracked the team and attacks, taking out his father’s troops all by his lonesome. Whistler uses the distraction to escape and free Blade. This time, Blade regains his strength by diving into the pool of blood that Damaskinos uses, and then beats up a ton of vampires all by his lonesome, ending with cutting Reinhardt from stern to stem.
Damaskinos tries to convince Nomak to rule by his side, but Nomak isn’t having any of that, and kills his old man, then Nyssa—wracked by guilt and anger—lets him infect her. Blade shows up, and he and Nomak fight to the death, with Blade finally winning by stabbing him in the side. Nyssa’s final wish is to die as a vampire rather than a Reaper, so Blade takes her outside to watch the sun rise.
Written and directed by David S. Goyer
Produced by Wesley Snipes, David S. Goyer, Lynn Harris, & Peter Frankfurt
Original release date: December 8, 2004
A group of vampires led by Danica Talos travel to Iraq and unearth the tomb of Dracula (ahem), who was the original vampire. The vampires who did that also frame Blade for murder by filming him and Whistler going after a nest of vampires—but one is a human disguised as a vampire, so when Blade kills him, he doesn’t disintegrate into ash.
As it is, Blade is starting to gain a rep from all the familiars he’s killed, as they leave actual corpses behind with evidence on them. Two federal agents have been chasing Blade for quite a while, and they lead a raid on Blade and Whistler’s compound, during which Whistler is killed and Blade is arrested.
A pop psychologist is brought in by the local chief of police to evaluate Blade (both the shrink and the chief were on a chat show earlier in the movie, pooh-poohing the whole notion of vampires while condemning Blade’s vigilantism). Said shrink has Blade committed, with the chief’s support, to the FBI’s annoyance. However, both shrink and chief are familiars to Talos, and she and her gang come in posing as staff from a mental institution.
Blade is rescued by two people, one of whom is Whistler’s daughter. Abby was conceived during a one-night stand after Whistler’s family was killed. Abby tracked her father down and started hunting vampires on her own. She’s gathered a team called the Nightstalkers, which also includes Hannibal King—a former vampire who was cured—and it’s the two of them who rescue Blade.
They bring Blade to their HQ to meet the rest of the team: Hedges, who makes the gadgets, Sommerfield, a blind woman who is their science expert, and Dex, their mechanic. Also present is Sommerfield’s daughter Zoe. Blade is less than impressed with these amateur vampire hunters in general and with King’s smartass attitude in particular, but as they point out, he’s got nowhere else to go.
There’s a bigger issue, too. King and Abby reveal that the original vampire—whom Bram Stoker called Dracula, and who now is going by Drake—has been revived. Talos is hoping that Drake will aid them in eliminating their weaknesses. Sommerfield is also working on a virus that will kill only vampires, and Drake’s blood would make it one hundred percent effective.
Blade, King, and Abby question every familiar they can find until they track down Drake. However, he kicks their asses six ways from Sunday—turns out he can survive in sunlight, and neither silver nor garlic nor EDTA affect him.
King is wounded, and while he recovers, Abby and Blade check out a blood farm that Talos uses—milking homeless people, basically—and take it down, killing the police chief familiar in the bargain.
While they’re gone, Drake attacks the Nightstalkers’ compound, killing Sommerfield, Hedges, and Dex, and kidnapping King and Zoe. Talos wants to convert King back into a vampire, starve him, and then give him Zoe to feed on when the thirst is so desperate he can’t stand it anymore.
However, King reveals that all the Nightstalkers have tracking devices on them, and sure enough, Blade and a very pissed-off Abby (okay, Blade’s pissed, too, but he’s always like that) show up to rescue King—but also to stop Drake. Sommerfield left them a present before she died: a formula for the virus that, when it interacts with Drake’s blood, will turn into an airborne pathogen that will kill any vampire it comes into contact with. They’re only able to make enough to put into one arrowhead, which Abby carries in her quiver.
King is rescued, and has to face off against the dogs that Talos’s people have vampirized as well as Grimwood, while Abby takes out the various redshirt vampires, leaving Drake to Blade. The pair of them start out swordfighting, then move on to hand to hand. Blade holds his own—barely—but nothing he does has any effect on Drake. Abby tries to shoot him with the virus arrow, but Drake catches it and tosses it aside. Blade, however, manages to grab the arrow off the floor and stab Drake with it, killing him and also making the virus airborne and killing everyone else.
Blade seems to also succumb to the virus—Sommerfield had no way of knowing if a halfbreed like Blade would be affected—but while in the morgue, he wakes up and lives to kick ass another day.
First of all, we’ve been hearing a lot the last couple years about how Deadpool was supposedly Marvel’s first R-rated feature and how this weekend’s Black Panther is the first black Marvel superhero to get a movie, when in fact, Blade accomplished both those things already twenty years ago. And we’re not talking an obscure, forgotten film, we’re talking a big international success that spawned two very successful sequels! Good job, entertainment journalists!
In truth, the character Wesley Snipes plays in these three movies bears very little resemblance to the character from the comics. The Blade that Wolfman and Colan created in the 1970s was an engaging smartass, a bit of a loner who nonetheless was devoted to his friends (particularly Hannibal King). Snipes instead has chosen to play him as a stoic hardass who barely changes his facial expression.
It’s maddening because Snipes is one of the most versatile actors out there. He built his reputation on an impressive variety of roles, from comedy in places like Major League and White Men Can’t Jump to powerful drama in New Jack City and Mo’ Better Blues to solid action roles in Demolition Man and Passenger 57. He slid effortlessly from a vicious drug lord in Sugar Hill to a drag queen in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. And then he winds up with a part that could—and, honestly, has proven to—be his defining role, and his approach is to give him no personality whatsoever.
What the role does do is give Snipes a chance to show off his martial arts skills. He started training at the age of twelve, and even his action roles haven’t given him the opportunity to show off his skills on film the way playing Blade has. Snipes does his own fight choreography—he’s credited for it in each film, along with Jeff Ward in Blade; Ward, Clayton J. Barber, and co-star Donnie Yen in Blade II; and Chuck Jefferys in Trinity—and it pays off. All three movies are a joy to watch in terms of fight scenes, as the hand-to-hand action is superlative.
In Blade II in particular, that’s all there is to it. All three movies have pretty thin plots, but it stands out in the second one more than the other two, as the first has the world-building and exposition to flesh it out (every vampire story has to establish exactly how vampirism works in this iteration of it), and the third gives us a veritable truckload of Ryan Reynolds snark to keep things moving.
The second movie is often considered the strongest because it has the most famous director, but that’s simplistic to my mind. For starters, The Matrix came out between the first two movies, and the misbegotten influence of that overrated piece of nonsense is all over Blade II. (Yes, I really really dislike The Matrix, why do you ask?) The action and cinematography is tiresomely stylized, far more so than the other two.
And there really isn’t an entire movie’s worth of story here, as evidenced by how little time is spent on the story and how much of it is spent on action scenes. The actions scenes are generally pretty good, mind you, but it covers up the thin story, which isn’t even particularly well told. For starters, it takes the wind out of the sails of the story to have Blade work with vampires when Blade himself shows no actual emotion regarding it, by virtue of never showing emotion ever. At least we get Kris Kristofferson’s bitching as Whistler, though that’s annoying, too, because Whistler had a strong and powerful death scene in Blade and they just reversed it totally unconvincingly in Blade II. Lip service is paid to Blade not entirely trusting Whistler and concern that it’ll take him a while to get over the thirst, but absolutely nothing is done with it. Whistler’s just, y’know, back and stuff. And when Scud reveals himself to be a mole, Blade tells us he knew all along and reveals that he fixed the detonator on the bomb he’d attached to Reinhardt—but that makes no sense, as Scud has access to way too much info for that to be safe or smart. Yes yes yes, “keep your enemies close and your enemies closer,” but Jesus. Also the grudging respect between Blade and Nyssa has no room to breathe because, again, Snipes plays Blade as a statue.
At least Leonor Varela makes Nyssa’s struggles interesting, which is more than can be said for N’Bushe Wright’s lifeless performance as Jenson in the first movie. She’s set up for a return in subsequent films—and you gotta think a hematologist would be a handy ally—but her bland performance means she’s not missed at all in the other two films, and really damages the effectiveness of the first.
So does the choice in villain, which is a problem throughout all three. Neither Stephen Dorff’s flaccid Frost nor Thomas Krestchmann’s Nosferatu-lite Damaskinos nor Dominic Purcell’s utter inability to show depth and nuance as Drake serve the films well. At least they have secondary villains to pick up the slack, from Donal Logue’s batshit crazy Quinn in the first film to the always-brilliant Ron Perlman as Reinhardt in the second movie to Parker Posey vamping it up (sorry…) as Talos in Trinity.
It’s fun to watch these movies two decades later and remember who all was in them. Besides Logue (currently Bullock in Gotham), Perlman (later starring as Hellboy), and Posey (soon to be in Superman Returns), you’ve got Udo Kier (who starred in several vampire films of the 1960s and 1970s) and Judson Scott (Joachim from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) in Blade; Danny John-Jules (Cat from Red Dwarf), Norman Reedus (Daryl from The Walking Dead), and Tony Curran (the Invisible Man in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) in Blade II; and Patton Oswalt (the Koenigs on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), James Remar (Gambi in Black Lightning), eternal character actors Christopher Heyerdahl and Callum Keith Rennie, and the aforementioned Reynolds in Trinity.
Seriously, you gotta figure Reynolds just showed a reel of his bits as King in Trinity when he auditioned for Deadpool. “Fuck me sideways!” “You cock-juggling thunder-cunt!” “How about you take a sugar-frosted fuck off my dick?” And so on. Reynolds makes the movie, his barrage of obnoxiousness—not to mention his spectacular ability to take a punch and get beat up well—serving as a nice palliative to Blade’s hyper-competenece and glacier-like mien. This was Reynolds’s first role that wasn’t in a kids program or a goofy comedy, and he really did make the most of it.
For all that these three movies have issues, though, they’re tremendous fun. The visual effects still hold up twenty years later (which can’t be said for all the movies from this era), and the fight choreography is superb. The vampire lore isn’t going to make anyone gasp with how complex and original it is, or anything, but at least it avoids overcomplicating everything with nonsense (I’m looking at you, Underworld franchise), and it all holds together, more or less. There’s a certain amount of repetition that’s tiresome, though. Two of the three movies have stealing Blade’s blood as a plot point, two of them have major battles in raves, two of them have Whistler dying, two of them have the bad guy throwing a small child at Blade to distract him (really!), and so on.
Most of all, though, this was finally a series of theatrically released movies that Marvel could point to and call a hit. After a string of feature films that either never got released (Fantastic Four), only got released sporadically (The Punisher, Captain America), or never should’ve been released (Howard the Duck), Marvel finally got one of its heroes onto the big screen in a manner that people actually liked and wanted to see more of.
It was a harbinger of things to come, obviously, as the dominoes all started to fall after this. Next week, we’ll look at the next domino, 2000’s X-Men.
Keith R.A. DeCandido is a guest at Planet Comic-Con in Kansas City this weekend. He’ll be at the Bard’s Tower table all weekend. Other guests include Justice League’s Jason Momoa, definitive Batman voice Kevin Conroy, fellow authors Melinda M. Snodgrass, Dayton Ward, Kevin Dilmore, Kevin J. Anderson, Quincy J. Allen, and Michelle Corsillo, plus a crapton of other actors, writers, comics creators, and more. More details on Keith’s blog, including the two panels he’s doing.
Last year, a vigilante hacker broke into the servers of a company that sells spyware to everyday consumers and wiped their servers, deleting photos captured from monitored devices. A year later, the hacker has done it again. Motherboard: Thursday, the hacker said he started wiping some cloud servers that belong to Retina-X Studios, a Florida-based company that sells spyware products targeted at parents and employers, but that are also used by people to spy on their partners without their consent. Retina-X was one of two companies that were breached last year in a series of hacks that exposed the fact that many otherwise ordinary people surreptitiously install spyware on their partners' and children's phones in order to spy on them. This software has been called "stalkerware" by some.
Read more of this story at Slashdot.
Back in 2015 a movie called Seventh Son flopped its way through theatres. As soon as I saw the trailer, I remarked loudly that it looked like somebody turned their Dungeons & Dragons campaign into a screenplay. I said this with scorn, and I did not go to see the film. This seems to have worked in my favor, as one reviewer from the Chicago Reader called it “a loud, joyless mess.”
I read slush for a poetry quarterly called Goblin Fruit, and, being that our submission guidelines request poems of the fantastic, we get occasional submissions that smack slightly of D&D. These pieces often feel like they were written in-game by someone’s half-elf bard character, probably while drunk off his ass at Ye Olde Inn and Taverna.
I obviously can’t share any examples from the slush. However, it is not unethical to make fun of myself, so here is a verse of terrible balladry written by my last half-elf bard character while he was drunk of his ass. I may have also been in my cups: the whole epic is scrawled in the margins of my character sheet.
The Silver Flame belies its name
And makes its bed with evil
Its honey baths are full of shame
Its basement makes men feeble
With a hey nonny nonny woe
I kind of wish I could submit this under a nom de plume and then make fun of it. There are a lot more verses.
But enough about honey baths, it’s time for true confessions.
My first ever published poem—the first piece of writing that I ever sold to anyone—is a poem about the backstory of a character I played in a D20 Modern Cthulhu campaign. It was purchased by Goblin Fruit, yes, the very publication where I’m now an editor, and to date it is the only piece of mine that has been nominated for an award.
So what is the moral of this story, besides the fact that when it comes to this topic, I am clearly a raging hypocrite? What side am I on—do or don’t?
The truth is, we are all on a quest for inspiration, and we must take it where we can find it. If that inspiration dwells in the smarmy back room of Ye Olde Inn and Taverna, I’m in no position to judge.
However, I do have a few suggestions for how to avoid submitting the piece that makes an unsuspecting editor snort-laugh her tea.
Ultimately, the point is that if you’re going to do this thing, you’d best take steps to ensure that the editor can’t tell what you’re doing. In other words: bluff like crazy and hope they critically fail their sense motive check. Then maybe you’ll have a newly published piece to brag about next time you’re trolling for quests at the Taverna.
This article was originally published in March 2015.
Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and storyteller. She has pursued studies in writing, folklore, and performance in the United States, Canada, England, Scotland and France. Past jobs include being an artistic director of storytelling performances, a fiber arts consultant, a legal document and poetry transcriber, and a shepherdess. She is an editor at Goblin Fruit, can sometimes be found discussing folklore and pop culture on the Fakelore Podcast and performing with the Banjo Apocalypse Crinoline Troubadours. Her hair defies gravity, and she once tricked a group of tourists into thinking she was a Scottish ghost.
The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released a much-anticipated report yesterday that attempts to influence the encryption debate by proposing a “framework for decisionmakers.” At best, the report is unhelpful. At worst, its framing makes the task of defending encryption harder.
The report collapses the question of whether the government should mandate “exceptional access” to the contents of encrypted communications with how the government could accomplish this mandate. We wish the report gave as much weight to the benefits of encryption and risks that exceptional access poses to everyone’s civil liberties as it does to the needs—real and professed—of law enforcement and the intelligence community.
From its outset two years ago, the NAS encryption study was not intended to reach any conclusions about the wisdom of exceptional access, but instead to “provide an authoritative analysis of options and trade-offs.” This would seem to be a fitting task for the National Academy of Sciences, which is a non-profit, non-governmental organization, chartered by Congress to provide “objective, science-based advice on critical issues affecting the nation.” The committee that authored the report included well-respected cryptographers and technologists, lawyers, members of law enforcement, and representatives from the tech industry. It also held two public meetings and solicited input from a range of outside stakeholders, EFF among them.
EFF’s Seth Schoen and Andrew Crocker presented at the committee’s meeting at Stanford University in January 2017. We described what we saw as “three truths” about the encryption debate: First, there is no substitute for “strong” encryption, i.e. encryption without any intentionally included method for any party (other than the intended recipient/device holder) to access plaintext to allow decryption on demand by the government. Second, an exceptional access mandate will help law enforcement and intelligence investigations in certain cases. Third, “strong” encryption cannot be successfully fully outlawed, given its proliferation, the fact that a large proportion of encryption systems are open-source, and the fact that U.S. law has limited reach on the global stage. We wish the report had made a concerted attempt to grapple with that first truth, instead of confining its analysis to the second and third.
We recognize that the NAS report was undertaken in good faith, but the trouble with the final product is twofold.
First, its framing is hopelessly slanted. Not only does the report studiously avoid taking a position on whether compromising encryption is a good idea, its “options and tradeoffs” are all centered around the stated government need of “ensuring access to plaintext.” To that end, the report examines four possible options: (1) taking no legislative action, (2) providing additional support for government hacking and other workarounds, (3) a legislative mandate that providers provide government access to plaintext, and (4) mandating a particular technical method for providing access to plaintext.
EFF raised concerns that encryption does not just support free expression, it is free expression.
But all of these options, including “no legislative action,” treat government agencies’ stated need to access to plaintext as the only goal worth study, with everything else as a tradeoff. For example, from EFF’s perspective, the adoption of encryption by default is one of the most positive developments in technology policy in recent years because it permits regular people to keep their data confidential from eavesdroppers, thieves, abusers, criminals, and repressive regimes around the world. By contrast, because of its framing, the report discusses these developments purely in terms of criminals “who may unknowingly benefit from default settings” and thereby evade law enforcement.
By approaching the question only as one of how to deliver plaintext to law enforcement, rather than approaching the debate more holistically, the NAS does us a disservice. The question of whether encryption should or shouldn’t be compromised for “exceptional access” should not be treated as one of several in the encryption debate: it is the question.
Second, although it attempts to recognize the downsides of exceptional access, the report’s discussion of the possible risks to civil liberties is notably brief. In the span of only three pages (out of nearly a hundred), it acknowledges the importance of encryption to supporting values such as privacy and free expression. Unlike the interests of law enforcement, which are represented in every section, the report discusses the risks to civil liberties posed by exceptional access as just one more tradeoff, and addresses them as a stand-alone concern.
To emphasize the report’s focus, the civil liberties section ends with the observation that criminals and terrorists use encryption to “take actions that negatively impact the security of law-abiding individuals.” This ignores the possibility that encryption can both enhance civil liberties and preserve individual safety. That’s why, for example, experts on domestic violence argue that smartphone encryption protects victims from their abusers, and that law enforcement should not seek to compromise smartphone encryption in order to prosecute these crimes.
Furthermore, the simple act of mandating that providers break encryption in their products is itself a significant civil liberties concern, totally apart from privacy and security implications that would result. Specifically, EFF raised concerns that encryption does not just support free expression, it is free expression. Notably absent is any examination of the rights of developers of cryptographic software, particularly given the role played by free and open source software in the encryption ecosystem. It ignores the legal landscape in the United States—one that strongly protects the principle that code (including encryption) is speech, protected by the First Amendment.
The report also underplays the international implications of any U.S. government mandate for U.S.-based providers. Currently, companies resist demands for plaintext from regimes whose respect for the rule of law is dubious, but that will almost certainly change if they accede to similar demands from U.S. agencies. In a massive understatement, the report notes that this could have “global implications for human rights.” We wish that the NAS had given this crucial issue far more emphasis and delved more deeply into the question, for instance, of how Apple could plausibly say no to a Chinese demand to wiretap a Chinese user’s FaceTime conversations while providing that same capacity to the FBI.
In any tech policy debate, expert advice is valuable not only to inform how to implement a particular policy but whether to undertake that policy in the first place. The NAS might believe that as the provider of “objective, science-based advice,” it isn’t equipped to weigh in on this sort of question. We disagree.
Grady Martin writes: Former OpenStreetMap contributor and Google Summer of Code mentor Serge Wroclawski has outlined why OpenStreetMap is in serious trouble, citing unclear usage policies, poor geocoding (address-to-coordinate conversion), and a lack of a review model as reasons for the project's decline in quality. Perhaps more interesting, however, are the problems purported to stem from OpenStreetMap's power structure. Wroclawski writes: "In the case of OpenStreetMap, there is a formal entity which owns the data, called the OpenStreetMap Foundation. But at the same time, the ultimate choices for the website, the geographic database and the infrastructure are not under the direct control of the Foundation, but instead rest largely on one individual, who (while personally friendly) ranges from skeptical to openly hostile to change."
Read more of this story at Slashdot.
Atari is launching its own cryptocurrency, because of course it is.
The company’s Paris-listed stock rose as much as 111% between February 4 and February 15. The company says it is investing in a “crypto platform” that will use its own digital currency, the “Atari Token.” It can be used to – you guessed it – play video games.
Back in the early 2000s before Dropbox was a gleam in Drew Houston’s eye, sharing large files was a huge challenge. Email services limited attachment size because bandwidth and storage were both expensive and FTP required a certain level of technical acumen. YouSendIt tried to resolve that problem by providing a way to share large files in the days before the cloud became a thing. The… Read More
Can you say Legion of Doom sitcom?
damnbunni writes: Longtime board game publisher Mayfair Games (English-language publisher for Settlers of Catan, Agricola, and many more) has shut down after 36 years. All of their games have been sold to Asmodee, who also owns Fantasy Flight Games, Z-Man Games, Rebel, Edge Entertainment, and a host of other board game companies they've picked up over the years. "As of today, the management team at Mayfair Games, Inc. announces we will wind down game publishing," the company said in a statement. "After 36 years, this was not an easy decision or one we took lightly, but it was necessary. Once we had come to this conclusion, we knew we had to find a good home for our games which is when we reached out to Asmodee."
Read more of this story at Slashdot.
schwit1 shares a report on a new study, published in Sciences Advances, that offers a new solution to providing clean drinking water for billions of people worldwide: It all comes down to metal-organic frameworks (MOFs), an amazing next generation material that have the largest internal surface area of any known substance. The sponge like crystals can be used to capture, store and release chemical compounds. In this case, the salt and ions in sea water. Dr Huacheng Zhang, Professor Huanting Wang and Associate Professor Zhe Liu and their team in the Faculty of Engineering at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, in collaboration with Dr Anita Hill of CSIRO and Professor Benny Freeman of the McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin, have recently discovered that MOF membranes can mimic the filtering function, or "ion selectivity," of organic cell membranes. With further development, these membranes have significant potential to perform the dual functions of removing salts from seawater and separating metal ions in a highly efficient and cost effective manner, offering a revolutionary new technological approach for the water and mining industries. Currently, reverse osmosis membranes are responsible for more than half of the world's desalination capacity, and the last stage of most water treatment processes, yet these membranes have room for improvement by a factor of 2 to 3 in energy consumption. They do not operate on the principles of dehydration of ions, or selective ion transport in biological channels.
Read more of this story at Slashdot.
An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Wall Street Journal (Warning: source may be paywalled; alternative source): Equifax said, in a document submitted to the Senate Banking Committee and reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, that cyberthieves accessed records across numerous tables in its systems that included such data as tax identification numbers, email addresses and drivers' license information beyond the license numbers it originally disclosed. The revelations come some five months after Equifax announced it had been breached and personal information belonging to 145.5 million consumers had been compromised, including names, Social Security numbers, dates of birth and addresses. It's unclear how many of the 145.5 million people are affected by the additional data including tax ID numbers, which are often assigned to people who don't have Social Security numbers. Hackers also accessed email addresses for some consumers, according to the document and an Equifax spokeswoman, who said "an insignificant number" of email addresses were affected. She added that email addresses aren't considered sensitive personal information because they are commonly searchable in public domains. As for tax ID numbers, the Equifax spokeswoman said they "were generally housed in the same field" as Social Security numbers. She added that individuals without a Social Security number could use their tax ID number to see if they were affected by the hack. Equifax also said, in response to questions from The Wall Street Journal, that some additional drivers' license information had been accessed. The company publicly disclosed in its Sept. 7 breach announcement that drivers' license numbers were accessed; the document submitted to the banking committee also includes drivers' license issue dates and states.
Read more of this story at Slashdot.
The internet artist dropped the site on Hacker News last week. Not long after, people had found a way to create bots to bypass the test.
Since then, Damjanski said he and a team of two other friends have been reevaluating and toughening the challenge.
“We constantly update the algorithm on different variables like for example how many pictures it serves or in another case how it blurres the images,” he said.
The bots that do gain entry live on as a list of growing list of published IP addresses. According to Damjanski, more than 30 bots have made it in so far. If one does gain access to the locked robot room, they will be greeted by the words, “Welcome! You are not a human.”
It's Turing's world, we just live in it.
Here's one side-effect of the Internet I hadn't expected: It may be reducing our carbon footprint -- by getting us to stay home more.
A group of academics studied data from the American Time Use Survey of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, looking at changes in American's daily routines between 2003 and 2012. They found that they're "spending considerably more time at home" -- about 7.8 more days at home in 2003, compared to 2012.
Why are Americans home so much more? Because technology has made it more viable to work from home, so they're traveling into the office less often; it's also easier to entertain yourself at home, so less trips to movie theaters and the like. These trends are particularly pronounced amongst younger Americans: 18- to 24-year olds spent fully 14 days more at home in 2012 than in 2003.
So, energy use at home goes up. We're using more computers, more TVs, more air-conditioning there. It's about 480 trillion BTUs more per year at home (using 2012 figures).
But! Since we're driving/traveling less often, we used 1,000 trillion less BTUs in transportation. And we used 1,200 trillion less BTUs in stores, offices and other "nonresidential" locations.
The upshot: Americans' energy use went down by a net 1,700 trillion BTUs, which is 1.8% of the national overall total usage.
A chart that summarizes it ...
As the researchers point out, this migration of activity to the house has public-policy implications. If we wanted to make the country evermore efficient in its use of energy, we should probably focus a bit more on energy consumption in the home, since this is where the locus of daily action is shifting:
What do our results imply for energy policy? One issue is shifting priorities for energy efficiency policies. The EPA Café standards for automobile efficiency are arguably the centerpiece of efficiency improvement efforts by the federal government. If, however, trends toward decreased vehicle use continue, compounded by car sharing, this reduces the energy savings according to improved vehicle efficiency. While spending time at home is, per minute, much less energy intensive than driving, people use an increasing portfolio of energy-consuming ICT devices to enhance their time at home.62 Given these trends, additional emphasis on improving the efficiency of consumer electronics and home appliances might be warranted.
Some caveats, of course: As Megan Guess points out over at Ars Technica, this study doesn't capture all energy use that might be related to this new burst of cocooning. Maybe there's an increased use of particular types of tech at home -- laptops? home-style air-conditioning, as opposed to central, office-style a/c? -- that requires additional emissions in manufacture, and this study wouldn't capture that.
But if even most of this analysis holds up, it's damn interesting stuff.
(CC-licensed image via Pexels)
Sense8. Okja. Bright. The OA. Mute. Travelers. Dark. Altered Carbon. The Cloverfield Paradox. Plus The Expanse and Annihilation, internationally speaking. In the last few years Netflix has positioned itself as a hub for contemporary genre fiction TV and movies. And these titles are just the tip of the iceberg; Netflix’s anime slate is impressive too, not to mention their laundry list of other live action TV shows and movies.
In terms of the company’s recent SFF releases, the movie slate they’ve put together is worth taking a serious look at. Specifically, Bright, Mute, Annihilation, and The Cloverfield Paradox. Those four movies tell us a lot not only about Netflix’s approach, but also about the way mid-level, cerebral science fiction and fantasy is viewed in the west at the moment. While it’s not all bad news, it’s certainly not all good, either.
Let’s start with Bright. The David Ayer-directed movie stars Will Smith and Joel Edgerton as a pair of LAPD cops (please read the next few words in Trailer Guy Voice) in a world (back to normal) where Elves, Orcs, and other fantasy races co-exist with us. It’s intended to be somewhere between Rampart and The Lord of the Rings, and Netflix spent most of last year slowly building buzz for it (this piece over at The Verge talks about that marketing strategy in detail).
Everything about Bright screams mid-level cinema release, especially given Smith and Ayer’s increased notoriety after Suicide Squad. It’s the sort of movie you’d see on a slow week in the cinema—on that would do modest business, maybe gain a medium-sized following, and fade away.
Netflix released it on December 22nd, and a sequel has already been greenlit with Smith, Edgerton, and Ayer all returning, this time with Ayer pulling double duty as both writer and director. So, fans get more of the same, folks who stayed away from the first movie are potentially drawn in by the promise of a better script, and Netflix gets a captive audience for a home-grown, big(ish) movie. That’s enough of a win for everyone to go home happy. Or at least, happy enough.
That being said, for many viewers, Bright was a loud, incoherent failure that embodied everything terrible about modern genre movies. The concern was that Netflix would become a Yelling Factory, a grindhouse with none of the charm, but with infinitely deep pockets.
The fact they’ve also financed Mute puts the lie to that. Duncan Jones’ self-described “Don Quixote” story is a “sidequel” or spiritual sequel to his extraordinary first film, Moon. Set in the same world, it follows Alexander Skarsgård as a mute bartender drawn into the Berlin underworld in search of his missing girlfriend.
Moon is about as far from the smash-‘em-up approach of Bright as you can get, and Mute looks to be a similarly small-scale, intimate story. It also looks far darker and (somewhat) more action-packed. Regardless of tone, it’s another small- to mid-scale movie with a built-in audience and pre-loaded director kudos. So, much like Bright and Okja, it’s a solid investment. The fact that films so stylistically different are being financed and/or distributed by the same company speaks to both the breadth of genre fiction and Netflix’s willingness to engage with its infinite varieties.
As it turns out, they’re also willing to take different approaches to bringing this content to their audiences, with some movies and series commissioned by Netflix from the very beginning (Sense8 and Altered Carbon, for example) and others properties licensed or co-produced for exclusive distribution in specific countries/territories (but still released as “Netflix Originals”). And of course, there are the situations in which series are picked up for additional seasons after an initial run elsewhere, such as Black Mirror or Star Wars: The Clone Wars. In the case of Annihilation, Alex Garland’s first movie since Ex Machina, while it will be released in cinemas in the U.S., it’s going to Netflix overseas. This is apparently due to a clash between producers, a bad test screening, and corporate cautiousness driven by the disappointing performance of recent projects (particularly Geostorm), at least according to The Hollywood Reporter.
The murky circumstances that brought us to this point, though, aren’t nearly as important as the outcome—because the split release makes Annihilation a trailblazer. This is a movie with early critical prestige, an excellent cast, a great director, and a script based on an acclaimed novel. And now it’s going to premiere, in some markets, on a streaming service.
That could be, and has been, read largely as a sign of a startling lack of faith on the side of one of the producers. But it’s also an opportunity. While other writers have justifiably complained about the very real chance of mid-level SF eventually leaving cinemas altogether, the simple truth is that a streaming service like Netflix makes movies more easily accessible to their prospective audiences. These movies may well find a larger audience on streaming, even if it’s one of accretion, than they ever would after simply being released to 300 cinemas, buried with inconvenient screenings for maybe ten days, and then finding a slightly larger audience eight months later on Blu-Ray. Does it make theatre chains more likely to give even more space to blockbusters? Absolutely. Does it offer more opportunities for arthouse chains? Again, absolutely. Does it give audiences more choice in a manner that, for once, actually MEANS more choice? Sure looks like it. And best of all, if successful it means that these more esoteric genre movies could become a viable, profitable prospect, a different rule instead of the same old exception.
And that brings us to The Cloverfield Paradox. The movie formerly known as God Particle is at the top of news cycles at the moment thanks to its “See the trailer! Wait two hours and see the movie!” release on the night of the Super Bowl.
It was an inspired move, and whether you’re a fan of the movie or not it’s admirable to see marketing used to actually promote the film instead of just ruining every major scene in the first two acts. The movie is, admittedly, getting bashed by most outlets—but from a reception point of view, that doesn’t matter. The Cloverfield Paradox got a big, high-profile, stunt release that spiked interest in a project that was otherwise, seemingly, in some trouble. The fact that it hasn’t found a lot of short-term success may not matter in the long run, either. As a proof of concept for a new way of doing business, it more than succeeded. Or to put it another way: a film with some apparent problems was given a boost and at the same time opened a path for other movies to follow, as well as earning itself a place in the PR history books. That’s a solid win, and one that the fourth instalment of the Cloverfield franchise can build on.
As it stands right now, Netflix has cast a remarkably wide net, in terms of acquiring science fiction and other genre programming. Its approach takes in everything from a movie that’s literally just “He’s Will Smith! His partner’s an orc! THEY’RE COPS!” to something that feels like a long overdue sequel to a modern classic with Mute. That speaks well both to the company’s desire to connect with audiences and their (albeit commercially inspired) broad approach to genre. This isn’t a company looking to churn out endless 21st century B-movies. That scope and variety is, absolutely, good news.
The bad news is that Netflix is also increasingly looking like a lifeboat for movies that studios can’t or won’t back or go to bat for. Annihilation may find a bigger audience than it ever would have reached in theaters, but it’s a film shot for the big screen and will inevitably lose something in translation. Worse still, it’s only a matter of time before movies like this stop being shot for the big screen and start dreaming a little smaller. Moreover, the deployment of The Cloverfield Paradox is a “surprise!” that can only work once. Unless of course the Super Bowl Night Cloverfield Movie becomes a yearly tradition, which, honestly, I’d welcome.
Variety. Experimentation. Change. Netflix is pushing the envelope with its genre slate and in the ways they’re deploying it. In the short term, that means we’re in for a bumpy ride, but it’s going to lead to a very different industry and one, I suspect, where these odd, spiky, interesting movies will have far more of a chance to find their audience than they’ve ever had to date. I’ll certainly be watching.
Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Podcastle, Cast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.
Isaac Protiva wanted to know who was behind the "Stop City-Funded Internet" campaign that was pouring a fortune into scuttling the plan to build a fast, efficient, low-cost city network in his hometown of West Plains, Missouri; after a lot of digging, he discovered that (naturally), the "collection of fiscally conservative Missourians" who were nominally behind the site was actually the local cable-monopoly, Fidelity Communications, who came clean (but never apologized). (more…)
The New York Academy of Medicine has organized #ColorOurCollections, in which various member libraries take images from their holdings and put 'em online as high-end coloring-book material.
... the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library ...
... the University of Adelaide ...
... the Shangri-La Museum of Islamic Art ...
... and the Ricker Library of Art and Architecture:
Once-secret surveillance court orders obtained by EFF last week show that even when the court authorizes the government to spy on specific Americans for national security purposes, that authorization can be misused to potentially violate other people’s civil liberties.
These documents raise larger questions about whether the government can meaningfully protect people’s privacy and free expression rights under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which permits officials to engage in warrantless mass surveillance with far less court oversight than is required under the “traditional” FISA warrant process.
The documents are the third and final batch of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) opinions released to EFF as part of a FOIA lawsuit seeking all significant orders and opinions of the secret court. Previously, the government released opinions dealing with FISA’s business records and pen register provisions, along with opinions under Section 702.
Although many of the 13 opinions are heavily redacted—and the government withheld another 26 in full—the readable portions show several instances of the court blocking government efforts to expand its surveillance or ordering the destruction of information obtained improperly as a result of its spying.
For example, in a 40-page opinion issued in 2004 or 2005, FISC Judge Harold Baker rejected the FBI’s proposal to log copies of recorded conversations of people who, while not targeted by the agency, were still swept up in its surveillance. This likely occurred when innocent people used the same communications service as the FBI’s target, possibly a shared phone line. The opinion demonstrates both the risks of overcollection as part of targeted surveillance as well as the benefits of engaged, detailed court oversight.
Here’s how that oversight works: Once the FISC approves electronic surveillance under FISA’s Title I, the FBI can record a target’s communications, but it must follow “minimization procedures” to avoid unnecessarily listening in on conversations by others who are using the same “facility” (like a telephone line). In this case, however, the FBI employed a surveillance technique that apparently captured a lot of innocent communications. (This is often referred to as “incidental collection” because the recording of these conversations is incidental to spying on the target who uses the same phone line.)
Although redactions make it difficult to understand details of the FBI’s request to the court, it apparently sought to mark these out-of-scope conversations for later use, which would be inconsistent with the “Standard Minimization Procedures” approved for use in FISA Title I cases.
The FBI seems to have presented its request to the FISC as no big deal, with “minimal, if any” impact on the Fourth Amendment. Judge Baker saw it differently. He explained that “it is not sufficient to assert that, because the Standard Procedures already permit the FBI a great deal of latitude, it is reasonable to grant a little more.”
More fundamentally, the court took the FBI to task for the “surprising occasion” of seeking to expand its use of incidentally collected communications, rather than getting rid of them. It faulted the FBI for failing to account “for the possibility that overzealous or ill-intentioned personnel might be inclined to misuse information, if given the opportunity.” As the court put it, “the advantage of minimization at the acquisition stage is clear. Information that is never acquired in the first place cannot be misused.”
Other opinions EFF obtained detail the NSA’s unauthorized surveillance of a number of individuals and the government’s efforts to hold onto the data despite a FISA court’s order that the communications be destroyed.
A December 2010 order by FISC Judge Frederick Scullin, Jr. describes how over a period between 15 months and three years, the NSA obtained a number of communications of U.S. persons. The precise number of communications obtained is redacted.
Rather than notifying the court that it had destroyed the communications it obtained without authorization, the NSA made an absurd argument in a bid to retain the communications: because the surveillance was unauthorized, the agency’s internal procedures that require officials to delete non-relevant communications should not apply. Essentially, because the surveillance was unlawful, the law shouldn’t apply and the NSA should get to keep what it had obtained.
The court rejected the NSA’s argument. “One would expect the procedures’ restrictions on retaining and disseminating U.S. person information to apply most fully to such communications, not, as the government would have it, to fail to apply at all,” the court wrote.
The court went on to say that “[t]here is no persuasive reason to give the (procedures) the paradoxical and self-defeating interpretation advanced by the government.”
The court then ordered the NSA to destroy the communications it had obtained without FISC authorization. But another opinion issued by Judge Scullin in May 2011 shows that rather than immediately complying with the order, the NSA asked the FISC once more to allow it to keep the communications.
Again the court rejected the government’s arguments. “No lawful benefit can plausibly result from retaining this information, but further violation of law could ensue,” the court wrote. The court then ordered the NSA to not only delete the data, but to provide reports on the status of its destruction “until such time as the destruction process has been completed.”
The new opinions show that even when the FISC judges actually approve targeted surveillance on particular individuals, the government still collects the contents of innocent people’s communications in ways that are incompatible with the law. Which raises the question: what is the government getting away with when it engages in surveillance that has even less FISC oversight?
Although the opinions discussed above concern FISA’s statutory requirements of minimization rather than constitutional limits, these are the sort of concerns that EFF has raised in the context of the NSA’s warrantless surveillance under Section 702 of FISA. Unlike FISA Title I, Section 702 does not require the FISC to conduct such detailed oversight of the government’s activities. The court does approve minimization procedures, but it does not review targets or facilities, meaning that it has less insight into the actual surveillance. That necessarily reduces opportunities to prevent overbroad collection or check an intelligence agency’s incremental loosening of its own rules. And, as we’ve seen, it has led to significant “compliance violations” by the NSA and other agencies using Section 702.
All surveillance procedures come with risks, especially with the level of secrecy involved in FISA. Nevertheless, opinions like these demonstrate that detailed court oversight offers the best hope of curtailing these risks. We hope it informs future debate in those areas where oversight is limited by statute, as with Section 702. If anything, the decisions are more evidence that warrantless surveillance must end.
The importance of the US Patent Office’s “inter partes review” (IPR) process was highlighted in dramatic fashion yesterday. Patent appeals judges threw out a patent [PDF] that was used to sue more than 80 companies in the fitness, wearables, and health industries.
US Patent No. 7,454,002 was owned by Sportbrain Holdings, a company that advertised a kind of ‘smart pedometer’ as recently as 2011. But the product apparently didn’t take off, and in 2016, Sportbrain turned to patent lawsuits to make a buck.
A company called Unified Patents challenged the ’002 patent by filing an IPR petition, and last year, the Patent Office agreed that the patent should be reviewed. Yesterday, the patent judges published their decision, canceling every claim of the patent.
The ’002 patent describes capturing a user’s “personal data,” and then sharing that information with a wireless computing device and over a network. It then analyzes the data and provides feedback.
After reviewing the relevant technology, a panel of patent office judges found there wasn’t much new to the ’002 patent. Earlier patents had already described collecting and sharing various types of sports data, including computer-assisted pedometers and a system that measured a skier’s “air time.” Given those earlier advances, the steps of the Sportbrain patent would have been obvious to someone working in the field. The office cancelled all the claims.
That means the dozens of different companies sued by Sportbrain won’t have to each spend hundreds of thousands of dollars—potentially millions—to defend against a patent that, the government now acknowledges, never should have been granted in the first place.
Bad patents like the one asserted by Sportbrain are a drain on the innovation economy, especially for small businesses. But the damage that could be caused by such patents was much worse before the advent of IPRs.
The IPR process has proven to be the most effective part of the 2012 America Invents Act. In most cases, the IPR process is far more efficient than federal courts when it comes to evaluating a patent to figure out if it’s truly new and non-obvious.
IPRs have other advantages for small companies. Often, companies that get sued or threatened by patent trolls will end up paying a licensing fee, even though they don’t think the patents are legitimate. Through the IPR process, defendants can band together to file IPRs. That’s enabled the success of membership-based for-profit companies like RPX and Unified Patents—in fact, it was member-funded Unified that filed the petition which shut down the Sportbrain Holdings patent.
The IPR process also enables non-profits like EFF to fight bad patents. That’s how EFF was able to knock out the Personal Audio “podcasting” patent. The petition was paid for by the more than 1,000 donors who gave to our “Save Podcasting” campaign. Last year, EFF’s victory in that case was upheld by a federal appeals court.
But the IPR process could be in danger. Senator Chris Coons has twice proposed legislation (the STRONG Patents Act and the STRONGER Patents Act) that would gut the IPR system. EFF has opposed these bills. Other opponents of IPRs have taken their complaints to the courts. One company has asked the Supreme Court to declare the process unconstitutional. This case, Oil States, will decide the future of IPRs. We’ve submitted a brief explaining why we think the process of reviewing patents at the Patent Office is not only constitutional, it’s good public policy. We hope both Congress and the high court see their way to upholding this critical tool that saved 80 companies from damaging litigation—and that was just yesterday.
Commercial traffic at the International Space Station (ISS) is going to get a bit more congested in a couple of years as Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) gets the green light from NASA for its Dream Chaser spacecraft to visit the orbital laboratory in late 2020. The Authority to Proceed notification opens the way for SNC's unmanned cargo ship to undertake its first mission under the space agency's Commercial Resupply Services Contract 2 (CRS2)... Continue Reading Dream Chaser cleared to visit space station in 2020
wiredmikey quotes SecurityWeek: Researchers have discovered more than 130 malware samples designed to exploit the recently disclosed Spectre and Meltdown CPU vulnerabilities. While a majority of the samples appear to be in the testing phase, we could soon start seeing attacks... On Wednesday, antivirus testing firm AV-TEST told SecurityWeek that it has obtained 139 samples from various sources, including researchers, testers and antivirus companies... Fortinet, which also analyzed many of the samples, confirmed that a majority of them were based on available proof of concept code. Andreas Marx, CEO of AV-TEST, believes different groups are working on the PoC exploits to determine if they can be used for some purpose. "Most likely, malicious purposes at some point," he said.
Read more of this story at Slashdot.
The now-classic Groundhog Day flirts with (and breaks) the rules of multiple movie genres: romantic comedy, time travel narrative, small town dramedy, spiritual redemption tale—and it’s also given birth to an entire subgenre of its own. The “Groundhog Day episode” is a mainstay of many television series, and the plot even pops up in films, novels, and short fiction. It’s a fun way to play with established characters, putting your faves through the emotional wringer while trying to solve a murder or stop a crime. And it can be an equally effective tool for riffing on entire genre tropes; mixing in high school drama, slasher horror, or other well-worn genres can lead to some fascinating mashups. And in (almost) all cases, the protagonist stuck in the time loop comes out on the other side all the better.
We’ve compiled a list of our favorite Groundhog Day riffs and the most memorable time loops in SFF. Take a break from listening to “I Got You Babe” for the nth time and instead check out these 14 recursive tales.
It takes guts to do a Groundhog Day episode at the start of your run, but that’s exactly what Farscape did in their fifth episode. When new guests appear on Moya, blood cousins of D’Argo’s species, John begins having flashes of the future where different sets of people wind up dead. He finds it difficult to explain to most of the crew members—they are still reticent to trust him as an odd, volatile species that they know nothing about—but eventually settles on trying to communicate this strange occurrence to Zhaan. From that point on, John finds himself trapped in a loop where he begins by telling Zhaan what he believes is wrong, then drops a precious glass mask that belongs to her, and afterwards fails to prevent the deaths of his shipmates. Eventually John learns that he’s suffering temporal dislocation as a result of the black hole weapon their guests have brought onto Moya without the crew’s knowledge. After a few runarounds with different permutations of the scenario, John finally figures out how to convince his friends of what’s happening, and they Starburst away before the black hole weapon can destabilize and kill them all. —Emily Asher-Perrin
Blumhouse Productions’ 2017 Halloween offering has a pretty unbeatable premise: Groundhog Day crossed with a slasher film, in which co-ed Tree (short for Theresa) is endlessly chased and killed by a psycho with a knife wearing a nightmare-fodder cartoon baby mask on her birthday. Every time she gets murdered, she wakes up on her birthday again. Happy Death Day refreshes the time loop premise by making the archetype who would usually bite the dust early in the movie—that is, the clueless sorority girl—self-aware and active in her own fate; as she retains memories of the previous days, she’s able to begin anticipating the killer’s approach to try and evade her own murder. As Tree learns to pay attention to her sorority sisters and the sweet underclassman trying to help her stay alive, as she investigates red herrings and reconciles with estranged family on what is already an emotional bulldozer of a day, she slowly transforms herself into a Final Girl.
Now, the movie doesn’t quite deliver on its excellent trailer, as there’s too much bloat in the middle while Tree is still figuring out how to break free of her time loop and not enough subterfuge surrounding the identity of her killer. But lead actress Jessica Rote is a snarky, gutsy comic gem and should totally be cast in more trope-defying movies. While you’ll probably guess Happy Death Day’s ending a mile away, as we’ve learned from these types of stories, the fun is in the journey, not the destination. —Natalie Zutter
There’s no way to talk about this without spoilers for season one, so skip ahead if you’re not caught up!
In its first season, The Good Place trundled along disguised as a brilliant fish-out-of-water sitcom in which deceased human trashfire Eleanor Shellstrop is sent to “The Good Place” by mistake and has to pretend to belong. In the season finale, it pulled all the rugs out from everyone when Eleanor realized that “The Good Place” was actually “The Bad Place”—an afterlife of unending psychological torture. And froyo.
The second season blew the concept open, running through a montage of scenarios in which one of the four main characters figured the twist out within months, days, or even minutes of being introduced to the “Good” Place. Finally, in “Dance Dance Resolution,” they learn that they’ve gone through over 800 iterations of their life in The “Good” Place, and decide to team up with Michael, the demon who has been tormenting them. The show stops being a simple riff on a time loop story, and instead digs into the emotional underpinnings of Groundhog Day: Michael, formerly self-assured and happily evil, is going through one humdinger of an existential crisis. The second half of season 2 has focused on Michael’s quest to be “good”—all while trying to keep his boss from finding out. —Leah Schnelbach
There are worse times to be stuck in than 1994. But there’s always a catch, right? And in The Vampire Diaries’ sixth season, the catch is that Bonnie Bennett (sans her magical powers) and Damon Salvatore (still a vampire) are trapped in a prison world that was meant to hold a really irritating serial killer. At first, reliving May 10, 1994 isn’t that bad: they camp out in the Salvatore house, the grocery store seems to restock itself, and Damon gets pretty decent at making waffles. (Why they’re there is just too much to get into; have you watched this show? Summarizing it in a way that makes sense is a highly specialized art form.) After four months, someone else fills in a clue on their crossword puzzle. When they meet this someone—Kai, played by Chris Wood (you may know him as Supergirl’s Mon-El)—he’s spiked the bourbon in the grocery store with toxic-to-vampires vervain, rendering Damon helpless. It’s all a big ploy to motivate Bonnie to get her magic back, and did I mention this show is convoluted? I shan’t get into the drama that getting out of the prison world entails, as we’d be here all day. This plotline subjected us to way too much of Kai’s murdery annoyingness, but at least it also gave Bonnie and Damon’s friendship a chance to develop further. He’s a semi-reformed jerk and she’s a witch who’s been put through the wringer and then some; 1994 is hardly the worst thing they’ve faced. —Molly Templeton
Art by Frank Quitely
Endless Nights is a collection of graphic vignettes about Neil Gaiman’s Endless, the seven siblings who are—in a sense—the building blocks of our universe. The final story of these is concerned with Destiny, its title eponymous with the title of the whole tome. In it, Destiny walks through his garden, his book chained to his wrist. The narrative addresses the reader in second person, and “you” are informed that Destiny’s book contains between its pages every moment of your life, and every moment of every other life. Everything you know and do not know. Everything you believe and do not believe. Every other person who will live and die in this universe. The story tells you that one day the book will be over and no one knows what will come after it is finished. But Destiny turns the page of his book… and walks through the garden, his book chained to his wrist… —EAP
Cover art by Mark Thomas (Hodder & Stoughton, 2002)
In an alternate 1985 where computers haven’t been invented but literature is protected at Fort Knox and time travel is de rigeur, one of the cruelest and most unusual forms of punishment is Closed Loop Temporal Field Containment: Pop a criminal into the same eight-minute time loop on repeat for anywhere from five to twenty years, and by the time they’re freed, they won’t know heads or tails enough to want to return to that life. Literary detective Thursday Next acknowledges the brutality of this warped form of justice, yet its true effect doesn’t really sink in until she gets in the middle of a fight between the ChronoGuard and her target:
I yelled, “NO!” and pulled out my gun and aimed it at the man who held Billden.
I yelled, “NO!” and pulled out my gun and aimed it at the man who held Billden.
I yelled, “NO!” and pulled out my gun and aimed it at the man who held Billden.
I yelled, “NO!” and pulled out my gun and aimed it at the man who held Billden.
I yelled, “NO!” and pulled out my gun and aimed it at the man who held Billden.
I yelled, “NO!” and pulled out my gun and aimed it at the man who held Billden.
And so forth for about a page until she suddenly comes to, disarmed and disoriented. In the case of Jasper Fforde’s novel, the time loop is an obstacle, not an aid, to Thursday ensuring that her husband is born, instead of erased from this timeline. But it does change her outlook on the punishment itself. —NZ
On a mission to a planet experiencing strange solar activity, the SG-1 team has a run-in with an archaeologist who seems a tad unbalanced. Following a geomagnetic disturbance, Jack O’Neill and Teal’c both find themselves trapped in a time loop of this day over and over. They attempt to explain this to Daniel Jackson, Sam Carter, and General Hammond with varying levels of success as the loop plays out, but fail to prevent numerous iterations over the course of many months. Because Daniel (their resident linguist, archaeologist, and anthropologist) is not a part of the time loop, Jack and Teal’c are forced to learn and memorize the alien language on the solar-wobbly planet in an effort to break the loop. Daniel also points out that a time loop allows them to do what they want without consequences, however, which leads to a series of antics on their part—they play golf through the Stargate, Jack rides a bike through the SGC, they both learn to juggle. Eventually they find out that the archaeologist they encountered on their mission is attempting to use incomplete time travel technology of the Ancients, trying to get more time with his dead wife. Jack, who lost his son some years back, appeals to the man to get him to shut down the loop. —EAP
In Pohl’s disturbing short story (the only tale on the list that actually predates Groundhog Day), Guy Burckhardt wakes up on June 15 screaming from a nightmare of an explosion. As he goes about his normal day in Tylerton, he can’t shake the oddness of certain details being off, primarily all of life’s little annoyances—a stuck door latch, a loose floorboard—suddenly smoothed over. Then there’s the matter of all of the goods and services being hawked at him, from a blaring truck advertising freezers at 6 a.m., to the newspaper stand guy basically paying him to try a new brand of cigarettes, to the most unpleasant, jingle-laden elevator ride to his job. But weirdest of all is when he goes to sleep, and wakes up the next morning—on June 15, except he’s the only one who realizes he’s living the same day, albeit with a whole new set of carefully curated advertisements, over again. As Guy struggles to escape this seeming time loop, he discovers the true purpose of Tylerton and his own fate. —NZ
Though it took some time to reveal the truth (an entire series of books, when all was said and done), the Dark Tower series is perhaps the greatest Groundhog Day story arc in all of genre fiction—though it’s more like a Groundhog Quest than one simple day repeating. The tale follows the Gunslinger Roland on his journey to the Dark Tower and the people he brings with him… and often loses along the way. But after who-knows-how-many cycles of this tale, Roland finally learns that he has reached the Dark Tower before, many times, and that he keeps having to repeat this quest, presumably in order to get it right. At the end of The Dark Tower VII, Roland is sent back to the beginning yet again, but with something that he lacked in his previous journeys: the Horn of Eld. Stephen King himself said that the Dark Tower film of 2017 was meant to be Roland’s final run to the Tower, and true to the book series finale, Idris Elba’s Roland has the Horn of Eld when he begins his journey. With the end of the film seeing Roland and Jake head off on a brand-new adventure, it would seem that the cycle is finally broken, 35 years after the first book appeared on shelves. —EAP
The episode opens with the shocking image of Mulder bleeding out from a gunshot wound. He and Scully have been caught in a bank robbery, and when Scully tries to reason with the gunman, he reveals a homemade bomb, and detonates it rather than surrendering to the police. And thus the show ended in its sixth season without ever solving… oh, wait. In the next scene Mulder wakes up to discover that his waterbed has sprung a leak (because of course Mulder has a waterbed) and for a few minutes it seems like the bank robbery was a nightmare—until he ends up back in the bank with Scully, and the same bomber walks in. It soon becomes clear to the audience that the agents are trapped in a loop that always ends in the same horrific explosion. It also becomes clear that the only one aware of what’s happening is the bomber’s girlfriend, Pam, at one point telling Mulder that she’s spoken to him over fifty times—and of course she’s the only one who can break the cycle.
The episode is a perfect riff on Groundhog Day because it plays with the idea of time itself getting stuck. This isn’t just Mulder or Pam living this day over and over, it’s every single person in the bank, and everyone affected by their deaths. Plus it makes for a particularly great X-File because it implies that giant, horrifying mysteries are unfolding around Mulder and Scully all the time, without their knowledge. How long have they been trapped in this loop? How many other loops have they stumbled into and escaped, without ever knowing it? —LS
Poor Sam Winchester can’t catch a break. His brother Dean is already running on borrowed time (after signing over his soul to a demon to bring Sam back from the dead), with only a year left to live. Then one day Dean bites the dust ahead of schedule—but Sam wakes up to the exact same day all over again. Except this time he tries to change things, and Dean just dies a different way. And then he wakes up to the same day, and Dean dies again. And again. What’s worse, every morning Sam wakes up to Asia’s “Heat of the Moment,” which Dean dances along to vigorously. It’s a very peculiar version of hell, which Sam eventually learns is being run by a Trickster (who is later revealed to be the archangel Gabriel… yeah, it’s a long story) he and his brother had a run-in with a year ago. When Sam commands that they are released from the time loop, Dean dies again, but this time he stays dead and leaves his little brother cradling his body, whispering “I’m supposed to wake up…” Sam goes a bit dark-side trying to hunt down the Trickster and force him to fix this rotten timeline. The Trickster later explains that in a way, he’s trying to help; he wants Sam to learn how to cope without his big brother. But it undoubtedly leaves little Sammy scarred after countless days watching his brother get murdered in increasingly creative (though sometimes hilarious) ways. —EAP
Before Tree was outwitting a serial killer in Happy Death Day, another vapid bitch was confronting her own mortality in a time loop: Oliver’s 2010 YA novel has beta mean girl Sam reliving “Cupid Day” (a.k.a. February 12) over and over after her first go-round ends with her dying in a grisly car accident driving with queen bee Lindsay. At first thinking that she’s been granted a second chance without strings, Sam soon comes to realize that the only reason she hasn’t passed on is because she must change something about her fate—not her death, but someone else’s. Playing out different iterations of Cupid Day also allows Sam to grapple with the stages of grief: denial that the day will end her life; anger at Lindsay for bullying her before she joined their clique, spurring her on to hang out with other students she had written off; bargaining to save her own life; depression, which manifests in uncharacteristic recklessness; and, finally, acceptance. —NZ
Doctor Who takes on this plot by refusing to let you in on the time loop secret during your first go-round. Following Clara Oswald’s seeming death, the Doctor finds himself in an empty castle where a mysterious creature known as the Veil stalks him as he tries to makes sense of the place. Clues in the castle direct him to room 12, where there is a wall of Azbantium, a substance 400 times harder than diamonds. It is eventually revealed that the Doctor has left a message for himself in this maze; the word “bird” drawn in the sand next to the teleportation chamber he arrived in, a reference to the Brothers Grimm tale “The Shepherd Boy,” where a bird wears down a mountain with its beak. The Doctor keeps dying after being touched by the Veil, only to reconstitute himself via the teleportation chamber, make his way back to room 12, and continue punching his way through the Azbantium wall over the course of several billion years. After all that time, he breaks through the wall and finally emerges on Gallifrey, having taken “the long way around” to find his way home. —EAP
After marrying virtual reality with Dungeons & Dragons-esque fantasy in User Unfriendly, Vivian Vande Velde throws in a dash of video game commentary in this 2002 book set in the same universe and starring Giannine, one of the members of the prior book’s Rasmussem, Inc. campaign. This time, she’s been gifted a certificate to try out a single-player VR experience at one of Rasmussem’s gaming centers, instead of in the comfort of her own basement. In the game Heir Apparent, she is the illegitimate heir of a dead king, who has left her the throne over her three half-brothers. As Janine de St. Jehan, she must survive three days of game time to make it to her coronation. Giannine promptly starts the game and gets cut down.
Heir Apparent is a cheeky riff on video games with infinite lives, where the player must retread the same digital ground over and over, learning the quirks of cliff jumps or nabbing power-ups, where death is simply one step backward. Until, that is, a well-meaning group of “concerned citizens” breaks into the Rasmussem center and destroys the game’s failsafe… meaning that Giannine, neurally hooked up to the game, will suffer brain damage if she disconnects or if she doesn’t solve the game quickly enough. Suddenly, she doesn’t have the safety net of dying every time she crosses paths with a werewolf prince or fails to recite a poem that fails to satisfy the the saint statue guarding a powerful ring.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different outcome. In that case, you could call Giannine and her fellow gamers insane—until, that is, they hit upon that one little change that restores their sanity. While Giannine’s time loop doesn’t alter her character as drastically as Phil Connors’ or even Tree’s, Heir Apparent still lets her play out real-life frustrations—namely, her strained relationship with her father—in a virtual landscape and work toward mending her actual existence. —NZ
What are your favorite time loops in SFF?
After months of steady progress, NASA’s Curiosity rover has reached the top of Vera Rubin Ridge. And like the good mountain climber that it is, the rover took the opportunity to look around and bask in the view from up high. The resulting panorama—stitched together from 16 individual photos—is one of the most…
Simon Rogers, a data journalist and data editor at Google, created a series of maps showing the regional popularity of certain kinds of restaurant.
An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Verge: Americans are saving energy because they don't go outside as much anymore, researchers say. It's a plus for the environment, though in another light (no pun intended), it's just sad. In 2012, Americans spent an extra eight days at home compared to 2003, according to the American Time Use Surveys. Being at home means using more energy by keeping the lights on and watching TV. But it also means less travel, and it means that fewer people are outside operating offices and stores. So overall in 2012, we saved 1,700 trillion British thermal units (BTU) of heat, or 1.8 percent of the national total, according to an analysis published today in the journal Joule. That's about how much energy Kentucky produced in all of 2015. Specifically in 2012, Americans spent one day less traveling and one week less in buildings other than their homes when compared to a decade earlier. The trend of staying indoors is especially strong for those ages 18 to 24: the youths spent 70 percent more time at home than the general population. At the other end of the age spectrum, those 65 and older were the only group that spent more time outside the home compared to 2003. Next, the researchers want to look at energy consumption changes in other countries as a result of lifestyle changes.
Read more of this story at Slashdot.
Burger King's video on "Whopper Neutrality" (see Carla's earlier post) -- an analogy to explain Net Neutrality that's also obviously a marketing campaign for Burger King -- is a surprisingly great explainer, but even more importantly, it's an important bellwether for corporate America's perception of public support for Net Neutrality. (more…)
Chris Notap bought some cheap hole-cutting bits on eBay and tried them out on a pane of glass, a mason jar, a ceramic bathroom tile, a mirror, and a coffee mug. The results are nice.
By using this mental trick developed by mathematician John H. Conway, you can figure out the day of the week for any date, past or future, in a few seconds with just one hand. And no, that one hand is not looking to Google for the answer.
It uses an algorithm he devised called the Doomsday Rule:
[It draws] inspiration from Lewis Carroll's perpetual calendar algorithm. It takes advantage of each year having a certain day of the week, called the doomsday, upon which certain easy-to-remember dates fall; for example, 4/4, 6/6, 8/8, 10/10, 12/12, and the last day of February all occur on the same day of the week in any year. Applying the Doomsday algorithm involves three steps:
Determination of the anchor day for the century.
Calculation of the doomsday for the year from the anchor day.
Selection of the closest date out of those that always fall on the doomsday, e.g., 4/4 and 6/6, and count of the number of days (modulo 7) between that date and the date in question to arrive at the day of the week.
This technique applies to both the Gregorian calendar A.D. and the Julian calendar, although their doomsdays are usually different days of the week.
Here's the video's "cheatsheet" if you want to give it a go.
Bitcoin's price swings are so huge that even ransomware developers are dialling back their reliance on the currency, according to researchers at cybersecurity firm Proofpoint. From a report: Over the last quarter of 2017, researchers saw a fall of 73% in payment demands denominated in bitcoin. When demanding money to unlock a victim's data, cybercriminals are now more likely to simply ask for a figure in US dollars, or a local currency, than specify a sum of bitcoin. Just like conventional salespeople, ransomware developers pay careful attention to the prices they charge. Some criminals offer discounts depending on the region the victim is in, offering cheaper unlocking to residents of developing nations, while others use an escalating price to encourage users to pay quickly and without overthinking things. But a rapidly oscillating bitcoin price plays havoc with those goals, Proofpoint says.
Read more of this story at Slashdot.
Cracked Labs' massive report on online surveillance by corporations dissects all the different ways in which our digital lives are tracked, from the ad-beacons that follow us around the web to the apps that track our physical locations as we move around the world. (more…)
Pianist Scott Bradlee gives the old ragtime treatment to Super Mario Bros. It's as if the music was always meant to be played that way.
Here's the obligatory death metal version from the Bowser Castle music: https://youtu.be/NBgMk4X9MzA
A reporter's suggestion prompts a startup executive to create a browser extension that adds the words "on the blockchain" to every sentence.
< munin> my brother in law sent my wife and i an e-mail telling us there was an iron golem on the roof and not to provoke it
< munin> i thought he was doing lsd for a few minutes until i remembered he was talking about our minecraft house
It’s no great secret that R2-D2 is the real hero of Star Wars. In fact, that might be the fandom’s favorite joke of the past four decades—everyone would be dead, multiple times over, without that rolling trash can’s help. Same goes for C-3PO, if we take into account how Artoo relies on him to redirect the bad guys with his babbling and multitude of diplomatic excuses.
But the truth of the matter is a bit uglier than that. Because the only reason that R2-D2 is capable of helping in the first place is because he’s treated like a person… instead of an expensive piece of hardware.
It’s pretty clear, even on a first viewing, that the Star Wars universe doesn’t treat droids well. They are bought and sold like computers rather than beings with clear personalities, preferences, and desires. They are ordered en masse as aids, weapons, and soldiers in wartime. Humans and aliens have the ability to control them with restraining bolts, and the permission to wipe the minds of droids as they see fit; this could be used to prevent them from recalling sensitive events and information, or to stop a droid from developing an entrenched personality which could potentially cause problems for their owners. It’s common to treat them as tools, to the point that droids themselves have internalized the abuse—many models will speak ill of droids they consider beneath them, and we even witness droid-on-droid torture in Jabba the Hutt’s palace on Tatooine.
But droids are desperately needed here. In this strange retrograde vision of the future-past where ships can travel at lightspeed and people fight with weird ray guns and laserswords, droids are the only thing keeping everything running smoothly. They perform ship maintenance, they communicate across platforms, they carry around documents and schematics, they have internal keys and software that allow them into most systems across the galaxy. Having a droid (or droids plural) is essentially like having your own personal hacker, replete with a library’s worth of untold useful facts and figures. Especially astromech droids; these multitools of the universe can do everything from basic piloting to skillful repairs to database download and alteration.
Is it strange that the Star Wars galaxy runs this way? You bet. But it’s the only system they’ve got, and it means that having the right droid copilot absolutely stands between you and victory.
Hilariously, a huge portion of the galaxy hasn’t managed to figure this out.
This attitude stretches back throughout the ages, and is particularly a problem where the Jedi are concerned. In the Clone Wars television series and indeed the prequels, Anakin Skywalker gets tons of flak for treating Artoo like a friend instead of a machine around his fellow knights. Obi-Wan and Mace Wind are adamant about this—they both care deeply for organic sentient creatures, but applying that sentience to a droid is ridiculous as far as they’re concerned. And this creates an iffy sticking point as to why the Jedi didn’t feel the need to abstain from a lengthy galactic war in which they played generals to the clone army; the Jedi were sent across the galaxy to obliterate armies of droids. As they were not destroying anything “living” in those battles, they didn’t not perceive any problem with that arrangement. This is somewhat distressing the when it is made clear in the very same series that the battledroids are often cognizant that they are about to be murdered; they show clear concern when they see that a Jedi has shown up in battle and occasionally run away when they’re about to be dismantled.
Given the chance to exist without memory wipes, droids develop distinct personalities, and even show psychological distress similar to humans and aliens throughout the galaxy. In Star Wars: Rebels, we meet Chopper, Hera’s astromech pal and very first shipmate on her freighter the Ghost. Chopper and Hera met when she dragged him from the wreckage of his Republic Y-Wing; he crashed on her home planet of Ryloth during a Clone War battle. Chopper is a war hero and is willing to say as much to strangers when they ask about his past. But he has hangups about the old Y-Wing bombers; when forced to get into one as his friends liberate a squad of them for the Rebel Alliance, he panics and tries to run away. On a trip back to Hera’s home on Ryloth, he encounters the wreckage of the fighter he crashed in and freezes in front of it, clearly distressed and hypnotized by the sight. In short, Chopper shows every sign of having Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. If a droid is capable of retaining mental trauma from past events, they is really no question about whether or not they should be treated like sentients.
The Separatists, the Empire, and the First Order all have poor track records when it comes to treating any non-human with even basic decency, to say nothing of empathy. The Empire in particular has a track record of enslaving other races, so it’s hardly surprising that they would fail to view droids as worthy of consideration. But the detriment of this philosophy becomes plain as binary sun daylight when you realize all it has cost them—Chopper being a perfect exhibit in that regard. The old astromech’s friendship and affinity for Hera makes him an indispensable part of her crew, particularly whenever they need Imperial intel. Chopper frequently allows fellow shipmate Sabine to paint him in the Empire’s colors and they walk him onto countless Star Destroyers and bases to slip into the enemy’s databases, look for captured friends, and confuse their foes as they make escapes. Agent Kallus, an Imperial defector, actually makes a point of acknowledging how the Empire’s disregard for droids is putting them at a comical disadvantage, bemused by Chopper’s ability to slip in anywhere unseen.
The only reason that R2-D2 and C-3PO make it off the Tantive IV is because no one imagines that this odd couple would be carrying the Death Star plans. Princess Leia knows this—it’s precisely why she hands them off to Artoo in the first place. In fact, you could take this one step further and suggest that this is also half the reason why Artoo prefers to have his buddy Threepio around; he’s innocuous enough on his own, but once you pair him with someone as garish and nervous as the protocol droid, it’s extremely hard to believe that he could be doing anything covert. If you don’t think Artoo is canny enough for that (heh heh, canny), consider how expertly he maneuvers Threepio’s reassuring candor to get his restraining bolt removed by Luke once the duo are bought by Owen Lars.
That’s right, R2-D2 uses your droid prejudices to his advantage. He’s the long-running master of this game.
Years later, the bad guys are still undervaluing droids: when BB-8 accompanies Finn, Rose, and DJ onto Supreme Leader Snoke’s ship in The Last Jedi, they drop a big black box over him, and he does a passable imitation of an oversized mouse droid as he tags along. The only reason they’re noticed? Another droid spots BB-8’s disguise. No humans on the First Order flagship catch wind of this very strange model rolling along behind Finn, it takes another BB unit to spot the error. And even after Finn and Rose are caught, no one thinks to nab their droid. No one so much as marks its absence as Finn and Rose are hauled off to be executed. This gargantuan blindspot is precisely what allows BB-8 to later climb into a walker and help Finn and Rose escape. Nothing in this universe has changed, not even after all these years. The droids may have gotten a little smarter—as evidenced by BB-9E noticing that something is amiss—but the people are as blind as ever.
Even the heroes have their own prejudices to overcome in this regard. Most of the Ghost crew need to be reminded of Chopper’s usefulness now and again (granted, that’s partly due to the fact that Chopper is also an expert troll and endearing pain in the butt). Leia tries to hurry Threepio up during a mission in Star Wars: Bloodline and is shocked when the protocol droid reluctantly informs her that he’s having to deal with an excess of information from a rather chatty and lonely computer… reminding Leia once again of Threepio’s own sentience. Poe insists that BB-8 is “one of a kind,” perhaps indicating that he believes that his droid is better than anyone else’s, though the Resistance pilot clearly thinks of his droid like a child or beloved pet, so some of that pride is inevitable.
And then there is perhaps the most upsetting example of the “good guys” disregarding the sentience of their droid counterparts: Cassian Andor’s enlistment of former Imperial security droid K-2SO. Kaytoo started out as a drone with no seeming personhood whatsoever—it is Cassian’s reprogramming that leads to his subsequent personality quirks and sentience. And though Kaytoo is loyal to his friend, he clearly values his autonomy on a certain level, to the point of deliberately disobeying orders just to prove that he can, now that he is no longer Imperial property. It makes his comment to Jyn before their departure from Yavin 4—“I’ll be there for you, Jyn…. Cassian said I had to.”—upsetting even while it’s humorous. K-2SO sacrifices his life for Cassian and Jyn, but we never know how much it would have meant to him to have truly been given the choice by the human who mattered most to him. After all, he’s not like R2-D2 and C-3PO, who have been hanging around the same family for generations. He just got here.
There’s still no question about it. If the “bad guys” of Star Wars actually bothered to think of droids as sentient beings worthy of attention and consideration, they’d have won every single war. It wouldn’t have been difficult either; just let their own droids develop personalities and treat them like crew and soldiers and operatives. Listen to what they have to say, particularly when they make note of some weird droid hanging around a datacore.
Guess we should just be real grateful that they never thought of that.
Most readers here have likely heard or read various prognostications about the impending doom from the proliferation of poorly-secured “Internet of Things” or IoT devices. Loosely defined as any gadget or gizmo that connects to the Internet but which most consumers probably wouldn’t begin to know how to secure, IoT encompasses everything from security cameras, routers and digital video recorders to printers, wearable devices and “smart” lightbulbs.
Throughout 2016 and 2017, attacks from massive botnets made up entirely of hacked IoT devices had many experts warning of a dire outlook for Internet security. But the future of IoT doesn’t have to be so bleak. Here’s a primer on minimizing the chances that your IoT things become a security liability for you or for the Internet at large.
-Rule #1: Avoid connecting your devices directly to the Internet — either without a firewall or in front it, by poking holes in your firewall so you can access them remotely. Putting your devices in front of your firewall is generally a bad idea because many IoT products were simply not designed with security in mind and making these things accessible over the public Internet could invite attackers into your network. If you have a router, chances are it also comes with a built-in firewall. Keep your IoT devices behind the firewall as best you can.
-Rule #2: If you can, change the thing’s default credentials to a complex password that only you will know and can remember. And if you do happen to forget the password, it’s not the end of the world: Most devices have a recessed reset switch that can be used to restore to the thing to its factory-default settings (and credentials). Here’s some advice on picking better ones.
I say “if you can,” at the beginning of Rule #2 because very often IoT devices — particularly security cameras and DVRs — are so poorly designed from a security perspective that even changing the default password to the thing’s built-in Web interface does nothing to prevent the things from being reachable and vulnerable once connected to the Internet.
Also, many of these devices are found to have hidden, undocumented “backdoor” accounts that attackers can use to remotely control the devices. That’s why Rule #1 is so important.
-Rule #3: Update the firmware. Hardware vendors sometimes make available security updates for the software that powers their consumer devices (known as “firmware). It’s a good idea to visit the vendor’s Web site and check for any firmware updates before putting your IoT things to use, and to check back periodically for any new updates.
Want to know if something has poked a hole in your router’s firewall? Censys has a decent scanner that may give you clues about any cracks in your firewall. Browse to whatismyipaddress.com, then cut and paste the resulting address into the text box at Censys.io, select “IPv4 hosts” from the drop-down menu, and hit “search.”
If that sounds too complicated (or if your ISP’s addresses are on Censys’s blacklist) check out Steve Gibson‘s Shield’s Up page, which features a point-and-click tool that can give you information about which network doorways or “ports” may be open or exposed on your network. A quick Internet search on exposed port number(s) can often yield useful results indicating which of your devices may have poked a hole.
If you run antivirus software on your computer, consider upgrading to a “network security” or “Internet security” version of these products, which ship with more full-featured software firewalls that can make it easier to block traffic going into and out of specific ports.
Alternatively, Glasswire is a useful tool that offers a full-featured firewall as well as the ability to tell which of your applications and devices are using the most bandwidth on your network. Glasswire recently came in handy to help me determine which application was using gigabytes worth of bandwidth each day (it turned out to be a version of Amazon Music’s software client that had a glitchy updater).
-Rule #5: Avoid IoT devices that advertise Peer-to-Peer (P2P) capabilities built-in. P2P IoT devices are notoriously difficult to secure, and research has repeatedly shown that they can be reachable even through a firewall remotely over the Internet because they’re configured to continuously find ways to connect to a global, shared network so that people can access them remotely. For examples of this, see previous stories here, including This is Why People Fear the Internet of Things, and Researchers Find Fresh Fodder for IoT Attack Cannons.
-Rule #6: Consider the cost. Bear in mind that when it comes to IoT devices, cheaper usually is not better. There is no direct correlation between price and security, but history has shown the devices that tend to be toward the lower end of the price ranges for their class tend to have the most vulnerabilities and backdoors, with the least amount of vendor upkeep or support.
In the wake of last month’s guilty pleas by several individuals who created Mirai — one of the biggest IoT malware threats ever — the U.S. Justice Department released a series of tips on securing IoT devices.
One final note: I realize that the people who probably need to be reading these tips the most likely won’t ever know they need to care enough to act on them. But at least by taking proactive steps, you can reduce the likelihood that your IoT things will contribute to the global IoT security problem.
There’s a saying, attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, that says “you cannot step in the same river twice.” It’s a quote I’ve been thinking about a lot about since watching (and re-watching, and re-watching) The Last Jedi.
A lot has been said about the latest Star Wars film and its relationship to the past. Some people are firmly of the mindset that The Last Jedi ruined what’s come before, in terms of key elements like our understanding of the Force to the treatment of Luke Skywalker. Others say that the film marks an important pivot for the franchise as it respectfully moves away from its long, detailed history and charts a new future. Still others contend that nostalgia is a dangerous thing, and the purpose of The Last Jedi was to gleefully destroy everything that’s come before it.
While I certainly believe that two of these interpretations are wildly inaccurate, I’m not here to throw my own opinion into that fray, even though, after my first viewing, my feelings about what The Last Jedi accomplished were very confused. Like all of Rian Johnson’s movies, The Last Jedi is remarkably dense, and that density is only made heavier by the baggage that all of us Star Wars fans bring to each and every one of these films (myself included). It took some effort, and a good amount of thought, for me to strip away my own preconceptions of what Star Wars is and should be in order to read The Last Jedi as a text that exists outside of myself. When I did, I realized the central point of the story was simple—
The only way out is forward.
[Beware spoilers ahead!]
The Last Jedi, without a doubt, is engaged in an interesting conversation with the past. And that conversation is defined by how almost every character in the film is trapped by being forced into doing what’s already come before. For example: in her actions (which carry over from The Force Awakens), Leia is literally repeating what she’s already done before, sending out a desperate call to the galaxy’s last remaining Jedi. She might as well as have instructed Rey to say, “Help me Luke Skywalker, you’re my only hope.” It’s with intention, of course, that R2-D2’s signature message is played to Luke; everyone is expecting him to be this lone savior, even though the very notion is ridiculous—and Luke knows it.
“You think I’m going to walk out there with a laser sword and take down the entire First Order?” he asks Rey. And Rey, for her part, would have answered yes had she been given the chance, because that’s exactly what she’d been told—more or less—that Luke was supposed to do. It’s what we, as the audience, expect him to do. We expect Luke to rise to the occasion, we expect him to train Rey and pass down the mantle the way Yoda and Obi-Wan passed it to Luke. And we’re not wrong for thinking that way. Not only is that mythology baked into the Star Wars story, but The Force Awakens pretty much created the conditions for this expectation—amongst other expectations—to be formed.
Put plainly: Just like the characters, we as an audience expected the past to happen again. But that can’t be. On the most fundamental level, if the past was worth reenacting, that means the past had gotten it right—otherwise, why go back to it? But the past wasn’t perfect, nor should we expect it to be. The past gave the galaxy the First Order and Kylo Ren; it gave the galaxy a Resistance that wasn’t strong enough, wasn’t inspiring enough to rally a single ally to its side in its most desperate hour. Does that diminish everything that had been accomplished previously? Of course not. Everything that Luke, Leia, Han, Lando, and the entire Rebellion achieved still stands; they are, and always will be, heroes. But they weren’t perfect, and to try and recreate the past’s triumphs is also to recreate their mistakes. That’s where the beating heart of The Last Jedi lies, in understanding that the greatest power is in finding your own way, and not trying to repeat what’s already been done.
This power is markedly contrasted by Kylo Ren and Snoke, who fetishize the past more than anyone else in the film. Snoke is obsessed with fashioning himself into Emperor Palpatine 2.0. He keeps guards who are knockoffs of the emperor’s royal guards; he goes through unimaginable lengths to transform Ben Solo into his own version of Darth Vader; and he’s so obsessed with destroying Luke Skywalker—one man—that the very plot he enacts to learn his enemy’s location leads to his downfall. A lot of people have argued about Snoke’s treatment, and how viewers were robbed by not being told how he became so powerful and started the First Order. Contesting that, other fans have argued that Snoke’s history doesn’t matter because we know as much about him as we knew about Palpatine in the original trilogy. I say something different: I say we don’t need to know anything about Snoke because there’s nothing to know. He’s nothing more than a facsimile of the past; that is who he is. That’s what’s more salient to the point of the film—not his power, but his weakness. And his weakness is in wanting to do what’s already been done and refusing to learn from someone—Palpatine—who failed.
Kylo Ren is similarly trapped in this toxic relationship with what’s come before. Sure, he claims he wants to “let the past die,” but that’s only to the end of making the past his own, similar to Snoke. He wants to continue the same power cycle. It doesn’t matter that Vader turned good and the Empire was defeated; he doesn’t want to see the past’s failures, he only wants to idolize it and repeat it. Ren wants to destroy the past the same way Vader does when he tries to convince Luke to join him in overthrowing the Empire—neither wanted to create anything new; they wanted to do the same thing, maintain the status quo, just with them in charge. And then, inevitably, someone else would usurp them, and so on and so on. It’s no accident that, when Hux discovers that Snoke’s dead (killed by his apprentice—literally the same way Palpatine met his end), he’s forced to say, in so many words, “The Supreme Leader’s dead, long live the Supreme Leader.” Because not a single thing has changed. Not really.
But our heroes, on the other hand, learn not to reject the past—they learn to embrace it, warts and all, and carve a new path forward. “We are what they grow beyond,” Yoda tells Luke, and it’s a message that speaks to mentor and student, past and future. We never want our students, our children, to become what we already were. We want them to grow and evolve, and the only way to do so is by being honest about the mistakes that were made. It’s the lesson Luke learns in understanding that just because the past was wrong in some ways doesn’t mean it needs to be completely discarded; just because he made a mistake doesn’t mean that he has nothing left to offer. Embracing the past, all of it, is the only way to grow.
Similarly, it’s the lesson Rey learns in relinquishing the belief that the identity of her parents somehow defines who she’s supposed to be, who she can be. She’s not limited to that, nor is she limited to reenacting the same tropes that have already been played out by others. Rey already has everything she needs, Yoda tells us, and by the end of the film, we see someone who is no longer looking to Luke to reveal her purpose, no longer looking to Kylo Ren to have a change of heart and save the galaxy (just like Luke and Vader); she’s no longer looking to the past to instruct her future. She—and the newly reborn Rebellion—are free to make their own triumphs and, inevitably, their own mistakes.
In all of this, The Last Jedi delivers a profound message that helps us understand that part of what makes evil evil is its refusal to evolve—its refusal to accept new ideas, new ways of doing things. Rather, it wants to replicate what’s come before, not knowing that you can never step in the same river twice. The river has changed; it has moved on. Luckily, the heroes learn this lesson, and they’ve stepped out of the river and toward new terrain.
The first intriguing findings have been released from the Dark Energy Survey, a project that's studying the sky to find clues about the mysterious force that seems to be accelerating the expansion of the universe. And among the data is the discovery of 11 new stellar streams, the remains of smaller galaxies that our own Milky Way has torn to shreds... Continue Reading Dark Energy Survey spots remains of 11 galaxies devoured by the Milky Way
I initially felt bad for Tony Giles when I watched his story on the BBC Travel Show. I caught the episode part way through and saw him walk right into a turnstile while crossing a security checkpoint into Palestinian territories. Giles, from England, is completely blind and severely deaf, but he travels all over the world by himself and occasionally stumbles into people willing to guide him a bit.
When I found out he’s visited over 120 countries, including all seven continents and every state in the US, I realized I don’t feel sorry for Giles. I’m jealous of him and I’ll continue to feel sorry for myself. Giles can make any argument his disabilities limit him from traveling or excuse himself from any barrier at all. We’d all understand. Yet, he’s experienced things people probably don’t even waste time dreaming about.
Photos on Giles’ personal website show him taking a mud bath near the side of the Dalyan River in Turkey and playing the kora in Senegal. I assume many of us, disabled or non-disabled, would come up with hundreds of reasons why we couldn’t travel and explore the world. Giles just does it.