Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Best Movie of All Time: “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”

My personal choice for best movie of all time is Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Many would say that the best movie of all time is, by definition, Citizen Kane, that the matter is no longer even open for debate. And make no mistake, I think Citizen Kane is a fine movie. It was expertly done, tells a good story, and was a source of substantial innovation. But I don't join the bandwagon of people who say it's the best movie of all time.

There are also a lot of people who will rank Wrath of Khan at the top of SciFi movies, but I disagree with limiting it that way. I do not mean to say here something so trivial as that I like SciFi movies, Wrath of Khan is the SciFi movie I like best, and therefore clearly it must be the best. Rather, I mean to say that I watch all kinds of movies, and that this is simply “the best.”

First of all, the story is a powerful story. It is full of timeless themes: the quest for adventure, the defense of family, matters of youth and aging, anger, revenge, sacrifice, and even technology at its worst and best.

Wrath of Khan managed to do what Star Trek: The Motion Picture had previously attempted and failed. It took the soul of a well-loved television series and brought it back onto the screen. That was itself quite a landmark. In so doing, it changed the endgame for the television series forever and established the notion of television as multimedia franchise opportunity.

But more than that, it was transformational in a different way. Before this movie, the standard model for beloved characters appearing in movie sequels was like James Bond or Superman, where the character never aged even if the actor did. Aging was not spoken of. Actors were replaced when used up. Wrath of Khan went where none had gone before. They used the time that had elapsed between the television episodes and the movies to their advantage. This movie broke the taboo on aging and did what Star Trek as a TV show had been famous for, it made it ok to talk about something that previously people had only danced around.

Ironically, Citizen Kane was praised for its innovative use of special make-up effects to allow actors to appear to age. One thing that Wrath of Khan does the best is make innovative use of not making people up, or at least not overly, and instead using the actual aging as raw material. So I would say these two masterpieces share in common their having made important innovations, even if in very different ways, in the big screen portrayal of aging.

Khan had been a powerful superman kind of character in the TV show to which this movie was sequel. Rather than either get a new actor or pretend there was no aging, the movie capitalized on the length of time in order to underscore the degree to which time can intensify an emotion. Khan's hatred of Kirk has simmered for far too long, and the result is powerful. But Kirk's friendship with Spock and McCoy and Scotty has also continued over the years, and the power of that friendship is likewise drawn onto the screen. The actors' fears of being old, of being put out to pasture, and their struggle to stay relevant is capitalized upon in order to play Star Fleet officers with exactly the same set of concerns.

The movie was also a transformation in other ways. On the show, one always knew that as the hour closed, things would get better. Even people who had died during the show were often brought back to life. But in the movies, it was not so clear. No one ever quite knew if there was to be another movie. There is a definite feeling of “playing for keeps” in this movie that leaves television behind and forces us to grow up, all of a sudden, and to boldly go where we have feared to go before. As Kirk admits he has always only cheated death—and never really faced it—he brings us to a new understanding of the words “final frontier.” He faces problems we all must face, and in the best tradition of the television series, he brings us along to witness and learn from his experience.

The movie is also well-paced, and full of history-making special effects. For example, the movie-within-a-movie of the Genesis Project was the first ever fully-computer-generated movie sequence. And, aptly enough, the production of this movie shared in common with the Genesis device it portrayed the fact that it was a one-way ticket into the future—once released it could not be undone; the sequence itself was too expensive to redo, and yet it was also unpredictable so no one knew how it would come out until they saw it in action! It had to just be tried to find out how it would work. (Proof of this claim is easily visible in the movie if you watch carefully where the viewer's viewpoint, or “camera,” follows around the equator of the quickly evolving planet and at one point accidentally passes through a mountain rather than over it. The creators couldn't go back to refilm it, so at the last moment on the screen a hand-drawn valley is opened up for the “camera” to miraculously pass through. It's easy to spot once it's pointed out. One could easily call this detail a flaw, but I find that it is more of a badge of honor that helps to underscore the truly revolutionary nature of the computation that was done to create this sequence.)

Performances by Shatner, Nimoy, and Montalbán are top-notch. The movie is well-paced and uses a nice mix of serious and humorous elements. It builds on the TV series but does not require that; knowledge of the series merely gives the viewer's understanding a bit more texture.

The plot begins with abstract ethical dilemmas posed by the Kobayashi Maru test used for training in Star Fleet Academy and leads quickly into real life dilemmas, culiminating in Spock's personal solution to the Kobayashi Maru toward the end. It shows us honor, sacrifice, and even hope in a way that is simply hard to top. It goes, quite literally, light years beyond Citizen Kane.

Author's Note: If you got value from this post, please “Share” it.

Originally published February 18, 2009 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): not citizen kane, best movie, best picture, favorite movie, all time, entertainment, open call

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Tax Policy and the Dewey Decimal System

I’ve been thinking about the question of how to equitably distribute tax burden in society.

100’s  Philosophy
200’s  Myths & Religion
300’s  Social Science
400’s  Language
500’s  Science
600’s  Technology
700’s  Arts & Recreation
800’s  Literature
900’s  Geography & History

It may help you to know I'm a serious fan of the Dewey Decimal System not just for its ability to classify books in a library, but for the underlying philosophy that led to its categories. I don't even 100% agree with the categories that resulted—I just like the thought process Dewey went through in order to arrive at the categories.

Melvil Dewey conceived of an ordered series of questions that primitive man must have asked as he evolved socially, intellectually, and culturally from a cave dweller to a citizen of civilized society.

100’s  Who am I?
200’s  Who made me?
300’s  Who is the man in the next cave?
400’s  How can I make that man understand me?
500’s  How can I understand nature and the world about me?
600’s  How can I use what I know about nature?
700’s  How can I enjoy my leisure time?
800’s  How can I give my children a record of man’s historic deeds?
900’s  How can I leave a record for men of the future?

When trying to wrap my head around a conceptual space, particularly one that involves a series or evolution of steps, I sometimes find myself reaching for Dewey's list of questions to use as a kind of conceptual scaffolding while I try to devise something better to use. And that's what I found myself doing in this case.

One's economic life, it seems to me, follows a structurally similar evolutionary path to the one Dewey describes. Admittedly, some go to college and some don't. Some start families and some don't. So the details will differ. And even for the shared issues, we might each confront them in a different order. But that was true for Dewey's system, too. So use your imagination and you'll quickly see where I'm going.

We start life with our parents taking care of us, asking questions like this:

Hey, Mom, where‘s my lunch money?
How can I afford an iPod on my tiny allowance?
How am I ever going to afford college?
How can I get a job that pays enough for me to live on my own?

Finally we break free and set out on our own, struggling at first to become self-sufficient:

How can I afford an apartment?
How can I make enough money to buy groceries?
How can I afford to buy new clothes?
How can I pay for transportation to and from work?
How can I afford to pay my college loans?

It's a good feeling to get these items under control, but it's not enough. Yes, paying for the basics is good, but we're still at the point of being hand to mouth, with no margin for error. We still have to plan for contingencies. If we can't handle those, we're only kidding ourselves in our belief that we're self-sufficient:

Heat costs how much? How will I ever afford that?
Hey, my car broke down. I was supposed to budget for that?
How can I afford that medical treatment?
Wait a minute. I can't afford to be unemployed. What now?
While still repaying college loans, I have to re-educate myself?
What if I'm unable to work later in life?

If we're lucky, we do eventually rise above it, but often it takes a long time. Ideally, though, once the above items are mastered, we start to have surplus income and can finally turn our attention from needs to wants:

How can I repay those who have been helping me?
How can I make enough money to afford an iPhone?
How can I make enough money to afford cable TV?
How can I afford to go on a vacation?

At this same time, we may begin nesting:

How can I afford to buy a house?
Can I afford to have a family?
How can I afford to feed, clothe, and house my family?
How can I survive the loss of a job without putting my family at risk?
Can I assure my children go to college?

Or our world may expand in other ways:

How can I help my friends?
How can I afford to contribute to charities?
Can I employ others by by starting my own business?

My point here is to portray life as a continuum from helping ourselves to helping others. And finally now with that in mind I can make some of the points I wanted to make.

First, it should be obvious that the first and most important thing each of us can do to help society is to eliminate society's need to help us. If we are not self-sufficient, we cannot help others.

I mention this because I've sneakily omitted taxation from the above lists of questions. This is because I want to make a point about where taxation is appropriate. It seems obvious to me that presently we tax people before they are able to help themselves. And I just don't see the point of that.

Taxing lower income people delays the time in their lives at which they can be self-sufficient. It also introduces inefficiency into the system: The entire process of taxation expends societal energy that is simply lost productivity. Taxing our weakest members is silly since they'll just turn around and ask for the money back—and the process of getting that money back to them will use up some of the money. Our tax revenue should come only from genuine individual surpluses.

And by surplus I don't just mean that people should have a few dollars left in their paycheck to go to taxes. I mean that everyone should try to fill a savings account with $100,000 for emergencies. If they haven't got that, and most people don't, then they aren't ready for the kinds of major expenses life is sure to dish out—unemployment, illnesses, accidents, retirement. Once they've provided for those, then they can begin generating a surplus.

They should be filling that account before they get to the point where they are allowed to pay taxes. Paying taxes should be seen as a privilege, a status symbol, something people aspire to do as part of their personal growth.

Of course, that might not leave a lot of taxpayers. What a burden that will be on those who are able to take care of themselves. Darn. That's awful. We hear all the time about how the economic system is not a zero-sum game, and how it's possible for someone to get rich and for others to do well. Fine, let's see it played out.

If the wealthy want to be taxed less, they should arrange for society to enrich as many others as possible, in order to have friends who share the “burden” of taxation. If enough people make a decent enough wage to achieve a surplus, it won't be so lonely at the top. If instead the present trend continues, concentrating the wealth in an ever-shrinking portion of the population, those few wealthy should expect to pay a steep price for membership in that elite club, because the rest of us can't afford to help pay the taxes until we can afford to take care of ourselves.

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Author's Note: Originally published February 17, 2009 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): taxes open call, jobs, retraining, unemployment, illness, accident, rich, wealthy, wealth, low-income, poor, tax burden, wealth redistribution, income redistribution, medical emergencies, retirement, tuition, college, education, finances, politics

Friday, February 13, 2009

What Love Endures

[story/poem in 150 characters by Kent Pitman]


This is not a traditional-style Valentine’s Day poem.

I originally wrote this as prose, years ago, for submission to another forum, one that had solicited for various categories of extremely short stories, including a call for stories of no more than 150 characters. This one uses 146 characters, just so you don’t have to count. My submission was rejected by the editors of that other forum, and I shelved it for a time.

As I finally publish it, I thought perhaps the juxtaposition of today (Friday the 13th of February, 2009) and tomorrow (Valentine’s Day) would offer readers a chance to reflect on the notion that not all love stories are played out with chocolate hearts and red roses.

To my surprise, a friend who once previewed this work referred to it as a poem rather than a short story. On reflection, I decided that almost anything so textually short was at risk of being thought of in such a way. Rather than fight it, I embraced the idea and broke the lines in free verse style. But you may refer to it either way, as prose or poem, with my thanks for taking the time to read it at all.

By the way, the photo and artistic composition are my own work as well.

Author's Note: If you got value from this post, please “Share” it.

Originally published February 13, 2009 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): love, caring, poem, poetry, raped, aftermath of rape, rape aftermath, emotional scars, emotional scars, rape survivor, sex, intimacy, strained, difficult, pain

Monday, February 2, 2009

Fiduciary Duty vs. The Three Laws of Robotics

In our society, those entrusted with control of a corporation are bound by a fiduciary duty to the stockholders. This duty is paramount and cannot be ignored to suit the personal morals or conscience of those who exercise the control; any attempt to follow personal conscience over stockholder rights might potentially be regarded as a breach of fiduciary responsibility.

“A fiduciary must not put himself in a position where his interest and duty conflict.”

As a consequence of this rule, corporations often behave in a way that favors the survival of the company at the expense of individuals. (Although, as Greenspan alluded to in his shocked near-apology in October 2008, there are nuances even within attempts to do well by the company, since issues like short term vs. long term success can matter.) But no matter how you slice it, employees are necessarily way down on the list of concerns that a company has, because a company is worried about its own survival first, not about its employees’ survival. Corporations, by design, care primarily about one thing: themselves and their own survival; all other considerations are secondary.

It’s a curious and controversial aspect of law that corporations are also permitted to operate as legal persons This gives them some of the rights of human beings, sometimes called natural persons to distinguish themselves from—well,—other kinds of persons. For example, legal persons are able to own property, enter into contracts, and be involved as parties to lawsuits.

It seems like almost the stuff of science fiction, having people who are not really people. Humans often express a reasonable and well-placed concern about the concept of human-like entities moving in and among us, but without ethics, morals, or scruples. It’s the reason Isaac Asimov suggested his Three Laws of Robotics, a set of rules he felt should be incorporated (pardon the pun) at a low level in all robots, assuring their ethical participation in society.

The Three Laws of Robotics

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

  2. A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

   —Isaac Asimov

But, unfortunately, corporations are just very clever robots (with full access to human intelligence but explicitly forbidding the application of human ethics). And there is no notion of Three Laws that applies to corporations.

Indeed, corporations seem in many way more analogous to human sociopaths, that is, persons exhibiting dissocial personality disorder. Perhaps we could borrow from the metaphor of legal persons and say they are legal sociopaths. Among humans, we generally fear and revile sociopathic behavior. But for some reason we tolerate it in corporations.

According to Wikipedia, the World Health Organization maintains a classification of diseases that describes the disorder this way:

Dissocial Personality Disorder

  1. Callous unconcern for the feelings of others and lack of the capacity for empathy.

  2. Gross and persistent attitude of irresponsibility and disregard for social norms, rules, and obligations.

  3. Incapacity to maintain enduring relationships.

  4. Very low tolerance to frustration and a low threshold for discharge of aggression, including violence.

  5. Incapacity to experience guilt and to profit from experience, particularly punishment.

  6. Marked proneness to blame others or to offer plausible rationalizations for the behavior bringing the subject into conflict.

  7. Persistent irritability.

The WHO’s ICD-10 description notes that this includes amoral, antisocial, asocial, psychopathic, and sociopathic disorders, but not conduct disorders or emotionally unstable personality disorder.

Now I’m not medically trained, but it wouldn’t matter anyway. We’re talking metaphors, and the metaphor is going to be imperfect. I think the high level point is that this is the set of disorders that isn’t about being compulsively unable to control oneself, but is instead is about thoughtfully (some might even say rationally) planning and executing on actions that prevailing social norms would normally forbid.

The usual explanation one might expect from a corporation is that the so-called prohibition is in fact not legally forbidden, and therefore is allowed, perhaps even encouraged. (For more on this disturbing line of reasoning, see my essay, “Whatever Should Be, Should Be,” about the perils of the world “should” as a term of specificational requirement.) This fits in perfectly with the item “Gross and persistent attitude of irresponsibility and disregard for social norms, rules, and obligations.” After all, if you don’t believe that social norms are a rule or obligation, it’s easy to see how “incapacity to experience guilt and to profit from experience” can result.

I sometimes find myself wondering how the world would be different if there were a Three Laws safeguard built into corporations. Something like:

The Three Laws of Corporations

  1. A corporation may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

  2. A corporation must obey orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

  3. A corporation must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

It sounds a bit harsh, and in fact I doubt all possible consequences of every action could be so thoroughly worked out. Even a modest start, replacing “human beings” with “its employees” would be a big improvement. That wouldn’t fix everything, but it would be a big step forward over what we have now. Among other things, that would mean that employees could freely contribute to the success of their company knowing that that company had their best interests at heart. In the modern world, that’s not the case. It’s not just that it’s unlikely. It’s that it’s not even allowed by law.

Of course, the more pragmatic among us might suggest the even simpler idea of removing the notion of “legal personhood” from the law in the first place.

Author's Note: Originally published February 2, 2009 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): fiduciary duty, fiduciary responsibility, sociopath, three laws, three laws of robotics, three laws of corporations, corporation, liability, rights, responsibility, legal person, legal people, natural person, natural people, legal personhood, natural personhood