What if we can take Elon Musk’s science fiction high-speed underground vision one step further, and make it work for everyone?

Have you heard about Elon Musk’s idea for an underground system of tunnels that would move cars at superhigh speeds?

Of course you have.

The idea generated a wave of hype for Musk’s brand, but what is this “underground car” concept, really?

Silicon Valley often cannibalizes and reinvents existing services, usually involving an app, in order to turn a profit. In this case, Elon Musk has set his eyes on “disrupting” public transportation using his tech-celebrity cult guru status and the Tesla brand.

His “underground car” concept is a subway for private transportation, combined with the idea of a bus stop where cars arrive to be transported underground (a “car stop”).

Do you notice the weird part of that idea, though?

Yes. The exact reason for a subway is that many people don’t have access to cars. Subways and buses exist for everyone to use, which benefits all of society at an affordable price.

Elon Musk wants to sell more cars. He also probably wouldn’t mind owning an entire private subway system. Beyond hyping his brand now, it makes good future business sense. Public transportation is also “suboptimal” to say the least, so maybe Musk could “disrupt” it and do it better.

What if there could be a public option that works for everyone, and doesn’t require digging a whole new subway just for cars?

Think about it: there are already bus stops in many urban areas around the world. There are also subways in many major cities from São Paulo to Seoul. What if we could create a compelling vision of a future where the two — bus and subway — came together?

On a busy rush hour city street, a bus-sized pod sits at the curb. The pod, however, has no tires (or maybe it does) and sits atop a platform. At scheduled intervals, the platform descends into a city subway tunnel, and is propelled inside a vacuum-sealed tube (or a regular subway track) to the next stop. Behind and ahead of the pod, a regular subway train also runs its route, along with other transport pods.

When the pod reaches the next pod-stop, it slides into the rectangular lift-space and is elevated to the curb, streetside, unloading passengers and making itself available to a new group of riders.

In this idea, you leverage existing subway tunnels to create a public transportation subsystem that’s a hybrid of bus and subway. It can

  • reduce traffic congestion and pollution
  • be mostly automated to fit into subway schedules, and
  • benefits everyone rather than only people who have private cars.

Revenue generated by this system can be used to improve other aspects of public infrastructure — bridges, roads, schools, a functional universal healthcare system, or even funding basic income for when AI and automation overtakes most human jobs.

This idea could change the world. And we — the science fiction writers, artists, tinkerers, hackers and future-fascinated engineers — could be the ones to build the vision so that society can imagine it as real and demand that it be created.

Learn More

1. The Boring Company. (28 Apr 2017). Tunnels. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u5V_VzRrSBI.

2. Etherington, Darrell. (28 Apr 2017). Watch how Elon Musk’s Boring Company tunnels will move cars faster. Retrieved from https://techcrunch.com/2017/04/28/watch-how-elon-musks-boring-company-tunnels-will-move-cars-faster/.

3. Oremus, Will. (2017 June 19). Lyft Isn’t Reinventing City Buses. It’s Undermining Them. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2017/06/19/no_lyft_didn_t_accidentally_reinvent_the_city_bus.html.

4. Friedman, Ann. (26 June 2017). Lyft Shuttle: A bus, but without all those pesky poor people. Retrieved from http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/commentary/ct-lyft-shuttle-bus-perspec-20170626-story.html.

5. Pereira, Alyssa. (19 June 2017). Critics call out Lyft for reinventing the bus with its new ‘Shuttle’ feature. Retrieved from http://www.sfgate.com/technology/article/Critics-call-out-Lyft-for-reinventing-the-bus-11230357.php.

6. Drum, Kevin. (17 Jul 2017). Mass Unemployment Will Start Around 2025. Retrieved from http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2017/07/mass-unemployment-will-start-around-2025/.

The Matrix, Unloaded: Motoko Becomes Mira. Ghost in the Shell Becomes RoboCop. Hollywood Reboots into the Wrong Cyborg Body… Again.

2017 live-action Ghost in the Shell — a gender-switched RoboCop reboot starring whitewashed “Mira Killian” (not Motoko Kusanagi) with ethnically random cast, set in try-hard cyberpunk not-really-Japan?

After reading the reviews of Ghost in the Shell IMAX previews (here and here), the items mentioned in this article’s subtitle became clear.

Ghost in the Shell illustration by GUWEIZ. https://www.patreon.com/guweiz
Ghost in the Shell illustration by GUWEIZ. https://www.patreon.com/guweiz.

At least two different people have seen the first fifteen minutes of 2017 Ghost in the Shell and written in-depth reviews that are highly similar. Those fifteen minutes contain more than enough footage to glean a basic idea of the plot — or in this case, what the plot basically is, and definitely isn’t. Reviews confirm that Motoko Kusanagi (oops, “Mira Killian“) is intentionally whitewashed; her backstory is a gender-bent copy of RoboCop, not Kusanagi’s background drawn from 1996 anime Ghost in the Shell.

Known facts:

– the 2017 Hollywood version of Ghost in the Shell is designed as a big-budget blockbuster — not a mysterious indie noir thriller with some sort of complex, inscrutable concept and plot;
– the advance screening wasn’t a VFX exhibition; the footage was chosen to give people an idea of what the film is about;
– both reviewers independently agreed on the basic plot and the Motoko Kusanagi (oops, whitewashed “Mira Killian”) character’s strangely RoboCop-like backstory as shown in the footage.

Here is the newest trailer released on 01 March 2017:

This could have been a decent cyberpunk film without needing to:

– “prettify” the gritty Ghost in the Shell anime aesthetic with neon and giant holograms everywhere;
– blatantly whitewash a Japanese anime (Motoko is now “Mira”);
– or, as the reviews also suggest, dumb down and replace the real Ghost in the Shell concept with a blockbuster-friendly Hollywood plot.

Why not just create a female RoboCop starring Scarlett Johansson and the same ethnically random (“diverse”) cast, set in some imaginary future city?

Lessons Lost From The Way of the Matrix

They could have gone the way of the Matrix and lifted eighty percent of the plot from Ghost in the Shell itself, sprinkled in “deep” transhumanist philosophical moral dilemmas, and blended the other twenty percent with Dark City (or in this case, RoboCop).

People who hadn’t seen Ghost in the Shell or Dark City thought that the Matrix was brilliantly original. This 2017 Ghost in the Shell film could have followed a similar formula and at least tried to create something that seemed new.

Dark City Detour

We can’t definitively know what influence Dark City (1998) had on the Matrix (1999) during the intervening year after Dark City was released. It’s entirely possible that the Wachowskis took cues from Dark City in designing the style of the Matrix in post-production and maybe even reshoots. Three hundred and sixtyfive days is a long time, but it’s also true that today’s hype for virtual reality was already a trendy sci-fi trope back then.

All that’s clear is how many eery similarities exist between the two films’ style and subject matter, and the fact that the Matrix was released after Dark City.

The Matrix Was a Smart Blockbuster

It’s also useful to note that the Matrix wasn’t a small-budget indie film by any stretch of the imagination, especially for relative unknown directors as the Wachowskis were at that time.

From IMDB:

The Wachowskis approached Warner with the idea of the Matrix and Warner balked at the budget they had submitted, which was over $80 million. Warner instead agreed to give them $10 million. The Wachowskis took the money and filmed the first ten minutes of the movie (the opening scene with Carrie-Anne Moss) using the entire $10 million. They then showed the executives at Warner the opening scene. They were impressed, and green-lit the original asking budget.

USD$80 million in 1999 would equal $116,609,363.75 in 2017. That’s a fairly massive budget.

The Matrix proved that a sci-fi action blockbuster doesn’t need to dumb itself down in order to excite audiences and succeed at the box office.

How The Matrix Translated Philosophy Into Onscreen Action

What worked so well in the original Matrix (1999) was the abundance of symbolism from philosophy (“welcome to the desert of the real“), folklore (“buckle your seatbelt, Dorothy“) and religion (including Buddhism — “there is no spoon“).

This left the “true” meaning of the imagery up for interpretation.

The actual text itself (i.e. the script) was far less developed than the symbolism; that’s where the Wachowskis were at their weakest. The Matrix 2 and 3 often highlighted their inability to blend dialogue seamlessly with imagery. This culminated in the Architect’s plot-stopping speech, among several other “talking head” moments.

An unfortunate side-effect of “images above all” is that those images could be misinterpreted and twisted in any number of ways. The Wachowskis, two transgender women who (at least at time of writing) embody an inclusive mentality, created the “blue pill” and “red pill” symbol. And we know what happens on Reddit now when you talk about taking the red pill.

(The upside is that we got to see ahead-of-its-time moments like the Battle for Zion (Part 1 and Part 2), which showed us realistic combat exoskeletons over a decade before the Edge of Tomorrow (2014).)

There was literally a lot to see in the Matrix, philosophically speaking. The Architect’s speech was fine as a dramatic, theatrical monologue; it just didn’t work as part of a film script. The Neo-as-messiah myth is also an example of the “chosen one” archetype that you see in most Hollywood films; it’s easy to focus on and identify with a “hero’s journey” plot arc. Remember how ambiguous the ending of Matrix Revolutions was, though; there was more happening than just the sacrifice of Neo. It was a courageous way to end the series, particularly since it didn’t resolve to a typical “happily ever after” conclusion.

Neo Versus Motoko: Different Cultures, Different Challenges

None of this is intended to say that the Matrix was anywhere near as complex as Ghost in the Shell, because they operate in different media, designed to address and challenge different cultural expectations (1999 Hollywood film vs. 1996 Japanese anime).

Ultimately, the Matrix may have tried to do too much philosophically, rather than too little, whereas Ghost in the Shell infused the anime world with a near-perfect blend of non-glamorised futuristic Japan, cyberpunk, hardcore action and transhumanist adventure.

It seems clear now that 2017 live-action Ghost in the Shell won’t be the film that fans want, regardless of what Hollywood is trying to sell us. At least this leaves the door open for an indie production to create a faithful smaller-scale adaptation — without much fear of comparison to the big-budget “authenticity” of this one. Who could create such a faithful adaptation? Stay tuned.

What’s the future of society in a world where ideologies create facts, billionaires run countries and isolationism invites global war?

The previous entry was about the future of a post-capitalist world, and contains lots of sources to facts for further reading.

This topic is deeper. It’s about a future where facts themselves come second to ideologies, and where ideologies include large-scale war as a viable option.

We have two widely accepted versions of reality on offer now, bolstered by social networks and mass media.

1. Mainstream mass media, which adheres to a journalistic standard while reporting some facts and under-reporting or ignoring others.

2. Non-mainstream mass media across the political spectrum. The non-mainstream media is based on pushing a polarized, identity-based set of talking points that require the audience to pick a “team”. Once you support one ideology, the other becomes the “enemy”. Ideas become personal possessions and are instantly accepted or rejected based on ideology.

Solipsism Becomes Dogma

The tribalistic “non-mainstream” media is, at core, based on the principle of solipsism — that if you can’t physically verify a fact, it could be false and is therefore suspect. Ideology then defines what is and is not a fact. And ideologies are, at core, tools to inform (and manipulate) large numbers of people. Religions offer metaphysical ideologies. Economic theories become religion-like dogma (capitalism vs. Marxism, for example).

In a functioning society, citizens first accept that facts exist independently from ideology. If citizens prioritize ideology over acceptance of facts, facts become tools for ideological manipulation. This is true regardless of your particular ideological preferences.

Third War

We now have regressive tendencies on display across the planet, for example in France, Germany, the U.K. and the United States.

Nativism, protectionism, xenophobia, isolationism, racism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia are all rising. Even Naziism — an ideology explicitly based on calls for genocide — is being normalized as “free speech”. These are the same dynamics that gave rise to the second world war.

Dictatorship

In the United States, the president’s administration — based on constant, blatant lies — is now gutting institutions like health care and environmental protection. Tapping into citizens’ mistrust of globalisation, the American president champions a “strongman” approach that promises to crush dissent in the press and across society. These are the first steps toward dictatorship, and they are accelerating by the day.

Pretences and Guarantees

The American president has literally ushered Wall Street into the White House, under the proven false pretence that rich people will help common citizens become rich, too. Gullible working-class Americans immersed in an alternative media bubble have apparently forgotten what happened to them as recently as 2008 (i.e. the Great Recession). Revocation of trade deals with China and support of the fossil fuel industry virtually guarantee that the United States will fall far behind in four years.

Overall, it seems like the world is headed for pre-World War II conditions. Now, though, several nations have nuclear capabilities. The world’s largest economies have forgotten what made them great — cooperation rather than antagonism. And billionaires seem to be trying to take what they can before global corporate capitalism based on oil and American Empire finally destroys itself.

What’s next?

– Will people keep pretending that dismantlement of social services, glorification of militarism, and destruction of the environment will somehow yield social mobility and opportunity instead of terrorism, poverty, war and chaos?

– Will people wake up in sufficient numbers before it’s too late?

And if they do wake up, what kind of government will take the place of the current corrupt and dysfunctional one? Clinton was an opportunistic politician who took money from Wall Street. Trump is an egomaniacal billionaire who embodies the concept of vulture capitalism.

It all begins from how we define and accept the meaning of a fact.

Apocalyptic visions aside, if this isn’t the end of democracy in the U.S. and across the world, how does global civilization repair itself?

Now may be the perfect time to start a new story — almost definitely a story that includes less talk and more action.

What comes after The Great Disruption, when machines and A.I. cannibalize consumerism and corporate capitalism?

If you want to construct realistic stories about futures that begin now, these ideas will inevitably underpin your world-building infrastructure.

What comes after corporate capitalism and consumerism, when “full employment” is no longer the goal, or is no longer possible due to machines and AI?

This question anticipates the world’s economic evolution after robots and artificial intelligence take more jobs than they create.

We can’t know what new industries will arise. At some point, it’s likely that AI will automate most repetitive (i.e. middle class) cognitive tasks, and machines will automate or assist much, if not most, manual labor.

Corporate capitalism has, in many cases, elevated standards of living across the globe, but at the cost of using an extractive, exploitative model. Globalisation essentially seeks the lowest standard of living and pays workers as little as necessary until automation/roboticisation can do the job more cheaply.

So what happens after full employment is no longer a practical goal for global economies?

What happens when the idea of “get an education, have a career” is completely disconnected from income potential? Fifty years ago, a high school diploma symbolised a decent basic education; now, high school won’t get you very far at all. What happens when the same occurs for university and graduate degrees — if only because the number of graduates is larger than the number of jobs?

What happens when robots can adequately perform most factory and shipping jobs? If more people are told to re-train, how can the economy sustain itself when technology keeps making more and more types of productive human activity obsolete?

What happens when AI gives each office worker the ability to be ten times more productive — when we know that companies resist paying workers more for work that is aided by machines, as long as the labor market is full of possible replacement workers at the same wage point?

In the past, monarchy was considered the pinnacle of human progress. Now, we have corporate capitalism (plutarchy), that extracts profit from local economies and redistributes it to less than one percent of the world’s population. Technology enables that process to accelerate faster than ever before — robots don’t demand more pay. An essential aspect of capitalism is to eliminate costs, and labor is a cost. Financial compensation for labor is also how humans survive (and spend, enabling other humans to survive).

At some point, the current corporate capitalist/consumerist model will begin to fail. Some say that it already is failing, and reactionary sociopolitical backlash has already begun.

Beyond the typical untrue dogma that an infinity of new industries will save us as new technologies are born — what comes after the current system?

Silicon Valley Panacea: Universal Basic Income

Universal basic income (UBI) is a popular concept circa 2017. There’s only one problem: corporations actively evade taxation whenever possible, even to the point of lobbying and gerrymandering political processes to have leaders elected who protect their interests. If raising taxes to sustain a UBI fund is implausible, that is not a viable option until the idea of corporate responsibility becomes fashionable again for one reason or another.

UBI would be a “sensible” answer. Corporations (and economists who influence public policy) thus far have shown no inkling toward being sensible.

Corporations are, by definition, are non-human entities run by people whose only objective is to increase the wealth of their shareholders from one quarterly earnings report to the next. That’s why corporations are operating on an unsustainable model right now, from environmental destruction to exploitative globalisation. The only measure that matters is in the short-term — the quarterly earnings sheet. The long-term future is a distant secondary consideration, if at all.

Corporate Cash Hand-Outs and the Beatitude of Uber

If corporations can fund a universal basic income, they can also just keep the money instead of “throwing it away” for redistribution to the rest of society. That seems to be a very popular mentality now among those who brag about evading taxes and their supporters who see the world as “winners” versus “losers”.

As only one example among many, technological parasites like Uber are destroying local transportation economies across the planet.

Uber is poised to destroy millions of jobs in transportation through app-driven taxi services and autonomous commercial trucking. When Uber can get rid of drivers completely by deploying self-driving cars and trucks, that will mean a tremendous number of people who don’t have jobs.

Not only that, but Uber wants to pretend that its drivers are not employees, and therefore is exempt from paying them as such. It may be “legal”, but it’s certainly unethical. And what’s legal is shifting as quickly as Uber can browbeat politicians into changing the laws where Uber hopes to operate. To counteract the passage of legislation, we see Uber becoming increasingly litigious and eager to spread pro-Uber marketing through the redefinition of “sharing” (meaning: profit-taking).

There’s no reason to assume that any large corporation would automatically switch from an exploitative framework to a sustainable one in time to save corporate capitalism from itself.

The Myth of Infinite Leisure

Leisure time creates new markets? This could mean that people create more and more games and diversions to keep themselves busy outside of productive work.

The downward pressure exerted by technology seems to have usurped the emergence of a “creative economy”. For example, music is now considered a “free good” even by the most successful musicians. No one bothers (or at least, far fewer than in the pre-digital — or more precisely, pre-streaming — era) to try to make any real money from music anymore, and there is a limit to how many streaming subscriptions the average person will want or be able to afford.

Even a “leisure economy” has limits due to supply versus demand and the influence of technology operating at economies of scale.

The Chimera of Corporate-Sponsored “Freedom”

A corporate capitalist future where everything is… free? No, that would be a completely different system, one that wouldn’t follow from the form that exists now.

Capitalism is the opposite of “give goods and services away for free”.

Google does not provide anything for “free”. They sell users’ personal data. The “social media” and adtech game is about pervasive, intrusive, and usually not-quite-invisible surveillance, hidden behind gamification, the narcissistic quest for worthless attention and meaningless happyfaced Silicon Valley slogans like “don’t be evil”.

Nothing is free in a capitalist world. Either all actors involved are paid, or the work is not done. The only free labor comes from the end users who remain intentionally ignorant of the fact that they are being used, and that their personal data is sold to the highest bidder.

Neo-Luddite Conspiracy Theory?

Are computers simply not having any effect at all? Is the idea of technological unemployment merely a Neo-Luddite conspiracy theory? That seems extraordinarily unlikely.

If technological unemployment isn’t happening, where are the new jobs coming from to replace the ones taken by AI, roboticisation and other forms of technology that become smaller, smarter, more networked and more ubiquitous?

The mantra “just get another job” presupposes an infinite number of jobs, which defies the reality of any labor market (as we saw most recently during the Great Recession of 2008 caused so graciously by the deregulatory policies of American President George W. Bush). Hardware and software are beginning to eclipse the functionality once afforded exclusively to humans.

See the example of Uber mentioned above. Other professions are seeing similar encroachment. There are quite a few other examples, but Uber may be the most well-known one that will have global repercussions in the next few years. The displacement of human cognition and labor is inevitable. This is the nature of the Turing machine in combination with a corporate system that seeks to reduce labor costs to zero whenever and wherever possible.

Trickle, Trickle, Trick…

Massive increases in productivity are already happening, and are not making everyone wealthier.

More effective technology reduces the amount of work humans need to do. This reduces the number of human work hours. Continue the inverse relationship, and eventually full employment is no longer sustainable. Technology simply exacerbates and accelerates existing problems. But the character of the problems itself will change as the macroeconomic principle of full employment gives way and existing low-level service jobs become increasingly unattainable.

Many people are working for a decreasing standard of living as corporations become more efficient, while forcing workers to work harder and longer for less. Full employment is a flawed metric to begin with. The jobs themselves are often traps that keep people struggling in wage-frozen positions while creating an illusion of “prosperity”. Inflation rises, employers don’t raise wages and claim the difference as profit.

People cannot just choose to work fewer hours. Walk up to your boss, “okay, boss, I’m going to work half-time from now on because I want to live the non-materialistic good life” and watch her laugh you all the way to the unemployment line. The aggregate (everyone in the labour market) determines how many hours the average person works. People are greedy and undermine their own ability to collectively bargain for better wages and hours, but more importantly, corporations exploit workers by presenting basement-level wages with the carrot of “overtime pay” that eventually is no longer voluntary.

There is likely a midpoint between dystopia and utopia. There’s no such thing as an “inevitable” future — evidenced by how often predictions are proven wrong.

Facts in the present moment, however, are discernible and are not simply a matter of interpretation.

That’s why thinking about the variables (and how they might change) is worthwhile. Life is more of a petri dish than an equation. ;)

Revenge of the Anthropocene

2064: roboticization and artificial intelligence have progressed to a level whereby automatons can convincingly simulate humanity. Robots are not yet conscious, but are emotive to an extent that the majority of their owners feel that they now deserve “robot rights”.

Note: this is a plot outline rather than a completed story. See if you can spot any parallels to real-world events. ;) This post may be updated as more details emerge.

The current prime minister of the PanAmerican Union begins integration of robots into society, advocating for legalization of human-robot civil unions as a first step.

At the same time, World War III looms again, after four decades of international rapprochement between the major global power spheres. Robotic terrorism is reported as a fatal menace to humanity, although less than .005% of robots are susceptible to algorithmic radicalization. Easily-exploited, obsolete robotic neural networks are overwhelmingly based on archaic Internet 1.0 architecture, often called the “Internet of Things”.

The 2064 PanAmerican election season arrives. A set of candidates is put forth. One of them is an opportunistic technocrat mired in scandal. The other candidate: a trillionaire neoagriculturist, promising to rid PanAmerica of robots and return society to ancient agrarian glories of fabled past.

Despite amassing a fortune by employing robots rather than humans, the Trillionaire Agragrian touts the slogan, “Purge the robot scourge”! The pseudo-populist Agrarian constantly, blatantly and proudly lies to his supporters using condescending childspeak. “Make the human brain great again!”

Millions of human workers displaced by robots rally to the cause. “We don’t hate robots, but they’re unnatural, inauthentic. We’re pro-human. All humans matter.”

Humanity stands at the cusp of universal basic income and unparalleled prosperity. Still, many yearn for an anachronistic “frontier” lifestyle defined by hard struggle to survive.

The Agrarian wins Election 2064.

PanAmerica, along with the rest of the world, plunges into an abyss of war and terror that rivals the darkest hours of the early 21st century.

END.

Did Soviet Cosmonauts Take Deadly Laser Pistols to Outer Space — in the 1980s?

Soviet Laser Pistol.

In the 1980s, Russian astronauts (Cosmonauts) may have taken a prototype laser pistol with them into space. What was this retrofuturistic weapon, and how did it work? Was it real, only a prototype, or pure Soviet sci-fi propaganda? Read excerpts from three sources below for images, video and more information.

Soviet Laser Pistol.

Futuristic Pyrotechnics

Yes, these are real handheld laser weapons developed in the 1980s for cosmonauts. These futuristic pistols used pyrotechnic flashbulb ammunition, and their primary function was to disable optical sensors on enemy spacecraft or satellites. Allegedly the laser beams of these recoilless guns were energetic enough to burn through a helmet visor, or to blind anybody from 65 feet.

How did the Soviet laser pistol work?

In 1984, to protect manned orbital stations and long term manned stations, the Soviet Military Academy developed a really fantastic weapon – a fiber laser gun.

Soviet Laser Pistol.

The main requirements to the weapon were: 1) a small size; and 2) ability to destroy the optic systems of an enemy.

The main elements of the laser gun (as any laser) could be the active medium, a pump source and an optical resonator. But it was subsequently decided to replace the active medium with fiber-optic elements. Disposable pyrotechnic electronic flashes were used as a source of light pumping.

The gun’s laser beam maintains a “burning and blinding” effect at a distance of up to twenty meters.

Soviet Laser Pistol.
Soviet Laser Pistol.

Based on the pyrotechnic-flash laser pistol, a laser revolver was designed with a drum magazine. Its creators also announced the ability of the revolver to convert into a medical tool (scalpel) if necessary.

All experimental (i.e. prototyping, research and development) works were done manually. Prior to the start of production for the pistol’s flash elements, however, the conversion of the defence industry (?) put an end to the project.

Today this “wonder weapon” may be seen at the Museum of the Strategic Missile Forces of the Military Academy, named after Peter the Great in Moscow.

Only a prototype?

Soviet Laser Pistol.

A skeptical perspective from TheFirearmBlog:

The pistol may have functioned just like the original ruby laser built by Theodore Maiman in 1960 (photo below). This laser worked by “pumping” a synthetic ruby rod with very bright light from a flashtube. The ruby rod would then emit a short laser pulse.

The original ruby laser, built by Theodore Maiman in 1960.

The Soviet laser gun looks like it had a ruby rod instead of a barrel. It’s fed by cartridges from a magazine. Either those cartridges contain a chemical flash powder, or they were ultra-high discharge batteries/cells that could power the laser for one “shot”, which would be multiple pulses, before having to be disposed of.

The output of this laser would be minimal. A quick glance through Electronic Engineering papers from the 1960s and 1970s report scientists achieving just 6% efficiency with ruby lasers. In other words, there is no way that this laser would burn a hole in a US or British satellite. If cosmonauts really needed to do some damage, they had the nifty Soviet TP-82 Space Pistol on hand.

Bullets Made of Light

Soviet Laser Pistol.

Maybe the laser pistol had a more specific purpose:

Rather than blind an adversary or burn a hole in an opponent’s space suit, Russian cosmonauts may have designed the laser pistol for one sole purpose: shoot out the optics on enemy satellites.

The Russian cosmonauts had some pretty sneaky weaponry. But according to TheFirearmBlog (quoted above), this laser pistol probably didn’t have the oomph required to do any real damage. Its intended purpose was to give the cosmonauts the ability to destroy optical components on enemy satellites that were floating through space.

Soviet Laser Pistol.
Soviet Laser Pistol.

The “bullets” in the magazine are likely ultra-high discharge batteries that would power the laser for a short time, or possibly a form of chemical flash powder to create the same effect.

Even if it can’t burn holes through satellites, the Soviet laser pistol is a pretty sweet piece of gear.

Learn More

1. Nagy, Attila. (02 Apr 2016). The Ultimate List of Weapons Astronauts Have Carried Into Orbit. Gizmodo. Retrieved from http://gizmodo.com/the-ultimate-list-of-weapons-astronauts-have-carried-in-1768199454.

2. Johnson, Steve. (8 Oct 2013). The Soviet Laser Pistol. The Firearms Blog. Retrieved from http://www.thefirearmblog.com/blog/2013/10/08/soviet-laser-pistol/.

3. (5 Oct 2013). Laser Gun For a Soviet Cosmonaut. English/Russia. Retrieved from http://englishrussia.com/2013/10/05/laser-gun-for-a-soviet-cosmonaut/.

4. McCluskey, Brent. (10 Oct 2013). Soviet laser pistol: The secret space weapon of Russian cosmonauts. Guns dot com. Retrieved from http://www.guns.com/2013/10/10/soviet-laser-pistol-secret-weapon-russian-cosmonauts-4-photos/.

Dystopia and Donald Trump: How Many New Adolf Hitler Clones Lurk in the Future of Realistic Science Fiction?

You’ve set about penning your polemical dystopian Y.A. masterpiece set in alt-2017. The main protagonist is probably a woman, but could also be a man. She may be transgender or a genetic female. She is probably Latina, but could be Black, Asian or biracial.

The head villain, cast as the ideological opposite of the main protagonist, is a thoroughly original, fictional monstrosity: an egomaniacal tyrant whose skin is tinted radioactive orange and hair is a garish fake yellow, accompanied by his gorgeously dim-witted mail-order bride. Lesser villains include a vice president who tacitly supports the systematic, sadistic psychological torture of LGBT children ¹, and a trashy motormouthed ex-beauty queen henchwoman with extensive familial reality TV credentials.

Beware Clichés and Caricatures

There’s only one problem with the evil characters sketched above: despite an element of truth, they’re obvious caricatures. Caricatures can be amusing at first, but their apparent lack of depth can quickly wear thin.

It may be tempting to imitate Hollywood with a high-concept plot along the lines of “The Future Versus Adolf Hitler” ² or “Billionaire President Versus The People”.

Donald Trump may be a hyper-narcissistic, cocaine-addicted buffoon, but he’s nothing next to Adolf Hitler. Hitler was politically smarter and more popular with the German people, among other key distinctions.

Here’s a bit of basic research on historical differences between the rise of Hitler and the rise of Trump, to help you avoid a few pitfalls from the start in writing your next story.

Trump Has the Sniffles — Hitler Was The Real High-Roller

To start, Hitler was more creative in his choice of recreational drugs. By the end of World War II, Hitler injected a daily stream of hardcore pharmaceuticals administered by his faithful doctor, Theodor Morell³:

– Pervitin (methamphetamine)
– Eukodal (oxycodone)
– high grade cocaine

…among others.

Although Donald Trump may simply have a persistently runny nose, his alleged cocaine habit (and unhinged 3 a.m. Twitter diatribe tendency ) pales by the sight of Hitler’s needle-punctured, collapsing veins and erratic junkie-in-withdrawals behavior during his last days in the Führerbunker.

Trump Lost the Popularity Contest, Hitler Won The Reality Show

Adolf Hitler had far more popular support at the start of his reign in 1934 than Donald Trump has in 2016. Ironically, Hitler’s popularity grew more to the level of Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin than Trump. It’s also noteworthy that many Germans seemed to support Hitler himself more than the Nazi party ¹⁴, whereas the Republican Party in general is hated far less than Donald Trump.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton indisputably won the popular vote ¹⁵ to become 45th president of the United States of America.

Trump lost the popular vote, instead obtaining the position of president through the electoral college. In other words, Donald Trump is a failed populist before his time in office even begins. Trump may inspire Hitler-level fawning adoration in some of his supporters, but in no way can he legitimately claim to be the American people’s president.

Is the 2017 American Economy Comparable to Hitler’s Germany?

The socioeconomic environment that precipitated Hitler’s rise was far more dire than modern-day America . In 1933, the German people were suffering catastrophically due to:

– crippling financial reparations demanded by the treaty of Versailles after World War I ;

– the aftermath of the Great Depression of 1929 and disastrous efforts by a pre-Hitler government to reverse the damage.

In July 1930 Chancellor Brüning cut government expenditure, wages and unemployment pay – the worst thing to do during a depression.

How does that set of events compare to the modern day and possible future?

In 2016, the efforts of President Obama’s government — to repair the damage done during President Bush’s Great Recession of 2007 — have failed to completely restore the economy . This is why many people below retirement age feel trapped in financial uncertainty.

American wages are still nearly stagnant (this is a corporate capitalist problem, not a presidential problem). Although unemployment has fallen, personal debt is rising and employment increasingly centers on low-wage service industry jobs ¹⁰.

Lower-wage industries accounted for 22% of recession job losses, but are responsible for 44% of the hiring in the recovery.

High-wage jobs accounted for 41% of job losses but have only grown 30% since the recession, and mid-wage jobs made up 37% of job losses but only 26% of recent employment growth. That means there are almost two million fewer high- and mid-wage jobs than there were before the 2008 collapse, according to the report.

The economic situation in the United States circa 2017 isn’t anywhere near that of 1934 Germany. The Great Recession of 2008 was caused by financial deregulation rather than world war. Deregulation enabled lenders to offer housing loans to those who couldn’t afford them (“subprime” loans ¹¹). Those loans were reconstituted into “good” financial instruments that were actually junk (“securitization”), leading to a housing bubble that soon popped and destroyed the American economy ¹²:

After the Asian financial crisis in 1997, investors were looking for safe havens to park their money. What they wanted were AAA-rated bonds. What they got were mortgage-backed securities that were rated AAA but turned out to be junk. As we all now know—but most of us didn’t know at the time—Wall Street firms in the early 2000s began slicing and dicing and then reassembling mortgage debt into more and more exotic and risky mortgage-backed securities in ways that made them look risk-free.

Now imagine what might happen during the presidency of a real estate mogul billionaire — who was cheering for the housing crisis so that he could make easy money¹³?

“I sort of hope that happens because then people like me would go in and buy,” Trump said in a 2006 audiobook from Trump University, answering a question about “gloomy predictions that the real estate market is heading for a spectacular crash.”

“If there is a bubble burst, as they call it, you know you can make a lot of money,” Trump said in the 2006 audio book, “How to Build a Fortune.”

The United States has already had a “pro-business” president (George W. Bush) whose deregulatory policies led directly to a massive recession that hasn’t ended yet. Now the U.S. has somehow elected a real estate speculator who cheered for the failure of the American housing market.

In relation to the economy, Trump isn’t Hitler. Trump is an opportunistic vulture asked to safeguard and nurture America’s already-ailing fiscal health. Still, the U.S. isn’t in the realm of 1934 Germany yet. If you want to write a dystopian plotline, aim for the socioeconomic landscape post-2020, after the new despot has grabbed the American consumer by the pocketbook and had his way with her.

War-Mongers at the Gates of Power?

The German people largely approved of Hitler’s use of war to annex territory. Indeed, much of the German peoples’ support for Hitler arose because of his regime’s military success ¹⁴.

After the abject failure ¹⁶ of George W. Bush’s oil-seeking adventurism in Iraq ¹⁷ based on lies — no, the lesser sin of “misinformation” — about “weapons of mass destruction” ¹⁸, most Americans abhor the idea of prolonged ground war ¹⁹.

The current worldwide drone and special operations deployments began precisely because “boots on the ground” are extremely unpopular in the prevailing American sentiment. Trump simply cannot wage war wholesale while waving a United States flag and crowing on about “making America great again”, the way that Adolf Hitler did for Germany in the years leading up to Word War II. George W. Bush already tried that game with disastrous results that led directly to the rise of ISIS. In the current climate, the American people would never commit long-term support to flattening Iran or further maiming the already-crippled North Korea.

If your sci-fi plot requires large-scale global war, focus on the details of a “what if…” scenario that renders conflict as inevitable — not as the unilateral decision of Dictator Trump. Of course, that’s quite likely what Trump himself would do.

Mass Surveillance

We find our hero seeking truth. She’s skulking around the city, smoothly avoiding security cameras and narrowly escaping capture by the Gestapo of the Future. And of course she’s some kind of hacker, because hackers are cool and computers are magical MacGuffins that can do anything.

How close could Trump’s surveillance machine match that of Adolf Hitler ²⁰?

Unfortunately, from Donald Rumsfeld to President Obama, civil liberties and information privacy have been eroded continuously. ²¹

Guantanamo Bay is still operational. Drone wars are ongoing. Special operators slit throats of third-world adversaries in the dark. FBI informants spy on mosques and activists. The NSA is vast and practically unaccountable. Trump advocates increased deportations and endorses torture far beyond waterboarding.

The only thing preventing President Obama from ruling with an iron fist was the President himself. Now Americans have Trump, who promises no similar restraint.

In terms of surveillance, Trump certainly has the tools to be a dream in the remotest fantasies of Hitler. Your best fodder for realistic near-future science fiction may begin here — just be sure to get the details right. People need ongoing reminders that the extent of what’s possible is just as mind-bending as anything imagined by Philip K. Dick.

Near-Future Civil Strife

A great backdrop for dystopian fiction is the image of protestors marching in the streets, throwing Molotov cocktails at robotically faceless oppressors and demanding the end of an evil regime.

Hitler’s platform, as you’ve read above, pertained to the outcome of World War I and the Great Depression.

Today’s populism tends to focus on jobs, but often leaves out important details. Those details can help your story feel more real.

Who took all the jobs? Was it “Obama”, the machines or “the Mexicans”?

The Second Machine Age

President Obama didn’t “steal” American jobs that Trump can magnanimously “give back” to the people ²². Manufacturing jobs are gone due to globalisation ²³ and the automation of factories ²⁴. Working-class occupational categories will continue to disappear. None of this has anything to do with who happens to be president of the United States of America.

Either the U.S. keeps up with global trends — that result in increased productivity and skyrocketing income inequality, the end of social mobility, etc. — or the entire national economy will quickly fall behind as business moves overseas.

Anyone who has graduated beyond a high-school mentality knows that it would be ludicrous to build an impossibly giant wall to keep out the imaginary hordes of Mexican rapists and job-stealing taco vendors. The first question for working-class people is “who’s to blame?

“If you’re under economic stress and you can’t provide for your family, the easiest answer is to find someone to blame,” said Dr. Griffith. “Mexicans, illegal immigrants, Obama.” ²³

The sad part about those who voted for Trump is that many of them are legitimately afraid that their simple way of life is under threat. It’s true: capitalism sees labor as a cost and strives to eliminate it whenever possible. ²⁵

“You don’t have to train machines,” Mr. Mishek observes.

“If you’re doing something that can be written down in a programmatic, algorithmic manner, you’re going to be substituted for quickly,” said Claudia Goldin, an economist at Harvard.

That’s the corporate capitalist way. That doctrine has usurped and supplanted any regard for workers that existed before the rise of Walmart, Starbucks, Google, Amazon, Apple and Uber. Today’s middle class is sliding to become working class; the working class faces a descent into poverty. Those who are poor face debt and homelessness. The only thing more amazing than the phenomenon itself is that those a step higher on the ladder sneer at the survivors one step below, thereby making room for themselves to fall and be spat upon when their turn comes. Positive thinking is little more than a thinly veiled prayer that misfortune will “never happen to me”, enacted by controlling an uncertain universe through thought alone. That way, if you fail, it’s all your fault. Society is for winners, and the lower 99% are on their own.

Dystopia is a great choice for fiction writing in terms of realism right now. The main challenge is to tell people — especially young people — fresh stories that we aren’t already living day-to-day.

Blame the Mexicans…?

Working-class Trump supporters express legitimate concerns about their economic status and social well-being. The only part they consistently get wrong is the idea that their enemies are other working-class people who happen to have a different skin color or country of origin. Even if you could get rid of the Mexicans, have police murder all the working-age black men and women, and build empty factories devoid of all automation, the rest of the world (translation: China ²⁶) will simply pick up the slack. To fight globalisation by using racial and gendered hatred as an excuse for xenophobic protectionism/isolationism will only hasten the inevitable.

The socioeconomic landscape is changing. Within a generation, the blatant racism and sexism of Donald Trump will become a punchline about the backward ways of a long-gone era in the United States.

After Hitler, After Trump

When you write your dystopian tour de force, have a laugh by brainstorming with a fictional graphic that Trump tried in vain to pass off as fact, published by the nonexistent “San Francisco Crime Statistics Bureau.” ²⁷ Donald Trump has done a brilliant job of dumbing-down his own public persona in order to the gain the favor of frightened, vulnerable, gullible, racist voters.

When Trump inevitably fails to materialize new working-class jobs and “make America great again”, the national temperament will probably swing just as extremely to the left in 2020 as it did to the right four years prior. The country will still exist (provided humanity avoids Armageddon). Will the United States adapt to the world’s tempo or become increasingly obsolete? This is a question of trajectory that the American electoral college may have already set in motion on November 9th, 2016.

Donald J. Trump may be an unnaturally orange-faced buffoon but, similar to Adolf Hitler, he can also be quite shrewd, socially if not politically. Make sure that your Trump-based characters don’t fall too far into caricature, as tempting as the many opportunities certainly are.

Now you have a set of real-life facts to guide the construction of your Trump/Hitler fiction stories for the next four years of dystopian oddity on Spaceship Earth. Hopefully a few of those hyper-realistic Y.A. yarns have happy endings, or at the very least, open-ended and ambiguous ones.

P.S. You could also take a totally different approach, and imagine a world in which Bernie Sanders won the presidency. Until his successor emerges in 2020, you’ll have to divine that scenario for yourself. Enjoy. ;)

Learn More

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19. Drake, Bruce. (12 Jun 2014). More Americans say U.S. failed to achieve its goals in Iraq. Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/06/12/more-americans-say-us-failed-to-achieve-its-goals-in-iraq/.

20. Greenslade, Roy. (4 Dec 2013). How Hitler suspended the right to mail and telephone privacy. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/media/greenslade/2013/dec/04/surveillance-adolf-hitler.

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22. Diamond, Jeremy. (28 Jun 2016). Trump slams globalization, promises to upend economic status quo. Retrieved from http://edition.cnn.com/2016/06/28/politics/donald-trump-speech-pennsylvania-economy/index.html.

23. Nelson D. Schwartz and Quoctrung Bui. (25 Apr 2016). Where Jobs Are Squeezed by Chinese Trade, Voters Seek Extremes. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/26/business/economy/where-jobs-are-squeezed-by-chinese-trade-voters-seek-extremes.html.

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26. Smith, Noah. (26 Jan 2016). Free Trade With China Wasn’t Such a Great Idea for the U.S. Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2016-01-26/free-trade-with-china-wasn-t-such-a-great-idea.

27. Farley, Robert. (23 Nov 2015). Trump Retweets Bogus Crime Graphic. Retrieved from http://www.factcheck.org/2015/11/trump-retweets-bogus-crime-graphic/.