State of the tech: July 2017

For two years, I relied on Wunderlist to organize my life. Everyone’s mind works a little differently, so many task list apps exist; Wunderlist fit me very well, and it came as terrible news to learn recently that it was going away. Still, the timing was felicitous. Were I ever to transition to a new task system, that was a good moment, because I’d been in a new job for long enough to have gotten a feel for how tasks play out (and to have a degree of comfort with my daily routines around it) but not long enough for patterns to have congealed.

I loved many things about Wunderlist: The frictionless interface, easily-repeating tasks, easy subtasks and notes, web interface, and the ability to share lists with my wife and colleagues was very useful. Vitally, everything synchronized between multiple devices. I knew that Wunderlist was always there, always at the right end of the dock, always sync’d. Worth saying, though, is that an alarm-clock that works great 99 nights out of 100 is useless, no matter how well it works on the average night. That’s why IFTTT dropped out of my life: No matter how useful it was when it worked, if it couldn’t be relied upon to work every time, it was unreliable, period. That’s no way to live. To be sure: I have a Kurzweil K2000 which randomly resets, but who cares when I use it only very occasionally, in the studio? By contrast, systems on which we rely, especially those on which we rely when our brains are at a nadir (mornings, for me, but perhaps travel for you, for example) have to run dependably, flawlessly. Systems that can’t be backed-up easily and restored readily don’t encourage investment of time.

The feeling, then, that Wunderlist was no longer dependable, that on any given day I could wake up and it could be gone or not, was crazy-makingly ominous. I’d love to be able to say that I exhaustively considered all my alternatives, but in reality, with time nipping at my heels, I seriously considered only two options: Todoist, and 2Do. (A third, Omnifocus, dropped out of contention quite quickly because it seemed like overkill—I use my task list a lot, but I don’t feel that I’m a power-user in a way that would justify the cost and expense, including administrative overhead, of Omnifocus.) 

Todoist started strong but came up short. I appreciated their canny move of providing an “import from Wunderlist” feature, although I was unimpressed by the sloppy implementation. Still, I loved its flexibility in easily moving, structuring, and completing tasks, almost entirely arbitrarily, and at first blush, its daily email summary feature seemed neat. Web interface—check. Sync across multiple devices—check. But over a couple of weeks of testing, the web interface began to feel irritating, and the email summary… naggy? The death-blow was learning that Todoist doesn’t really understand repeating tasks. It claims to, but it seems to me that an app does not actually understand recurring tasks if, when the task repeats, the subtasks that were completed on last run remain completed rather than returning to pristine state. 

(Todoist also has some very cool Workflow integration. But Workflow—we learned in this same time-period—also has an uncertain future. While I continue to use Workflow, I feel disinclined to pour time into it, and I’d prefer to focus on other ways to work.)

That left 2Do, which does understand recurring tasks. Its pro version syncs across all devices, and it has a Mac client too, which I’ve confessedly not tried because of its offputting price-tag. It also has a number of features that I wanted in Wunderlist (e.g. hiding tasks that are scheduled but not yet relevant) and others that I hadn’t thought of using but which have proven useful (e.g. geotagging tasks, which can provide reminder notifications if you have location services enabled). The interface is quite clean and straightforward, although I do wish there were better gestures. I also don’t quite understand why they don’t take what seems to me the obvious step of differentiating projects from checklists (they’re indistinct) by saying one or the other automatically completes when all subtasks are checked off. Batch-editing takes a little time to get the hang of, but once it’s familiar, it’s very helpful. 

What it lacks is a web interface. But it does have an email capture function that has some appeal. I’m wary about adding too much automation; I don’t want repetitious stuff that seems important but becomes a distraction and ultimately devalues the task-list framework. But at the same time, I want to take advantage of useful automations. So, for example, when I borrow a physical book from the library and forget to take it back on-time, I get a standard-format email. It’s easy to write a rule that forwards those emails with a rewritten subject and so add a task. Experimenting with that will come next—for right now, I’m using Siri and Reminders, which is acceptable, but it adds another layer, another app to check during the day.

All this beings me to a place where my task-list system is still somewhat plastic, but has mostly settled down after the shock of Wunderlist’s terminal prognosis. I still have Wunderlist and ToDoist installed on my iPad, and use them in parallel while I run out some longer-term projects that were deeply-entangled in Wunderlist. Effectively, Todoist has become a “backup” of Wunderlist in case it completely goes away without warning before those projects have wound up. And I might continue using Wunderlist for some minor shared tasks with my wife, because 2Do doesn’t seem to handle shared tasks well. But overall, I’m done with Wunderlist, all in on 2Do, and minded to rate my current situation “acceptable.” 

(Since WWDC, 2Do has moved over one spot, to the center of the dock, but that is prep for some changes in my habits that iOS11 will force, rather than reflecting any changes in how I use task lists or preferences quoad 2Do versus Wunderlist.) 

Speaking of things that are acceptable, while I’m here, let’s talk about the Xiaomi MiBand, which reached its first anniversary with me last month. I continue to recommend it, and a year of wearing it hasn’t much changed my initial impression. It does some basic health-tracking (mainly steps, which it does well, and sleep, which it does adequately in tandem with Sleep Cycle), and it vibrates for a silent (ish) alarm and Incoming call notification. My alarm-call and wheels-up are before my wife needs to be awake, so the silent alarm is very helpful. So, too, is the notification for calls, and the ability to set a delay to screen wrong-numbers. Battery life is more like a Kindle (the e-paper ones, not the Fires) than a tablet—weeks between charges. Love it. The one thing that I’d really like as an improvement is to have it ankle-located, and I’ve yet to find a band that’s long enough to serve as an ersatz anklet, but that’s a small nitpick. 

What a year wearing the MiBand has proved, though, is that the Apple Watch isn’t for me—not right now, anyway. The MiBand’s selling-point is that it’s an entry-level wearable—it’s cheap, which means that my anxiety about the potential for it getting dinged or destroyed is nil. IT isn’t always white-collar work, and the MiBand has gotten dinged, dunked, dropped, covered in dust and gunk, and even lost a few times, but it’s still working fine, and were it to drop dead tonight, oh well, I’m out $20+S&H. No matter how robust the Apple Watch may actually be, the stress of having hundreds of dollars of computer on one’s wrist, unprotected, strikes me as something I don’t need in my life.  

I’ve toyed with upgrading to the MiBand2, also budget-priced and which has marginally-better notifications (or perhaps a Lenovo HW01, which is appealing). But I always choke on a very simple question: What additional app would I want to be notified about? The MiBand notifies for calls, including via Teams or Skype; do I really want a notification for texts? No. Social media? Gods, no. Email? Not really. So what, then? It’s possible to imagine a world in which the granularity of notifications becomes such that only, say, genuinely-concerning weather or genuinely-interesting news/text/email come through, but we aren’t there yet. The only thing that might be useful is notifications coming out of Calendar or, perhaps unsurprisingly, 2Do. But that’s for the future.

A “state-of-the-projects” update

It is now one year since I wrote the first draft of the first piece in what became “The Racetrack Chronicle” and the continuity in which it exists. As that project has sprawled and expanded across multiple works and time-periods, it has become difficult to explain, so this post will attempt to concisely introduce: “what the frak is up with all this?”

If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch,
you must first invent the universe
.” -Sagan

On day one, all I set out to do was to explain why Maggie Edmondson joined the mutiny. But I’m not capable of writing stories in a vacuum; hell, I can barely write stories at all. It’s black-magic to me how writers do that. As a substitute, I found myself constructing fully-formed characters and a fully-imagined universe in which they existed, hoping that with sufficient detail added, the paths down which the characters would walk through the world would appear. It worked. The Chronicle, which went to the powers-that-be in December, and whether good or bad, was the best that I could do by Maggie. She and the coterie of people around her have become real, fully-realized people over the course of the project, and hopefully the tiny subset of the whole that made it onto the page reflects that.

But with the apple-pie baked, I was left with the universe. Quite aside from everything that had landed on the pages of the main cycle, I had dozens of little vignettes written on background, and thousands of words written suggestive of the backstory, either expanding on the QMX map on this detail, or explaining why I couldn’t accept that detail. (See this post and this post, for example.) Growing out of that work, I had the beginnings of a second novel, too, and yet more background material written around that, sketching what the universe looked like. Perhaps attempting to distract myself from worry about the Chronicle or work on the second novel, I have been writing a number of short pieces, one-shots that sketch parts of the universe in which the larger pieces take place.

Some of them are, effectively, deleted-scenes from the Chronicle—either moments in Maggie’s life that I wanted to see or things in the universe that I wanted to see and was able to see by sending Maggie to see them. In this category belong Sovremennyy, Dry-Dock, Crossroads, and Chalk. There are many more of these in the pipeline, and yet more that will likely never see the light of day.

Others provide context for the universe that the Caprica-centric show(s) couldn’t. They are intended to imply a vast and fittingly-epic historical backdrop to the colonies without bogging the reader down in the details. Thus, Aftermath sketches the world and history of Aquaria and poses some obvious questions about survivors, and Carillon has a Frank Herbert feeling as it sketches an epic history of Virgon and the early development of the colonies. (The latter references the events that conclude Yeats’ “Lords of Kobol” trilogy and implicitly picks up thereafter.) These pieces are intended to be interesting milieu vignettes that also imply a context for characters elsewhere in the continuity.

The collection that’s most interesting to me today has only one published piece, Atalanta, although several more are in the pipeline. One of the characters who lurked in the background of my notes for months was Margaret Cavendish, the Churchillian first President of the Colonies, whom my notes sketched as a combination of Elena Kagan, Zephyr Teachout, and Antonin Scalia, a kind of combative but eloquent lawyer, a large, forceful personality who in some unspecified way became first the prime-mover behind the Articles of Colonization and then President of that government, for her sins. Maggie will later be named for the Pican Cavendish, as will the Colonial equivalent of the White House. Writing her was always going to be difficult because of the time period; I try very hard to avoid nailing down too many specifics about the Cylon War, because the less we know, the better. But I wanted to go back and meet her, and I suspected that her reputation was a facade. Having established the notion that Picon and Virgon have a complex history, the starting-point was a vivid image of a meeting between the Pican Cavendish and the Queen of Virgon, with very specific actors in mind, Rekha Sharma and Shohreh Aghdashloo. I don’t know why that image came to mind, but I liked it, I liked the voices—I almost always write dialogue with specific actors in mind, to keep characters distinct; as Lacey astutely noted, I am effectively shooting film in my mind’s eye—and I liked the energy each brings, so it stuck. (Sharma struck me as able to reflect both public confidence and private disarray, and Aghdashloo’s embodiment of Avasarala in the TV version of “The Expanse” was fittingly-regal.) That piece will make it to air eventually, there’s a sequencing issue, but what I should say for now is that I like the idea of a character who has become so mythologized within her own lifetime as to become unrecognizable to herself—who are our heroes behind the mask?

The Chronicle itself is novel-length before we even count the voluminous appendices; hopefully it will see the light of day in due course. The published one-shots run about 16,000 words thusfar; that’s a novelette by itself, and an eBook collection of them will appear at some point. Timing is the issue; there are many more pieces in the pipeline that should be included and I am torn between publishing now and issuing revisions or publishing the whole thing after the fact. About the second novel, I’m going to keep my peace for now beyond saying that I think that it is a piece that is in keeping with the spirit of Moore’s reimagining but which Moore and his team could not have written.

It really has become a whole universe—and all I wanted was an apple pie!

Additional appendices for “Carillon.”

This afternoon, I posted one of my “long grass historical background on the Colonies” pieces, this one tackling Virgon. Unusually, this one has a lengthy textual appendix. It also has two graphical appendices that necessitate a post here, charting 1,891 years of royal history: In genealogical form and tabular form. Buried deep in the early history is a homage to Frank Herbert’s “Dune” universe (which everyone ought to get) among various other little easter-eggs/nods (which perhaps only a few will).

At some point, I will compile a complete list and probably a .ePub book of the one-shots that I have put out in support of the Chronicle, but I have more to do at this point, so I’m holding off on it waiting for a natural stopping-point. As to when the Chronicle itself may appear—I’m as anxious as you if not more so. Watch this space. 

Surprising things we learn writing fiction #298

Turns out that north of 75% of Earth’s oxygen is produced by water-based algae rather than land-based plants, and humans could, in theory, acclimate to anything down to about 11% oxygen. Which means that Aquaria could be a viable (i.e. human-sustaining) biosphere despite lacking significant landmass.

Some first thoughts on “Travelers”

Leah Cairns in 'Travellers' s1e5

In “Travelers,” Leah Cairns is ready for her close-up. Well, yes, literally—but I mean that in episode ten, “Kathryn,” she’s finally given a well-earned showcase. No spoilers for this post, just praise.

First, a brief introduction. In the same sense that “Battlestar Galactica” was but wasn’t a sci-fi show, “Travelers” is but isn’t a time-travel show. Its premise is pregnant with the kind of implications raised by “Caprica” and “Dollhouse”: In the pilot, a group of people from the future permanently imprint their consciousnesses into the brains of present-day people, whom they then pretend to be while carrying out… Other activities. For ethical reasons (sometimes dispensed-with later in the season), travelers choose hosts who were about to die. As Topher observes in “Dollhouse,” you can’t imprint over a full brain because it’ll implode—he was right, and man, it looks like a painful way to go. And as in “Dollhouse,” the wetware interface is fascinating: What if you got a doll drunk and swapped their imprint? Would the second doll also be drunk? Here, one host was a heroin addict. A non-addict traveler is imprinted into an addict’s body; the body that is now the traveler’s body is dependent on heroin, thus, the traveler is too. Another host had cognitive damage. The traveler doesn’t have the same problems that the previous owner did, but it stresses and destabilizes the imprint. (Rebuking Zoe Graystone’s algorithm concept in “Caprica,” the same traveler discovers that the bio they had built for her host from her social-media footprint is wrong.) 

The group’s leader is imprinted into Grant “Mac” MacLaren (Eric McCormack), a 15-year FBI veteran who’s eleven years into his marriage to Kathryn “Kat” MacLaren. That’s a lot of history for the traveler to have to know if he’s to successfully fool his colleagues, and even more (and more intimate) history if he’s to fool her. This is where Cairns—astutely if amusingly for BSG fans cast as Kat—comes in. (The universe will be out of balance until “Travelers” casts Luciana Carro as a character called Maggie.)

Cairns excels at building out a three-dimensional character and projecting it almost entirely through performance. Give her dialogue and she’ll kill with it, but that ability to convey much without saying much (cf. Edward James Olmos) let her build Maggie “Racetrack” Edmondson into a fully-realized person in “Battlestar.” Other characters were more visible, but they had more lines; Cairns built a character who feels real, specific, and profoundly sympathetic (I have light-heartedly but non-jokingly argued that Racetrack is the protagonist) almost entirely on performance. That ability also made her the perfect choice to play Lois in “Interstellar.” We meet Lois only briefly, and she has only a few lines, but in Cairns’ hands, you get an immediate empathy for her—you have a sense of who this woman is and how her life (especially her marriage) has gone, and you sympathize with her plight. Like Racetrack, Lois feels real. She’s sitting at a table with two oscar nominees, each given a ton of dialogue, and she acts them both out of the room. (If acting were about saying the lines, I could do it!)

Kat is a supporting character, threaded through season one until her eponymous episode, “Kathryn,” a long-overdue showcase. It’s a recurrent part that could have faded in and out of the background (cf. Philip’s attorney). But just as Mac is trying to intuit his relationship with this woman, the audience is in the same position—we don’t know these people, and what a great actor can do is make us care enough about the character to want to infer it, and then give us enough subtext to let us. Cairns builds out another character who feels real and three-dimensional and every bit as fully-formed as the main characters. When we find out that she works as a restorationist (prompting an impressed Mac to utter my favorite line from season one: “What you do is amazing—you take something neglected, something that’s rare and beautiful, and make it whole again”), it doesn’t feel like a surprise, it just fits. I promised no spoilers, but for another example, it surely won’t come as a surprise that Mac isn’t as good an actor as is McCormack, and the changes in his behavior plant suspicions in Kat’s mind. There’s a moment in episode seven, “Protocol 5,” in which the tape visibly comes off the end of Kat’s world and she starts to unwind; happily the writers give her lines, but that’s gravy; Cairns’ reactions sell it and convey Kat’s turmoil.

Thus, when we arrive at episode ten and see some of the backstory on Kat and Mac, it feels all the more real and organic—and consequently, even more painful. I promised no spoilers; suffice to say that in a series of flashbacks we see this couple’s life and it’s again Cairns who does the heavy-lifting in selling the emotion of it, culminating in a brief present-tense exchange with Mac that’s just heartbreaking. We watched it yesterday morning, and as I write this (Tuesday morning), I still feel quite emotionally-drained and sad. To work, fiction has to be true: It has to be more true than real life. “Kathryn” was that, in spades. It’s having a lingering impact. That’s rare; “Leverage” did that sometimes: The flashbacks of Tim Hutton screaming and hugging his dead son are still wrenchingly-painful to watch, and lingered for days after first viewing. But, of course, Hutton won an Oscar. Hint hint, The Emmys.

To single out one actor for praise is by no means to imply any slight of the others. The entire cast is excellent; I haven’t seen McCormack since “Will & Grace,” so his turn as MacLaren was revelatory to me. But I want to single out three others: Patrick Gilmore (David), Jared Abrahamson (Trevor) and Reilly Dolman (Philip, the afore-mentioned heroin-addict). When saw them in the trailer, I admit to thinking “oh lord, here we go—teen drama, the Dave Mustaine wannabe and the jock. Meh.” I really wanted to like this show, so that made me nervous. But Abrahamson and Dolman make none of the choices feared by silly, jaded me, and both characters prove hugely and unexpectedly enjoyable. Toward the end of the afore-mentioned “Protocol 5,” there’s a lovely moment with the two of them that (like so many moments on “Leverage”) makes you think “I would watch a whole show of these two.” Meanwhile, David is in a situation that, from the outside, could look sketchy, and Gilmore imbues him with a decency and integrity—he is immediately and visibly trustworthy, honest, incorrupt—a good man. There’s a similar character in my work (also coincidentally called David) who, almost alone, never had a mental casting attached to him; watching Gilmore as this David, I felt for the first time that I know how my David looks.     

It’s difficult to explain the tone of the show, but season two of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” might be an apt reference-point: The material is serious, and so the tone is, too, but it’s also cut with the perfect amount of humor. “Orphan Black” tries to do something similar, but leaves most of its humor to a comic-relief character; “Travelers” integrates it better, salting the script with wry lines that the actors deadpan: “That’s a federal offense,” Special Agent MacLaren tells David in the pilot; “really?” David asks (Gilmore perfectly playing the nervousness); “No, I’m messing with you.” “He’s suddenly a better shot,” Mac’s partner tells Kat; “yeah,” she replies, and in the one Kat line that recalls Racetrack’s mordant sarcasm, Cairns deadpans: “He’s suddenly better at a lot of things.” I lol’d, as they say.

There is so much more that I should probably talk about, but this post is already long. The show’s well-written, well-acted, well-scored, and well-shot. You really can’t ask for more; go to Netflix, binge it up to episode eleven, “Marcy,” and then we’ll all meet back here next Monday and watch the finale with Canada, where it’s still airing—kay?

Maggie’s theme / Racetrack cue

I have a new-ish piece to present. (It was actually published in late October and I forgot to say anything here.) I have spent a lot of time this year in the company of Maggie “Racetrack” Edmondson, as posts passim explain. Racetrack is a pivotal character, and I have lamented that Bear McCreary never wrote a Racetrack theme. It’s an odd lacuna: Supporting characters were never excluded. There’s a Kat theme, which is superlative, definitive, even, and even, gods help us, a Novacek theme, even though he only appears in one episode.) I had given some thought to what a Maggie theme might look like had McCreary written one. There were some obvious parameters: The show’s soundtrack has a particular vernacular, and what I know about Maggie that you (yet) don’t is that she grew up in a rural setting. A theme for her should be Appalachian and limpid, yet it also has to be capable of expanding into something fittingly grand and heroic. Then, one day, I woke up one day with a theme in my head, whole and complete; I immediately went down to the studio (that’s what it’s there for) and spent the day first getting the idea on tape and then trying to get it into some kind of organization. The execution is not optimal, and I feel like the theme is perhaps too innocent, even, but as a sketch to accompany the Racetrack Chronicle, I like it.

Holiday special 2016

Musicam novam præsento. I’m calling this one my “holiday special”; it’s a fun little thing that came out of mucking around with a bunch of vAnalog synths. (I had spent several days writing to Adam Lastiwka’s very electronic Travelers soundtrack and was inspired to spend a studio day working with electronic sounds, which I haven’t really fiddled with since this.) In terms of production-approach and mix, nothing has really changed from Saoirse and Between Breaths, so I don’t have a lot to say about that. I will say a couple of things about instrumentation.  

The main synth lead is an Elektrostudio Davosynth, an emulation of a two-VCO monophonic Italian synthesizer, which sounded okay until I rammed it through a distortion plugin, and all of a sudden it became holy crap! That guitar-synth duel thing is familiar from, say, Dream Theater or this, and that big, cutting synth sound lends itself very nicely to sparring with the Ibanez. Among other things, there’s also three 6MJ polys (also from Elektrostudio), which provide both the synth underpinning the guitar chords at the top and also the arpeggiator, a MinimogueVA (does exactly what you’d expect), an EVM UltraSonique (provides some quasi-modular bubbling noises) and a couple of different string-machine synths providing pads. There’s also a Korg M1 and Roland D10 lurking around in the mix; that big square-wave pad that comes in under the solos is the M1, which sounds as glorious today as when I first heard it on Mike Oldfield and Genesis records over two decades ago. Lastly, there are both acoustic and electronic drums; the electronic snare is from a Linn emulation, and I can’t remember off the top of my head whence the kick. 

I should say that if there is one word that captures the feeling, it’s wistful. This has been a difficult year. But there’s an ecstatic quality in the second guitar solo that recalls the Between Breaths solo, and I think that makes a lovely contrast.

Of our current moment

So tedious a thought is it that I might have to spend four years prefacing my every comment with the same words, again and again, that I might have a t-shirt made up:

“#NeverTrump, I didn’t vote for him—buuuut…”

Rich Lowry has a pretty good piece in the National Review this morning, arguing against what he calls a “coup.” Over the last month, a growing drumbeat has been heard from the sinistral side of the aisle, demanding that electors refuse to vote for Trump, either electing Hillary Clinton or at least throwing the election into the House. (For sake of concision, I’ll call them “Podestites.”) Now, “coup” is a strong word, but Lowry argues that “the norm of electors rubber-stamping the election’s winner is so ingrained in our system that any deviation from it would constitute a revolutionary act.” And the “rationales advanced for a radical departure from the practice as established over a couple of centuries are tinny and unconvincing at best.”

#NeverTrump, I didn’t vote for Donald Trump—but I agree. I have some remarks to offer on three aspects of the moment.

As to the so-called “electoral college” (something of a misnomer, but a common one): Here is my Scalian view on this. 1 We have a text, article II of the Constitution as amended by the Twelfth Amendment, which directs that “[e]ach State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress … [who] shall meet in their respective States” to cast votes for President and send to the Congress the results. Reading this cold, one might expect that in this system, the fifty “electoral colleges” would function as a deliberative body. That the framers expected it to function in such manner is undoubted; Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist 68 is explicit on this point.

But we also have a tradition that they do not. As early as 1833—not halfway into the administration of only the seventh President of these States United— Justice Story remarked that the founders’ expectations as to the operation of the electoral college had been confounded  

in the practical operation of the system, so far as relates to the independence of the electors in the electoral colleges. It is notorious, that the electors are now chosen wholly with reference to particular candidates, and are silently pledged to vote for them. Nay, upon some occasions the electors publicly pledge themselves to vote for a particular person; and thus, in effect, the whole foundation of the system, so elaborately constructed, is subverted. The candidates for the presidency are selected and announced in each state long before the election; and an ardent canvass is maintained in the newspapers, in party meetings, and in the state legislatures, to secure votes for the favourite candidate, and to defeat his opponents. Nay, the state legislatures often become the nominating body, acting in their official capacities, and recommending by solemn resolves their own candidate to the other states. So, that nothing is left to the electors after their choice, but to register votes, which are already pledged; and an exercise of an independent judgment would be treated, as a political usurpation, dishonourable to the individual, and a fraud upon his constituents. 2

Lowry is correct; we have already heard from Hamilton, who continued in Federalist 68, underscoring the importance of procedural regularity: “[In designing a means by which the President be selected, it] was also peculiarly desirable, to afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder.” And he assented to its later amendment precisely for fear of procedural irregularity: “[B]ecause the present mode gives all possible scope to intrigue and is dangerous as we have seen to the public tranquillity.” 3 Story, too, noted the wisdom of an electoral college as a bulwark against the nation being “convulse[d] … with any extraordinary or violent movements….” 4 The text of the Constitution is in many regards open-textured; one can easily imagine other systems of government that fit into its text. An imperial presidency in which all executive-branch officers are simply ministerial vassals of a micromanaging President regnant a la Nicholas II is the logical endpoint of the unitary executive doctrine—yet, although Presidential power over the executive branch (and aspiration as to the other two) has waxed and waned between Windsorian and Romanovan, the American tradition has never gone to such an extreme. 5 The electoral college is similar. We can imagine a system in which the electors deliberate, and that system fits within the textual boundaries. But that system is not our system.

Now as to Russia. Articles about this tend to shroud the specifics of what’s being alleged under vague abstractions: “Interfere,” “hack,” “influence,” and similar. At bedrock, there seem to be two concrete allegations in service of a third insinuation. The first is that the FSB hacked into the email accounts of the Republican and Democratic National Committees and senior Clinton officials, and provided some or all of those materials to “Wikileaks,” which may be (stories vary) a useful idiot, a cats-paw, or an FSB front. Second, “Russia” (presumably although less than necessarily, the FSB) engaged in a campaign of information warfare: Fake news, manipulation of social media using automated accounts (for example, pushing the “trending” rankings on Twitter), that sort of thing.

I will stipulate arguendo that the FSB hacked the DNC and Camp Clinton and released a trove of hitherto-private documents, hoping to influence the election. 6For all that is secret will eventually be brought into the open, and everything that is concealed will be brought to light and made known to all” notwithstanding, this is a matter of concern. Any foreign power’s espionage in obtaining private information (and so leverage) on any American citizen or organization is concerning. 7 Where I have beef is the Podestite non-sequitur that if this is true, therefore Trump’s election was illegitimate and we must either have another election or the electoral college must take extraordinary steps to deny Trump the Presidency. (A third possibility, logically intermediate between these two proposals although never one that seems to appeal to those advancing the break-with-tradition argument, is simply for states to appoint new electors. 8) My objections to the latter, I have already covered, and as to the former, I would note simply that the Podestite proposal is not rationally related to the supposed harm to which it supposedly responds: The same Russia-disclosed information would still be in circulation.

I confess suspicion that the vagueness in the reporting and the frequency of that magical word “hack” is a deliberate play in support of the Podestites. Perhaps sensing that these concrete allegations are somewhat weak tea, what it is perhaps hoped that we might glean is a third allegation, one made only by insinuation (there seems to be little or no evidence for it): “Russia” somehow “hacked” the voting machines, compromising the process and so directly interfering in the election. That would make the Podestite positon rational and something less than brazen partisanship. That would be deeply, profoundly troubling. But there is no evidence for it—not even enough, it would seem, to allege it openly.

Finally, a few words on the supposed “national popular vote.” Bluntly: There is no national popular vote. To be sure, we can make one up, as a matter of mathematics. Every state currently appoints its slate of electors subject to statewide plebiscites, and we could aggregate the votes cast for each candidate in each of those plebiscites plus those cast in the District of Columbia and call the result a “national popular vote.” It is, doubtless, a soothing fiction for the losers. But as a matter of political process, it’s otiose. That isn’t how we elect Presidents. There’s a recurring defect in left-leaning political thought: “We can change a system without affecting the behavior of the people in the system. We change the rules, behavior stays the same, therefore the change effects the desired result.” But it doesn’t work that way; whether it’s tax policy or election rules, if you change the system, everyone knows it, and changes their behavior accordingly. You don’t have to be John Rawls to realize that you can’t hold the vote, see the results, and then decide what system those votes should be fed into! And if you change the system by which Presidents are elected to a nationwide plebiscite—lots of luck—everyone will knows it, and the behavior of voters and the campaigns that target them will change.

I didn’t vote for Trump; I lament his election and the apparent orphaning of the conservative movement in America. (Surely no conservative or libertarian can call a populist GOP home.) But he won. Those of us who were so confident that he would not should be chastened by that fact—it is a time for self-reflection, not subversion. And it wasn’t so very long ago that those who would not commit themselves in advance to the results of a hypothetical election result were “horrifying … [and] really troubling” (inter alia); astonishing, then, that those who nodded along with those sentiments (quite rightly) now refuse to accept in fact the results of an election that has actually happened. At the final debate, Hillary Clinton was emphatic that Trump much accept the result, like it or not. He can’t just wait and see how it turns out:

[T]hat is not the way our democracy works. We’ve been around for 240 years. We’ve had free and fair elections. We’ve accepted the outcomes when we may not have liked them. And that must be expected of anyone standing on a debate stage during a general election.

She was wrong that the result at issue would be her election as President, but she was right about the principle. And the principle’s the thing.

Notes:

  1. See generally Ralph Rossum, Antonin Scalia’s Jurisprudence: Text and Tradition (2006).
  2. Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution § 1457 (1833).
  3. Hamilton, letter to Morris, March 4, 1802.
  4. Commentaries, § 1451.
  5. See generally Peter Shane, The Law of Presidential Power (1988).
  6. With characteristic sanity, the Rt. Hon. Charlie Cooke suggested in an appearance on the Fifth Estate podcast that the motive is being assumed erroneously; it is at least conceivable that the FSB assumed that Trump would lose and that their goal was to damage the incoming President Clinton rather than to elect a President Trump.
  7. Cooke, again, is astute in asking why it is Trump who is blamed for this, rather than the actual President who actually presided over it happening.
  8. See Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98, 113 (2000) (Rehnquist, C.J., concurring).

Populus Coloniarum Duodecim vs. Gaius Baltar

As @BSGMuseum’s #bsgglobalrewatch2016 gets ready to head into the last stretch of season three, “the trial of Gaius Baltar,” Laura observes that “for all his crimes, he’s one of us,” and the question is put: Upon first watch, would you have found him guilty/innocent before his trial?

That’s not straightforward to answer. The easier answer takes for granted our knowledge as the viewer, so let us set aside the epistemological problem for a moment and assume that we are to judge Baltar on the basis of what we know qua the near-omniscient audience.

On Caprica before the Fall, Baltar was a “top consultant for the ministry of defense on computer issues,” with extensive access to the defense mainframe. He was involved with a woman; he seems to have believed that she worked for a defense contractor and, because of his relationship with her, he allowed her to use his access to “pok[e] around inside the defense mainframe” in the belief that it would help her company bid on a contract. The colonial equivalent of the United States Code surely includes crimes for which Baltar could be tried on these facts; unauthorized use of defense information, for example. (Cf. 18 U.S.C. §§ 793(d) et seq.) But to charge him with espionage, collusion, conspiracy, or even, preposterously, genocide (as the Roslin administration later presses Prosecuting Attorney Cassidy to do) would require something much more: Intent. And as the audience, we know he didn’t have it. It could not possibly have occurred to him that she was a Cylon agent. No one had seen a Cylon in forty years, and the last time someone did, they looked “like walking chrome toasters”; Baltar could not possibly have anticipated the transition to organic bodies. And his reaction when she tells him approximately ten minutes before the attacks confirms that he did not know. Accordingly, knowing what we know, Baltar must be thought not guilty on the explosive charges that President Roslin would like to level against him.

The case that Cassidy ultimately brings against Baltar instead hangs on his conduct on New Caprica. Shortly before the first post-Fall election, Margaret “Racetrack” Edmondson and Hamish “Skulls” McCall discover a habitable planet in a freak accident. The military and civilian leadership appears to have let word get out, and when Baltar—by then the candidate opposing Roslin in the election, and trailing in the polls—made settlement his signature issue, he won. (Worthwhile sidenote: With the permission of President Roslin, her Chief of Staff Tory Foster conspired with the Galactica‘s XO, Col. Tigh, to rig the election for Roslin; when Gaeta-supporter Lt. Gaeta discovered this play in media res, Admiral Adama lost his nerve and failed to back Tigh’s play; the fraud was outed and Baltar declared the winner.) Settlement proceeded, but a year later, the Cylons discover the planet, what remains of the fleet flees, and the Cylons take de facto control of the planet, making the Baltar administration its puppet. (Three later remarks that formally, the Cylons are there simply as aides and advisers to the legitimate government of the colonies.) Baltar is left with little choice but to do as they say: In at least one instance, his cooperation is forced at gunpoint. What exactly Cassidy charges him with is never specified, but knowing as we do that Romo Lampkin and Lee Adama are correct that Baltar’s choice was between cooperate and do whatever he could or resist and die and become the proximate cause of the extinction of the entire human race, it seems fair to say that whatever Cassidy charged, duress would excuse Baltar’s conduct.

Let us now deal with the knottier problem of how we might apprise Baltar in-universe. The epistemological problem is this: We as the mostly-omniscient viewer are privy to more information than any or all of the characters, and we have more emotional remove. To see this problem in another context, consider the mutiny: Most of the crew, to say nothing of the people of the fleet, have not (as we have) looked over Adama’s shoulder in private meetings. They haven’t seen the challenges that Roslin and Adama have worked through. They don’t know that we’re in the back half of the last season, so don’t worry, guys, it’s almost over. What the average person in the fleet knows is: The Cylons are the bad guys, they killed almost all of us, they’ve hunted us for several years at this point, Adama’s promise to get us to Earth turned out to be worthless (even if it was technically fulfilled), and now all of a sudden we’re being told “oh, don’t worry, these Cylons, you can trust, oh, and by the way, the XO is one of them, it’s cool.” Come again? Now add to that: You might think to yourself, you know what? What did President Zarek ever do that was so bad? And because gossip travels, you might also remember, hang on, didn’t Adama vote to acquit Baltar on charges of collaborating with the Cylon enemy? Didn’t Gaeta turn out to be a hero of the resistance to that enemy? You might even recall (as Racetrack does explicitly in “The Turning Point”) that your friend Felix, diligent, nerdy, loyal, reliable Felix, lost a leg so that Starbuck—very likely a Cylon herself—could run off to collaborate with the enemy. Is it really so clear that, on the information available to them, that they were wrong?

How then are we to assess whether Baltar is innocent or guilty without access to the information that we would have as an omniscient viewer? From whose viewpoint are we to decide? Adama’s? Laura’s? What do they know? In fact: Frak-all. Laura’s direct knowledge of what Baltar did behind closed-doors is almost nil; her testimony and Col. Tigh’s seek to impute guilt by association, speculation, and hearsay. Ah, but surely Gaeta, who served as Baltar’s Chief of Staff, has the goods? He does not. If he did, he could have testified to events that he witnessed, without having to perjure himself as to events he did not witness. In fact, none of the witnesses called by Cassidy are able to offer relevant testimony, and every single one of them is masterfully impeached by Romo Lampkin, esq., with the exception of Gaeta whose perjury is essentially beyond rebuttal. We are left with a vague charge supported by vague, unreliable evidence. If we take the position that the best place from which to assess Baltar’s guilt or innocence is that of a judge at his trial, we cannot but agree with one of the judges: “The defense made their case; the prosecution didn’t.”

Ultimately, it is hard to disagree with a single word of Lee’s de facto closing argument (and a towering Jamie Bamber performance):

Did the defendant make mistakes? Sure, he did. Serious mistakes. But did he actually commit any crimes? Did he commit treason? No. It was an impossible situation. When the Cylons arrived, what could he possibly do? … What would you have done? If he’d refused to surrender, the Cylons would’ve probably nuked the planet right then and there. So did he appear to cooperate with the Cylons? Sure. So did hundreds of others. What’s the difference between him and them? The President issued a blanket pardon. They were all forgiven. No questions asked. Colonel Tigh used suicide bombers, killed dozens of people. Forgiven. Lieutenant Agathon and Chief Tyrol murdered an officer on the Pegasus. Forgiven. The Admiral instituted a coup d’etat against the President. Forgiven. And me? Well, where do I begin? I shot down a civilian passenger ship, the Olympic Carrier, with over a thousand people on board. Forgiven. I raised my weapon to a superior officer, committed an act of mutiny. Forgiven. … I’d say we’re very forgiving of mistakes. We make our own laws now, our own justice. We’ve been pretty creative at finding ways to let people off the hook for everything from theft to murder. And we’ve had to be. Because … we’re on the run. And we have to fight to survive. We have to break rules. We have to bend laws. We have to improvise. But not this time—no! Not for Gaius Baltar. No, you, you have to die. Because we don’t like you very much. Because you’re arrogant. Because you’re weak. Because you’re a coward. And we the mob, we want to throw you out the airlock because you didn’t stand up to the Cylons, and get yourself killed in the process. That’s justice now. You should’ve been killed back on New Caprica, but since you had the temerity to live, we’re gonna execute you now. That’s justice!

This case is built on emotion. It’s built on anger, bitterness, and vengeance. But most of all, it is built on shame. It’s about the shame of what we did to ourselves back on that planet. And it’s about the guilt of those of us who ran away. Who ran away. And we are trying to dump all that guilt and all that shame onto one man, and then flush him out the airlock and hope that that just gets rid of it all. So that we can live with ourselves. But that won’t work. That won’t work. That’s not justice. Not to me. Not to me.

Election day, 2016

In May, when a plurality of the GOP defiled the party by nominating Donald Trump, I walked out and said that I would not vote for him. Today, I did not vote for him.

Instead, I stood in line for thirty minutes and voted for Carly Fiorina. Until last week, my intention had been to vote for Evan McMullin, but I discovered that my write-in ballot for either of them will not be counted; I do not mean that it will not count, mind you, but that it literally will not be counted. (See Ind. Code § 3-12-1-1.7(a)(1).) By voting for McMullin—though he is a good, brave, and honorable man—I would not be adding to a count of McMullin votes that can then be waved as proof that we weren’t all insane, as I had intended, or to legitimize his election by the electoral college in the public mind. The instrumental value of my vote is, in this case, literally zero.

But a vote has a moral value, too. Fiorina was my first choice; it befits that she be my last choice. I didn’t get to vote for her during the primaries. I did my part and voted for Cruz in order to stop Trump. My vote in May could have but didn’t stop Trump winning Indiana’s primary, but nothing I do with it today will stop him from winning Indiana’s votes in the electoral college. That being so, I will take the opportunity to finally vote for the person whom I actually wanted to be President—the person whom we should have nominated, and who, had she been nominated, would undoubtedly been our next President. (A good one, too, I think.)

Tomorrow evening, America will have elected a person for whom I did not vote. If my brethren wish to surrender the highest office in the land to either a crook or a chintzy charlatan, that’s their business. But they will not make of me an accomplice to that act.