Monthly Archives: December 2015

The Accidental Genius of George Lucas Part 3

Star_Wars_Episode_VII_42664Star Wars was a work of accidental genius. I mean both the original film that we now know as A New Hope and also the entire saga – although each is its own accident. George Lucas himself never understood the true reasons for their respective successes, and that’s why he wasn’t able to replicate it with the prequel trilogy.

99% of the philosophical depth of the Star Wars universe was added by people other than George Lucas. In Part 1 I noted that the original film is nothing more than a solid, fun adventure romp. The philosophical depth of it is minimal. Yesterday, I noted that the philosophy underlying everything else came from the second installment in the series, The Empire Strikes Back.

It’s important to understand that a large portion of the depth, however, came from entirely outside of the official “canon” of the series. I’m hardly the first person to note, for example, that certain non-canon entries – the so-called “Extended Universe” or EU – are vastly superior to some of the lesser films. Several of the EU novels – including the Thrawn Trilogy that kicked off the modern EU – are absolutely amazing, and add quite a bit of depth to the series. Even some of the video games are better than the prequels. Knights of the Old Republic was better than any of them, as was its sequel, despite being seriously hamstrung by Lucas Arts.

The backstories of both the Sith and the Clone Wars were handled better in a half dozen different EU settings – each. KOTOR in particular developed a massive world in the Old Republic, adding tons of history and giving a rich mythology to the Sith. The aforementioned Thrawn Trilogy hinted at a version of the Clone Wars that was far more interesting than anything we’ve seen on screen – but even the animated Cartoon Network series proved a more interesting take on this event than Attack of the Clones.

The brilliant thing that George Lucas did in his accidental genius was to create a framework that was solid and compelling yet vague enough to allow others to fill in the gaps in even more interesting ways. The Force can become philosophy, magic, or religion depending upon your interpretation. Jedi Knights are hinted at in a way that allows all of us to fill in the gap, conjuring up endless tales of excitement. The gigantic universe – only hinted at in the original trilogy – could hold any number of tales. And who doesn’t love space ships, blasters, aliens, princesses and laser swords?

A whole generation of talented authors and game designers filled in this void of vagueness with interesting ideas. They fleshed out the universe, adding depth far beyond what Lucas ever did. Yet when compared to the real drivers of the Star Wars mythos, even these extremely talented writers look amateurish.

Tomorrow: the real depth of the Star Wars franchise came from the imaginations of the fans.

  1. The Accidental Genius of George Lucas Part 1
  2. The Accidental Genius of George Lucas Part 2
  3. The Accidental Genius of George Lucas Part 3
  4. The Accidental Genius of George Lucas Part 4

The Accidental Genius of George Lucas Part 2

Behind the Scenes of The Empire Strikes BackStar Wars was a work of accidental genius. I mean both the original film that we now know as A New Hope and also the entire saga – although each is its own accident. George Lucas himself never understood the true reasons for their respective successes, and that’s why he wasn’t able to replicate it with the prequel trilogy.

99% of the philosophical depth of the Star Wars universe was added by people other than George Lucas. Yesterday I noted that the original film is nothing more than a solid, fun adventure romp. The philosophical depth of it is minimal (some would claim that the philosophical depth of all of Star Wars is minimal; even by their standards, A New Hope is lacking). Seriously. Go take a minute to watch it again.

The spiritual depth of the entire film consists of an old wizard/sage/priest giving our young hero a brief description of the Force, telling him that legions of warriors who harnessed it once roamed the galaxy but are now nearly extinct, and that he should trust his feelings. That’s it, in the entire movie. Even in the lightsaber scenes (not just the duel, but also when Luke is training aboard the Millennium Falcon), the use of the Force is minimal. The only truly strong uses of it in the entire film are Obi-Wan’s Jedi mind trick and Luke blowing up the Death Star.

The philosophical depth of the Star Wars saga comes from three sources: The Empire Strikes Back (which, as we will see in a minute, was not truly Lucas’s film), the Extended Universe, and the collective imagination of the fans. Seriously – almost all of it comes from these sources.

First, Empire, which was the root of it. Notice that the Force gets a big upgrade in this film. We see people manipulating objects with their minds, performing athletic and acrobatic feats far beyond normal human ability, using it as a kind of “spider sense” for defense, and even using it to glimpse into the future. This is a big jump from the first film.

Then we get Yoda, who brings with him some pithy, vaguely Zen, deep sounding aphorisms: do or do not, unlearn what you have learned, much anger I sense in him, etc. To be honest, the depth even here is… modest. The speech of the movie puts forth a somewhat facile pseudo-Zen philosophy. As a child, I thought it was somewhat deep. As a 37 year old man with a philosophy degree, I find it fun but lacking.

What it did do, however, was present a surface facade of real depth – while remaining extremely vague. The vagueness is critical. It allowed the viewer imagine a lot more depth than was actually there. And for decades, that’s exactly what we did. Those of us who grew up with the movies made up stories in our heads, or while playing games with each other. We traded theories and rumors – rumors that were often so full of BS that they were literally made up by one of our own friends, who had no source.

Importantly, Empire is the film (until this week) that had the absolute least input from Lucas himself. The film was directed by Irvin Kirshner, and the screenplay was by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan. Numerous documentary evidence confirms that Lucas himself had little input into the script, and at one point during production he literally told Kirshner that he was “ruining my movie.”

Thus, the first burst of true depth and genius of the overall saga came not from Lucas himself but from his collaborators. And the reports of Lucas’s feelings about Empire confirm that he didn’t truly understand what made it great. The prequels only confirm that he still doesn’t – the beauty of the saga was just more accidental genius.

Tomorrow: the Extended Universe.

  1. The Accidental Genius of George Lucas Part 1
  2. The Accidental Genius of George Lucas Part 2
  3. The Accidental Genius of George Lucas Part 3
  4. The Accidental Genius of George Lucas Part 4

The Accidental Genius of George Lucas Part 1

Lines to See Star Wars in 1977Star Wars was a work of accidental genius. I mean both the original film that we now know as A New Hope and also the entire saga – although each is its own accident. George Lucas himself never understood the true reasons for their respective successes, and that’s why he wasn’t able to replicate it with the prequel trilogy.

First, let’s consider the original 1977 film. But let’s be clear about it: I don’t at all think that Lucas was slacking off when he made this film. The tales of how difficult the film was are famous and many. Lucas spent four years just writing the script, and then he famously fought sandstorms, studio executives, budget issues, and technical issues. And don’t forget that he spawned an entire industry to create the special effects that couldn’t previously be done.

Star Wars was a labor of love – or at least a labor. But go watch that original film all over again. Unless you’re a male, nerdy member of my generation – in that case, you probably already know the film word for word. You guys can stay with me if you like. The rest of you, go watch it again.

What kind of film is it? At the end of the day, all you’ve really got is an adventure romp. Now, it’s a really solid one. It’s tons of fun. It was set in a world that felt lived in and real – and also massive. It hinted at enough outside of the core story to suck you in and let you lose yourself in what was going on. And it did all of this while providing scenes of space battles and laser swords in ways that were completely unheard of before the film’s release.

But still, all you’ve really got is an adventure romp – deliberately styled after the pulp serials of the 1930s. George Lucas admits this straight up in interviews. Indeed, that’s a large part of the charm of the film. Many people I know still list it as their favorite of the series specifically because it’s just a fun adventure romp.

But it’s also a really strange film – and I don’t just mean its revolutionary special effects and kinetic space dogfights. The structure of the film is really bizarre, and it doesn’t map to standard storytelling conventions. It spends half an hour following the story of two minor characters, when it hasn’t even introduced the main protagonist yet. The near universal consensus is that said protagonist is whiny and annoying and is overshadowed by the rogue of the series. Everyone remembers that crazy pace of the Death Star assault, but the first half of the movie is almost painfully slow – I remember as a kid fast forwarding through the droids in the desert on my Betamax video cassette.

But the visuals are stunning. And quite a bit of the film was heavily experimental in its day: the special effects, of course, but also the narrative structure, the heavy reliance on an orchestral soundtrack, and the raw pacing of the aforementioned Death Star assault.

In short, it was a gigantic art house film.

It’s the most successful art house film of all time. George Lucas got really, really lucky with it. But because the film he was actually trying to make was an art film, he never truly understood why it resonated with everyone.

Forget Empire and Jedi for a moment, since they weren’t directed by Lucas himself. Besides, we’ll be discussing those later this week. Think about the prequels – and think about them as the most expensive art house films ever made.

The reason they didn’t resonate well with audiences is because Lucas never understood what made the Star Wars films so popular. He thought – and still thinks to this day – that everybody loved his little art house film because it was an art house film. That’s basically how all art house directors think. What he never realized was that the universal appeal of it was a happy accident.

He managed to get just enough right – and at just the right time – to appeal to a vast, previously untapped audience. Laser swords? Check. Aliens? Check. Spaceships? Check. David vs. Goliath story? Check. A frenetic pace that nobody had ever seen before? Check. Visuals unlike anything previously done? Check. Giant spaceships more awesome than anything… except for that even more giant space station that could blow up entire planets? Check. An awesome toy line in a world that hadn’t been merchandised to death yet? Check.

The thing is, even this entire package wouldn’t have had the appeal that it did if any of it had been well done before. But it hadn’t been. And on top of all of that, there were just enough hints of a cosmic half-magic, half-religion, half-philosophy underlying his universe to suck everyone in to the mythological side of his accidental genius.

But that’s for tomorrow’s story, when we look at the accidental genius of the saga as a whole.

 

There Will Be War: Volume X

TWBW_v10_480I’m deeply honored to announce that my story “The Fourth Fleet” will be reprinted as part of the upcoming anthology There Will Be War: Volume X by Dr. Jerry Pournelle. I have to admit to having been a bit surprised by this.

Some of you may know Dr. Pournelle as one of the science fiction grandmasters. Or you may know him from his days as a science adviser to President Reagan. Or you may not know him at all, but recognize some of the other authors on the list – Dr. Martin van Creveld, Larry Niven, or Poul Anderson.

I’m deeply humbled to find my name listed in such company, and I hope that the readers find that the story justifies its placement. As soon as I have a purchase or pre-order link available, I’ll post it.

Not Our Friend

The video below has been making the rounds and provides a curious mixture of truth and propaganda. But then, the best propaganda always has a strong component of truth.

Putin’s latest intervention against ISIS makes him the enemy of our enemy. Despite that, he’s not our friend.

For the better part of a century, Russian geopolitical strategy has been to stir up trouble around the world, basically forcing their rivals to expend energy dealing with that trouble. That’s energy that can’t be spent fighting Russian interests. Keep in mind that in many of these cases, the only actual Russian interest served by these interventions is… stirring up trouble.

Stalin was an absolute master of this and brought the technique to dominate Russian foreign policy. One of his biggest wins in this arena was pushing the Chinese and the Americans into a proxy war in Korea in the 1950s, while the Soviet Union resolutely kept the conflict at arms reach. They were not our friend.

His successors repeated the technique in the 1960s in Vietnam. The Soviets never cared about winning in Vietnam. They just cared about keeping the Americans occupied there. They supplied the North Vietnamese with plenty of weapons, materiel, training and intelligence. But again, they resolutely refused to get involved directly. They were not our friend.

Simultaneously, they carried out a proxy war with the west that still plagues us today. Namely, the KGB sponsored terrorist organizations throughout the world, specifically to cause unrest for western nations. It’s amazing how much this is forgotten in the modern world, but in the 1980s and 1990s we were well aware that middle eastern terrorist groups largely existed thanks to Soviet funding. Not that they didn’t have their own ideological reasons. But without that Soviet funding, they never would have survived into the present day.

It’s worse than that, though. The Soviets also funded the Irish Republican Army in the UK, the Red Army Faction in Germany, the National Liberation Army in Colombia, the Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia, as well as noted individual terrorists such as Carlos the Jackal. They were not our friend.

As if that weren’t enough, they also had a huge influence on political groups in western politics – especially leftist organizations aimed at peace.

Russian GRU defector Stanislav Lunev said in his autobiography that “the GRU and the KGB helped to fund just about every antiwar movement and organization in America and abroad,” and that during the Vietnam War the USSR gave $1 billion to American anti-war movements, more than it gave to the VietCong

They were not our friend.

This isn’t paranoia. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s, KGB documents were released confirming all of this (see many of the sources used in the two Wikipedia articles linked above.

Today, Russia carries on attacks against Isis in Syria. On the surface, we share the same goals. But don’t for a minute think that they’ve got our best interests at heart. Russia is simultaneously propping up the Assad regime, they’re still funding and propping up groups all over the world. They are not our friend.

The US government has made some really stupid decisions in geopolitics over the last 15 years. Looking at some of those decisions, it’s very easy to come to the conclusion that we’re not exactly the good guys in the world these days. Neither are the Russians. They are not our friend.

Recall that in World War II, the Russians were fighting on the side of the Nazis until Hitler double crossed them and invaded Russia. After that, they joined with the Allies against Germany. They were an ally. But they were not our friend.

When the tigers they’ve fed and nurtured in the middle east mature and turn on them – and they will – the Russians will join the western world to fight them. At the rate the western world is proceeding, they may even join us before we join ourselves. But don’t fool yourself – they haven’t done it yet. Until then, they will continue to foment chaos and unrest for their own gain. They will eventually become our allies in this conflict.

But they will not be our friend.

The Zuckerberg Tax Dodge

Like other big name charity donations before him, Mark Zuckerberg’s decision to donate 99% of his wealth to charity isn’t being done out of the goodness of his heart. It’s a tax dodge.

It’s quite simple once you know how it works. First of all, you have to get rich. That’s the only part of the process that’s actually hard. Once you’ve accomplished that, you form a non-profit corporation. You and I can do it for a couple of hundred dollars and an hour or so in line at the county courthouse. Someone like Zuckerberg will probably shell out a few thousand dollars to have some lawyers do some extra fancy setup for him because he’s got so much money that why not?

Now, a non-profit corporation is almost exactly the same as a for-profit corporation… except that you have to set things up just right in order to maintain your tax exempt status. It’s “purpose” (more on this in a minute) has to be one of the listed purposes approved by the IRS, and it can’t be a political organization primarily aimed at influencing elections or legislation. It’s “purpose” can’t be to benefit private interests. And any profits can’t get passed back to the shareholders.

Yes, you read that last sentence right. Being a non-profit organization doesn’t mean you can’t make a profit. It just means you can’t pass that profit on to the shareholders. There are also a few riders that a non-profit organization has to spend a certain amount of its net worth every year. Again… more on this in a minute.

About that “purpose” noted above. That’s the easy part. You just pick a cause. Or, if you have billions like Zuckerberg – and Bill Gates before him, whose model he’s following – you pick several. This is the nice part: they’re probably causes you legitimately care about and want to do something about. Easy and done. But this isn’t the actual purpose. It’s just the organizing purpose that you build the organization around. The actual purpose, of course, is to avoid a shitload of taxes.

Next, you “donate” all of your money to the non-profit organization. Of course, it’s not actually a donation. You’re just transferring your money (or stocks, bonds, or whatever other assets) from one account into another, or from one name into another. In reality, you and/or your spouse, children, family, friends, etc own 100% of the shares of the non-profit. So you’re really “donating” all of your funds to… yourself.

But the great thing is, this donation is, itself, a tax deduction. So you’ve transferred all of your wealth into another account and wiped out most or all of your actual income for the year (from a tax perspective) at the same time. It’s a good deal, right?

We’re just getting started.

Being a non-profit organization doesn’t mean you don’t pay your employees. So now, you, your spouse, your children, and other family and friends are all instantly employees of the non-profit organization. And it doesn’t mean you have to pay them poorly, either. Let’s make them officers, because we can. And officers at non-profit organizations routinely make six figure salaries. Some of them make seven figure salaries. But… we don’t want our salaries to be too high, because then we get into tax issues again. Remember, we’re trying to avoid taxes here. Not pay more.

So we set a decent salary, but not too high. But aren’t we just paying ourselves out of our own money? Ah – here’s where the real fun starts. Because no, we aren’t doing that. We just put together a “charity organization,” right? So we’re going to get a lot of other people’s money, too. And unlike a real business, we’re going to get it all tax free.

So what, we’ll go around like the Salvation Army or Children’s Miracle Network and ask people for donations to the cause, right? Sure. But that’s not where the real money comes from. The real money comes from doling out services and influence in exchange for payment… er, donations. All those six figure speaking fees that Bill Clinton collects? They don’t go to him. They’re donations to his charity. So they’re a tax deduction for the payer, and they’re tax free revenue on his side.

But now we’re still only getting that six figure salary, while all of the rest of our money languishes. We’re not paying taxes on it, but we can’t really do anything with it for ourselves, can we? Well, not exactly. And this is where the non-profit life starts to look a lot like the for-profit one.

Because your job requires you to travel around town a lot, for all kinds of functions. It’s required for a charity, right? You’ve got to mingle. So here’s a car, on the foundation’s dime. Oh, it’s not your car – it’s the foundation’s. You’re only using it. Except that you own the foundation and nobody else is ever going to ask you for it. And you really need a nice one, because your an executive at a very important foundation. Bam. $100k+ car that didn’t come out of your income. No taxes involved, other than sales tax and annual property taxes… which again, are paid by the foundation. And oh yeah, the insurance, maintenance and gas are paid for by that foundation, too.

But we’re not talking about a regular foundation here. We’re talking about Mark Zuckberberg. Surely he does a lot of real travel, too. We’d better have a private plane ready. And of course he’ll need a posh place to stay, at only the best hotels. He’s gotta eat while he’s out, but those big wigs he’s hobnobbing with only eat at the best places. So that’s gonna cost. And of course the foundation picks up the tab for all of it.

You definitely need that home office decked out with the latest communication and technology. Top end computers every year, new smart phones to keep in touch with all of your important charity work. Phone bill, internet bill, all paid for by the foundation. It’s a work expense. Health insurance? Paid for by your “employer” – but only the best, because you’re important.

You have to be careful with some of this, because the IRS actually does have guidelines to prevent “abuse” of this. But a little ingenuity can find substantial overlap between what the IRS allows and what you actually want to do. The foundation doesn’t need to pay for everything, either. After all, you’re still getting that six figure salary and you didn’t donate all of your wealth to it. But imagine how little money you’d actually need if your house is already paid for, your cars are bought and paid for by your employer, and all your vacation… um, I mean work travel is paid for by somebody else. And at the end of the day I’ve only scratched the surface of what you can get away with having the foundation paid for.

But wait a minute. Don’t we require charities to, you know, actually pay for charity? Yes, some. But nowhere near all of your assets. The tax laws on this – and on all of the sneaky ways to pad your own coffers – get complex. But that’s OK, because your “charity” has billions of dollars to pay all the best tax lawyers to be sure that you’re following the rules to the letter. Remember, the purpose here isn’t to break the law. The purpose is to avoid every penny of taxes that you can avoid legally and keep that money in your own pocket. I mean, your foundation’s pocket, of course. Right? Right.

And finally, we get to the best part. You set in your will, and in the foundation’s bylaws, that when a shareholder dies, the shares revert to the foundation itself. “Wait a minute!” I hear you saying. “Don’t you want all this wealth to pass on to your children?”

Yes, yes you do. Which is why you make them – at some point before you die, either at the formation of the charity or later – shareholders. You sell them the shares for some token fee, so that it’s not a “gift” and doesn’t incur taxes. And they can be minority shareholders – even slim minority shareholders. But when you die, your shares revert to the foundation instead of going to them – and hence incur no taxes – they already own their shares – and hence pay no taxes – but now their shares (combined) give them full ownership and control of the foundation.

At the end, you’ve avoided the biggest tax of them all: the 40% inheritance tax that kicks in on estates valued at over $5 million. If you believe nothing else I’ve written above, realize that by forming a foundation and “donating” his money, Zuckerberg manages to pass on all of his $45 billion to his daughter instead of paying 40% of that ($18 billion) to Uncle Sam.

And that’s why I call it the Zuckerberg Tax Dodge. He’s hardly the first to do it. Bill Gates, Bill Clinton, Warren Buffet, and plenty of others have done it. The practice dates back at least to JD Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon in the nineteenth century.

But when the wealthiest of the wealthy “donate all their money to charity,” don’t call them saints. Follow the paper trail and see how they’re perpetuating their family wealth.

Helicopter Parents

Megan McArdle has a post up today talking about the rise of helicopter parents. Speaking as a very relaxed parent myself, this is a real phenomenon. My wife and I regularly get crazy glares, disapproving looks, and even snide comments from other parents. To be fair, she gets a lot more of it than I do. The Mommy Wars are a real thing, too. But when I regularly watch parents tell their five and six year old children that they aren’t allowed to do things that my two year old does, because safety, there’s clearly an issue.

But why?

Vague noises are made about how the world is more dangerous for kids than it used to be (it isn’t), how parents are more anxious than they used to be (really? More anxious than they were during the pioneer days or the Great Depression?), or how liability makes institutions more attuned to parental worries than they once were (OK, but the parents of 1970 didn’t ask institutions to keep their kids from climbing trees). I grew up in a New York City where kids had a lot more freedom — and a lot more crime to contend with, a lot more pollution, and a lot less safety gear. What changed?

The most plausible explanation I’ve heard is that we got richer, and richer people can expend more effort protecting their kids.

After settling in to explain, fairly enough, that we’re not that much richer than our parents, and surely this isn’t all of the explanation, she continues to assign much of the blame to our increasingly credentialized society and the importance of everything being perfect in a child’s life in order for them to have a good chance at a happy future.

With all due respect to Ms. McArdle, whom I read regularly and find to be regularly a great author, this is bunk. I can tell you in one word the primary driver in the rise of helicopter parents:

Numbers.

I am a father of three, with number four due early next year. Now, as it happens, my wife and I have inclined toward free range parenting from the beginning. However, I can tell you from direct experience – in a way that few Americans can these days – that helicopter parenting becomes exponentially harder with each additional child. And once you pass a certain point – probably at the birth of the fourth child, although I’m not there yet (I’ll get back to you) it becomes patently impossible.

Modern American parents are more hovery than their own parents because they can be. The smaller number of children that the average family has makes this possible. When there are only two kids (or, increasingly these days, only one kid) to ferry around, watch over, and care for, you can spend all of your time fretting over every little detail. And for women caught up in the mommy wars, there’s every incentive to do so – to signal how great of a parent you are.

Once the kids outnumber the adults, hovering over them in this way becomes very difficult – no matter how inclined toward it you may be. The kids will pull you in every possible direction, sapping your energy and attention. When the ratio hits 2 to 1, only the most die hard of helicopter parents can manage it anymore.

Today, Americans have fewer children. I believe this is detrimental for many reasons. The rise of helicopter parents is only one of them – but it’s a big one.