Monthly Archives: June 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation Favorite Episode- The First Duty

This is the ninth entry in my “Top Ten Star Trek: The Next Generation” episodes.

Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth...

Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth…

The first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth, whether it’s scientific truth or historical truth or personal truth! It is the guiding principle on which Starfleet is based! And if you can’t find it within yourself to stand up and tell the truth about what happened, you don’t deserve to wear that uniform!

That quote, in a nutshell is the reason that this episode is my absolute favorite episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation ever. I picked this episode over “The Best of Both Worlds”, “Tapestry”, and all the other wonderful episodes on my list.

Wesley Crusher

Wesley Crusher is among the most hated and problematic characters on TV. He was introduced in the first season of TNG and the writers didn’t really know what to do with him. Frankly, the writers didn’t really know what to do with any of the characters for the first few seasons of the series.

Yeah, well I don't really want to be here either...

Yeah, well I don’t really want to be here either…

I went to see “Datalore” in a movie theater when they were releasing the Blu-Ray versions of the each season of TNG. There is a point in the episode where Wesley is the only character who realizes Data is not Data. At that point, Picard snarls, “Shut up, Wesley!” Everyone in the theater burst into cheers. It bothered me that the writers would make Picard do something so unprofessional and out of character, but honestly he was saying what everyone probably thinks.

Wesley also wound up getting placed in this terrible characterization of always saving the ship. You had the elite, best of the best officers serving on the flagship of the Federation being made a fool of by a teenaged boy. I remember there was an episode where he creates a program that simulates voices and uses it to hack into the computer and make himself captain. I give props to Wil Wheaton for doing what he could with the character because I think I would have gagged over nearly everything he was given to do.

That was one reason this episode was so great. You had this problematic character who somehow miraculously always knew what to do who was now put in the very human situation of making a mistake. Not only did he make a mistake, he doubled down on his mistake by trying to cover it up.

Well now, Lancelot, Galahad, and I will leap out of the rabbit...

Well now, Lancelot, Galahad, and I will leap out of the rabbit…

I remember growing up somewhat isolated and not having a lot of friends. I found a group of friends in college. My father wanted me to transfer to a better school my last year of college. I chose not to because I found friends for the first time in my life and I thought that was more important. A week after the deadline to transfer all of my friends turned on me and I spent my last year of college alone. Wesley’s decision to stick with his friends out of loyalty rings true to me. It is very hard to betray people you know and want to like you, so his behavior is completely understandable. It is also understandable why he chooses to finally do the right thing. If everyone had to look Patrick Stewart in the eye while he tells them they disappointed him, then no one would ever do anything wrong.

Ensign Sito

One episode I had on my top ten list that I dropped because I realized it would overlap was “Lower Decks”. That episode appealed to me because it follows up from this episode.

Don't try to stare down Picard. Just don't.

Don’t try to stare down Picard. Just don’t.

Sito Jaxa is one of the members of Nova Squadron who is punished for her role in the cover-up. She doesn’t make a huge impression in “The First Duty” because you have powerhouse performances by Patrick Stewart, Ray Walston, and Robert Duncan McNeill.

When she comes back in a few seasons, you probably don’t remember her. You get a reminder that she has a backstory later in the episode.

Her story is interesting to me because it is a story that doesn’t get told very often. She is a person who made a mistake and was punished for it. That mistake could have ruined her future. She had to repeat a year of school and she lost all of her friends. She was known as one of the cadets who killed a teammate and tried to cover it up. The pressure of that drove Wesley to drop out of the Academy.

In fiction, we like self-contained stories. Person does something stupid, they get punished for it, the karmic balance of the universe is restored, let’s go have cake. There is a reason all the princess fairy tales end with “happily ever after” after the wedding. At that point stuff starts getting real and messy and complicated.

Sito Jaxa undercover

Sito Jaxa undercover

It is a very real thing to have your life torn apart and having to figure out where you go from there. One reason I find Steve Jobs compelling is that his story could have ended back in 1985 when he was forced out of Apple. Man starts company, is in over his head, flies too close to the sun, then crashes back down to Earth. Nice and tidy.

Except it isn’t. Your life crashes around your ears and you keep living. You can’t stop. You keep having to move forward. You learn. You change. You gather the pieces of your life and you start over.

I have encountered many people over the years who tell me that one false move will destroy my career. I do one wrong thing and it is over.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

I thought my life was over six years ago. I had everything I worked for evaporate overnight. Everything was gone. I was 27 years old and I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I did know, however, that I had to endure. I knew that I could not just give up on myself. I knew it would take time and it would be hard, but that I needed to get over it and keep going.

I don’t think that one bad decision I made when I was in my 20s should label me a failure and determine that I will never succeed. I think people are fully capable of learning from mistakes and becoming new and better people. I am not the same person I was five or ten years ago. The fact that they brought this character back and had her talk about having to pull herself together and persevere after nearly having her career destroyed by a mistake was just awesome.

Picard and Boothby

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got from my parents was to always be nice to support staff. Support staff are the people who really know what is going on. Being mean to them is tacky and it is also a really bad idea because they usually know more about what is going on that the people in “charge”.

Cranky old man with cranky middle aged man.

Cranky old man with cranky middle aged man.

It is telling that when Picard gets back to the Academy the first person he goes to for the inside scoop is Boothby.

It is interesting that in my last recap, “Tapestry”, Picard got a chance to go back and prevent himself from making a mistake. Boothby helped him with some trouble that is completely different than the territory they covered in Tapestry.

I find it interesting that so much of the series is focused on breaking down Picard. He lost his heart by being stabbed. He got kidnapped by The Borg. He was tortured by the Cardassians. There is a running gag in Deep Space Nine that each season they have a “torture O’Brian” episode. They may have gotten the idea from torturing Picard.

I really can’t think of any other character in any form of literature whose development comes close to that of Jean-Luc Picard. Picard is the only character I know who has been allowed to fail and come back from it. He has failed many times. He is the only character I know of who is shown as a successful adult at the height of his career who got there by failing upward.

It is really nice that you have Picard getting advice from Boothby as a cadet, becoming the wise older man, then paying it forward to Wesley.

Seriously, I don’t think you can be human and be given this speech without feeling like complete and total crap:

Come on, don't tell me you don't want to sit in the Captain's chair too!!

Come on, don’t tell me you don’t want to sit in the Captain’s chair too!!

Do you remember the first day you came aboard this ship? Your mother brought you on the Bridge. And you even sat in my chair! I was annoyed! A presumptuous child playing on my ship! But I never forgot how you already knew every control, every display. You behaved as though you belonged on the Bridge. And then, later, when I decided to make you an acting Ensign, I was convinced that you could be an outstanding officer. And I never questioned that conviction… until now.

The biggest thing that has bothered me when I have failed is when I have let down someone who gave me a chance and believed in me. One of the things that helps me gather my fortitude and carry on is wanting to be able to show that person that they were not wrong.

Tom Paris, no, I mean Nicholas Locarno

No, I am not a shapeshifter!

No, I am not a shapeshifter!

Just want to make an aside about why the hell the creators of Voyager didn’t just call the Tom Paris character Nicholas Locarno when they cast McNeill. The character has basically the same backstory and personality. I understand that sometimes Star Trek actors get recycled, like how Dr. Leah Brahms turns up in Deep Space Nine as an admiral of some kind, but the characters are vastly different.

Maybe Tom Paris is just a shapeshifter. That would explain an awful lot, especially in that god-awful episode where they break the warp 10 barrier…

Truthiness

Earlier this year I read an article by a start-up founder talking about the cost of lying.

The general gist of the post is that when you lie to yourself or your investors, you are not living in reality. You are placing yourself in an aspirational reality that prevents you from being able to fix what is broken.

The last job I had before I dedicated myself to programming was for this company where our team leader didn’t know what we were supposed to be doing. Instead of talking to his bosses, he decided to hide the truth from them.

What do you say to a man whose son you accidentally killed?

What do you say to a man whose son you accidentally killed?

My second week on the job he told everyone to pretend to be busy. He would shame you if you asked any questions by implying that asking questions makes you look stupid and that if you have questions you should just keep them to yourself to avoid being judged and eventually fired. If he thought that anyone was talking to anyone else who was not on your team he would take you to an empty office and eviscerate you. He broke everyone down so that people would not leave or look for other jobs because they were convinced they were worthless and no one would ever hire them again.

All of this eventually caught up with him because I reported his behavior and the company had to deal with the fact that many things they thought were the case were based on lies. I was punished for my complicity in this scheme, which was fine. I really needed to figure out what to do with my life and that gave me the kick I needed to follow the path I needed to be on. All of this could have been avoided if the team lead had just told the truth right away and said “I don’t know what you want us to do.”

Unwillingness to deal with the truth is my smell test of whether I want to work for a company or not. If I talk to people who don’t want to deal with reality, then it is going to bleed into other areas. Most companies that have a bullying culture are unwilling to deal with the truth, so it gets ignored and swept under the rug.

Conclusion

I know this probably isn’t everyone’s favorite episode of Star Trek, but it was mine. It has many of the same themes as Tapestry, but I found this one slightly more compelling because you don’t really know what is going to happen to the characters. With Tapestry you know at the end of the episode Picard will be alive and that he will feel better about his mistakes. This ends on a question mark. There is no “happy ending” here. Wesley loses his friends and his leader gets expelled. You don’t know what is going to happen to Wesley.

Stand and deliver.

Stand and deliver.

I would argue that this incident is the reason Wesley kind of falls on his ass and drops out of the Academy.

Some people deal with adversity better than others. People either learn from their mistakes or those mistakes bring them down. I know that for me personally I have learned and grown so much from my mistakes that I would not trade them for anything. Other people get destroyed by incidents that happen to him. I am glad that the writers gave Wesley some grey areas instead of just having him graduate from the Academy early and be lined up to captain a ship right out of the Academy like some other Star Trek properties I could point to.

For those of you counting at home, I have only covered nine Star Trek episodes out of a Top Ten list. As we all know, “All Good Things…” must come to an end…

Star Trek: The Next Generation Top Three Episodes- Tapestry

This is the eighth entry in my “Top Ten Star Trek: The Next Generation” episodes.

You are dead, and I am God.

You are dead, and I am God.

Jean-Luc Picard: Q. what is going on?

Q: I told you. You’re dead. This is the afterlife. And I’m God.

Jean-Luc Picard: No… I am not dead. Because I refuse to believe that the afterlife is run by you. The universe is not so badly designed.

Introduction

“Tapestry” is “It’s a Wonderful Life”, TNG-style, except, instead of having an incompetent, bumbling guardian angel you are stuck with a psychopathic trickster with God-like powers. This has already gotten better.

These are your best friends?? Why do we never see them again?

These are your best friends?? Why do we never see them again?

This episode explores the idea that there are pivotal moments in your life that set you on a path irreparably. In Doctor Who, The Doctor refers to these as “fixed moments in time.” He couldn’t stop the destruction of Pompeii because it was a fixed moment in time. He could, however, save one family from the fires and then regenerate into the father of that family in 2014.

Picard is being given the chance to go back and change that fixed point in time. He regretted what choices he made in that instance and he has a chance to go back, putting things right that once went wrong and hoping each time that his next leap will be the leap home. Oh wait, wrong Enterprise captain.

Jean-Luc Picard

Jean-Luc Picard is one of my absolute, all-time favorite characters in anything. I have said before that I feel like Picard is the mentor/boss/father figure everyone wishes they had. He commands respect, but he still has a sense of humor.

Who would have thought anyone would be so happy to be stabbed?

Who would have thought anyone would be so happy to be stabbed?

One reason he is such a compelling character is because he has made mistakes. In “The First Duty” he and Boothby talk about some mistake he made as a cadet that is never elaborated on. He talks about how he was a thoughtless and reckless young man. Making mistakes as a young man formed the wise man we see today.

There is so much emphasis in our society on prodigies. We are enamored with the idea of people who have preternatural gifts that allow them to effortlessly float through problems most people find difficult.

We do not fundamentally respect experience. If someone fails at something, we write them off and never give them another chance again. This is not a good attitude to have. Failure is one of the best teachers there is. We do not allow people in our society to fail. Everyone gets a ribbon in the science fair. Everyone is special, which is the same as saying no one is.

I have had my fair share of failures in my life. Each and every one of them taught me something. One reason this episode spoke so much to me was because I have thought about if I was given the chance to go back in time and change one of my fixed points in time if I would. I would not. If I went back and changed anything, it would just delay the inevitable. I would have not learned the lesson I needed to from that failure and I would have had it later when it was harder to recover from.

I don’t necessarily buy that Picard would have become a science lieutenant if he hadn’t been stabbed, but it did get the point across to Picard that these mistakes were part of the tapestry of his life. His mistakes were woven into the fabric of who he is and if you pull one thread the whole piece comes unravelled.

Q

Q is one of the best characters in Star Trek and this is one of the best episodes he appears in.

When we are introduced to Q in “Encounter at Farpoint” he is putting humanity on trial. He decided that we were not ready to interact with the larger universe. We had to prove to him that we were.

I push humanity forward.

I push humanity forward.

All of the best Q stories come from this base idea. I think some of the writers don’t fundamentally understand the kernel of Q’s essence, as evidenced by the abortion they did to the character in his appearances on Voyager.

Q is compelling because he challenges the nature of who we are. He has God-like powers, but they are best used when he forces you into a situation you are uncomfortable with and forces a change on you.

The silly Q episodes like “Q-Pid” could have just as easily been holodeck episodes.

Each race on Star Trek that has become successful represents some aspect of humanity reflected back at us in a way that we can explore it. The Ferengi were a failed race until Deep Space Nine when they figure out that what made the Ferengi tick was capitalism. This was a deep and rich vein to be mined for stories and it is rather painful to go back and see episodes of TNG before they figured that out.

Q and the Q Continuum, to me at least, represent our collective unconscious. I mean that in our feel that there are things that are larger and greater than we are. We are fundamentally all connected and we have stories and themes that universally speak to all of us. There are dark aspects of ourselves that we do not like to examine. Q forces those aspects out into the light and makes you deal with them. Picard worries that he flew too close to the sun and will burn himself out early because he wasn’t more prudent as a young man. Q forces him to confront that fear and to realize that just being alive isn’t the same as living.

Do you want to make a contract??

Do you want to make a contract??

Picard inadvertently made something of a Faustian bargain. He traded some of the end of his life for distinction and success earlier on. Generally in fiction Faustian bargains are portrayed as bad or evil. People trade their lives for power, power corrupts, and they descend into a personal hell.

In Puella Magi Madoka Magica Kyubey convinces people to enter into Faustian bargains with it. There is a discussion on the morality of what it is doing. It says that these bargains push the human race forward. If it didn’t create these contracts, the human race would still be sitting around naked in caves.

Not everyone can play it safe. You need people like Steve Jobs to take risks and push us forward. Being one of those people may or may not shorten your life, but we need people to take risks, fall on their face, and get up and keep moving forward.

Live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse.

The Cost of Living

I often think about quality of life. I know a lot of people who are commodity programmers at companies where they will work doing the same thing for 10-30 years until it gets outsourced, converted over, or too expensive to pay people to do.

Fixed point in time.

Fixed point in time.

The thought of doing this makes me feel like I am drowning. I can’t imagine doing the same thing for years and years. I have encountered a fair number of people with decades of experience in something that is being phased out who don’t want to start over again doing something new because not only would it be hard, but they would be back down at the bottom of the ladder again pay-wise and it is too much to do.

I have never seen playing along and following the rules paying off for anyone long-term. I went to college being told that if I got good grades and tried hard that something would be other there for me. I got done and it wasn’t. It was a very upsetting realization that forced me to change how I live my life.

I am now grateful that I made that change in my twenties rather than having a tiny amount of success and continuing to fight the inevitable. I do not want to live my life as a lieutenant in the science department of the Enterprise. I don’t think I want to be the captain, but I sure as hell do not want to be a wage slave commodity programmer perpetually afraid that I am going to be laid off like the worker in Office Space.

To quote Lieutenant Junior-Grade Picard:

I would rather die as the man I was than live the life I just saw.

Identity

I also spend a lot of time thinking about who I am. I don’t mean that in a narcissistic, naval-gazing kind of way. I mean what fundamentally makes you who you are.

Doctor Donna Friend

Doctor Donna Friend

If I woke up tomorrow with amnesia not remembering anything I did for the last two years, would I still be me?

This thought is present throughout a lot of science fiction and fantasy.

At the end of the fourth season of Doctor Who, The Doctor has to remove all memory that Donna Noble had of their travels together. She saved the Universe but she would never know or remember it because those experiences were removed from her life.

Donna had the most heartbreaking ending of any companion on Doctor Who. She encountered something that fundamentally and profoundly changed her for the better. To have that cruelly yanked away from her and to make her back into the person she was before is just terrifying.

This thought is most articulately expressed by Yuri Nakamura from “Angel Beats!”

If I vanish now, could I start over anew? Could I accept normal happiness? If I lost my memories, and got a different personality, I might be able to. But then, what does it mean to be reborn? That isn’t the life I had anymore. It’s someone else’s life.

Yuri's speech to the NPCs from Angel Beats!

Yuri Nakamura articulating what it means to be alive.

Everyone only gets to live life one time, and it’s right here. I only get it once. This is my life. I can’t entrust it to someone. I can’t steal a new one. I can’t force it on others. I can’t forget it, or erase it. I can’t stomp over it, laugh it off, or beautify it. I can’t anything, I’d have to- I’d have to accept my one shot at life no matter how cruel or merciless or unfair I thought it was. Sir, don’t you understand? That is why I must fight. I must keep on fighting, because- because I could never accept that kind of life!

Conclusion

Again, I very much enjoyed this episode exploring how a series of choices we make throughout our lives make us who we are. Alice in “Alice in Wonderland” says, “I can’t go back to yesterday! I was a different person then!”

Heraclitus says “You could not step in the same river twice.” Everything continues to flow and change around you. When Homura keeps going back in time to try to save Madoka each timeline she enters is subtly different and she keeps getting further and further from the Madoka she is trying to save.

There is only so much you can do to cheat fate.

There is only so much you can do to cheat fate.

Fixed points in time are fixed for a reason. They are a linchpin around which your life is held together.

Fate is a tricky thing. My personal belief system accounts for both faith and free will. I think that you can have a path that you are supposed to take, but you can willingly veer off that path if you choose. To me, fate is representative of your optimal path. If you veer off your path the Universe will put you through a lot of ordeals until you figure out where you are supposed to be. I don’t believe you get one and only one chance to be the person you want to be. I think if you miss one chance another one will come your way. You need to be open to it and be willing to jump when the Universe says jump.

I would like to end with one last quote from this great episode:

There are many parts of my youth that I’m not proud of. There were… loose threads – untidy parts of me that I would like to remove. But when I… pulled on one of those threads- it unraveled the tapestry of my life.

Why I am Not at WWDC

Seeing a lot of the normal “Why are there no women at WWDC??” posts that tend to come out this time of year. I want to offer my very limited perspective on why I am not at WWDC.

I did not enter to win the WWDC Golden Ticket lottery because I could not afford to go. It isn’t just the cost of the ticket. It is also the flight and the cost of the hotel. I estimate going to WWDC costs about five grand.

Five grand is a lot of money. That is a Mac Pro or a vacation to Europe.

There are a lot of people who go out there who do not have WWDC tickets who still paid between three and five grand to just be out there and talk to their peers.

My understanding is that a lot of people who go to WWDC work for companies that pay those expenses.

I don’t work for a company. I used to, but that company did not really value sending people to conferences, so I doubt they would have paid to send me even if I were still there.

I took two years off to go back to school to learn programming. I am now in the rocky process of trying to establish myself as a professional.

I have some health issues that prevent me from being able to work all those crazy hours that are expected of you if you work at the kinds of innovative start-ups that want to do cutting edge iOS technology or have enough money to send people to go play with the new toys.

Replace health issues with family issues and you will see the problem a large number of women have trying to get to something like WWDC. Even if you can afford to send yourself, you are still leaving your children/family for a week to go run yourself ragged.

For better or worse, women are still the primary caregivers of children. My conference excursions are becoming longer and farther away and it is causing an issue between my husband and I. He doesn’t think it is fair that I am going off on these trips without him and expecting him to subsidize the costs associated with them. Even though I am a speaker and many of the costs get taken care of, there are always some costs that we wind up paying.

There are two easy things that Apple could do to get more women at WWDC:

  • Set aside 100-200 tickets for women in technology. Either set it up as a lottery or have women apply using an essay or something. Try to pick people who are doing interesting things and not just the token woman board member at Zynga.
  • Do something to help ameliorate the cost. Waive the cost of the ticket. Set up a roommate system so that if you want to spilt the cost of a room with another woman you can do that to save money. Each time I have gone to CocoaConf Chicago I have ridden down and roomed with a woman I met when I picked them up to go to Chicago and both woman became very good friends.

I will probably never work for Apple. I can’t afford to move out there and I can’t work the number of hours expected of an Apple engineer. I probably won’t ever get to go to WWDC. I think it is disappointing because I would love to go to all of the OpenGL and Core Audio labs and sessions that I hear are a ghost town because no one cares about them. I am working within the constraints that I am given and doing the best I can.

Apple could make bringing women to WWDC a priority. They think bringing students to WWDC is a priority and the set aside 150 tickets for students. If they wanted more women there, they would do that for them too.

But then again, they would also set aside tickets for a lot of the prominent iOS companies that got shut out of the WWDC lottery. They probably had 100,000 people enter into a lottery for 5,000 tickets. They could double or triple the cost of a ticket and still sell out every year. They had nearly 400,000 people download their Swift programming guide within a day of it being announced/released.

Apple is going to do fine without people like me. I can throw a hissy fit about them not including me, or I can just accept the fact that I am in the same boat as a lot of other people and do the best I can with what I have.

I am not going to have the same career as everyone else. That doesn’t make what I do any less relevant than working at Facebook or trying to create a social photo sharing start-up. I don’t think I have to measure myself based on what other people use for measures of success.

To quote a famous philosopher:

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. But the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

Just because I am not at WWDC does not mean I don’t exist or that I am not a developer. We’re out there. It might take a while, but you will see more of us. I am not quitting.