Rant

Armada Is Fucking Terrible

Ernie Cline’s novel Armada dropped last week with an enormous publicity campaign that’s sure to get this book selling exceptionally well. Cline has been riding high on his debut novel, Ready Player One, an Easter-egg infused novel that hit the nerd sweet spot with a hefty dose of references and nostalgia. The problem with Armada is that it’s absolutely, fucking terrible.

The plot is basic. A spacecraft drops by the school of one high school gamer, Zack Lightman, and tells him what absolutely every gamer wants to hear: Aliens are about to attack Earth and a secret military organization has shepherded video games, movies, novels and television shows to help attune humanity into fighting back against the alien invaders. On top of all that, Lightman’s one of the top gamers in the world, and that because of his scores in Armada, he’s one of the last best hopes for humanity. He’s brought to a secret base on the Moon, where he meets his long-lost (and presumed dead) father, who’s helping to oversee the counter attack.

I enjoyed Ready Player One quite a bit: it was a fun read that had some neat recursive things going for it: it was a book about a video game that relied on the tropes and conventions of real-world video game history, and it worked well enough. Armada is a pretty far cry away from this, going through a story that’s essentially a rehash of Ender’s Game and The Last Starfighter. Hardly a sentence goes by without Cline dropping a reference to something from the 1980s, and as it becomes more cringe-worthy, it feels as though Cline is simply stuck in the past, unable or unwilling to grow beyond geek-man-child stage and reenter the present.

This bothers me a great deal. The decade was responsible for an incredible surge of creative properties, but it isn’t the only decade when it comes to science fiction or fantasy; you’d never guess it from the endless references. Geeks have always been interested in shibboleth, sorting out who belongs and who doesn’t in nerd circles. Cline, throughout Ready Player One and Armada, drops references to everything from films to television to games to the occasional novel, and seems to be establishing a sort of precedent: if you don’t recognize these sacred tomes, you don’t belong. If you haven’t put in the hours that Zack Lightman and Wade Watts have in establishing their own geek cred, you’re not a ‘true’ geek worthy of the title.

There’s been a bunch of stories that have been incredibly popular that seem to do this sort of listing: Cline’s novels, for one, but also shows such as The Big Bang Theory, is essentially lightly-improvised lines of dialogue strung together with a whole bunch of ‘in the know’ references to any number of geek things. The obsession with checking off the boxes and making a set of qualifications to weed out outsiders isn’t anything new to the science fiction or fantasy circles, but it’s tiring to see after such a long history.

There’s the story of a geek guy meeting a geek girl, where he interrupts her when she expresses an interest in Star Wars or Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica and interrogates her on the minutia of the world. I’ve seen it happen before (hell, I’ve probably done it myself), and it’s just flat out not good for any sort of community. There’s the personal stories of that one lone geek at high school who gets picked on or slammed into a locker for carrying around a Star Wars novel, D&D Manual or Magic: The Gathering Cards, and how the stories that they read carried them through those dark times. Never mind that High School isn’t some sort of fantasy quest to be metaphorically endured, I sometimes wonder about the widespread validity of those stories, or if it’s just a story that we tell ourselves as part of our collective nerd mythology. As books like this and shows such as The Big Bang Theory have demonstrated (not to mention my hometown, where you can spot shirts of Superman, Flash and Green Lantern on the local rednecks) Geek stories appeal to just about everyone, especially now. I think it says more about the high school kid with problems getting along with his classmates and less to do with the kid who blew through Ender’s Game for the tenth time.

Within this archetype story, we always complain that we wished that there were more people who were into Star Wars, D&D and McCaffrey’s Pern novels, but when it comes to the end of the day, we seem to filter out the people who we don’t perceive as being good enough, unless their interests and backgrounds line up perfectly with our own. I’ve seen many people get worked up over the quality of other costumers at conventions and how they’ve only jumped on some sort of bandwagon because science fiction and fantasy movies dominate the box office.

Some people might be attracted to it because it’s popular and because they saw a film/book/game that looked cool with plenty of people watching/reading/playing it. But so what? Why do you need to be born in the mid-1970s to properly appreciate standing in line for Star Wars or ET? Are you really less of a fan of The Lord of the Rings if you saw the films in the theaters and rushed to the store to pick up the books because you enjoyed it so much? Personally, I want as many people as possible to read/watch/enjoy science fiction and fantasy, so that we can have a richer community of fellow nerds.

This isn’t a good book on a story side, by any stretch of the imagination. Where Ready Player One was entertaining and goofy, this just got tedious and annoying to read. The references had a point in the story – it was a hunt for Easter eggs. Here, they’re just annoying and don’t really serve any point other than to establish, over and over again, that Lightman (read: Cline) is a nerdy kid. We get that from the first couple of pages. Armada feels very much like Cline trying to find some way to make a nerdy adolescent existence mean something greater than it really is. But in doing so, he sets out to define what exactly a geek is, and that vision is limited only to the references he lists off, which is a pretty limiting list of things: science fiction / fantasy did some pretty cool things in the 1990s/2000s, but you would hardly guess it from what Cline/His characters list off.

I really despise this manufactured image of a geek-man-child and related stories, as much as I’m made uncomfortable by the people who rush to fill the role. Armada is a book that rushes to fill that role, and in doing so, it ignores just about everything that makes a book readable: likable characters, a plot that makes sense (seriously, the ending is a pretty spectacular failure), and good supporting characters and elements that support the story rather than prop it up. When it isn’t cringe-worthy to read, it’s Picard-facepalm worthy when it comes to actually being a good story. Any novel that ends with (SPOILERS) something completely out of left field along the lines of ‘and then the aliens came and cured cancer, entered us into an intergalactic hegemony and then everyone lived happily ever after the end’, you’ve got a serious fucking problem. Maybe Cline is doing something more clever – subverting the tropes of video games to pull out a satirical work of fiction that makes us think differently about the genre. If that’s the case, you’d never guess under the weight of its failure of characters and story.

This is wish-fulfillment fiction, through and through, from the situation Lightman finds himself in to the few constructed, idealized women who appear in the book. Wish fulfillment isn’t necessarily bad: what person playing a video game hasn’t wanted to save the world? But how many people use it to define their existence? Lightman, in saving the world, has his many hours validated. He even puts in a scene at the end where his accomplishments are acknowledged by the high school bully who beat up on him!

Armada would work perfectly if there was some recursive thing about it that made all the references make sense. There’s been plenty of books / movies like this that went heavy on the nostalgia: John Scalzi’s Redshirts comes to mind, along with Austin Grossman’s fantastic novel You or even movies like Galaxy Quest. But the thing that made those books / movies excellent aren’t in Armada: it’s just an annoying, tedious read that made me want to throw the book across the room when I finished it.

Republican Labels Star Wars Day as Wasteful Spending

Photo by Rob F. Some rights reserved.

Generally, the 501st Legion steers clear of politics. We’re not supposed to appear with political candidates or generally deviate from a charitable + costume-styled mission, but there’s points where we simply can’t avoid it.

The New England Garrison made an appearance in Senator Tom Coburn‘s annual Waste Book, a publication that points out what he considers wasteful spending. The document can be found here, and on page 84, at #52, there’s an entry titled ‘Return of the Jedi – (MA) $365, you’ll see members of the New England Garrison and Alderaan Base, from when we trooped at the Abington Public Library’s Star Wars Day. Our folks had a good time, and apparently the library’s patrons did as well.

The document goes on to say the following:

The Star Wars Day event, held at the Abington Public Library in Massachusetts, was paid for with $365 in federal funds, part of an $11,700 grant provided by the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services.

The Star Wars franchise has grossed over $4.5 billion over the past 35 years, so taxpayers may wonder why the government is subsidizing fan events for one of the most popular and successful movie series in the universe.

It’s enough to make my blood boil.

What immediately strikes me is just how misleading this entry is, or at the very least, the second paragraph. While it’s true that the films have grossed more than 4.5 billion listed, there’s no direct connection between Lucasfilm Limited and the library, or us, for that matter. We’re an organization that LFL works with, but we’re not employees. Moreover, this works to imply that the $365 (which compared to the national budget / debt is a microscopic part) that was paid went to LFL or us to pad the bottom line. You want to know what the money was probably used for?

The librarian on staff who’s position is funded through grants. At $15 an hour, that’s 24 hours, less than a full work week, and far less time than what was probably required to put together the event.

I didn’t work with this particular event, but I did work with another library event here in Vermont, where we worked to support the Star Wars club at the Brownell Library in Essex Junction. The grant that supplied a librarian to run the club had actually been cut, and we were there to help support that club. In all, we raised $290, which helped keep the librarian there for the rest of the year.

What bothers me the most is how absolutely clueless this entry appears, given the problems that the nation face, and it’s not this enormous debt, and it’s not that it’s completely off mark, but that whoever placed the entry had absolutely no idea what something like this does. It’s not a miniature Celebration, where fanboys can bask in the glory of Lucas’s franchise: it’s designed to get kids into the public library, where they can see, touch, and interact with all of the resources that are at hand for free to the general public. Libraries are the civilized world’s most crucial institutions, not just for the books that they hold, but for their center in the community, for the expertise that their staffs provide, and for the multiplier effect that they can have on one’s education. This sort of investment from the federal government is something that can do what is most important: assist in the education and self-betterment of our peers. Now, as the country is slowly inching along in its recovery, this is the type of institution that is evermore valuable, and evermore threatened. The Library Foundation of Hennepin County reported that in the 2002 recession, library circulation jumped 11.3%.

Looking long-term, we consistently hear arguments that the American child is falling behind relatively to their peers around the world, with the public school system often coming under fire for a poor education that public school children seem to be receiving. Those arguments aside for the moment, it’s a tiny snapshot of the resources that schools and libraries are pushed to go to. Without additional funding that host communities can’t provide, these important institutions simply cannot exist, and with them, any hope for sustained, meaningful economic recovery.

The Star Wars day that’s come under fire here is inconsequential, but it’s an important insight into how divided we are from the situation on the ground. This congressional member has likely never visited the library, or seen just how federal dollars are used, and what the direct impact on their constituents are. At the same time, the word ‘Military’ shows up three times. ‘Army’, 14 times, but most of those are in the footnotes. ‘Navy’? 23 times, with a couple of good points about military readiness, but also attacking a kid’s program about space and Mars. ‘Marines’ doesn’t show up at all, all institutions that eat enormous quantities of money. I will note, I’m not against military spending, but somewhere in the $1.030–$1.415 trillion, $11,000 was lost in someone’s couch cushions. I would argue, as Fermilab physicist Robert Wilson did in 1969, when questioned about the practical security value of a collider: “If only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture… it has to do with , as we good painters, sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about … it has nothing to do directly with defending our country, except to make it worth defending. ” (Rocket Men: The epic story of the first men on the moon, Craig Nelson, p.x) I don’t mean to imply that there’s an argument being made here that the same money should be put strictly to defense, but I don’t believe that this country should be on a path of bare bones financing, at the expense of the American public.

The elimination of this single event at this single library would be inconsequential in the greater scheme of things. But when you eliminate (or suggest to eliminate one), here, and another there, soon, there’s nothing left.

Again, I didn’t attend this event, but at the one that I did attend, I was greeted behind my helmet by over a hundred patrons: kids, parents and fans, all excited and all of them in the library. I saw a lot of children with books. Reading is an incredibly important skill for the modern world, and everywhere I look, I see evidence that this is something that’s far less valued as a whole, when it should be the most important thing that a child learns to love. Reading opens the doors to worlds previously closed to us, and allows for the creation of an innovative, creative generation that will spur this country to great heights, or down to dangerous depths from which we have little hope of escaping in the same amount of time.

It bothers me that the reality on the ground differs so much from the story that’s been concocted by a disinterested party, hellbent on their mission (which certainly has its merits) to the expense of all other concerns that come up along the way. It’s the programs like this, that build the country, little by little, into what makes it a great nation.

I for one am proud of what the 501st has done to support such events. This summer, we were inundated with over a hundred requests from libraries across New England for similar events, and I fervently hope that we will have twice as many next year.

EDIT, 10/23 3:20PM: NPR has a great post up on the reading habits of younger generations, and surprisingly, it’s not just ebooks and internet things, it’s regular, dead tree books and libraries. Read it here.

Barnes and Noble, No!

Since college, I’ve been using Amazon.com to buy a lot of books. Typically, I hit up the used sections first, where I can generally find decent products for quite a bit cheaper, but generally, for high quality books. In general, I would hit up some of the local bookstores in Montpelier (although now, in Barre, I’m left with far fewer options), Barnes and Noble in Burlington and a bunch of places in between. Amazon, however, has been causing problems for the independent and brick and mortar bookstore scene, and I figured that it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to start doing some of my online shopping somewhere else, at least for new books.

So, with a new X-Wing novel coming out, (Mercy Kill by Aaron Allston) I went to Barnes and Noble’s website, pre-ordered the book, and sat back to wait. Happily, there’s the option to pay with PayPal, which would help me break my habit of ordering from Amazon, which already has my credit card information, and makes the impulse buys all that much more easy. Release day rolls around, and … no book. Checking the website, I find that it hadn’t shipped yet, which is weird, because I had ordered the book last month – plenty of time to get the book out to me within the lower shipping level that I selected.

Last night, I received an e-mail from Barnes and Noble:

Dear Andrew L ,

We want to give you an update about the pre-ordered item(s) listed below. Unfortunately, we just got word that the release date for this item(s) has been changed. We expect to ship the item(s) soon and will email you when it is ready to leave our warehouse. If we cannot acquire the item(s) within 30 days, we will notify you by email.

However, if you would like to cancel this portion of your order, you may do so online at: …

We are working to fulfill the rest of your order as quickly as possible. Because we value you as a customer, we are sending the items that are currently available in your order now at no additional cost to you. Thanks for your patience.

Please accept our sincere apologies for the delay.

— Barnes & Noble

Well, for one, the book’s release date hadn’t changed: Amazon still lists it as August 7th, as does Barnes and Noble. More importantly, Random House, the book’s publisher, lists it as August 7th. Weird. I really want to read this book, so I go ahead and follow the directions to cancel the order. If Barnes and Noble isn’t going to ship it to me, I might as well go back to Amazon, who I know will.

Amazon sends me an automated book ordered e-mail, and because I ordered it directly from them, rather than from a 3rd Party, I’m pretty sure it’ll ship out ASAP. Barnes and Noble sends me another note:

Dear Andrew L,

We have received your request to cancel your order #.

We regret that we are unable to complete your request because your order has entered the shipping process or has already shipped. We apologize for any inconvenience.

If you wish to return this item, you may return your purchase for a refund within 14 days of delivery by following the instructions we included in your package.

For more information regarding returns please click …

So, which is it? Delayed, or in the shipping process? Barnes and Noble, I followed your directions, and you’re not able to go through with even that? Color me unimpressed. So, Amazon’s order is cancelled, and I’m simply going to have to wait for this to arrive on my doorstep later than expected.

There’s more to my indignation here than entitled fanboy demands: it goes to show just why Amazon has been doing so well with the online market, and why Barnes and Noble has not been doing well. To be fair, if I’d gone up to Burlington’s B&N outlet, I’m reasonably sure that I would have been able to pick up the book off the shelf – Star Wars new releases tended to be pretty high profile in the bookselling world, at least when I worked at Borders. But, Burlington’s a good 45 minutes up the road from me, and I don’t typically go up there unless I’m doing several things to make the trip worthwhile. I doubt that the local bookstore, Next Chapter, has anything in stock, with such a small SF/F selection.

What bothers me the most is that Barnes and Noble has had time to perfect their customer supply chain and management. Working at a bookstore during and after college demonstrated some of the principles of how CSM policy worked, and working at a college with a real start up / business flair demonstrated how it was essential for retaining business. What Barnes and Noble is doing is not great. It’s not the worst that I’ve seen, but it’s left me deflated and disappointed that I don’t have a book that I was really looking forward to reading. On one hand, it’s a good lesson in patience, and another opportunity to turn to another book. On the bookseller / CMS level, it’s a customer who took (well, tried) their money somewhere else that was faster, more reliable, and most importantly, happy to take their money.

What bothers me the most is the disconnect between their messaging. Following their directions, I wasn’t able to cancel the order as I’d tried to do: attempting to do so providing me with a completely contrary message, which suggests that there’s a disconnect somewhere in their system. As of writing this, the book is still listed as pending shipment, and for all I know, it could be waiting for me at home or two weeks away. It’s troubling, because my confidence in their ability to actually do what they’re supposed to do: take my money and put a book in my hands.

The problem that this has revealed is an issue with automated systems. In an ideal world, Barnes and Noble would use their physical stores as their greatest asset: when an online order goes out, their system routes the order to the nearest store to your location, and has them fill the order, dropping it in the mail from their store location. This saves time for the buyer, but more importantly, a real, live person puts the order together and drops it in the mail. In a world increasingly filled with automated systems, people in the loop are incredibly important, because they can do what machines can not: recognize and solve a problem that is unexpected. Any bookseller who paid attention could find that this wasn’t a problem, and act accordingly.

This element is crucial to Barnes and Noble’s successes as a book retailer. Borders certainly failed to act as a good customer service company: their policy of twisting their customer’s arms to buy selected books was one of many reasons why Barnes and Noble is still standing. Amazon has proven that it is far superior when handling automated orders: their supply chain is nothing short of remarkable, and it’s going to serve them well into the future. Barnes and Noble’s key strength is a physical location, and they would do well to keep people in the loop when it comes to their day to day operations.

When it comes to comparing Amazon to the thousands of booksellers across the country, there’s almost no doubt in whom I’d want to buy from: the physical retail stores, from a bookseller who knows what they’re doing. The face to face interaction with an employee, even when I don’t need their help, is a key part of the buying experience that Amazon.com simply cannot replicate. The recommended titles are simply based off of similar data profiles from customers, going up against a bookseller who can tell you whether or not the book that you’re looking for is something worth buying – I know that I’ve made the case and sold books that I felt invested in. What Barnes and Noble should do is carry this same thinking over to their online world, bringing someone into the loop.

But first, they need to send me my book! In the meantime, I’m going to attempt to learn a valuable lesson in patience, and read something else in the meantime.

Captain America & World War II

The best part of the latest Marvel film, Captain America, is the end credits. Bold propaganda posters with bright, 1940s colors, jumping out of the screen in the best display of three dimensions in the entire film, the credits capture everything that’s to know about the entire film. Fun, splashy, with more than a little propaganda splashed in there somewhere, it’s everything that America remembers broadly about the Second World War: a classic fight against unmentionable evil, where the good guys win in the end.

Captain America as a superhero film felt like a mixed product for me. One part advance marketing for the 2012 Avengers film, helmed by Joss Whedon, another part superhero origin story and the last bit war film. On the whole, it’s a fun ride: Chris Evans is spectacular as the titular character in Red, White and Blue, with one of the better origin stories set to celluloid (or gigabyte as it were), up there with the original Spiderman and Iron Man films. Yet despite that, the film is torn between missions, and fell pretty far from my expectations, which surprised me, given the praise that the film has garnered from a lot of outlets that I generally trust.

One of the film’s strongest and weakest points was its setting of the Second World War. It’s a fantastic place to place a superhero origin, given the near supernatural nature of the war itself, not to mention accurate to the character’s origins. World War II has taken on a mythological status within the United States, as it’s arguably the one point where the country displayed its absolute best, and absolute worst (necessarily – I’m not being revisionist!).

The movie is good – great even – when we’re introduced to a scrawny Steve Rodgers getting booted from his physical, and given the opportunity to prove himself with some medical experimentation that turns him into the only super soldier that the United States is able to create. Johnson sets up a good arc for Rogers as he’s selected not for his physical strength, but for his purely American character of being a well rounded individual: good of heart, smart, resourceful, all traits that live up to a supposed ideal American that the modern right wing would point to. It’s an admirable goal, to be sure: Steve’s a nice guy, and he saves the entire Eastern seaboard, but it’s a simple vision for how the United States and her allies collided with the Axis powers in Europe. (Japan is barely referenced.) The film builds as Rogers is put onto promotional detail, and it’s not until he reaches the front that he realizes his full potential as a soldier. Once there, he gets one awesome costume / uniform that I love.

It’s the wartime action part of the film that drags the film down. Full of tired action scenes with the all-token American team, the film never really materializes as any type of war film: it’s a collection of sequences against a faceless (literally!) enemy who serves as a stand-in for the Nazi and German soldiers on the front lines of the war. Part of this is from the fact that this is a comic book film in a bizzaro Marvel universe, but I can’t think that the reasons for why we didn’t see Nazis in the films: The Hydra soldiers could have hardly beat out the SS troops as ridiculously cartoonish in and of themselves, and there’s an incredible opportunity missed here when looking to set up a story of American good vs. evil. The action scenes feel as if they’re there for their own sake, penciled in by the screenwriters because they couldn’t be bothered to pick up a Stephen Ambrose story, or any one of the other millions of tomes released in the last decade about the Second World War. As a whole? It’s also pretty boring: Cap hits people with his shield, bounces around Europe to take out the Hydra baddies, and jumps over things on his motorcycle.

In a way, this feels very much as how the United States sees and views the Second World War: we know the basics: the US was attacked, went overseas to far-off battlefields against an enemy who displayed a real disregard for any type of human dignity (not that there’s much in war to begin with, but there’s certainly a line drawn at human experimentation and outright murder), where we won by the strength of our soldiers with a moral imperative to win the war. Rogers / Captain America certainly fit this bill to a T.

My argument here is that it’s just too simple, much as Captain America is, and that the film is basically a reflection of our own understanding and our collective desire to understand the war. The United States faced an enemy that really outgunned and out trained our soldiers for years on the battlefield, bound by a strong nationalistic sense of duty that bordered on fanatical in some instances. The United States largely won the war by outsupplying their armies, slowly improving the training and equipment of our GIs and keeping to a strategy that outmaneuvered the Axis powers, rather than simply outfighting them at every turn by our own prowess, strength and will to fight. This in and of itself is a bit of a simplification, but the study of World War II is akin to a complicated onion, with layers upon layers: it was truly a global war, with innumerable facets.

The Superhero archetype that Captain America displays is something that we commonly believe as a country: it’s a nice narrative, and in a way, Captain America is us, or at least, the parts that we really want to see. The conflict set up between him and Red Skull is horribly underplayed: all things equal, the only differences between the two men are their inner natures: Captain America is good, Red Skull is evil, and it’s a fight that’s set up with some real promise, but ultimately never goes anywhere meaningful, beyond action sequences. Not that the film needed much more than that: it’s designed as a fun action film, so this works, but other Marvel films such as Iron Man really demonstrated that a strong character film is possible: Iron Man succeeded wildly as a story of a self-examination and role within the nation’s character. Captain America never quite does this, although it does a far better job at it than Superman, another type of national hero, does.

Finally, I’m personally tired of the Avengers crossover that seems to be bleeding into every film. Before, we just had to content with the trailers as the beginning of the film: now, they’re in the movies themselves, and while I’m just as excited to see everything next year, I hate the amount of pandering that Marvel is displaying for the film: there’s connections to Iron Man and Thor here in this film, and for someone who hasn’t seen every film, it doesn’t feel so much like connecting stories as trying to bleed the audience dry. The film also hints rather overtly that the next main storyline will be the Winter Soldier run, with the (spoiler!) off-stage death of Bucky.

Captain America is a fun film, but it’s no Iron Man. Well acted (Chris Evans is a superb Captain America and Tommy Lee Jones has some fantastic comedic moments throughout, as well as some of the supporting cast) at points, but the film’s unable to really capitalize on the 2nd World War beyond turning it into one giant series of action sequences that does little to move the characters forward, or even make the audience care about them. The real shame is that I’ve seen people point to this as the ultimate sort of patriotic film, which annoys me because it’s not much more than a regular run of the mill summer blockbuster, just wrapped up in the flag.

Like the end credits, it’s propaganda, a self-fulfilling mythos that we perpetuate ourselves to remind us of how great we are. That bothers me, a great deal. Still, it’s fun to see quasi-Nazis get hit in the face with a red, white and blue shield. That never gets old.

I love and hate Genre Arguments

Do you want to read my 2nd person, post-modern, colonial YA alt-noir post-cyberpunk, apocalyptic futuristic novel where virtual reality steampunk zombies battle in a biopunked militaristic dystopian world with elements of space opera crossed with pre-singularity, post-slipstream hard horror science fiction while contrasting alternate reality world views with a magical realistic vampire-inhabited sword & sorcery, non-western utopian fantasy past?

NO!

Open letter to US Airways

Dear US Airways,

I wanted to register a complaint with the level of service that I received for a business trip overseas between May 19th and May 27th. I’ve never had any major issues with flights in the years that I’ve flown with a variety of airlines, but upon each step of the way, I was met with inadequate, unprofessional and poor customer service and organization from your airline, which seriously impacted the trip that I undertook, and ended up costing money that I had not budgeted out for the trip, necessitating several discussions with my bank, landlord and employer, which comes as a serious embarrassment to myself and how I am perceived professionally. I have hoped that in the days since my trip, I would have found some explanation for what I’ve come up against, but I’ve failed to do so: I remain exceedingly angry.

Some of these problems are ones that are excusable due to weather and other extreme problems that cannot be predicted or easily worked around: every step along the way, the people placed into the positions on the ground were the problem.

My first flight was from Manchester’s airport (MHT) to Philadelphia (PHL), on US Airways Flight 3988 on May 19. I arrived at the airport in plenty of time, and waited for boarding, when we were told that the flight was delayed due to an airport closing due to severe weather. The personnel in Manchester were by far the most helpful of the entire trip – they were unable to get a flight into Philadelphia, but they were able to get a flight from Boston to Philadelphia the next day. I missed the next leg from Philadelphia, flight 750, that day. (I believe that it was delayed for the night.) Already, I have missed a day that had been booked at the hotel where I had been booked, which was not recoverable from the hotel.

On May 20, I was forced to arrange three separate car rides from people who generously took time from their day to get me from person to person, and I arrived at the airport on time for the next flight from Boston to Manchester. (The flight is not on my itinerary, and I don’t remember the number – I’m sure that I’m in your records.). I was bumped up from the afternoon flight to the mid-morning flight, and arrived in Philadelphia with no issues.

The afternoon flight from PHL to BRU (Brussels) arrived late, and was further delayed from Philadelphia – US Airways flight 750. The flight itself was comfortable, but a rearrangement of seating meant that the entire airplane had to be reseated, and my ticket didn’t have a seat listed – there was a considerable wait to rebook the flight and to get seats, which caused further frustration amongst my fellow passengers. Here, there was little direction or announcement in the terminal, and had I not asked, I would not have known until the last minute that there would have been an issue. Because of the delay in the aircraft, I missed the last shuttle to my hotel, and I was required to hire a car to get from the airport to the hotel, further cutting into the money that I had budgeted for the trip. I had hoped that I would be away from further problems with flights.

On May 26, for my return, I arrived at the airport early, went through security and arrived in time for projected boarding of my flight. Again, there was little direction broadcast to the passengers in the terminal: orders for boarding by Zone, which resulted in a long line of people unsure of where to go, as many were still getting out of security and had missed the original announcements: Again, had I not asked, I would not have found out what to do. Flight 751 was supposed to take off at 10:45, but several hours later, the flight was still boarding, and a problem had been discovered with the fuel, and there was a considerable amount of time spent waiting for the final checks. We were soon ordered off the plane and to return a short time later, as a part was being replaced. Several additional announcements were made throughout the afternoon as to the status of the airplane, and by 3:30 or so, we were permitted to reboard: we did so in ten minutes, with the understanding that if the plane did not push off at 4:10 in the afternoon, the crew would be grounded. 4:10 came and went, and we were once again ordered off the plane. Many wondered why there was such a delay in getting the passengers onboard and with the crew’s readiness at the same time: it seemed like a poor use of time. I would have happily sat on the plane for extra time (if we’d been seated earlier) to accommodate the crew. Indeed, we were not even informed that the flight would not take off: we saw the 1st class passengers getting up to leave. The aircraft staff were extremely unhelpful.

From this point on, I found the biggest failures in your organization: there was absolutely no direction from the flight crew and US Airways airport staff as to what the next steps were. We were told to report to the desk. There were no instructions for baggage, and a number of people waited at the carousel for bags that simply didn’t come. The contractor in charge of the bags informed me that I had to check out with the US Airways desk, and that I would be able to collect the bags afterwards, a half-hour later. Moving upstairs, we came across a line that was four hours long. By the time that I had gotten off the airplane and through the line, I had spent 5 hours – 5 HOURS – waiting for more information. I did not know if I would be able to get a place to stay for the night, when my next flight would take off and what to do next. A fellow passenger in line, Eric Stoltz, found that his bags (he was moving back to the US, and had 6) were left unguarded and unsecured downstairs, and I retrieved mine, quickly. Anybody could have walked into the room and picked up what was mine. This was unacceptable.

After four hours in line, around 9:30, we were given vouchers for a nearby hotel, and caught the last shuttle to the hotel, hoping to get dinner before their restaurant closed for the night. If they had not held their doors open, we would not have eaten at all.

The next morning, more problems surfaced. I arrived with my fellow passengers the next morning, we were again confronted with a multiple hour line as the computer system was down, and we were left waiting, once again, with no explanation as to the delay. I heard passengers yelling, and there was a lot of frustration on our part. Getting through line and through security, the flight was once again delayed from 10am to 1pm, where we were informed that the aircraft had undergone further repairs. We had been under the impression that the flight had been fixed, and that the flight would be safe: my faith in the mechanical abilities of the aircraft was now shaken: if the crew had claimed that the plane was safe to fly last night, why had they continued repairs, and were their claims honest the second time around? The flight did indeed take off, but with a revised landing time: 3:30, when my next, rescheduled flight would be boarding. I would still have to go through security, immigration and put my bags through, then go from A to F terminal. The staff on the airplane were once again extremely unhelpful, and did not put my mind to ease when I asked them what to do next: I was essentially told that I would miss my flight and that I’d have to be bumped again. Given that we landed at 3:00 and that I’d gotten out of security by around 3:30, I most likely could have made my flight.

Getting off the plane, we came across a table with people who had missed connections. Once again, there was no indication of this from our flight crew, and people easily could have missed it. When Flight 751 landed, two people manned the desk, and displayed the more inappropriate and rude behavior that I’ve seen all trip. They shouted at the passengers, were incredibly rude to myself, and according to my fellow passenger Erik, slapped his hand away when he saw his name. This is unacceptable for an organization that interfaces with customers. I was shocked, and stunned, that after the past couple of days, we could come up across something like this. I can understand shouting to be heard over noise, but this was different altogether: these two individuals were rude and abrasive, and should be fired.

Indeed, I had also been bumped from my flight, from the 4:00 to Manchester to the 6:15. I went through security and passport control and waited for my flight – we were bumped to another gate, and by our boarding time of 5:45, our flight crew had not shown up, although the person at the desk informed us that they were in the building. Our flight was to depart at 6:15, and our pilot and crew only showed up at that point, where we had to wait further for them to prep the cabin. We boarded, and had to wait 20 spaces on the tarmac for our turn to take off. This normally wouldn’t have been a problem, but our plane had been turned off, and until we were in the air, we were told, the air conditioning would be ineffective – it was 80-90 degrees outside, and extremely warm. The flight attendant did hand out water, but came very close to running out. By the time that we had taken off, we were already extremely late, and landed in Manchester around 8 or shortly thereafter. On top of all this, my ride, who had been watching the website for updates, noted that the flight was still registered as not having taken off by the time we landed, and I had to wait for them to pick me up – they were embarrassed to have left me hanging.

In short, I held boarding passes for nine flights: every single one was cancelled, delayed or changed, with considerable problems along the way. Why, in Brussels, did we have to wait by an entire row of empty consoles to reach a desk that was staffed by two people for over 200 passengers. Why were we not given clear instructions on where to go, and why does there appear to be no contingency plan for unexpected problems such as these on your part, causing a major disruption in the plans for your customers? I hold a customer service-oriented job, and had I caused a comparable problem in my own company, I would have been fired. Why were your personnel in Philadelphia, greeting Flight 751, so abusive and rude to us? Why does it appear that your company has such a low expectation of your customers that you treat them as such? I sincerely want answers to these questions, so that I can understand what I went through over the course of my travels with your company. I have trouble imagining that I will ever willingly fly US Airways again, because of this experience, and I believe that I am either owed an explanation or my money back for the work time that I missed, and the money that I had to expend above and beyond what was budgeted. I certainly did not receive the value that I expected – and have received, from your competitors – indeed, I did not get what I paid for, as I was not delivered to either Brussels nor Manchester on time. I expect some problems when it comes to air travel, but not to this magnitude.

Please let me know if you have any questions. I look forward to your e-mail and explanations.

Sincerely,

Andrew Liptak

Watson

A lot seems to get lost in the minutiae when it comes to science fiction and fantasy: we were supposed to have flying cars, disregarding that most people can’t drive when limited to two dimensions, space exploration will be our salvation, despite the fact that our odds of reproducing and successfully colonizing anything outside of Earth is extremely limited at the present moment, and that when robots and computer systems can best a human, it’s the beginning of the end of humanity.

I’ve been thinking of this since I read Ted Chiang’s novella, The Lifecycle of Software Objects, dealing with the education and development of a viable A.I., and the complexities that arise when putting together such a thing. Chiang rejects the notion that a computer that’s rigidly programmed will automatically produce a superior being: rather, intelligence is far more complex, and anything that is truly intelligent in the same way that we are could potentially come about in the same ways that people can.

Why all the fuss about Watson? It’s an interesting programming trick, to be sure, but hardly the end of humanity as we know it. One of the books that I’ve been fascinated by over the last couple of years is P.W. Singer’s Wired for War, which examines the development of robotic combat systems, a science fiction concept in and of itself. Every time a new type of robot is deployed, the internet inevitably shits itself predicting that Terminator is right around the corner, and that it’s time to start stocking up on canned goods for when the robotic rebellion comes barreling down on our squishy, organic heads.

The future is rarely as predicted: look at the accuracy of weathermen. Within science fiction, we take far too much that’s designed for entertainment as gospel, and very rarely will a science fiction film actually see some realistic predictions. 2001: A Space Odyssey missed by a long shot (we were supposed to have habitable moon bases), Terminator predicted our demise years ago, and Minority Report, one of the only films that seems to have gotten a lot of things right, overestimated things by half a decade: we’ve got our motion controlled computers, except that it’s in gaming consoles.

The pace of technology doesn’t live or die by our expectations of entertainment and wonder: indeed, the truly visionary science fiction films understand that our surroundings are build around how we will use things. Moon‘s director, Duncan Jones, noted that when building the sets and equipment for his film, they wanted to make sure that the designers built it with practicality in mind. Steven Spielberg gathered a bunch of technology experts into a think tank for the world-building of Minority Report.

To date, we don’t have servant androids, daily moon flights or Zeppelins, for the simple reason that there’s either no practical daily use for such things, or there’s a better alternative. True, robots do exist in people’s homes, in the form of iRobot’s Roomba, but these aren’t multiple-purpose devices: they exist to fill a certain function. I wouldn’t trust it (as much as I’d like to) to cook me dinner, fetch the mail or put away things out of order, simply because I can do those things myself, and at a far less cost than such a thing would run me otherwise. Commonplace spaceflight, while on the brink of actually happening to the general (if wealthy) public, is not for business or industry, but entertainment, simply because we haven’t found any other way to make it profitable for investors, while airplanes can do everything that an airship can faster and cheaper, because the infrastructure and needs of the economic world are in place for it.

At the same time, the things that are the most science fictional in our world go almost unnoticed, either because they aren’t dramatic in any particular way: the number of computers and electronics in an automobile, for example, to the tablet computer that I’m typing this on. Take anything from the modern day and transplant it into the golden age of science fiction, it would most likely shock the world. Even things like Amazon.com, Facebook and Twitter fall under these categories, developed in response to how people interact and use the internet: technology has an almost organic development, changing in response to other, prior changes that pave the way for own existence. Twitter, for example, most likely never would have existed but for the happy coincidence of the prevalence of text messaging and Facebook’s own introduction of status updates. Amazon.com was an outgrowth of business’s ability to consolidate and the introduction of wide-spread internet use. When looking at the future, it’s often the really little things, rather than the dramatic, that define our lives.  There are exceptions to this: major terrorist attacks such as on September 11th radically changed things in a lot of ways: most likely, some technologies and political or business environments would have altered how things went, much like the industrial boom that was sparked by the Second World War changed America’s stance amongst the other nations on the planet.

Singer’s book comes to mind in all of this, because of the way that robotics have developed for the battlefield throughout the War on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan. He rejected the idea that we’ll ever have a ‘3 Laws of Robotics’, simply because they get in the way of a combat robot, but also because we really don’t have robotics in the same way that we thought we might have: automatic responses and programming, with a person in the loop to direct how it carries out its mission. Robotics, rather than multi-purpose, are task-specific, much as Watson is on Jeopardy. He might be able to put together a lot of information and connect the dots, but that’s what he’s supposed to do: world domination most likely won’t occur to him, and even if it did, I doubt that it could be carried out. Now, should he have the ability to learn, and apply the fact connection to a desire in a highly complicated and sophisticated manner, we could have a very different story.

We were supposed to have robots in the future. Instead, we have iPads, surveillance cameras, global positioning systems and quite a lot more, because of needs that weren’t predicted back in the middle of the century, predictions that were influenced by the optimism that only a wealthy nation full of technology could bring.

Were these predictions bad? No. Unfounded? Nope. 2001: A Space Odyssey, came out at the beginnings of the Space Race, unsure of what would happen. In 1969, we went to the moon and discovered a magnificent, but empty expanse on the Moon, and haven’t looked back. Blade Runner saw a future that was more grounded: a lived-in world, mired with the same human problems that have been the constant throughout our history.

When it comes to predicting the future, we might very well still have a lot of these things: we’re making early steps towards civilian spaceflight, environmental costs might predicate the elimination of airplanes, and household robotics will likely be more sophisticated. However, the steps towards this direction will always rest on the requirements of the people using them. We simply don’t need a supercomputer to take over the world: we needed one for entertainment.