Sunday, July 27, 2014

Character Insight No. 106: Shinzon

This is the latest installment in a series of "Character Insight" articles regarding the rich history of characters in the Star Trek universe.  An audio version will appear on the This Week in Trek podcast, available for direct download here.

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Welcome back to Character Insight!  This week, we profile Shinzon from Star Trek Nemesis, who comes in at number 5 on our best Trek movie villains countdown.
 

("Hard to Believe This Little Guy Grows Up to be Bane")

Shinzon was created to try and give Captain Picard an ultimate personal villain in the vein of Khan for Captain Kirk. However, much of his story and motivations had to be cut from this movie and that made the actual character fall flat from where he could've been, which would have ranked near the top of this list. 

Shinzon is a clone of Captain Picard who was created by the Romulan Empire as part of ap lan to replace the powerful Starfleet officer with a spy. But the Shinzon plan was abandoned by the Romulan government while he was a boy, and he was discarded to work as a slave in the mines on Remus. The human was abused there and that made him jaded against both his heritage as a human and the Romulan government.

Shinzon got his chance to become powerful during the Dominion War, as the Reman slaves were used during this engagement. He then uses the power gained during his successes in this conflict to kill the Romulan Senate with thalaron radiation and come to power as Praetor of the Empire. 


His plan was to use the thalaron weapon to wipe out Earth to exact revenge on humanity as well as become more famous than Picard in the history books thanks to taking down the mighty Federation. Unfortunately the scenes establishing this latter motive are cut from the movie, which means the viewers only get to see a hollow revenge plot as this villain's motivation.

Quote of the Week: "We will no longer bow before anyone as slaves. Not the Romulans and not your mighty Federation. We are a race bred for war... and conquest."
Shinzon lures Picard and the Enterprise by planting parts of a Data clone B4 on a planet and then offering peace talks on behalf of the Romulan Empire. As a result of his failing health, Shinzon is encouraged by his Reman colleagues to continue the plan by trying to abduct Picard and destroy the Enterprise. His ship the Scimitar has a huge advantage in being able to fire while cloaked, much like the Klingons in Star Trek VI. But Shinzon's perverse fascination with Deanna Troi does him in, as she is able to telepathically link with him to locate where his cloaked ship is, leading to the Enterprise staging a comeback highlighted by Picard ramming the Enterprise into the Scimitar.
Shinzon then decides to try and commit suicide to at least take down the Enterprise, but Data sacrifices himself to save his Captain and end the movies for this cast. Again, making another parallel with the Khan storyline and Spock's sacrifice.
Shinzon as a villain is a great idea, but the execution was not great because it is difficult to establish a compelling back story and his character motivations in a movie less than 2 hours long. Additionally, the parallels to the Star Trek II plot were too much at times, crossing the line from honoring the past to lazy copycatting.

Tom Hardy played Shinzon, and he has continued to act in movies over the past decade, really breaking through in Inception and then highlighted by his appearance as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (Your Punishment Will Be More..Severe).

Until next time, live long and prosper...

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Legal Geek No. 19: Was Veronica's Comcast Call Illegal?

This is the latest installment in a series of "Legal Geek" articles and audio segments regarding current events and trends where the geek world crosses streams with legal land.  An audio version will appear on the Current Geek podcast, available for direct download here.

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Welcome back to Legal Geek. This week, we take a look at wiretapping laws to determine whether Frogpants friends Veronica and Ryan did anything illegal in recording and posting the phone call of them trying to disconnect Comcast service last week.


Anybody who has dealt with canceling cable services knows what a pain companies like Comcast and Time Warner can be on the back end. However, you hopefully haven't experienced the 10+ minutes of agony that Veronica and Ryan did, and it's worth a listen.

(Insert clip of Comcast call)


Available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yYUvpYE99vg 

One of the more typical responses to this viral call has been to ask whether the customer violates any wiretapping laws and the rights of the Comcast call center employee by recording and distributing such a call. It even came up on Current Geek briefly last week.

Wiretapping laws have protected telephone, personal, and electronic communications since the late 1960's, and these laws have become more vital over time as privacy rights erode away for the general public in many areas. Federal and state laws prohibit any unauthorized interception, recording, distribution, or use of a private conversation, although there are numerous limits and exceptions to this law. 

One limit is consent of one or both of the parties to the recording. 38 states and Federal law allow wiretapping of any conversation when one of the parties consents, which would automatically protect Veronica and Ryan as participants on this call. However, California is one of the few states that requires consent of all parties to make wiretapping legal. 

However, there may be implied consent of the Comcast employee here because his company informs customers that each call may be monitored or recorded for quality assurance purposes, which is done precisely to avoid federal wiretapping laws and FCC regulation violations.

However, the California law has another important limit in that it applies only to confidential communications, in other words, those conversations where an expectation of privacy is present. It would likely be impossible for Comcast or its employee to prove that they have any expectation of privacy on a business call from a consumer such as this. Their own recording of these same calls tend to prove otherwise. 

Bottom Line: Veronica and Ryan are safe from federal and California wiretapping laws thanks to consent and/or the call not having an expectation of confidentiality or privacy. That's good news for our friends and hopefully also for Comcast, which will hopefully change company practices and policies after the fallout from one employee following questionable company orders. 

Thanks for reading. Please provide feedback and legal-themed questions as segment suggestions to me on Twitter @BuckeyeFitzy or in the comments below.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Character Insight No. 105: Alexander Marcus

This is the latest installment in a series of "Character Insight" articles regarding the rich history of characters in the Star Trek universe.  An audio version will appear on the This Week in Trek podcast, available for direct download here.--------------------Welcome back to Character Insight!  This week, we profile Admiral Alexander Marcus from Star Trek Into Darkness, who surprisingly jumps all the way to number 6 on our best Trek movie villains countdown.

  
(Perhaps a perfection of the "Badmiral")

Alexander Marcus is an admiral who serves as the head of Starfleet during the Kirk era. He is also the father of Carol Marcus, who later has a child named David with Captain Kirk, at least in the prime timeline. So in a way, this is old grandpa Marcus. 

When Kirk is demoted following a breaking of the Prime Directive, Marcus is convinced by one of his proteges Christopher Pike to let Kirk keep serving actively as first officer on Enterprise. But that decision does not shield Kirk from annoying Marcus, especially when he can't keep quiet during a top level briefing following Khan's bombing of an archive facility in London.

Quote of the Week: "Speak Up Son, Tomorrow is too late..."

In that same briefing, Khan attacks the admirals, captains, and first officers, which leads to the unfortunate death of Christopher Pike and the re-assigning of the Enterprise to Kirk. In order to get rid of Kirk and kill two birds with one stone, Marcus sends Kirk and the Enterprise to go bomb Khan, who has taken refuge on an abandoned part of the Klingon homeworld Qo'Nos, and he sends him with 72 special torpedos which just so happen to have frozen people inside. 

Of course, Kirk listens to the better judgement of Spock and Scotty in not using the torpedos to launch a direct attack on the Klingon homeworld, especially in view of his engine problems. Khan gives himself up when he learns of the torpedos and eventually causes Kirk to open one and discover the truth. Admiral Marcus had been using the genetically-enhanced Khan to build epic warships and armaments to gear up under the guise of Section 31 for a war to be provoked with the Klingons. 


And of course, when Khan turns on Marcus and starts a one-man war with Starfleet, Marcus tries to cover his mistake by killing Khan while also provoking the war he has prepared to start. When Kirk doesn't follow this plan as expected, Marcus and his Section 31 cronies track Kirk down in the warship Vengeance and turn against the Enterprise in an effort to finally finish Khan and correct Marcus's mistake. 

This warmongering desire and his disregard for the lives of the Enterprise crew immediately turn Marcus into another villain of the film, one that Khan and Kirk must combine forces to defeat. Indeed, Damon Lindeloff has been quoted that the Marcus storyline was intended to bring a trope of Hong Kong filmmaking into the Trek movies, that being the villain and the hero needing to team up temporarily for the sake of both.

Marcus gets what is coming to him, though, thanks to the efforts of a rogue stowaway Scotty on the Vengeance and a totally unrealistic but entertaining Thruster suit jump of Kirk and Khan between the damaged ships. He stands by his principles until the end though,...

Quote of the Week (2): "All-out war with the Klingons is inevitable, Mr. Kirk. If you ask me, it's already begun...You killed a Klingon patrol. Even if you got away without a trace, war is coming. And who's gonna lead us?! YOU?! If I'm not in charge, our entire way of life is decimated! So, you want me off this ship, you better kill me."

...And then Khan crushes his head, ending this Badmiral. 

Marcus pushes into the top 10 because the acting performance of Peter Weller is superb, showing a man standing by his principles even when the result seems flawed. Weller has been quoted as disliking the label of villain for Marcus because everything he says about the Klingons is true and he is simply trying to fix his mistakes to clear his conscience when Kirk and the Enterprise get in the way. That belief helps him pull off this performance so much more than a typical bad guy actor. This character is a huge bright spot in an otherwise ordinary copycat movie.

Weller has played in many movies and television series since the 1970's, highlighted by appearances on 24, Dexter, and of course, as Robocop in those original movies. (Insert Officer Murphy)

Until next time, live long and prosper...





Sunday, June 29, 2014

Character Insight No. 104: Dr. Tolian Soran

This is the latest installment in a series of "Character Insight" articles regarding the rich history of characters in the Star Trek universe.  An audio version will appear on the This Week in Trek podcast, available for direct download here.
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Welcome back to Character Insight!  This week, we profile Dr. Tolian Soran, the primary antagonist from Generations. He comes in at number 7 on the list of best Trek movie villains.

  

(Does this look like a face you can trust? Hell, no!)

A couple weeks ago, we profiled Soran's co-conspirators Lursa and B'Etor on this segment, but Soran is the man behind the evil plots in this movie. Soran is an El-Alurian and therefore is the perfect type of villain to span across the decades from Kirk's time to Picard's time. During Kirk's era, Soran was one of a handful of survivors of a Borg attack on his homeworld and being temporarily trapped in the Nexus along with fellow El-Aurian Guinan. 

Well, it wasn't a handful exactly, was it Mr. Scott? (Quote of the Week: "I got 47, out of 150" - 47 ALARM)

Yes, even the original crew couldn't escape the power of that number in the 1990's writing room. The brief flirtation with the Nexus drove Soran crazy to get back, as that allowed him to pretend to experience a life where his family and friends were not destroyed by the Borg attack. Thus, he embarks on a multi-decade mission to find a way to get back in the Nexus.

It also leads him to some great quotes showing how crazy and dedicated he is to returning to his happy place and leaving the memories and ravages of time: (Quote of the Week 2: "They say time is the fire in which we burn"). Which is exactly what needs to be said to convince Picard, who had just experienced a similar trauma of losing his family line in a fire.

The only way Soran can figure out how to make the Nexus pass through a planet is to destroy a star to move its path, which leads him to employ the Duras sisters to steal trilithium from the Romulans to make a weapon capable of such a supernova. And indeed, his evil plot succeeds when only Picard goes down to the planet to stop him. But thankfully, the Nexus has Captain Kirk trapped within it from the initial encounter where he was lost and the El-Aurians were saved by Montgomery Scott on the Enterprise-B.

So back to reality go Kirk and Picard to beat down Soran and prevent the total destruction of a star system and the Enterprise-D crew. Soran and Kirk can then stop worrying about past painful experiences as both die rather than go back to the Nexus. But Picard lives on for more movie fun!

The character of Soran is a fresh villain to the series but he fits right in to make a story spanning the generations. He also serves as an interesting character piece for Guinan, who came away from the Borg and Nexus experiences with a totally opposite outlook and drive than he does. Like Michael Gaines, I personally enjoy Generations largely based on Malcolm McDowell's performance in this well-written villain role.

McDowell has enjoyed a long 50 year career in the acting business, including highlight roles in A Clockwork Orange and many recent movies such as Bolt and TV series such as Entourage, The Mentalist, and CSI: Miami. (Insert Yow!). He currently has about 20 projects filming or in pre- or post-production, so look for a lot more of McDowell to be out there in the future. 

Until next time, live long and prosper...

Character Insight No. 103: V'Ger

This is the latest installment in a series of "Character Insight" articles regarding the rich history of characters in the Star Trek universe.  An audio version will appear on the This Week in Trek podcast, available for direct download here.
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Welcome back to Character Insight!  This week, we profile V'Ger, the antagonist from The Motion Picture. This non humanoid villain of sorts comes in at number 8 on our best Trek movie villains countdown.

  
USS Enterprise approaches V'Ger's cloud
(Watch out for those light bubbles, they sting a bit!)

V'Ger is a vessel encased in an incredibly large energy cloud that tracks through the Alpha Quadrant through Klingon space on the way to Earth. The Enterprise crew is led to investigate why this mysterious cloud entity is coming for the home planet.  Like the Whale Probe in Star Trek 4, V'Ger threatens to destroy Earth, this time with a number of plasma energy spheres located at equidistant points around Earth.  

Unlike the Whale Probe, V'Ger attempts to communicate with ancient radio technology. As Kirk, Spock and Bones uncover the layers to this entity, it becomes clear that this is a relic of Earth's past, specifically the Voyager 6 space probe launched in the 20th Century by NASA. V'Ger was reprogrammed by a machine planet race to learn all it could learn and return to its creator. 

In this process of learning, V'Ger became a conscious machine and struggles with complex, non-scientific concepts as a result of not having intuitive, irrational elements. That makes V'Ger want to merge with the human creator to gain this ability to process all the information it has gained. That allows the writers to get rid of Captain Willard Decker at the end of the movie as he merges with his former lover Ilia (Quote of the Week: "I am V'Ger") and V'ger, thereby giving the Enterprise back to Kirk and crew for more movie adventures. 

Although V'Ger turns out to not be much of an actual evil villain, it makes viewers think about the long-term implications of space decisions made today. V'Ger also allows for Star Trek to take on a big sci fi concept much like the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. This connection to reality makes V'Ger more compelling even for re-watching this movie, and that pushes this "villain" into the top 10 of this list. 

V'Ger has since been linked many ways to potential other story lines of Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry proposed that the machine planet that reprogrammed V'Ger might have been the Borg home world, which led to a couple novels running with this concept. V'Ger also appears in the Star Trek Nero comics to explain how Nero used this machine to calculate precisely when Spock would reappear. 

V'Ger could have ended up with a much different appearance, as the original visual effects house working on The Motion Picture wanted a much darker living machine that opened like a flower on the inside. But this visual effects house overstretched their capabilities and budget and was canned by Paramount, leading to the hiring of John Dykstra and Douglas Trumbull, who took the visual effects in a whole different direction that led to an Academy Award nomination.

Ilia, who ends up representing V'Ger in humanoid form to the Enterprise, was played by Persis Khambatta. Although she missed out on being a regular on the Star Trek Phase II series that was replaced with this movie, she did later appear in MacGyver and Lois and Clark before her passing in 1998.

Until next time, live long and prosper...

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Legal Geek No. 18: Supreme Court Clarifies More Limits on Software Patents

This is the latest installment in what is intended to be a series of "Legal Geek" articles and audio segments regarding current events and trends where the geek world crosses streams with legal land.  An audio version will appear on the Current Geek podcast, available for direct download here.

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Welcome back to Legal Geek. This week, we continue our review of recent Supreme Court decisions affecting the tech world by analyzing the decision in Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank.


Like many Supreme Court cases, including the copyright case covered last week, a primary issue is whether the resulting ruling will affect more than just the narrow facts at hand in the case. For the Alice case, the simple question was whether a patent claiming a computerized trading platform for eliminating settlement risk in financial transactions was patentable subject matter. The broader question was whether software patents are actually patentable subject matter.

As is typical in the decisions, the Supreme Court answered the facts at hand and did not address the broader issue, likely leaving the big question of software patents to be decided by Congress rather than the courts. Thus, the reports that software patents were greatly curtailed by this decision are simply false.

The use of a third party in financial transactions to eliminate settlement risk was deemed by a unanimous court to be what is called merely an Abstract idea, in other words a well known principle or building block of economic practice. Moreover, the claims that add generic computer system elements to perform the methods were ruled to not be patentable subject matter either. 

Put simply, a patent attorney cannot merely wordsmith claims and add simple elements to make a non-patentable Abstract Idea into a valid patent claim.  Again, from a common sense perspective, the Supreme Court has acted logically in stopping gamesmanship based solely on wording of claims rather than substance.

However, the Court made it abundantly clear by comparisons to previous Abstract Idea cases that this analysis has not changed, it was merely applied to the facts in this case. Thus, software patents in the broad sense are still as patentable as they have always been, and that legal field will continue to thrive.

Bottom Line: If software is to be deemed non-patentable subject matter, that decision will clearly not come from the Supreme Court. The standards will remain fuzzy as a result of the nature of software, but there is good innovation there and the courts and Congress are not likely to take away the patent rights to this entire field.

Thanks for reading. Please provide feedback and legal-themed questions as segment suggestions to me on Twitter @BuckeyeFitzy or in the comments below.

Legal Geek No. 17: Supreme Court Deals Death Blow to Cordcutting Option Aereo

This is the latest installment in what is intended to be a series of "Legal Geek" articles and audio segments regarding current events and trends where the geek world crosses streams with legal land.  An audio version will appear on the Current Geek podcast, available for direct download here.

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Welcome back to Legal Geek. This week, we review the impact of this week's Supreme Court decision that killed one cordcutting option called Aereo.


The Supreme Court always releases a high number of decisions in June at the end of their annual term, and the complex intellectual property cases always seem to be left to this time period.  One of the most notable decisions came down this week, as the Aereo service was confirmed to be copyright infringement by the Supreme Court.



For those unfamiliar with Aereo, this was a subscription service that allowed users to watch over-the-air television broadcasts by intercepting the signals with miniature antennae. Basically, a user decided what program he wanted to watch and Aereo opened access to the channel by sending the intercepted antennae signal to the user's device.  Effectively, this was a cord-cutting system because it allowed for live and cable programming to be viewed without a cable or satellite TV subscription.
The 6-3 majority opinion held that the transmission of these intercepted programs to user devices was enough to qualify as a public performance of those programs, which is one of the rights that copyright protection includes.  Just because the programs were individually transmitted in a passive manner on an individual by individual basis, this was deemed by the court to be analogous to a performance of the program through an individual conduit to many users (which would more clearly be improper under copyright precedents).  On this point, I think that common sense won the day.

Thus, Aereo will be shut down, which all 9 justices agreed should happen, even though the dissent disagreed on the grounds for shutting this down.  The Court explicitly stated that this case does not decide whether copyright infringement occurs with cloud computing or remote storage DVR's, so this really just shuts down the most illegitimate of the cordcutting services.  And of course, this decision has no effect on the more popular services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, which pay royalties to stream the programs delivered to subscribers. Indeed, Aereo could make the same negotiations and stay in business, should it choose to continue on the right side of the law.


Bottom Line: Cordcutting and cloud computing live on, while Aereo will not in its current form.  Much like the aftermath of the Napster decisions in the music industry, we still appear to be headed toward a great place for consumers of live and recorded television and films.

Thanks for reading. Please provide feedback and legal-themed questions as segment suggestions to me on Twitter @BuckeyeFitzy or in the comments below.

-- ONE-WEEK REPLACEMENT OUTRO for audio version --
If you are going to Nerdtacular, come say hello to me and let me have any segment suggestions you have there, or on Twitter @BuckeyeFitzy