Thursday, September 25, 2014

Character Insight No. 114: Brunt

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 Brunt, one of the many highly powerful Ferengi making multiple appearances on Deep Space Nine.
  
 Brunt portrait.jpg
("Is that a Dominion spy?") 

Brunt is a liquidator for the Ferengi Commerce Authority, which is basically the IRS on steroids thanks to the stringent Rules of Acquisition all Ferengi businessmen subject themselves to. He first appears as an investigator working to punish Quark's mother for being a female making profit, and then to investigate Quark for causing a worker strike at his bar.

He finally is able to revoke Quark's business license for breaking a contract with the FCA, but the story did not end there for this micro-managing FCA agent. Instead, Brunt then tasks himself with bringing down Grand Nagus Zek to try and make himself the new leader of the Ferengi universe. Of course, Quark foils these plans because he can't bear to work with Brunt as a Grand Nagus, and also because Zek is a friend of Ferengi women's rights, important to Quark's mother.

Quote: "I want you back in business. It gives me an opportunity to keep my eye on you, because one day you are going to make a mistake, and on that day, you're going to lose more than your business license." (from Ferengi Love Songs).

But Brunt temporarily gets his way after the FCA deposes Zek following his bold reforms to give equal rights to Ferengi women. Quark again gets the best of Brunt by convincing enough FCA commissioners to return Zek to his position, a move that makes Zek indebted to Quark and his family forever. Which eventually leads to Quark's brother Rom becoming Grand Nagus, but that's another story. Why this plot twist required a story of Quark becoming a woman is beyond me, but it's not as if the Ferengi are taken terribly serious to begin with in Star Trek.

Brunt did return to his job as a FCA liquidator following his failed attempts to become Grand Nagus. One would expect he returned to his paper-pushing bullying ways with the small amount of power granted by his original position. This character would be more interesting if it weren't for the whole Ferengi culture and storyline being so ridiculous. With that as the backdrop, he simply becomes an irritation that leads to dumb things like Quark with boobs. 

No, I take it back, an annoying inflexible tax man is never terribly interesting. At least, assuming the show writers don't surprise us (and a bully with delusions of grandeur is not surprising in this role).

Jeffrey Combs played Brunt, and he is likely better known for his role as Weyoun of the Dominion in this same series. He played nine different roles in all his Star Trek time, which ranks among the top five for recurring character actors, and he continues to do a lot of cartoon voice work now.

Until next time, live long and prosper...

Legal Geek No. 24: Electronic Car Repo Man

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 the rise of subprime auto loans and the legality of electronic devices that lenders are using to ensure timely payments from these high-risk borrowers.



(The American Dream and Big Brother, all wrapped into one! 

According to a report this week in the New York Times, subprime auto loans, which are car loans made to those with low credit scores below 640, are accounting for nearly 30% of all auto loans in 2014. This represents the biggest boost for selling cars to people with bad credit since before the market crash of 2008.

But in about a quarter of those loans, the lenders are installing electronic devices called starter interrupters, which disable a car's ignition when the borrower is late to make a payment. This is effectively a new technological form of electronic repossession of the vehicles, and lenders say these devices are critical to negating the risk usually associated with subprime auto loans. 

Of course, reports are out there which say the lenders use the devices to track the borrower's movements Big Brother style and that some lenders disable cars at highly inconvenient times, such as when stalled out at a stoplight. But are the lenders breaking consumer laws by extorting payments in this manner?

Some lenders are employing virtual repo men who actually give borrowers a chance by calling them multiple times and waiting 30 days before using the starter interrupter. But others are acting far more quickly, and many times without notice. These types of lenders would likely be breaking some old laws in many states giving rights to borrowers to have a chance to settle debts before the repo man is allowed to come. 

Although state laws vary, the terms of auto loan contracts are typically forced to allow for at least 30 days of being behind on payments before the right to repossess is allowed. And any repossession cannot include a breach of the peace, meaning use of physical force or opening a closed garage, for example. It could be argued these devices do breach the peace when used away from a home or workplace setting. 

Of course, the device manufacturers and lenders believe this disabling of the vehicle is not actually a repossession. It will be interesting to see how that theory works out if challenged many times in court. 

Bottom Line: This is a gray area of law, but states will eventually be forced to define exactly how these new technologies are governed in the auto loan context. One would expect that the largely defenseless struggling consumers will win the day eventually, but for now, the banks hold all the power and wield it heavily, whether actually legal or not.

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

Monday, September 22, 2014

Character Insight No. 113: Cyrano Jones

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 a character who spanned three television series in Star Trek, that man being Cyrano Jones.
  
 Cyrano Jones, 2268.jpg
("The man who brought you Tribbles!") 

Jones makes his first appearance on the iconic Trouble With Tribbles episode. He is a trader located on a space station and pawning goods like gems, tribbles, and glow water while the Klingons in the area plot to take over Sherman's Planet. The ensuing infestation of the station as well as the Enterprise leads to Jones being sentenced to a 20 year prison sentence for transporting dangerous lifeforms. He will spend most of this prison sentence cleaning up the mess left by the tribble infestation. At least he will always have a warm and soft place to take a nap!


Of course, a weasel like Cyrano Jones can't be held down by a prison sentence, so he escapes and travels to a Klingon planet to sell more tribbles. He also acquires a genetically-engineered tribble predator called a glommer, which he then tries to smuggle off the planet. The Enterprise catches Jones and forces him to return the glommer to the Klingons before giving him back over to the authorities. Here's guessing that was a place with less warm and soft places to sleep.

Quote: "Once this lovely little lady starts to show this previous little darling around, you won't be able to keep up with them."

Jones is also one of the charactrers who appears in the DS9 episode Trials and Tribbleations, which was the third overall appearance following those on TOS and The Animated Series. Although this type of swashbuckling trader character does not appear much following the first two series, he could very well be an inspiration for the Ferengi. Of course, Starfleet captains don't like these characters much, whether they be humans or Ferengi. 

Jones is one of only three recurring characters to be played by the same actor in TOS and TAS. His name was originally to be Cyrano Day Jaymin, but this was changed because the script didn't read well. He was also to be a planetary scout who was a gold miner of the Federation era, but this was changed because the tribble story worked better with a general tradesman rather than a planetary scout. Although it does not count as an appearance, an illustration of this character is shown while Data assimilates some Dixon Hall novels in the TNG episode The Big Goodbye.

Capt Kirk - Pick up every tribble on the space station. If you do that, I'll speak to Mr. Lurry about returning your spaceship.
Jones - It would take years!
Spock - 17.9, to be exact. 
Jones - 17.9 years!

Cyrano Jones may not have ended up as such a notorious character without the genius story of the tribbles, but we are certainly better off with the funny stories like his mixed in with the more serious adventures. He therefore serves a similar role as Q does in some episodes of the later Star Trek series. He's a largely unique recurring guest star, which makes for a better character than most which only show up on a couple or three shows.

Stanley Adams played Cyrano Jones, and his most famous appearances as an actor came in 1960s movies like Breakfast at Tiffany's and Lilies of the Field. He passed away in 1977 at the age of 62, far before his time.

Until next time, live long and prosper...

Monday, September 15, 2014

Character Insight No. 112: Birthdays!

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, I am recording this segment on my birthday, so why not come out of the long series of movie villains with a look at how birthdays add character to Star Trek? After all, what defines characters more than how we celebrate our aging process?
  
 Malcolm Reeds birthday cake
("Surprise Parties...still lame in the 24th Century") 

Despite officially only being celebrated by humans, Ferengi, and Krenim in Star Trek lore, birthdays and surprise parties appear with regularity on Star Trek shows. There's nothing more human than pushing your culture on everyone you meet in the spirit of patriotism, colonialism, or discipleship, the Prime Directive notwithstanding. So we get to see that humans still love their presents and parties on birthday occasions


And just like today, there are plenty of weak gifts forced upon people who don't want to think about aging or how old they are. For example, Captain Kirk receives in The Wrath of Khan an antique pair of eyeglasses in an era of medicine perfecting eyesight, as well as an antique copy of A Tale of Two Cities, one of the most boring books you could offer especially when it would be available anytime digitally. But in a cute twist of fate, Kirk pawns that bad gift when time traveling to save the whales because he knows he will once again receive the glasses someday from Dr. McCoy.

Of course, with humans forcing their birthday traditions on their poor crewmates, it does lead to some fun grumpy character lines. Worf is not amused by many things involving merriment, but especially not a surprise birthday party thrown for him in the episode Parallels:

Quote: "(Picard) How old are you?  (Worf) I am...old enough"

Worf is not the only one who can play the grumpy birthday card, as Vulcans are like Klingons and apparently do not celebrate birthdays. When your life expectancy is well beyond 100 years, each individual year probably becomes less significant. But regardless, that does not excuse Mr Grumpyface Tuvok and his nonplussed response to Janeway giving him a candle-laden cake on his birthday in the episode Fury.

Quote: "(Janeway) You're supposed to blow out the candles.  (Tuvok) That is not a Vulcan tradition.  (Janeway) Well...?  (Tuvok) blows out candle...it was a fire hazard"

Some cultures take to the birthday parties more readily, such as Kes in Voyager. Of course, when you only live for a small number of years, it makes more sense to celebrate reaching another milestone. That doesn't stop humans like Dr. Bahsir from finding importance or life turning points at certain birthdays such as 30, even with the presumably longer lifespans of humans 300 years from now. If nothing else, birthday celebrations are an interesting social quirk of humanity that leads to some interesting interactions with other species, another good aspect of Trek. Of course, it would be nice if these interactions were focused on more than the silly surprise parties, but it is a television show after all.

At least birthday parties still have cake, meaning the indulgences in a sweet tooth or some favorite flavor is still a thing 300 years from now. And why not, with replication technology at hand? The writers gave some characters some interesting flavor choices for cakes, at least, including Jimbalian Fudge for Kes, Pineapple for Malcolm Reed, chocolate for Deanna Troi, and Cellular Peptide for Worf ("with mint frosting"). OK that last one isn't truly a birthday cake, but anytime you can play the Worf cake clip, you simply do. 

And so, as I revel in a piece of my favorite Lemon cake later today, let's raise a glass to silly human traditions and birthdays. It's good to know we will still be having silly fun and cake in the 24th Century. Birthdays are yet another piece of character in the Star Trek universe, although we will return to the more conventional character profiles again next week. 

Until next time, live long and prosper...

Monday, September 8, 2014

Legal Geek No. 23 - Delaware Data Destruction

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 the new personal data destruction law put into effect in Delaware and how this may be the most important development in the hot field of privacy law to date. 



(This looks like a fun way to destroy data, but is it effective? 

A few weeks ago, Delaware's legislators and governor signed into law a new data destruction policy that requires complete destruction of personal identifying information held by companies after it is no longer being used. More specifically, the law states that entities must "destroy…a consumer's personal identifying information within its custody and control that is no longer to be retained by the commercial entity...by shredding, erasing, or otherwise destroying or modifying the personal identifying information in those records to make it entirely unreadable or indecipherable through any means."

This sounds good and it follows the lead of many other states which have put in consumer privacy protection laws, but is it the biggest win for consumer privacy in the war against identity theft? I think it is this important for a number of reasons. 

First, the law applies to a wide variety of data sets that would be maintained by companies, as any data set including personal identifying information is included in the destruction obligation. With personal identifying information requiring only a non-encrypted consumer's name in combination with any other personal item such as social security number, credit card number, tax information, or bank account number, this should ensure any possible consumer data will be subject to destruction immediately upon the company's intent to stop using the information. The law also has broad applicability to paper and electronic records, including those stored in the cloud.

Second, the law as written appears to broadly apply to all companies subject to Delaware law, which would include the nearly 50% of companies in the U.S. which have chosen to incorporate in Delaware because of favorable business and tax laws there. The law has no exceptions for size, revenue, or charitable status, so all of these companies would now be subject to these tough privacy laws for protecting consumers. 

Third, the law has bite on the enforcement side, allowing for the Attorney General to bring regulatory actions as well as allowing for private lawsuits with increased treble damages possible for individual consumers in court. The law applies clear encouragement for companies to destroy documents and information securely, limiting the chance that careless or negligent actions will lead to mass amounts of identity theft. 

Bottom Line: companies are storing more and more consumer private data these days, and the attacks of hackers leading to identity theft are becoming more common. This law in Delaware encourages either encryption of all consumer data or destruction of data in a responsible and prompt manner when not being used, which should limit the leaks and openings most often exploited by identity thieves and hackers. Considering the potential coverage of about half of U.S. companies, this is the best state law consumer advocates could ever hope for and is a huge win in the war against identity theft.

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

Character Insight No. 111: Khan (the original)

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 complete our length countdown of best Trek movie villains with the top spot. Who else could be number 1, but Khan Noonien Singh from The Wrath of Khan? 
  
 Khan Noonien Singh, 2285.jpg
("Ahh, the magic of the Montalban") 

As with the John Harrison Khan of the reboot movies, the original Khan is a genetically engineered human who was developed to help run the world countries in the 20th Century. However, in this timeline his re-appearance happens in deep space as Kirk's Enterprise finds the sleeper ship SS Botany Bay in the Mutara sector with all 84 occupants aboard in stasis. 


Kirk's boarding of Khan's ship triggers his stasis unit to revive him. After Dr. McCoy saves Khan's life, Khan temporarily takes over the ship in an attempt to go take over a local colony, but Kirk is able to fight Khan and subdue him. The Enterprise leaves the human augments on Ceti Alpha V, a habitable world, to start a new life and colony apart from society.

Unfortunately, that planet became a desert wasteland a few years later when Ceti Alpha VI has a cataclysm and alters the orbit of Ceti Alpha V. Indeed, this planet is mistaken for Ceti Alpha VI when the USS Reliant and Pavel Chekov come back to scout an apparent unhabitable planet to test the Genesis Device. Khan uses some local eels to make Captain Terrell and Chekov vulnerable to following all suggestions by Khan. Khan and his crew thus highjack the Reliant and try to track down the Genesis Device while also luring Captain Kirk in a plot to gain revenge for his exile on a wasteland planet.

Indeed, Khan quotes from Moby Dick quite often, a nice allegory by the writers to the crazed obsessive nature and psychology of Khan and his revenge plots. 

Quote: "He tasks me! He tasks me, and I shall have him! I'll chase him 'round the moons of Nibia and 'round the Antares maelstrom and 'round Perdition's FLAMES before I give him up." – Khan

Khan then ambushes the Enterprise by faking communications trouble before firing phasers on the Enterprise to knock out many ship systems including propulsion. Kirk knows more about starship battle though, as he uses codes to override the Reliant's tactical system from outside to fire a few weak shots at the Reliant to take out photon torpedos and the warp power, then he goes into the Mutara nebula to force the battle into a sensor-less three-dimensional battle. 

Khan does not appreciate the 3-dimensional submarine-like nature of this battle, which allows the Enterprise to flank the Reliant and attack from behind to win the battle. Khan tries to activate the Genesis device as a bomb to sacrifice himself and kill the Enterprise, but Spock repairs the warp core damage just in time, at the cost of his life, to enable the Enterprise to escape for another day. 

Quote: "From hell's heart, I stab at thee...For hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee..." - Khan

Khan is one of only two villains to successfully kill off a main character, the other being Dr. Soran in Generations. Khan is also only one of two villains to appear multiple times in live action against Kirk's Enterprise, the other being Harry Mudd, who also got a shoutout in the reboot Into Darkness. Khan has a descendant Noonian Singh who redirects his efforts away from human augments to perfecting artificial intelligence, leading to the creation of Data. So the line of augments does eventually provide some serious good in the Star Trek universe. 


This villain has it all: a salty history with Kirk, deep and interesting motivations for his crazy revenge obsession, infinitely quotable, an outstanding acting performance, a suspenseful and tension-filled battle with the Enterprise, and true impact on the crew of the Enterprise. He also brings Star Trek another ethical/moral dilemma of the times, this time the risks of genetic engineering, and it makes you think. That's when Star Trek is at it's best, when it faces the biggest and toughest questions of humanity. 

For more on this great character and his back story, check out the trilogy of novels by Greg Cox including The Eugenics Wars Volumes I and II, and To Reign in Hell, The Exile of Khan Noonien Singh. 

Ricardo Montalban played Khan in these appearances. He passed away in 2009, but in his 88-year life, he has many memorable film and TV appearances including Fantasy Island and The Naked Gun. 

Until next time, live long and prosper...

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Character Insight No. 110: The Borg Queen

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, coming to you this week from the beach in North Carolina!  While cooling off my sunburn, let's take a look at the next villain on our countdown, a lady who has a complexion even paler than my own. That's The Borg Queen from Star Trek First Contact, who comes in at number 2 on our best Trek movie villains countdown. 
  
 BorgQueen2373.jpg
("Data, don't trust that face!") 

The Borg Queen represents a central nexus or representative member of the Borg Collective, introduced for the first time during the conflict where the Borg try to travel back in time to stop Zephram Cochrane's first warp flight for the human race, which eventually led to the formation of the Federation. 


In order to assimilate the Enterprise and finish her plot, the Borg Queen tempts Data with the possibility of becoming partly human, grafting a real human forearm onto his body. For most of the movie, it appears angry Picard with a gun and his crew will lose this conflict at the hands of Data. But Data proves to be loyal to his longtime Enterprise crew in the end, as he causes the torpedoes aimed at the Phoenix warp-capable starship to miss right before destroying the Queen's organic parts with warp core plasma coolant. 

Quote: "Resistance is Futile" (Data)

Her role is relatively controversial because the Borg were previously presented as a large collective hivemind with no leaders, and indeed they had to assimilate Captain Picard to serve as a spokesman during one of the initial conflicts with the Enterprise. But the movie writers struggled without a lead villain, so this queen became a new facet of the Borg Collective. When asked by Data for an explanation of how the queen relationship works, the response adds little clarity:

Quote: "bring order to chaos..."

The concept of the Borg Queen was further developed in the Voyager series and the TNG books. Essentially, the Borg hive mind operates with better decision-making efficiency when a queen is active, but the collective still functions without the queen when one is lost. This explanation kind of undermines the entire point of stopping the Queen in First Contact, but it at least harmonizes better with how the Borg were shown earlier in TNG. 


The quality of a villain can often be evaluated based on how many different stories can be told using the villain, and the top 5 of this countdown is mostly characters that show up in both TV episodes as well as movies. The Borg Queen just misses the top spot because while she is a truly memorable and evil representation of the greatest TNG villain race, the lack of explanation for her sudden appearance contrary to what we knew about the Borg before First Contact is a lazy writing choice taking slightly away from this villain. Still, the Borg and its Queen stand beside Q as the quintessential antagonists for Picard's crew and this #2 ranking reflects that.

Alice Krige played the Borg Queen in the movie, and she reprised the role one of the times the character appears in Voyager. She can recently be seen Thor: The Dark World and also in the new television series Tyrant.

Until next time, live long and prosper...