Lonnie G. Johnson - Inventor of the Super Soaker
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Redefining Black Friday – Celebrating Black Inventors

It’s the day after Thanksgiving in the US again, also known as “Black Friday”. In recent tradition, this has been a day of rampant, unapologetic commercialism. Hordes of eager shoppers rush to stores to kick off the Christmas shopping season and spend money they don’t really have. Well, I’m tired of it, as many of you are (including outdoor sporting goods chain REI, who announced their anti-Black Friday stance with much fanfare). So let’s change it. Let’s make Black Friday something meaningful.

Let’s talk about brilliant black people.

It might surprise you to learn that, as a kid growing up with a strong interest in science and technology, I actually had a lot of black role models in those fields. My schools in Detroit did a great job of exposing me to the great African-American scientific minds like Charles Drew (father of the blood bank), Mae C. Jemison (first African-American female astronaut), and of course George Washington Carver (the peanut guy). But once I got out of Detroit and started interacting with my white classmates and co-workers, I realized that they hadn’t received the same education I had. Their knowledge of non-white scientists was sadly, sorely lacking.

Today I took to Twitter to spread my message of #BlackFriday tech entrepreneurs.

This is just meant as a starting point to incite curiosity and plant a thought seed. I’m sure I missed a bunch. Feel free to add some in the comments.

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Death of a fan

Today I learned that one of my faithful readers, Randy, has died.

He had been disabled for a long time, and mostly confined to his home. But he used social media to connect with people around the world. He knew he was not long for this world, so he had arranged for his family to post a Facebook message to all his online friends. It was one of the most moving things I’d ever read.

I’m not a hugely popular author, but I do have a number of people I’d call “fans”, and I feel extraordinarily lucky to have them as supporters. I always say that writing a story is only half the work; the other half is finding people who care about it. Whenever I find someone who genuinely cares about what I do, I cherish them and I do my best to care about what goes on in their lives too.

Randy and I were friends on Facebook, and although I’d never met him in person, his posts were a constant source of entertainment in my feed. He read voraciously, and often supported indie authors (I found more than a few interesting reads because of him). He was an unapologetic and fierce Democrat, and although he was even further to the left than I am, his passion was genuine and informed and I never felt like I needed to disagree with him.

It is often said that the online era has made human relationships distant, cold, and devalued. Sometimes, that is true. But it is also true that technology has enabled ways for us to connect with people across vast distances, and through difficult circumstances. I never met Randy in person, but I knew him in a small way for many years, and I know that the people he met online helped ease the pain.

Rest in eternal peace, my friend.

K-Pop appropriation of African American culture
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Cultural Appropriation vs. Celebration

Recently Twitter has been abuzz with the beef between white rapper Iggy Azalia and black hip hop artists Azealia Banks, who accuses Iggy of being oblivious of hip hop’s roots and exploiting black culture. Others have come to Iggy’s defense and said that culture can’t be “owned” by any one group. This particular argument is an old one, going all the way back to the Elvis days, but it got me thinking about what people don’t think about before they wrap themselves in a cultural cloth they weren’t cut from. I won’t take a side in this, because both sides have valid points and it’s more enlightening for us to find ground we can agree on instead of dispute. I think a key way to do that is to discuss cultural celebration vs. appropriation. Celebration is inclusive; appropriation is exploitative. Sometimes it’s obvious which is which, and sometimes it’s hard.

Is Wu-Tang Clan paying homage to Chinese cultural history, or appropriating it?

When RZA, a black man, stars in Man with the Iron Fists, which is full of Asian themes, is that appropriation or celebration of culture?

When Hollywood remakes Asian movies/TV series with all white casts, is that exploitation or celebration?

When Americans get Chinese/Japanese tattoos of characters they don’t even understand, is that appropriation or idolatry?

When Nicki Minaj wears a kimono in a video full of Asian themes (“Your Love”), is that appropriation or homage?

When Japanese manga/anime creators make a franchise called Afro Samurai, starring a black lead character (who much later ended up being voiced by Samuel L. Jackson in the English dub) inclusive or exploitative?

When Korean hip-pop and dance is basically just a copy of African American music, is that a cultural movement helping young people to defuse South Korea’s racism against blacks, or just appropriation to help Korea’s otherwise bland music scene?

In all of these cases I specifically used Asian examples because it’s important to realize this is not just a Black-White thing, and it doesn’t just happen in America. As the world has become more globalized, we all borrow from each other. But “borrow” is the key word. When you borrow, you give something back. When you steal, however, you’re just taking and you’re not giving back. We should all be happy when a culture has elements borrowed and they get benefit from it. We should all feel the injustice when culture is stolen. When a people’s culture is used by others and then those same people are excluded from the benefits of that use, that is a horrible thing.

Case in point: Avatar: The Last Airbender. The original cartoon was created by two white guys, but it is deeply rooted in Asian culture and history, and most of the cast is portrayed with darker skin. It’s pretty obvious that the vast majority of the cast are meant to be non-white. The cartoon was a celebration of Chinese history, culture, and martial arts, even including Asian voice actors. The animated series exposed American children to wonderful themes rooted in another culture, and even though the creators didn’t come from that culture they respected and portrayed it genuinely. The series gave back by showing that yes, you can have a non-European cast and setting and still sell to American kids. The movie directed by M. Night Shyamalan, however, was a tragic whitewashing of the lead cast (except the bad guys) and insult to all the good will and education the cartoon brought. It was not inclusive, it was not fair, and it was not done in good spirit. The cartoon was a celebration, the movie was appropriation. One borrowed, one stole. In all of these cases that raise questions, simply ask a basic question: What are they giving back?

Travel stories: Singapore

I went to Singapore for the holidays. It was the first time I’d spent the Christmas season outside of the US, and my first time visiting the island city-state with the benevolent dictatorship disguised as a democracy. I wouldn’t say it was a life-changing trip, but it did give me some new perspective, and writers love perspective like a cat loves nip.

If there’s one thing that stood out to me most about Singapore it was this odd sense of juxtaposition. Duality. Contrast. Yin and Yang (which is appropriate given the country’s heavy Chinese influence).

Singapore has bountiful natural beauty, and yet so much of it is artificial. Fake smiles, fake neighborhoods, even fake trees in the Gardens by the Bay.

Singapore has a thriving tourist trade, with over 3 million visitors a year, but the place is often (though not always) rather unfriendly to strangers. And when there is friendliness, it feels belabored and…wrong. I felt this most strongly at the airport, where there were staff who actually checked in for me at what would be considered a “self-service” kiosk nearly everywhere else in the world. I suppose they were trying to make it feel convenient, but it ended up being awkward and kind of belittling.

The country prides itself on education, but so many of its best and brightest who have the means to study abroad, prefer to do so.

Singapore is clean, and free of graffiti and litter, but only through imposing harsh fines for everything from eating on the train to chewing gum (which is actually even illegal to possess in the country).

It’s a land of dichotomies; neither good nor bad, but many varying shades of gray. It’s a perfect little micro-nation to study the dynamics of people and nature. In many ways, I found inspiration there. My Ninth Order series of books takes place on a group of small islands. I was struggling to find the inspiration to finish the sequel, but now I think I have it.

Pardon the dust

It has been quite some time since my last blog post here. Life has been filled with various adventures, and I find myself with less time to devote to the blog.

So what’s new and exciting in the life of Ramsey Isler?

Well, I recently put my latest novel Clockworkers on Amazon. I have not yet put it into full promotional mode yet, but it is a book I have a lot of faith in and it contains a lot of advancements in my writing style.

I’ve also been doing some traveling; crossing the globe in pursuit of truth, justice, and paying work. My day job keeps me busy, but it’s also usually pretty interesting so I don’t mind so much when the hours run long and I have less time to spend crafting stories.

Oddly enough I haven’t been writing as much. I’ve been thinking about stories, and jotting down some notes on interesting things to write, but I haven’t been as actively writing my next story. Instead, I’ve been putting a lot of time and energy into promoting my past works. I figure, what’s the point of writing if you don’t have an audience to read what you wrote? So my writing time has recently been allocated to marketing time. The results have been pretty good; I’ve reached more individual readers than ever before.

I have a lot of ideas for future blog posts. We’ll see if I actually find time to write them.

Your personal data is not safe; but it never really was.

The hot topic in US politics today is the use of a federal “dragnet” used to take a peek at pretty much every digital communication a modern American creates. Many federal organizations are reportedly in on it, including the FBI, DOJ, DOD, and NSA, making many people go WTF.

But, as an engineer and a former employee of one of those arcane three-letter organizations, I have a different perspective than most.

There are real reasons to be concerned about big government encroaching too much into our lives, and there are real reasons to be concerned about potential abuses of overreaching powers. Government should not be trusted blindly. But there’s also a lot of fake and/or misguided outrage here.

There are two major components of the leak-fest of late: One, the government has accessed logs of which phone number called which other number and for how long. These logs contained data from all of Verizon’s customers, and perhaps those on other networks. Let me address this one first. This kind of system has existed for a long time, and it’s called a pen register. Pen registers log the very basics of a phone call; the original systems only recorded the numbers involved, but newer ones can record the duration and location of the numbers as well. There have been laws governing the use of pen registers since the late 60s, but in the past 30 years or so the laws have been revisited to account for new technology. Still, the Supreme Court ruled way back in 1979 that pen registers do not pass the “reasonable expectation of privacy” test. I usually don’t quote WikiPedia, but the wiki on pen registers is quite accurate here:

[The Supreme Court] overturned Olmstead v. United States and held that wiretaps were unconstitutional searches, because there was a reasonable expectation that the communication would be private. The government was then required to get a warrant to execute a wiretap.

Ten years later the Supreme Court held that a pen register is not a search because the “petitioner voluntarily conveyed numerical information to the telephone company.” Smith v. Maryland, 442 U.S. 735, 744 (1979). Since the defendant had disclosed the dialed numbers to the telephone company so they could connect his call, he did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the numbers he dialed. The court did not distinguish between disclosing the numbers to a human operator or just the automatic equipment used by the telephone company.

So, there you have it. Wiretaps need warrants, but just looking at the call logs does not. This is not new. This ruling happened before I was even born. But there’s a key factor to latch on to here: a “reasonable expectation of privacy”. We as a society have forgotten what that means, or perhaps never fully understood it in the first place.

There is a deep-rooted and understandable personal fear at the core of all this. It’s not about having “nothing to hide”, and it’s not about distrusting government, or thinking Bush or Obama is the anti-christ. It’s about privacy, and how we often take it for granted.

There’s a subtle but important difference between secrecy and privacy. Here’s an example of that difference: We all poop. Everyone knows we poop. It’s not a secret matter, but it is a private matter, and we’d all bitch up a storm if some “authority” said that even one person was allowed to see us pooping at work or at home.

But, if you poop in the alley, well…there’s no reason to expect total privacy. Using GMail, Hotmail, Yahoo, Facebook, etc…it’s all the equivalent of pooping in the alley. Any assumptions of true privacy here are misguided. It’s not likely that anyone will see you doing your dirty business in that alley, but it is quite possible that someone might, and you can’t blame someone for invading your privacy if you do that.

That leads me to the second aspect of this leak-fest: Google, Microsoft, and other email providers/social networks have been providing the government with data. To me, this should not come as a surprise, nor should it be particularly scary. The truth is that pretty much all this stuff the government has access to is already accessible by employees or contractors of the corporations who operate our favorite things, and these companies have even less oversight and responsibility than the government. You might be surprised if you knew how many average salary guys could access your Facebook, Google, or Microsoft data at any given time. Not too long ago, two Google engineers were fired for abusing their awesome technology superpowers, but you should seriously consider how many of them do less egregious things and get away it.

Facebook knows who your friends are, where you’ve been, what you like to eat, what your friends like to do, and hundreds of other data points. You willingly gave a huge corporation access to your life, just so they could send you some ads.

And then there was this little quote from a Microsoft employee blasting Google for their un-private email practices, while inadvertently revealing some of Microsoft’s own issues (emphasis mine):

“Like many email providers, Outlook.com scans the content of your email to help protect you and prevent spam, gray mail, phishing scams, viruses, malware, and other dangers and annoyances. It is just like how the postal service sorts and scans mail and packages for dangerous explosive and biohazards”

See, they’re just looking through email for your protection. To keep you safe from harm. Sound familiar?

You already have corporations running programs through your emails for their own purposes. Sometimes, as in GMail’s case, it’s purely to show you ads based on your email messages. This so-called invasion of your privacy has been happening for some time, with your consent (you agreed to the terms and conditions, folks!). Does the situation really change when it’s Uncle Sam doing it instead of “Don’t Be Evil” Google? One could argue that at least the government can do some good things with that data in some cases (e.g, stopping people who blow up things).

Governments, corporations, and regular citizens must all adapt to the rapidly-changing digital world where we so freely and gratefully use products controlled by multi-billion dollar organizations, and create laws and processes to keep a healthy balance between security and spying on the very people we’re trying to protect. But don’t expect privacy unless you work to keep things private (encryption is good, so is taking your info out of “the cloud”). In our real homes we close the doors, draw the window shades, and keep our dirty laundry hidden from view. For some reason we’ve lost that common sense when it comes to our digital homes. Maybe we shouldn’t vilify the politicians or the CEOs for this kind of stuff. Maybe we should simply realize that we’ve been exposing too much of ourselves for too long.

Persons of Color in Comic Book Movies

I had an interesting chat on GoodReads recently, and figured I’d make an extended version of my comments on the blog. The topic started in the Multiculturalism in YA,Fantasy, Sci FI,Paranormal and fun books group, and the issue at hand was the news that the next Fantastic Four movie might have a black actor (Michael B. Jordan) as Johnny Storm aka The Human Torch (a character who has always been white in the past). The news spurred some very disturbing but not-very-surprising Internet conversation about race. We’ve seen this kind of thing before, and we will no doubt see it again. But I think it’s important to look at the issue from multiple perspectives, and to constantly revisit it as American society shifts and evolves.

As an African-American author, and life-long comic book fan, I actually don’t like it when Hollywood changes the races of well-established characters. This is partially because I’m kind of a comic book purist/nerd, and partially because I just don’t think it’s necessary. Comic books are already full of interesting, popular characters of color (who have always been that way). We don’t need revisionist heroes.

John Stewart appeared in the Green Lantern corps in 1971
John Stewart appeared in the Green Lantern corps in 1971

 

People who read comics know that Marvel, Image, and DC comics have been introducing characters of many races since the ’70s, and there was an explosion of multiculturalism in the ’90s. Characters like Bishop, Jubilee, ShadowHawk, War Machine, DeathLok, Luke Cage, Spawn, Blade, Cloak from Cloak and Dagger, Sunspot, and Forge emerged in the most popular comics of their time. In some cases a hero is more of an icon than a particular person, and over the years their personas were passed on to new characters of different races, like black John Stewart joining the Green Lantern corps waaaaay back in 1971 or Steel joining the Superman corps in the ’90s or Miguel O’Hara becoming the first latino Spider Man in the early ’90s during the “Spider Man 2099” series. These characters were also prominently featured on TV (Bishop and Jubilee had major roles in the beloved ’90s X-Men cartoon, and John Stewart has been a major character in the Justice League cartoons). There are plenty of non-white characters in comic book lore who are very popular and have been so for many many years. Hollywood just needs to invest in them.

Chinese-American Jubilee and Wolverine have been teaming up for over 20 years
Chinese-American Jubilee and Wolverine have been teaming up for over 20 years

 

New Line Cinema has been the most forward-thinking studio in promoting non-white lead comic characters, having distributed both the Blade series and Spawn. Those were both fairly successful franchises financially, even though they weren’t exactly the best movies. But then we had Halle Berry as Catwoman, and things haven’t been the same since :-). Right now all we have is Nick Fury (who had a race-change in the comics long ago), but I have hopes things will change soon. The latest rumor is that Black Panther will FINALLY start shooting in 2014 after years of various actors/producers (including Wesley Snipes) trying to get it out of development hell, Bishop and Warpath are in X-Men: Days of Future Past, Zoe Seldana is confirmed to co-star in Guardians of the Galaxy, and if there is a Green Lantern reboot I would not be surprised if they went with a black actor because there’s strong precedent for that already in the Justice League cartoons.

Still, certain people in Hollywood will still opt for changing the race of old minor characters; creating “hand-me-down heroes” in an effort to bring something new to a franchise without too much risk. For lesser-known characters, race changes usually work out just fine (see Michael Clark Duncan as The Kingpin or Jamie Foxx as Electro in the upcoming Spider Man film). There wasn’t much complaint about either decision, probably because no one really had an attachment to either character (they’re not well-known among general audiences). It’s only when people start messing with the beloved “iconic” characters that the nerd-rage comes out. I do like the idea of opening up fiction to different interpretations and possibilities, and adding an actor that doesn’t fit the traditional race of the character is one way to do that, but it has to be done at the right time and with the right stories, and too often when it happens in Hollywood it feels forced and disingenuous.

If you’re interested in learning more about persons of color in comics, here are a few suggestions:

  • The Black Panther. Not only is he like an African Batman, he’s the head of a whole country!
  • The Spawn comics from the 90s were incredible.
  • Shadowhawk from Image Comics (who also tackled the topic of HIV when Shadowhawk contracted the disease in the 90s).
  • If you like Iron Man, War Machine did have his own comic for many years and Rhodey is quite a different character than Tony Stark.
  • Anything with Jubilee and Wolverine. They’re an odd couple, but that makes them all the more entertaining

You can find collections for all these on Amazon, or visit your local comic book store.