September 11 Reflection, for Kids: Do the Twin Towers Still Stand in 2014?

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By Shawn StJean

On this date, the anniversary of our great national tragedy, we often invite ourselves and others to “reflect.”  That is the purpose of this short primer.  It is intended for younger children–those born since 2001, perhaps, but we can all use reminders, sometimes.

“. . .life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. . .”  –Declaration of Independence

“. . .secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. . .” –U.S. Constitution

“. . .with liberty and justice for all.”–Pledge of Allegiance

“. . .give me liberty or give me death”–Patrick Henry

We often speak carelessly of FREEDOM today, and the word has become a replacement somehow for a more complex concept that forms the first symbolic pillar or tower of our republic, as its founders conceived it: LIBERTY.  Rarely will you find the word “freedom” as you study the early documents of our country, but the word liberty is abundant.

What is the difference between freedom and liberty?

The second contains the first.  Freedom is the right and ability to do whatever you want.  LIBERTY is the right and ability to do whatever you want, as long as it does not interfere with the rights and abilities of others.

In short, liberty is freedom with limits, just as a republic (what we really live in) is a democracy (what we say we live in,) with limits.

Think of a stoplight: it’s, to me, the perfect symbol for liberty.  Without it, two cars approach an intersection, each driver freely pursuing his happiness, and often this works fine.  But, by chance, it may not: BANG! Collision.  With a stoplight in place, each citizen agrees to surrender a small piece of his freedom (in this case, time) so that everyone can remain free.  Other examples can be substituted: the paying of taxes to support government programs, service in the military, even the trouble it takes to educate oneself to vote.  Young people contribute, too, by sharing, by standing in line and waiting their turn, by walking up public stairwells on the right side, by respecting another person’s right to speak, or be different.  All require a limitation on total freedom.  So when you hear the phrase “Freedom isn’t free!,” you are hearing about the sacrifice required for the greater standard of LIBERTY.

People say “It’s a free country,” as if that were a struggle that ended 200 years ago, or 70 years ago, with our grandparents.  But our country is only as free as each one of us can make it, today.  As the American abolitionist Henry Thoreau wrote, “We have used up all our inherited freedom.”  And songwriter Tom Petty continued his thought: “Everybody has to fight to be free.”  “Fighting” may not be as dramatic as it sounds, day-to-day.  It may only be not interrupting someone else, or cutting the lawn for Mom without having to be bribed, or apologizing when you hurt someone, or doing your homework (which means contributing your fair share,) or helping another kid who’s having trouble.

Liberty is, without question, the first pillar or tower of our society.  It can never be laid low by outsiders: We can only do it to ourselves, by forgetting a simple concept: if everybody isn’t free, then nobody is free.

As for the second tower, I think the existence of the first enables the freedom for every free person to build it for herself or himself.  In the coin pictured above, the Goddess of Liberty holds both a symbol of Peace (an olive branch) and a symbol of Vigilance and Defense (a shield).  Notice, no offensive weapons.  In fact, this original design reveals a mother’s bare breast, suggesting Health, Kindness, and Love.  The gate she strides through names God.  For others, a pillar of their lives might be Generosity, or Charity, or Strength, Courage, Fortitude, or Intelligence.

So what’s your second tower?  And, Never Forget (as they say on this important anniversary,) that everyone has the right to build her own.

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Issues For Indie Writers: Complicating the Plot Structure of Your Story / Novel

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By Shawn StJean

Shakespeare inherited from the Greek tragedians a 5-part plot structure, which functions to keep the writer on track concerning the overall trajectory of the work, and from getting lost in the details.  English teachers know this structure as Freytag’s Triangle or Pyramid: Act I—Exposition, II-Complication, II—Climax, IV—Catastrophe (Reversal), and V—Denouement (“Unraveling”).  In today’s faster paced, Hollywood-aligned writing environment, the formula is often shortened to the left half of the pyramid, or simply three components: Exposition, Complication, and Climax.  Credits roll.  And although crucial elements can be lost in this truncation (reducing the pyramid to a two dimensional line, as it were), that’s a concern for another time.  More important for the moment, is that in its short form, the Complication (often oversimplified in diagrams as “rising action”) assumes even greater importance—in fact, it can truthfully be called the “guts of the story.”

Even so, not enough modern writers understand the pivotal function of Act II.

Reviewing briefly:

Act I—Exposition.  The best narratives begin “in media res,” (in the midst of things)—at an interesting point in the overall action.  This requires that the audience be briefed, by means of flashbacks or dialogue, on the conflict that brought the characters to this high pass, and quickly introduced to the individual characters themselves.  In a film, this act consumes the initial 30-40 minutes of viewing time.

Act II—Complication.  30-40 more minutes.  Many folks intuit that, here, we’ll “get to know the characters better.”  They’ll make friends and/or develop antagonisms, either against each other, themselves, or the environment (in the case of Hamlet, all of these).  But a complication only deepens plot, by mixing the element of characterization with it, so to speak.  Think of it this way: Things go from bad to worse.  Example: A soldier’s gash on the foot at first causes a mere limp, but left untreated, induces sepsis.  How do the characters react?  How does action lead to reaction?  What ironies and motifs and themes begin to emerge?  Does the narrative take on a tone of inevitability, or are choices still available?

Act III–Climax.  Second hour.  A sad truth about contemporary storytelling, whether oral, filmic, written, or graphic, is that Act II gets short-circuited and far too much attention gets lavished upon the action of climax (recall how much of the finest elements of Tolkien’s work have been jettisoned by Peter Jackson in service of gory spectacle).  People say “it picks up,” as if this equates to “gets better.”  True, this presents a mighty problem for the chronicleer: how to present a high significance of action, and not just a high and unsustainable level.  But the truth is, a finely wrought set of complications will dictate the climax to a large extent, and no artificial resolution should be needed (such as a deus ex machina, aka miracle ending).

As ever, pop culture provides a ready resource for illustration.  As a contained–hopefully visual and entertaining–example of structure and the energizing role of Complication, I’d like to use an unusual text–a performance of the Rolling Stones’ iconic song “Gimme Shelter.”  Lyrics, naturally, form our primary, but not exclusive, focus here.  To simplify matters even further, we need only examine the chorus (a term aptly take from Greek drama,) of the song, which not coincidentally divides itself into three, similar couplets:

 

1-War, children,

It’s just a shot away.

 

3-Love, sister,

It’s just a kiss away.

I’ve intentionally left out Act II here, to dramatize its effect later.  Taking the first and third parts, we see the speaker has created a parallel structure, at both the local/grammatical-sentence level, and the overall plot level.  And while technically speaking, it’s hard to say this is “plot,” so much as allegory, it certainly becomes one when we add the aural and visual elements of a performance:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ctrC9FtkmYA

If you’ll invest five minutes watching the video, you’ll see not only a great song performed by its creators, but even its flaw serves a wonderful purpose.  Dividing it roughly into thirds, we initially see Mick Jagger and the boys doing professional, if run-of-the-mill, work—not exactly phoning it in, but doing what’s proven, in a fairly uninspired way.  But what follows changes everything (Act II): an unfamiliar element, Lisa Fischer, for whom the term “back-up singer” would be a gross injustice, descends from the background, takes center stage, and electrifies the performance, raising not only the audience’s interest level, but galvanizing the other band members: Watts’ drums, Richards’ and Woods’ guitars, and Jagger’s vocals.  And now we’re in a position to hear those lyrics Fischer is responsible for:

2-Rape, murder,

They’re just a shot away.

These lines complicate the basic conflict: that we’re all living, in the late 20th/early 21st centuries, under the delicate balance and precarious threat of war—just a simple misstep from Armageddon (recall the Cuban Missile Crisis of ’62.)  But there’s a choice—peace, too, that can be embraced, through an act of love, not fear and hatred.  If we ask ourselves, what structurally ought to come between the black and white, the right and left, we’ve confronted one of the most basic intellectual challenges in life.  It isn’t always as simple as “Grey,” when the choice lies between wrong and right.

Instead, the Stones have chosen another route.  Because “war” is such an abstract, monolithic concept, the 2nd stage of the chorus both amplifies and specifies what it entails: not just bloodless “killing” in defense of ideals, but the vicious and selfish ending of human life–murder–always a by-product of war, as well as the brutal stripping of the precious: land, children, women.  Rape.  These lines give the song flesh and blood, in the same way Fischer’s blood-curdling ability to hit the high notes thrill the spine and appall the senses.  In terms of the performance in the video (enhanced by the camerawork, lighting, and editing) Fischer adds an important female presence, and more than a hint of controlled sexuality, which makes her repetition of the word “rape” very resonant.

To return to Hollywood terms, then, the Complication amplifies the basic conflict, by doubling or tripling it, by raising or personalizing the level of threat, by adding a previously unseen dimension.  In Oedipus Rex, a plague has descended upon the city of Thebes, and a soothsayer reveals the gods have brought it on because a murderer roams free in the city.  The king vows to find and punish the culprit: basic conflict established.  However, we in the audience slowly come to realize, through layered ironies, that the murderer is Oedipus himself.  Thus, a complication can often be expressed through a question:  How can a man administer justice for the community and himself at the same time?  Today’s films, even comedies, as simple as they often are, are no different.  Take Jack Black’s School of Rock, for example.  In Act one, we find a N’er-do-well ejected from his band, his job, and his apartment all in the same day.  Basic conflict.  He falsely assumes the identity of a middle-school substitute music teacher in order to make ends meet.  Thus, complication: How can a man who knows plenty about music, and nothing about teaching, inspire a motley bunch of youngsters to play, appreciate, and love music?

The Complication, if well done, will rise above the Climax in its interest level.  It’s here, after all, that protagonists struggle with the details of their challenges, suffer setback and defeat, and prepare to (potentially) grow, or devolve, in the final act.  When you’ve seen enough Hollywood films, in fact, Climaxes begin to bore you, with their gunfire and car chases, somehow contriving to sell you on the dubious idea that violence always solves complex problems (try Divergent for a recent, disappointing example.)

What does this mean for writers, as a practical issue?  First, Aristotle’s famous remark that “plot is the soul of tragedy” still holds true, especially if you take a generous definition of tragedy: a struggle (often failure, but an occasional success) of human beings to reach their potential.  Western culture’s first critic insisted that events and our responses to them define who we are—we do not shape events.  This may create an uncomfortable view of free will for the modern viewer, but it helps in storytelling immensely.  Ask yourself: how is my protagonist both a representative of, and an amplified example of, humankind?  What trials will represent and dramatize this best?  How will s/he have it worse than the average person?  What bits of key dialogue will support this plot?  Which elements are worth repeating–with variations–to clarify my theme?  Most importantly, what actions will the protagonist(s) take, or fail to take, when adversity arises?

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A lot gets lost in those parentheses, but “Rising Action” or Complication provides the real enjoyment of a story or novel.

There Can Be Only One: 2014 Finalists for Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Announced in Five Categories

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By Shawn StJean

It starts with as many as 10,000, and ends with only one.  But first, over the course of several months, entrants to Amazon’s annual competition get whittled down to finalists in five categories: General Fiction, Mystery and Thriller, Romance, Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, and Young Adult.

Best of all, you the readers get to VOTE on who the grand prize winner will be, based on excerpts, and you can even leave commentary–so even if it’s been a political/rigged/popularity contest to date (speculate as you will, conspiracy theorists)–this time around, it’s a democratic process–overseen by computer, natch–to determine which young novelist earns an Amazon Publishing contract with a $50,000 advance.  As for the others, well, an Amazon Publishing contract with a $15,000 advance doesn’t sound too shabby.

Of course, an advance obviously means Amazon will get Right of First Refusal on anything else the winners create in the future, so one could argue that this is merely a relatively cheap ruse for Amazon to identify and proprietize any young and inexperienced talent left undiscovered on the market.  But far be it from me to propose an argument as subversive as that ;}  No, it’s All Hail Capitalism!

So VOTE away: http://www.amazon.com/b?node=332264011

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X-Men: Days of Future Past. A Momentary Essay on Time Travel and Paradox

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By Shawn StJean

The Seventies were to be a long decade, verging well into the next, that preoccupied itself with time travel–possibly because the present looked more worth escaping than ever.  The Sixties had ended, and no predicted revolution after all.  At Kent State and Jackson State Universities, Spring 1970 arrived amid hails of gunfire and youthful blood.  Our leaders had all been killed off, or had fled the field.  Vietnam extended itself into America’s longest and most wasting war since the 1770s. Over in Britain, holdover hippies sent their North American cousins The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed and Pink Floyd’s interminable “Echoes,” but we kids had the freakish and edgy X-Men rising in popularity even over The Avengers, featuring its man-out-of-time leader, Captain America. Apocalyptic disaster films like The Towering Inferno filled the panoramic screens of theaters, until Jaws and Star Wars stuck us with the expensive blockbuster, and Science Fiction enjoyed its dark, silver age: Alien, Blade Runner, The Terminator, Escape from New York, and even Back to the Future assured us of a bleak, dystopian future over the horizon.

Still, as in most American storytelling, the underlying message, even in this era of pessimism, remained (with apologies to The Who,) that the kids will be alright.  No matter how many individuals have to die, the species will survive—and thrive.  In fact, the pages of Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s “Everybody Dies,” as the cover of X-Men issue #142 falsely declared, showed us that even death can be nullified by time travel, that in war no one needs to die.  But at the same historical moment, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. was being erected, in one of those fundamental nexuses of popular versus political culture.

Time travel functions as sci-fi’s ultimate Platonic/Romantic plot device, designed to dramatize the power of free will: “No Fate but what we make.”  The mode is, ultimately, only kids’ stuff: a sort of apology that grown-ups make to children—or the children within ourselves—for screwing the world up so badly.  It signals our wish and our intention to do better.  A long history of racial hatred (whether signified by machines against the human race, or white humans against humans of color—allegorical “mutants,” in Marvel-speak) stands as one of our most shameful legacies, gladly retracted if we could.  But, ultimately, such retraction can only be a gesture: not just because it can’t happen in the physical universe, but because it can’t happen psychologically.

Sophocles knew this, 2500 years in the past.  His great protagonist, Oedipus, receiving the famous prophecy warning him against patricide, flees Corinth.  But rather than resolving not to kill anyone, in his hubris he slays an unknown traveler at a crossroads (archetype of free will, whether here, in Ford’s 1940 The Grapes of Wrath, or half-a century later in Ron Howard’s Cast Away.)  Thus, in attempting to escape his destiny, by his own hand he brings it to pass, in one of literature’s quintessential dramatic ironies.  He fails to learn, “The worst things will turn out well, if they are taken well.” And in 1982, a defense super-computer-system named Skynet failed in exactly the same fashion. By sending its agent, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, into the past to kill the mother of its adversary, Skynet actually forced fugitive Sarah Connor to become the warrior woman who could train her son, John, to eventually defeat it.  It created its own destroyer.  Oedipus Rex and The Terminator share the same fundamental structure: By attempting to subvert the limitations/consequences of living in linear time, we actually conjure the very specters we most desperately fear into existence.  This is not that different from the average human being, backing off a cliff to avoid a snake.  We manifest our reality: we create with our minds what external reality cannot.  Any attempt to alter the past collapses upon itself.

Thus, no honest Time-Travel story can function without paradox, on either the plot or the character level.  A Wolverine (here I’m referring to the film adaptation that premiered this week) who can change the past and return to a utopian present in which Jean Grey still lives, for example, would never need to return to the past in the first place, nor would he be a man who could possibly appreciate his “revised” life as much, never having lost Jean.  The nonsensical closed-loop ending is pure wish-fulfillment fantasy that’s common to all of us: we’ve all said things we would have expressed differently, given a second chance, and done things we would gladly take back.  On the other hand, we can never change and grow if we don’t ram ourselves up against our own limitations, and make mistakes.  The only time travel possible is to live as we were made, one moment at a time, crawling into a future and trying to earn the good will of those who await us there, not apologizing to those left behind.

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Go Deep: Teachers, Coaches, Professors, Tutors, Mentors, Friends. . .Connect with Learners

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By Shawn StJean

As we’re reminded on Google’s search page and its YouTube video [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VXCH9T5Nnaw] this week, it’s national PTA Teacher Appreciation Week here in the U.S.

The two graphics I’ve chosen are common metaphors that teachers encounter often.  Above, a wanderer on a bridge–stuck on the verge of a great leap.  If only s/he had some kind of tool–a rope, a grapnel, a helping hand–then crossing might be possible.  But who offers such aid in the midst of a barren landscape?  Below, the pebble-in-pond ripple effect: as nature teaches us, a person’s actions/interactions toward others can have far-reaching consequences, beyond all individuals involved.  A good deed can reverberate and echo far, far beyond any boundary we can perceive.

That’s the choice learners face:  To answer those who beckon us to cross, or go back and remain stuck.  That’s the choice teachers of all kinds face: To make a commitment, and venture a ripple, a footprint, an impression (choose your image).  It might come to nothing–it often does–or it might generate a mighty wave.  Only one way to find out.

Go Deep.

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Killing Kennedy: O’Reilly-based Film Would Hang Any Jury — Film Review by Shawn StJean

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By Shawn StJean

National Geographic Channel’s production of Killing Kennedy, which aired on Veteran’s Day last year to mark the 50th anniversary of the presidential assassination on November 22, has appeared on Blu-Ray and DVD video.

The television film, based on media pundit Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s book, seems intended as a vindication of the Warren Commission Report‘s conclusion of a lone assassin, portrayed here essentially as an attention-seeking psychotic. I first digested and annotated the 900-page Commission tome (hardly the production of amateurs some have claimed it to be) twenty years ago, alongside conspiracist Jim Marrs’ counter-narrative Crossfire and Jim Garrison’s On the Trail of The Assassins. Today, I remain skeptical of all three, as well as the dozens of other books I’ve read on the Kennedy assassinations, and more recently the growing stockpile of 9/11 material. The truth certainly is worth finding out, now as then, but it’s doubtful that any one source has custody of it. For those who won’t spare the effort for reading O’Reilly’s mere 300 pages, this movie, despite a few strengths, can hardly claim to be more than an outline of one version.

Rather than focus on the hundreds of details the all-too-brief film omits that would problematize its thesis (the many witnesses in Dealey Plaza who saw something other than Oswald firing from an open window, for example,) I’d like to treat the production on its own terms. If one has to say, “Well, read O’Reilly’s book and such-and-such will become clear,” then the film hasn’t done its job.

If this text has one overriding virtue (beyond good sets and costumes,) it lies in a curious literary device of echoing: the two married couples, John and Jackie, juxtaposed by intercutting with Lee and Marina Oswald: the pair of women simultaneously pregnant, the symbolic usage of wedding rings, John’s sexual infidelities counterpointed by Lee’s obsessed flirtations with Marxism, the contrasting burials of the president and his alleged killer on the same day. Director Nelson McCormick and his editors deserve praise for salvaging a motif that makes us wonder what role chance and circumstance play in our lives. As Oswald tells Marina, Kennedy’s father “bought him the election,” and Jack himself admits that his deceased elder brother was meant to be president, not him.  Might Oswald have been a better man in a different time, or place?

Rob Lowe does a sufficiently layered job as the president, though his casting only served to remind me that this is all made-for-TV-scale stuff: and thus, perfectly suited for a streamlined and oversimplistic treatment. The Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile crises are almost criminally truncated, for example. Bobby Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson’s roles are reduced nearly to cameos. The word “Vietnam” is nowhere to be heard.  In an age in which Peter Jackson can command a budget of a half-billion dollars for a an eight-hour adaptation of a children’s book, I have to wonder where our cultural values are. One of the most significant crimes of the twentieth century warrants a financial backing to dramatize it that would fail to pay the craft-services bill for The Hobbit. It’s a wonder that, as a producer, the uber-wealthy O’Reilly didn’t see fit to make up some of the deficit out of his own coffers.

 

But more to the point: What if one were, after fifty years, a complete neophyte to assassination studies, and this film were one’s first exposure? Does the film succeed in offering a convincing argument that Oswald acted alone?

No, not even close. I’m afraid, while not a botched job by any means, the case remains wide open. Neither physical nor psychological gaps are adequately covered in this tiny scope. Ironically, because the story has been so trimmed and simplified by the ninety-minute format and reduced cast, the glaring, internal inconsistencies become even more apparent:

-If Oswald couldn’t competently target the stationary General Walker from a few dozen yards with his Mannlicher-Carcano 4x scoped rifle, how could he later so ultra-expertly cycle three rounds and hit the president at least twice, a moving target, from a range of several hundred yards?

-How could Oswald possibly have killed both Kennedy and Tippit within an hour of each other, as well as stopping by his rooming house on a zig-zag course for his pistol, all while maintaining a nonchalant posture, beginning in the book depository break room where a cop spots him, to the three-miles distant Oak-Cliff neighborhood and his encounter with the ill-fated Officer? Also, Oswald shoots Tippit four times with his revolver, then somehow it’s empty as he tries to shoot at converging police in the Texas theater? No wonder conspiracy theorists have made so much of the firearms in the case: nothing makes sense. Further:

-Was a crack-shot, cold-blooded killer also such a panicking fool that he left a trail of brass and clothing on his way to failing to pay his way in to the Texas theater?

-All along, Oswald’s twisted psyche seemed to demand he seek credit for his succession of “patriotic” actions, fantasizing about the press debriefing him each time.  Why then would he vehemently deny killing Kennedy? Why yell out his famous epitaph, “I’m just a patsy,” to the press immediately prior to his execution by Ruby?  Just a change of heart?  He surely wasn’t trying to spare Marina.

-After being barred in Mexico City from traveling to Cuba—a clear rejection by the Castro regime–what could at that point motivate Oswald to neutralize the threat he perceived Kennedy posed to Cuba? Wasn’t Cuba just another of his abandoned crusades? Of course, the biggest question—Why?–is begged here, and never adequately addressed. Even lunatics have their reasons. Will Rothhaar as Oswald simply isn’t given the script to enact them.

-And is it even possible for any actor to creditably portray gangster, pimp, and police-snitch Jack Ruby as so grief-stricken on Jackie Kennedy’s behalf that he would murder Oswald in cold blood, in front of the world? Watching it, this seemed every bit as unbelievable to me as “sniper” Oswald standing exposed and straight up in the open window of the sixth floor of the book depository in full view of hundreds of people and the secret service, and sighting in at the approaching president as the motorcade came straight down Elm Street at his twelve o’clock, yet unaccountably failing to shoot.  Ruby clearly had other motivations, no matter who tells the story.

 

I believe it was important to commemorate the passing of five decades in some dramatic fashion, so that a new generation of Americans might understand something of the greater context, the direction our nation has taken since the days of the Cold War: our economic decline since Camelot, our tentative and continually adversarial relations with the Eastern hemisphere, from Vietnam to Russia to China, the slow rise of bloated yet invisible government and the CIA-state that Kennedy deplored. National Geographic Channel’s contribution, if not O’Reilly’s book, have not, however, attempted to address questions of Why and How, but have stuck more to the journalist’s sleepy creed of Who? What? Where? When? I fear these crucial events will soon seem about as relevant to today as World War I seemed to my generation: a very sad fact of the history of American literacy, and man’s tragically short memory.

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GoOgle glAss–Look Where You’re Going, Masses

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By Shawn StJean

Ah, maybe I’m just paranoid.  Hell, it’s not like Star Trek has EVER successfully predicted future technology run amok before {cough, cough cell phones, body scanners, lasers, cough, cough}. . .

So jack in, and Go Ogle  in public today (ogle Dutch,  frequentative (oogen  to make eyes at, derivative of oogeye (compare Low German oegeln, German äugeln )  : To look impertinently or stare in an inappropriate manner at something or someone

But be careful where you point that thing: or don’t be surprised when a POV-video of you getting your lights punched out turns up on YouTube.