Silver Stages

Star Trek - Still Bold, After All These Years

You know how important Star Trek as a sub-genre of Sci-fi is, and was. You know that. You have heard how it inspired so many scientists, engineers, and writers.  How it's our bright spot floating out in the not-too-distant future. You have heard it from me, and all the other more popular science communicators, actors, scientists, etc. So let's not spend the 50th anniversary of the NC-1701 by belaboring the point. I want to talk about how good the original Star Trek series still is.  

A Case Study in Star Trek's enduring Quality

What's it about? - Master engineer  Dr. Richard Daystrom has designed a computer that will replace the need for commanders in Star Fleet. The crew has some misgivings about the computer, but allow it to be tested. As these things normally go, It acts odd, and takes over the ship. Our heroes have to fight against the A.I and reclaim manual control of the ship. 

 

Why this episode? From the synopsis  it sounds like the usual Luddite, A.I fear-based Sci-fi fair. What stands out is how the crew deals with the events. Kirk values his intuition and individuality, so of course the idea of being replaced with a computer is gutting. If you haven't seen much of the original series, and assume Kirk's nature from his pop culture caricature you might assume he throws a fit and fights against his new mechanical replacement. This is not so. 

KIRK: You seem to enjoy trusting yourself to the computer. 
SPOCK: Enjoy, Captain? No. I'm merely gratified to see Doctor Daystrom's new unit execute everything required of it in such a highly efficient manner. M-5 is another distinguished triumph for his career.

   Kirk is a star fleet officer; he is trained in skepticism and science. He knows his intuitions are not enough data to form a position. Yes his values seem to conflict with sacrificing his autonomy. He knows however, that is not a sufficient argument.  This is a great example of not only the quality of the vision of Star Trek, but of how much better written Star Trek is than most modern shows. It would have been so easy to make Spok the rational "Machines are good" Cat of the plot, and Kirk the "Humanity is the best" mouse. It does not fall for this trap.

KIRK: I think that thing is wrong, and I don't know why. 
MCCOY: I think it's wrong, too, replacing men with mindless machines. 
KIRK: I don't mean that. I'm getting a Red Alert right here. (the back of his head) That thing is dangerous. I feel. (hesitates) Only a fool would stand in the way of progress, if this is progress. You have my psychological profiles. Am I afraid of losing my job to that computer? 
MCCOY: Jim, we've all seen the advances of mechanisation. After all, Daystrom did design the computers that run this ship. 
KIRK: Under human control. 
MCCOY: We're all sorry for the other guy when he loses his job to a machine. When it comes to your job, that's different. And it always will be different. 
KIRK: Am I afraid of losing command to a computer? Daystrom's right. I can do a lot of other things. Am I afraid of losing the prestige and the power that goes with being a starship captain? Is that why I'm fighting it? Am I that petty? 
MCCOY: Jim, if you have the awareness to ask yourself that question, you don't need me to answer it for you. Why don't you ask James T. Kirk? He's a pretty honest guy.
The M-5 Machine, acts a bit unkindly to the c

The M-5 Machine, acts a bit unkindly to the c

So Kirk allows the M-5 Captain-replacing-computer to command the Enterprise. Naturally, this goes poorly. The M-5 attacks other ships, and even kills other star fleet officers. Yet still, Kirk never act out of revenge. Nor do they take its murdering faults as damnation of the actual technology. Kirk still wants Doctor Daystorm to have the opportunity to save the M-5. This is not the typical event where the hero gives his rival a last chance to repent. The M-5 can't repent; it's a machine. Even still the M-5 isn't beaten with a cliche paradox-inducing argument. It is beaten with an actual reasoned argument about the morality of its actions. And since its morality is based on logic and the ethics of its creator - it yields. 

    This stands out. This is consequentialist morality, a form of ethical reasoning not common on the silver screen. The machine isn't bad. The technology isn't bad. Being replaced by a machine isn't bad. There are risks and rewards. It didn't work this time. It went poorly. But, the episode ends with some jovial musing on the events, and the nature of the machine vs human conflict. There is never a hard line on who wins in totality; because of course there does not need to be. 

KIRK: Bridge. His logical selection was compassion. 
MCCOY: Compassion. That's the one thing no machine ever had. Maybe it's the one thing that keeps men ahead of them. Care to debate that, Spock? 
SPOCK: No, Doctor. I simply maintain that computers are more efficient than human beings, not better. 
MCCOY: But tell me, which do you prefer to have around? 
SPOCK: I presume your question is meant to offer me a choice between machines and human beings, and I believe I have already answered that question. 
MCCOY: I was just trying to make conversation, Spock. 
SPOCK: It would be most interesting to impress your memory engrams on a computer, Doctor. The resulting torrential flood of illogic would be most entertaining.
 

 

 

 

 

Concerning Methods #1

Why we shouldn't label GMOs

First, what I am not going to do here. I won't be talking about how the GM food on the market is shown to be safe. I won't be talking about how there is nothing inherently wrong about GM tech. I won't be talking about the efficacy of GM tech in agriculture. I am going to assume the scientific consensuses on these matters are the assessments of my readers as well. I also won't address clearly fallacious arguments like "It has popular support" for obvious reasons. This post is to my fellow skeptics and science-minded folk who support GMOs as a technology but believe the US government should require people to label them. 

Scout, and her GMO daydreams. 

Scout, and her GMO daydreams. 

 

I will do my best to fairly lay out the arguments, and respond to them. Please comment if you feel I misrepresented any of the common arguments. 

Argument #1 - Labeling gives consumers information; information is a good thing

Consumers should have all reasonably relevant information printed on food labels. There hasn't been much controversy around this argument since Upton Sinclair's The JungleThe key word here, though, is 'reasonable.' It is far too simple to say consumers should be given information, that we don't want to hide information, etc. We still have to argue why each data set is important. 

    The data sets of caloric intake, sugar, sodium, fat levels are reasonable data sets. They speak directly to the effects on a person's diet.  We also require vitamin levels, serving amounts, etc. I am a proponent of this information being mandatory.

     We don't, however, mandate labeling of how the food was made. This kind of information has a few forms. First, the seemingly more important kind: where it was farmed, how far it was shipped, who grew it, etc,. There is no widespread call to have all this information included. There are also seemingly unimportant forms of information: silly trivia really, like the name of the farmer, the color shirt was he wearing, his opinions on Star Wars Episode I. The latter is all information that we don't want labeled. Of course, it's information, but who could care? I only bring it up to stifle the meme "information is a good thing." Such an argument is far too simple and really doesn't explain what we want. We want relevant information labeled.

So the argument cannot be won here; we have to move on to the question of whether food made with GM is reasonably and relevantly different to a consumer.

Argument #2 - There is a relevant difference for the consumer between a GM plant and a non-GM one

Let's say you buy a product that uses sugar from GM beets. This is what that sugar looks like:

And this is what sugar looks like that was grown  "Organic".

What that's you say? You can't tell the difference? Don't stress- that is because they are the exact same. So if we are to require companies to label products that use GM sugar, what are we labeling? Surely there is no information gained here on the product. There is no way to tell the source of the sugar.  There are many similar examples. 

Corn is a fantastic crop with many uses and is grow in mass quantity in the the United States. Since it's a major calorie source, and there are so many demands placed on it, many farmers have turned to modern science to increase output. This has lead to high levels of adaption of GM Corn. This corn has has been modified to contain Bacillus thuringiensis (BT), a protein that protects against insects. The same protein is used in "Organic" farming as well. GM corn simply inserts the protein into the corn, so that there is less need for spraying pesticides, tilling soil, etc. 

So, after harvesting, is there a relevant difference between BT corn and the "Organic" corn? No. The BT protein at levels present in the corn is digested in humans like any other non-toxic protein. It's always important to recall that nothing is "toxic"- amounts of things are toxic, and what is harmful to once branch of life isn't always harmful to another. 

Corn and sugar beets are the two most popular GM crops on the market, and there is no compelling information given to the consumer if they are forced to be labeled. It is unwieldy to break down all GM crops on the market here, but these make up the majority of the market share. If there is another crop you feel addresses argument #2 well that I missed, feel free to comment..

Important to note: If there does come a day when a specific GM crop contains a health risk, say an allergen, we can label that allergen. That would still not be a case for labeling other GM products.  

 

Argument #3 - Consumers who are environmentally conscious may wish to purchase food of one method or the other

While it would be nice to have an objective and verifiable suitability rating on the food we eat, we don't have such a tool at this time. What is best for the environment is hard to suss out, aside from the obvious things, like limiting carbon emissions. Our ecosystems are dynamic, and while we understand them at the micro level rather well, it can be harder to say if eating chicken from your local farmer is better then eating it from a large scale farmer in another state. The answers are not always intuitive, and vary from state to state.  That does not mean we can't know, but the idea that saying that something that is GM or "Organic" is inherently better or worse is flawed. In most cases GM food appears to be better by using less water, and producing more calories per acre more reliably. 

   If we were to enact a new series of laws mandating that we label the methodology of farming, which ones would we label? This would require a new system of standards and practices, and a new series of labels and jargon. And with these new labels, there would be no promise of clarity gained to the consumer. We already have this problem with advertising names like "Organic". According to a 2014 Consumer Reports survey of over one thousand adults, 81% believe that "Organic" means grown without pesticides. So how effective or meaningful are labels going to be that refer to agricultural methods most are not familiar with? I suspect, optimistically, not very effective.

If a private company wishes to list these methods on its packages, that is its right. And consumers who demand "natural irrigation" grown apples or "No-Burn Rice" may seek out such products. However, I suspect a new series of labels and jargon is unlikely to makes the environmental choice clear to the majority of consumers. If we want more environmentally friendly agriculture, I propose this is best done by direct federal regulation, not labeling to motivate consumer-based selection. 

 

Closing Comments

There are potential problems with labeling even if my retorts here are insufficient, but my main concern is that it promotes fear. The most novel trait of humanity has always been our ability to render our environment to best suit our needs. As the centuries pass this has lead us to live longer, live happier, and live freer to pursue new interests. The principal concerns of animals are to procreate and obtain calories, and we have created a system where only around 1.5% of people produce our food, freeing up minds to build all manner of wonderful things, and have the time to enjoy them. Labeling GM food creates a stigma against the application of this progress when it comes to our agriculture. This is regressive, and as far as I can tell, based largely on fear. 

   Our desire to reshape the world has caused regrettable upheaval before. The great plains of North America no longer host the bounty of wildlife and splendor they once did, our oceans are loosing PH and losing fish, our planet is warming due to our clumsy leap forward in the industrial revolution. So when I say that wanting to label GM products is based on fear and ignorance, I am not mocking its supporters. There has been reason to fear before. Technology is our great power, and with it we have earned our greatest feats and failures. But, we have tested this technology. We have a bureaucracy, however slow, that regulates it.  We have a consensus of Scientific opinion on its safety and its efficacy in agriculture, and we have no reason to assume harm a priori

Caution is a useful trait, until it holds you back. 

 

(All dissent is welcomed. While I care deeply about Science and try to represent arguments and facts the best I can, I am not a biologist yet. Thank you for any comments. )

 

 

 

 

 

Indie Comics Recommendations

Seriously, Funny Books - #1

Image from Brass Sun Ian Edginton and I. N. J. Culbard

Image from Brass Sun Ian Edginton and I. N. J. Culbard

For whatever awful reason, comic fans only have so much time to read comics. The persistent gears of "being-an-adult" churn their noisy and depressing cogs over our comic reading time- day after day. Yet, concerning comic readers want to know - what if I am missing out on the hottest-of-the-hot indie comics!? What if, my day-to-day affairs have caused me to miss the life-changing charm and adventure of some new indie comic! Don't fear melodramatic reader! I have compiled a list for you.  And you, an internet dweller, love lists. Here are a two of my top picks for Indie Comics you should be reading. If anyone actually reads and like this, I will add more to it.

Spera

    Remember that feeling, when you woke up early on Saturday morning to play JRPG's all day. Just before the internet was popular, and you had to deal with being lost in a pixelated world. Those days full of PS1 sprite work, 32biit music, and wondering around the forest with your group of adventures with a mix of plot-drive-focus and casual exploration. Spera is kinda like that. It also has a giant fire-fox-guardian thing. It's a beautiful book.

 Spera tells the story of two girls, one with levels in Knight, and the other a royal.  They are forced to flee their home, meet some interesting characters, and adventure onward.  The story unfolds in four graphic novels, with each chapter being done by a different artist. It's adds a whole new aspect to the adventure of the story. The reader doesn't know how they will see the world next issue, or what's to come in the story. It really adds something special.  It's a must read for any JRPG, Miyazaki, or fantasy fan.

There are currently three main hardcore volumes, and a 4th hardcover that counties the story in another direction.  They are all still in print, and you can find them online or at local comic shops.

Written By - Josh Tierney 

Art By - Like 40 different people. 

You can buy it here 

 

Brass Sun

A  low-Sci-fi adventure, with just enough theological conflict to interest anyone who isreading this blog.  The book has a beautiful ascetic that mixes World War I clothing andarchitecture, with the gear-based machinery common in steam punk.

 It's a fascinating story, not only cause the world keeps growing with each issue, but you go places you never expect. The story takes us into giant clockwork machines,  sky adventures that resemble old, deep ocean voyages and more.

Well paced, Brass Sun stands on its writing and concept equally as well as its art. You can pick up the hardcover for a good price too. There is currently