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*The Shield Penetrators” — some further Star Trek viewing

Not many people know this obscure episode, because it was shot during the third season as an “extra,” to be used in a fourth season that never materialized.  But here is the basic plot line.  Kirk and the Enterprise visit a planet that, by mistake, received errant TV transmissions of “The Beverly Hillbillies” centuries ago.  The inhabitants of that planet, being highly impressionable, have since organized their society along those principles and with Appalachian clothing, albeit with less couth manners.  These creatures are mostly backward, but they have two special powers.  First, neither Vulcan neck pinches nor phasers “set on stun” affect them, and second they have the ability to just walk through the otherwise protective shields of the Starship Enterprise.

In the episode, these “Penetrators,” upset at the backward state of affairs on their own planet, and encouraged by a nearby Klingon commander, attempt to take over the bridge of the Enterprise, using pipe bombs, chemical irritants, and Molotov cocktails, throwing one of the latter at Chekhov.  Their motives are varied, but their manner is undeniably hostile and they arrive in a great swarm.  Kirk issues orders to respond vigorously, and the intruders are stopped.  This is, after all, the bridge of the Enterprise.

It is protected by a single, sliding door.

One member of Starfleet Command, an enemy of Kirk’s since they were classmates together at the Academy, attempts to have Kirk tried on charges of authorizing excess force against the Penetrators.  But neither the Starfleet admirals nor the television audience side against Kirk.  It was, after all, the bridge of the Enterprise that was being stormed.  The Command also issues a statement recognizing the red-shirted Enterprise security guards for their (usual) valor in such extreme and perilous circumstances.

The Klingon commander escapes unscathed, though a well-aimed phaser shot cripples the communications ability of the Klingon ship.

Addendum: You won’t find this episode in the Star Trek DVD box, or on streaming, but recently they have put parts of it on TV.  And here are my previous Star Trek posts.

Classic Star Trek and rape (with spoilers)

With so few significant new movie releases to follow, I have taken to some strange pasttimes, including the viewing of old classic Star Trek episodes.  I was struck by two obscure episodes in particular.  One is Who Mourns for Adonais?, and the other is Metamorphosis, both from early in the second (and best) season.

In Adonais, a crazed being, who is in fact the ancient Greek God Apollo, seizes control of the ship and of a landing party, consisting of Kirk and a few others, including a beautiful Lieutenant Carolyn Palamas.  In due time Apollo “takes” her, with her degree of actual compliance being highly uncertain (the whole ship and landing party are under constant threat of death).  Kirk and the others encourage her to court him further, and then to reject him, to weaken his spirits, which leads to his eventual loss of control.  It is Carolyn’s cleverness that saves them, she has been through emotional hell, and then they spurn and forget her while returning to the ship.

I am very familiar with “Golden age” science fiction and how badly it treated women, not to mention classic Star Trek’s own reputation.  Nonetheless watching this episode it struck me, as a 2020 viewer, that the main message is how unaware high-achieving men are of the sexual travails of coerced women, most of all the coerced women they so often rely upon.  Really.

In Metamorphosis, Kirk is carrying a lovely female ambassador on a trip, and they are waylaid by a strange being on a strange planet.  I’ll spare you the whole story, but the ambassador ends up meeting a male castaway she dislikes, an alien takes over the body and partly the mind of the ambassador, and the combined alien/ambassador decides to marry the castaway so they can live happily ever after on the strange planet (really).  The ambassador never would have chosen any of that on her own, and it seems to me this counts as a lifetime of rape for her, not to mention imprisonment, exile, and having to share one’s life and thoughts with a deeply alien being.

Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are just fine with this!  Admittedly, given the powers of the alien, they didn’t have much choice, but they are downright jolly — from Wikipedia: “When McCoy asks who will complete Nancy Hedford’s [ambassadorial] mission, Kirk shrugs and says, “I’m sure the Federation can find another woman, somewhere, who’ll stop that war.””

Brutal!  The collateral damage on the distaff side deserves not a single mention or act of mourning, though otherwise Kirk will risk the whole ship to save the life of Bones or Spock or Scottie.

Again, I went away from the whole episode feeling this was a progressive rather than repugnant take on the whole narrative.

Perhaps it is I who am crazy, but I am beginning to think that “The Revisionist Sexual History of Classic Star Trek” remains to be written.

And maybe you prefer TNG, or some other later Star Trek version, but I tell you the 1967-69 version is far less “censored” and for that reason much more interesting to rewatch.

“Mirror, Mirror” (Star Trek classic, spoilers in this post)

I haven’t seen most Star Trek episodes since I was a young teen, so I tried rewatching this one, you know, with the alternate universe and the evil Spock.  It was good!

I took away from it the main lesson that our moral behavior — or lack thereof — is one of the most contingent and fragile features of our universe.  The possibly happy ending for the bad universe drives this point home, as does the opening speech from the indigenous folk (the Halkans) who won’t sell their dilithium crystals, reminding Kirk that the Federation too might turn bad.  Add to that the utter implausibility of their “highly moral” behavior in the bad universe, as the absurdity and unlikelihood of their invited destruction reminds us that virtually everyone is pliable in response to strong enough incentives.

If you think through the plot, to the extent the “good” people are more powerful and effective than the “bad” people, that is because the “good” people are better at deceit.  Though the good people can teach deceit to the bad people, as the good Kirk does at the end to the evil Spock, who perhaps will reform.  Another embedded lesson is that both the “good” and the “bad” men will sexually harass (both the good and bad) women, with the major differences being those of style not substance.  And the “good” men seem to prefer the “bad” women.

If the “bad” universe were safer, would the powerful people find it better or worse to live in?  What if you had a Ring of Gyges to help you along?

Overall you can read the whole episode as “the spirits” (God?) sending a Shakespearean-like dream to Kirk, so that he can better understand the perspective of the Halkans, which otherwise he finds baffling.  Might the Halkans have sent the dream themselves?

Recommended, it was better and more idea-rich than expected.  I will try another episode soon.

Why did the Stars Wars and Star Trek worlds turn out so differently?

That question came up briefly in my chat with Cass Sunstein, though we didn’t get much of a chance to address it.  In the Star Trek world there is virtual reality, personal replicators, powerful weapons, and, it seems, a very high standard of living for most of humanity.  The early portrayals of the planet Vulcan seem rather Spartan, but at least they might pass a basic needs test of sorts, plus there is always catch-up growth to hope for.  The bad conditions seem largely reserved for those enslaved by the bad guys, originally the Klingons and Romulans, with those stories growing more complicated as the series proceeds.

In Star Wars, the early episodes show some very prosperous societies.  Still, droids are abused, there is widespread slavery, lots of people seem to live at subsistence, and eventually much of the galaxy falls under the Jedi Reign of Terror.

Why the difference?  Should we consult Acemoglu and Robinson?  Or is it about economic geography?  I can find think of a few factors differentiating the world of Star Wars from that of Star Trek:

1. The armed forces in Star Trek seem broadly representative of society.  Compare Uhura, Chekhov, and Sulu to the Imperial Storm troopers.

2. Captains Kirk and Picard may be overly narcissistic, but they do not descend into true power madness, unlike various Sith leaders and corrupted Jedi Knights.

3. In Star Trek, any starship can lay waste to a planet, whereas in Star Wars there is a single, centralized Death Star and no way to oppose it, short of having the rebels try to blow it up.  That seems to imply stronger checks and balances in the world of Star Trek.  No single corrupt captain can easily take over the Federation, and so there are always opposing forces.

4. Star Trek embraces analytical egalitarianism, namely that all humans consider themselves part of the same broader species.  There is no special group comparable to the Jedi or the Sith, with special powers or with special whatevers in their blood.  There are various species of aliens, but they are identified as such, they are not in general going to win human elections, and furthermore humans are portrayed as a kind of galactic hegemon, a’ la the United States circa the postwar era.

5. The single individual is much more powerful in the world of Star Wars, due to Jedi and Sith powers, which seems to lower stability.  In the Star Trek world, some of the biggest trouble comes from super-human Khan and his clan, but fortunately they are put down.

6. Star Trek replicators are sufficiently powerful it seems slavery is highly inefficient in that world.  In Star Wars the underlying depreciation rate, as you would find it measured in a Solow model, seems to be higher.  More forced labor is drafted into use to repair all of that wasting capital.

What else?

Addendum: Here is Cass on Star Wars vs. Star Trek.

Matt Yglesias appreciates *Star Trek*

You will find his essay here, and I have many points of agreement with him, but I think he undervalues the first series.  Characters and script were excellent in about sixty percent of the original episodes.  It is also noteworthy that the original characters have entered popular culture for an enduring period of time and we are still making movies about them forty-five years later.  It’s not absurd to think of someone saying “Beam me up, Scotty” fifty years from now.  I don’t see Data or any other later character receiving the same treatment, nor do I think that any of the later installments would have, on their own, generated an entire franchise of installments, spin-offs, sequels, and the like, where Matt can tweet something like “Animated series is non-canon, people. Get with the program.”  If you’d like a treat, watch some of the D.C. Fontana-scripted Star Trek episodes, noting that “Tomorrow is Yesterday” is one of the funniest and most profound takes on “the great stagnation” to be found in popular culture or anywhere else for that matter.  And it was written before the great stagnation even started, and by Roddenberry’s office assistant at that.  Magic was in the air.  As for “Spock’s Brain,” well, that is another matter.

Star Trek, II

The key line is about non-rivalry and non-excludability.  I didn't like that Harold played Sulu or that Bones sounded just like Sawyer.  Young Kirk and Spock were superb.  Sadly, there was no information about the progress of monetary institutions.  Bryan Caplan complained that the implied rate of economic growth was so low.  I've long wondered why there is not more technology transfer to Vulcan.  The soundtrack was poor.  Everything Alex says is true.  The best part was Uhuru but I won't say more on that.

Star Trek

The new movie is a good revitalization of the franchise.  It's most enjoyable moments build on, foreshadow and deepen our appreciation of its familiar characters.  The casting and actors are all superb on this score.  The action is passable, although the fight scenes are poor and I wish they had put more effort into the plot. 

Best piece of Star Trek trivia: Vulcan education includes rigorous training in mathematics, physics and economics.  (Listen carefully during the education scene!)

Addendum: Aha!  I am told unofficially that we can thank economist turned screenwriter Glen Whitman for adding the economics lesson to Vulcan!

*The Trouble with Tribbles*

Yes, another Star Trek episode.  This one was striking for its explicit Malthusianism (!).  The tribbles increase “arithmetically,” to use Malthus’s term — Spock notes that one tribble (bisexually) breeds on average ten tribbles a mere twelve hours later.  And what is it that the tribbles end up doing?  Trying to eat away a fixed supply of grain.  Yes, grain.  Might the tribbles exercise Malthusian moral restraint by opting for a later age of marriage and reproduction?  No, they are born pregnant.  Again, as Malthus suggests, a plague (poisoning) intervenes.

New CRISPR-based COVID-19 test uses smartphone cameras to spot virus RNA

This one brings us closer to the Star Trek medical universe:

Scientists at UC Berkeley and Gladstone Institutes have developed a new CRISPR-based COVID-19 diagnostic test that, with the help of a smartphone camera, can provide a positive or negative result in 15 to 30 minutes. Unlike many other tests that are available, this test also gives an estimate of viral load, or the number of virus particles in a sample, which can help doctors monitor the progression of a COVID-19 infection and estimate how contagious a patient might be.

“Monitoring the course of a patient’s infection could help health care professionals estimate the stage of infection and predict, in real time, how long is likely needed for recovery and how long the individual should quarantine,” said Daniel Fletcher, a professor of bioengineering at Berkeley and one of the leaders of the study…

The new diagnostic test takes advantage of the CRISPR Cas13 protein, which directly binds and cleaves RNA segments. This eliminates the DNA conversion and amplification steps and greatly reduces the time needed to complete the analysis.

“One reason we’re excited about CRISPR-based diagnostics is the potential for quick, accurate results at the point of need,” [Jennifer] Doudna said. “This is especially helpful in places with limited access to testing or when frequent, rapid testing is needed. It could eliminate a lot of the bottlenecks we’ve seen with COVID-19.”

In the test, CRISPR Cas13 proteins are “programmed” to recognize segments of SARS-CoV-2 viral RNA and then combined with a probe that becomes fluorescent when cleaved. When the Cas13 proteins are activated by the viral RNA, they start to cleave the fluorescent probe. With the help of a handheld device, the resulting fluorescence can be measured by the smartphone camera. The rate at which the fluorescence becomes brighter is related to the number of virus particles in the sample.

And:

Now that the CRISPR-based assay has been developed for SARS-CoV-2, it could be modified to detect RNA segments of other viral diseases, like the common cold, influenza or even human immunodeficiency virus. The team is currently working to package the test into a device that could be made available at clinics and other point-of-care settings and that one day could even be used in the home.

“The eventual goal is to have a personal device, like a mobile phone, that is able to detect a range of different viral infections and quickly determine whether you have a common cold or SARS-Cov-2 or influenza,” Fletcher said. “That possibility now exists, and further collaboration between engineers, biologists and clinicians is needed to make that a reality.”

I recall once asking Silvana Konermann: “What am I going to buy at the CRISPR store?”  Well, this is what you are going to buy at the CRISPR store.

Here is the article.  And funded by Fast Grants, I am happy to say.  Quite the week for science, yes?

My podcast with Darren Lipomi

He is a well-known chemist (and more) at UC San Diego. We started with classic Star Trek and then moved into textiles, chemistry, music vs. sound, nanobots against Covid, how to interview, traveling during a pandemic, art collecting and voodoo flags, the importance of materials science, and much more.  Mostly he interviewed me, though it went a bit both ways.

Almost 100% fresh material and topics, and here is the Spotify link.

Which figures from 1968/1969 look good in retrospect?

Andrew writes to me:

I just wanted to propose a question for your blog, which I’ve read since it launched. Given how the current atmosphere seems a bit like 1968, I was curious who you think comes out of 1968 looking good (or bad) in retrospect. I’m particularly interested in people at universities (my own case), but I’d be curious in general.

A former professor of mine (George Kateb) claimed that my generation (born 1970) was embarrassed by the sixties and I guess particularly by the more radical parts. That’s my impression as well and I assumed that the more radical parts of the sixties and the intellectuals who went along with them would come out looking the worst in retrospect. Is this right? Whose position at the time looks most “correct” today?

It is tough, if only because so many people from both parties then were bad on the Vietnam War issue.  Here are a few who, in my judgment, came out of the era looking good, in no particular order:

1. Kareem-Abdul Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor), Billie Jean-King, and Curt Flood.

2. Bob Dylan: pro-civil rights and anti-war, and for all of his phases he never went in for the bad, crazy stuff.

3. Paul McCartney: universalist, anti-war, neoliberal integrationist, and the saner part of the Beatles.  Some minus points on the drugs front, however.

4. Julian Bond.  And a variety of other civil rights leaders, but MLK not living long enough to “fit” the question as stated.

5. Harry Edwards (who?).

6. Seán Lemass (who?)  Elsewhere across the waters there is Raymond Aron.

7. Marshall McLuhan

9. Lucille Ball

9. Gene Roddenberry and the rest of Star Trek, including the script writers.

10. Thomas Pynchon: So many others look bad, at least he knew not to say too much or to hang around for too long.

11. Ayn Rand.  With qualifications on a number of fronts, but yes.  She was in fact good on the major issues of those years.

12. These people from the Bay Area.  They are not public figures, but still they deserve mention.

Who else?

Notes: Marxists, Maoists, and advocates of violence are not going to win.  There were plenty of excellent economists back then, but most had a different focus than commenting on the major events of those years, and if memory serves (please correct me if I am wrong) Milton Friedman’s very meritorious anti-draft work came slightly later.  I would have to reread the major feminist book authors to pick the best one, but I do mean for at least one to be on the list, I am simply not sure at the moment which one.  Ralph Nader too?  The astronauts?  They knew to keep their mouths shut once they were finished.

Spock’s Brain

The Santa Monica Observer noted the death of soap opera actress Marj Dusay who also appeared as the alien thief in the classic Start Trek episode “Spock’s Brain”:

…The episode is generally regarded by most fans, and those who took part in its production, as the worst episode of the series. William Shatner called this one of the series’ worst episodes, calling the episode’s plot a “tribute” to NBC executives who slashed the show’s budget and placed it in a bad time slot.

Leonard Nimoy wrote: “Frankly, during the entire shooting of that episode, I was embarrassed – a feeling that overcame me many times during the final season of Star Trek.”

…In his book What Were They Thinking? The 100 Dumbest Events in Television History, author David Hofstede ranked the episode at #71 on the list.

The rock band Phish performs a song entitled “Spock’s Brain”

So what? Well here is the part that caught my attention:

The episode was referenced in Modern Principles: Microeconomics by Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok of George Mason University as an example of how it is virtually impossible to have a command economy; in that not even Spock’s brain could run an economy.

In other words, we also thought it was one of the worst episodes ever because of the bad economics. Econ instructors should use our textbook! Where else can you learn about Spock’s Brain and the command economy?

By the way, I’m pretty sure the obit was AI generated but heh the AI did a good job! I am aware of the irony.

Friday assorted links

What I’ve been reading

Thomas J. Campanella, Brooklyn: The Once and Future City. More detailed than what I am looking for on this topic at 552 pp., but some of you will find this an interesting resource.

Nicholas Lemann, Transaction Man: The Rise of the Deal and the Decline of the American Dream.  Lots of mood affiliation in this one, but the chapter on finance economist Michael Jensen and his longstanding connection with “guru” Werner Erhard is excellent material you cannot find elsewhere.

Tom Segev, A State At Any Cost: The Life of David Ben-Gurion.  I read about one-third of this one.  A fine book, beautifully written, but somehow too much of the material felt familiar given other accounts I had consumed.

Joshua Gans and Andrew Leigh, Innovation and Equality: How to Create a Future That is More Star Trek and Less Terminator.  A very useful 131 pp. introduction to those issues, most of all arguing that a future full of innovation does not have to push inequality to untenable levels.

Matthew Gale and Natalia Sidlina, Natalia Goncharova.  The images in this book I found mind-blowing, claiming a place for Goncharova as one of the very best artists of her time (and what a time for the visual arts it was).

Edward Snowden, Permanent Record.  Starts slow, but an interesting read no matter what you think of him, most of all of how one can step by step be led to actions one did not originally intend.  I thought his own case for what he did was weaker than I had been expecting.  Embedding it in an “the internet used to be so much better” narrative doesn’t help.  Nonetheless, I read through to the end eagerly.

My Conversation with Samantha Power

Samantha Power has a new and excellent book out, The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir, which I very much enjoyed.  And so a Conversation with Tyler was in order, here is the audio and transcript, here is one bit:

COWEN: For a final closing segment, I just have some super simple questions about foreign policy again. Over the course of the last summer, Iran apparently seized two British tankers. There’ve been other incidents in the Strait of Hormuz in some way connected with Iran. From a game-theoretic point of view, why would they do this? Why does this make sense?

POWER: Well, the one thing that they would know that would give them some point of leverage is the extreme war fatigue within the United States, and really within the Western world. So, by upping the stakes, arguably — I mean, who knows why the hell they’re doing what they’re doing?

But by upping the stakes, they arguably could be sending a signal like, “You want to get in this game? It’s not as if we’re an island and you can just break the deal, penalize us gratuitously, penalize the people who are still trying to maintain the terms of the deal, and that there won’t be collateral consequences outside the nuclear space.”

Because the nuclear consequences, as they begin to enrich and violate the terms of the deal — having legitimately argued that we had violated the terms of the deal — the effects of those are not day-to-day effects in the news world. It’s a bit abstract for the public and even for policymakers. It’s an incremental abrogation.

But acts like this show that they have leverage, that they are active militarily in parts of the world where we have a vested interest in maintaining freedom of navigation. So I think they’re showing that they can hit in domains outside the nuclear domain. I think that is probably what they’re doing.

Here is another segment:

COWEN: In which ways do you feel your thought is in some manner still Irish in orientation in a way that would distinguish you from, say, American-born individuals?

POWER: It’s hard to know because I can’t run the counterfactual, so I don’t know what’s just because my mother is a physician and very empathetic toward her patients, and do I learn from that? Or am I moved by having come from a small country, at that time a poor country, that was sending —

COWEN: With a history of oppression, right?

POWER: With a history of oppression, with a history of the dignity of its people being trampled. Is that why I care so much about individual dignity? Again, I can’t run the history a different way.

And finally:

COWEN: Very simple — are baseball games too long? Why not make it 7 innings?

POWER: Why not make it 12?

COWEN: It’s boring, right?

POWER: For you and, as it turns out, for others.

COWEN: For me. So many games are over 3 hours. Shouldn’t the game be 2 hours, 17 minutes?

We also cover her first impressions of America, being a wartime correspondent, China and Iraq, Star Wars vs. Star Trek, van Morrison vs. Bob Dylan, robot empires vs. robot umpires, her favorite novel, how personal one should get in a memoir and why, and German defense spending, among other topics.

Definitely recommended.