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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!

How would actual alien spacecraft influence asset prices?

Primarily as an exercise, I thought about that question for a while, and here is part of my answer in a Bloomberg column:

If you know you are being watched, what exactly do you wish to buy more of? I would bet on defense stocks to rise, whether or not there is much we can do to defend ourselves against this alien presence.

Of course investors could not be sure that these alien drone probes will merely observe us forever. They might be observing with the purpose of rendering judgment. If they are offended by our militaristic tendencies, the quality of our TV shows and our inability to adopt the cosmopolitan values of “Star Trek” over the next 30 years, maybe they will zap us into oblivion. But that kind of systematic risk is hard to insure against. After such an act of obliteration, neither gold nor Bitcoin will do you any good.

My main prediction is that alien UFOs will be bullish for the dollar. The U.S. government seems most closely connected to the UFO phenomenon, for whatever reason. (Maybe its pilots fly more sallies and record better data?) In any case, if alien UFOs become more likely, an informational advantage would accrue to the federal government. And the dollar already has a tradition as a safe haven currency…

Most of us would get used to the idea of alien presence without quite believing in it. As The New Yorker makes clear, many Americans believed in alien-origin UFOs after World War II, as did many American policymakers. It might have spurred greater interest in the space program and science fiction, but it didn’t affect most aspects of American life, nor did it seem to drive markets.

Never underestimate the capacity of markets, like humans, to adapt. Just as many of the strangest parts of our lives can come to seem normal, so Wall Street can find a way to do business with just about anybody — aliens included.

I do full, literally mean everything stated in the column.  But the piece also has (at least) two esoteric meanings — can you guess what they are?

How rational was Spock?

[Julia] Galef was curious to see exactly how often these predictions pan out. “I went through all of the Star Trek episodes and movies—all of the transcripts that I could find—and searched for any instance in which Spock is using the words ‘odds,’ ‘probability,’ ‘chance,’ ‘definitely,’ ‘probably,’ etc.,” she says. “I catalogued all instances in which Spock made a prediction and that prediction either came true or didn’t.”

The results, which appear in Galef’s new book The Scout Mindset, are devastating. Not only does Spock have a terrible track record—events he describes as “impossible” happen 83 percent of the time—but his confidence level is actually anti-correlated with reality. “The more confident he says he is that something will happen—that the ship will crash, or that they will find survivors—the less likely it is to happen, and the less confident he is in something, the more likely it is to happen,” Galef says.

Spock’s biggest weakness is his failure to understand that other people don’t always behave “logically.” He also makes no attempt to update his approach, even when his mistakes get his crewmates killed.

Here is the full Wired story, and here you can buy Julia’s new book.  I wonder if he is more rational in the Star Trek movies than in the TV shows, or how about in the fan fiction?  Exactly where is the demand for dramatic irrationality highest, and why?

Monday assorted links

1. The economics of Substack and Ghost (NYT).

2. Short SNL video if The Woke invaded Star Trek.  And “Atomic Superyacht to Offer $3 Million Eco-Tours With Scientists” (Bloomberg).

3. Exaggerated, but an update on Sweden (and Uruguay).  And perspective from Andreas Backhaus.  And excess pessimism from some experts.

4. “Now, great economists often change their views over time, as they should when new information arrives. Mundell, however, changed his whole intellectual style; if you were to read his Nobel lecture without knowing who wrote it, you might never have guessed that it was the same man who devised those crisp little models several decades earlier.”  Paul Krugman on Mundell.

5. Antibodies through injection, seems to work.

6. Advance viewing of the Boring tunnel in Nevada.

My Conversation with the excellent Dana Gioia

Here is the audio, transcript, and video.  As I mention in the beginning, Dana is the (only?) CWT guest who can answer all of my questions.  Here is part of the summary:

Dana and Tyler discuss his latest book and more, including how he transformed several businesses as a corporate executive, why going to business school made him a better poet, the only two obscene topics left in American poetry, why narrative is necessary for coping with life’s hardships, how Virgil influenced Catholic traditions, what Augustus understood about the cultural power of art, the reasons most libretti are so bad, the optimism of the Beach Boys, the best art museum you’ve never heard of, the Jungianism of Star Trek, his favorite Tolstoy work, depictions of Catholicism in American pop culture, what he finds fascinating about Houellebecq, why we stopped building cathedrals, how he was able to effectively lead the National Endowment for the Arts, the aesthetic differences between him and his brother Ted, his advice for young people who want to cultivate their minds, and what he wants to learn next.

And here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Why is Olaf Stapledon an important writer?

GIOIA: It’s not a question I expected.

COWEN: How could you not expect that?

GIOIA: Well, first of all, I hope people know who Olaf Stapleton was. Tremendously influential, rather clumsy, visionary, early science fiction writer who wrote novels like Odd John and the First and Last Man. What Olaf Stapleton did was I think he was the first really great science fiction writer to think in absolutely cosmic terms, beyond human conceptions of time and space. That, essentially, created the mature science fiction sensibility. If you go even watch a show like Expanse now, it’s about Stapledonian concerns.

COWEN: He was also a Hegelian philosopher, as you know. My friend Dan Wang thinks Last and First Men is better than Star Maker. Though virtually all critics prefer Star Maker.

GIOIA: Michael Lind, the political writer, and historian, Stapledon is one of his formative writers. Star Maker is kind of an evolution of the Last and First MenOdd John is kind of the odd, the first great mutant novel.

Definitely recommended.  And I am very happy to recommend Dana’s latest book (and indeed all of his books) Studying with Miss Bishop: Memoirs from a Young Writer’s Life.

If UFOs are alien beings, are they just doing mood affiliation in visiting us?

Robin Hanson has a long and very interesting blog post on that question.  The point is not to argue that the UFOS are alien beings of some kind, but rather if they were which kinds of theories might help us understand them? Here is just part of Robin’s much longer take:

If the main block to believing in UFOs as aliens is a lack of a plausible enough social theory of aliens, then it seems a shame that almost no one who studies UFOs is a social science theorist. So as such a person, why don’t I step in and try to help? If we can find a more plausible social theory, we could become more willing to believe that UFOs are aliens…

Stylized fact #2: Aliens are rare and self-limited, and yet are here now.

Indirection –  We can think of a number of plausible motives for rare limited aliens to make an exception to visit us. First, they may fear us as rivals, and so want to track us and stand ready to defend against us. Second, if their limitation policies are intentional, then they’d anticipate our possibly violating them, and so want to stand ready nearby to enforce their limitation policies on us.

In either of these two cases, aliens might want to show us their power, and even make explicit threats, to deter us from causing problems. And there’s the question of why they don’t just destroy us, instead of waiting around. Third, independent alien origins could be a rare valuable datapoint about far-more-capable aliens who they may fear eventually meeting. In this case they’d probably want to stay hidden longer.

My best bet is this.  The vehicles would be “unmanned” drone probes, if only because the stresses of long trips through space would keep the actual alien beings close to home.  So the relevant social science question is what kind of highly generalized software instructions you would give such drones.  “Seek out major power sources, including nuclear, and seek out rapid flying objects, and then send information back home” would be one such set of instructions roughly compatible with the stylized facts on the ground (or in the air).  Of course the information sent back to alien worlds will not be arriving for a very, very long time, so long that the concrete motives of the aliens may not be the major consideration.  Collecting the information about other planets across some very long time frame might simply seem worthwhile, relative to the cheap cost of the drone probes.  It reminds me a bit of that “put the DNA of all the species on the moon” project we have started, or those seed banks up in the Arctic.  Why exactly did we do it?  Why not I say!?  And yet most humans do not even know those projects are going on.

A further generalized software instruction would be “if approached or confronted, run away fast.”  Indeed that is what those flying vehicles seem to do.

The drone probes do not destroy us, because of Star Trek-like reasons: highly destructive species already have blown themselves up, leaving the relatively peaceful ones to send drones around.  The drones probably are everywhere, in the galactic sense that is.  Yet given the constraints imposed by the speed of light, it is difficult to do much with them that is very useful to the decision-makers that send (sent?) them out.  So the relevant theory is one of how advanced civilizations allocate their surplus when there is a lot of discretion and not much in the way of within-lifetime costs and benefits to determine a very particular set of plans and goals.  Not even for the grandkids.

In this hypothesis, of course, you have to be short immortality.  And short usable wormholes.

By the way, don’t those photos of the drone probes make them look a bit like cheap crap?  No tail fins, no “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” music signature, no 3-D holograms, just a superfast vehicle.  Like something a second-rate alien non-profit picked up at the local Walmart and sent off into space en masse with solar-powered self-replication.  Which is consistent with the view of them being a discretionary resource allocation stemming from projects with fairly fuzzy goals.

A problematic question for any theory is whether competing drone navies have come to visit us, and if so are they fighting over the spoils?  Colluding?  Hiding from each other?  Or what?  If aliens are afoot, why should it be only one group of them?  That would seem strange, as in most things there are multitudes, at least speaking in Bayesian terms.  Aren’t there at least both Klingon probes and Romulan probes, maybe Federation probes too.

Robin’s hypothesis, that they are elatively local panspermiacs, who feel some stake in us, appeals to me.  Bayesian logic suggests in any case that the chance of us having resulted from panspermia is pretty high; there are lots of baby civilizations for each parent, so why deny you are probably a baby?

Perhaps our visitors are exercising some “mood affiliation” in wishing to visit and record us!  They could be the parents, or perhaps another baby civilization.

Of course since the photos are of such poor quality, and since there is no corroborating evidence of any kind, these UFO sightings probably are not of alien creations, so all of this is pure fantasy anyway.

*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.


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.