March 29, 2020 12:53 +0000  |  Science and Nature Star Trek 0

I've been thinking a lot about tricorders lately. If you weren't raised on Star Trek though, you'd be forgiven for not knowing what that is. In Star Trek Land, it's a common trope that a problem is presented: a sick patient, an alien power source, or a strange new world. In all cases, our heroes use a "tricorder" (a hand-held "scanning" device) to detect what they're looking for: a pathogen, fuel, or life signs. It's a convenient device to further the story and add some jargon to make things sound sci-fi: "I'm reading elevated levels of dilithium captain" etc.

For our present day however, the need for a tricorder is becoming more and more apparent. We're seeing massive advancements in data routing, warehousing, processing and machine learning, but very little on the collection of that data. Some of the most advanced ML outfits in the world are using limited data sets as their input: user-provided data, or simple computer vision are the most common sources. The result of course is that all of the power afforded us by these new technologies is limited by the kind of data we can feed them.

A lot of people have been saying that the Next Big Advance in technology will have to come in energy storage -- and they're probably right, but I think it's reasonable to say that following close behind will have to be sensor technology like portable, high-resolution infrared spectroscopy. Something that can identify the makeup of objects so we can make decisions around what to do with the thing we're scanning.

Imagine a world where you can determine, in a fraction of a second, what something is made of. Suddenly waste reclaimation can be automated: breaking down plastics, fabrics, circuit boards into fragments the size of a grain of sand to be reused, composted, or melted down without the need for human intervention. We can feed breath samples into a sensor, and combine the data collected with the billions of other samples to use machine learning to quickly and cheaply diagnose someone with a disease.

These are the two cases that've been bouncing around my head for ages, and there are bound to be more. We're only beginning to understand the potential for all of our new-found data-driven technologies, but what we do know is that they work best with large, high-quality data sets, and that their ability to give us answers to important questions depends on our ability to collect that data for them.

When the WHO declared Covid-19 a pandemic, I started to think about how we could automate, speed-up, and distribute testing and so far, my research has lead me to two interesting places:

So far as I can tell, neither source has considered combining their findings with ML, so I'm going to send some emails. Perhaps it's finally time for our own tricorder.

January 18, 2014 15:48 +0000  |  Star Trek 1

This blog has been far too serious for far too long, and as Christina and I have been ever so slowly making our way through the entire modern Star Trek series, I thought that I might do something fun here for a change.

Star Trek is a Big Deal for me. When I was a kid and oh-so-desperate to delay my bedtime, my parents instituted one rule: we could stay up late so long as we were watching Star Trek or the news. Star Trek's questions of morality and ethics became part of my own internal dialogue and even today, at 34 years old, when dealing with my own moral compass, I find myself making these decisions in a Roddenberry context.

I give you, The Top 11 Best Star Trek Episodes Ev-ar (according to me) I've done my best to include relevant YouTube video clips, but in many cases they were either too spoiler-ridden, or just didn't exist.

1. DS9: In the Pale Moonlight

Because I can live with it... I can live with it.

Hands down, the most impressive episode for me has to be In the Pale Moonlight, a brilliantly written and exceptionally acted self reflection of "one Star Fleet Officer" and the good intentions that pave his personal road to Hell. You don't even need to know much about the series to appreciate this one, so if you're just curious about what DS9 is capable of, this might be a good place to start.

2. DS9: Far Beyond the Stars

You can pulp a story, but you cannot destroy an idea! Don't you understand, that's ancient knowledge. You cannot destroy an idea! That future, I created it, and it's real! Don't you understand? It is real! I created it and it's real!

This episode has very little to do with Star Trek at all, except that it sort of has everything to do with it. It postulates the idea that science fiction is more than just stories about robots and space ships, but a means of painting a picture of a better world, a hypothetical, but more importantly possible world. Set in the US in the 1950s, the entire episode is played by the regular cast -- out of make up.

3. TNG: Measure of a Man

Now, the decision you reach here today will determine how we will regard this... creation of our genius. It will reveal the kind of a people we are, what he is destined to be; it will reach far beyond this courtroom and this... one android. It could significantly redefine the boundaries of personal liberty and freedom - expanding them for some... savagely curtailing them for others. Are you prepared to condemn him and all who come after him, to servitude and slavery? Your Honor, Starfleet was founded to seek out new life; well, there it sits! - Waiting.

They'd spent a year introducing us to Data, teaching us that while he is different, he is obviously still a person with rights... right? Measure of a Man puts that assumption on trial and forces you to come to terms with questions like the meaning of personhood.

4. DS9: The Siege of AR-558

We Hold.

War stories tend to glaze over the details, the parts we know to be brutal and gruesome, but from a bird's eye view, not very interesting. Unfortunately this tendency leads to glazing over the realities of PTSD, disfigurement, death, and the moral choices we're left with when we're down to almost nothing. AR-558 tars the image of "war hero" with a reality brush unlike anything else I've ever seen.

5. Voyager: One Small Step

Yankees, in six games

A salute to explorers over the centuries, this episode tells the story of an astronaut from the age when we basically strapped bombs to our backs and propelled ourselves into space protected by little more than a tin can. The really interesting dialogue here is from Seven of Nine, who cannot understand the interest in such a historical find. She deems the technology antiquated and the historical record useless, but comes to understand the value in exploration, and why so many risk so much for the frontier.

6. TNG: The Drumhead

With the first link, the chain is forged. The first speech censured, the first thought forbidden, the first freedom denied, chains us all irrevocably.

Another exceptional episode from an early season of TNG, based loosely on McCarthyism, but applicable to any witch-hunt mentality, Picard's big speech at the end is something regularly referenced in serious dialogue even today.

7. TNG: Chain of Command (part 2)

But more than that, I believed that I could see five lights

Chain of Command explores the malleability of truth and the effects of torture. There are two plots in this double-length episode, but fans only ever remember "There are four lights!" We're asked to question the nature of reality and whether there's anything to gain in accepting that which we know is false.

8. DS9: Nor the Battle to the Strong

The line between courage and cowardice is a lot thinner than most people believe.

Nor the Battle to the Strong attempts to dispel the image of soldiers as war-hardened professionals and shed some light on the realities of warfare in which fear is the ever-driving force. We follow the lives of a hospital under attack, with our primary characters tending to the wounded and doing what they can to survive the assault.

9. TNG: Tapestry

There are many parts of my youth that I'm not proud of. There were... loose threads - untidy parts of me that I would like to remove. But when I pulled on one of those threads, it unraveled the tapestry of my life.

Aside from the classic scene where Q delivers flowers for a "John Luck Pikard", this is a wonderful story about what it means to reflect on your life as a whole, accepting your past regrets as part of who you are and who you would become.

10. Voyager: The Void

It was almost like being part of a federation again.

What makes Star Trek great is that unlike so many other sci-fi series, it's based in a utopian future where sharing and cooperation proves itself to be the superior model. The problem with utopian models though is that all too often they don't talk about how they got there. The Void is an attempt to show the process, and they do a wonderful job.

Honourable mention: Voyager: Living Witness

Isn't it a coincidence that the Kyrians are portrayed in the best possible light? Martyrs, heroes, saviors... Obviously, events have been reinterpreted to make your people feel better about themselves. Revisionist history - it's such a comfort.

Living Witness explores the malleability of history: were the Bad Guys really that bad, the Good Guys really that good? What if evidence were suddenly presented that invalidated previous misconceptions? What obligation do we have to set the record straight?

May 10, 2009 09:01 +0000  |  Movies Society & Culture Star Trek 7

...but not Star Trek.

I have just returned from the new Star Trek movie and I need to take a moment to rant. Feel free to ignore this one if you don't really care about what Star Trek is and are completely happy with this movie. I won't hold it against you... probably.

For the uninitiated, perhaps this movie was as frickin' awesome as everyone has told me repeatedly. It does, after all carry a strong cast, some decent writing and some pretty damned impressive special effects. This alone would make it an exciting movie, something to entertain and keep you excited for the duration but that alone isn't enough to call it Star Trek. This latest incarnation of the franchise is nothing more than yet another summer blockbuster -- like Terminator, or Wolverine, or Transformers the plot is simple:

  • Introduce Good Guys
  • Introduce Bad Guys
  • Bad Guys are bad
  • Good Guys kill bad guys
  • Studio makes money

Generally speaking, I like mindless blockbusters. They're fun, and watchable, but Star Trek is better than that. We love the show and even some of the movies because it speaks to us at a higher level, encourages us to question abstracts in our society like morality, justice and peace. It's about exploration and the development of humanity into something Better than we are. It's about more than good guys, bad guys, and cool effects.

This was J.J. Abrams' Star Trek, which is nice for him, and for the hordes of people it will bring to the franchise, but if nothing else, this movie marks the end of Roddenberry's dream... and for someone who grew up on those Ideals, that hurts... a lot.

If only they hadn't dedicated the movie to Gene and Majel...