Star Trek turns 50

Star Trek turned 50 last week. Growing up in the 80s and 90s, Star Wars was a three-movie series. It expanded with novels by Timothy Zahn, video games like Tie Fighter, Dark Forces, and Rogue Squadron, and eventually Episode 1. This was Star Trek time. A movie and TV empire.

Two feature films, Star Trek V and VI, came out while The Next Generation was still in its original run. Deep Space Nine and Voyager began shortly thereafter. Enterprise wouldn’t start until 2001, when Star Wars was back as a film franchise, prequel malaise or not. And Discovery will begin in 2017, the first time Star Trek will appear on the small screen since Enterprise finished its run.

Star Trek shows off a future that takes on challenges. It’s a future that imagines humanity coming together in ways that we can’t imagine in 2016.

Sometimes it’s a lighthearted mystery…

…other times it’s a serious examination of the law.

…or a look at morality.

It could take a light look at historical figures…

…or put their life outlook into relief when considering the idealized version of the future

Armin Shimerman may have put it best earlier this month. Star Trek is science fiction with wild technology and fantastic stories, but when it comes down to it, Trek is about the message.

Happy birthday, Star Trek.

TouchID aka Memory

As we approach 2015, the year Marty McFly and Doc Brown travel to in the second Back to the Future film, a date that seemed wildly ambitious to young children dreaming of Hoverboards (what? almost sort of real?) everywhere, I have been thinking about the time that has passed between the presentation of an image of the future and history catching up.

Through a quirk of technological boredom, I swapped my out trusty MacBook for a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 two months ago. I’ll write more on this later, but one of the primary motivations for the switch was that replacing one old Mac with a newer model just didn’t excite me. This is definitely within “first world problem” status, but laptops, tablets, and phones are personal devices. They are extensions of our minds and bodies and with the variety of offerings, every person can pick a model to his or her choosing without issue, so might as well make the choice count.

But what makes a new MacBook? It’s thinner. And faster. And lacks legacy drives and ports. It’s a fantastic machine. But it is essentially the same as the first notebook computers I saw as a kid, 486-powered beasts that they were. The Surface may only be dazzling me with it’s differences, but for now, if that’s all it is, it’s enough.

The somewhat new site JSTOR Daily sent me on this little thought carousel. JSTOR, a database of academic journals and articles, has it’s issues, and that rabbit hole is vast, but this effort is one that I fully approve of: taking old content and bringing it back to attention through new pieces. That’s it. Write something using the vast library of research as a starting point and place of support and then get to work.

The topics have been wide ranging – economics, gender equality, history, and maps – along with many more, like pirates.

But the article in question was (Un)Catalogued: Reading the Landscape. Written by historian Megan Kate Nelson, the piece looks at her exploration of New Mexico as part of research for a book. As great as the read is – and the information about a river moving over time causing havoc with limited maps of the area – the quote that got me was:

I am not the first historian to have done this, and to write about it. And I am quite skeptical of the “hallowed ground” notion that one can “feel” the past by standing in a historic place. When I visit these sites, I’m not out to get a visceral connection to history. I’m there to get a sense of the landscape, to make links between the documents I’m reading and at the images I’m looking at, and the places in which they were produced.

It’s a viewpoint I don’t always share. Visiting Pompeii was amazing. I felt something walking those roads and looking in the ruined buildings. Walking down the streets of Palo Alto and being within spitting distance of the HP garage was exciting but not in a hallowed ground way.

More than anything though, I thought of Captain Picard teaching Data about the emotional connecting humans get being up close and personal with history. Touching the road, door, chair, or missile.

PICARD: Isn’t it amazing? This ship used to be a nuclear missile.

DATA: It is an historical irony that Doctor Cochrane would use an instrument of mass-destruction to inaugurate an era of peace.

(Picard feels the Titan V rocket)

PICARD: It’s a boyhood fantasy, Data. I must have seen this ship hundreds of times in the Smithsonian, but I was never able to touch it.

DATA: Sir, does tactile contact alter your perception of the Phoenix?

PICARD: Oh, yes. For humans, touch can connect you to an object in a very personal way. It makes it seem more real.

DATA: I am detecting imperfections in the titanium casing. Temperature variations in the fuel manifold. It’s no more real to me now than it was a moment ago.

People have taken to smartphones like they have few other devices. While it’s just a thought in my head, though potentially there is research out there, some part of that must be touch. These devices that are essentially just screen have captured babies and the elderly, teens and their parents, college-aged kids and those who are calling themselves adults for the first time.

Historical sites can cause a notion of something else just by setting foot at the location. Touching a device or artifact adds another layer. Just imagine how different museums would be or could be in the future where sculptures and paintings could be felt through some type of holographic projection.

In the end, I’m left with another curious thought: does Cypher’s speech in The Matrix:


You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious.

align with Dumbledore’s parting words to Harry Potter:

Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?


Image copyright Paramount Pictures, 1996.

Thinking About: Checklists

Before Morgan Freeman made a silly movie the bucket list concept was making waves. Books like 1000 Places to See Before You Die were popular back in my days working at a bookstore. People like having a connection to something larger than themselves. All of society of based on that principle. Having a checklist of places you’ve visited is handy and marking them off the list or a map from time to time gives you a feeling of accomplishment.

When Facebook first began allowing extensions on the original homepage, before the News Feed, it seemed like everyone had enabled the world and United States map to show off the countries and states they had visited.

Hardball Passport has taken this to the challenge of ballpark visits. Not just keeping track of which parks you went to but how the games turned out.

In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Brothers” Data, the android, meets his creator, Dr. Noonian Soong. As Dr. Soong attempts to explain his desire to have a legacy, he walks Data through the decision tree of parenthood and history.

DATA: Old things?

SOONG: Old buildings, churches, walls, ancient things, antique things, tables, clocks, knick knacks. Why? Why, why?

DATA: There are many possible explanations.

SOONG: If you brought a Noophian to Earth, he’d probably look around and say, tear that old village down, it’s hanging in rags. Build me something new, something efficient. But to a human, that old house, that ancient wall, it’s a shrine, something to be cherished. Again, I ask you, why?

DATA: Perhaps, for humans, old things represent a tie to the past.

There are moments in life mean different things to different people, but everyone has a few tucked into the back of their mind that they wait for, prepare for, and hope will cross their path in the future. Something as simple as a voice modulator or a fan: you have to do a Darth Vader impersonation.  Or maybe Christmas tree shopping lets you break out a Linus speech. Maybe you finally get a chance to correctly chime in “Dude, you’re getting a Dell!”

One of these white whales for me was the cellular peptide cake. With mint frosting. Going back to the Star Trek well, there is an episode where Data has a dream that features an appearance from Counselor Trio as…a cake.

As someone with very limited art skills recreating anything that needs creative efforts is often beyond my skills. I can muddle my way through things from time to time. I can make a normal cake. But when it comes to the artistic effort, my final results often turn out like Homer’s – nothing like the picture in my mind’s eye.

Taking up this challenge was on my bucket list. And this weekend I set myself to the task. One box of funfetti, some frosting, and several bottles of food coloring later, I completed my masterpiece:


In addition to visiting the Star Trek Experience before it closed, including walking on the bridge of the NCC-1701-D, this is another large item crossed off the bucket list. And the cake tasted pretty good too.

To Boldly Go-ogle

Technology and science fiction have a relationship that is both practical and whimsical. The works of Jules Verne influenced the first rocket scientists. Those scientists then influenced writers like Gene Roddenberry who created Star Trek. People who grew up watching Star Trek (or being exposed to other sci-fi of the day in books, film, and radio) entered the workplace and tried to capture the vision of the future by advancing what the resources we have today.

Cell phones (and more directly to Trek, flip phones), tablet computers, holographic projectors, lasers, different type metal alloys – the list can go on and on – have all been brought to the real world after being dreamed in fiction.

One of the most anticipated creations of 2013 is Google Glass. By now the story of the enhanced glasses is almost commonplace. Competitors have even launched a continuation of the mobile device revolution, in anticipation of wearable computing being the next hot trend.

What will Google Glass be able to do? Right now we don’t really know. Based on the limited demos Google has put into the public eye, it should have picture-taking functionality, some degree of voice recognition, GPS awareness, and an internet connection, either built in or through a link to a mobile phone. What strikes me now is not the actual abilities of Google Glass but the big leap that the technology is taking over what has appeared in sci-fi. This is not an exhaustive list, but a look at a segment of the genre that has a special place in my heart: Star Trek.

As something of the standard bearer of sci-fi for almost half a century, Star Trek has shown us many fantastic devices (warp drives, transporters, holodecks, cloaking devices) that can be only hinted at with a modern understanding of technology and physics. Others, like the PADD, personal communicators, and computers that can respond to voice commands, have arrived hundreds of years early without a tremendous drop in capability from their fictional relatives. Even needle-free shots at the doctor’s office are just over the horizon, and there are already medications that can be administered through a patch and glues that replace stitches.

One of the most memorable scenes in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was when Dr. McCoy gave Captain Kirk a pair of reading glasses. Simple, functional, reading glasses. The 1982 vision of 2282 (that’s a new easter egg for me) was the same way things had been done for centuries.

In the context of the movie, the glasses were a symbol that the crew was aging. Kirk, the brash, young captain from the 1960s TV show was now an elder statesman in Starfleet. Because of the impact of Kirk’s aging and stepping back from the day-to-day Starfleet action we don’t know for sure if classic glasses are all that the future has to offer, but it seems like the common solution.

That’s just fine though because Star Trek: The Next Generation takes place nearly a century later. During the time of Captain Picard, replicators are in nearly every room of the ship, holodecks could bring any scenario to life with full interactivity, and one of the bridge officers was an android. At this point, nearly a century later, we should expect that wearable computers, in the form of smart glasses, if they exist, have taken the same technological leap.

However, in The Game, Commander Riker returns from a vacation on Risa with headsets for the crew to play a 24th century video game. The graphics were more Virtual Boy than virtual reality. Geordi LaForge wore a VISOR, but for normal humans, the game headsets were seen as a nifty piece of technology. We’ll forget that the headsets also administered a form of mind control in this analysis.

Deep Space Nine took place at essentially the same time as The Next Generation and tackled the smart glasses yet again. For Captain Sisko and his crew, the glasses acted as a HUD (heads up display) while controlling an alien ship. Again, this is surprisingly limited and also somewhat unnecessary given that they were onboard the ship, full of diagrams, screens, and computer interfaces.

As a collection of science fiction TV shows many episodes consisted of a basic plot of: detect planet or ship, beam to the planet/ship to investigate, and either return to the ship or continue to solve the issues of the day. Every mission brought along the all-powerful Tricorder, a handheld scanner, but not a set of standard-issue glasses providing scanning capabilities, video and photographic functions, communications when the crew splits up. It could be a map, guide book, translator and more! Word Lens, an app for both iOS and Android devices, already lets someone hold a camera up to a sign or text and read the word in their native tongue instead of the language it was printed in.

With an expected developer release of Google Glass in 2013 we should know more about the capabilities of Google’s device within months, but no matter what Glass can do at launch and in the coming years, it will put Star Trek’s vision of the future to shame. Score one for the 21st century.