Archive

Archive for April, 2014

A-to-Z Challenge Day Twenty-Five: You Can’t Always Get What You Want

April 29, 2014 Leave a comment

I’m at home cooking and cleaning and nursing back to health a visitor.

Busy, busy, busy. That’s all I have for today.

A-to-Z Challenge Day Twenty-Four: Xenobiology

April 28, 2014 1 comment

I had a busy day so I just wanted to briefly touch on an idea I had to write a book on alien biology and anatomy as if it were a real book.

This idea first occurred to me when I was thinking of a realistic physiological explanation as to the green color of Spock’s blood. I want to write a kind of Grey’s Anatomy for aliens.

Anyway, that’s all I have tonight. Thanks for reading!

A-to-Z Challenge Day Twenty-Three: Wrestling with My Conscience

April 26, 2014 1 comment

Today’s post was originally meant to be a light-hearted retrospective of how hard it is to maintain good writing quality in the face of writing a blog post every day. It’s not that I haven’t loved doing it, but I usually like to take my time so I can write something with high quality. Instead, I have chosen to take some time today to write about something that I think is important.

As I have written before, I am running as the Democratic Candidate for State Representative of Michigan’s 93rd Congressional District. It’s my first foray into politics and my first time running for office, so it will be a great learning experience. Already I am getting questionnaires from groups and PACS who are looking for candidates to endorse (or, well, the other kind of thing they do).

Today, I got a letter from Americans for Prosperity of Michigan inviting me to fill out a questionnaire on several different topics. Well, in all honesty, the word “questionnaire” is a bit strong for what they’ve sent me. Enclosed was a letter explaining who they are with a statement that the questionnaire is meant to be “simple  and straightforward.” Simple and straightforward, in this case, means a total of seventeen yes/no questions using loaded words and giving no space to write an explanation of your policy stances.

They also inform me that they will reserve the right to distribute my answers in “any way [they] see fit” and that they “reserve the right to inform citizens of any candidate’s unwillingness to answer these questions.” Well, if that’s the case, then I will not be filling out their childish questionnaire and, instead, I will be writing more extensive answers on every question that they’ve asked right here on this blog. I feel that’s fair, right?

Before we get into that, I feel it is important to describe who and what Americans for Prosperity is, and I think you’ll see why it is important we address that. According to Wikipedia (a really good go-to source for these kinds of things), Americans for Prosperity is a “conservative political advocacy group” and “has been called ‘one of the most powerful conservative organizations in electoral politics’.” Americans for Prosperity also has ties to Koch Industries, lead by powerful energy magnates David Koch, who was chairman of the AFP Foundation, and Charles Koch, his brother. Americans for Prosperity has been accused of airing misleading advertisements, and has been given “pants-on-fire” ratings for the veracity of claims but independent fact-checking organizations.

They are also, of course, the group behind the nationally reported attack ads on the Personal Protection and Affordable Care Act that have featured misleading or hard to fact-check claims. There are three of them that have been fact-checked that I want to talk about briefly here. The first one, which aired here in Michigan, is about a caner patient who lost her previous health plan and had to get a new one that was in line with the ACA’s standards. While I sympathize with Boonstra, the ad was revealed as misleading. Glenn Kessler, writing for The Washington Post, reviewed the ad and wrote:

Meanwhile, Boonstra told the Detroit News that her monthly premiums were cut in half, from $1,100 a month to $571. That’s a savings of $529 a month. Over the course of a year, the premium savings amounts to $6,348—just two dollars shy of the out-of-pocket maximum.

We were unable to reach Boonstra, but on the fact of it, the premium savings appear to match whatever out-of-pocket costs she now faces.

Glenn Klesser originally wrote that he awarded the ad two “Pinocchios,” the rating system he uses to determine the level of dishonesty in a claim or ad. However, after some more investigating, he downgraded the ad to three “Pinocchios” and added:

Take a close look at the subtle difference in the language of these two ads sponsored by the limited-government group Americans for Prosperity. The first ad claimed the out-of-pocket costs were so high that “it’s unaffordable.” When that line was questioned—and Democrats demanded proof be given to television stations running the ad—the issue became much fuzzier. Suddenly, it became “a plan that doesn’t work for me.” That is much more subjective and harder to fact check.

I’d once again like to reiterate that I have nothing but sympathy for Julie Boonstra and that it is my fervent hope that things work out well for her. I am only investigating the veracity of these political advertisements. And the investigation, so far, is not looking good for AFP. They subtly changed the language of the advertisement, and as Kessler notes, some of the claims were incorrect. According to Kessler, she can keep her doctor, her premiums were cut in half, and she has a premier gold plan. Kessler writes: “In other words, her old plan cost $13,200 a year—before co-pays and other out-of-pocket expenses. The new plan is $11,952—including co-pays and out of pocket expenses. That’s a savings of more than $1,200 a year.” It’s plan to see that she will be getting the same care with significant savings.

So, in the end, this is an ACA victory, and a success story. Stories like these are why I support the PPACA. I wish Julie well and I hope that she continues to get the treatment that she needs.

The second ad features a family from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Glenn Kessler also covered this one, and of this ad he wrote:

Wendt published an opinion article in which she provided additional details about her options and confirmed that she choose not to select a plan on healthcare.gov that could have saved her thousands of dollars a year. Our colleagues at FactCheck.org ran the numbers and found several options that “would provide better benefits at less cost than the plan” Wendt currently has.

For this reason, Kessler awarded the ad two “Pinocchios” and noted that the claims in the ad were hard to swallow. And I have to agree: the claims do not seem to bear under scrutiny. While I take no joy in sussing out these details, it is important that we consider where the information is coming from, and whether or not the information is true or false. In this case, it seems that both ads have had misleading claims that have ill-served the people of Michigan.

Indeed, the article by FactCheck.org that Kessler references reports that, “It turns out that Wendt found a cheaper, subsidized plan on the exchange, but declined to accept it because she did not want her children on the Children’s Health Insurance Program.” She had an opportunity to pay less, but decided not to because she didn’t want her children enrolled in CHIP, which is certainly her right. The FactCheck.org article is very well-written and researched and definitely worth a full read. It further states that, “We don’t take issue with Wendt’s decision, but rather her assertion that the Affordable Care Act is ‘destroying the middle class,’ when other families faced with the same choices may have made a different decision that could save them thousands of dollars a year.” This is also what I take issue with because it obfuscates the facts of the new health care law (here’s a third article by Glenn Kessler on another misleading anti-Affordable Care Act AFP ad which he rates with two “Pinocchios”).

But these ads also highlight another issue which is vital in our democracy: money. How much money is being pumped into our elections and by whom? The Detroit News reports that:

Americans for Prosperity, backed by the Koch brothers, said it will spend $1.5 million for the three-week ad buy. It puts the group’s spending in Michigan at around $5 million — almost all targeted against Peters for his vote in favor of the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare.

$1,500,000 for a three-week as buy, with total spending at $5,000,000. Five million dollars. And, as I wrote above, the ads are largely misleading and have been debunked from a number of sources. I don’t know about you, but five million dollars is a lot of money to me. Personally, I have spent maybe $20 on my campaign so far, not because I haven’t been campaigning, but because I am not raising funds or taking money from outside groups. I will not be in the pocket of special interests or other outside groups who want to throw money around to influence elections.

With that rather expansive background, let’s get to my answers for their survey. They ask seventeen question in five categories with two question in an “additional questions” area. Each question is yes/no and offers no room for exposition.

Healthcare:

1) Support setting up a state healthcare exchange in response to Obamacare?

First of all, it seems to me that this is a loaded question because Obamacare is a word the polls more negatively than the actual name of the legislation, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. I shall address it by writing ACA when I make my responses.

Now, to answer this question, yes, I do support setting up state healthcare exchanges as per the ACA. Personally, the ACA has worked for me as it allowed me to stay on my parents’ health insurance while I was attaining my bachelor degree at the University of Michigan and afterward, as took the science and health classes required for a Master’s Degree in Physician Assistant Studies. This was vital for me as I have a heart condition called aortic valve stenosis that requires biannual echocardiograms and other expensive tests (with costs that can reach up to $6,000). But more than that, a state-run exchange would better help me find a plan that would work for me, as well as others like me. Recent reports even indicate that Southern states don’t want the ACA repealed.

2) Support the state of Michigan’s expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare?

Yes, I do support the expansion of Medicaid under the ACA. As this document, provided by the State of Michigan, explains:

Medicaid would be expanded to 133% of the Federal Poverty Level, meaning that those living at or near poverty (about $30,000 per year for a family of four) would receive health care. In total, 320,000 Michiganders wil be covered in the first year, 470,000 will be covered by 2021, and Michigan’s uninsured population will drop by about 46%.

If these figures are correct, we can lower the population of uninsured people in Michigan by 46% (which I would call a good thing), which means giving health coverage to people who didn’t previously have it. So you have to be thinking, now, how much does this cost us? Well, the report claims that, “There is no net cost to the state over the next 21 years, and Michigan will save $320 million in uncompensated care costs by 2022 and $206 million in General Fund costs in 2014 alone.” So it saves the state money because it decreases uncompensated care costs.

How could you possibly oppose this? It has positive outcomes for Michigan residents and positive outcomes on Michigan’s budget.

3) Vote to allow an “opt-out” of Obamacare when possible?

No, I will not vote to allow an “opt-out” of the ACA when possible. This feels like a sound-byte ready question to hammer people with. I’m not really sure how this law would work or what the consequences would be if it passed. How does one “opt-out” of a law that is designed to ensure you can’t be denied for pre-existing conditions, or allows children to stay on their parents’ insurance until the age of 26? Is it an opt-out of the mandate? Or an opt-out of…what? Are you going to buy a private insurance policy? Because all of them will be regulated under the ACA. This question is not clear and I can find no real credible information on what the legislation would look like, so my answer is a solid and firm no.

Energy:

1) Support a 100% competitive electric energy market? (Background: currently it’s only 10% of the market with thousands of customers on a waiting list to switch energy suppliers.)

I don’t support a 100% competitive electric energy market, but I certainly do support competitive energy markets. It’s obvious that we need to be critical of where the electric energy comes from and how much a competitive market helps consumers. I would have obvious questions: how do we regulate a 100% competitive market and how does the average consumer get informed about the choices of providers?

2) Support raising Michigan’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS)?

The Renewable Portfolio Standard is a fancy term for a regulation that mandates an increase in energy from renewable sources. A full report on the status of the Michigan RPS can be found here.

In the last election cycle, Michigan voters were given the choice to raise the RPS to 25% by 2025 as a constitutional amendment, which was voted down with 60% opposing. The current RPS is 10% by 2015. Perhaps 15% over the course of 10 years is a little high, but I have to say that, generally, I support raising the RPS over time so we can transition to renewable forms of energy. That being said, I am not totally opposed to nuclear power. I do, howveer, prefer biomass, geothermal, wind, and solar power. And with the leaps in photovoltaic cell technology, solar power isn’t the pipe dream it used to be.

3) Vote to ban the practice of Hydraulic Fracturing (Fracking) in energy exploration?

Honestly, I think there are too many questions about the safety of the chemicals and processes in fracking for me to give it any support. I wouldn’t support a ban, per se, but I would definitely support serious investigations into the safety of the fracking tech for consumers near the sites. Does it, for instance, cause earthquakes and poison water supplies? It certainly seems there is a lot of evidence to the positive for both of them, as Ohio has found links between fracking and earthquakes. This data and information is not something we can ignore, and it needs to be addressed before we can really start the fracking process.

I want to know: is fracking safe? The evidence points to the answering being no.

Academics:

1) Vote to remove Michigan from the list of states adhering to common core standards?

I would not vote to remove Michigan from the list. I will acknowledge that there are problems with the common core standards at the lower grade levels, such as math tests that are problematic or perhaps developmentally inappropriate (and I have addressed the questions about certain math problems here), but it seems that the standards are fairly more sensible at the high school level.

I can’t ignore very real concerns that the common core standards place too much emphases on test taking and argumentative writing, but these are all things we can address within the context of the standards.

2) Support using student performance/progress in determining teacher pay & job security?

I have questions about such things. How do we assess student performance and progress in relation to teacher’s teaching ability? Is it how well they do on standardized tests? How well they fare in grades?

How does parental responsibility factor in, as well as the responsibility of the students themselves?

In short, I don’t see how to make this work in any practical or fair way. Why put the blame on the teachers when the parents and the students are also accountable for how well they do in class? I don’t ever recall hearing from any of my parents, grandparents, or family that it was the teacher’s fault I did poorly on a test. It was always my failure to prepare, and I can’t argue with that. When does the student or parent’s responsibility end and the teacher’s begin?

3) Support expanding the number and accessibility of cyber schools in Michigan?

No. The news I see shows that they generally have abysmal records, and I am wary of any private virtual institution.

Roads:

1) Vote for higher fuel taxes? (Background: Michigan has the 5th highest taxes on gas in the country).

According to this article, MDOT states that “state fuel tax revenue, which is dedicated exclusively to road and transportation funding, has been falling since 2004 as a result of inflation and increasingly-efficient vehicles.”

It’s true that we have one of the highest taxes on gas in the country. It’s also true that we have crumbling roads and bridges in need of maintenance. If not a fuel tax to fund road repair, a use tax. We cannot avoid this problem and it will cost money to fix, and each year we ignore it, the costs only increase.

2) Vote for higher vehicle registration fees?

We might consider this for repairing the roads as vehicle registration fee increases would be a good way to direct a use tax at motorists, so people who don’t use roads aren’t being taxed. My last vehicle registration fee was $116, so I already feel the pinch. Still, if it would save my suspension and tires wear and tear and possible other, more costly damage, I think it would be worth it.

3) Work to dedicate all revenues collected from fuel taxes to transportation purposes: primarily road repairs and construction?

As the above article indicates, this seems to already be the case, so I guess I would just support the continuation of such.

Taxes:

1) Support a repeal of the Michigan Personal Property Tax (PPT)?

I wouldn’t support a full repeal, no. As this article from the Detroit Free Press mentions, “But state Sen. Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing, said she feared the state would be the ultimate loser, with the loss of $300 million in tax revenues in the first year.”

I would like to know how local communities will cope with the loss of revenues, and how a $300,000,000 hole in the budget will be filled.

I support restructuring and modernizing the PPT, however.

2) Actively support and vote to lower the Michigan State income tax rate back to 3.9% or less? (Background: The current rate is 4.25%–in 2005 it was 3.9%)

As with all tax issues, we have to ask how we make up for the loss of revenue in the budget, and if we slash the budget, which parts we slash. A balanced approach to this question requires more than just asking to support tax cuts. Nobody likes high taxes, but at the same time we have to assess where the revenues to fund state and local services will be coming from. This website shows that Michigan has a relatively low state income tax compared to other states.

3) Vote for appropriations that grow at or less than the rate of inflation?

I can’t support appropriations that grow less than the rate of inflation. MSU notes that “If appropriations had been increased at the average national rate for five years, MSU would have an additional $140 million in state support, sufficient to reduce tuition by approximately 21 percent.”

If appropriations grew less than that rate of inflation, we’d fall even further behind in vital areas like higher education. It’s important that we keep investing so things are properly funded.

Additional Questions:

1) Support state tax revenue being used for the city of Detroit to emerge from bankruptcy?

It depends on how much state tax revenue would be used. It’s important that we revitalize the state’s economy, and doing this would probably mean helping out the communities in Michigan that are currently having issues like bankruptcy.

I can’t outright say I would support it.

2) Support placing all government workers (including teachers) into a defined contribution and retirement plan?

I need more information on what this “defined contribution and retirement plan” looks like before I can comment on it.

And that’s it. It’s a lengthy post and it took me hours to write it, but it was necessary given the brevity of the questionnaire itself and the group that sent it. All of these questions were answered sincerely and to the best of my ability in the short time I had. I will not be sending the questionnaire back to Americans for Prosperity of Michigan because I was not impressed with its quality.

I imagine that they might use some of what I have said here against me in some way during the election, and that’s okay. I’m being honest and upfront, checking my sources, and doing my best to stand up for the best interests of the Michigan residents I hope to represent, and even those that I would not. I hope that people interested in my positions will find their way here, and more than that, I hope they will engage me in a reasonable and open dialogue about these issues. That’s really what I’m after here: dialogues about how to move Michigan forward for the better.

And I would rather do that free of moneyed and special interests that, as I have shown above, aren’t entirely trustworthy.

Thank you for reading.

Josh Derke

Democratic Candidate for State Representative, 93rd Congressional District

A-to-Z Challenge Twenty-Two: Video Games and Narrative Literacy

April 25, 2014 Leave a comment

A recent article by Emily Gera at Polygon focuses on the controversy in the new Tomb Raider game that arose when gamers learned that it would include the suggestion of rape. It’s a pretty decent article, and as Emily reports, writer Rhianna Pratchett found a silver lining to the controversy:

“There’s silver linings that come from just talking about these things,” she said. “Once I did get announced and could talk, we could finally discuss how we think about female characters in games.”

It goes without saying that this is an important topic. Female characters in video games have often been stereotyped under the “damsel in distress” theme, or they’ve been objectified to conform to some kind of ideal sexual standard, with exaggerated curves or large breasts. So it’s good that we’re starting to finally have a dialogue on how women are portrayed and what kinds of roles that they have in the games. Recent polls show that nearly half of gamers are female.

It’s actually pretty hard to find games with positive portrayals of women that aren’t also hypersexualized. Off the top of my head, I can think of a few possibilities (and I’m sure someone might disagree with me, and that’s okay). The first up is the female version of Commander Shepard in the Mass Effect games. For Mass Effect 3 she was given a default look that was voted upon by gamers and it tilts away from what I’d like to see, but the fact that they featured the female version in ads I think was a big step.

I would also nominate Alyx Vance from Half-Life 2, who was very self-sufficient and intelligent. Give her a gun and a problem to solve and she’ll take care of business.

While it’s true that there’s a bit in Half-Life 2: Episode 2 where she gets injured and you have to find some kind of extract to help heal her (kind of playing into the “damsel in distress” narrative–but she does get right back up and kick ass afterward), she’s a strong person and, I feel, completely undermined most treatment of women in video games.

There’s another thing that Pratchett brings up:

According to the writer, the games industry is only beginning to gain a sense of what to do with the narrative designers they have hired, adding that often these writers are hired guns brought in late during development. The result is similar to attempting to write a film while the film is being shot – games writing is continuously in flux as other aspects of the release are being tweaked and re-worked.

There are some games that really highlight this process, with subplots that seem to go nowhere, or are completely dropped. One of the most obvious examples in my mind is Mass Effect 3, where it seems as if several of the important foreshadowing and subplots from Mass Effect 2 were just completely forgotten (whatever happened to the dark energy subplot?).

Gera further quotes Pratchett:

“The narrative literacy in games is quite low,” said Pratchett, “but we should be interacting with all areas of the team because story comes through everything.”

I don’t know if I agree with Pratchett when she says that narrative literacy in games is low. Perhaps there are design and end product issues with games related to the narrative, which makes sense given the focus of games on the gameplay mechanics. In fact, it can seem sometimes like a story is being told at you like a movie, which often seems at odds with the interactive nature of video games. I can imagine that ways to get around the limitations in games is to keep writers on staff full-time so they can work out these details before they even start coding.

However, I think that there are several games that are high in narrative literacy, maybe because they’re so story-driven. Let me list a few of them here and talk about them briefly. I have plans to delve deeper into some of them at a later time (I’ve been saying this for over a year now and life keeps happening…). So here’s my brief list:

  1. Mass Effect Trilogy
  2. Bioshock Trilogy
  3. Alan Wake
  4. Half-Life 2 (and Episodes 1 and 2)

Mass Effect often strains under the weight of its own narrative, as does Bioshock. However, the central stories of all three Mass Effect games is classic science fiction. For instance, in the first game Sovereign, the Reaper–a member of an ancient race of sentient machines–talks about how they have used technology to guide the technological and social progress of races in the galaxy for millions of years. That’s a very fascinating idea to explore. Mass Effect 2 raises questions of identity, a la Shepard’s resurrection at the hands of Cerberus.

Bioshock is one of the most complex series of games I’ve ever played. I actually call them philosophical dissertations in video game form. The first one especially has my attention as being a take on Ayn Rand’s objectivism. It has a lot of imagery relating to her novel (second-rate, in my opinion) Atlas Shrugged that’s really important. Bioshock 2 takes on different philosophies, like altruism. Bioshock Infinite is probably the most complex of the three, and has a lot to say about determinism and the illusion of choice.

Alan Wake is a favorite of mine because it’s almost a meta-narrative. It’s got a pretty straightforward horror story narrative, but it plays on the video game aspects pretty interestingly and the story is pretty awesome. The game and the narrative work together as light is your best weapon, and light is perhaps the central motif of the game.

It’s hard for me to talk briefly about Half-Life 2 and the expansion games. As far as video games go, I would rate it as the most loyal to science fiction. I mean, think about it: the protagonist is a “rogue physicist” with an MIT education. That’s pretty outstanding. One of the parts that sticks with me the most is one of Doctor Wallace Breen’s communications the protagonist, Gordon Freeman:

Tell me, Doctor Freeman, if you can: You have destroyed so much. What is it, exactly, that you have created? Can you name even one thing? I thought not.

You spend most of the game destroying and, yes, killing to get to this final part. The antagonist levels this criticism on you, and it gets at the heart of the paradox of Gordon Freeman as a protagonist: he only destroys. And it’s true: there isn’t one thing in the game, that I can’t think of, that he actually creates.

Anyway, I think I’ll actually be getting to writing more on all four of those. But for now, I hope you enjoyed this post, gentle readers.

A-to-Z Challenge day Twenty-One: Universe from Nothing?

April 24, 2014 2 comments

Hello, dear readers! For a while now I’ve wanted to share some deep science videos but haven’t gotten around to it. The letter “U” for the A-to-Z blogging challenge has allowed me to under the shaky premise that the word universe begins with the same letter.

The first video is by Lawrence Krauss, in which he talks with Richard Dawkins. It is entitled “Something from Nothing” and it’s an interesting dialogue about science, cosmology, and other things.

The second video has eminent physicist and cosmologist Sean Carroll on the topic of existence, and why it exists. It’s a very interesting video, though it’s a bit heavy.

So, what do I think about all of this? To be honest, I don’t really know. I think these leading thinkers offer interesting ideas and I’m willing to cast my lot in with them for now. Was the big bang the first big bang, or one in an infinite series? Who knows! There are people with very strong opinions on this one way or another, but I think that they’re unwarranted based on what we know and what it is possible for us to know.

For instance, are actual infinities impossible? I’m not so sure you could ever claim they are with certainty, outside of metaphysical arguments. I largely haven’t found this arguments convincing simply because they’re often excluding them from possibility (mathematicians often hold that they do exist, like in set theory, where you can have an infinite set of whole numbers) because they can’t imagine something existing that is actually infinite. Well, there are more reasons then that, to be fair. But in the end, can they be sure? No.

Anyway, I don’t really have time to write at length about the universe right now, even if I would like to. I hope you enjoy these videos in the meantime.

A-to-Z Challenge Day Twenty: Transcendence and Transhumanism

April 23, 2014 Leave a comment

Lately I’ve found science fiction movies and television to be largely disappointing. Star Trek Into Darkness was a letdown (and I’ll get into that at some later time). Almost Human was a HUGE disappointment and has left me feeling empty inside for all of the hope I had it wouldn’t be another vacuous JJ Abrams project (it was–I’ll get into that in another post, perhaps, someday when I talk more about artificial intelligence and whatnot).

So I put a little bit of faith in the movie Transcendence to not, well, completely disappoint. I haven’t actually seen the movie yet, but I have read some reviews that have given me pause.

The one that, I think, bears the most relevance for now is by Derek at SF Signal. In the review, Derek writes:

As with most technothrillers, Transcendence dares to ask Important Questions — What is the nature of the human? What happens when the quest for knowledge becomes a quest for power? — but, as with most technothrillers, very quickly devolves into a series of chases, forgetting its loftier aims.

It raises important questions! But…it doesn’t really offer any introspection to lead us to answers, it sounds. This is exactly what I was hoping wouldn’t happen. So, let me issue a preemptive sigh and move on to what I hoped the movie would be about.

Well, I can say that I hoped that it would raise those questions. But I want to list some of the questions that I had hoped would be addressed.

  1. What is the nature of humanity?
  2. What is the nature of consciousness?
  3. Is identity static or plastic?
  4. If a human mind is uploaded into a machine, will it maintain its humanity?

This is a movie that is, obviously, steeped in transhumanism. Mind-uploading is a very interesting idea on the frontiers of science and philosophy, and one that I find endlessly fascinating. Can a human being whose mind has been transferred to a computer or a machine maintain his perspective and identity as a human, or is it something fundamentally different? I don’t know the answer to that, but I had hoped that Transcendence would give an honest look at it without reducing itself to the standard technothriller formula.

So what is transhumanism anyway? This is how Wikipedia defines it:

Transhumanism (abbreviated as H+ or h+) is an international cultural and intellectual movement with an eventual goal of fundamentally transforming the human condition by developing and making widely available technologies to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.

The movement itself raises the question about what makes a human. For instance, is there a line between a real, natural human and something that was once a human but is no longer? If we upload a mind to a computer and we give it a synthetic, but realistic earth-like living condition will it maintain its humanity? And if we let it control its existence within the digital environment how will it change?

How can we handle the ethical debates of transhumanism and its many tenets? I would first argue that we’d need to have a lot more transhumanist innovations before we could actually really begin to talk about the ethics. Cybernetics are a good step, and we have a lot of modern examples of those. So will there be a point where a human being can replace their internal organs and limbs with fully-functional and realistic prosthetics that we have a hard time defining them as human?

So, I suppose that I shall have to watch it, take some notes, and then give a review about what happened in the movie. Will it fall victim to the kind of technophobia that tends to run through a lot of technothrillers and make artificial life or new ideas seem terrible? Or will it instead give it a dispassionate view of the subject matter that will leave the audience with a new appreciation of the topics of transhumanism and mind-uploading?

Based on Derek’s review I’m not hopeful for a positive outcome.

A-to-Z Challenge Day Nineteen: Starfleet Standard Issue Kilts

April 22, 2014 Leave a comment

It’s all pursuant to Starfleet Dress Code Regulations.

Starfleet from Star Trek is…well, it exists as sort of a conundrum in science fiction. It’s definitely a militaristic organization that expands humanity’s reach in the galaxy (perhaps even through colonialism). The Constitution Class Enterprise NCC-1701 is classified as a heavy cruiser, a name which hints at its nature as an armed vessel.

But Starfleet, as exemplified by the Enterprise, is also a flotilla of peace and mercy. They provide assistance and aid to people in need, often without consideration of their political loyalties. The crew of the ship is allowed to follow their passions and their beliefs, and they have remarkable freedom of self-expression (so long as it doesn’t conflict with their duties and the chain-of-command).

So how are we supposed to think about Starfleet? Well, it depends on the context. The Federation is, first and foremost, a true eutopia. The problems that we often see with The Federation (apart from some very rare events) come from without: the Klingons, the Romulans, the Dominion, and all of these other threats constantly clash against the Federation’s idealism. And, really, the Federation should be seen, in total, as a civilization that thrives in a post-scarcity economy. There isn’t any need for money, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t material wealth. It means that all of the basic necessities of life, like shelter, food, medicine, education, and so on are provided as a basic right to everyone.

Starfleet is an extension of the Federation, obviously, to keep the peace and to transfer wealth, food, and medicine through space. Naturally, with all of these external threats, they need to protect themselves and their borders. The entire galaxy is not the Federation, and as we can see, the Federation expands its territories and influence by inducting new worlds into the fold. In some ways it mirrors colonialism, which is probably intentional. Is there a good kind of colonialism? I think that’s a question that Star Trek seeks to explore in a post-scarcity, democratic society.

It’s why we see Starfleet exemplifying the Federation’s most virtuous aspects as well as some of its less virtuous aspects. Multiculturalism, tolerance, respect, and equality are just basic ideas that the crew aboard the Enterprise practices every episode. However, because of the antagonism with the Klingons, we see some attitudes which border on racism from other areas within the Federation and Starfleet.

Remember in the episode “The Trouble with Tribbles” when the station manager contacts Captain Kirk on the Enterprise? He says something like, “The station is being swarmed by Klingons!”

Kirk quipped, “I wasn’t aware that twelve Klingons constitutes a swarm.”

While it is true that the Klingons are aggressive and have a reputation for violence, the attitude of the station manager betrays a kind of bigotry. Kirk, on the other hand, exemplifies the better attitudes of the Federation, even as he continues to let the Klingons on the station for shore leave when there is a fight between the Starfleet officers and the Klingons.

Kirk isn’t always in the right, however. In the episode “Arena,” Kirk wants to use the Enterprise to annihilate the Gorn, responsible for the destruction of a Federation colony on a  planet that could have encroached upon Gorn territory. This, I think, represents the other side of the Federation’s power: destruction. But more than that, it demonstrates the humanness of Kirk. While humanity and human society may have evolved past our current limitations, we still have some intrinsic emotional qualities that compel bad action.

Anyway, I’d like to expand on this later, when I’m not writing for a blogging challenge and can develop this idea a bit more thoroughly. I’m pretty sure I can make it more cogent.

Pretty sure.