Thoughts on Star Trek Into Darkness

So I recently watched Star Trek Into Darkness (and this seems to have won out as the proper stylization) and found myself having strong feelings (or I suppose if I want to get tech blog credit, “feels”) about it. And before you claim I’m overthinking it, or far too much of a Trekkie, let me explain myself

  • I mostly enjoyed the movie in the theater (with some exceptions)
  • I like Star Trek, but I’m probably a “Diet” Trekkie at best since I’ve really only seen The Next Generation (and still technically not all of it), Voyager, and Enterprise and little bits of Deep Space Nine and the original series (and read none of the novels or other things). For Trekkies who generally love DS9 more than Voyager, realize the preference there is related more to by bed time in elementary school when both of those were on. (Wow, I just admitted a bed time on the Internet, that was unexpected. Also, I just learned virtually every episode of every Star Trek series is on Netflix, so this excuse probably doesn’t hold anymore)
  • I do think there’s a difference between a good individual movie and a movie that’s supposed to fit into a franchise

So let’s talk about the experience in the theater as a singular movie. First, the pros. It delivered as an action movie and was a decent science fiction movie. Having only really seen Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock, it was interesting to see him play such a physical character. Spock, Kirk, and Scotty were all great and Scotty was pretty fun to watch when he was off on his own. But let’s also get to the two big things that really threw me off during the movie.

Depicted: A surprisingly accurate view of cold fusion compared to Star Trek Into Darkness

First, the entire opening scene was unintentionally hilarious to me.  The trailer clip of Bones and Kirk running in a gorgeous red rainforest is the start. And that was fine (wow, for once a trailer in recent memeory that didn’t spoil). But it turns out they jump off a cliff because the Enterprise is underwater? We find out the reason the crew is even on the planet is because a volcano is about to erupt and it threatens to wipe out a primitive alien species. Kirk and Bones are running because they stole some sacred scroll from the aliens and the chase would draw the tribe farther away from the volcano. We then find out Spock is in the volcano, preparing a cold fusion device. I’m not joking, that’s official. Okay, that sounds weird because cold fusion isn’t “cold”, it’s just fusion that takes place at like room temperature instead of the temperature inside the heart of a star. Like the arc reactor in Iron Man. That’s cold fusion (plus magic comic book science, but technically cold fusion). But okay, maybe I’ll give it a pass, this is like the far future so maybe it’ll do something like how the US government hoped to use nuclear bombs for constructive purposes. Then we see it go off. And the cold fusion device seems to cause the magma to ice over. Yep, okay, it’s as stupid as I thought. (Slight spoilers immediately after the cut, bigger spoilers further down)

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The Future Is Now, If We Speak Slowly

So Microsoft has just announced a pretty awesome speech recognition/speech translation program.  More on this later, but the video is really cool.  If you want to skip to the translation bit, jump ahead to 7 minutes in and you’ll see English to Chinese text, and then later it goes to Chinese audio (I assume it’s Mandarin?).

There are a few obvious limitations – You can definitely tell he is speaking slower than normal.   A few times he gets really excited and you can see the English speech recognition accuracy really drop.  And even speaking slowly, it’s not perfect.  But it’s pretty good overall (I can’t comment on the translation, since I know no Chinese).  Also, they say his voice was used for the Chinese audio, and I believe it, but it doesn’t sound incredibly “unique”.  To me, it just sounds like it’s about his pitch, but that’s it.

Update: So what makes this different than other translators?  You may have noticed he described previous work as using “hidden Markov modeling” and this is a “deep neural network”.  Markov chains are basically networks of probabilities.  For instance, we can use a Markov chain to describe your lunch behavior if you’re really ritualistic.  Let’s say you and I are co-workers. We’re in separate wings and are good acquaintances, but maybe not super close friends, so if we run into each other, we’ll eat together, but otherwise we won’t.  There’s a 60% chance our morning meetings end such that we run into each other right before lunch.  If you eat by yourself, there’s a 30% chance you grab pre-made sushi from the cafeteria and eat at your desk, a 50% chance you eat something from the grill in the cafeteria, a 10% chance you go out and get barbecue for lunch and finally a 10% chance you go to the Mexican restaurant.  If you meet me, there’s a 10% chance we eat take-out sushi from the cafeteria, a 30% chance you we go to the cafeteria grill, a 20% chance we go get barbecue , and a 40% chance we go to the Mexican place.

Someone who knew all of this could figure out how often you’re likely to eat at each thing.  The equivalent of a hidden Markov model in this case might be a co-worker who always see your leftovers at your desk and then tries to work backwards to figure out the probabilities of these events happening.  As the above XKCD points out, sometimes the most probable thing following doesn’t always happen.  And that’s the big limit to a Markov model.  You can only work with the most recent state.

Interesting Digital Shorts

There’s a new web series called H+ (pronounced H plus, not H positive if you’re in a medical frame of mind) that premiered earlier this month.  Normally, I’m not into digital shorts, but this one struck me out because it’s near-future, realistic science fiction.  My basic understanding of the series is that it’s about a computer virus that manages to wipe out a lot of the Internet.  The novelty of this idea is that the virus targets people with implants (the eponymous H+) that enable them to connect to the Internet, and it seems to kill them.  The series jumps around in time, looking at the moment when all the networks are attacked, years before as the technology develops (and becomes as ubiquitous as cell phones), and some time later as society tries to recover .

It’s got some big production values too, since Warner Brothers’  digital branch is producing it.  I’ve watched the first six episodes already (they’re all about 5 minutes long), and they’re all quite good, if a bit mysterious still.  But I’m very excited.  Check out the series trailer here.

Quick Updates

A friend showed me a very cool Kickstarter that hopes to take everyday people’s experiments (and those of a few scientists) up to space!  Check it out here.

NPR Science Friday had an interesting segment today about a movement hoping to have a “science debate” between the presidential candidates.  A recording of the segment and additional reading are on the Science Friday website.  I hope to post a response to it soon.

And the Olympics just started!  NBC has a series of videos called “Science of Olympics” looking at science and engineering that goes into the sports and equipment the athletes are using.  If you start here, you’ll see the other Science of Olympics videos in the related videos category.