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Saturday 29 October 2016

What Some Nerd Thinks About Star Trek (II)

Last time I looked at how Star Trek is a work of sociological science fiction. Human and other Federation societies have achieved something of a utopia, with alien species illustrating what might have happened if we'd chosen the wrong path. Sometimes the aliens make wrong choices because they're stupid - that is, it could have happened to any society. Sometimes they do so because it's a fundamental part of their nature which doesn't apply to other species (e.g. telepaths). And in other cases it's because they mismanage their technological development, or come up with a technology which is intrinsically damaging but use it anyway.

Star Trek is a both a science fiction and a sociological fiction show because it explores the impact of different scientific developments on societies. We saw last time some of the principle themes it explores : equality, the rights of the individual, the need for balance. It explores these ideas primarily by showing us alien societies who've got things wrong. The Federation, meanwhile, is more or less just assumed to be perfect. It's not so often we see such a direct analysis of the Federation itself. So what is it about the Federation, and Earth in particular, that makes it such a darn nice place to live ?

More Than A Nice Place To Visit

Before we look at the how and why's of the Federation's perfection, it would probably be a good idea to establish just what sort of utopia the Federation is and how close it really comes to being a true paradise. In some ways it's clearly the Platonic ideal of paradise. Perhaps most prominently, war between or in the Federation member states is utterly unthinkable. It just couldn't happen. Ever. This doesn't mean there isn't crime, even occasional violent crimes, but military conflict and large-scale violence is over.

The problems of wealth inequality have also been completely eliminated - there's no money. So no-one is economically rich, and no-one is economically poor. No-one ever starves or becomes homeless or physically suffers because they don't work, medical exceptions aside. As Picard explains on a few occasions :

It's not quite true that Federation citizens are Buddhist-like in their lack of desires. They do have desires even for material things : Picard himself is honoured to be given an archeological gift (he has many other trinkets) by his former teacher, and after one of the most moving episodes of the entire show, treasures his Ressikan flute beyond any other possession. But these things are valued not for the objects themselves, but for the feelings they invoke. It's the obsessive aspect of consumerisim that's been thoroughly crushed, rather than totally suppressing the desire for things (as I saw on the side of church recently, "the best things in life aren't things"). As mentioned last time, the Ferengi serve as a potent reminder of how damaging obsessive greed can be - but much more on them later.

In general, it's now experiences which are valued, not things. The idea that you have to buy the latest incremental upgrade of some piece of technology, or have to wear clothing or some particular brand... this is dead. People have things that make them personally happy, not because they're in some bloody stupid competition with everyone else. Moreover, things of equal quality (archeological relics aside) are freely and almost limitlessly available to everyone. So there's no obsession to be economically better-off than anyone else, because that's fundamentally impossible. Though for a much more detailed economic analysis, see this.

So the Federation is truly utopian when it comes to internal warfare and economics. It's not quite so perfect when it comes to dealing with crime, but close. Although various characters state on occasion that there's no crime on Earth, this is not quite true - they're probably just making a linguistic simplification. Crime is negligible on Earth. Violent crime does appear to be close to non-existent, but there are still Federation prisons.

This is likely a consequence of the fact that society remains inhomogeneous. Although people are fundamentally a lot more similar in Trek than they are today (more on that later) there are still significant cultural variations and passionate disagreements. We don't witness daily life much but we have enough information to figure out the basics - especially about families.

Family life in Star Trek appears to be remarkably similar to our own. Even Captain Picard, the greatest diplomat and orator of his era, suffers from an acrimonious older brother who remains passionately bitter about Picard's choice to join Starfleet instead of... tending vineyards. Yes, that moron would have preferred to see Captain "I repeatedly outwitted an omnipoitent being with sheer moral fortitude" Picard growing grapes rather than exploring the galaxy. Stupid people still exist in the 24th century.

The difference isn't so much that people are less stupid, but that society is a strict meritocracy - stupid people rarely get into positions of power.
Commander Riker has an estranged relationship with his father, as does Lieutenant Paris. Captain Sisko's father is much more normal, but with a stubborn streak. Dr Bashir's father is an outright criminal douchebag. Even Spock suffers a rocky relationship with super-logical daddy. Mothers aren't perfect either : Ezri Dax doesn't exactly get on well with hers, while Councillor Troy's mum is nothing less than a force of nature, spreading fear and dread in her wake that even Picard can't deal with.

Then there's the family Voyager's holographic doctor creates to help him understand humans better. Initially they're a bunch of goody two-shoes that can set cynics vomiting from a hundred paces :

But this doesn't last long, as B'elanna soon edits them to make them more realistic. The family switch from The Waltons to The Simpsons, only less funny, with his wife being tired, late and rushed, his daughter whiny and his son hanging out with some Klingon teenagers and getting in to bloodletting rituals. As one does. So although war is eliminated and material desires massively curbed, there's still plenty of human personality pumping around to explain why crime hasn't entirely vanished.

So people in the wider Trek universe, if not on starships which are really only populated by those with the right stuff, aren't always as nice as it may appear from a casual glance at the show. They squabble, argue, have furious rows, friendships and marriages fall apart. You could certainly film an eventful soap opera in the 24th century. And yet... the worst of it has gone. There's no bullshitting. There's no petty bitchiness. When people are presented with overwhelming evidence, they damn well change their minds (except for the very worst, irredeemable villains). They are, when you get right down to it, basically rational - even if that's sometimes buried deep under layers of emotional baggage. That often feels far removed from modern society. Something fundamental has definitely changed. Possibly no-one inflicts real pain on anyone else because no-one is in pain themselves.

It's the imperfections that make the Federation truly idyllic. There's something for everyone here - you can even do menial work if you really want to, but little or nothing (except perhaps schooling) is compulsory. While everyone's material needs are provided for, their mental needs still require challenges. And they do need things to keep them occupied, there are tasks that simply can't be done by machine. At this point it's time to explore some of the technological reasons by which this other Eden is maintained.

It's Easy To Be A Saint In Paradise

Last time I showed some examples where Trek warns of the dangers of technology. But most of the time the message is clearly and unequivocally pro-science and pro-technology, with that playing an enormously significant role in keeping paradise running.

Perhaps the biggest key to this is the Federation's infinite resources. This is a society that routinely terraforms worlds and can even re-ignite dead stars. Its powers are near-godlike, its energy supply clean, safe, and unlimited. Replicators are a powerful expression of this, but the key is really the infinite energy, which, with the advent of the anti-matter reactor, was available centuries before the replicator.

Unlimited energy makes a complete mockery of modern economics. When you have a device that can produce enough energy to run the entire planet a hundred times over, what's the point in money ? You don't need any more resources, you've already got everything you could ever want and more besides. You can give away all your possessions and easily create more, and you can do absolutely nothing to stop everyone else from getting what they want too. Behaving like a jerk offers none of the social advantages it does in today's society - there's nothing to be gained. Just like in the false utopia of The Time Machine, competition for resources may actually become self-destructive. There's no point in wasting energy competing for things you could more easily get through collaboration - you just alienate people.

Federation citizens can have literally anything they want on demand. But what they want are experiences and recognition, not material goods. Is this because of their infinite energy and replicators, or in spite of them ? Tough to say until someone actually builds one. I'll return to this point soon.

Regardless, infinite energy and resources may also play a key role in why everyone is fundamentally rational, while the bitching and bullshitting has almost entirely gone. It's easy to be a saint in paradise. You don't have to focus an iota of energy on finding food, shelter or wi-fi; there are no more menial chores to perform : every moment can be dedicated to making yourself a better person. Those who don't are not likely to win popularity contests. This won't happen just because of infinite energy - it's a necessary but not sufficient criteria. Again, more on that soon.

And technology is close to 100% reliable, despite the famous exploding consoles seen so often in the show :

Things on Earth aren't generally hit with phasers and photon torpedoes every five minutes like they are on a starship. Technology is so obscenely reliable, and energy so offensively abundant, that prisons even use force fields instead of walls, for some reason. No-one ever has a segmentation fault when compiling their computer code - in fact the process of writing code is more like telling the computer what you want it to do, since it has a very effective natural language interface and some small degree of intelligence. All of those horrible little technological problems we have to deal with on a daily basis - printers failing, hard drives crashing, blue screens of death - nope. All gone. Buses and trains not running on time ? Nope. Washing dishes ? Nope. Laundry ? Nope. A thousand irritating little chores we currently have to do have ended. Everyday technology does nothing except make life easier* (except when plots require otherwise**). It's nudge theory implemented on a grand scale.

* To say nothing of medical advancements which can cure blindness and paralysis, treat mental and physical disorders - and the education system. Federation children learn calculus in primary school. Presumably if the education system is more effective at teaching mathematics, it might also be more effective in teaching everyone basic ethics.
** Though as discussed last time, Trek does posit that some technologies are deliberately avoided. Genetic engineering is one example since it takes to exacerbate the human tendency of denigrating other groups. Artifical intelligence, as already discussed at length, is another - it's impossible to predict how humans would behave if robots could and would do absolutely everything for them.

Which brings me back to Sisko's original quote : it's easy to be a saint in paradise. Deep Space Nine is set just outside Federation space, and here on the fringe people don't behave so nicely. The Maquis are a group of freedom fighters who formally lost their homes when the Federation negotiated a border treaty with the militaristic, aggressive Cardassians. I say "formally" because many of them chose to fight rather than leave. Clearly people still value their possessions and territory, even if they're no longer obsessed by them. Acquiring more things is no longer the driving force of humanity, but keeping what's yours is still regarded as basic justice.

This is another key running theme of Star Trek : that sometimes you have to fight, as the Maquis choose to do instead of just moving to another world. Federation citizens may be an awful lot nicer than most people today, but woe betide anyone who makes the mistake of thinking they're weak. A minute or two of viewing will suffice :

As Chakotay says in Voyager : "They taught us to defend ourselves. They taught us very well". Again it's a question of balance. Pre-meditated murder has gone the way of the dinosaur, and humans never, ever deliberately provoke a military conflict. But the idea that this means total pacifism is rejected, something which is exemplified in the Next Generation episode "Allegiance". Picard offers the balance point between a violent, individualistic Chalnoth and a pacifist Mizarian :

In Star Trek, refusing to fight at all is seen as almost as bad a solution as fighting all the time, with Minzaria being conquered six time in three centuries. So the Federation utopia is maintained not by pacifism, because that would fail miserably against the various aggressive species (and the Federation's military prowess surely acts as a deterrent), and humans haven't lost their innate tendency of aggression.

It's also worth mentioning a few examples of individuals who behave dramatically out of character when they're thrown into extraordinary circumstances. In one of Trek's darker episodes, when Miles O'Brien is put in a simulated prison for twenty years, he murders his fellow inmate. The combined experience of prison and the knowledge of what he's done drives him temporarily mad, making him suicidal, abusive and hostile. But O'Brien is one of Trek's more complex characters, being already established as a decent family man who harbours deep racial prejudices against Cardassians from his experiences during the war.

More archetypal characters also show deviant behaviour in the right circumstances. Councillor Troi is normally a fairly bland Next Generation character whose most notable trait is a penchant for chocolate, but when she loses her innate telepathic abilities she becomes a colossal jerk. Captain Picard reassures her that she'll learn to adapt, just as blind people's hearing becomes more acute :

In Voyager, Ensign "Goody Two Shoes" Kim is imprisoned and almost kills his best friend, albeit while under psychological torture designed to send him mad. But perhaps the most interesting example occurs in the Next Generation, when Data is abducted by an obsessive collector of unique objects. Data is an emotionless android on a quest to become more human. He is logical, rational and ethical by design. He has no feelings of any kind. Yet under duress by his abductor, he takes the decision to commit murder and covers it up afterwards :

So it's easy to be a saint in paradise, just as it's difficult to be a saint when the world around you is dark and ugly with no good choices. On the fringes, away from the shining interior, humans of the 24th century still have many of the same social problems as in today's society - even to the extent of large-scale warfare. Yet when all their needs are catered for, life is idyllic. Technology plays a strong role in this - but it's far from the only reason.

Technology Is Not A Magic Bullet

Infinite energy/resources must be a major reason why war, hunger, and poverty, at least, have died out, and probably a reason why everyone is nicer to each other too. But in the Trek universe that wasn't inevitable. The warp drive was invented only a few years after the third and most destructive world war... and it attracted the attention of the Vulcans. First Contact is an event of mythological proportions. Had humanity found they were simply exploring the great empty void of space but really really fast, it's doubtful things would have gone in quite the same direction. Things might have gotten better, but the society of the Federation would never have come to pass.
It is one of the pivotal moments in human history, Doctor. You get to make first contact with an alien race ! And after you do... everything begins to change. Your theories on warp drive allow fleets of starships to be built and mankind to start exploring the Galaxy. It unites humanity in a way no one ever thought possible. When they realise they're not alone in the universe, poverty, disease, war - they'll all be gone within the next fifty years.
Other species have the unlimited energy and resources of the Federation but behave very differently. The Klingons are aggressive both on a personal and military level. For them, personal honour is the most important virtue and individualism is much stronger than in the Federation. Romulans place much greater value on the state than the Klingons, but are still an aggressive military society. Vulcans are peaceful and rational but incredibly dull, most of the time. The Ferengi have replicators and warp drive but still value material goods above all things. Interestingly, Ferengi society has a different history to humanity :

Or as Quark puts it on another occasion, less profoundly :
"We're helpless! We're harmless! We just want to sell you things !"

These other species serve as a message that humanity and the other Federation members have got the balance just right : not too aggressive, not too passive; not too individualistic, not too much collectivist; not obsessed with acquiring wealth, but not prepared to surrender anything on demand; rational but passionate. The other species failure to find this harmonious middle ground indicates that there's more to this than simple technological development : there are social and political factors at work too. Only a combination of all three has led to the near-perfection that is the Federation.

The technological factors we've already discussed. The major political event that set humans on a course to utopia was First Contact, uniting disparate factions into one cohesive whole. Subsequent Vulcan tutelage prevented any backsliding into a more barbarous era. The sociological factor was World War III, a nuclear holocaust that left 600 million dead. In this bleak era, humanity must have been at its most desperate for change. And into this darkest moment came Zefram Cochrane and his warp drive that brought knowledge of peaceful, space-faring civilisations that had survived their own brutal pasts.

First Contact triggers the birth of a social and political movement that will become more successful than any other in human history. Conditions are perfect. The entire planet is sick of war and eager for change. The power of the old nation-states is spent; there's no significant existing establishment to maintain the status quo or resist the change. A helpful, friendly species who have been in this exact situation before are on hand to provide guidance. And the technological resources to build a better world have suddenly become available - the advantages gained by fighting over resources, or impoverishing some to benefit others, are gone. As Quark will say during a later conflict, "the price of peace is at an all-time low".

As the revolutionary ideas spread, they transform Earth from a broken wasteland into a paradise. The possibility of reversion is avoided thanks to the living, visceral memories of the horrors of the past (a knowledge that we have to make this work and a willingness to make personal concessions for the greater good, the needs of the many far outweighing, for the moment, the needs of the few), the technological prospect that now the serious malcontents can just up and leave and start a new colony relatively easily, and external guidance. And all of these factors are global - the whole planet was devastated by the war, and the Vulcans don't restrict their visits to any one place.

Though the ideas are revolutionary, the change is more evolutionary, taking (we're told) around fifty years for the transformation to complete. It's not always a smooth road. As we frequently see in Enterprise, the Vulcans aren't always seen as saviours.

But rough though the road may be, the journey is eventually completed. Though humanity remains ever-changing and growing, with clear differences between the humans of the eras of Archer, Kirk and Picard, the main successes occur within a few decades. Though they face occasional challenges, these achievements remain self-sustaining not just because of the influence of technology on society, but on society's capacity for self-examination. Humans have been changed so much by this social evolution that they themselves form the surest safeguard against reverting to their former barbarism. At its simplest, society doesn't collapse because everyone is fundamentally content.

Federation Society

What is it about Federation society that everyone likes so much ? We've already examined the major reasons : no poverty, infinite wealth, no war, no crime, few diseases. But those are the big, background issues that people tend to take for granted : few people in periods of prolonged peace constantly think, "hooray we're not at war !", or goes around shouting from the rooftops about how great it was they weren't murdered today. No, to really value the society you're in, and actively seek to preserve it, it has to provide you with continuous active reminders of how good it is, constant challenges you can deal with satisfactorily without feeling that you're running to keep still, a series of daily, different experiences that are valuable in at least some small way. Being a peaceful utopia is no good at all if it's deadly dull.

So what is it about Federation society that keeps it stable, and prevents it from becoming the hate-filled, nasty world that modern society so often seems to be ?

Toleration and shared values

We're frequently reminded of the virtues of tolerance, understanding, compassion, and a need not to jump to conclusions. The Federation's highest law, the Prime Directive, is an inherently tolerant law forbidding interference with less developed cultures. Relations with comparably-developed cultures are necessarily more complex, because they can't avoid interacting with them. But for the most part tolerance is the norm. Sometimes this is taken to extremes, most notably with the Klingons.

Klingons have a completely different moral philosophy to the Federation. They're angry, brutal, violent and even bloodthirsty by their very nature. Yet the Federation maintains a long-standing (if sometimes precarious) alliance with them. This may be partially out of necessity - they're bloody useful allies and damned tough enemies - but nevertheless the Federation ignores their imperialist tendencies and never attempts to change the nature of the beast.

Worf provides a particularly extreme example. After the evil Duras kill's Worf's woman, Worf kills him in revenge. How does Captain Picard react ? Literally by giving him a stern talking to. Worf's punishment for murder is... a reprimand in his permanent record.
PICARD: Mr Worf, your service aboard the Enterprise has been exemplary. Until now. 
WORF: Sir, I have acted within the boundaries of Klingon law and tradition. 
PICARD: The High Council would seem to agree. They consider the matter closed. I don't. Mr Worf, the Enterprise crew currently includes representatives from thirteen planets. They each have their individual beliefs and values and I respect them all. But they have all chosen to serve Starfleet. If anyone cannot perform his or her duty because of the demands of their society, they should resign. Do you wish to resign? 
WORF: No, sir. 
PICARD: I had hoped you would not throw away a promising career. I understand your loss, We all admired K'Ehleyr. A reprimand will appear on your record. Dismissed. 
Then there's the time Worf has a nasty accident which paralyses him. For Worf, a proud warrior, he might as well be dead, and requests Commander Riker's to help him commit ritual suicide. Riker ultimately refuses, but not before Picard suggests he consider his request :
For a Klingon in Worf's position, his life is over. You or I could learn to live with that disability, but not Worf. His life ended when those containers fell on him. We don't have to agree with it, we don't have to understand it, but we do have to respect his beliefs.
But Picard's tolerance is extreme even by Trek standards (and this is just one example). Riker doesn't agree with him and nor does Dr Crusher. On Deep Space Nine, Worf tries to help his brother commit the same ritual, but Captain Sisko is furious :

The Federation may be much more tolerant than modern society, but it still has limits and laws. Most people share a common set of values. No-one goes on about racial supremacy, free speech, capital punishment, firearms regulations, or any of the other hundred-odd issues that get people on the internet so outraged today. Rather than this being due to toleration, it seems that most of these issues have been resolved to everyone's satisfaction. The political movement which began with First Contact succeeded more completely than any other political ideal in history.

The spirit of the law is more important than the letter of the law

The Prime Directive is the Federation's highest law, and Starfleet officers are sworn to uphold it even at the cost of their own lives, but it's broken regularly. Why ? Because laws are not absolutes. No law can be made that envisions every possible circumstance and it's folly to try. Rather, in Star Trek we're frequently reminded that the purpose of the law is to serve justice, not a rule book. If you can't think of any examples where modern laws aren't in conflict with justice, then I can't help you.

This does not, in any way whatsoever, mean that the Federation chooses to ignore the law willy-nilly when it suits them. It's true that they make mistakes and some officers put their own interests ahead of the greater good, but these are exceptions. Most of the time people try very hard indeed to obey their own moral code, and violations of the law are treated extremely seriously. But where they've succeeded where we've failed is to get judges who are invariably, genuinely interested in justice. Pretty hard to bribe someone in an moneyless economy where everyone's material needs are filled and job satisfaction is high.

Random acts of kindness

Because we love puppies and coffee, right Kathryn ?
Janeway says it directly, but it's a common theme of the whole show : effectively, turning the other cheek. The Klingons start out as stock villains in the original series. By the Next Generation, they're stalwart allies. Deep Space Nine is full of too many twists and turns and shifting alliances - heroes becoming villains and vice-versa - to list. Federation compassion is an overarching theme of the whole show, often abused by their enemies and putting crews in mortal danger. When their enemies hurt them, the Federation fight back, they don't take turning the other cheek to an absurd extreme. But after the battle is won and their enemies are at their mercy, Machiavelli suggested :
Men ought either to be indulged or utterly destroyed, for if you merely offend them they take vengeance, but if you injure them greatly they are unable to retaliate, so that the injury done to a man ought to be such that vengeance cannot be feared.
Star Trek opts almost invariably for the former : helping rather than punishing. Once again, Quark provides an excellent summary :

Specific examples of Federation compassion are too numerous to list and can be found in almost every single episode of every series. In essence, whenever things are looking particularly grim, instead of doing something even more grim, someone does something nice, and things start getting better. Perhaps this is something drilled into Federation children from a young age.


You don't ever see people in Star Trek harping on about women's rights, for the simple reason that they've already got them. Occasionally there are reminders about how silly gender inequality is, like in the fairly dreadful Next Generation episode Angel One or the marginally better Deep Space Nine episode Sanctuary, both of which feature matriarchal societies. Much more fun are the Ferengi, who are mysognistic to a degree that Donald Drumpf can only dream about. Females are forbidden from wearing clothing, making profit, leaving the home world, and basically everything else until Quark's bad-ass mother comes along.

There is absolutely no question in Star Trek that human females are equally capable as males. Right from the original season, Uhura is first and foremost the communications officer, but can take the helm in an emergency - just as other officers do. In the Next Generation, Dr Crusher flies the ship into the atmosphere of a star while a junior female officer figures out a way of triggering a solar flare that destroys a pursuing Borg ship. Then there's Janeway. You do not mess with Janeway. You never, ever, ever steal her coffee.

I mean just look at the terrifying glint in her eyes when she says
"It certainly is". She's barely able to suppress a cackle.

In Star Trek feminists have been absolutely victorious. To my great annoyance, "feminist" is a word on the internet which is increasingly seen as "misandrist idiot". Star Trek has gotten over that. The idea that women must conform to one ideal or another (nothing but sex objects according to the misogynists, nothing but prudes according to the misandrists) has fallen. No-one judges anyone for choosing to dress modestly or with worryingly high levels of sex appeal, nor does anyone question anyone's professional competence based on that. No-one questions it when people use the holodeck for the obvious applications. And women choosing to "exploit" men purely for their sex appeal (e.g. Jadzia Dax in just about every episode, Lwaxana Troi's cheerful description of men as a commodity, B'ellana Torres' hunky holodeck slave) don't get anyone outraged either.

It's not just about sexy ladies, of course - but appearances in general. It's fine to value certain traits. It's not fine to judge people's abilities based on what they look like (unless by ability you mean looking good with less clothing...). Doesn't matter if they're white, black, green or transparent or if they have six feet with webbed toes. Feminism is just one aspect of the wider state of Federation society - a strict meritocracy.


This scene makes perfect sense. What are you, anti-science or something ?
As mentioned, all but the very worst in the Trek universe change their minds when presented with overwhelming evidence - even if they don't want to. This tends to apply to aliens as well, with (especially in the Next Generation) hostile species being more often defeated by peaceful negotiations* than brute force.

* I'm wrongly told by some Americans than "peacefully defeat" is an oxymoron, which is worrying.

This doesn't mean that diplomacy has now become easy in the 24th century - not by a long shot. The art of rhetoric and (for most species) appeal to emotion rather than logic is still extremely important, and it's still possible to lose an argument even if the evidence favours your position. It's more that the people in the most important positions are the most rational. People are free to make irrational choices in their daily lives, but they don't get to inflict those ideas on anyone else. If their personal beliefs and evidence are in agreement, then great - if not, then tough on them. The reason this doesn't seem to cause the bullshitting "debates" we get today is because everyone agrees on this basic philosophy.

Religion is the most obvious (but not the only) aspect of this. At least a few officers have spiritual beliefs : Worf believes in the afterlife and the divinity of Kahless, Chakotay follows native American beliefs, Vulcans believe in a soul, Janeway has a few spiritual experiences, and even Data makes a leap of faith :

Trek is deliberately ambiguous about whether the supernatural really exists. In Deep Space Nine, it's up to the viewer to decide if the Prophets of Bajor are merely energy beings who live in the wormhole or something much more. Some spiritual leaders are shown who are tolerant and compassionate while others are also absolute c**ts. Bajoran beliefs are central to their way of life, and clearly the Federation has no problem incorporating religious societies so long as they also meet Federation ideals.

The point is that all the squabbling and wars about who's right and who's wrong... none of that really matters. What matters is how we treat people who disagree with us. And it must be mutual. Non-believers don't get to decide other people's spiritual beliefs, but believers don't get to make laws based exclusively on those beliefs. The law has to be based on evidence. It can give considerable leeway to account for differing ideologies, but there are limits beyond which society cannot function. Yes, you can believe in whatever deity you want, and yes you can partake in rituals or refuse them based on your beliefs. But you can't tell other people to do the same. Nor can those who don't believe insist that those who do are talking nonsense.


The most appealing aspect of the Federation utopia is not how unrealistically goody-goody everyone is, contrary to some misconceptions about the show, but how very close it is to modern society. Most of the behavioural differences are minor, but the resulting changes are profound. So could a Trek-like Eden be realised at least on parts of Earth on a more useful timescale than the next few centuries ?

It's important not to underestimate the role that technology plays in establishing Federation society. Unlimited wealth is a very different prospect to merely having lots of wealth : it becomes impossible to control people's material possessions; no advantage is gained through competition for resources.

Something like this is not inconceivable on a timescale of a few decades. 3D printers are already having an impact, and while general-purpose robots are not yet a thing, progress is being made in that direction. Couple this with the decreasing cost of unlimited renewable energy, and something like the economic situation of Star Trek - albeit on a much smaller scale - begins to look at least plausible, if not necessarily very probable. If everything can be automated then the only currency becomes energy, and if energy is unlimited... then is the moneyless economy of the Federation really so ridiculous ?

And it's also worth re-stating that Trek has very negative attitudes to some technology. Genetic correction of disorders is one thing, but genetically trying to improve the species may well end in disaster - eugenics doesn't have a great track record. While Trek has a very few sentient robots, it doesn't have them on a scale wide enough to affect whole societies - they're plot devices by which we explore what it means to be human. I am not convinced that general purpose, true artifical intelligence is as close as the media hype might suggest, but it does seem likely that dramatic increases in automation will occur in the next decade or two.

But technology won't do jack without a socio-political change to determine how it's used. Can you imagine a world with infinite energy run by the Flat Earth society ? Or (urrrgh) a member of UKIP ? Star Trek toleration is only valid up to a point. Some philosophies are just wrong-headed : there's a right way and a wrong way to deal with disagreements. It's your opinion ? Fine, but it's still wrong. You can have your opinion, it just won't be allowed to affect the rest of us.

If we use Star Trek as a guide to the future, just for the lolz, we're going to need some pretty drastic actions to avoid waiting for WWIII to kick us up the backside. We need technological, social, and political change. The technological aspect we can probably manage without anti-matter reactors. Can we manage the social and political developments without a massive world war and the arrival of the Vulcans ?

Perhaps - but even if we avoid war, the future won't be easy. Certain philosophies are simply going to have to be abandoned. Discrimination of all forms is something that desperately needs to die. No, I don't care if you think free speech is more important - it isn't. People's abilities and traits must be judged on their abilities and traits. That ought to be tautologous but so, so many people don't get it. You can't judge people's intelligence by what they look like. You can't accuse them of being violent based on their religion or sexual orientation of any other petty difference. Society must in all things aspire to be a meritocracy.

Then there's the balance between collectivism and individualism. There's a peculiar idea that democracy is great but government interference sucks. Or the reverse, that the good of the state is always more important than the individual. A bizarre and wrong-headed notion that taxation is theft. That healthcare, housing, and sanitation aren't basic human rights. That laws must be absolute. That freedom of speech and democracy are more important than anything else, even if they harm the entire populace. That everyone's opinion on every subject is for some reason worth listening to - not just on social media, but that freedom of the press should be sacrosanct no matter what. That it's a good idea if everyone possesses a deadly weapon in any and all situations because the only way to prevent lethal crimes is by shooting everybody. That wealth is a measure of goodness and that material possessions bestow happiness.

All these notions will have to go extinct, and a lot of people are going to be very unhappy about that. Some of them have arisen because people are stupid, but some because as with all anecdotal evidence they are - in certain local conditions - actually true. This is what makes reform so difficult. We're going to have to lose some cultural diversity because some cultures have got things seriously wrong. And no, there's nothing politically incorrect about that at all.

Can we do it ? Can we unify humanity without losing our individuality or the need for a massive global cataclysm ? I have no idea, but it's a safe bet that it will take more than a single dramatic event for the scale of reform necessary. Maybe we'll fail, maybe we're just not ready. But that's what Star Trek is really about. Yes, it's science fiction, but only to a point. There are wider and infinitely more important issues to examine than whether the warp drive would really work or how transporters can beam people to locations without transporter pads - fun and worthwhile though those may be. First and foremost, Star Trek's main purpose is the exploration of humanity and the prospect of a better way to live. Personally, I think it's rather good.

Tuesday 25 October 2016

What Some Nerd Thinks About Star Trek (I)

Part One : The Sociology of Star Trek

A long time ago on an island far, far away, I wrote about why Star Trek is a better show than Battlestar Galactica. That is, Trek is an optimistic piece of science fiction whereas BSG could be accurately titled, "The Very Depressed People Who Got Chased By Sex-Mad Emo Robots And Then They All Died"... and it still wouldn't distract you from its dark, depressingly accurate take on contemporary American politics that just happens to be set in space.

Which is not to say that I'm not a massive BSG fan too, just that Trek serves one purpose and BSG another.

But this is to do Star Trek a great disservice, which I shall here remedy. To be more accurate, BSG is a political show which frequently flirts and sometimes enthusiastically jumps into bed with science fiction, but always runs away in the morning and never leaves its phone number. Star Trek is sort of the other way around, only it's a bit more complicated than that. Billed by Gene Roddenberry as "morality tales in space", it's no stranger to politics, morality, or especially sociology. Sometimes, when it's at its best as a science fiction show, it explores social issues that can't even exist except when driven by technological advances, and sometimes those scenarios are plausible and other times they're less credible than Donald Drumpf's hair.

On other occasions it's fair to state that yes, alright, things just happen to be set in space but there's no science driving the story at all. My mum had an unfortunate and uncanny habit of only watching not merely those episodes that didn't really need a spaceship, but a particular subset of episodes which are like the least interesting episodes of any soap opera. When you've got a show that runs in batches of seven series, you're gonna get a few of those.

Trek is also frequently and entirely justifiably accused of resorting to essentially magic when it comes to the science and technology aspect. This is absolutely true but mostly irrelevant. The thing that fans clamouring for more realism are missing is that Trek is to some degree sociological fiction, not science fiction. Alien species aren't usually there to speculate on what alien species would actually be like, they're plot devices. They're there to explore some aspect of human societies, usually to contrast with the utopian Federation to examine why they don't work. Sometimes they've developed advanced tech that's caused social chaos or cohesion, other times they've got some arse-backwards political idea that's easily exposed as nonsense when you compare it to Federation benevolence.

It's the same with treknology. Whether it's realistic or not is completely missing the point. The point is to ask the fundamental question of all good science fiction : what if ? It's the exact opposite of Jurassic Park : the writers are so preoccupied with whether or not they should they never stop to think if we could. Accuracy is a nice bonus, but as long as the sociological explorations are interesting, that's all it will ever be : a bonus.

Some examples are probably called for. The original series introduced us to the Eugenics Wars and one of Trek's greatest villains : Khan Noonien Singh.

Not exactly a different species but a genetically modified super human, Khan and his followers remind us not so much of the dangers of genetic engineering (although that's part of it) but of one group of people thinking they're better. "Superior ability breeds superior ambition", or as Captain Archer puts it in Enterprise, "When one group of people starts thinking they're better than everyone else, the results are always the same." This was one technological problem the Federation was never able to solve, with a strict ban on genetic engineering remaining in place four centuries later : "for every Julian Bashir that can be created, there's a Khan Singh waiting in the wings".

Genetic engineering itself isn't the root of the problem but it's symptomatic of one of the most dangerous human tendencies of all : the concept of the other. Humans have always tended to form groups - it seems that we're physiologically programmed to do so - but in the Trek universe the ability to directly manipulate the genome is just too powerful to avoid corruption. Trek's answer is that this is one technological route that must not be explored (except to repair serious damage), though it does note that other species handled this without any problems.

We see something quite similar in The Next Generation episode "The Hunted". Instead of modifying their entire species, the peaceful Angosians modify a select group of soldiers in order to fight a war they were otherwise ill-equipped to handle. Through genetics, chemical engineering and massive psychological programming, they create a group of super-soldiers who are basically the same people they always were... unless they're threatened, in which case they react with instinctive, extreme violence. The soldiers don't see themselves as superior - quite the opposite. They want to re-integrate into Angosian society, but, as so many governments have done throughout human history, these war veterans are treated disgracefully by their leaders. When Captain Picard asks if the soldiers had any choice in their treatment, he's rebuffed :

Technology plays a role in the societal evolution of Angosia and humanity's own Eugenics Wars, but it's closely coupled with politics and human/Angosian nature. Sometimes technology plays no role at all : in Justice, the Edo are your standard uber-utopian species of hot alien babes except that they've achieved utopia by a rather unusual means : the punishment for every crime is death. That's a theme I've already explored in detail, so no need to go there again.

Another more long-running example : the Ferengi. Here technology and science again play no role whatsoever - the species is an archetype, a way for the audience to examine the effects of pure, unrestricted avarice :

This is why most alien species in Star Trek share a single political and moral ideology : they're not supposed to be like real species with all the factionalism that would necessitate. They're plot devices, and sometimes, I daresay, they're also commentaries on contemporary politics :

But more on them next time. Despite being greedy, misogynist, treacherous and cruel, even the Ferengi are not without virtue.
Other sociological themes run through Star Trek without such personifications. The balance between the rights of the individual and the rights of the state has been there since the very beginning :

While this certainly does sum up the overall mood of the show, it's by no means a definitive answer - because there isn't one. There are many exceptions and the state is far from all-powerful. Just because the state is important doesn't mean the rights of the individual don't matter, and vice-versa. One film later, Kirk throws Spock's logic back in his face, saying that sometimes the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many.

It's a choice that faces starship captains countless times throughout the show : save my friend or save my ship ? The answer usually (but not always) being "both", because Trek is a family show and fundamentally optimistic. Which doesn't stop it dealing with some pretty hard-hitting issues. In the Voyager episode Death Wish, the crew encounter an omnipotent being who wants to die. The rest of the Q continuum do not approve. For them, their omnipotence and omniscience is unarguably the most perfect form of existence possible. Quinn (as he is later known) disagrees, stating that as the Q became omnipotent, they have "sacrificed many things along the way, not just manners, but mortality and a sense of purpose and a desire for change and a capacity to grow." This is something the other Q don't know how to deal with.

Here we have a purely hypothetical omipotent being contemplating assisted suicide to provide commentary on the rights of the individual versus the state in our own society. I submit that at its best, Star Trek is a sophisticated piece of both science and sociological fiction. And did I mention that this episode is also very, very funny ?
Trek explores a wide spectrum in terms of balancing the rights of the individual with the needs of the state. Some societies value individualism to an almost absurd degree, like the Klingons or the Hirogen, an advanced predatory species in Voyager who allow their hunting instincts to utterly dominate their way of life. Although technologically sophisticated, it seems that this is almost entirely due to a previous, less aggressive lifestyle, with Hirogen scientists (a profession which necessitates stable co-operation) being almost banned.

Donik, the unhappy Hirogen technician - the nearest thing
left to a Hirogen researcher.
Many societies in Trek examine the reverse : the dangers of the power of the state overwhelming the rights of the individual. Sometimes this results in good old-fashioned fascism like the Cardassian Union. Which is exemplified in the beautifully terrifying speech of Gul Dukat in the Deep Space Nine episode Waltz :

Cardassian fascism has little or nothing to do with any kind of sci-fi reason - it was borne of a simple famine on Cardassia, a radical solution to a radical problem. As Gul Madred explains in Chain of Command :
We acquire territory during the wars. We develop new resources. We initiated a rebuilding program. We have mandated agricultural programs. That is what the military had done for Cardassia. And because of that, my daughter will never worry about going hungry.
Picard responds, "Her belly may be full. But her spirit will be empty."

In other cases state power (or something very much like it) has a far more sci-fi origin, for example as an inevitable consequence of the nature of the species. Most notably the Changelings of Deep Space Nine are a shapeshifting lifeform whose natural state is a big pile of orange goo.

Goo that brings the Galaxy to its knees.
Changelings exist on their home world in their natural gelationous state, in which they exchange ideas in a sort of telepathic orgy-pool. For them the very nature of individuality is wholly different to ours :

Changelings were feared and hunted by other species, leading them to fight back and seize control. They did this by artificially breeding a race of ferocious soldiers : the Jem'Hadar. The Jem'Hadar are a living embodiment of the will of the state, with almost (but not quite) no desires or ambitions of their own. They've been engineered to be utterly servile to the Changelings to the point of being virtually suicidal, as Captain Sisko discovers in the episode Rocks and Shoals :
He does not have to earn my loyalty, Captain. He has had it from the moment I was conceived. I am a Jem'Hadar. He is a Vorta. It is the order of things. It is not my life to give up, Captain. And it never was. 
But the Jem'Hadar are nonetheless living, sentient, independent entities. On rare occasions they disobey orders. They rebel. They do what they do because of psychological and genetic conditioning. There is of course another more iconic species in Trek which takes this to a whole other level, with individuality entirely suppressed, reducing them to a race of drones : the Borg.

The Borg are a hive mind generated not through natural telepathy but through technology. They are singularly dedicated, laudably enough, to the pursuit of self-improvement. The problem is that they view the rights of the individual as non-existent because they don't have individuals : the rights of the species are the only thing that matters. They don't conquer other species, they assimilate them into their collective consciousness. Nothing expresses the overwhelming will of the state as forcefully as the Borg Collective. Borg individuals may seem to exist, on occasion, but they don't really. The species and the state are one.

Borg technology isn't perfect. If the telepathic link to the Collective is blocked, or the technology disrupted, drones can revert to a state of individuality. If they haven't been assimilated for very long they can fully regain their former identities, as happens to Captain Picard. More interesting are the cases of those who've been Borg for many years. We don't know much about the identity of the drone later known as Hugh - it's possible he was born Borg or assimilated as an infant. But when he becomes disconnected from the Collective, he slowly begins to exert a will of his own.

We don't get much screen time with Hugh, a.k.a. Third of Five, but Seven of Nine becomes a pivotal character in Voyager. Seven not only has to come to terms with being an individual, but an individual subject to the power of the state. And an authoritarian state at that, because a starship simply cannot function as a democracy. While the other crew have been accustomed to this way of thinking for their whole lives, for Seven it's a new and often difficult experience. The notion that someone else might have her best interests at heart and have better judgement than her is not one that comes easily.

But despite these many warnings about the abuse of state power, Trek has an overwhelmingly positive role for the state, with its anarchist societies being largely non-functional. Same with technology : used properly it's of immense benefit (more on that next time), but it's not a magic bullet - sociology and technology cannot be decoupled. The message is balance : too much individualism or collectivism, too much reliance or under-utilisation of technology leads to self-destruction. While Federation worlds are democracies, even on starships (which are not democratic at all) the captains are not merely benevolent despots. They are leaders who listen to the advice of their colleagues and change their minds accordingly. Federation society, as we shall see in more detail in the next post, is all about balance - a striving for the centre ground whereas other species tend to take things to absurd (but very interesting) extremes.


Trek examines sociological issues primarily by means of other species. Sometimes it does so by asking purely speculative, science fiction questions to examine how some technological development might affect us. Sometimes it looks at purely societal issues, often pointing out the flaws of taking things to extremes and the virtues of moderation. Usually, it examines the effects of both technology and politics simultaneously. Because that's the thing about the human condition : you can't fully examine humanity without considering both. Humans like building clever gadgets, and those gadgets influence and change their politics and philosophy, which in turn influences the clever gadgets they build.

In general, good fiction doesn't have to have to incorporate any scientific advances to be interesting. But when (specifically) science fiction does so, it becomes immeasurably weaker if it doesn't attempt to examine the sociological effect of those advances. The "oh but this is a special case" approach - i.e. the US military has a secret Stargate that no-one else knows about - is rarely as interesting as considering the impact of technology if we all had access to it.

It's through a clever management of this interplay between science and society that the Federation worlds have achieved Paradise, whereas most other Trek societies have at least one fatal flaw because they didn't get the balance right. Every week we meet some new species who've tried really hard, but have one teensy-weensy flaw like being a big bunch of racists/extremely paranoid/closed-minded idiots/bureaucratic pen-pushers/obsessed with self-gratification, and the Enterprise or Voyager* flies off, somewhat smugly secure in the knowledge that the Federation way is best.

* Not so much the Defiant, which tended to just blow things up.

Why is that ? What is it about the Federation that means that society is so incredibly perfect ? Is it really as utopian as depicted or does it too have fatal flaws ? Examining alien societies and the sociological implications of new technologies is all very interesting, but Star Trek's central theme is that it's possible to achieve an ideal society - not perfect, but far better than what we have now... if not a utopia, then the best society possible. That deserves more than the superficial examination I've presented here, so stay tuned for the next post.

Wednesday 19 October 2016

School's Out For Summer

My goodness me, it's been a long month.

Back in April I was invited to submit a paper on data visualisation. Random email invites to submit papers are common-as-muck meaningless academia spam (I get at least three or four a week), but it's a bit different when you recognise the journal and the editor. So, a few months to submit a short paper ? Sure, no problem ! In fact that one can safely be left to the last minute, because it's really easy. May as well get on with the ongoing much larger, more difficult project, and hopefully get at least two more papers out this year, rather than spending too much time on an easy little write-up.

Which of course meant the paper did indeed get done at the very last minute. Most papers don't have deadlines, but invited papers for special editions do. Unfortunately just about everything else happened at pretty much the same time. Two weeks before that I was tutoring at a summer school near Prague...

Managing three students is hectic enough at the best of times; when you're limited to a few days it quickly reaches "neeeaargh my braaaaaain" level of lack of cope. Because I also had other work-related deadlines to meet I was "only" there for the afternoon sessions, which finished at 7, so generally I was getting home at around 8-8:30 because the public transport to Ondrejov is lousy. Student presentations were on the Saturday morning, which meant a ridiculously early start but it worked out well in the end. One student was even still rendering an animation on her way to the school. They made their final preparations of the slides during the presentation by the first group, yet somehow everything came together very well. Good job people !

Not that that meant I could relax for more than a few days. In the week leading up to the deadline I was generally working 9-7 or even 9-8, including the weekend. Just to keep the pressure up I had a couple of friends visiting from Cardiff for a few days immediately before the submission date.

I did manage to enjoy a nice collapse the day before the deadline. Then after submitting two papers - the first and probably last time I've ever done that - and throwing some clothes into a suitcase, I permitted myself a nice relaxing bath. All well and good except that I also used the tea lights I inherited from the previous occupants. What's wrong with that, you ask ? The problem is that these tea lights don't have the usual little metal holders - they're made from plastic. Flammable plastic, apparently. So rather than snuffing itself out when one of them reached the end, there was an audible whoompf sound as the entire thing turned itself into a giant wick, burned through the plastic corner stand and bits of molten plastic started dripping everywhere. That was an adrenaline-filled and dangerously naked 30 seconds I could have done without.

The next day saw a bright and early 8am departure to the airport for a week-long trip to Lisbon, to be followed immediately by a week in Grenbole. Normally I prepare for any foreign excursion with... well, I prepare for any foreign excursion. No time for that here. "Yeah, sure, that schedule looks fine, whatever." It didn't help that I didn't have to book the hotel in Lisbon because that was done directly by the meeting organisers. So the extent of my research for Lisbon was, "I have heard of Lisbon and suspect it is a nice place". Grenoble was even worse. That one I had to book the hotel for myself but I left it far too late. Oh, didn't that work out ever so well...

Both meetings were work trips which came about because I really wanted to see Lisbon because I'm now part-funded to provide observing support (a.k.a. "contact scientist") for ALMA users. ALMA is a ginagorous, all-powerful telescope in Chile that will make every other telescope obsolete by draining all their funding, or something.

Being a contact scientist for ALMA is a wholly different experience from being a contact scientist at Arecibo. There, I would tell users exactly what they needed to do, 95% of the time without even needing to check with anyone else. Arecibo assigns contact scientists based on area of expertise, so projects about pulsars get sent to a pulsar scientist, projects about hydrogen get sent to specialist in hydrogen, etc. And since it's now over 50 years old, pretty much all the major files needed for many projects are already prepared, so it's really just a matter of telling people what to do.

Well, that and taking them out to dinner on the rare occasions when they visit the site. And then getting them accidentally lost on the way back. And then, a few weeks later, finding out their institution wants to pay for telescope time. Must've been doing something right...

ALMA, on the other hand... well, I know that a) it's a telescope and b) it looks at the sky and not the ground. The role of contact scientist is just to check over the observing files the user's provide and check for obvious errors - and later on to do some basic data reduction to make sure they got what they asked for. Contact scientists are distributed all around the world in a series of ALMA Regional Centres - there's no need for them to be anywhere near the telescope. Once a year, all the European ARC members try and get together to discuss (mostly) fairly tedious but sort-of useful procedures and developments.

Quite honestly I went to that meeting with absolutely zero expectations. There was a smaller version in Prague earlier in the year and it was the single most boring meeting I've ever been to. No science at all, just lots of people getting very angry about stuff I knew nothing about. But... Lisbon ! That probably quite nice place I know nothing about but someone else will pay me to visit ? Sure, why not. Makes perfect sense.

This meeting wasn't exactly thrills and spills, but it was at least better than the last one. ALMA is a billion-dollar international project with a fiendishly complicated management structure that I have absolutely no interest in, but at least this meeting was amicable and informative. It wasn't interesting information, mind you, but information which makes sense and doesn't involve everyone shouting at each other is better than the exact opposite. The worst I could say was how very corporate everything felt. I suppose it's inevitable with projects this large, but it would be dreadful if this "business model" attitude took over science as a whole.

More, err, exciting than the meeting was having my extreme smugness at having submitted two papers dealt a swift kick to the back of the knees.

On the first day of the meeting I got an email from a co-author asking to be removed from the author list. That's new for me. It's usually an option of last resort : I disagree so strongly with your conclusions that I don't want to be associated with this work. Which came as a nasty surprise indeed, since the paper had been in draft for a while, and the basic method and conclusions were unchanged from the last paper, which said co-author had no objections to. This particular co-author's suggested changes on this occasion (we'd had some discussion, it wasn't like I just submitted it without telling anyone !) were seemingly very minor, so there didn't seem to be any need to send around an updated version to get final approval.


A frantic series of emails ensued, just to ensure I didn't sleep through the meeting or go off exploring Lisbon, I suppose. Fortunately, we were both at fault so the situation has been resolved happily. There'll be a few re-arrangements to the paper at the first referee's report even if the referee doesn't ask for them, but only minor changes to substance - mostly points of clarification. But more on that when it's published, because I don't like discussing research before it's been peer reviewed.

Lisbon itself is a lovely place, although packing bathers was on the optimistic side. Someone described the sea as, "fresh". "Bracing" would be more accurate, with sea temperatures being several degrees below that of Cardiff. So that experiment didn't last long, although it was nice to spend a few days at the seaside after being landlocked in Prague.

The meeting's social outing was a trip to a gigantic yet oddly proportioned statue of Jesus, who casts an uninterested gaze across the city in imitation of the even bigger statue of Rio. From the top of the pedestal there's a great view of Lisbon's version of the Golden Gate bridge, which isn't quite as big as the real one but is a heck of a lot closer.

My favourite part of these trips is to recharge my introvert juices by finding a good excuse to avoid absolutely everyone and stare into space for a while. In this case that was on a breakwater one moonlit night, watching the waves breaking on either side stretching across the whole field of view. Until some idiot decided they wanted to do exactly the same thing, on my breakwater. What a colossal jerk.

Having a spare day after the meeting but before running off to Grenoble, I managed to see a fair chunk of the older part of Lisbon. I could certainly have taken a couple more days quite easily had that been an option. Though it must be said that Lisbon's public transport service leaves much to be desired, with the busses running at basically random times, with the displayed schedules being more like an Amazon wish list than anything anyone actually orders. The metro ? I've no idea - both ticket machines were broken, forcing us back onto the bus. On the way back to the hotel we opted for a taxi instead, which are reliable, hassle-free and relatively inexpensive by taxi standards.

Getting to Grenoble the next day meant another early start and the closest I've ever come to missing a flight. The airport design in Lisbon is lousy and hugely inefficient. Checking baggage was closed (!) a full hour before boarding, the security was about half a mile from the kiosks and the gates another half mile from that. And all of the lines were very, very slow, which meant a lot of running and asking people for cuts. Lisbon, you're lovely, but you gotta get your transport organisation together cos you're looking a bit silly.

Still, we arrived in Grenoble with plenty of time to take a trip up to the castle via cable car, which offered the best mountain view I've seen since Switzerland.

The Grenoble meeting was actually a "summer" school on interferometry. Funnily enough, the last time I went to such a school I stayed in a lousy hotel, but at least it was only ~$20 a night. That hotel had broken air conditioning, ants in the bath and a non-functional TV. The Grenoble hotel was not only 2-3 times more expensive, but worse in absolutely every single way. Not a single thing about it was even close to optimum. Here's the review I gave to :

One other review describes it as "clearly a former brothel". If so I can't say I'm surprised they had to downgrade it to a hotel.

Trust me, it was worse than it looks.
But while the "hotel" was the worst I've ever stayed in, bar none, the interferometry school was easily ten times more useful than the one in Socorro. Sorry NRAO, but the IRAM team have got you thoroughly licked when it comes to teaching interferometry. Although the process as a whole is fiendishly complex - with one lecturer admitting that after 25 years they still didn't understand everything* - each individual step was explained in a such a clear way that even I could follow it. That's saying something, because my maths has degenerated massively since undergraduate. Even their software was great, being super-easy to install on Windows (in astronomy this is very rare) and quite straightforward to use. Learning interferometry is never going to be easy, but this at least made the process as painless as it's possible to be.

* I always find this very reassuring. When people explain things with great confidence and no sign of confusion and I don't understand something, it makes me think I must be stupid. So when they make a mistake I realise that nope, it's actually just as complicated as it appears.

So that was the last month. I caught a cold at the very end of the trip, but after a nice view of the Alps from the plane I'm safely ensconced back in Prague. And I categorically refuse to leave this house or talk to anyone at all for the next two weeks, except to procure whatever's necessary for binge-watching Netflix.