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The engines cannae be built that way Cap’n
August 8, 2008 5:14 PM   Subscribe


 
"Repeat to yourself it was just a show. You should really just relax." - Joel Hodgson
posted by ZachsMind at 5:19 PM on August 8, 2008 [6 favorites]




Star Trek's insults to the engineering profession don't stop with their insane ignorance of basic safety principles. Here are a two more recurring Star Trek technology clichés which have irritated me over the years

wow, Star Trek really makes this guy mad. He could probably use some meditation training or something; maybe a day or two in a nice, quiet room, repeating an appropriate mantra. I suggest Bellisario's Maxim.
posted by vorfeed at 5:32 PM on August 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


In fact, the most elegant engineering solutions are those that require the least technology, not the most. A good example is a machine gun; it uses a simple, elegant and robust mechanical system to eject each cartridge and load the next, based on gas pressure, springs, rods, and other low-tech principles. The simpler, the better. With modern technology, we could design a machine gun that uses miniaturized robotics instead, but why? The resulting weapon would be far more expensive, and far less reliable. It would require a power source, and software. It would be far more difficult to maintain. But in the world of Star Trek, that's exactly how they would do it. In a world where medical isolation bays use forcefields instead of walls, and where dumbbells have touch-screen controls on them, even the dumbest application of excessive technology is not only approved; it's mandatory.

I really like this article. It teaches engineering principles by using something most people will be familiar with.
posted by drezdn at 5:33 PM on August 8, 2008 [3 favorites]


"It knows when you've been sleeping ... it knows when you're awake ... it knows when you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness' sake ..."

Wha? I stopped reading when he started singing in his essay.
posted by Brocktoon at 5:37 PM on August 8, 2008


I think my only problem with it is that he confuses design engineering with operational engineering. Scotty wasn't a design engineer.

Operational engineers are really technicians.
posted by Class Goat at 5:46 PM on August 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


hey mr smartypants, 'star trek' was probably a big inspiration to all those people who taught you all those fancy words and ideas
posted by troybob at 5:58 PM on August 8, 2008


In a world where medical isolation bays use forcefields instead of walls, and where dumbbells have touch-screen controls on them, even the dumbest application of excessive technology is not only approved; it's mandatory.

You can't turn off a wall to step inside, nor can you easily talk/see through it. Unless you use the advanced technology known as "doors" and "windows". No really, doors and windows are very advanced...relative to our cave-dwelling ancestors. Keep in mind how far ahead of us Star Trek is. They are traveling faster than light without time dilation. They know some stuff.

An implementation of a device using a particular technology is only excessive in one of two cases:

1) You could have gotten the same effect with a lower cost (in parts, maintenance, effort, time or whatever).

For instance, adding doors and windows, even if you have to go to a lot of trouble to buy them, seal them, wash them, etc is worth it because that's the only way to get/see inside the room. Similarly, forcefields would seem to have some special properties that make them better than doors and windows.

2) The added feature makes the entire thing much more unreliable. This is really a special case of the above, where the higher cost is in user frustration/lives lost/support calls placed. It rates a separate mention because this is a USER cost, not a PRODUCTION cost.

In the world of Star Trek, touch screens and forcefields are at least as reliable as switches, knobs and doors, so I don't see how that would be excessive.

The holodeck though--they should have put yellow caution tape over the door after the first couple of episodes.
posted by DU at 5:58 PM on August 8, 2008 [2 favorites]


Class Goat gets it; Scotty isn't an engineer in the sense of a guy who designs, builds, and tests new stuff (though he does that sometimes in the course of his duty). He's an engineer like the "engineer" of a train or ocean liner, whose job is to keep the big machine running whatever it takes. He designs because sometimes you have to do improv in that role. But that's not "engineering" in the same sense the essay writer is talking about, you're not really certified for that kind of thing, and you take shortcuts if you have to which would make a "real" engineer howl in outrage. Oh wait, that's just what happened, isn't it? What the essay writer misses is that while you're triple-testing and certifying the design of that thing you've thought of building, the ship you're building it to save might sink.
posted by localroger at 5:59 PM on August 8, 2008


I liked it. Dude's a good lay explainer--brought to mind Bad Astronomy or Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics.

Forgive me, for I know very little about either one of these things, but aren't the engineers on Star Trek more like the locomotive kind of engineer, the person who takes care of the engine, rather than, y'know, an electrical engineer or chemical engineer or civil engineer or whatever? Again, I don't know much about either Star Trek or engineering--no offense intended to anybody, least of all locomotive engineers who dress up in Star Trek outfits.

On preview, I think Class Goat might've said it.
posted by box at 5:59 PM on August 8, 2008


So much for the stratosphere...
posted by matty at 5:59 PM on August 8, 2008


...not to mention...
posted by troybob at 6:00 PM on August 8, 2008


So, sure, I accept this guy's premise is spot-on. (Aside from tl;dr I mean)

Though the spiffy touchscreen dumbbells and such serve a different purpose. If he were to consider the ubiquity of a certain level of technology, such as metallurgy, smithing, tools advanced enough to mill his machine gun composed of simple parts he would see that to someone without those things the device represents a huge advance in technology that a contemporary user would consider "costless."

The implication with Star Trek's crap, I think, is that the technology, energy, and risk profile are so ubiquitous and known that force fields and gravity-whatsits are as common and reliable as an incline plane.

I'm not sure I buy that premise, naturally, because it was made up to fill in the ooh-factor on a universe that liked to pop clutches and jump-start starships and whatnot, but the technology levels were always in support of the story, which is why in one episode the same technology can work flawlessly for centuries then fail in a way that should have been obvious way back in QA.
posted by abulafa at 6:06 PM on August 8, 2008


In fact, the most elegant engineering solutions are those that require the least technology, not the most.

This essay would have been more elegant if the webserver hosting it was designed to use cams, not those bleeding-edge integrated semiconductor circuits.
posted by roystgnr at 6:08 PM on August 8, 2008 [2 favorites]


I'm looking forward to the essay about Bones' obvious lack of medical knowledge.
posted by ornate insect at 6:12 PM on August 8, 2008 [2 favorites]


Are there comparable examples in fiction where, say, a complicated terrorist plot is foiled by a completely passive safety system? That'd be harder storytelling --- a big buildup to "huh? damn, it didn't go."

In this Tom Clancy novel, the terrorists make an H-bomb, but it fizzles.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 6:13 PM on August 8, 2008


Oh and also, regarding the FPP, Scotty is not, in fact, not very far above sea level at this point. Then again,
Susan Schonfeld, a spokeswoman for Celestis, the company which organises the space burials, said all the passengers will be rebooked on other rockets.

If the remains are not recovered, the company has backup supplies, she said.
Perhaps they should have used a simpler rocket.
posted by abulafa at 6:13 PM on August 8, 2008


This guy doesn't "hate" Star Trek. His hobby is arguing about who would win in a confrontation between the Empire from Star Wars and the Federation from Star Trek, and analyzing the appearance/behavior of technology in the different universes. He hosts a forum with "Star Wars", "Star Trek", and "Star Wars vs. Star Trek" subforums (among other things). He also has a series of essays on the verses stuff (the linked essay being one of them. They're actually pretty entertaining, because he's done some creative back-of-the-envelope calculations of energy required to perform various feats (blow up a planet with the Death Star, etc). He also has some pages arguing against creationism.
posted by Humanzee at 6:17 PM on August 8, 2008


He cites Star Wars as an example of good engineering? The entire plot of the original film revolves around one single, spectacular engineering flaw.
posted by justkevin at 6:17 PM on August 8, 2008 [7 favorites]


Note that the criticisms were directed not toward The One True Star Trek, but its bastardized and poorly cloned offspring.

While I'll admit to watching a number of episodes of "The Next Generation" I was bothered by the great emasculation on display. Jebus, they put a character on the bridge itself whose job description appeared to be professional "touchy-feeley"...

You see this in the weapons. In the "Next Generation" the phasers were so poorly designed that one could jump out of the way of the oncoming beam.

But I must confess that this understanding led to meditations on the phaser design of the One True Star Trek. It dawned on me, why do the phasers have a "kill" setting? Because a phaser is obviously a high-tech version of a handgun, whose design is for self defense. To defend yourself with a handgun the requirement is that you stop your opponent from doing whatever it is they are doing immediately; not to kill them. Sadly, handguns often kill as a result of use, so the design is not perfect.

But as everyone knows, the rational use of handguns, self defense, is abused by the criminally inclined. Hollywood's depiction of handguns further promotes a misguided understanding.

Because death is actually an unnecessary effect of the rational use of handguns, the higher technology of a "phaser" should not need this "setting". Indeed, the sidearms issued to the Star Trek landing parties are not for hunting, and obviously they are not homicidal maniacs, so why the need for the "kill" setting?

Obviously the answer is dramatic, in that it provides a device to further the plot. It allows an opponent to take the weapon and threaten death, as in Spock's Brain. But I would argue that it reflects a deeper cultural bias, in that it illustrates the most popular way that people conceive of the function of a handgun.

Eventually I resolved this conundrum to my own satisfaction, and once again absolved the creators of The One True Star Trek of any error. You see, in Operation Annihilate! the crew members are required to obtain specimens of the neural parasite from Deneva. In this case, bringing such an organism aboard the Enterprise alive is an irrational thing to do. So the answer becomes:

The inclusion of the "kill" setting on the phaser of the One True Star Trek is indeed a rational design as the phaser may be needed to harvest dangerous biological specimens.
posted by Tube at 6:23 PM on August 8, 2008 [3 favorites]


Are there comparable examples in fiction where, say, a complicated terrorist plot is foiled by a completely passive safety system?

In Die Hard, it seems as if the thieves plans might be foiled by the presence of an electromagnetic lock that passively locks down and cannot be opened from within the building. However, Hans Gruber does the "social engineering" thing and gets the FBI to externally shut down power, which turns off the electromagnetic lock.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 6:24 PM on August 8, 2008


Where the engineers behind the Enterprise really lost the plot was when they kept specifying exploding control panels instead of non-exploding control panels. A simple error, but with catastrophic results. Mind you, I do realise that this been a problem through the ages. I understand that every time an Iraqi mortar hits an American base, not only does everyone do an uncanny back-and-forth lurch, but all the laptops explode.
posted by bicyclefish at 6:42 PM on August 8, 2008 [5 favorites]


I wonder how they eat and breath, and other science facts...

Interesting article, if a bit overblown for the subject. I would rather have seen drawings or screencaps with captions using one-syllable words.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 6:47 PM on August 8, 2008


The number one thing I never got about Star Trek (TNG-specific) is that, without going and doing a count of every episode, they're probably threatened with destruction about once a month on average. At the very least, several times a year.

So you'd think that after maybe the first year or so of that they'd figure it would be a good idea to maybe not have the civilian spouses and children flying around with them.

Star Trek Science Q&A:

Q: How does the warp drive work?
A: Very well, thank you.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 6:58 PM on August 8, 2008


About the only WTF uses of tech that really stood out to me were:

forcefields for cell doors. Sure it looks cool, but how many times has the ship lost all power in the last year? Exactly...

which dovetails into... why are all the weapons on the ship powered from a central power source? Should they not have a local backup generator/capacitor that can hold a couple of shots each, just in case?


The other thing that kinda bothers me is when they introduce something completely paradigm changing for one episode and never mention it again. I remember there was a DS9 episode where some booby trap was set off and all over the station, the replicator stations made these little antipersonnel phaser devices that started shooting at anyone in range, and effectively pinned everyone down until they were taken care of. Now I'm thinking if you had a little bit of IFF code added to similar devices and slapped them on the corridor roofs every 15 feet or so, no boarding action could succeed since these little things would pick the boarders off the instant they beamed in. Or use them as room clearing "grenades" or a hundred other cool things. But nope, they were in for that one episode and never seen again.
posted by barc0001 at 7:26 PM on August 8, 2008




I agree that it's reasonable to use forcefields and structural integrity fields if and when they become generally more reliable than the materials they replace. A few episodes involve the possibility of such fields failing, but this data set is skewed in one direction. We don't know how many times the ship would have been destroyed if it didn't use these things.
posted by George_Spiggott at 8:02 PM on August 8, 2008


Um... Death Star?

Heh, well he *is* a partisan. That said, the Death Star is probably the most egregious example in Star Wars, and the specifics are that: a) the Rebels obtained complete schematics of the base, and b) attacked it with spacecraft that the Empire assumed would never be used against it. So it's not completely ridiculous.

By contrast, it seemed like very often in Star Trek, something that should be VERY reliable would fail in a spectacular manner (the exploding control panels are a great example of that). I think the thing that sets off Michael Wong is that Star Wars was created with an eye towards versimillitude (not always a great one, but they tried) whereas Star Trek got put together hodge-podge with an eye towards drama based on technology failure. To my mind, the real differences here come from one (slightly mad) creator vs. a host of writers; and a few laboriously-planned movies vs. a host of sort-of-related serials.

For me the funny thing was that Mr. Wong would do his calculations and I would think, "Jeez, both series are completely ridiculous, but Star Wars is maniacally, laughably god-like in the power/mass/energy/etc". And Mr. Wong would write something to the effect of "See, the Empire would win in a fight!" Yeah. Batman would KICK Sherlock Holmes' ASS. All in good fun though.
posted by Humanzee at 8:06 PM on August 8, 2008


"Uhh, yeah, well...whenever you notice something like that, a wizard did it."
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:24 PM on August 8, 2008


The Trek vs Wars comparison is rendered useless by the fact that Star Trek canon is so much longer - dozens of seasons of television versus six movies (essentially). Star Trek depicts mechanical failure regularly because it has a lot of time to fill, and because it provides necessary variation over competing plot elements (strange new civilization, battle with enemy civilization, character internal conflict).

Technology is to Star Trek as the roundhouse kick is to Chuck Norris: unnecessary, sure, but its the only way to sell t-shirts and action figures.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 8:53 PM on August 8, 2008


The number one thing I never got about Star Trek (TNG-specific) is that . . . they're probably threatened with destruction about once a month on average. . . So you'd think that after maybe the first year or so of that they'd figure it would be a good idea to maybe not have the civilian spouses and children flying around with them.

That's one of the things TNG got right in my opinion, or at least got valid. We're several hundred years into the future, following members of a quasi-military organization adapted to a space-faring way of life. Their culture will be appropriate. 1) Perhaps their relationship with death will be different from ours. 2) If you don't take your family along with you, you're probably not going to have a family, given the times and distances involved.



As to all that hardware on Trek, don't forget that most of them are primarily plot devices.
-
posted by Herodios at 8:55 PM on August 8, 2008


I honestly think the worst thing to ever happen to Trek is the rise of a militantly loyal and endlessly forgiving fanbase. Creators can get away with all sorts of bullshit when they know that the consumers of their stories aren't absorbing them as an entertainment choice, but a lifestyle choice. With a massive bloc of Trekkies propping up the franchise, the writers are freed to kind of coast on the fans' reflexive goodwill. How else can you explain the longevity of the unbelievably shitty Voyager series? If that show didn't have a preinstalled base willing to gobble up anything plastered with "Trek" branding, it wouldn't have made it half a season.

And I say this as a guy who has dug Trek for a long time and finds the concepts that the show/movies put in play utterly fascinating. The trouble has always been the execution of these incredible concepts. From TNG on, Trek has been plagued with a really unfortunate instinct to play things safe - take the case of Data, for example. On paper, the idea of that character is deep enough to build an entire show around - a machine man built to emulate humanity, growing more skilled at this central task the longer the android attempts it.

But what do the Trek writers do with this amazing concept? Dress him up like goddamn Sherlock Holmes and have him pet a cat every couple episodes. The most memorable Data storyline/trope is the whole "fully functional" thing - a machine man built so accurately that he's capable of fucking! Any discussion of Data of sufficient length (no pun intended) eventually returns to this concept - sure, prurient interest plays a part in this, but I think it's also due to the fact that this is the last time the Trek writing crew addressed the Data question with some balls (again, no pun intended). This idea puts a writer in a spot full of interesting choices but bereft of easy answers.

So this engineering-based criticism is spot-on. The perpetual state of malfunction that Starfleet vessels seem to operate in is just a function of some piss-poor, lazy-ass writing staff trying to generate drama without having to think too hard about it. Apply a pinch of verisimilitude to Trek, and you can get away with maybe one Warp Core Crisis a season - the rest of the run is gonna call for a lot more thought on how to create tension. Maybe Paramount never wanted to spring for writers of that caliber, or maybe the show's producers were afraid to upset their fanbase with some truly challenging tales, but the end result is a hopelessly castrated mythos that just churns out the same sad little potboilers year after year.

Given the bar that Trek sets for itself, minds should have been blown on a weekly basis. Instead, they played it safe and played it lazy and now the franchise is in the shitter. I just hope that this upcoming J.J. Abrams film kicks the mythos in the ass and doesn't worry so much about upsetting Trekkies. Tiptoeing around Trekkies is what made Star Trek lame.
posted by EatTheWeak at 9:19 PM on August 8, 2008 [7 favorites]


there are ways to create drama and tension in sci-fi without using technology that resembles a house of cards, and you need look no further than Star Wars

Other than being primarily what we used to call media SF (remember when that distinction mattered, old time SF fans?) and being popular on a mythic level, the two don't bear comparison. They're operating under different rules.

Star Trek is science fiction, high concept space opera division. The rules of engagement call for the technology to be plausible at least up to the point where such would clash with needs of story telling.

Star Wars is fantasy, disney-level cultural appropriation division. The rules of engagement say nothing about the plausibility of the technology. Technology simply works or fails to work as shown. So does magic. What IS the force? HOW does it work? Who cares?

No one will ever write a book called The Physics of Star Wars, any more than they'd write a Physics of Lord of the Rings.
posted by Herodios at 9:22 PM on August 8, 2008 [5 favorites]


Pop Guilty - that song was awesome. I'll see that and raise you.
posted by EatTheWeak at 9:23 PM on August 8, 2008


bicyclefish writes "Where the engineers behind the Enterprise really lost the plot was when they kept specifying exploding control panels instead of non-exploding control panels. A simple error, but with catastrophic results. Mind you, I do realise that this been a problem through the ages. I understand that every time an Iraqi mortar hits an American base, not only does everyone do an uncanny back-and-forth lurch, but all the laptops explode."

Firefly had a fair dose of exploding control panel, though not quite as gratuitous as Star Trek. But more annoying is the apparent massless property of the ship. Firefly hits a dead human with very low relative velocity and it's enough of an impulse to knock everyone inside off their feet.

l33tpolicywonk writes "The Trek vs Wars comparison is rendered useless by the fact that Star Trek canon is so much longer - dozens of seasons of television versus six movies (essentially)."

Trek has more hours of movies alone, the hundreds of hours of TV programming is just icing on the cake.
posted by Mitheral at 11:14 PM on August 8, 2008


STAR TREK CHALLENGE: How far through this Youtubery can you get?
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 11:28 PM on August 8, 2008


How else can you explain the longevity of the unbelievably shitty Voyager series? If that show didn't have a preinstalled base willing to gobble up anything plastered with "Trek" branding, it wouldn't have made it half a season.

I was going to counter that argument with the example of Star Trek: Enterprise, but I was surprised to learn the show lasted four seasons with 98 episodes produced! Still, it was cancelled for low ratings.

The number one thing I never got about Star Trek (TNG-specific) is that . . . they're probably threatened with destruction about once a month on average. . . So you'd think that after maybe the first year or so of that they'd figure it would be a good idea to maybe not have the civilian spouses and children flying around with them

The original concept of TNG's version of the Enterprise gave the ship the ability to seperate
the ass-kicking section from the section with the civilian crew and the kids and the yoga classes or whatever. I think that happened exactly once, in an early episode, and was never mentioned again.
posted by longsleeves at 12:43 AM on August 9, 2008


I once wrote up an treatment for an alternate Star Trek: The Next Generation which justified most of that show's ridiculous elements by making the Enterprise D, her crew and cargo as a pawn in a plot to start a war with the Romulans. The idea was to pack up the ship with the Federations most politically powerful peace-loving hippies, crew it with the Academy's most incompetent, and send into dangerous situations to create an "incident." As yet, no from Paramount has contacted me about it.
posted by wobh at 1:46 AM on August 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


herodios: No one will ever write a book called The Physics of Star Wars, any more than they'd write a Physics of Lord of the Rings

Actually, it is one of my favorite books.
posted by olinerd at 5:21 AM on August 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


Never say 'never', especially about people and especially on the internet.
I'll rephrase my comment:

It would be as pointless to write a Physics of Star Wars as it would to write a Physics of Lord of the Rings.
-
posted by Herodios at 7:56 AM on August 9, 2008


No, 'star trek' got right the bit were Scotty tells someone that he gave extended timelines and underpromised - then overdelivered and did it quicker.

A fine engineering skill.
posted by rough ashlar at 9:08 AM on August 9, 2008 [3 favorites]


Given the bar that Trek sets for itself, minds should have been blown on a weekly basis. Instead, they played it safe and played it lazy and now the franchise is in the shitter. I just hope that this upcoming J.J. Abrams film kicks the mythos in the ass and doesn't worry so much about upsetting Trekkies. Tiptoeing around Trekkies is what made Star Trek lame.

You gave up before the last season of Enterprise, didn't you?
posted by thecaddy at 12:43 PM on August 9, 2008


thecaddy - I'm afraid so. However, I do intend to catch up on that show via Netflix in the near future. If the last season goes against Trekkie demands, then I'm stoked as hell to see it.
posted by EatTheWeak at 3:49 PM on August 9, 2008


A modern fighter jets are designed unstable to increase agility. A recent article on improving electrolysis using unstable catalysts has the researcher saying he was inspired by how plants use unstable catalysts in photosynthesis. etc. You design for stability whenever possible, but increasing technology opens the door to unstable solutions that are better suited for some tasks.

I find the use of "shields" in both star wars and star trek quite unbelievable. B5's ships just take the hits from weapons fire, more advanced ships deflect more of the hit with more advanced materials.
posted by jeffburdges at 6:53 PM on August 9, 2008


A modern fighter jets are designed unstable to increase agility.

*sigh*

No, they aren't. Modern fighters are designed to be unstable to reduce trim drag, especially at supersonic speeds.
posted by Nice Guy Mike at 8:34 PM on August 9, 2008


Humanzee: Heh, well he *is* a partisan. That said, the Death Star is probably the most egregious example in Star Wars, and the specifics are that: a) the Rebels obtained complete schematics of the base, and b) attacked it with spacecraft that the Empire assumed would never be used against it. So it's not completely ridiculous.

Or for a more prosaic and literary explanation, the last third of Star Wars is derivative of WWII aviation films, a war in which the invulnerability of the heavy artillery battleship was successfully challenged by small aircraft.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:30 PM on August 9, 2008


I just noticed that I borked the link I tried to post. On the off chance anyone's still watching this thread, let me try that again:

"As for Q he'll make you come so hard
you'll wake the whole continuum
but girl you know when he's done getting with you
he's gonna bounce like Dr. Crusher in Season Two"

posted by EatTheWeak at 10:31 AM on August 10, 2008


This is pretty nerdy, guys.
posted by turgid dahlia at 3:01 PM on August 10, 2008


Science fiction gets its facts wrong. More news at 11.
posted by blackfly at 8:30 PM on August 10, 2008


In other news, Star Wars fan rips on Star Trek, as if getting technical facts wrong was the exception rather than the rule on TV shows, or Star Wars, for that matter. No film at 11. (Sorry, blackfly, but I like my version better.)
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:27 AM on August 11, 2008


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