Friday, September 21, 2012

"Source Code" and utility

This post has to do with the sci-fi thriller Source Code, revolving around Army Capt. Colter Stevens. It is the film we just finished covering in the Philosophy and Film course I'm teaching. Here's the trailer, followed by the discussion prompt I posted in our online forum:

When Capt. Stevens took the oath of office, he promised to 'protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, against all enemies, foreign and domestic' with his life, if necessary. He (more precisely; his brain) was kept alive for use in a counter-terror operation in Chicago. This, after he had been fatally injured in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

A question arises in the movie, which is explored via the differing attitudes of Goodwin and Rutledge toward Stevens' predicament. Is the Source Code program using Stevens in an inappropriate way, and if so, is it justified in doing so? Is it, by extending his neural life, abusing the 'letter of the oath'? And if so; so what? Does it ultimately make a moral difference?

Intuitively, we see that Stevens has solid grounds for complaining that he is being missused or abused. It is clear that the Source Code folks had hidden his body's death from him, had no intention of telling him, and are quite intent on using him for as long as it takes, sending him back, over and over again, to re-live the 8 minutes until he and they have stopped the wave of attacks. They repeatedly tell him that he should not concern himself with anything else but the mission. What is more, we see that they are willing, as SOP, to erase all memories of the mission, and start over again with a new mission, and are willing to repeat this cycle for as long as they can keep him on life support, and convince him to carry on.

Rutledge might defend things this way:

"Now, aside from the sci/fi aspects of the technology how is this morally different from any other case of a military mission? Often, those sent on missions do not know the full set of information that surrounds the circumstance, and are also told to focus merely on what they have been tasked to do. Additionally, they are also often stretched to the breaking point, with extended tours, stop-loss measures, repeated missions, and other stop gaps that are unavoidable aspects of military service. Furthermore, it is often the case that there is an over-riding utilitarian justification for the dangers and inconveniences that are foisted upon those sent on dangerous and multiple missions. It is a fundamental duty of government to look after the general welfare, and this entails thinking in this utilitarian fashion. One last point: people like Capt. Stevens are ordered to go on these missions. They know, going in, that they must follow all orders by legally constituted authorities. They may opt out, but there are severe consequences. By taking the oath, they have freely entered into an agreement that they are willing to do such things if ordered. In that regard there is no deception. Folks know, going in, what the risks are. In our case, we offer the mortally wounded continued life and continued service with no real lasting harm. It is true that we never let them know what is going on, but we cannot do so without jeopardizing the secrecy of the program. We do indeed wipe memory in between missions, but this actually lessens the negative psychological impact of the program, in that the stress of multiple missions is not inflicted on the subject. So, overall, given the immense benefits generated in terms of counter-terror, the continuation of the Source Code program is a no-brainer. In fact, we are obligated to continue, and we are obligated to keep its details secret, from everyone, including the military personnel that we will use (if and when they are mortally injured)."

Is the Source Code program something, that, if technically feasible, should be used by the U.S.G. in fighting terrorism, or in other military contexts? Why or why not? How should it be used if at all? Be as thorough as you can in your answers, and be sure to respond to the utilitarian argument of Dr. Rutledge.

Fighter pilots on reflective belts, Powerpoint, decaf coffee and prostate exams

This is hysterical:

Preparing for nuclear Armageddon: Operation Tea-Pot tests effects of atomic blast on packaged beverages, and most importantly, BEER.

This article from Popular Science summarizes.

Both cans and bottles were tested in different proximities to two bomb blasts (one equivalent to 20 kilotons of TNT, the other to 30 kilotons). No surprise, the cans fared better, but both did surprisingly well overall. The closest beverages were just over 1,000 feet away from the blast; the farthest were two miles back. The irradiating effects on both were minimal, and the scientists claimed it would be drinkable for "emergency use," which Wellerstein points out means OK "in the short term." The taste--yes, they were concerned about the taste--was surveyed by some short-straw-drawing individual (and eventually sent to laboratories) who goes unnamed. It's rated as a little strange-tasting but, thankfully, not Apocalypse-bad.
Some newsreel footage concerning this test:

The full PDF of the study and its results. It’s clear that they did not test the results of radiation on any beer still in the process of fermentation. If they had done that, the result would either have been that the yeast would have been killed (no beer), or the beasties would have survived, but mutated, thus continuing to ferment, but excreting something just a bit different, creating something much more severe in its psychotropic effects; Saurian Brandy.

All of this raises the question: Who exactly did the U.S. Government recruit or compel to taste the contents of the irradiated beer bottles and cone tops? The evidence suggests that he/she or they were connoisseurs of the fermented malt beverage. For, if you read the study instead of the PopSci story, the beer did not taste “a little strange” at all. No, it actually seems to have improved. Pay particular attention to this passage from the summary of the report (page 17 of the PDF):
Some flavor change was found in the beverages, more in the beer than in the soft drinks. However, the alterations may well be considered as equivalent in most respects to “aging” and were not found to detract from the potential usage of these beverages for emergency supplies of potable water.
The effects of aging on beer are beneficial to its taste. Now, who would have a palate sophisticated enough to detect the subtle effects of aging on beers and ales? Someone with the requisite education and experience, of course. Who was it? Could it possibly have been..

Bob and Doug McKenzie, 'The Mutants of 2051?’

"I was the last one left after the nuclear holocaust, eh. The whole world had been destroyed, like U.S. blew up Russia and Russia blew up U.S. and Canada. Fortunately, I had been offworld at the time. There wasn't much to do. All the bowling alleys and dounut shops had been wrecked. So's I spent most of my time looking for beer. I was like a one-man army, like Charlton Heston in "Omega Man." You ever see it? Beauty."