TrekRPG.Net Routes Around Paramount Damage

This is a story about two companies with very different attitudes toward their customers: Last Unicorn Games and Paramount.

I’m one of those folks who loves to hate Star Trek, and Last Unicorn Games did an excellent job with their four separate role playing games for the various Star Trek properties (they were the same game at the core, but with different emphasis and some custom rules to cover the differences between the series). If I had time to role play, a “destroy the Federation” Star Trek campaign would be great.

Anyway, a few months ago Wizards of the Coast — the folks who brought us the Magic: The Gathering and Pokemon collectible card games bought Last Unicorn Games. Since WoTC also owns the Star Wars RPG license, I was looking for the inevitable crossover book. Alas that is not to be.

There is a proviso in most such licensing companies that allows the licensing agreement to be reviewed if the licensee is sold or its ownership is otherwise transferred. So, in its infinite wisdom, Paramount decided to cancel the Last Unicorn Games license literally only months after it had finally managed to get all of the Star Trek series books out and get geared up on supplements. Instead it awarded the license to another game company which will bring out yet another Star Trek role playing game (this is the fourth such game — there was a Star Trek: The Original Series game published by FASA in the 1980s and another Trek RPG that used the Star Fleet Battles license rather than the Star Trek license).

After watching this unfold, it is easier to understand why the Star Trek movies and series have begun to suck so badly lately. First lure in people to spend hundreds of dollars on an excellent sci-fi RPG and then say “Ha! Sorry suckers. We’re going to force that company to discontinue production and make you buy another game!”


Not that all is lost. TrekRpg.Net, a web site devoted to the Last Unicorn Games RPG, is carrying on with supporting the game and they managed to get cooperation from Last Unicorn Games. Before the license was cancelled, the company was close to finishing a supplement on starship construction and combat, Spacedock. That 200 page supplement can now be downloaded for free here. Better get it before Paramount sends them a cease and desist order, though.

Review of The Axemaker’s Gift

The Axemaker’s Gift: Technology’s Capture and Control of Our Minds and Culture
By James Burke and Robert Ornstein

After reading some dismissive reviews of The Axemaker’s Gift when it was first published I had no intention of reading the book. But then a couple years later I noticed that everywhere I turned people seemed to be reading it (in large measure because several professors here required them to do so). With my curiosity piqued, I thought I’d give the book a chance. What a waste of time.

The main problem with The Axemaker’s Gift is that James Burke and Robert Ornstein don’t even take their own advice. The message the duo try to get across is that technology has gotten “out of control,” and only a “participatory democracy” informed by a new “web of knowledge” will reign in technological excess. I am philosophically opposed to that argument, but Burke and Ornstein don’t even really give the argument the treatment it deserves.

For example, how are we going to have a new “web of knowledge” when in a 300+ page survey of thousands of years of technological history, Burke and Ornstein can’t be bothered to provide a single footnote in the entire book? Reading The Axemaker’s Gift there were several historical claims which I thought were inaccurate, distorted, or simply based on dated views. I suppose I could go through all of the books they list in their “selected bibliography” to evaluate their claims, but that would be extremely time consuming if not impossible altogether. By providing reader with no easy way to verify their claims, they commit the very sins they excoriate the high priests of technology for doing — not giving ordinary folks adequate information to evaluate technological progress.

Moreover, the historical flaws present in their book directly undermine their main argument — that laymen can adequately evaluate specialists. A major complaint of Burke and Ornstein’s is that technological progress has rendered important information accessible only to specialists, and that knowledge should be opened up to non-specialists. Maybe, but look at what Burke and Ornstein do when venturing into the areas of expertise of others. Their history of the medieval period is atrocious, and they relate speculative theories about prehistorical human artifacts as if they are the generally accepted interpretation, which in fact they are not.

Still, even with its problems, the book comes close to being worthwhile until the horrendous final two chapters when the authors abandon their disinterested, semi-objective sociological perspective in favor of a preaching, moralizing tone. Ancient Roman propaganda efforts on behalf of the empire are discussed in a neutral third person voice, but by the time they turn their attention to European imperialism, they’ve shifted to the ubiquitous “we” as if the colonization of North America, for example, were not conducted by specific individuals who could and have been delineated and written about extensively, but instead were carried out by some larger super-structural organism that survives to this day in the persons of Burke and Ornstein (and presumably in many of their readers).

The superficial nature of their analysis is most evident with their final recommendations to save the world. Only “participatory democracy” can save the world, they claim, urging their readers to go back to an Athenian-style democracy. Not once do they stop to note, much less address, that the extreme form of “participatory democracy” practiced in Athens tended toward reactionary conformism. A reasonable reader might hope that while extolling Athenian democracy they might note and even address the obvious problems such as the very democratic decision to sentence Socrates to death for corrupting the youth (which in large measure was responsible for Plato’s rejection of democracy as corrupt).

The authors probably avoid mentioning any of the problems associated with such extreme forms of democracy because they highlight where that system clearly leads — an insufferable government of nosey neighbors and conformist each trying to meddle in everyone’s lives and reinforcing the trends and problems the authors want to alleviate.

There is a rare birth defect called Dowling Meara disease. The skin cells of infants who suffer from this disease are unable to produce the specialized cells that hold skin together, the result being a horrific blistering of the skin at the slightest touch — the disease is often fatal. Recently a company introduced a treatment for the disease involving a synthetic skin genetically engineered from human cells and animal collagen.

Under Burke and Ornstein’s participatory democracy, such innovations would be put to a vote, and there are a substantial number of people who would vote no on such technologies on the grounds that — as Burke and Ornstein point out — often such technological innovations create new problems. I, on the other hand, would prefer not to have such important decisions left up to mob rule.

The only thing worse than out of control technology would be the sort of heavily controlled and restricted technology envisioned by Burke and Ornstein.

A Better Tuberculosis Vaccine?

The World Health Organization recently released a report on the daunting numbers of tuberculosis infections. It wasn’t too long ago that scientists thought that tuberculosis was on the verge of being wiped out, but complacence about the disease as well the HIV/AIDS epidemic led to a resurgence of the disease. According to WHO regional director in Southeast Asia, Uton Muchtar Rafei, “an estimated 40 percent of the population is infected with TB in our region and more than 1.5 million people died of TB last year.”

Worldwide, tuberculosis is the second leading cause of death from a single infectious agent.

When TB was last a major epidemic, at the turn of the century, a tuberculosis vaccine was created and refined from 1906-1919. The only problem was that it was only about 50 percent effective. Now researchers at the University of California-Los Angeles believe they may have created a much more effective vaccine.

Dr. Marcus Horwitz at UCLA led a study of the new vaccine that involved taking samples of the old vaccine and genetically modifying it to add a protein that is secreted from the organism that causes tuberculosis. “Most proteins of a bacteria are inside,” Horwitz told Reuters, “but there are some proteins which are actually excreted.”

Researchers then infected guinea pigs with tuberculosis, injecting half of them with the new vaccine and leaving the others unvaccinated as a control group. “The difference between the unvaccinated guinea pigs and those that were vaccinated is just day and night,” Horwitz said. “The unvaccinated animals, their lungs just became completely covered with tubercules and destroyed and the animals with the vaccine have one or two lesions which are contained.”

Testing should begin within a year to see if the vaccine is effective in human beings. If so, Horwitz said it should be able to be produced for just pennies a dose. The only drawback is that the vaccine won’t help people with AIDS since the vaccine could potentially disease itself in people with compromised immune systems.


WHO finds TB, malaria return in killer diseases. Reuters, November 27, 2000.

Vaccine may work against tuberculosis. Reuters, November 30, 2000.

The European Union Addresses the Problem of Female Genital Mutilation

A meeting of the European Union in Brussels attracted activists from Africa and the world to discuss what, if anything, Europe can do to work against female genital mutilation in Africa. Female genital mutilation typically involves removal of all or part of the clitoris, and sometimes other parts of the genitalia, without anaesthetic and usually under unsanitary conditions.

The World Health Organization estimates that worldwide up to 130 million women have been subjected to the practice. Although some Africans defend the traditional practice as necessary to ensure young girls remain virgins until marriage, 15 out of 28 African countries have outlawed the practice. Even so, up to 2 million young girls each year undergo such mutilation either legally in 13 countries or illegally in the others.

African activists want the European Union to strongly condemn the practice as well as create European Union-wide policies allowing women who fear they may become victims of the practice to seek asylum. Greek commissioner for employment and social affairs, Anna Adamant, suggested that the European Union should make foreign aid to African nations contingent on their agreeing to outlaw genital mutilation. That suggestion is sure to draw complaints of Western imperialism from traditionalist supporters of the practice.

Meanwhile in Kenya, where genital mutilation is not specifically illegal, two young women there recently had a court agree to take up a case they filed against their father who they believe is secretly planning a traditional female genital mutilation ceremony for them. In their lawsuit, the young women argue that the practice is an affront to morality and justice.


EU tackles female mutilation. The BBC, November 29, 2000.

EU may ban aid to states that allow female circumcision. Andrew Osborn, The Guardian (UK), November 30, 2000.

Familyl in court over circumcision. Muliro Telewa, The BBC, December 1, 2000.

Genetically Engineered Chickens Lay Protein-filled Eggs

One of the long standing goals of genetic engineering was to modify animals to express designer proteins in milk or eggs. Producing proteins in the laboratory is extremely expensive, and modifying animals to produce the proteins could dramatically speed up medical research.

Over the weekend, the team that cloned Dolly the sheep announced they had achieved this milestone. Several news agencies reported that the Roslin Institute, which became famous for its sheep cloning success, has successfully created a genetically modified chicken that lays eggs containing relatively large amounts of proteins that will greatly aid the drug discovery process.

Each chicken will lay about 250 eggs each year, and each egg will contain about 100 mg of the protein for which the chicken is coded. The protein produced is controlled by genetic material inserted into the single cell nucleus that is used to create the chicken, so the protein expressed in the egg can be changed to whatever researchers want to study.

Nicknamed “pharming” by some, ten years ago this sort of technique was purely the stuff of science fiction. Today, thanks to medical researchers, it is a science fact that could revolutionize medical research and treatments for human diseases.


Dolly scientists create cancer-fighting chicken eggs. Line One News, December 3, 2000.

Dolly team creates designer chicks. The BBC, December 3, 2000.