26 December, 2009

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

To begin with, while there are many editions of many books out there, the cover art that normally goes up with these reviews is that of the edition which I read. The physical book beside me right now is the 2004 printing, which my brother loaned to me (thanks Will!). Unfortunately, this was the same year in which a film of the same title, that had little to do with the novel, premiered. As I was holding a cheap paperback in which Will Smith glared at me with a vaguely futuristic and ominous, if worried countenance.

{damnit, Will Smith, cut that out}

Firstly, just about anyone who has read Asimov places him as the father of modern science fiction, and from what I have read of his early work (Foundation trilogy, "Nightfall"), I can agree an overflowing imagination and use of fundamental science are the principles of his work are highlights of Asimovian sci-fi.

More than anything else, Asimov constructs an entire universe around his fiction, in which he employs a similar method as Foundation, as telling his narrative through a series of thematically-related, chronological short stories. The novel itself takes the form of a 2064 interview of the elderly Dr. Susan Calvin, a roboticist who shepherded the dawn of the robotic age. Dr. Calvin's second- and first-hand recollections of twenty-first century history from the simple robotics in the 1990s to the global-scale positronic brains of the 2060s is a series of accounts in which the human creators struggle with, understand, and learn about their own creations through the regular, logical actions of the machines.

Dr. Calvin herself is always described in the text as cold and emotionless, moreso than even her robotic subjects. The ever-logical and steadfast nature of this personality characterizes the book. Central to any of Asimov's description of robotkind are the Three Laws of Robotics:
  1. A robot may not harm a human being, or through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm
  2. A robot must obey any orders given by a human being, unless such orders conflict with the First Law
  3. A robot must protect its own existence, unless doing so conflicts with the First or Second Law
In fact, these Laws are so central to not only robots' existence, but are also entirely central to the plot of the book. Each of the nine short stories are reflections of how humans and robots interact with these Laws, and in each of the nine stories, the reader is consistently reminded of the Laws' text and importance. To be honest, it was a bit irritating after a while (I found myself screaming "Get on with it!" each time the characters reviewed these laws).

The concept of robopsychology as Calvin's field of study seems a bit abstract to me. As the entirety of robot's "personalities" are dictated by the Three Laws (and occasionally hints of the zeroth), one would think that any personality the robot would have would be rather straightforward and predictable, but then again, most of the stories in I, Robot are peculiar cases where behavior is unexplained. Or, I could study a bit more about artificial intelligence, even though it's always made me a bit paranoid. While Asimov's ideals about the Laws dictating all robotic behavior are wonderful (especially the bit about the positronic brain melting before harming a person), I feel that the real history of AI tilts to a more pragmatic robot which gets the job done, as programmed by its creators. Let's not forget that we do live in the future, after all.

The author should not be begrudged praise... this is a finely written book, with an excellent imagination for the era (1950), and if anything, I'm a bit disappointed that robots are not as benign and just as Asimov had hoped. At parts it is a dry read when compared to his more colorful work; but in truth, Asimov was a scientist by training, who saw the world as thoroughly organized and beautiful; while is work wonderfully operates within the laws of nature, I feel he greatly restrained endless possibilities of development by restricting the story to additionally operate within the laws of robotics.

Both the central character's and author's endless reverence for the positronic brain is appreciated, but as it is seen to some degree with Dr. Asmiov and to an almost misanthropic degree with Dr. Calvin, there was an overarching theme that the innate "goodness" of robots was always greater and more concrete than the goodness, abilities and creativity of mankind. Sure, the robots are infinitely rational and selfless and obedient, but don't count humans out of the game just yet. In the constructed 21st century of the novel, I'm probably one of the cranky old Fundamentalists who don't trust the mechanical men. I'm okay with that though (I'm going to be one of those awesome old guys who's always ranting about something and shaking a cane.... kids of the 2050s, watch out).

In fact, the developing field of artificial intelligence in all likelihood places what will be the real world's equivalent of the positronic brain in an interactive console that a move-around humanoid machine. Although no futurist (ask Ray Kurzweil for more details), the next decade or two will be staggerinly fascinating when a synthetic mind can consider us as we consider it. A field developing faster than the common press can keep up, this brings so much of what "science fiction" is to our daily lives. As usual, the only thing more fascinating than the dreams of fiction writers is when these are written by history.

To finish off, let's hope that these Three Laws do get programmed into our future mechanical overlords, and that we remind them that we are a good, benevolent race of squishy irrationals.

24 December, 2009

The Revolution Will Not be Medicated
Today's news from the senate chamber is no less than fantastic. Really, I'm happy to see any motion on healthcare reform whatsoever; but to a very specific degree, does anyone else feel that this victory is Pyrrhic? Both the House and the Senate bills, which have yet to be reconciled, were near party-line votes (60-39 in Senate and 220-215 in the House) are the result of compromise followed by compromise, to the point where, while this bill will have its effects, no one really seemed happy with the end result.

Too often when learning/reading/listening about the healthcare debate, I want to throw my hands in the air and forget about it because, simply stated, where is this all going? Would a reform be e true revolution which is necessary. Regardless of one's political ilk, virtually everyone agrees that an overhaul is absolutely necessary, but there is severe disagreement about what to do about Americans' health insurance.

Throw it out.

That's it, throw it out. A certain, calming epiphany when I realized that this was the path-- healthcare needs a complete paradigm shift, a total revolution as to its purpose and existence. Why are we insured at all?
1 Coverage by contract whereby one party undertakes to indemnify or guarantee another against loss by a specified contingency or peril
By definition, insurance is an agreed-upon, businesslike gamble. There's nothing wrong with this... in fact, much of modern life and commerce owes functionality to someone gambling that bad things won't happen. Every year, I spend hundreds of dollars on a gamble that I might find myself in an automobile accident-- I'm happy to have lost this wager every year, but it's nice to know that if I "win" and get the insurance company to pay out, it'll be helpful in the aftermath. All insurance is simply a gamble-- this is why certain religious groups such as the Amish and some Muslims do not participate in conventional forms.

Say what you will about gambling... coming from a town that relies on it, I see it as a fun vice when in control (as any other vice), but in the end, Americans can usually tell a good bet from a bad bet. I can wager that I won't crash my car or burn down my house by taking precautionary measures, and the respective insurance companies won't have to pay; in fact, I can continue being safe like this for years or even decades. Health is something entirely different-- sooner or later, everyone taking part in seeing a doctor or an ER or having a baby or whathaveyou.... it's a rare case when an one's odds of losing is 100% on a long enough time-scale.

So the insurance company always loses... and then passes the losses back onto everyone else. It's a guaranteed cycle, under which too many people have figured out how to make money. Now making money's not bad, it's the American Way, after all, but I do not need to renumerate the costs of what the healthcare industry does.

Simply stated, betting against not being sick is an outdated model for insurance companies. Even the insurance companies know this by now, as they no longer brand themselves as insurance industry, but healthcare industry. Keeping one's health no longer a gamble, it must be a service. Homeowner's insurance does not stop my house from being on fire, the community-supported firehouse does. Insurance policies are not without purpose, but where they are now, they are just in the way.

When I was about 10, I considered emergency services, which I think at the time was defined as "when someone is involved with sirens." Aware that the police and fire departments were a part of the city government, I asked my father about ambulances and hospitals being a part of the same structure of public services. He made a remark about the First Lady that I didn't really understand, but I remained even more confused that not dying was something for which you were given a bill.

Rules for insurers, public insurance, reformed insurance. Same song, new chorus. The fundamental idea of how Americans think of how we take care of ourselves simply needs change. This will come, assuredly, but not now; nor will it be easy.

The Revolution Will Not be Medicated.

22 December, 2009

Unscientific America by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum

My process for reading books is never quite as fast as I would like it to be... this inevitably results in always adding more to the eternally growing list of to-reads. For this reason, as much as I enjoy books of the zeitgiest, they too often loose their great impact before I get a chance to comb through the pages. Unscientific America, in this mold, operates very much within the moment; clearly researched in late 2008, and written/published in early 2009, Mooney & Kirshenbaum's work is an extension from Mooney's 2005 Republican War on Science (recommended reading). However, rather than taking aim at a particular political philosophy, the authors have a greater focus upon the American people's malaise and insouciance of the scientific world.

A relatively short work (about 150 pages), but very clear and to the point, the book rose from the failed effort of ScienceDebate2008, an effort during the 2008 presidential election to bring Senators Obama and McCain to a forum in which the scientific issues of the day were discussed (in the same way of the values debate, economy debate, etc...). The Obama campaign politely declined requests, and the McCain camp simply ignored any discussion of the topic. Good idea though, right? A lot of universities, professional researchers, and members of the educated community thought so too. The simple reason why the campaigns declined (or ignored) the idea of discussing American science in a highly public forum was that there was no reason to-- a presidential campaign is purely an animal of survival-- the quadrennial campaign is as lean and as close to public sentiment as metaphorically possible.
But why don't Americans like to talk about science?

"Of course we're intimidated by science! Science holds itself above everybody else-- above God, evidently. You guys have been kicking ass since the Enlightenment"
-Stephen Colbert

A quick history of the American relationship with the scientific community through the latter half of the 20th century (although not as cutting or encompassing as in Mooney's earlier work) brings us to the state of science of 2009, after eight years of an outright antiscience adminstration, culture wars on man's origin, stem cells, and some topics you would never think would be debated, to ask where are we now, and where are we going?

[For a full jeremiad about the declining place of science in America, please see older posts.]

While it would be easy to place blame upon the populace for scientific lassitude, Mooney and Kirshenbaum are equanimitous in spreading blame to scientists for popular disconnect. While American interest in scientific advances have consistently slipped in that last fifty years, science itself has become more obtuse-- beautiful, encompassing, and wonderful-- but largely abstract to the general population.

Communication of science, the authors argue, is the greatest failing of the American science-culture system. While science writers have been declining in the waning years of newspapers, the scientists themselves are often left to communicate the wonder of their art to the people, which has simply never been a high priority, as researchers themselves prefer research, and there has always been science writers to serve as a medium.This might be why so many Americans hear "scientist" and think of something like this:

when, in reality, so many of us are
more like this --------------->

Okay, not always beakers, but beer pints instead, and not as much dyed hair. But we do rock the fuck out.

Anyway, the book. In the end, there really is no one place or person to hang all of the blame for the problems with how Americans do or do not embrace science. For all that we bemoan and cringe at the actively antiscience population, the truth is that most of our countrymen (and women) are actually very respectful of science and interested when it does pop-up in an understandable form. What is necessary is a new culture, which is actually quite fortunate, as American culture has shown us, it is malleable and powerful when concentrated. Let's not let this decade's ascendancy of the geek stop with a complacency that the Bush years are over, there is always a great amount of work to be done. It can always be better. Both scientists and Americans are defined by a strong attachment and dedication to consistent, hard work. Both are capable.

21 December, 2009

Mentioned yesterday that I was feeling rather philosophical, and I think I'll explore that again. Unfortunately, there's been about 24 hours' worth of lag-time, and I can't quite recall where I was going with such thoughts.

Let's see, yesterday, I wrote about Avatar, so let's see where that takes us...

"Avatar" itself is the Sanskrit word for incarnation, or manifestation as in a god's physical manifestation on Earth. Funny how in the general translations, Christ is never referred to as an avatar, or "god in the flesh." Funny how that comes to mind as I write this week of Christmas (speaking of which, Happy Solstice, everyone).

Religios interpretations aside, the term today has come to represent not so much a manifestation, but as a projection. I can go onto my Facebook friends' list and find at least a half dozen WoW avatars, not to mention the myriad other games where this is commonplace. Moreover, in so many facets of today, our avatar is, in fact, often our digital projection to the world-- it is the form we choose to take in social media, MMOs, message boards, podcasts, YouTube channels, or even of characters in tabletop RPGs

What do we choose to project? So many of us have found Facebook to be a fine replacement for the Class Reunions of generations past (personally, I'm on the fence about what I'd do with a Class of '01 invite). Friends, acquaintances, even enemies are brought together via Walls and Apps and Games which span from the melodramatic years of high school to the quasi-established "adults" which so many of us have become ("and of my goodness, so-and-so has a baby!"). Who are we? Many are mindful of our web-presence, and the most careful of us minutely scrutinize personal information disseminated to the Web.... but where is the line between dissemination and scrubbing?

There are no shortages of anecdotal tales about embarrassing information posted by oneself or one's friends, but from what we control, what is chosen?
"This profile photo hides my double-chin,"
"Am I in a relationship, or an it's-complicated?"
"Why should I post that I still have the same job I did at 18?"
"Let's just make sure that everyone knows I have a Master's degree"
and what is that line between our avatars, the personalities we want others to see, and who we truly are?

Cinematically, an excellent addressing of this idea stretches back a decade (yes, friends, it has been a decade) to 1999's The Matrix. Although this metaphor is quite literally backward-- in The Matrix, we live as digital projections ignorant of our physical reality-- many points still hold. Consider the "residual self-image," how do you truly view yourself? Your mind's projection of your physical appearance... what is seen in the psychological mirror? And do we bend our image to our will, or better yet (as shown by Neo), is our image of the world bent to us? Okay, it probably stretches my point to the edge of breaking, but the question remains.... what is our projection?

In the end, so much of our daily avatars move back to the ancient interpretation-- the mundane actions of a god. As gods of our own universe, like Neo, we define our reality by our interpretation of it; it goes without saying that a physical reality exists of its own accord regardless of whatever interpretations we have have, but as the image which we project to the world, and that of the world which our mind projects to ourselves, one asks, how are these reconciled? Can they be? Should they be?

What's your avatar?

20 December, 2009

Feeling a bit philosophical today. Also, I had wanted to try out a new format in the form of movie review. What apparently has been James Cameron's baby for the last decade or so, has been the epic-scale science fiction, Avatar.

There's little need to go into particular plot details, as much of this has been hashed-out before, but for the sake of a purposeful review: A paraplegic Marine in the mid-22nd century (Sam Worthington as Jake Sully) is given an opportunity at life again as a military operative for industry on Pandora, moon of a gas giant orbiting Alpha Centuari (I'm assuming A, due to the color of the star). After a 5-year journey (I figured it out to be v=0.9c, with a time dilation of 60%, so we're in the realms of decent physics here), he is introduced to Pandora, which is immediately painted as a primeval and beautiful place, if exceptionally dangerous, with hints during the hastened exposition of the aboriginal Na'vi, who aren't particularly keen on a human mining operation in their holy forests. Once a part of the program, he is introduced to his avatar-- a Na'vi-Human genetic contruct into which he can "plug himself in" to control while sedated in a remote pod-like thing. The local interstellar corporation is mining for the (creatively named) unobtainium, which lies beneath a Na'vi settlement, and it's Jake's job to go native and git er dun (oh god, spell check accepted that phrase, please kill me) in the American way to extract the ore.

I'm sure that you can extract the remainder of the plot from there. If anything, the biggest failure of the film was an easily visible plotline, however, this was not as crippling as Jake's off-screen spinal injury, as the film moves fantastically and beautifully through the thoroughly imagined and created world of Pandora. For this, Cameron's vision and care for this world is uniquely praised as a fine display of cinematic and technological talent to bring what was clearly a very specific vision of a story to life. I did not, however, see the much-spoken 3D version, although from what I hear, it is well done; considering the immersive nature of the "basic" 2D from yesterday, one can truly appreciate that the film is trying to pull the viewer into the exotic forests of this world.

On the other hand, Cameron also imagined floating mountains. Unless unobtainium is a suspiciously buoyant mineral, I remain skeptical.

More than anything else, I was heavily reminded of the 1992 animation FernGully (anyone remember that one?), with it's ultimately pro-environmental, anti-military-industrial complex ethos, which on a personal level is a very satisfying feeling. Moreover, the "sides" built on the human side are the corporate mercenaries (lots of Hoo-aah!s, no offensive to my serving friends, thorugh, you guys are awesome) who are gung-ho about blowing stuff up and burning epic life-trees (personalized by the"arg, I'm a tough drill-sergeant-esque uber-fighter" Col. Quaritch [Stephen Lang]) vs. the tree-hugging, uber-educated scientists/diplomats who have the audacity to learn about and from the Na'vi people, summed-up by Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver, in her best movie since Ghostbusters) distill the reactions of mankind to a new race.

It is awfully nice to see scientists portrayed as major, non-stereotyped nerdy characters, but the sequence of the film's plot begs the questions why did a mining operation get here before the scientists? Oh well, Cameron has left this one wide open for sequels and further exploration of this universe.

In essence, this film is a re-telling of the story which has rung for our culture since the the age of Columbus... just how far does "white man's burden" extend? How idealized is the "noble savage?" What has our modern life sacrificed from Nature? Parallels are easily drawn between Avatar and whatever oppressive colonization in history you want to compare it to, but as a story told on such a grand scale, one can appreciate a unique sci-fi, where we are the evil, invading aliens (or, "Skypeople," as labeled by the Na'vi). In particular, the heavy-handed ecological message is as timely as ever, but is likely to be lost in the cacophonous din of what Hollywood produces on a near-constant basis. I would like to see it again once the ooh-ahh-factor of the first viewing has been drawn out (note: I am certain of Avatar's place in graphics awards this year) to take a deeper viewing of the story itself. There is an enchantment to an unspoiled wilderness that is ready to draw us in, and I'm curious as to what else is there.