Here’s just a quick post; it’s that time of year again when I announce that I’m done with the school year and can be a real-live-boy for a couple of months. Rejoice or beware as appropriate.
We’re back to flying the Ally Flag in honor of Pride Month. Nothing particularly new about that, you can find my previous posts below for you to enjoy. The second also covers the Juneteenth Flag which we’ll be flying on the 19th. We might have an upgrade there.
In the meantime, I have something planned for Flag Day if I have time to pull it together.
Asimov’s story “…That Thou Art Mindful of Him” has an interesting pedigree. It was initially commissioned for an original collection entitled, Final Stage: The Ultimate Science Fiction Anthology edited by Edward L. Ferman and Barry N. Malzberg. The intent of the anthology is compelling. Here’s how the editors described the premise.
Some of science fiction’s most astounding writers were each given one of these classic themes and charged with crafting that theme’s ultimate story. The assignment of “Robots and Androids” could only have gone to the good doctor. Each contributor was also tasked with writing an afterword on the theme and their story.
Thus, “…That Thou Art Mindful of Him” was born. Ed Malzberg was also editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction at the time. According to Peter King writing on Amazon.com, Malzberg, upon receiving the manuscript, was compelled to include it in his magazine first. It appeared in the April 1974 issue. In his afterword to the story, The Great and Glorious Az proclaimed “…having followed matters through to the logical conclusion, I have possibly destroyed the Three Laws, and it made it impossible for me to ever write another positronic robot story.”
But then, of course, he qualified it, maybe not. And he said something similar after writing the Bicentennial Man two years later (that’s for next week). He qualified that as well, “But then again,” he wrote, “I might. I’m not always predictable.” Two novels and a bunch more short stories later, the good doctor might have been more predictable than he thought.
Anyway, we talk about it. Please tune in and join the fun! Let’s go!
Afterword to “…For Thou Art Mindful of Him.”
by Isaac Asimov, Final Stage: The Ultimate Science Fiction Anthology, Penguin Books, 1974
The first story I wrote in which the Three Laws of Robotics were explicitly stated, was “Runaround,” which appeared in the March 1942 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. The laws were implicit, however, in stories, I had written earlier — the earliest being “Robbie,” which appeared under the title of “Strange Playfellow” in the September 1940 issue of Super Science Stories. So I have been playing around with those Three Laws for more than a generation.
With all due modesty, (which means “very little modesty” in this case), the Three Laws were revolutionary in science, fiction development. That’s not to say that there were no sympathetic robots in the field before Robbie. There was Lester Del Rey’s “Helen O’Loy” in the December 1938 Astounding Science Fiction, for instance. The Three Laws, however, and the stories I used to explore them, represented the first honest attempt at a rationalization of robots as machines, and not as symbols of man’s overweening pride leading to his destruction, à la Frankenstein. The field did me the honor of excepting the Three Laws, and though no one but myself can use them explicitly, many writers simply assume their existence and know that the reader will assume it too.
This does not mean that I wasn’t aware from the start, that there were serious ambiguities in the Three Laws. It was out of these ambiguities, indeed, that I wove my stories. In The Naked Sun, the ambiguities could even lead to robot-induced murder.
And, of course, the deepest ambiguity and the one that had the potential for giving the greatest trouble was the question of what was meant by the phrase “human being“ in the Three Laws. John Campbell and I used to discuss the matter in the far-distant good old days of the Golden Age, and neither of us ever came to a satisfactory conclusion. It did seem likely, though, that if I were allowed to dig deeply into the question of “What is man that thou art mindful of him?” as addressed to the robot, I might upset the Three Laws altogether, — and at that I always balked.
But John is now dead, and I am in my late youth, and the Three Laws have given me good, loyal, and profitable service for thirty-four years, and maybe that’s enough. So when asked to write “the ultimate story” in robotics — or as near as I could come to one — I sighed and took up the matter of that Biblical quotation (Psalms 8:4).
I think you will agree with me that, having followed matters through to the logical conclusion, I have possibly destroyed the Three Laws, and it made it impossible for me to ever write another positronic robot story.
“Use the Podcast But Not to Justify Needless Harm to Individuals”
We interrupt our regular program!
Dateline: Capitol District, Trantor
This just in: AppleTV+ has announced the premiere date for Foundation, Season 2: 14 July 2023.
That means that we, at Stars End will be wrapping up Season 3 of the podcast and strapping in for Season 4!
Release Date! Trailer! New Episodes! We’ll talk about it! You’ll listen! It’s a psychohistorical necessity!
You can watch the trailer along with us on the episode right here.
Meanwhile still in season 3, we reach the climax of not merely Robots and Empire but The Great and Glorius Az’s Robot novels collectively! Do we finally get a satisfying ending? You’ll have to listen to find out! And just how philosophical do we get this time? We’re not saying! So tune in and join us already! We promise that no co-host melted down in the recording of this podcast! Probably.
And speaking of meltdowns, the ultimate confrontation between Daneel and Giskard on the one hand Amadiro and Mandamus on the other play out against the backdrop of Three Mile Island. In Asimov’s future, this sounds like a vast deserted wilderness and maybe it is 3000 years hence. Not so today. Three Mile Island itself is pretty small, barely big enough for a nuclear power plant or two. Fun fact: TMA-2, the reactor that suffered a partial meltdown and was shut down in 1979 is currently in a state called “Post defueling monitored storage.” It will be officially decommissioned in 2052.
We now return you to your regularly scheduled program. If this has been an actual emergency you would have been instructed where to tune in your area for Foundation and official Asimovalia.
I started this morning revisiting Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” video. If you’re not familiar, it was inspired by a photo of the Earth taken by the Voyager 1 Space Probe from beyond the orbit of Neptune.
From the vantage point of a probe leaving our solar system, the Earth is tiny. And yet, Earth is the sole abode of life. Every creature we’ve ever encountered is here. All of Humankind’s history, all its accomplishments, challenges, and catastrophes happened here on this minuscule dot in a universe that, for us at least, is functionally infinite. As the world becomes more and more acrimonious we should embrace Sagan’s message of perspective and in this inconceivably vast and indifferent universe, respond with kindness.
This morning I also watched a bit of Apple TV+’s For All Mankind which has as a major theme terrestrial politics carried, alongside humans, beyond the atmosphere.
This year we’re flying the proposed International Flag of Planet Earth (IFOPF) that was created by Oskar Pernefeldt in 2015. To judge by the pictures included on the IFOPF website, it was inspired by the same thing as James W. Cadel’s Flag of the Earth, a desire to create a symbol for all of us on this planet and to leave nationalism behind as we venture into the larger universe.
The IFOPE is a lovely flag that checks almost all of the North American Vexillological Association’s criteria for evaluating/creating flags.
NAVA’s five criteria for creating a good flag are:
The design of the flag should be simple enough that a child could draw it from memory.
It should use clear and understandable symbolism.
The flag should use common colors; probably no more than four different ones.
Both text and seals should be avoided.
Finally, the flag should be unique as it represents a distinct entity. It can, however, show similarities to other flags, to show connections.
Let’s take them each in order except for item #2.
Criteria #1 Simplicity:
Broadly speaking the IFOPE clears this easily, the design is merely interlocking circles on a blue background. It’s easy to remember and it’s easy to imagine a child drawing this with a white crayon on a piece of blue construction paper. It wouldn’t, however, be a simple matter to replicate the way that the circles overlap. More on that in a bit.
Criteria #3 Use only a few, common colors:
Again. an easy yes. There are only blue and white, a natural and popular pairing. The rich shade of dark blue, chosen to contrast nicely both with the blackness of space and the white of a spacesuit, looks great! Although now I’m noticing that the flag I purchased might not have quite the right shade of blue. Damnit.
Criteria #4 Avoiding Text and Seals:
Nothing needs to be said here.
Criteria #5 Uniqueness and connections.
There are a lot of blue and white flags and some of them have circles. None of those look enough like the IFOPE to create confusion, that’s pretty good. It gets a bit better. The design is distinctive enough and large enough that the flag remains identifiable even while at rest.
As far as connectedness is concerned the IFOPE is reminiscent of the flag of the United Nations. It begs the question, why not choose the same shade of blue? Other than that it works perfectly, with one representing our planet and the other all the nations on the planet, united in the name of peace. This fits in well with Pernefeldt’s vision. On the flag’s website, we read. “This flag will not save the planet, but it inspires those who will.” High marks for criteria five.
So, what about Criteria #2, symbolism?
I want to give this flag high marks here as well because the core symbolism is great. We can see the blue background as a representation of the universe. Pernefeldt likens the collection of circles to a flower. The flower, Pernefeldt tells us, represents life on Earth while the arrangement of the circles represents “how we’re all connected.” That’s pretty great. I might be inclined to broaden the flower into a symbol of the entire Earth so we can really lean into the ambiguity of his statement about connectivity. People are connected, countries are connected, and industries are connected. Life is connected to the air, to the land, to the water, and to the Earth itself. All of these influence and are affected by the rest.
But the blue background is also taken to symbolize the water while inside the inner circle, you can see a second flower which represents the beauty of life on Earth. I think there might be more that I’ve lost track of. It’s a bit much. The visual design, clean and simple, has an admirable restraint that the symbolism seems to lack.
I also keep thinking about the curious asymmetry of the “flower.” The connectedness metaphor would work best if every circle is clearly interlocked with every other. That is clearly not the case. It’s not even immediately clear to me that the circles form a single chain so that thay are all least linked together. That isn’t essential, but to know it would underline the central metaphor and eventually, I’m going to have to check.
But the last bit is the clincher; there’s nothing about the IFOPE that calls to us and proclaims that it is a symbol of the planet Earth. It’s a lovely flag but we only know it’s a flag for the planet Earth because we’re told that it’s a flag for planet Earth. Sure, maybe that’s the case with most flags, but occasionally a flag will show you something about its subject. The flags of Cyprus and Kosovo show the outline of their countries, the North Star on the flag of Alaska highlights the fact that it is the northernmost US State and the St. Louis flag depicts a confluence of rivers. The southern cross tells us a country is in the Southern Hemisphere. Certain color choices indicate that a flag represents a country that is probably in Africa or the Middle East. Other flags have taken centuries to build up that kind of identification.
Eventually, the flower in the center of the IFOPE may come to symbolize Earth in the public consciousness, but for now, it’s a nice flag that could represent thousands of different things. Cadel’s “Flag of the Earth” on the other hand is distinctly a flag for planet Earth and for me, that makes it the clear favorite.
Or maybe we can go back to Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot. How’s this for a flag?
“The Very Word Podcast is Taboo in Polite Society”
We hit some big, philosophical issues in this episode.
As a mathematician, it seems odd that I’m frequently the one to point out that some things can’t be quantified. We’re reaching the limits of quantifiability with the Three Laws of Robotics, just as we did with Psychohistory. How do you quantify harm? Take the First Law, for example. Even within a single human, there’s psychological harm or physical harm, at least if you’re Giskard. How do you compare the two? It’s not even possible to measure the two things with the same unit. What’s bigger: 17 furlongs or 200 degrees on the Rankine scale? And there’s also social harm, financial harm, legal harm… the list goes on.
It’s even trickier if the question is about the amount of harm between two humans. And what about the Zeroth Law? Quantifying harm between groups of humans? Species of humans? Collections of sapient beings that might be humans? That way, it seems, lies madness. What’s bigger: royal blue or next Tuesday? The only possible path to an answer is the ability to predict the consequences of any action. That brings us back to Psychohistory. It’s a vicious circle.
We get into it as Daneel continues to evolve into a Zeroth Law robot in chapters 15, 16, and 17 of Robots and Empire. Meanwhile, we revisit the caves of steel, experience the pomp and circumstance surrounding Gladia’s visit to Earth, meet a government functionary, and witness an assassination attempt! Plus: a space maneuver worthy of Captain Kirk himself! You’ll enjoy this one!
We also ask: do college professors think? We never quite get to the bottom of that one, either.
Joanne and I stayed in a hotel one night last week and I was delighted to discover a pancake robot while enjoying the continental breakfast.
I know that sounds pretty damn cool, but it was disappointing. Do you have a mental picture of a pancake robot? Whatever it is, I’d wager it isn’t a box. This one looks like a box.
Today the feeling is more akin to bewilderment. I searched for a picture of the pancake robot and got a truly absurd number of hits. There are lots of pictures and cartoons that look like that mental picture from before. Another that looks like a 3-D printer making love to a hot plate. Also, an annoyingly catchy song that even has its own video. I did not see any of that coming. Well, mostly.
But let’s get back to Daneel and Giskard, the more traditional science fictional robots who never seem to make pancakes even though they could.
In this episode, we continue our odyssey through the excellent Robots and Empire and talk about Part 4: Aurora, or, if you prefer Chapters 11 through 14, The Old Leader, The Plan and the Daughter, The Telepathic Robot, and The Duel.
Together we’ll see how Amadiro and Mandamus’ plan to destroy Earth starts to come together, Vasilia’s machinations to regain possession of Giskard, and watch in real-time as Daneel evolves into the first-ever 4-laws robot, saving Giskard from Vasilia and in turn, Giskard saving Daneel from destruction! It’s great and you’ll want to join us!
Also, there is some Latin. There may even be pancakes.
I usually mark occasions like this with flags, but I don’t have a particularly good mathematics flag or a Pi flag. I’ll have to work on that for next year.
I’ll start off with a brain check. How much Pi is in there? Let’s see.
3.14159265358979323846. That’s 20 places past the decimal point. Is that right? Wolfram Alpha says yes.
Learning the digits of Pi was kinda fun and every few years I’d get it in my head to learn a few more digits, usually in clumps of three. Still, I never understood why someone would memorize Pi to 100 or 1000 decimal places.
This begs a question then. Are 21 significant figures enough? I thought about this last year, inspired by an article called “How Much Pi Do You Really Need.” The website asked me to sign up for a membership so I didn’t read it. Thinking about it was more fun anyway. So let’s go!
The radius of the Milky Way Galaxy is about 52,850 light years. That’s kinda-sorta the distance from Trantor to Terminus for my #Foundation friends if we assume that Trantor was in the middle of that big black hole in the center of the galaxy.
Fifty-two thousand, eight hundred and fifty light years is about: 3.1 x 1017 miles or 1.97 x 1022 inches. We’d need 18 significant figures to measure the circumference of the galaxy to the nearest mile or 23 to get to the nearest inch. So, assuming we could measure everything else as accurately (which, of course, we can’t) we’d need Pi accurate to 17 or 22 digits respectively. Thus π = 3.1415926535897932384626 is all the Pi you need for even the most impractical purposes. My 20 digits are more than enough.
For practical purposes? The serious answer can’t be more than four or five.
Featured Image: Some art done by mathematics students at Elmira College on Pi Day, 2019. The pictures were built out of graphs of functions in Cartesian and polar coordinates.
“Keep Your Mind on the Podcast and Do Not Let the Trailing Off of a Single Thread Affect You.”
Join us as we continue our journey through Isaac Asimov’s masterpiece Robots and Empire, as we delve into chapters 7 through 10.
In this episode, we take a closer look at “The Overseer,” “The Settler World,” “The Speech,” and “After the Speech,” as Asimov continues to link his major works into a future-historical tapestry.
We see how The First Law of Robotics can be undermined as foreshadowed in The Naked Sun.
We witness Gladia becoming the true successor to Elijah Baley’s legacy as she learns public speaking, articulates a political vision filled with peace and harmony, and changes the course of the rest of her life all in the space of a lazy afternoon.
And we watch as Elijah Baley lays the groundwork (dare I say “Foundation?”) for the Zeroth Law of Robotics from his deathbed.
And of course, Daneel and Giskard go on about the whole thing.
Please join us for our discussion about Robots and Empire, and where it’s taking the universe Asimov built. Let’s go!
It’s the final episode of season four. Curiously, it isn’t a two-part bridge into season five. That’s unusual. But let’s go! The teaser pits Janeway and Seven in a game on the holodeck and they discuss intuition. A strong start that ends on an ominous note.
They’re still deciphering that message from “Hunters,” so this is a sequel to a weak episode.
But hey! That’s Ray Wise under the dopey bald cap. “Arturis” as he’s called has an unrealistic knack for languages and the message is decrypted via dues ex alien. Will it be interesting?
“You’re much more attractive than the average drone.” Ugh! Still, we get the message… mostly. It contains coordinates that are only 10 light-years away. It’s suspicious that Arturis decoded the message so easily and that the location in a months-old message is close to their current location.
Nevertheless, they race toward the plot complication, which appears to be a Starfleet vessel. Too good to be true. Do we trust Arturis? That doesn’t look like a Starfleet design. “I’m surprised you’re not more encouraged by this discovery,” he says. He’s up to something.
Credit to the writers, Janeway at least isn’t buying it. Will they do the Dumb Thing? Probably.
The Dauntless NX01-A. I remember the name. It’s a trap.
Using intertwined log entries is new and effective. It’s a nice device but the conflict between Seven and Janeway only works if Seven believes the ship would get them back to Earth. She doesn’t.
The shoe finally drops. Janeway’s war crimes have come home to roost. Helping the Borg defeat Species 8472 got Arturis’s race borgified and he wants revenge, kidnapping Janeway and Seven to get them assimilated. Another strong scene with Seven and Janeway and Seven gets a hilarious line. Obviously, it doesn’t work.
A middling episode, but it satisfyingly brings the season full circle, bookending the war crimes, Janeway’s relationship with Seven, and other reflections like Seven rejecting a return to the collective. Some things DO have consequences. That’s a nice change of pace.
Awesome! I’ve been looking forward to this one. No pun intended. The Doctor teaching Seven social skills is a dubious proposition at best; this part’s all a bit clumsy.
You know, I vaguely remember this one from 24 years ago. The crew is allergic to a nebula and must cross it in stasis.
“Sub nucleonic radiation” is devastating to organic tissue, but Seven will be okay… because she’s not organic? Still, the Borg drone who had trouble adjusting to brief solitude being utterly isolated is a good setup. The Doctor being in command is also dubious. Or maybe it’s comedy?
The deck full of “coffins” is aptly eerie. Foreshadowing? Cut to Seven on Day 10. Tom sleepwalks. Found unconscious, he should be dead. Tensions are rising, so the EMH prescribes a trip to the holodeck. It’s interesting how Seven uses the trip to the holodeck but the Doctor wants compliance, not creativity.
The plot complication is a welcome distraction. It turns out to be a false alarm. An interesting consequence of the organic matter integrated into the computer systems. Still, it should have been easily foreseen. The Doctor has been knocked offline outside of the sick bay before.
We don’t need to change the rules to manufacture drama. Still, the tension gets ramped up nicely as Seven is increasingly isolated. A chance encounter brings a pilot with sexual-predator vibes onto the ship. Is he a hallucination? Seven is definitely hallucinating now and the ambiance is positively Hitchcockian.
This part is outstanding especially as it culminates with the Doctor going offline. In retrospect, the slow build here worked exceptionally well and the climax is intense. It’s also nice that the episode had consequences; Seven has grown and we don’t merely revert to the status quo. A solid episode and most of my qualms I can dismiss as early hallucinations or forgive for being necessary to set the plot in motion. The pay-off at the end, for example, made the awkward bit in the teaser worthwhile.
This episode will be fun to ponder and revisit. What was real and what wasn’t? I’m not entirely sure.