May 1, 2001

Each year, my family puts a Christmas wreath up on our porch, and then, when the holiday season draws to a close, we take it down again. It’s a pretty unremarkable custom, really. Lots of people do it. And generally the whole process is over and done with long before May rolls around.

The wreath is still up this year. A finch has nested in its inner curve, up against the window where it can’t be easily seen. It’s not a very secure nesting spot, really. Any time one of us walks in or out of the house, the finch flies off in a burst of speed, attempting either to avoid capture or distract attention from her nest.

At night, we can quietly sneak up to our front window from the inside, raise the shade slightly, and look in the nest without causing panic. The finch laid eggs, and the eggs have hatched, and we occasionally sneak a peek at the developing fledglings. There are few non-aquatic animals quite so bizarre-looking as an immature bird. I can’t really do it justice here, beyond mentioning the big, bulbous eyes and the feathers that look like cactus spines when they first come in.

Interestingly, we had a nest on our porch last year, hidden in a hanging plant. We’re not certain, but we think it may have been a finch as well. Possibly even the same finch. Wouldn’t that be weird…. #

Saint Ned?

I was visiting the news page at the Simpsons Archive on a totally different matter when I saw a blurb about a forthcoming book about Christianity as portrayed on The Simpsons. (I would link to it, but the addresses of the blurbs have a temporary look to them.) It refers to a recent article about Ned Flanders, which describes him as one of the more positively-portrayed Christians in mainstream television (ie., excluding Touched by an Angel, 7th Heaven, etc.).

Ned may be irritating, but he is also human and sympathetic. He may be played for laughs, but so are all the other characters. Granted, the article has a hard time piecing together Ned’s life story from the long, often contradictory history of the series (Ned began as more of a American Dream character, with a pool table and beer on tap; his portrayal became more religious over the years, to the point where he has claimed never to drink and claimed the dice in board games is evil), but the overall thrust is that Ned is a good person who almost always does the right thing and who usually comes out ahead.

The article also contains a slew of references to other articles on the subject—thereby saving me some effort—including a paper on the portrayal of Christianity on The Simpsons as a whole and Christianity Today’s picks for the top TV of 1999, which includes The Simpsons and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (although it warns about the acceptance of witchcraft in the latter).

(Of course, we Unitarians get abuse from the Simpson family as well, but we’re obscure enough that just getting mentioned feels like a triumph.) #

First, do no harm

If a look at Christianity in a popular cartoon show isn’t strange enough for you, how about a scholarly look at Asimov’s Laws of Robotics? These were a set of rules used by Isaac Asimov in his stories about robots that he felt any intelligent engineer would attempt to instill in his or her creations to avoid a Frankenstein-style disaster. They are, in essence:

  1. A robot shall not harm a human being, or through inaction allow one to come to harm.
  2. A robot shall follow orders from a human being, except where that conflicts with the first law.
  3. A robot shall act to preserve its existence, except where that conflicts with the first or second law.

Makes sense, right? It seems pretty straightforward, but Asimov found enough loopholes and ambiguities to fuel dozens of stories and novels. The implications for information science are even more complex, as anyone familiar with computer programming can imagine. (Hint: what defines “human being”? How about “harm”?)

It turns out that some people are actually trying to ensure that computer intelligences are friendly, so as to prevent the marginalization or elimination of the human race. As far as I can tell, they have the considerable advantage of not having any working code to test their theories on, which makes theorizing so much easier. (“Does it work?” “Who knows? No one’s built intelligent software!”) Perhaps it’s true that technological progress will one day feed back on itself and suddenly boost the cutting edge beyond our comprehension, but at that point, any safeguards we put it may well be irrelevant. (via Hack the Planet) #