Monday, April 26, 2010

Nostalgia in the Trash

Like most people, I'd guess, my outlook on the day seems to improve as the week goes on. I've had Mondays where I look on the morning as the last bastion of the weekend and try to enjoy eating breakfast and reading the paper as much as possible before another five days of work get underway. And then Tuesday seems a little better (especially when it's capped by either a gaming session with friends or, failing that, an episode of Lost). And Wednesday is OK, and Thursday is pretty decent, and who the hell doesn't love a Friday?

But Monday mornings can be a little dreary, and so that might have been why I was hit with a bit of sadness when I looked in my trash this morning and saw this:

Oh expired Burger King coupon book, I hardly knew ye.

Well, that's almost what I saw...the yogurt cup is from lunch and would be in my recycling bin if the transfer station bothered to take more plastics. And I don't really care about the wrapping from a roll of Hannaford-brand paper towels or the butter-encrusted bag of Jolly Time from the weekend's Netflix fest. So that leaves that SuperAmerica Speedy Rewards membership card right there on top.

It was both a lazy and productive weekend, and yesterday I opted to do some overdue cleaning. When I went through my desk drawers, I found a few things that could be tossed out. One was a little plastic SA Speedy Rewards oval, which is designed to fit on a key chain and be easily swiped under a scanner. The program designates point values to certain items in the SA convenience stores, and you can trade them in for rewards such as free drinks or gas discounts. SuperAmerica is a strictly Midwestern affair, and on my last trip to Minnesota I discovered that the points I had accumulated during my college years had expired. So, since my Minnesota trips are few and far between now, I tossed the oval and figured I might as well get rid of the SA card in my wallet while I was at it.

I didn't think anything of it at the time, but saw it in something of a different light this morning. Sure, it's just your standard rewards program card, but it has a bit of nostalgic value related to my time at Macalester College. I got it in my senior year, when I was living in a house on campus and buying gallons of milk on a regular basis. They were a bonus item at that point, worth 200 points apiece, and so I easily earned a couple of treats before milk went out of the rotation. The card also proved its worth on a couple of outings with friends, including a Blockbuster mission with the goal of getting one good movie and one terrible one; donuts were the bonus item then, and proved too good to pass up.

We're walking in the air...We're floating in the moonlit sky...

So basically I saw a bit of my college days lying in the garbage. And it triggered some nostalgia for them, now just about four years gone, and is there any better way to start a Monday morning than with an emotion my somehow surviving Webster's dictionary defines as "a yearning to return to the past"? I had plenty to keep me occupied during the day, but it made me want to write up the incident anyway.

The card is still lying there in the trash can. I have a touch of hoarding instinct; the housecleaning that claimed the SA relics spared a bunch of old National Geographic maps, even though I don't have much use for them. Usually I'll reassess something every time I see it, and eventually it might end up getting consigned to the junk heap or a thrift store. The card may have a couple of small memories attached to it, but it's nothing that isn't stored in my head anyway. And I can't get all emotional over rubbish, after all.

"That fast food bag reminded me of my first date..."

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Greatest Thing of Anything: Robot Hall of Fame

Some time ago, I suggested that all human political frustrations could be solved by the creation of a bipartisan, singularity-driven robot government. Carnegie Mellon University is not quite ready to go that far, but they have certainly taken a step toward honoring our once and future benefactors. In an effort to honor "the fictional and real robots that have inspired and made breakthrough accomplishments in robotics" and "call attention to the increasing contributions from robots to human society," the university created the Robot Hall of Fame.

Carnegie Mellon teaches about robots; children hit random buttons and pretend to learn something.

I have not visited the Pittsburgh university, but the Robot Hall of Fame appears to be part of a growing focus on robotics at their Science Center. Just about this time last year, it was announced that "roboworld" would provide a permanent educational display about artificial intelligence and other such lovable automatons. As far as I can tell, the Robot Hall of Fame is nestled among these displays.

Since it was founded in 2003, the hall has inducted 26 robots, with eight arriving in last year's picks. Because scientists want to have fun too, the jury for choosing the inductees is made up of an international hodgepodge, with members ranging from late sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke to Steve "The Woz" Wozniak, a lowly co-founder of Apple. And these are serious deliberations, too, with jury teleconferences to discuss the relative merits of each nominee. You didn't hear this from me, but apparently Dr. Ruzena Bajcsy, a Berkeley electrical engineering and computer science professor, once exchanged blows with Anthony Daniels, the actor who played C-3PO, over the question of whether or not Agent Smith from the Matrix movies constitutes a robot.

Agent Smith grimaces upon learning that he was barred from consideration in the 2008 induction for stuffing the ballot box.

As it stands right now, the count is tied at 13 each for fictional and non-fictional robots. Of course, when you put them side by side, the non-fictional bots leave something to be desired.


  • Three Mars rovers (Pathfinder, Spirit, and Opportunity)
  • Two robotic manufacturing arms (Unimate and SCARA)
  • A medical system (DaVinci Medical Robot System)
  • A shuffling, faceless humanoid (ASIMO)
  • A robot named after its jerky motions rather than its groundbreaking ability to reason (Shakey)
  • Another bot with an unflattering nickname and a groundbreaker in the development of mobility (Railbert Hopper)
  • A self-steering minivan (NavLab 5)
  • A plastic puppy (AIBO)
  • A vacuum cleaner (Roomba)
  • A Lego toy line (Mindstorms)


  • Three service drones assisting a rogue botanist in his attempt to save Earth's surviving forests (Huey, Dewey, and Louie)
  • Two droids who helped defeat a galactic Empire (R2-D2 and C-3PO)
  • An android and chief operations officer on board a starship (Lt. Commander Data)
  • A killer cybernetic abomination turned super-strong cybernetic bodyguard (T-800 Terminator)
  • A killer AI spaceship system (Hal-9000)
  • A hulking, shiny warning against nuclear war (Gort)
  • A metallic bourgeois doppelganger (Maria, of Metropolis)
  • A synthetic replacement child (David, of A.I.)
  • Another child-bot, with superpowers! (Astro Boy)
  • A bulky automaton who, if pop culture is to be believed, does nothing but shout that danger is about (Robby the Robot)

OK, so maybe scientists have some of those fictional creations beat, but for the most part they're getting outclassed. At least the non-fictional choices carry more weight, given the fact that they actually exist. Shakey, for example, looks like your standard ugly-but-functional creation but had rudimentary language capabilities and was able to figure out how to meet simple given instructions on its own. The Spirit and Opportunity rovers, meanwhile, are on another planet. And they're still working to gather information from Mars, even if they're almost as old as the Robot Hall of Fame itself. The fictional bots, meanwhile, are honored more for their place in introducing the robotic concept into popular culture. Though given the induction of the T-800 and HAL-9000, they're already dipping into the homicidal robot category just a bit; both of these creations started off as bad guys, then returned as protagonists in the sequel.

Spoiled a perfectly good ceremony by saying who all the inductees would be through 2029.

Carnegie Mellon has been a little lax in updating the hall's website, so the last detailed update only discusses the 2008 bots. Meanwhile, the nomination process allowed on the sites shows both the wide range of pop culture AI out there and puny human intelligence, dropping towards a point where ASIMO will be able to beat us by his ability to maneuver stairs. For example, Lieutenant Commander Data of the starship Enterprise has garnered a two percent favorable rating (the sixth highest of the list) from users despite the fact that he was added to the Hall of Fame two years ago; other nominations show numerous repeats or requests for bots already honored. The top contenders among the public are currently the cannon-wielding video game character Mega Man (who I always thought was more of a cyborg) and surly 30th century suicide booth manufacturer Bender Bending Rodriguez of Futurama.

I'm all for robots having their own hall of fame, and I think this will have a rather nice unintended side effect. There are a staggering number of fictional bots out there. Futurama alone can probably contribute dozens, ranging from soap opera actor Calculon to the Robot Devil. Then there's Dog of Half-Life 2, a scrap heap creation who can take on whatever the alien conquerors of Earth can throw at him; Wall-E, the souped up Roomba and savior of fatass future humanity; Rosie, the Jetsons' maid...the list goes on. If Carnegie Mellon doesn't want to start introducing nothing but fictional bots, then the techies are going to have to get cracking on those new designs.

Oh, and yeah...they should add Summer Glau. Obviously.

Breakthrough accomplishment: first robot to eat food. And still look good like this.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

I Make Fun of State Quarters: Alabama Loves Socialists

From what I can gather, the state quarters program which began in 1999 and dragged on for another decade. Meaning if you didn't care much for the Bush Administration, you could at least console yourself with the periodic introduction of a shiny new 25-cent piece showing some idyllic depiction of what the state is best known for. Everyone thought these were quite nice, and it was a successful enough initiative of the Mint that they'll be rolling out another set of quarters featuring Guam and Puerto Rico and other such U.S. protectorates.

I don't have any real gripes with the state quarters, but I figure this will be a fun enough 50-part series to do, with the possibility for expansion to the protectorates later on. And it just so happens that the quarter design that inspired this idea is the first, alphabetically anyway, of the states.


Helen Keller sits around and takes credit for Louis Braille's work.

This quarter was released on March 17 of 2003, all of two days before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Designed by Norman E. Nemeth, the coin features Ms. Keller flanked by the magnolia-laden branches of an Alabama long leaf pine. The centerpiece, of course, is Hellen Keller and the little Braille nod in her direction. Everyone knows who Keller is. What she did is less certain. She was blind, deaf, and dumb, meaning she lived a rather scary-sounding existence based on smell and touch until she gained the ability to speak. And then...the miracle worker told her what water was? I'm not sure. Well she must have been from Alabama, anyway.

All right, here's what the wonderful Wikipedia factory has to say. Keller was born in 1880, lost the ability to see and hear due to an illness at age one-and-a-half, and was just starting to communicate when that happened...and learning to speak is kind of hard when you can't see or hear anyone. Her family wanted to give her a fighting shot at education, and with the help of her teacher, Anne Sullivan, Keller went on to learn how to speak and alternated between schools for the blind and deaf. Then she went on to graduate from Radcliffe College in 1904, becoming the first deaf-blind person to get a Bachelor of Arts degree.

So there you have it. An inspiring story of family love and an inspiring teacher and a young woman overcoming the odds. She's certainly a good person to put on the quarter, and probably one of the better choices since the list of notable Alabamans seems to mostly feature sports stars. Rosa Parks would have been another good choice, but she was still alive when Alabama's turn came up and the Mint seems to have a practice of not putting living people on money. Though that didn't stop the more devoted Reagan lovers from demanding that the then-aging ex-President take FDR's place on the dime, since the bullet that hit Reagan during his assassination attempt was dime-shaped and all that crummy Roosevelt did was start the March of Dimes.

The designer of this Reagan was next seen making a fevered dash for Devil's Tower.

But I digress, and the Reagan currency debate can be on admittedly more solid ground now that he's passed away. Though from what I hear, some congressmen probably won't stop until he's on every piece of currency. Ever. IN THE WORLD.

So what did Ms. Keller go on to, then? Well, she got married a year after graduating college, wrote 12 books, got a dog in Japan named Kamikaze-go, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, co-founded an institution in her name, helped start the ACLU, joined the Socialist Party-

Yes, Helen Keller joined the Socialist Party as well as the International Workers of the World, spoke on the topic of workers' rights quite a bit, and campaigned for Socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs. This was during that period in U.S. history when the Socialists actually had some clout, but still weren't received all that well. Keller said people who had once paid her compliments now played up her disabilities. In one amusing case, she responded to a newspaper that claimed the Socialists had used her disabilities to trick her into supporting their cause by saying, "There's a chance for satirical comment on the phrase, 'the exploitation of poor Helen Keller.' But I will refrain, simply saying that I do not like the hypocritical sympathy of such a paper as the Common Cause, but I am glad if it knows what the word 'exploitation' means."

"Shut up, Helen, there's teabaggers about!"

To wrap up the Helen Keller story: well, she died. In 1968, in Connecticut. She spent a lot of time raising funds for the American Foundation for the Blind, and was made the subject of several plays and movies. Which, of course, focused mainly on how she learned about water from Anne Sullivan rather than her Socialist and pacifist tendencies.

So it seems this has turned into more of a look into Helen Keller's life than a major critique of the Alabama state quarter. I guess I'll close by saying this: Alabama, those tree branches are quite lovely, and you have a Socialist on your quarter. Which is fine, it's a free country and all. But the next time I see a Tea Party rally down that way, they'd better be demanding a redesign to put Rosa Parks on the coin or else their complaints about socialism are going to ring kind of hollow.