The N Laws

via Mark, this gem from Slashdot, about Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics:

Have any of them actually read I, Robot? I swear to god, am I in some tiny minority who doesn’t believe that this book was all about promulgating the infallible virtue of these three laws, but was instead a series of parables about the failings that result from codifying morality into inflexible dogma?

The beauty of the Three Laws was that every story he ever wrote about them was about an apparent violation of them. Of course the apparent violation was always revealed to be false and the Three Laws remains supreme and never violated (unlike in the regrettable I, Robot movie). But it was always astonishing how Asimov could start with such a restricted premise and yet extract such fascinating complexity from it. That was part of his genius.

Of course, when we talk about the Three Laws, we really mean the First Law: A Robot may not, through action or inaction, allow a human to come to harm. But what exactly constitutes harm? And what are the limits of inaction? It was by considering these issues that R. Daneel and R. Giskard ultimately formulated the Zeroth law: replacing human with humanity. In a sense, the dominant political philosophy of both Left and Right is really just a variant of the Zeroth Law. And the same struggle with “harm” and “inaction”. And therein lies, perhaps, most of the dysfunction.

Nobel Intent

Everyone has heard of Seed’s ScienceBlogs project by now – the afore-mentioned Good Math, Bad Math weblog is just one of many sites under their umbrella, as is Razib’s Gene Expression annex. One scienceblog that doesn’t get a lot of respect though is the science journal at Ars Technia, Nobel Intent. The focus is diffuse, sort of like a highly-educated layman’s version of Physics Today. At present for example, there’s a piece on quantum computing data storage, the commonalities between human and sponges, and how to make a universe. It’s a great blog and it’s been around for a while, and should be a stop on any scienceblog roundup.

Comedians and Dicks

I’ve commented before in my self-proclaimed classic Shut Up article that miscommunication is not the cause of all conflict in the world, in spite of what our teachers often say (in fact, quite the opposite). Nonetheless, it is a cause, and I do fear that it grows worse every day, in part because our society’s value systems (or memes, memeplexes) are becoming increasingly ill-equipped to handle it. I might touch on that more later, but my main goal this time around is to show by means of example how our increasingly advanced methods of communication as a society is actually undermining our ability to communicate, and is thus helping to cause conflict.

Continue reading “Comedians and Dicks”

Japan: day book?

playing around with the Babelfish, I see that Japan is 日本. However, the translation for æ—¥ alone is “Day”, and for 本 alone is “Book”. The translation for 本日 is “This day”.

No clues to why this might be so at the Wikipedia entry or casual googling. Of course, the Fish might just be on crack today. I need to ask an expert or two


2ch is the largest internet forum in the world – over 10 million registered users. I first heard of it a few years ago, but the wikipedia article is probably the single best source of information.

A distinguishing feature of 2ch is the pervasive anonymity. From an interview with the founder, quoted in the wikipedia article:

Q: Why did you decide to use perfect anonymity, not even requiring a user name?

A: Because delivering news without taking any risk is very important to us. There is a lot of information disclosure or secret news gathered on Channel 2. Few people would post that kind of information by taking a risk. Moreover, people can only truly discuss something when they don’t know each other.

If there is a user ID attached to a user, a discussion tends to become a criticizing game. On the other hand, under the anonymous system, even though your opinion/information is criticized, you don’t know with whom to be upset. Also with a user ID, those who participate in the site for a long time tend to have authority, and it becomes difficult for a user to disagree with them. Under a perfectly anonymous system, you can say, “it’s boring,” if it is actually boring. All information is treated equally; only an accurate argument will work.

That said, some celebrities do sign their names with a tripcode, a cryptographic has created from the password field. Like any large community, 2ch has evolved its own culture, slang, mythology, and iconography. Examples are Soy Sauce Warrior Kikkoman, the Neomugicha incident, Shift_JIS artwork, and the astonishing love story of Densha Otoko, the patron saint of otaku aspirations if there ever was one.

Strangely, I found a referral to from this site which has my blog listed as an English 2ch-type forum. Given that I run a pretty standard WordPress/K2 install, I’m somewhat bemused.

It would be interesting to launch a 2ch type forum focused on a single topic, probably politics. The community model might well be a significant improvement over Scoop-based sites like Daily Kos and RedState. Especially if you presented the forum content in blog format via RSS feeds. As a model for community-building, 2ch s perhaps teh most successful example ever, and given that many other 2ch-inspired English sites have sprung up but none have ever achieved anywhere near the original’s mass popularity, I wonder if 2ch is somehow more uniquely suited to the Japanese cultural mileu.

Yahoo Babel Fish

Yahoo is now the host of the classic Babel Fish translation service, formerly hosted by Altavista. It now also supports Japanese!

For example, try: 七国山病院 (the CatBus sign from Totoro, courtesy of Steven). The Babelfish gives us “Seven national mountain illness institutes”. I noticed from Steven’s link that 国山 can be interpreted as “realm” and Steven also mentioned that 病院 (“illness institutes”) is actually hospital, so the sign translates as Seven Realm Hospital. The Babelfish isn’t capable of translating these compound statements and is more of an atomic processor on the individual characters.

Naturally, it also works in reverse: try “Seven Realm Hospital” and you get the output 7 つの王国の病院 which when I feed back into the Babelfish, turns out to be “Hospital of seven kingdoms”. Realm and Kingdom both get translated as 王国. What my point is, I have no idea, other than to probe the assumptions in the Babelfish engine. As a toy for gaikojin otaku like myself, it’s neat 🙂

Plus we must all bow to the universality of Douglas Adams. Just like 42, the Babel Fish has entered the mass lexicon. Have I mentioned that the Guide entry on the Babelfish, as related in the BBC Radio Scripts, is the most hilarious version by far? You just can’t beat the dry delivery of Peter Jones as the Book. It’s like comparing black and white to color television.