Sunday, May 24, 2015

We are Many, We are One

One my favorite bits from the Bible is in this morning's readings:
"...We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,

"Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome,

"both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.' "
(Acts 2:9-11)
That was about two thousand years ago.

Some things have changed.

Phrygia's land became part of Rome's holdings about a century after the "tongues as of fire" appeared.

Since then it's been in the Byzantine, Seljuk, and Ottoman Empires. These days, it's part of Turkey: and someone else will probably be running it two millennia from now.

Rome is still a major city, but the last Roman Emperor died more than a dozen centuries back. My ancestors come from lands beyond the old Roman frontier.

I speak English, a West Germanic language that wouldn't settle into something like its current form until around Shakespeare's day.

Some things haven't changed, and won't.

I've talked about natural law, ethical principles built into the universe, before. It doesn't change. Positive law, rules we make to help us live in comparative harmony, can and sometimes must change: and that's another topic. (August 31, 2014; August 29, 2014)

Something else that won't change is the best news humanity's ever had: God loves us, and wants to adopt us. (John 3:17; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 52, 1825)

What we do about that news is up to each of us. In my case, I decided that becoming a Catholic made sense.

Love and Blunders

The Shavout recalled in Acts 2 was our 'grand opening' — when the Holy Spirit came, making our Lord's message available to anyone who would listen.1 (Catechism, 731-732, 767)

Today, Catholics live on every continent except Antarctica. We speak Albanian, Brazilian, Japanese, Lebanese, and many other languages.

We worship in Kobe, Japan; Hannover, Germany; Westfield, Indiana; and Kunming, China.

We have lived under emperors, kings, chairmen, and presidents. Sometimes our native leaders let us worship in peace, sometimes they don't, and occasionally they try to take our Lord's place.

We are "one in Christ Jesus," united by the sacraments our Lord gave us: Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Penance, the Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony. We celebrate those sacraments in many ways, reflecting our many cultures. (Catechism, 1200-1206, 1210)

That upsets folks who imagine that the universal, καθολικός, church should — for all people, in every millennium — look and act just like folks did in their home parish, a few decades back.

Some of us, as centuries rolled by, have acted as if making "disciples of all nations" meant forcing one culture or political system down everyone's throat. That's a huge mistake. We're still cleaning up the mess left by the Verdun massacre, and that's yet another topic. (May 18, 2014)

There is no one 'correct' culture or political system. (Catechism, 24, 814, 1901, 1957)

There are, however, a few basic principles we should all observe: Love God, love our neighbors, see everyone as our neighbor, and treat others as we'd like to be treated. (Matthew 5:43-44, 7:12, 22:36-40, Mark 12:28-31; Luke 6:31 10:25-27, 29-37; Catechism, 1789)

As long as we keep loving God and our neighbors, and acting as if everybody's our neighbor, we'll confuse and astound2 — and upset folks who like the status quo. And that's yet again another topic.

Posts about:

1 Definitions:
"HOLY SPIRIT: The third divine Person of the Blessed Trinity, the personal love of Father and Son for each other. Also called the Paraclete (Advocate) and Spirit of Truth, the Holy Spirit is at work with the Father and the Son from the beginning to the completion of the divine plan for our salvation (685; cf. 152, 243)."
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, Glossary, H)

"PENTECOST: The 'fiftieth' day at the end of the seven weeks following Passover (Easter in the Christian dispensation). At the first Pentecost after the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus, the Holy Spirit was manifested, given and communicated as a divine Person to the Church, fulfilling the paschal mystery of Christ according to his promise (726, 731; cf. 1287). Annually the Church celebrates the memory of the Pentecost event as the beginning of the new 'age of the Church,' when Christ lives and acts in and with his Church (1076)."
(Catechism, Glossary, P)
2 "...the Church astounds and confuses...."
"...Pentecost is the event that signals the birth of the Church and her public manifestation; and two features strike us: the Church astounds and confuses...."
Regina Caeli," Pope Francis, Solemnity of Pentecost (June 8, 2014)

Friday, May 22, 2015

A Robotic Tentacle, and Disney’s Baymax

Disney Studio's film version of Baymax is fiction. Robots designed to work with people are real: although they're nowhere near as smart as their fictional counterparts.
  1. STIFF-FLOP's Robotic Tentacle
  2. Cuddly Robots

Frankenstein's Monster, C-3PO - - -

Many of today's movie robots arguably owe their homicidal personalities to Karel Čapek's 1920 "R.U.R." (Rosumovi Univerzální Roboti/Rossum’s Universal Robots) and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's "Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus," published in 1818.

Čapek's robots were synthetic organisms, more like Victor Frankenstein's monster and Philip K. Dick's androids than R2-D2 and C-3PO. But I think they helped establish the notion that artificial intelligence leads to mass murder: or, in the case of R.U.R., genocide.

Movies like "Colossus: The Forbin Project" (1970) and "I, Robot" (2004) followed the time-honored plot of scientists creating artificial intelligence — which tries, more-or-less-successfully, to destroy its creator and/or take over the world.

That's a lot more dramatic than having the wannabe evil robot overlord boast that "nothing can withstand my FILE NOT FOUND!"

I've talked about technology, angst, and the Roomba revolution that wasn't, before. Quite often. (May 15, 2015; August 22, 2014; August 15, 2014)

- - - and Ultron

The latest Avengers movie's Ultron followed the time-honored robotic tradition of trying to exterminate humanity, and I'm drifting off-topic.

Back in the real world, Early Adopter Jibo Developer Editions are due for shipping in late fall, 2015.

Unless you supported Jibo's development through Indiegogo, you'll have to wait until spring of 2016 before your home edition model ships.

I learned about MIT Media Lab's Cynthia Breazeal's AI yesterday afternoon, and haven't had time to check out "the world's first social robot." Not enough for one of these posts. Maybe next week.

On the other hand, I don't want the Friday post to be 'all robots, all the time,' and that's another topic.

Before discussing robots and coffee, I'll rehash why I'm pretty sure that God isn't offended when we use our brains.

Imagining that science, technology, money, or anything else, will take the place of God is daft: and a very bad idea. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2112-2114)

However, we're made in the image of God: rational creatures, able to study this world and develop new tools. Science and technology are part of being human: it's what we're supposed to do. Ethics apply, of course, but thinking is not a sin. (Genesis 1:27-31; Catechism, 31-32, 1730, 2292-2296)

1. STIFF-FLOP's Robotic Tentacle

(From Tommaso Ranzini et al, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("The device was put to the test manipulating water-filled balloons"
(BBC News))
"Robotic tentacle targets keyhole surgery"
Jonathan Webb, BBC News (May 14, 2015)

"Engineers have constructed a robotic arm, aimed at improving surgical operations and inspired by the octopus.

"Just like its aquatic inspiration, the robotic tentacle has no rigid skeleton; it can bend, stretch and switch between flexible and rigid states as required.

"Its movement is driven by inflatable compartments and its stiffness by a central tube containing a specially selected granular medium: coffee.

"When suction is applied, the granules 'jam' to create the desired rigidity...."
"Keyhole surgery" is probably easier to say than "laparoscopy," and sidesteps the trademark infringement issues of "Band-Aid surgery." Johnson & Johnson's trademark may eventually join "zipper" in the roster of genericized trademarks, and that's yet another topic. ("Laparoscopy (keyhole surgery)," National Health Service, UK; BAND-AID, United State Patent and Trademark Office)

STIFF-FLOP is focusing on "Challenge 2 - Cognitive systems and robotics:" which may or may not have something to do with the European Commission's Horizon 2020 program.

Their Project Overview page outlines why we don't have robot surgeons yet. They talk about "restricted access through Trocar ports, lack of haptic feedback, and difficulties with rigid robot tools operating inside a confined space filled with organs."

Time to break out the dictionary. A trocar is a sort of hollow needle: the business end of a cannula, a flexible tube stuck into a patient. Haptic means "of or relating to the sense of touch; tactile." (

Don't bother trying to remember all that. There will not be a test on this.

Basically, robotic tools haven't been small enough to fit through the standard 12 millimeter Trocar port. Besides, robots haven't had the delicate sense of touch it takes to navigate someone's interior.

The STIFF-FLOP folks say they'll develop a robotic system that works like octopus arms and elephant trunks.

When they're done, we'll have robot that can feel its way through a shifting maze of organs and use tiny surgical instruments. It's an ambitious goal.

Jonathan Webb's article focuses on a prototype that's 14 centimeters, about four and three quarters inches, long; three centimeters, roughly one and an eighth inches, wide. It's nowhere near small nor nimble enough for surgery: but as a proof of concept, it's impressive.

Sucking air out of the robot arm's core jams the coarse-ground coffee granules together, making the arm stiff. Three air-filled tubes around the core act as muscles, pretty much the same way McKibben Artificial Muscles worked back in the 1950s.

Dragon Skin® and Coffee

(From Tommaso Ranzini et al, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("A tube of coffee granules at its core is the secret of the arm's tunable rigidity"
(BBC News))

Part of the BioRobotics Institute's robotic arm is made of Smooth-On, Inc.'s Dragon Skin®, a sort of silicone rubber.

Silicone rubber is synthetic stuff developed in the 1940s that era's new, smaller, electric motors. It's also good for architectural restoration, and making really scary masks. I think silicone rubber is easier to pronounce than polydimethylsiloxane, and that's yet again another topic.

The "specially selected granular medium" in the robotic tentacle's core has been around for centuries, at least. My guess is that folks knew about coffee before Sufi monasteries in Yemen started growing it. That was around the mid-15th century.

Pretty soon folks throughout Arabia were growing and brewing coffee beans. It spread to Persia, Turkey, and northern Africa in the 1500s. Baba Budan smuggled some coffee beans from Yemen to India in 1670.

By that time, Viennese traders had upset folks in Venice by selling the 'Islamic' drink. Pope Clement VIII said coffee is okay in 1600, and the first non-Ottoman coffee house in Europe opened in 1645.

Many Europeans switched from wine and beer to tea and coffee, a few centuries later we were building robots and spaceships, and that's still another topic. (July 5, 2013)

Where was I? Synthetic rubber, Pope Clement VIII, coffee, spaceships. Right.

Robot Arms, Cockroach Brains

Flexible robot arms have been around for several years: some hard, some soft, and at least one with a 'jammable' core. I gather that what's special about the STIFF-FLOP team's efforts is that they're developing a miniature robot tentacle for minimally invasive surgery.

Another of their goals is developing a "manipulation system that experiences and learns from physical interactions with its environment." That, I suspect, will be a lot harder than making a tiny tentacle. (April 24, 2015; August 15, 2014)

An octopus, one of the critters they're emulating, has about 300,000,000 neurons: two-thirds of them in its arms. IBM's TrueNorth chip, which emulates an animal's brain, has about 1,000,000: about as many as a cockroach brain. The last I checked, software for that tech is still in development.

More than you may want to know about robotic tentacles:

2. Cuddly Robots

(From Disney, via Reuters, used w/o permission.)
(A clip from "Big Hero 6," with Walt Disney Animation Studios' version of Baymax, a Marvel Comics robot superhero.)
"The future of cuddly robots"
Ben Gruber, Reuters (May 14, 2015)

"Disney's Big Hero 6 star Baymax has captured the hearts of millions around the world. But while the health monitoring balloon-like machine is a work of science fiction, researchers are working towards making soft, human-friendly robots a reality.

"Chris Atkeson's work in the field of soft robotics inspired the creation of Baymax. He, along with researcher Yong-Lea Park, both computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon University, say the public's perception is changing with the realization that robots don't necessarily want to take over the world.

" 'I don't think you are ever going to stop Hollywood from making killer robot movies but I think people want technology to help them,' Atkeson said...."
I'm not sure how much Christopher G. Atkeson work influenced the original Marvel robot superhero. Marvel's Baymax showed up in 1998, when professor Atkeson was an Associate Professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

The Disney movie version of Baymax — here's what Professor Atkeson says:
"We Inspired Baymax

"The inflatable robot Baymax in the movie Disney Big Hero 6 (BH6) was inspired by Siddharth Sanan's research on inflatable robots. (2011 press release) in the National Science Foundation (NSF) Quality of Life Technology (QoLT) Engineering Research Center (ERC) at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt)...."

Artificial Intelligence: Still a Challenge

(From Reuters, used w/o permission.)
(Developments in material science help give robots a sense of touch.

Up to now, robot design focused on industrial and military uses: so strength and durability were important. For robots that interact with people, safety is also important. That's why Atkenson and others are developing soft robots.

Robot behavior is important, too. RethinkRobotics' Baxter, for example, isn't squishy: but 'he' is careful. Motion sensors tell Baxter when something, or someone, is nearby.

Baxter doesn't quite have a sense of touch, but the robot notices when the arms start pressing against something: and stops moving. I intentionally got in the way of a Baxter once: and sure enough, the robot paused until I got out of the way.

We're a very long way from Baymax, mostly because today's artificial intelligence — isn't particularly 'smart' when it comes to being sociable:
"...'If I only had a brain.'

"The biggest challenge in building Baymax is building a brain capable of useful human-robot interaction. Apple's Siri, Amazon's Echo, and similar question answering agents demonstrate the recent progress in this area of artificial intelligence, and could be the basis of a real-life Baymax as well. Quality human-robot interaction matters. My other grandmother, who had become blind, was uninterested in early reading machines because the voices were not gentle or soothing...."
("Why I Want To Build Personal Health Care Companions Like Baymax," Christopher G. Atkeson)
Christopher G. Atkeson's pages at Carnegie Mellon University. Some of them, that is:
A generation or two from now, robots like Baymax may be common. Or folks may decide that robots are more useful if they're not shaped like humans.

My guess is that we'll have a mixture. Robots about our size and shape might be useful for jobs like receptionist or checkout clerk. A robotic 'chauffeur' could be part of the vehicle, and we already have personal digital assistants that fit in our pockets.

Folks with serious medical conditions might have a 'Baymax' under their skin: sort of like a smart pacemaker.

No matter what the next generation of robots is like, I'm pretty sure that some folks will think they're the best thing since sliced bread — and others will think it's the end of civilization as we know it. They'll be right, which isn't necessarily a bad thing: and that's — another topic.

More of my take on tech:

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Boston Bombing Verdict: Death, Life, Consequences

At 2:49:43 and 2:49:57 pm EDT/18:49 UTC, April 15, 2013, two pressure cooker bombs exploded on Boylston Street near Copley Square in Boston.

They were about 210 yards, 190 meters, apart; near the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev's bombs killed Krystle Marie Campbell, Lu Lingzi (吕令子), Martin William Richard, and Sean A. Collier.

Dzhokhar said that he and his brother wanted to defend Islam from America. I think their experiences as Chechens and Avars may have been a factor, too.

Don't expect a rant against Muslims, 'foreigners,' Americans, or anyone else. I think it's noteworthy that the imam of a prominent Boston mosque apparently refused to give Tamerlan a Muslim burial. The imam's decision may or may not be justified.

Lost Lives, Lost Limbs

(From Aaron "tango" Tang; via, Wikimedia Commons; used w/o permission.)
(Less than two minutes after the explosions at the Boston Marathon. April 15 2013.)

Krystle Marie Campbell, 29, was a restaurant manager from Medford, Massachusetts. Lu Lingzi (吕令子), 23, was a Chinese national and Boston University graduate student from Shenyang, Liaoning. Martin William Richard, eight, had been watching the race with his family.

A few days later, the Tsarnaev brothers ambushed and killed Sean A. Collier, an MIT police officer. Boston Police Officer Dennis Simmonds' death, a year later, was most likely due in part to being shot in a confrontation with the bombers after midnight, April 19, 2013.

At least 14 of the 264 folks injured in the explosions lost limbs. Two lost more than one limb. (USA Today)

There is no excuse for this. Murder, killing innocent people, is wrong. I'll get back to that.


Tamerlan Tsarnaev has not been sentenced: and won't be. He's dead, killed during that April 19, 2013, confrontation.

The surviving Tsarnaev brother is still alive, and probably will be for at least a few more years. He has, however, been sentenced to death by lethal injection.
"Boston bombing trial: Death sentence for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev"
BBC News (April 15, 2015)

"A US jury has sentenced Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death by lethal injection....

"...After 14 hours of deliberations, the jury concluded that Tsarnaev showed no remorse and therefore should be put to death....

"...Massachusetts as a state ended the death penalty in 1984, but Tsarnaev was tried on federal charges, meaning he was eligible for execution.

"After the sentence was announced, US Attorney General Loretta Lynch said: 'The ultimate penalty is a fitting punishment for this horrific crime and we hope that the completion of this prosecution will bring some measure of closure to the victims and their families.'..."
I certainly understand being angry about what happened in Boston on April 15, 2013. I have felt, and feel, a desire to punish those responsible. I'm sure that those who knew the victims feel this desire more intensely.

I think there is no reasonable doubt that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, together with his dead brother, is responsible for intentionally killing several people; and maiming more than a dozen.

But no matter how emotionally satisfying it might be to kill Dzhokhar Tsarnaev — his death will not restore life to those he killed, or limbs to those he maimed.

Do I think he deserves to die? Yes: at least in the sense that he shares responsibility with his dead brother for several unjustified deaths.

Do I think he should be executed? Probably not. I don't think he should be released, either. Anyone who thinks that "defending" his faith means killing innocent people must be restrained.

Safeguarding the common good by imprisoning folks who will kill others makes sense. But a well-intentioned desire to make angry citizens feel better is not, I think, a good reason for killing a prisoner.

I can't say that the death penalty is always wrong. The Catholic Church allows capital punishment: if a society can't defend human lives any other way. (Catechism, 2266-2267)

Life, Death, and Eternity

(From Aaron "tango" Tang; via, Wikimedia Commons; used w/o permission.)
(Boylston Street near Copley Square, about three minutes after the explosions.)

Human life is sacred. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2258)

We're made in the image of God. Each of us is a person: someone, not something; filled with God's 'breath:' matter and spirit, body and soul. That's why it's wrong to kill an innocent person. (Genesis 2:7; Catechism, 355, 357, 362-368, 2258-2262)

Okay — but let's say that someone attack me, and obviously wants to kill me. If the only way to stop that person is killing him: is that wrong?

Let's see what St. Thomas Aquinas wrote:
"Nothing hinders one act from having two effects, only one of which is intended, while the other is beside the intention. Now moral acts take their species according to what is intended, and not according to what is beside the intention, since this is accidental as explained above (Question [43], Article [3]; FS, Question [12], Article [1]). Accordingly the act of self-defense may have two effects, one is the saving of one's life, the other is the slaying of the aggressor. Therefore this act, since one's intention is to save one's own life, is not unlawful, seeing that it is natural to everything to keep itself in 'being,' as far as possible. And yet, though proceeding from a good intention, an act may be rendered unlawful, if it be out of proportion to the end...."
("The Summa Theologica," Question 64, Article 7, St. Thomas Aquinas) (translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Benziger Bros. edition, 1947))
In this happily-hypothetical case, I may defend myself: even if that act results in the death of the attacker. It's not quite that simple, though. My hypothetical attacker is human, too: so causing that person's death is wrong, unless it really is the only way I'll survive. (Catechism, 2263-2264)

Getting back to the sadly-real Boston Marathon bombing, it's remotely possible that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's lawyers will keep his case in the courts until he dies of old age. My guess is that America's national government will kill him before that happens: legally, after well-documented court proceedings.

I am certain that killing folks at the 2013 Boston Marathon was wrong: but I have no idea where the killers will spend eternity.

Having a conscience means making reasoned judgments about whether my actions are right or wrong is. I can even see what others do, and make similar distinctions, but "we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God." (Catechism, 1778-1779, 1861)

"And Who is my Neighbor?"

Why aren't I ranting about Tamerlan Tsarnaev roasting in eternal hellfire?

The short answer is that I'm a Christian, a Catholic: and I take our Lord seriously. Matthew 7:1 and all that.

The long answer — could fill a book. "Summa Theologica," St. Thomas Aquinas's unfinished discussion of Catholic theology, runs to about 3,500 pages; and that's another topic.

As I've said before, my faith's basics are simple: love God, love my neighbors, see everyone as my neighbor, and treat others as I'd like to be treated. (Matthew 5:43-44, 7:12, 22:36-40, Mark 12:28-31; Luke 6:31 10:25-27, 29-37; Catechism, 1789)

The story of the good Samaritan answers the question, "who is my neighbor?" (May 10, 2015; October 26, 2014)

Everyone is my neighbor: relatives, friends, the family across the street, even enemies. (Matthew 5:43-44; Romans 5:10; Catechism, 1825)

Loving my neighbor isn't even close to hoping that my neighbor spends eternity in Hell.

Time to Think

"Love" isn't "approval." Sometimes the loving thing to do is keeping someone from doing wrong. (August 24, 2014; April 26, 2011)

And sometimes it's giving the loved one time to think about what they've done.

Alessandro Serenelli, for example, arguably deserved death for the murder of a young woman. Instead, he was sentenced to 30 years of hard labor.

Six years later, he realized that killing her was wrong. After he'd served his sentence, the community where he'd lived didn't want him back. He eventually died, an old man, in a Capuchin monastery.

Sometimes a murderer decides that what he or she did was wrong: and wants God's forgiveness.

That's why I hope Dzhokhar Tsarnaev gets what his brother didn't: time to think.

Posts; mostly about life, death, and looking ahead:
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From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.