Category Archives: Blog

Issac Asimov at 100

I must have been eight years old. My Uncle Alan, my Dad’s older brother, had already established his expertise at “uncling” by introducing me to the Museum of Science and Industry buying me my first model train set, a Lionel Steamer, and showing me where he stashed his bottomless supply of Hershey chocolate bars.

Now he was to open up my world another notch by leading me to his stack of science fiction. The 25¢ pulp magazines of short stories, and the 50¢ paperbacks. On the top of the paperback stack was I Robot by Isaac Asimov. Right then and there began my decades long love for science fiction.

Before we go further into the writings of Isaac Asimov, who would have been one hundred years old today, let me make a few admissions. Yes, Asimov was far from the most poetic of writers, his prose was simple and direct, very matter of fact. He avoided the romantic, and for the most part anything involving human to human relationships. He rarely placed a female character in a key role, although robotics expert Dr. Susan Calvin is a unifying character throughout the series of short stories that make up I Robot.

But it is easy to put those criticisms aside. For what Asimov did for my eight year old self, and I’m sure for millions of other faithful readers over the years, is open up completely new worlds blending science fact with speculative fiction. He may not have invented the SciFi genre, but he was most certainly a founding father.

Asimov’s worlds were not simply far off locations or future settings here on earth. Asimov went beyond Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon,  H.G. Well’s The Time Machine and War of the Worlds and Karel Capek, who first applied the word “robot” to artificial beings in his play R.U.R. Asimov described entire galaxies where complex societies were so detailed you could see them in your mind’s eye. Which is exactly what great fiction does.

It was Asimov who set forth the operating manual for how artificial intelligence might co-exit with humans with his “Three Laws of Robotics.”

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

—-Asimov, “Runaround,” 1942

An author could have made a career just exploring the implications of those three laws. But the hundreds of stories and dozens of books in Asimov’s robots series was but a small portion of his output, which on his death in 1992 numbered more than 500 books. Along with Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, he set a standard for modern science fiction, a genre that was, at the time, considered suspect.

Asimov did not stop there. He wrote mysteries and fantasies. And beyond that, hundreds of works of non-fiction. When I met Asimov in 1990, and of course gushed over his science fiction work, he told me that he most wanted to be remembered as a “great explainer.” His works popularizing knowledge ranged over topics from “The Intelligent Man’s Guide to Science” to “Asimov’s Guide to the Bible,” “Lecherous Limericks” to “The Sensuous Dirty Old Man.” Again, before you say it, yes he did have a reputation for trying to live up to that last title, His actions were inappropriate in 1990 and would not be acceptable today.

My experience with Asimov was a result of a public television special I produced for the Nightly Business Report, “Business in the 21st Century.” Ours was a daily broadcast of stock market data and news and we did these special thematic programs for days the markets were closed. Our regular broadcast often ended with a commentary from an economist or analyst and I though Asimov would be great in that spot on our special.

I got him on the phone and I confess he didn’t see my point but agreed to meet me for lunch so I could make my pitch. Once I got him to stop flirting with my production assistant I explained that his trilogy known as the Galactic Empire Series made a prescient forecast of a future world and the role of business within.

Asimov’s future galaxy was held together by intergalactic trade. Barter is employed since fiat currency comes and goes but the rules of exchange are both simple and constant. Asimov described “Merchant Princes” who captain the ships, make the deals and move the cargo, enforcing the standards of contract paramount to success and, not so incidentally, keeping the peace. It’s not easy to carry on essential trade when you are at war.

Asimov warmed to my idea and, naturally, turned in 90 seconds of commentary on this future world. Instead of the usual studio setting we shot, in honor of our guest, at the Hayden Planetarium’s Space Theater in front of a star field projection. My bosses liked the work. I was trilled to have met one of my heroes. And yes, I did have the PA on the crew. I hope Asimov had a good time.

 

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L’état n’est pas Donald Trump

L’affaire Trump has entered a new stage. In a scathing eight page letter to Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives, White House counsel Pat Cipollone declared that Donald Trump “cannot participate” in the House’s impeachment inquiry, complaining the “inquiry lacks any legitimate constitutional foundation, any pretense of fairness, or even the most elementary due process protections.”

The Trumpies of course love the letter even though it reads like Trump himself sketched it out, filling it with his long list of lies and manufactured grievances, and then handed it to Cipollone. I can imagine Cipollone struggling to take out Trump’s usual adjectives like, “lil’ Adam Schiff,” and adding some legalese. The resulting argument would get a failing grade in anyone’s first year Constitutional Law course.

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The Whistle Blows for Trump

I won’t even try to fight it, as I did in my last blog. Now the whistleblower’s complaint has been released and so was a summary memo describing the telephone conversation Donald Trump had with the President of Ukraine.

Please, I beg you. READ the complaint and the telephone call memo. Make up your own mind. Beware the pundits and the spinners. Even me. It remains both inexplicable and frustrating to me that two people can look at the same material and come to different conclusions. But that’s life. What I can’t abide is people voicing an opinion without having read the material. Each document is only a handful of pages long. Make the effort.

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Why is it so hard?

I think I’ve figured out why it is so hard to get these blogs written. I have a routine. I’ll have an idea, spend half a day thinking about it and doing any necessary research. Then I’ll spend the afternoon writing. Then I sleep on it and the next morning, edit it with fresh eyes and look for a visual or two to insert. Easy, right?

The problem is I keep writing about Donald Trump. He dominates the news and my thoughts. I simply can’t believe what he says. I can’t believe what he does or tries to do. I can’t believe how many people passively remain quiet or openly support his actions. So I write. But overnight, he does something worse. Day in and day out. Now, come the morning, I’m faced with the dilemma, finish the piece from the day before, or drop everything to tackle the latest horror? I’m frozen in the headlights of Trump.

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Parliament: At Least Debate

One of the more esoteric debates in academia for those studying politics is the contrast between the American form of government, with a strong executive and an elected legislature wielding equal power, with the democratic parliamentary system in which the elected legislature is the ultimate power, the head of state subservient to it and the executive chosen by it. In other words, America v. England.

I frequently got into this debate with my father, a true Anglophile, and we never resolved the issue. The compare and contrast form of discussion was, in many way, ironic because of the historical circumstances. England had a strong executive at the time of the American revolution. King George III reigned at that time, had considerable real power compared with today’s Queen Elizabeth II, and was for Americans the perfect example of a leader to be avoided.

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Again With the Guns

I have now learned that a great way to increase the amount of public participation on your blog is to talk about guns. The feedback on my last post set a record.

I have also learned that having a reasonable debate on this subject is pretty much impossible. There is so much disinformation out there that people involved in the discussion seem to be speaking different languages.

Part of the problem is that there really is, as I noted in the last post, not a lot of good data on the effects of gun ownership and gun regulation. I know that sounds crazy and I have to tell you, as one who believes in making informed data driven judgments it is very frustrating. But it is true mostly because the government, which funds much of the academic research in the United States, has for years forbidden the organizations responsible for public health and safety to fund studies into the causes of death by gunfire. That leaves us arguing, for example, on the effectiveness of the assault weapons ban which expired in 2004. 

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Guns

On September 13, 1994, a ten-year ban on assault weapons was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. It had been supported by three former presidents, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reason. The law had a built-in “sunset” provision and was allowed to expire on September 13, 2004, when President George W. Bush was in office.

The so-called Federal Assault Weapons Ban, part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, was limited. It included a prohibition on the manufacture for civilian use of certain semi-automatic firearms that were defined as assault weapons as well as certain ammunition magazines that were defined as “large capacity”.

Limited or not, it was too much for the Republicans and the National Rifle Association. Democratic attempts to renew it have failed repeatedly over the years. California Senator Diane Feinstein has led the effort in the Senate. Her bill is pending before the Judiciary Committees in both houses. There have been no hearings.

To be fair, yes, some opinion writers try to be, questions have been raised about the effectiveness of the law, at least during the first few years after it was enacted. And the legal environment for gun control legislation has become more complicated in recent years, in great part due to the Supreme Court’s decision in District of Columbia v. Heller.

This 2008 opinion, decided 5-4 with  Scalia, Roberts, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito in the majority, held for the first time that the Second Amendment gives private citizens the right to possess an ordinary type of weapon and use it for lawful, historically established purposes such as self-defense even when there is no relationship to a local militia.

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

Second Amendment, U.S. Constitution

I can go on for hours, and have bored many a person doing so, about how ridiculous and hypocritical the Heller opinion, written by Justice Scalia, is. But I’ll spare you. For now. Suffice it to note the opinion, dangerous though it is, still allows for the possibility that some type of weapons could be banned. One hopes, for example, the Court would allow the prohibition of nuclear bombs in a home arsenal. Still untested however, is a new ban on assault weapons.

But before a new ban can be tested, Congress has to act.

Congress is taking August off.

The Shooters Don’t Wait

On Saturday it appears a single shooter killed 20 people and wounded 26 others at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. Police say he carried an assault rifle of the type banned by the expired law. He was captured alive by police within minutes.

Dayton Shooting MagazineThirteen hours later another apparently lone gunman opened fire on people in downtown Dayton, Ohio. The gunman wore body armor and also used an “AK” type assault rifle. Police say he carried the “high capacity magazine” pictured on the left. It holds 100 rounds, is designed for rapid fire and would have been banned under the expired law. The gunman was killed by police in less than a minute after he started shooting. In that minute he killed 9 people and wounded at least 27 others.

If only Scalia, who frequently argued that the Constitution has to be understood in terms of what its actual words meant at the time they were written, had limited his individual right to bear arms to those highly inaccurate and slow firing weapons in use at that time. You can’t do much damage with a musket or flintlock.

Even Background Checks Can’t Be Enacted

The House of Representatives passed H.R.8, the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019 on February 27, 2019. The vote was 240 – 190. It is far from perfect. But it does establish new background check requirements for firearm transfers between private parties (i.e., unlicensed individuals). Specifically, it prohibits a firearm transfer between private parties unless a licensed gun dealer, manufacturer, or importer first takes possession of the firearm to conduct a background check.

On March 4, it was “Read the second time. Placed on Senate Legislative Calendar under General Orders. Calendar No. 29.” Its fate now rests solely in the hands of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. It hasn’t been heard from since.

Congress is taking August off.

Most polls show a significant majority of Americans favor limits on high capacity, high speed weapons designed for military use. Most polls show a significant majority of Americans favor background checks.

Congress is taking August off.

Perhaps the solution is for voters to give members of Congress who block these measures a permanent vacation.

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