Penguins: Spy in the Huddle

Penguins - Spy in the Huddle

PBS premiered a 3-part mini-series called Penguins: Spy in the Huddle on Wednesday night and OH MY GOODNESS IT WAS SO AMUSING! Researchers made animatronic penguin cameras and sent them out to mingle with real penguins to get a better sense of what penguin life is like. Here’s the description of the show from PBS’s website:

For nearly a year, 50 animatronic cameras disguised as realistic life-size penguins, eggs and rocks infiltrate penguin colonies to record the tough challenges penguins face from the moment they emerge from the sea to raising their chicks and finally returning to the water. The intimate, emotional, and sometimes amusing behavior of nature’s most devoted parents bringing up their young against the most extraordinary odds is revealed as never before.

If you missed the first episode, you can stream it online on PBS’s website. The next two parts will be available on PBS over the next two Wednesdays at 8pm.

I, Robot

I, Robot


I, Robot is a series of short stories about robots by Isaac Asimov in the 1940’s. They illustrate Asimov’s fictional history of robotics in the 20th and 21st centuries, along with some of the challenges U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc. encountered with their robot models.

Programmed into almost all of U.S. Robots’ positronic robots are The Three Laws of Robotics, which can’t be bypassed:

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

Most of the stories in I, Robot are about how the robots interpret The Three Laws in unintended ways.


I, Robot is a classic work of science-fiction and, despite being over 60 years old, still remains relevant today. It is thought-provoking, funny, and chilling. My favorite stories were “Reason” (about a robot that doesn’t believe it was created by humans) and “Little Lost Robot” (about a robot that tries to hide itself after being told to get lost).

If you’ve seen the 2004 movie I, Robot starring Will Smith, don’t expect the book to be like the movie. Other than Asimov’s Three Laws and some of the character names, they don’t have much in common.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

The Book

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is another science-fiction classic. It was written by Philip K. Dick, published in 1968, and inspired the 1982 movie, Blade RunnerDADOES is only 250 pages long, so it’s a quick read, but it’s also full of great ideas.

The book is set in a post-apocalyptic near future (in 2021), following World War Terminus. The nuclear war nearly destroyed life on Earth, with radiation poisoning wiping out most animal species. Because of how rare animals are, owning them is seen as a symbol of status and wealth. Most of the human race left Earth to emigrate to off-world colonies, but some humans have stayed behind to brave the radioactive dust and try to make lives for themselves in the ruined and decaying cities.

The story begins at the home of Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter who “retires” illegal androids in the San Francisco Bay Area. We’re immediately introduced to an interesting device Rick owns called a mood organ, which lets the user pick any one of hundreds of preset moods to replace the user’s current mood. Rick then goes to tend to his electric sheep, which he’s ashamed of because it isn’t a “real” animal, even though they’re almost identical.

Humanoid androids are also practically indistinguishable from humans and a polygraph-like empathy test (the Voight-Kampff) is used to tell them apart. The androids can even be implanted with memories, so they don’t necessarily know they aren’t human. Rick is sent to Seattle to test the Voight-Kampff empathy test on the latest series of androids, the Nexus-6. After confirming that the test still works, Rick is given orders to retire a group of Nexus-6s that escaped from Mars… but he soon learns that retiring these “andys” is going to be harder than he thought.

DADOES poses some interesting questions like: What makes human beings human? How do you know you’re human? Could androids be capable of empathy or is that a unique human trait? What about humans who seem to be without empathy (like Phil Resch)? Is there value in all life, even artificial life? How do you distinguish between what is alive and what is not? Will we ever be able to consider androids as alive? As human?

In Rick’s world, humans take great care to protect and preserve the life of animals — they’re even willing to care for “fake” electric animals. No one thinks twice about killing humanoid androids, though. In the end, Rick learns to appreciate all life, even artificial.

The Movie

The 1982 movie, Blade Runner, was based on DADOES. Although the two shared the same basic skeleton, they were quite different. Spoilers below!

Blade RunnerFirst of all, the movie took place in Los Angeles rather than San Francisco and it was more futuristic than the book made it seem. There were also a lot more people than I was expecting. I pictured Earth as a much more deserted place, since most people had left for the off-world colonies.

Some of the characters were renamed (e.g. Rosen -> Tyrell), left out (e.g. Rick’s wife, Iran), or changed (e.g. the J. R. Isidore character, called J. F. Sebastian in the movie, was entirely different). Also, androids were called “replicants” or “skin jobs” in Blade Runner.

The movie dropped the animal empathy stuff that I thought was a pretty interesting aspect of DADOES. I doubt that the few references to electric animals in Blade Runner would really be understood by someone who hadn’t read the book and I don’t think World War Terminus was even mentioned in the movie. The religious themes (Mercerism vs. Buster Friendly) were also left out.

There was a ridiculous scene (below) in Blade Runner in which Rick Deckard spent almost 3 minutes “enhancing” an image like 8 times. According to a quick internet search, this was the original scene from which the countless “zoom! enhance!” photo manipulation scenes have gotten their inspiration. Uff da.

In both the movie and the book, androids had a short lifespan. In DADOES it wasn’t really an issue, but in the movie, it was an important motivating force for the replicants. They (violently) sought out ways to ways to extend their lives, culminating with Roy Baty killing his “maker,” Dr. Eldon Tyrell.

The ending was probably the biggest difference between Blade Runner and DADOES. Roy Baty was made to be a much bigger antagonist in the movie than he was in the book. There was a long scene with Roy hunting down Rick that ended with Roy saving Rick’s life instead of killing him. The replicants in Blade Runner were “more human than human” and taught Roy compassion and love.

In DADOES, Roy had a much more minor role and Rick killed him relatively easily in Isidore’s apartment. In the end, the android Rachael kicked Roy’s prized, real goat off the roof, killing it. Rachael (android) hurt Roy and his wife (human) comforted him. In spite of this, Roy learned to have empathy for androids and electric animals; he saw the value in all life, even “paltry” artificial life.

Blade Runner was worth watching, but don’t expect it to follow the book. It has its own, unique interpretation that made it an interesting movie to see.

Learning from Slime Mold

This is an amazing documentary about the research computer scientists are doing on slime mold. They are using the slime mold to solve maze and networking problems and even operate robots.

In one experiment, oat flakes were placed on a dish to represent the major cities around Tokyo and the slime mold was placed in the corresponding location for Tokyo. The mold created a network between the oat flakes that was strikingly similar to Tokyo’s rail system. My complaint about the experiment was that it did not seem to take topography into consideration, but I looked into it and they used light to simulate mountains, water, and other obstacles. Neat!