Flowers, robotic challenges, and a note on this blog

by Rob Tiller

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On Saturday morning as I drove up to Raulston Arboretum to look at the blooms and take some pictures, it began to drizzle, and I considered scrubbing the mission. But I decided instead to take my golf umbrella. Working the camera while sheltering it from the rain was awkward, but I got a few images of flowers with raindrops that I liked, which are above and below.
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You may have missed, as I almost did, an interesting story this week about the DARPA robotics challenge. DARPA is holding a humanoid robot competition similar to its contest that pushed forward the boundaries for autonomous vehicles. Teams of technologist will compete for a $2 million prize with a robot that will be able to perform rescue functions in difficult conditions and do things like climb into a vehicle, drive it, get out, walk on uneven ground, open doors, operate power tools, and shut off valves. A prototype called Atlas is being provided by the Pentagon to teams of programmers, while other teams are building their own devices.

While the Pentagon is emphasizing the humanitarian possibilities of such a device, it could obviously have less benign military applications. And, as the Times notes, the new robots could also work in department stores. Or, I’d add, just about any place that humans work. As I’ve noted before, the quick advance of such technology is going to cause unemployment and economic dislocation, which we need to be thinking about. Along with these public policy issues, there are existential ones. In the not-too-distant world of brilliant and powerful computers and robots that can do almost any human activity better than humans, what does it mean to be human? What is the point of being human? What is our highest and best use?
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I was pleased to see that yesterday The Casual Blog set a new record: 251 views. Most of those views had to do with a post about getting older, Gary Player’s diet and exercise routine, and yoga. I wrote the thing a couple of years ago, and I have no idea why it is suddenly getting attention.

One of my self-imposed rules for The Casual Blog is that I do not actively promote it. Some of my friends have never heard of it. I am fortunate in not needing to make money from it. I don’t need to worry about whether something that seems interesting to me will appeal to anyone else. I’m free, in theory, to say whatever I think, and it matters not if no one reads it.

Except that it does. There is no doubt that I like having readers. This is slightly embarrassing, but I’ll confess: I check my blog stats every day, and feel pleased when the number is above average and less-than-pleased when it’s below. There’s a little frisson of pleasure when someone I know mentions something they read in TCB, and a particular thrill when I meet a new person who has read it. Would I continue to write it if the readership fell to zero? Possibly, but only if I thought some future person would one day read it.

Of course, much (though as noted not all) of my satisfaction in TCB is the self-contained but complex pleasure of writing. Taking the raw material of a particular part of my experience – the things I do for fun in non-working hours – and molding it into something coherent and possibly interesting is an absorbing challenge.

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There was an interesting recent essay by Verlyn Klinkenborg in the NY Times defending the humanities as an educational objective, which drew a connection between learning to articulate experience and general life satisfaction. I thought Klinkenborg put it well:

Writing well used to be a fundamental principle of the humanities, as essential as the knowledge of mathematics and statistics in the sciences. But writing well isn’t merely a utilitarian skill. It is about developing a rational grace and energy in your conversation with the world around you.
No one has found a way to put a dollar sign on this kind of literacy, and I doubt anyone ever will. But everyone who possesses it — no matter how or when it was acquired — knows that it is a rare and precious inheritance.

A rare and precious inheritance indeed.
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