Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Eugene Sue

Joseph Marie Eugène Sue (20 January 1804 – 3 August 1857) was a French novelist.

He was born in Paris, the son of a distinguished surgeon in Napoleon's army, and is said to have had the Empress Joséphine for godmother. Sue himself acted as surgeon both in the Spanish campaign undertaken by France in 1823 and at the Battle of Navarino (1828). In 1829 his father's death put him in possession of a considerable fortune, and he settled in Paris.

Overview
His naval experiences supplied much of the materials of his first novels, Kernock le pirate (1830), Atar-Gull (1831), La Salamandre (2 vols., 1832), La Coucaratcha (4 vols., 1832-1834), and others, which were composed at the height of the Romantic movement of 1830. In the quasi-historical style he wrote Jean Cavalier, ou Les Fanatiques des Cevennes (4 vols., 1840) and Lautréaumont (2 vols., 1837). His Mathilde (1841) contains the first known expression of the popular proverb "La vengeance se mange très-bien froide", lately expressed in English as "Revenge is a dish best served cold".

He was strongly affected by the Socialist ideas of the day, and these prompted his most famous works, the "anti-Catholic" novels: Les Mystères de Paris (10 vols., 1842-1843) and Le Juif errant (tr. "The Wandering Jew") (10 vols., 1844-1845), which were among the most popular specimens of the roman-feuilleton.

He followed these up with some singular though not very edifying books: Les Sept pêchés capitaux (16 vols., 1847-1849), which contained stories to illustrate each of the Seven Deadly Sins, Les Mystères du peuple (1849-1856), which was suppressed by the censor in 1857, and several others, all on a very large scale, though the number of volumes gives an exaggerated idea of their length. Some of his books, among them Le Juif Errant and the Mystères de Paris, were dramatized by himself, usually in collaboration with others. Les Mystères was later plagiarized by Maurice Joly.

His period of greatest success and popularity coincided with that of Alexandre Dumas, père, with whom he has been compared. Sue has neither Dumas's wide range of subject, nor, above all, his faculty of conducting the story by means of lively dialogue; he has, however, a command of terror which Dumas seldom or never attained.

After the revolution of 1848 he sat for Paris (the Seine) in the Assembly from April 1850, and was exiled in consequence of his protest against the coup d'état of 2 December 1851. This exile stimulated his literary production, but the works of his last days are on the whole much inferior to those of his middle period. Sue died at Annecy (Savoy) in 1857.

George McDonald

George MacDonald (10 December 1824 – 18 September 1905) was a Scottish author, poet, and Christian minister.

Known particularly for his poignant fairy tales and fantasy novels, George MacDonald inspired many authors, such as W. H. Auden, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, E. Nesbit and Madeleine L'Engle.

It was C.S. Lewis who wrote that he regarded MacDonald as his "master": "Picking up a copy of Phantastes one day at a train-station bookstall, I began to read. A few hours later," said Lewis, "I knew that I had crossed a great frontier." G. K. Chesterton cited The Princess and the Goblin as a book that had "made a difference to my whole existence."

Elizabeth Yates wrote of Sir Gibbie, "It moved me the way books did when, as a child, the great gates of literature began to open and first encounters with noble thoughts and utterances were unspeakably thrilling."

Even Mark Twain, who initially disliked MacDonald, became friends with him, and there is some evidence that Twain was influenced by MacDonald.

Biography
George MacDonald was born on 10 December 1824 at Huntly, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. His father, a farmer, was one of the MacDonalds of Glen Coe, and a direct descendant of one of the families that suffered in the massacre of 1692. The Doric dialect of the Aberdeenshire area appears in the dialogue of some of his non-fantasy novels.

MacDonald grew up by his Congregational Church, with an atmosphere of Calvinism. But MacDonald never felt comfortable with some aspects of Calvinist doctrine; indeed, legend has it that when the doctrine of predestination was first explained to him, he burst into tears (although assured that he was one of the elect). Later novels, such as Robert Falconer and Lilith, show a distaste for the idea that God's electing love is limited to some and denied to others.

He took his degree at the University of Aberdeen, and then went to London, studying at Highbury College for the Congregational ministry.

MacDonald was the pastor of Trinity Congregational Church, Arundel from 1850.In 1850 he was appointed pastor of Trinity Congregational Church, Arundel, but his sermons (preaching God's universal love and the possibility that none would, ultimately, fail to unite with God) met with little favour and his salary was cut in half. Later he was engaged in ministerial work in Manchester. He left that because of poor health, and after a short sojourn in Algiers he settled in London and taught for some time at the University of London. MacDonald was also for a time editor of Good Words for the Young, and lectured successfully in the United States during 1872–1873.

His best-known works are Phantastes, The Princess and the Goblin, At the Back of the North Wind, and Lilith, all fantasy novels, and fairy tales such as "The Light Princess", "The Golden Key", and "The Wise Woman". "I write, not for children," he wrote, "but for the child-like, whether they be of five, or fifty, or seventy-five." MacDonald also published some volumes of sermons, the pulpit not having proved an unreservedly successful venue.

MacDonald also served as a mentor to Lewis Carroll (the pen-name of Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson); it was MacDonald's advice, and the enthusiastic reception of Alice by MacDonald's many sons and daughters, that convinced Carroll to submit Alice for publication. Carroll, one of the finest Victorian photographers, also created photographic portraits of several of the MacDonald children.

MacDonald was also friends with John Ruskin and served as a go-between in Ruskin's long courtship with Rose la Touche.

MacDonald was acquainted with most of the literary luminaries of the day; a surviving group photograph shows him with Tennyson, Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Trollope, Ruskin, Lewes, and Thackeray. While in America he was a friend of Longfellow and Walt Whitman.

In 1877 he was given a civil list pension. In 1900 he moved into St George's Wood, Haslemere, a house designed for him by his son, Robert Falconer MacDonald and the building overseen by his eldest son, Greville MacDonald. He died on 18 September 1905 in Ashtead (Surrey). He was cremated and buried in Bordighera.

As hinted above, MacDonald's use of fantasy as a literary medium for exploring the human condition greatly influenced a generation of such notable authors as C. S. Lewis (who featured him as a character in his The Great Divorce), J. R. R. Tolkien, and Madeleine L'Engle. MacDonald's non-fantasy novels, such as Alec Forbes, had their influence as well; they were among the first realistic Scottish novels, and as such MacDonald has been credited with founding the "kailyard school" of Scottish writing.

His son Greville MacDonald became a noted medical specialist, a pioneer of the Peasant Arts movement and also wrote numerous fairy tales for children. Greville ensured that new editions of his father's works were published. Another son, Ronald MacDonald, was also a novelist. Ronald's son, Philip MacDonald, (George MacDonald's grandson) became a very well known Hollywood screenwriter

Theology
MacDonald rejected the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement as developed by John Calvin, which argues that Christ has taken the place of sinners and is punished by God in their place, believing that in turn it raised serious questions about the character and nature of God. Instead, he taught that Christ had come to save people from their sins, and not from a Divine penalty for their sins. The problem was not the need to appease a wrathful God but the disease of cosmic evil itself.

George MacDonald frequently described the Atonement in terms similar to the Christus Victor theory. MacDonald posed the rhetorical question, "Did he not foil and slay evil by letting all the waves and billows of its horrid sea break upon him, go over him, and die without rebound—spend their rage, fall defeated, and cease? Verily, he made atonement!"

MacDonald was convinced that God does not punish except to amend, and that the sole end of His greatest anger is the amelioration of the guilty. As the doctor uses fire and steel in certain deep-seated diseases, so God may use hell-fire if necessary to heal the hardened sinner. MacDonald declared, "I believe that no hell will be lacking which would help the just mercy of God to redeem his children." MacDonald posed the rhetorical question, "When we say that God is Love, do we teach men that their fear of Him is groundless?" He replied, "No. As much as they fear will come upon them, possibly far more. … The wrath will consume what they call themselves; so that the selves God made shall appear."

However, true repentance, in the sense of freely chosen moral growth, is essential to this process, and, in MacDonald's optimistic view, inevitable for all beings. He recognised the theoretical possibility that, bathed in the eschatological divine light, some might perceive right and wrong for what they are but still refuse to be transfigured by operation of God's fires of love, but he did not think this likely.

In this theology of divine punishment, MacDonald stands in agreement with the Greek Church Fathers St. Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and St. Gregory of Nyssa, although it is unknown whether MacDonald had a working familiarity with Patristics or Eastern Orthodox Christianity. At least an indirect influence is likely, because F. D. Maurice who influenced MacDonald knew the Greek Fathers, especially Clement, very well. MacDonald states his theological views most distinctly in the sermon Justice found in the third volume of Unspoken Sermons.

In his introduction to George MacDonald: An Anthology, C. S. Lewis speaks highly of MacDonald's theology:

"This collection, as I have said, was designed not to revive MacDonald's literary reputation but to spread his religious teaching. Hence most of my extracts are taken from the three volumes of Unspoken Sermons. My own debt to this book is almost as great as one man can owe to another: and nearly all serious inquirers to whom I have introduced it acknowledge that it has given them great help—sometimes indispensable help toward the very acceptance of the Christian faith.

… I know hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continually close, to the Spirit of Christ Himself. Hence his Christ-like union of tenderness and severity. Nowhere else outside the New Testament have I found terror and comfort so intertwined. … In making this collection I was discharging a debt of justice. I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him. But it has not seemed to me that those who have received my books kindly take even now sufficient notice of the affiliation. Honesty drives me to emphasize it."

Influence on pop culture
Rock group The Waterboys titled their album Room to Roam after a passage in MacDonald's Phantastes, also found in Lilith. The title track of the album comprises a MacDonald poem from the text of Phantastes set to music by the band. The works Lilith and Phantastes are both named as books in a library, in the title track of another Waterboys album, Universal Hall. The Waterboys have also quoted from C.S. Lewis in several songs including "Church Not Made With Hands" and "Further Up, Further In", confirming the enduring link in modern pop culture between Macdonald and Lewis.

A verse from The Light Princess is cited in the Beauty and the Beast song by Nightwish.

Contemporary new-age musician Jeff Johnson wrote a song titled "The Golden Key" based on George MacDonald's story of the same name. He has also written several other songs inspired by MacDonald and the Inklings.

Christian celtic punk band Ballydowse have a song called "George MacDonald" on their album Out of the Fertile Crescent. The song is both taken from MacDonald's poem "My Two Geniuses" and liberally quoted from Phantastes.

Jazz pianist and recording artist Ray Lyon has a song called "Up The Spiral Stairs" on his CD "Beginning To See" which was released in 2007. The song features lyrics from MacDonald's 26 and 27 September devotional readings from the book Diary of An Old Soul.

Novelist Patricia Kennealy Morrison has a fictional rock band of the Sixties named "Evenor" in her Rock & Roll Murders: The Rennie Stride Mysteries series.
On their 2008 release A Thousand Shark's Teeth the band My Brightest Diamond included a track titled "From the Top of the World" that was inspired by At the Back of the North Wind.

Christian ambient rock band The Sleep Design released their first full-length album titled All That Is Not Music is Silence, taken directly from a quote from MacDonald's Unspoken Sermons, first series.

Howard Pyle

Howard Pyle (March 5, 1853 – November 9, 1911) was an American illustrator and author, primarily of books for young people. A native of Wilmington, Delaware, he spent the last year of his life in Florence, Italy.

During 1894 he began teaching illustration at the Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry (now Drexel University), and after 1900 he founded his own school of art and illustration, the Howard Pyle School of Illustration Art. The term Brandywine School was later applied to the illustration artists and Wyeth family artists of the Brandywine region by Pitz.

Some of his more famous students were Olive Rush, N. C. Wyeth, Frank Schoonover, Elenore Abbott, Ellen Bernard Thompson Pyle, Allen Tupper True, Anna Whelan Betts, Ethel Franklin Betts, Harvey Dunn, Philip R. Goodwin, and Jessie Willcox Smith.

His 1883 classic publication The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood remains in print, and his other books, frequently with medieval European settings, include a four-volume set on King Arthur.

He published an original novel, Otto of the Silver Hand, in 1888. He also illustrated historical and adventure stories for periodicals such as Harper's Weekly and St. Nicholas Magazine. His novel Men of Iron was made into a movie in 1954, The Black Shield of Falworth.

Pyle traveled to Florence, Italy to study mural painting during 1910, and died there in 1911 of a sudden kidney infection (Bright's Disease).

Major works
In addition to numerous illustrations done for Harper's Weekly, other periodical publications, and various works of fiction intended for children, Pyle wrote and illustrated a number of books himself.

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood is Pyle's synthesis of many traditional Robin Hood legends and ballads, making of them a cohesive whole. He toned them down, however, to make them suitable for children. For instance, he modified the ballad "Robin Hood's Progress to Nottingham", changing it from Robin killing fourteen foresters for not honoring a bet, to Robin defending himself against a band of armed robbers. Furthermore, Pyle has Robin kill only one man—who shoots at him first. Tales in which Robin steals all that an ambushed traveler carried, such as "Robin Hood and the Bishop of Hereford", are changed so that the victim keeps a third, and another third is dedicated to the poor.

Pyle did not have much more concern for historical accuracy than did the original balladeers, although he did alter the name of the queen-consort in the story "Robin Hood and Queen Katherine" to Eleanor (of Aquitaine), which rendered it compatible historically with the king with whom Robin eventually makes peace (King Richard the Lion-Hearted).

Indeed, none of the tales in the Robin Hood book were Pyle's own invention, with some dating back to the late Middle Ages. Rather, his achievement was in linking them to form a unified, illustrated story. "The Adventure with the Curtal Friar", for example, ceased to be a stand-alone tale, but was made part of the book's overall narrative by Pyle in order to reintroduce Friar Tuck, because a co-operative priest was needed for the wedding of outlaw Allan a Dale (Pyle's spelling of the original Alan-a-Dale) to his sweetheart Ellen. Again, in the original "A Gest of Robyn Hode", the life of an anonymous wrestler, who had won a bout but was likely to be murdered because he was a stranger, is saved. Pyle adapted it so that the wrestler is given the identity of David of Doncaster—one of Robin's band in the story "Robin Hood and the Golden Arrow". Several characters that had been mentioned in only one ballad, such as David of Doncaster or Arthur a Bland, are thus developed more fully by Pyle's novelistic treatment of the tales.

Pyle also wrote Otto of the Silver Hand, a story about the life of the son of a robber baron during the Medieval Period. In 1887 he wrote The Wonder Clock, a collection of twenty-four tales, one for each hour of the day. Each tale was prefaced by a whimsical verse telling of traditional household goings-on at that hour, illustrated by his sister Katharine. The tales themselves were written by Pyle based on traditional European folktales. A similar volume was Pepper and Salt, or Seasoning for Young Folk, which consisted of tales of traditional types for younger readers, also illustrated.

A number of pirate legends by Pyle, including some of his drawings, were collected as Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates, published in 1921, ten years after his death.

In 1903, Pyle published Rejected of Men: A Story of To-day, a re-imagining of the story of Jesus as if it had occurred during early twentieth-century America.

Critical response
Pyle was widely respected during his life and continues to be well regarded by illustrators and fine artists. His contemporary Vincent van Gogh wrote of Pyle in a letter to his brother, saying that Pyle's work "...struck me dumb with admiration".

E. Nesbitt

From Wikipedia:
Edith Nesbit (married name Edith Bland; 15 August 1858 – 4 May 1924) was an English author and poet whose children's works were published under the name of E. Nesbit. She wrote or collaborated on over 60 books of fiction for children, several of which have been adapted for film and television. She was also a political activist and co-founded the Fabian Society, a precursor to the modern Labour Party.

Biography
Nesbit was born in 1858 at 38 Lower Kennington Lane in Kennington, Surrey (now part of Greater London), the daughter of an agricultural chemist, John Collis Nesbit, who died in March 1862, before her fourth birthday. Her sister Mary's ill health meant that the family moved around constantly for some years, living variously in Brighton, Buckinghamshire, France (Dieppe, Rouen, Paris, Tours, Poitiers, Angoulême, Bordeaux, Arcachon, Pau, Bagnères-de-Bigorre, and Dinan in Brittany), Spain and Germany, before settling for three years at Halstead Hall in Halstead in north-west Kent, a location which later inspired The Railway Children (this distinction has also been claimed by the Derbyshire town of New Mills).

When Nesbit was 17, the family moved again, this time back to London, living variously in South East London at Eltham, Lewisham, Grove Park and Lee.

A follower of William Morris, 19-year-old Nesbit met bank clerk Hubert Bland in 1877. Seven months pregnant, she married Bland on 22 April 1880, though she did not immediately live with him, as Bland initially continued to live with his mother. Their marriage was a ménage à trois: Bland also continued an affair with Alice Hoatson which produced two children (Rosamund in 1886 and John in 1899), both of whom Nesbit raised as her own.

Her own children were Paul Bland (1880–1940), to whom The Railway Children was dedicated; Iris Bland (1881-1950s); and Fabian Bland (1885–1900), who died aged 15 after a tonsil operation, and to whom she dedicated Five Children And It and its sequels, as well as The Story of the Treasure Seekers and its sequels.

Nesbit and Bland were among the founders of the Fabian Society in 1884. Their son Fabian was named after the society. They also jointly edited the Society's journal Today; Hoatson was the Society's assistant secretary. Nesbit and Bland also dallied briefly with the Social Democratic Federation, but rejected it as too radical. Nesbit was an active lecturer and prolific writer on socialism during the 1880s. Nesbit also wrote with her husband under the name "Fabian Bland", though this activity dwindled as her success as a children's author grew.

Nesbit lived from 1899 to 1920 in Well Hall House, Eltham, Kent (now in south-east Greater London), which appears in fictional guise in several of her books, especially The Red House. On 20 February 1917, some three years after Bland died, Nesbit married Thomas "the Skipper" Tucker, a ship's engineer on the Woolwich Ferry. She was a guest speaker at the London School of Economics, which had been founded by other Fabian Society members.

Towards the end of her life she moved to a house called "Crowlink" in Friston, East Sussex, and later to St Mary's Bay in Romney Marsh, East Kent. Suffering from lung cancer, she died in 1924 at New Romney, Kent, and was buried in the churchyard of St Mary in the Marsh.

E. Nesbit's grave in St Mary in the Marsh's churchyard bears a wooden grave marker made by her second husband, Thomas Terry Tucker. There is also a memorial plaque to her inside the church.

Literature
Nesbit published approximately 40 books for children, including novels, collections of stories and picture books. Collaborating with others, she published almost as many more.

According to her biographer Julia Briggs, Nesbit was "the first modern writer for children": "(Nesbit) helped to reverse the great tradition of children's literature inaugurated by [Lewis] Carroll, [George] MacDonald and Kenneth Grahame, in turning away from their secondary worlds to the tough truths to be won from encounters with things-as-they-are, previously the province of adult novels." Briggs also credits Nesbit with having invented the children's adventure story.

Noël Coward was a great admirer of hers and, in a letter to an early biographer Noel Streatfeild, wrote "she had an economy of phrase, and an unparalleled talent for evoking hot summer days in the English countryside."

Among Nesbit's best-known books are The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1898) and The Wouldbegoods (1899), which both recount stories about the Bastables, a middle class family that has fallen on relatively hard times. Her children's writing also included numerous plays and collections of verse.

She created an innovative body of work that combined realistic, contemporary children in real-world settings with magical objects and adventures and sometimes travel to fantastic worlds. In doing so, she was a direct or indirect influence on many subsequent writers, including P. L. Travers (author of Mary Poppins), Edward Eager, Diana Wynne Jones and J. K. Rowling. C. S. Lewis wrote of her influence on his Narnia series and mentions the Bastable children in The Magician's Nephew. Michael Moorcock would go on to write a series of steampunk novels with an adult Oswald Bastable (of The Treasure Seekers) as the lead character.

Nesbit also wrote for adults, including eleven novels, short stories, and four collections of horror stories.


Asimov's Readings, Continued

Asimov continues to list the books he read as a youngster:

"I read E. Nesbitt's books and Howard Pyle's and George McDonald's. I even read Eugene Sue, which carries the Romantic Era to the extreme edge of indurability and had me constantly in tears.

But then I was crying all the time those days. I wept over Beth in Little Women, over Raoul, Athos and Porthos in The Man in the Iron Mask, over Smike in Nicholas Nickelby, and eventually learned, in my frequent re-readings, which chapters to skip.

...

What I didn't read was what the libraries of the 1920s and 1930s were poor in, and that was contemporary fiction. Or, if the libraries did have them, then I discovered them too late, after my literary tastes had solidified. Most twentieth century serious fiction is beyond me."

Asimov continued:
Mysteries and humor are another matter, of course. Of all twentieth-century writers I should say the two I have read most carefully and thoroughly, and have reread most assiduously and with undiminished delight, and Agatha Christie and PG Wodehouse.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Asimov's reading

When Asimov was growing up, he had to spend most of his time - when he was not in scool - minding his father's candy store (in particular when his mom was pregnant with his brother Stanley.)

Asimov could have ended up doing many things - sitting around staring vacantly into space, playing with computer games (if only they'd been invented back then), watching TV (if only it had perfected - it had been invented) etc., but in fact "This forced me more firmly into the world of books, and I became an assiduous librarygoer."

He states in his autobiography:
"I read omnivorously and without guidance. I would stumble on books about Greek myths and fell in love with that world. When I discovered William Cullen Bryant's translations of the Illiad and the Odyssey I took them out of the library over and over."

He read Dumas and Dickens and Louisa May Alcott, "and indeed, almost the entire gamut of nineteenth century fiction." Because so much of it was by British authors, "I became a spiritual Englishman and a conscious Anglophile."

Monday, August 29, 2011

Dolphins, Aliens, and the Search for Intelligent Life

From Astrobiology Magazine: Dolphins, Aliens, and the Search for Intelligent Life
How do we define intelligence? SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, clearly equates intelligence with technology (or, more precisely, the building of radio or laser beacons). Some, such as the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, suggested that intelligence wasn’t just the acquisition of technology, but the ability to develop and improve it, integrating it into our society.

By that definition, a dolphin, lacking limbs to create and manipulate complex tools, cannot possibly be described as intelligent. It’s easy to see why such definitions prove popular; we are clearly the smartest creatures on the planet, and the only species with technology. It may be human hubris, or some kind of anthropocentric bias that we find difficult to escape from, but our adherence to this definition narrows the phase space in which we’re willing to search for intelligent life.

Technology is certainly linked to intelligence – you need to be smart to build a computer or an aircraft or a radio telescope – but technology does not define intelligence. It is just a manifestation of it, perhaps one of many.

Astrobiologists see intelligence a little differently. The dictionary defines intelligence as the ability to learn, while others see it as the capacity to reason, to empathize, to solve problems and consider complex ideas, and to interact socially.

If we take these characteristics to be a broad working definition of intelligence, our view of intelligent life in the Universe suddenly looks very different. No longer are we confined to considering only life that has technology. To be fair to SETI, at this moment in time it cannot search for anything other than beacons – the vast distances across the cosmos coupled with our own baby steps into the Universe mean that we don’t have the capability to search for any other form of intelligent life other than those that can deliberately signal their presence. However, what a wider definition of intelligence tells us is that we are not alone, not even on our own planet Earth.

Professor Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist from the University of Oxford, was one of the first to put forward the theory that the evolution of intelligence is driven by social factors, allowing animals to survive, interact and prosper in large and complex social groupings. These include notions of reciprocal altruism (I scratch your back, you scratch mine), politics (forming sub-groups and coalitions within the larger group) and understanding the emotions of others (empathy, which in turn relies on theory of mind, the ability to be aware of one’s self and others). Looking at it that way, modern social networking on media such as Facebook may just be a symptom of what helped drive us to become intelligent in the first place, many tens of thousands of years ago.

Here’s the trick – to be social, you must be communicative. Staying quiet is anti-social. Personal interactions require communication, of some form, and the more complex the interaction, the more complex the communication. So if intelligence and social behavior is linked – and many people agree that it is – then the best place to start looking for intelligence is in animals that like to chat with one another. And that brings us to dolphins.

Ever since the 1960s, when John Lilly popularized the notion that dolphins may be cleverer than your average animal, dolphin intelligence has courted controversy, tempted us with tantalizing but thin evidence, and remained elusive. We know they are able to communicate by a variety of means, from whistles and barks to echo location, and researchers working with captive dolphins have discovered that they understand syntax, i.e. the difference between a statement and a question, or past and future tense. As Carl Sagan once famously said, “It is of interest to note that while some dolphins are reported to have learned English – up to 50 words used in correct context – no human being has been reported to have learned dolphinese.”

“Carl Sagan was right!” says Lori Marino, a biopsychologist from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. “We still don’t understand the natural language system of dolphins and whales. We know a little bit more now, and there have been investigators working on this for decades, but we haven’t really cracked the code.”

In that case, how can we be sure they even have a language? Justin Gregg, a researcher at the Dolphin Communication Project in Connecticut, is skeptical. “Most scientists, especially cognitive scientists, don’t think that dolphins have what linguists would define as language,” he says. “They have referential signaling, which a lot of animals do – squirrels and chickens can actually do that, and monkeys – and they have names for each other. But you can’t then say they have a language because human words can do so much more.”

Nevertheless, some scientists continue to fight in the dolphins’ corner. Referential signaling involves tagging things with names, such as having a specific whistle to identify sharks, or fishing boats, or food. “That sounds like a good definition of language to me,” says Laurance Doyle, a scientist at the SETI Institute in California. “Put it this way: the first premise that I think everyone agrees on is that all animals communicate, so once you buy that the next question is, how complex is each communication system?”

It is this question that has prompted Doyle to reappraise what we define as intelligent complex communication, and what types of signals we should be looking for with SETI. He applies a statistical analysis technique called information theory to languages in order to determine their complexity. It turns out that, according to information theory, dolphin communication is highly complex with many similarities with human languages, even if we don’t understand the words they are saying to one another.

Information theory was developed in the 1940s by the mathematician and cryptologist Claude Shannon, mainly to be applied to the then-burgeoning technology of telecommunications. It operates on the knowledge that all information can be broken down into ‘bits’ of data that can be rearranged in myriad ways. George Zipf, a linguist at Harvard, realized that language is just the conveyance of information, and therefore could be broken down too.

Think of all the different sounds human beings make as they speak to each other, the different letters and pronunciations. Some, such as the letters ‘e’ and ‘t’ or words such as ‘and’ or ‘the’ will occur far more frequently than ‘q’ or ‘z’ or longer words such as ‘astrobiology’. Plot these on a graph, in order of the most frequently occurring letters or sounds, and the points form a slope with a –1 gradient. A toddler learning to speak will have a steeper slope – as they experiment with words they use fewer sounds but say them more often. At the most extreme a baby’s babble is completely random, and so any slope will be nearly level with all sounds occurring fairly evenly. It doesn’t matter which human language is put through the information theory test – be it English, Russian, Arabic or Mandarin – the same result follows.

What is remarkable is that putting dolphin whistles through the information theory blender renders exactly the same result: a –1 slope, with a steeper slope for younger dolphins still being taught how to communicate by their mothers, and a horizontal slope for baby dolphins babbling. This tells us that dolphins have structure to how they communicate.

Meanwhile, another feature of information theory, called Shannon entropy, can tell us how complex that communication is.

Doyle makes the analogy to marching soldiers. Imagine one hundred soldiers on parade, walking in all different directions across a field. Then they are called to attention, and form ten neat rows of ten. Prior to the call to attention, when they are marching randomly, they have maximum entropy, maximum disorder, maximum complexity. Once they are lined up structure is imposed on them; their entropy decreases as does their complexity when coupled with a corresponding increase in structure.

Language is the same. Write down one hundred words on one hundred pieces of paper and throw them into the air and they can be arranged in myriad ways. Impose rules on them, such as sentence structure, and your choices automatically narrow. It is a bit like playing hangman; you have a five-letter word where the first letter is ‘q’, so the rule structure of English necessitates that the second letter is ‘u’. From thereon there is a limited number of letters that can follow ‘qu’ and so you may have ‘que’ or ‘qui’ or ‘qua’ and you can predict that the word is ‘quest’ or ‘quick’ or ‘quack’. Shannon entropy is defined as this application of order over data and the resulting predictability of that order.

“It turns out that humans go up to about ninth order Shannon entropy,” says Doyle. “What that means is, if you are missing more than nine words then there is no longer a conditional relationship between them – they become random and pretty much any word will do.” In other words, there are conditional probabilities, imposed by the rule structures of human languages, up to nine words away.

Doyle has analyzed many forms of communication with information theory, from the chemical signals of plants to the rapid-fire radio transmissions of air traffic control. How do dolphins fare? “They have a conditional probability between signals that goes up to fourth order and probably higher, although we need more data,” says Doyle.

The problem with studying dolphin communication is being able to study them for any great length of time out in the wild, which requires patience and money. This is where Denise Herzing comes in. She is based at the Wild Dolphin Project in Florida, and has spent much of her time working with the same pod of wild dolphins for the past 27 years, documenting the complexity of their communication, acoustic signals and behavior over that time period.

“We know them individually, we know their personalities, we know their communication signals and we already do things together that seem to be of interest [to them],” she says. “What we’re now trying to do is develop an interface that takes advantage of those small windows where we have their attention and they want to interact with us.”

This interface, developed with the assistance of artificial intelligence specialist Thad Starner at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and marine cognitive scientists Adam Pack of the University of Hawaii and Fabienne Delfour at the University of Paris, is known as CHAT, the Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry device. It’s a smart phone-sized gizmo that can I.D a dolphin whistle in real time. It’s worn around the neck of a diver and connected up to a pair of hydrophones and a one-handed keyboard called a ‘twiddler’. By agreeing with the dolphins on a common artificial language, neatly side-stepping the problem of translation, it is hoped that CHAT will enable humans and dolphins to talk in real time. For instance, dolphins will be able to request toys such as a ball or a hoop from humans, and vice versa. Although it won’t be the most meaningful conversation in the world, it will be conversation and that in itself will be revolutionary.

Still at the prototype stage, Herzing sees CHAT as an extension of all the work done in communication studies with captive dolphins over the past few decades. “To have high-powered, real-time computer technology to help us recognize specific signals that the animals make could empower us to bridge that gap and allow humans into their acoustic world,” she says. The plan is to test the device this year, before getting it out into the wild in 2012.

How complex dolphin communication really is remains to be seen. We must be careful not to anthropomorphize. We know their communication has nuances that are incredibly complex, but so do other species of animal, from bees to plants. Do dolphins have language with the scope and breadth to converse about anything like we can with human language, or is it more basic? Justin Gregg would argue the latter case.

“Essentially they do behave in complex and interesting ways, but there are no great mysteries in what they do that can only be answered with language,” he says.

Herzing and Doyle are more optimistic. “Dolphins have exquisite sound and they have a lot of places they could potentially encode information – we just haven’t looked adequately yet,” says Herzing. She has worked with Lori Marino and the SETI Institute’s Douglas Vakoch on how we can recognize intelligence other than human intelligence.

Meanwhile, Doyle has suggested that SETI should search for signals with information content that has a –1 slope. We may find that an alien signal displays complexity up to ten, fifteen, of twentieth order Shannon entropy. What would such a language be like?

To explain, Doyle highlights the example of Koko, a captive gorilla that has learned sign language and can understand concepts like “tomorrow” or “yesterday”. But combine time tenses, and Koko doesn’t understand.

“If you say to her, ‘by this time tomorrow I’ll have finished eating’, Koko doesn’t understand the two time jumps, that at some point in the future there will be a point in the past,” says Doyle. “Now imagine an alien comes with more complex abilities. They may say, ‘I will have to be have been there’. Now there’s nothing wrong with that per se, but humans can’t handle three time jumps or more. An alien could just think in a more complex way.” So instead of double entendres, they might have triple or quadruple entendres.

What all this tells us is that intelligence is manifest in communication just as much as it is in technology and, if intelligence is truly derived from social behavior, then it may be far more prevalent than technology. If intelligence is defined as the ability to learn, then intelligence brings with it culture, which means something that is learned. We see baby dolphins learning from their mothers so, in the crudest sense, we might say that dolphins have culture and intelligence.

By escaping the assumption that intelligence must equal technology, we see that there are many other intelligences on Earth – ask Lori Marino, and she’ll tell you that even the simplest multi-cellular life could be considered intelligent to a degree, thanks to its nervous system.

But it also poses a problem for SETI – if the Universe is full of intelligent, social, communicative but non-technological dolphins and the like, then there will be no radio beacons to transmit signals. The Universe could be full of life, of intelligence, and we would never know it.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

NASA’s backward view of aliens

From NerdTrek: NASA’s backward view of aliens
Any of you that perform Google News searches as much as I do with the keyword “aliens” will know of NASA’s latest rant that reflects their A or B type logic, the same logic that has plagued the human race since the beginning of our short time on Earth. What NASA presents us with are either of two choices: A) aliens will wipe us out or B) save us from ourselves, i.e., alleviate global warming.

Firstly, both choices reflect the egocentric condition of humanity in that we think we are somehow the center of this known universe and that we are, by default, owed a visit by aliens even if they are just passing through. Isaac Asimov, one of my favorite sci-fi writers, once stated the following regarding aliens, “We can’t try to guess what the motives of these explorers [aliens] might be. What might seem logical to us might not seem so logical to them. They may not care if we see them, and they also may not care to say hello.” A good example of this logic is shown in the novel ‘Rendezvous with Ramma’ by Arthur C. Clarke in which a gargantuan alien vessel passes through our solar system only to draw energy from our sun, not to say hello to us (and talk about global warming).

What NASA has not taken into account is that if aliens have the technology to travel across vast light years of space, isn’t that alone a reason why we remain so infinitesimal in the grand scheme of Type I civilizations such as aliens? For those that may be unaware of the difference between galactic types of civilizations, physicist and futurist Dr. Michio Kaku explains it best:

* “Type I: this civilization harnesses the energy output of an entire planet.
* Type II: this civilization harnesses the energy output of a star, and generates about 10 billion times the energy output of a Type I civilization.
* Type III: this civilization harnesses the energy output of a galaxy, or about 10 billion time the energy output of a Type II civilization.”

According to Dr. Kaku, humans rank as a Type 0 on the class scale since we continue to rely on fossil fuels instead of shifting primary resources to renewable energy sources. So, if we were to liken ourselves with any kind of species, in comparison, we should view ourselves as ants while aliens are compared to humans. Here we [humans] are building, destroying, and rebuilding like ants in a windstorm while aliens would have the ability to control entire solar systems by stripping minerals or drawing direct fusion power from stars’ rays. What role do we play in their grand scheme of life?

In reference to choice B, if that were the only other choice, why would aliens save us from ourselves? What do we have to offer them beside our religions that would try to proxy them to being made by our gods, and our mediocre minerals? What good would diamonds do for aliens that have explored more types of bling across the galaxy than Jay-Z on Earth? More importantly, why would you provide a catalyst to a fast-growing organism without administering thorough, meticulous observation? Even humans have the ability to view microbes and parasites under microscopes without being detected with our technology which dates back less than a few thousand years; so why couldn’t they view us in the same manner considering they have the technology to travel throughout outer space?

Yes, I am talking about unknowingly being observed by aliens for those of you die hard conspiracy theorists out there. Human scientists have the ability to look at other stars even outside our own Milky Way galaxy (which is probably known by a million other names across the universe) – so why wouldn’t aliens be able to view us without ever leaving where they call home? NASA claims to have some of the smartest brains on this planet; so why don’t they consider taking that factor into consideration? Or have they taken it into consideration and have chosen to leave that ‘small’ detail out of the press releases?

I could go on and on regarding both NASA’s growing need to think more outside the box but I will stop (for now). Ultimately, I suspect these latest theories from NASA touch on an underlying theme that perhaps we fear ourselves so much that we would assume, by default, aliens would act in our own manner. Why should we wait for aliens to save us from ourselves when we should be responsible for our own affairs?

In order to bring this rant to a close, as a futurist (and transhumanist) I will propose one of my many theories on how we will eventually meet aliens, that is, if we survive ourselves long enough to explore the greater galaxy with more than just visual observation.

* Humans will send numerous probes in multiple directions in order to increase our chances of finding someone or something worthwhile in outer space.
* Scientists will eventually find a Type I or higher civilization and attempt to contact it.
* Scientists will be ignored by the aliens like humans ignore ants.
* Scientists will try even harder to get aliens’ attention by performing a hostile act which would equate to more of an annoyance to aliens than a real threat.
* We will keep annoying them until they eventually retaliate.
* Humanity will do what we think we do best and amass forces to try to deal with the threat. (By the way, NASA and SETI will be happy because they would start to get heavy funding again)
* We will be stamped out by the aliens because we should have remained on our anthill instead of trying to pursue our manifest destiny on a galactic scale.
* Oh yes, should a small portion of humanity choose not to participate in the global war against aliens, they may colonize a small slice of our solar system. Ironically, that colony may be the only hope for mankind. =-)

Samsung cites science fiction as prior art in US iPad patent case

Not specifically about Asimov, but interesting.

From Apple Insider: Samsung cites science fiction as prior art in US iPad patent case

In its opposition brief against Apple's US motion for a preliminary injunction against sales of its Galaxy S, Infuse 4G, Droid Charge and Galaxy Tab 10.1, Samsung is claiming a depiction of a video device from "2001: a Space Odyssey" as prior art.

Samsung's full opposition filing isn't yet public as it was filed under seal, but FOSS Patents has reported on one element the company plans to use in its defense: that the appearance of a device in a work of science fiction could be referenced as prior art to invalidate design patents.

Samsung depicts a scene from "2001" where actors in the futuristic 1968 Stanley Kubrick film watch a TV news broadcast from what appears to be a digital newspaper while they eat a meal. The company describes the scene as depicting astronauts "using personal tablet computers."

Samsung states that "the tablet disclosed in the clip has an overall rectangular shape with a dominant display screen, narrow borders, a predominately flat front surface, a flat back surface (which is evident because the tablets are lying flat on the table's surface), and a thin form factor." The movie does not, however, depict any interaction with a user interface on the device. Other works of science fiction have depicted tablet computers in various forms.

Fictional or artistic representations of inventions can be used to invalidate design patents. Robert A. Heinlein, who was described as one of the "Big Three" science fiction writers alongside Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, wrote detailed descriptions of the concept of a waterbed while hospitalized in the mid 1930s. His writings were later used as prior art to prevent a patent from being awarded in the 1960s as the waterbed started to become popular.

Apple was recently sued by Klausner Technologies over a patent claim against the iPhone's Visual Voicemail, a feature that could have similarly been defended with science fiction prior art. However, Apple settled with the company and licensed its patent.

Apple's US case against Samsung
However, Samsung has far more at stake in this case because Apple is seeking to block a wide range of its products as willfully infringing copies, rather than just seeking some licensing revenue.

Apple notes it its complaint that it "is limiting this motion to new products that Samsung recently released in the U.S. Apple has not targeted the unreleased Galaxy S 2 phone and GalaxyTab 8.9 tablet computer. Apple reserves the right to seek a preliminary injunction against those two products as their release becomes imminent."

The company adds that "unless enjoined, Samsung's sales of a new round of copycat products will cause irreparable harm to Apple that cannot be adequately compensated by damages. Accordingly, Apple requests that the Court issue a preliminary injunction and ensure that innovation — not unlawful imitation — is protected."

Apple's patent claims
Apple's US case for a preliminary injunction against Samsung relates to three US Design Patents (D618,677, D593,087 and D504,889) and a technology patent (7,469,381 described as "list scrolling and document translation, scaling, and rotation on a touch-screen display") which Apple has previously asserted against HTC and Nokia.

Apple's D677 and D087 patents relate to the design of the front face of the iPhone, while D889 pertains to the iPad's overall design. The '381 patent is "a clever method for displaying images on touch screens: when one uses a finger to drag a displayed page past its bottom edge, for example, and releases the finger, the page bounces back to fill the full screen."

Apple stated that Nokia previously initiated a reexamination of the '381 patent "which included the best prior art references Nokia could find," but the Patent Office confirmed the validity of all twenty claims related to the patent.

Samsung's "2001" prior art appears to be directed at elements of the D889 design patent. However, Apple's complaint cites previous court decisions ruling that "the critical issue is whether 'the effect of the whole design [is] substantially the same' – 'minor differences between a patent design and an accused article’s design cannot, and shall not, prevent a finding of infringement.'"

Another case Apple cites found "if the accused design has copied a particular feature of the claimed design that departs conspicuously from the prior art, the accused design is naturally more likely to be regarded as deceptively similar to the claimed design, and thus infringing."

Apple's complaint notes that "the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 is substantially, even strikingly, similar to Apple’s minimalist, patented D889 design, which in turn looks very different from the prior art," referencing actual design patents for tablet computers filed by IBM and Hitachi.

Evidence that evidence wasn't faked
Countering claims by a Dutch columnist for IDC that Apple had "doctored evidence" to fool the courts in Germany and the Netherlands, Apple notes in its US complaint that "differences between the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 and Apple’s patented design are trivial and legally insignificant: the aspect ratio, thickness, and edge profiles do not appear to be absolutely identical in the Tab 10.1 and Apple’s patented design.

"But as discussed above, a product infringes a design patent even if it differs in several details, so long as an ordinary observer would view the overall appearance to be substantially the same. These minor differences do not affect the substantial similarity between Samsung’s tablets and Apple’s claimed design when viewed as a whole, especially in light of the prior art."

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Asimov in the Blogs: The Shape Of Schemes To Come

From Wizbang: The Shape Of Schemes To Come

The legendary Isaac Asimov once wrote a spoof scientific article that described the new compound “thiotimoline,” a substance so sensitive to water that it would begin dissolving before the water was added. Research showed that thiotimoline was so dense, it couldn’t be contained by three dimensions but extended into four — and would start dissolving exactly 1.14 seconds before contact with water.The scientific applications of this discovery were nothing short of world-shaking.

I find myself thinking of the great master’s joke when I think about ObamaCare. It’s still some ways away from being implemented, but its tentacles are reaching back in time to wreak havoc today.

I don’t know if this story has any direct connection to ObamaCare, but I can see how it could.

In brief: New Hampshire has put the brakes on out-of-control Medicaid spending, and those businesses depend on Medicaid are fighting over who’s going to have to take the hits. The insurance companies say they won’t do it, so it’s up to the hospitals and the doctors to suck it up.

This reflects some of the thorniest problems with ObamaCare, and health care in general. Unlike any other business model, there is a huge separation between the ultimate consumer of the good or service and the costs of said good or service. For another, it’s quite often literally a case of life or death for the consumers.

Health care providers, and all the support industries — are providing goods and services. They are entitled to be compensated for their work. Further, they have the right to determine what they want to charge — they are under no legal obligation to provide; they can simply close up shop if they wish. (A splendid example of this is the Catholic Church’s position vis-a-vis ObamaCare and abortion. They are on record as saying that if the government requires them to perform operations, they’ll simply shut down all their hospitals and tear down the buildings.) Oh, they can be coerced and regulated to a certain extent, but if they simply decide to “go Galt” and get out of the health care business entirely, there’s not a damned thing we can do about it.

And yes, we can regulate what they can charge. But again, that’s conditional on them not calling the bluff — the stick being wielded here is “this is what you will charge if you want to continue in this business.” They can always walk away.

But then again, we’re talking about literal life and death here. The United States was founded on certain principles, such as inalienable rights such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Well, ill health and death — preventable ill health and death — tend to put a bit of a crimp on that.

I don’t know what the solution to the health care problem is. I don’t even know if there is one. I just know that ObamaCare is guaranteed to make things even worse.

And this mess we’re facing in New Hampshire is just the tip of the iceberg.

The Influence of Asimov: George Devol

From The Telegraph: Technology Obituaries: George Devol
George Devol, who died on August 11 aged 99, was inspired by the stories of the science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov to design and produce the world’s first industrial robots.

Devol’s prototype mechanical arms became the forerunners of the robots that are now commonplace in manufacturing — notably on car assembly lines. But they had their genesis at a genteel cocktail party in 1954, when Devol buttonholed a fellow engineer, Joseph Engelberger, about his observation that “50 per cent of the people in factories are really putting and taking”.

It was a meeting of minds. Devol (he pronounced it De-vahl) had already applied ideas from his background in electrical engineering and machine controls to design a mechanical arm that could be programmed to repeat precise tasks, like grasping and lifting. While Devol had developed and patented the basic technology, Engelberger immediately appreciated its significance and the pair set up a company to produce a device which they called the Unimate.

The car manufacturing business was the first to try it out, with General Motors installing the first Unimate arm in 1962 on an assembly line in New Jersey, where it performed spot welding.

In the teeth of opposition from the trades unions, which feared that the technology would threaten jobs, Chrysler and Ford followed suit. By the mid-1960s, variations on Devol’s invention were being used to carry out difficult, repetitive, tedious or hazardous industrial tasks such as welding and spray-painting.

Not that Devol was the first to come up with the idea of harnessing machinery to do man’s bidding. In 1892 another American, Seward Babbitt, designed a motorised crane with a gripper to remove ingots from a furnace. The word “robot” — from the Czech word robota, which means drudgery or slave-like labour — appeared in 1921 in a play in London entitled Rossum’s Universal Robots.
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[what's this]

But Devol foresaw how robotics would flourish in the computer age, and how they could be programmed to communicate with each other to maximise performance.

George Charles Devol Jr was born on February 20 1912 in Louisville, Kentucky. As a child he liked to tinker with gadgets, but although he studied mechanics and electronics at school, he decided against going on to higher education. Instead he worked for various electronics companies before starting his own small business, United Cinephone, improving recording technology for films.

When that enterprise failed, Devol returned to inventing, and came up with sensors that automatically opened doors and laundry presses, and photoelectric detectors that automatically counted people going through the turnstiles at the New York World’s Fair. He also helped to develop a forerunner of the microwave oven, which cooked hot dogs and which was called the “Speedy Weenie”.

Devol and Engelberger later went their separate ways, with Devol running a robot leasing and consulting business from his home in Florida. Despite his best efforts, big names in American electronics like IBM were initially slow to embrace robotics. Only in the 1980s did breakthroughs in computer and microelectronics technology lead to their widespread use in industry.

Even then some waverers were not persuaded by Devol’s vision of an automated future. Indeed, some were actively put off by the prospect of increased reliance on machines, which they feared could lead to robots taking over the world. “George Devol was unable to restrain himself from spilling the whole dream out, which scared most businessmen off,” Engelberger explained. “I kept myself from talking about some of the things that have happened, which he envisioned.”

George Devol’s wife, Evelyn, died in 2003. Two sons and two daughters survive him.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Asimov's books: 1954

Novel: The Caves of Steel (Doubleday)
Novel: Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus (Doubleday)


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Friday, August 19, 2011

Asimov's books: 1953

Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroid, as Paul French (Doubleday)

Asimov wrote the series near the beginning of the Cold War, when many concerned scientists, engineers and educators in the United States felt that their country, and the group of nations they identified as the Free World, was falling behind the Communists and the Eastern Bloc in scientific research and engineering developments. In this context, it was important that the youth of the country be given a solid scientific start, and the adventures of David Starr were as a result rather didactic in nature, despite all the action involved.

He carefully introduced astronomical and physical concepts which the scientific knowledge of the time supported. In later editions, he added a preface pointing out that new scientific discoveries have rendered some locations and concepts obsolete: Mercury does not only present one side to the Sun, and Venus is not covered by a global ocean, for example. The books offer more action scenes than Asimov's usual quota, but they are still filled with the scientific and sociological concerns Asimov used in all of his other fiction.

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Asimov's books: 1952

Novel: David Starr, Space Ranger, under pseudonym Paul French. Doubleday
Novel: The Currents of Space

Anthology: Foundation and Empire, Gnome Press.


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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Asimov's books: 1951

Novel: The Stars, Like Dust, published by Doubleday

Short story anthology: Foundation, published by Gnome
Short story anthology: Second Foundation, published by Gnome

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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Asimov's Books Year by year: 1950

Asimov's first science fiction novel, Pebble in the Sky, was published in 1950 by Doubleday.

His first short story anthology was also published in this year, by Gnome Press: I, Robot.

Although Pebble in the Sky is out of print, it is available at Amazon and B&N. Amazon.com also has a downloadable version - a Dimension X radio program for only 95 cents.


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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Ottawa Citizen, April 3, 1958

Isaac Asimov's name appeared in the newspapers beginning in about 1954, with reviews of each of his books as it appeared.

Unfortunately, I can't share any of these with you because they are all "Pay per view" and the newspapers concerned want $3.95 for each article. I think not.

But the Ottawa Citizen (a Canadian newspaper, obviously) makes its archives freely available, and Asimov is mentioned in an article from this newspaper's weekend insert, WEEKEND Magazine, on April 3, 1958.

The headline?
"Here is what we learned about RADIOACTIVE FALLOUT." The title runs over the two page spread of the article, with an additional few paragraphs on another page (in which Asimov's name is mentioned.)

It starts out in this way:
More than 100 nuclear bombs have been tested by the U.S., Russia and Britain since man first unleashed the terrifying destructive power of the atom 13 years ago. Each new test now sends a shudder of doubt and anxiety around the world.

Eminent scientists warn us that we are contaminating the earth with an unseen mantle of deadly radioactivity. Other scientists, apparently equally eminent, contradict them.

What is the layman to make of it all? Is radioactive fallout making the world unsafe not only for ourselves, but for generations yet to be born? Just how much radioactivity have the bomb tests showered us with, anyway?

To try to answer this question, WEEKEND Magazine asked one of Canada's most distinguished physicists, Dr. J.S. Foster, to travel across the country taking samples of the radioactivity in eight widely-separated cities.

His verdict: "Every part of Canada shows some trace of bomb fallout, but the amount is only a fraction of the natural radioactivity that has surrounded man throughout his history-radioactivty that is given off all the time by elements in the earth, in water and in the air.

But Foster is a phsyicist. And biologists disagreed with him.

Asimov's name is mentioned in the back part of the article.
In 1954, 10,000 people died of leukemia in the United States. Dr. Edward Lewis, of the California Institute of Technoloyg, has established that about 1,000 of these cases were caused by natural radioactivity. Basing his calculations on this estimate, Dr. Isaac Asimov, associate professor of biochemistry at Boston University School of Medicine, has suggested that the strontium-90 so far absorbed into our bodies from bomb tests may have caused one per cent of these deaths, 10 people a year.

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Monday, August 15, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: 'Science for the Concerned Citizen: What You Don't Know CAN Hurt You': Science Demystified for Lay People

From HuntingtonNews.net: BOOK REVIEW: 'Science for the Concerned Citizen: What You Don't Know CAN Hurt You': Science Demystified for Lay People
The English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it. -- George Bernard Shaw, preface to "Pygmalion"

Insert "scientific" in front of "language" in this quotation from the Irish playwright whose "Pygmalion" formed the basis for the hit musical "My Fair Lady," and you'll begin to understand why Philip A. Yaffe wrote "Science for the Concerned Citizen: What You Don't Know CAN Hurt You" (Kindle eBook, Amazon Digital Services, ASIN: B005G0JH2G, 210kb, $3.80).

If you're looking for specific information on physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry or any other branch of science, Yaffe's book is not for you. If you wonder why some people seem to be proud of their ignorance of science -- or just as bad, fear science -- it's a must read.
UCLA mathematics graduate Yaffe writes that "science simply means trying to understand how the world we live in works...." A theme throughout the book's essays is that words mean different things to scientists and nonscientists, especially the word "theory." To borrow another turn of phrase from Shaw. scientists and nonscientists are like people from America and England: "two people separated by a common language."


"Theory" to a scientist means something that has been determined to be a fact, a basis for building on. To many nonscientists, Yaffe writes, it means something that hasn't been proven, that is more or less one scientist's opinion. For instance, to believers of "intelligent design" Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution is one man's opinion. Or to a believer in traditional physics who says that Einstein's Theory of Relativity is not true. There are more of the former than of the latter, since Einstein has been vindicated time after time.


Yaffe writes that "we all live in a world which, if not dominated by science, is certainly strongly influenced by it. Yet most people seem have only a vague, and often erroneous, understanding of what science is all about. This is both sad and dangerous. If we depend on science but don’t really understand it, we are likely to make uninformed decisions with disastrous consequences."
That's one reason why Yaffe organized the book to be as readable and approachable as possible; if you make it palatable enough, even English majors (and the present reviewer is one) will be able to comprehend it!


The key chapter of the book, Yaffe told me, is “Science in a Nutshell” at the end, which brings together all the fundamental principles of science and how science works in one place. Its headings include such apparently contradictory topics as “Science is faith” and “Science is lack of faith”; “Science is open-minded” and “Science is skeptical”; and “Science is precision” and “Science is probability.” It also examines topics such as “science is counter-intuitive,” “science is simplicity,” “science is cumulative,” “science is history,” and “science is human.”

“Readers who feel themselves already rather comfortable with science may wish to read this chapter first, then read the essays, quotes and jokes to see how these fundamental principles play out in practice. Readers who are somewhat queasy about science may wish to read the essays, quotes and jokes first, then read ‘Science in a Nutshell’ as a kind of summary,” Yaffe explained. “However you choose to approach the book, when you finish you will surely have a better understanding of science and how it affects our daily lives than you did before you started,” he concludes.


Instead of chapters about specific sciences, "... everything you really need to know about physics, everything you really need to know about chemistry, everything you really need to know about astronomy, etc." Yaffe has fashioned the book in the form of easy-to-read essays, "some of which are based on speeches given to lay audiences, some of which have already been published elsewhere, and some of which are being published here for the first time. Each essay is self-contained, so they can be read. You don’t have to read the first essay first in order to understand the second one, and so on."
Here are some of Yaffe's essays:

· “Science, reason, and robots” calls on short stories by the celebrated writers Isaac Asimov and H.G. Wells to demonstrate the uses and abuses of scientific reasoning.

· “How to stop blowing scientific research out of proportion” uses a case history to show how once a false idea escapes from the laboratory, it is almost impossible to recapture it

· “Common misconceptions: things we know that just aren’t so” speaks for itself.

At the very beginning of the book, Yaffe tells us about his three personal heroes. Most of us will recognize the first two, Albert Einstein (1879-1955) and Isaac Azimov (1920-1992) a professor of biochemistry at Boston University, who is much more famous as the author of "I, Robot" and the "Foundation Series."


His third hero is Joseph Kaplan (1902-1991) who taught physics at UCLA when Yaffe attended the school in the 1960s. As a top member of the department, Kaplan could easily have avoided teaching nonscience majors Physics 101, AKA "bonehead physics." Instead, Yaffe writes, Kaplan relished his opportunities to show how a scientist could be as passionate about his field as, say, an English major would be about a Shakespeare sonnet, or a history major about the French Revolution.


To be a scientist is to experience humility. As Isaac Newton wrote, "If I have seen far, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants." This is only one of many quotations in "Science for the Concerned Citizen." In addition to the essays, Yaffe presents a wide variety of quotations about science from well-known scientists such as Einstein and Newton, lesser known scientists, as well as authors, philosophers, poets, etc. Like the essays, each quotation is self-contained and are not categorized into specific sub-headings. Where necessary, a quotation will be commented on to make certain that Is references and allusions can be easily understood.


And that brings up Yaffe's selection of science jokes. Believe it or not, some people find science to be fun; scientists like to laugh at themselves. His book concludes with several pages of jokes. Again, where necessary, a joke will be commented on to make certain that its references and allusions can be easily understood.


As I read Yaffe's book, I was reminded of one of my favorite writers, C.P. Snow (1905-1980). At one period in my reading life I devoured everything written by Charles Percy Snow, an English physicist and novelist who also served in several important positions with the UK government. He is best known for his series of novels known collectively as "Strangers and Brothers", and for "The Two Cultures", a 1959 lecture in which he laments the gulf between scientists and "literary intellectuals"

In 1959, Snow delivered an influential Rede Lecture called "The Two Cultures", which provoked "widespread and heated debate". Published as "The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution", the lecture argued that the breakdown of communication between the "two cultures" of modern society — the sciences and the humanities — was a major hindrance to solving the world's problems. In particular, Snow argues that the quality of education in the world is on the decline. For example, many scientists have never read Charles Dickens, but artistic intellectuals are equally non-conversant with science.
Snow wrote:

"A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: 'Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?'

"I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, 'Can you read?' — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their Neolithic ancestors would have had."


I think Yaffe's eBook will rekindle (no pun intended, I use an Android tablet) the interest in "The Two Cultures" at a time when education -- including STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) seems to be at an historically low point. Like the farmers and the cowhands in the 1943 hit musical "Oklahoma!" humanities majors and scientists can be friends and learn from each other's passion.


I'll end this review by quoting Yaffe's recasting the famous opening lines of "Star Trek":


These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its 5-year mission, to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.
Yaffe's version:
These are the voyages of the human spirit. Their never-ending mission, to explore strange new phenomena, to seek out new ideas and new insights, to boldly go where no human mind has gone before.

About the Author

Philip A. Yaffe was born in Boston in 1942 and grew up in Los Angeles. In 1965 he graduated in mathematics from UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles), where he was also editor-in-chief of the Daily Bruin, the daily student newspaper.
He is author of seven self-help books available in digital format. Yaffe has more than 40 years of experience in journalism and industrial marketing communication. At various points in his career, he has been a teacher of journalism, a reporter/feature writer with The Wall Street Journal, an account executive with a major international press relations agency, European marketing communication director with two major international companies, and a founding partner of a marketing communication agency in Brussels, Belgium, where he has lived since 1974. Email: phil.yaffe@gmail.com,phil.yaffe@yahoo.com, For my review of two recent eBooks by Yaffe, click on: http://www.huntingtonnews.net/4851. For my review of his book The Gettysburg Approach to Writing & Speaking, click on http://www.huntingtonnews.net/638

Reviewer's note: I found this in a Google search: "The main reason students find it difficult to understand science is because of all the hard to write, spell and read words. Actually, scientific vocabulary is a hodge podge of little words that are linked together to have different meanings. If you learn the meanings of the little words, you'll find scientific vocabulary much easier to understand. link: http://www.biologycorner.com/worksheets/language.html

Asimov in the News: Tireless Robot Pack Haulers Deployed to Afghanistan

This article is actually from Aug 8, from Gizmodo: Tireless Robot Pack Haulers Deployed to Afghanistan
Robot buses at Heathrow. Robot haulers deployed to Afghanistan. Is the Isaac Asimov estate getting kickbacks for all the future that's happening this weekend or what?

This latest robo-development involves the U.S. Army's deployment of four Lockheed Martin Squad Mission Support Systems to war-torn Afganistan. As the largest robot transports ever deployed in Army history, these heavy haulers can carry a half ton of supplies for 125 miles before it's time to recharge. The vehicle can also serve as an evac unit for soldiers wounded in the field.

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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Asimov in Media

From www.filmschoolprojects.com: 36 Things We Learned From the ‘Ghostbusters’ Commentary Trac
Ghostbusters (1984)

Commentators: Ivan Reitman (director, producer), Harold Ramis (writer, actor), Joe Medjuck (associate producer), lots and lots of slime

[There's only a brief mention of Asimov, about the third entry from the bottom. He apparently was not amused at the traffic tie up in his neighborhood during the making of the movie.]

* The opening couple of shots were actually shot at the New York Public Library. The crew could only film inside until 10AM for one day. All of the scenes in the backroom of the library were filmed at the Los Angeles Public Library.

* The books floating from shelf to shelf utilized the old-school method of hanging them from a wire. Harold Ramis jokes this effect cost $250,000. Likewise, to get the cards flying out of the drawers, a false wall was set up, crew members pushed the drawers out from behind, and blew through copper tubes to achieve the effect of the cards shooting out. “Lot of air blowing in this movie,” says Joe Medjuck.

* The experiment Peter Venkman is conducting with the cards and electric shock is based on a real experiment. The Milgram experiment had subjects giving other subjects electric shocks when asked to give a list of words. The experiment was really set up to test people’s willingness to give electric shocks to one another. Harold Ramis jokes this scene was a test to see how well the audience could accept a hero who gave unfair electric shocks to his test subjects. According to Reitman, Bill Murray loved this scene.

* According to Reitman, there was a lot of discussion in the writing sessions about the vibe between the three leads. Ramis was the brains of the group. Dan Aykroyd was the heart. Bill Murray was the mouth.

* The story of how Ghostbusters got made is a very fast one in terms of chronology of the production. Aykroyd wrote a 40-page treatment over a number of years. He originally wrote it for himself and John Belushi, who sadly passed away before it could get made. The original story took place years in the future and featured several groups of Ghostbusters. The Marshmallow Man appeared on page 20 and was one of several large-scale monsters. Reitman says if they had made that film as written, it would have cost about $300 million in 1984. It was Reitman’s idea to focus on one group of Ghostbusters, a group who worked out of a station like firemen. It was Reitman and Ramis’s idea to show how the Ghostbusters got started rather than starting the film after the profession had been established.

* The slime used on the drawers in the opening library scene is actually methyl silos, a Chinese food starch. Still better than Twinkie filling.

* The first test screening on Ghostbusters was only three weeks after shooting was completed. Many of the special effects weren’t complete, but the ghost in the opening scene was. Reitman remembers when the film was screened for 200 people at Columbia Studios, they screamed and laughed at the same time. Reitman knew then they had successfully achieved the tone they were going for. Also at this screening, when Dana Barrett opens her refrigerator revealing the terror dog, only a title card saying “SCENE MISSING” was shown. The audience freaked out. Reitman jokes they should have left the crappy effects shot out and kept the “SCENE MISSING” card.

* When Aykroyd first saw the pole at the fire station set, which was actually an abandoned firehouse, he said they had to use it. “It wasn’t just a moment in the movie,” says Reitman.

* The gargoyle on the side of Dana Barrett’s apartment building is an optical effect, not a real gargoyle. Also the Gothic top of the building is an optic. The design of it was inspired by a building in St. Louis that has a replica of a temple build on top.

* As part of Sigourney Weaver’s audition for her part, she got up on a couch and auditioned as a dog. Reitman knew then she had to be in the film.


* Louis Tully was originally written for John Candy. Candy was called and told he had to be in the film, as many of the friends he had made Stripes with were involved. He didn’t understand the part and thought Tully should be played with a German accent. He also believed the character should own Rottweilers. He eventually passed on the role, and Rick Moranis who was waiting on the sidelines to play the part stepped in.

* Only one car was used for the Ecto 1. Medjuck jokes that no film would ever have only one of a car this old and beaten up to shoot with. The car used for the Ecto 1 finally broke down during the filming of Ghostbusters II. Not the only thing that broke down on that film, AMIRITE?

* When Bill Murray leaps over the railing to meet Dana, he almost doesn’t make it. His feet scuffing the top of the railing can be heard. “If he wouldn’t have made it, he’d be dead,” says Ramis. “He would have taken a few people with him,” says Reitman.

* “Sigourney always thought of herself as the Margaret Dumont of this story. She thought of the other Ghostbusters as the Marx Brothers and that her job was to keep the realistic center of the film and the story.” – Ivan Reitman

* When Dana is describing Venkman back to him, in the script the line was “You’re more like a car salesman.” Weaver ad-libbed “You’re more like a game show host.”

* Generally thought of as one of the quintessential New York City movies, only three weeks were spent filming in New York.

* Ramis points out that when the film is played in pan and scan, the shots of the three of them walking always cut him out.

* Dan Aykroyd always referred to Slimer as the ghost of John Belushi. “He’s just a party guy looking to have a good time,” says Reitman.

* The dream sequence/sex scene between Ray and a ghost was originally much longer and wasn’t meant to be a dream sequence. The scene involved the Ghostbusters spending the night at an old fort.

* Medjuck remarks that Ghostbusters shows its age by the amount of people who are seen smoking. He says all that had changed by the time Ghostbusters II came out, and no one smokes in that film. “We did ecstasy,” says Ramis.

* Medjuck presumes the violinist played by Timothy Carhart who is seen walking in Lincoln Center with Dana is who she would eventually marry and father Oscar.

* Reitman recalls running into William Atherton, who plays Walter Peck, about a year after Ghostbusters came out. Instead of warmly greeting Reitman, Atherton was genuinely pissed off telling the director he couldn’t even go into a bar without people wanting to pick a fight with him. People would also scream at him in public. Likewise, Ramis recalls Atherton telling him about a time when he was walking in downtown New York and a bus of tourists yelled “dickless” at him.

* The shot of lights coming through Dana’s kitchen door was inspired by Close Encounters of the Third Kind. “If Spielberg can do those lights, I can do those lights, and we’ll do them in kind of a different way,” says Reitman. Also, Ramis says this scene when the arms come out of the chair to grab Dana is the scariest one for kids. I can tell him first-hand he’s abso-damn-lutely right. I still have nightmares, man.

* The tall woman dancing with Louis at his party was played by Jean Kasem, Casey Kasem’s wife.

* Reitman had done the musical Merlin on Broadway with illusionist Doug Henning. Henning included a 360 degree turn with someone in mid-air in the show, an effect Reitman carried over into Ghostbusters. The shot of Dana levitating and rotating 360 degrees was all done on set. No post-production optical effects were utilized. This scene is one of Reitman’s favorites, and the director provided the guttural voice that comes out of Dana. He also did the voice for Slimer.

* Ramis mentions the digital revolution occurred between Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II. He says Richard Edlund who did visual effects on this first movie expected the optical-to-digital switch in the industry to be a “slow dissolve.” Instead, it was a “hard cut.”

* Reitman mentions he sees the Ghostbusters as hobbyists who had to make their own equipment from items they had laying around. If you look closely during the scene where Egon is testing Louis, Louis is wearing a colander on his head with lots of wiring coming out of it.

* Harold Ramis got married after Ghostbusters II. His hair at the time was still formed like Egon’s, lifted high on his forehead. He recollects as he was walking down the aisle, Bill Murray yelled out, “Your hair is perfect.”

* The scene with the Ghostbusters in jail was filmed at an actual abandoned jail. Aykroyd, ever the supernatural nut, claimed the jail was haunted. Medjuck remembers the film getting scratched during filming, the only evidence that something was really going on.

* When filming the third act scene outside Dana’s apartment building, production halted traffic on 65th and Central Park West, major through streets and connecting streets in New York City. This resulted in traffic being backed up to Times Square and all the way to the river. At one point, the production was told they had shut down about 60% of the traffic in Manhattan. Ramis recalls taking a break with Aykroyd one day while shooting on Central Park West, and Aykroyd noticed Isaac Asimov who lived in the area at the time. Aykroyd, a fan of Asimov’s, was excited and called out to the science fiction writer. Asimov asked, “Are you the ones responsible for this?” meaning the traffic. Aykroyd said, “Yes,” and Asimov responded, “It’s disgusting.” before walking away. Also, whenever someone in the area would ask Medjuck what was going on that was stopping all the traffic, he would respond it was due to Francis Ford Coppola filming The Cotton Club.

* To film certain scenes in front of Dana’s apartment building by Central Park West, the street and first three floors of the building were recreated on a set. This allowed them to shoot the earthquake scene among others. There are certain shots where Reitman, Ramis, and Medjuck can’t tell what is actually New York City and what is the recreated set.

* Slavitza Jovan who plays Gozar was always harnessed during the climactic scenes enabling her to flip around on set at will. Also the red contact lenses caused her immense pain. She would go on to have a bit part in 1999′s House on Haunted Hill remake, so she owes a lot to this movie. Also I remember her being in Ghostbusters more than the two minutes she actually gets. The flattop must have made an impression on me.

* The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man scene is in the final film exactly as it was written in Dan Aykroyd’s original treatment. Reitman was frightened at the step audiences had to take in how believable the creature was. This was his biggest concern at that first screening at Columbia Studios. At that time, they only had one shot of the Marshmallow Man, the one between the building of the monster’s head. It was enough to make the audience go crazy with laughter.

* While filming the final scene, the ending wasn’t completely worked out. Reitman recollects the “crossing the streams” idea had come up elsewhere in the screenplay prior to this, but using that to kill the Marshmallow Man came through working out the scene on set.

* “So let’s talk about this marshmallow,” says Reitman before explaining it was actually shaving cream. Huge laundry bags full of it were dropped on the people on set. Before the big drop on William Atherton, the actor asked Reitman if it was going to hurt. Reitman simply said he didn’t know. Evidently, menthol shaving cream was used resulting in at least one case of someone having an allergic reaction to it.

* Reitman states that people had more of a problem with the limited amount of marshmallow on Bill Murray than they had with the fact that the Ghostbusters survived or the Marshmallow Man in the first place. Of course, the idea of Venkman being covered much less than the other Ghostbusters was Murray’s idea. On the opposite end, Aykroyd loved the shaving cream and kept asking for more to be applied to him.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Asimov short stories: The Callistan Menace

"The Callistan Menace" first appeared in the April 1940 issue of Astonishing Stories and was reprinted in the 1972 collection The Early Asimov. It was the second story written by Asimov, and the oldest story of his still in existence.

Asimov came up with the idea for astory, which he called "Stowaway", after his first meeting with John W. Campbell on 21 June 1938.

When his story, "Cosmic Corkscrew," was rejected by Campbell on the 23rd, Asimov started writing "Stowaway". He finished the first draft on the 28th, and the final draft on 10 July. He submitted "Stowaway" to Campbell in person during another visit on the 18th. Suspecting that Campbell would reject it, Asimov spent the subway ride home coming up with the plot for a third story, "Marooned Off Vesta".

Campbell did indeed reject "Stowaway". On 3 August Asimov submitted the story to Thrilling Wonder Stories.

When Thrilling Wonder rejected it, Asimov mailed it to Amazing Stories in Chicago, which also rejected it.

In the summer of 1939, following the sale of some later stories, Asimov revised "Stowaway", retitled it "Magnetic Death", and again submitted it to both Thrilling Wonder and Amazing, and again it was rejected.

Later that year, Asimov's friend Frederik Pohl became editor of two new magazines, Astonishing Stories and Super Science Stories. He accepted "Magnetic Death" on 16 November 1939, and it at last appeared in the April 1940 issue of Astonishing under the title "The Callistan Menace". (Asimov once described Pohl as "an inveterate title-changer".)

The Plot
The scoutship Ceres has been assigned to explore the Jovian moon Callisto, outermost of the four Galilean moons. Seven previous ships had landed there over a 25-year period, and never been heard from again. Two crewmen discover a stowaway in the supply room, a thirteen-year-old boy named Stanley Fields (after Asimov's brother Stanley). The crew adopts the stowaway as a mascot, even fixing him up with an antiquated rubber space suit.

When the Ceres lands on Callisto, the crew find a previous scoutship, the Phobos, still intact. An inspection of the Phobos reveals it to be covered with dried slime, and the skeletal bodies of its crew are discovered inside.

Soon, the Callistan menace begins to threaten the Phobos.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Asimov's father part 3

Asimov's father was one of six children who survived infancy, he being the oldest.

He had three brothers whose name Asimov knew - Ephraim, SAmuel and the youngest, Abraham Ber. Abraham had "something wrong with his legs."

Asimov's grandfather was "apparently," quite well-to-do by the standards of Petrovichi. He dealt in all kinds of grain, particularly buckwheat, and owned a mill that was in constant operation. He also owned horses and cows and "passed for a rich man."

Not long after Asimov's father started Hebrew school (at the age of 5) he began to be given little jobs to do in connection with the family business.

According to Asimov, this was why his father set him to work so early in the family candy store. " However, it was not something I planned to inherit, and I never really thre myself into it wholeheartedly."

Asimov's father never raised a hand to his children (just as Asimov's dad's father father had never done to his children).

"Hoever," continued Asimov, "...my mother, who was a terrible-tempered woman, ...raised her hand" to Asimov "any time she felt she needed a little exercise and then she reasoned with me, in addition, and at the top of her voice, for hours at a time."

"In doing so, she made use of an extensive Yiddish vocabulary of deragatory terms, which were coloful and expressive and, for the most part, imcomprensible to me." However, he liked the sounds, which were "full of Russian gutturals and sibilants,."

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