Wednesday, February 29, 2012

What Science Fiction Books Does A Futurist Read?

From NPR: What Science Fiction Books Does A Futurist Read?
One of science fiction's jobs is to give humanity a map of where we're headed. From Jules Verne to William Gibson, sci-fi authors have described their versions of the future, and how people might live in it.

Those ideas came up in a recent conversation I had with Brian David Johnson, who works for Intel as a futurist — a title that gives him one of the tech world's cooler business cards.

Johnson says that his job lies at the intersection of science fiction and science fact. With that in mind, I asked him to name some of his favorite sci-fi books. His list is below, with stock summaries of the books. If you scroll below the list, you can read what Johnson thinks of them:

6 Science Fiction Picks From A Futurist

Frankenstein, Or, the Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
A young Swiss scientist's discovery of the cause of generation leads to the creation of a hideous monster.

Robot Novels/the Caves of Steel/the Naked Sun/the Robots of Dawn by Isaac Asimov
Lije Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw, a robot, investigate the murders of a famous robotocist, an isolated inhabitant of Solaria, and Jander Panell, an advanced robot
The Sentinel

The Sentinel by Arthur C. Clarke
A collection of short stories by the author of Childhood's End and 2001: A Space Odyssey showcases the author's storytelling skills in such works as "The Sentinel," "Guardian Angel," "The Songs of Distant Earth," and "Breaking Strain." .

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
After being interrogated by the Department of Homeland Security after a major terrorist attack on San Francisco, Marcus is released into what is now a police state and uses his expertise in computer hacking to set things right.

Halting State by Charles Stross
Sergeant Sue Smith is called in to investigate a daring Edinburgh robbery at a dot-com startup company, a crime perpetrated by a band of marauding orcs with a dragon in tow in the virtual reality land of Avalon Four, but she soon discovers that events in the virtual world could have a devastating impact on the real one, especially when an unknown enemy launches attacks on both.

Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge
In a near-future western civilization that is threatened by corruptive practices within its technologically advanced information networks, a recovered Alzheimer's victim, his military son and daughter-in-law, and his middle school-age granddaughter are caught up in a dangerous maelstrom beyond their worst imaginings. By the Hugo Award-winning author of A Deepness in the Sky.

Johnson started out with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, calling it "a foundational classic. One of the first ever, and still very, very important for today."

He also includes Isaac Asimov. "The Robot series was one of the first times where logic was brought in to science fiction, there was actually a logic system — you know: The robot would do this, or wouldn't do this."

Many readers will know that those rules centered on a central idea: that robots were forbidden from harming humans. And many of those rules were first laid out in Asimov's I, Robot.

Johnson also recommends Arthur C. Clarke's The Sentinel, a short story that is often cited as holding the seeds of his novel 2001: A Space Odyssey. The story centers around the discovery of a pyramid-like relic on Earth's Moon.

Moving on to writers working today, Johnson mentions Cory Doctorow, whose Little Brother "gets into some of the messy ideas around surveillance, and around ubiquitous computational power — and what does that mean."

"Charlie Stross has some really interesting books that look at near-future technology. He wrote a book called Halting State, which is really interesting. It looks at device connectivity, especially around policing."

"I'm always a huge fan of Vernor Vinge. Vernor came up with the term 'singularity.' He always has a really good eye for this stuff," Johnson says. "He wrote a great book called Rainbows End, where he was looking about 10-15 years out, and what that future might look like."

Rainbows End, Johnson says, is "kind of a mystery novel," in which a man wakes up from a coma to find himself in a world full of new advances. To be specific, the protagonist, who had been an Alzheimer's patient, wakes up in the San Diego of 2025.

In telling his story, Vinge "has some fun - he makes fun of laptops, he makes fun of a lot of things," Johnson says. "What I love about Rainbows End is that it's a small book that really has an interesting view of technology."

Monday, February 27, 2012

Asimov Keychain

From Thingiverse: Isaac Asimov keychain

0. Using a 3D printer, print the Asimov_keychain.stl file
1. Using pliers, attach ring and chain


0. download the DXF and SCAD files (SVG can be used to tweak the image and regenerate a DXF file) and save them to the same folder
1. You may optionally tweak the heights of the image layers and the ring radius in the SCAD file.
2. compile and export an STL file
3. print it and attach ring&chain

The Virus in Your Pocket: a Boom in Android Malware

From the Daily Beast: The Virus in Your Pocket: a Boom in Android Malware
Android has become the top smartphone operating system and now, sure enough, here come the bad guys. As hackers target mobile devices, Google’s software is being hit hard.

The first of Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics was that a robot may not allow a human being to come to harm. But apparently that little Android smartphone in your pocket didn’t get the memo. Mobile devices are becoming a top target for hackers, and the Android platform has been hit hard, with the amount of malware soaring more than 3,000 percent just in the last seven months of 2011, according to a new study by Juniper Networks.

“The amount of malware targeting mobile smartphones and tablets has really accelerated over the last couple of years. And we’re seeing a huge uptick on the Android side,” says Dan Hoffman, the chief mobile security evangelist at Juniper, which makes—you guessed it—anti-malware software, and has a bunch of new products due to hit the market by the middle of this year.

The bad guys are simply going where the money is, Hoffman says. As the smartphone market booms, it’s creating new opportunities. The same hackers who were targeting PCs in the past now have turned their attention to mobile devices. “Hacking has been a business for years in the PC space and now it’s moving into the mobile space,” he says.

Hackers have spent the past few years figuring out how mobile operating systems like Android work, and how to break into them, and “now they’re starting to monetize the research they’ve done. They want to make money on this, and the time is now,” Hoffman says.

Not only are security researchers seeing lots more malware hitting mobile devices, but they’re also noticing that the malware is becoming more complex and sophisticated. Malware programs perform all sorts of nasty tricks ranging from stealing your private banking information to secretly sending out “premium” SMS messages that add a few bucks to your monthly bill.
Google Android

Illustration by The Daily Beast

Contributing to the problem is the fact that it is pretty easy to create a malicious application, load it onto an online store, and trick people into downloading it. “There’s such a low barrier to entry. A kid in a basement can write a malicious app. Some of the hackers are organized criminals, but some are just people doing a one-off to make a little extra cash,” Hoffman says.

Android is a favorite target because the software has become so popular. Android is created by Google but used by dozens of handset makers, including Samsung, HTC and Motorola. In the past year Android has become the most popular smartphone platform, ahead of Apple’s iPhone and Research in Motion’s BlackBerry. Also, because of Google's open approach, it's relatively easy to get an app distributed in its online store.

Earlier this month, Google announced a new security service called Bouncer that scans the Android Market (Google’s store for distributing apps) looking for malware. One good sign, Google says, is that while malware is being created, less of it is actually being downloaded—perhaps because users have become more savvy at spotting suspicious apps. In a blog post, Android engineering VP Hiroshi Lockheimer said malware downloads dropped 40 percent from the first half of 2011 to the second half of the year.

With so many hackers targeting Android, you might imagine you’d be safer if using an Apple iPhone, but Hoffman doesn’t think so. He says because Apple is so secretive, it’s difficult for independent researchers to find out how much malware is being created for Apple’s iOS mobile operating system. Recently Apple has landed in hot water after it was revealed that an oversight in the company’s software was allowing third-party applications to upload private address book information without seeking permission from users.

“Hackers want to make money on this, and the time is now.”

Hoffman says he uses both Apple and Android phones, but prefers Android since “the threats are the same, but the means to mitigate the threats are sometimes better on Android than on iOS.” He adds, “I would rather know what the threats are and how to protect against them rather than not know and have to rely on someone else. With Apple it’s just blind trust.”

There are three main types of malware to look out for:

* Spyware - This is software that looks like a regular program –a weather widget, or a game—but is secretly combing through your phone and sending information to a third-party Web site.

* Premium SMS Trojans -These programs again look like ordinary apps, but once you download them they are able to send expensive SMS messages that cost a few bucks every time they connect, sort of the SMS version of making a phone call to a 900 number. The damage might be only a few bucks, small enough that you won’t even notice it on your bill if you’re not paying close attention.

* Fake Installers - Hackers will download a legitimate application from Google’s Android Market, make a clone of the app, then sell that clone for a few bucks on a different market. The developer is getting ripped off, and you’re getting defrauded—especially in cases where the legitimate application is free, but the clone costs money.

Whatever Google and independent security companies do, hackers will continue to target mobile devices. Hoffman at Juniper has some advice on how to protect yourself.

For one thing, don’t download apps from independent app markets and third-party Web sites. Stick to the ones run by Apple and Google. They’re not perfect, but they at least make an effort to filter out bad programs.

Also, when you download a new app, look closely at the permissions that the app is asking for. Most of us just click yes without even looking at the list of permissions. It’s also a good idea to go over the apps you’ve already downloaded to see what permissions they’ve been granted.

Watch out for apps that want to send SMS messages or make phone calls. Juniper found 14.7 percent of apps in the Google App Market ask permission to make outbound phone calls without the user’s knowledge. “We’re not saying that’s definitely malicious but if you’re downloading a weather widget and it wants to be able to make outbound phone calls, that’s a little disconcerting. You might want to think twice about that,” Hoffman says.

Another thing to consider is what some researchers call “security through obscurity.” Apple computers and machines running Linux have always been safer than Windows PCs, simply because there were fewer of them, so hackers didn’t bother targeting them.

By this logic you might want to consider a device running the new Windows Phone operating system, which has only a few points of market share. The software itself is really nice. And Nokia, which is Microsoft’s top partner, has recently introduced some really nice handsets.

Of course, eventually the hackers will get to those as well. Ultimately, all you can do is be careful and hope you can stay a step ahead of the bad guys.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Looking Back on Isaac Asimov’s Foundation

Photos/illustrations referenced in article below can be seen at the original link.

From Barking Books review Blog: Looking Back on Isaac Asimov’s Foundation
Nerd that I am, I recently reread Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, including the sequels and prequels. Actually that’s a bit of a misnomer; I had read the Foundation series — the original three — years ago, back in my college days, but had never actually read the sequels and prequels written some 30 years later.

This isn’t going to be so much literary criticism as it is merely personal reflection, observation and pondering. After all, a serious critical treatment of the entire series would be the stuff of graduate school theses, and I don’t have the time on my hands that I once had when I started Barking Book Reviews.

Of course, the original Foundation trilogy is notable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it won a one-time Hugo Award for Best All Time Series, ahead of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Remember, this was way back in 1966, long before Hollywood ever got a hold of either Tolkien or Asimov. Nevertheless this was perhaps at the height of Tolkien’s popularity here in the United States (as distinct from that of LoTR as modern media phenomenon) — this was the era of “Frodo Lives,” after all.

At the risk of beating a dead critical horse, in many ways, the original trilogy is stereotypical of when it was written: the 1950s. Women characters are virtually nonexistent. Colonization of space is seen as inevitable — sort of a Galactic Manifest Destiny, as it were, although conveniently there isn’t the nuisance of any indigenous species to subjugate and/or slaughter. Asimov, incidentally, actually finds a reason for this empty galaxy — this struck me as odd the first time I read the novels — which he elucidates near the end of the sequels.

But Asimov can’t be dismissed as so many ’50s-era science fiction writers can, those who imagined a bright, shiny future where men were men, women were women and Science — with a capital S — made everything better. While science is the hope of human civilization in the Foundation series, it is mathematics, psychology, sociology and history — all of them together comprising Hari Seldon’s psychohistory — not nuclear rocket ships and and square-jawed, crew-cut manly men.

Indeed, Asimov said that he originally conceived of the series as a science fiction version of Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. This isn’t the the pulp or even pop sci-fi of Buck Rodgers movie serials; this is the thinking person’s science fiction. The ideas here are not only the central plot conceit but also essentially the main characters, and it’s to Asimov’s credit as a writer that he pulls this off with aplomb.

It’s also to his credit that Foundation stands the test of time. It’s true that certain aspects of it seem dated, but nevertheless its central themes and ideas — the individual vs. society, cultural evolution, fate and predestination (and the moral ambivalence they engender), the inevitability of entropy and decay (and humanity’s inevitable balking at same) — seem as relevant today as they surely must have back then. Bear in mind that at that time the first Foundation novel appeared in book form (it was first serialized in Astounding Magazine in the 1940s) World War II had concluded only a few years before, the Cold War was getting into full swing and nuclear war was consequently a real possibility – not science fiction but terribly disturbing fact.
They Have Sex in the Future, Don’t They?

But then as has been widely observed, science fiction isn’t really about the future; it’s about the current time — the Future is just a literary conceit. This becomes readily apparent when we look at the sequels to the original trilogy. While the third book in the trilogy, Second Foundation appeared in 1952, the first of the sequels, Foundation’s Edge, appeared in 1982, followed by Foundation and Earth in 1986.

While Asimov remains true to the original trilogy and its ideas in these two books (yes, there are contradictions, but that’s the nature of the literary beast), two things are evident: 1) Asimov has matured as a writer; and 2) there are signs of the times, so to speak. With regard to the former, the characters here are considerably more developed, replete with moral flaws and all. The female characters (and male characters’ attitudes to them), while not perhaps paragons of feminism or even egalitarianism, are nevertheless a far cry from the female characters found (few and far in between) in his earlier work — the character of Dr. Susan Calvin perhaps being a notable exception that proves the rule.

This brings us to the latter: in these latter-day Foundation sequels there is … gasp! … sex! In Asimov’s early works, there might be the occasional nod to the fact that men and women bump uglies from time to time, but it was always an oblique reference at best – someone mentions spending the night, or someone (always a man, of course) who has been up the gravity well for a long time and is looking forward to getting back planet-side, because it’s been a long time since he’s seen a dame.

But flash forward 30 some years, and not only do we have characters having sex, but we have female characters initiating it. Sometimes the characters even talk about sex. Of course, by today’s popular fiction standards, the brief and occasional sexual interludes among Asimov’s characters seems almost quaint (not to mention a little awkward).

Still, “the idea’s the thing,” if I may paraphrase the Bard.

Isaac Asimov in a (deservedly so) kingly pose, in all his mutton-chopped glory (art by Rowena Morrill).The ending also struck me as one that Asimov would not have written in the 1950s – and indeed, didn’t – even if his muse had instructed him to write the sequels back then. I have to admit – and this isn’t a bad thing – I didn’t see it coming. The fact that the character himself is caught by surprise by his own decision that determines the future of humanity is perhaps a sly acknowledgment of this on Asimov’s part (but I’m purely speculating here).

I hesitate to engage in specifics, and thus spoilers, so I shall remain vague. Looking back on the previous books, it wasn’t a complete surprise – I’m referring to the ultimate fate of humankind, or rather the course of its development as determined at the end of Foundation’s Edge – and I think it caught me by surprise since I tend to always compartmentalize Asimov as a writer from the so-called Golden Age of Science Fiction. As such, again, had he written Foundations Edge in, say, 1955, I somehow don’t think he would have brought the series to the same conclusion as he did in 1982, on the other end of the 1960s and ’70s.

Incidentally, I would add that one of my first thoughts upon finishing Edge was that the conclusion was more reminiscent of Asimov’s colleague Arthur C. Clarke than of Asimov himself. One wonders if Asimov was perhaps influenced by some of Clarke’s more idea-driven works, but then one is indulging in speculation once again. Asimov was a big fan of Clarke, however – so much so that he declared Clarke the best science fiction author of their time, while he, Asimov, was self-declared (albeit with a bit of tongue in furry cheek) the best science (as in nonfiction) writer.

I should back up a moment here; if you haven’t read the books and you’re a bit confused, I don’t blame you. I keep talking about “the end,” but Foundation’s Edge isn’t the last book. Without getting too spoilerish here, as mentioned above, the course of the future development of humans is set at the end of this next-to-last book. But of course there is still one more sequel, and you may be thinking, “Yikes! How do you write a sequel when the course of Life, the Universe and Everything has been decided?”

Well, Douglas Adams gets away with it, and Asimov does too. In Foundation and Earth, we follow along as the character who is tasked with determining the course of humanity’s development in the previous book seeks to confirm that he made the right decision. Along the way he finds the mythical origins of humanity, working his way across the galaxy – it’s worth reading Foundation and Earth just to come along for this ride — and Asimov ties in his earlier robot books and empire books here as well.

It’s to Asimov’s credit as a writer and a man of ideas that he pulls this off: writing a tolerably good sequel after the fourth book in the series determines the eventual fate not just of the Galactic Empire and Hari Seldon’s Foundation, but of all humanity to the end of its evolutionary track. Most authors of popular fiction, when faced with such a task, seemingly phone it in to milk the resulting cash cow. Oh the names I could name …
Foundation Prequels: More Substance than Milk

Isaac Asimov's Prelude to FoundationOne might think that said milking might be the case in the prequels that were written after the two sequels (and the original trilogy), but this is not the case. Rather than looking literally at the big picture once more (and sticking to a successful formula), in these two books Asimov drills down to examine the life of Hari Seldon. Up to this point we the readers have known little of Seldon, the mythical founder of the Foundation, who looms large over the original trilogy despite being, in terms of the plot, a minor (albeit very important) character who never appears again – in the flesh, at least – beyond the first part of the first novel, Foundation.

I have to say in retrospect, I found these two chronological prequels – the last two, in terms of the order in which Asimov wrote – to be perhaps the most fulfilling. Here we get the most well-developed characters of the Foundation series, and certainly some of the most interesting. While one can argue that character development and plotting were not among Asimov’s strengths as a writer, I think it is fair to say that in these later novels – this is true of the later robot novels as well – we see Asimov at his best as a writer. While he lamented a lack of ideas late in his life, he seems to nevertheless have perfected his art.

Here we see Asimov deftly weave his robot novels together with the Foundation novels as well. This tie-in first occurs at the end of Foundation and Earth, and while placed in a context that makes sense, it still comes across in terms of plotting as rather tacked on or last-minutish – as in, “I want to tie in these two different series of novels, so I’m just gonna throw this chapter on here at the end and do it.”

But in the two prequels he goes back and expands and firmly establishes this tie-in, giving it roots by elaborating in detail historical events mentioned in brief before. In fact, if one were to read the books in the proper chronological order – prequels, original trilogy, two sequels – the ending of Foundation and Earth would not appear tacked on at all. In fact a clever reader will see it coming; Asimov clearly had the ideas for the prequels in mind even as he was writing the sequels.

One more note about the prequels. I think it’s fair to say – as many others have observed – that we can draw parallels between the aging Hari Seldon and an aging Asimov. He did acknowledge that he thought of Seldon as his literary alter ego, after all. Either way, there is a ring of truth about the aging Seldon – both in his middle age and in his elderly years – as depicted by Asimov.

Perhaps having suffered a heart attack in 1977 and bypass surgery in 1983, and consequently having faced the spectre of his own death, he subsequently experienced a rather expansive spate of creativity – nothing like pain, misery and death to awaken one’s muse. In any event, the Foundation sequels and prequels, while perhaps not eclipsing the original trilogy in terms of ideas and scope, do manage to surpass them – and much of Asimov’s earlier work – in terms of artistry.

Isaac Asimov by Rowena MorrillAgain, its a credit to Isaac Asimov as an author – an incredibly prolific one in both fiction and nonfiction – that he wrote some of his best work not at the beginning of his life or even in the middle, but at the end. Perhaps his widow, Janet sums it up best with the title of the posthumous collection of her husband’s diaries and personal letters: It’s Been a Good Life.

P.S. So I set out to jot down a few thoughts on the Foundation series, and ended up with 2,100 words. D’oh!. But then I’ve been doing that since college.

P.P.S. That rad portrait of Asimov sitting on the bas-relief throne? That’s by Rowena Morrill. You’ve likely seen her work sitting on a bookshelf. Be prepared to spend some time perusing her excellent artwork, if you follow that link. And just for the heck of it, here’s another one of Asimov by Rowena.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Iowa: CHS students have eyes on robot prize

From Clinton Herald: CHS students have eyes on robot prize
CLINTON — Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics were a simple, yet deceptively effective means of ensuring that humanity would be served by mechanical automatons, rather than be overtaken and enslaved.

Ted Lamb’s laws of robotics are designed to help put a racquetball in a milk crate.

Lamb, a teacher at Clinton High School, and a dedicated team of student engineering enthusiasts have spent much of the school year perfecting their robot in preparation for the First Tech challenge. This is the second year the CHS Robotics team has competed in the national challenge, and this time the participants feel that they have a contender.

“We’ve seen some of our flaws and stuff, (and) we’ve revamped this robot,” Lamb said. “We’re looking at making a strong showing at state.”

First Tech challenge robots are tasked with manipulating racquetballs and milk crates, and lifting them high in the air. After finishing fourth in a qualifying match against other high school robotics teams earlier this year, the CHS team will compete in the state competition this Friday and Saturday at the University of Iowa. If they do well enough there, the team could earn a ticket to the national competition in St. Louis this April.

But first things first. The qualifying matchup was brutal, and with state only days away, the team must stay focused.

“We’re looking at it one match at a time,” Lamb said.

The robot was built using parts supplied by First Tech. The team received three boxes of metal girders, wires and other electronics, and was tasked with assembling them into a functional robot. The robot is operated by the team via remote control, using a programmed PC game controller. The robot’s task is simple, but building it was not. The construction process involved a lot of trial and error, according to team members.

“We started with brainstorming, just laying down all the ideas,” said Michael Espey, a CHS senior. “Our first couple of designs really didn’t work at all. Then we had some trouble, actually a lot of trouble, with the gears.”

Sometimes the realization that an idea would not work would not come until after the legwork was completed.

“(It’s frustrating) when you spend six hours working on something and then you have to tear it down,” Espey said.

The team is required to keep detailed notes, and document every step in their process. This information is compiled in an “engineer’s notebook,” which will factor into the judging process.

Clinton High’s involvement with the contest began last year, when Lamb was searching for activities to occupy the time of the newly formed engineering club. Initially intended to be a fun diversion, Lamb said the contest is so time-consuming that it has become the primary focus of the club.

“It pretty much consumes the year,” Lamb said.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Today's "Isaac Asimov's Super Quiz"

A variety of newspapers carry Isaac Asimov's Super Quiz - which has nothing to do with Asimov these days, of course, except in the name. But it was doubtless licensed by his family.

And how Asimov would have cringed to have seen today's Super Quiz - regarding not science in any way, shape or form but movies!

Yes, humanity can be saved with science and sanity.... and a detailed knowledge of movies. (Not that I begrudge film and tv fans their knowledge... but we are talking about a quiz posted under the Asimov imprimatur - we do not expect to see questions that have nothing to do with science.)

Subject: FILMS

(e.g., The only film to win Best Picture without being nominated in any other major category. Answer: "Grand Hotel.")


1. What Best Picture winner had no female speaking roles?


2. Which actor appeared in 138 films before receiving an Oscar?


3. What 1935 film had three men nominated for Best Actor?



4. What film won the most Oscars (eight) without being named Best Picture?


5. Barry Fitzgerald was nominated for both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor in this film.


6. Name an actor who starred in Best Picture films two years in a row.



7. What film had 11 nominations for Oscars but won none?


8. Name a Best Supporting Actor winner who committed suicide.


9. What 1976 film won Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress?


ANSWERS: 1. "Lawrence of Arabia." 2. John Wayne. 3. "Mutiny on the Bounty." 4. "Cabaret." 5. "Going My Way." 6. Clark Gable, Walter Pidgeon or Russell Crowe. 7. "The Color Purple" or "The Turning Point." 8. George Sanders or Gig Young. 9. "Network."


18 points — congratulations, doctor; 15 to 17 points — honors graduate; 10 to 14 points — you're plenty smart, but no grind; 4 to 9 points — you really should hit the books harder; 1 point to 3 points — enroll in remedial courses immediately; 0 points — who reads the questions to you?

Friday, February 17, 2012

March 20, 2012: 2012 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate: Faster Than the Speed of Light

From American Museum of Natural History: 2012 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate: Faster Than the Speed of Light
March 20, 2012
Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity has been tested with ever-increasing precision since its publication in 1905. One of its key predictions is that only light itself can travel at the speed of light. While the theory does not forbid particles from moving faster, such particles must be traveling backward in time.

Two recent papers by a large consortium of physicists using the world's most powerful accelerator are claiming the discovery of neutrinos moving at speeds slightly in excess of the speed of light. If confirmed, this would be one of the greatest breakthroughs in the history of physics. Our understanding of space, time, mass, and energy all hang in the balance until we know who is right.

This year's Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate will pit some of the experimentalists who claim to have discovered faster-than-light neutrinos against their strongest critics, as well as other teams that are racing to replicate or disprove the extraordinary claims.

Join Director of the Hayden Planetarium Neil deGrasse Tyson as he hosts and moderates six of the world’s leading voices in this great scientific debate.

Dr. David Cline, Department of Physics and Astronomy, UCLA
Dr. Gian Giudice, Theoretical Physics Division, CERN
Dr. Sheldon Glashow, Department of Physics, Boston University
Dr. Chris Hegarty, MITRE’s Center for Advanced Aviation System Development
Dr. Laura Patrizii, Department of Physics, University of Bologna
Dr. Mike Shara, Curator of the Department of Astrophysics, AMNH

Café on One will offer refreshments for purchase before the event from 6 to 7:15 pm.

The late Dr. Isaac Asimov, one of the most prolific and influential authors of our time, was a dear friend and supporter of the American Museum of Natural History. In his memory, the Hayden Planetarium is honored to host the annual Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate-generously endowed by relatives, friends, and admirers of Isaac Asimov and his work-bringing the finest minds in the world to the Museum each year to debate pressing questions on the frontier of scientific discovery. Proceeds from ticket sales of the Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate benefit the scientific and educational programs of the Hayden Planetarium.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Is Issac Asimov the Father of Science Fiction?

From GoArticles: Is Issac Asimov the Father of Science Fiction? by Ashley Fredy
When it comes to science fiction, one question is often asked:Isaac-Asimov.Isaac-Asimov- does he deserve the credit as "father" of Science fiction? The answer to that question has caused many debates in the past. Some of those who answer this question in the affirmative do so for a variety of reasons, including Asimov's impressive list of works. Those who answer in the negative, often do so as a matter of historical reference.

It is hard to argue against the premise that Issac Asimov was one of the founding fathers of modern science fiction. When died at the age of 70, he had published an estimated 370 books and stories. This is impressive and no one can debate that fact. Just as impressive is his life story which begins with his birth in Petrovichi, Russia in 1920 and continued throughout his lifetime.

One of the main reasons Asimov was so well loved as writer was his background in science. He knew what he was writing about, even when his knowledge was used in works of fiction. He was educated in biochemistry, kinetics, enzymology and photochemistry to name of a few of the disciplines he knew. His work ethic also helped him to achieve such prominence. He normally wrote a full eight hours a day and would write for weeks on end in order to finish a project.

There is also another question that often causes debate: In terms of science fiction novels - the Best selling novels equals the best? This is yet another of those questions that can be answered in different ways, depending on how you look at the question.

It is no secret that Issac Asimov had many best selling novels. Some of these novels are still as loved today as they were years ago when they first came out. But the same can be said of other writers as well. For instance, Jules Vern is considered by many to be one of the pioneers of science fiction, just as Asimov is considered. In terms of best selling novels, Vern was extremely popular in his day and age and his works continue to be read and cherished even in this modern time. To answer the question of whether being best selling equates to being the best, truly depends on how a person looks at it.

One of the more unique distinctions of Asimov is that while he was born Jewish, he did not believe in God or the supernatural. He was, by all accounts, a humanist. In his mind, the forces of good and evil did not reside in heaven or hell but rather within mankind itself. This deep feeling that humans were responsible for their own plight (as well as achievements) is shown throughout much of published work. Much of his work concentrates on how humans (and other intelligent beings) act and react to problems that they themselves have created.

In addition to novels, Asimov is also known a short story writer. One of his best known short stories is "Nightfall". For those new to Asimov, this would be a great place to begin as the story delves into many of the issues that his longer works focus upon.

So, to answer the question: Isaac Asimov - does he deserve the credit as "father" of Science fiction? Well, some say yes and some say no. You decide for yourself.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Trumpet glory from Alison Balsom

From Trumpet glory from Alison Balsom
“Seraph” comes from a Hebrew word meaning “burning,” and Isaac Asimov, the genial American polymath of the late 20th century, suggested that “the burning ones” might be a good translation of “seraphim” — burning with their love of God, making their spectacular debut in the Book of Isaiah and later assigned the top position among the nine orders of angels.

James MacMillan, one of the few confessedly Christian composers of major reputation today, wrote “Seraph” for Alison Balsom, and it is the title piece of her new recording on EMI Classics. The seraphic burning manifests itself in different intensities throughout the 15-minute piece, played with keen understanding and tenderness by Balsom, with Jonathan Morton as leader of the accompanying string orchestra, the Scottish Ensemble. The primary characteristic is a glowing tone, which Balsom shows consistent mastery of.

Her mastery of programming is remarkable as well. These 20th and 21st century works reflect a great wealth of personal styles. I like her deft touch in putting a straight-up arrangement of “Nobody Knows,” the black spiritual, just before Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s haunting trumpet concerto, “Nobody knows de trouble I see,” a post-war cry to consider the value of all humanity across every racial and religious barrier. There’s nothing sentimental about the appeal the doomed Zimmermann makes in this composition, however. It’s in part an oblique but unmistakable tribute to a wide spectrum of black American music and its message of universal liberation from war and oppression.

Also making a strong impression is Alexander Arutiunian’s populist warhorse, a somewhat conventional three movement Trumpet Concerto of virtuosic reach, and — at the other end of the display and exroversion spectrum, Toru Takemitsu’s unaccompanied trumpet solo, “Paths.”

If the name seems familiar to readers of this blog, Balsom soloed with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in October 2008, playing concertos by Albinoni and Haydn.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Those Scots. We owe them blackmail

Asimov in the 3rd para from the bottom.
From the Globe and Mail: Those Scots. We owe them blackmail
The debate continues in Britain over whether and how Scotland should seek independence. Scottish separatist leader Alex Salmond wants a referendum in late 2014 that would propose degrees of independence. British Prime Minister David Cameron says any question should be a straight yes or no on complete independence.

In The Scotsman last month, a former military man said a newly independent Scotland would need a proper defence force, without which it “could leave itself open to blackmail by a terror group, especially with regard to North Sea assets.” In the same newspaper last October, Scottish Finance Secretary John Swinney said Scots “should be able to take our decisions without the financial blackmail of the U.K. government.”

Ah yes, blackmail. As it happens, the language owes the word to the early Scots.

“Mail” is the Old English (and Scottish) word for rent or tax payment, from the Old Norse mal, which began life as speech or talk and later meant a contract or legal action. Tenant farmers would pay their rent in silver coins, known as white money.

In the 1500s, Highland freebooters began demanding that Lowland farmers pay them an additional fee for protection from other clans – or else. The coerced rent – Sir Walter Scott called it “a sort of protection money” in 1814 – became known as black money, or black rent. That is, blackmail.

The play on “white money” may have arisen because the rent was paid with black cattle, or because those who didn’t pay up had their goods seized and sold on the black market, or just possibly because black was associated with villainy. By the early 1800s, blackmail described any payment coerced by threats.

As for freebooter – one who gets his booty free through the use of force – it comes from the Dutch vrijbuiter (vrij, free, and buit, booty). The same Dutch phrase gave us filibuster, which in the 1800s described U.S. mercenaries who incited revolution in other countries, and by 1889 had gained the political sense of a person who obstructs the work of a legislature to achieve his ends.

But let’s nip back to the Scottish referendum. In Britain’s The Guardian on Jan. 18, Joan McAlpine said the Scottish Daily Record had criticized British Labour Leader Ed Miliband for supporting David Cameron on the referendum question. “The Record knows its readers,” she wrote, “and [knows] that Ed Miliband’s fulsome backing of Cameron would be incomprehensible and offensive to the man on the Sauchiehall Street bus.”

The word fulsome is itself becoming incomprehensible. As a recent string of letters in The Globe and Mail indicated, people can’t agree on what the term means.

When fulsome began life in the 1300s, it meant abundant. That meaning gave way by the 1600s to a sense of tasteless, cloying, offensive excess, which is the meaning most reference books assign to fulsome now. In the 1980s, William and Mary Morris asked about 100 word lovers, including author Isaac Asimov and journalist Charles Kuralt, whether they would accept fulsome in a flattering sense. Eighty-four per cent said no. Asimov called it “one of my favourite criteria of illiteracy.”

But a great many people, doubtless because of the sound of the first syllable (full), happily continue to use fulsome in a positive sense as effusive or copious. Last November’s issue of Uncut magazine described musician Ravi Shankar as “sporting a fulsome white growth around his chin.”

The upshot is confusion. If someone receives fulsome praise, is she being heartily congratulated, insincerely buttered up or drowned in sickly syrup?

Garner’s Modern American Usage
says the word “might justifiably be treated as a skunked term,” one that can’t be relied upon to convey the intended meaning and is no longer of use. The Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage reached the same conclusion: that the word “should probably be avoided.”

Nobody has taken the advice. The fulsome use continues.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Alan Turing is “the Key Figure of Our Century,” Marvin Minsky

From the Turing Centenary: Alan Turing is “the Key Figure of Our Century,” Marvin Minsky
Days to Centenary: 146

On the one hand, pointing out yet again how important a role Alan Turing played in twentieth century affairs, and how large his legacy looms into the twenty-first, seems almost unnecessary now that we are in the midst of the Alan Turing Year.

He’s made it, the moment has arrived, the hoopla has begun.

On the other hand, the mere fact that it is the Alan Turing Year means that we run the risk that the celebration itself becomes the focus of our attention and that the man gets obscured in the glitz.

I don’t know how many times I have now seen a news item or a blog post about the fact that there is an Alan Turing postage stamp. I have nothing against the postage stamp — he certainly deserves it — but the repetition of this fact at the expense of anything else that might be said about him is a symptom of the fact that Turing may, if we are not careful, end up too much a symbol and too little an actual human being.

I don’t want to detract from any aspect of this year’s celebrations — anyone who has read this page before knows that I appreciate all of Turingdom, the official and the unofficial, whether on a great scale or on a small one, the institutional and the personal. But at this moment, for the reasons I just gave, I want to come back to the very real man and the real-world accomplishments he realized in his short life.

In The Strange Life and Death of Dr. Turing (1992), the first voice we hear (apart from an announcer briefly quoting Turing himself) is that of Marvin Minsky, who says:

Here’s a person who discovered the most important thing in logic and he invented the concept of the stored program computer and he did these wonderful things in biology and cryptology and started artificial intelligence and ran marathons and rode bicycles and had these terrible sexual problems, but I don’t know anything about this person… here’s the key figure of our century, but I don’t know him and I wish I did.

Marvin Minsky — who is a cognitive scientist working in artificial intelligence — is an intellectual giant. Just ask Isaac Asimov, who said of him that Minsky was one of only two people whom he, Asimov, would admit was more intelligent than he was (the other was Carl Sagan). When Minsky says someone is the key figure of the 20th century, that’s coming from someone who is himself one of its key figures.

So Minsky’s comment portrays Turing’s legacy in its appropriate scale, but at the same time it provokes the same reaction in us that Minsky is having himself: we want to know the man, the real guy.
Marvin Minsky

Unfortunately we can’t, not directly, but we can know him indirectly through portrayals and recollections, as in last years Channel 4 documentary, Britain’s Greatest Codebreaker. Unfortunately that movie isn’t yet available for many of us outside the UK. Even for those within the UK who’ve seen it, it may have left them wishing for more.

For people in either of those categories, The Strange Life and Death of Dr. Turing is conveniently available on YouTube. The first half is embedded below. Beneath the embed is a link to the second half.

So by all means, buy one of the limited-edition first day cover stamps with the unique postmark. I’d love one myself. But before you do, sit down and watch the documentary and remind yourself just what the celebration’s really all about.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Asimov on Ebay

Do a search on Isaac Asimov on Ebay and you'll come up with at least 4,000 lots on which to buy or bid on.

Here's my search link for today:

It's possible to acquire a lot of Isaac's books this way, most of them quite cheaply.

(And in some senses this is a pity. When I put together my mismatched set of his F & SF essay books, at least half of them turned out to be deaccessioned library books.)