Thursday, August 30, 2012

Posts resume Saturday

Posts resume Saturday! I'm getting ready for Labor Day weekend tomorrow (Friday.)

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Welcome to P.S. 99 The Isaac Asimov School for Science and Literature

I didn't know Isaac had a school named after him!

Welcome to P.S. 99  The Isaac Asimov School for Science and Literature


Come and Visit the New Home of PS/IS 99  The Isaac Asimov School For Science and Literature:

Unfortunately - is no longer active...I hope this doesn't mean the school hasn't closed!



Thursday, August 23, 2012

Catching Up With Tom Swift a Century Later

From NPR:   Catching Up With Tom Swift a Century Later

Science fiction hero Tom Swift has amazed children with his incredible inventions since combustion and electricity drove the nation into a new era. These stories captured a cultural love of science and inspired such famous figures as Steve Wozniak and Isaac Asimov — all while predicting new technologies decades in advance.

Have you heard about the electric locomotive that can make two miles a minute? That's pretty fast. Maybe you call it the bullet train. Or how about a rifle that can shoot electric bullets and disable its victim? You might call it a Taser today. In fact, both of these inventions were first described by that famous fictional teenage inventor, Tom Swift, way back at the dawn of the 20th century.
New inventions back then brought electricity to light our cities, combustion engines to drive our cars. Science made it all happen, and in this new age, you know, they needed a new role model to reflect the times. An engineer? A scientist? No. How about an inventor?
Tom Swift, boy inventor, has inspired children with his incredible creations for over a century. Some of those children include Steve Wozniak, Isaac Asimov, Jack Cover, inventor of the Taser, who named his device as an acronym of Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle, one of Tom's many fictional inventions.
Are you a Tom Swift fan? Marc Abrahams is, and he's here to talk about the book series and some of Tom's inventions that have predicted technology decades in advance. He's editor and co-founder of the Annals of Improbable Research and founder and master of ceremonies for the Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony. Welcome to - welcome back, Marc.
FLATOW: Wow, what a list of stuff he came up with.
ABRAHAMS: It was an amazing list. This started around 1910. There was a long list of books, and, at the start, they were things that sound pretty ordinary now, the things you mentioned, titles of things like "Tom Swift and His Airship," "Tom Swift and His Wireless Message." My favorite is "Tom Swift and His Photo Telephone." If you read "Tom Swift and His Photo Telephone," which is written in 1914, it sounds like you're hearing the description of Skype or Google Hangout.
ABRAHAMS: The boy inventor invented this in 1914 fictionally, but the details are surprisingly similar.
FLATOW: Are people still reading those books, the Tom Swift books?
ABRAHAMS: That's a good question. There were two big series. The first series started in 1910, went up to about 1940. They updated it in the 1950s and '60s with things like "Tom Swift and His Rocket Ship," "Tom Swift and His Giant Robot" and on and on. Those petered out. And they started up a few later, but the later ones just got off into sort of fantasy.
The initial ones really had a lot to do with science and invention, and they were a way to sell books, but also a way to get kids really interested in this stuff. And a lot of scientists grew up...
ABRAHAMS: ...slurping this stuff down.
FLATOW: Was there one author for all of this?
ABRAHAMS: It depends on how you want to look at it. They were all listed as being written by Victor Appleton.
FLATOW: Right.
ABRAHAMS: In fact, there was a guy named Edward Stratemeyer who apparently was amazingly clever. He started what's called the Stratemeyer Syndicate. He would write out little, short versions of this and hire authors who would write these books, all using the same pen name. This is the same guy, the same factory that put out a long series of books - the "Nancy Drew Mystery Stories," also the "Hardy Boys Adventures."
FLATOW: Oh, no kidding.
ABRAHAMS: There were a bunch of others, "The Rover Boys," a whole bunch, all out of this little, tiny factory.
FLATOW: Wow. Anything like it around today?
ABRAHAMS: There are a million things descended from it. As far as I know, there's nothing really like it that would center each one on...
ABRAHAMS: invention or a piece of science. And I wish somebody would do it anew and wonderfully.
FLATOW: I remember Danny Dunn, he came later...
ABRAHAMS: Yeah. That was - I'm pretty sure Danny Dunn came out of a different person, but I couldn't guarantee that.
FLATOW: Yeah. I think "His Electric Something Paint" and...
ABRAHAMS: I have a feeling you read a lot of this.
FLATOW: I did. "Anti-Gravity Paint," or something like that. It's all fascinating.
ABRAHAMS: Yeah, yeah.
FLATOW: It's all good stuff. Thank you, Marc.
ABRAHAMS: Thank you, Ira.
FLATOW: See you next time. Marc Abrahams is editor and co-founder of the Annals of Improbable Research, also founder and master of ceremonies at the Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony, which you can hear on SCIENCE FRIDAY every Friday following Thanksgiving.


Monday, August 20, 2012

Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: The New Testament by Isaac Asimov

From Paul Vitol's Blog:  Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: The New Testament by Isaac Asimov

Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: The New Testament by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
My first exposure to Isaac Asimov was in the Super-Valu grocery store on Upper Lonsdale in 1971, when I was 12. I was accompanying my aunt Jackie on the weekly grocery shopping for our household (budget: $20), and while we were awaiting our turn to pass through the checkout I was perusing the single rotating stand of paperbacks for sale. One book leaped to my eye: The Universe by a guy called Isaac Asimov (what a cool name! I thought). Subtitled From Flat Earth to Quasar, it was a nonfiction work about the history of astronomy, and had a gorgeous magenta-and-violet cover featuring a photo of the Horsehead Nebula in deep space. I knew I had to have this book. Problem: it was 95 cents, and I had no money of my own. So I begged Jackie to buy it for me. She was reluctant to spend 5% of our grocery money on my book, so I earnestly and urgently assured her that it was no frivolous purchase but that it was a worthwhile book and that my interest in it was genuine and intense. She was a soft touch in reality, so to my joy she put the book on the conveyor belt with the packaged cube steak and canned lima beans. Yahoo!
As soon as we got home I whipped over to the sofa (“chesterfield” as we called it) and started reading. I was immediately engrossed. Expecting the early parts of the book, about ancient astronomy, to be a chore to read before I got to the cool recent stuff, I was surprised to find that Asimov made the story of astronomical discovery interesting right from the start. On that hot summer afternoon I sat in the dim recess of our living room, reading and reading. In the next few days, when I went on a boating vacation up the coast with a friend’s family, I took the book with me and read it in every spare moment.
At that age I didn’t think about Asimov’s qualities as a writer, I just knew that he wrote about really cool stuff. A few years later, at about age 16, I made my first purchase of a nonfiction book with my own money when I saw his Life and Energy in a bookstore (price: $1.25). This was a work on biochemistry, which was outside my main interest area of space science and physics, but I knew that Asimov would present it in a cool way.
It was only years later, when I reread these books, and I had chosen the path of writing for myself, that I came to assess and appreciate Asimov specifically as a writer. And to this day he represents, for me, the gold standard of expository writing. (I’m less happy with his science fiction, which I find to be a bit flat and, well, expository.) He is a natural teacher, able to arouse and then satisfy one’s curiosity, and to do so with clear, fluent, and seemingly effortless prose. He makes writing seem easy.
I knew that Asimov had written many books on different subjects, but I was still taken by surprise when, while visiting the New Westminster Public Library maybe 8 years ago, I saw, on their reference shelves, the two big hardback volumes of Asimov’s Guide to the Bible. And, now working on an epic of my own about the events leading up to the action of the New Testament, I again had occasion to think, Wow! Cool!
I whipped out one of these volumes and quickly saw that it was just what I would hope for and expect in a work by Asimov: a clear, smooth-flowing examination of both testaments of the Bible, book by book, with plenty of accompanying maps. At some later time I made an online search for these books and found that they were available in paperback; I did not hesitate to buy a used set.
I’m glad I did. As ever, Asimov turns his clear, objective, common-sense eye to the matter at hand. He looks at the content of the Bible not from a theological point of view, but rather as an explicator of the places, persons, institutions, and terms used in it.
In the New Testament volume the largest chapter is on the book of Matthew. It contains about 82 subsections, the first of which is “The New Testament”, where Asimov matter-of-factly sets out the mission of the New Testament as a whole and contrasts it with that of the Old Testament. In his words, “The central theme of the Bible, in Jewish eyes, is the contract or covenant entered into between God and the Jewish people. The first mention of this covenant is God’s promise to give Canaan to the descendants of Abraham.” This is followed by an extract from Gen 15:18, in which the Lord makes this promise to Abram. The book is liberally salted with verses from the Bible as Asimov makes his points, often drawing attention to connections and allusions between the different books. In this subsection Asimov describes how the vision of the writers of the Old Testament books evolves to the point where Jeremiah envisions “a triumphant day when God would make a new start, so to speak, with his people; wipe the slate clean and begin again”–with an extract from Jer 31:31 provided as evidence. Asimov then says simply that “The followers of Jesus came early to believe that in the teachings of Jesus was to be found exactly this new covenant; a new contract between God and man, replacing the old one with Israel that dated back to Sinai and even beyond that to Abraham.”
Other subsections include examinations of who Matthew is; who the people are in the given genealogy of Jesus; where the term Holy Ghost comes from; what King of the Jews means; where and what Nazareth is; and much else. In general, Asimov sets out to answer, as much and as well as he can, your question, as you point to some element in the Bible, “What’s that?” And he does a darned good job.
These volumes are more like a reference work that the other Asimov books I mentioned, which have, incredibly, a strong quality of narrative flow. Asimov’s Guide to the Bible is not arranged around a central question, and this makes it a little less exciting to read. He’s not providing any theory about the Bible, and although he is candid about the difficulties it can present to the modern rational person, he is in no way a skeptic or debunker. And while he can’t avoid doing some interpretation, his mission is mainly factual.
I was a bit disappointed to discover that all those maps are actually in many cases just the same map, reproduced again and again to save the reader the inconvenience of flipping back to find it. Having a few more, different, and detailed maps would have made me feel I was getting more of an in-depth treatment.
But this is an excellent popular companion to the Bible. My favorite aspect is probably the many connections that Asimov makes between the different books and verses of both testaments. He doesn’t name his sources, but they must have been many. He gives the same impression of complete, effortless, encyclopedic command over the content of the Bible that he does over astronomy, biochemistry, and so many other topics. The real measure of his accomplishment is the clarity of his writing, which stands as a paragon to all who would write expository prose.


Tuesday, August 14, 2012

"The Martian Way" by Isaac Asimov

From The Chicago Tribune:  "The Martian Way" by Isaac Asimov

The novella "The Martian Way" by Isaac Asimov was originally published in the magazine Galaxy Science Fiction in 1952. While on the surface the story is about terraforming Mars, it is in fact a critique of then-rampant McCarthyism. It's appeared in a few different Asimov anthologies, most recently, "Robot Dreams."

Plot from Wikipedia:

Plot summary

Mario Esteban Rioz and Ted Long are both Scavengers, Mars-born humans who scour space for the spent lower stages of spacecraft. Rioz has been doing the work his whole life, but his partner for his current six-month trip puzzles him—a former mining engineer who gave up a comfortable, well-paying desk job in the Martian iron mines for the hardscrabble life of a Scavenger. He doesn't understand Long's philosophical musings on what he calls "the Martian way".

Rioz is tense because the trip has been unprofitable. He chews Long out for wasting power listening to some Grounder (Earth-born) politician named John Hilder making a speech. As Rioz listens to the speech, he realizes that Hilder is saying that Earth's settlements on Mars, Venus, and the Moon are useless drains on Earth's economy, and that spaceships are wasting irreplaceable water by using it as reaction mass.

A year later, Hilder has used his campaign against "Wasters" to gain power in Earth's Assembly, and has just reduced shipments of water to Mars, putting the Scavengers out of work. Rioz thinks the Martians should raid Earth's oceans for water, but Long disagrees. He has a plan of his own to deal with the water crisis. When Hamish Sankov, the head of the Martian colony, learns of Hilder's plan to cut off all water shipments to Mars, he authorizes Long's plan: to travel to Saturn and tow a fragment of the rings—which is almost pure water—back to Mars.

The psychologists on Earth believe that nobody can remain in space for more than six months without going crazy, and the trip to Saturn will take a year, but Long believes it can be done. Unlike Earth people, Martians are born and raised in an artificial environment, so spending long periods in a spaceship is no great hardship for them. A fleet of 25 Scavenger ships makes the trip, and the crews discover en route that they enjoy floating out in space. Reaching the rings, the Scavengers choose a fragment approximately one cubic mile in volume, reshape it into a rough cylinder, embed their ships in it, and fly it like a giant ship back to Mars. Using the fragment's ice as reaction mass, they are able to make the return trip in five weeks.

On Mars, a group of Hilder's allies is pressuring Sankov to sign an agreement ending all water exports to the Martian colony. When he hears from the returning Scavengers, Sankov signs. Two days later, the Scavengers land in full view of the press. Sankov announces that the fragment they brought holds a 200-year supply of water, and that if Earth can't afford to lose any more water, the Martians will be happy to sell them some of theirs. Now that the Martians have turned the tables on Hilder's anti-Waster campaign, his power in the Assembly will wane. Long, meanwhile, is confident that it will not be Earthlings but Martians, with their greater acclimation to space travel, who will settle the outer worlds of the Solar System, and eventually, the stars—because that is the Martian way.
Also from Wikipedia:
The Martian Way was Asimov's response to the McCarthy Era and an early exploration of terraforming Mars. Asimov's distaste for the anti-Communist campaigns of McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee was expressed in his portrayal of John Hilder's anti-Waster campaign.
Asimov writes in his autobiography that he expected to be either lionized or condemned for his attack on McCarthyism, but the story actually generated no reaction at all.As he notes elsewhere, "I must have been too subtle—or too unimportant."

The Martian Way of the title may be seen as an expression of the idea of manifest destiny. Asimov describes the vision of his character Ted Long for the Martians' future in terms of the frontier thesis of Frederick Jackson Turner and the idea of a creative minority expounded by Arnold Joseph Toynbee. The critic Joseph F. Patrouch has interpreted Asimov's choice of a mixture of Anglo-Saxon, Slavic, Latin and Scandinavian names (respectively, Ted Long, Hamish Sankov, Mario Rioz and Richard Swenson) for the Martian characters as a celebration of the melting pot of the American immigrant tradition. Also, Asimov's own claustrophilia informs his picture of the Martians, who can withstand isolation and lack of space much better than Earthborn humans
Asimov was particularly proud of the story's prediction of the euphoria to be experienced by astronauts on spacewalks which were then still thirteen years in the future.


Monday, August 13, 2012



A little summer reading for you thanks to my colleague Marc Epstein.  Marc had his students read "The Fun They Had" by Issac Asimov this past spring. He gave me a copy too.

This wonderful short story, written in 1951, involves kids in the year 2157.  They look with envy at their forefathers who actually went to a school building and read real books.  Enjoy it but realize this future shock may be upon us long before 2157 if the Joel Klein's and Michael Bloomberg's of the world have their way.

An excerpt for you:

Margie went into her schoolroom.  It was right next door to her bedroom, and the mechanical teacher was on and waiting for her.  It was always on at the same time every day except for Saturday and Sunday, because her mother said little girls learned better if they learned at regular hours.
The screen was lit up and it said: Today's arithmetic lesson is on the addition of proper fractions.
Please insert yesterday's homework in the proper slot.
Margie did so with a sigh.  She was thinking about the old schools they had when her grandfather's grandfather was a boy.  All the kids from the whole neighborhood came, laughing and shouting in the schoolyard, sitting together in the schoolroom, going home together at the end of the day...
And the teachers were people.


Sunday, August 12, 2012

60 is the 40

On August 10, 2012, the Cheyenne chapter of the AARP hosted a seminar called Gray Matters - which was free and provided a free lunch - unfortunately fish and cheesecake, blech - from 4 to 6 was a reception for all travelers who had come in for the AARP National Spelling Bee to be held on the 11th.

I attended that and it was a lot of fun. The emcee introduced a few folks, we talked about words, there was a "mock" spelling bee (which only consisted of about 20 people getting up and being questioned on one word...) and so on. And there were finger foods there - Chinese food to be precise. Don't know where they got it from or if they cooked it on site (Little America is a hotel and resort where people come to play golf among other things) but it was delish.

The spelling bee started at the ungodly hour of 8:30 am (Well...8:30 is not so ungodly but I had to get up at the ungodly hour of 6:30 to get there in time for registration, etc.) It started with 4 rounds of 25 words each - which was a Written Test.

The first 25 words were extremely easy. They asked words like "Greetings" and "Navel" and "Mince." I suppose a few might have been considered difficult... "Animus" and "Lacuna."

The second 25 words were equally easy, but I did miss MUGWUMP.

I assume they did this just to help everyone settle the nerves and get new people used to what was going on. People had trouble hearing some of the words (hey, they were all over 50 and most over 60) and the Pronouncer  would come down and tell them the word face to face and have them say it back, etc. Indeed, the Pronouncer did an excellent job.

Third round was where they started asking the difficult words.

I missed:

The fourth round was the real killer. I only got 12 out of 25 right. I missed:


I then stayed for the Oral rounds and was joined by one of my friends from my Scrabble Club. (I think an audience could have assembled for the Written rounds, too. There were chairs there and family were in them...but I think most people only wanted to come see the Oral rounds where you actually saw the speller's faces as opposed to their backs, etc.)

Two of the people I met last night at the reception made it to the Orals. One of them it was his first trip to the Bee and he was successful his first time out. Made it through about 10 rounds. (In the Orals, you miss two words and you're out.) Another one was an elderly woman from Minnesota who also got through about 10 rounds before being knocked out.

There were three sisters and a brother who had come as a sort of family reunion. The eldest sister made it to the Oral rounds but was bounced after only two rounds. This was too bad and it was because she was a bit unlucky - she got two 6-syllable words in a row while some of the others were getting much easier ones (but still, not ones I could have spelled). But she was disqualified along with several other people in the same round, so hopefully she didn't feel too bad.

The words in the Oral Rounds were extremely difficult. Several times more difficult than the toughest words in the final round of the Written.

But, had I studied for a year, I think I could have handled them.

And it is my intention to study for a year and  get into the Orals next year.

So, why is the title of this blog entry 60 is thenew 40?

Because it is.

People are living longer. You don't want to outlive your money and more importantly you don't want to outlive your sense of enjoyment of life. And learning new things every day is enjoyment and keeps the mind active.

The AARP Spelling Bee is held every year, and it gives you an excellent reason to travel to Cheyenne and see The Cowboy State. You'll meet lots of interesting people.

You do have to study.

I studied very desultorily for about a month...combine all the time I studied and it was about 10 hours. Not nearly enough, but then, I'm a good speller so the Written Rounds were relatively easy - except for that killer last round.

Why learn words that you'll never, ever say in real life?Well, because they're interesting. And the concepts of what you'll learn, you can apply in other areas. So it's a win win.

So start planning to live a long, healthy, active, intellectual life, and do it now, however old you might be!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Isaac Asimov Would be Proud

From Invention Magazine:  Isaac Asimov Would be Proud

Taking a page from the story Fantastic Voyage, Proteus Digital Health of Redwood City, California has designed a sensor that can be imbedded in pills. It is called the Ingestion Event Marker and is combined with a data receiving  patch with the goal of monitoring medication usage by patients that may have difficulty remembering to take it.  The system monitors the time ingested, the type of medication as well other information such as heart rate and body position. The patch wirelessly transmits the information to a mobile phone and can then be shared with a doctor. The results would help doctors get accurate feedback regarding patients’ habits and assist in developing healthier ones.

Even those who support security cameras everywhere may still find this idea somewhat invasive. Though amazingly helpful it is not hard to imagine some people opposing it.


Wednesday, August 1, 2012

What was Asimov doing during WW2?

FroSci Fi Stack Exchange:  Classified project during WWII involving Asimov and Heinlein

 There have been rumors that the group were somehow tied to the apocryphal "Philadelphia Experiment". De Camp responded to this question himself and said basically: that's a great story but he worked on testing hydraulics and de-icers and equally mundane problems

According to a couple chapters of Heinlein's book, they worked at the Aeronautical Materials Lab at Philadelphia Naval Yard. Their work included a "high altitude pressure suit" (an early space suit), and a "Cold Room" (a cryogenic hypobaric chamber) to test exposure to extreme cold and low oxygen. Heinlein was also the personnel manager (where he broke policy by hiring female engineers) and worked on "mechanical problems of Plexiglas aircraft canopies" (where he got in trouble for refusing to falsify data). Heinlein was officially retired Navy, and Asimov and De Camp were civilian contractors. Forry Ackerman was involved too, as an Army enlisted man.

But the most important work they did was not something they directly worked: they contributed ideas to and consulted on the development of the CIC or Combat Information Center - the today-familiar Operations Room of a combat vessel. Their consultation was regarded as critical to its development. The idea came right out of, and is still part of, science fiction and was implemented in reality by the US Navy during WWII. So it's a funny bit of history -- the Operations Center came out of Sci-Fi as related by Heinlein/Asimov/deCamp, got implemented for real in the Navy, and now the Ops Centers in modern Sci-Fi are directly informed by the real-life ones, full circle! But it's a stretch to say they worked on it.

Basically the truth was this: Heinlein, De Camp, and Asimov were friends and colleagues, the war meant they had to either serve the US professionally or get drafted, and they were all educated men who could do useful engineering work. So Heinlein worked hard to get his friends and colleagues jobs in a stateside engineering center rather than on the front. Since they were very bright people with good scientific knowledge, their contributions were useful though not mysterious nor earth-shattering.

There was a novel released last year, The Astounding, The Amazing, The Unknown, which fictionalizes and sensationalizes the whole idea but in not in fact true :)