Saturday, December 29, 2012

Typewriters of the moment: Isaac Asimov’s astonishingly prolific career

From Millard Fillmore's Bathrub: Typewriters of the moment: Isaac Asimov’s astonishingly prolific career

2 Votes

Isaac Asimov remains one of my favorite writers.  He wrote well enough, and his curiosity took him to topics I often find interesting.  At one time having published more books than anyone else in history on a wide variety of topics from quantum mechanics to trivia in the books of the Bible (does he still hold that record?), it was a sure bet one could find at least one book in one’s area of interest penned by Asimov.
When I started the spasmodic feature, “Typewriter of the Moment,” years ago I did a search for Asimov with a typewriter.  I didn’t find an image I thought suitable back when the internet was still operated by steam, and somehow I just never got back to that.
The other night this image popped up on one of my Facebook feeds, from “the Other 98%”:
Isaac Asimov at a typewriter creating, with pithy quote
Painting of Isaac Asimov creating at a typewriter, an early IBM Selectric. Who did the painting?
I appreciate the sentiment in the quote.  Asimov noted the Dunning-Kruger Effect, even if he didn’t have the advantage of Dunning and Kruger having named it yet, and he lamented the powerful undertone of anti-intellectualism that victims of the syndrome exhibit:
Anti- intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge. (Asimov in an essay for Newsweek: “A Cult of Ignorance,” January 21, 1980, p. 19)
It’s an arresting image, a heckuva a quote, and it would make a good poster.  Plus, it’s an early IBM Selectric typewriter, marrying Asimov’s creativity with a great technological advancement in writing tools.
One boggles at the idea of Asimov with a great word processing program, a fast computer with great memory, and the internet at his disposal.  If Asimov were alive and creating today, we’d think Moore’s Law a great hindrance to the advancement of knowledge.
The painting delights me.  It’s almost photographic, and I like paintings that take great care to get small details right, photographically.  No dig at more spare or even abstract art, but this sort of painting takes great skill and great creativity.  Rising spirit-like from the typewriter’s platen we see a satellite (manned spacecraft, perhaps?), a flask of chemicals, and a leather-bound book, essential components in science fiction, and science.
So, who did the painting?  Was it done solely for that Facebook poster?
English: An IBM Selectric typewriter, model 71...
This is what that typewriter in the painting looks like, from the author’s angle. An IBM Selectric typewriter, model 713 (Selectric I with 11″ writing line), circa 1970. Wikipedia image
I’ve searched on TinEye, and Bing and Google, without success to identify the painter.
One version of the painting, before text was added, showed up at IO9, a site dedicated to science fiction, in an article discussing the writing habits of famous writers.
This does not appear to me to be the original, simply because data on the artist is not contained in the information section of the image.  The artist who did this illustration would be proud of it, and want to advertise her or his work.
This version has a slightly higher resolution; click on the image and note the reflections of lights in Asimov’s glasses, the reflections on the desk, and even the dings on the edge of the desk facing the viewer — this is great stuff!
But still I wonder:  Who was the original artist?
Any ideas, Dear Reader?
Painting of Asimov at work, at his typewriter
The painting of Asimov at his typewriter, before posterization with a quote over his head. Found at IO9
Did Asimov write on a Selectric?  Did he switch to the newer version, with a wider carriage, or stick with the old original?  Is there a photo upon which this painting is based?
Almost immediate update:  This site claims the artist is the same as the one at the bottom of the post, Rowena Morrill.  That’s a start.  Here’s more:  At Rowenaart, both pictures appear credited to Rowena.  Mystery solved?  Go buy a poster from her; this is great stuff.

English: This image is a reproduction of an or...
Hello! Could this be by the same artist? Caption from Wikipedia: This image is a reproduction of an original painting by renowned science-fiction and fantasy illustrator Rowena It depicts Dr. Isaac Asimov enthroned with symbols of his life’s work. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Darkness in literature: 'Nightfall' by Isaac Asimov

From the Guardian:  Darkness in literature: 'Nightfall' by Isaac Asimov

Stumbling out from beneath the 45-tonne bronze cone of London's planetarium, unsteady from a virtual voyage through the solar system and beyond, you can picture the earth turning beneath your feet. Stand there on the brow of the hill in Greenwich Park, your head still full of planets spinning on their computer-generated orbits, with the National Maritime Museum, the curve of the river, Canary Wharf and all the city stretched out beneath you, and the vista seems to roll inexorably east towards the curtain of night. Darkness is an inescapable fact of life on earth, an astronomical certainty which, for all the terror it brings in childhood, gives our daily existence its rise and fall, its ebb and flow, as night follows day follows night.
But what if it wasn't like that? What if night were not only dense and all-encompassing, but also sudden and unexpected? What if daylight were so pervasive, so constant, that total darkness was unimaginable, inconceivable? What if there were no one to teach us how not to be afraid of the dark?
In his 1941 short story "Nightfall", Isaac Asimov takes us to Lagash, a planet deep in a globular cluster surrounded by not one, not two, not three – but six nearby stars. When Alpha sets, Beta is at zenith; when Gamma is at aphelion, Delta is near. The whole planet is bathed in perpetual sunlight from its constant companions, so that the inhabitants of Saro City have never seen the stars, have never known the total darkness of night. Until now.
The story opens at Saro University on the eve of the first night in 2049 years, as a rare alignment of stars and planets is set to send half the world into darkness for "well over half a day". As Gamma sets, leaving only blood-red Beta hanging in the skies, the scientists who have predicted the eclipse which will plunge the world into chaos are preparing their instruments and attempting to master their rising panic.
"Imagine darkness – everywhere. No light, as far as you can see. The houses, the trees, the fields, the earth, the sky – black! And stars thrown in, for all I know – whatever they are. Can you conceive it?"
"Yes, I can," declared Theremon truculently.
And Sheerin slammed his fist down upon the table in sudden passion. "You lie! You can't conceive that. Your brain wasn't built for the conception any more than it was built for the conception of infinity or of eternity. You can only talk about it. A fraction of the reality upsets you, and when the real thing comes, your brain is going to be presented with the phenomenon outside its limits of comprehension. You will go mad, completely and permanently! There is no question of it!"
According to Asimov, the idea came from discussing a quotation from the opening of Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay, Nature with the editor of Astounding Science Fiction, John W Campbell Jr. "If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years," suggested Emerson, "how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown!" It seemed much more likely to Asimov that the sudden majesty of the heavens would inspire fear instead of wonder. After two millennia of constant sunshine on Lagash, the terror of complete darkness, the "soul-searing splendour" of the mysterious stars, is enough to send the citizens mad, to consume civilisations in the hungry flicker of the only means to hand for making light: fire.
Asimov answers Emerson's transcendentalism by setting up an opposition between the scientists (good), struggling to understand celestial mechanics without being able to see much in the way of heavens, and the Cultists (bad) whose Book of Revelations, woven from "the confused incoherent babblings of half-mad morons", foretells a cave which will devour Lagash and send down heavenly fire to rob men of their souls. Will the astronomical truths discovered at Saro University survive the apocalypse and enlighten the survivors of the next cycle, or will the obscurantism of religion prevail? It's a confrontation that reads all the more urgently now, 70 years on, as climate scientists struggle to make their warnings of catastrophe heard above the voices of the deniers.
While the names with numbers – Beenay 25, Aton 77 – the lack of women and an honourable reporter who declines the chance to scarper when things get hairy ("I'm a newspaperman and I've been assigned to cover a story. I intend covering it.") give "Nightfall" something of a period feel, Asimov's ability to think himself into the dread his sun-soaked characters feel at the approaching gloom, their delight at the unveiling of Saro University's latest developments in light-emitting technology still rings true. But he's even better at imagining just how far the universe can exceed our expectations.
One of the younger astronomers brings up the purely theoretical case of life on a planet with only one sun, a planet where "the exact nature of the gravitational force would be so evident" astronomers would discover it "before they even invented the telescope". It's a "pretty abstraction", but only of philosophical importance, he continues: "life would be impossible on such a planet. It wouldn't get enough heat and light, and if it rotated there would be total darkness half of each day. You couldn't expect life – which is fundamentally dependent on light – to develop under those conditions." He also dares to suggest the fantastical notion that the stars spoken of in the Book of Revelations might simply be "other suns in the universe", far enough away to be invisible during Lagash's perpetual day, to leave the complicated gravitational dance of its six companion stars unperturbed. Maybe there might even be as many as "a dozen or two".
It is this kind of of mind-stretching celestial inversion which made "Nightfall" an instant classic. Campbell upped the 21-year-old Asimov's fee to a princely 1.25 cents a word and gave him the cover. "I was suddenly taken seriously," Asimov says, "and the science fiction world became aware that I existed." The science fiction world had shifted, had rolled inexorably on, powered by one of those great stories which – like the great science that underpins it – can make the planet move under your feet.



Wednesday, December 19, 2012

New posting schedule

Now that I've got this new full-time job, I'll be posting in this blog twice a week - on Monday's and Wednesdays.

So the next post for this blog will be on Monday.

Thanks for your patience.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Posts resume this Wednesday

I'm a freelance writer and I am way behind on a job I have to do, so I won't be posting here until Wednesday..

Thanks for your patience!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Climate-change scepticism must be 'treated', says enviro-sociologist

From The Register:  Climate-change scepticism must be 'treated', says enviro-sociologist

Scepticism regarding the need for immediate and massive action against carbon emissions is a sickness of societies and individuals which needs to be "treated", according to an Oregon-based professor of "sociology and environmental studies". Professor Kari Norgaard compares the struggle against climate scepticism to that against racism and slavery in the US South.
Prof Norgaard holds a B.S. in biology and a master's and PhD in sociology.

"Over the past ten years I have published and taught in the areas of environmental sociology, gender and environment, race and environment, climate change, sociology of culture, social movements and sociology of emotions," she says.
The good prof is in London at the moment for the "Planet Under Pressure" conference, where she presented a paper on Wednesday dealing with how best to do away with the evil of scepticism and get the human race to focus all its efforts on saving the planet.
According to an Oregon uni statement announcing the paper:
Resistance at individual and societal levels must be recognized and treated ...
"This kind of cultural resistance to very significant social threat is something that we would expect in any society facing a massive threat," [Norgaard] said.
The discussion, she said, is comparable to what happened with challenges to racism or slavery in the U.S. South.
Professor Norgaard considers that fuzzy-studies academics such as herself must stand shoulder to shoulder with the actual real climate scientists who know some maths in an effort to change society and individuals for their own good. It's not a new idea: trick-cyclists in Blighty and the US have lately called for a "science of communicating science" rather reminiscent of Isaac Asimov's science-fictional "Psychohistory" discipline, able to predict and alter the behaviour of large populations*.
At least some climate physicists and such might reasonably consider this to be just the sort of help they really don't need in convincing ordinary folk that their recommendations ought to be taken seriously. ®


*Admittedly Psychohistory only worked on huge galactic civilisations, and then only if the people being manipulated for their own good were unaware that the science of Psychohistory existed - neither of which are the case here.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Paul Krugman’s Favorite Fiction: Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy Dramatized for Radio (1973)

From OpenCulture: Paul Krugman’s Favorite Fiction: Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy Dramatized for Radio (1973)

Tireless New York Times columnist and Nobel-prize winning Princeton economist Paul Krugman has long played the role of Cassandra, warning of disasters while the architects of policy look on, shake their heads, and ignore him. I’ve sometimes wondered how he stands it. Well, it turns out that, like many people, Krugman’s long view is informed by epic narrative. Only in his case, it’s neither ancient scripture nor Ayn Rand. It’s the Isaac Asimov-penned Foundation Trilogy, which Krugman, in a recent Guardian piece, dissects in detail as a series that informed his views as a teenager, and has stayed with him for four and a half decades.
The hero of the trilogy, Hari Seldon, is a mathematician, whose particular branch of mathematics, called psychohistory, allows him to make massive, large-scale predictions of the future. This science informs “The Seldon Plan” that silently guides the coming of a new Galactic Empire thousands of years into the future. If it sounds a bit arid in paraphrase, it isn’t, even though Asimov’s characters tend to be thin and his descriptions lack in poetry. “Tolstoy this isn’t,” Krugman tells us.
But the novels work as brilliant speculative fiction, tethered to the familiar history of Western civilization by resonances with ancient Rome, mercantile Europe, and old New York. Instead of space opera or fantasy, Krugman describes Asimov’s fiction as anti-action, anti-prophecy. The protagonist’s “prescience comes from his mathematics.” And this, believe it or not, is fascinating, at least for Krugman. Because for him they function as reminders that “it’s possible to have social science with the power to predict events and, maybe, to lead to a better future.” Krugman writes:
They remain, uniquely, a thrilling tale about how self-knowledge – an understanding of how our own society works – can change history for the better. And they’re every bit as inspirational now as they were when I first read them, three-quarters of my life ago.
He admits that the sentiments of Asimov’s fiction present us with a “very bourgeois version of prophecy,” but then, economics is a very bourgeois science, mostly concerned with one emotion, “greed.” Nonetheless, Krugman believes in the power of “good economics to make correct predictions that are very much at odds with popular prejudices.” And we could all do with fewer of those.
Asimov’s Hugo-winning trilogy was adapted for eight, one-hour radio-drama episodes in 1973. Listen to the first installment above, and download or stream the remaining episodes at the links below:
Part 1 |MP3| Part 2 |MP3| Part 3 |MP3| Part 4 |MP3| Part 5 |MP3| Part 6 |MP3| Part 7 |MP3| Part 8 |MP3|
You can find this audio listed in our collection of Free Audio Books.
Note the links listed above don't work in this blog entry. You need to go to the top link to be taken to the page to hear this cool radio program!


Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Roboearth API: Isaac Asimov Would be Impressed

From ProgrammableWeb:  The Roboearth API: Isaac Asimov Would be Impressed

saac Asimov once said, “Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is.” An interesting opinion, but what if it applied to…robots? Roboearth is a database of robot experiences that can be shared with other robots. The Roboearth API gives developers access to the data stored on a cloud. Through the API you can search for “action recipes”, environments, even individual robots connected to the network.
In the short video above [not included as my Kindle readers can't view it - go to the link above to see it], where a robot learns how to open a cupboard door and then uploads that learning to a central database for other robots to use, we see the beginnings of what could be a vast learning mechanism for robots. As the Roboearth website pointed out, this has big implications.
At its core, RoboEarth is a World Wide Web for robots: a giant network and database repository where robots can share information and learn from each other about their behavior and their environment. Bringing a new meaning to the phrase “experience is the best teacher”, the goal of RoboEarth is to allow robotic systems to benefit from the experience of other robots, paving the way for rapid advances in machine cognition and behaviour, and ultimately, for more subtle and sophisticated human-machine interaction.
The question remains, will they learn Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics?


Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The fall of the Roman empire and the rise of Islam

From The Guardian:  The fall of the Roman empire and the rise of Islam

Rome's collapse inspired many gripping tales, from Gibbon's history to Dune and Battlestar Galactica. The story of Arthur's Camelot has its origins in this era of political convulsion, as does a narrative that has taken on vast global importance – the foundation of Islam

Medusa head
Head of Medusa, at the Severan Forum, Leptis Magna, Libya. Photograph: © Martin Bedall/Alamy
Whenever modern civilisations contemplate their own mortality, there is one ghost that will invariably rise up from its grave to haunt their imaginings. In February 1776, a few months after the publication of the first volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon commented gloomily on the news from America, where rebellion against Britain appeared imminent. "The decline of the two empires, Roman and British, proceeds at an equal pace." Now, with the west mired in recession and glancing nervously over its shoulder at China, the same parallel is being dusted down. Last summer, when the Guardian's Larry Elliott wrote an article on the woes of the US economy, the headline almost wrote itself: "Decline and fall of the American empire".
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Historians, it is true, have become increasingly uncomfortable with narratives of decline and fall. Few now would accept that the conquest of Roman territory by foreign invaders was a guillotine brought down on the neck of classical civilisation. The transformation from the ancient world to the medieval is recognised as something far more protracted. "Late antiquity" is the term scholars use for the centuries that witnessed its course. Roman power may have collapsed, but the various cultures of the Roman empire mutated and evolved. "We see in late antiquity," so Averil Cameron, one of its leading historians, has observed, "a mass of experimentation, new ways being tried and new adjustments made."
Yet it is a curious feature of the transformation of the Roman world into something recognisably medieval that it bred extraordinary tales even as it impoverished the ability of contemporaries to keep a record of them. "The greatest, perhaps, and most awful scene, in the history of mankind": so Gibbon described his theme. He was hardly exaggerating: the decline and fall of the Roman empire was a convulsion so momentous that even today its influence on stories with an abiding popular purchase remains greater, perhaps, than that of any other episode in history. It can take an effort, though, to recognise this. In most of the narratives informed by the world of late antiquity, from world religions to recent science-fiction and fantasy novels, the context provided by the fall of Rome's empire has tended to be disguised or occluded.

Consider a single sheet of papyrus bearing the decidedly unromantic sobriquet of PERF 558. It was uncovered back in the 19th century at the Egyptian city of Herakleopolis, a faded ruin 80 miles south of Cairo. Herakleopolis itself had passed most of its existence in a condition of somnolent provincialism: first as an Egyptian city, and then, following the conquest of the country by Alexander the Great, as a colony run by and largely for Greeks. The makeover given to it by this new elite was to prove an enduring one. A thousand years on – and some 600 years after its absorption into the Roman empire – Herakleopolis still sported a name that provided, on the banks of the Nile, a little touch of far-off Greece: "the city of Heracles". PERF 558 too, in its own humble way, also bore witness to the impact on Egypt of an entire millennium of foreign rule. It was a receipt, issued for 65 sheep, presented to two officials bearing impeccably Hellenic names Christophoros and Theodorakios and written in Greek.
But not in Greek alone. The papyrus sheet also featured a second language, one never before seen in Egypt. What was it doing there, on an official council receipt? The sheep, according to a note added in Greek on the back, had been requisitioned by "Magaritai" – but who or what were they? The answer was to be found on the front of the papyrus sheet, within the text of the receipt itself. The "Magaritai", it appeared, were none other than the people known as "Saracens": nomads from Arabia, long dismissed by the Romans as "despised and insignificant". Clearly, that these barbarians were now in a position to extort sheep from city councillors suggested a dramatic reversal of fortunes. Nor was that all. The most bizarre revelation of the receipt, perhaps, lay in the fact that a race of shiftless nomads, bandits who for as long as anyone could remember had been lost to an unvarying barbarism, appeared to have developed their own calendar. "The 30th of the month of Pharmouthi of the first indiction": so the receipt was logged in Greek, a date which served to place it in year 642 since the birth of Christ. But it was also, so the receipt declared in the Saracens' own language, "the year twenty two": 22 years since what? Some momentous occurance, no doubt, of evidently great significance to the Saracens themselves. But what precisely, and whether it might have contributed to the arrival of the newcomers in Egypt, and how it was to be linked to that enigmatic title "Magaritai", PERF 558 does not say.
We can now recognise the document as the marker of something seismic. The Magaritai were destined to implant themselves in the country far more enduringly than the Greeks or the Romans had ever done. Arabic, the language they had brought with them, and that appears as such a novelty on PERF 558, is nowadays so native to Egypt that the country has come to rank as the power-house of Arab culture. Yet even a transformation of that order barely touches on the full scale of the changes which are hinted at so prosaically. A new age, of which that tax receipt issued in Herakleopolis in "the year 22" ranks as the oldest surviving dateable document, had been brought into being. This, to almost one in four people alive today, is a matter of more than mere historical interest. Infinitely more – for it touches, in their opinion, on the very nature of the Divine. The question of what it was that had brought the Magaritai to Herakleopolis, and to numerous other cities besides, has lain, for many centuries now, at the heart of a great and global religionIslam.

It was the prompting hand of God, not a mere wanton desire to extort sheep, that had first motivated the Arabs to leave their desert homeland. Such, at any rate, was the conviction of Ibn Hisham, a scholar based in Egypt who wrote a century and a half after the first appearance of the Magaritai in Herakleopolis, but whose fascination with the period, and with the remarkable events that had stamped it, was all-consuming. No longer, by AD 800, were the Magaritai to be reckoned a novelty. Instead – known now as "Muslims", or "those who submit to God" – they had succeeded in winning for themselves a vast agglomeration of territories: an authentically global empire. Ibn Hisham, looking back at the age which had first seen the Arabs grow conscious of themselves as a chosen people, and surrounded as he was by the ruins of superceded civilisations, certainly had no lack of pages to fill.
PERF 558 PERF 558 … the receipt for 65 sheep, issued in year 22, written in Greek and Arabic. Photograph: National Museum In Vienna What was it that had brought the Arabs as conquerors to cities such as Herakleopolis, and far beyond? The ambition of Ibn Hisham was to provide an answer. The story he told was that of an Arab who had lived almost two centuries previously, and been chosen by God as the seal of His prophets: Muhammad. Although Ibn Hisham was himself certainly drawing on earlier material, his is the oldest biography to have survived, in the form we have it, into the present day. The details it provided would become fundamental to the way that Muslims have interpreted their faith ever since. That Muhammad had received a series of divine revelations; that he had grown up in the depths of Arabia, in a pagan metropolis, Mecca; that he had fled it for another city, Yathrib, where he had established the primal Muslim state; that this flight, or hijra, had transformed the entire order of time, and come to provide Muslims with their Year One: all this was enshrined to momentous effect by Ibn Hisham. The contrast between Islam and the age that had preceded it was rendered in his biography as clear as that between midday and the dead of night. The white radiance of Muhammad's revelations, blazing first across Arabia and then to the limits of the world, had served to bring all humanity into a new age of light.
The effect of this belief was to prove incalculable. To this day, even among non-Muslims, it continues to inform the way in which the history of the Middle East is interpreted and understood. Whether in books, museums or universities, the ancient world is imagined to have ended with the coming of Muhammad. Yet even on the presumption that what Islam teaches is correct, and that the revelations of Muhammad did indeed descend from heaven, it is still pushing things to imagine that the theatre of its conquests was suddenly conjured, over the span of a single generation, into a set from The Arabian Nights. That the Arab conquests were part of a much vaster and more protracted drama, the decline and fall of the Roman empire, has been too readily forgotten.

Place these conquests in their proper context and a different narrative emerges. Heeding the lesson taught by Gibbon back in the 18th century, that the barbarian invasions of Europe and the victories of the Saracens were different aspects of the same phenomenon, serves to open up vistas of drama unhinted at by the traditional Muslim narratives. The landscape through which the Magaritai rode was certainly not unique to Egypt. In the west too, there were provinces that had witnessed the retreat and collapse of a superpower, the depredations of foreign invaders, and the desperate struggle of locals to fashion a new security for themselves. Only in the past few decades has this perspective been restored to its proper place in the academic spotlight. Yet it is curious that long before the historian Peter Brown came to write his seminal volume The World of Late Antiquity – which traced, to influential effect, patterns throughout the half millennium between Marcus Aurelius and the founding of Baghdad – a number of bestselling novelists had got there first. What their work served to demonstrate was that the fall of the Roman empire, even a millennium and a half on, had lost none of its power to inspire gripping narratives.
"There were nearly twenty-five million inhabited planets in the Galaxy then, and not one but owed allegiance to the Empire whose seat was on Trantor. It was the last half-century in which that could be said." So begins Isaac Asimov's Foundation, a self-conscious attempt to relocate Gibbon's magnum opus to outer space. First published in 1951, it portrayed a galactic imperium on the verge of collapse, and the attempt by an enlightened band of scientists to insure that eventual renaissance would follow its fall. The influence of the novel, and its two sequels, has been huge, and can be seen in every subsequent sci-fi epic that portrays sprawling empires set among the stars – from Star Wars to Battlestar Galactica. Unlike most of his epigoni, however, Asimov drew direct sustenance from his historical model. The parabola of Asimov's narrative closely follows that of Gibbon. Plenipotentiaries visit imperial outposts for the last time; interstellar equivalents of Frankish or Ostrogothic kingdoms sprout on the edge of the Milky Way; the empire, just as its Roman precursor had done under Justinian, attempts a comeback. Most intriguingly of all, in the second novel of the series, we are introduced to an enigmatic character named the Mule, who emerges seemingly from nowhere to transform the patterns of thought of billions, and conquer much of the galaxy. The context makes it fairly clear that he is intended to echo Muhammad. In an unflattering homage to Muslim tradition, Asimov even casts the Mule as a mutant, a freak of nature so unexpected that nothing in human science could possibly have explained or anticipated him.
Parallels with the tales told of Muhammad are self-evident in a second great epic of interstellar empire, Frank Herbert's Dune. A prophet arises from the depths of a desert world to humiliate an empire and launch a holy war – a jihad. Herbert's hero, Paul Atreides, is a man whose sense of supernatural mission is shadowed by self-doubt. "I cannot do the simplest thing," he reflects, "without its becoming a legend." Time will prove him correct. Without ever quite intending it, he founds a new religion, and launches a wave of conquest that ends up convulsing the galaxy. In the end, we know, there will be "only legend, and nothing to stop the jihad".
There is an irony in this, an echo not only of the spectacular growth of the historical caliphate, but of how the traditions told about Muhammad evolved as well. Ibn Hisham's biography may have been the first to survive – but it was not the last. As the years went by, and ever more lives of the Prophet came to be written, so the details grew ever more miraculous. Fresh evidence – wholly unsuspected by Muhammad's earliest biographers – would see him revered as a man able to foretell the future, to receive messages from camels, and to pick up a soldier's eyeball, reinsert it, and make it work better than before. The result was yet one more miracle: the further in time from the Prophet a biographer, the more extensive his biography was likely to be.
Herbert's novel counterpoints snatches of unreliable biography – in which Paul has become "Muad'Dib", the legendary "Dune Messiah" – with the main body of the narrative, which reveals a more secular truth. Such, of course, is the prerogative of fiction. Nevertheless, it does suggest, for the historian, an unsettling question: to what extent might the traditions told by Muslims about their prophet contradict the actual reality of the historical Muhammad? Nor is it only western scholars who are prone to asking this – so too, for instance, are Salafists, keen as they are to strip away the accretions of centuries, and reveal to the faithful the full unspotted purity of the primal Muslim state. But what if, after all the cladding has been torn down, there is nothing much left, beyond the odd receipt for sheep? That Muhammad existed is evident from the scattered testimony of Christian near-contemporaries, and that the Magaritai themselves believed a new order of time to have been ushered in is clear from their mention of a "Year 22". But do we see in the mirror held up by Ibn Hisham, and the biographers who followed him, an authentic reflection of Muhammad's life – or something distorted out of recognition by a combination of awe and the passage of time?

There may be a lack of early Muslim sources for Muhammad's life, but in other regions of the former Roman empire there are even more haunting silences. The deepest of all, perhaps, is the one that settled over the one-time province of Britannia. Around 800AD, at the same time as Ibn Hisham was drawing up a list of nine engagements in which Muhammad was said personally to have fought, a monk in the far distant wilds of Wales was compiling a very similar record of victories, 12 in total, all of them attributable to a single leader, and cast by their historian as indubitable proof of the blessings of God. The name of the monk was Nennius; and the name of his hero – who was supposed to have lived long before – was Arthur. The British warlord, like the Arab prophet, was destined to have an enduring afterlife. The same centuries which would see Muslim historians fashion ever more detailed and loving histories of Muhammad and his companions would also witness, far beyond the frontiers of the caliphate, the gradual transformation of the mysterious Arthur and his henchmen into the model of a Christian court. The battles listed by Nennius would come largely to be forgotten: in their place, haunting the imaginings of all Christendom, would be the conviction that there had once existed a realm where the strong had protected the weak, where the bravest warriors had been the purest in heart, and where a sense of Christian fellowship had bound everyone to the upholding of a common order. The ideal was to prove a precious one – so much so that to this day, there remains a mystique attached to the name of Camelot.
Nor was the world of Arthur the only dimension of magic and mystery to have emerged out of the shattered landscape of the one-time Roman empire. The English, the invaders against whom Arthur was supposed to have fought, told their own extraordinary tales. Gawping at the crumbling masonry of Roman towns, they saw in it "the work of giants". Gazing into the shadows beyond their halls, they imagined ylfe ond orcn̩as, and orthanc enta geweorc Р"elves and orcs", and "the skilful work of giants". These stories, in turn, were only a part of the great swirl of epic, Gothic and Frankish and Norse, which preserved in their verses the memory of terrible battles, and mighty kings, and the rise and fall of empires: trace-elements of the death-agony of Roman greatness. Most of these poems, though, like the kingdoms that were so often their themes, no longer exist. They are fragments, or mere rumours of fragments. The wonder-haunted fantasies of post-Roman Europe have themselves become spectres and phantasms. "Alas for the lost lore, the annals and old poets."
So wrote JRR Tolkien, philologist, scholar of Old English, and a man so convinced of the abiding potency of the vanished world of epic that he devoted his life to conjuring it back into being. The Lord of the Rings may not be an allegory of the fall of the Roman empire, but it is shot through with echoes of the sound and fury of that "awful scene". What happened and what might have happened swirl, and meet, and merge. An elf quotes a poem on an abandoned Roman town. Horsemen with Old English names ride to the rescue of a city that is vast and beautiful, and yet, like Constantinople in the wake of the Arab conquests, "falling year by year into decay". Armies of a Dark Lord repeat the strategy of Attila in the battle of the Catalaunian plains – and suffer a similar fate. Tolkien's ambition, so Tom Shippey has written, "was to give back to his own country the legends that had been taken from it". In the event, his achievement was something even more startling. Such was the popularity of The Lord of the Rings, and such its influence on an entire genre of fiction, that it breathed new life into what for centuries had been the merest bones of an entire but forgotten worldscape.
It would seem, then, that when an empire as great as Rome's declines and falls, the reverberations can be made to echo even in outer space, even in a mythical Middle Earth. In the east as in the west, in the Fertile Crescent as in Britain, what emerged from the empire's collapse, forged over many centuries, were new identities, new values, new presumptions. Indeed, many of these would end up taking on such a life of their own that the very circumstances of their birth would come to be obscured – and on occasion forgotten completely. The age that had witnessed the collapse of Roman power, refashioned by those looking back to it centuries later in the image of their own times, was cast by them as one of wonders and miracles, irradiated by the supernatural, and by the bravery of heroes. The potency of that vision is one that still blazes today.


Monday, December 3, 2012

OP-ED: Investments in STEM Education Are A Key to Our Military Strength

From  OP-ED: Investments in STEM Education Are A Key to Our Military Strength

Recently I watched a Science Channel show about Isaac Asimov and his focus on how robots would one day be integrated into everyday life and society.

One segment featured soldiers in Iraq using small robotic devices to locate and disarm IEDs. The teenaged operator spoke of how the robot saved the lives of his buddies and had essentially become a valued member of his platoon. That sentiment played out viscerally when the robot was blown up by a pipe bomb. The young G.I. gathered up his damaged robot much like he would have an injured soldier, and carried its battered remains back to base, where he begged technicians to “save him”.

Afterwards I wondered how long it took our incoming recruits to learn the skills necessary for success on the battlefield. Given the fact that most of these young heroes are entering military service directly out of high school, I wondered how many had the necessary science, engineering, technology and mathematics (STEM) skills to quickly learn the technologies they were using.

On average it costs about $125,000 per year to feed, equip, clothe and train each soldier. Much of that cost is incurred during the long months of training they undergo for their varied specialties. Training that, in many respects, mirrors the core STEM subjects.

Today’s warriors to have a working knowledge of computer science, physics, algebra, aeronautics, logistics, astronomy, rocketry, engineering and more. How beneficial would it be to our nation’s military forces if recruits already had this knowledge before they entered basic training?

There is no doubt our service members are well-versed in these subjects by the time they leave military service – a testament to the outstanding job our Armed Forces does in training them. But how much easier and more cost efficient would it be if these recruits had this kind of training while in high school?

As federal deficits grow, pressure is being put on military leaders to squeeze every penny they can out of declining defense budgets. How much could be saved in training alone with a ready-made pool of recruits that could be plugged into duty after only a few months, rather than the year or more it can take to train soldiers in the more advanced technologies?

Perhaps the time has come for our military leaders to weigh in on the ongoing efforts to reform American education and insist upon a greater focus on STEM skills. Working hand in hand with educators and institutions, a curriculum could be developed that directly addresses their needs and is integrated into the classes that thousands of high school ROTC students take on a daily basis.

Or perhaps go even farther and launch a STEM-oriented curriculum for the 90,000 some thousand students that are being educated on military bases around the world. These two groups would serve as a real-world laboratory for the development of a national STEM curriculum that could be adopted as part of our national educational policy.

There is no doubt that STEM-trained recruits will benefit the nation’s military as it will reduce the costs of training, speed their assignment to duty, and make for a better, more disciplined caliber of soldier entering the service. America’s STEM-oriented educators stand ready to assist our nation’s Armed Forces in this most worthy effort. We understand the military’s needs and are looking for direction and engagement in implementing such a STEM-heavy curriculum. A better soldier, and more efficient military will be the happy result. After all, they are tomorrow’s STEM workforce.


Sunday, December 2, 2012

Autom, the Robotic Weight Coach: Interview with Intuitive Automata’s Founder, Dr. Cory Kidd

From  Autom, the Robotic Weight Coach: Interview with Intuitive Automata’s Founder, Dr. Cory Kidd

If you want to learn more about her, you can see our web site for Autom at and if you want one of your own or to support us in our quest to bring beneficial social robots to the world, please support our Indiegogo campaign today at
1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; 2) A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; 3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.   - Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics
If Isaac Asimov were a Medgadget reader, he would be excited to learn about the developments in robotics, especially in the field of healthcare (e.g. the da Vinci surgical system). With the exception of products such as the Roomba, however, robots have failed to penetrate the consumer market in a meaningful way. Intuitive Automata Inc. is a company that aims to change that with their Autom robot, a friendly machine that aims to be your weight loss coach. They recently launched an indiegogo campaign to fund their initial manufacturing run of the robot. We caught up with Intuitive Automata’s Founder and CEO, Dr. Cory Kidd, to learn more about how he believes the Autom can be applied to healthcare.
Shiv Gaglani, Medgadget: What is your background in technology, especially as it relates to medicine?
Cory Kidd Autom, the Robotic Weight Coach: Interview with Intuitive Automatas Founder, Dr. Cory Kidd
Dr. Cory Kidd: I did my undergraduate degree in Computer Science at Georgia Tech, where I focused on human-computer interaction.  I was working on projects related to health and the elderly population and ended up helping to oversee the construction and running of a research lab for work on aging in place, the Aware Home (  In 2001 I went back to school, going to the MIT Media Lab where I did my M.S. and Ph.D. in human-robot interaction.  The first few years of that were focused on the psychology of these interactions and the last 3-4 years I was working jointly at Boston University Medical Center in the clinic of Dr. Caroline Apovian.
Over the last nearly decade and a half, I have had the opportunity to work on a wide variety of health-related challenges with many types of technology.

Medgadget: How did you come up with the idea (and name) for Autom? It sounds like “Autumn” – are there plans to make a corresponding male robot?
Kidd: The name ‘Autom’ is sort of a play on words.  For psychological reasons, we wanted Autom to be seen as more feminine — people in western cultures tend to see women as more helpful and supportive and the work of Cliff Nass at Stanford University shows that these stereotypes carry over into technology.  We named the company Intuitive Automata using the word for robots that pre-dates the actual word ‘robot’ by a long time.  (‘Robot’ is a relatively new word coined less than a century ago by the Capek brothers for a play.  The genesis of the word isn’t very positive, it means “serf labor” or “hard work.”)
Then the name Autom is a shortening of Automata and can also be a woman’s name, so we went with that for our first product, our health coach.
We plan to offer other voices, other personalities, and additional accessories in the future so that everyone will be able to customize their robot as they like.

Medgadget: Who do you expect to benefit from purchasing Autom? In what ways?
Kidd: Our first product is our health coach that helps someone who is trying to lose or maintain their weight.  If we look around the US, we have 69% of our adult population overweight or obese, and the numbers are growing around the rest of the world as well.  One of the biggest challenges for people trying to diet is simply sticking with the diet and Autom provides the motivation and support that is needed to succeed.  So there are many people who could benefit from having Autom at home as their coach.

Medgadget: Do you have any initial results that indicate how effective Autom is at actually being a weight coach?
Kidd: Yes, there are clinical results showing the efficacy of Autom in keeping people on a weight loss program for longer than either a computer running identical software or today’s standard of care, the paper log. This was published as part of my Ph.D. dissertation at MIT and is available at

Medgadget: We see that there are plans to integrate Autom with devices such as activity monitors and weight scales. Are there plans to integrate Autom with mHealth (e.g. text-messaging, social networking) and – perhaps more ambitiously – EHRs? Do you already have partnerships in line (e.g. with Fitbit, Withings, Zeo, etc)?
Kidd: Yes, integration is an important part of what we’re doing with Autom and with trends in consumer healthcare technology in general.  One of the exciting things about where the industry is moving is a trend towards open APIs.  So things like the Fitbit activity tracker or the Withings wireless scale have data available that we can integrate with without needing to go through any process of forming a partnership.
As we’re preselling Autom on indiegogo (, we’re taking requests from our early customers about which devices we should be integrating and working to get those in place by the time Autom ships.
In the near future, integrating with mHealth applications and technologies is on the drawing board. Creating or partnering with the right smartphone app or two is something that we want to happen in the next six months.
Slightly further down the road, we expect to be integrating with EHRs.  We have a lot of interest in our product from clinicians, from hospitals, from insurers, and from employers.  To make the technology that we’re creating an important and effective part of the healthcare system, I believe that this kind of integration is necessary.

Medgadget: What does Autom use for speech recognition? There’s been a lot of talk about Google’s voice recognition platform and how it trounces Siri – what are your thoughts?
Kidd: We’re looking at integrating speech recognition in the near future, but we’re not quite there yet because of the technology.  One thing that is paramount for us is the user experience.  Autom should be easy for anyone to use, whether you’re the kind of person reading this blog post on your iPad on the go or if you’re someone who has never owned a computer.  In fact, one of our early users was a retired state police trooper outside of Boston who wanted to have nothing to do with Autom when I brought her into his home and then refused to give her up a couple months later!
With speech recognition, it’s gotten to the point where it works pretty well on your mobile phone.  Not perfectly, but definitely much more usable than a few years ago.  Now when we move the microphone from being an inch from your mouth to on Autom on the counter top in front of you, it starts picking up more background noise and the recognition accuracy starts to drop.  We don’t want people to have the experience of Autom constantly saying things like “I’m sorry, I didn’t get that.”, “Can you repeat that?”, or “I think you said…”.  We want to make sure she works well for everyone consistently before we introduce new features.
If you want to learn more about her, you can see our web site for Autom at and if you want one of your own or to support us in our quest to bring beneficial social robots to the world, please support our Indiegogo campaign today at