Throwback technology rocks – Part 2

For several months at least I’ve been reading the coverage about the Antikythera Mechanism – a 2,000 year old machine supposed to have been used to calculate astronomical events.

The delicate workings at the heart of a 2,000-year-old analogue computer have been revealed by scientists. The Antikythera Mechanism, discovered more than 100 years ago in a Roman shipwreck, was used by ancient Greeks to display astronomical cycles.

BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Ancient Moon ‘computer’ revisited

The BBC has been covering it regularly and every time they do I wonder what happened to this technology?  Why did it vanish?  Were there other examples?  Where could it have lead?  Were there other similar technologies from other ancient cultures that were developed only to turn into a dead end?

Today, technologies disappear when they become obsolete – either because a better technology has arrived or because the need they met no longer exists or is no longer important to a culture.  What might this ancient device have been replaced by?  Or was it a prototype developed by a lone inventor who went down with the ship on which it was discovered?  The scientists studying it believe that isn’t the case, but how can we explain or understand the fact that no other examples have been discovered?

No earlier geared mechanism of any sort has ever been found. Nothing close to its technological sophistication appears again for well over a millennium, when astronomical clocks appear in medieval Europe. It stands as a strange exception, stripped of context, of ancestry, of descendants.

In search of lost time : Article : Nature

Unless and until other examples turn up – or classical descriptions of it are discovered – everything about this device will be open for conjecture.  It’s a pretty cool story though and a very cool testament to ingenuity.

[tags]Antikythera Mechanism, technology, ancient, BBC, Nature[/tags]

Is Michael Kinsley joking?

In a column entitled, “Like I Care,” Michael Kinsley vents on the “ego” aspect of the Web, social networking and blogging.  Does he not own a mirror?  Or perhaps he thinks that sharing thoughts and opinions should somehow be limited to an anointed few rather than to the many.  In either case, his column (which manages to use the word “solipsism” twice) is a sad attempt to belittle the shared thoughts, ideas, feelings and opinions of the millions of people participating in shared media.

The first person I knew who had a Web site of his own was a fellow Washington journalist. This was when many journalists were still just getting into e-mail, but the URL for this Web site quickly circulated around town and around the world. Why? Well, we were all impressed by the technological savvy. But we were absolutely astounded by the solipsism. What on earth had gotten into Joe (not his real name)? This was a modest, soft-spoken and self-effacing fellow, yet his Web site portrayed him as an egotistical monster.

Michael Kinsley – Like I Care – washingtonpost.com

Mr. Kinsley makes his living off of his ego, why is he troubled by those who, like him, wish to reach out and touch the world?

[tags]Michael Kinsley, ego, social networking[/tags]

Over the River

I chose the name “Over the River” for this blog because the view from my window is out over the Charles River. I also end up going “over the river” regularly for meetings or to see friends. I’ve noticed an uptick in people coming to the site looking for the lyrics to the song, “Over the River,” and because I’m a pretty good guy, I’ve posted a few different versions below. Happy Holidays.

Over the River and Through the Woods

Over the river and through the woods
To Grandmother’s house we go.
The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh
Through white and drifted snow.

Over the river and through the woods,
Oh, how the wind does blow.
It stings the toes and bites the nose
As over the ground we go.

Over the river and through the woods
To have a full day of play.
Oh, hear the bells ringing ting-a-ling-ling,
For it is Christmas Day.

Over the river and through the woods,
Trot fast my dapple gray;
Spring o’er the ground just iike a hound,
For this is Christmas Day.

Over the river and through the woods
And straight through the barnyard gate.
It seems that we go so dreadfully slow;
It is so hard to wait.Over the river and through the woods,
Now Grandma’s cap I spy.
Hurrah for fun; the pudding’s done;
Hurrah for the pumpkin pie.

Over the River and Through the Woods

Over the river and thru the wood,
To grandfather’s house we go;
The horse knows the way
To carry the sleigh,
Thru the white and drifted snow, oh!
Over the river and thru the wood,
Oh, how the wind does blow!
It stings the toes,
And bites the nose,
As over the ground we go.

Over the river and thru the wood,
To have a first-rate play;
Oh, hear the bell ring,
“Ting-a-ling-ling!”
Hurrah for Thanksgiving Day-ay!
Over the river and thru the wood,
Trot fast my dapple gray!
Spring over the ground,
Like a hunting hound!
For this is Thanksgiving Day.

Over the River (or Thanksgiving Day) Written By: Lydia Maria Child; Music By: Unknown

Over the river and thru the wood,
To grandfather’s house we go;
The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh,
Thru the white and drifted snow, oh!

Over the river and thru the wood,
Oh, how the wind does blow!
It stings the toes and bites the nose,
As over the ground we go.

Over the river and thru the wood,
To have a first-rate play;
Oh, hear the bell ring, “Ting-a-ling-ling!”
Hurrah for Thanksgiving Day-ay!

Over the river and thru the wood,
Trot fast my dapple gray!
Spring over the ground,
Like a hunting hound!
For this is Thanksgiving Day.

Over the river and through the wood,
And straight through the barnyard gate.
We seem to go extremely slow
It is so hard to wait!

Over the river and through the wood —
Now Grandmother’s cap I spy!
Hurrah for fun! Is the pudding done?
Hurrah for the pumpkin pie!

I always thought of this as being a Thanksgiving song so it’s interesting that the first version has adapted it for Christmas. I’ve also always heard it as, “to Grandmother’s house we go,” but except for the first version the other two both say “Grandfather’s house.” The last of the three versions, from the Department of Health and Human Services, seems the most complete and genuine since it includes the name of the woman who wrote the lyrics at least. I’ll probably just sing the first verse, over and over, the way I remember it:

Over the river and through the woods
To grandmother’s house we’ll go
The horse knows the way, to carry the sleigh
Through bright and drifting snow-o

Over the river and through the woods
To granmother’s house we’ll go
The horse knows the way, to carry the sleigh
Through bright and drifting snow

[tags]Over the River, lyrics, holiday music[/tags]

MIT Communications Forum: The Craft of Writing Science Fiction with Joe Haldeman

Last night’s Communication Forum was different than the ones I’ve attended in the past. Where those had had a number of panelists talking about a specific topic, this one featured only one person talking about a very broad theme.

Joe Haldeman is a professor of writing at MIT and is a four-time Nebula winner. His novels include The Forever War, Old Twentieth and Camouflage. The evening was moderated by Henry Jenkins, head of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program.

Haldeman started by reading several selections from his upcoming novel, “The Accidental Time Machine,” a story set in and around MIT over the course of shifting time. Based on what he read last night it should be great.

Jenkins asked about the story’s representation of MIT and Haldeman said that he enjoyed the opportunity to think about and research the history of the school. Even at the start, he found it was very forward-looking – yet cautions it the way it watched out for the conservative sensibilities of the time. Toward the end of “The Accidental Time Machine”, the protagonist finds himself on the early campus of MIT – a man with no history but a man who knows (but won’t reveal) the future. Haldeman enjoyed the opportunity to explore the issues presented by this scenario.

The conversation turned next to an interesting feature of speculative fiction: not only are the stories about science, they are also about scientists. Haldeman, who has been around scientists since he was an undergrad, says they are misrepresented in fiction – and he has tried to make his scientists realistic and bases them on people that he has known. “A great thing about being a novelist,” he said, “is that anybody who’s ever done anything bad to you, you can get back at them sooner or later.”

The work of doing science, he continued, required tremendous intellectual discipline – without the ability to explain or share what you do with anyone not involved with your specific field. If you want to write a realistic science fiction story, you need to recognize that science is extremely compartmentalized.

In the early days on science fiction, Jenkins noted, the scientist was often portrayed as a lone tinker or inventor. Now the scientist is represented in a corporate environment or research institution. He wondered how this changed the types of stories the science fiction tells. Haldeman suggested that one needs to rethink the satisfaction of science. One of the reasons he left science was the realization that he wouldn’t ever be that lone hero of astrophysics and that his attraction to science was “aesthetic rather than intellectual.”

One of the ideas behind hard science fiction – beginning with Hugo Gernsback – is that it be used to popularize science and be a means to educate people. Gernsback’s idea was that there should be a literary form to make scientific ideas accessible to ordinary people. He went so far as to consider printing all of the scientific facts in a story in italics but he realized that there was a value in the speculative aspect of science fiction.

Gernsback was an interesting figure, according to Haldeman, because he believed that the only value of science fiction was in turning young people into scientists or engineers. Unfortunately, Gernsback couldn’t tell good writing from bad – demonstrating the paradox that something can be good science fiction but terrible writing. “The thing about science fiction,” said Haldeman, “is that it’s a form of writing; but it’s also a way of looking at things, it’s a mode of thought.”

Jenkins asked Haldeman to share some of his memories of some of the pioneer of science fiction. He talked about Jack Williamson (who died only a few days before the Forum) and Edmund Hamilton; and about Williamson and Hamilton traveling down the Mississippi together in the 1920s and the conversations they must have had, and about Hamilton’s huge imagination and about Williamson being just one of a kind. Haldeman told of visiting Williamson at his home in New Mexico and of a conversation they had about gravitational lensing in globular clusters and its implications for planetary formation. “Jack knew exactly what I was talking about,” he said, “We’d read the same articles – he was a science fiction writer. There are a lot of people writing science fiction now, that wouldn’t know a carbonaceous chondrite asteroid from their ass.”

This led into a discussion of the science fiction writer as a consumer of scientific research.

Haldeman felt that it isn’t so much reading the research as it is observation. He reads New Scientist and Scientific American and related a story. A few days ago, returning home on the T from teaching, he was reading the latest New Scientist. There was an article about Wendy Mao and her team of researchers who’d compressed water under thousands of atmospheres of pressure for six hours and then bombarded it with x rays. The result was an alloy of metallic hydrogen and oxygen. “Oh,” he remembered thinking, “we never came up with that.”

“Can you believe this shit?,” he said. “Because this is the way I did chemistry in junior high school. I can imagine them now: ‘well, we’ve got this thing, why don’t we put water in it and crush it down with diamond pressure, and then, while we’ve got it that way, lets just put x rays on it for six hours and see what the fuck happens’.”

Jenkins wanted to know what type of responses this article triggered for Haldeman as a writer. His immediate response, he said, to the article was social – just imagining her and her gang thinking about and conducting this experiment. He described his efforts at imagining a new kind of alien and how he was inspired by plastination exhibit at the Boston Museum of Science to consider a life form that exists on a radically different timescale than our own. [Haldeman requested that the details not be shared as it may be included in an upcoming novel.]

Haldeman recently wrote a piece for the Comparative Media Studies newsletter about the mission of science fiction at a time when science itself is under attack and Jenkins asked that he share that vision. “Religion is out of hand on a lot of different levels and science fiction is a tool against religion. Science fiction is a tool for rationalism,” he said. “Things like faith-based initiatives work really well – 9/11 was a faith-based initiative and that changed all of American life.”

The discussion had been focused on the scientific part of science fiction, but now things turned to the literary issues. Jenkins brought up the complaint that science fiction often lacks strong characterization and other literary niceties. Herdeman pointed out that most of his fiction is character based because he writes things that he would like to read. He believes that the best science fiction needs to do a good job on both the science and the fiction.

Jenkins asked Herdeman to talk about what he has learned from other writers – and particularly Hemingway, of whom is is a big fan. Hemingway, Herdeman explained, hated science fiction. He’s read all of the legitimate Hemingway and listen to and presented papers on him as well. He believes that all writer should be fascinated with another writer to help them develop a filter.

“It’s like in optics,” Herdeman explained, “you can have limited band pass filters, it can tell you a lot about something that you’re looking at. You get a hydrogen three filter and look at a cloud of gas out in the middle of the constellation Cygnus and you see a thing that nobody could see without the filter. And then you take the filter away and see what everybody else is seeing.” When he reads something like Faulkner, Herdeman is able to apply his Hemingway limited band pass filter to imagine how Hemingway would have written the passage. “The thing that makes reading and writing infinitely fascinating is this idea that everybody brings his own set of filters to every situation.”

Herdeman went on to relate an experience he’d had that helped him to understand filters and point of view. When he was in the fifth grade, someone published a 3D comic book. The entire story took place in a saloon and featured an outlaw causing trouble who was eventually killed by the sheriff. The story was first told from the sheriff’s point of view, and then from the outlaw’s and then from people simply in the bar. When he finished the comic he suddenly understood that there were billions of ways to tell a story.

Given his role as teacher of writing at MIT, Jenkins wondered about the challenges of getting scientists to write science fiction. The first issue he raised was their timidity – the fact that fledgling scientists tend to be cautious. Another issue is that at MIT, the people taking the course don’t want to be writers and so sometimes they are not terribly concerned with things like style or the quality of their writing.

The conversation next moved to the theme of war, how it is portrayed in fiction and how Herdeman as both a writer and a veteran has approached the topic. “If you’ve been a soldier, writing about war is the first natural thing to do.” Like most vets, his first novel was a war novel. He’s written some since, considered others and may well write more in the future. “I was a soldier for one year – exactly 365 days – 40 years ago – and much of it is still right there all the time.”

Herdeman’s war writing has led to comparisons to Robert Heinlein and some have pointed to “The Forever War” as an answer to “Starship Troopers.” The two were of different generations, different wars (Heinlein fought in WWII) and different points of view – but they had a begrudging respect for one another.

Asked about “Enders Game,” Herdeman agreed that it was the logical for it to be grouped with the other two. “I’d love to see a 3D mapping of the various ideas in the three books. If anyone wants an easy Masters thesis there you go.” Herdeman sees Orson Scott Card as as far from a soldier as you could get but here he’s written a novel with war on a massive scale. “He’s a fine guy but he’s got his limited band pass and I’ve got my limited band pass and never the two shall meet.”

[tags]Joe Herdeman, science fiction, MIT, Communications Forum, Henry Jenkins, Hugo Gernsback, Jack Williamson, Edmund Hamilton, Robert Heinlein, Orson Scott Card, The Forever Wars, Starship Troopers, Enders Game, Wendy Mao[/tags]

Web Quattro Anyone?

I’m going to get in touch with Schick today to see if I can’t borrow the name of their four blade razor to get it ready for when the time comes.  And it may be here soon.

Web 2.0, 3.0, X.O should focus on the IT green field by ZDNet’s Larry Dignan — Down a few pints of Web 2.0 dispatches, ponder The New York Times’ effort to coin Web 3.0 and you’re left with a nagging question: What parts of these aforementioned revolutions are going to affect the information technology department of the future? While folks hop on the Web-2.0-3.0-go-round, which was recapped here by Dan Farber, […]

Blog This: » Web 2.0, 3.0, X.O should focus on the IT green field | Between the Lines | ZDNet.com

Who knows what it will look like, or what super powers it will provide, but rest assured that Web Quattro will be here in due course and it will kick some serious ass.  I just want to be among the first to propose this new naming convention for the next generation Web(s).

[tags]Web 2.0, Web 3.0, Web Quattro, Schick, Quattro, Dan Farber, Larry Dignan, ZDNet, New York Times[/tags]

World Usability Day

Today is World Usability Day and before I go on about it I need to say that I’ve done some pro bono work on the event. The goal is to promote the value of user-centered design and the belief that users have the right and responsibility to ask for things that work better. There are a hundreds of events happening today around the world. You can find more info here.

There are several events happening at the Museum of Science here in Boston. One of them is a walking tour focused on signage and if you’ve ever been to Boston you’ll know that good signs are not one of the things for which the city is known. Unfortunately, the weather is not too good so bring an umbrella.

They have also done several posters for the event that came out pretty well and demonstrate the benefit of usability in fun and accessible ways. This is my personal fave:

World Usability Day Poster 3

Be sure to check out what’s happening in your city and make yourself useful.

[tags]World Usability Day, Usability, ease-of-use, Boston, Museum of Science, signage[/tags]