Saturday, February 26, 2011

robot jr

What does the future hold for man and his mechanical helpers? Maybe a better question is; how will the relationship between man and machine evolve? When man's machines were confined to things like stone axes, levers and cotton gins, our 'relationship' to these tools was a simple one, but as man's mechanized helpmates become more and more sophisticated, so to will our interactions with them.

Image "AmalgaMATE" by Michaelo

In a recent podcast, the folks over at Stuff You Should Know, asked "Will robots get married?" Early on in the podcast, the answer was rather matter-of-fact: anytime people start having sex with something, they're bound to start developing feelings for it.

Pardon me? What's that?

As lifelike robots begin to become more accessible, even mainstream, there are some smart folks who believe that people who interact with them will eventually begin to have feelings for them. Especially, as the emotional range robots are able to convey and articulate become more complex. And once you've got people falling in love, and advocating for their loved ones, the next logical steps, according to what I'm reading, is advocating for robot rights and their integration into the society of thinking beings.

Over at Time magazine, Lev Grossman has been chatting with Ray Kurzweil, who still favors the ideas he put down in "The Age of Spiritual Machines"; man and machine will join in a more complete way, by a melding of minds into complex computer systems, potentially leaving our physical bodies--and our mortality--behind.

Are robots just cool tools? Gadgets we'll use to sweep up, put away the groceries, or walk the dog. Or will we someday be talking about human-robot hybrid 'children' that are made up of the combined consciousness of their human and robot parents, and installed in android bodies? And will this kid be nice to your kid on the playground?

I hope Asimov got it right in I, Robot. Just looking around on the internet, there is a boat-load of crap about this stuff. I just read a great review of a crummy book called We, Robot get it? which includes about 50 examples in the subtitle alone.

I don't know about you, but I'm not ready to have the microwave oven making eyes at me.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


Incunabula are books which were printed, rather than inscribed, prior to the year 1500. The date is a little arbitrary, but its what most folks consider the cut off point for incunabula.

Gutenberg Bible, Volume 1, Old Testament, Exodus, Leviticus: Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin

So why does that matter today, February 23, my birthday? Because today is also the birthday of the printed book, and for us, its also the birthday of the incunabulum.

On this day in 1455, Johannes Gutenberg printed the first book in Europe using movable type: the Gutenberg Bible. Gutenberg developed his press, using movable type, in Mainz, Germany and chose a bible for his first foray into mass production. Gutenberg chose the bible because of the demand, which hand inscription kept high, due to its time consuming, and often times, inaccurate process. Gutenberg printed about 200 copies; some on vellum, and more on paper, the numbers vary according to where I've looked. Only 21 are known to still exist, that number seems pretty well established.

I should probably mention that this date, today, is the traditional date used. Most reliable sources I've read, don't mention this date. Most state that it probably took Gutenberg a number of years to complete all of his work on the bibles. In fact, on the talk pages at Wikipedia, there is an active discussion about what exactly happened on February 23rd, and how to include it in the entry on Gutenberg and his bible.

Interestingly, each of the 21 surviving copies is different. Gutenberg's work was to print the pages, and then the collected pages were folded into quires and sold. The buyer, typically churches and monasteries, would have added the illuminations and rubrications most bible users would expect to find in an inscribed manuscript copy. And then the book would be bound, according to the owner's wishes. These hand embellishments, and individual bindings, make each Gutenberg Bible unique. Compare paper and vellum copies here!

Posted wit' minutes ta spare! Happy Birthday to me and incunabula everywhere!

Sunday, February 20, 2011


Mmm... high quality digital images of old books and incunabula. Biblioteca Valenciana, which is the library of Comunitat Valenciana, has a program called the Biblioteca Valenciana Digital (BIVALDI), to digitize import works relevant to the history and culture of the Comunitat Valenciana Autonomous Region. That's what I guess is like a state, province, or region within España. The library/project is associated with La Biblioteca Pública de Valencia, which may be their mother institution, and is supported by the Ministerio De Cultura and the GeneralitatValenciana (the Ministry of Culture, and the Regional Government.)

[I'm trying to translate what I'm reading from Spanish and Catalan, based on my poor Italian, so if you find an error, please let me know.]

According to their website, which thankfully, has an English version, the digital collection includes all kinds of stuff, "From incunabula to manuscripts, from books of local customs and manners to Valencian literary classics..."

Thursday, February 17, 2011

charlemagne pursuit

Oh Steve Berry, you scamp! That Cotton Malone of yours, sure does get into a pinch now and again. Malone is the hardest working, ex-Magellan Billet agent around. Forget that there is no such thing as the Magellan Billet. Malone is like that lady on Murder She Wrote: he can't step out for a cup of coffee, or run into an old girlfriend, without an international incident blowing up in his face. But if that wasn't the case, then where would we be? We've got to suspend disbelieve and jump in.

I like the Cotton Malone series, and I've read a few of them, but this one didn't do it for me like the others did. I had a feeling about this one from the first few pages. Too many people died in this story without a real good reason. The other Cotton Malone stories had some kind of major discovery, or grand restoration, or unfathomable mystery that needed to be solved, but this one was personal for Malone. Sort of.

Malone starts out looking for something from his own past, and gets tangled up in a big mess. And for the life of me, I can't figure out why he didn't extract himself from it, and just go on with what he was doing. Berry just didn't explain that well enough for me. Its almost as if Malone was looking at a horrible accident unfolding in front of his eyes, and just couldn't look away.

Anyway, Berry always has some interesting, and entertaining historic tie-ins, and this one was no exception, although harvested from a little further afield than the Templar. The historical mystery in this one, was inspired, according to Berry, by the Voynich Manuscript: a mysterious, old and unreadable manuscript, which apparently was just dated by scientists to be early 15th century. The the manuscript was discovered by Wilfrid Voynich in 1912, at the Villa Mondragone, in Monte Porzio Catone, just east of Rome, in a lot of books being sold by the Society of Jesus.

Steve Barry spins an alternative history yard with the best of them, but I'm not sure The Charlemagne Pursuit is his best, but it was fun and kept me reading. I'll probably read the next one, but I won't go out and get it. It will show up at some point, I'm sure.

Friday, February 11, 2011

twenty thousand leagues

I listened to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea--from the French, Vingt mille lieues sous les mers--which I downloaded from Lit2Go via iTunes U. Classic science fiction by Jules Verne, originally published in 1870.

Why am I writing about a book that I listened to instead of read? This is a reading blog, right? Well no, its not just about reading, its about whatever I want, savvy? Check out the backmatter page for the full story on what I'm doing here, and lets get a move on.

So I listened, while driving, over the course of a few months or so, maybe more. I drive a lot, but I'm only going to listen if I can hear a whole chapter, so I can keep track of whats going on. I've seen little bits of movies, and I know as much as the normal guy who hasn't read the book from pop culture, so it won't surprise you to learn that this is about Captain Nemo and his fantastic submarine, the Nautilus, and told in the first person by one of his passengers, Professor Pierre Aronnax.

I'm glad I didn't read it boy! The story was just fine, exciting, somewhat mysterious, and rather dark at times, but man, give me a break with the names of the fishes! I had a very similar feeling when reading Moby Dick; if all of the names of the flora and fauna the gushing Prof. Aronnax and his manservant, Conseil, saw, weren't named--common, and latin names, in many cases, and in some cases, species, genus, family, order, class, phylum, and kingdom--this book would be half the size. Here's a little quote for ye:

"fishing-frogs that, from their comical movements, have acquired the name of buffoons; black commersons, furnished with antennae; trigger-fish, encircled with red bands; orthragorisci, with very subtle venom; some olive-colored lampreys; macrorhynci, covered with silvery scales; trichiuri, the electric power of which is equal to that of the gymnotus and cramp-fish; scaly notopteri, with transverse brown bands; greenish cod; several varieties of gobies, etc.; also some larger fish; a caranx with a prominent head a yard long; several fine bonitos, streaked with blue and silver; and three splendid tunnies"

Wow! Did you say "equal to that of the gymnotus and cramp-fish?" Tell me more Perfesser!

But I kid! It really was a great story. There was much more to this book than I had guessed based on my pop-culture knowledge of it, and I would recommend it. Especially to all you aspiring ichthyologists and phycologists out there.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

family search marker

This fine leathery bookmarker is put out by the good folks at Family Search, a free genealogy search engine and website posted by the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I've never used them before, so I gave them a try and stuck in some old family names, and I didn't get a hit, but the system seems to work pretty good, and the results came back fast.

This bookmark has a great old-timey feel. I think its made of what is called recycled leather. It sits a little high in the book, so I'm not sure its a good idea to use a marker like this close to the binding, or for extended periods of time. There are plenty of thicker bookmarks, from metal, to wood, thicker textiles, even ivory, but again, keeping something thick in a book probably will deform the pages after a while, or could put stress on the binding.

Check out my history of bookmarks. Its one of my first blog entries, from late 2009. Thanks to Natalie for picking this up for me.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

endymion spring

Love that spooky, bookish, YA, quest-fantasy drama, with hints of sorcery, and a dab of good vs. evil? Of course you do. Endymion Spring is just that kind of book, and its more than just a great name. Endymion Spring is the first go by Matthew Skelton, who describes the research process he went through, which began as curiosity about this name: Endymion Spring, and grew into the inspiration for the book.

This was a fun and fast read. I think it took me three or four days to burn through this 400 pager. What? That's fast for me. The writing was easy, but not dumbed down. The kids are young, but not specifically aged, probably to appeal to a wider slice of the YA readership. The story is smart too, and based in history, which helps give it some backbone. Faust, Gutenberg (and his bible), Oxford University, and a smattering of other European schools, libraries, and books, lots of books, help tie this story to something kids can put their hands on. What's also here is a love of books, and of libraries, and what they can teach us. Just opening an old book, is infused with this almost magical quality of discovery; of secrets that maybe no one else knows, or at least knows anymore. What a great inspiration for young readers especially! Bravo to Skelton for this alone.

That said, Matthew Skelton does leave a couple of gaps and inconsistencies in this, his first novel. Stepping outside reality, into the world of the supernatural can be tricky. I don't think you can just drop a magical bomb into the middle of a storyline and just assume that your readers will say, 'Oh, the author doesn't need to explain that. Its obviously magical, and therefore needs no explanation.' Wrong. Some kind of groundwork needs to be laid, that will allow your readers to cross that gap with you. We, as readers, need to be able to understand how and why its possible for something magical to happen in the world you've created.

So that's a gap. An inconsistency is when, for example, our young protagonist opens a book, and sees something so frightening that he drops the book, and actually runs away. A moment later, when he pauses to catch his breath, the book is in his hand. More magic? No, its just that the story doesn't make sense if he leaves the book behind, and I guess the scared scene looked better when he dropped it. Oops.

These things shouldn't keep you from reading this book, or from reading it to your kids. I think my kids are too old for that, alas. But I'll recommend it to them. It was spooky fun.