Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Long Arm of Margaret Atwood: Writers, Waldos and LongPen

Borders Books, the Ann Arbor-based bookstore chain, opened its new "concept store" the weekend of Feb 22-24, 2008. Among the attractions designed to bring in the ever-shrinking reading public was the first use of the LongPen technology in a North American bookstore.

LongPen is the idea of Canadian author Margaret Atwood, previously best known in the U.S. for The Handmaid's Tale. She was there on a live feed from Toronto to explain it to interested readers and to sign copies of her short-story collection Moral Disorder.

As she explained it, LongPen came out of "stupidity." The author thought that when you signed for a package from UPS on the touchpad, that signature flew through the air and was written down by an automated pen somewhere else. From that misunderstanding of the technology came the question, "Can we do that?" She found partners and formed a company to invent the required technology.

In its current form, the communications module of the LongPen kiosk stands at an average human heigth. It is a silver box containing a TV monitor, a large microphone, and a display panel. On top is a second flat-panel monitor, and just below that is a swivel-mounted camera. On the pedestal base is the actual LongPen. It's a triangular robot "hand" which holds an ordinary pen. There is a special frame which is used to hold a book in place while the LongPen hand signs it.

At the other end, Margaret Atwood demonstrated how it worked. She had a tablet PC and signed her name on the screen. When she sent the signature, it appeared on a display panel for review by the customer (in this case, a Borders employee). Once the book was put under the holding frame, the signature was sent to the LongPen. It reproduced it exactly, with the same amount of pressure as the original. (This is a crucial point--it makes it a legal signature. Faxed signatures, for example, are not considered legal because the shape of letters can be forged but not the pressure applied to them.)

Atwood also explained the stages of acceptance for the technology. At first, people thought it was a hoax or a put-on. Then, it was "you'll never do it!" Later on, people saw it as being evil, a kind of "Frankenhand, as if it would go off writing things without us."Surprisingly, it has already been accepted and used by authors from financier Conrad Black to the late Norman Mailer.

After the teleconferenced Q&A, the fans waited in line to get a signature via LongPen. In this reviewer's opinion, it is a little uncanny. There is something about talking to a box which is still off-putting. On the other hand, the reduced context of the communication between the author and the fan makes you work a little harder to bridge the gap. While I was waiting for my book to be set up in the holding frame, I mentioned that Robert Heinlein had come up with this independently. He called it a waldo, but it was more like robot hands. Atwood weighed in on this, and said that the closest living relative of the waldo was the robot surgeon. She added that the biggest difference between that and LongPen was that in guided robot surgery, you have to move very slowly--you don't want to be scribbling all over the patient's chest! I would have loved to chat more, but just like a conventional signing line, the next person's book had been set up. I thanked her abruptly so the next person could have a go.

The finished signature does not look machine-made at all. It's good that LongPen does not make a record of the signature once it is sent. Otherwise, as Atwood put it, "someone could pull up your signatures later and be putting them to million-dollar checks."

For more information about LongPen, visit http://www.longpen.com/

Friday, February 15, 2008

Sifting Sand Through a Screen: The Science of Dune

"Ever sift sand through a screen?" she asked.
The tangential slash of her question shocked his mind into a higher awareness: Sand through a screen. He nodded.
"We Bene Gesserit sift people to find the humans."

-Dune, Frank Herbert, 1965

This passage from Frank Herbert's Dune has remained with me since I was a child. I first read the book as a second-hand paperback when I was 11 and the book was 15. It has stood up to many re-readings, as I learned that this desert world drew from history and science. More science, in fact, than I had imagined.

Just how real or probable is Dune's science? Curious readers may find some answers inside The Science of Dune: An Unauthorized Exploration into the Real Science Behind Frank Herbert's Fictional Universe. Edited by Dr. Kevin Grazier, Science of Dune sifts through the entire Dune series for underlying truth.

What the volume cleverly and insidiously does is to propose a fun question like "How would one of those giant sandworms actually live on a big ball of sand?" It then answers that and related questions and in the process, the reader actually learns something about the branch of science under discussion. Dr. Sibyelle Hechtel's "The Biology of the Sandworm" exposes the reader to information about ocean-floor hydro-thermal vent communities, the process of metamorphosis, and the structural limitations placed by the size of an animal. Pretty good science for a fictional animal.

Other topics include real-life counterparts to Dune's mind-altering spice, melange, and an evaluation of the stillsuit which allows a person to survive in the desert and lose only a thimbleful of water a day. Also, Dr. Sergio Pistoi has written a bit of speculative fiction himself to explore the advances in artificial vision. It's one of the more whimsical contributions to the book.

The editor of the series has contributed two articles and co-written a third. In "Cosmic Origami", he explores the feasibility of faster-than-light travel. He employs a Einsteinian thought-experiment dealing with the Lorentz-Fitzgerald Contraction. This will seem familiar to readers who have read many pop-science books, but Dr. Grazier adds a bawdy limerick worthy of Thomas Pynchon in the same article. Take that, Brian Greene! Grazier truly shines in the article "The Real Stars of Dune". He takes the reader to the actual stars mentioned in the book and tries to determine whether or not they can support the planets that Frank Herbert placed in orbit around them.

Sure, there have been other pop-culture science books, most notably the ones related to Star Trek, but as the editor points out in the introduction, we're starting to catch up to Star Trek. Dune is still some 10,000 years hence, and there's room for planetary-scale dreams.