International Space Development Conference

As I write this, I’m sitting at the DPRG’s booth at the International Space Development Conference. The ISDC asked us to be an affiliate and demo some robots. In the next booth is a group of high-powered rocketry people who have some rockets about 15 feet tall. John Carmack’s Pixel lauch vehicle, built by his Armadillo Aerospace group, is sitting on the floor about 20 feet in front of me. Carmack and his engineers were here yestereday. I’ve also spotted a few other interesting people wandering around; Ben Bova and Buzz Aldrin. Larry Niven was supposed to be here somewhere but I haven’t seen him yet.

There are also loads of non-profit space colonization groups here. I remember 20 years ago at science fiction conventions seeing groups like the L-5 society asking for donations so they could colonize space. I optimisitcally became a member of several groups. Eventually I realized they weren’t really doing anything. After all these years, they still haven’t gotten any further than sitting at tables and telling people about how great it would be to colonize space. The names have changed. Apparently, the L-5 Society is defunct now. In it’s place we have groups like the Mars Foundation and some Moon Society. I talked to the people at a few of these and they seem to have the same strategy of achieving their goal by talking about it endlessly. It’s kind of depressing. They all seem to ignore the basic problem that it’s expensive to get into space to do all this colonizing. If they spent a little time working on that, they might get somewhere.

Random software and robot news

I’ve been doing a little more C programming lately. On the embedded level, I’m porting some odometery and waypoint navigation code written by David P. Anderson for use on my own robot. This is part of a larger project to put together a GPL’d library of mobile robot code. Don’t expect to see it anytime soon but we are making progress.

I’m also trying to squeeze in time to keep up the work on mod_virgule. I’ve made a lot of progress over the last few months, benefiting both and Advogato. The ToDo list seems endless but next up is some code refactoring and work on the data schemas used for the XML database and HTML entry forms. This work will hopefully allow me to fix a long standing bug in the HTML forms and make the field layouts a little more flexible.

i-ROBOT, Poetry by Jason Christie

This review was originally written for

Jason Christie wrote a book of robot poetry. EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing printed it. This may be a first. But what is robot poetry? Who reads it? Is it any good? These are a few of the questions I’ve attempted to answer in my review of i-ROBOT, Jason Christie’s book of robot poems. What’s the bottom line? If you only have one book of robot poetry in your library, this should be it. For more, or if you think you might enjoy reading a robot builder’s attempt at poetry review, read on.

Title: i-ROBOT Poetry by Jason Christie
Author: Jason Christie
ISBN Number: 1-894063-24-4
Publisher: EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing
Number of pages: 102

When I was asked to review a book of robot poetry, my first thought was, what the hell is robot poetry? Poetry written by robots? Poetry about robots? I suppose I may be uniquely qualified to review a book of robot poetry since I compiled an article a few years ago that collected poetry written by members of the Dallas Personal Robotics Group. While entertaining, the thought of a book full of that sort of poetry was a little more than I was prepared to read. Fortunately, real poets write better poetry than most robot hobbyists.

Before I got the book in my hands, I already knew the title: i-ROBOT. I spent a few days pondering this until the book arrived. It’s the most overused robot-related title around. Okay, so it’s i-ROBOT and not I Robot. They added a hyphen, made the i lower case and robot all upper case. Still, naming a book of robot poetry I Robot makes about as much sense as naming a book of space poetry Star Trek. It just leaves readers wondering what the connection is to the more well known work of the same title.

I Robot was originally a title used for the 1939 Eando Binder short story about a misunderstood robot. Later, Issac Asimov’s publisher borrowed the title, much to Asimov’s dismay, for his first collection of Susan Calvin robot stories, replacing Asimov’s original title Mind and Iron. The recent Hollywood killer-robot movie borrowed the title from Asimov, even adding a few minor last minute patches to the script so they could claim it was “based on” something Asimov wrote (it wasn’t, of course). And, if that wasn’t confusing enough, there’s also the company that makes the Roomba calling themselves iRobot. So, if I have any complaint about this book, it’s the reuse of an already heavily over-used title.

Eventually, the book arrived and I stopped obsessing about the title. I turned the book over and looked at the back cover, where a Spider Robinson blurb begins, “Jason Christie is even weirder than I am. That doesn’t happen a lot.” When Spider Robinson says someone is weird, pay attention. This was my first clue that the book might not be what I expected. And, as it turned out, I was quite surprised at the contents of Jason Christie’s book of robot poetry.

First of all, these aren’t the rhyming robot limericks you’re probably expecting (There once was a robot from Nantucket). Not being a poet or even an avid fan of poetry, I can’t tell you in a technical sense what the things in this book are. Oh sure, like most typical geeks, I’ve written my share of bad Haiku and Senryu. But it’s been many years since I tried to grok the difference between iambic pentameter and anapestic tetrameter. So if that’s the sort of thing you’re interested in, you’ll have read about it in some other review.

The best I can hope for here is to tell you that, like all good poetry, these poems evoke feelings, moods, and reveal underlying meaning in some way that actually works. So don’t get the wrong idea from my lack of poetry reviewing skills. This is not some wretched Vogon poetry that will make you long to be thrown out of an airlock. This is good stuff.

To give you idea of what Christie’s style of poetry sounds like, think back to the rhyming narrative poems you probably heard as a child. Take that memory and remove any trace of rhyming and verse. Jiggle up the form a bit, leaving the narrative intact. That will get you close. The first response of my wife, to whom I read a few of the poems aloud was, “those aren’t poems, they’re little stories”. An example or two would probably explain things better than I can.

Linear Thought: Canary

“Look,” the guidance counselor told the
little robot in the hoverchair across from him.
“You just aren’t built to be a ballerinabot. You
were designed for going into the mines, after
you graduate high school, to test for toxic gases
and other dangerous situations, so the humans
and delicate analysisbots don’t get destoryed.
That’s why your surface paint has a powerful
transmitter chemical. It shows up bright yellow
on all of our monitors. You are an exceptional,
special, and unique robot. Can you imagine a
ballerinabot with treads? You would be lucky
to mop the stage given your build and bent.
I understand your dream of being a dancer; I
dreamt of being a lawyer, but some of us, and
by that I mean, you , aren’t built that way. Best
to follow the path for which you were created.
That way true happiness lies.” The guidance
counselor leaned back, folder his hands across
his metal belly, smiled a knowing smile and
winked at the confused little studentbot.

Some of the poems, like Linear Thought: Canary, involve primarily robots but many of the poems also bring in human characters:


We had a back-to-nature weekend because
our household robots went on a religious
retreat. When they returned on Sunday evening,
the toaster exclaimed: “I come from the sea just
like you!” before it plugged itself into the socket
under the cupboard. My wife, who has never
quite trusted robots, said: “I told you giving
them the vote was a bad idea.” I shrugged and
had to tell the dryer later that night that it
wasn’t allowed to sleep in our bed anymore.

Many of the poems seem to take place in a common future history, filled with talking toasters, trans-human cybernetic beings, disgruntled workerbots, overbearing bossbots, and friendly robots who sing Happy Activation Day to You! with their robot friends on that special robot holiday. Some poems are purely for fun. Others hint at a darker side to life in a future filled with robots. Some of the poems, in common with all science fiction, make comments on issues facing our present day society by tearing the problems from their familiar contexts and dropping them into a futuristic world. The narrative nature of the poems immediately suggests a connection to some other form of story-telling. They almost cry out for visual interpretation. I’m apparently not the first to notice this, as there has already been an animated short film based on Jason Christies robot poems, directed by Lisa Mann and Curtis Wehrfritz.

While most of the poems in the book share the similar narrative quality, not all do. Some are playful constructs of words and syntax, laced with robot references. Others seem to express the ideas or feelings of the robots in a less familiar way. One in particular that struck me as having potential as a libretto for some future Philip Glass composition:


Free from emotional strife, free from anxiety,
low self-esteem, holy anger, righteous indignation,
free from fate, from destiny, from necessity,
freed from irrationality, from indecision, from
despair and depression, free from fear, from sin,
from cowardice, free from a sense of obligation,
from jealousy or envy, free from indebtedness,
free from despondence, free morality
and ethics.

Jason even snuck in a geek take on Allen Ginsberg’s famous poem:

Moloch Howls

I’ve seen the newest processors of my
generation destroyed by malfunctions, data-
starved, hysterical naked, dragging themselves
throught the streets at dawn looking for an
angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for
the ancient heavenly connection to the starry
dynamo in the machinery of night, who poverty
and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up
smoking in the supernatural darkness of
cold-water flats floating across the tops
of cities contemplating techno.

The book contains just over 100 pages of robot poetry. Even if you only find one or two you enjoy, the book is worth the purchase price and, odds are, you’ll find all of them enjoyable to read. The book raised a few questions for me, which I’ll leave for you to ponder. Does this book herald some new sub genre of poetry? Will we start seeing more books of robot poetry? What makes robots such a popular common ground between artists and engineers?

Finally, if you have any doubt left that Jason Christie understand the culture of geek robot builders consider the truth of this short poem:

King Midas

Everything I touch turns into robots.

Austin Art Car Parade

Earlier this month, Susan and I drove down to Houston for the annual Orange Show Center for Visionary Art’s 20th annual Art Car Parade. This is one largest and oldest art car events in the world. About the only place you’re likely to see bigger and stranger moving art would Burning Man. There were over 200 art cars and an estimated 200,000 people in town to see them. I shot a lot of photos but only managed to shoot a fraction of what was there. Time to upgrade from a 2GB to 4GB XD card, I think! If you want to get an idea of what went on, check out my 2007 Houston Art Car Parade photos. You can also find pics of most of the cars in the official photo gallery on the Orange Show website. A local Houston friend of mine put together a little art car video of the event.

Kronos Quartet Brings Sun Rings to Dallas

Kronos Quartet played at McFarlin Auditorium in Dallas last week. I managed to get some pretty good seats for the performance and took Susan along. We’d previously seen Kronos play live in Austin with the Philip Glass ensemble a few years ago. This time they were accompanied by the Women’s Chorus of Dallas and the Turtle Creek Chorale. They performed a 2002 piece called Sun Rings which was composed for them by Terry Riley. The work included a visual component designed by Willie Williams. The piece was commissioned by an unusual patron – NASA.

I had no idea NASA had an art program. Apparently their goal is to create works of art that will inspire future genreations of engineers and scientists. In this case, Terry Riley composed the music around sounds recorded by the plasma wave sensors on Voyager, Cassini, and other NASA space probes. Scientist Don Gurnett who has been working with plasma wave sensors for over 40 years, selected his favorite sounds and provided them to Riley.

The work combined the live music of the string quartet and vocals with a synthetic soundtrack composed by Riley from the the plasma wave sounds. On top of this, each performer had a control stalk with a proximity sensor at the tip attached to their music stand. By waving their hand over it, they could trigger additional plasma wave samples randomly from preselected batches that matched the movement of the piece. This causes each performance to have a unique sound while still retaining a conventional musical structure.

During the performance, there are also background visuals that alternate between color washes and a series of graphics based on the Voyager probe’s golden record operating instructions which explain to aliens how to decode and play the record carried on the probe. The instructions start with a diagram illustrating the states of a hydrogen atom, and proceed from there to the construction of a record player, reproducing the sound, decoding the embedded video waveforms, and reconstructing the video images. (no doubt an achievement that would land some lucky alien a story in their equivalent of Make magazine). The performers are also surrounded by a large number of light tipped rods which vary in color and intensity during the performance, at times giving the impression that the performers are floating in the void of space and at other times are reminiscent of candles.

We both enjoyed the music and found the performance as a whole more than interesting enough to fill the hour and half length. As an added bonus, the member of Kronos hung around for a little Q and A event after the show. Surprisingly only about a dozen members of the audience stayed to ask questions and listen to stories.