Science Fiction, LMC3214, Summer 2014: Exploring Cultural Connections Through Haptics and LEGO

The Millennium Falcon circles Tech Tower.

The Millennium Falcon circles Tech Tower.

Before closing out the last class that I would teach at Georgia Tech as a Brittain Fellow, I brought a great big container of LEGO bricks to class for my students to explore and enjoy thinking about science fiction with haptics. As I had done last year, I invited my students to think of something from their experience of science fiction that emblematized what science fiction means to them. Put another way, I asked them to build a model of the thing that first comes to mind when they think of science fiction. It could be a robot, blaster, rocket, cyborg, computer, spaceship, etc. Whatever it was, I wanted them to use the available bricks to build an approximation of the thing, present their model to the class, and explain its provenance. I would add to each presentation of a LEGO MOC (my own creation) with additional SF examples and historical relevances.

The challenge to this assignment was that 2/3 of the class were taking the course remotely online. While I invited students to build something and share it on Twitter, few did or were able to do so before class that day. One online student joined us for the on-campus class, which added one more student to the mix and was much appreciated by me and his peers.

After giving instructions and discussing haptics, I gave the students about 25 minutes to find bricks and build their models.

Collecting LEGO bricks for their MOCs.

Collecting LEGO bricks for their MOCs.

Building their science fiction models with LEGO.

Building their science fiction models with LEGO.

Then, students were invited to come to the front of the class, place their model under the document camera for the benefit of online students, and tell us about their creation and its inspiration to them.

Matthew and his model of the Starship Enterprise NCC-1701-D from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Matthew and his model of the Starship Enterprise NCC-1701-D from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

 

Jarad and his lightsaber from Star Wars.

Jarad and his Jedi lightsaber from Star Wars.

 

Aditya and his moon rover.

Aditya and his moon rover.

 

Lauren and her planetary rover.

Lauren and her planetary rover.

 

Tyler and his TARDIS.

Tyler and his TARDIS.

 

James and his spacecraft.

James and his spacecraft.

 

Peter and his flying car.

Peter and his flying car.

 

Roxanne and her spacecraft.

Roxanne and her spacecraft.

 

James and his Daban Urnud ship from Neal Stephenson's Anathem.

James and his Daban Urnud ship from Neal Stephenson’s Anathem.

 

Sang and his futuristic aircraft.

Sang and his futuristic aircraft.

I was proud of the creations and connections that my students made during this end-of-semester exercise. Despite a number of same types of SF emblems (air/spacecraft), each student assumed a different approach and had different points of origin for their inspiration. Also, no two models were alike. Each one is a expression of the individual using a three-dimensional modeling art and design form–LEGO.

Besides drawing on different kinds and ways of thinking for this exercise, I know from students comments that they appreciated having a creative outlet in the class beyond their analytical final papers, which are creative in other ways (argumentation, research, prose writing, professional formatting/design, etc.).

Some of them choose to keep their models while others let me keep their models to show future students.

LMC3214, Summer 2014 Class Photo.

LMC3214, Summer 2014 Class Photo.

Finally, my Science Fiction class would not have been possible without the technical support of Ted Skirvin, who worked with me to use the affordances of the room with my teaching style while accommodating the needs of online students.

Ted Skirvin of Georgia Tech's Global Learning Center.

Ted Skirvin of Georgia Tech’s Global Learning Center.

 

Minireview: The Reconcilers Graphic Novel Volume 1

The Reconcilers Vol. 1.

The Reconcilers Vol. 1.

While Y and I were sitting for several hours in an airplane–on the ground, I had the pleasure of meeting the writer, actor, and director Erik Jensen. After I mentioned to him that my specific area of training is in Science Fiction, he gave me a graphic novel saying, “here’s some Science Fiction for you.” I was thankful for the gift and thankful for the time on the tarmac to read it!

The graphic novel that he gave me is volume one of The Reconcilers (2010) co-created by R. Emery Bright, Jens Pil Pilegaard, and Jensen. Volume one is written by Jensen and drawn by Shepherd Hendrix. Neal Adams created the cover art.

The narrative takes place in 2165 after the ascendency of religion-like mega-corporations and the gradual establishment of elaborate gladiatorial matches fought by “Reconcilers” to decide disputes between corporate entities. The story  follows Sokor Industries attempting an extra-legal takeover of Hansen Engineering’s claim to the motherlode of exotic, energy-rich “liberty ore.” Hexhammer, Hansen’s miner who discovered the the vein, leads their underdog team against Sokol’s seasoned fighters to keep what they had earned. However, Hexhammer’s past choices threaten his ability to overcome his final confrontation with Sokor’s best Reconciler, “Masakor.”

The megacorporations of Fredrik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants and William Gibson’s Neuromancer, as does Weyland-Yutani of the Alien film series also, inform The Reconcilers.

The Reconcilers has a lot of interesting material for thinking through the convergence of corporate personhood, entertainment, religion, capital, and rule of law. I believe that it would be informative to research and engaging to students.

 

Second Donation to Georgia Tech Library Archive’s Retrocomputing Lab: Power Macintosh 8500

Me and the Power Macintosh 8500/120 in the Georgia Tech Library Archives.

Me and the Power Macintosh 8500/120 in the Georgia Tech Library Archives.

When I met with Georgia Tech Library Archives’ Department Head Jody Lloyd Thompson and Digital Collections Archivist Wendy Hagenmaier to donate three vintage computers (a Dell Dimension 4100, Apple Performa 550, and Apple iMac) and other computing hardware a week and a half ago, I noticed that they had room for one more computer, so I pitched them the idea of my making another donation to fill the gap between the Performa 550’s 68030 processor and the iMac’s G3 processor:  an Apple Power Macintosh 8500/120. They agreed to accept, so I set about preparing the computer for them.

IMG_5166

My Power Macintosh 8500 was in very good shape, but like many vintage computers with persistent clocks, it needed a new lithium battery.

To replace the Power Macintosh 8500's on-board battery (upper left corner of photo), you have to remove the motherboard.

To replace the Power Macintosh 8500’s on-board battery (upper left corner of photo), you have to remove the motherboard.

I replaced the battery, installed Mac OS 7.5.5, a number of different software titles (including Apple’s Plaintalk Speech Recognition–I threw in a Plaintalk powered microphone, Project X/Hot Sauce, and Cyberdog). I discovered that the plastic inside the case did not age well. The PowerMac 8500 has a lot of plastic components that are held together with flexible tabs or clips. When I applied a small amoung of pressure on the tip of these clips to release them, most of them would break. Luckily, the case ties together very well, so I only had to piece some parts back together with clear tape (the power button/light assembly) and metal duct tape (one drive plate cover on the front of the case). To help dissipate heat, I  added a rear slot fan made by Antec.

I made a video demoing the finalized system, which I’m including embedded below (I apologize for the flicker, but my digital camera doesn’t have enough adjustment features to match the refresh rate on the Apple 14″ Color Display).

In addition to the Power Macintosh 8500, I gave the Archives a box full of software and late-1990s/early-2000s video games for Macintosh. These might help facilitate more connections around campus (Computer Science, Media Studies, and Game Studies).

As I’m leaving soon for City Tech, I believe that we can do more together in our work with vintage computing. I floated the idea of a symposium, conference, or some other kind of connected project. Also, from what little I have learned so far, there’s a lot of investment and interest in computer technology in NYC (and Brooklyn in particular). I am looking forward to making new connections with others studying retrocomputing and New Media. I know that many opportunities await.

Inaugural Donation to Georgia Tech Library Archive’s Retrocomputing Lab

Wendy Hagenmaier, Jason W. Ellis, and Jody Thompson next to Apple Performa 550 and iMac.

Wendy Hagenmaier, Jason W. Ellis, and Jody Thompson next to Apple Performa 550 and iMac.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of making the first donation of three computers to the Georgia Tech Library Archives, which is launching its own Retrocomputing Lab for scholars and students to use. The Georgia Tech Library Archives is already well-known for its significant Georgia Tech Science Fiction Collection and other holdings.

I met with Department Head Jody Lloyd Thompson and Digital Collections Archivist Wendy Hagenmaier to setup the three computers and talk about each machine’s provenance and current operation. We set the computers up on the right side as you enter the Georgia Tech Library Archives. This is a temporary location as the Archives makes plans for their use in Archives for the time being and possibly more in the future as part of the on-going Georgia Tech Library renovation project.

Apple Performa 550 and iMac.

Apple Performa 550 and iMac.

From my personal collection–which I am having to cull before moving to Brooklyn for my new job at City Tech, I donated three computers: an Apple Performa 550 (1994), Apple iMac (1999), and Dell Dimension 4100 (2001). Before donating the computers, I refurbished each to be in as factory-fresh condition as possible.

For the Peforma 550, I installed a PDS ethernet NIC and replaced the SCSI hard drive with one that was less noisy than its original one. Then, I installed Mac OS 7.6.1 and some software including the AfterDark Star Trek: The Next Generation screensaver and ClarisWorks, and utilities for working with files and disk images.

For the slot-loading, DV iMac, I replaced the motherboard battery and performed a fresh install of Mac OS 9.2.1. The optical drive suffers from a weak ejection mechanism. I made sure that the bottom plastic bezel fit properly, but reseated it had no effect on improving the drive’s ability to eject discs correctly. I warned the librarians about this, and recommended buying an external, Firewire optical drive and using the paperclip ejection method in the meantime.

Dell Dimension 4100.

Dell Dimension 4100.

For the Dell Dimension 4100, I installed a 3Com NIC donated by Mark Warbington. I installed Windows 98 Second Edition and painstakingly installed the drivers for the components in the Dell (this was a laborious process, because despite having the Service Tag number, some recommended drivers did not work on all of the components).

I provided two sets of speakers–one for the Performa 550 (it’s internal speakers had stopped working about a year ago) and one for the Dell Dimension 4100. In the event of future hardware problems, I gave them spare AGP video cards, optical drives, a 3.5″ floppy disk drive.

Also, I gave them some spare motherboards, controller cards, and hard drives that might be useful for displays in the Library.

The Georgia Tech Library Archives have big plans for making digital archival work and learning an integral component of what they do. If you have functional and working computer hardware or software, you should consider donating it to the Georgia Tech Library Archives, or if you have technical skills for working on older hardware and software, you can donate your expertise and time, too. Contact Jody and Wendy by email or phone here: Georgia Tech Library Archives contact information here.

UPDATE: I made these four Google Glass videos while working on the iMac DV:

Atlanta Science Fiction Society Talk on Teaching SF at Georgia Tech, Tomorrow

Atlanta Science Fiction Society logo.

Atlanta Science Fiction Society logo.

If you’re in the area tomorrow, you can catch my talk on teaching science fiction at Georgia Tech at the Atlanta Science Fiction Society meeting at the Sandy Springs Fulton County Library (395 Mount Vernon Hwy NE, Sandy Springs, GA). The meeting begins at 2:30PM, and my talk should begin around 3:30PM. I will bring copies of this handout to the meeting. My talk with focus on the history of teaching SF at Tech, my historical approach to teaching SF, and my emphasis on using SF as a way to develop student literacies in writing, new media, and haptics.

New Job, New Students, and New Friends in New York City

Signing the letter.

Signing the offer letter!

I waited until I had signed the offer letter to announce the good news: I accepted a tenure-track position at the New York City College of Technology (City Tech) in Brooklyn!

I’m incredibly stoked to join the City Tech team. I’m looking forward to working with students, colleagues, and the surrounding community.

While I’m sad to be leaving Georgia Tech and the Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Program two years into my three year term, I could not pass up the chance to work with students and colleagues at City Tech. It is the kind of college where I believe that I can make great contributions to its learning environment, support its operation through service, collaborate with top notch colleagues, and contribute to my discipline through scholarship, and work with the New York City community that I will join.

Even though I am looking forward to the future, I have a number of things to conclude here in Atlanta before I leave: I am teaching Science Fiction at Georgia Tech through the end of July, I am giving a presentation on teaching Science Fiction at this weekend’s Atlanta Science Fiction Society meeting, I am completing the curriculum guide for Georgia Tech’s Project One (formerly, First Year Reading Program), and I am working with the Georgia Tech Library Archives to inaugurate their Retrocomputing Lab.

Y and I have a lot of practical matters to attend to as well: finding a new place to live, listing our house in Norcross for sale, moving to New York with our piano and two cats, and saying our goodbyes to family and friends.

I look forward to new students, friends, colleagues, possibilities, and opportunities in our new city!

Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Dissertation Defense Opening Statement, May 15, 2012

This is the sixty-fourth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

I prepared this brief statement to introduce the thinking behind the choices that I made on which writers to include and the emergent theme of the dissertation that would lead to my current research: technological ephemerality. This statement is part justification and part roadmap for where I am now and will be in the future.

To set the stage for making this statement, imagine me sitting at the head of a conference table. Behind me on a podium is a Powerbook 145 with Gibson’s eBook of Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive open and the big box for the Neuromancer video game adaptation from the late-1980s.

Dissertation Defense Opening Statement

Jason W. Ellis

15 May 2012

            I would like to thank you all for reading my dissertation, “Brains, Minds, and Computers in Literary and Science Fiction Neuronarratives” and for meeting with me today. I am looking forward to your questions and our discussion. Before we begin, I would like to take this opportunity to describe my project’s goals, it’s origins, my methods of research, and what I hope it accomplishes. As you will see, my iPad figures prominently in these things.

In my dissertation, I draw on my interdisciplinary interests in literary studies, science fiction studies, history of science and technology, and evolutionary psychology to situate science fiction’s emergence as a genre in the early twentieth century within the larger context of the human animal’s evolutionary co-development with technology. In a sense, I sought the raison d’être of the genre in a Darwinian and cognitive context. I believe the communal teaching aspect of science fiction to be an integral part of the genre itself, and it is this aspect that I gave the name “future prep.” From another perspective, I define science fiction as the kind of literature that performs this function. I also wanted to take one related thread from the genre’s overall development—that being brains, computers, and artificial intelligence—and trace it through the work of three significant writers, namely: Asimov, Dick, and Gibson.

My dissertation originates in part from my long interest in the biology of the human brain. Perhaps this is a byproduct of the conceptual metaphors that I learned in school or in books that the brain was a type of computer and the computer was a type of brain. We know that these are imperfect analogies, but you can imagine that they can have a strong influence on the development of a curious mind. Even at an early age, I strongly felt the link between brains and computers as evidenced by a sustained performance that convinced my kindergarten classmates I was a robot. More recently, I fell into the physics of mind when I was in high school. Thanks to Stephen Hawking, I stumbled onto the work of his collaborator Roger Penrose, who had done other work arguing that the brain is not a Turning-type computer and that quantum phenomena must play some part in the emergence of human consciousness. Much later, during my MA at the University of Liverpool, I made a deal with a friend in the neuroscience program to give me a digital copy of my brain in exchange for my participating in his neural correlates of facial attractiveness study. However, the most recent and profound shift in my thinking came about in a serendipitous way. During the preparation for my PhD exams, I met with Professor Clewell to discuss my readings for the postmodern theory exam. I recall our conversation veering toward computers and the human brain. I learned from Professor Clewell about the emergent discourse surrounding the human brain and the human experience from a Darwinist/evolutionary rather than a Freudian/psychological or Marxist/social perspective. As invested as my work up to that point was in cultural theory, I was very intrigued by the interdisciplinary possibilities that neuroscientific topics and evolutionary psychology might provide for my work in literary history. Without a doubt, this was a pivotal moment in the development of my dissertation. It provided me a direction to expand the scope of my project from one author—originally on the fiction of Philip K. Dick alone—to three by developing a new theory of the genre in terms of the human brain’s evolution. This was new territory for the literary history of science fiction, and I wanted to trek an unexplored path into this uncharted territory.

The next stage was to select the literary focus of my research. I chose Dick’s work, because I believe his awareness of the brain’s role in human experience and in our relationship with technology strongly connects to my theory of science fiction. Then, I selected Asimov as a connection between the early editors who shaped the genre and later writers including Dick, whose androids obviously respond to Asimov’s robots. Finally, I decided on Gibson, because he reinvented Dick’s concerns about technologization of the human experience in a more nuanced manner than Dick’s paranoiac division between the android and the human.

Research and writing of my dissertation presented its own challenges, but I was very pleased that part of the subject matter inspired my own processes of work. In my reading and research, I leveraged computer technology to my advantage to build efficiencies and speed into my work. In particular, I wanted to make all of my research—primary and secondary sources—available on my computer, iPad, and iPhone. The primary reason for this was to make it easier for me to track my research and use digital tools such as textual analysis software and key word search on materials I had read or skimmed. Having the materials on my various computing devices made it easy to search the same or multiple documents very easily and quickly while taking notes or writing in Microsoft Word on my MacBook. Of course, my brain did the work of configuring, contemplating, and creating the dissertation itself.

The issue of obsolescence, which I discuss a bit about in the concluding part of my dissertation, was also a driving force behind my efforts at digitization of my research materials. For example, the last half of the second chapter presented a unique problem—I needed to read the editorials of the old pulps—particularly Amazing Stories and Astounding—but these pulps are not widely available in library collections, and when they are, it can be difficult to handle and read them due to their extreme fragility. Luckily for my research, legions of science fiction pulp collectors have made much of this material available online as scanned copies. Obviously, there are tensions between the efforts of cultural preservationists and the Disney-fication of copyright law, but due to the nature of my research and its importance to the long literary history of science fiction, some of which is egregiously at risk of disappearing, I side with the preservations. Unfortunately, the scanned materials were not always complete, but they did provide me with some useful evidence and clues to more. I filled these missing holes with interlibrary loan requests that took several weeks to complete. For other primary sources, I was able to track down circulating text files—such as for Asimov’s, Dick’s, and Gibson’s novels, and others, I purchased either through Amazon’s Kindle shop or Apple’s iBook store. I should note that I used these non-paginated materials for research purposes, and I cross-referenced any findings there with the physical copies that I own or borrowed from the library—the only exception being Dick’s Exegesis.

I also converted many sources on hand into digital copies for my personal use. Generally, I took photos of pages, created a PDF, and ran OCR software to generate searchable text. Due to my limited time, this was especially useful during my research trip to UC-Riverside’s Eaton Collection in February. In addition to my typewritten notes on my MacBook, I captured over 1000 pages of rare and interesting primary research for the Dick and Gibson chapters with my iPhone 4S’s built-in camera. Some of this research is included in the dissertation, but there is much left for me to review as I begin the process of transforming the dissertation into a publishable manuscript. This extra work paid off by revealing quotes overlooked during skimming or reading. While I am reading to you from my iPad, I also have my dissertation manuscript, primary sources, secondary sources, notes, and much more all available at the touch of my finger. However, I have to remain vigilant with my archival practices to ensure my access to my data now and in the future. It is also a challenge to find software that maintains compatibility and preserves my workflow.

As Gibson warns us in his afterword to the Neuromancer e-book, technology’s fate is obsolescence. As he foretold, it was nearly impossible to access his e-book in its original version. First, I had to wait several weeks to receive a copy of the e-book’s disk from one of the three American universities that hold it. Then, I had to find an older Macintosh with a floppy disk drive to read the disk and in turn allow me to read the e-book. Unfortunately, there are no Macs with floppy disk drives anywhere near Kent State. I turned to eBay to find an early PowerBook, but unfortunately, the first one I purchased was destroyed during shipping. Eventually, I was able to read the e-book with this PowerBook 145, but it took time, money, and know-how. What does the future hold for those of us who want to read the stories these technologies have to tell us, and what effects do these technologies have on our cognitive development? These are questions I plan to investigate following the dissertation.

In closing, I hope that my work on the literary history of science fiction accomplishes two things. First, I believe that science fiction’s roots run deep, and my dissertation is meant to show how it is a literature that emerges as a byproduct of powerful evolutionary forces of the development of the human brain in conjunction with the human animal’s co-evolution with technology. Second, I hope that my work facilitates further cross-discipline discussion and leads to additional research into the brain’s role in the emergence of human experience and the enjoyment of fiction—especially science fiction.