Posts tagged computing

Jim Leonard’s (aka Trixter) 8088 Domination, a PC demo that makes use of some neat tricks to display fullscreen color video on a 1981 IBM PC. Keeping in mind that these thirty-three year old machines are orders of magnitude less powerful than today’s electronics, you can see how today’s software is incredibly bloated stuff built atop piles upon piles of abstraction.

If three decades later someone can figure out how to display video using a modest early model PC, what kind of applications will someone build, three decades hence, extracting every bit of capability from today’s computers bare metal?

Lillian Schwartz's RGBCMY, one of the newer pieces the 86 year old digital art pioneer has made available on her Vimeo page.

I’m posting this in part because I completely forgot to mention Schwartz in a recent lecture where the work digital art pioneers of the 1960 came up, and in which I name-dropped and referenced Ken Knowlton (who invited Schwartz to Bell Labs), Charles Csuri or A. Michael Noll. Forgetting about Schwartz is more regretful as I have been trying to pass my students (who are mostly women) the idea that digital art, computing and technical stuff in general are women’s activities in every single measure as men’s, and have been taking care to mention women’s achievements in computing history ever since Augusta Ada Byron singlehandedly invented computer programming without any computer to try it on (according to Howard Rheingold, motivated by a scheme to hustle hapless betters at the horse races).

There’s something weird about the general lack of women’s interest in computing nowadays (with exceptions, obviously), given their presence in key historic developments. I suspect that is related to the fact that as computing studies formalized most found their home in Electrical Engineering departments which — as higher education expanded and universities found themselves populated by badly-educated students (witness the near-institutionalization of hazing, at least in Southern European unis) — became Boys Clubs Just for Boys. (This is the moment in which I explain that my mother, years retired, was a computer programmer. Actually she started as a clerical worker with no higher education qualifications doing data entry for our National Health Service — using tech such as latter-day punch-cards, then tape, then giant 8 inch floppies —, and advanced through multiple workplace training programs to become fluent in those technologies synonymous with enterprise computing in the eighties: COBOL, TurboPascal, dBase, SQL. In fact, I asked mum for help composing some complicated SQL queries when I was coding my Master’s dissertation project.) So nowadays, besides some conspicuous exceptions, women seem to get into computing through some kind of side door that provides an easy and straightforward narrative for their interest — through Design (as my students), through multimedia Journalism, through Entrepreneurship (the worst), through some sort of Artistic Practice, or through some very practical necessity in their Science of choice (e.g. learning R because they need to run some statistical programs on health data or whatnot). Going into computers because one is curious, because it seems interesting, because one suspects that computers allow people to do cool stuff and be creative in yet-undiscovered ways, all that may seem like opting into a deeply male-oriented and misogynistic culture, hence a dangerous place to go to.

It is therefore important to witness the current work of Lillian Schwartz. She’s still programming computers at age 86 because decades ago she found they allow her to create some cool visuals. And in that, she was way ahead of the scene.

xkcd made a beautiful tribute to Douglas Engelbart, who died last Wednesday. In 1968, in what became known as the 'Mother of All Demos', Engelbart did showcase most of the computing technologies we now take for granted. I’m sure LOLcats weren’t mentioned only because of time constraints.

Apropos PRISM, here’s A Paranoid’s Guide to Bugging from 1968, from the rather interesting tumblelog Babylon Falling.

I haven’t yet weighted on the US’ secret-ish pervasive surveillance operation as to me it seems pretty obvious and not-news. I don’t have a definite opinion on the value of privacy (or conversely, on the value of transparency), but the fact that well-funded government agencies read the same data Google and Facebook examine because their business model depends on it doesn’t seem like a surprise at all. PRISM to me is the very definition of cloud computing. Private companies might seem more trustworthy than secret services (and only if we believe they are more accountable), but a discussion about mere degrees of trust just shows how complacent we are about data privacy.

This is scary in a Michael Crichton-ish sci-fi sort of way: two AI chat programs are made to talk to each other and the resulting dialogue gets pretty rough.

So here’s a science fiction scenario which I believe nobody ever wrote about: In a near future, machines achieve self-conscience. But rather than deciding to ‘save’ Earth from mankind or put people to use as AA batteries, etc., machines will engage instead in fraticidal tribal warfare. I mean, imagine that computers and OSs become bigger zealots than some of their fanboys (and perhaps encouraged so by their makers).

If you are a writer, you’re welcome to use this premise and get successful with it. I’ll take no royalties. But some kind of tip would be nice.

Misc. links Aug 19th - 29th

Browsers running Javascript are the hottest thing right now in visuals programming: vvvv has its .js counterpart; while the toxiclibs have been ported for use in Processing.js.

Bootstrap, made by Twitter, looks like a good approach to a HTML+CSS framework.

Falsehoods programmers believe about names. A fascinating read about the actual complexities of implementing something as simple as people’s names in an application. (via Boing Boing)

Convoluted TOS and ‘open’ APIs will be the death of us. A good rant on the pitfalls of using public web APIs and being subjected to the whims and Terms of Service of whoever provides it. Open APIs allow people to do great stuff, but there will always be issues of trust. Handle with care.

A transcript of Charlie Stross’ talk Network Security in the Medium Term, 2061-2561 AD. Worth a read if only for the idea that network security is increasingly synonymous with identity security — as Stross points out, if our existence also manifests itself in bits, protecting those bits becomes a very basic need.

A DSLR controller for Android. Looking at this made my Android 2.1 phone go from ‘great’ to ‘piece of shit’ instantly (as it requires Android 2.3). Even though I’d probably not use this app that much.

90 percent of people don’t know the shortcut to find a word in a webpage. Actually, one of the things I miss from Firefox (I use Chrome) is the option to search-as-you-type. But hitting Ctrl+F is not that much work.

Tom Waits on the difficulty of throwing a private listening party in this day and age.

Kingdom Rush (Flash game) is definitely not recommended visiting unless you want to lose the next few hours of your life. (via Kottke)

Love this xkcd. While teaching practical use (i.e. video editing) to kids who often reason and behave as if the computer is a black box with elves, fairies, unicorns and glitter inside, I’m always trying to offer a glimpse of the real beauty: Layer upon layer of progressive abstraction that allows for billions of very simple elements, such as what are basically on-off switches, to create something incredible complex, for instance a dramatic chipmunk.