☞ Unspooling Computational Worlds

Computer programs on Twitter

During this turbulent and tough time, here is something entirely virus-unrelated and hopefully thought-provoking:

We often think of software as large and complex structures, made up of thousands or even millions of lines of computer code. And they often can be. But there are also many instances where tiny bite-size bits of code can yield complex and delightful programs. In the November issue from last year, I wrote about thinking about coding as magic, the idea that words can have power and act like little computational spells. Related to this is the idea that one can unfurl from small snippets of text entire pieces of software.

And what better place to do this—write tiny delightful programs—than on Twitter? I am far from the only one who has thought of this. For example, there is a wonderful Twitter account that will run any BASIC program that you tweet at it. From a discussion of this account, here is a fun example:

Random triangle generation, colors, and fills. Really such simple code that still sucks you into the screen!

It's projects like this that really show how powerful visual code can be!

The creators of Mathematica developed a similar project, called Tweet-a-Program: “Compose a tweet-length Wolfram Language program, and tweet it to @WolframTaP. Our Twitter bot will run your program in the Wolfram Cloud and tweet back the result.”

People have also tried this with Processing, and I’m sure many other programming languages as well). And you can even go a bit further than this: here’s an entire website that exists entirely in the text of its URL. Wild.

Programming languages are each distinct, and these kinds of projects highlight the differences in compactness between them. But no matter what language we are thinking about, they also demonstrate the basic idea that there is a generative power to computing: small snippets of text can unspool entire computational worlds.

Here are a couple quotes I’ve recently come across. The first is from Geoff Manaugh and is about exploring an abandoned mine:

there were plastic lawn chairs everywhere. And they were facing the water.

While the actual explanation for this would later turn out to be both entirely sensible and incredibly anticlimactic—the mine, it turns out, is occasionally used as a performance venue for unusual concerts and events—it was impossible not to fall into a more Lovecraftian fantasy, people coming here to sit together in the darkness, waiting patiently for something to emerge from the smooth black waters of a flooded mine, perhaps something they themselves have invited to the surface…

I stumbled across another intriguing quote in Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club:

The politics of the dispute were strictly academic—that is, the issues were myriad, they were interrelated in arcane ways, and they were fantastically petty.

A few links worth checking out:

  • The Graphical Birth of Plate Tectonics: About the maps and figures involved in the development of the idea of plate tectonics. It is also fascinating how truly new the scientific concept of plate tectonics are: as per this article, “Plate tectonics, the modern theory that describes how the continents on the surface of the Earth do indeed float around, was finally laid out in 1967.” And yet when I learned them in school they were taught in a way that made it feel so old and settled. (from Paul Kedrosky)

  • An app can be a home-cooked meal: By Robin Sloan on coding and home-made software. This piece pairs well with my article on HyperCard and end-user programming. From my article: “As we go about our daily use of technology, each of us might recognise the need for not-yet-created small tools and applications. But because these are not the kind of things that would be showered with venture funding or become the next Facebook, no one will create them for us.”

  • A rotary cell phone: Very thoughtfully done.

  • Where Be Dragons? Why was Dungeons & Dragons (or similar games in that style) only invented in the 1970's? Fascinating piece on innovation and timing.  (also from Paul Kedrosky)

Until next month.

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☞ Pocket Histories of Interstellar Societies

A Very Sci-Fi Issue

Flag of the United Federation of Planets.

I’m a fan of science fiction. But as much as I enjoy the ideas and the storytelling, when it comes to grand interstellar societies—galactic empires, federations, and all that—one of the things I love the most is to simply read the histories of these worlds. A capsule summary of how a world came to be—technologies invented, geopolitical shifts, how it ticks and operates, and the current state of that universe—is my catnip. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading the stories that are placed in these settings too, but I am also a big fan of simply learning about how these these vast interstellar settings for humanity are constructed.

Happily, Wikipedia is quite helpful in this regard. There’s the setting of Hyperion, Foundation, Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets, Dune’s world, and my personal favorite: the Culture of Iain M. Banks. I am obsessed with these pocket histories of future universes.

For example, here’s an overview from Wikipedia of Dune’s Butlerian Jihad:

As explained in Dune, the Butlerian Jihad is a conflict taking place over 11,000 years in the future (and over 10,000 years before the events of Dune) which results in the total destruction of virtually all forms of "computers, thinking machines, and conscious robots". With the prohibition "Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind," the creation of even the simplest thinking machines is outlawed and made taboo, which has a profound influence on the socio-political and technological development of humanity in the Dune series.

And from Memory-Alpha, here’s a bit on Star Trek’s Federation’s initial contact with the Borg:

Then, however, the period of peaceful exploration came to an abrupt end. In 2365, the Federation encountered its single worst threat, in the cybernetic pseudo-race known as the Borg. One of the most powerful and destructive forces in the entire galaxy, the Borg invaded the Federation twice within less than a decade. They were unlike anything the Federation had ever encountered, and were only foiled by chance and resourcefulness. The Federation was thus schooled in the fact that, in the vast, unexplored reaches of the galaxy beyond what they knew, there were threats that they could not even imagine.

This stuff is great. And it seems that my interest in these kind of overviews is not unique, and speaks to the enduring appeal of technical manuals and Tolkien’s appendices. And to be honest, this kind of exploration of the setting of fictional worlds (counterfactuals, fantasy, anything) is enticing. In an interview, Michael Chabon even spoke of working to avoid the all-encompassing worldbuilding siren song when he was writing The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (Wikipedia also has a great discussion of its setting). As per an interview:

But I did make maps of Sitka. I sensed I could get sucked in very easily to doing beautifully rich, detailed maps of Sitka and environs, so I tried to be strict with myself and just made crude pencil sketches that aren’t much to look at, to try to figure out where everything was.

And if you’re wondering what this might look like for our own planet and history, you can check out the CIA World Factbook’s entry for the World. From a recent edition, here is a brief overview of the Twentieth Century:

Globally, the 20th century was marked by: (a) two devastating world wars; (b) the Great Depression of the 1930s; (c) the end of vast colonial empires; (d) rapid advances in science and technology, from the first airplane flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina (US) to the landing on the moon; (e) the Cold War between the Western alliance and the Warsaw Pact nations; (f) a sharp rise in living standards in North America, Europe, and Japan; (g) increased concerns about environmental degradation including deforestation, energy and water shortages, declining biological diversity, and air pollution; (h) the onset of the AIDS epidemic; and (i) the ultimate emergence of the US as the only world superpower. The planet's population continues to explode: from 1 billion in 1820 to 2 billion in 1930, 3 billion in 1960, 4 billion in 1974, 5 billion in 1987, 6 billion in 1999, and 7 billion in 2012. For the 21st century, the continued exponential growth in science and technology raises both hopes (e.g., advances in medicine and agriculture) and fears (e.g., development of even more lethal weapons of war).

Sweeping and magisterial.

Here is a fun graphic showing the timeline and success of the Star Trek series and movies (from this article):

Ad astra!

Here are a couple articles worth checking out:

Here’s also some recent research on whether average human body temperature is changing (Half-Life of Facts Alert!):

Body temperature is a crude proxy for metabolic rate, and if it has fallen, it could offer a clue about other physiological changes that have occurred over time.
“People are taller, fatter and live longer, and we don’t really understand why all those things have happened,” said Julie Parsonnet, who specializes in infectious diseases at Stanford and is senior author of the paper. “Temperature is linked to all those things. The question is which is driving the others.”

Until next month.

Enjoy this issue? Please feel free it to share it with a friend. Or even just let me know; my preferred social network is email.

The Wonders of the Linda Hall Library

File:Linda Hall Library4.jpg
Linda Hall Library, by Nightryder84.

There is an institutional gem in Kansas City called the Linda Hall Library. Founded nearly 75 years ago, this library is one of the premier independent science, technology, and engineering libraries in the United States. It has a huge collection, including loads of old and rare books authored by the likes of Galileo and Newton. It is a fantastic place.

I also happen to be on the Linda Hall Library’s programming committee to help them think about events and programming. And when I was there last month, it quickly became clear that I had never really had a proper tour of the facility.

I thought in a tour I was going to learn more about the reading room or some of the history of the Hall family. And I did. But what the tour quickly became about was seeing the collections: the massive hidden side of the building that is not accessible to the reading public.

I was led through floor after floor (both above and below ground), through tunnels and walkways, by rows of moveable stacks in spaces that felt as spacious as tennis courts or football stadiums: all devoted to storing volumes of books and periodicals on the sciences.

I was enthralled. We walked by shelves full of Cyrillic lettering, obsolete card catalogs that lined the walls, drawers full of maps and photographs (including ones of the moon and stars). It was a smorgasbord of the technical. There were relief maps resting on cabinets, pneumatic tubes for receiving book requests from the reading room, and rooms devoted to digitizing old manuscripts, complete with sophisticated cameras and specialized cradles for these delicate and rare books.

In addition, as we walked through this space—one that has expanded and grown over many years—you could even see the passage of time in the different nature of the rooms, the styles of the stacks themselves, and much more. Walking through the collections was a kind of time travel, but for library and building technologies.

It’s been several weeks now since I visited and I am still thinking about this magical repository of knowledge. Too often we think of knowledge as a sort of disembodied information: open a web browser and all publications are able to be at your fingertips. But walking through the bowels of a library makes one realize the true physicality of knowledge. And what a beautiful and awe-inspiring physicality it is.

If you’re ever in Kansas City, please let me know: we’ll visit the Linda Hall Library together.

A couple additional links to share for the new year:

And then there’s this, from a conversation with Armando Iannucci:

Before that Mr. Iannucci was writing a dissertation at Oxford University about religious language in “Paradise Lost.” He dropped out when he realized that you can sing the opening lines of “Paradise Lost” to the tune of the “Flintstones” theme song. “That’s the point where I thought, OK, I’m not taking this seriously,” he says. “You can’t unhear that.”

Until next month.

Enjoy this issue? Please feel free it to share it with a friend. Or even just let me know; my preferred social network is email.

☞ Exploring the Evolution of Technology

The Eniac, circa 1947 to 1955.

To explore the history of computing and technology is to see a veritable Cambrian explosion of variety. There have been a huge number of computer hardware manufacturers, tons of operating systems, and even scads of word processors (a history of which is told fantastically well in the book Track Changes). Even this collection of logos from video game consoles is overwhelming and rapidly provides the reader a hint of this massive blossoming of diversity.

Simply put, there is so much out there and we have lived through so much. In fact, software evolution is an entire field of study. Some researchers have even used this evolutionary metaphor thoughtfully, studying automobile models over time in terms of extinction and macroevolution.

That is why I was particularly excited to see two recent attempts to tame this messy history, to mine it for meaning and sense:

The first is the Whole Code Catalog, a review of various programming tools and systems that have been developed over time. It’s made by Steve Krouse, who has been doing some great thinking in this space. The Catalog includes a wide collection of tools, with even HyperCard—one of my personal favorites—making an appearance (and it even includes a link to an article I wrote about it).

And the second is a Review of Spreadsheet User Interfaces. It is exactly what it says, but it is profoundly deep history, combing through old spreadsheet software but also, delightfully, starting its discussion in the year 1665.

We need more of this kind of thinking and exploration of the variety of technologies that have appeared over time. Because unless this history and evolutionary variety has actually been lived by ourselves—e.g. I remember Zip disks, so can speak fondly and critically about them, and how they compare to storage both before and after them—too often we rarely explore this history, mine it for interesting ideas, or gems that might be worth revisiting. We simply take what we see as given, and forget the dead-ends and historical path dependence that have given us the technologies we have before us.

So what I’m staying is, Go exploring in the archives. You never know what might inspire you.

A few links worth checking out:

Until next month.

Enjoy this issue? Please feel free it to share it with a friend. Or even just let me know; my preferred social network is email.

☞ Coding as Magic

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The Flying Carpet, Viktor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov, 1880

Obviously, coding is not sorcery. But there are some fun and thought-provoking parallels, so I am a big proponent of the generative power that thinking about computer programming as magic can have (note: that link is to an article I wrote). The philosopher William Rapaport is working on a massive textbook called Philosophy of Computer Science, and within in it, he explores various ways to think about computer science, from CS as science or engineering to CS as an art. And of course, it explores computer science as magic.

Rapaport compiles quotations such as this one:

For more of these, check out the section in the textbook that begins on page 153.

Because of all of this, I truly loved Clive Thompson’s article on why everyone makes little “Hello, World” programs, which used this as a springboard to discuss coding as thaumaturgy. So great:

Writing software seems all the more like sorcery because, well, all you’re doing is uttering words. Get them wrong and nothing happens. Utter them correctly and inert matter—silicon—suddenly obeys your orders. Coding is the art of “telling rocks what to think,” as the programmer Erin Spiceland once quipped.

(Bonus Secret: these ideas are explored in my in-progress novel!)

I found this fascinating from the article “Knock Knock. Who’s There? Kids. Kids Who? Kids Tell Terrible Jokes”:

little kids’ jokes are a bit like babies’ babbling…

…slightly older children—often around preschool age—learn the rhythms and formats of jokes without really understanding how humor is supposed to work, resulting in nonsense that has the shape of a joke but isn’t, really.

And finally, I happened to catch a bit of a CNBC interview with the CEO of Campbell Soup when I was at the gym. And never have I heard someone wax so rhapsodically about soup. A few quotes from the interview: “I love the tradition of soup,” “mainstream broth business,” and the core soup market of “bowl-eating.” It is bonkers and I love it.

Until next month.

Enjoy this issue? Please feel free it to share it with a friend. Or even just let me know; my preferred social network is email.

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