☞ 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.

☞ The Mythical vs. the Everyday

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What is this artwork? A seascape with a farmer in the foreground. But look closer, specifically in the water. Check out the water in the foreground of the large ship. See those legs poking out of the sea? That’s Icarus! This is the myth of Icarus, but with its importance almost as an afterthought. As per The Generalist Academy, which highlighted this painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus:

In Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, these hierarchies are flipped around. Icarus is represented by a couple of tiny lonely legs sticking out of the ocean. None of the other figures in the painting notice – they’re all looking in other directions, busy with their own work and ignorant of his fall. In contrast to the Classical tragedy landing in the ocean, the most prominent figure is a common farmer steering a horse and plough.

Humanity continues its regular activities even in the presence of myth.

(also, I highly recommend The Generalist Academy, which is an amazing and eclectic blog. It’s a delight. )

I love how the choices we make for visualizing information affect the models for how we think about our world. A great example can be seen by taking this as literally as possible: how two-dimensional projections affect how we think about the Earth and our place in it. The best statement on this is this clip from West Wing:

But there are so many projections and each one has its positives and its negatives. So back in 1989, the United States Geological Survey released a very large manual for these called An Album of Map Projections. It has a ton of information on specific projections, as well as a “Guide to Selecting Map Projections.”

For example, here is the Peirce quincuncial projection:

Each projection is interesting and weird and mind-expanding. Enjoy this rabbit hole.

Some fun links to explore:

A podcast I recorded awhile back was recently posted, wherein I discuss complexity, the future of technology, and more.

And I am pleased to see that the half-life of facts has penetrated the sports world. From Deadspin:

Within months, memory being the faulty tool it is, he will never have been in Oakland at all, and within a few months after that, neither will the Oakland Raiders. It’s the half-life of facts gone mad.

Such naches.

Until next time. (note: I’m going to aim to send this out approximately monthly)

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.

☞ Free Money + Algorithmically Generated Conjectures

Here’s a bizarre arbitrage opportunity I discovered in the Legoland gift shop:

Free money! It’s next to one of those machines that extrude a penny into a souvenir, so it’s existence makes sense, but is there an opportunity here?

Alas, there are some time constraints that prevent anything close to an instant Scrooge McDuck lifestyle. When I began making some estimates, if you can cash in one hundred $5 bills each hour, you can make $10 an hour (more than minimum wage in Missouri, where this is located), but that doesn’t count spending the time sorting your change and bringing this money back to a bank to have it in normal human (i.e. non-penny) form. And of course, there is a more fundamental concern: the likelihood that the people working at the gift shop don’t just kick you out of the store.

A couple articles worth checking out:

Computational creativity is a sprawling and probably not entirely monolithic domain, encompassing everything from algorithmic art and design to computationally-generated scientific hypotheses. That being said, I am a strong proponent of a human-machine partnership in the creative fields, broadly construed.

That’s why I was intrigued to see a recent paper entitled “The Ramanujan Machine: Automatically Generated Conjectures on Fundamental Constants.” Taking a page from the mathematician Ramanujan and his phenomenal continued fraction formulas for fundamental constants like π, the authors have developed an algorithmic method for discovering equations that might converge to constants.

A fantastic line from the paper, when discussing the likelihood of the truth of the equations that their algorithm uncovers and how unlikely it is that their discovered equations work by chance: “This minuscule probability makes us believe that the new conjectures are truths awaiting a rigorous proof by the mathematical community.” Wow.

For more on this, check out the Ramanujan Machine.

(note: if this is interesting, please feel free to check out my fun and clunky attempt to evolve an equation for the fine structure constant of the universe using genetic programming from several years back.)

Until next time.

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.

☞ Recapturing that HyperCard Feeling

HyperCard, a Macintosh program from the late 1980’s, was my gateway into computer programming. It allowed a smooth on-ramp into the world of code, attempting to remove the boundary between users and creators when it came to software by allowing everyone to easily build their own programs. And we need to recreate these kinds of tools.

I recently wrote a piece for BBC Future about HyperCard and its specific properties, as well as a need for rekindling this kind of approach. Here’s the beginning of the piece:

Last year I set out to build a simple piece of software to let my daughter practice her “sight words” as she began to learn how to read. This was nothing fancy, just a program that flashed words for her to memorise on the screen.

I’m not an expert programmer by any means, but while this task wasn’t hard, it required some work and effort, not to mention the accreted experience of about 20 years of coding. But most people can’t do this kind of thing: there simply aren’t tools currently available for making lots of types of software without sophisticated computer programming. 

It wasn’t always this way. At least on the Macintosh, there was a time when this was possible. In my own personal retelling of computer history, even though the Macintosh was released in 1984, its potential was not truly achieved until 1987. What really confirmed the earth-shattering nature of the Mac for me was that year’s release of a piece of software called HyperCard. This one-two punch of Macintosh and HyperCard changed how I thought about computers.

Read the rest of the piece here. And if you are interested in this world of end-user programming/“no-code” tools, or are actually building tools in this space, I want to know.

In my book Overcomplicated, I explored the byzantine complexity of technology, a complexity that is increasingly approaching some aspects of biology. And one form of technology is the law, including tax codes.

So when my wife recently showed me this wild chart from the IRS, that is “An Illustration of the Modern United States Tax System”…

Taxpayer Roadmap 2019

…the first thing I thought of were the charts of biochemical pathways from Roche:

To be clear: the convergence of complexity in biology and tax law, while interesting, is not a good thing.

A few shorter bits:

  • Here’s a fantastic line about the power of spreadsheets (and programming and replicability): “you can calculate literally anything, and transmit not only the results of those calculations, but the actual environment itself, to anyone in the world, and expect that if they have a computer, they can replicate your results.”

  • From an article about the future of AI, there is this suggestion: “programming digital assistants to refuse to answer philosophical questions, especially about the bounds of reality.” Heady stuff.

  • Check out “Pipe: How the System Call That Ties Unix Together Came About”: It’s full of Unix history, but really focuses on the fundamental principle of interoperability and the importance of being able to plug tools together.

  • And, in case you missed it, here’s a short story I wrote earlier this year: Constant Decay.

Until next time.

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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