☞ 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.

☞ The Magic of Small Institutions, the Moon Landing, and Heraldry

I was recently browsing the Star Trek Spaceflight Chronology, published in 1980 (not considered canon any longer, but super-interesting) and noticed that in the timeline it has some items for 2019:

If you’ve read lots of older science fiction, the gap between our expectations for the future of space travel and where we are now is certainly disappointing, but no longer a surprise. While our computers are far better than writers could have imagined, we have fallen short in the realm of outer space. There aren’t moon bases or regular missions to Mars or space colonies.

But as we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing and look at that second item in the timeline—imagine visiting the moon as tourists and seeing these historic landmarks!—I can only think about how far we still are from our dreams.

That being said, we are closer in some ways than many realize. As per this NYT article:

Attempts to classify the Apollo landing sites as American national parks failed precisely because that would violate the Outer Space Treaty. And the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which designates world heritage sites, usually considers nominations only by countries exercising sovereignty over their proposed site — which can therefore only be on Earth.

In July 2011, NASA issued a nonbinding set of recommendations aimed at preserving the six Apollo “heritage” sites and their associated artifacts. At the time, private teams were racing to be first on the lunar surface to claim the Google Lunar X Prize, and one of the contest’s bonus prizes would go to a spacecraft that visited an Apollo site.

We might not yet be tourists in space, but at least we’re thinking ahead.

The evolutionary biologist Andreas Wagner has a new book out called Life Finds a Way. Near the end, Wagner explores certain conditions for creativity within institutions. Looking to places like the Santa Fe Institute, he argues that these smaller institutions, when structured properly, are ideal places for cross-disciplinary interaction and creative recombination:

I love this detailed and prescriptive approach for these kinds of magical institutions, ones that are particularly well-suited for generalist-minded thinking. This pairs nicely with Patrick Collison’s collection of references about “successful industrial/applied research labs.”

I recently discovered a Wikipedia article that enumerates the technical terms for the positions of animals in heraldry, words for the pose of the animal, like if a lion is sitting or on its hind legs. The delightful number of words here is so strange and bonkers and precise, eg. pelican in her piety.

This kind of technical precision reminds me of the richness of the rules for names in astronomy, such as how “[s]atellites of Uranus are named after characters from works by William Shakespeare or Alexander Pope.” As per Clive Thompson, “Half the guys, I swear, if they weren’t mapping the stars with billion-dollar telescopes, they’d be out in California painting unicorns on the sides of vans.”

It seems to me that any field, if you go deep enough, is an amazing combination of awesome and super-weird. The world is amazing.

And check out An Animated Map of the Earth: basically watch the Earth “breathe” throughout the course of the year.

Until next time.

Enjoy this issue? Please feel free it to share it with a friend. (Also, I’m considering sending out this newsletter more frequently. Any thoughts on the ideal cadence?)

☞ Digital Humanism + Quines

Ever since I read Tim Carmody’s post in 2017 about digital humanism, I couldn’t get his ideas around preserving information out of my head:

In the metaphor of the all-in-one machine, Humanists were first and foremost scanners. They translated knowledge from one technology, and its attendant modes of thinking, into another. They took old things and made them new.

In the spirit of this (and Carmody’s whole post is well worth reading!), I recently built digitalhumanism.org, my small attempt to contribute to this idea: a little site that displays a randomly chosen page from some old computer magazines from the Internet Archive (reload the page to see more). It's pretty simple and currently only shows pages from a few older issues of MacUser, but has actually been quite delightful for me to discover these old pages and the tech that they discuss, especially as seen through the lens of only a few decades of distance.

For example, through this project, I discovered an old example of software for algorithmically generating poetry (in MacUser’s November 1985 issue):

The field of computational creativity feels new, but it obviously has a long history (at least in computer science terms). And through digital humanism, we can see this more clearly.

There’s an about page with some more philosophical thinking behind this project, as well as a list at the bottom that could act as a potential clearinghouse for other projects in this space. Please go check out digitalhumanism.org. And I would love to hear your feedback on this.

I love quines: pieces of code that, when run, output themselves. Delightfully circular and elegant. That’s why I was excited when I discovered a website that is essentially a quine: it displays its own HTML source as the page itself.

From the page, including the source:

<p>Finally, because I believe brutalist design, even when applied to truly naked brutal html quines, is about function, not about deliberate ugliness, I'd like to apply these humble styles that improve the readability of this brutiful missive.</p>

Check it out.

A few articles worth taking a look at:

Until next time.

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☞ Seeing Iridium Flares + Accretive Buildings

You might have noticed that I’ve moved this newsletter to Substack. This was done for a few reasons: cleaner interface, easier-to-read archives, and better customer/technical support access. On your end, nothing will change, so don’t worry at all.

I've long been intrigued by Iridium flares: when the antennas from a constellation of satellites periodically catch the sun and create a brilliant flash in the night sky. What makes them particularly exciting is that they are predictable, so I recently used WayScript (note: Lux Capital, where I am Scientist in Residence, is an investor) to build a small program to notify me when to expect one. I wrote a bit about this:

So, I made a very simple WayScript program: one that extracts the information on the Iridium flare webpage of Heavens-Above, parses the resulting page using a tiny Python script, and if there is going to be a flare in the next day or two, emails me the link to remind me to observe it.

And recently, I went outside, courtesy of my WayScript reminder email, and got to see an Iridium flare.

Read the whole short essay here.

Also, in a previous issue of the newsletter, I included a film from AT&T on how to dial. One reader pointed me to the story of the invention of the first automatic telephone switch, the Strowger switch, which eliminated the need for operators:

Strowger, an undertaker, was motivated to invent an automatic telephone exchange after having difficulties with the local telephone operators, one of whom was the wife of a competitor. He was said to be convinced that she, as one of the manual telephone exchange operators, was sending calls "to the undertaker" to her husband.

Apparently, bizarre funeral home competition is the mother of invention.

As someone passionate about promoting generalists in an age of specialization, I was super-excited to read my friend David Epstein's new book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. This book is a deeply researched and thoughtful analysis of how to think about generalists. It is the book I've long wanted to exist and I'm so glad it that David has knocked it out of the park. I highly recommend you all check out Range.

Some things worth taking a look at:

Ben Reinhardt is exploring how to best catalyze ideas in science and technology through his podcast Idea Machines. He recently had me on as a guest and I had a blast chatting about research labs, complexity, long-term thinking, and more.

Until next time.

Enjoy this issue? Please feel free it to share it with a friend.

Blink Microscope + How To Dial

In my last email, I wrote about a simple tool I built to assist me in revisiting books that I own. Well, I've also built another tool—very early still and probably super-buggy—but designed to help me find weird and interesting things on the Internet, sending me an email at most once a day with links to things online that I might want to check out. It's calledBlink Microscope and it's built on top of RSS. From theAbout page:

Blink Microscope is a sophisticated filtering tool for monitoring the Internet for interesting things. It allows you to scour a huge number of RSS feeds all at once and filter them any way you wish. Think of it as Google Alerts for power users, and on steroids.

And why is it called Blink Microscope?

The blink microscope, also known as a blink comparator, was the instrument used to discover Pluto, which works by allowing the user to find tiny changes in photographs of the night sky. In the same way, Blink Microscope helps you find the new and interesting and rare in a sea of complex and messy information. Though if you discover anything along the lines of Pluto, please let me know.

If you want to try out Blink Microscope, please let me know and I'll give you an access code.

Here's a film from AT&T, from the 1950's, explaining how to use a dial telephone: Now You Can Dial. This was released around the time when AT&T switched completely to dialing, and away from using operators to connect a call. This short film is particularly interesting in that many of the features of a telephone that are being demonstrated were not only novel to their viewers then, but they might very well be novel once again. The film discusses rotary dialing, a busy signal, and the dial tone, among other features, all of which have vanished for many users of smartphones. Just as there was a period of several hundred years—the Gutenberg Parenthesis—when print media reigned, so too there was the Dial Tone Parenthesis, when this technology was paramount. No longer.

And in other delightful videos from awhile back, check out the BBC's April 1st hoax segment from many decades ago that explored the fictional spaghetti tree.

Here are some thought-provoking articles I received from readers (please keep them coming! I want these email newsletters to be the beginning of a correspondence):

By the way, I was recently on BBC Radio talking about technological complexity.

Until next time.

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