Y’know, I started reading this great piece by Claire L. Evans thinking about its connections to systems thinking, but I ended up thinking more about prototyping. And microbes.
Monday, September 26th, 2022
Modern computing is far too rigid. Applications can only function in preset ways determined by some far away team. Software is trapped in hermetically sealed silos and is rewritten many times over rather than recomposed.
This community catalogs and experiments with malleable software and systems that reset the balance of power via several essential principles…
Tuesday, August 16th, 2022
Setting the scene:
The Washington Hilton stands near the top of a small rise about a mile and a half northeast of the National Mall. Its two white-painted modern facades sweep out in broad semicircles like the wings of a bird. The New York Times, reporting on the hotel’s completion in 1965, remarked that the building looks “like a sea gull perched on a hilltop nest.”
The hotel hides its most famous feature below ground. Underneath the driveway roundabout is an enormous ovoid event space known as the International Ballroom, which was for many years the largest pillar-less ballroom in DC. In 1967, the Doors played a concert there. In 1968, Jimi Hendrix also played a concert there. In 1972, a somewhat more sedate act took over the ballroom to put on the inaugural International Conference on Computing Communication, where a promising research project known as the ARPANET was demonstrated publicly for the first time.
It turns out that the most important innovation of the ARPANET isn’t obvious in hindsight:
So what I’m trying to drive home here is that there is an important distinction between statement A, “the ARPANET connected people in different locations via computers for the first time,” and statement B, “the ARPANET connected computer systems to each other for the first time.” That might seem like splitting hairs, but statement A elides some illuminating history in a way that statement B does not.
Friday, August 5th, 2022
An account of the mother of all demos, written by Steven Johnson.
Monday, April 11th, 2022
Time and again, organizations have sought to contain software’s most troublesome tendencies—its habit of sprawling beyond timelines and measurable goals—by introducing new management styles. And for a time, it looked as though companies had found in Agile the solution to keeping developers happily on task while also working at a feverish pace. Recently, though, some signs are emerging that Agile’s power may be fading. A new moment of reckoning is in the making, one that may end up knocking Agile off its perch.
Sunday, January 16th, 2022
A fascinating look at what it might take to create a truly sunstainable long-term computer.
Tuesday, August 31st, 2021
A wonderful bit of spelunking into the annals of software interfaces by Elise Blanchard.
Monday, August 30th, 2021
What about a scarf or collar so the back of your neck prickles when somebody is talking about you on Twitter.
Or a ghost detector for homes, restaurants, etc that glows when someone is “visiting” in Google Maps/Facebook Pages or looking through a webcam? Maybe it would be better to control the air conditioning to produce a chill, or play barely audible infrasound, indications that there is a haunting in progress and the veil here is thin.
Men specialized in hardware while software development was seen as an exciting alternative to secretarial work. In 1967, Cosmopolitan published an article titled The Computer Girls, encouraging young women to pursue careers in computer science. So the curve went up, and continued to do so up until 1984. That’s when personal computers appeared.
When Apple released the Macintosh 128K and the Commodore 64 was introduced to the market, they were presented as toys. And, as toys were gendered, they were targeted at boys. We can look at advertisements from that time and quickly find a pattern: fathers and sons, young men, even one where a man is being undressed by two women with the motto Two bytes are better than one. It’s more evident with the ads for computer games; if women appear, they do so sexualized and half-naked. Not that appealing for young girls, one could imagine.
Baldur Bjarnason writes an immense treatise on the current sad state of software, grounded in the historical perspective of the past sad state of software.
Sunday, June 6th, 2021
The ZX Spectrum in a time of revolution:
Gaming the Iron Curtain offers the first book-length social history of gaming and game design in 1980s Czechoslovakia, or anywhere in the Soviet bloc. It describes how Czechoslovak hobbyists imported their computers, built DIY peripherals, and discovered games as a medium, using them not only for entertainment but also as a means of self-expression.
Tuesday, June 1st, 2021
I like to alternate between reading fiction and non-fiction. The fiction is often of the science variety. Actually, so is the non-fiction.
There was a non-fiction book I had queued up for a while and I finally got around to reading. Broad Band by Claire L. Evans. Now I’m kicking myself that I didn’t read it earlier. I think I might’ve been remembering how I found Mar Hicks’s Programmed Inequality to be a bit of a slog—a fascinating topic, but written in a fairly academic style. Broad Band covers some similar ground, but wow, is the writing style in a class of its own!
This book is pretty much the perfect mix. The topic is completely compelling—a history of women in computing. The stories are rivetting—even when I thought I knew the history, this showed me how little I knew. And the voice of the book is pure poetry.
It’s not often that I read a book that I recommend wholeheartedly to everyone. I prefer to tailor my recommendations to individual situations. But in the case of Broad Band, I honesty think that anyone would enjoy it.
I absolutely loved it. So did Cory Doctorow:
Because she is a brilliant and lyrical writer she brings these women to life, turns them into fully formed characters, makes you see and feel their life stories, frustrations and triumphs.
Even the most celebrated women of tech history – Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper – leap off the page as people, not merely historical personages or pioneers. Again, these are stories I thought I knew, and realized I didn’t.
Wednesday, March 31st, 2021
Languages, platforms, and systems that break from the norms of computing.
Tuesday, March 30th, 2021
I don’t think I agree with Don Knuth’s argument here from a 2014 lecture, but I do like how he sets out his table:
Why do I, as a scientist, get so much out of reading the history of science? Let me count the ways:
- To understand the process of discovery—not so much what was discovered, but how it was discovered.
- To understand the process of failure.
- To celebrate the contributions of many cultures.
- Telling historical stories is the best way to teach.
- To learn how to cope with life.
- To become more familiar with the world, and to know how science fits into the overall history of mankind.
Wednesday, March 10th, 2021
Thursday, February 11th, 2021
SETI—the Search for Extra Terrestrial Information processing:
What we get is a computational device surrounding the Asymptotic Giant Branch star that is roughly the size of our Solar System.
Monday, January 25th, 2021
The intent is for this website to be used by self-forming small groups that want to create a “watching club” (like a book club) and discuss aspects of technology history that are featured in this series.
I’m about ready to rewatch Halt And Catch Fire. Anybody want to form a watching club with me?
Wednesday, December 2nd, 2020
In 1990, the science fiction writer Douglas Adams produced a “fantasy documentary” for the BBC called Hyperland. It’s a magnificent paleo-futuristic artifact, rich in sideways predictions about the technologies of tomorrow.
I remember coming across a repeating loop of this documentary playing in a dusty corner of a Smithsonian museum in Washington DC. Douglas Adams wasn’t credited but I recognised his voice.
Hyperland aired on the BBC a full year before the World Wide Web. It is a prophecy waylaid in time: the technology it predicts is not the Web. It’s what William Gibson might call a “stub,” evidence of a dead node in the timeline, a three-point turn where history took a pause and backed out before heading elsewhere.
Here, Claire L. Evans uses Adams’s documentary as an opening to dive into the history of hypertext starting with Bush’s Memex, Nelson’s Xanadu and Engelbart’s oNLine System. But then she describes some lesser-known hypertext systems…
In 1985, the students at Brown who encountered Intermedia had never seen anything like it before in their lives. The system laid a world of information at their fingertips, saved them hours at the library, and helped them work through tangles of thought.
Sunday, August 9th, 2020
Claire L. Evans on computational slime molds and other forms of unconvential computing that look beyond silicon:
In moments of technological frustration, it helps to remember that a computer is basically a rock. That is its fundamental witchcraft, or ours: for all its processing power, the device that runs your life is just a complex arrangement of minerals animated by electricity and language. Smart rocks.