Tags: history

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Monday, February 20th, 2017

The Secret History of Hypertext - The Atlantic

The latest excellent missive from The History Of The Web—A Brief History of Hypertext—leads back to this great article by Alex Wright on Paul Otlet’s Mundaneum.

Sunday, February 19th, 2017

On Design Tools and Processes | Viljami Salminen

Changing our ways of thinking and doing isn’t easy. Sometimes it’s necessary though, and the first step on this journey is to let go. Let go of our imagi­nary feel of control. Forget the boundaries presented by our tools and ways of thinking. Break out of the silos we’ve created.

Thursday, February 16th, 2017

Winston Churchill’s essay on alien life found : Nature News & Comment

Churchill, as it turns out, had some pretty solid ideas on SETI.

Churchill was a science enthusiast and advocate, but he also contemplated important scientific questions in the context of human values. Particularly given today’s political landscape, elected leaders should heed Churchill’s example: appoint permanent science advisers and make good use of them.

Wednesday, February 15th, 2017

Teaching in Porto, day two

The second day in this week-long masterclass was focused on CSS. But before we could get stuck into that, there were some diversions and tangents brought on by left-over questions from day one.

This was not a problem. Far from it! The questions were really good. Like, how does a web server know that someone has permission to carry out actions via a POST request? What a perfect opportunity to talk about state! Cue a little history lesson on the web’s beginning as a deliberately stateless medium, followed by the introduction of cookies …for good and ill.

We also had a digression about performance, file sizes, and loading times—something I’m always more than happy to discuss. But by mid-morning, we were back on track and ready to tackle CSS.

As with the first day, I wanted to take a “long zoom” look at design and the web. So instead of diving straight into stylesheets, we first looked at the history of visual design: cave paintings, hieroglyphs, illuminated manuscripts, the printing press, the Swiss school …all of them examples of media where the designer knows where the “edges” of the canvas lie. Not so with the web.

So to tackle visual design on the web, I suggested separating layout from all the other aspects of visual design: colour, typography, contrast, negative space, and so on.

At this point we were ready to start thinking in CSS. I started by pointing out that all CSS boils down to one pattern:

selector {
  property: value;
}

The trick, then, is to convert what you want into that pattern. So “I want the body of the page to be off-white with dark grey text” in English is translated into the CSS:

body {
  background-color: rgb(225,225,255);
  color: rgb(51,51,51);
}

…and so one for type, contrast, hierarchy, and more.

We started applying styles to the content we had collectively marked up with post-it notes on day one. Then the students split into groups of two to create an HTML document each. Tomorrow they’ll be styling that document.

There were two important links that come up over the course of day two:

  1. A Dao Of Web Design by John Allsopp, and
  2. The CSS Zen Garden.

If all goes according to plan, we’ll be tackling the third layer of the web technology stack tomorrow: JavaScript.

Monday, February 13th, 2017

Teaching in Porto, day one

Today was the first day of the week long “masterclass” I’m leading here at The New Digital School in Porto.

When I was putting together my stab-in-the-dark attempt to provide an outline for the week, I labelled day one as “How the web works” and gave this synopsis:

The internet and the web; how browsers work; a history of visual design on the web; the evolution of HTML and CSS.

There ended up being less about the history of visual design and CSS (we’ll cover that tomorrow) and more about the infrastructure that the web sits upon. Before diving into the way the web works, I thought it would be good to talk about how the internet works, which led me back to the history of communication networks in general. So the day started from cave drawings and smoke signals, leading to trade networks, then the postal system, before getting to the telegraph, and then telephone networks, the ARPANET, and eventually the internet. By lunch time we had just arrived at the birth of the World Wide Web at CERN.

It wasn’t all talk though. To demonstrate a hub-and-spoke network architecture I had everyone write down someone else’s name on a post-it note, then stand in a circle around me, and pass me (the hub) those messages to relay to their intended receiver. Later we repeated this exercise but with a packet-switching model: everyone could pass a note to their left or to their right. The hub-and-spoke system took almost a minute to relay all six messages; the packet-switching version took less than 10 seconds.

Over the course of the day, three different laws came up that were relevant to the history of the internet and the web:

Metcalfe’s Law
The value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of users.
Postel’s Law
Be conservative in what you send, be liberal in what you accept.
Sturgeon’s Law
Ninety percent of everything is crap.

There were also references to the giants of hypertext: Ted Nelson, Vannevar Bush, and Douglas Engelbart—for a while, I had the mother of all demos playing silently in the background.

After a most-excellent lunch in a nearby local restaurant (where I can highly recommend the tripe), we started on the building blocks of the web: HTTP, URLs, and HTML. I pulled up the first ever web page so that we could examine its markup and dive into the wonder of the A element. That led us to the first version of HTML which gave us enough vocabulary to start marking up documents: p, h1-h6, ol, ul, li, and a few others. We went around the room looking at posters and other documents pinned to the wall, and starting marking them up by slapping on post-it notes with opening and closing tags on them.

At this point we had covered the anatomy of an HTML element (opening tags, closing tags, attribute names and attribute values) as well as some of the history of HTML’s expanding vocabulary, including elements added in HTML5 like section, article, and nav. But so far everything was to do with marking up static content in a document. Stepping back a bit, we returned to HTTP, and talked about difference between GET and POST requests. That led in to ways of sending data to a server, which led to form fields and the many types of inputs at our disposal: text, password, radio, checkbox, email, url, tel, datetime, color, range, and more.

With that, the day drew to a close. I feel pretty good about what we covered. There was a lot of groundwork, and plenty of history, but also plenty of practical information about how browsers interpret HTML.

With the structural building blocks of the web in place, tomorrow is going to focus more on the design side of things.

Thursday, February 9th, 2017

The History of the Web - The best stories from the web’s history

What a great project! A newsletter that focuses on stories from the web’s history, each one adding to an ongoing timeline (a bit like John’s hypertext history).

Tuesday, January 31st, 2017

The Schedule and the Stream

Matt takes a look at the history of scheduled broadcast media—which all began in Hungary in 1887 via telephone—and compares it to the emerging media context of the 21st century; the stream.

If the organizing principle of the broadcast schedule was synchronization — millions seeing the same thing at the same time — then the organizing principle of the stream is de-contextualization — stories stripped of their original context, and organized into millions of individual, highly personalized streams.

Less Bro-gramming: Net Natives host and sponsor Codebar | Net Natives

An excellent potted history from Cassie on women in computing.

NASA’s “Keypunch girls” would work in cramped rows translating programming instructions onto paper pads, whilst the machine operators would sit in comfort, feeding the code decks through card readers and enjoying the esteem of the end result (I imagine it a bit like Mad Men, but with more sexism and astronauts).

Monday, January 30th, 2017

The Invention of Wireless Cryptography—The Appendix

A marvellous story of early twentieth century espionage over the airwaves.

In one proposal, hidden instructions were interspersed within regular, ordinary-looking messages by slightly lengthening the spaces between dots and dashes.

What Is the Oldest Computer Program Still in Use?

A fascinating bit of technological archeology tracing some of the oldest still-running software, from a COBOL program at the Pentagon to the firmware on the Voyager probes.

Thursday, January 19th, 2017

Memory of Mankind: All of Human Knowledge Buried in a Salt Mine - The Atlantic

Like cuneiform crossed with the Long Now Foundation’s Rosetta Project.

He will laser-print a microscopic font onto 1-mm-thick ceramic sheets, encased in wafer-thin layers of glass. One 20 cm piece of this microfilm can store 5 million characters; whole libraries of information—readable with a 10x-magnifying lens—could be slotted next to each other and hardly take up any space.

Monday, January 9th, 2017

The Futures of Typography

A wonderfully thoughtful piece from Robin, ranging from the printing technologies of the 15th century right up to the latest web technologies. It’s got all my favourite things in there: typography, digital preservation, and service workers. Marvellous!

Friday, January 6th, 2017

The Realm of Rough Telepathy

I love this recasting of the internet into a fantastical medieval setting. Standards become spells, standards bodies become guilds and orders of a coven, and technologies become instruments of divination. Here, for example, is the retelling of IPv4:

The Unique Rune of the Fourth Order is the original and formative Unique Rune, still commonly in use. All existing Unique Runes of the Fourth Order were created simultaneously in the late 1970’s by the Numberkeepers, at a time when Rough Telepathy was a small and speculative effort tightly affiliated with the Warring Kingdom of the United States. There were then and are now 4.3 billion Unique Runes of the Fourth Order, a number which cannot be increased. The early Numberkeepers believed 4.3 billion would be more than enough. However, this number is no longer sufficient to provision the masses hungry to never disengage from participation in Rough Telepathy, and the Merchants eager to harness Rough Telepathy as a “feature” in new and often unnecessary consumer products. This shortage has caused considerable headache among the Fiefdoms, the Regional Telepathy Registers, and the Coven.

Thursday, January 5th, 2017

Going rogue

As soon as tickets were available for the Brighton premiere of Rogue One, I grabbed some—two front-row seats for one minute past midnight on December 15th. No problem. That was the night after the Clearleft end-of-year party on December 14th.

Then I realised how dates work. One minute past midnight on December 15th is the same night as December 14th. I had double-booked myself.

It’s a nice dilemma to have; party or Star Wars? I decided to absolve myself of the decision by buying additional tickets for an evening showing on December 15th. That way, I wouldn’t feel like I had to run out of the Clearleft party before midnight, like some geek Cinderella.

In the end though, I did end up running out of the Clearleft party. I had danced and quaffed my fill, things were starting to get messy, and frankly, I was itching to immerse myself in the newest Star Wars film ever since Graham strapped a VR headset on me earlier in the day and let me fly a virtual X-wing.

Getting in the mood for Rogue One with the Star Wars Battlefront X-Wing VR mission—invigorating! (and only slightly queasy-making)

So, somewhat tired and slightly inebriated, I strapped in for the midnight screening of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

I thought it was okay. Some of the fan service scenes really stuck out, and not in a good way. On the whole, I just wasn’t that gripped by the story. Ah, well.

Still, the next evening, I had those extra tickets I had bought as psychological insurance. “Why not?” I thought, and popped along to see it again.

This time, I loved it. It wasn’t just me either. Jessica was equally indifferent the first time ‘round, and she also enjoyed it way more the second time.

I can’t recall having such a dramatic swing in my appraisal of a film from one viewing to the next. I’m not quite sure why it didn’t resonate the first time. Maybe I was just too tired. Maybe I was overthinking it too much, unable to let myself get caught up in the story because I was over-analysing it as a new Star Wars film. Anyway, I’m glad that I like it now.

Much has been made of its similarity to classic World War Two films, which I thought worked really well. But the aspect of the film that I found most thought-provoking was the story of Galen Erso. It’s the classic tale of an apparently good person reluctantly working in service to evil ends.

This reminded me of Mother Night, perhaps my favourite Kurt Vonnegut book (although, let’s face it, many of his books are interchangeable—you could put one down halfway through, and pick another one up, and just keep reading). Mother Night gives the backstory of Howard W. Campbell, who appears as a character in Slaughterhouse Five. In the introduction, Vonnegut states that it’s the one story of his with a moral:

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

If Galen Erso is pretending to work for the Empire, is there any difference to actually working for the Empire? In this case, there’s a get-out clause for this moral dilemma: by sabotaging the work (albeit very, very subtly) Galen’s soul appears to be absolved of sin. That’s the conclusion of the excellent post on the Sci-fi Policy blog, Rogue One: an ‘Engineering Ethics’ Story:

What Galen Erso does is not simply watch a system be built and then whistleblow; he actively shaped the design from its earliest stages considering its ultimate societal impacts. These early design decisions are proactive rather than reactive, which is part of the broader engineering ethics lesson of Rogue One.

I know I’m Godwinning myself with the WWII comparisons, but there are some obvious historical precedents for Erso’s dilemma. The New York Review of Books has an in-depth look at Werner Heisenberg and his “did he/didn’t he?” legacy with Germany’s stalled atom bomb project. One generous reading of his actions is that he kept the project going in order to keep scientists from being sent to the front, but made sure that the project was never ambitious enough to actually achieve destructive ends:

What the letters reveal are glimpses of Heisenberg’s inner life, like the depth of his relief after the meeting with Speer, reassured that things could safely tick along as they were; his deep unhappiness over his failure to explain to Bohr how the German scientists were trying to keep young physicists out of the army while still limiting uranium research work to a reactor, while not pursuing a fission bomb; his care in deciding who among friends and acquaintances could be trusted.

Speaking of Albert Speer, are his hands are clean or dirty? And in the case of either answer, is it because of moral judgement or sheer ignorance? The New Atlantis dives deep into this question in Roger Forsgren’s article The Architecture of Evil:

Speer indeed asserted that his real crime was ambition — that he did what almost any other architect would have done in his place. He also admitted some responsibility, noting, for example, that he had opposed the use of forced labor only when it seemed tactically unsound, and that “it added to my culpability that I had raised no humane and ethical considerations in these cases.” His contrition helped to distance himself from the crude and unrepentant Nazis standing trial with him, and this along with his contrasting personal charm permitted him to be known as the “good Nazi” in the Western press. While many other Nazi officials were hanged for their crimes, the court favorably viewed Speer’s initiative to prevent Hitler’s scorched-earth policy and sentenced him to twenty years’ imprisonment.

I wish that these kinds of questions only applied to the past, but they are all-too relevant today.

Software engineers in the United Stares are signing a pledge not to participate in the building of a Muslim registry:

We refuse to participate in the creation of databases of identifying information for the United States government to target individuals based on race, religion, or national origin.

That’s all well and good, but it might be that a dedicated registry won’t be necessary if those same engineers are happily contributing their talents to organisations whose business models are based on the ability to track and target people.

But now we’re into slippery slopes and glass houses. One person might draw the line at creating a Muslim registry. Someone else might draw the line at including any kind of invasive tracking script on a website. Someone else again might decide that the line is crossed by including Google Analytics. It’s moral relativism all the way down. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t draw lines. Of course it’s hard to live in an ideal state of ethical purity—from the clothes we wear to the food we eat to the electricity we use—but a muddy battleground is still capable of having a line drawn through it.

The question facing the fictional characters Galen Erso and Howard W. Campbell (and the historical figures of Werner Heisenberg and Albert Speer) is this: can I accomplish less evil by working within a morally repugnant system than being outside of it? I’m sure it’s the same question that talented designers ask themselves before taking a job at Facebook.

At one point in Rogue One, Galen Erso explicitly invokes the justification that they’d find someone else to do this work anyway. It sounds a lot like Tim Cook’s memo to Apple staff justifying his presence at a roundtable gathering that legitimised the election of a misogynist bigot to the highest office in the land. I’m sure that Tim Cook, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Sheryl Sandberg all think they are playing the part of Galen Erso but I wonder if they’ll soon find themselves indistinguishable from Orson Krennic.

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2017

The triumph of the small » Nieman Journalism Lab

I really like Liz’s long-zoom perspective in this look ahead to journalism in 2017.

Sunday, January 1st, 2017

Two Irish Girls Who Made It to New York - The New York Times

Maeve Higgins must’ve been back in Cobh (our hometown) at the same time this Christmas. Here she tells the story of Annie Moore, the first person to enter the doors at Ellis Island.

I stood on the darkening quay side in Cobh on Christmas Eve, and looked at a statue of Annie there. She seems small and capable, her hands lightly resting on her little brothers’ shoulders, gazing back at a country she would never see again. An Irish naval ship had returned to the harbor earlier that week from its mission off the Mediterranean coast, a mission that has rescued 15,000 people from the sea since May 2015, though 2016 was still the deadliest one for migrants crossing the Mediterranean since World War II.

Monday, December 26th, 2016

Enigma-E

An Enigma machine of one’s own.

Friday, December 23rd, 2016

What Comes Next Is the Future (2016) on Vimeo

Matt Griffin’s thoughtful documentary is now available for free on Vimeo. It’s a lovely look at the past, present, and future of the web, marred only by the brief appearance of yours truly.

Monday, December 12th, 2016

The World According to Stanisław Lem - Los Angeles Review of Books

A profile of Stanisław Lem and his work, much of which is still untranslated.

Sunday, December 4th, 2016

The world-wide web (PDF) by T.J. Berners-Lee, R. Cailliau and J.-F. Groff

Well, look at these fresh-faced lads presenting their little hypertext system in 1992. A fascinating time capsule.