Wednesday, 19 April 2017

chocolate-covered broccoli

Though I can’t claim to have had any direct experience with Oregon Trail (“You have died of dysentery”) and was quite fond of Carmen Sandiego (albeit mostly due to the later television game show adaptation with catchy musical interludes by Rockapella but I don’t think the edutainment software was terribly sustaining), I did enjoy this reminiscence and appreciation of the fusion of entertainment and education—described as chocolate-covered broccoli as that’s the resulting palate in most cases.
In elementary school, moreover, I do remember weekly visits to the computer lab to sit before terminals connected to a mainframe that cycled through some human-interest stories of made-up newspaper that I supposed tested for reading comprehension but none of it was particularly engaging. Once we matriculated to Computer Literacy class, outfitted with Macintosh IIe models that one could program and communicate with rival middle schools with a modem, things did rather grow interesting and our attention was rapt. I think people take for granted that conversation that they have with themselves once they resolve to allow technology into their lives and homes. The novelty, entertainment value of technology was a poor decoy for the recalcitrant learner, but its capacity as a vehicle for education comes out in the tinkering—like with the ownership that comes from working on a jalopy—and to find oneself confined within a world of bounded possibilities that makes risk-taking paradoxically less risky.  Fortune still favours the bold and awards those able to step outside themselves.

Friday, 3 March 2017

silver surfers

The eighty-one year old life-long learner Masako Wakamiya is not only constantly improving her own computer literacy and encouraging other senior citizens to embrace technology rather than shun it, she also managed to teach herself how to write code and produced an application that instructs on the arrangement of the traditional dolls that represent the emperor and his court displayed during Hinamatsuri (้››็ฅญใ‚Š, Girls’ Day) celebrations. These elaborate displays consist of multiple figures in a hierarchy of seven tiers according to very specific protocol—like the royal court itself, and the programme teaches the order and orientation with a game. I’d like to hope I could retain my savvy like that in the future.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

legacy software

Corroborated with the US Government Accounting Office’s (GAO) annual report, the Simpsons have been vilified in accusing the Internal Revenue Service (the IRS, the tax authority) of operating the “slowest, punch-cardiest” computer in the government—at least, in one sense.
Those who work for the government have enjoyed heretofore some measure of job-security in knowing that their position is justified because different, entrenched systems cannot communicate with one another and need human translators—or at least water-bearers, but often it’s not the equipment, the hardware that’s wholly off life-cycle. Those laurels can be awarded to the nuclear defence platforms running on the same mainframes since inception and cannot be taken offline for updates and payroll systems. They may not be the most sophisticated but that does not necessarily mean that a system that goes on working for decades, with proper maintenance, ought to be overhauled for the sake of efficiency or intelligibility—since they are impervious to attack (at least the lazy, automated kind) and there might be an element of self-preservation in the programming, like the Voyager space probes exploring the Cosmos as our competent ombudsmen.

Monday, 10 October 2016

tron/troff or pitch-perfect

Recently an archivist made a fascinating discovery in the form of the first programme, score of digital music from 1948. Cryptologist and polymath Alan Turing wrote the instructions to have his building-sized computer at a laboratory in Manchester perform God Save the King followed by a few other melodies.
While we do have some insight into the pragmatic drive for Turing to modify the mainframe to produce sound—wanting to untether himself from monitoring gauges and screens to check the status of a running programme, a B- of an F-note indicating whether the programme had concluded or ran into a logical glitch (the beep, bop, boop of vintage super-computers), so he could check for bugs elsewhere or attend to the engineering requirements of the hardware, we are sadly not privy to what Turing thought about electronic music or its potential, since for years Mister Turing was blacklisted and his contributions to computer science went unacknowledged.

Monday, 19 September 2016

megabit, metabit

To my peril but also to my subsequent delight and emendation, my love-letters from Brain Pickings are usually dog-eared and set aside for reading that I always promise to get to at soon point, but that pile in my inbox is seething and threatens an avalanche. Happily, I was able to return to an intriguing sounding review of the life and times of a young mathematician who’s pioneering work in circuitry demonstrated that all logical operations could be reckoned by switches and relays and the just invented transistor, leading Claude Shannon to quickly and intuitively conclude that all information in the wilds—its natural habitat could be corralled and tamed, with data emerging as information thanks to the transfiguring exchange between the observer and the observed.

Corresponding with contemporaries that included Alan Turing and Vannevar Bush, Shannon was able to appropriate rather vague and generic terms, as had Isaac Newton in his mission to redefine physics in a disciplined and predictive manner, and furnish the world with Information Theory complete with a grammar that’s intelligible to both the mediator and the immediate. The bit is a metric, a measure of state (coined by Shannon as a portmanteau of binary digit) conveying either true or false, yes or no, but scalable out to any degree and precipitated the limning of communication and experience into a digital analogue that is accessible and exploitable by computer systems. Although we think of programmes as limited to the confines of simple logic, Information Theory also provides brute computing somewhat of a reprieve, showing that rather unique data-sets that encode unique and familiar data can be elided over, somewhat like the End-User Agreements that computers ply us with as instructive (although mathematical in nature, it is pretty human to skim), aiding in speed and compression. Moreover, as apparently as discreet and incompatible as Nature chooses to impart information, there is always a measurable threshold that computers can harness, from bar-codes and magnetic-strips to more custom parameters.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

your princess is in another castle

Via that other intrepid adventuress, Nag on the Lake, we are invited on field-trip with the team of explorers of Atlas Obscura to Saint Petersburg to see the conservation efforts of a group of nostalgic and impassioned group of college students, which has produced a vintage arcade experience.
Visitors are immersed in an ensemble of loving restored and playable games and refreshments that capture the ethos of the Soviet Union during the ‘70s and ‘80s. This unique installation (which is presenting some major maintenance challenges) consists of gaming machines that were not only about fun and fantasy—commissioned in accordance with the wishes of the state, there was little time or tolerance for anthropomorphic mushrooms and damsels in distress and these games rather emphasised hand-eye coordination, strategy and team-work over competition. Although no one can say for certain as the provenance of the games is a classified matter, they were probably designed and programmed in the same facilities and by the same computer scientists that were charged with the maintenance of the Soviets’ nuclear weapons arsenal.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

these kids today with their y2k...


The millenial bug after dire predictions a decade ago has reared itself again in some 30 million automatic teller machines, bank cards and point-of-sales registers all across Germany, leaving vacation-goers without access to cash and causing undue embarassment and worry in checkout lines.  A mistake in programming causes an error when the card or device processes the 2010 date.  YYMMDD--100101, DDMMYY--010110.  Computers don't make mistakes; people do.  I wonder if all the focus and patchwork that went into preventing the crash in the year 2000 contributed to this.  Technicians are being deployed to fix the problem and replacement ATM cards being issued, but it makes me wonder what else might not be Y2KX compliant--I don't think I've turned on TomTom since New Years, and who can say what other surprises might be in store when one finally gets around to one project or another after the holidays.