The Secret History of Women in Coding

Computer programming once had much better gender balance than it does today. What went wrong?

The New York Times has a nice long article on The Secret History of Women in Coding – The New York TimesWe know a lot of the story from books like Campbell-Kelly’s From Airline Reservations to Sonic the Hedgehog: a History of the Software Industry (2003), Chang’s Brotopia (2018), and Rankin’s A People’s History of Computing in the United States (2018).

The history is not the heroic story of personal computing that I was raised on. It is a story of how women were driven out of computing (both the academy and businesses) starting in the 1960s.

A group of us at the U of Alberta are working on archiving the work of Sally Sedelow, one of the forgotten pioneers of humanities computing. Dr. Sedelow got her PhD in English in 1960 and did important early work on text analysis systems.

Applying an Ethics of Care to Internet Research: Gamergate and Digital Humanities

Article: Applying an Ethics of Care to Internet Research: Gamergate and Digital Humanities

Thanks to Todd Suomela’s lead, we just published an article on Applying an Ethics of Care to Internet Research: Gamergate and Digital Humanities in Digital Studies. This article is a companion to an article I wrote with Bettina Berendt on Information Wants to Be Free, Or Does It? We and others are exploring the Ethics of Care as a different way of thinking about the ethics of digital humanities research.

Peter Robinson, “Textual Communities: A Platform for Collaborative Scholarship on Manuscript Heritages”

Peter Robinson gave a talk on “Textual Communities: A Platform for Collaborative Scholarship on Manuscript Heritages” as part of the Singhmar Guest Speaker Program | Faculty of Arts.

He started by talking about whether textual traditions had any relationship to the material world. How do texts relate to each other?

Today stemata as visualizations are models that go beyond the manuscripts themselves to propose evolutionary hypotheses in visual form.

He then showed what he is doing with the Canterbury Tales Project and then talked about the challenges adapting the time-consuming transcription process to other manuscripts. There are lots of different transcription systems, but few that handle collation. There is also the problem of costs and involving a distributed network of people.

He then defined text:

A text is an act of (human) communication that is inscribed in a document.

I wondered how he would deal with Allen Renear’s argument that there are Real Abstract Objects which, like Platonic Forms are real, but have no material instance. When we talk, for example, of “hamlet” we aren’t talking about a particular instance, but an abstract object. Likewise with things like “justice”, “history,” and “love.” Peter responded that the work doesn’t exist except as its instances.

He also mentioned that this is why stand-off markup doesn’t work because texts aren’t a set of linear objects. It is better to represent it as a tree of leaves.

So, he launched Textual Communities – https://textualcommunities.org/

This is a distributed editing system that also has collation.

Finding Lena Forsen, the Patron Saint of JPEGs | WIRED

In 1972, a photo of a Swedish Playboy model was used to engineer the digital image format that would become the JPEG. The model herself was mostly a mystery—until now.

Wired has another story on Finding Lena Forsen, the Patron Saint of JPEGs. This is not, however, the first time her story has been told. I blogged about the use of the Lena image back in 2004. It seems like this story will be rediscovered every decade.

What has changed is that people are calling out the casual sexism of tech culture. An example is Chang’s book Brotopia that starts with the Lena story.

Word2Vec Vis of Pride and Prejudice

Paolo showed me a neat demonstration of Word2Vec Vis of Pride and PrejudiceLynn Cherny trained a Word2Vec model using Jane Austen’s novels and then used that to find close matches for key words. She then show the text of a novel with the words replaced by their match in the language of Austen. It serves as a sort of demonstration of how Word2Vec works.

Cybersecurity

The New York Times has a nice short video on cybersecurity which is increasingly an issue. One of the things they mention is how it was the USA and Israel that may have opened the Pandora’s box of cyberweapons when they used Stuxnet to damage Iran’s nuclear programme. By using a sophisticated worm first we both legitimized the use of cyberwar against other countries which one is not at war with, and we showed what could be done. This, at least, is the argument of a good book on Stuxnet, Countdown to Zero Day.

Now the problem is that the USA, while having good offensive capability, is also one of the most vulnerable countries because of the heavy use of information technology in all walks of life. How can we defend against the weapons we have let loose?

What is particularly worrisome is that cyberweapons are being designed so that they are hard to trace and subtly disruptive in ways that are short of all out war. We are seeing a new form of hot/cold war where countries harass each other electronically without actually declaring war and getting civilian input. After 2016 all democratic countries need to protect against electoral disruption which then puts democracies at a disadvantage over closed societies.

Making AI accountable easier said than done, says U of A expert

Geoff McMaster of the Folio (U of A’s news site) wrote a nice article about how Making AI accountable easier said than done, says U of A expert. The article quotes me on on accountability and artificial intelligence. What we didn’t really talk about is forms of accountability for automata including:

  • Explainability – Can someone get an explanation as to how and why an AI made a decision that affects them? If people can get an explanation that they can understand then they can presumably take remedial action and hold someone or some organization accountable.
  • Transparency – Is an automated decision making process fully transparent so that it can be tested, studied and critiqued? Transparency is often seen as a higher bar for an AI to meet than explainability.
  • Responsibility – This is the old computer ethics question that focuses on who can be held responsible if a computer or AI harms someone. Who or what is held to account?

In all these cases there is a presumption of process both to determine transparency/responsibility and to then punish or correct for problems. Otherwise people will have no real recourse.

Writing with the machine

“…it’s like writing with a deranged but very well-read parrot on your shoulder.”

Robin Sloan, author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, has been doing some interesting work with recursive neural nets in order to generate text. See Writing with the machine. He trained a machine on science fiction and then hooked it into a text editor so it can complete sentences. The New York Times has a nice story on Sloan’s experiments, Computer Stories: A.I. Is Beginning to Assist Novelists.

One wonders what it would be like if you trained it on your own writing. Would it help you be yourself or discourage you from rereading your prose?

 

Making AI accountable easier said than done, says U of A expert

The Folio has a story on the ethics of AI that quotes me with the title, Making AI accountable easier said than done, says U of A expert.

One of issues that interests me the most now is the history of this discussion. We tend to treat the ethics of AI as a new issue, but people have been thinking about how automation would affect people for some time. There have been textbooks for teaching Computer Ethics like that of Deborah G. Johnson since the 1980s. As part of research we did on how computer were presented in the news we found articles in the 1960s about how automation might put people out of work. They weren’t thinking of AI then, but the ethical and social effects that concerned people back then were similar. What few people discussed, however, was how automation affected different groups differently. Michele Landsberg wrote a prescient article on “Will Computer Replace the Working Girl?” in 1964 for the women’s section of The Globe and Mail that argued that is was women in the typing pools that were being put out of work. Likewise I suspect that some groups be more affected by AI than others and that we need to prepare for that.

Addressing the issue of how universities might prepare for the disruption of artificial intelligence is a good book, Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence by Joseph Aoun (MIT Press, 2017).

Instead of educating college students for jobs that are about to disappear under the rising tide of technology, twenty-first-century universities should liberate them from outdated career models and give them ownership of their own futures. They should equip them with the literacies and skills they need to thrive in this new economy defined by technology, as well as continue providing them with access to the learning they need to face the challenges of life in a diverse, global environment.

Skip the bus: this post-apocalyptic jaunt is the only New York tour you’ll ever need

Operation Jane Walk appropriates the hallmarks of an action roleplaying game – Tom Clancy’s The Division (2016), set in a barren New York City after a smallpox pandemic – for an intricately rendered tour that digs into the city’s history through virtual visits to some notable landmarks. Bouncing from Stuyvesant Town to the United Nations Headquarters and down the sewers, a dry-witted tour guide makes plain how NYC was shaped by the Second World War, an evolving economy and the ideological jousting between urban theorists such as Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. Between stops, the guide segues into musical interludes and poetic musings, but doesn’t let us forget the need to brandish a weapon for self-defence. The result is a highly imaginative film that interrogates the increasingly thin lines between real and digital worlds – but it’s also just a damn good time.

Aeon has a great tour of New York using Tom Clancy’s The Division, Skip the bus: this post-apocalyptic jaunt is the only New York tour you’ll ever need. It looks like someone actually gives tours this way – a new form of urban tourism. What other cities could one do?