From Airline Reservations to Sonic the Hedgehog

April 12th, 2015

An important book for anyone doing the history of computing is From Airline Reservations to Sonic the Hedgehog by Martin Campbell-Kelly. This book more or less invents the field of software history by outlining the important phases, sectors and sources. Other histories have focused on individual companies, heros, or periods; Campbell-Kelly tries to survey the history (at least up to 1995) and define what needs to be considered and what we don’t know. In particular he tries to correct the consumer view that the history of software is about Microsoft. To that end he spends a lot of time on mainframe software and the sorts of services like IBM CICS (Customer Information Control System) that allows ATMs and other systems to reliably communicate transactions.

Martin Campbell-Kelly in the first chapter outlines three phases to the history of software that also correspond to sectors of the industry:

  1. From mid 1950s, Software Contracting
  2. From mid 1960s, Corporate Software Products
  3. From late 1970s, Packaged mass-market software products

You can read an interesting exchange about the book here that reviews the book, criticizes it and gives Campbell-Kelly a chance to respond.

Bibliographic reference: Campbell-Kelly, M. (2003). From Airline Reservations to Sonic the Hedgehog: a History of the Software Industry. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.

Gone Home: A Story Exploration Video Game

April 12th, 2015

Just finished a gem of a game called Gone Home: A Story Exploration Video Game. The game is simple. You are the older daughter returned to an empty home after a year in Europe. You wander around the house finding notes and other clues as to where your family is. In the process you uncover the stories of your parents, your sister and a dead uncle. The ending had me in tears – proof for me that a game can evoke emotions.

The empty and mysterious mood reminds me of other games that use that mood like Dear Esther and even Myst.

TSA’s Secret Behavior Checklist to Spot Terrorists

April 6th, 2015

The Intercept has published the TSA’s behaviour checklist for spotting terrorists as part of two stories. See, Exclusive: TSA’s Secret Behavior Checklist to Spot Terrorists. The Spot Referral Report includes all sorts of behaviours like “Arrives late for flight …”. The idea of the report is that behaviours are assigned points and if someone gets more than a certain number of points the suspect is referred to a Law Enforcement Officer (LEO). The checklist is part of a SPOT (Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques) Referral Report that is filled out when someone is “spotted” by the TSA. A second story from the Intercept claims that Exclusive: TSA ‘Behavior Detection’ Program Targeting Undocumented Immigrants, Not Terrorists.

Nintendo asking for ad revenue for gaming on Youtube

April 6th, 2015

CBC and others are reporting on a new Nintendo Creators Program where Nintendo will take a percentage of the ad revenue associated with a YouTube channel or video with playthroughs (Let’s Play) of their games. See YouTube gaming stars blindsided by Nintendo’s ad revenue grab or Nintendo’s New Deal with Youtubers Is A Jungle Of Rights. This will

The Nintendo Creators Program presents this in their Guide as an opportunity to make money off their copyrighted materials,

In the past, advertising proceeds that could be received for videos that included Nintendo-copyrighted content (such as gameplay videos) went to Nintendo, according to YouTube rules. Now, through this service, Nintendo will send you a share of these advertising proceeds for any YouTube videos or channels containing Nintendo-copyrighted content that you register.

This program is only for “copyrighted content related to game titles specified by Nintendo”. This is probably because Nintendo has to be careful to not be seen as making money off playthroughs of other publisher’s games.

This new policy/program raises interesting issues around:

  • Fair use. Is a screen shot or a whole series of them that make up a playthrough covered by “fair use”? My read is that the publishers think not.
  • Publicity from Playthroughs. YouTuber’s like PewDiePie who post Let’s Play videos (and make money off their popular channels) argue that these videos provide free exposure and publicity.
  • New Economic Models for Gaming. Is Nintendo exploring new economic models tied to their copyright? Nintendo has been suffering so it makes sense that they would try to find ways to monetize their significant portfolio of popular game franchises and characters.

Mina S. Rees and Early Computers

April 4th, 2015

Reading Thomas P. Hughes book Rescuing Prometheus I came across a reference to Dr Mina S. Rees who, in different senior roles at the Office of Naval Research in the late 1940s and early 50s, played a role in promoting early computing research. This led me to her 1950 Science article The Federal Computing Machine Program (December 1950, Vol. 112, No. 2921, pp. 731-736), a terrific survey of the state of computing at the time that is both a pleasure to read and nicely captures the balance/promise of analogue and electronic machines at the time. I was particularly struck by the wry humour of the overview. For example, in the opening she talks about what she will not talk about in her overview, and jokes that,

For an adequate discourse on the military applications of automatically sequenced electronic computers, I direct you to recent Steve Canyon comic strips in which a wonderful electronic brain that could see and shoot down planes at great distances was saved from the totalitarian forces of evil. (p. 731)

The Steve Canyon comic in question is a “Mechanical Brain” story her audience would have recognized. (See this review of the Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon 1950 compilation.) Interestingly (perhaps because she had read Jay Forrester’s reports about air defense), Whirlwind, one of the computers she mentions, went on to be developed into the SAGE system which was designed to semi-automatically, “see and shoot down planes at great distances”.

Rees’ humour, humility and prescience can also be seen in her concession that visual displays and interface are important to certain problems,

As one who has suspected from the beginning that all oscilloscope displays were manipulated by a little man standing in hiding near by, I am happy now to concede that in several of the problems we are now attacking the introduction of visual display equipment has substantial merit. (p. 732)

She recognized the value of a “broad point of view” that looked at computing as more than efficient number crunching. This article reminds us of how computing was understood differently in the 1940s and 1950s and thereby helps us reacquire a broad point of view on computing with some humour.

For a memorial biography of Dr Rees see the memorial here (PDF).

Science 2.0 and Citizen Research

March 29th, 2015

This week I attended the second Science 2.0 conference held in Hamburg, Germany. (You can see my research notes here.) The conference dealt with issues around open access, open data, citizen science, and network enabled science. I was one of two Canadian digital humanists presenting. Matthew Hiebert from the University of Victoria talked about the social edition and work from the Electronic Textual Cultures Lab and Iter. It should be noted that in Europe the word “science” is more inclusive and can include the humanities. This conference wasn’t just about how open data and crowdsourcing could help the natural sciences – it was about how research across the disciplines could be supported with virtual labs and infrastructure.

I gave a paper on “New Publics for the Humanities” that started by noting that the humanities no longer engage the public. The social contract with the public that supports us has been neglected. I worry that if the university is disaggregated and the humanities unbundled from the other faculties (the way newspapers have been hit by the internet and the unbundling of services) then people will stop paying for the humanities and much of the research we do. We will end up with cheaper, research poor, colleges that provide lots of higher education without the research, or climbing walls. Only in the elite private universities will the humanities survive, and in those they will survive as a marker of their class status. You will be able to study ancient languages at elite schools because any degree is good from an elite school provides.

Of course, the humanities will survive outside the university, and may become healthier with the downsizing of the professional (or professorial) humanities, but we run the danger of unthinkingly losing a long tradition of thinking critically and ethically. An irony to be sure – losing thinking traditions through the lack of public reflection on the consequences of disruptive change.

Drawing on Greg Crane, I then argued that citizen research (forms of crowdsourcing) can re-engage the publics we need to support us and reflect with us. Citizen research can provide an alternative way of structuring research in anticipation of defunding of the humanities research function. I illustrated my point by showing a number of examples of humanities crowdsourcing projects from the OED (pre-computer volunteer research) to the Dictionary of Words in the Wild. If I can find the time I will write up the argument to see where it goes.

My talk was followed by thorough one on citizen science in environmental studies by Professor Aletta Bonn of the Citizens create knowledge project – a German platform for citizen science. We need to learn from people like Dr. Bonn who are studying and experimenting with the deployment of citizen research. One point she made was the importance of citizen co-design. Most projects enlist citizens in repetitive micro-tasks designed by researchers. What if the research project were designed from the beginning with citizens? What would that mean? How would that work?

Islamic State doxes US soldiers, airmen, calls on supporters to kill them

March 22nd, 2015

Ars Technical has a series of interesting articles about doxing including an article about how the Islamic State doxes US soldiers, airmen, calls on supporters to kill them . How long before IS starts identifying the Canadian special forces sent to advise in the war in Iraq and Syria. Or … imagine the doxing of drone operators as a form of retaliation.

Doxing and other troll tactics seem to be entering the mainstream. Gabriella Coleman in Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy writes about Anonymous and their use of various tactics for often admirable causes. She goes further and suggests that trolling may be form of resistance suited to the emerging surveillance state,

Anonymous is emblematic of a particular geography of resistance. Composed of multiple competing groups, short-term power is achievable for brief durations, while long-term dominance by any single group or person is virtually impossible. In such a dynamic landscape, it may be “easy to co-opt, but impossible to be co-opted,” (location 5691 of 8131)

She also sees in Anonymous and trolling the tradition of the trickster. “Trickster tales are not didactic and moralizing but reveal their lessons playfully.” (Location 511 of 8131) It wasn’t long before the tricksters got attacked as the tactics spread. See Dox everywhere: LulzSec under attack from hackers, law enforcement.
The GamerGate controversy showed a much darker side to trolling and how these tactics could be used to bully as much as to resist. The people doxed were mostly women and so-called “social justice warriors” who annoyed certain gamers. Those doxed were hardly the powerful or Big Brother watching us. Now (women) academics who study gaming are being identified. How long before we have to train our graduate students in Anti-doxing strategy as part of preparation for research into games?

Nintendo Is Finally Bringing Mario to Mobile Phones (with DeNA)

March 17th, 2015

Wired and others have stories about how Nintendo Is Finally Bringing Mario to Mobile Phones. They are entering into an alliance with DeNA by buying DeNA stock (and DeNA will buy Nintendo stock.) Iwata (Director and President of Nintendo) and Isao Moriyasu (President and CEO of DeNA) made a joint announcement. You can see a translated version of the presentation on YouTube here.

This is a big change for Nintendo as they have been losing money as the traditional console gaming industry loses market share to casual and mobile platforms. I had heard ex-employees say Nintendo would never make the transition, but stay committed to tight integration of their games and dedicated devices. Obviously things have changed and now Nintendo will be deploying their IP to smartphones, especially to reach a global market. Nintendo stock closed 27.5% up.

My understanding of Iwata’s explanation was that they now see mobile versions as building their fan base and therefore helping sell dedicated devices/content. They are afraid that they will be marginalized globally if they don’t expand the reach of their IP. They have now decided how to use smart devices as a way into dedicated systems.

Because the interfaces are different, they don’t intend to just port existing titles to mobile platforms. Instead they will work with DeNA to create new content specifically for smart devices.

Database of Japanese Manga, Anime, Games, and Media Arts

March 17th, 2015

The Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs has released a first version of their Media Arts database (only in Japanese). This database has, among other things, about 36,000 game titles. I think the games database was developed by the team at the Ritsumeikan Center for Game Studies (RCGS) – they were certainly working on this when I visited.

You can read an announcement from Anime News Network here.

Is it Research or is it Spying? Thinking-Through Ethics in Big Data AI and Other Knowledge Sciences

March 17th, 2015

Is it Research or is it Spying? Thinking-Through Ethics in Big Data AI and Other Knowledge Sciences has just been published online. It was written with Bettina Berendt and Marco Büchler and came out of a Dagschule retreat where a group of us started talking about ethics and big data. Here is the abstract:

How to be a knowledge scientist after the Snowden revelations?” is a question we all have to ask as it becomes clear that our work and our students could be involved in the building of an unprecedented surveillance society. In this essay, we argue that this affects all the knowledge sciences such as AI, computational linguistics and the digital humanities. Asking the question calls for dialogue within and across the disciplines. In this article, we will position ourselves with respect to typical stances towards the relationship between (computer) technology and its uses in a surveillance society, and we will look at what we can learn from other fields. We will propose ways of addressing the question in teaching and in research, and conclude with a call to action.

A PDF of our author version is here.