History of Information Timeline

An interactive, illustrated timeline of historic moments in humankind’s quest for information. With annotations by Jeremy Norman.

History of Information is a searchable database of events in information. The link will show you the digital humanities category and what the creator thought were important events. I must say that it looks rather biased towards the interventions of white men.

Group hopes to resurrect 128-year-old Cyclorama of Jerusalem, near Quebec City

MONTREAL — The last cyclorama in Canada has been hidden from public view since it closed in 2018, but a small group of people are hoping to revive the unique…

Good News! A Group hopes to resurrect 128-year-old Cyclorama of Jerusalem, near Quebec City. The Cyclorama of Jerusalem is the last/only cyclorama still standing in Canada. I visited and blogged about it back in 2004 when I was able to visit it. Then it closed and now they are trying to restore it and sell it.

Cycloramas are the virtual reality of the 19th century. Long paintings, sometimes with props, were mounted in the round in special buildings that allowed people to feel immersed in a painted space. These remind us of the variety of types of media that have surpassed – the forgotten types of media.

The Emergence of Presentation Software and the Prehistory of PowerPoint

PowerPoint presentations have taken over the world despite Edward Tufte’s pamphlet The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint. It seems that in some contexts the “deck” has become the medium of information exchange rather than the report, paper or memo. In Slashdot I came across a link to a MIT Review essay titled, Next slide, please: A brief history of the corporate presentation. Another history is available from the Computer History Museum, Slide Logic: The Emergence of Presentation Software and the Prehistory of PowerPoint.

I remember the beginnings of computer-assisted presentations. My unit at the University of Toronto Computing Services experimented with the first tools and projectors. The three-gun projectors were finicky to set up and I felt a little guilty promoting set ups which I knew would take lots of technical support. In one presentation on digital presentations there was actually a colleague under the table making sure all the technology worked while I pitched it to faculty.

I also remember tools before PowerPoint. MORE was an outliner and thinking tool that had a presentation mode much the way Mathematica does. MORE was developed by Dave Winer who had a nice page on the history of outline processors he worked on here. It he leaves out how Douglas Engelbart’s Mother of All Demos in 1968 showed something like outlining too.

Alas, PowerPoint came to dominate though now we have a bunch of innovative presentation tools that work on the web from Google Sheets to Prezi.

Now back to Tufte. His critique still stands. Presentation tools have a cognitive style that encourages us to break complex ideas into chunks and then show one chunk at a time in a linear sequence. He points out that a well designed handout or pamphlet (like his pamphlet on The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint) can present a lot more information in a way that doesn’t hide the connections. You can have something more like a concept map that you take people through on a tour. Prezi deserves credit for paying attention to Tufte and breaking out of the linear style.

Now, of course, there are AI tools that can generate presentations like Presentations.ai or Slideoo. You can see a list of a number of them here. No need to know what you’re presenting, an AI will generate the content, design the slides, and soon present it too.

40 years of the Nintendo Famicom – the console that changed the games industry

Entering a crowded field, the Nintendo Famicom came to dominate the market in the 1980s, leaving a family orientated legacy that continues to be felt today

The Guardian has a good story on the 40th anniversary of the Nintendo Famicom, 40 years of the Nintendo Famicom – the console that changed the games industry The story quotes James Newman and also mentions Masayuki Uemura who Newman and I knew through the Replaying Japan conferences. Alas, Uemura, who was at Ritsumeikan after he retired from Nintendo, passed in 2021.

The story points out how Nintendo deliberately promoted the Famicom as a family machine that could be hooked up to the family TV (hence “Fami – com.) In various ways they wanted to legitimize gaming as a family experience. By contrast, when Nintendo brought the machine to North America it was remodelled to look like a VCR and called the Nintendo Entertainment System.

How Canada Accidentally Helped Crack Computer Translation

A technological whodunit—featuring Parliament, computer scientists, and a tipsy plane flight

Arun sent me a link to a neat story about How Canada Accidentally Helped Crack Computer Translation. The story is by Christine Mitchell and is in the Walrus (June 2023). It describes how IBM got ahold of a magnetic reel tape with 14 years of the Hansard – the translated transcripts of the Canadian Parliament. IBM went on to use this data trove to make advances in automatic translation.

The story mentions the politics of automated translation research in Canada. I have previously blogged about the Booths who were recruited by the NRC to Saskatchewan to work on automated translation. They were apparently pursuing a statistical approach like that IBM took later on, but their funding was cut.

Speaking of automatic translation, Canada had a computerized system, METEO for translating daily weather forecasts from Environment Canada. This ran from 1981 to 2001 and was an early successful implementation of automatic translation in the real world. It came out of work at the TAUM (Traduction Automatique à l’Université de Montréal) research group at the Université de Montréal that was set up in the late 1960s.

The case for taking AI seriously as a threat to humanity

From the Open Philanthropy site I came across this older (2020) Vox article, The case for taking AI seriously as a threat to humanity by Kelsey Piper. The article nicely summarizes some of the history of concerns around AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) as people tend to call an AI so advanced it might be comparable to human intelligence. This history goes back to Turing’s colleague I.J. Good who speculated in 1965 that,

An ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion,’ and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.

Such an explosion has been called the Singularity by Vernor Vinge and was popularized by Ray Kurzweil.

I came across this following threads on the whole issue of whether AI would soon become an existential threat. The question of the dangers of AI (whether AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) or just narrow AI) has gotten a lot of attention especially since Geoffrey Hinton ended his relationship with Google so he could speak about it. He and other signed a short statement published on the site of the Center for AI Safety,

Mitigating the risk of extinction from AI should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks such as pandemics and nuclear war.

The existential question only become relevant if one believes, as many do, that there is considerable risk that AI research and development is moving so fast that it may soon achieve some level of generality at which point such an AGI could begin act in unpredictable and dangerous ways. Alternatively people could misuse such powerful AGIs to harm us. Open Philanthropy is one group that is focused on Potential Risks form Advanced AI. They could be classed as an organization with a longtermism view, a view that it is important to ethics (and philanthropy) to consider long-term issues.

Advances in AI could lead to extremely positive developments, but could also potentially pose risks from intentional misuse or catastrophic accidents.

Others have called for a Manhattan Project for AI Safety. There are, of course, those (including me) that feel that this is distracting from the immediate unintended effects of AI and/or that there is little existential danger for the moment as AGI is decades off. The cynic in my also wonders how much the distraction is intentional as it both hypes the technology (its dangerous therefore it must be important) or justifies ignoring the stubborn immediate problems like racist bias in the training data.

Kelsey Piper has in the meantime published A Field Guide to AI Safety.

The question still remains whether AI is dangerous enough to merit the sort of ethical attention that nuclear power, for example, has recieved.

Lisa: Steve Jobs’ sabotage and Apple’s secret burial

Who remembers the Lisa? The Verge has a nice short documentary on the Lisa: Steve Jobs’ sabotage and Apple’s secret burial. The Lisa, named after Jobs’ daughter and released in 1983, was the first Apple with a graphical user interface. Alas it was too expensive (almost $10K USD at the time) and was eventually superseded by the Macintosh that came out in 1994 despite being technically superior.

The documentary is less about the Lisa than the end of the Lisa including an interview with Bob Cook who sold remaindered and used Lisa’s after they were discontinued thanks to a deal with Apple until Apple decided to bury them all in a landfill in Utah. (Which reminds me of the Atari video game cartridge burial of 1983.) The documentary is also, as every Apple story is, about Steve Jobs and his return to Apple in the late 1990s which led to its turnaround into the successful company it is now. Was it Jobs who wanted to bury the Lisa?

The Royal Game of Ur: Play the Oldest Board Game on Record – The New York Times

For 4,600 years, a mysterious game slept in the dust of southern Iraq, largely forgotten. The passion of a museum curator and the hunger of young Iraqis for their cultural history may bring it back.

The New York Times has a story on The Royal Game of Ur: Play the Oldest Board Game on Record. A curator at the British Museum, Irving Finkel, connected the translation of a tablet with the rules with an ancient board game of which there were copies in museums (see picture above). More recently the game has been reintroduced into Iraq so that people can rediscover their ludic heritage.

The nice thing about the NYTimes article, beside the video of Finkel who has an amazing beard, is that they include a PDF that you can download and print to learn to play the game.

The article and Finkel’s video talk highlight how influential a game can be – how a set of rules can be a meme that helps rediscover a game.

Unitron Mac 512: A Contraband Mac 512K from Brazil

From a paper on postcolonial computing I learned about the Unitron Mac 512: A Contraband Mac 512K from Brazil. For a while Brazil didn’t allow the importation of computers (so as to kickstart their own computer industry.) Unitron decided to reverse engineer the Mac 512K, but Apple put pressure on Brazil and the project was closed down. At least 500 machines were built and I guess some are still in circulation.

The article is Philip, K., et al. (2010). “Postcolonial Computing: A Tactical Survey.” Science Technology Human Values. 37(1).

Though Apple had no intellectual property protection for the Macintosh in Brazil, the American corporation was able to pressure government and other economic actors within Brazil to reframe Unitron’s activities, once seen as nationalist and anti-colonial, as immoral piracy.

‘I saw the possibility of what could be done – so I did it’: revolutionary video game The Hobbit turns 40 | Games | The Guardian

The developer of the text-adventure game on how, at 20, she overcame 1980s misogyny to turn a Tolkien book into one of the most groundbreaking titles in the gaming canon

The Guardian has a story on Veronika Megler who developed the innovative text (and image) adventure game The Hobbit (1982), ‘I saw the possibility of what could be done – so I did it’: revolutionary video game The Hobbit turns 40. She went on to get a PhD and now is principal data scientist at Amazon Web Services!

You can now play The Hobbit on the Internet Archive.