The Last One

Whatever happened to The Last One software? The Last One (TLO) was a “program generator” that was supposed to take input from a user who wasn’t a programmer and be able to generate a BASIC program.

TLO was developed by a company called D.J. “AI” Systems Ltd. that was set up by David James who became interested in artificial intelligence when he bought a computer for his business, and apparently got so distracted that he was bankrupted by that interest (and lost his computers). It was funded by an equally colourful character, Scotty Bambury who made his money as a tire dealer in Somerset. (See here and here.)

Personal Computer magazine cover from here

The name (The Last One) refers to the expectation that this would be the last software you would need to buy. As the cover image above shows, they were imagining programmers being put out of work by an AI that could reprogram itself. TLO would be the last software you had to buy and possibly the first AI capable of recursively improving itself. DJ AI could have been spinning up the seed AI that could lead to the singularity! 

Here is some of the text from an ad for TLO. The text ran under the spacey headline at the top of this post.

The first program you should buy. …

THE LAST ONE … The program that writes programs!

Now, for the first time, your computer is truly ‘personal’. Now, simply and easily, you can create software the way you want it. …

Yet another sense of “personal” in “personal computer” – a computer where all your software (except, of course, TLO) is personally developed. Imagine a computer that you trained to do what you needed. This was the situation with early mainframes – programmers had to develop the applications individually for each system, they just didn’t have TLO.

Finland accepts the Demoscene on its national UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage of humanity

“Demoskene is an international community focused on demos, programming, graphics and sound creatively real-time audiovisual performances. [..] Subculture is an empowering and important part of identity for its members.”

The Art of Coding has gotten Demoscene listed by Finland in the National Inventory of Living Heritage, Breakthrough of Digital Culture: Finland accepts the Demoscene on its national UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage of humanity. This means that Demoscene may be the first form of digital culture put forward to UNESCO as a candidate intangible cultural heritage (ICH).

In a previous blog post I argued that ICH is a form of culture that would be hard to digitize by definition. I could be proved wrong with Demoscene. Or it could be that what makes Demoscene ICH is not the digital demos, but the intangible cultural scene, which is not digital.

Either way, it is interesting to see how digital practices are also becoming intangible culture that could disappear.

You can learn more about Demoscene from these links:

Reflecting on one very, very strange year at Uber

As most of you know, I left Uber in December and joined Stripe in January. I’ve gotten a lot of questions over the past couple of months about why I left and what my time at Uber was like. It’s a strange, fascinating, and slightly horrifying story that deserves to be told while it is still fresh in my mind, so here we go.

The New York Times has a short review of Susan Fowler’s memoir, Her Blog Post About Uber Upended Big Tech. Now She’s Written a Memoir. Susan Fowler is the courageous engineer who documented the sexism at Uber in a blog post, Reflecting on one very, very strange year at Uber — Susan Fowler. Her blog post from 2017 (the opening of which is quoted above) was important in that drew attention to the bro culture in Silicon Valley. It also led to investigations within Uber and eventually to the co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick being ousted.

Continue reading Reflecting on one very, very strange year at Uber

36 Years Ago Today, Steve Jobs Unveiled the First Macintosh

MacRumors has a story about how today is the 36th anniversary of the unveiling of the Macintosh. See 36 Years Ago Today, Steve Jobs Unveiled the First Macintosh. At the time I was working in Kuwait and had a Apple II clone. When a Macintosh came to a computer store I went down with a friend to try it. I must admit the Graphical User Interface (GUI) appealed to me immediately despite the poor performance. When I got back to Canada in 1985 to start graduate school I bought my first Macintosh, a 512K with a second disk drive. Later I hacked a RAM upgrade and got a small hard drive. Of course now I regret selling the computer to a friend in order to upgrade.

The Illusionistic Magic of Geometric Figuring

the purpose aimed at by Mantegna and Pozzo was not so much “to simulate stereopsis”—the process by which we see depth—but rather to achieve “a simulation of the perceptual effect of stereoptic vision.” Far from being visual literalists, these painters were literal illusionists—their aim was to make their audiences see something that wasn’t there.

CABINET has a nice essay by Margaret Wertheim connecting Bacon to Renaissance perspective to video games, The Illusionistic Magic of Geometric Figuring. Wertheim argues that starting with Roger Bacon there was a growing interest in the psychological power of virtual representation. Artists starting with Giotto in Assisi the Mantegna and later Pozzo created ever more perspectival representations that were seen as stunning at the time. (Pozzo painted the ceiling of St. Ignatius Being Received into Heaven in Sant’Ignazio di Loyola a Campo Marzio, Rome.)

The frescos in Assisi heralded a revolution both in representation and in metaphysical leaning whose consequences for Western art, philosophy, and science can hardly be underestimated. It is here, too, that we may locate the seed of the video gaming industry. Bacon was giving voice to an emerging view that the God of Judeo-Christianity had created the world according to geometric laws and that Truth was thus to be found in geometrical representation. This Christian mathematicism would culminate in the scientific achievements of Galileo and Newton four centuries later…

Wertheim connects this to the ever more immersive graphics of the videogame industry. Sometimes I forget just how far the graphics have come from the first immersive games I played like Myst. Whatever else some games do, they are certainly visually powerful. It often seems a shame to have to go on a mission rather than just explore the world represented.

Codecademy vs. The BBC Micro

The Computer Literacy Project, on the other hand, is what a bunch of producers and civil servants at the BBC thought would be the best way to educate the nation about computing. I admit that it is a bit elitist to suggest we should laud this group of people for teaching the masses what they were incapable of seeking out on their own. But I can’t help but think they got it right. Lots of people first learned about computing using a BBC Micro, and many of these people went on to become successful software developers or game designers.

I’ve just discovered Two-Bit History (0b10), a series of long and thorough blog essays on the history of computing by Sinclair Target. One essay is on Codecademy vs. The BBC Micro. The essay gives the background of the BBC Computer Literacy Project that led the BBC to commission as suitable microcomputer, the BBC Micro. He uses this history to then compare the way the BBC literacy project taught a nation (the UK) computing to the way the Codeacademy does now. The BBC project comes out better as it doesn’t drop immediately into drop into programming without explaining, something the Codecademy does.

I should add that the early 1980s was a period when many constituencies developed their own computer systems, not just the BBC. In Ontario the Ministry of Education launched a process that led to the ICON which was used in Ontario schools in the mid to late 1980s.

The weird, wonderful world of Y2K survival guides

The category amounted to a giant feedback loop in which the existence of Y2K alarmism led to more of the same.

Harry McCracken in Fast Company has a great article on The weird, wonderful world of Y2K survival guides: A look back (Dec. 13, 2019).The article samples some of the hype around the disruptive potential of the millenium. Particularly worrisome are the political aspects of the folly. People (again) predicted the fall of the government and the need to prepare for the ensuing chaos. (Why is it that some people look so forward to such collapse?)

Technical savvy didn’t necessarily inoculate an author against millennium-bug panic. Edward Yourdon was a distinguished software architect with plenty of experience relevant to the challenge of assessing the Y2K bug’s impact. His level of Y2K gloominess waxed and waned, but he was prone to declarations such as “my own personal Y2K plans include a very simple assumption: the government of the U.S., as we currently know it, will fall on 1/1/2000. Period.”

Interestingly, few people panicked despite all the predictions. Most people, went out and celebrated.

All of this should be a warning for those of us who are tempted to predict that artificial intelligence or social media will lead to some sort of disaster. There is an ethics to predicting ethical disruption. Disruption, almost by definition, never happens as you thought it would.

50th Anniversary of the Internet

Page from notebook documenting connection on the 29th, Oct. 1969. From UCLA special collections via this article

50 years ago on October 29th, 1969 was when the first two nodes of the ARPANET are supposed to have connected. There are, of course, all sorts of caveats, but it seems to have been one of the first times someone remote log in from one location to another on what became the internet. Gizmodo has an interview with Bradley Fidler on the history that is worth reading.

Remote access was one of the reasons the internet was funded by the US government. They didn’t want to give everyone their own computer. Instead the internet (ARPANET) would let people use the computers of others remotely (See Hafner & Lyon 1996).

Interestingly, I also just read a story that the internet (or at least North America, has just run out of IP addresses. The IPv4 addresses have been exhausted and not everyone has switched to IPv6 that has many more available addresses. I blame the Internet of Things (IoT) for assigning addresses to every “smart” object.

Hafner, K., & Lyon, M. (1996). Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet. New York: Simon & Shuster.

HyperCard at the Internet Archive

Screen Shot of Internet Archive HyperCard Collection

The Internet Archive is now collecting HyperCard Stacks and has an emulator so they can be run in the browser. If you have old ones to contribute you can upload them to hypercardonline.tk (which has a nerdy HyperCard like interface.)

Like many, I learned to program multimedia in HyperCard. I even ended up teaching it to faculty and teachers at the University of Toronto. It was a great starting development environment with a mix of graphical tools, hypertext tools and a verbose programming language. It’s only (and major) flaw was that it wasn’t designed to create networked information. HyperCard Stacks has to be passed around on disks. The web made possible a networked hypertext environment that solved the distribution problems of the 1980s. One wonders why Apple (or someone else) doesn’t bring it back in an updated and networked form. I guess that is what the Internet Archive is doing.

For more on the history of HyperCard see the Ars Technica article by Matthew Lasar, 30-plus years of HyperCard, the missing link to the Web.

What is cool is that artists are using HyperCard to make art like Formality* discussed in the previous post.

The End of Agile

I knew the end of Agile was coming when we started using hockey sticks.

From Slashdot I found my way to a good essay on The End of Agile by Kurt Cagle in Forbes.

The Agile Manifesto, like most such screeds, started out as a really good idea. The core principle was simple – you didn’t really need large groups of people working on software projects to get them done. If anything, beyond a certain point extra people just added to the communication impedance and slowed a project down. Many open source projects that did really cool things were done by small development teams of between a couple and twelve people, with the ideal size being about seven.

Cagle points out that certain types of enterprise projects don’t lend themselves to agile development. In a follow up article he provides links to rebuttals and supporting articles including one on Agile and Toxic Masculinity (it turns out there are a lot of sporting/speed talk in agile.) He proposes the Studio model as an alternative and this model is based on how creative works like movies and games get made. There is an emphasis on creative direction and vision.

I wonder how this critique of agile could be adapted to critique agile-inspired management techniques?