Robert Taylor, Dies at 85

Robert Taylor

The New York Times has a nice article about how, Robert Taylor, Innovator Who Shaped Modern Computing, Dies at 85. As director of the Information Processing Techniques Office, part of the Advanced Research Projects Agency, Taylor commissioned the development of what became the ARPANET and then Internet. He later led the group at Xerox PARC that developed the Alto computer, a early imagining of what personal computing could be. He also supported J.C.R. Licklider and wrote a paper on The Computer as a Communication Device with him. That paper starts with,

In a few years, men will be able to communicate more effectively through a machine than face to face.

Busa Letter Outlining Textual Informatics

Page 1 of “Conditional Agreement” by Father Busa

Domenico Fiormonte has recently blogged about an interesting document he has by Father Busa that relates to a difficult moment in the history of the digital humanities in Italy in 2002. The two page “Conditional Agreement”, which I translate below, was given to Domenico and explained the terms under which Busa would agree to sign a letter to the Minister (of Education and Research) Moratti in response to Moratti’s public statement about the uselessness of humanities informatics. A letter was being prepared to be signed by a large number of Italian (and foreign) academics explaining the value of what we now call the digital humanities. Busa had the connections to get the letter published and taken seriously for which reason Domenico visited him to get his help, which ended up being conditional on certain things being made clear, as laid out in the document. Domenico kept the two pages Busa wrote and recently blogged about them. As he points out in his blog, these two pages are a mini-manifesto of Father Busa’s later views of the place and importance of what he called textual informatics. Domenico also points out how political is the context of these notes and the letter eventually signed and published. Defining the digital humanities is often about positioning the field in the larger academic and public political spheres we operate in.

Continue reading Busa Letter Outlining Textual Informatics

Digital exhibit: I dreamed a dream the other night

Entry Page to Site

The British Council has developed a bilingual (English/Turkish) digital exhibit of British Art. The exhibit remediates the gallery/museum as interface, which is not new, but the designers have included other visitors moving around, looking at art and so on. It gives it a more human feel. That said, I found it harder to actually get to the art. I couldn’t move from painting on the wall to the next one without stepping back and then in.

Carpenter: The Gathering Cloud

From the Modification of Clouds

The Cloud is an airily deceptive name connoting a floating world far removed from the physical realities of data.

The Gathering Cloud by J. R. Carpenter is a great interactive work that uses Luke Howard’s Essay on the Modification of Clouds from 1803 to meditate on the digital cloud. The The work “is a hybrid print- and web-based work by J. R. Carpenter commissioned by NEoN Digital Arts Festival 2016.”

Continue reading Carpenter: The Gathering Cloud

A flow chart for Busa’s “Mechanized Linguistic Analysis”

Steven Jones has just put up a historic flowchart from the Busa Archive at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milan, Italy. See A flow chart for Busa’s “Mechanized Linguistic Analysis”. Jones has been posting important historical images associated with his book Roberto Busa, S.J., and the Emergence of Humanities Computing. This flow chart shows the logic of the processing using punched cards and tape that was developed by Busa and Paul Tasman (who is probably one of the designers of this chart.) The folks at the Busa Archive had shared this flow chart with me for a paper I gave at the Instant History conference in Chicago on Busa’s Methods. Now Steven has shared it openly with permission.

For more on the Busa Archives and what they show us about the Index Thomisticus as Project see here.

Unique copy of first full-length audio book found in Canada

The Guardian has a nice story about the discovery of a Unique copy of first full-length audio book found in Canada. The UK Royal National Institute of Blind people began recording books to records in 1935. A complete set of the records with Conrad’s novella Typhoon was found in Canada.

Matthew Rubery from Queen Mary University in London has just published a book The Untold Story of the Talking Book (Harvard, 2016) about audio books and this Canadian first.

Obituary: Kelly Gotlieb was the father of Canadian computing

I recently came across the obituary in the Globe and Mail for Kelly Gotlieb was the father of Canadian computing who passed away on October 16th.

Kelly was in many ways the founder of computing in Canada as he ran the University of Toronto Computation Centre that intsalled the first computers in Canada. The obituary isn’t entirely correct as they mention FERUT as the first computer when it was actually the second computer, the first being the test UTEC Jr. which is mentioned in a Globe and Mail story titled “Junior Electronic Brain Cost $100,000” (Len Schrag, Dec. 13, 1951, p. 4) that dates from 1951.

The obituary also mentions how Kelly Gotlieb mentored Beatrice Worsley. She was one of two hired to go to the UK and figure out how to run the first computers they were installing. She got a PhD. from Cambridge with a dissertation on “Serial Programming for Real and Idealized Digital Calculating Machines” that Campbell (2003) argues was the first dissertation involving modern computers.

When we did a survey of Globe and Mail articles on computing from the early years in Canada we saw a broad curiosity about what computation could do. (Some of this has been reported in Before the Beginning.) We see the Computation Centre working with Music profs in 1957 in a Globe article “Strange Music Made By an Electronic Brain.” We see an article in 1961 that mentions concording and a new IBM coming. In 1964 there is a story about a project McLuhan was involved in to investigate the impacts of technology on culture and vice versa. I suspect Gotlieb was instrumental in promoting these and many other experiments in applying computing to different challenges across disciplines. By all accounts he was generous and a great promoter of computing. As the obituary says,

Dr. Gotlieb was a visionary, not only in the technical issues of machine computation, but also in their potential social implications. In the 1960s, he was chosen by U Thant, Secretary-General of the United Nations, to be one of six world experts advising on how computer technology might assist international development. Years later, he served on Canada’s first federal task force on privacy.

Campbell, S. M. (October-December, 2003). “Beatrice Helen Worsley: Canada’s Female Computer Pioneer.” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing: 51-62.

Instant History conference

This weekend I gave a talk at a lovely one day conference on Instant History, The Postwar Digital Humanities and Their Legacies. My conference notes are here. The conference was organized by Paul Eggert, among others. Steve Jones, Ted Underwood and Laura Mandell also talked.

I gave the first talk on “Tremendous Labour: Busa’s Methods” – a paper coming from the work Stéfan Sinclair and I are doing. I talked about the reconstruction of Busa’s Index project. I claimed that Busa and Tasman made two crucial innovations. The first was figuring out how to represent data on punched cards so that it could be processed (the data structures). The second was figuring out how to use the punched card machines at hand to tokenize unstructured text. I walked through what we know about their actual methods and talked about our attempts to replicate them:

I was lucky to have two great respondents (Kyle Roberts and Schlomo Argamon) who both pointed out important contextual issues to consider, as in:

  • We need to pay attention to the Jesuit and spiritual dimensions of Busa’s work.
  • We need to think about the dialectic of those critical of computing and those optimistic about it.

Monopoly’s Inventor: The Progressive Who Didn’t Pass ‘Go’ – The New York Times

Elizabeth Magie

I had read somewhere that Monopoly had originally been developed to teach the evils of monopolies, but hadn’t realized how interesting the story of the creation of Monopoly was. The New York Times tells the story in, Monopoly’s Inventor: The Progressive Who Didn’t Pass ‘Go’. This excerpted from a book titled, The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game. The article tells the story of Elizabeth Magie who developed a game called the Landlord’s Game which had two sets of rules to teach about the alternatives to monopoly capitalism. You play the game with a rule set where the monopolists get richer and then with a rule set where wealth is distributed more fairly. Alas, when Darrow adapted the game and sold it to Parker Brothers he left out the progressive side.

It strikes me as an interesting example where a game designed for a serious purpose gets adapted to be more fun and in the process loses its progressive purpose. A change in the rules and you don’t have a game that teaches.


At the European Summer University in Digital Humanities 2016 I was luck to be able to attend some sessions on Stylometry run by Maciej Eder. In his historical review he mentioned people like Valla and Mendenhall, but also mentioned a fellow Pole, Wincenty Lutoslawksi whose book The origin and growth of Plato’s logic; with an account of Plato’s style and of the chronology of his writings (1897) is the first to use the term “stylometry”. Lutoslawski develops a Theory of Stylometry and reviewed “500 peculiarities of Plato’s style” as part of his work on Plato’s logic. The nice thing is that the book is available through the Internet Archive.

Eder has a nice page about the work he and ogthers in the Computational Stylistics Group are doing. In the workshop sessions I was able to attend he showed us how to set up and run his “stylo” package (PDF) that provides a simple user interface over R for doing stylometry. He also showed us how to then use Gephi for network visualization.