Mina S. Rees and Early Computers

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).

What’s New is Old Again: Studying Interface with Perseus

Yesterday I gave a talk over the internet on “What’s New is Old Again: Studying Interface with Perseus.” This talk was recorded and shared on via eHumanities Seminar – YouTube.

The abstract I submitted for the talk was:

[P]aradoxically, the primary effect of visual forms of knowledge production in any medium – the codex boo, digital interface, information visualizations, virtual renderings, or screen displays – is to mask the very fact of their visuality … (Johanna Drucker, Graphesis, p. 10)

Interfaces don’t get much scholarly attention because they are seen as an ephemeral presentation layer masking the real information the way the design of a book holds the content. This paper will discuss a series of projects that take interface seriously and historically. These projects were undertaken by the Interface Design team of the INKE project to find ways of studying the evolution of an interface. These projects used the Perseus project as a test case as it is one of the oldest continuous projects in the digital humanities. The presentation will argue that:

  • There is a history to digital interfaces that is rich and interesting enough to study.
  • We need to theorize about how to do the history of interface. Heroic design stories are not enough.
  • We need to act now to preserve traces of interfaces for study and that there are better and worse ways of preparing for preservation.

The presentation will conclude by showing the architecture developed for an archive of Perseus interfaces designed for future study.

O’Hagan: The Lives of Ronald Pinn

Thanks to a note from Willard on Humanist I came across this essay in the London Review of Books, Andrew O’Hagan · The Lives of Ronald Pinn (LRB 8 January 2015). The author decided to develop a false identity and “legend” by using the name of a dead person (Ronald Pinn) who was born around the time he was. This was in response to stories about how UK police had been going undercover since 1968 to infiltrate political groups. The police had been bringing identities back to life so O’Hagan decided to try it. In the process he explored a lot of the dark web including ordering drugs from the Silk Road, ordering guns, getting false IDs and so on.

The essay or biography is well written and poignant. Just before ends the legendary Pinn he meets the original’s mother.

‘Oh, Ronnie,’ she said. ‘There was nobody like him.’

The Provision of Digital Apparatus for Use in Experimental Interfaces

A paper I am a co-author on just came out through Scholarly and Research Communication (Vol. 5, No. 4, 2014). It is titled The Provision of Digital Apparatus for Use in Experimental Interfaceson and Stan Ruecker led the work. It is a nice article that shows a number of prototypes we have developed (actually I only contributed to a couple, but Stan led them.)

The future of the book: An essay from The Economist

Coverr

The Economist has a nice essay on The future of the book. (Thanks to Lynne for sending this along.) The essay has three interfaces:

  • A listening interface
  • A remediated book interface where you can flip pages
  • A scrolling interface

As much as we have moved beyond skeuomorphic interfaces that carry over design cues from older objects, the book interface is actually attractive. It suits the topic, which is captured in the title of the essay, “From Papyrus to Pixels: The Digital Transformation Has Only Just Begun.”

The content of the essay looks at how books have been remediated over time (from scroll to print) and then discusses the current shifts to ebooks. It points out that the ebook market is not like the digital music market. People still like print books and they don’t like to pick them apart like they do albums. The essay is particularly interesting on the self-publishing phenomenon and how authors are bypassing publishers and stores by publishing through Amazon.

eBookdata

The last chapter talks about audio books, one of the formats of the essay itself, and other formats (like treadmill forms that flash words at speed). This is where they get to the “transformation that has only just begun.”

The Material in Digital Books

Elika Ortega in a talk at Experimental Interfaces for Reading 2.0 mentioned two web sites that gather interesting material traces in digital books. One is The Art of Google Books that gathers interesting scans in Google Books (like the image above).

The other is the site Book Traces where people upload interesting examples of marginal marks. Here is their call for examples:

Readers wrote in their books, and left notes, pictures, letters, flowers, locks of hair, and other things between their pages. We need your help identifying them because many are in danger of being discarded as libraries go digital. Books printed between 1820 and 1923 are at particular risk.  Help us prove the value of maintaining rich print collections in our libraries.

Book Traces also has a Tumblr blog.

Why are these traces important? One reason is that they help us understand what readers were doing and think while reading.

Scopeware Vision Professional

I was reading about the Yale Lifestreams project which may have been one of the first life-tracking projects. Lifestreams was developed by Eric Freeman (it was his 1997 PhD project) and David Gelernter. They had some interesting ideas about how the computer should organize your data into streams rather than you having to file stuff. The streams could take advantage of the flow of your life. Here is how lifestream is defined:

A lifestream is a time-ordered stream of documents that functions as a diary of your electronic life; every document you create and every document other people send you is stored in your lifestream.

Freeman and Gelernter tried to commercialize the ideas through Scopeware released by Mirror Worlds. If you search Google Images for Scopeware you can see a number of screenshots that give an idea of how the interface organized files into streams.

Many of their interface ideas seem to have reappeared in things like Apple’s Cover Flow and Time Machine which explains why Mirror Worlds sued Apple (unseccessfully).

The idea is supposed to have come from Gelernter’s semi-philosophical book Mirror Worlds: Or the Day Software Puts the Universe in a Shoebox…How It Will Happen and What It Will Mean (1991) in which he reflects on the change from small personal software to large networked software that “mirrors” the world. Google Street View and all the virtual surrogates available on the web would seem to prove him right, though he may have been imagining more of a VR type implementation. (Admission: I haven’t read the book, just reviews.)

What intrigues me is the focus on time and the move away from representations of time as a line that traverses from left to right. In streams you are in time and can swim back like driving down a road to the past.

Museum of Online Museums

From Twitter I learned about the Museum of Online Museums. The idea is great. It is part of a site by Coudal Partners, “a design, advertising and interactive studio … as an ongoing experiment in web publishing, design and commerce.” I’m not sure what that means? Will this survive? They also have an enormous Board which seems to be voluntary.

On the MoOM I found some neat online museums like the Sheaff : ephemera.