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).

Snowden Surveillance Archive

Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and partners have announced and released a searchable Snowden Surveillance Archive. This archive is,

a complete collection of all documents that former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked in June 2013 to journalists Laura Poitras, Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, and subsequently were published by news media, such as The GuardianThe New York Times, The Washington PostDer SpiegelLe MondeEl Mundo and The Intercept.

It is dynamic. As new documents are published they will be added.

You can hear the announcement and Snowden in CBC’s stream of Snowden Live: Canada and the Security State.

One thing I don’t understand is why, in at least one case, the archived document is of lower quality than the one originally released. For example, compare the Snowden Archive of the CSEC Document about Olympia and the version from the Globe and Mail. The Snowden one is both cropped and full of artefacts of compression (or something.)

One of the points that both Snowden and the following speakers made is that the massive SIGINT system set up doesn’t prevent terrorist attacks, it can be used retrospectively to look back at some event and figure out who did it or develop intelligence about a someone targeted. One of the speakers followed up on the implications of retrospective surveillance – what this means for citizens is that things you do now might come back to haunt you.

The Isolator, A Bizarre Helmet For Encouraging Concentration (1925)

From Geoff I learned about The Isolator, A Bizarre Helmet For Encouraging Concentration (1925). The Isolator was developed in 1925 by Hugo Gernsback a science fiction pioneer (and editor of Science and Invention magazine.) The idea is to force you to focus on your writing (with lots of oxygen.)

One wonders if it works? Could it be even more useful now?

Truth and Reconciliation

Yesterday we went to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission event here in Edmonton, Alberta. Edmonton is the last national event before the commissioners start working on a report for 2015.

No blog entry can capture the learning and emotions of attending just a small part of the event. In the end I could only listen to some of the testimony before being overcome. I will never forget a survivor of a residential school here in St. Albert (outside of Edmonton) talking about how he and other boys would be sent out into the cold to dig graves for those who died. Imagine boys of 9 to 13 in minus 30 degree weather burying their classmates with no support from anyone.

I am reminded of Hannah Arendt’s phrase “banality of evil” which she uses to describe the character of a different evil. This evil unfolded with educational intentions, something we educators should remember. This evil unfolded with the complicity of the major churches who set up and ran the schools, something those of us who belong to churches should remember. Here is a map of the residential schools run by the Anglican church to which I belong. This evil affects the survivors and their families still. Homelessness, (is) one lasting impact of Indian residential schools.

In his closing address, Commission Chair Justice Murray Sinclair, talked about how, now that we have heard truth, we need to turn to reconciliation. As one of the final speakers put it, “The Journey is On!”

Cynthia Ide Rockwell (1936 – 2013)

They also serve who only stand and waite.

Beloved mother, wife and friend Cynthia (Cinny) Ide Rockwell passed away on Sunday, April 28th, 2013 at home in Rome, Italy. Born in 1936 in Hollywood Hospital she went to The Putney School in Vermont where she met her future husband and then to Cornell University. She and Peter Barstow Rockwell were married in 1958 in New London Connecticut. In 1961 she, Peter and her two year-old son Geoffrey went to Italy for what was going to be a 6-month stay and never left, moving from Liguria to Rome in 1962 where they lived in series of apartments before settling in Monteverde.

Continue reading Cynthia Ide Rockwell (1936 – 2013)

Tory 1908 Address to First Convocation of U of Alberta

Voyant Word Cloud of 1908 Address

Here at the University of Alberta we return for inspiration to the founding President’s words at the 1908 Address to the First Convocation. In particular we have taken to heart Henry Marshall Tory’s words about “uplifting the whole people.” Here is the relevant paragraph,

In many of the older universities men of merit were deprived of the privileges which they offered sometimes by creed or class legislation. The modern state university has sprung from a demand on the part of the people themselves for intellectual recognition, a recognition which only a century ago was denied them. The result is that such institutions must be conducted in such a way as to relate them as closely as possible to the life of the people. The people demand that knowledge shall not alone be the concern of scholars. The uplifting of the whole people shall be its final goal. This should be the concern of all educated men, it be never be forgotten.

The phrase “uplifting of the whole people” has become the promise of the University though I doubt many of us think about it more than casually. In Tory’s address it is connected with nation building and civilization. Every state in the USA has a university, now every province in Canada will get one. The state university has a special responsibility to the people. There is also a strong thread of praire populism to the address. He recognizes that universities have excluded people and been sites of privilege, something to be corrected in the “modern state university” that lists to the demands of the people and relates to them.

Tory touches on a number of other issues in his talk that we should also think through. He talks about the importance of pure intellect to the university. He connects this with “the highest ideals of life.”

[Universities] have arisen as a result of the demand of the intellect pure and simple. Quite apart from practical results, the restless energy of the human mind, slow to accomplish results, but never resting in its efforts, has demanded that a place should be found where men may be given an opportunity to fit themselves by rigid training to solve the problems of life. Thus it has become the task of the university to hold up the highest ideals of life; to help create in the hearts of men and to sustain in them a love for those things which are higher than food and raiment; to emphasize the teaching of the greatest of all teachers that man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesses. It has become a part of their recognized responsibility to instill a love of those things which really constitute greatness; to emphasize the things of the mind above those of the body; in relation national life to place patriotism above party; in our relations to others to place love above hate; in our relation to knowledge to choose truth and not error; in our relations to ourselves to be men not things.

He returns later to these high ideals which turn out to be echoed in the “moral and spiritual sense of the Christian world” which has triumphed over materialism. The university is to be a place that fosters ideals that are consistent with the Christian world and not a “materialistic philosophy.”

Did I say materialism was dead? I say it again! Man knows that he is greater than the clod and in that knowledge lies his supremacy. The age of thought has only begun. In spite of the practical and materialistic philosophy which expresses itself still [in] the commercial spirit of the age I assert the deepest conviction of my being that thought and mind are still supreme. We who teach may be called idealists. Let me say to you that the idealist still lives and lifts his head to the stars and declares the impossible can be accomplished. All the ages of progress have been his ages and when the spirit of a material age is dead and the philosophy of materialism is forgotten the idealist will still be conquering the world.

Tory touches on the importance of faculty and admonishes that faculty not be treated as “state officers.”

The members of the university staff must not be thought of in the ordinary way as state officers. They must rather be regarded in the light of independent thinkers and scholars who are to bring us into that appreciation of those higher things about which I was speaking a moment ago.

He then goes on to talk about teaching and giving faculty the freedom to teach well. He trusts us to handle this freedom with discretion.

Our professors are first of all teachers. To them the largest freedom must be given. It is their duty to push into the heart of things that the truth and nothing but the truth may be, discovered. I am sure they will temper freedom with discretion.

While on the whole the address is remarkably current there are two dated and distasteful aspects. First of all is the sexism of the language that talks only of men and manhood. There is no recognition that women might be part of the whole people. I hear the echo of muscular and rational Christianity in this address. Secondly there is a race consciousness or pride in Alberta’s youth and mingling of peoples that strikes me as vanity.

We are not a degenerate race, we are a race produced by the mingling of the best blood. We are not yet dissolute in temper, but still have the firmness to govern and the grace to obey. We are rich in the inheritance of honour bequeathed to us through a thousand years of noble history and we may make it our daily thirst to increase it with splendid service, so that if it be a sin to covet honour, Canadians should be the most offending souls alive.

Narrative and Technology: Curtis Wong and Geoffrey Rockwell in Conversation – YouTube

The kind folks at the Long Room Hub at Trinity College Dublin have put up the video of the “conversation” I participated in on the 6th of March. The event was called Narrative and Technology: Curtis Wong and Geoffrey Rockwell in Conversation. Curtin Wong is now at Microsoft Research, but worked for some time at the Voyager Company back in the days when they were developing some of the most interesting multimedia works.

The Strange Birth and Long Life of Unix

Also from Slashdot a feature about The Strange Birth and Long Life of Unix. Warren Toomey, a historian of Unix, wrote this feature for the IEEE Spectrum in honour of Unix turning 40.

The creation of Unix (which originally stood for “Un-multiplexed Information and Computing Service”) is tied to text editing as Thomson and Ritchie pitched a proposal to Bell Labs management not as an operating system project but as a project to “create tools for editing and formatting text, what you might call a word-processing system today.” One of the first programs was roff, a text formatting tool. The first tests where for entering and formatting patent applications.

At the end of the feature Toomey talks about the historical work he and others are involved in curating old Unix versions through the Unix Heritage Society.

Our goal is not only to save the history of Unix but also to collect and curate these old systems and, where possible, bring them back to life. With help from many talented members of this society, I was able to restore much of the old Unix software to working order, including Ritchie’s first C compiler from 1972 and the first Unix system to be written in C, dating from 1973.

Game Industry Legends: Richard Garriott de Cayeux

From Slashdot I found my way to a nice long interview with Game Industry Legends: Richard Garriott de Cayeux. Also known by his in-game name Lord British designed games like the Ultima series from Origin Systems that he founded with his brother and father.

In the interview he talks about designing games and the research he feels you have to do.

My process is very labor-intensive, it’s a very research-oriented approach to game design. I consider myself a student of the Tolkien style of fictional development, and yet virtually no one even in my own company, having heard me expound on this for years and years and years, will put in the long nights and weekends of study in order to come up with something that is of similar power.

He also speculates that consoles are doomed because of the power of the smartphones and tablets that we carry around.

If we’ve got a smartphone that can do Xbox level graphics, which we’ve almost got, and I can hook that up to a TV and use a controller, what’s the difference between that and a console? It’s just whatever games are available.

Webs and whirligigs: Marshall McLuhan in his time and ours

McLuhan and Woody Allen from Annie Hall

Today is the 100th anniversary of Marshall McLuhan’s birth so there are a bunch of articles about his work including this one from the Nieman Journalism Lab by Megan Garber, Webs and whirligigs: Marshall McLuhan in his time and ours. I also found an article by Paul Miller aka DJ Spooky on Dead Simple: Marshall Mcluhan and the Art of the Record which is partly about the Medium is the Massage record that McLuhan worked on with others. Right at the top you can listen to a DJ Spooky remix of McLuhan from the record.

Some students here at U of A and I have been working our way through the archives of the Globe and Mail studying how computing was presented to Canadians starting with the first articles in the 1950s. McLuhan features in a number of articles as he was eminently quotable and he was getting research funding. The best article is from May 7, 1964 (page 7) by Hugh Munro titled “Research Project with Awesome Implications.” Here are some quotes:

If successful, they said, it (the project) could produce a foolproof system for analyzing humans and manipulating their behavior, or it could give mankind a surefire method of planning the future and making a world free from large-scale social mistakes. …

They (the team of nine scientists) have undertaken to discover the impacts of culture and technology on each other, or, as Dr McLuhan put it, to discover “how the things we make change the way we live and how the way we live changes the things we make.” …

The next stage in the technological revolution that will change man’s perceptions is the computer. But it may hold the secret to the communications problem. With these electronic devices, it is possible to test all manner of things from ads to cities.

The article describes a grant (probably Canada Council but perhaps a foundation grant) that an interdisciplinary team of nine “scientists” from medicine, architecture, engineering, political science, psychiatry, museology, anthropology and English. They were going to use computers and head cameras (that track what people look at) to understand what people sense, how they are stimulated and how what they sense is conditioned by their background. “The scientists at the Centre (of Culture and Technology at U of T) believe they can define and catalogue the sensory characteristics …”

The idea is that if they can figure out how people are stimulated then they can figure out how to manipulate them either for good or bad. “Foolproof ads could be designed. ‘Madison Avenue could rule the world.’ Dr. McLuhan said. ‘The IQs of illiterate people could be raised dramatically by new educational methods.'”

Oh to be so confident about research outcomes!