(Roughly) Daily

“We often plough so much energy into the big picture, we forget the pixels”*…

Alvy Ray Smith (see also here) was born before computers, made his first computer graphic in 1964, cofounded Pixar, was the first director of computer graphics at Lucasfilm, and the first graphics fellow at Microsoft. He is the author of the terrific new book A Biography of the Pixel (2021), from which, this excerpt…

I have billions of pixels in my cellphone, and you probably do too. But what is a pixel? Why do so many people think that pixels are little abutting squares? Now that we’re aswim in an ocean of zettapixels (21 zeros), it’s time to understand what they are. The underlying idea – a repackaging of infinity – is subtle and beautiful. Far from being squares or dots that ‘sort of’ approximate a smooth visual scene, pixels are the profound and exact concept at the heart of all the images that surround us – the elementary particles of modern pictures.

This brief history of the pixel begins with Joseph Fourier in the French Revolution and ends in the year 2000 – the recent millennium. I strip away the usual mathematical baggage that hides the pixel from ordinary view, and then present a way of looking at what it has wrought.

The millennium is a suitable endpoint because it marked what’s called the great digital convergence, an immense but uncelebrated event, when all the old analogue media types coalesced into the one digital medium. The era of digital light – all pictures, for whatever purposes, made of pixels – thus quietly began. It’s a vast field: books, movies, television, electronic games, cellphones displays, app interfaces, virtual reality, weather satellite images, Mars rover pictures – to mention a few categories – even parking meters and dashboards. Nearly all pictures in the world today are digital light, including nearly all the printed words. In fact, because of the digital explosion, this includes nearly all the pictures ever made. Art museums and kindergartens are among the few remaining analogue bastions, where pictures fashioned from old media can reliably be found…

An exact mathematical concept, pixels are the elementary particles of pictures, based on a subtle unpacking of infinity: “Pixel: a biography,” from @alvyray.

Dame Silvia Cartwright


As we ruminate on resolution, we might recall that it was on this date in 1947 that fabled computer scientist Grace Hopper (see here and here), then a programmer at Harvard’s Harvard’s Mark II Aiken Relay computer, found and documented the first computer “bug”– an insect that had lodged in the works.  The incident is recorded in Hopper’s logbook alongside the offending moth, taped to the logbook page: “15:45 Relay #70 Panel F (moth) in relay. First actual case of bug being found.”

This anecdote has led to Hopper being pretty widely credited with coining the term “bug” (and ultimately “de-bug”) in its technological usage… but the term actually dates back at least to Thomas Edison…

Grace Hopper’s log entry (source)

Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 9, 2021 at 1:00 am

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