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Posts Tagged ‘computer

“Moore’s Law is really a thing about human activity, it’s about vision, it’s about what you’re allowed to believe”*…




In moments of technological frustration, it helps to remember that a computer is basically a rock. That is its fundamental witchcraft, or ours: for all its processing power, the device that runs your life is just a complex arrangement of minerals animated by electricity and language. Smart rocks. The components are mined from the Earth at great cost, and they eventually return to the Earth, however poisoned. This rock-and-metal paradigm has mostly served us well. The miniaturization of metallic components onto wafers of silicon — an empirical trend we call Moore’s Law — has defined the last half-century of life on Earth, giving us wristwatch computers, pocket-sized satellites and enough raw computational power to model the climate, discover unknown molecules, and emulate human learning.

But there are limits to what a rock can do. Computer scientists have been predicting the end of Moore’s Law for decades. The cost of fabricating next-generation chips is growing more prohibitive the closer we draw to the physical limits of miniaturization. And there are only so many rocks left. Demand for the high-purity silica sand used to manufacture silicon chips is so high that we’re facing a global, and irreversible, sand shortage; and the supply chain for commonly-used minerals, like tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold, fuels bloody conflicts all over the world. If we expect 21st century computers to process the ever-growing amounts of data our culture produces — and we expect them to do so sustainably — we will need to reimagine how computers are built. We may even need to reimagine what a computer is to begin with.

It’s tempting to believe that computing paradigms are set in stone, so to speak. But there are already alternatives on the horizon. Quantum computing, for one, would shift us from a realm of binary ones and zeroes to one of qubits, making computers drastically faster than we can currently imagine, and the impossible — like unbreakable cryptography — newly possible. Still further off are computer architectures rebuilt around a novel electronic component called a memristor. Speculatively proposed by the physicist Leon Chua in 1971, first proven to exist in 2008, a memristor is a resistor with memory, which makes it capable of retaining data without power. A computer built around memristors could turn off and on like a light switch. It wouldn’t require the conductive layer of silicon necessary for traditional resistors. This would open computing to new substrates — the possibility, even, of integrating computers into atomically thin nano-materials. But these are architectural changes, not material ones.

For material changes, we must look farther afield, to an organism that occurs naturally only in the most fleeting of places. We need to glimpse into the loamy rot of a felled tree in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, or examine the glistening walls of a damp cave. That’s where we may just find the answer to computing’s intractable rock problem: down there, among the slime molds…

It’s time to reimagine what a computer could be: “Beyond Smart Rocks.”

(TotH to Patrick Tanguay.)

* “Moore’s Law is really a thing about human activity, it’s about vision, it’s about what you’re allowed to believe. Because people are really limited by their beliefs, they limit themselves by what they allow themselves to believe about what is possible.”  – Carver Mead


As we celebrate slime, we might send fantastically far-sighted birthday greetings to Hugo Gernsback, a Luxemborgian-American inventor, broadcast pioneer, writer, and publisher; he was born on this date in 1884.

Gernsback held 80 patents at the time of his death; he founded radio station WRNY, was involved in the first television broadcasts, and is considered a pioneer in amateur radio.  But it was as a writer and publisher that he probably left his most lasting mark:  In 1926, as owner/publisher of the magazine Modern Electrics, he filled a blank spot in his publication by dashing off the first chapter of a series called “Ralph 124C 41+.” The twelve installments of “Ralph” were filled with inventions unknown in 1926, including “television” (Gernsback is credited with introducing the word), fluorescent lighting, juke boxes, solar energy, television, microfilm, vending machines, and the device we now call radar.

The “Ralph” series was an astounding success with readers; and later that year Gernsback founded the first magazine devoted to science fiction, Amazing Stories.  Believing that the perfect sci-fi story is “75 percent literature interwoven with 25 percent science,” he coined the term “science fiction.”

Gernsback was a “careful” businessman, who was tight with the fees that he paid his writers– so tight that H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith referred to him as “Hugo the Rat.”

Still, his contributions to the genre as publisher were so significant that, along with H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, he is sometimes called “The Father of Science Fiction”; in his honor, the annual Science Fiction Achievement awards are called the “Hugos.”

(Coincidentally, today is also the birthday– in 1906– of Philo T. Farnsworth, the man who actually did invent television… and was thus the inspiration for the name “Philco.”)

[UPDATE- With thanks to friend MK for the catch:  your correspondent was relying on an apocryphal tale in attributing the Philco brand name to to Philo Farnsworth.  Farsworth did work with the company, and helped them enter the television business.  But the Philco trademark dates back to 1919– pre-television days– as a label for what was then the Philadelphia Storage Battery Company.]

Gernsback, wearing one of his inventions, TV Glasses




“PLATO was my Alexandria. It was my library, it was the place where I could attach myself to anything.”*…




One upon a time [in the 60s and 70s], there was a computer network with thousands of users across the world. It featured chat rooms, message boards, multiplayer games, a blog-like newspaper, and accredited distance learning, all piped to flat-panel plasma screens that were also touchscreens. And it wasn’t the internet.

It was PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations), and its original purpose was to harness the power of the still-obscure world of computing as a teaching tool. Developing PLATO required simultaneous quantum leaps in technological sophistication, and it worked—college and high-school students quickly learned how to use it, and also pushed it to do new things.

Despite decades of use at major universities, it all but vanished in the 1980s and from popular memory in the years that followed, a victim of the microcomputer revolution. At its peak, PLATO was surprisingly similar to the modern internet, and it left its DNA in technology we still use today…

The story of the ur-internet: “PLATO.”

* novelist Richard Powers (who was a coder before he turned to literary fiction)


As we log on, we might send super birthday greetings to Seymour Roger Cray; he was born on this date in 1925.  An electrical engineer and computer architect, he designed a series of computers that were the fastest in the world for decades, and founded Cray Research which built many of these machines– effectively creating the “supercomputer” industry and earning the honorific “father of supercomputing.”


With a Cray-1



Written by LW

September 28, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens”*…



You might think that digital technologies, often considered a product of ‘the West,’ would hasten the divergence of Eastern and Western philosophies. But within the study of Vedanta, an ancient Indian school of thought, I see the opposite effect at work. Thanks to our growing familiarity with computing, virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI), ‘modern’ societies are now better placed than ever to grasp the insights of this tradition.

Vedanta summarises the metaphysics of the Upanishads, a clutch of Sanskrit religious texts, likely written between 800 and 500 BCE. They form the basis for the many philosophical, spiritual and mystical traditions of the Indian sub-continent. The Upanishads were also a source of inspiration for some modern scientists, including Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg, as they struggled to comprehend quantum physics of the 20th century…

Philosopher and Vaishnava Hindu theologian Akhandadhi Das. a member of the Science and Philosophy Initiative, explains how “Modern technology is akin to the metaphysics of Vedanta.”

* Jimi Hendrix


As we muse on metaphor, we might send carefully-constructed birthday greetings to Donald Knuth; he was born on this date in 1938. A computer scientist, mathematician, and professor emeritus at Stanford, he made numerous substantive contributions to computer science, both practically and theoretically.  But he is probably best known as the author of the multi-volume work The Art of Computer Programming, which he began in 1962, began to publish in 1968… and has (via multiple revisions/additions) still not finished.  Called by the New York Times “the profession’s defining treatise,” it won Knuth the Turing Award in 1974.

That said, it’s surely worth noting Knuth’s other major contribution to our modern zeitgeist: his “Potrzebie System of Weights and Measures,” published in Issue 33 of Mad Magazine when he was 19 years old.

192px-knuthatopencontentalliance source


Written by LW

January 10, 2019 at 1:01 am

“There are 10 kinds of people in the world: those who understand binary numerals, and those who don’t”*…


Guide to Computing

From a collection of vintage photos of computing equipment by “design and tech obsessive” James Ball…

Guide to Computing

More at Docubyte

[TotH to Kottke]

* vernacular joke, as invoked by Ian Stewart in Professor Stewart’s Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities


As we rewind, we might spare a thought for Christian Goldbach; he died on this date in 1764.  A mathematician, lawyer, and historian who studied infinite sums, the theory of curves and the theory of equations, he is best remembered for his correspondence with Leibniz, Euler, and Bernoulli, especially his 1742 letter to Euler containing what is now known as “Goldbach’s conjecture.”

In that letter he outlined his famous proposition:

Every even natural number greater than 2 is equal to the sum of two prime numbers.

It has been checked by computer for vast numbers– up to at least 4 x 1014– but remains unproved.

(Goldbach made another conjecture that every odd number is the sum of three primes; it has been checked by computer for vast numbers, but also remains unproved.)

Goldbach’s letter to Euler (source, and larger view)

(Roughly) Daily is headed into a Thanksgiving hiatus; regular service will resume when the tryptophan haze clears…  probably around Monday, November 26.  Thanks for reading– and have Happy Holidays!

Written by LW

November 20, 2018 at 1:01 am

“I like my new telephone, my computer works just fine, my calculator is perfect, but Lord, I miss my mind!*…


Before electronic calculators became affordable in the 1970s, logarithm tables and slide rules were the most common calculation tools used by scientists, engineers, financiers, and navigators.  But in the early 1940s there emerged a purely mechanical, pocket-sized calculator, the Curta; the “pepper mill,” as it was known, was short-lived – only 30 years or so – but it remains a mechanical marvel.

More at “Curta: a mechanical pocket calculator.”

* anonymous


As we add it up, we might send intricately-interconnected birthday greetings to Mark D. Weiser; he was born on this date in 1952.  After earning an MA and a PhD in computing at the University of Michigan, Mark worked for a variety of computer-related startups.  But in 1987 he joined Xerox PARC, and began the work for which he is best remembered: he widely considered to be the father of ubiquitous computing, a term he coined in 1988 to describe the field he pioneered.

Mark was also the drummer of Severe Tire Damage, a garage (pun intended) rock band, the first band to perform on the internet: on June 24, 1993, the band was playing a gig at PARC while elsewhere in the building, scientists were discussing new technology (the MBone) for broadcasting on the Internet using multicasting.  As proof of their technology, the band was broadcast and could be seen live in Australia (by a scientist there alerted by the Palo Alto crew) and elsewhere.

Then. on Friday, November 18, 1994, the Rolling Stones decided to broadcast one of their concert tours on the Internet. Before their broadcast, Severe Tire Damage returned to the Internet, this time becoming the “opening act” for the Stones– so instead of an obscure Australian researcher, the entire world press was watching, and Severe Tire Damage was elevated from obscurity to Warholian fame.  Newsweek described STD as “a lesser known rock band.”  The Rolling Stones told The New York Times: “the surprise opening act by Severe Tire Damage was a good reminder of the democratic nature of the Internet.”



Written by LW

July 23, 2017 at 1:01 am

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