(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘computing

“The ancient Oracle said that I was the wisest of all the Greeks. It is because I alone, of all the Greeks, know that I know nothing.”*…

The site of the oracle at Dodona

Your correspondent will be off-line for the next 10 days or so; regular service will resume on or around April 26th. In the meantime, a meeting of the (very) old and the (very) new…

The Virtual Reality Oracle (VRO) is a first-person virtual reality experience of oracular divination at the ancient Greek site of Dodona circa 450 BCE. Immerse yourself in the lives of ordinary people and community leaders alike as they travel to Dodona to consult the gods. Inspired by the questions they posed on themes as wide-ranging as wellbeing, work, and theft, perhaps you in turn will ask your question of Zeus?…

Homer mentioned Dodona; now you can be there, then. An immersive experience of the ancient Greek gods: “Virtual Reality Oracle.”

* Socrates


As we look for answers, we might recall that it was on this date in 1977 that both the Apple II and Commodore PET 2001 personal computers were introduced at the first annual West Coast Computer Faire.

Ironically, Commodore had previously rejected purchasing the Apple II from Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, deciding to build their own computers. Both computers used the same processor, the MOS 6502, but the companies had two different design strategies and it showed on this day. Apple wanted to build computers with more features at a higher price point. Commodore wanted to sell less feature-filled computers at a lower price point. The Apple II had color, graphics, and sound selling for $1298. The Commodore PET only had a monochrome display and was priced at $795.

Note, it was very difficult finding a picture with both an original Apple II (not IIe) and Commodore PET 2001. I could only find this picture that also includes the TRS-80, another PC introduced later in 1977.

The photo mentioned above: The Apple II is back left; the PET, back right


“The tribalizing power of the new electronic media, the way in which they return to us to the unified fields of the old oral cultures, to tribal cohesion and pre-individualist patterns of thought, is little understood”*…

Nokia was dominant in mobile phone sales from 1998 to around 2010. Nokia’s slogan: Connecting people.

It was amazing to connect with people in the late 90s/early 2000s. I don’t think we were lonely exactly. But maybe meeting people was somewhere between an opportunity, something novel, and, yes, a need – suddenly it was possible to find the right person, or the right community.

So, the zeitgeist of the early 2000s.

I ran across a previous zeitgeist in an article about Choose Your Own Adventure books. They appeared and became massively popular at the same time as text adventure computer games, but neither inspired the invention of the other. How? The real answer may lie far deeper in the cultural subconscious … in the zeitgeist of the 1980s.

1980s: you.

2000s: connection.

2020s: ?

Zeitgeists don’t lead and zeitgeists don’t follow.

I think when we spot some kind of macro trend in establishment consumer ads, it’s never going to be about presenting people with something entirely new. To resonate, it has to be familiar – the trajectory that the consumer is already on – but it also has to scratch an itch. The brand wants to be a helpful fellow traveller, if you like.

I wonder what the zeitgeist of the 2020s will be, or is already maybe. What deep human need will be simultaneously a comfort and an aspiration? There should be hints of it in popular culture already. (If I knew how to put my finger on it, I’d be an ad planner.)

If I had to guess then it would be something about belonging.

There was a hint of this in Reddit’s 5 second Super Bowl commercial which went hard on one their communities, r/WallStreetBets, ganging up to bring down hedge funds. Then we’ve got a couple of generations now who grew up with the idea of fandoms, and of course conspiracy theories like QAnon too. If you squint, you can kind of see this in the way Tesla operates: it’s a consumer brand but it’s also a passionate, combative cause.

Belonging to a tribe is about identity and strength, it’s solace and empowerment all at once. And also knowledge, certainty, and trust in an era of complexity, disinfo, and hidden agendas.

Given that backdrop, it’s maybe unsurprising that the trend in software is towards Discord servers and other virtual private neighbourhoods. But how else will this appear? And is it just the beginnings of something else, something bigger?

1980s (you), 2000s (connection). What’s the 2020s zeitgeist?” From Matt Webb (@genmon)

* Marshall McLuhan


As we double down on diversity, we might send well-connected birthday greetings to Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider; he was born on this date in 1015. Better known as “J.C,R.” or “Lick,” he was a prominent figure in the development of computing and computer science. He was especially impactful Considered the “Johnny Appleseed” of computing, he planted many of the seeds of computing in the digital age– escpecially via his idea of a universal computer network to easily transfer and retrieve information which his successors developed into the internet.

Robert Taylor, founder of Xerox PARC‘s Computer Science Laboratory and Digital Equipment Corporation‘s Systems Research Center, noted that “most of the significant advances in computer technology—including the work that my group did at Xerox PARC—were simply extrapolations of Lick’s vision. They were not really new visions of their own. So he was really the father of it all.”


“As for memes, the word ‘meme’ is a cliche, which is to say it’s already a meme”*…

(Roughly) Daily began nearly two decades ago as a (roughly daily) email to friends. One of the earliest “editions” featured a then-current video (and the myriad reactions to and appropriations of it)…

As the Internet began crystallizing into its modern form—one that now arguably buttresses society as we know it—its anthropology of common language and references matured at a strange rate. But between the simple initialisms that emerged by the ’90s (ROFL!) and the modern world’s ecosystem of easily shared multimedia, a patchwork connection of users and sites had to figure out how to establish a base of shared references.

In some ways, the Internet as we know it really began… 20 years ago [this week], when a three-word phrase blew up: “All Your Base.”

On that day, a robo-voiced music video went live at Newgrounds.com, one of the Internet’s earliest and longest-lasting dumping grounds of Flash multimedia content, and went on to become one of the most beloved Internet videos of the 21st century. Though Flash support has since been scrapped across the entire Web-browsing ecosystem, Newgrounds continues to host the original video in a safe Flash emulator, if you’d like to see it as originally built instead of flipping through dozens of YouTube rips.

In an online world where users were previously drawn to the likes of the Hamster Dance, exactly how the heck did this absurdity become one of the Internet’s first bona fide memes?

One possible reason is that the “All Your Base Are Belong To Us” video appealed to the early Internet’s savviest users, since it was sourced from an unpopular ’90s video game. Zero Wing launched on the Sega Genesis in 1992… Across the earliest post-BBS Internet, underappreciated 8-bit and 16-bit games changed hands at a crazy rate thanks to small file sizes and 56K modems—and if you were an early Internet user, you were likely a target audience for activities like emulating a Sega Genesis on a Pentium II-powered PC.

That was the first step to exposing the world to Zero Wing‘s inadvertently hilarious text, translated from Japanese to English by an apparent amateur. Classic Japanese games are littered with crappy translations, and even mega-successful publishers like Nintendo are guilty of letting bad phrases slip into otherwise classic games. But Zero Wing soundly trounced other examples of wacky mistranslations thanks to its dramatic opening sequence pitting the generic “CAPTAIN” against a half-robot, half-demon creature in a robe named “CATS.”

Its wackiness circulated on the early Internet as a tiny GIF, with each of its silly phrases (“How are you gentlemen!!”, “Somebody set up us the bomb”) pulling significant weight in terms of weirdly placed clauses and missing punctuation. Early Internet communities poked fun at the sequence by creating and sharing gag images that had the silly text inserted in various ways. But it wasn’t until the February 2001 video, as uploaded by a user who went by “Bad-CRC,” that the meme’s appeal began to truly explode. The video presents the original Sega Genesis graphics, dubbed over with monotone, machine-generated speech reading each phrase. “You are on your way to destruction” in this voice is delightfully silly stuff…

Newgrounds was one of many dumping grounds for Flash animations, making it easier for friends to share links not only to videos but also free online games—usually in ways that school computer labs didn’t necessarily block, which led kids to devour and share their favorites when teachers weren’t carefully watching students’ screens. And in the case of “All Your Base,” its general lack of vulgarity made it easier to reach kids without drawing parental ire. This wasn’t like the early ’90s Congressional hearings against violent and sexual video games. It was just… weird.

And, gosh, it still is. Yes, this video’s 20th anniversary will likely make you feel old as dirt [indeed it does], but that doesn’t mean the video itself aged badly. There’s still something timeless about both the wackiness and innocence of so many early-Internet pioneers sending up a badly translated game. And in an age where widely disseminated memes so often descend into cruelty or shock value, it’s nice to look back at an age when memes were merely quite stupid.

Back in the day, memes didn’t benefit from centralized services like YouTube and Twitter: “An anniversary for great justice: Remembering “All Your Base” 20 years later.”

See also: “All Your Base Are Belong To Us has turned 20.”

James Gleick


As we watch time fly, we might recall that it was on this date in 1986 that the Soviet Union launched the base unit of the Mir Space Station into orbit. Mir was the first modular space station; it was systematically expanded from 1986 to 1996. And while it was slated to last five years, it operated for fifteen– outliving the Soviet Union– after which it was replaced by the International Space Station.

Mir seen from Space Shuttle Endeavour (February 1998)


(We might also note that it was on this date in 1962 that John Glenn, in Friendship 7, became the first American to orbit the earth. Yuri Gagarin had become the first person to accomplish this feat when he orbited the Earth in a Soviet Vostok spacecraft on April 12, 1961.)

“We know the past but cannot control it. We control the future but cannot know it.”*…

Readers will know of your correspondent’s fascination with– and admiration for– Claude Shannon

Within engineering and mathematics circles, Shannon is a revered figure. At 21 [in 1937], he published what’s been called the most important master’s thesis of all time, explaining how binary switches could do logic and laying the foundation for all future digital computers. At the age of 32, he published A Mathematical Theory of Communication, which Scientific American called “the Magna Carta of the information age.” Shannon’s masterwork invented the bit, or the objective measurement of information, and explained how digital codes could allow us to compress and send any message with perfect accuracy.

But Shannon wasn’t just a brilliant theoretical mind — he was a remarkably fun, practical, and inventive one as well. There are plenty of mathematicians and engineers who write great papers. There are fewer who, like Shannon, are also jugglers, unicyclists, gadgeteers, first-rate chess players, codebreakers, expert stock pickers, and amateur poets.

Shannon worked on the top-secret transatlantic phone line connecting FDR and Winston Churchill during World War II and co-built what was arguably the world’s first wearable computer. He learned to fly airplanes and played the jazz clarinet. He rigged up a false wall in his house that could rotate with the press of a button, and he once built a gadget whose only purpose when it was turned on was to open up, release a mechanical hand, and turn itself off. Oh, and he once had a photo spread in Vogue.

Think of him as a cross between Albert Einstein and the Dos Equis guy…

From Jimmy Soni (@jimmyasoni), co-author of A Mind At Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age: “11 Life Lessons From History’s Most Underrated Genius.”

* Claude Shannon


As we learn from the best, we might recall that it was on this date in 1946 that an early beneficiary of Shannon’s thinking, the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer), was first demonstrated in operation.  (It was announced to the public the following day.) The first general-purpose computer (Turing-complete, digital, and capable of being programmed and re-programmed to solve different problems), ENIAC was begun in 1943, as part of the U.S’s war effort (as a classified military project known as “Project PX”); it was conceived and designed by John Mauchly and Presper Eckert of the University of Pennsylvania, where it was built.  The finished machine, composed of 17,468 electronic vacuum tubes, 7,200 crystal diodes, 1,500 relays, 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors and around 5 million hand-soldered joints, weighed more than 27 tons and occupied a 30 x 50 foot room– in its time the largest single electronic apparatus in the world.  ENIAC’s basic clock speed was 100,000 cycles per second. Today’s home computers have clock speeds of 1,000,000,000 cycles per second.


“I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying”*…

Humans claim to be intelligent, but what exactly is intelligence? Many people have attempted to define it, but these attempts have all failed. So I propose a new definition: intelligence is whatever humans do.

I will attempt to prove this new definition is superior to all previous attempts to define intelligence. First, consider humans’ history. It is a story of repeated failures. First humans thought the Earth was flat. Then they thought the Sun went around the Earth. Then they thought the Earth was the center of the universe. Then they thought the universe was static and unchanging. Then they thought the universe was infinite and expanding. Humans were wrong about alchemy, phrenology, bloodletting, creationism, astrology, numerology, and homeopathy. They were also wrong about the best way to harvest crops, the best way to govern, the best way to punish criminals, and the best way to cure the sick.

I will not go into the many ways humans have been wrong about morality. The list is long and depressing. If humans are so smart, how come they keep being wrong about everything?

So, what does it mean to be intelligent?…

Arram Sabeti (@arram) gave a prompt to GPT-3, a machine-learning language model; it wrote: “Are Humans Intelligent?- a Salty AI Op-Ed.”

(image above: source)

* Oscar Wilde


As we hail our new robot overlords, we might recall that it was on this date in 1814 that London suffered “The Great Beer Flood Disaster” when the metal bands on an immense vat at Meux’s Horse Shoe Brewery snapped, releasing a tidal wave of 3,555 barrels of Porter (571 tons– more than 1 million pints), which swept away the brewery walls, flooded nearby basements, and collapsed several adjacent tenements. While there were reports of over twenty fatalities resulting from poisoning by the porter fumes or alcohol coma, it appears that the death toll was 8, and those from the destruction caused by the huge wave of beer in the structures surrounding the brewery.

(The U.S. had its own vat mishap in 1919, when a Boston molasses plant suffered similarly-burst bands, creating a heavy wave of molasses moving at a speed of an estimated 35 mph; it killed 21 and injured 150.)

Meux’s Horse Shoe Brewery


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