Category Archives: Digital reflections

Turning the 77 bus electric

I am currently back in Boston, have visited my friends at MIT and will go to a reunion at HBS tomorrow. The weather has been great and it is just fun to visit old friends again.

But hey, this is product review. I have just purchased a set of Bose QuietComfort 20i Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones (or, rather, earbuds) which are rather impressive. I already have the noise cancelling headphones and love them for air travel, but the earbuds can be used in many more circumstances.

77 busAnd yesterday I had to take the 77 bus (Arlington Heights) from Harvard Square’s underground bus stop, an area seemingly designed to put people off public transportation. The MBTA uses old diesel buses (I think they literally are the same ones I took in the early nineties as a grad student, at least they don’t seem to have upgraded the technology) and the noise level is fantastic.

So, as I was waiting for the bus, I decided to try out my newly acquired earbuds, plugged them into my iPhone, turned on Spotify and selected Steely Dan’s Babylon Sisters. The noise instantly disappeared, and Steely Dan’s perfectly engineered music sounded not unlike it would in a perfect environment.

And here is the catch: When the bus finally arrived, I looked at it driving up and for a fleeting second thought “Hey – they made them electrical now!” Then, of course, better judgement prevailed, but as a testament to the noise cancelling qualities of the earbuds, it says something.

The rest, of course, is silence…

NeXT and the voice from the future.

The NeXT at CERN that started the WWW

I am currently watching a rerun of a BBC documentary about Apple and Steve Jobs, which made me think of the first (and only) NeXT machine I ever had. (The NeXT was what Steve Jobs did after he was fired from Apple – and the picture here is the NeXT machine at CERN that Tim Berners-Lee wrote the first web browser on.)

Anyway, the year was 1990, I was a doctoral student in my first year at Harvard Business School, and had a large office to myself (I was sharing it with other doctoral students, but for some reason they were seldom in.) One of the MBA students worked for NeXT and got us a loaner machine, and, well, it was just standing there.

At a time when computers either went “beep” with text-based displays (that would be the 386-based Intel computers) or made a lot of noises with graphic but rather crude displays (that would, mainly, be the Mac II), the NeXT stood out – a black cube made of magnesium, a connected laser printer (most of the processing was done on the computer), and an excellent screen using Display PostScript, which meant that there was no difference between what you saw on the screen and what came out on paper – it was, quite literally, the same technology.

I dicked about with that machine far more than I should have done, given my course load, but on the other hand I wrote some papers on the importance of object orientation for complex business applications – as well as a few Smalltalk programs. The NeXT cube really was not that useful – not because it wasn’t good (it was excellent) but because it was very much a network machine – and I had no network to connect it to. Neither could I get hold of the CDs necessary to store the information from the computer. I could print, but that was about it – so the machine became a highly desirable but not really useful toy.

But it managed to give me a scare, once. It had a digital signals processor – a DSP – and a good speaker system, at a time when most computers could not play video and had tinny little speakers that mostly beeped. I was sitting in the office reading something, and the NeXT machine was on, but I wasn’t using it.

Suddenly I heard a very attractive woman’s voice saying with a certain British crispness: “The printer is out of paper.” I was startled and literally looked around in the room to see if anyone was there. It took me a while to understand that it was the computer speaking – and then, of course, I couldn’t reproduce the sentence.

I still remember that confused feeling. Now most of our music and half the dialogue we hear come out of computers, but back then it was, literally, a voice from the future. And it was just a little bit scary.

Peter G. Neumann in New York Times

Peter G. Neumann is one of my heroes – a computer science and security expert with a sense of humor (his dry comments on the Risks Digest are legendary), inventive solutions to problems (he once built a keyboard with two pedals (for “alt” and “ctrl”) to deal with carpal tunnel syndrome) and far-reaching views on most things. He is currently profiled in New York Times, including the story of the RTM Worm, which I remember clearly, and where the RISKS Forum played a role in analyzing and stopping it.

I remember an email exchange with Peter in the mid-nineties, when I was writing a research report on knowledge management for CSC Research Services. Peter has been running the email list RISKS forever (I signed up for it sometime in 1985) and when asked about how to find people to do such a job in a corporate setting he replied:

The bottom line is that moderating a newsgroup wisely takes serious dedication to, familiarity with, and commitment to the subject matter and willingness to put oneself into an intrinsically sensitive position. It does not work well if someone is arbitrarily assigned to the task.

In other words – if you want social media to work in a company, let people loose and then support the leaders that emerge, rather than try to replicate the current organization in the new medium. Not a bad insight to have 15 years ago – before this social media thing started.

Doc Searls on the market of one

I quite liked Doc Searls’ piece in the Wall Street Journal on the market of one – or as he calls it, power to individuals to broadcast their intents until they find a vendor that matches what they want, not what the vendor wants to sell:

Since the Industrial Revolution, the only way a company could scale up in productivity and profit was by treating customers as populations rather than as individuals—and by treating employees as positions on an organization chart rather than as unique sources of talent and ideas. Anything that stood in the way of larger scale tended to be dismissed.

The Internet has challenged that system by giving individuals the same power. Any of us can now communicate with anybody else, anywhere in the world, at costs close to zero. We can set up our own websites. We can produce, publish, syndicate and do other influential things, with global reach. Each of us can be valuable as unique individuals and not only as members of groups.

According to David Weinberger, the caption “Customer as God” was not something Searls wrote himself – it does look a bit over the top. But customer power is increasingly on the rise – though it has come much longer in the USA than it has in Europe, no matter how much legislation EU has as opposed to the USA. The wonders of competition and falling transaction costs…

Best scanner I ever had

Just a short note to say that this scanner – the Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500 Instant PDF Sheet-Fed Scanner for PC – is one of the best products I have ever had. Bought it after reading Mark Frauenfelder’s plug on Boingboing, and found it every bit as good as he says. It scans both sides, does not scan a page if there is nothing on it, scans straight into Evernote (which OCRs the document and thus makes it searchable), to documents, to pictures, to email. Swallows thick stacks of paper without complaint.

It just works. Highly recommended!

Seriously cool robot

These two robots, developed by Boston Dynamics, are Youtooobing:

I can imagine this one (called the Sand Flea) being used by the military and police for sending in cameras and other spy equipment in an urban landscape. The Big Dog (below) is something I really could use when I am gardening – a container on its back, and a voice interface so I could tell it to go empty itself in the compost bin when it is full of garden refuse.

Computing’s cathedral history

Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital UniverseTuring’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a tour de force history of the birth of the modern computer – and, specifically, the role of Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Study in it. Their “IAS machine” was a widely copied design, forming the basis for many research computers and IBM’s early 701 model.We hear of John von Neumann (who tragically died of cancer at 53), Alan Turing (stripped of his security clearing and probably driven to suicide at 41), Stan Ulam, and many others, some famous, some (quite undeservedly) less so. I continue to be amazed at how far ahead some of the thinkers were – Alan Turing discussed multiprocessor and evolutionary approaches to artificial intelligence in 1946, for example.

On a side note, I was pleased to see that a number of Norwegian academics, mostly within meteorology, played an important part in the development and use of the IAS computer. Nils Aall Baricelli, an Italian-Norwegian, was someone I previously had not heard of, one of those thinkers who is way ahead of his time and (perhaps because he was independently wealthy and led a somewhat nomadic academic existence, hence may have been considered something of a dilettante, though Dyson certainly don’t see him as such and credits him with the ability to see a possible way from programmed computer to independently learning mechanism (and, perhaps at some point, organism).

The book is a bit uneven – partly standard history, partly relatively deep computer science discussions (some of them certainly over my head), and partly – with no warning – brilliant leaps of extrapolating visioneering into both what computers have meant for us as a species and what they might mean in the future. It also shows some of the power struggles that take place in academics, and the important role IAS played in the development of the hydrogen bomb.

All in all, an excellent history of the early days of computing – a more recent history than many are aware of. As George Dyson says in his Ted lecture (below) in 2003: “If these people hadn’t done it, someone else would have. It was an idea whose time had come.” That may be true, but it takes nothing away from the tremendous achievements of the early pioneers.

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