But outdated web filters make that mission quite difficult.
Read more. [Image: Randy Snyder/AP Photo]
Sometime soon after Netflix’s streaming service launched, Jeff Thompson found himself watching episode after episode of Law & Order. It was so easy. An episode would end and he’d click “next.” We’ve all been there. You can watch a lot of Law & Order that way.
But Thompson’s approach was different than your average binge-TV viewer’s. Thompson brought a archivist’s flair to his hours watching. As he’d go, he’d screenshot “oddities”: scenes taken from a first-person perspective, or those portrayed in an unusual split-screen fashion.
After a bit, most of the oddities melted away and just one thing—one single thing—kept popping out of the frame to grab Thompson’s attention: computers. There’s a computer. There’s another. And there’s another. He kept screenshotting them. “It didn’t take long,” Thompson wrote to me, “to realize this should be extended to an exhaustive project.”
So in 2012 Thompson applied for, and received, a commission from Rhizome, an organization in New York City that supports work at the intersection of arts and technology.
And that’s when his work really began.
Read more. [Image: NBC]
There was a time when the word “supercomputer” inspired the same sort of giddy awe that infuses Superman or Superconducting Supercollider. A supercomputer could leap tall buildings in a single bound and peer into the secrets of the universe.
And chief among this race of almost mythical machines was the Cray. His first computer, the Cray 1, debuted in 1976, and was the embodiment of all the power that crackled around the supercomputer. It weighed 10,500 pounds. Thirty humans were necessary to help install it. And its first users built nuclear weapons: Model No. 1 went to Los Alamos National Laboratory. Eventually Cray sold 80.
Read more. [Image: UCAR]
HUNTINGTON PARK, CALIF. — On a rainbow-colored rug in a predominantly Latino neighborhood six miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles, 26 fidgety second graders are reading a phonics passage about helping wildlife. Some detect the main idea quickly, shooting their hands in the air. Others need more time and attention. The teacher, Mark Montero, asks questions trying to keep everyone on track.
After 10 minutes, it’s time to do things a different way. Montero shines a red beam of light on the wall, signaling to students to take their positions.
“Computer captain, please say, ‘All aboard,’” announces Montero, who favors iPads and laser pointers to paper and chalk.
“All aboard!” replies Abigail Bueno, a 7-year-old with long dark braids and a dimpled smile.
Soon, the class has split in two groups based on their particular learning needs. On the rug, Montero leads 13 students in learning about the long vowel “I” sound. At computers along the wall, the others strap on headphones and start reading books from a digital library program.
Here at the charter school Aspire Titan Academy, a principal, 12 teachers, and more than 300 students have signed on to a controversial learning revolution. For nearly three hours a day, they are trading large group instruction for a more personalized approach, one that relies on technology to help with teaching.
Read more. [Image: Michael Kooren/Reuters]
On Christmas Eve, Queen Elizabeth II pardoned the computer scientist Alan Mathison Turing.
Nearly all of the modern world is constructed on Turing’s accomplishments. He helped crack Germany’s “Enigma” code in World War II, contributed two important proofs to mathematics, and established foundational concepts in computer science and artificial intelligence. Without him, the Allies might not have won the war, and you might not have a machine which can display this article.
Turing also had consensual sexual relations with other men, and, for them, was convicted for “gross indecency” under an 1885 criminal law. The queen pardoned him for these on Tuesday.
The pardon is written in a high royal celebratory register, which doesn’t match the somber tone which the events seem to deserve. I was surprised when, in the text of the pardon, I found something that almost constituted recursion, a building block of programming.
First, the formal document declares it intentions: “to pardon and remit unto [Turing] the sentence imposed upon him.”
Then, it turns the document into the pardon itself, and makes the pardon a reality: “And for so doing[,] this shall be a sufficient Warrant.”
The pardon executes, as a program would, and Alan Turing is forgiven.
Read more. [Image: Jon Callas/Flickr]
Humans speak at a rate of about 120 words per minute, yet many practiced typists get words out only about half as fast, and most of us text at a crawling 14 to 31 wpm. The culprit is the 1870s-era qwerty keyboard layout, named for its top left six keys. By some accounts, qwerty was designed to slow us down—to avoid typewriter jams, it spaced out the most commonly used letter pairs—and it slows us down even more now that we’re doing much of our typing with our thumbs, on smartphones and tablets.
Read more. [Image: Levi Brown]
On the evening of February 12, 2009, a Continental Connection commuter flight made its way through blustery weather between Newark, New Jersey, and Buffalo, New York. As is typical of commercial flights today, the pilots didn’t have all that much to do during the hour-long trip. The captain, Marvin Renslow, manned the controls briefly during takeoff, guiding the Bombardier Q400 turboprop into the air, then switched on the autopilot and let the software do the flying. He and his co-pilot, Rebecca Shaw, chatted—about their families, their careers, the personalities of air-traffic controllers—as the plane cruised uneventfully along its northwesterly route at 16,000 feet. The Q400 was well into its approach to the Buffalo airport, its landing gear down, its wing flaps out, when the pilot’s control yoke began to shudder noisily, a signal that the plane was losing lift and risked going into an aerodynamic stall. The autopilot disconnected, and the captain took over the controls. He reacted quickly, but he did precisely the wrong thing: he jerked back on the yoke, lifting the plane’s nose and reducing its airspeed, instead of pushing the yoke forward to gain velocity. Rather than preventing a stall, Renslow’s action caused one. The plane spun out of control, then plummeted. “We’re down,” the captain said, just before the Q400 slammed into a house in a Buffalo suburb.
The crash, which killed all 49 people on board as well as one person on the ground, should never have happened. A National Transportation Safety Board investigation concluded that the cause of the accident was pilot error. The captain’s response to the stall warning, the investigators reported, “should have been automatic, but his improper flight control inputs were inconsistent with his training” and instead revealed “startle and confusion.” An executive from the company that operated the flight, the regional carrier Colgan Air, admitted that the pilots seemed to lack “situational awareness” as the emergency unfolded.
The Buffalo crash was not an isolated incident. An eerily similar disaster, with far more casualties, occurred a few months later. On the night of May 31, an Air France Airbus A330 took off from Rio de Janeiro, bound for Paris. The jumbo jet ran into a storm over the Atlantic about three hours after takeoff. Its air-speed sensors, coated with ice, began giving faulty readings, causing the autopilot to disengage. Bewildered, the pilot flying the plane, Pierre-Cédric Bonin, yanked back on the stick. The plane rose and a stall warning sounded, but he continued to pull back heedlessly. As the plane climbed sharply, it lost velocity. The airspeed sensors began working again, providing the crew with accurate numbers. Yet Bonin continued to slow the plane. The jet stalled and began to fall. If he had simply let go of the control, the A330 would likely have righted itself. But he didn’t. The plane dropped 35,000 feet in three minutes before hitting the ocean. All 228 passengers and crew members died.
Read more. [Image: Kyle Bean]
It’s fitting that Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron and the partner of Charles Babbage, was the world’s first computer programmer. For much of computer history, “computers” weren’t just humans—people who sat doing the drudgery of repeated calculations that would, in turn, feed models and algorithms. The computers were also, often, women.
Read more. [Image: Wikimedia Commons]