From mighty oaks, little acorns grew

The hulking, retro computers that made way for your iPhone
His delightful images present every dial, button and screen in exquisite detail. The computers in Guide to Computing are quaint—slow and stodgy by today’s standards—yet fascinating. They are the precursor to the machines so central to your life. Appreciate their importance, but also their beauty.

Beautiful examples of relatively recent objects that we just don’t see any more. They may as well be from the pyramids.

Guide to Computing
This wonderful series of historic computers documents the evolution of design within computing history. Featuring such famous machines as the IBM 1401 and Alan Turing’s Pilot ACE and the Xerox Alto; Guide to Computing showcases a minimalist approach to design that precedes even Apple’s contemporary motifs.

IBM2401

Art and AI

Subtitled ‘What needs to happen for artificial intelligence to make fine art’, this is a fascinating read on current thinking about art and AI. The author, Hideki Nakazawa, one of the curators of the Artificial Intelligence Art and Aesthetics exhibition in Japan, thinks that, whilst we’re not there yet, we’re not too far away.

Waiting For the Robot Rembrandt
True AI fine art will be both painfully boring and highly stimulating, and that will be represent progress. Beauty, after all, cannot be quantified, and the very act of questioning the definition of aesthetics moves all art forward—something we’ve seen over and over again in the history of human-made art. The realization of AI will bring new dimensions to these questions. It will also be a triumph of materialism, further eroding the specialness of the human species and unveiling a world that has neither mystery nor God in which humans are merely machines made of inanimate materials. If we are right, it will also bring a new generation of artists, and with them, new Eiffel towers beyond our wildest imagination.

The pieces within that exhibition are grouped into four categories: human-made art with human aesthetics, human-made art with machine aesthetics, machine-made art with human aesthetics, and finally machine-made art with machine aesthetics. It’s that last category we’re interested in, but frustratingly it contained “no machine-made art, because none exists that also reflects machine aesthetics. The category was a useful placeholder—and, as we’ll learn, it was not entirely empty.”

What a great way to clarify where all these artworks, projects and systems sit. All too often we find AI and other computer systems merely mimicking the creation of art: the final product may look like art, but without the autonomous intention — without the AI wanting to create for its own sake — the AI is just a tool of the artist-behind-the-curtain, the programmer. For example:

‘Way to Artist’, intelligent robots and a human artist sketch the same image alongside each other
In the very thought-inspiring short film “Way to Artist” by TeamVOID, an artificially intelligent robotic arm and a human artist sit alongside one another to sketch the same image at the same time although with different skills. Without a word spoken, film loudly questions the role that artificial intelligence has within the creative process by putting the robots to the test.

More interestingly, here’s a wonderful piece that would have been placed in the second group of Nakazawa’s exhibition, human-made art with machine aesthetics.

Sarah Meyohas combines virtual reality, 10,000 roses and artificial intelligence in Cloud of Petals
Lastly, visitors can engage with a VR component, an element that replicates Sarah’s initial dream of the petals. There are six different screens and headsets – in a room filled with a customised rose scent – which are all gaze-activated to manipulate the AI generated petals. For example, in one headset petals explode into pixels as soon as you set your eyes on them.

And perhaps category three for these, machine-made art with human aesthetics?

A ‘neurographer’ puts the art in artificial intelligence
Claude Monet used brushes, Jackson Pollock liked a trowel, and Cartier-Bresson toted a Leica. Mario Klingemann makes art using artificial neural networks.

Yes, androids do dream of electric sheep
“Google sets up feedback loop in its image recognition neural network – which looks for patterns in pictures – creating hallucinatory images of animals, buildings and landscapes which veer from beautiful to terrifying.”

Don’t know where to place this one, however — art as a symptom of an AI’s mental ill health?

This artificial intelligence is designed to be mentally unstable
“At one end, we see all the characteristic symptoms of mental illness, hallucinations, attention deficit and mania,” Thaler says. “At the other, we have reduced cognitive flow and depression.” This process is illustrated by DABUS’s artistic output, which combines and mutates images in a progressively more surreal stream of consciousness.

Reviewing my reading habits

It’s occurred to me that I’m becoming an increasingly lazy reader, preferring to read reviews of books than the books themselves. Below are some snippets from the latest to have caught my eye.

Reviews of books about dark Jewish comedians and insightful Australian art critics. Books on how the internet has changed our understanding of knowledge, how word processors have changed literature, and about how art can save us from our bone-deep solitude.

The wondrous critic
The most manifest virtue of these essays is their language, marked by an uncommon command of vocabulary and (in our day) a far rarer mastery of syntax, allied to a thoroughly antiquated respect for the rules of grammar. Open this anthology anywhere and you will be hard put to find a sentence that is not as memorable for its very phrasing as it is for its thought.

The lonely city
She tells us that she often moved through New York feeling so invisibly alone that she felt like a ghost, and so started to think of other ghosts as suitable company. The dead, for Laing, are not so much historical figures as they are very vibrant modern companions, and she invokes them with an ease and familiarity of old friends. She allows Warhol to pop up in the chapter on the web, Hopper to pop up in a chapter on Warhol, and so on. In Laing’s head, all of these artists are still alive somewhere – perhaps even in communion with one another. This thought makes her feel less alone, and she passes it along to us.

Rethinking knowledge in the Internet Age
In fact, knowledge is now networked: made up of loose-edged groups of people who discuss and spread ideas, creating a web of links among different viewpoints. That’s how scholars in virtually every discipline do their work — from their initial research, to the conversations that forge research into ideas, to carrying ideas into public discourse. Scholar or not, whatever topic initially piques our interest, the net encourages us to learn more. Perhaps we follow links, or are involved in multiyear conversations on stable mailing lists, or throw ideas out onto Twitter, or post first drafts at arXiv.org, or set up Facebook pages, or pose and answer questions at Quora or Stack Overflow, or do “post-publication peer review” at PubPeer.com. There has never been a better time to be curious, and that’s not only because there are so many facts available — it’s because there are so many people with whom we can interact.

How literature became word perfect
The literary history of the early years of word processing—the late 1960s through the mid-’80s—forms the subject of Matthew G. Kirschenbaum’s new book, Track Changes. The year 1984 was a key oment for writers deciding whether to upgrade their writing tools. That year, the novelist Amy Tan founded a support group for Kaypro users called Bad Sector, named after her first computer—itself named for the error message it spat up so often; and Gore Vidal grumped that word processing was “erasing” literature. He grumped in vain. By 1984, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Michael Chabon, Ralph Ellison, Arthur C. Clarke, and Anne Rice all used WordStar, a first-generation commercial piece of software that ran on a pre-DOS operating system called CP/M.

Jews on the Loose
In his movie roles Groucho, for Lee Siegel, represents not an amusing attack on pretension but “the spirit of nihilism.” Siegel disputes the view that Woody Allen is Groucho’s descendant, for he feels that “Allen is simply too funny to be Groucho’s direct descendant.” Groucho is—and he is right about this—much darker. “No other comedians of the time,” Siegel writes, “come close to the wraithlike sociopath Groucho portrays in the Marx Brothers’ best films.”

Rather than solely answering our “Should I buy the book or not?” question, these reviews act as companion pieces to the books, whether the reviewer is agreeing with the author or not. The dialogue only adds.

I need to resist the temptation of considering the review as a substitute to the book, though. Maybe I need to find a review of a book about tackling laziness or something…

To err is human, to totally mess things up needs a computer

Here’s a fun article about a guy who accidentally deleted everything from all his company’s servers, including all his off-site back-ups too – in effect, deleting his entire company. As you can imagine, the forums weren’t especially helpful.

Man accidentally ‘deletes his entire company’ with one line of bad code
“Well, you should have been thinking about how to protect your customers’ data before nuking them,” wrote one person calling himself Massimo. “I won’t even begin enumerating how many errors are simultaneously required in order to be able to completely erase all your servers and all your backups in a single strike. This is not bad luck: it’s astonishingly bad design reinforced by complete carelessness.”

A timely article, as there’s a project underway here to look at the feasibility of replacing one MIS with another and how we’d manage the data migration that that would entail.

It’s not just a matter of moving bytes around though. The horrible mess-up above notwithstanding, that’s the easy part. When implementing a new MIS there’s as much people stuff to resolve as techy stuff.

Here’s an interesting essay from the University of Michigan, from a dim and distant past when universities and other large organisations were wanting to move away from mainframes to more networked environments.

Implementing an MIS
The implementation of a management information system can be a traumatic experience. At a minimum, changes in procedures will impact the ways in which plans are made, programs are developed, and performance is evaluated within the organization. New patterns of communications will emerge, and new – presumably better – information will be available to assist in carrying out decision-making and administrative responsibilities. Efforts to improve the MIS may also uncover the need for organizational changes which may be even more unsettling than the procedural changes necessary to implement the system. The introduction of a MIS may represent substantial change in the established way of doing business, which can be viewed with considerable alarm (and generate significant resistance) by those within the organization.

Different technologies, but the same concerns.

I found the principles proposed at the end of the article very interesting, and hope that a similar approach will be undertaken here.

It is important not to oversell the potential of the new system. Aaron Wildavsky offers a number of “rules” that are applicable to the implementation of any new management system. The rule of skepticism suggests that organizational officials should exercise a good deal of skepticism when presented with the initial concept of an improved management system. The rule of delay cautions officials to give the system adequate time to develop and to be prepared to face periodic setbacks in its implementation. As Wildavsky observes: “if it works at all, it won’t work soon.” The rule of anticipated anguish is essentially a restatement of Murphy’s Law – “most of the things that can go wrong, will.” Wildavsky suggests that management must be prepared to invest personnel, time, and money to overcome breakdowns in the system as they occur. And the rule of discounting suggests that anticipated benefits to be derived from the new management information system should significantly outweigh the estimated costs of mounting the system. Much of the cost must be incurred before the benefits are achieved. Therefore, the tendency is to inflate future benefits – to oversell the system – to compensate for the increased commitment of present resources.

And let’s not forget that Hofstadter’s law applies here too, as well.

Superhero storage?

​Trying really hard to get excited about this.

Eternal 5D data storage could record the history of humankind
Coined as the ‘Superman memory crystal’, as the glass memory has been compared to the “memory crystals” used in the Superman films, the data is recorded via self-assembled nanostructures created in fused quartz. The information encoding is realised in five dimensions: the size and orientation in addition to the three dimensional position of these nanostructures.​

[…]

“It is thrilling to think that we have created the technology to preserve documents and information and store it in space for future generations. This technology can secure the last evidence of our civilisation: all we’ve learnt will not be forgotten.”​

An incredibly clever way of storing ​data, to be sure, but haven’t we heard all this before? And it’s not how you store it but how you read it that’s key, when pondering the far future.