Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Twitch Plays Pokemon

March 2, 2014 Leave a comment

Recently, the streaming service Twitch TV offered Pokemon as a massively multi-player game.   Anyone with Internet access may – at least for a moment – control the game, and thousands have tried.   As always in life, not everyone has the same goals, so allowing thousands to sit in the driver’s seat means that the results are not straightforward – they tend to oscillate between chaos and stasis.   xkcd summarized the situation eptly (click on the image to embiggen it):


That so many would seek to play when no individual can achieve very much is not a new discovery in human psychology.   NYNEX, the main local phone company in New York and New England (now part of Verizon),  ran a technical trial of interactive telecommunications back in the 1990s, renting 15 minutes each week on a local Manhattan cable channel in the early hours of Sunday mornings, which they called Joe’s Apartment. They had taken film inside an apartment, walking in every direction, and then cut the film into short discrete pieces.   The film showed only the apartment, nothing more.  The discrete pieces were then assembled at run-time, in an order determined by a TV viewer using only their landline or mobile phone.  A viewer could phone in and using the phone keypad, control the movement of the camera (left, right, forward, etc). This control of the camera was only apparent. In reality, the viewer was controlling the selection of which discrete piece of film would be seen next.  Any one viewer only retained control of the camera for a few minutes.

Despite the simplicity of the set-up and the lateness of the hour, and much to NYNEX’s surprise, the program attracted thousands of viewers, all seeking to wrest control of the camera.  No doubt a large number of viewers were people who’d spent the evening in close proximity with alcohol.




Atomic Nordic Noir

February 4, 2014 Leave a comment


Intense rehearsals are underway for performances of Michael Frayn’s celebrated play, Copenhagen, by students at King’s College London.   The play concerns a famous meeting between atomic physicists Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr in Copenhagen during World War II, and deals with topics such as quantum physics, the nature of memory, and the responsibility of nuclear scientists for the atom bomb.   This production is an initiative of three King’s students, William Nash (Producer), Alister MacQuarrie (Director) and Aja Garrod-Prance (Producer).  They held open auditions last November for the parts and after auditions and call-backs selected three students for the play:  Ria Abbott, Fred Fullerton and Thomas Marsh.  Rehearsals began when term resumed last month.

The performances of the play will be on the evenings of Friday 14, Saturday 15, and Sunday 16 March 2014, in the Old Anatomy Museum of King’s Building at King’s College London, on Strand.   A panel discussion about the historic and scientific issues raised by the play will be held around the same time as these performances, with speakers from the Physics Department and the Department of War Studies.     Members of the public are very welcome to attend the performances and the panel discussion.

This production is proudly supported by the School of Natural and Mathematical Sciences, and the Departments of Physics and Informatics at King’s College London.

In the meantime, if you would like to see some very professional theatre from the talented people at King’s, hot-foot it to the Greenwood Theatre on Guys’ Campus of King’s this week, where William Nash is directing a production of Romeo and Juliet.   (Wednesday 5, Thursday 6, and Friday 7 February 2014, at 7.45 pm).   People who have managed to sneak past the tight security into rehearsals tell me that the production is funny, exciting, and very definitely noir.

Thinking through diagrams

October 23, 2012 Leave a comment

The theory of geometry developed by the Greek mathematician Euclid about 2300 years ago was notable for two original features:  First, it was what we now call axiomatic.  Euclid started with some explicit assumptions (called axioms) and rules of inference and then he developed the logical consequences of these assumptions and inference rules.    It wasn’t until the 1890s, however, that other mathematicians (initially Mario Pieri and David Hilbert) took this idea and ran with it, presenting formal axiomatic treatments of geometry.    Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead famously developed an axiomatic treatment for mathematics in general, in their book Principia Mathematica (published 1910-1913).

Second, the rules of inference used by Euclid were essentially diagrammatic — the drawings of circles, triangles and other shapes in the Mediterranean sand were not merely illustrations of mathematical reasoning, but were the means by which this reasoning occurred.  For most of the time since Euclid, mathematics has been done via text and symbols rather than by diagrams.  Only with the rise of Category Theory in the last 60 years have we seen another branch of pure mathematics where reasoning is done explicitly through diagrams, in this case, what are called commutative diagrams.

Why is this relevant to computer science?  Well, computers can reason equally well with symbols as with diagrams, since both are converted (ultimately) to binary digits.    But our western text-oriented culture has mostly favoured the manipulation of textual symbols rather than the manipulation of diagrams or images.    Only in recent years have researchers in computer science, pure mathematics, and theoretical physics begun looking systematically at diagrammatic representations and reasoning.

This post is to introduce our first Informatics Department Colloquium for the 2012 academic year.   This Colloquium will be given on Wednesday 31 October 2012 at 17:00 by Dr Aleks Kissinger of Oxford University on the topic of “String Graph Rewriting and Free Monoidal Categories”.  The location for this talk will be Seminar Room K2.31, Second Floor of the King’s Building at the Strand Campus.  Meanwhile, the abstract for Dr  Kissinger’s talk is here:

String diagrams are a powerful tool for reasoning about physical processes, logic circuits, tensor networks, and many other compositional structures. In 1991, Joyal and Street provided a topological formalisation of string diagrams and used them to construct free monoidal categories.

In this talk, I will show how string diagrams can be represented in a manner amenable to automation using special kinds of typed graphs called string graphs. I’ll then demonstrate the construction of free traced symmetric monoidal categories as well as “diagrammatically presented” categories, i.e., the most general categories admitting a given set of graph rewrite rules. If there’s time, I will also talk about extensions to the diagrammatic language to admit graph patterns, and our implementation in Quantomatic.”

Remembering women in science

October 22, 2012 1 comment

The first computer programmer was a woman – mathematician Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), daughter of Lord Byron and friend of computer pioneer, Charles Babbage.     As a result of her efforts, the 16th October each year has been set aside to celebrate women in science.  This year, Britain’s Royal Society and Wikipedia hosted an edit-a-thon, to increase the Wikipedia pages devoted to women scientists and mathematicians.

Here you can find a report on the project from the journal Nature, and here is Wikipedia’s own page.

Categories: History, Programming

Happen to have a Deuce Drum for sale?

March 26, 2012 Leave a comment

We’ve had an enquiry from John Webster of the Australian Computer Museum Society (ACMS) looking for a DEUCE drum.  The Digital Electronic Universal Computing Engine (DEUCE) was a computer sold by the English Electric Company (EEC) from 1955, and was one of the early machines used in Australia.    The ACMS would like to purchase a DEUCE drum, as shown in the photo.  If you happen to have one for sale, or know of one, please contact John directly (details on the contacts page of the ACMS).

Categories: History

Reverse Polish Notation (RPN)

October 8, 2011 Leave a comment

The Financial Times recently published a correspondence on Reverse Polish Notation, including this letter from one Peter Jaeger of Tokyo, Japan (published on 2011-09-30):

Sir, Your reader Chris Ludlam describes the input method of his HP12c as “reverse logic”. The correct term is “Reverse Polish”, which is not only far more colourful, but also gives credit to Jan Lukasiewicz, the logician who invented the original Polish Notation which American mathematicians later adapted for computers.”

While it is correct to say that American mathematicians adapted Reverse Polish Notation (RPN) for computers, this is not the whole story.  The first person to speak publicly about using RPN for computer architectures was Australian –  Charles Hamblin, an Australian philosopher and computer pioneer, speaking at a computer conference held in Salisbury, South Australia, in June 1957.  (This was billed as “The First Australian Computer Conference”, but an earlier one had been held in 1951.)   Hamblin’s work was published in the conference proceedings and later in a refereed article in the Computer Journal in 1962.   Among the attendees at that conference was the British statistician and computer pioneer Maurice Wilkes, who later won an AM Turing Award (in 1967), as well as delegates from computer manufacturing companies.

The first computer manufacturing company to announce deployment of RPN in a commercial computer architecture was British – the English Electric Company (EEC), in their KDF9 machine, announced in 1960 and delivered in 1963.   Burroughs, an American computer company, also delivered a computer using RPN in 1963, the Burroughs B5000, but this machine was only announced in 1961.   Robert Barton, chief architect of the B5000, later wrote that he developed RPN independently of Hamblin, sometime in 1958.

So the first person to talk publicly about applying RPN to computers was Australian and the first computer company to say publicly they would actually do so was British.   Not everything in computing happens first in the USA!


R. S. Barton [1970]: Ideas for computer systems organization: a personal survey. pp. 7-16 of: J. S. Jou (Editor): Software Engineering: Volume 1: Proceedings of the Third Symposium on Computer and Information Sciences held in Miami Beach, Florida, December 1969. New York, NY, USA: Academic Press.

C. L. Hamblin [1957]: An addressless coding scheme based on mathematical notation. Proceedings of the First Australian Conference on Computing and Data Processing, Salisbury, South Australia: Weapons Research Establishment, June 1957.

C. L. Hamblin [1962]: Translation to and from Polish notation. Computer Journal, 5: 210-213.

Categories: AI, History, Logic

30 years of the IBM PC!

August 10, 2011 Leave a comment

IBM’s first personal computer, the IBM 5150 PC, was unveiled at a press conference in the ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York thirty years ago this week, on 12 August 1981.   The arts and design desk of the International Herald Tribune has a story about that PC here.

In 1980, Bill Lowe, director of its research laboratory in Boca Raton, Florida, set up a dedicated task force, led by Don Estridge, to design an affordable personal computer. Realizing that the development process would take too long if IBM adhered to corporate policy by developing all of the components itself, the task force was allowed to source pre-tested parts from other companies. Microsoft developed the software by modifying existing systems. It took only 12 months to complete the 5150 — a record for IBM.

Originally the 5150 was intended to be a home computer, but most of the orders came from businesses. By the end of 1982, IBM was selling one every minute of the working day. IBM stopped making the 5150 in 1987, but its design legacy continues. And although geeks enjoy remembering the 5150’s software bug — when asked to divide 0.01 by 10, it reportedly displayed 9.999999E-4 — it was so robust that most of the surviving machines still work.”


Categories: History
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