History

Out of touch

We’ve been away and without connectivity for much of the last week. And what a week to choose. This summer will live in memory for its news and events. Some days, the real world is more like theatre than theatre is.

Through tools such as Reeder, and the many eyes and ears of Twitter, we just about kept abreast, snatching 3G, EDGE or feeble GPRS where location permitted, and quickly learning where towns and villages could give us WiFi. (A shout-out here for the excellent Toucan Café in Minehead, its good food and free wireless.)

Back home, I’ve caught up in detail on the accumulated reading. I wish it had been less dispiriting. It’s come to something when, as Euan said, Russell Brand is more credible than the Prime Minister.

Some of what I’ve been reading about the unrest in England, on Pinboard.


Safe-keeping

Every year when I teach our first years (Year 9) about ICT it’s often surprising what stands out as having changed. It’s life-as-we-once-knew-it, Jim, but now more or less of a piece with this digital stuff. We’ve made a new thing. Lots of new things.

But quick! Look after them! They’re vanishing even as we look.

Recent lessons have developed a focus around the web-and-culture, the web-as-culture. So, lesson 15 is all about the stuff James talked about at dConstruct last year: history, historiography, memory; archiving the internet; time, growth, loss, decay … hope. James’s talk is the focus.

Last Thursday, in the discussion about all that, I found other things suggested themselves and fell satisfyingly into place. I’ve added some of these to the lesson as a supplementary page: Lee’s deeply affecting talk at Reboot 9 about Kozarac; the Long Now’s Rosetta Project. But also things I haven’t put on that supplementary page: Yahoo! and Geocities (already in the original lesson 15) led on to Yahoo! and Delicious (I showed them Pinboard and we talked about backing up locally as well as in the cloud), and Yahoo! and Flickr (which Yahoo!’s CEO doesn’t use: ‘One of the most highly visible and trafficked Yahoo properties and you don’t even have an account there’).

That led on to a look at cloud-computing and the ways in which the Wikileaks story has made people readjust their view of providers (see my last post). It got me scrambling around to find this photo that I knew I’d squirrelled away on Tumblr a while back:

Jerry Yang at Congress

Gao Qin Sheng, mother of Shi Tao, a Chinese reporter sentenced to 10 years in prison for leaking state secrets, cries as Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang (left) testifies before a congressional committee hearing. (Photo: Reuters) — The Sydney Morning Herald (2007)

Wikileaks, Egypt … let’s not forget these lessons about cloud-computing and the responsibilities of global communications and cloud-computing providers.

And, as I find myself thinking more and more about archiving, memory and the digital, I really enjoyed Euan’s recent pieces: One small step (‘Goodness - a usenet search just stumbled upon my first ever experience, in 1995, of the power of the internet to make things easier’) and My first blog post. I hope Euan is happy if I re-blog the latter here (it’s so pertinent):

I knew I started blogging around this time of year in 2001 but thanks to a server crash in December 2001 I had no record of my first blog post. I tried The Wayback Machine but couldn’t remember the original url. I had tried various searches on Google and using Devon Agent but with no success but then I remembered that Ev Williams, who started Blogger and now Twitter, had made me a “Blog of Note” on the front page of Blogger in 2002. A search for that got me my old url and The Wayback Machine then came up with the goods.

So my first ever blog posts are preserved here and I began on the 3rd of March 2001. On day three I said:

“I started feeling a bit uneasy about this blog today. Who will ever read it and what will those who do think?”

Ten years later I am still wondering …..

URLs, permalinks, archives … preservation. It all matters so very much.

I’ve been pointing out to my Year 9 pupils the Facebook setting that lets you download your material to a local drive (thanks to Michael for pointing it out to me) — Account > Account settings > Download your information:

This tool lets you download a copy of your information, including your photos and videos, posts on your wall, all of your messages, your friend list and other content you have shared on your profile. Within this zip file, you will have access to your data in a simple, browseable manner. Learn More about downloading a copy of your information.

So many memories are held in Facebook — for now. Will these teenagers be grandparents with few photos of their teenage years to look back on, show and share? Back up, back up, back up.


Wikileaks in 10

I like this mind-map by John Naughton very much and used it recently in an English class when we got talking about some tools and techniques that help us think. It comes from his post, WikiLeaks: two challenges for journalism:

… how to make sense of all this. Most people cope with this problem by, effectively, reducing its variety.

Early last Monday, I gave a 10 minute talk about Wikileaks to our top two years (12 & 13). I hope I managed to keep some of the variety. The way in, stepping stones and some points made:

To end on, to take us away from focusing just on Wikileaks, something about the big picture right now — Paul Mason’s piece which has resonated with so many (and with so many undergraduates and recent graduates I know), Twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere:

… the graduate with no future … with access to social media … [which] kills vertical hierarchies spontaneously … They all seem to know each other: not only is the network more powerful than the hierarchy - but the ad-hoc network has become easier to form. … if lawyers, teachers and doctors are sitting in their garrets freezing and starving you get revolution. Now, in their garrets, they have a laptop and broadband connection. … People just know more than they used to. … People have a better understanding of power. … Technology has - in many ways, from the contraceptive pill to the iPod, the blog and the CCTV camera - expanded the space and power of the individual.

***

I gave the talk again mid-week to our Year 10, boiled down and in something more like 6 minutes.

Here are a couple of other pieces which I’ve found good food for thought, neither of which I had time to work in to these talks:

Bill Keller in the NYT (January, 2011):

I’m a little puzzled by the complaint that most of the embassy traffic we disclosed did not profoundly change our understanding of how the world works. Ninety-nine percent of what we read or hear on the news does not profoundly change our understanding of how the world works. News mostly advances by inches and feet, not in great leaps. The value of these documents — and I believe they have immense value — is not that they expose some deep, unsuspected perfidy in high places or that they upend your whole view of the world. For those who pay close attention to foreign policy, these documents provide texture, nuance and drama. They deepen and correct your understanding of how things unfold; they raise or lower your estimation of world leaders. For those who do not follow these subjects as closely, the stories are an opportunity to learn more. If a project like this makes readers pay attention, think harder, understand more clearly what is being done in their name, then we have performed a public service. And that does not count the impact of these revelations on the people most touched by them. WikiLeaks cables in which American diplomats recount the extravagant corruption of Tunisia’s rulers helped fuel a popular uprising that has overthrown the government.

Also from the same:

The government surely cheapens secrecy by deploying it so promiscuously. According to the Pentagon, about 500,000 people have clearance to use the database from which the secret cables were pilfered. Weighing in on the WikiLeaks controversy in The Guardian, Max Frankel remarked that secrets shared with such a legion of “cleared” officials, including low-level army clerks, “are not secret.” Governments, he wrote, “must decide that the random rubber-stamping of millions of papers and computer files each year does not a security system make.”

And this from John Naughton (to whom we owe a lot for his pondering of these recent events) :

For hardcore geeks, the WikiLeaks saga should serve as a stimulant to a new wave of innovation which will lead to a new generation of distributed, secure technologies (like the TOR networking system used by WikiLeaks) which will enable people to support movements and campaigns that are deemed subversive by authoritarian powers. A really good example of this kind of technological innovation was provided last week by Google engineers, who in a few days built a system that enabled protesters in Egypt to send tweets even though the internet in their country had been shut down. “Like many people”, they blogged, “we’ve been glued to the news unfolding in Egypt and thinking of what we can do to help people on the ground. Over the weekend we came up with the idea of a speak-to-tweet service – the ability for anyone to tweet using just a voice connection.”

They worked with a small team of engineers from Twitter and SayNow (a company Google recently acquired) to build the system. It provides three international phone numbers and anyone can tweet by leaving a voicemail. The tweets appear on twitter.com/speak2tweet.

What’s exciting about this kind of development is that it harnesses the same kind of irrepressible, irreverent, geeky originality that characterised the early years of the internet, before the web arrived and big corporations started to get a grip on it. Events in Egypt make one realise how badly this kind of innovation is needed.


Auden: aspects of our present Weltanschauung

Looking for something in Auden, I hit another passage, about human nature, art, tradition and originality (below), that I couldn’t put my finger on when I last needed it a few months ago. We’re edging towards the World Brain, but it can’t come fast enough:

It seems possible that in the near future, we shall have microscopic libraries of record, in which a photograph of every important book and document in the world will be stowed away and made easily available for the inspection of the student…. The general public has still to realize how much has been done in this field and how many competent and disinterested men and women are giving themselves to this task. The time is close at hand when any student, in any part of the world, will be able to sit with his projector in his own study at his or her convenience to examine any book, any document, in an exact replica. — H G Wells, ‘The Brain Organization of the Modern World’ (1937)

Auden. I’ve often referred to this passage and am very happy to make it ready to hand through pinning it here:

3) The loss of belief in a norm of human nature which will always require the same kind of man-fabricated world to be at home in. … until recently, men knew and cared little about cultures far removed from their own in time or space; by human nature, they meant the kind of behaviour exhibited in their own culture. Anthropology and archaeology have destroyed this provincial notion: we know that human nature is so plastic that it can exhibit varieties of behaviour which, in the animal kingdom, could only be exhibited by different species.

The artist, therefore, no longer has any assurance, when he makes something, that even the next generation will find it enjoyable or comprehensible.

He cannot help desiring an immediate success, with all the danger to his integrity which that implies.

Further, the fact that we now have at our disposal the arts of all ages and cultures, has completely changed the meaning of the word tradition. It no longer means a way of working handed down from one generation to the next; a sense of tradition now means a consciousness of the whole of the past as present, yet at the same time as a structured whole the parts of which are related in terms of before and after. Originality no longer means a slight modification in the style of one’s immediate predecessors; it means a capacity to find in any work of any date or place a clue to finding one’s authentic voice. The burden of choice and selection is put squarely upon the shoulders of each individual poet and it is a heavy one.

It’s from ‘The Poet and The City’, which I think appeared first in the Massachusetts Review in 1962 and was then included in The Dyer’s Hand (1963). Lots in this essay. ‘There are four aspects of our present Weltanschauung which have made an artistic vocation more difficult than it used to be.’ The others:

1) The loss of belief in the eternity of the physical universe. … Physics, geology and biology have now replaced this everlasting universe with a picture of nature as a process in which nothing is now what it was or what it will be.

We live now among ‘sketches and improvisations’.

2) The loss of belief in the significance and reality of sensory phenomena. … science has destroyed our faith in the naive observation of our senses: we cannot … ever know what the physical universe is really like; we can only hold whatever subjective notion is appropriate to the particular purpose we have in view. This destroys the traditional conception of art as mimesis …

4) The disappearance of the Public Realm as the sphere of revelatory personal deeds. To the Greeks the Private Realm was the sphere of life ruled by the necessity of sustaining life, and the Public Realm the sphere of freedom where a man could disclose himself to others. Today, the significance of the terms private and public has been reversed; public life is the necessary impersonal life, the place where a man fulfils his social function, and it is in his private life that he is free to be his personal self.


‘Sorley’: Gaelic for wanderer

Charles Hamilton Sorley, 1895–1915. He left just 37 complete poems. Adapted from The Oxford Companion to English Literature (1989): 

His posthumous collection, Marlborough and Other Poems (1916), was a popular and critical success in the 1920s, but he has since been neglected, though championed by Robert Graves amongst others. Graves said of Sorley that, with Owen and Rosenberg, he ‘was one of the three poets of importance killed during the War’. The best known of his poems include, ‘The Song of the Ungirt Runners’, ‘Barbury Camp’, and the last, bitter ‘When you see millions of the mouthless dead’ — found in the author’s kit sent home from France after his death.

Sorley’s father, describing his son’s life in a preface (1919) to Marlborough and Other Poems:

He was educated at Marlborough College, which he entered in September 1908 and left in December 1913, after obtaining a scholarship at University College, Oxford. Owing to the war he never went into residence at the University. After leaving school he spent a little more than six months in Germany, first at Schwerin in Mecklenburg and afterwards, for the summer session, at the University of Jena. He was on a walking tour on the banks of the Moselle when the European war broke out. He was put in prison at Trier on the 2nd August, but released the same night with orders to leave the country. After some adventures he reached home on the 6th, and at once applied for a commission in the army. He was gazetted Second Lieutenant in the Seventh (Service) Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment before the end of the month, Lieutenant in November, and Captain in the following August. He was sent to France with his battalion on 30th May 1915, and served for some months in the trenches round Ploegsteert. Shortly after he had entered upon his life there, a suggestion was made to him about printing a slim volume of verse. But he put the suggestion aside as premature. ‘Besides,’ he added, ‘this is no time for oliveyards and vineyards, more especially of the small-holdings type. For three years or the duration of the war, let be.’ Four months later his warfare was accomplished. His battalion was moved south to take part in the battle of Loos, and he fell on 13th October 1915, in an attack in which the “hair-pin” trench near Hulluch was captured by his company. ‘Being made perfect in a little while, he fulfilled long years.’

When I read his letters and papers, I am always taken aback by the voice that comes through — its unexpected modernity and warm intimacy:

… poetry up till now has been mainly by and for and about the Upper Classes … The voice of our poets and men of letters (ie, contemporary writers) is finely trained and sweet to hear: it teems with sharp saws and rich sentiment: it is a marvel of delicate technique: it pleases, it flatters, it charms, it soothes: it is a living lie. … all true poets (that is, poets who insist on truth) have been consciously or unconsciously in revolt. (From papers on Masefield and on Housman, read to the Marlborough College Literary Society, 3 November, 1912 and 15 May, 1913, respectively)

… the penalty of belonging to a public school is that one plays before the looking-glass all the time and has to think about the impression one is making. And as public schools are run on the worn-out fallacy that there can’t be progress without competition, games as well as everything else degenerate into a means of giving free play to the lower instincts of man. … One is positively encouraged to confuse strength of character with petty self-assertion, and conscientiousness with Phariseeism. (Letters: 25 February, and early April, 1914)

Do you know that Richard Jefferies, the greatest of English visionaries, felt exactly the same about the high parts of the downs as you? That you climbed great hills that should overlook the sea, but you could see no sea. Only the whole place is like a vast sea-shell where you can hear the echoes of the sea that has once filled it. Du Gott! One can really live up there! The earth even more than Christ is the ultimate ideal of what man should strive to be. (Letter: 14 November, 1914)

There is no such thing as a just war. What we are doing is casting out Satan by Satan. (Letter: March 1915)

Sorley is the Gaelic for wanderer. I have had a conventional education: Oxford would have corked it. But this has freed the spirit, glory be. Give me The Odyssey, and I return the New Testament to store. Physically as well as spiritually, give me the road. (Letter: 16 June, 1915)

… out in front at night in that no-man’s land and long graveyard there is a freedom and a spur. Rustling of the grasses and grave-tapping of distant workers: the tension and silence of encounter, when one struggles in the dark for moral victory over the enemy patrol: the wail of the exploded bomb and the animal cries of wounded men. The death and the horrible thankfulness when one sees that the next man is dead: ‘We won’t have to carry him in under fire, thank God; dragging will do’: hauling in of the great resistless body in the dark, the smashed head rattling: the relief, the relief that the thing has ceased to groan: that the bullet or bomb that made the man an animal has now made the animal a corpse. One is hardened now: purged of all false pity: perhaps more selfish than before. The spiritual and the animal get so much more sharply divided in hours of encounter, taking possession of the body by swift turns. (Letter: 26 August, 1915)

I can now understand the value of dogma, which is the General Commander-in-Chief of the mind. I am now beginning to think that free thinkers should give their minds into subjection, for we who have given our actions and volitions into subjection gain such marvellous rest thereby. Only of course it is the subjection of their powers of will and deed to a wrong master on the part of a great nation that has led Europe into war. Perhaps afterwards, I and my like will again become indiscriminate rebels. For the present we find high relief in making ourselves soldiers. … Ridley [a close friend at Marlborough and a Captain in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers] … recovered from his wound … Ridley with whom I brewed, ‘worked’ and shared a study, and quarrelled absolutely unceasingly for over three years. We have so thoroughly told each other all each other’s faults and oddities for so long a time that nothing now could part our friendship. (Letter to the Master of Marlborough College.
 One of three last letters, all dated 5 October, 1915.)

Eight days later, Sorley was killed, shot through the head by a sniper. He was 20.
 Herbert Ridley won an MC in 1917 and was killed in action at Ypres on 15 July that year, aged 23.

The Letters of Charles Sorley (CUP, 1919)

 Marlborough and Other Poems (fifth edition, CUP, 1922)

The Collected Letters of Charles Hamilton Sorley (Cecil Woolf, 1990)


‘My client is civilisation’

0169-a.jpg

There’s an interview with Stewart Brand in Volume, 24 — Counterculture: ‘With the help of countercultural figures, historians and architects, this issue of Volume examines the popularized characteristics of the 60s that have influenced our beliefs about technology, the environment and community’. Fred Turner country. From Jeffrey Inaba’s introduction to the issue:

At first glance, what appears prescient about the 60s when looking at current American culture is the preoccupation then and now with computer technology, the natural environment and alternative forms of community; but today each is disconnected from the radical political action and oppositional ideologies of the earlier era. For instance, concern for the planet, which was cast as flaky and indulgent, is shared by the majority of people despite the ideological differences between the counterculture and popular American opinion now. Sustainability is so much a part of our collective economic consciousness that its importance is cited in business sectors – like real estate development – which once ardently resisted entertaining pro-environmental stances. Similarly, the communal principles of the counterculture – such as participation, sharing information, erring on the side of social inclusion, networking and identifying areas of agreement with others in order to form collaborations – are the basic axioms for building social capital now.

*

SB: My client is civilisation and my approach is that of a hacker: to figure out the shortcuts that make things happen. …

JI: … What’s your definition of a hacker?

SB: Lazy engineer. The aspect of hacking that appeals to me is looking for the fiendishly clever shortcut. A ‘real’ engineer will do the homework – do the calculations, run the prototypes – all the necessary stuff to make something work. A hacker is usually looking for an easy solution. The code still has to run – it has to do whatever it is you’re attempting. But a hacker tries to find a way to do it with minimal effort, which is considered good; or with great cleverness, which is considered extra good. Fun is finessing an outcome. Stuff like that is just being lazy, and lazy is not necessarily bad. I was trained in the army to be a lazy officer. The worst officer is stupid and industrious. The best officer is brilliant and lazy. I don’t think I would be accused of industry. …

JI: … Would you consider yourself a hacker of policy? From what you say in your book, stewardship of the planet involves vigilance in monitoring all technologies and then deciding to employ some with great speed. Do you look for shortcuts to put into service technologies because the process of governments, institutions, and concerned individuals carefully weighing a technology’s consequences takes time?

SB: Some technologies take off on their own. Cell phones took off in very short order to the great benefit of all. Wikipedia and Google took off that way. The things that people see as beneficial and that don’t do recognizable harm can move quickly. But like you say, by far the best approach with complex systems is diplomatic negotiation with a lot of vigilance to ensure that things don’t go astray.

JI: The last chapter of Whole Earth Discipline is on statecraft. You start it with the Marshall McLuhan quote: ‘After Sputnik there is no nature, only art’. What significance does that statement have in relation to the responsibilities of governance and policymaking?

SB: It’s probably the most radical comment he ever made. Sputnik was shorthand for acting at a planetary scale. We consequently bear a completely different relation to everything on Earth and can no longer treat it, meaning nature, as existing independent of our own artifice – our own purposeful intentions.


Founder’s myopia

Just before Christmas, John Lanchester had a good essay in the LRB, Let us Pay, ‘on the future of the newspaper industry’. It dealt very well with the crippling expense and economics of the physical product and all that that means (something Horace Dediu also tackled late last year — ‘one wit remarked that a newspaper is nothing more than an instrument that permits the depreciation of a printing plant’).

Here’s something from Lanchester’s piece that I’d not heard before (it’s probably very well known):

In some ways, the story of text messaging is a parable for the way the net has evolved. SMS messaging was taken up by Nokia in Finland as a way of allowing engineers to communicate short, factual messages about where they were, what they were doing and how long it would take. Nokia then made the service available on their phones, since, well, there it was, so you might as well let the punters have a go. They were amazed to see the spike in data traffic which suddenly showed up. The reason: Finnish teenagers were using SMS to organise their social lives. From there, texting hasn’t looked back. Nobody decided what the purpose of SMS would be, it just evolved.

(He goes on: ‘It would be hard to deny that texting is a new thing; also hard to argue that it has fundamentally changed the world. I’d say that’s roughly where we are with the journalistic uses of the new media. Their democratising and decentralising effects have barely begun, and aren’t going to go away.’ Both he and Dediu — ‘the medium needs its Orson Welles’ — look ahead to the Murdoch online-only paper, the Daily.)

And here’s Janet Abbate on email (Inventing the Internet, pp 106–111):

Email (initially called “net notes” or simply “mail”) made an inconspicuous entry onto the ARPANET scene. Since many time sharing systems provided ways for users to send messages to others on the same computer, personal electronic mail was already a familiar concept to many ARPANET users. By mid 1971 … several ARPANET sites had begun experimenting with ideas for simple programs that would transfer a message from one computer to another and place it in a designated “mailbox” file. … Email quickly became the network’s most popular and influential service, surpassing all expectations. … From ARPA email began to spread to the rest of the military, and by 1974 “hundreds” of military groups were using the ARPANET for email …

The popularity of email was not foreseen by the ARPANET’s planners. Roberts had not included electronic email in the original blueprint for the network. In fact, in 1967 he had called the ability to send messages between users “not an important motivation for a network of scientific computers” … Yet the idea of electronic mail was not new. MIT’s CTSS computer had had a message feature as early as 1965, and mail programs were common in the time sharing computers that followed …

Why then was the popularity of email such a surprise? … The rationale for building the network had focused on providing access to computers rather than to people. … The paradigm of resource sharing may have blinded the ARPANET community to other potential uses of the network. … Email and mailing lists were crucial to creating and maintaining a feeling of community among ARPANET users. … Even more important, mailing lists allowed a virtual community to take on an identity that was more than the sum of the individuals who made it up … [providing] a way for people to “meet” and interact on the basis of shared interests, rather than relying on physical proximity …

In the process of using the network, the ARPANET community developed a new conception of what networking meant. … the network planners … did not anticipate that people would turn out to be the network’s most valued resources. Network users challenged the initial assumptions, voting with their packets by sending a huge volume of electronic mail but making relatively little use of remote hardware and software. Through grassroots innovations and thousands of individual choices, the old idea of resource sharing that had propelled the ARPANET project forward was gradually replaced by the idea of the network as a means for bringing people together. Email laid the groundwork for creating virtual communities through the network. Increasingly, people within and outside the ARPA community would come to see the ARPANET not as a computing system but rather as a communications system. Succeeding generations of networks inspired by ARPANET would be designed from the start to act as communications media. By embracing email, ARPANET users gave the network a new purpose and initiated a significant change in the theory and practice of networking.

We teach about the unexpected rise of email in our first year ICT course — adding in, for good measure, John Vittal’s 1975 addition of Reply and Forward. We also point out that no-one foresaw the appeal of SMS, but it’s lovely to be able to include that story from Finland.

And here’s something else in the same vein (again centring on our love of communication) that makes a point about invention. I’m reading Tim Wu’s The Master Switch, and early on there’s this about the early American rural telephone companies (chapter 3):

The Independents, rooted in the farms and small towns of the West, were innovators, but of a conceptual kind, not the technical kind à la Alexander Bell. They saw a different world, in which the telephone was made cheaper and more common, a tool of mass communications, and an aid in daily life. They intuited that the telephone’s paramount value was not as a better version of the telegraph or a more efficient means of commerce, but as the first social technology. As one farmer captured it in 1904, ‘With a telephone in the house, comes a new companionship, new life, new possibilities, new relationships, and attachments for the old farm by both old and young.’

Typically, the rural telephone systems were giant party lines, allowing a whole community to chat with or listen to one another. Obviously there was no privacy, but there were benefits to communal telephony other than secure person-to-person communications. Farmers would use the telephone lines to carry their own musical performances. …

And so, while the Bell Company may have invented the telephone, it clearly didn’t perceive the full spectrum of its uses. This is such a common affliction that we might name it “founder’s myopia”. Again and again in the development of technology, full appreciation of an invention’s potential importance falls to others—not necessarily technical geniuses themsleves—who develop it in ways that the inventor never dreamed of. The phenomenon is hardly mystical: the inventor, after all, is but one person, with his own blind spots, while there are millions, if not billions, of others with eyes to see new uses that had been right under the inventor’s nose. … it was simple farmers in the early 1900s who pioneered the  use of the phone line for broadcasting long before the rise of radio broadcasting in the 1920s.


Videogame Nation

Kraftwerk

Way back in May, when I was at Futuresonic, and Kraftwerk were due a few weeks later at the Manchester International Festival, I caught the first day of Videogame Nation at Urbis.

It was a really enjoyable exhibition, a celebration of the British gaming industry with a particularly keen eye for Mancunian and regional contributions. The Guardian posted something about it, and there are a couple of reviews I came across that are informed by a knowledge of games and gaming heritage that I lack (almost completely): National Videogames Archive and Negative Gamer.

There were timelines displayed on the way out. I was hurrying past them with Guy as Urbis shut up shop for the night and I had just a few seconds to snap what I could. From 1948 …

Videogame Nation

… to 2009,

Videogame Nation

It’s the timelines I want to keep in mind just now as I read more about the history and development of games. Other photos (uploaded back in May and then forgotten about) are here, including five more of the timelines — and these wonderful maps of Wonderland Dizzy and Fantastic Dizzy by Philip and Andrew Oliver:

Videogame Nation

Videogame Nation

Most of the images need to be viewed at large size.

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We are all Bayesians now

Intent on not being late for an evening session at Tinker.it! last week, I dropped by Bunhill Fields for too short a time, the light beginning to fail and a hurriedly printed off, crumpled map for guide.

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Easy to find the memorials to Blake and his wife and Defoe. But I was on a quest for Thomas Bayes:

Bayes, Thomas (b. 1702, London - d. 1761, Tunbridge Wells, Kent), mathematician who first used probability inductively and established a mathematical basis for probability inference (a means of calculating, from the number of times an event has not occurred, the probability that it will occur in future trials). He set down his findings on probability in "Essay Towards Solving a Problem in the Doctrine of Chances" (1763), published posthumously in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London.

It took me too long to find his resting place, railed off and not in a great state of repair, and my rushed photos weren’t worth posting, but here’s one from the ISBA site (taken by Professor Tony O'Hagan of Sheffield University and seemingly not copyright):

Bayes 1 

The famous essay is online (PDF).

I need to spend more time in and around Bunhill Fields, but what prompted me to try to take it in as I sped across London was reading in Chris Frith’s book, Making up the Mind, how important Bayes is to neuroscience:

… is it possible to measure prior beliefs and changes in beliefs? … The importance of Bayes’ theorem is that it provides a very precise measure of how much a new piece of evidence should make us change our ideas about the world. Bayes’ theorem provides a yardstick by which we can judge whether we are using new evidence appropriately. This leads to the concept of the ideal Bayesian observer: a mythical being who always uses evidence in the best possible way. … Our brains are ideal observers when making use of the evidence from our senses. For example, one problem our brain has to solve is how to combine evidence from our different senses. … When combining this evidence, our brain behaves just like an ideal Bayesian observer. Weak evidence is ignored; strong evidence is emphasised. … But there is another aspect of Bayes’ theorem that is even more important for our understanding of how the brain works. … on the basis of its belief about the world, my brain can predict the pattern of activity that should be detected by my eyes, ears and other senses … So what happens if there is an error in this prediction? These errors are very important because my brain can use them to update its belief about the world and create a better belief … Once this update has occurred, my brain has a new belief about the world and it can repeat the process. It makes another prediction about the patterns of activity that should be detected by my senses. Each time my brain goes round this loop the prediction error will get smaller. Once the error is sufficiently small, my brain “knows” what is out there. And this all happens so rapidly that I have no awareness of this complex process. … my brain never rests from this endless round of prediction and updating.

… our brain is a Bayesian machine that discovers what is in the world by making predictions and searching for the causes of sensations.


Colin Banks

In the same graveyard, beside the Grigsons, lies Colin Banks, son-in-law to Geoffrey Grigson.

Colin Banks

The gravestone is the work of Incisive Letterwork:

Colin Banks bought our dual text slate ‘Inceptis Gravibus’ at our exhibition The Ground Beneath our Feet in 2000. He had apparently had his eye on it since the Spirit of the Letter show at the Crafts Council in 1989.

We first met his wife Caroline when we went to fix the slate on their garden wall in Blackheath, memorably for us, in the pouring rain. We were really honoured to see it there as we had long been admirers of Colin’s typographic work.

After Colin died Caroline contacted us to discuss the possibility of making his headstone. He is buried in the churchyard at Broad Town in Wiltshire next to their daughter Frances whose greenslate headstone had been carved at the Kindersley studio. Caroline wanted a companion stone but not a facsimile. This meant taking into account the proportion of the stone, tall and narrow, and the overall feeling and spirit of the place and Frances’s memorial. When we delivered the stone to the church rain was again bucketing down.

In 2006 Caroline asked us to carve a stone for her mother, Geoffrey Grigson’s first wife Frances, who is buried in the churchyard at Pelynt in Cornwall. Caroline’s grandfather is buried close by and his memorial was carved by Eric Gill. She suggested that we use the same stone, Delabole slate, and the same shaped top to imply the family relationship. Many years previously Colin himself had made a preliminary drawing for this stone. Caroline felt she would like something of its flavour to be expressed here and provided a copy of his original drawing for us to look at. We used his lettering style but made it bolder for carving purposes. The layout was started from scratch. After trying to make the stone look like Gill’s and not succeeding because of the wording, it almost inevitably grew into a tall and narrow memorial. We simplified the top and used a carved line to echo the moulding on the Gill stone. In the end the relationship was there and the stone has a contemporary look rather than being a copy of something from the earlier part of the twentieth century. On seeing the stone in place Caroline wrote to say that Colin would have approved. — Brenda Berman and Annet Stirling: Threads of lettering 

The Independent’s obituary placed Colin Banks in that disciplined tradition of designers, ‘a craftsman schooled in hot metal type’, opposed to ‘quick-fix tactics’, ‘greatly influenced by the traditions of the Arts and Crafts movement, whose principle typographers were stonemasons’: ‘His death does not so much bring down a curtain on an evocative era of well-crafted British graphics but serves to remind us of the continuing relevance of typographic standards and social compassion in design today’.

It was in a printing class at Maidstone that he met his future business partner, John Miles. "We took up typography," recalls Miles, "because we thought we'd make the world a better place. There was a huge amount of idealism in the early 1950s and Colin was very idealistic indeed." … Banks made many trips to India, working with local agencies on schemes for rural sanitation, cooking, schooling and low-cost artificial limb manufacture, always ready for the next challenge, always eager to show how design can be a force for good. He also lectured widely in Eastern Bloc countries before access was easy.’

Three years ago, my neighbour, formerly the printer at Libanus Press, moved to Cornwall and asked me if I’d like to buy a large book (folio) he no longer had room for, London’s Handwriting. The book was the work of Colin Banks (I knew very little about him then), honouring the work of Edward Johnston, and subtitled, ‘The development of Edward Johnston’s Underground Railway Block-Letter’. I still haven’t really digested this monument of a book, very beautiful in itself and the result of such evident attention, passionate knowledge and close observation. I love the simple dignity of Wikipedia’s current opening to Johnston’s entry: ‘Edward Johnston, CBE (11 February 1872 – 26 November 1944) was a British craftsman’ … Johnston would surely have admired the craftsmanship of London’s Handwriting.

The book bears an epigraph from Firmin Didot, ‘the punch-cutter in 1783 of the first true ‘modern’ face Roman type’:

For we must not confine ourselves to perfecting the art in the sphere of luxury … but rather we ought always make it serve the public good.

Colin Banks must have invested so much in London’s Handwriting. For one thing, his love for his subject is so clear: ‘The wider importance of Edward Johnston’s work is based on his single-handed rediscovery of the medieval techniques involved in writing with a broad-nibbed reed pen. … His book Writing & Illuminating, & Lettering (1906) became the vade-mecum for all future letterers and typographers.’

He touched many future designers by a laying-on of hands from generation to generation: we are all his children. This unbroken human chain was all the more important as his philosophy of his work was not collected together and published until 1986, forty-two years after his death. This philosophy is exerting considerable pull on the current revival and interest in crafts and deserves a separate study.

We lingered in the churchyard that afternoon, talking and thinking about what these people have come to mean to us, and about this place.

Towards the Broad Town White Horse