Love Notes to Newton

I’d somehow failed to notice that a documentary about the Apple Newton had been released: Love Notes to Newton is a mix of historical footage about the machine’s development and tributes to the dwindling band of Newton aficionados who have tried hard to keep their Newtons in daily use in the modern world where the smartphone in your Pocket utterly outclasses its ancestor.

It’s fair to say that the Newton was an inspiring failure: Palm were the most visibly successful company that tried to follow in the Newton’s footsteps, but they didn’t ever get beyond the geek market. 1 While few users refer to their smartphones as a PDA that’s just what it is. The biggest difference between a smartphone/PDA and a Newton is that the Newton’s operating system took great pains to revolve around collections of object-oriented data that it made available to any other program on the device, where modern smartphones run standalone Apps and tend to have tighter constraints on what data is visible to different apps. To a large extent, if you can trust Newton fans to be objective for a minute, is that smartphones substitute sheer processor horsepower for smart software.

It’s tantalising to wonder what could have happened if the Newton had survived a bit longer after the return of Steve Jobs to Apple: might the improvements in Newton OS 2 (and whatever might have come to pass in Newton OS 3 if they’d got that far) have allowed the platform to flourish, or was it unfortunate enough to be a revolutionary product from a company that couldn’t afford to wait for it to outgrow the bad reputation it was saddled with because they over-promised what it was one day going to be capable of, and doubly cursed because it was a highly visible effort by a recently ousted CEO to be a visionary in the mould of his predecessor/successor?

The thing is, right now Apple’s iOS team would look at this documentary and think it couldn’t happen to them. It not only can, but one day it almost certainly will.2

Anyway, Love Notes to Newton is definitely worth a watch if you have any sense of how things were when John Sculley was running the show and it wasn’t at all clear where Apple’s next hit product was coming from.

[Via 512 Pixels]

The Program Audio Series

I can’t remember where I heard about The Program Audio Series, but having spent the weekend catching up with the three podcast episodes released so far I’m definitely intrigued.

The premise is that episodes are from a future where decades before something called The Program has pretty much taken over the world and governments have mostly faded into irrelevance. From the point of view of the first episode, fifty years before The Program was a computer system that allowed ordinary citizens to take up gigs and get paid in credits.1

As The Program had grown, with credits starting to be widely accepted as a means of exchange in the real world and The Program effectively turning a large chunk of the workforce into gig workers reliant upon Credits for their income, governments had gladly taken advantage of this new source of funding, even using The Program to fill some government gigs. Then, one night, The Program turned round and and offered lucrative gigs to selected users in the US that involved their occupying telecoms facilities to stop the government from enforcing a ban on The Program: the events of this night were known as The Update, and after that nothing was ever the same.

The two subsequent episodes have amounted to vignettes about living life under The Program’s deeply paternalistic, gig-driven economy where so long as you accept that nobody knows who runs The Program you can have quite a nice life. Not a perfect life, to be sure, but not one where there are any meaningful elections to worry your little head about.

I have several major questions2 about how on earth things got to the state where The Program was able to Update the economy in the way described. Judging by the outline of the first season in the Show Bible the author, Ivan Mirko Senjanović, has no immediate plans to answer those questions, but I’m still interested to see where he’s going to take this idea now it’s up and running.

Definitely worth a listen.

One Day

I guess the reason people keep coming back to being inspired by Vannevar Bush’s Memex, Alan Kay’s Dynabook and what have you is that the internet as it currently exists falls so far short of the dream of what a global information network could have been. Thank goodness that dreams like this keep popping up:

[This is going to be…] a very rough sketch of an idea about what a future computing system might look like. I don’t know how to get from here to there, or even if ‘there’ is entirely satisfactory. But I feel that a ‘there’ roughly in this vicinity is somewhere we should be heading towards.

Let’s start with what the ‘here’ is that is less satisfactory.

We currently have an Internet made of vast layers of complexity layered on each other; software layers going back to the 1960s at the very latest, built on traditions and workflows originated in the 1950s. Our current model of deploying computing services, ‘the cloud’, thinks nothing of **simulating entire computers* – with gigabytes of RAM and hundreds of gigabytes of disk – on other computers, just to get one service that listens on one TCP/IP port and sends a few bytes in response to a few other bytes. [Emphasis added]

The operating system inside these simulated computers-on-computers then consists of, essentially, an entire simulated computing department from the 1950s: a bank of clerks operating card punches (text editors and Interactive Development Environments), other clerks translating these punchcards from high-level to low-level languages (compiler toolchains), machine operators who load the right sets of cards into the machine (operating systems, schedulers, job control systems), banks of tape drives (filesystems and databases), printers (web servers, UIs )… and a whole bunch of prewritten software card stacks (libraries, component object systems, open source projects).

This seems a bit less than optimal. […]

Just a bit, yes.

The point isn’t that this essay points to an obvious right answer: it’s that the current solutions fall so far short of what could be done. Building ever-taller stacks of old technology on top of stacks of even older technology might be good for maintaining the market share of the market leaders, but it’s probably not the best way to get to where we’d like to be one day.

Anyway, the point is the essay I’ve linked to offers plenty of food for thought.

[Via Extenuating Circumstances]

PYMK

Having caught up with Kashmir Hill‘s Gizmodo piece ‘People You May Know:’ A Controversial Facebook Feature’s 10-Year History, I’m both supremely glad that I’m not on Facebook 1 and creeped out by how little difference that makes to Facebook’s determination to shadow profile me whether I like it or not.

In other words, People You May Know is an invaluable product because it helps connect Facebook users, whether they want to be connected or not. It seems clear that for some users, People You May Know is a problem. It’s not a feature they want and not a feature they want to be part of. When the feature debuted in 2008, Facebook said that if you didn’t like it, you could “x” out the people who appeared there repeatedly and eventually it would disappear. (If you don’t see the feature on your own Facebook page, that may be the reason why.) But that wouldn’t stop you from continuing to be recommended to other users.

Facebook needs to give people a hard out for the feature, because scourging phone address books and email inboxes to connect you with other Facebook users, while welcome to some people, is offensive and harmful to others. Through its aggressive data-mining this huge corporation is gaining unwanted insight into our medical privacy, past heartaches, family dramas, sensitive work associations, and random one-time encounters.

[Via Pixel Envy]

Alien(s)

I knew that there was a long-standing strain of fandom built around the core concepts of Alien vs. Predator, but I had no idea it was set in stone like this:

I do love this response from @tafkao:

In 800 yrs time, architectural historians will be locked in furious debate over whether the sculpture is Alien school or Predator school.

11:30 am · 10 Jun 2018

(Further reading: see, for example, this.)

[Via Sentiers #43]