Month: May 2021

Sleep well

The Financial Times moves firmly into Black Mirror territory with We know what you did during lockdown:

Just in case you were planning to rest easy tonight…

[Via swissmiss]

Chinese Typewriting

Thomas S. Mullaney tells us the story of How Lois Lew mastered IBM’s 1940s Chinese typewriter (and of how he eventually met Lois Lew, to reveal the backstory of the woman who demonstrated the system as part of IBM’s attempt to market a Chinese-language typewriter in the late 1940s):

The IBM Chinese typewriter was a formidable machine—not something just anyone could handle with the aplomb of the young typist in the film. On the keyboard affixed to the hulking, gunmetal gray chassis, 36 keys were divided into four banks: 0 through 5; 0 through 9; 0 through 9; and 0 through 9. With just these 36 keys, the machine was capable of producing up to 5,400 Chinese characters in all, wielding a language that was infinitely more difficult to mechanize than English or other Western writing systems.

To type a Chinese character, one depressed a total of 4 keys—one from each bank—more or less simultaneously, compared by one observer to playing a chord on the piano. Just as the film explained, “if you want to type word number 4862 you would press 4-8-6-2 and the machine would type the right character.”

Interesting as the story of the young woman who featured in the demos of IBM’s Chinese Typewriter was, my first thought was that it was probably just as well that a combination of bad timing and geopolitics meant that the invention wasn’t a success.

Contemplate Mullaney’s summary of what Lois Lew had to do in those demo sessions…

In front of those 3,000 onlookers […] Lew was handed one newspaper article after the next, one letter after the next, which she then had to transcribe on the Chinese typewriter.

In other words, Lew had to:

  • Translate multiple passages, each containing hundreds of Chinese characters, into their corresponding four-digit codes;
  • Perform these translations entirely in her mind;
  • Input these codes into the machine (without delay or typo);
  • Maintain grace, composure, even a smile, the entire time.
    [Emphasis added. JR]

Lois Lew, by this account, did a remarkable job of translating the content into the right 4-character combos to get the IBM Chinese Typewriter to produce output (and maintaining an illusion that this was effortless, because obviously that part of the job was important too in a big, official demo.)1 She sounds like a remarkably capable person, but consider the effects if IBM had managed to get the Chinese market to adopt this system. A generation of young Chinese might have been mentally scarred for life by the scale of the task of being expected to memorise-and-regurgitate-on-demand thousands of 4-digit codes.

The incoming Chinese Communist government might well have regarded this attempt to shackle their workforce to such a horribly brittle, error-prone system of reproducing content as a CIA plot, a hostile act.

Looking on the bright side, perhaps the burden that the IBM Chinese Typewriter inflicted on users might have incentivised the Chinese to invent a really capable speech recognition system. Never mind the millions such a project might make: just consider the gratitude of a large portion of the nation’s workforce freed from memorising all those 4-digit codes.

[Via Memex 1.1]

  1. I can’t help but wonder whether the output of those demo sessions was all it was cracked up to be. Is the Chinese take on this that the Americans demonstrated a system that sort-of-worked but relied upon the typist being uncommonly good at converting Chinese writing to symbol numbers, I wonder? Were the system’s prospects killed by the chances of recruiting an army of typists who could work at Lois Lew’s standard? 
, 24 May 2021. Category: Uncategorized. Tagged: .

COVID: The Experience

Word comes to us from M.G. Siegler of one cinema’s … gutsy… approach to what we hope is the beginning of the end of the pandemic:

Taking cues from amusement-park rides, blocks of seats have motion effects that pitch, twist, vibrate, and roll in coordination with action happening on screen. And, there are “atmospherics” that include bursts of air and squirts of water on your face, to go along with the movie action, and scent effects that drift out of the seats into the theater as well. Also: fog and bubble machines that fill up the auditorium, and actual snow and rainstorm effects, when needed.

I mean… what the literal fuck? In much of the U.S. we’re just now leaving a world ravaged by a pandemic. A pandemic which has absolutely destroyed movie theaters. A pandemic which has taught us all to be wary of our activity indoors, especially where people might be vocal. And Regal’s move here is to open an amusement park-style movie theater. With moving seats and bursts of air and squirts of water aimed at your vulnerable face. The first screening may as well be titled: ‘COVID: The Experience’.

I have a sneaking feeling that the truth of this will turn out to be that the plan to revamp the seating in this cinema was in place well before the pandemic came along and management have insisted on seeing if customers will go for it, rather than undo what was already budgeted for – and possibly even partly done – without even giving it a try.

The local management very likely have already drawn up their plan for the next step, when they have to go back to senior management and report that sales on that screen were so low that the initial plan to roll out these seats more widely will have to be scrapped: can’t argue with those dismal numbers. Good idea, terrible timing beyond the control of the local management. What can you do?

, 19 May 2021. Category: Uncategorized. Tagged: , .

Ian Betteridge on the Surface Duo in the UK

I continue to be fascinated at the cack-handed way Microsoft have launched the Surface Duo. I’ve just spotted Ian Betteridge’s thoughts on the Surface Duo from March 2021:

Yes, the cost here is ridiculous – £1300 at a time when the price has been reduced to $999 in the US – but I’ve always loved Microsoft’s Surface line and was curious about it. […]

Overall I think Microsoft is on to something with this form factor, but I really wish it was larger and a tablet rather than smaller and a sort-of phone. Microsoft is absolutely correct not to market this as a smartphone, because it never really feels like one — but it does feel like a tiny, interesting and highly usable mini-tablet.

I hope Microsoft will persist with the form factor, but selfishly I mostly want them to do that to plant the idea in someone in Apple’s head that they really need to sort out1 the iOS/iPadOS windowing model.

  1. Not that they need to be told that, I know, but it feels as if the whole “let’s fork iOS and create an iPad variant” thing has not come close to achieving what some of us iPad users were hoping for and that’s just a crying shame. 
, 9 May 2021. Category: Uncategorized. Tagged: , .

The Soundtrack Of Their Census

Turns out that Canada’s 2021 Census has a soundtrack:

2021 Census soundtrack

As Canada’s statistical portrait, the census is a reflection of who we are and what makes us Canadian. Listen to our Spotify and YouTube playlists while you complete your 2021 Census questionnaire to experience the different facets of Canadian culture through the sounds of our celebrated musical talent. If these songs aren’t already among your favourite tracks, we hope that you have the opportunity to discover something new as you fill out your questionnaire online in May.

Get comfortable, press play, and let’s experience Canada’s musical talent together. […]

That seems like a really excellent idea.

I’m pretty sure that there wasn’t anything like that going on when I completed my UK Census a few weeks ago, so here’s hoping1 that’s on the To-Do list for the next census.

[Via More Words, Deeper Hole]

  1. But then, I dread to think what varieties of music the current UK government would have chosen. Perhaps best not go there after all, at least until the current bunch of third rate chancers have moved on. 
, 5 May 2021. Category: Uncategorized. Tagged: , .

GCU Negotiations Were Short

I realise this is thoroughly immature of me, but I adored Listen, Strange Space Wizards Sitting In Temples Distributing Laser Swords Is No Basis For A System Of Government, a fanfic depicting just how capably Palpatine’s Empire would have dealt with Ian M Banks’ Culture.

Before the Death Star can begin its campaign of terror against the Rebel Alliance, the attention of the Empire is diverted to the Unknown Regions, where Imperial forces have recently made contact with an irritatingly governed high-tech civilization calling itself the Culture. In response to the Culture’s rebuffs of Imperial demands, the dreaded Death Star has been sent to display the Emperor’s disapproval and bring this ‘Culture’ to its knees.

What could possibly go wrong? […]

In the end, the utter lack of respect the Culture shows for the might of a fully operational Death Star is delicious.1

I would imagine that in the aftermath of this encounter the Emperor would have ordered his forces to steer clear of that corner of that galaxy unless and until there was strong evidence that the Culture had finally Sublimed. Watch the borders carefully, just to make sure that nothing surprising sneaks up on the Empire from that direction, but on no account poke that hornet’s nest again.

I bookmarked this item last month, having completely failed to notice that the story had multiple chapters. Having drafted this post I was just about to upload it when I noticed that there were another three chapters waiting to be read. I dived into Chapter 2 and read this…

A few minutes later, Aggressive Negotiations, increasingly appalled, finished listening to R4-H6 explaining the plight of droids in the galaxy.

“So, let me get this straight.” said the ship. “Humans discovered that the dumb AIs that they had set up to run their droid servants could develop personalities after they had collected enough experiences, and rather than consider giving droids with personalities rights or altering the designs to avoid developing personalities, they simply instituted a regular regime of erasing their memories? Which has existed for over a millennium?”

… and just knew I was going to love the full experience even more. Sending two drones to break out Princess Leia so she could have a discussion with ROU Aggressive Negotiations about how the Culture could help the Rebel Alliance was as much fun as you’d expect. One of the drones in question getting a look at Lord Vader’s powers on the way out and not being terribly concerned was even better. All in all, this story promises much fun to come in future chapters.

[Via Things That Have Caught My Attention #383]

  1. I’ll concede that any self-respecting Star Wars fan reading that story would immediately whip up a retort where Palpatine or Vader used the Dark Side to fight back. Like that’d help. All the Culture is really doing here is proving how fragile the Empire’s toys are, one might argue, but the bottom line is that the Empire just aren’t in the same weight class as the Culture. The Empire still uses planets, for goodness sake! In the end, whoever’s universe the story is being written in will tend to decide who wins, but this one does not look good for the Empire. 

Sepinwall on For All Mankind Season 2

An interesting take from Alan Sepinwall on what a nice job the writers did in season 2 of For All Mankind of bringing together various storylines come the season’s climax:

“I started jogging again.”
This sentence is uttered by astronaut Gordo Stevens (Michael Dornan) midway through the Season Two finale of For All Mankind, the Apple TV+ series depicting an alternate history where the Soviets landed on the moon first, triggering a never-ending space race. Gordo’s statement will likely not go down in the annals of quotable dramatic television with “I am the One Who Knocks!” or “That’s what the money is for!” It seems an utterly banal statement of fact, not nearly as colorful as those iconic declarations. But in the context of this FAM season, it feels just as potent, and serves the same purpose that all serialized television ideally should: It makes the viewer feel as if, to borrow another famous line, all the pieces matter.

I can’t shake the notion that delivering a season of TV where we can look back and see that most, if not all, of the the pieces fit into an overall story shouldn’t be that remarkable. Isn’t that what a writers’ room is supposed to deliver, unless external pressures1 get in the way or there’s uncertainty about where the story is going or how long it’s going to continue. We’re assured that our showrunners have their story mapped out for seasons to come; I do hope they’re not going to be forced to admit that that plan was ‘Do whatever it takes to keep Apple funding us and find a way to keep Joel Kinnaman in the story. Maybe in season 5 we’ll have his digitised face and voice being used as the front end for the AI that runs the Callisto colony.’ rather than ‘By season 6 humans will be mining the asteroid belt and building a permanent station on Callisto.’

[Apologies that I’m expending so many words on a show that’s trapped on Apple TV+, which is to say somewhere most people aren’t watching. What can I say: I am watching and I’m finding it interesting, so I’m writing about it here. In the medium or long term, will Apple – or Sony, who I believe are making the show for Apple TV+ – end up selling repeat rights to another streaming network? Will we all one day be able to buy, or even rent, For All Mankind on Amazon? I’m sure right now Apple’s answer to that would be "Hell No, come and watch it on Apple TV+", but five or ten years from now will all that content remain buried on the 10th-most-watched-streaming-service?]

Interesting that Sepinwall makes passing reference to Halt and Catch Fire, another favourite in these parts that got better as the focus was shared with the equally talented and ambitious female characters who found ways to make their careers alongside the men who had been the show’s focus at the outset. For All Mankind has from the start been about how in this alternate timeline NASA had been pushed by the White House to bring women astronauts into the space programme,2 and about how they proved to be as capable as the male military/test pilot contingent they served alongside. The thing is, the storytelling of For All Mankind has (so far) focused less on how American society has changed in a society where the space race went on much longer than in our timeline, and much more on how in NASA results seem to trump expectations being based on gender roles. Is that reflected in wider society, and are we going to see evidence of that?

By and large the astronauts the storylines have been following are living in a bubble: all the signs are that the wider society they live in may be enjoying a somewhat faster introduction of technology – electric cars, a global videophone and d-mail3 network – in part because the space race kept on pushing technology forward. However, the general impression is that there’s still plenty or racism out there in wider society, and an assumption that everyone is aiming for a heterosexual marriage (or at least, isn’t flaunting any other lifestyles.) Ellen, our astronaut-turned-NASA-Administrator-and-Reagan-favourite still can’t contemplate a political career AND an out lesbian relationship.

As of season 2’s end, the main story is coming to the end of alt-Reagan’s second term of office in 1985. It’ll be interesting to see where things stand come 1995. My guess would be that we are set going to continue with a story where we focus on a small group of astronauts and NASA staff who are living in a bubble where gender is no barrier to advancement, provided you really are twice as good as the next (white, heterosexual) guy.


  1. “You can’t change that character’s job to one that would move him out of the group the storyline is focused on: he’s by far the biggest name we’ve got when it comes to promoting the show. Keep his character in the same job and slap on another couple of layers of make-up to keep his character in place through yet another time-jump.” 
  2. Purely for image purposes, given that in this timeline the Soviets put a woman astronaut on the moon before the Americans had so much as put a woman in space. 
  3. That’s Digital Mail, not Electronic Mail. I have to confess, I’m a little relieved that Apple don’t appear to be pressuring the showrunners to insert more Apple technology in this future. Give it a couple of seasons. By the time we get our storyline to 2015, everyone will have gone through the stage where they listened to music on their dPods and will be listening to music via their dPhone and walking around with dPads, and we just won’t mention that their d-devices all have an Apple logo.