Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for March 15th, 2023

50 Years Later, We’re Still Living in the Xerox Alto’s World

leave a comment »

A computer from 1973. The processor, a square box, sits under a desk, with a keyboard, tall screen, and mouse on the desk. A box holding 5 large disks is also on the desk.

David C. Brock writes in IEEE Spectrum:

I’M SITTING IN FRONT of a computer, looking at its graphical user interface with overlapping windows on a high-resolution screen. I interact with the computer by pointing and clicking with a mouse and typing on a keyboard. I’m using a word processor with the core features and functions of Microsoft Word, Google Docs, or LibreOffice’s Writer, along with an email client that could be mistaken for a simplified version of Apple Mail, Microsoft Outlook, or Mozilla Thunderbird. This computer runs other software, written using object-oriented programming, just like the popular programming languages Python, C++, C#, Java, JavaScript, and R. Its networking capabilities can link me to other computers and to high-quality laser printers.

You are probably thinking, “So what? My computer has all that too.” But the computer in front of me is not today’s MacBook, ThinkPad, or Surface computer.

Rather, it’s half-century-old hardware running software of the same vintage, meticulously restored and in operation at the Computer History Museum’s archive center. Despite its age, using it feels so familiar and natural that it’s sometimes difficult to appreciate just how extraordinary, how different it was when it first appeared.

I’m talking about the Xerox Alto, which debuted in the early spring of 1973 at the photocopying giant’s newly established R&D laboratory, the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). The reason it is so uncannily familiar today is simple: We are now living in a world of computing that the Alto created.

The Alto was a wild departure from the computers that preceded it. It was built to tuck under a desk, with its monitor, keyboard, and mouse on top. It was totally interactive, responding directly to its single user. 

In contrast, the dominant mainframe at the time—IBM’s hugely popular System 360, heavily used by big organizations, and the Digital Equipment Corp.’s PDP-10, the darling of computing researchers—were nothing like the Alto. These and the other mainframes and minicomputers of the era were room-size affairs, almost always located somewhere away from the user and almost always under the control of someone else. The many simultaneous users of one such computer shared the system as a common resource. They typically connected to it with a teletypewriter, though the most avant-garde users may have employed simple text-only video terminals.

The people who developed the Alto came to Xerox PARC from universities, industrial labs, and commercial ventures, bringing with them diverse experiences and skills. But these engineers and programmers largely shared the same point of view. They conceived and developed the Alto in a remarkable burst of creativity, used it to develop diverse and pathbreaking software, and then moved out of Xerox, taking their achievements, design knowledge, and experiences into the wider world, where they and others built on the foundation they had established.

The computer, and the office, of the future

Broadly speaking, the PARC researchers set out to explore possible technologies for use in what Xerox had tagged “the office of the future.” They aimed to develop the kind of computing hardware and software that they thought could be both technologically and economically possible, desirable, and, perhaps to a lesser extent, profitable in about 10 to 15 years.

The type of computing they envisioned was . . .

Continue reading. And there’s a video at the link.

Written by Leisureguy

15 March 2023 at 3:45 pm

Humans have improved at Go since AIs became best in the world

leave a comment »

In an earlier post, I argued that AI can clarify contentious propositions through an impartial debate, with an impartial Moderator declaring a winner. This is an example of using AI as a tool to explore a conceptual space.

In New Scientist Andrew Rosebaum describes the outcome of using another AI to explore a different conceptual space: the game of Go/Baduk. He writes:

AIs can beat the world’s best players at the board game Go, but humans are starting to improve too. An analysis of millions of Go moves has found that professional players have been making better and more original game choices since Go-playing AIs overtook humans.

Before 2016, AIs couldn’t beat the world’s best Go players. But this changed with an AI called AlphaGo developed by London-based research firm DeepMind. AlphaGo defeated multiple Go champions, including the then number one ranked human player.

Since then, other AIs have also been developed that are considered “superhuman”. Though they can be used simply as opposition players, they can also help analyse the quality of any given move and so act as a Go coach too.

Minkyu Shin at the City University of Hong Kong and his colleagues decided to investigate whether the introduction of these superhuman Go-playing AIs has led to a marked improvement in human play.

The researchers gathered a data set consisting of 5.8 million move decisions by professional players between 1950 and 2021. They then used a Go-playing AI to help calculate a measure called a “decision quality index”, or DQI, which assesses the quality of a move. They deemed a move “novel” if it had not been previously attempted in combination with the preceding moves.

The analysis found that human players had made significantly better and more novel moves in response to the 2016 advent of superhuman AI. Between 1950 and 2015, the improvement in quality of play was comparatively small, with a median annual DQI oscillating between roughly -0.2 and 0.2.  Whereas after superhuman AI, the DQI leapt upward, with median values above 0.7 from 2018 to 2021. In 2015, 63 per cent of games showed novel strategies, whereas by 2018, that figure had risen to 88 per cent.

Stuart Russell at the University of California, Berkeley, says that . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

15 March 2023 at 3:16 pm

Lo Haiku and the *true* semi-slant

leave a comment »

A stilvertip badger saving brush wil a long black handle next to a tub os shaving soap with a label that shows in the background a hand holding a brush, writing in a vaguely oriental script, the soap's name, "Lo Haiku,," and another hand in the foreground holding back a red curtain. Next is a rectangular glass bottle with a black lid and the same label, filled with a colorless aftershave. In front is a stainless-steel safety razor lying on its side.

Phoenix Artisan’s Lo Haiku is here in the CK-6 formulation, and with my Copper Hat shaving brush, it produced the usual exceptional lather. (“Usual exceptional” sounds very like an oxymoron, but you know what I mean.) 

• Top notes: lavender, bergamot, lemon, rosemary, anise
• Middle notes: geranium, fern, carnation, cinnamon, cedar, heliotrope
• Base notes: oakmoss, vanilla, tonka bean, amber, musk

Parker’s Semi-Slant has, so far as I can see, nothing “semi” about it. It’s a slant, pure and simple, very much like the Goodfellas’ smile Legione Slant — so much so that I thought the latter was just the former rebranded. And those are similar to the iKon Shavecraft X3.

But this slant, an Above the Tie S1, is so barely slanted that I always have to check the bottom of the baseplate to see whether it’s the S1 or the R1. It is a true semi-slant. And while I don’t get much slant action from it, it does deliver a very nice shave, much like the R1.

Three passes delivered a BBS result, and a splash of Lo Haiku aftershave, augmented with a couple of squirts of Grooming Dept’s Aion Hydrating Gel, finished the job. 

The caffeine this morning is Fantastico’s Mexico Malinal Nayarita: “Full-bodied and smooth. Dark chocolate and spicy, with a brown sugar sweetness and a hint of smokiness.”

Written by Leisureguy

15 March 2023 at 10:24 am

Posted in Caffeine, Shaving

The story of Maine’s statehood and what followed

leave a comment »

Heather Cox Richardson has an interesting column today:

Two years ago, in the midst of the pandemic, I whipped off a quick and somewhat flippant letter about why March 15 is a crucially important day in American history. It became one of the most popular things I’ve ever written, so popular that when I was asked to write a book based on these letters, I centered the book around it.

And then, as books have a way of doing, the project changed and this material dropped away. The only piece of the letter that made it into the final version of the book was Owen Lovejoy’s vow never to forget his brother Elijah’s murder at the hands of a proslavery mob.

It’s a shame because there is much of our history and our present, as well as of me, in this story, and so I am taking a relatively quiet night on this date in 2023 to retell it.

But now there is more to add. Exactly three and a half years ago tomorrow, on September 15, 2019, I began to write these Letters from an American. At the time, I was simply answering the questions people on my Facebook page had asked me about the emerging scandal of Trump withholding congressionally approved funds from Ukraine; I had no idea that we were beginning an epic journey together.

It turns out to be a journey deeply rooted in this country’s history, and I often cannot wrap my head around the fact we are quietly making our own history, just as our predecessors did. It is a curious thing to be a historian in this moment: we live in both the past and the present, and I promise you we worry about the future. Above all, though, I am constantly thankful to be on this journey with so many wonderful people who are organizing, as Lincoln’s Republicans did, to change the course of the nation.

Anyway, a little backstory about the flippant tale I told two years ago: the man who taught me to use a chainsaw is real—together we cleared a field gone to alders in summer 1978. An adze is a woodcutting tool. And Hannibal Hamlin is one of the few topics my now-husband and I could find to talk about on our tongue-tied first date.

So, two years ago, I wrote:

By the time most of you will read this it will be March 15, which is too important a day to ignore. As the man who taught me to use a chainsaw said, it is immortalized by Shakespeare’s famous warning: “Cedar! Beware the adze of March!”

He put it that way because the importance of March 15 is, of course, that it is the day in 1820 that Maine, the Pine Tree State, joined the Union.

Maine statehood had national repercussions. The inhabitants of this northern part of Massachusetts had asked for statehood in 1819, but their petition was stopped dead by southerners who refused to permit a free state—one that did not permit enslavement—to enter the Union without a corresponding “slave state.” The explosive growth of the northern states had already given free states control of the House of Representatives, but the South held its own in the Senate, where each state got two votes. The admission of Maine would give the North the advantage, and southerners insisted that Maine’s admission be balanced with the admission of a southern slave state lest those opposed to slavery use their power in the federal government to restrict enslavement in the South.

They demanded the admission of Missouri to counteract Maine’s two “free” Senate votes.

But this “Missouri Compromise” infuriated northerners, especially those who lived in Maine. They swamped Congress with petitions against admitting Missouri as a slave state, resenting that enslavers in the Senate could hold the state of Maine hostage until they got their way. Tempers rose high enough that Thomas Jefferson wrote to Massachusetts—and later Maine—Senator John Holmes that he had for a long time been content with the direction of the country, but that the Missouri question “like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed indeed for the moment, but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence.”

Congress passed the Missouri Compromise, but Jefferson was right to see it as nothing more than a reprieve.

The petition drive that had begun as an effort to keep the admission of Maine from being tied to the admission of Missouri continued as a movement to get Congress to whittle away at enslavement where it could—by, for example, outlawing the sale of enslaved Americans in the nation’s capital—and would become a key point of friction between the North and the South.

There was also another powerful way in which the conditions of the state’s entry into the Union would affect American history. Mainers were angry that their statehood had been tied to the demands of far distant enslavers, and that anger worked its way into the state’s popular culture. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 meant that Maine men, who grew up steeped in that anger, could spread west.

And so they did.

In 1837, Elijah P. Lovejoy, who had moved to Alton, Illinois, from Albion, Maine, to begin a newspaper dedicated to the abolition of human enslavement, was murdered by a pro-slavery mob, who threw his printing press into the Mississippi River.

Elijah Lovejoy’s younger brother, Owen,  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

15 March 2023 at 4:39 am

%d bloggers like this: