Computing Counterfactuals

In an article on how cold war priorities in the development of computing affected the kinds of games that we now play on our post-cold war computers, [Peter Christiansen offers a series of “counterfactual” scenarios][pp]. E.g., what would computing now look like if, instead of being driven by the need to calculate ICBM missile trajectories, the Jacquard loom had continued to develop? Christiansen has a number of interesting sources:

> In his book _From Sun Tzu to Xbox_, Ed Halter (2006) makes a very convincing argument that many of the conventions in videogames that we take for granted can be traced back to constraints that were placed by many of the early developers of computing technology. As he notes, early computers like the ENIAC , with its stored memory and its binary language of ones and zeros, were created for purposes such as calculating ballistic tables.

Jacquard Loom


iPython’s Abilities

Speaking of iPython, Fernando Perez gave a great talk at a Canadian PyCon in 2012 that outlines the relationship between science and computing. It’s a relationship that the humanities would do well to think about.

I’ve been embedding video regularly, and I thought I would give readers’ bandwidth a bit of a break with a link to [watch on Youtube](

Computer History Museum

I love old product literature from the thirties, forties, fifties, and sixties. It’s partly the modernist design impulse; it’s partly the optimism about the future. Mix in the possibility of computation and you have the [Computer History Museum’s collection of brochures](

Go Big Red (2)

You gotta love a university with a can-do spirit: [Indiana University has a home-built supercomputer][iu] that will do 1 petaflop. One petaflop was the computing sound barrier broken by IBM back in 2008, but there are still relatively few supercomputers capable of processing this much this fast. Why is its “home-built” nature so important? Because it isn’t beholding to any particular funding agency, which means it “will be used by IU, for IU to support IU’s activities in the arts, humanities, and sciences, and to support the economic development of Indiana — without any constraints from an outside funding agency.”

You know, I never realized how great it was to work at a place with a fundamental sense of its mission and that that mission bubbled out of an ethic of always trying to do the right thing until I was no longer at a place that worked that way. Oh, how I miss the Midwest…


The Computer History Museum has a terrific ( in the late seventies, early eighties about computing. Nice work.

April 1 Is Backup Day

April 1 is international backup day, which seems like an odd day to choose. I think it would be better, if also equally unfortunate for those of who live in societies that celebrate April Fools, to mark it as open information, or open access, day. Today is the 200th birthday of Robert Bunsen, famous for his eponymous burner, which he chose not to patent and, in fact, pursued those who tried to patent it for themselves.

In celebration of open information day, I offer up this passage from Benjamin Franklin’s _Autobiography_ which details his refusal to patent the Franklin stove:

In order of time, I should have mentioned before, that having, in 1742, invented an open stove for the better warming of rooms, and at the same time saving fuel, as the fresh air admitted was warmed in entering, I made a present of the model to Mr. Robert Grace, one of my early friends, who, having an iron-furnace, found the casting of the plates for these stoves a profitable thing, as they were growing in demand.

To promote that demand, I wrote and published a pamphlet, entitled “An Account of the new-invented Pennsylvania Fireplaces; wherein their Construction and Manner of Operation is particularly explained; their Advantages above every other Method of warming Rooms demonstrated; and all Objections that have been raised against the Use of them answered and obviated,” etc.

This pamphlet had a good effect. Gov’r. Thomas was so pleas’d with the construction of this stove, as described in it, that he offered to give me a patent for the sole vending of them for a term of years; but I declin’d it from a principle which has ever weighed with me on such occasions, viz., That, as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously.

An ironmonger in London however, assuming a good deal of my pamphlet, and working it up into his own, and making some small changes in the machine, which rather hurt its operation, got a patent for it there, and made, as I was told, a little fortune by it. And this is not the only instance of patents taken out for my inventions by others, tho’ not always with the same success, which I never contested, as having no desire of profiting by patents myself, and hating disputes. The use of these fireplaces in very many houses, both of this and the neighbouring colonies, has been, and is, a great saving of wood to the inhabitants. (From Franklin’s Autobiography.)

And I also note that my colleague Jason Jackson and the team at Open Folklore have exciting news of their own.

Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs

The influential computer-science text _Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs_ by Abelson, Sussman, and Sussman is [available on-line](, along with a range of teaching aids. Go MIT Press!

I am considering using some parts of the text to, at least, introduce the idea of computing, into my seminar surveying the digital humanities. I know I want to focus on some basic tools, including perhaps some exposure to Python, and, yes, there is always John Zelle’s [_Python Programming: An Introduction to Computer Science_]( — which is still available for download in its 2002 incarnation [here]( (careful, that’s a link to a 1.3MB PDF), but it’s nice to have options and to be able to offer students different explanations for the same concepts. (I know I need it when it comes to some aspects of computer science.)

Here is the [table of contents](