How British Codebreakers Built the First Electronic Computer

It was only a matter of time before the folks at Google Cultural Institute wandered down the road in Mountain View to visit the Computer History Museum. Together they’ve taken on a slim little subject, Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing

Unlike the best Cultural Institute exhibits (the fall of the Iron Curtain and the dazzling array of other art and history collections come to mind) this one doesn’t do enough to leverage video to bring the material to life. It’s a breezy little tour from the humble (but effective) abacus to punched cards, magnetic discs and the dawn of miniaturization and networking.




But nothing about how the Internet developed, leading to the Web and, now, the Internet of Everything?

I’ll admit that I learned a few things. I hadn’t heard of the design-forward Cray 1 supercomputer with its round tower (to minimize wire lengths) and bench to discretely hide power supplies. The Xerox Alto came with consumer friendly features including a mouse, email and the capacity to print exactly what was on the screen. The unfortunate acronym for this asset wasWYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get).

I had also never heard about the Utah teapot, a picture of a gleaming white ceramic urn used for 20 years as the benchmark for realistic light, shade and color in computer-generated images.

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More interesting, and up to the Cultural Institute’s standards, is the exhibit built in partnership with the National Museum of Computing in Buckinghamshire, England. It’s a fascinating piece of history, focusing on Hitler’s efforts to encrypt messages during the war and stump the Allied forces. He commissioned construction of a super-sophisticated machine (not Enigma, if you’re thinking of that). The machine was called Lorenz and it took encryption to an entirely new level.

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British linguists and others labored to manually decipher the messages. Attempts to speed the process led to development of Colossus, the world’s first electronic comuter. The project was kept secret by the British government until 1975.

Kate Rix writes about education and digital media. Follow her on Twitter.

New Google-Powered Site Tracks Global Deforestation in ‘Near-Real-Time’

In September we told you about trillions of satellite images of Earth, generated by the Landsat, that are now available to the public.

Now we can share an interactive tool that is using some of those Landsat images to stop illegal deforestation.

With help from Google Earth Engine, the World Resources Institute launched Global Forest Watch, an online forest monitoring and alert system that allows individual computer users to watch forests around the world change in an almost real-time stream of imagery.

Whistle blowers are making powerful use of the Global Forest Watch tool. Using spatial data streams available on the site to observe forest changes in southeastern Peru, a number of users submitted alerts about rapidly escalating deforestation near a gold mine and river valley. In another case, observers submitted an alert about illegal logging in the Republic of the Congo.

Five years ago, NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey lifted protocols that kept Landsat images proprietary. Now, agencies like the World Resources Institute—and even tiny citizen watchdog groups around the world—have access to incredibly rich tools and data. Some of the imagery is hard to interpret. Global Forest Watch developed a number of different data layers for users to apply, making it possible to monitor forest areas for trends or illegal logging. The video at the top of this page gives a good overview of how the site works. This one gives more detail about how to use the maps on the Global Forest Watch site.

Select an area of the world and then select a data set that interests you. Choose to look at terrain, satellite, road, tree height, or composite images of a particular region. Data layers can be layered on top of one another to show trends in forest management. In Indonesia, for example, you can use the FORMA alerts button to see what has already been reported in that area of the humid tropics.

How can you tell if forest change is due to illegal logging? Turn on the Forest Use filters to see which areas are authorized for logging and mining and which are protected. In Indonesia, many areas are designated for oil palm production, but expansion of those crops are often associated with loss of natural forest.

Do your own sleuthing. The site is designed to harness data from government and academic scientists, along with observation from individuals (us). There is even information about companies that are growing oil palm trees, so it’s possible that a diligent user could catch an over-aggressive grower stepping over the forest boundary.

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Kate Rix writes about digital media and education. Follow her on Twitter.

Google’s Music Timeline: A Visualization of 60 Years of Changing Musical Tastes

google music timeline

The state of music has changed radically in recent years. Of course, the largest change that springs to mind is Napster, the program that made collective musical sharing possible and triggered the inexorable decline in record sales in the early 2000s. Business model aside, however, the music industry has also weathered tremendously volatile changes in taste over the past half-century.

To see just how dramatic the changes in musical fashion have been, check out Google’s new Music Timeline, pictured above. This simple, color-coded chart displays the popularity of various genres from 1950 onwards (pre-50s sales data is just too spotty and inconsistent). While jazz record sales held the lion’s share of the market throughout much of the 1950’s, the advent of rock and pop acts such as the Beatles in the 1960s relegated jazz to the minor leagues.

metallica timeline

The timeline also allows you to look at the popularity of various bands throughout the course of their careers. Metallica, the litigious critics of Napster’s file-sharing ways, are an interesting example of the waxing and waning of a particular band’s success. Initial spike of popularity aside, as is clear from the image right above, the band had been relatively successful with each of their studio albums. After the release of their cover album in 1998, entitled Garage Inc., things quickly headed south. Whether it’s because of the Napster debacle of 2000, when the band's lawsuit effectively shut down the company, or a regrettable change of direction, many former fans simply weren't interested anymore.

Before fans come to the defense of whichever bands were slighted by Google’s visualization, a few caveats: the data used to judge relative success is derived from Google Play user libraries. The more users have an album, the more successful it’s deemed by the algorithm. Additionally, if you’re a classical music fan, you’re out of luck. For various logistical reasons, Google decided against its inclusion in the timeline.

For more information about Google’s Music Timeline, click here. For a Michael Hann’s first look review over at The Guardian’s music blog, which discusses the possible skews in the data, head this way.

Ilia Blinderman is a Montreal-based culture and science writer. Follow him at @iliablinderman.

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Google Puts Over 57,000 Works of Art on the Web

dali google art project

In its art preservationist wing, the Cultural Institute, Google houses an enormous digital collection of artwork spanning centuries and continents in what it calls the Art Project. Google’s collection, writes Drue Kataoka at Wired, is part of a “big deal […] it signals a broader, emerging ‘open content’ art movement.” “Besides the Getty,” Kataoka notes, this movement to digitize fine art collections includes efforts by “Los Angeles’ LACMA… as well as D.C.’s National Gallery of Art, the Dallas Museum of Art, Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum, and the Yale University Art Gallery. And Google. Yes, Google.” Google is working hard to defuse this “yes, Google” reaction, posting frequent updates to its collection, already a magnificent phenomenon: “Imagine seeing an image of the Fall of the Rebel Angels by Pieter Breuegel the Elder," writes Kataoka, "or Vincent van Gogh’s Irises, in high resolution.” Now, you can, thanks to Google's astonishingly vast digital archive.

In the Art Project, you can stroll on over to Portugal's Museu do Caramulo, for example, which Google describes as "an unusual museum in a small town" off the beaten path. There, you can see this macabre 1947 Picasso still life or this 1954 Salvador Dali portrait of a Roman horseman in Iberia (above). Then head over to the other side of the world, where the Adachi Museum of Art in Japan contains 165,000 square meters of Japanese garden: "The Dry Landscape Garden, The White Gravel and Pine Garden, the Moss Garden, and The Pond Garden." It also features gorgeous paintings like Yokoyama Taikan's 1931 Autumn Leaves and Hishida Shunso's adorable 1906 Cat and Plum Blossoms. Dozens of smaller collections like these sit comfortably alongside such extensive and well-known collections as New York's MoMA and Metropolitan Museum of Art and Florence's Uffizi. See a tiny sampler of the Art Project in the video teaser above.

BrazilTrompe

Google's collection has greatly expanded since its comparatively modest 2011 roll-out. The company signed partnership agreements with 151 institutions in 2012 and the Art Project has grown since then to include over 57,000 digital representations of famous and not-so-famous works of art. Most recently, it has added work to the online collections of 34 different partner institutions. Google's announcement on its official blog takes a themed approach, presenting versions of several trompe l’oeil (“fool the eye”) works that have just joined the Art Project. Trompe l'oeil is a gimmick as old as antiquity, and Google gives us several examples, beginning with the stylish, understated Brazilian train station mural right above by Adriana Varejao. Below, see the ceiling of Italy’s National Archaeological Museum of Ferrara, a much more classical (or Baroque) approach to trompe l’oeil that displays some typical elements of the period, including elaborate geometric designs, lots of gold, and well-dressed figures staring down at viewers or floating off into the heavens. See more trompe l’oeil works on Google’s blog, and access their full digital collection here.

FerraraTrompe

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Free: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim Offer 474 Free Art Books Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Google’s Moving Ad About 1947 Partition of India & Pakistan Tops 10 Million Views

Recently, Wired writer Steve Silberman (aka @stevesilberman) shot us a note on Twitter, saying, "@openculture, do not miss this brilliant ad. Most touching movie (in 3 mins!) I've seen in years." Released on November 13th, the video has already clocked over 10 million views. But chances are you haven't seen it. And that's because it's targeted to the web-enabled middle class of India and Pakistan. As The Dawn, Pakistan's oldest English newspaper, describes it, the Google-created ad entitled "Reunion" "portrays two childhood friends, now elderly men, who haven't seen each other since they were separated by the 1947 partition that created India and Pakistan from the old British empire in South Asia. Partition sparked a mass exodus as millions of Muslims and Hindus fled across the new borders amid religious violence." Now Google search products are helping to bring old friends and neighbors back together.

Cynics may be quick to judge this a saccharine, manipulative ad. But others are seeing in it something else -- a sign that "personal connections between Indians and Pakistanis run deep." Even if their governments gain something from keeping the conflict alive, everyday people in India and Pakistan are increasingly ready to put history aside.

Note: If you click CC at the bottom of the video, you can use captions to translate the film into nine languages, including French, Malayalam and Urdu. It is preset to English.

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Trace Darwin’s Footsteps with Google’s New Virtual Tour of the Galapagos Islands

As famously studied as they are, the 18 Galapagos Islands haven’t been well mapped. And research in the Galapagos, situated more than 500 miles west of Ecuador, is expensive and difficult. Maybe that’s part of the islands’ allure—that and the stunning biodiversity.

In partnership with the Charles Darwin Foundation and Galapagos National Park, Google sent a team armed with Street View Trekker cameras to create an entirely new 360 degree Street View experience that makes three major islands, a fragile tortoise breeding area and coastal areas, available to visitors located anywhere with an Internet connection.

Darwin made his first expedition to the islands 178 years ago. This might have been his first view of San Cristobal Island.

GalapagosApproach

After exploring San Cristobal’s rocky coast, Google trekkers made their way to Galapaguera, a giant tortoise breeding center, where they saw newly hatched babies and adults munching on leaves and stalks.

Off the coast of Floreana Island, trekkers went underwater and caught images of seals playing in the water. They also shot images inside the Charles Darwin Research Station’s vertebrate, invertebrate and plant collections.

Google does a good job of documenting its own process. Trekkers traveled to Galapagos in May and spent 10 days hiking, boating, and diving. It’s fun to watch them climb and scoot around the islands loaded with a geodesic camera backpack.

Scientists get really excited when they find new tools to do their work. And why shouldn’t they? These islands are amazing and are home to so many unique species, like the Marine Iguana. We landlubbers may not get there anytime soon, but this is the next best thing.

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Kate Rix writes about education and digital media. Follow her on Twitter.

Google & edX to Create MOOC.Org: An Open Source Platform For Creating Your Own MOOC

mooc org

Almost exactly a year ago, we told you about Google's release of Course Builder, an open source platform that would let you build your own online courses/MOOCs for free. This week, Google has a new announcement: it's joining forces with edX, (the MOOC provider led by Harvard and MIT), to work on a new open source platform called MOOC.org. The new service will go live in the first half of 2014. And it will allow “any academic institution, business and individual to create and host online courses." This will give innovative educators the opportunity to put a MOOC online without necessarily making a steep investment in a course. (When added all up, the costs can otherwise be enormous.) If MOOC.org sounds of interest to you, you can put your name on a waiting list, and they'll contact you when the service launches next year.

Meanwhile, let me mention that 125 MOOCs will be launching between now and the end of October. To see a full list, visit or our collection of 625 MOOCs/Certificate Courses from Great Universities. You'll find many interesting titles on the list -- History of Chinese Architecture: Part 1Søren Kierkegaard – Subjectivity, Irony and the Crisis of Modernity; Dark Matter in Galaxies: The Last Mystery, and Exploring Engineering, just to name a few. If you have questions about what MOOCs are all about, please see our new MOOC FAQ.

via The Chronicle of Higher Ed

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