Discovered: The User Manual for the Oldest Surviving Computer in the World

Image by Clemens Pfeiffer via Wikimedia Commons

The first computer I ever sat before, the 1983 Apple IIe, had a manual the size of a textbook, which included a primer on programming languages and a chapter entitled “Getting Down to Business and Pleasure.” By “pleasure,” Apple mostly meant “electronic worksheets,” “word processors,” and “database management.” (They hadn’t fully established themselves as the fun one yet.) Getting these programs running took real effort and patience, especially compared to the MacBook Air on which I’m typing now.

All those old tedious processes are automated, and no more do we need manuals—we’ve got the internet, which also happens to be the only way I could operate an Apple IIe, whether that means tracking down a manual on eBay or finding a scanned copy somewhere online. Luckily, for vintage Apple enthusiasts, this isn’t difficult, and someone with rudimentary knowledge of Apple DOS could muddle through without one.

When we go further back into computer history, we find machines that became incomprehensible over time without their operating instructions. Such was the case with the Zuse Z4, “considered the oldest preserved digital computer in the world,” notes Vice. “The Z4 is one of those machines that takes up a whole room, runs on magnetic tapes, and needs multiple people to operate. Today it sits in the Deutsches Museum in Munich, unused. Until now, historians and curators only had a limited knowledge of its secrets because the manual was lost long ago.”




The computer’s inventor, Konrad Zuse, first began building it for the Nazis in 1942, then refused its use in the VI and V2 rocket program. Instead, he fled to a small town in Bavaria and stowed the computer in a barn until the end of the war. It wouldn’t see operation until 1950. The Z4 proved to be “a very reliable and impressive computer for its time,” Sarah Felice writes. “With its large instruction set it was able to calculate complicated scientific programs and was able to work during the night without supervision, which was unheard of for this time.”

These qualities made the Zuse Z4 particularly useful to the Institute of Applied Mathematics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), where the computer performed advanced calculations for Swiss engineers in the early 50s. “Around 100 jobs were carried out with the Z4 between 1950 and 1955,” writes Herbert Bruderer, retired ETH lecturer. “These included calculations on the trajectory of rockets… on aircraft wings…” and “on flutter vibrations,” an operation requiring “800 hours machine time.”

René Boesch, one of the airplane researchers working on the Z4 in the 50s kept a copy of the manual among his papers, and it was there that his daughter, Evelyn Boesch, also an ETH researcher, discovered it. (View it online here.) Bruderer tells the full story of the computer’s development, operation, and the rediscovery of its only known copy of operating instructions here.

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

How to Manage Your Time More Effectively: The Science of Applying Computer Algorithms to Our Everyday Lives

Who among us hasn’t wished to be as efficient as a computer? While computers seem to do everything at once, we either flit or plod from task to task, often getting sidetracked or even lost. At this point most have relinquished the dream of true “multitasking,” which turns out to lie not only beyond the reach of humans but, technically speaking, beyond the reach of computers as well. “Done right, computers move so fluidly between their various responsibilities, they give the illusion of doing everything simultaneously,” says the narrator of the animated TED-Ed lesson above. But in reality, even they do one thing at a time; what, then, can we humans learn from how they’re programmed to prioritize and switch between their many tasks?

A computer operating system has an element called a “scheduler,” which “tells the CPU how long to work on each task before switching.” Schedulers work quite well these days, but “even computers get overwhelmed sometimes.” This used to happen to the open-source operating system Linux, which “would rank every single one of its tasks in order of importance, and sometimes spent more time ranking tasks than doing them. The programmers’ counterintuitive solution was to replace this full ranking with a limited number of priority ‘buckets,'” replacing a precise priority ordering with a broader low-medium-high kind of grouping. This turned out to be a great improvement: “The system was less precise about what to do next, but more than made up for it by spending more time making progress.”

The lesson for those of us who habitually list and prioritize our tasks is obvious: “All the time you spend prioritizing your work is time you aren’t spending doing it,” and “giving up on doing things in the perfect order may be the key to getting them done.” In the case of e-mail, bane of many a 21st-century existence, “Insisting on always doing the very most important thing first could lead to a meltdown. Waking up to an inbox three times fuller than normal could take nine times longer to clear.




You’d be better off replying in chronological order, or even at random.” Robert Pirsig memorably articulated this in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, whose main character offers advice to his son frustrated by the task of writing a letter home from their road trip:

I tell him getting stuck is the commonest trouble of all. Usually, I say, your mind gets stuck when you’re trying to do too many things at once. What you have to do is try not to force words to come. That just gets you more stuck. What you have to do now is separate out the things and do them one at a time. You’re trying to think of what to say and what to say first at the same time and that’s too hard. So separate them out. Just make a list of all the things you want to say in any old order. Then later we’ll figure out the right order.

We don’t write many letters home these days, of course, and even e-mail may no longer pose the direst threat to our time management. More of us blame our lack of productivity on the interruptions of instant messaging in all its forms, from texting to social media, another problem with an equivalent in computing. That a computer can be interrupted by any number of the processes it runs necessitated the development of a procedure called “interrupt coalescing,” according to which, “rather than dealing with things as they come up,” the system “groups these interruptions together based on how long they can afford to wait.” Even if we can’t eliminate interruptions in our lives, we can group them: “If no notification or e-mail requires a response more urgently than once an hour, say, then that’s exactly how often you should check them — no more.”

This TED-Ed lesson comes adapted from Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths’ book Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions. If you’d like to hear about more of the ways in which they apply computers’ methods of decision making to areas of human life — home-buying, gambling, dating — you can also watch their talk at Google. We also have plenty of supplementary time management-related material here in the Open Culture archives, on everything from the neuroscience of procrastination to the daily routines of philosophers, writers and other creative people to tips for reading more books per year to the presidentially-approved “Eisenhower Matrix.” By all means, click on all these links; just don’t overthink the order in which to do it.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Revisit Scenes of Daily Life in Amsterdam in 1922, with Historic Footage Enhanced by Artificial Intelligence

Welkom in Amsterdam… 1922.

Neural network artist Denis Shiryaev describes himself as “an artistic machine-learning person with a soul.”

For the last six months, he’s been applying himself to re-rendering documentary footage of city life—Belle Epoque ParisTokyo at the start of the the Taishō era, and New York City in 1911—the year of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.

It’s possible you’ve seen the footage before, but never so alive in feel. Shiryaev’s renderings trick modern eyes with artificial intelligence, boosting the original frames-per-second rate and resolution, stabilizing and adding color—not necessarily historically accurate.




The herky-jerky bustling quality of the black-and-white originals is transformed into something fuller and more fluid, making the human subjects seem… well, more human.

This Trip Through the Streets of Amsterdam is truly a blast from the past… the antithesis of the social distancing we must currently practice.

Merry citizens jostle shoulder to shoulder, unmasked, snacking, dancing, arms slung around each other… unabashedly curious about the hand-cranked camera turned on them as they go about their business.

A group of women visiting outside a shop laugh and scatter—clearly they weren’t expecting to be filmed in their aprons.

Young boys looking to steal the show push their way to the front, cutting capers and throwing mock punches.

Sorry, lads, the award for Most Memorable Performance by a Juvenile goes to the small fellow at the 4:10 mark. He’s not hamming it up at all, merely taking a quick puff of his cigarette while running alongside a crowd of men on bikes, determined to keep pace with the camera person.

Numerous YouTube viewers have observed with some wonder that all the people who appear, with the distant exception of a baby or two at the end, would be in the grave by now.

They do seem so alive.

Modern eyes should also take note of the absences: no cars, no plastic, no cell phones…

And, of course, everyone is white. The Netherlands’ population would not diversify racially for another couple of decades, beginning with immigrants from Indonesia after WWII and Surinam in the 50s.

With regard to that, please be forewarned that not all of the YouTube comments have to do with cheeky little boys and babies who would be pushing 100…

The footage is taken from the archival collection of the EYE filmmuseum in Amsterdam, with ambient sound by Guy Jones.

See more of Denis Shiryaev’s  upscaled vintage footage in the links below.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watch a Mesmerizing Stream of Unwatched YouTube Videos: Astronaut.io Lets You Discover the Hidden Dimensions of the World’s Largest Video Platform

When times are hard, it often helps to zoom out for a moment—in search of a wider perspective, historical context, the forest full of trees…

Astronaut.io, an algorithmic YouTube-based project by Andrew Wong and James Thompson, offers a big picture that’s as restorative as it is odd:

Today, you are an Astronaut. You are floating in inner space 100 miles above the surface of Earth. You peer through your window and this is what you see.

If the stars look very different today, it’s because they’re human, though not the kind who are prone to attracting the paparazzi. Rather, Astronaut is populated by ordinary citizens, with occasional appearances by pets, wildlife, video game characters, and houses, both interior and exterior.

Launch Astronaut, and you will be bearing passive witness to a parade of uneventful, untitled home video excerpts.

The experience is the opposite of earthshaking.

And that is by design.

As Wong told Wired’s Liz Stinson:

There’s this metaphor of being on a train …you see things out the window and think, ‘Oh what is that?’ but it’s too late, it’s already gone by. Not letting someone go too deep is pretty important.

After some trial and error on Twitter, where video content rarely favors the restful, Wong and Thompson realized that the sort of material they sought resided on YouTube. Perhaps it’s been reflexively dumped by users with no particular passion for what they’ve recorded. Or the account is a new one, its owner just beginning to figure out how to post content.

The videos on any given Astronaut journey earn their place by virtue of generic, camera-assigned file names (IMG 0034, MOV 0005, DSC 0165…), zero views, and an upload within the last week.

The overall effect is one of mesmerizing, unremarkable life going on whether it’s observed or not.

Children perform in their living room

A woman assembles a bride’s bouquet

A kitten bats a toy

A pre-fab home is moved into place

The vision is heartwarmingly global.

Astronaut is anti-star, but there are some frequent sightings, owing to the number of nameless inconsequential videos any one user uploads.

This week a Vietnamese fashionista, a karaoke space in Argentina, and a boxing ring in Montreal make multiple appearances, as do some very tired looking teachers.

The effect is most soothing when you allow it to wash over you unimpeded, but there is a red button below the frame, if you feel compelled to linger within a certain scene.

(You can also click on whatever passes for the video’s title in the upper left corner to open it on YouTube, from whence you might be able to suss out a bit more information.)

A very young Super Mario fan has apparently colonized a parent’s account for his narrated gaming videos.

Halfway around the world, a formally dressed man sits behind a desk prior to his first-ever upload.

Some gifted dancers fail to rotate prior to uploading.

A recently acquired night vision wildlife cam has already captured a number of coyotes.

And everyone who comes through the door of a Chinese household adores the happy baby within.

It’s unclear if the algorithm will alight on any cell phone footage documenting the shocking scenes at recent protests sparked by the death of George Floyd. Perhaps not, given the urgency to share such videos, titling them to clue viewers in to the what, who, where, when, and why.

For now Astronaut appears to be the same floaty trip Jake Swearingen described in a 2017 article for New York Magazine:

The internet is a place that often rewards the shocking, the sad, the rage-inducing — or the nakedly ambitious and attention-seeking. A morning of watching Astronaut.io is an antidote to all that.

Begin your explorations with Astronaut here.

h/t to reader Tom Hedrick

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Every day since March 15, she has uploaded a set of 10 micrhvisions of socially distanced New York City. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Seven Road-Tested Habits of Effective Artists

Fifteen years ago, a young construction worker named Andrew Price went in search of free 3d software to help him achieve his goal of rendering a 3D car.

He stumbled onto Blender, a just-the-ticket open source software that helps users with every aspect of 3D creation—modeling, rigging, animation, simulation, rendering, compositing, and motion tracking.

Price describes his early learning style as “playing it by ear,” sampling tutorials, some of which he couldn’t be bothered to complete.




Desire for freelance gigs led him to forge a new identity, that of a Blender Guru, whose tutorials, podcasts, and articles would help other new users get the hang of the software.

But it wasn’t declaring himself an expert that ultimately improved his artistic skills. It was holding his own feet over the fire by placing a bet with his younger cousin, who stood to gain $1000 if Price failed to rack up 1,000 “likes” by posting 2D drawings to ArtStation within a 6-month period.

(If he succeeded—which he did, 3 days before his self-imposed deadline—his cousin owed him nothing. Loss aversion proved to be a more powerful motivator than any carrot on a stick…)

In order to snag the requisite likes, Price found that he needed to revise some habits and commit to a more robust daily practice, a journey he detailed in a presentation at the 2016 Blender Conference.

Price confesses that the challenge taught him much about drawing and painting, but even more about having an effective artistic practice. His seven rules apply to any number of creative forms:

 

Andrew Price’s Rules for an Effective Artist Practice:

  1. Practice Daily

A number of prolific artists have subscribed to this belief over the years, including novelist (and mother!) JK Rowling, comedian Jerry Seinfeld, autobiographical performer Mike Birbligia, and memoirist David Sedaris.

If you feel too fried to uphold your end of the bargain, pretend to go easy on yourself with a little trick Price picked up from music producer Rick Rubin: Do the absolute minimum. You’ll likely find that performing the minimum positions you to do much more than that. Your resistance is not so much to the doing as it is to the embarking.

  1. Quantity over Perfectionism Masquerading as Quality

This harkens back to Rule Number One. Who are we to say which of our works will be judged worthy. Just keep putting it out there—remember it’s all practice, and law of averages favors those whose output is, like Picasso’s, prodigious. Don’t stand in the way of progress by splitting a single work’s endless hairs.

  1. Steal Without Ripping Off

Immerse yourself in the creative brilliance of those you admire. Then profit off your own improved efforts, a practice advocated by the likes of musician David Bowie, computer visionary Steve Jobs, and artist/social commentator Banksy.

  1. Educate Yourself

As a stand-alone, that old chestnut about practice making perfect is not sufficient to the task. Whether you seek out online tutorials, as Price did, enroll in a class, or designate a mentor, a conscientious commitment to study your craft will help you to better master it.

  1. Give yourself a break

Banging your head against the wall is not good for your brain. Price celebrates author Stephen King’s practice of giving the first draft of a new novel six weeks to marinate. Your break may be shorter. Three days may be ample to juice you up creatively. Just make sure it’s in your calendar to get back to it.

  1. Seek Feedback

Filmmaker Taika Waititirapper Kanye Westand the big gorillas at Pixar are not threatened by others’ opinions. Seek them out. You may learn something.

  1. Create What You Want To

Passion projects are the key to creative longevity and pleasurable process. Don’t cater to a fickle public, or the shifting sands of fashion. Pursue the sorts of things that interest you.

Implicit in Price’s seven commandments is the notion that something may have to budge—your nightly cocktails, the number of hours spent on social media, that extra half hour in bed after the alarm goes off… Don’t neglect your familial or civic obligations, but neither should you shortchange your art. Life’s too short.

Read the transcript of Andrew Price’s Blender Conference presentation here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, December 9 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain celebrates Dennison’s Christmas Book (1921). Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How Margaret Hamilton Wrote the Computer Code That Helped Save the Apollo Moon Landing Mission

From a distance of half a century, we look back on the moon landing as a thoroughly analog affair, an old-school engineering project of the kind seldom even proposed anymore in this digital age. But the Apollo 11 mission could never have happened without computers and the people who program them, a fact that has become better-known in recent years thanks to public interest in the work of Margaret Hamilton, director of the Software Engineering Division of MIT’s Instrumentation Laboratory when it developed on-board flight software for NASA‘s Apollo space program. You can learn more about Hamilton, whom we’ve previously featured here on Open Culture, from the short MAKERS profile video above.

Today we consider software engineering a perfectly viable field, but back in the mid-1960s, when Hamilton first joined the Apollo project, it didn’t even have a name. “I came up with the term ‘software engineering,’ and it was considered a joke,” says Hamilton, who remembers her colleagues making remarks like, “What, software is engineering?”




But her own experience went some way toward proving that working in code had become as important as working in steel. Only by watching her young daughter play at the same controls the astronauts would later use did she realize that just one human error could potentially bring the mission into ruin — and that she could minimize the possibility by taking it into account when designing its software. Hamilton’s proposal met with resistance, NASA’s official line at the time being that “astronauts are trained never to make a mistake.”

But Hamilton persisted, prevailed, and was vindicated during the moon landing itself, when an astronaut did make a mistake, one that caused an overloading of the flight computer. The whole landing might have been aborted if not for Hamilton’s foresight in implementing an “asynchronous executive” function capable, in the event of an overload, of setting less important tasks aside and prioritizing more important ones. “The software worked just the way it should have,” Hamilton says in the Christie’s video on the incident above, describing what she felt afterward as “a combination of excitement and relief.” Engineers of software, hardware, and everything else know that feeling when they see a complicated project work — but surely few know it as well as Hamilton and her Apollo collaborators do.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Pioneering Computer Scientist Grace Hopper Shows Us How to Visualize a Nanosecond (1983)

Human imagination seems seriously limited when faced with the cosmic scope of time and space. We can imagine, through stop-motion animation and CGI, what it might be like to walk the earth with creatures the size of office buildings. But how to wrap our heads around the fact that they lived hundreds of millions of years ago, on a planet some four and a half billion years old? We trust the science, but can’t rely on intuition alone to guide us to such mind-boggling knowledge.

At the other end of the scale, events measured in nanoseconds, or billionths of a second, seem inconceivable, even to someone as smart as Grace Hopper, the Navy mathematician who invented COBOL and helped built the first computer. Or so she says in the 1983 video clip above from one of her many lectures in her role as a guest lecturer at universities, museums, military bodies, and corporations.




When she first heard of “circuits that acted in nanoseconds,” she says, “billionths of a second… Well, I didn’t know what a billion was…. And if you don’t know what a billion is, how on earth do you know what a billionth is? Finally, one morning in total desperation, I called over the engineering building, and I said, ‘Please cut off a nanosecond and send it to me.” What she asked for, she explains, and shows the class, was a piece of wire representing the distance a signal could travel in a nanosecond.

Now of course it wouldn’t really be through wire — it’d be out in space, the velocity of light. So if we start with a velocity of light and use your friendly computer, you’ll discover that a nanosecond is 11.8 inches long, the maximum limiting distance that electricity can travel in a billionth of a second.

Follow the rest of her explanation, with wire props, and see if you can better understand a measure of time beyond the reaches of conscious experience. The explanation was immediately successful when she began using it in the late 1960s “to demonstrate how designing smaller components would produce faster computers,” writes the National Museum of American History. The bundle of wires below, each about 30cm (11.8 inches) long, comes from a lecture Hopper gave museum docents in March 1985.

Photo via the National Museum of American History

Like the age of the dinosaurs, the nanosecond may only represent a small fraction of the incomprehensibly small units of time scientists are eventually able to measure—and computer scientists able to access. “Later,” notes the NMAH, “as components shrank and computer speeds increased, Hopper used grains of pepper to represent the distance electricity traveled in a picosecond, one trillionth of a second.”

At this point, the map becomes no more revealing than the unknown territory, invisible to the naked eye, inconceivable but through wild leaps of imagination. But if anyone could explain the increasingly inexplicable in terms most anyone could understand, it was the brilliant but down-to-earth Hopper.

via Kottke

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

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