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RIP Steve Wilhite

RIP Steve Wilhite, who worked on CompuServe chat for decades and was the lead of the CompuServe team that developed the GIF format, which is still widely used, and which made the World Wide Web a much more colorful and dynamic place by having a format that allowed for animations. Wilhite incorrectly insisted on GIF being pronounced Jif. Wilhite died on March 14, 2022 at the age of 74.


RIP Christopher Alexander

RIP Christopher Alexander, the probably most widely read actual architect in all of computer science. His work, particularly his book "A Pattern Language" was popularized, among others, by the Gang of Four and Design Pattern work, and is frequently read and cited in Future of Programming and UX circles for the idea that everyone should be able to create, but in order to enable them, they need patterns that make creation possible. His work inspired Ward Cunningham when developing wikis and Will Wright when developing that most ungamelike of games, Sim City. Alexander died on March 17, 2022 at the age of 85.


Ante Vrandečić (1919-1944)

I knew that my father was named for his uncle. His other brother told me about him, and he was telling me that he became a prisoner of war and that they lost his trace. Back then, I didn't dare to ask on which side he was fighting, and when I would have dared to ask, it was too late.

Today, thanks to the increasing digitalisation of older sources and their publication on the Web and the Web being indexed, I accidentally stumbled upon a record about him in a three thousand pages long book, Volume 8 of the "Victims of the War 1941-1945" (Žrtve rata 1941-1945).

He was a soldier in the NOV i POJ (Yugoslav partisans), became a prisoner of war, and was killed by Germans during a transport in 1944. I don't know where he was captured, from where to where he was transported, where he was killed.

My father, his namesake, then moved to Germany in the 1970s, where he and my mother built a new life for themselves and their children, and where I was born.

I have a lot of complicated emotions and thoughts.


A quick draft for a curriculum for Computer Science

The other day, on Facebook, I was asking the question who would be the person closest to being a popularizer for ideas in Computer Science to the wider audience, which lead to an interesting and insightful discussion.

Pat Hayes asked what I would consider the five (or so) core concepts of Computer Science. Ernest Davis answer with the following short list (not in any particular order):

  1. Virtual machine
  2. Caching
  3. Algorithm
  4. Data structure
  5. Programming language

And I followed up with this drafty, much longer answer:

  1. how and why computation works; that a computation is a mapping from your problem domain into some machine state, then we have some automatic movement, and the result represents an answer to your question; that it is always layers of interpretation; that it doesn't matter whether the computing machine is made of ICs or of levers, marbles, and gravity (i.e. what is a function); that computation is always real and you can't simulate computation; what can be done with computation and what cannot; computational thinking - this might map to number 1 in Ernest's list
  2. that everything can be represented with zeros and ones, but doesn't have to be; it could also be represented by A and B and Cs, and many other ways; that two states are simply convenient for electric devices; that all information, all data, all input to all computation, and the steps for computations themselves are represented with zeros and ones (i.e. the von Neumann architecture and binary encoding); what can be represented in this paradigm and what cannot - this might map to number 4 in Ernest's list
  3. how are functions encoded; how many different functions can have the same results; how wildly different in efficiency functions can be even when they have the same result; why that makes some things quick to calculate whereas others take a long time; basically smearing ideas from lambda calculus and assembler and building everything from NAND circuits; why this all maps to higher level languages such as JavaScript - this might map to ideas from 2, 3, and 5 on Ernest's list
  4. bringing it back to the devices; where does, physically, the computation happen, where is physically the data stored, and why it matters in terms of privacy, equity, convenience, economics, interdependence, even freedom and independence; what kind of computations and data storage we can expect to have in our mobile phones, in a data center, in an RFID card; how long the turnaround times are in each case; how cryptography works and what kind of guarantees it can provide; why centralization is so alluring and what the price of that might be; and what might be the cost of computation for the environment
  5. given our times, and building on the previous lessons, what is the role of machine learning; how does it actually work, why does it work as good as it does, and why does it not work when it doesn't and where can't it work; what does this have to with "intelligence", if it does; what becomes possible because of these methods, and what it costs; why these methods may reinforce inequities; but also how they might help us with significantly increasing access to better health care for many people are allow computers to have much more intuitive interfaces and thus democratize access to computing resources

I think the intuitions in 1, 2, and maybe 3 are really the core of computer science, and then 4 and 5 provide shortcuts to important questions four ourselves and society that, I think, would be worthwhile for everyone to ponder and have an informed understanding of the situation so that they can meaningfully make relevant decisions.


The Strange Case of Booker T. Washington’s Birthday

A lovely geeky essay about how much work a single edit to Wikipedia can be. I went down this kind of rabbit holes myself more than once, and so I very much enjoyed the essay.


Wordle is good and pure

The nice thing about Wordle - whether you play it or not, whether you like it or not - is that it is one of those good, pure things the Web was made for. A simple Website, without ads, popups, monetization, invasive tracking, etc.

You know, something that can chiefly be done by someone who already has a comfortable life and won't regret not having monetized this. The same way scientists mainly have been "gentleman scientist". Or tenured professors who spent years on writing novels.

And that is why I think that we should have a Universal Basic Income. To unlock that creativity. To allow for ideas from people who are not already well off to see the light. To allow for a larger diversity of people to try more interesting things.

Thank you for coming to my TED talk.

P.S.: on January 31, five days after I wrote this text, Wordle was acquired by the New York Times for an undisclosed seven-digit sum. I think that is awesome for Wardle, the developer of Wordle, and I still think that what I said was true at that time and still mostly is, although I expect the Website now to slowly change to have more tracking, branding, and eventually a paywall.


Meat Loaf

"But it was long ago
And it was far away
Oh God, it seemed so very far
And if life is just a highway
Then the soul is just a car
And objects in the rear view mirror may appear closer than they are."

Bat out of Hell II: Back into Hell was the first album I really listened to, over and over again. Where I translated the songs to better understand them. Paradise by the Dashboard Light is just a fun song. He was in cult classic movies such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Fight Club, and Wayne's World.

Many of the words we should remember him for are by Jim Steinman, who died last year and wrote many of the lyrics that became famous as Meat Loaf's songs. Some of Meat Loaf's own words better not be remembered.

Rock in Peace, Meat Loaf! You have arrived at your destination.


Map of current Wikidata edits

It starts entirely black and then listens to Wikidata edits. Every time an item with a coordinate is edited, a blue dot in the corresponding place is made. So slowly, over time, you get a more and more complete map of Wikidata items.

If you open the developer console, you can get links and names of the items being displayed.

The whole page is less than a hundred lines of JavaScript and HTML, and it runs entirely in the browser. It uses the Wikimedia Stream API and the Wikidata API, and has no code dependencies. Might be fun to take a look if you're so inclined.


White's illusion

I stumbled upon "White's Illusion" and was wondering - was this named after a person called White, or was this named because, well it is an illusion where the colour white plays an important role?

As usual in this case, I started at Wikipedia's article on White's illusion. But Wikipedia didn't answer that question. The references at the bottom also didn't list to anyone named White. So I started guessing it's about the colour.

But wait! Skimming the article there was a mention to "White and White (1985)" - but without any further citation information. So not only one White but two of them!

Google Scholar and Semantic Scholar didn't help me resolving "White and White (1985)" to a proper paper, so I started suspecting that this was a prank that someone entered into the article. I started checking the other references, but they indeed reference papers by White! And with those more complete references I was able to find out that Michael White and Tony White wrote that 1985 paper, that they are both Australian, that Michael White wrote a number of other papers about this illusion and others, and that this is Tony White's only paper.

I added some of the info to the article, but that was a weird ride.


She likes music, but only when the music is loud

Original in German by Herbert Grönemeyer, 1983.

She sits on her windsill all day
Her legs dangling to the music
The noise from her room
drives all the neighbours mad
She is content
smiles merrily

She doesn't know
that snow
without a sound
to the ground

Doesn't notice
the knocking
on the wall

She likes music
but only
when the music is loud
When it hits her stomach
with the sound

She likes music
but only
when the music is loud
When her feet feel
the shaking ground

She then forgets
that she is deaf

The man of her dreams
must play the bass
the tickling in her stomach
drives her crazy

Her mouth seems
to scream
with happiness
her gaze removed
from this world

Her hands don't know
with whom to talk
No one's there
to speak to her

She likes music
but only
when the music is loud
When it hits her stomach
with the sound

She likes music
but only
when the music is loud
When her feet feel
the shaking ground


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