The Minitel app store

I’m more familiar with the America-centric history of networked computing, so I’m always fascinated to read about things that were happening in other parts of the world. Jeremy Rossman takes a look at France’s Minitel system and how it provided one of the first app stores.

In the early eighties the French government vaulted its country’s tech industry a decade ahead of the rest of the world by introducing a computer terminal called the Minitel. Rolled out as a beta product in 1980 and launched to the French public in 1983, every household with a landline subscription was eligible for a free Minitel. Its killer launch app was a digital version of the yellow pages — to encourage adoption the government cancelled the production of [the] paper [version].



It’s just meta-data

Tell-all Telephone, just in case you were under the impression that it was fine to collect meta-data without any “personal data”.

Green party politician Malte Spitz sued to have German telecoms giant Deutsche Telekom hand over six months of his phone data. We combined this geolocation data with information relating to his life as a politician, such as Twitter feeds, blog entries and websites, all of which is all freely available on the internet. By pushing the play button, you will set off on a trip through Malte Spitz’s life.


Mariner 1 brought down by hyphen

Mariner 1, a NASA probe, crashed into the ocean not long after takeoff. The cause was a source of confusion for a long time, but seems to have been the result of a missing hypen.

One of the official reports, issued by the Mariner 1 Post-Flight Review Board, concluded that a dropped hyphen in coded computer instructions resulted in incorrect guidance signals being sent to the spacecraft. The review board specifically refers to a “hyphen,” although other sources also refer to an “overbar transcription error” and even to a misplaced decimal point.


The first computer art

First computer art

From Benj Edwards at The Atlantic comes the story of the world’s first computer art.

The pin-up image itself was programmed as a series of short lines, or vectors, encoded on a stack of about 97 Hollerith type punched cards, Tipton recalls. Hollerith punched cards were 7.375 x 3.25 inch paper cards that stored binary data via holes cut through a matrix printed on its surface. Like other 1950s computers, the AN/FSQ-7 used the cards extensively for program input.

Update: Some old computer based artwork.



World’s oldest working digital computer

Harwell Dekatron Witch Computer

The Harwell Dekatron WITCH has been rebuilt and rebooted at The National Museum of Computing in England, making it the world’s oldest working digital computer.

The 2.5 tonne, 1951 computer from Harwell with its 828 flashing Dekatron valves, 480 relays and a bank of paper tape readers will clatter back into action in the presence of two of the original designers, one of its first users and many others who have admired it at different times during its remarkable history.

If you’re a computer geek and get the chance to visit Bletchley Park, make sure you don’t overlook the museum. I had the opportunity to visit a couple years ago — I had no idea it was there, and probably could’ve devoted another day to it.


Designers writing custom code

From Designing Programs by Casey Reas and Chandler McWilliams.

Writing software is something that’s not typically associated with the work of a visual designer, but there’s a growing number of designers who write custom software as a component of their work. Over the last decade, through personal experience, we’ve learned many of the benefits and pitfalls of writing code as a component of a visual arts practice, but our experience doesn’t cover the full spectrum. Custom software is changing typography, photography, and composition and is the foundation for new categories of design practice that includes design for networked media (web browsers, mobile phones, tablets) and interactive installations. Most importantly, designers writing software are pushing design thinking into new areas.

The asked a number of designers the impetus for writing their own software, and how it has impacted their work.


Algorithmic pricing

Michael Eisen found a good example of algorithmic pricing on Amazon which resulted in two booksellers pricing a book on fly genetics at almost $24 million (via yewknee).

On the day we discovered the million dollar prices, the copy offered by bordeebook was 1.270589 times the price of the copy offered by profnath. And now the bordeebook copy was 1.270589 times profnath again. So clearly at least one of the sellers was setting their price algorithmically in response to changes in the other’s price. I continued to watch carefully and the full pattern emerged.

Once a day profnath set their price to be 0.9983 times bordeebook’s price. The prices would remain close for several hours, until bordeebook “noticed” profnath’s change and elevated their price to 1.270589 times profnath’s higher price. The pattern continued perfectly for the next week.

I’m waiting for the algorithmic pricing that messes up in the other direction and nets me a Gutenberg bible for pocket change.


Engelbart’s Chord

At the famed “Mother of All Demos, Douglas Engelbart presented the mouse and keyboard that we know, as well as an input device called a chorded keyboard.

A computer input device that allows the user to enter characters or commands formed by pressing several keys together, like playing a “chord” on a piano. The large number of combinations available from a small number of keys allows text or commands to be entered with one hand, leaving the other hand free.

Ah, it’s similar to playing piano chords, that’s probably why the thing never caught on… raise your hand if you bombed out of piano lessons in spectacular fashion. I’m sure with years of practice on a chorded keyboard, you could become a machine. For now, I’ll stick with my keyboard. It may be inelegant, but so is marching around the apartment naked while banging pots and pans together. Sometimes you just need to make music.

If you want to try a simulation of the device, check out Engelbart’s Chord by Paul Tarjan.