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Word of the year 2015

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Once upon a time, I was an avid reader of slashdot, with its slogan News for Nerds. Stuff that Matters. With the years, the quality of the content has significantly gone down and so did the content, it used to be that you could have a good discussion over there, that time is long gone. Nowadays, I get my technical news from Ars Technica, but I still have my slashdot account, and I still see the headlines in my RSS reader.

It is on slashdot that I found the link to an entry of the Oxford dictionary blog, claiming that the word of the year, was, in fact an emoji. You can argue whenever an emoji is even a word, whatever they are, they are on the rise. What I found most interesting was the fact that slashdot, could not, display that emoji.

There is a certain irony to see a site catering to geeks have such a technical limitation, but I think the problem runs deeper: many computer geeks are scared of Unicode. Unicode is hard, but so are many other things in computer science. Some aspects of the computer geek culture are very normative, and one key aspect of that is the language: english über alles. That notion is so strong it leaks into other geek domains, so I ended up with a group of french speaking role-players being very astonished at the idea that roleplaying could actually be done in French.

I also feel there is a generation gap: the slashdot readership grew up with ASCII as a text encoding, forgetting that there were different previous encoding and that characters used for coding were at some point exotic, the typical example are the curly braces used by the C language, they did not exist in nor in , the encoding of the Commodore 64. This is why many programming languages support digraphs and trigraphsy.

Things change, so-called hyper-operators in Perl 6 use a non-ASCII characters, the so-called french-quotes «». They can be replaced with the digraphs << and >>.

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Pixelated Pac Mac eating a city

Pixels

Pixelated Pac Mac eating a city

Long airplane flight are for me an occasion to catch up some movies, I generally like watching comedies that do not require too much thought, so I decided to watch pixels. While I heard bad critiques, I have a weak spot for 80’s video games. How bad could it be? Very.

I’m actually astonished someone could produce such a bad movie, specially for a high budget production. It is not the case of a producer trying something and failing to make a movie that works. Pixels seems to be designed to be a mediocre film, and even fails at that.

The basic idea is ludicrous: alien saw a movie about video games, take it for a challenge and attack earth. This is actually the most credible part of the plot.

Wreck it Ralf was a good movie about video games, Pixels is not, it is an ersatz romantic comedy which tries to puff itself up with some cultural references. The only thing you will
Learn about 80s video games is that they have patterns and big pixels.

The comedy part suffers from the fact that it is not funny, not once it the movie did I laugh or even chuckle, more than once I cringed. Many of the jokes should just be taken out and shot. The romantic part is slightly worse: all the male characters are complete idiots, the hero (Adam Sandlers) is not believable as a computer game geek for a second. His sidekicks, which include the US president (Kevin James), are worse. The female characters act as trophies, nothing more. I have seen porn movies where they play a more important role, with better dialogue. Q*bert is the most likeable character, the human actors simply cannot compete with an orange, pixellated alien.

In summary, Pixels is the kind of movie, that, if seen by aliens would probably be good enough reason for destroying the US. Beside an academic interest in horrible movies, I see no good reason to watch it.

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IBM 1401 Mainframe computer with accessories

Computer History Museum

IBM 1401 Mainframe computer with accessories

Usually, when I’m Mountain View, I head for some park during the week-end, but I was feeling a bit tired, so instead I went to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. I noticed the place the first time I came to Silicon Valley, 8 years ago, but never took the time to visit it.

The museum is situated north of Highway 101, really close to the Googleplex. The building itself feels more like a repurposed corporate building than an actual museum and the layout is a bit strange. Even on a Saturday afternoon, the museum was not full.

The most impressive feature of the museum is its comprehensiveness: the exhibition goes from the Antikythera mechanism to the iPod, with an impressive collection of mechanical calculators from the late ⅩⅠⅩth and early ⅩⅩth century. This gives a very commercial view of the development, from accounting computer, to punch-card workflows, and the transition to computers.

What I found very interesting is the period after World War ⅠⅠ, with the military computers like Colossus and systems like SAGE. And the myriad of computers that predated the microcomputer revolution, each with its slightly different architecture, different word width.

While the museum is impressive by the richness of its collection, and found the structure and the quality of the explanations lacking. The exhibit is roughly structured historically, with rooms representing different time periods, but the course within a room was not always very clear.

I would really have liked to see more structured and graphical representation of computers, for instance the width / number of words of the various machines on display. I would also have appreciated better explanations on how various systems worked. In that sense, the museum felt more like a large collection of old computers than an actual computer museum.

The big paradox is that this museum felt very low tech: when we visited the Miró exhibit in Barcelona, most pieces had a QR-Code with additional information; no such thing here. There were a few video shown a few interactive displays explaining boolean logic, regular sessions running Space Vars on a PDP/1, and that was it. While I understand that the museum cannot leave machines from the 60’s running, I’m pretty sure they have enough 8 bits microcomputers to have a few of them running some demo in loop.

Generally I felt that the exhibit about the microcomputers was very confused. Things related to the 80s seem to always be confusing, and here the fact that suddenly there was strong competition outside of the US adds to the complexity. 8 and 16 Machines were basically stacked on shelves with labels and little context. A graph showing the number of computers sold would have helped more than the cost in dollars. For that time period, I found the musée Bolo was much better.

The micro-computer area was also the place where the computer graphics and synthesiser exhibit was, which makes sense, this is the era when it booms, there is also the original Utah Teapot. I found that part of the exhibit pretty poor, various historical renderings of the teapot would have helped explain the advances, which often jumped from green vector graphics to full-blown 3D with few explanations. A reference to Lenna would have been nice, if not politically correct.

There was an area with peripheral and networking, with again little context or structure. A bunch of mice, but no mention of Logitech, in fact while there was ample information about US companies, no foreign company, be it Sony or Phillips get any mention. In fact I don’t remember any big display about optical drives.

The exhibit stops around the dot-com crash, although there is an iPod. Palm got a lot of shelf space, and there was a big display about Microsoft with some video featuring Bill Gates, which I skipped as there were a lot of people there. I generally found that the exhibit talked a lot a about the stereotypical entrepreneurs: Thomas J. Watson (IBM), Gordon Moore (Intel), and Seymour Cray, but the exhibit is pretty shy about more problematic personalities like Alan Turing, or just Steve Jobs or Steve Wozniak.

All in all, an awesome exhibit of computing artefact, which would be worthy of a better structured and richer exhibition, still worth the visit if you are in Silicon Valley.

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