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Our July 6th “Weekend tech diversions” : a guy who really was a visionary, our favorite Sci-Fi writer gets an asteroid … plus some cool data visualization

July 6th, 2013 |  Published in Weekend tech diversions

Doug Englebart 1


The  following are the three lead stories from our several versions of this weekend’s technology compendiums:

1.  The word “visionary” is overused, but it really applied to this man

My own view of visionaries is that they are idealists: they form a picture of what they want the world to be in the future, and then strive to make it happen. Steve Jobs certainly talked that way, and moved that way. He revolutionized many different technological and entertainment industries by successfully blending technology and the liberal arts, giving consumers products they didn’t even know they wanted.

Douglas Engelbart (pictured above) who died this past week was equally a visionary. Back when computers were still just number-crunching machines, Engelbart foresaw their more powerful application in helping humans collaborate. He was instrumental in the development of hypertext, networked computers, and precursors to graphical user interfaces. Eric had the opportunity to meet him some years ago at an event at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA and his impression of him was similar to so many others who had met him … a very humble guy.

Because he is credited with inventing the computer mouse, the media has been focused on that and it seems to be the lead in every story about him this week.

But don’t dwell on that. That is minor. What really got Engelbart to light up was the idea that computing could elevate mankind by making it possible for people to collaborate from afar. He had articulated this vision since the 1950s and built key technologies for collaboration in the 1960s. Later he saw these ideas become tangible for everyday people with the advent of the Internet and the World Wide Web. To him, the mouse was “just one small tool”. In a single stroke he had what might be safely called a complete vision of the information age. People who knew him called it “his epiphany: a large computer screen full of different symbols which would serve as a display for a workstation that would organize all the information and communications for a given project. It was his great insight that progress in science and engineering could be greatly accelerated if researchers, working in small groups, shared computing power. He called the approach “bootstrapping” and believed it would raise what he called their “collective I.Q.” He established an experimental research group at Stanford Research Institute (later renamed SRI and then SRI International). The unit, the Augmentation Research Center, known as ARC, had the financial backing of the Air Force, NASA and the Advanced Research Projects Agency, an arm of the Defense Department, the latter which would become DARPA.

He was inspired by another visionary of whom I have quoted very often in numerous previous posts, a guy from the dawn of the computer age: Vannevar Bush, the physicist who … among scores of other things … invented the idea of hypertext, laid the foundations of digital circuit design theory, and founded the company now known as Raytheon.  Oh, and he became, in effect, the first presidential science advisor and initiated the Manhattan Project.

If you want to get a real sense of Engelbart read Howard Rheingold piece Tools for Thought from April 2000 (click here) and Billy Joy’s piece from a 2005 issue of the MIT Technology Review entitled The Dream of a Lifetime: Doug Engelbart and augmenting human intellect (click here).

And we’ll leave you with this famous video in which a masterly and cool Engelbart “blows the mind of everyone” (as most attendees reported) at a 1968 technology conference by introducing hypertext and a networked/interactive computing system, all controlled by a mouse and keyboard, with the computer display projected onto a 22-foot-high video screen behind him. In little more than an hour, he showed how a networked, interactive computing system would allow information to be shared rapidly among collaborating scientists. He demonstrated how a mouse, which he invented just four years earlier, could be used to control a computer. He demonstrated text editing, video conferencing, hypertext and windowing. and other elements of computing all at once. It was this video that spawned the famous phrase “mother of all demos” which Jobs himself often used. It is long video … about 1 hour and 40 minutes … but a delight:



2. Our favorite Sci-Fi writer gets an asteroid

Iain Banks is the Scottish author who wrote literary fiction under the name Iain Banks as well as Iain M. Banks which caused the book editor of The Telegraph to name him “two of our finest writers”. He was introduced to me a number of years ago by a long-time subscriber who was a fellow Sc-Fi reader and who could not believe I’d never even heard of him. I quickly discovered Banks was a gifted story teller. And in a BBC interview with him I learned he appeared as an extra in Monty Python’s “Holy Grail” (yes, I had to watch it twice to spot him).

Banks was diagnosed with gall bladder cancer earlier this year and died June 9. And so, if your are a great Pope, you get to be a Saint. But if you are a great Sci-Fi writer … well, you get an asteroid named after you.

The Minor Planet Center (MPC) only has the authority to designate new asteroid discoveries and assign numbers to those whose orbits are of a high enough accuracy (e.g., ’5099′), but names for numbered asteroids must be submitted to, and approved by, the Committee for Small Body Nomenclature (CSBN) of the IAU (International Astronomical Union). On learning of Bank’s illness, his fans, with the help of Dr Gareth Williams, the MPC’s representative on the CSBN, submitted a request to name an asteroid after Banks with the hope that it would be approved soon enough for Banks to enjoy it. Sadly, that was not possible.

However, on June 23rd, 2013, asteroid (5099) was officially named Iainbanks by the IAU, and will be referred to as such for as long as Earth Culture may endure. The official citation for the asteroid reads:

Iain M. Banks (1954-2013) was a Scottish writer best known for the Culture series of science fiction novels; he also wrote fiction as Iain Banks. An evangelical atheist and lover of whisky, he scorned social media and enjoyed writing music. He was an extra in Monty Python & The Holy Grail.

It is appropriate. Most Banks fans know his “Culture” series about an advanced society in whose midst most of Banks’s Sci-Fi novels take place. Thanks to their technology they are able to hollow out asteroids and use them as ships capable of faster-than-light travel while providing a living habitat with centrifugally-generated gravity for their thousands of denizens.

But I enjoyed his novels because they are infused with machine learning, machine intelligence and all aspects of artificial intelligence … the very stuff of our world today.

Just a month before his passing, Banks did a final interview with the Guardian, and it not only captures the flavor of the man but is a “must-read” in general. In particular, he answers one of the great longstanding questions about his Culture novels: why didn’t he ever write a novel about the fall of the Culture, his massive space faring civilization? He also explains how Ken MacLeod (another great Scottish science fiction writer) saved his novel Use of Weapons (my favorite) plus his thoughts on writing, politics and all the things that will be left undone (click here).

3. Some cool data visualization

Our sister company, Project Counsel (which works in the areas of litigation/litigation technology support/e-discovery) has written several posts about the acceleration of natural language capabilities being built into e-discovery and information management software. Enabling business users (and we include lawyers in that bunch) to ask straightforward questions in natural language helps to quickly engage the user and requires no training. Lawyers, as a group, tend not to be technically savvy and when they ask “where in the data is ….” they really do not want to know/need to know the complex machine learning algorithms. The semantic brain needs to deliver a relevant answer to the user. And because “the answer” is mostly a combination of text-based documents with unstructured transactional data, users expect the answer to be presented via a narrative and visualization – and they expect to be able to interact with the visualization.

It’s what they specialize in doing:  synthesize the story of a case, an issue, a dispute with highly insightful results, in a narrative style and visualized. Call it the “narrative understanding in e-discovery”. Well, we did not call it that. Lawrence Chapin, Simon Attfield, and Efeosasere Okoro called it that in a brilliant paper entitled Predictive Coding, Storytelling and God: Narrative Understanding in e-Discovery which the authors presented at the DESI V workshop held in Rome, Italy last month (Project Counsel will have a video report on that workshop next week). For more on the Chapin/Attfield/Okoro paper see Ralph Losey’s blog post here.

But the key part of the analytics is the data visualization. As Johannes Scholtes, Chairman and Chief Strategy Officer of ZyLAB, told us in a recent interview “while data scientists and others skilled in navigating through large data sets can do so efficiently, lawyers do not have the time … or sometimes the patience … to repeat the same queries over and over again so it is our job to build data analytics tools, visualization tools that complement the user behavior”.

Through our sister company The Cloud and E-Discovery (which covers the whole data visualization market) we have had the opportunity to use scores of data visualization software from such companies as Digital Reasoning, IBM, kCura, SAS, Tableau and ZyLAB. Our informatics/analytics subsidiary.

So as a result we always come across … and get to play with … lots of cool stuff. One is a collaborative project called Phototrails which is a visual exploration of millions of Instagram photos, building on previous work with ImagePlot, which lets you see a lot of photos at once. As the folks from Phototrails put it:

How do we explore social medias visual data which contains billions of photographs shared by hundreds of millions of contributors? What insights can we gain from this type of massive collective visual production? Phototrails is a research project that uses experimental media visualization techniques for exploring visual patterns, dynamics and structures of planetry-scale user-generated shared photos. Using a sample of 2.3 million Instagram photos from 13 cities around the world, we show how temporal changes in number of shared photos, their locations, and visual characteristics can uncover social, cultural and political insights about people’s activity around the world.

Examples? The charts below, starting from the top left and moving clockwise, are a sample of 50,000 Instagram photos each from San Francisco, Tokyo, Bangkok, and New York City, organized by hue and brightness:


The bottom two look a lot brighter than the top two, but I suspect that’s because hue median is used for the former and hue mean for the latter. That’s probably also why you see more distinct lines on the bottom, especially towards the edges, whereas the top spectrum is more continuous. Then you have a nice sudden break in color for the black and white photos.

There is a lot at work here, all part of the emerging research field of Cultural Analytics which uses computational methods for the analysis of massive cultural data sets and flows (e-discovery vendors IBM and ZyLAB are both players in this field).  The visualization techniques show a large numbers of images in a single visualization and enable the exploration of both the photos’ metadata (upload dates, filters used, spatial coordinates) and the patterns created by their content. For data visualization geeks, there a lot more to see on the Phototrails site.  Just click here.


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"The mind that lies fallow but a single day sprouts up follies that are only to be killed by a constant and assiduous culture."
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