0b10

Two-Bit History

Computing through
the ages

• A differential analyzer is a mechanical, analog computer that can solve differential equations. Differential analyzers aren’t used anymore because even a cheap laptop can solve the same equations much faster—and can do it in the background while you stream the new season of Westworld on HBO. Before the invention of digital computers though, differential analyzers allowed mathematicians to make calculations that would not have been practical otherwise.

• By now, you have almost certainly heard of the dark web. On sites unlisted by any search engine, in forums that cannot be accessed without special passwords or protocols, criminals and terrorists meet to discuss conspiracy theories and trade child pornography.

We here at VICE headquarters have reported before on the dark web’s “hurtcore” communities, its human trafficking markets, its rent-a-hitman websites. We have explored the challenges the dark web presents to regulators, the rise of dark web revenge porn, and the frightening size of the dark web gun trade. We have kept you informed about that one dark web forum where you can make like Walter White and learn how to manufacture your own drugs, and also about—thanks to our foreign correspondent—the Chinese dark web. We have even attempted to catalog every single location on the dark web. Our coverage of the dark web has been nothing if not comprehensive.

But I wanted to go deeper.

• The FOAF standard, or Friend of a Friend standard, is a now largely defunct/ignored/superseded web standard dating from the early 2000s that hints at what social networking might have looked like had Facebook not conquered the world. Before we talk about FOAF though, I want to talk about the New York City Subway.

• In 1993, id Software released the first-person shooter Doom, which quickly became a phenomenon. The game is now considered one of the most influential games of all time.

A decade after Doom’s release, in 2003, journalist David Kushner published a book about id Software called Masters of Doom, which has since become the canonical account of Doom’s creation. I read Masters of Doom a few years ago and don’t remember much of it now, but there was one story in the book about lead programmer John Carmack that has stuck with me. This is a loose gloss of the story (see below for the full details), but essentially, early in the development of Doom, Carmack realized that the 3D renderer he had written for the game slowed to a crawl when trying to render certain levels. This was unacceptable, because Doom was supposed to be action-packed and frenetic. So Carmack, realizing the problem with his renderer was fundamental enough that he would need to find a better rendering algorithm, started reading research papers. He eventually implemented a technique called “binary space partitioning,” never before used in a video game, that dramatically sped up the Doom engine.

• I sometimes think of my computer as a very large house. I visit this house every day and know most of the rooms on the ground floor, but there are bedrooms I’ve never been in, closets I haven’t opened, nooks and crannies that I’ve never explored. I feel compelled to learn more about my computer the same way anyone would feel compelled to see a room they had never visited in their own home.

GNU Readline is an unassuming little software library that I relied on for years without realizing that it was there. Tens of thousands of people probably use it every day without thinking about it. If you use the Bash shell, every time you auto-complete a filename, or move the cursor around within a single line of input text, or search through the history of your previous commands, you are using GNU Readline. When you do those same things while using the command-line interface to Postgres (psql), say, or the Ruby REPL (irb), you are again using GNU Readline. Lots of software depends on the GNU Readline library to implement functionality that users expect, but the functionality is so auxiliary and unobtrusive that I imagine few people stop to wonder where it comes from.

• In the late 1970s, the computer, which for decades had been a mysterious, hulking machine that only did the bidding of corporate overlords, suddenly became something the average person could buy and take home. An enthusiastic minority saw how great this was and rushed to get a computer of their own. For many more people, the arrival of the microcomputer triggered helpless anxiety about the future. An ad from a magazine at the time promised that a home computer would “give your child an unfair advantage in school.” It showed a boy in a smart blazer and tie eagerly raising his hand to answer a question, while behind him his dim-witted classmates look on sullenly. The ad and others like it implied that the world was changing quickly and, if you did not immediately learn how to use one of these intimidating new devices, you and your family would be left behind.

• Imagine that you are sitting on the grassy bank of a river. Ahead of you, the water flows past swiftly. The afternoon sun has put you in an idle, philosophical mood, and you begin to wonder whether the river in front of you really exists at all. Sure, large volumes of water are going by only a few feet away. But what is this thing that you are calling a “river”? After all, the water you see is here and then gone, to be replaced only by more and different water. It doesn’t seem like the word “river” refers to any fixed thing in front of you at all.

In 2009, Rich Hickey, the creator of Clojure, gave an excellent talk about why this philosophical quandary poses a problem for the object-oriented programming paradigm. He argues that we think of an object in a computer program the same way we think of a river—we imagine that the object has a fixed identity, even though many or all of the object’s properties will change over time. Doing this is a mistake, because we have no way of distinguishing between an object instance in one state and the same object instance in another state. We have no explicit notion of time in our programs. We just breezily use the same name everywhere and hope that the object is in the state we expect it to be in when we reference it. Inevitably, we write bugs.