[Humanist] 30.801 hands on!

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Fri Mar 3 06:25:20 CET 2017

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 30, No. 801.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    Gabriel Egan <mail at gabrielegan.com>                       (87)
        Subject: Re:  30.799 hands on

  [2]   From:    James Rovira <jamesrovira at gmail.com>                       (3)
        Subject: Re:  30.799 hands on

  [3]   From:    "William L. Benzon" <bbenzon at mindspring.com>              (15)
        Subject: Re:  30.799 hands on

        Date: Thu, 2 Mar 2017 08:53:40 +0000
        From: Gabriel Egan <mail at gabrielegan.com>
        Subject: Re:  30.799 hands on
        In-Reply-To: <20170302072255.8FA568ABB at digitalhumanities.org>

Dear All

Tim Smithers writes that:

 > For good artisans and engineers 'beauty' is
 > displayed by the well-made-ness of their work.
 > Design patterns and their good use are important
 > in other kinds of engineering too, not just in
 > Software Engineering. In mechanism design, for
 > example, the mechanical engineer is expected
 > to know these patterns, and to use them well,
 > and to know what their advantages, limits, and
 > weaknesses are, as well as their typical modes
 > of wear, failure, and repair.

What about the magnificent beauty of a Rube
Goldberg (or in Britain, Heath Robinson)
machine? These are not "well-made" in the
usual engineering sense: they go all around
the houses to produce an effect (generally,
a motion) that could be achieved more efficiently
by refining the design. Indeed, these machines
foreground their inefficiency: all those wheels
and pulleys working together just to light a
cigar or pull on a pair of trousers.

You might say that these machines also exhibit
"well-made-ness" in that they are difficult to
construct, but in the terms that Smithers defines
"well-made-ness" I think they do't. Indeed, part
of the pleasure of observing one of these machines
is the realization that although it might work
that one time, it will soon wear and fail
because it is so mightily inefficient, and very
soon it will need repair.

The beauty that is really being displayed by
these machines is that of the laws of motion.
That all this clattering around does, in the
end, resolve into bringing that lighter to
the tip of the cigar or pulling those
trouser legs over the human legs. It's
the apotheosis of abstraction, the treating
of masses as if they were points and letting
one motion cancel out another.

Moreover, this is engineering as the lay-person
can understand it. It's what you or I might do to
try to solve a mechanical problem, thinking in
terms of large masses clunking around whereas
a professional engineer would refine the thing
to its essential parts. I think this partly
explains the popularity of the 'steam-punk'
culture: the non-specialist can see how the
thing works, whereas modern engineering refines
a mechanism to the extent that we can no longer
see it.

And that is where I think the connection to
computing comes in. I teach computers and
programming to English literature students
using paper tape and punched cards and
logic gates made from relays, wires,
lamps, and batteries. It's not just an
aesthetic preference--although the old
machines are rather 'cool', as the kids
don't say--but also that the mechanisms
at work are ones that non-specialists can
understand. Indeed, they are engineering
'solutions' that we might come up with

How does this relate to software design?
Well, my students don't write elegant code;
far from it. But they write code that works,
and that they understand. Their algorithms
are in need of refinement, but they can
explain to anyone how their algorithms do
the particular bit of literary analysis
they want them to do. They WORK, dammit,
even though they're the software equivalent
of Rube Goldberg machines. And the students
can say "I made that", and "let me show
you what it does".

I realize that the above has been a paean to
inelegance. If inelegance is the price we
pay so that a klutz like me can get a
computer to do what I want, I'm all for
it. Better a Rube Goldberg machine we can
all understand and control than a magic black
box (like Google search?) that only an elite
priesthood understands and controls.

Gabriel Egan
Minimal Computing Lab
De Montfort University

        Date: Thu, 2 Mar 2017 08:50:58 -0600
        From: James Rovira <jamesrovira at gmail.com>
        Subject: Re:  30.799 hands on
        In-Reply-To: <20170302072255.8FA568ABB at digitalhumanities.org>

My impression is that Tim and Amir are asserting the same values but
criticizing different objects.

Jim R

        Date: Thu, 2 Mar 2017 13:48:10 -0500
        From: "William L. Benzon" <bbenzon at mindspring.com>
        Subject: Re:  30.799 hands on
        In-Reply-To: <20170302072255.8FA568ABB at digitalhumanities.org>

Dear Willard et al.,

I have some slightly tangential remarks on this hands-on business.

1. First, I have long felt that much/most literary criticism feels like the people doing it do not have a strong sense of ‘constructedness.’ For all I know, everyone one of them may be a highly skilled craftsman of some kind – carpentry, weaving, auto mechanics, jazz improvisation, baking, and so forth – but when they put in their critic’s cap, all that is forgotten. There’s little sense of literary works as crafted objects.

2. Though my programming skills are minimal (and I’ve never done more the small example programs) and long ago, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about computing. Back in the 1970s I studied computational semantics under David Hays, who was one of the first generation workers in machine translation. One of the things he impressed on me was the computation, real computation, is a physical process and thus subject to physical constraints. Too much talk about computation and information and the like treats them as immaterial substances, Cartesian res cogitans. Back in those days I bought a textbook on microprocessor design and read through several chapters. Of course what I got out of the exercise was not very deep, but it wasn’t trivial either.

Eventually I bought my first microcomputer, a North Star Horizon (this was before the days of the IBM PC). And I got a content-addressed memory board manufactured by a small (and now defunct) company started by Sidney Lamb (another first-generation MT researcher). One day the display on my computer went kerflooey (not exactly a technical term). Well, I knew that video-display boards had a synch-generator chip and it seemed to me that the problems I was having might have been caused by trouble with that chip. So I examined the circuit diagram for the video board and located the synch-generator. And then opened the box, removed the board, located the synch-generator, and reseated it. When I replaced the board and turned on the machine, the display was working fine. It’d guessed right.

That was years ago but I still remember it. Why? Because that gave me a tangible sense of the physicality of this information processing stuff. And I think all features of the story are important: 1) reading a text on microprocessor design, 2) somewhere reading about synch-generators, 3) having a problem with my machine and guessing about it’s nature, 4) consulting a circuit diagram of one board in my machine, 5) removing the board, 6) locating the chip on it, 7) reseating the chip, 8) reassembling the machine, and 9) testing it. It’s all part of the same story. And that’s a story that informs my sense of the physicality of computing.

That’s very different from simply believing that whatever happens in your computer is physical because, well, what else could it be? But I don’t know just how I’d characterize the knowledge I got from that experience. It’s not abstract. I hesitate to say that it’s deep or profound. But it’s very very real.

Bill Benzon
bbenzon at mindspring.com


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