Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Video Reviews

Having recently moved into my own place and finished school with a Computer Engineering degree, I have had a lot of free time in the last few months. Rather than waste that free time watching television commercials, I have started spending more time watching online videos about subjects that I find interesting (That... and I bought a Wii :-). There are plenty of videos online that are even more of a waste of time than TV, so I thought I would use this space to help highlight those that I find informative or funny.

The Google Tech Talk videos are always a good candidate because they are usually high quality and recorded by someone with more than just a web cam an a few hours of free time. Google will fly in experts from various fields to present their research or topics of interest to the Google employees. Lucky for us they record the sessions and upload them to Youtube. Some of the videos have the same entertainment value as a masters thesis dissertation, but they are usually very informative and a great way to spend an hour of free time with out turning off your brain. Occasionally the speakers even manage to lace in a bit of humor, although it probably is best classified as geek or nerd humor and not the some-guy-getting-hit-in-the-groin type of humor appreciated by the general public.

I've watched a half a dozen videos so far, but wanted to highlight two that give a unique historical perspective of the development of computers and the World Wide Web. Both of these events happened before my time, and while I have a deep understanding of how things work today, I do not have any knowledge about how these things came about. If you have any interest in these subjects or just need something to help pass the time, I give both videos two thumbs up.


Turing's Cathedral
Google Tech Talks - April, 9 2008
Speaker: George Dyson (scientific historian)

Video summary:

The video talks about John von Neumann building one of the first computers at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ over 60 years ago. The initial goal was to run calculations for building the hydrogen bomb, but the machine they built has had a direct impact on many different fields and is an ancestor to the computer architectures in use today. The video quality is actually pretty bad, as there was an open window in the background and changes in sunlight due to the cloud coverage makes it difficult to view the speaker or the screen (try the link to the high quality video at the bottom, seems to work a bit better). The speaker can drone on a bit, but it is fascinating to see how computers came about and the different problems that they had to deal with. Also, there is a very interesting discussion about artificial intelligence and computer consciousness, which the speaker relates to the work of Alfred Smee in the late 1800s. According to his definition, computers may already have obtained consciousness. He also mentions that if they become smart enough, they might never present themselves to the public at large (à la Jane, my favorite character from Orson Scott Card's Ender series).

Text not available
Principles of the human mind deduced from physical laws; By Alfred Smee


The Web That Wasn't
Google Tech Talks - October, 23 2007
Speaker: Alex Wright (author, information architect at the New York Times)

ABSTRACT (from YouTube)
For most of us who work on the Internet, the Web is all we have ever really known. It's almost impossible to imagine a world without browsers, URLs and HTTP. But in the years leading up to Tim Berners-Lee's world-changing invention, a few visionary information scientists were exploring alternative systems that often bore little resemblance to the Web as we know it today. In this presentation, author and information architect Alex Wright will explore the heritage of these almost-forgotten systems in search of promising ideas left by the historical wayside.The presentation will focus on the pioneering work of Paul Otlet, Vannevar Bush, and Doug Engelbart, forebears of the 1960s and 1970s like Ted Nelson, Andries van Dam, and the Xerox PARC team, and more recent forays like Brown's Intermedia system. We'll trace the heritage of these systems and the solutions they suggest to present day Web quandaries, in hopes of finding clues to the future in the recent technological past.

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