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Humanist Archives: Oct. 16, 2021, 7:48 a.m. Humanist 35.300 - pubs: A Biography of the Pixel (with review & commentary)

              Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 35, No. 300.
        Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
                      Hosted by DH-Cologne
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    [1]    From: Willard McCarty <>
           Subject: A Biography of the Pixel (102)

    [2]    From: Willard McCarty <>
           Subject: hardware (40)

        Date: 2021-10-15 14:13:49+00:00
        From: Willard McCarty <>
        Subject: A Biography of the Pixel

A Biography of the Pixel
Alvy Ray Smith
MIT Press, 2021

Beginnings: A Signal Event

Foundations: Three Great Ideas

1 Fourier’s Frequencies: The Music of the World
2 Kotelnikov’s Samples: Something from Nothing
3 Turing’s Computations: Eleventy-Eleven Skydillion

Contributions: Two High Technologies

4 Dawn of Digital Light: The Quickening
5 Movies and Animation: Sampling Time

The Rise and Shine of Digital Light

6 Shapes of Things to Come
7 Shades of Meaning
8 The Millennium and The Movie

Finale: The Great Digital Convergence

A review
Brian Randell [from SIGCIS, with thanks]

Alvy Ray Smith's "A Biography of the Pixel" is simply wonderful. It's
not just very readable, it's a real tour de force, in terms of the
amount of fascinating historical and technical information it contains,
and the brilliant way it explains everything, from Universal Turing
Machines to the intricacies of the computer-animation techniques
involved in the making of the movie Toy Story. The author, an eminent
computer research scientist, was one of the two co-founders of Pixar,
the pioneering and highly-successful American computer animation studio,
now a subsidiary of Walt Disney Studios. He argues very convincingly
that just three ideas - waves, computations, and pixels - underlie all
the apparent complexity of Digital Light. This is his term for "the vast
realm that includes any picture, for any purpose, made from pixels. It
extends from parking meters to virtual reality, from dashboards to
digital movies and television . . . anything mediated by pixels."
(Pixels are profound abstract concepts - "samples of the visual world
that are represented by little squares of color".) The book's starting
points are the work of Joseph Fourier on waves - an analogue idea - and
the (digital) concepts of computation and computability of Alan Turing.
I must admit that before I read this book I did not understand that:
"Nothing is lost by going to digital. A discrete digital thing can
faithfully represent a smooth analogue thing". This is a very subtle
idea that Smith traces back to the work of the Russian scientist
Vladimir Kotelnikov in the 1930s on the Sampling Theorem, which he
explains and illustrates with remarkable clarity. As Smith puts it:
"Each [of these three ideas] is intuitively simple, profound, and
beautiful. These are the technological cornerstones of our modern world,
and you don't need mathematics to understand them." The first three
chapters present these foundational ideas and provide fascinating
accounts of the people who made them possible. The following chapter is
about the race to build the first actual electronic computer - a race
(very narrowly) won by Freddie Williams and Tom Kilburn with their
'Baby' machine at Manchester University, which Smith shows was also the
first computer to display a picture constructed from pixels, i.e. to
"create Digital Light". In this and subsequent chapters Smith does an
excellent job of placing all the developments that he describes in their
historical context. He avoids the trap of providing simplistic linear
narratives of history. Instead, "for the history of each technology,
[he] designed a family flow chart [showing] who got what from whom
(whether by hook or by crook) and the often-dense interplay of the cast
of players". Each such chart acts as an introduction and explanatory
guide to a chapter of detailed stories of the people involved and
intuitive presentations of their ideas. By these means, Smith tells the
story of Digital Light across a number of eras, each characterised by
huge improvements in digital technology and computer capability. He
takes this story up to the end of the 20th century, and the first
digital movies, most notably Pixar's immensely successful Toy Story, the
first entirely computer-animated feature film. It is a great story, and
Smith tells it brilliantly.
Full dislosure: The author sought my advice on some aspects of the early
history of digital computers, and kindly mentions my name in the
Acknowledgements. However I did not see any of the rest of his book
prior to its publication.

Expanding a little on the above: The account of the history of computers
is very good, but is understandably focussed on issues of most relevance
to Digital Light, and on fundamental computational concepts rather than
technology, though the impact of technological progress and of Moore's
Law are very well covered. Thus it does not provide information on all
the early computers and computer pioneers, or cover the growth of the
computer industry in general. ENIAC and Colossus are discussed, but not
detailed, and neither John Mauchly nor Tommy Flowers are mentioned.
However, its detailed well-illustrated explanations of the Universal
Turing Machine, and of Sampling Theory, and later of various very
sophisticated computer animation techniques, together with the
biographical details given of the many scientists and engineers
involved, are great!

Willard McCarty,
Professor emeritus, King's College London;
Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews;  Humanist

        Date: 2021-10-16 06:35:22+00:00
        From: Willard McCarty <>
        Subject: hardware

This note is by way of commentary on the above and like publications 
having to do with the technical sides of our subject. Kindly forgive the 
dogmatic tendencies that may be visible in it :-).

Michael Mahoney, historian of technology and of computing especially, 
lamented somewhere that histories of computing have largely failed us 
because of their fixation on machinery, which is to say, on the 
technological progress of the machinery. An example that concerns me at 
the moment is IBM's Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator (SSEC, 
1948-1952), which had a great deal to do with how people subsequently 
thought about computing but which has been ignored by most historians 
and engineers because it was not technically innovative and was quickly 
bettered. What Mahoney did not mean, however, was that we don't need 
to pay attention to hardware, don't need to read it, as it were. He set a 
high bar for us in that respect.

There seems to be a tendency in digital humanities to turn the back on 
the machinery and to go for questions of social impact (a word I use 
advisedly). I'd never argue that the social effects of computing are 
unimportant, not at all, but I do argue that in order to understand these 
effects one needs grounding in their physical source. This means, of 
course, coming to grips with the technical aspects of our subject as 
far as one is able. This isn't easy. Not only are most of us 
undereducated in mathematics, hardware and software engineering 
and so on, but the sources of instruction one turns to tend to be written 
for people within the technical disciplines, so it is an uphill battle.

A student recently complained to me that her lack of training on the 
digital side of digital humanities made the path I was laying out close 
to impossible. Is this not a problem we need to fix?


Willard McCarty,
Professor emeritus, King's College London;
Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews;  Humanist

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