The Physical Infrastructure of Human Computing


If you cannot calculate, you cannot speculate on future pleasure and your life will not be that of a human, but that of an oyster or a jellyfish.
– Plato in Philebus

There is considerable evidence of the mainframe era, the rise of the PC, and the early internet, but the more mundane details of computing history are often lost to software updates and hardware trends. The era before digital computers, when “computer” meant a human performing calculation, has left considerable records of the “how” of this work: where it was done, for what purpose, and by whom. The work of scholars studying human computing, notably Grier and Campbell-Kelly, focuses on the social, political, and scientific aspects. We know the details of William Samuel Stratford’s Nautical Almanac in England and the long narrative of the Mathematical Tables Project in New York City, but little has been written on the physical infrastructures of human computing such as office layouts and furniture, or the ephemera like the worksheets used to complete calculations. Because most of the physical infrastructure exists only in snippets of written material or in the background of photographs, I will only sketch some of the physical objects used in human computing, and mostly focus on 20th-century projects.

This account omits discussion of mechanical, electronic, and digital computing aides for human computers. Those devices are well researched, and many artifacts and detailed descriptions exist. Instead, this essay focuses on the lost fragments of physical infrastructure, namely worksheets, offices and furniture, and posters and other ephemera.

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Every Service Provider

Every service provider used by visitors to my website in 2014, via Google Analytics. View the entire list below; download the list here.

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Spam Tags

A very long list of tags at the end of a spam email. Preview below, full list after the break.

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Tutorial: Twitter Bots


UPDATE 9/14: A few things have changed for setting up a Twitter application since this tutorial was written. The main change is you will need a phone number to register your app. Most of this guide should be fairly close to the current system, though the screenshots may look a bit different.

Creating Twitter bots, automated text-generators that spew spam, poetry, and other things, can be a bit of a confusing process. This tutorial will hopefully get you through the tough bits and make bot-building possible!

For this tutorial I will be using Python, a language whose simplicity and natural syntax is great for working with text. However, this tutorial should be easily portable to your language of choice. I assume you know at least enough programming to write your own algorithmic text; if you need some help, I would suggest one of the myriad resources including Learn X in Y Minutes. Finally, this post is written from a Mac user’s perspective – if you use another OS and have suggestions or required different steps, my apologies and let me know so I can add them.

If your programming is not up to snuff, you might consider using IFTTT to trigger a Tweet. While the range of possible text is much more limited, you can easily do things like post a Tweet when tomorrow’s weather is forecasted to be nice or you like a video on Vimeo! (You can also use this as a backup for storing your bot’s awesome Tweets.)

You can view the source files used here, screenshots, and other miscellany for this tutorial on GitHub.

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Three New Twitter Bots


Yesterday I released three Twitter bots into the world:

  1. @wouldratherbot posts randomized “would you rather” questions, such as “Would you rather etch a hat or edit an acceptance?” and “Would you rather standardize an appellate or reject a counter?” – code for the bot here
  2. @randomchordbot generates all 40,920 chords in the first 5 frets of the guitar, one per hour (see an example at the top) – code for the bot here
  3. @artassignbot creates randomized art assignments and due dates anywhere between 10 seconds and 10 years from today, for example “Create a flipbook examining your relationship to food, due on Sat, Nov 22, 2014” and “Construct an etching examining the history of memory, due in 36 seconds” – code for the bot here