[SIGCIS-Members] Alvy Ray Smith's "The Biography of the Pixel"

Jean Kumagai j.kumagai at ieee.org
Tue Sep 7 08:02:14 PDT 2021

IEEE Spectrum recently published an adapted excerpt from Alvy Ray Smith's
book: https://spectrum.ieee.org/the-real-story-of-pixar

We first learned about the book from Dag Spicer's SIGCIS post about it back
in February. Thanks, Dag!

-jean kumagai
senior editor, IEEE Spectrum

On Mon, Sep 6, 2021 at 7:32 AM Brian Randell <brian.randell at newcastle.ac.uk>

>  Hi:
> I strongly  recommend Alvy Ray Smith's  "The Biography of the Pixel", just
> published by MIT Press:
> https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/biography-pixel
> Amazon has only two reviews as yet , but both are informative, well-argued
> and very enthusiastic:
> https://www.amazon.co.uk/Biography-Pixel-Leonardo-Alvy-Smith/dp/0262542455/ref=sr_1_1
> I have to declare an interest - I was consulted for the section of the
> book on the early history of digital computers, and am listed in the
> acknowledgements. However only now have I seen the whole book, and I am
> *very* impressed. I attach, as a small sample of the book, a scan of three
> pages from the Introduction.
> I'm still in the middle of reading the book myself, but I think it's
> terrific - I agree with every word of the two (at time of writing) Amazon
> reviews (by Potash and McGee).
> Cheers
> Brian Randell
> --
> From the Introduction "Beginnings: A Signal Event":
> Even as late as 1800, just two centuries ago, a picture of Napoleon
> crossing the Alps AND the canvas on which Jacques-Louis David painted it
> AND the oil paints he used were an integral unit. Imagine that you wanted
> to share Napoleon's delightfully hagiographic picture (figure 0.2) in
> Europe with a friend in New York. There were no cellphones or video cameras
> yet, not even such a thing as a photograph. The only way to display him in
> New York was to transport the one physical painting there-if you dared. An
> engraving, etching, or sketch might help, but those were only better or
> worse copies--new images that would never fully and faithfully capture the
> original. Through all that time a painting and its medium of creation were
> inseparable. No one even conceived of separating the two. What could a
> picture be, independent of its medium?
> Then in the early nineteenth century photography was invented, ushering in
> the world of what we now call "the media." Faithful reproduction was upon
> us. Movies followed in the late nineteenth century and television in the
> early twentieth. All media then were analog smooth and continuous. And a
> picture could be transferred from one medium to another a hint that
> something, after all, about a picture floats separate from its medium.
> The notion of the digital discrete and spiky-didn't fully exist until
> 1933. At midcentury, 1950, there were only a couple of digital pictures in
> existence. The few people who knew about them actually thought they were
> frivolous distractions from the more serious projects of digital computers.
> All the other pictures in the world were made and viewed with analog
> means-oil on canvas, ink on paper, and chemical emulsion on photographic
> film, to name a few.
> But at the millennium, 2000, there was an unheralded event--the Great
> Digital Convergence: a single new digital medium-the all-encompassing bit
> replaced nearly all analog media. The bit became the universal medium, and
> the pixel--a particular packaging of bits conquered the world. It became
> possible to remove a painting, so to speak, from its canvas. As a
> consequence, most pictures in the world are now digital. Analog pictures
> have all but vanished relative to ubiquitous digital imagery. Museums and
> kindergartens are among the few reliable places to find the analog. This
> book heralds that signal millennial event by celebrating Digital Light -
> 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, from CAT scans to videogames to cellphone
> displays, and many, many more--anything mediated by pixels.
> What's puzzling about the new medium is that you can't see it. Bits, and
> pixels made of bits, are invisible. Pixels are not to be confused, as they
> often are, with the little glowing areas on a screen, called display
> elements. The technical heart of this book is the explanation of how to
> make pictures composed of invisible stuff visible-how to convert digital
> pixels to analog display elements.
> That the Great Digital Convergence happened at the millennium was just a
> coincidence, but a convenient one. Pixar released the first digital movie,
> Toy Story, in 1995. The first broadcast of the new high-definition
> television (HDTV) signal was in 1998. A digital camera of sufficient
> quality to threaten film cameras astonished the market in 1999. The digital
> video disc, or DVD, debuted in 2000. Apple introduced the ubiquitous iPhone
> in 2007. What had been ink and paper, photographs, movies, and television
> became-in a blink of the historical eye-just bits. The change was so fast
> that young people today may have never experienced non-digital
> media-outside those last bastions of the analog: art museums and preschools.
> We are all now aswim in an ocean of pixels. carry billions of them on my
> person, and I suspect that you do too. But curiously there's been little
> serious notice taken of this pervasive change in our daily experience.
> Perhaps this is because most people haven't realized that Digital Light is
> single unified technology. The notion is new. Making it clear is a major
> purpose of this book.
> Foundations: Three Great Ideas
> Just three ideas-waves, computations, and pixels underlie all the apparent
> complexity of Digital Light. Each idea 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
> (part I of this book) present these foundational ideas with the surprising
> and fascinating stories of the people who made them possible.
> Waves are an analog idea. You probably know that music is made of
> simultaneous sound waves of different frequencies (pitches) and amplitudes
> (loudnesses). Two centuries ago the Frenchman Joseph Fourier extended that
> notion to all our sensory experience. Everything we see and hear is a sum
> of waves. It's all music. In this book I show you how to see the music in a
> visual scene.
> Computers are a digital idea. Machines that make computations go fast are
> the very exemplars of the digital in ordinary life. But the idea of
> computation dates back only to 1936 when the Englishman Alan Turing
> invented it to capture the notion of a careful, precise process. That might
> sound plodding and boring, but the consequences are anything but. Computers
> are humankind's most malleable tool. And their awesome speed is the most
> consequential engineering miracle of all time. With that speed, computers
> amplify what we puny humans can do by unimaginable amounts.
> But all of the mind-boggling, world-changing power of computers really
> reduces to a careful flipping between two states, often named 0 and 1.
> Computation is all bits. That may sound trivial, but I hope to inspire you
> with the unexpected beauty--and mystery--inherent in computation. Again, no
> mathematics required.
> The most important but least known of the three fundamental ideas is the
> underlying theme of this book: you can pass back and forth between waves
> and bits - between the analog and digital worlds. The idea dates back only
> to 1933 when the Russian Vladimir Kotelnikov established it as we know it
> today. Its formal name is the Sampling Theorem. This entire book-being a
> biography of the pixel, with pixel being our name for a sample of the
> visual world - is about sampling. Pixels are invisible bits that represent
> visible waves. My fervent intent is that you understand this piece of magic
> and be amazed by how it works. No mathematics is required here either.
> Now that I've said no math required three times in two pages, you might be
> thinking: But what if some of us care about the math? For you - but really
> for all my readers - I provide an online annotations site at
> http://alvyray.com/DigitalLight/. There you will find additional details
> about people, places, and events that would have made this book too
> unwieldy to fit between its physical covers and you will find as well
> mathematical equations to support the magic of Digital Light and the pixels
> that make it possible. There's a common misconception that a pixel is a
> little square of color. But in fact, the pixel is a profound and abstract
> concept that binds our modern media world together. It's the organizing
> principle of Digital Light.
> A visual scene consists of an infinite number of points of color. Infinite
> is, by definition, too large to deal with. So how can we replace a smooth
> visual scene with only a finite number of discrete bits the pixels - and
> not lose an infinity of information between them? The Sampling Theorem
> tells us how to do it. It's the secret that makes the modern media world
> work.
> Sampling, which depends on Fourier's waves, was created almost
> simultaneously with computation in the mid-1930s. Sampling met computation
> and conceived a child, Digital Light, the subject of this book.
> School of Computing, Newcastle University, 1 Science Square, Newcastle
> upon Tyne, NE4 5TG
> EMAIL = Brian.Randell at ncl.ac.uk   PHONE = +44 191 208 7923
> URL = http://www.ncl.ac.uk/computing/people/profile/brianrandell.htm
> School of Computing, Newcastle University, 1 Science Square, Newcastle
> upon Tyne, NE4 5TG
> EMAIL = Brian.Randell at ncl.ac.uk   PHONE = +44 191 208 7923
> URL = http://www.ncl.ac.uk/computing/people/profile/brianrandell.html
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