The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

It was recently pointed out to me that I don't seem to have any postings about computers in this blog. I replied that, while my background is in computer science, I do not find its mundane representation (to wit, software engineering and hardware) particularly interesting. I had caused a (very) minor scandal among my seniors in IISc when I told them I was not keen on programming. This lack of enthusiasm did not affect my career much: I became a fairly efficient programmer. But I strove to get out of the field as soon as I could: the mercenary in me was determined to find another occupation that paid at least as well.

This doesn't mean, of course, that I am not fascinated by the possibilities offered by the latest developments in computer science, theory and practice, especially when it comes to the dissemination of knowledge across the world. Not too long ago, Google caused a rumpus when it began its much heralded digitisation of library books to make them available online. Before them, the public-domain enterprise of the Gutenberg Project started to provide free textual access to (and many images of) out-of-copyright books, documents and records to anybody with internet access. Likewise, a backlash against slow-to-publish, reluctant-to-cede-copyright, and very expensive academic journals has resulted in free repositories such as ArXiv, the SSRN, and the much-accessed, providing immediate access to papers in such varied domains as physics, economics, mathematical finance, and history.

Gratifyingly, English is not the only language served on the Web. The remarkable Russian archive of classical literature, complete with annotations by researchers, provides a similar function for students of that culture.

However, these efforts pale in comparison to the British Library's online and incredibly sophisticated readers of rare books in their collection. The system is called Turning the Pages. The virtuosity of this display is exemplified by the rendering of Leonardo papers, as well as of selected writings by Jane Austen, the lovely Qu'ran of Baybars and Iyasu's Ethiopian Bible. The brilliance of the solution is that it is portable, machine-independent, and will work with equal facility in any language.

An example of the portability is the Royal Society's exhibition of Robert Hooke's notebooks. You can turn pages, magnify particular sections of interest, study Hooke's writings in their original form, even extract the text for later study.

The underlying driver is Shockwave, famous in programming circles for their superb design facilities for gaming and other user interfaces, incorporating animation and film, special effects and decoration. This is fairly CPU and bandwidth intensive, which is possibly its only drawback.

And who are the creators of this magnificent exemplar of programming? Why, our own London local Armadillo Systems. I guess it can no longer be said that the nation of shopkeepers lags behind in software prowess.


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