Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The First Programmer

Ada Lovelace has become something of an object of historical fascination. Not only was she the daughter of infamous Victorian poet Lord Byron, but she is often credited as being the first computer programmer, despite living over 100 years before the first modern computers.

Ada Lovelace had a natural flair for mathematics. Being a Victorian woman, of course, she could not pursue her gift by attending a university or joining the Royal Academy. However, Lovelace was not the sort of woman to simply accept her lot in life. She employed private tutors to help her in her education. She also made the acquaintances of some of Britain's leading mathematical and scientific minds, and pursued lengthy written correspondences with them.

Unfortunately Ada's bright spark was given little opportunity to shine. She lived in a world where she was expected to fulfill the obligations of a Victorian woman, running a large household and bringing up three children. In addition, her health was poor - she died of cancer at age 36.

One of the men with whom Lovelace corresponded was the mathematician Charles Babbage. Babbage is most noted today for conceiving of and designing a mechanical universal computation device, essentially a computer, fully 100 years before the invention of the modern digital computer. Sadly, Babbage never built his 'Analytical Engine' and even his less sophisticated 'Difference Engine' only ever reached the prototype stage.

But it was regarding Babbage's entirely theoretical Analytical Engine that Ada Lovelace wrote the 1843 paper in which she described the machine in detail, including the uses it could be put to. In addition, she gave several simple examples of how it could be fed mathematical 'programs', and then described an algorithm for calculating Bernoulli numbers on the machine - and included a step-by-step 'trace' of how the machine would execute the algorithm.

Essentially, it was a program, intended to be run by a computer.

How much credit does Lovelace deserve for this remarkable achievement? The question is a complicated one. Since the Analytical Engine existed only in Babbage's head and in his notes, she corresponded with him extensively in writing her paper. How deep was their collaboration? Was Ada Lovelace merely Babbage's publicist and promoter? Or were her contributions real and original? We don't know beyond a shadow of a doubt, for instance, that she wrote the Bernoulli algorithm. however there is no specific evidence to suggest that she did not.

In a lengthy blog post, Stephen Wolfram of WolframAlpha attempts to untangle the historical significance of Ada Lovelace:

The Analytical Engine and its construction were all Babbage’s work. So what did Ada add? Ada saw herself first and foremost as an expositor. Babbage had shown her lots of plans and examples of the Analytical Engine. She wanted to explain what the overall point was—as well as relate it, as she put it, to “large, general, & metaphysical views”.
To me, there’s little doubt about what happened: Ada had an idea of what the Analytical Engine should be capable of, and was asking Babbage questions about how it could be achieved. If my own experiences with hardware designers in modern times are anything to go by, the answers will often have been very detailed. Ada’s achievement was to distill from these details a clear exposition of the abstract operation of the machine—something which Babbage never did. (In his autobiography, he basically just refers to Ada’s Notes.)

But there is more, according to Wolfram. After her paper was published, Lovelace wrote Babbage with a provocative idea: she proposed to take on oversight of the construction of the Analytical Engine. As Wolfram puts it, she would become CEO and Babbage would have been the CTO. And, amazingly, Babbage agreed to her proposal!

Alas, it wasn't to be. Within a short time Ada's health would collapse due to cancer and history would be deprived of Babbage's analytical engine as overseen by Ada Lovelace.
What if Ada’s health hadn’t failed—and she had successfully taken over the Analytical Engine project? What might have happened then?

I don’t doubt that the Analytical Engine would have been built. Maybe Babbage would have had to revise his plans a bit, but I’m sure he would have made it work. The thing would have been the size of a train locomotive, with maybe 50,000 moving parts. And no doubt it would have been able to compute mathematical tables to 30- or 50-digit precision at the rate of perhaps one result every 4 seconds.
 I've written more in the past. about how feasible a Victorian computer would really have been. You can check it out here.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Ephemera, Part 2

More links to things both weird and wonderful. Enjoy!

Feet-on with Rocket Skates, which are exactly what they sound like
Ars Technica tries on some 'wearable transportation'. Turns out it  takes some getting used to.

The Starbucks where the baristas DON'T write your name on your cup
The Washington Post has a fascinating story about one of the busiest and most unusual Starbucks in the country - the one that operates inside CIA headquarters.

The Women With Superhuman Vision
A rare genetic trait lets certain individuals perceive colors that others cannot. They are known as tetrachromats... and they are all female.

The Men Who Built The Great American Waterpark
Excellent long-read from Grantland + thrilling waterslide video.

The Curse of the Colonel (wikipedia)
Baseball fans are a notoriously superstitious bunch. Some fans of the Hanshin Tigers believed that their team was cursed after they 'desecrated' a statue of KFC's beloved founder during the 1985 Japan Series.

Twisted: The Battle To Be The World's Biggest Ball of Twine
From The Atlantic: small Midwestern towns vie for an unusual honor.

Galaxies writ small
Tilt-shifted photos of astronomical objects.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Ephemera, Part 1

The future seems grim these days, so our usual 'Links of the Future' feature will appear at a future date (presumably this presents no problem to time travelers). Instead this week we treat you to links of the strange, the obscure, the trivial and the sublime. Enjoy.

Man in Turkey discovers entrance to underground city while renovating his home
The elaborate underground city in Derinkuyu, Turkey runs 18 stories deep. It has its own wells and ventilation shafts, and rooms for individual quarters, livestock, shops and even a school complete with study room.
75% of the images in the IKEA catalog are computer generated
"[T]he real turning point for us was when, in 2009, they called us and said, 'You have to stop using CG. I’ve got 200 product images and they’re just terrible. You guys need to practise more.' So we looked at all the images they said weren’t good enough and the two or three they said were great, and the ones they didn’t like were photography and the good ones were all CG"."

There is an annual Boring Conference in London for people with boring hobbies
The conference celebrates people who collection staplers and stationery, photograph IBM cash registers and meticulously blog their sneezes. You might say they were uncool before being uncool was cool.
IBM has a corporate hymnal
Ars Technica dives deep into the weirdness behind a corporation that once encouraged its employees to sing songs of adulation to their founder and CEO. It is worth noting that this practice has mostly fallen out of favor at Big Blue since the 1960's.

'Untouchables' now worshiping The Goddess of the English Language
The two-foot-tall bronze statue of the goddess is modeled after the Statue of Liberty. She holds a pen in her right hand which shows she is literate. In her left hand, she holds a book which is the constitution of India. She stands on top of a computer.
What is Bayhem?
A short video analyzing the technique of a Hollywood filmmaker known for his cinematic excess: director of the Bad Boys and Transformers movies, Michael Bay.

The Life and Times of Robot Dance Party
A guy in a homemade robot suit sparks impromptu dance parties in San Francisco.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Recursion: The Story of 'Transistor'

This post will be a little bit different.

I recently finished the game 'Transistor' by Supergiant Games. Actually, I finished it twice, because the game immediately invites a second playthrough. This is primarily because of the nature of its story. SuperGiant has chosen to parcel out the story through nudges and hints rather than spoon feed it to us as most games do. This is a story that invites discussion. What does the ending mean? What is the nature of the world the game takes place in? Having completed a second playthrough, I thought I had the basics, but I headed to the forums in hopes of filling in some gaps in my knowledge.

But for once the collective wisdom of forumers failed to inform. There is a lot of speculation about the story and the significance of the ending, some of which I found helpful, but generally I think players who have finished the game are confused. There are some relatively straightforward clues that I think most players are missing. So in this post I'm going to set my thoughts on Transistor's story down in writing. I don't claim to have all the answers, but I hope I can nudge people in the right direction. I think this is the rare game that will reward deep and meticulous analysis, and I have faith that fans of the game will provide that in the future and have a great deal to add to this.

But first, let me start with a brief overview of the beginning of the plot for the uninitiated. This is the plot as it can be gleaned from the first fifteen minutes of the game:
Transistor begins with a woman named Red kneeling next to the body of a man impaled with a giant sword. The sword lights up and says, "Hey Red, we're not gonna get away with this are we?" We quickly learn that Red is a pop singer who lives in a futuristic city named Cloudbank, where the citizenry vote on everything, including the weather, the color of the sky and the layout of the city itself.
Red has survived an assassination attempt by four individuals who call themselves the Camerata, however her voice has been stolen. The sword that they attempted to kill her with is known as 'the transistor'. When Red retrieves the Transistor she discovers it gives her special powers, including the ability to absorb what appear to be the souls of dead people. Red sets out looking for answers as a mysterious, robotic force known as 'The Process' pursues her. 
So much for what you might call 'the known world'. We now set out for the speculative edges of our map, emblazoned with the dread words Here be spoilers!

Monday, May 5, 2014

Links of the Future

Greetings traveler, and welcome to Monday, May 5th, 2014. Pop quiz time! Clear your desks and take out your number two pencil and a sheet of scratch paper. Your time starts now.

Once you've put down your pencils and turned in your answers you may enjoy this tongue-in-cheek scientific paper illustrating the limits of randomized controlled trial. Or these pictures of bicycle taxidermy.

Friday, May 2, 2014

English vs. Mandarin Chinese

The curious thing about English's status as the global lingua franca is that it is not in fact the most widely spoken language in the world. That honor goes to Mandarin Chinese, which clocks just over a billion speakers. English is only the second most widely spoken, and it has barely half the number of native speakers that Mandarin has. This would not appear to be bode well for English, right?

With the 'news' this week that China has surpassed the US as the world's largest economy by certain, highly specific measures, a person might reasonably wonder if Mandarin Chinese won't soon become a threat to the privileged status of English.

Over at Lingua Franca, Geoffrey Pullum says, Sorry, not a chance:
Accidents of history conspired to determine the present status of English.

Which language was spoken by the people who managed to gain lasting political control in North America and Australasia, and had temporary political dominance in all of southern Asia and most of eastern, western, and southern Africa?

Which language is spoken in the one place on earth where blockbuster movies for worldwide release are made on budgets running into the hundreds of millions of dollars?

Which is the main language used by the closest to approach Radio Earth, namely the BBC World Service?

Which is the only language used officially for government purposes in more than 60 countries?

Which has been chosen as the norm for all air-traffic control conversations?

A long succession of such accidents has put English so far in the race for dominance in global communication that it can hardly even be called a race now.

Some people talk as if Mandarin Chinese was gaining on English. It is not, and it never will. A Tamil-speaking computer scientist explaining an algorithm to a Hungarian scientist at a Japanese-organized scientific meeting in Thailand calls on English, not Chinese. Nowhere in the world do we find significant numbers of non-Chinese speakers choosing Mandarin as the medium for bridging language gaps. There are no signs of that changing.
I've previously written about language longevity and how some languages survive for millennia even as most die off. Linguist Nicholas Ostler contends that strongly centralized societies with high population densities are the most likely to preserve their languages for the long term. The poster children for this are Egyptian and, yes, Chinese. Chinese has been spoken in some form or other for at least 5,000 years. It seems very well positioned to continue to be spoken within eastern Asia for another few thousand.

But the requirements for being a successful lingua franca are quite different. Virtually every lingua franca has started as a language of trade and commerce, or sometimes religion. First the British and then the Americans have been busily colonizing and exporting for the last few centuries, taking English with them wherever they went. Even when they have left a place the inhabitants have often found it convenient to continue using English to communicate with other colonial nations.

This is all to say nothing about how English speakers found themselves sitting on top of the explosion of mass communication technologies during the 20th century.

Meanwhile, one might say, the Chinese have been mostly concerned with the enigma of being Chinese. There hasn't been any big push to bring Chinese religion, Chinese technology, Chinese movies or Chinese thinking to the rest of the world. Perhaps the Chinese feel that mastering their own society is difficult enough without also trying to foist it on the rest of the world. Or perhaps the sheer gravitational pull of one-and-a-half billion people and five thousand years of history makes it difficult for them to escape their own cultural orbit.

We would have to see a pretty serious change in China's outlook for Mandarin to have any real prospects as a global lingua franca. In the meantime, English's dominance only continues to grow.

For more thoughts on English as a global language, see these posts:

Monday, March 17, 2014

Links of the Future

Greetings traveler, and welcome to Monday, March 17, 2014. Medical science will some day instantly diagnose disease, cure illnesses painlessly and make us smarter and fitter human beings. Someday. In the mean time, we have this:
Also, there's bad news for corporate good old boys: booth babes don't work. And, infrequently asked questions: are there any super bad-ass Catholic weapons? And, you can't dig a tunnel straight through the earth and come out in China. This map shows why.