Friday, September 24, 2010

On being a nerd

I was reminded by flicking through an old copy of Doron Swade's The Difference Engine of a letter Charles Babbage wrote to Alfred, Lord Tennyson concerning an error in one of the poet's, then recently published, poems:

In your otherwise beautiful poem one verse reads,

Every moment dies a man,
Every moment one is born

If this were true the population of the world would be at a standstill. In truth, the rate of birth is slightly in excess of that of death. I would suggest that the next edition of your poem should read:

Every moment dies a man
Every moment 1 1/16 is born

Strictly speaking the actual figure is so long I cannot get it into a line, but I believe the figure 1 1/16 will be sufficiently accurate for poetry.

I can't help smiling at this because it illustrates the great difficulty persons of great computational ability (which I shall refer to as nerds) have in overlooking small matters of inaccuracy. It's not uncommon to see computer folk arguing over fine points of semantics or mathematics, or deliberately playing with words and puns, or laughing about the minutiae of some program, machine or situation.

This comes about because nerds spend all their time worrying about details. Computers are exceedingly finnicky things. They do precisely what they are told (with heavy emphasis on precisely). Thus anyone who works with them (and by that I mean anyone who actually deals with computers rather than mere users) ends up training themselves to spot minute details that are incorrect or out of place.

Unfortunately, that attention to tiny detail seems to change the brain so that it is searched for everywhere. I think that's because it takes great mental effort to hold in your head the details of any computer system and be able to spot problems. Often you are looking for the tiniest needle in an enormous haystack of information.

By the time Babbage wrote that letter he had spent 20 years on his calculating/computing engines often working 11 hour days. It is no wonder that Tennyson's error stood out to him. I have seen Babbage's letter described as insulting, humorous and over-zealous. To me it is none of these things. Tennyson was a great supporter of 19th century science and Babbage was merely pointing out a technical inaccuracy.

PS Sadly I have not been able to find in any of Alfred, Lord Tennyson's letters a reply to Babbage.


Justin said...

Obviously Babbage was just having a laugh, but your description of Tennyson's poem as inaccurate or erroneous is actually wrong. Logically, one man dying and 1 1/16 man being born necessarily entails one man dying, one man being being born. Tennyson's poem is logically consistent with the figures that Babbage gives. He makes no claims about the exact death/birth rate, only that the birth rate is at least as high as the death rate. He would only be in error if the birth rate were less than the death rate.

Justin said...

I hope this makes me nerdier than Charles Babbage.

JonnieCache said...

Babbage's letter was paid a tribute a while back by scientist Simon Singh, who wrote to pop singer Katy Melua taking issue with her lyrics:

We are 12 billion light-years from
the edge,
That's a guess,
No one can ever say it's true,
But I know that I will always be
with you.

He suggested a replacement of:

We are 13.7 billion light-years from
the edge of the observable universe,
That's a good estimate with
well-defined error bars,
Scientists say it's true, but
acknowledge that it may be refined,
And with the available information, I predict that I will always be
with you

This got quite a lot of press here in the UK, and Katy eventually recorded a version of the song with those lyrics, which you can find if you look.

Singh's original article is here:

John Graham-Cumming said...

That article from Singh is priceless.

Sam said...

I think what he meant to say is that our old selves are constantly dying and becoming our new selves. Our experiences are constantly changing us into different people. If you had all the facts, the exact definition of myself a minute ago would not match the exact definition of who I am now.

At least that's how I took it.

Also, "moment" is intentionally vague. It is not a rigidly set scientific standard unit of measurement.

Niels said...

There's a word sequence error in your article: 'had he spent 20 years'.
Writing such an article is asking for wise-asses like me pointing out minor flaws ;-)

Oolong said...

Is it that coding (and related disciplines) change your brain, or that people with certain neurological/habitual tendencies are drawn to that sort of work? There are some fun statistics about the family correlations between autistic traits and careers in engineering...