Thursday, September 29, 2011

2011 Plan 28 Media Coverage

As I did for 2010 I'll be keeping an archive of all news stories about Plan 28 in a blog post.

September 21, 2011
The Register: Boffins step closer to steam-powered Babbage computer
BBC: Babbage Analytical Engine designs to be digitised
Geeks Are Sexy: Steam-powered computer gets digital boost
BCS: Science Museum agrees to digitise Charles Babbage's sketches
Thinq: Babbage's notes to be digitised for all

September 22, 2011

Forbes: Building a New Computer Based on 19th Century Plans
ZDNet UK: Babbage's steampunk computer takes step toward reality
ITPro: The Science Museum in London to Help Team Build Charles Babbage Mechanical Computer
RedOrbit: Science Museum To Digitize Babbage’s Analytical Engine
Manufacturing Digital: Steam-powered Babbage computer could be built
Top News New Zealand: John Graham-Cumming’s Plan 28 to be supported by London’s Science Museum

September 23, 2011

Computer Business Report: London Science Museum to digitise Babbage Analytical Engine designs: report

September 24, 2011

iProgrammer: Babbage archive digitized

September 25, 2011

Geek With laptop: Work Begins on Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine

September 26, 2011

eWeek Europe: Steam Computer Builders Scan Babbage’s Notes

September 27, 2011
BBC Radio 4 PM: Interview

September 28, 2011

Bottom Line: Building Babbage's Protocomputer

October 3, 2011

CBC Spark: Full Interview: John Graham-Cumming on Building Babbage’s Computer

October 4, 2011

BBC Outriders: Emotional, historical and creative (about 11m in).

November 8, 2011

New York Times: It Started Digital Wheels Turning and A Before-Its-Time Machine
The Bulletin: Building a computer from way, way back
The Verge: Work properly begins on the Babbage Analytical Engine
newser: Researchers to Build Computer Designed in 1830s
Business Insider: Surprise! Your Desktop Is Based On 180-Year-Old Technology
Boing Boing: Researchers to build Babbage Analytical Engine
Tecca: Researchers begin attempt to recreate 180-year-old computer design

November 9, 2011

ITProPortal: British Researchers to Build Charles Babbage's 'Supercomputer'
The Takeaway: Researchers Try to Build 19th Century Computer

November 10, 2011

Daily Mail: Did Charles Babbage invent the programmable computer in the 1830s?
Engadget: Researchers begin work on Babbage Analytical Engine, hope to compute like it's 1837
PC Magazine: British Researchers Set Out to Build Charles Babbage's Steam Computer
Time: Who really invented the computer?
Science 2.0: Millions Of Dollars To Build A Computer From The 1830s? Yes, Please
pnosker: Researchers plan to build Charles Babbage’s “programmable computer” based on blue prints from the 1830s

November 11, 2011

BBC World Service: interview with John Graham-Cumming on World Update at 1000.

Monday, September 26, 2011

A program waits

Sitting in The Science Museum alongside all the other pieces of Babbagery is something that many people will probably overlook, but which has great significance. It's this:

A pair of stacks of punched cards containing data and a program put together by Charles Babbage. This program has been waiting over 150 years to be executed because the Analytical Engine that would run it was never built.

Just a few more years and the program will be executable.

The data describes a polynomial and the program a method of solving it. More detail about it will come through the research that Doron Swade is undertaking as part of Plan 28

Image Credit: Flickr user lorentey

Friday, September 23, 2011

Lovelace's Leap

There's a great deal said about Ada, Countess of Lovelace that I find misguided. And, worse, the real intellectual triumph of Lovelace is overlooked by most people. She took a great leap in thinking about computers that Charles Babbage seems to have either completely overlooked or to have missed entirely.

Lovelace realized that even though a computer was, at its heart, a mathematical machine, it wasn't restricted to doing mathematics. She realized that a computer could be used to process other types of 'information' by having numbers represent anything else. She realized that a computer could handle text, or music, or practically anything.

That's Lovelace's Leap.

Speaking to the BBC about his book The Information, author James Gleick says:
She understood even better than Babbage did what the potential of this machinery was. Babbage was always thinking in terms of just numbers. Ada thought it might not just be numbers. You could have words or music or anything that could be expressed in the form of symbols and these machines could operate on them.
Writing in Computer Resurrection Issue 53, Doron Swade says:
It was Lovelace who appears to have made the essential transition in understanding. Babbage saw the Analytical Engine as a sophisticated programmable computing machine capable of executing any sequence of arithmetical operations under program control, but still operating only on number. Ada saw the potential of computational machines to manipulate symbols of which number was but one example. She speculates that if the rules of harmony and composition were appropriately represented then the Analytical Engine “might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent”. She also wrote of the machine operating on numbers directly representing entities other than quantity “as if they were letters or any other general symbols” and that it might produce outputs in notational form. Nowhere, at least in his published writings, does Babbage write in this way nor does he speculate about his machines in any context other than mathematical.

In this Ada saw what none of her contemporaries, Babbage included, appear to have seen. Ascribing this essential and historic understanding to her is not a backwards projection from our own age. She is explicit. This is Ada, banging the table, saying it is this that is significant and revolutionary about automatic computation. So Lovelace is rightly celebrated but not for the reasons commonly cited.
The quotations there are taken from the notes attached, by Lovelace, to Sketch of the Analytical Engine published in 1842.

She states:
Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.
and then
Many persons who are not conversant with mathematical studies, imagine that because the business of the engine is to give its results in numerical notation, the nature of its processes must consequently be arithmetical and numerical, rather than algebraical and analytical. This is an error. The engine can arrange and combine its numerical quantities exactly as if they were letters or any other general symbols; and in fact it might bring out its results in algebraical notation, were provisions made accordingly. It might develope three sets of results simultaneously, viz. symbolic results (as already alluded to in Notes A. and B.), numerical results (its chief and primary object); and algebraical results in literal notation. This latter however has not been deemed a necessary or desirable addition to its powers, partly because the necessary arrangements for effecting it would increase the complexity and extent of the mechanism to a degree that would not be commensurate with the advantages, where the main object of the invention is to translate into numerical language general formulæ of analysis already known to us, or whose laws of formation are known to us. But it would be a mistake to suppose that because its results are given in the notation of a more restricted science, its processes are therefore restricted to those of that science.
What Lovelace appears to be referring to is the type of machines we all have today. Underneath the hood only numbers abound, but numbers can be used to represent almost anything and computation on numbers gives us word processors, streaming video, MP3 players and more.

Calling Lovelace the first programmer has always seemed a bit silly because surely Babbage would have written some programs for his machine. But recognizing her for "Lovelace's Leap" seems far more realistic.

Why be the first programmer when you could be the prophet of the information age?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Plan 28: Analytical Engine project gets underway

Exactly one year ago today on this blog I proposed that Charles Babbage's unbuilt Analytical Engine (the first real computer) should be built and be built in Britain. Over the last year I have been working with Doron Swade (who was responsible for the construction of Babbage's Difference Engine No. 2) to put in place a project to actually build the Analytical Engine. The project is known as Plan 28.

This has required building relationships with a number of bodies. I recently announced that the project had been accepted into the portfolio of projects handled by the Computer Conservation Society. They will provide expert advice as needed.

The other vital body to work with is The Science Museum in London. Doron and I have been working with The Science Museum team at many levels to ensure that the project is known about and that we would be able to get access to Babbage's plans and notebooks to perform the vital academic study of the Analytical Engine as Babbage imagined it. The first step to doing that research was to digitize the entire Babbage archive. Digitization greatly facilitates research as these precious documents can be viewed conveniently from around the world.

I am pleased to be able to say that The Science Museum agreed that digitization was vital and undertook this project. The work on digitization started on Monday, September 12 and early in October Doron and I will have access to the digitized versions of Babbage's plans and notebooks for study. This great first step on Plan 28 is, finally, underway. We are very, very grateful to The Science Museum and all we have worked with there for their support and for having undertaken this vital work that will benefit not only Plan 28 but all those who wish to study Charles Babbage's work wherever they are.

In the initial stages, The Science Museum is making the digitizations available directly to Doron and me for study. Subsequently, in 2012, they will be made available publicly for research purposes and they will make their own announcement of full public availability. Today, The Science Museum doesn't have the resources to immediately make them available to the general public; I know there are many readers who would love to access these documents across the web but the museum needs just a little more time before they can cope with a flood of enquiries. Babbage's writings have waited over a century, just a little more patience is needed before they are generally available. Babbage's technical archive was bequeathed to his son, Henry Prevost, who donated it to The Science Museum. It is a tribute to generations of Science Museum archivists and curators that the archive is intact, listed and physically accessible.

It's hard for me to express what it means for Plan 28 and for the world at large that the museum has taken this step and is digitizing the Babbage archive. Notebooks, letters, and plans that have been carefully preserved by the museum will see the light of day using technology that Babbage caught just a glimpse of when thinking up the Analytical Engine.

I will post another update shortly on progress in registering "Plan 28" as a charity in the UK and let people know when they will be able to make donations.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Pie Chart Challenge

I contend that the pie chart should never be used. I've blogged about this before and I think the main contender for a replacement is the sausage. But there are still doubters :-) (Not everyone agrees)

The main problems with pie charts are:

1. It is difficult for humans to compare areas. So the area of the pie slices is hard to compare.

2. It is difficult for humans to compare angles. So the angle of the pie slices is similarly hard to compare.

3. Humans are much better at comparing lengths.

Amusingly, 1 and 2 above were exploited by Steve Jobs in a presentation:

On Hacker News yesterday I was challenged thusly:
Re: the claim that groups of pie charts are especially awful, I have a counterexample. How would you express this more clearly without a series of pie charts?
The charts in question look like this:

I responded with:

Which I contend is better because: it's easy to make a visual comparison between support across the different parties, and it's easy to see which parties are closest to the 50% majority threshold (or even the 66% super-majority threshold).

And, so, I give you the Pie Chart Challenge. If you truly believe that a pie chart is best then send me the chart (and its underlying data) and I will attempt to recraft it as a different, more descriptive and easier to comprehend, chart of my choosing.

If I fail (i.e. I believe that the sent pie chart is the best way to show the data), then I'll... eat humble pie.