NetKernel News Volume 4 Issue 7 - Beyond the Artisan Towards The Information Manufactory

NetKernel News Volume 4 Issue 7

February 22nd 2013

Catch up on last week's news here, or see full volume index.

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Moon in a Box

I found myself in the London Science Museum earlier this week. And, it being a school holiday, the place was rammed with kids.

This was my first visit since I myself was a kid.

I remember the excitement and the wonder at seeing the Apollo capsule. Its charred and streaked appearance testament to the fragility of its occupants hurtling back down into our local gravitational potential-well.

Today, the modest cabinet near the space exhibits is mostly ignored by the kids. After all, it only contains a dull grey one-inch cube lump of rock. But now that you're an adult, you appreciate that you are within arms length of a piece of the moon.

One of mankind's greatest treasures.

Some years ago, I'd had a similar experience at the Smithsonian Air and Space museum in Washington.

Just near the entrance, next to another Apollo capsule, mounted on a waist-height plinth is a similar modest looking perspex exhibit. Only that one has a circular hole about 2 inches across. Nobody looks at it.

And so, the crowds of visitors overlook the opportunity to, ever-so-gently, place their finger through the hole and...Touch The Moon

Degenerate Godfather

Upstairs, on the second floor, is the Mathematics and Computing exhibit.

The visitors don't come here.

I don't really blame them. My kid-self wouldn't have paid much attention either. It is deserted and I have the acute pleasure of being all alone.

It thrills me to find a small set of magnificent treasures, tucked away in an anonymous exhibition case.

A collection of Napier's Bones circa 1650 together with an original copy of the Rabdologiae.

John Napier laid a core foundation stone to the pillars of computation. He discovered, formalised and made eminently practical the use of logarithms and logarithm tables. While his "Bones" were progressively refined in the form of the Slide Rule.

Its easy to forget that slide rules were the key enabler to the engineering explosion of the late 18th ,19th and 20th centuries. Their economic impact is incalculable (ironically), but, you can be sure that the lump of moon rock downstairs wouldn't be there but for the slide rule.

So, given last week's discussion, you will appreciate the following observational context...

Napier incontravertably showed that it is cheaper to look something up than to compute it.

His tables of logarithms and his bones are pre-computed state. The method of logarithmic calculation is one of exploiting the efficiencies of a normalized computational state space...

Napier is the godfather of degenerate computation.

Engines of Computation

Barely thirty feet away in the exhibition hall is a section devoted to Analytical Engines. Mechanical "Engines of Computation" and the pinnacle of exquisite engineering refinement.

Its instructive to see the progression from slide rule, to mechanical calculator, to analytic engine - refinement, evolution, generalisation.

One of the exhibits that the kids on the ground floor were busy overlooking is Charles Babbage's original "Difference Engine 1". In modern terms we'd call it his "proof of concept".

His audacious concept: to build a universal programmable computation engine

Up on the second floor, away from the crowds, is "Difference Engine 2" (left). This exhibit is a contemporary device built to his original design.

Babbage never completed it, despite £15,000 of government funding (then the equivalent cost of two battleships).

The engineering challenge was beyond the reach of the technology (and politics) of the day.

Had it been completed, it would have been the world's first computer.

This, in 1830. Exactly one hundred plus years before Turing provided the formal basis for modern universal computers and Collosus warmed its operators with the glow of its valves.

Brain in a Jar

Discretely placed in a corner, adjacent to the magnificent engines, is another small glass cabinet. Anonymous. Devoid of billing.

It provided the greatest surprise and the most thrilling experience of the visit (and even the kids downstairs would have got a macabre kick out it)...

For here, was the man himself, or at least the only bit that matters, Charles Babbage's brain in a jar+.

The labelling and discussion of the exhibit were rather prosaic - explaining how, in the 19th century it was not unusual for great men's brains* to be preserved and dissected in the hope of understanding their operation. The prose also drew reference to his notes on the design of the Difference Engines which were laid out in the cabinet with him.

But the curators, geeks of the highest standing no doubt, had missed the opportunity...

For here, tucked away at the end of a hall containing the progressive evolution of computational engines stood Exhibit-A. The human brain.

The most powerful computer on the planet.

That it is the brain of Charles Babbage, the first man to hurl the first stone of the information age, is an arrangement of such exquisite beauty and poetry that it cannot be expressed.

*Men's brains since, not withstanding Ada Lovelace, it was an unreconstructed male age.
+This is the second time I've physically been in the presence of a long-dead great. When I was a student travelling around Europe one summer, in the Science Museum in Florence, I stumbled across Galileo's finger. Don't you think we should revive the tradition of pickling great people?

Beyond the Artisan Towards The Information Manufactory

My excitement at meeting Charles Babbage was not simply due to his pioneering work in computing.

In previous newsletters I've mentioned that its very instructive to look for historical parallels. To view the context in which the economics of industrial manufacturing evolved and in which engineering processes emerged.

You see Charles Babbage was famous and respected in his own time - but not really for his engine of computation - remember he actually failed to build it.

He was primarily famous as the man who observed, described and measured the economic value of the detailed engineering practices of the industrial revolution.

His book On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures was a best seller and documents the new industrial methods at exactly the point of transition from the artisan guild model to the "industrial manufactory" (factory model).

Its been forgotten (like his pioneering steps in computation) but his work forms the foundation of the late 19th Century formalisation of the practices of industrial manufacturing.

As in the history of computing, economists are beginning to understand that he was the godfather of industrial process engineering and of economic analysis of engineering practice.

I sense that Charles Babbage would be busy at work today. I sense we're at a similar transitional point with respect to the information age.

We are ready to move from artisan, monolithic information architectures using undifferentiated divisions of labour, to industrial-scale modular assembly with differentiated divisions of labour characterised by a new breed of information engineer.

He may be long gone, floating in a jar in London, but Charles Babbage still has many things left to tell us...

Have a great weekend.


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