Archive for Charles Babbage

poems that solve puzzles [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 7, 2021 by xi'an

Upon request, I received this book from Oxford University Press for review. Poems that Solve Puzzles is a nice title and its cover is quite to my linking (for once!). The author is Chris Bleakley, Head of the School of Computer Science at UCD.

“This book is for people that know algorithms are important, but have no idea what they are.”

These is the first sentence of the book and hence I am clearly falling outside the intended audience. When I asked OUP for a review copy, I was more thinking in terms of Robert Sedgewick’s Algorithms, whose first edition still sits on my shelves and which I read from first to last page when it appeared [and was part of my wife’s booklist]. This was (and is) indeed a fantastic book to learn how to build and optimise algorithms and I gain a lot from it (despite remaining a poor programmer!).

Back to poems, this one reads much more like an history of computer science for newbies than a deep entry into the “science of algorithms”, with imho too little on the algorithms themselves and their connections with computer languages and too much emphasis on the pomp and circumstances of computer science (like so-and-so got the ACM A.M. Turing Award in 19… and  retired in 19…). Beside the antique algorithms for finding primes, approximating π, and computing the (fast) Fourier transform (incl. John Tukey), the story moves quickly to the difference engine of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, then to Turing’s machine, and artificial intelligence with the first checkers codes, which already included some learning aspects. Some sections on the ENIAC, John von Neumann and Stan Ulam, with the invention of Monte Carlo methods (but no word on MCMC). A bit of complexity theory (P versus NP) and then Internet, Amazon, Google, Facebook, Netflix… Finishing with neural networks (then and now), the unavoidable AlphaGo, and the incoming cryptocurrencies and quantum computers. All this makes for pleasant (if unsurprising) reading and could possibly captivate a young reader for whom computers are more than a gaming console or a more senior reader who so far stayed wary and away of computers. But I would have enjoyed much more a low-tech discussion on the construction, validation and optimisation of algorithms, namely a much soft(ware) version, as it would have made it much more distinct from the existing offer on the history of computer science.

[Disclaimer about potential self-plagiarism: this post or an edited version of it will eventually appear in my Books Review section in CHANCE.]

false value

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 23, 2020 by xi'an

A very pleasant eighth volume in the Rivers of London series after a few so-so episodes! The relentless deadpan of Peter Grant is back full shape, the plot is substantial and gripping, new and well-drawn characters abound, and the story offers an original retelling of the Difference Engine. (Not that I have reservations about Gibbson’s plus Sterling’s 1990 version!) Including mentions of Jacquard’s loom, card fed organ automates, Ada Lovelace and Mary Somerville. Plus providing great satire on Ai companies with a hardly modified “Deep Thought” pastiche. Enjoyable all along and definitely a page turner that I read within three days..! And being strongly immersed in the current era, from the passing away of David Bowie to the dearful impact of Theresa May as home secretary. Presumably missing a heap of references to geek culture and subcultures, apart from Hitchhiker Guide to the Galaxy. And too many quotes to report, but some mentions of stats (“the Red Army had done a statistical analysis with demon traps just as they had with conventional minefields. The conclusions had been the same in both cases.” (p.50) and “Beverley climbed into the bath with a second-hand copy of Statistics for Environmental Science and Management” (p.69), which is a genuine book.) As often the end is a bit murky and a bit precipitated, but not enough to whine about. Recommended (conditional on having read the earliest ones in the series)!

babbage in, babbage out?!

Posted in Books, Kids, Statistics with tags , , , , , , on May 25, 2020 by xi'an

When checking for the origin of “garbage in, garbage out” on Wikipedia, I came upon this citation from Charles Babbage:

“On two occasions I have been asked, “Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?” … I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.”

following earlier quotes from him on this ‘Og.

Dan Leno & the Limehouse Golem [book review]

Posted in Books, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , on November 26, 2017 by xi'an

Another book that came to my bedside rather randomly! It is in fact a 1994 book by Peter Ackroyd, not to be confused with Roger Ackroyd, a mystery book by Agatha Christie I remember reading in my teenage years! And takes place in Victorian London, around a woman Elisabeth Cree, who is a music hall celebrity and stands accused of murdering her husband. With the background of a series of gratuitous and inexplicable murders soon attributed to a supernatural creature. Called a golem for its ability to appear and vanish with no witness… There is a great idea in the plot but its implementation is quite tedious, with a plodding style that makes the conclusion a very long wait. This is not helped by Ackroyd borrowing so much from the life of a few well-known historical characters like Karl Marx, George Gissing, Dan Leno and Charles Babbage himself! Simply because they truly existed does not make these characters particularly exciting within the plot. Especially Babbage and his difference engine. (Which was exploited in a much better steampunk novel by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling!) The worst part is when Ackroyd reflects in the book on the engine being a “forerunner of the modern computer”, ruining the whole perspective. As I do not want to get into spoilers about the almost unexpected twists in the conclusion, let me conclude with quotes attributed to Babbage (or followers) about social statistics, for which he had devised the analytical engine.

“To be exactly informed about the lot of humankind (…) is to create the conditions in which it can be ameliorated. We must know before we can understand, and statistic evidence is the surest form of evidence currently in our possession.” (p.113)

“…the errors which arise from unsound reasoning neglecting true data are far more numerous and more durable than those which result from the absence of facts.” (p.119)