Saturday 9 March 2013

The Information - James Gleick

When I jacked in the last job in the University at the end of 2012, my pal Dan gave me a copy of James Gleick's latest book with a rather flattering inscription.  I had a very expensive education and have, accordingly, been successful in Pub Quizzes over the years: the GoTo guy for South American capitals, 19th century railways and the Kings of France. I have an appetite for data and so, I reckon, does Gleick.  He has written maybe half a dozen of the best-selling pop science books over the last 20 years.  All dense, all readable and all informative - my sort of book.  But the pressure of work in the new job has meant that it's taken me 3 months to finish a book that is only 400+ pages with 100 pages of notes and indexes.  There's a section in the middle of The Information where Gleick describes the steampunk escapades of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace building their Analytical Engine out of machined brass and wood.  Young Ada could write reams of code in her head  but even after she'd written it down on paper it still had to wait for machinists and carpenters to build the tons of connexions necessary to implement her algorithms. 

In The Institute yesterday, I finished the lab section on BASIC computer programming and everyone slipped off early except my most earnest mature student.  He really wanted to understand how programming worked and was determined to plod through all the worked examples.  I was happy enough to hang out watching him figure it all out - I'm being paid to do that after all.  Finally, he elected to write his own code from first principles (albeit building on the templates he'd been typing and running for the previous half hour).  After a false start or two and some debugging and some teeny suggestions from me, he got that baby to suck diesel.  Such a small-small step forward but such a glow from Ernesto when he sat back with a modest smile - "It works!"

Where would we be now if Lady Lovelace had had it as easy in the 1840s to convert her ideas into reality?

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