Building the Analytical Engine

April 30, 2012

I’ve written here before about the project, launched by John Graham-Cumming, a British writer and programmer, to build a working model of the Analytical Engine, designed in the 19th century by the British mathematician, Charles Babbage.  The Engine, which has a fair claim to being the world’s first design for a stored-program computer, was never built, owing to its size (about the same as a steam locomotive) and complexity.  Lord Byron’s daughter Ada, Lady Lovelace, for whom the Ada programming language is named, wrote a program for the Analytical Engine to compute Bernoulli numbers, and was possibly the world’s first programmer.

Last fall, the Science Museum in London undertook the digitization of Babbage’s various designs for the Engine (he was an inveterate tinkerer), with the aim of coming to a final design for the proposed replica.

There is now a video available of a TED talk that Mr. Graham-Cumming gave at Imperial College, London, on the Analytical Engine project, in which he discusses the design of the Engine and how the project is proceeding.  Although it’s not a comprehensive description, it’s an entertaining overview of the problem.

Prof. Felten’s New Blog

April 30, 2012

In discussing technology policy and security issues here, I’ve frequently mentioned Professor Ed Felten of Princeton, director of the University’s Center for Information Technology Policy [CITP], who is serving a term as the Chief Technologist of the US Federal Trade Commission [FTC].  I’ve just discovered that, in his new capacity, he has recently started a blog, Tech@FTC; he describes the goal this way:

Our goal is to talk about technology in a way that is sophisticated enough to be interesting to hard-core techies, but straightforward enough to be accessible to the broad public that knows something about technology but doesn’t qualify as expert.  Every post will have an identified author–usually me–who will speak to you in the first person.  We’ll aim for a conversational, common-sense tone–and if we fall short, I’m sure you’ll let us know in the comments.

I have not yet had a chance to read all the posts that are there, even though there are not that many yet, but I am sure that they will be worth reading.  I’ll mention two recent posts that I have read.  The first explains why “hashing” data, such as Social Security numbers, does not make the data anonymous,  The second discusses why pseudonyms aren’t anonymous, either.  (I’ve previously written a couple of times about the difficulty of “anonymizing” data.)

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of what’s there, and to Prof. Felten’s future posts.  At the time his appointment to the FTC post was announced, I was pleased that someone so well-qualified had been chosen.  Reading the new blog reinforces that feeling.

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