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Untangling the Tale of Ada Lovelace (stephenwolfram.com)
157 points by lispython on Dec 12, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 35 comments



I thought this was a wonderfully written account of Ada and Babbage's role in modern computing. It was delightful to see how someone from Victorian society would express the frustration of debugging:

I am in much dismay at having got into so amazing a quagmire & botheration with these Numbers, that I cannot possibly get the thing done today. …. I am now going out on horseback. Tant mieux

Stephen Wolfram does add a few self-congratulatory remarks, but by and large it didn't really bother me for this article. Perhaps this is all part of some grand scheme to inflate his own work, but I learned a lot of history reading the article that I might not otherwise have by researching it myself. I think this piece was well-written enough to be taken at face value.


>Stephen Wolfram does add a few self-congratulatory remarks.

This is the man to a T. I think he would have done well in Victorian England. He is a clinical narcissist, and is incapable of mentioning any topic, subject, or fact without inserting a remark about his achievements.

It gets comical once you get to know him. I'd start pointing things out to him if I ever spoke to him.

"Stephen, this steak is delicious. Didn't you invent the software that allowed the design of the temperature sensors on modern grills?"


I think I'll have a New Year's resolution to write quagmire in bug reports where I would have written spaghetti.

Might be harder to get the impact assessment to choose from: crash, error, incorrect function, botheration.

But I'll give it a go.


I absolutely love the parallels between this story of Ada and Babbage and modern startup dynamics.

Early on, "Babbage was slightly distracted in 1824 by the prospect of joining a life insurance startup". Later, Ada "proposed to take on the role of CEO, with Babbage becoming CTO", where the CTO in this case had a personality that "pushed others away" and the CEO was a "Steve-Jobs-like figure who would lead the vision of the Analytical Engine".

My favourite excerpt from this piece, though, hits home for us programmers who prefer to automate annoying tasks. I found it hilarious, and will probably use this quote in my next commit message: Babbage is said to have exclaimed, “I wish to God these tables had been made by steam!”—and began his lifelong effort to mechanize the production of tables.


There is an excellent webcomic called The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, that describes what would have happened if they had successfully completed the Analytical Engine and gone on to fight crime. http://sydneypadua.com/2dgoggles/

More impressive than the comic itself is the amount of research put into it and the footnotes that go along with it. The author often takes inspiration directly from primary sources. For instance, a whole series on Babbage's strange hatred of street musicians.


I am a very happy owner of a print copy of the comic, and I recommend it at every opportunity possible:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Thrilling_Adventures_of_Lo...

It is an amazing work of art and scholarship. It's so much fun. It is indeed thrilling to imagine Ada as an accomplished horsewoman and lady of adventure, wrangling engines both within and without. In one of the stories, she's something of a parkour artist running through the gears of the difference engine. And it's all full of footnotes to primary sources that explain more about her actual life.

I find it more fun to read than Wolfram's blog post. Certainly more fun than, "in apparent resonance with some of my own work 150 years later, he talks about the relationship between mechanical processes, natural laws and free will."


But back in 1826 Babbage had invented something he called Mechanical Notation—that was intended to provide a symbolic representation for the operation of machinery. [...] Undoubtedly people didn’t understand it.

So, Babbage invented VHDL?


This is really well written and researched. I can't imagine reading so many century old letters and papers.

The most interesting part of this was getting a glimpse of a totally different society. Little details, like all these notable people that knew each other. And how many of them published in widely different fields. Or their totally different style of speech. Or how Babbage had 8 children, and all but 3 died.


Is it okay to mention https://ideas.lego.com/projects/102740 ?


The certificate for that site has expired (assuming it's yours).


not awesome! will tell them :)


Oh, I was expecting a full LEGO Technic replica of the Engine :(


Will a Lego reproduction [1] of Difference Engine No. 2 computing 2nd order differences to 3 digits (the reproduction in the UK [2] evaluates 7th order polynomials to 31 digits, true to Babbage's design) suffice?

[1] http://acarol.woz.org/LegoDifferenceEngine.html

[2] http://www.computerhistory.org/babbage/modernsequel/


Only if I can buy/steal it! But seriously, I went to see the reproduction at the Science Museum in London and it's an amazing piece of machinery. They have also plenty of other mechanical computation devices (for integration, derivation, approximating polynomials, Fourier transforms, etc.), worth paying a visit.



It might be the lack of coffee and food, (I read this before breakfast), but the mental image of a flower describing how it got watered kept popping into my head - the flower can't decide whats more impressive, the watering can containing the water, or the water itself. And in the middle of telling the story, every now and then, the flower says "But look how pretty I am !!"


I like history and particularly the history of computing, but given how little respect Wolfram had with regards to the history of mathematical ideas that preceded his own work (and then claiming credit for those ideas), how can I trust any historical analysis he authors?


Every Wolframy thread turns into the same discussion about Wolfram himself. Let's not let that happen here.

It's enough that the article is Wolfram's attempt to decide for himself what the story is. Idiosyncrancies aside, he obviously has the mathematical and computational background to understand the material. The main obstacle is putting in the time to understand it, which he did.

The article is replete with historical information, he explains why he concludes what he does, and the result is an order of magnitude more substantive (and technical) than any other Lovelace/Babbage article I recall seeing on HN. I think it can stand on its own. The content is fascinating and is what deserves discussion.


I disagree strongly with this. Wolfram himself litters the entire essay with asides in which he compares and contrasts his own place within science history with both Babbage and Lovelace. If Wolfram wanted to write a neutral historical account, he could have, but instead he opened the door for the continued derision of NKS-style pomposity by specifically tailoring this historical account as if it too must serve to underscore his own career efforts, which he chooses to frame as longsuffering attempts to have his work be granted the correct degree of awe.

Until he begins writing things in which he doesn't infuse that sort of ploy to underscore so-called credit he perceives he should be given, I think it's not only fair but highly useful to the community at large for criticisms of any work he produces to center on these aspects.

The only counter-argument I could see would be if the historical content of the article were so story-breaking and important that we should all put up with the pomposity in order to consume the never-before-explained-as-well historical side, but w.r.t. the history of Ada Lovelace and Babbage, that's just not true, and there are many other historical accounts that don't try to coyly shoehorn in comparisons to Wolfram products, Wolfram computational achievements, or credit/recognition that Wolfram believes he deserves.


Yes, I know about Wolfram's asides, tics, and shoehorning, as does everyone who reads a thing he wrote. But the Wolfram Derangement Syndrome it provokes in internet forum threads isn't interesting either. It's a mirror image of the thing it is annoyed by.

We're not going to ban what Wolfram writes because (a) he's a good writer, (b) however one evaluates him, Mathematica is significant, and (c) his best pieces—which this is one of—are interesting. That's enough to belong here, and I think we can expect HN to have the discipline to focus on the substantive bits and resist the hypnotic pull of the trollish ones.


Who is talking about banning what he writes?


Mathematica is significant

Mathematica is a proprietary software influenced by the earlier computer algebra systems Macsyma (of which Wolfram was a user) and Schoonschip (whose code Wolfram studied).

Maxima is a computer algebra system based on a 1982 version of Macsyma. It is written in Common Lisp and runs on all POSIX platforms such as OS X, Unix, BSD, and Linux as well as under Microsoft Windows and Android. It is free software released under the terms of the GNU General Public License.

It would be the same to defend William Henry "Bill" Gates III, by stating that MS-DOS is significant, while MS-DOS was a renamed form of 86-DOS - owned by Seattle Computer Products, written by Tim Paterson. Development of 86-DOS took only six weeks, as it was basically a clone of Digital Research's CP/M (for 8080/Z80 processors), ported to run on 8086 processor.


>Mathematica is a proprietary software

Nothing wrong with that.

>influenced by the earlier computer algebra systems Macsyma (of which Wolfram was a user) and Schoonschip (whose code Wolfram studied).

Not much wrong with that either.

Even if it was just a clone of those systems when it came out, being the successful clone is enough to make it have merit.

But of course since then it's 1000 times the code size of the initial systems, and 100 times the capabilities.

>It would be the same to defend William Henry "Bill" Gates III, by stating that MS-DOS is significant, while MS-DOS was a renamed form of 86-DOS

Again, MS-DOS is significant. Whether it was innovative (it wasn't) is another thing, but it sure has been historically significant.

Sorry, but it's not always the first product that comes out that defines an era and a market. And copying happens all the time too, and can even evolve into something that the original never was.


It may be that if the clone didn't exist, the attention might have instead fallen upon it's predecessors, with the benefit of them being non-propriety. Being a successful clone does not imply merit, in fact "forks" can do damage...


> Nothing wrong with that.

Much wrong with that. Mathematics should not proceed based on a secret sauce. In mathematics, the details of the computation are almost always far more interesting than the result. The details are the very raison d'être of the subject.


>Mathematics should not proceed based on a secret sauce.

Thanks god Mathematica is not mathematics the science, then, but just a tool in assisting with doing math and physics and all kinds of calculations.

>*In mathematics, the details of the computation are almost always far more interesting than the result.

Yeah, just not in any case Mathematica, Maple, R, Matlab etc were involved.


The issue is misattributions and misappropriations. And those should be (and are) wrong, esp. in science.

Taking the spirit of the times, ie. migrating software from minis to micros/pc^1-s in both cases and expropriating and monopolizing is not about simply copying, nor evolution in the best sense.

^1 https://xkcd.com/386/


(1) "There Was a Time before Mathematica…"

Wolfram's blog post says he discovered "a program called Macsyma — that did algebra, and could be used interactively. I was amazed so few people used it. But it wasn’t long before I was spending most of my days on it."

Later: "I got more and more ambitious, trying to do more and more with Macsyma. Pretty soon I think I was its largest user. But sometime in 1979 I hit the edge; I’d outgrown it."

Later: "And after a little while I decided that the only way I’d really have a chance to get what I wanted was if I built it myself. And so it was that I embarked on what would become SMP (the “Symbolic Manipulation Program”)."

Mathematica came after SMP.

Sounds like a fairly familiar software story, no?

(1) http://blog.stephenwolfram.com/2013/06/there-was-a-time-befo...


> I disagree strongly with this. Wolfram himself litters the entire essay with asides in which he compares and contrasts his own place within science history with both Babbage and Lovelace.

I count 18 times in the essay where he refers to himself with 8 of those times relating to his experience in computation, the others are showing Lady Lovelace's computation in Mathematic or small asides personal notes (e.g. "the same school where I went 150 years later", "When I was in elementary school, logarithm tables were still the fast way to do multiplication.").

Even with the times he relates it to his own work, he is basically using it as a guide for his conclusions on what he believes about his subjects.

I'm not a Mathematica user, nor do I follow the controversy with Wolfram. Its not my thing beyond having looked at the language underlying Mathematica because I look at almost every language (it is a hobby). That being said, I think your reading this with an eye to be irritated.


You seem to have been reading a very different article than what I read, or else you are reading it with a desire to be permissive of Wolfram's overt self-promotion. The issue is not with innocuous asides, like the comment about his school, but with all the references comparing his personal work to that of Babbage and Lovelace.

For example, Wolfram writes

> In apparent resonance with some of my own work 150 years later, he talks about the relationship between mechanical processes, natural laws and free will.

in which the phrase 'my own work' is an embedded link to the table of contents of NKS. He also writes

> The one big exception to this was his almost-50-year persistence in trying to automate the process of computation. I myself have shared a modern version of this very goal in my own life (…, Mathematica, Wolfram|Alpha, Wolfram Language, …)—though so far only for 40 years. I am fortunate to have lived in a time when ambient technology made this much easier to achieve, but in every large project I have done it has still taken a certain singlemindedness and gritty tenacity—as well as leadership—to actually get it finished.

in which the terms 'Mathematica', 'Wolfram|Alpha', and 'Wolfram Language' are links to those respective proprietary projects of Wolfram's -- thus clearly deviating from the notion of a neutral historical account and drifting into self-aggrandizing advertisement for a set of modern commercial products that are truly unrelated to the content of the essay (Lovelace's contributions).

Wolfram continues with this kind of stuff, at one point saying:

> There was still, though, a suspicion that perhaps some other way of making computers might lead to a different form of computation. And it actually wasn’t until the 1980s that universal computation became widely accepted as a robust notion. And by that time, something new was emerging—notably through work I was doing: that universal computation was not only something that’s possible, but that it’s actually common.

>And what we now know (embodied for example in my Principle of Computational Equivalence) is that beyond a low threshold a very wide range of systems—even of very simple construction—are actually capable of universal computation.

in which the phrase 'Principle of Computational Equivalence' is an embedded link to chapter 12 of NKS. Once again, what on earth is this doing in a historical essay? It's not relevant to the story of Babbage and Lovelace. What he says about universal computation is highly debateable (it was certainly recognized within professional computer science long before the 80s, and indeed as many criticisms of NKS point out, even Wolfram's own supposedly important result was mostly a proof developed by another person and was largely a minor extension of widely published work already known to the community at the time).

These are not "small asides personal notes" as you write it. These are structural elements of the whole essay. Even when he is talking about a topic you'd think could not be perverted by self-aggrandizing marketing, we still manages to shoehorn in something irrelevant about Mathematica:

> Today, of course, it’s instantaneous to do the computation in the Wolfram Language:

What? The instantaneousness of it is not related to the historical article at all -- it's just a way to shoehorn in Mathematica. And then just below that:

> And, as it happens, a few years ago, just to show off new algorithms, we even computed 10 million of them.

where the part 'computed 10 million of them' is an embedded link to a press release article from the Mathematica blog.

You seem to have glossed over the article and chosen two extremely innocuous examples (the bit about his former school and the bit about logarithm tables). Those two asides are not representative of the sweepingly self-aggrandizing and self-promotional items that are all over the article.

These parts by Wolfram do a disservice to Lovelace and Babbage in as much as they greatly weaken the accuracy and relevance of the overall piece, and add noise that the reader must be careful to navigate around if she wants to enjoy the historical bits.

At any rate, I don't think I am expressing an "eye to be irritated" as you put it. It's all just plain to see in Wolfram's writing.


Wow, just mentioning himself in an essay about his search to learn historical figures are is pretty normal for this type of essay. He is trying to relate to the figures he is writing about. I've read people talking about Nelson going on about the feel of a deck and the differences from modern sailing. This is no more than that.

> in which the terms 'Mathematica', 'Wolfram|Alpha', and 'Wolfram Language' are links to those respective proprietary projects of Wolfram's

That is actually pretty normal for anyone running a blog on their corporate site. It doesn't compromise a neutral account just wiki-ing up the article.

>> Today, of course, it’s instantaneous to do the computation in the Wolfram Language:

> What? The instantaneousness of it is not related to the historical article at all -- it's just a way to shoehorn in Mathematica. And then just below that:

No, it just shows how much the world of computation has improved and how amazing the accomplishments of both Ada and Babbage. I would have said FORTRAN, but that's more my thing as some probably would have said R.

> You seem to have glossed over the article and chosen two extremely innocuous examples (the bit about his former school and the bit about logarithm tables). Those two asides are not representative of the sweepingly self-aggrandizing and self-promotional items that are all over the article.

No, I gave a count and actually assembled a list. Some other poster used those and I thought they were worth mentioning as pretty normal. Hey, if I had went to the same school as Babbage, I sure would of pointed it out. Heck, I would have shown pictures. When we talked about the 360 on HN, I pointed out I still had a banana book. The examples you gave are just as innocent and used to point out common interests.

> These parts by Wolfram do a disservice to Lovelace and Babbage in as much as they greatly weaken the accuracy and relevance of the overall piece, and add noise that the reader must be careful to navigate around if she wants to enjoy the historical bits.

No, it just gives the experience of one man seeing historical figures and relating them in terms he uses daily. Your reading is uncharitable.


> Wow, just mentioning himself in an essay about his search to learn historical figures are is pretty normal for this type of essay. He is trying to relate to the figures he is writing about. I've read people talking about Nelson going on about the feel of a deck and the differences from modern sailing. This is no more than that.

No, this is quite different. Wolfram clearly and unequivocally depicts his accomplishments as being significant to the same degree as Babbage and Lovelace, if not even more significant. The significance of Wolfram's accomplishments is not relevant to an article about Babbage and Lovelace. Even just a neutral statement of Wolfram's accomplishments is not very relevant (especially because of all of the controversy around the actual proof of the main result that Wolfram tries to take credit for, but that's just an aside).

> That is actually pretty normal for anyone running a blog on their corporate site. It doesn't compromise a neutral account just wiki-ing up the article.

Yes, it does compromise neutral accounts. That's why we don't consider anecdotes published on marketing blogs to be reliable neutral accounts. Even so, I agree that Wolfram did a lot of work here, and that large sections of this essay are of far higher quality than a typical marketing blog. Which makes it all the more tragic that he ruined the overall piece by needing to shoehorn in unrelated comments about his own career and proprietary projects.

> No, it just shows how much the world of computation has improved and how amazing the accomplishments of both Ada and Babbage. I would have said FORTRAN, but that's more my thing as some probably would have said R.

No. There are any number of ways to higlight how the landscape of computing has changed (although, higlighting that in an essay about Lovelace's contributions in her time is already on thin ice as far as relevancy goes) -- almost all of which don't involve plugging the specific proprietary project that the author worked on. It's disingenuous of you to nonchalantly act like it could have been FORTRAN or R or whatever, as if Mathematica is "just another" option and "just so happened" to be the one that Wolfram chose to highlight. Yeah, right.

> No, I gave a count and actually assembled a list.

This could still be consistent with choosing two innocuous quotes to draw attention away from the many flagrant quotes in the article. There's no way to know based solely on your supply of just those two particular quotes in your original reply.

> Hey, if I had went to the same school as Babbage, I sure would of pointed it out. Heck, I would have shown pictures.

Again, the school comment is not the sort of comment I am criticizing. There's no need for you to defend it again after I already agreed it was innocuous. If all of Wolfram's self-promotional asides were like that, it would be a little tiresome but no big deal. They are not like that.

> No, it just gives the experience of one man seeing historical figures and relating them in terms he uses daily. Your reading is uncharitable.

No, it's once again extremely disingenuous to act like repeated self-promotional asides are merely "terms he uses daily." Unfortunately, that may actually be true about Wolfram, but it doesn't change the fact that it's the terms' self-promotional-ness that is the problem, and whether they are common idioms for Wolfram (e.g. whether he self-promotes a lot and that is just how he internalizes the things he learns about) is irrelevant to other readers.

So, we disagree and that's OK. You're certainly welcome to find my interpretation uncharitable. I continue to believe that it is Wolfram himself being uncharitable, and supplying a wealth of evidence to support this with his own writing.

It really does take what would otherwise be a nice essay and ruin it. Some of it can be overlooked, but I find that in particular the mentions of the Principle of Computational Equivalence and the references to his own supposedly long-suffering career battles that have required "grit" and "leadership" specifically on Wolfram's part are way over the top and just not at all defensible along the lines of what you are saying.


Wolfram and Babbage are so wonderfully alike, and Wolfram doesn't even see it in his own pomposity (or maybe he does and the joke's on us).

Exclaiming "that's the school I went to" added nothing to the story, like so many other asides.


I found the historical storytelling to be the most fascinating part of the article as well -- however I think the article does also lend potentially interesting fodder for discussion of wolfram himself.

One can clearly see why wolfram would be interested in the ideas of Lovelace and Babbage -- but I wonder what kind of introspection he experiences as he reflects on his perception of their Victorian personalities. People who talk explicitly about nobility and "bequeathing" ideas to future generations, while also being actual visionaries as regarded by these future generations. There's Babbage who believes himself to be under appreciated by his contemporaries -- a character flaw which frequently causes him to fail to act in ways which would've been more effective at recruiting support from others and might've resulted in a deeper execution of his vision. And Lovelace who seems very able to see herself as an abstract object of public perception, due to the controversy and celebrity of her father -- and who devotes herself completely to authoring a version of her story that is unassailable by controversy -- an actor who explicitly asks that her contributions be portrayed only for the merit of the advancements they contain -- and no more.

One wonders which personality wolfram self identifies with more ...


Obligatory: "A Rare Blend of Monster Raving Egomania and Utter Batshit Insanity" http://psoup.math.wisc.edu/491/Batshit.htm




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