Monthly Archives: April 2010

Stephen Wolfram’s computable universe

I love Wolfram Alpha and think it has deep implications for our relationship with information, indeed our use of language both in a human-computer interaction sense and as a vehicle for passing information to each other.

In this video from TED2010, Stephen Wolfram lays out (and his language and presentation had developed considerably since Alpha was launched a year ago) where Alpha fits as an exploration of a computable universe, enabling the experimental marriage of the precision of mathematics with the messiness of the real world.

This video is both radical and incremental: Radical in its bold statement that a thought experiment such as computable universes (see Neal Stephenson’s In the beginning was…the command line, specifically the last chapter, for an entertaining explanation) actually could be generated and investigated is as radical as anything Wolfram has ever proposed. The idea of democratization of programming, on the other hand, is as old as COBOL – and I don’t think Alpha or Mathematica is going to provide it – though it might go some way, particularly if Alpha gains some market share and the idea of computing things in real time rather than accessing stored computations takes hold.

Anyway – see the video, enjoy the spark of ideas you get from it – and try out Wolfram Alpha. My best candidate for the "insert brief insightful summary research" button I always have been looking for on my keyboard.

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A cruel and incomprehensive war

My War Gone By, I Miss It So My War Gone By, I Miss It So by Anthony Loyd

My rating: 4 of 5 stars Anthony Loyd goes to the war in the former Yugoslavia as an observer – well, let’s be honest, a tourist – and then gradually succumbs to the fascination, tinged with shame, of observing something surreal, dangerous, and yet so central to Europe. The complex and cruel war between Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Muslims and other overlapping and changing factions was a gruesome continuation of centuries of internecine fighting that was only temporarily halted by the Tito regime – close to a quarter million people dead, yet curiously disregarded by the European press.

Loyd gradually becomes a war correspondent, seemingly more for financial reasons – and to have a proper reason to be where he was – than because of an interest in a career. He turns out to be good at it, yet maintains his distance, and his heroin addiction. In the end you are left with painfully memorable descriptions of individual and mass tragedies – and you still don’t know much about the person doing the reporting.

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