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Sometimes I Wish That It Would Rain Here

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

a different difference engine

another referred link (thanks Matt) to a guy who built a version of Babbage's difference engine using LEGOs. it's not the difference engine to its fullest degree, but it can do 2nd or 3rd degree polynomials to 3 or 4 digits of accuracy. I think it's pretty darn impressive that the guy was able to get all the right gear ratios etc. to make this work using only LEGO technic pieces. my other favorite thing I've seen done with LEGOs is reconstructions of some of Escher's graphic prints, including Balcony, Belvedere, Ascending and Descending, Waterfall, and my personal favorite Relativity.

however, one line in the difference engine page gave me pause. referring to the process of creating log and trig tables in the 19th century, the author states that "people began to use machine to automate this error prone process." it sort of reminded me that the computer was originally a machine for computation, a mathematical machine. it was only later that people started using it for things other than computation. it's interesting that computers still can only compute, and yet we try to harness their computational capabilities to do all sorts of things that don't really in any direct way involve computation, e.g. word processing, IM, cell phones, email, etc. it also reminds me of how the vision of Memex has really guided the development of lots of new technologies, but the way we're using those technologies is not the intended manner as laid out in V. Bush's paper. not that that's a bad thing. however, it makes me think that we may want to reconsider the design of these technologies. rather than focusing on what the technology does or can do, it might make more sense to focus on the people who are using the technology, what they are doing, how the technology can support or enhance that activity, how technology can give people new and possibly better activities, or if even technological solutions are the best for any given situation.

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