I caught a great episode of Nova the other night about fractal geometry and its patron saint, Benoît Mandelbrot. I’ve always been interested in fractals, but I didn’t know a lot about how Mandelbrot originally got interested in them or what led to his amazing discoveries.
This portion of the program is an accessable explanation of exactly how the pieces came together. Mandelbrot, working at IBM, was researching the problem of noise on telephone lines being used to transmit computer data. In graphing the noise he discovered self-similarity, much like that in the Cantor set and the Koch snowflake, mathematical “monsters” that didn’t conform to the normal rules of lines, curves, and dimensions. While the Cantor set was comparable to the problem of IBM’s noise, the Koch snowflake was more comparable to the problem of measuring a coastline. (Mandelbrot’s famous article How Long Is the Coast of Britain? explains this problem—it turns out that the length of a coastline relates to the length of the ruler you use to measure it.)
Mandelbrot’s position at IBM was ideal: computers rely heavily on recursion, as do fractals, whose patterns occur so frequently in the natural world. It was only with access to a powerful computer that Mandelbrot was able to plot all solutions to the recursive Julia set. Mandelbrot’s own set, an icon for fractal geometry, is closely related to the Julia set.
Michael Bierut’s essay on his journey as a designer in the midst of the analog-digital shift in NYT this weekend is just like the man himself: charming, insightful, and honest. Not only is he a gifted designer, but, as everyone knows by now, he is one of design’s finest ambassadors to the public. His piece is full of poetic transitions like this one:
One day, some carpenters came into our open-plan studio and started framing up some walls. Behind those walls we were about to start a top-secret project for a top-secret client. The client was I.B.M. and the project was the packaging for the introduction of its line of new personal computers. All of us assumed that these machines were just fancy hybrids of typewriters and calculators. We did all the artwork with rubber cement, colored paper and paint. We had no idea, but we were looking at the beginning of the end, and the end came quickly.
If you haven’t taken a moment to read this piece yet, you should.
Wikipedia on the Halting Problem: “In computability theory, the halting problem is a decision problem which can be stated as follows: given a description of a program and a finite input, decide whether the program finishes running or will run forever, given that input.” Alan Turing proved that, at least for his own purely abstract-but-nonetheless-computer-like Turing Machine, the halting problem cannot be solved. See also: Busy Beavers, Watchdog Timers, and a Dead Man’s Switch.
I thought I was all set with the conceptual underpinnings of the I’m a Mac / I’m a PC campaign until I read John Gruber’s thoughtful post on Microsoft’s new campaign. Gruber writes, “Apple does not sell operating systems. They sell computers. Microsoft does not sell computers; they sell operating systems. […] Apple and Microsoft are undeniably engaged in one of the longest running and most interesting rivalries in business history, but it is very odd in that it is an orthogonal rivalry. Apple’s direct competition isn’t Microsoft but instead PC makers who sell computers running Windows. […] The framing of Apple’s ads is not about either/or. Not a choice between two rival products, like Democrat/Republican, Chevy/Ford, Coke/Pepsi. The framing instead is special vs. regular. Not Coke vs. Pepsi but Coke vs. ‘soda.’ […] Windows is not the Mac’s rival or competitor. It is the omnipresent homogenizer that weighs PC down.”
It’s 2050, and you have amassed a library of some three million PDF documents. Ten years earlier, amid bad management and shareholder uproar, Adobe was forced out of business, and a new format has emerged as the portable document standard. With support for PDFs dwindling each year, where do you turn to access your information? The Format Exchange, built by the visionary Long Now Foundation, is “a central repository and discussion space for file format conversion to aid in knowledge transfer. The goal is to build a community and tool to help allow the information we are all now creating digitally to move into the future.” Brilliant. Update: Scott wrote in to share a few more thoughts on this: “You may want to check out Library of Congress MARC/XML and PDF/A formats. They are great archival digital formats that forward thinking people are working hard at. But note that even though the formats may be accessible, big businesses don’t often implement the standards. […] The latest Wired magazine also displays the exponential decline of our data storages life expectancy. Stone tablets have been found up to 7,000 years old and the CDs we burn last about 5 years.”
“The Machine That Changed the World is the longest, most comprehensive documentary about the history of computing ever produced, but since its release in 1992, it’s become virtually extinct.” Fortunately Andy Baio of Waxy.org has managed to put the whole thing online. What a treat. (via Rosecrans Baldwin’s excellent series The Digital Ramble for NYT’s style blog The Moment).
According to NYT, Researchers at Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy have developed a way to retrieve encrypted information from a computer chip by using a can of compressed air to chill the chip and place it in a kind of suspended animation, thus allowing them to read encryption keys from the chip after power has been cut. “When the chips were chilled using an inexpensive can of air, the data was frozen in place, permitting the researchers to easily read the keys—long strings of ones and zeros—out of the chip’s memory.” Chips cooled in liquid nitrogen (–196 °C) will even hold their state for hours without power. More thoughts on encryption here.