Today I’m going to talk about the idea of the miraculous, or at least the appearance of the miraculous. Humans have a strange relationship to the miraculous, but the prime emotion it seems to stimulate is awe, and awesomeness is pretty much what we’re all striving for.
Umair Haque, Director of the Havas Media Lab, recently started a conversation about what he calls The Awesomeness Manifesto:
“You might be innovative—but are you awesome? For most, the answer is: no. Game over: in the 21st century, if you’re merely innovative, prepare to be disrupted by awesomeness. ”
This is nice, but I distrust commercial definitions of innovation, and particularly of awesomeness. It’s an overused term. When I think of awesomeness, I want something awe-inspiring, vast and mind-expanding.
So I started thinking about things that I think are awesome, or miraculous, and for me, it kept coming back to scale and complexity.
We’re not actually very good about thinking about scale and complexity in real terms, so we have to use metaphors and examples. Douglas Adams writes somewhere about how big the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy actually is—imagine a sheet of paper, then a filing cabinet full of sheets of paper, then a room full of filing cabinets, then a skyscraper full of rooms, then a city full of skyscrapers, a country, a planet, a solar system and so on. I couldn’t find the exact quote [Someone has suggested it might actually be Iain Banks, from a Culture novel, talking about a Mind. I think they're right—probably Consider Phlebas], so his thoughts on space will have to do:
“Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space.” Douglas Adams
But Adams is very good at constructing metaphors to explain stuff that is really quite mind-boggling, like the filing cabinet / room / planet story.
Thomas Pynchon too. In “The Story of Byron the Bulb”, a little subplot within the vast and wonderful Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon describes a single light-bulb’s revenge plot on humanity:
“When M-Day does roll around, you can bet Byron's elated. He has passed the time hatching some really insane grandiose plans—he's gonna organise all the Bulbs, see, get him a poower base in Berlin, he's already hep to the Strobing Tactic, all you do is develop a knack of shutting off and on at a rate close to the human brain's alpha rhythm, and you can actually trigger an epileptic fit! True. Byron has had a vision of 20 million bulbs all over Europe, at a given synchronizing pulse arranged by one of his many agents in the Grid, all these bulbs beginning to strobe together, humans thrashing around the 20 million rooms like fish on the beaches of Perfect Energy...” Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow
When I first read Gravity’s Rainbow, I skipped over this story, but I kept coming back to it as I grasped Pynchon’s intention: dramatising scale and complexity, the scale and complexity of the war in Europe itself. Can you fit every light bulb in every room in Europe into your head?
We also have complexity within complexity, scale within scale. These are the pages representing the story of Byron the Bulb from Zak Smith’s Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Novel “Gravity’s Rainbow”:
Smith drew an illustration for every single page of Pynchon’s 760 page novel, creating a new work out of the former.
As did Tom Phillips, with his book The Humument. Phillips painted over every page of a Victorian novel to create a new narrative, reusing the old, introducing new characters, finding new stories between the pages of the existing text:
This is what Phillips said about the project:
“It is a forgotten Victorian novel found by chance... plundered, mined, and undermined its text to make it yield the ghosts of other possible stories, scenes, poems and replacing the text stripped away with visual images of all kinds.” Tom Phillips
Well, it’s possible to perform this exercise with technology too. My fascination with the awesomeness of scale and complexity makes me a big fan of strange mechanical objects and machines. I actually have a degree in Computer Science and Cognitive Science, but I think I spent most of my final year in Senate House looking up weird and strange inventions and machines.
In fiction, Heath Robinson was of course the greatest exponent of this, in his fantastical contraptions that involve huge amounts of complexity to perform quite simple tasks:
One of my favourites, the street cleaning machine, which replaces a single street cleaner with a huge vehicle with a crew of 5 and all the strange but theoretically possible levers, pulleys, gluepots, scrubbers and so on we expect from Robinson.
“I really have a secret satisfaction in being considered rather mad.” W. Heath Robinson
Yes. But Robinson had a profound influence on normalising crazy schemes, on recognising that crazy schemes have a value. In the Falklands War, Harrier Jump Jets needed a chaff system to combat missile attacks, so RAF engineers built an impromptu delivery system of welding rods, split pins and string which allowed six packets of chaff to be stored in the airbrake well and deployed in flight. Due to its complexity it was universally referred to as the “Heath Robinson chaff modification”.
At Bletchley Park, too, the precursor to the Colossus—the machine that broke the Enigma code and many others—was officially named “Heath Robinson”—and from this description it’s not hard to see why:
“Heath Robinson consisted of three parts, the frame on which the teleprinter paper tapes were mounted and read optically, known as the Bedstead, a wide short rack containing the counters, a lamp output panel and later the Gifford printer on a front table, and a tall 19 inch rack known as the valve rack which contained the logic circuits and a jack field panel for plugging up the algorithms. The short counters rack was produced at TRE and the Bedstead and valve rack at the GPO research labs at Dollis Hill to Wynn-Williams circuit designs. The cover name for the project was "Apparatus Telegraph Transmitting", case number 11951. The Bedstead was designed by Arnold Lynch and Eric Speight. Harry Fensom and Alan Bruce worked on commissioning the system at Dollis Hill. There were difficulties in getting the ring modulator logic to work due to extra phase shifts in the circuits when more than six circuits were connected together one after the other. Allen Coombs relates this problem and tells how he went to Tommy Flowers for advice. Tommy Flowers said "change the frequency" which Allen Coombs did. It solved the problem but neither he nor Tommy Flowers knew why. Eventually it all worked together and Heath Robinson was moved to Bletchley Park.”
The interesting bit is at the bottom: it didn't work, they “changed the frequency”, and it did. No idea why. Brilliant. “Change the frequency” is my new term for randomly poking things until they work, a kind of non-technical strategy for dealing with problems you don’t understand, but which yields results surprisingly often.
This is a sketch I made of Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine in the Science Museum. What’s great is that this—the thing in the Science Museum that is, not my rubbish drawing—is the original engine, although not built until the 1990s, because Babbage never completed it.
It weighs 3 tons, and measures 3.4m long, 2.1m high, and 0.5m deep, and calculates polynomial functions. You set the starting values on the columns of figure wheels, and crank the handle to produce the results. And to a lot of people’s surprise, it works, even when constructed to engineering tolerances possible in Babbage’s time, and you have to admit, it’s immensely more satisfying than prodding a digital calculator.
He did build some chunks though, specifically the crank and the initial counting engine, with which he managed to tabulate some mathematical functions. However, he seems to have been more interested in using it to explain his theory of miracles.
Babbage defined a theory of miracles as events illuminated by sudden, catastrophic change. Things “miraculous“ are merely highly improbable (shades of Douglas Adams again).
Babbage would entertain his dinner guests—and I use the term advisedly—by getting them to crank the handle of the difference engine, which first counted normally in some series, such as addition by 2—“0... 2... 4... 6...”—until they grew restless, when it would suddenly add not 2, but 74, or 117, or some other, defiantly not-2 number. This, claimed Babbage, represented the sudden, miraculous change—reality was pre-programmed with unexpected events which demonstrated the changing will of God.
Babbage even went so far as to calculate the miracle quotient of the resurrection:
All the people who have lived since the creation of the world—the Keyfitz calculation for that gives us a figure of 96,100,000,000 people in 1999—against the number who’ve come back: 1. [As several people pointed out after the talk, Babbage and I had this wrong, as we should have included Lazarus and the daughter of Jairus in the calculation.]
So the “miracle” of the resurrection is just a probability of 96 billion to one—although it’s worth noting that it’s getting more miraculous all the time.
Babbage, a thorough man, actually wrote to Lord Alfred Tennyson, suggesting he amend a line in his poem “The Vision of Sin” to take into account current rates of population change:
“Strictly speaking,” Babbage added, “the actual figure is so long I cannot get it into a line, but I believe the figure 1 1/16 will be sufficiently accurate for poetry.”
Babbage also spent quite a lot of time thinking about noughts and crosses (or Tic-Tac-Toe, if you're American). He was one of the first people to really analyse the game, and believed he could build a machine to play it. In fact, he thought he could build several machines, charge people to play them as entertainments, and use the resulting funds to finance the completed Difference Engine—although after some work he lost interest in this plan.
Luckily, people have since had another go at the problem. In the 1960s, Professor Donald Michie—who’d worked on the machines at Bletchley Park with Jack Good and Alan Turing during the war—described a machine called the Matchbox Educable Noughts And Crosses Engine: MENACE.
MENACE is a machine that plays noughts and crosses, built out of 304 matchboxes. Each matchbox corresponds to one of the 304 board layouts that the opening player might face (there are actually 19,683 possible board layouts, but we only need to calculate the opening player's first four moves, and many are rotationally or reflectively identical). In turn, each matchbox contains a number of glass beads corresponding to each possible next move. When it is MENACE’s turn to play, the operator simply selects the matchbox corresponding to the current state of play, shakes it, and opens it to see which move has been chosen. Each matchbox contains a small nook into which one bead falls—and MENACE plays in the square corresponding to that bead.
But what’s really clever is that MENACE learns. Every time it wins a game, an additional bead is added to each matchbox played, corresponding to each winning move. Likewise, every time it loses, a bead corresponding to each losing move is removed. As a result, over time, MENACE becomes more likely to play moves that have previously resulted in wins and less likely to play moves that have resulted in losses.
Michie probably built the machine himself, although I haven't found any reports of this, and it may have been a thought experiment and a pen-and-paper calculation. In fact, while there are many simulation programmes for MENACE out there, I couldn’t find a single actual machine.
So, in the best traditions of Heath Robinson and Charles Babbage, I built one:
That’s 304 matchboxes, all filled with the requisite beads to play—and learn to play better—noughts and crosses.
Although I couldn’t actually get enough beads in time, so I went down to the market and bought a lot of beans instead:
Here’s a little powers-of-ten zoom to show you I did it properly, correct beans and everything:
Ever since I first heard about MENACE, I’ve been thinking how cool it is—and how cool it would be to scale it up, to build something vast and extraordinary using the same approach. And I thought a lot about Go.
[Image credit: adrianbartel.]
Go is a great game for this problem. It has a fixed board, simple rules, is for two players, is not entirely dissimilar to noughts and crosses—but is vastly more complex. It’s so complex that there's no Deep or Deeper Blue for Go, no computer has been built that can beat a Go grandmaster—players so revered that in Japan, they are designated as National Living Treasures.
So I started thinking about what MAGE—MAtchbox Go Engine—would look like.
So, for noughts and crosses, we've got 9 board positions in 3 possible states, which results in 19,638 possible board states. But this reduces to 304 unique states when we look at the number of moves required and take reflections and rotations into account—a factor of 1.5%.
If the same factor applies to Go (and please note, it probably doesn’t—it’s probably much larger), we've got a 19 x 19 board resulting in 361 positions in 4 possible states: that’s 2.2 x 10^217, or, reduced, approximately 3.4 x 10^15 matchboxes. Now, each of those matchboxes needs to hold at most 3610 matchboxes (again, in reality this would be a lot more, but we’re sticking with Michie’s numbers), and if we're using 5mm beads, those matchboxes need to be 18m^3 [Note: some typos in the slide.]. Big, sure, but manageable.
Except there are 3.4 x 10^15 of them. Which results in a final volume...
... slightly larger than the Crab Nebula.
And that is pretty awesome.
James Bridle | shorttermmemoryloss.com