Edited Transcripts

Punch! with Nika Thought-Werk

Ceejay Writer: It’s time to welcome today’s featured speaker. She is one of the steamland’s most talented scripters, as well as a charming storyteller. She may not understand big words, but she certainly has a big heart.

Get ready to be dazzled by the Countess of Code, the Sultana of Springs, the Princess of Programming, the Diva of Data, the Marchioness of Memory, the Babe of Bandwidth, the Slayer of Spam… okay, okay, I’m hushing. Please welcome the grid’s favorite wind-up girl, Miss Nika Thought-Werk!

Nika Thought-werk blinks, smiles, and begins quietly “Before I start, a few words from our sponsors today …”

Nika Thought-werk: Notewerks and Text-us Install-Mints are partners in bringing you the Math-Master 1899. Picture the far-off year of 1899 – when people every place escape the drudge and mire of math through the use of machines!

Nika Thought-werk: The Math-Master 1899 brings the power of punch cards to the process of figures. Use it to add, subtract, times, or divide any set of numbers in the blink of the eye and the touch of a key. All with the knowledge that your figures are right as rain and fit as fiddles – because you aren’t fiddling with the numbers – you’ve left that to the Master!

Nika Thought-werk: The Math-Master 1899 is norm’lly 1899 pennies (which makes a certain sort of cents). But, as a show of goodwill Nika’s Note-werks is giving away free Math-Masters to all of the gentle-creatures who visit the salon today. To get a free Math-Master 1899, please grab one from the box at my side.

Nika Thought-werk: Math-Master 1899 – The first mistake in your maths would be not to use it.

Nika Thought-werk smiles “And now back to the rest of our show …”

Nika Thought-werk: Dear softie-pinksies, I come before you as a neighbor of many years. I come before you as a friend. For those who do not know me, my name is Nika Thought-werk. For those who do know me, I must say that I most likely know you, too. It is my pleasure to know you.

Nika Thought-werk: Before we begin, I wish to state something. I process things a bit oddly – as you might see it. If you do not know me yet, I mean to say that I can only process words of two sounds or less. If you try to ask a question at the end, I won’t process it if you use big words. If you would be so kind, please do not use big words with me? Not being able to process them makes me feel quite small indeed.

Though I tend to see the world through rose-colored glass lenses, the people I see before me are nothing if not kind. I am sure of it. Thank you in advance for such a kindness as I hope you might extend to me.

Nika Thought-werk: Today’s talk is of thinking machines. Before you say ‘machines cannot think’, please let me frame what I mean. Machines are any device that allow the user to do work with more ease than without. The wheel is a machine. The lever is a machine. You know this, yes? Yes. A thinking machine may, in some respects, be thought of as a machine that helps someone to think.

Nika Thought-werk: It is of these machines that I hope to speak of today. I will conclude with a plea for your help in standing against anti-thinking machine hate and violence.

Let us begin, dear friends.

Nika Thought-werk: As Mark Twain wrote in his short story Punch Brothers, Punch! :

‘Punch, brothers, punch with care!
Punch in the presence of the passing chairs!’

Punch cards might be one of the first thoughts one has when they think of thinking machines. I think of punch cards often. I even think with punch cards.

But, why punch cards? And why do people hate thinking machines?

Nika Thought-werk: The Weavers Guild of England formed in 1100. This made it England’s first guild of note and the first granted a royal charter. This charter allowed them to set prices for their cloth, set standards, and impose their own taxes. What’s more, the Weaver’s Guild could choose their own bailiffs, preside over their own courts, and set up their own health plans for members paid for through yearly member fees. The guild had power, and so did its members.

Nika Thought-werk: The Weavers Guild would work in the off-season with farm-fam’lies to make thread and clean wool. These farm families made a modest income through cleaning and making threads for the weavers. The weavers would, in turn, weave this thread into all manner of cloth, clothing, and the like.

Nika Thought-werk: Most looms were two-person affair. The weaver would work in tandem with a loom-boy to weave threads into cloth. For the weavers, this was time-tasking work. The weavers often plotted out patterns before weaving began. The weavers would work with loom-boys (draw-boys) who sat atop the looms. It fell to the loom-boys to work the machine, making sure that the two types of threads (those running up and down and those running across) wove with each other as the weaver would plan. Being a loom boy was not without danger, as it was easy to fall off the looms or get hands and fingers caught in the looms. Still, the need for loom-boys would persist well into the last cen’tree. Because weaving took time, and many weaving guilds were old and strong, finished cloth fetched high prices. This, in turn, made many weavers very rich.

Ceejay Writer: So, one could be woven to death?
Nika Thought-werk blinks and nods. “Or maimed … “
Oriella Charik: death by Weaving, goodness
Ceejay Writer shudders.
Jedburgh Dagger: Loom-doomed.
Nika Thought-werk smiles and giggles “Coffin humor.”

Nika Thought-werk: It is at this point in our story that our focus should shift to France. At the end of the last cen’tree, as loom-boys were still eking out a living climbing – and falling from looms elsewhere, the country of France was in revolt and turmoil. Three things happen to allow the rise of thinking machines in our current cen’tree.

Nika Thought-werk: First, many men had their lives and comp’nies ruined. One of these men was a man named Jacquard.

Second, the French nation had its fortunes squandered by war and bloodshed for about twenty years.

Third, some of the people who lost their jobs during those twenty years got jobs writing a huge series of math tables for France itself. The tables were to be published for use by all the workers in France, but making the tables cost so much that only one set of the tables was ever published. This series of tables was kept in storage and mostly away from public use.

Nika Thought-werk: How do we weave these three strands to end at thinking machines? Mr. Jacquard, upon finding his fortunes in ruins, designed the Jacquard loom. The Jacquard loom replaced loom-boys with series of cards. The cards would start almost like graph paper. The master weaver would code – that is darken – the squares on the paper where threads were to be raised and hooked by the loom. Only hooks matching the row and column of the hole in the graph paper could rise and be woven. Once the paper had all the dark spots it needed for its pattern, the spots would be punched out so the card could be read by the machine. Often, more than one card was needed, and the cards were often stitched to each other end on end. This allowed the machine to make almost any design, and once a series of cards were coded, they could be used over and over.

Nika Thought-werk: A stitch in time saves nine pennies – which can leave you with more pennies to buy more clothes.

Nika Thought-werk: France’s fortunes, and those of Mister Jacquard grew on the backs of cheap clothes – which, in turn, spurred Britain to throw their might into making better weaving machines of their own. The cards that programmed patterns for the looms held in themselves a certain mystique, too. There are two ways I can go at this point. I will take the point in the story most of you know before I talk about the other.

Nika Thought-werk: It is well-known that Charles Babbage was quite taken with math. He knew, also, that the math tables like the one mentioned of France could contain errors. These errors could cost money, time, and lives. In 1822, Babbage proposed what he called a Difference Engine. The Difference Engine could compute functions through finding the difference between two numbers. This means that it could add, subtract, times, or divide. By 1823, Mr. Babbage secured a grant of 1,000 pounds from the country of Great Britain to build his device. Why? Because the leaders of Britain saw the problems of human error in math and tax tables, too. The Difference Engine may be seen as cutting edge – but not groundbreaking in the way most might think.

Nika Thought-werk: In hindsight, army leaders in Prussia had drawn up designs very much the same as the Difference Engine. Prussia, like Britain, saw the problems in human error and math tables. The Prussians studied the cost in building such a machine. They were forced to conclude that the cost in its design and building was too great for the Prussians to bear.

Good Germans are nothing if not mindful of reason when it comes to cost – and good Germans are always fearful of folly.

Nika Thought-werk: The Prussian Engine, for lack of a better term, dated from about 1770.

Nika Thought-werk: Still, the Prussian plans were almost the same as what Babbage would propose. There are other, sim’lar machines. Blaise Pascal built something akin to the Difference Engine in 1642 that was more or less handheld. Like the Difference Engine, it could add, subtract, times, and divide numbers.

Nika Thought-werk: What set the Difference Engine apart from Pascal’s was that it would print the results of the times, adding, and so on of series of numbers at a time. It could display the finished products. The results could also be printed. The money granted for its building may also be seen as one of the first modern research grants in hist’ree.

This grant money supplied by Great Britain had ballooned to over 17,000 pounds by 1832. No working engine was in sight. Babbage had left the Difference Engine for something bigger and better.

Nika Thought-werk: Ideas for this machine came as Babbage was touring Europe in the 1830s. One has to wonder, at this point, if he came across the Prussian plans discussed before. Still, during the tour, Babbage hit upon the idea of using punch cards to store and program such an engine. By using punch cards and a set program, Babbage saw that this new machine could handle more than just add, subtract, divide, and do times.

Nika Thought-werk: Others saw this too. One of these people was Ada, Countess of Lovelace. The Countess of Lovelace met Mister Babbage in 1833. A gifted math whiz in her own right, Countess Lovelace copied a paper written on the new engine by a statesman in It’lee from the language of It’len to English. To this new copy, the Countess added notes of her own. This new work was then published in English, in part in an attempt to secure funding for the new engine – and help the world see what Babbage saw.

Nika Thought-werk: Note G, one of the notes at the back of the copy Countess Lovelace wrote, describes how the machine can be used to process numbers through the four signs of math (plus, minus, divide, and times). It then, through the use of punch cards, and rods, can employ alg’bra on the values and the means of alg’bra through the use of value encoded in the cards fed into the machine and the movement of the machine’s rods. Note G further expands on this by laying out how such a system – cards, values, and machine – might work in tandem to produce a complex number value using alg’bra. The Countess wrote lovely praise of the machine, and saw that it might even be used to make music – that such a machine could be used for more than just alg’bra. She also saw that if the machine could see values as more than numbers, there was no real limit to what the machine might process.

Nika Thought-werk: Who likes alg’bra here? Show of hands please?

Katie raises her hand
Ceejay Writer is sorta scared of maths
Oriella Charik: me!
Solace Fairlady is a complete mathematical dunce
Nika Thought-werk smiles at the two women with their hands up.

Solace Fairlady: She was a real Countess? there was somewhere called Lovelace?
Nika Thought-werk: She was a real Countess, yes. She also liked to count.

Nika Thought-werk: So are you really going to fault a machine by taking away your alg’bra and doing it for you?

Ceejay Writer: I’m not!
Katie: no!
Solace Fairlady: i would be grateful if it did!
Nika Thought-werk nods quietly.

Nika Thought-werk: Now, as great as such an engine might sound, it was never built. Others are, at the time of this writing, hitting once again on the idea of punched cards for machines. The most recent sample of such a thing is the 1890 ‘nited States Census. Still, as of the time of this talk, the true power of the work of Charles Babbage has not been realized.

Nika Thought-werk: Something that makes me smile – is that Lovelace reminds me of looms – and Jacquard Looms. These looms are, of course, tied to punch cards – or at least run off of punch-cards tied to each other. It is as though Ada Lovelace was meant to be a part of all this.

Nika Thought-werk: A second funny little quirk appears to me. If you do not mind, I wish to share it. Many people have worked through history on a base-two number system. One of the most famous of these is the German thinker Gottfried Leibniz. Without going into too much of a tangent, if one sees that base-two numbers can be used to encode numbers – or when coupled with a Bacon-cipher to encode words and other data – one can frame how such a system might be used with punch-cards in a machine like the engine Babbage wished to build. Why Base-Two? A hole is either punched or not on the card. A peg can either rise through the card, or it cannot.

Nika Thought-werk: In this way, zero may denote an absence of a punch. One may denote a presence of a punch.

Nika Thought-werk: This series of data may then be read as any thing other than numbers through a cipher such as that used for numbers alone. To help paint a picture of this, let us draw out a series of numbers, from 0 to 10.

In normal numbers, you might write these numbers like so – 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. At ten, the number system restarts – with a 10. With each new column added in a number value, the value of the number in the column climbs by a power of 10.

Nika Thought-werk: In base-2 –

Nika Thought-werk: 1 – 10 becomes …

Nika Thought-werk: 0, 1, 10, 11, 100, 101, 110, 111, 1000, 1001, and 1010. Each column used makes the power of the whole number climb by a power of two. This is such that the first column is used for 0 and 1. The second column starts at 2. The third column starts at 4. The fourth column climbs to 8, and so on. Once again, something such as a cipher would allow us to turn these numbers into values other than numbers – and vice-versa.

Nika Thought-werk: The problem with having machines do work that humans do – or did – is that humans tend to get mad when they lose their jobs to machines and can no longer feed their fam’lies. As mentioned with loom-boys at the start of my talk, many loom-boys, off-season farmers, and even weavers began to lose their incomes thanks to new machines such as the Jacquard Loom. These out of work peoples, at least in England, have banded into an army. This army is under the command of a general by the name of Ned Ludd.

Nika Thought-werk: Ned Ludd’s army have harried British weavers and mills since at least March 11, 1811. The Luddites have grown in power since then, with their ranks swollen by hungry, jobless workers. Often, as they march, they can be heard singing their song about Gen’ral Ludd –

Nika Thought-werk: ‘They said Ned Ludd was an id’yot boy –
That all he could do was wreck and destroy,
And he turned to his workmates and said:
‘Death to machines – they tread on our future,
And they stamp on our dreams.’

Nika Thought-werk: I get the anger. I get it. The Weaver’s Guild was once the strongest guild in England. By the 1850s, though, due in large part to new and better auto-looms and the like, weavers, farmers, and others – once members of a proud class of labor – were wage-slaves toiling in fact’ries for what scraps an owner might wish to pay them.

Nika Thought-werk: As L.F. Men’bray once wrote in Sketch of the Any Lit’ral Engine In Vented by Charles Babbage, labor may be classed as one of two kinds – phys’cal and mental. If the Luddites destroy machines that help men with phys’cal labor with ease, they will come for machines that help with mental labor for much the same reason. Jobs. Money. Want.

Nika Thought-werk: Anger is vented at machines. Why not vent the anger at the fac’tree owners instead? I did not take any-ones job. I just do the job I was built for. So it is with machines like me. I am sorry.

Nika Thought-werk blinks …

Nika Thought-werk: If it ok, I will go now? Thank you all for letting me talk to you.


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