There are 10 types of people in the world, but there is only one Melvyn

Verity puts a Bragg in your shell-like


Stob The podcast is the great civiliser of the modern journey to work: consume as you commune as you commute. The career-minded IT Pro, isolated and ear-shelled up like Mildred Montag in Fahrenheit 451, can simultaneously CPD up the latest tech while elbowing down the carriage to be near the woman who, having stowed her iPad in its iPouch, looks as though she might quit her seat to alight at the next station-stop-halt-stop-station-station.

But while some choose to pod-learn of the forthcoming local variable type inference feature in Java 10, I prefer to go to work on a light comedy-of-manners. The queen of the genre, the joule in the low-calorie podcast meal, must be Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time*.

London bus photo, by Nando Machado Shutterstock

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If you have never sampled this stalwart of the legacy speech schedules - and you absolutely should, because it is so clever and wholesome even the mighty New Yorker admires it - the basic format is simple: Melvyn and three academics sit in the studio to discuss some topic that, as good citizens, we all ought to know more about, but in fact don't.

Melvyn's high cultural path rarely leads him into our IT neck of the woods. However, there has come into my possession a transcript of a never-broadcast edition of the show that is relevant, which it would be selfish of me not to share.

Live from the studio

Bragg: Hello. On the 9th of November 1946, the Surrey Comet published a story with the headline: ELECTRIC BRAIN TO BE MADE AT TEDDINGTON. This was the announcement of the National Physical Laboratory's attempt to build Alan Turing's vision of the first, practical electronic computer. That attempt was doomed, yet  seventy years later, machines descended from Turing's design have become ubiquitous.

Today every school child carries in its pocket a tiny computer - a mobile telephone -  that would have astonished and delighted Turing. Technologies like cryptocurrencies and social media flourish and ruin millions of lives. How did we get here, and why?

With me to discuss the ideas and discoveries that have shaped the development of the electronic computer are:

[Bragg, the seasoned pro, can of course easily articulate recognisable bullet points without resort to absurd Victor Borge tricks]

  • Professor Sir Geoffrey Comfortable, double emeritus professor of the history of computing science at St Tenure's College, Oxbridge
  • Doctor Doctor Ursula Künstlername, senior researcher in algorithms at the Conservatoire of Computing at the University of German-Speaking Switzerland, and
  • Maureen Puggle, junior reader in 8-bit Games of the 1980s and deputy caretaker of the Krazee Pi Project Club at Gateshead and Jarrow Free Lunch College.

Bragg: Geoffrey, Geoffrey Comfortable, so where did it all begin?

Comfortable, complacently: A very good question, Melvyn. The foundation of any modern... computing system is of course binary arithmetic. This number system was first pioneered by... the Egyptians as long ago as the 25th century BCE... The Chinese, on the other hand...

[Comfortable's voice is posh, measured and projects confident entitlement. Yet, as it continues, even the swottiest listener, unwittingly duplicating the experience of many an undergraduate, finds that concentration begins to drift.]

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Comfortable: ... until John Napier, in the... sixteenth century, whose work (at my college, actually) on denary logarithms led, ironically, to new discoveries... in the field of binary...

[Comfortable punctuates his laconic speech with super-Pinter-esque pauses. During these, the internal monologue of the listener seems to fade out, and instead we hear elaborate, melancholy yet directionless incidental music, specially composed for the professor by Barrington Pheloung .]

Comfortable: ...then Gottfried Leibniz... usually working in France but probably on a sabbatical to St Tenure's at the time of his discovery... in the seventeenth...

Bragg, breaking free from his artificially induced coma: Sorry to stop you, Geoffrey, but please could you tell our listeners how the binary system actually works?

Comfortable, last successfully interrupted during Evelyn term 1996, is aghast, but rallies swiftly: Of course, Melvyn. Suppose that... instead of 10 fingers, you only had one.

Bragg: Actually [wheezy chuckle] I have eight fingers and two thumbs, but OK.

Comfortable, artfully unhelpful: Ha, ha. But if you did have one finger... then you would learn to count up with the sequence zero, one, ten, eleven...

Bragg, vaguely: And then two, three, four?

Comfortable: And then one-hundred, one-hundred-and-one, one-hundred-and-ten.

Bragg, now fully awake, and reaching levels of incredulity not achieved since he learned that oxygen is the waste product of the chlorophyll reaction: But what happened to seven, eight, and nine?

Künstlername, feeling it is about time she got to speak, and doing it in an accent apparently learned from bingeing 'Allo 'Allo box sets on Netflix: Well, nine becomes vun, zero, zero, vun, do you see?

Bragg, who doesn't see at all:  Yes. No. Sorry. One moment. Just so the listeners understand: what's this about 1001? Is this some reference to Scheherazade?

Comfortable, still in vengeful mood: Well, 1001 denary would be 1101111001‬ binary, do you see?

Bragg , desperately wishing this was a history episode, or at least a biology one with Steve Jones making lots of jokes: The listeners, um...

Puggle, also feeling it is her turn: Or, in fact, ‭1111101001‬.

Comfortable, furious at being corrected, but knowing better than to show it: Thank you, Maureen.

Bragg: So all computers use this binary system of counting?

Comfortable, with authority: Yes, of course.

Künstlername: Ectually, the Soviets made the balancing ternary compuder in the 1950s.

Bragg, who is in hell: This is fascinating. But time presses on. So after the discovery of binary, from reading all your notes, we come on to the work of professor George Boole. Ursula, Ursula Künstlername, can you tell us a little about his life and work?

Künstlername, sulkily: I know nuzzing of Boole's life. It must have been in the udders' notes.

Puggle, blossoming now - as she believes - her time has at last come: One of the great mathematicians of the nineteenth century...

Comfortable, who has no intention of relinquishing his limelight to an upstart provincial academic, mansplains over her: Of course, Boole spent most of his life at Cork... never held so much as a junior lectureship at St Tenure's...

Bragg, intervening in favour of Puggle: Sorry, Geoffrey, could you let Maureen...

Comfortable, who has studied Bragg's vulnerabilities: Of course, he did a lot of his laboratory work in a tiny room... just a few hundred yards from here.

Bragg, resistance melting: Really? Just a short walk from Broadcasting House, then?

Comfortable, confidently hauling in his catch: In Charlotte Street... in a room barely half the size of this studio.

Bragg, awestruck: Half the size of this studio!

Comfortable: Yes, it was dangerous work. Just Boole and his young wife Latitia. Wheeling in great wheelbarrows full of pitchblend; distilling it down to extract the tiny quantities of logical truth. Just one part in a billion... Of course Latitia died tragically of consumption...

[He's off again. Listeners enjoying HD Sound Reproduction can also detect, despite the studio's elaborate acoustic insulation, a very faint scratching/rumbling: the gritting either of the icy pavement outside Broadcasting House or of the producer's teeth.]

Comfortable: ...enabled the use of digital technology... This English word 'digit', meaning 'finger', of course, comes from... the Latin 'digitus', meaning 'finger', which in turn comes from the Greek...

Bragg, making a last effort to "take back control", performs one of the giant non-sequiturs for which science-oriented IoTs are justly famous: Thank you Geoffrey. Now, Maureen, Maureen Puggle. I understand we now have artificial intelligence that reproduces human emotion. Is this emotion like that described by Dickens, or is it more like the emotion of DH Lawrence's novels?

Puggle (as baffled as you would expect): Oh, um, ugh...

Bragg: I'm afraid I can only give you ten seconds.

Puggle: So. Ahem. Well, I suppose...

Bragg, winding up: Sorry, Maureen, I'll have to stop you there. Thank you all very much. Next week, we'll be discussing Helga, the medieval weeping bee-woman of Worcester. Thanks for listening.

Radio 4 Announcer, smoothly: And the In Our Time podcast gets some extra time now with Melvyn and his guests.

Bragg, in relaxed podcast mode: Thank you very much, everybody. I thought that went very well. So, what did we miss out?

Comfortable, genuinely surprised: Oh, have we started? ®

* The closest equivalent, if you're a PBS-watching American reader, is probably Richard D Heffner's The Open Mind (but not the rebooted Alexander Heffner version..).

Stob-note

For those not yet familiar with our brilliant columnist, Verity Stob is the pseudonym of a software developer based in London. Since 1988, she has written her "Verity Stob" column for .EXE magazine, Dr. Dobb's Journal and, since 2002, The Register.


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