What Hath Von Neumann Wrought?


My origin story

M. Edward (Ed) Borasky https://www.algocompsynth.com

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth
- Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken”

Once upon a time, in a land we’ll call, for want of a better name, Camelot, there was a young man who, for want of a better name, we’ll call Maurice. He was all of 17, a sophomore – almost a junior – in college. He had entered college at 16, originally planning to become a biochemist like his father.

The theory of chemistry was easy for him, but he was a complete klutz in the lab. By the time the last day to drop out of Organic Chemistry had arrived, he had scored near perfect marks on homework assignments and exams but was many days behind in the lab assignments. It was clear he would never be a biochemist and he dropped the course.

The two roads that diverged in that yellow wood were mathematics and journalism. And he made a deal with himself. He would take a math course and a journalism course, and whichever one gave him a better grade would be his life’s work. At the end of the semester, math had yielded an A and journalism a B. Mathematics it was.

Even so, the theory of mathematics wasn’t all that interesting to him. Teaching didn’t appeal to him – he was a researcher like his father. Proving theorems and exploring highly abstract concepts seemed like the wrong path for a young man with ideals and a desire to change the world.

And the world itself was changing. Three technologies – nuclear energy, space flight and computers – were emerging into full-fledged industries. Writers, both fiction and non-fiction, speculated on worlds utopian and dystopian in which computers would replace humans. Our protagonist decided that he should know as much as possible about computers, in order to survive in the world to come.

He took a programming course, along with two dozen other undergraduates. The first day, the instructor told the class how difficult programming was. “Probably no more than four of you will pass this course, and only one will get an A. This is hard. Not everyone can do it. If you get to the point where you discover it is not for you, it’s OK to drop out.”

The class was taught on a computer patterned after John Von Neumann’s design, made of vacuum tubes. Yes, the discipline of programming is hard, but the instructor had exaggerated slightly. By the end of the semester, six students had passed and all of them had earned an A.

You surely know by now that Maurice was one of the survivors. What you may not know is how incredibly easy programming was for him, and that within hours of his first successful program run, early in his senior year and late in his 19th year of life, he had discovered what he was put on Earth to do.

And he knew he would one day own a computer and use it to compose and synthesize music. He never dreamed that computers would become commonplace household appliances. After all, computers were expensive and programming was hard. And he never even imagined that machines thousands of times more powerful than Von Neumann’s would be found in pockets and purses, connected wirelessly by a global network.

He graduated the next summer at 19 with a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics and a skill few people possessed at the time. It was also a skill highly prized, and rather than continue in academia, he went to work in industry, at a company we will call, for want of a better name, IBM. Eventually he would work in the nuclear energy and space flight industries as well, but most of his career was spent in the industry that would become known as Information Technology.

He was known by many titles – programmer, analyst, computer scientist, applied mathematician, software engineer. But through it all, there were two currents: the logic of programming, and solving complex systems of equations that define mathematical models of the real world. If this sounds like “data science”, well, it is, but they didn’t call it that in those days.

And what of the road not taken, journalism? That’s what he does now, specifically technology blogging and computational journalism. He collects open source tools, builds more tools, and researches the data, metrics and mathematical models that incorporate themselves into our lives. And he marvels at the things that have come to pass, both utopian and dystopian, since John Von Neumann, his colleagues and contemporaries devised the first stored-program computers.

Computational journalism is a discipline that brings developers and storytellers together. Maurice is more of a developer than a storyteller, to be sure, but he believes that both disciplines are vital to steer civilization between the utopias and dystopias technology confronts us with on a daily basis in the second decade of the twenty-first century.

You won’t find a lot about the author’s career here. That most likely wouldn’t be interesting to you unless you were working with him or working on similar projects at the same time. This blog is more about his hobbies: algorithmic composition and digital synthesis of music, computational finance and trading systems, sports analytics and open civic data and models.

Von Neumann wrought his creations in wartime, as did Turing and Zuse. The modern computer was born as an instrument of war, as was the Internet. And like space flight and nuclear energy, the computer and the Internet have only imperfectly been beaten into plowshares. We live, for example, in a world where anarchists have discovered ways to disrupt our online lives for their own amusement.

Maurice is too young to be an historian and too old to be a futurist. His hope is that today’s developers and storytellers will record the history and define the future with the tools he builds.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
- Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken”


Text and figures are licensed under Creative Commons Attribution CC BY-SA 4.0. The figures that have been reused from other sources don't fall under this license and can be recognized by a note in their caption: "Figure from ...".


For attribution, please cite this work as

Borasky (2013, Feb. 16). AlgoCompSynth by znmeb: What Hath Von Neumann Wrought?. Retrieved from https://www.algocompsynth.com/posts/2018-12-26-what-hath-von-neumann-wrought/

BibTeX citation

  author = {Borasky, M. Edward (Ed)},
  title = {AlgoCompSynth by znmeb: What Hath Von Neumann Wrought?},
  url = {https://www.algocompsynth.com/posts/2018-12-26-what-hath-von-neumann-wrought/},
  year = {2013}