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Stephen Wolfram speaks, as does the Psion

This post was first sent to my newsletter on June 18th, 2021. You really ought to subscribe :)

I have two, count ’em, two articles from Stephen Wolfram today.
And a fantastic historical restrospective on one of the early handhelds, the Psion!


What Is Consciousness? Some New Perspectives from Our Physics Project


Stephen Wolfram, has the amazing ability to go on long Talebesque side journeys, different flaneuresque trips through various domains and then bring it all back and tie it up in a bow, with the point he wants to make. If you love long, slow, deliberate posts, look no further :)

So, What Is Consciousness?

What’s special about the way we humans experience the world? At some level, the very fact that we even have a notion of “experiencing” it at all is special. The world is doing what it does, with all sorts of computational irreducibility. But somehow even with the computationally bounded resources of our brains (or minds) we’re able to form some kind of coherent model of what’s going on, so that, in a sense, we’re able to meaningfully “form coherent thoughts” about the universe. And just as we can form coherent thoughts about the universe, so also we can form coherent thoughts about that small part of the universe that corresponds to our brains—or to the computations that represent the operation of our minds.


Stephen Wolfram on Tini Veltman (1931–2021): From Assembly Language to a Nobel Prize


The best thing I love about his blog though, are his biographical and historical reminiscings. This one on Martinus Veltman is a recent example.

So far as I know it all started from a single conversation on the terrace outside the cafeteria of the CERN particle physics lab near Geneva in 1962. Three physicists were involved. And out of that conversation there emerged three early systems for doing algebraic computation. One was written in Fortran. One was written in LISP. And one was written in assembly language.

I’ve told this story quite a few times, often adding “And which of those physicists do you suppose later won a Nobel Prize?” “Of course,” I explain, “it was the one who wrote their system in assembly language!”
… One of the important predictions of what became the Standard Model were so-called neutral currents (associated with the Z boson). In the end, neutral currents were discovered in 1973. But Tini explained that many years earlier he started telling people at CERN that they should be able to see neutral currents in their experiments. But for years they didn’t listen to him, and when they finally did, it turned out that—expensive as their earlier experiments had been—they’d thrown out the bubble chamber film that had been produced, and on which neutral currents should have been visible perhaps 15 years earlier.


Psion: the last computer


This one is an oldie but an amazing part of early handheld computer history and totally worth your time, if you are a tech history buff.

The Series 5 pocket computer from Psion was launched 10 years ago this week (1997. the article was written in 2007 — mjb). It was a remarkable achievement: entirely new silicon, a new operating system, middleware stack and applications were developed from scratch in just over two years.

This was the last time anyone undertook such a daunting task: it may be the last time anyone ever tries, either. Companies or projects that are formed to achieve simply one of these four goals typically end in failure: to achieve all four successfully, and put them in a product that was successful, too, was a triumph of creativity and management.


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