Thursday, December 15, 2022

Video recording of my Skolem Lecture on The Birth of Binary

 A video recording of my Skolem Lecture in Oslo on the Birth of Binary is now available here.

The Birth of Binary: Leibniz and the Origins of Computer Arithmetic

The curious history of the binary number system includes a multimillennial prehistory and a few early seventeenth-century sparks that did not catch fire. Though several others independently came up with the binary system, my recent translation and edition (with British intellectual historian Lloyd Strickland) of mostly unpublished works on binary by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716) establishes Leibniz as the key progenitor of the arithmetic used in today’s communications and computing technologies. I will review Leibniz’s research on binary notation, his increasingly sophisticated algorithms for binary arithmetic, his development of some rudiments of Boolean algebra to describe his calculus symbolically, his improvisation of a concatenation semigroup to describe patterns in bit strings, his plans for two different binary calculators, and his invention of what we now call hexadecimal notation, complete with four different notations for the hex digits, including the one in general use today. I will also comment on Leibniz’s efforts to universalize his invention by connecting it to Christian and Chinese traditions.


Harry Lewis, Gordon McKay Research Professor of Computer Science at Harvard University, holds AB and PhD degrees in Applied Mathematics from Harvard. A member of the Harvard faculty since 1974, he has helped launch thousands of Harvard undergraduates, including both Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, into careers in computer science. Principal architect of Harvard’s undergraduate computer science program, he served as Dean of Harvard College and interim dean of Harvard’s Engineering School and was the recipient of the IEEE’s 2021 Mary Kenneth Keller Computer Science & Engineering Undergraduate Teaching Award. His recent books include an edited collection of classic computer science papers, “Ideas that Created the Future,” as well as “Leibniz on Binary” with Lloyd Strickland, both published by MIT Press.

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Voter Suppression, Harvard-Style

(This piece is jointly authored by Harry Lewis and Bill Gasarch, who is Professor of Computer Science at the University of Maryland at College Park.)

There are elections in Hong Kong, but to get on the ballot you have to be nominated by a committee controlled by Beijing government.


Elections for the Harvard Board of Overseers—one of Harvard’s two governing bodies—are almost as well-controlled. A Harvard Alumni Association (HAA) nominating committee curates a slate of candidates, from which alumni make their selections.


But an alternative route to get on the Harvard ballot exists, at least in theory. So-called “petition” candidates have always been rare—but after several climate activists were elected in 2020, the rules were changed to make it even harder. Among other things, the number of petitions to get on the ballot was raised by a factor of fifteen, to more than three thousand. 


This year, noted civil libertarian Harvey Silverglate, concerned about freedom of expression at Harvard, is trying to make it onto the ballot. 


The authors are computer scientists. We are neither technologically na├»ve nor afraid of computers. Harry has long been concerned about issues of student freedom and Harvard governance, and suggested to Bill, Harry’s sometime PhD student, that he sign Silverglate’s petition. This is an account of Bill’s trip through the resulting electronic purgatory.


To add your name, you have to fill out a web form. To access the web form, you need a HarvardKey. To get a HarvardKey, you have to fill out another web form. So far, so good.


The HarvardKey web form wanted Bill’s 10-digit HAA ID, which he was told to find on the address sticker of his copy of a recent Harvard Magazine (sent to all alumni). Bill had one handy, so he looked and found … a 9-digit number. He tried entering that number—no luck. He noticed it began with three 0s, and tried adding a fourth—that did not work either. 


The web form had a number to call. Someone answered, and said some information would be needed before dealing with digits. Name (fine). Year of degree (fine). MIDDLE name (well, fine, though no one but Bill’s mother ever used it, and only when indignant). Date of birth (well, OK, but now we’re getting into territory we don’t casually reveal any more). When he got his MASTER’s degree. Bill did not know—that’s just something Harvard gives en route to the PhD. Turned out he actually didn’t need to know, an estimate was good enough. The person on the phone gave him his HAA ID, which bore no relation to the number on his address sticker. 


Let’s pause there. Some people never call tech support because they have never found it helpful to do so. Any such person with a 9-digit address sticker number could not participate in the petition process.


Bill entered his HAA ID and received an error message saying that … KEY-5003 was missing. Happily, Bill had kept the support person on the phone (this was not his first rodeo).


Missing KEY-5003 turned out to mean that Harvard did not have his email address. He supplied it and was told he would get an email confirmation later in the day.


He did get an email later in the day. It listed eleven steps to claim his HarvardKey. Step 6 was to wait for a confirming email (he thought this WAS the confirming email), but after step 5 the system told him he was not in the system and it could not continue.


Another call to a support line. No, Bill was told, he has to wait 24 hours to get his email address updated, and would not get a confirming email. Just try tomorrow. Like the email said. Except that it didn’t say that, nor had the person he spoke to on the previous call.


Bill waited 24 hours and tried again, and got a little further through the eleven steps—and then was told to wait ANOTHER 24 hours for the account to activate. 


24 hours later he tried again, from home, and failed again. Then he went to his office and succeeded—no clue why.


Now finally he got to the petition, which required Bill’s graduation year—and Silverglate’s­­, which Bill found but shouldn’t have been needed since this petition was specific to Silverglate.


Three days and two phone calls to sign the petition. To be fair, the people Bill spoke to on the phone were kind and helpful. Probably they themselves were struggling with the systems.


And we knew already that HAA is technologically challenged. A few weeks ago, it abruptly announced that it could no longer handle email forwarding. After alumni blowback, it just as abruptly announced that it would NOT end its forwarding service—oddly, while cautioning that the service was unlikely ever to work very well. 


When election officials want to suppress the vote somewhere, they under-resource the voting process, forcing voters to cross town and wait in long lines. What happened to Bill is so comical that it is hard to imagine that the specifics were intentional. On the other hand, under-resourcing the petitioning process, allowing it to be so defective, misinformed, and hard to use that many people won’t exercise their franchise—isn’t that a form of voter suppression?


Why not be true to Harvard’s motto, Veritas, and just post on the web, “For the alumni to choose the Overseers is an anachronism. Today’s alumni voters can’t be trusted to do it wisely. Since we can’t get rid of this system, we are going to make it all but impossible to nominate by petition. Try if you wish, but if you do, abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”