The region of Tuscany in Italy introduced banking and accounting to the Western world.  But it would be wrong to hold that country totally responsible as they in turn took those concepts together with most of our mathematical terms and axioms from either Arabic or Hindu sources.

The word algebra is taken from the title of a ninth century book, Al-gebr we’l mukabala, by an Arab mathematician, Alkarismi, who gave his name to the algorithm.  The Al-gebr is in turn based on the work of a Hindu mathematician and astronomer Brahmagupta, who consolidated India’s unwieldy arithmetical principles in the form of twenty basic processes.  This hybrid system was introduced to Italian trading states by Arabic scholars where it was used as a system of notation to calculate and record results.

India had developed a written abacus, using its written numbers instead of beads, giving them the same signs regardless of the positions they assumed, and using 0 or a dot to indicate an empty column of the virtual abacus.  Whereas in the West with the use of an abacus, they used different signs for numbers with different place values, such as 1 for one, and X for ten in Roman numerals, the Hindu system used the same digit, 1, to compose one, ten, a hundred and so on.

In Europe they were counting in bundles of Roman sticks I, II, III, etc., and these new alien Sanskrit figures were opposed by the Church as an infidel system which could pose a threat to the stability of the Western world.  It wasn’t until the Italian Renaissance traders overcame the opposition of the Church that the numbers were introduced.  By 1478 a manual printed in Italy, on one of the new Gutenberg presses, announced that “Numeration is the representation of numbers by figures, by means of ten letters or figures as shown, 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,0.  Of these the first figure, 1, is not called a number, but the source of number.  The tenth figure, 0, is called a cipher or ‘nulla’ (in Italian), i.e. the figure of nothing, since by itself it has no value, although when joined with others it increases their value.”

In addition to its numbers, the new arithmetic introduced negative numbers and irrational numbers, as well as zero and the decimal point.  These features were crucial to the networks of banking and trade, which themselves were new concepts to the West.  Once this new system was introduced it allowed for simple matters like the keeping of accounts, setting prices, doing deals and working with large numbers, which would have been impossible with Roman numerals.

In the West one was a problem where they had been used to its symbolic importance as an individuated and indivisible entity, the Sanskrit one functioned in relation to the other eight digits but as it closely resembled the old Roman line it was easily subsumed into the old paradigm.

Zero posed a very different threat.  When it first appeared in the new string of infidel figures, the Church fathers did all they could to keep it out of the world which then revolved around one and its multiples; one God, one truth, one way and one one.  However, they were concerned zero wasn’t really there at all and imagined it to be unimportant.  If zero was nothing it should be as easy to absorb as the Sanskrit one had been. Sure enough, zero was appropriated as a sign of absence, nonbeing, and nothingness.  The ancient unity of something and nothing was apparently undisturbed.

If zero is supposed to signify a hole, a space, or a missing piece, and one is the sign of positivity, digital machines turn these binaries around.  In both the electronic systems and the punched cards of weaving machines, a hole is one, and a blank is zero and therefore there are two missing elements.  It was no longer a world of one and not-ones, or something and nothing, thing and gap, but rather not-holes and holes, not-nothing and nothing, gap and not-gap.

Zero was always something very different from the sign which emerged from the West’s inability to deal with anything which is neither something in particular or not at all.  And it is true that holes are never simply absences of positive things.  Holes are not absences or spaces where there should be something else; a hole is a positive particle before it is the absence of a negatively charged electron, and the movement of electrons toward the positive terminal is also a flow of holes streaming back the other way.  Holes are charged particles running in reverse.  For quantum physicists, holes are not the absence of particles but particles travelling faster than the speed of light.

So it is a globalised universe we live in; we have Italy to thank for having such an open-minded trading nation-state; we have the British to thank for inventing the Difference Engine, the Analytic Engine (hence the computer) and the World Wide Web; we have the Arab and Indian sub-continent to thank for it’s system of numbers in general and it’s zeros and ones in particular for programming those computers; and the United States to thank for their vision and exploitative brilliance for putting it all together to make it a truly Digital World.




It is generally agreed that there have been limited choices of employment for most women outside the home throughout the last few centuries.

Considering some of these opportunities, it seems that in the textiles industry women’s work was to programme the looms with punched cards, but it was also a woman who saw this and realised that this binary code was perfect for programming computers.

In offices around the world women’s typing was supposed to be intended only for the eyes of men, the bosses.  However the development of new techniques by Pitman and Gregg made shorthand a private female code, another language, another code.

In the production of miniature components women were small, weak and powerless but it was their hands that were more agile, dexterous and best suited to micro processing thus replacing men on the factory floor.

As it turns out, women have not merely had a minor part to play in the emergence of digital machines.  When computers were vast systems of transistors and valves which needed to be coaxed into action, it was women who turned them on.  When computers became the miniaturised circuits of silicon chips, it was women who assembled them.  Theirs is not a subsidiary role because when computers were virtually real machines it was a woman who wrote the software on which they ran.

Often called the first computer programmer Ada Lovelace was undoubtedly an interesting character. The question is still open for debate, was she a promiscuous, spoilt society heiress or a gifted mathematician and original thinker?  Some (man) called her not only irrelevant but delusional – I can’t remember his name now.

As the brilliant daughter of Lord Byron, her mother feared that Ada would inherit her father’s volatile ‘poetic’ temperament, so she raised her under a strict regimen of science, logic, and mathematics. Ada had a fascination with machines from childhood, designing fanciful boats and steam flying machines, and poring over the diagrams of the new inventions of the Industrial Revolution that filled the scientific magazines of the time.

In correspondence with Charles Babbage, who was working on the ideas for a machine that is now recognised as a forerunner of the modern computer, Ada demonstrated her gift for mathematics and was described by him as “the enchantress of numbers”.  She was introduced to him by another female scientist famous in her day, the mathematician Mary Somerville, who mentored Ada during her relatively short life.

Babbage was impressed by the mathematical skills Ada possessed and invited her to make notes and translate a piece in Italian written by Luigi Menabrea describing Babbage’s ‘analytical engine’, so that it could be published in England.  Her footnotes include what is recognised as the first algorithm intended to be processed by a machine, while she also speculated on its future ability to create graphics and complex music.

She must have inherited some of her Father’s brilliant poeticism, however, as she also developed a vision of the capability of computers to go beyond mere calculating or number-crunching while others, including Babbage himself, focused only on those capabilities.  Her mind-set of “poetical science” led her to ask basic questions about the Analytical Engine examining how individuals and society relate to technology as a collaborative tool.  Maybe she was just more practically prescient than the focused men around her?

Her lasting legacy as role model for girls and young women considering careers in technology is remembered on Ada Lovelace Day (this year it’s on 14th October 2014) which is dedicated to the celebration of the achievements of women in science and technology.



It seems it’s not just writers but all of us have problems with sitting at their desks for long periods of time.

On ‘Call You and Yours’, Radio 4, yesterday Shari Vahl explored what it will take to get us moving as new research from the Ramblers says a third of adults wouldn’t consider walking more than twenty minutes to get from one place to another. That’s even though NHS advice is for a hundred and fifty minutes a week!

So, easily influenced as I am, I forsook my bike yesterday (see previous blog) and walked.  I walked briskly to some stirring songs on my ipod for about 45 mins., and surprisingly I found it more tiring than cycling.  I did feel good though and my tyrant bum seemed to benefit from this exercise.  I could imagine my gluteus maximus tightening and firming up.

Also, as the programme advised, I am now standing at my computer to write this blog.  The programme asked why employers were prepared to pay vast sums for ergonomically designed office chairs but were reluctant to invest in standing tables in the work place.  Invest?  They don’t need to spend anything as I have discovered; they just need to get their employers to bring in their suitcases and place them on top of their desks and then perch their laptops/keyboards on top of those. Simples!

Would you consider standing up all day at work as a solution? But isn’t standing hard on the feet, not to mention the back I hear you say? How do we persuade the office workers, the drivers, the couch potations to change their habits and really use the stairs not the lift?  Prove to us that there’s not going to be another survey that tells us something different tomorrow, might be a start.

walking away

A Writer’s Bottom

It must happen to anyone who sits in an office chair for long periods of time.

Or is it just my ageing bottom that complains if it has to take my weight for hours on end?

Whilst I write, research or socialise, the time I sit there is regulated by my back-side; a tyrant bum that forces me up and out.

If I am absorbed with something I’ll lie on the bed (luckily I work from home) with the laptop on my knees, but my typing speed is much slower this way.  If it’s a nice day I’ll don my helmet and take to my bike, where, with no pen in hand, inspiration is sure to flourish; memorising a nice phrase or a plot progression, I rush back and take up position once again.  Can we get to the bottom of this?  Is it

just me or is there such a thing as a writer’s bottom?