01 April 2009

Actually Not An April Fools Joke: A Million RANDom Numbers, Now In Convenient Paperback Form

2006.On this, the day of the year where you really have to check your sources, I stumbled on something that should have been an April Fools joke, but it's real.

These days you can get a cheap calculator at Office Empire and do the brainwork that required professionals and big, vacuum-tube machines to do through the first three-quarters of the 20th Century.

People will frequently be heard to quip in such conversations that today's graphic calclulators can do what room-sized power hogs did in the 1940s. To put it in more concrete terms, did you ever wonder just what the original room-size mechanical and electrical Leviathans did at first?

They just crunched numbers. ENIAC was commissioned by the US defense during WWII to produce artillery firing tables, work which, just before the creation of such a machine, was performed by people who actually had the title "computer". The importance of ENIAC and similar machines wasn't so much in what they produced but what they promised; by making the computing theories of such names as Turing and Von Neumann reality they proved them, and started us down the road to the desktop computers and eventually wireless computers of the day.

Try not to cry too much when you realize that all this culminated in Twitter. Anywho, we digress.

The reason I explained that is it's important to know that back in those days, if you wanted an answer, you consulted a table, and it was the task of human "computers" and others to come up with the tables you used which were frequently published in popular reference guides. Modern electronic and electromechanical machines (like the ENIAC and the German Z3 of Konrad Zuse) promised, at the time, more reliable and precise output.

Random numbers are a particular thing. They are mad useful in statistics and mathematics, but the trouble has always been generating them. In 1955, the quinessential government contractor, the legendary RAND Corporation (always spelt in caps, because RAND is actually an acronym standing for Research ANd Development), endeavored to create a table of 1 million random digits for use by statisticians and allied schools of study in having a store of random digits to hand without having to consult a then-new electrical computer.

The list was created by using a computer to run a roulette wheel simulation, whose results were, as they say, tested and filtered before being run to create the list. The book, after the preface, consists of nothing but page after page of ranks and files of 5-digit groupings, as random as the brainiacs at RAND could make them.

The title, A Million Random Numbers with 100,000 Normal Deviates, brings up visions of James Frey and the entire run of Jerry Springer shows (although you may think that Springer's telecast maybe a few more than 100,000 normal deviates) until you remember that what a mathematical deviation is. Still, it's an interesting book, and for those of you who have a calculator (which was also once an actual human job title) that can spit out a pseudo-random number at the press of a button, you might want to keep this book around if The Change ever occurs.

And this is a real, honest-to-Gosh book. You can buy it via Amazon.com (altho at the time of this writing they only have one copy available at a price of over USD$230). You'll go to Amazon to check the price of the book, but you'll stay for the reviews, which contain such witty gems as:

The book is a promising reference concept, but the execution is somewhat sloppy. Whatever algorithm they used was not fully tested. The bulk of each page seems random enough. However at the lower left and lower right of alternate pages, the number is found to increment directly.

And ...

Such a terrific reference work! But with so many terrific random digits, it's a shame they didn't sort them, to make it easier to find the one you're looking for.

And another beauty:

Its all about Soul

The Power of Soul by Dr Zhi Gang Sha is a groundbreaking work in every sense. Revealing in classic and succinct ways the multidimensional nature of human existance and the power that our soul has to heal, bless and transform every aspect of our life is nothing short of miraculous in its scope. A true treasure house of spiritual and practical wisdom, there is no other book of this type available today. It is truly Divine. I am one reader whose life will be forever enhanced by the readng of this book and I know everyone who has searched for deeper meaning in there life will be too.

But you should just go read them.

RAND Corporation also has the book for sale on its own website in the RAND Bookstore (a term of such sheer awesomeness that both policy wonks and Objectivists will have to get a change of panties after just reading them together)

If you surf the link that ties into the books title (italiced and boldfaced above) you'll go to a Wikipedia entry about it that has links to the datafiles, if you don't have all that money to set aside.

It's not an April Fools joke. Really! That was two articles ago! The Gill bit! Because he's dead!

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