Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Alphonse Bertillon and 19th Century Databases

Earlier I described an idea that I called the Software Provenance Database. The essence of the idea is a database of information on how to tell what version of a piece of software you're using.

I didn't like the name though, and remembered reading about Alphonse Bertillon, a French police employee who in 1882 presented "anthropometry", a technique of identifying a person based on body measurements and other observations of unchanging features such as scars.

Hence I'd like to consider using Messr. Bertillon's name or story for this database.

Further, I wanted to add that this database certainly should not be limited to determining versions of an executable. The idea is to gather in one spot any information about how you can dynamically determine the state of your computer, and this can include configuration information (how much memory is installed?) and data schemas or file formats.

If you have a few moments, it would be interesting to read this account of how Bertillon's method works, and to think about a database search which involves no computational machinery. Notice his method for partitioning the records into equal portions, for example to make the search quicker. It is to me a good example of what I think Dijkstra meant when he said "Computer Science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes."

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