Saturday, February 28, 2015

Cluster Critiques

The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson

Did you know that Lord Byron’s daughter, Ada Lovelace, pioneered computer programming in the 1840? I suspect that few others do either. Why is that? Is it a non-issue, or does it matter? Well it matters because we hear all the time about the dearth of girls/women in STEM-related industry (science, technology, math and science), and yet it was a “fru-fru” who ignited it all. Interestingly, but not terribly surprising, it seems there’s an ongoing, raging debate on whether or not Lovelace really played that big a role, along with Charles Babbage, the “father of computers," in the birth of computer programming.  An English mathematician and writer, Lovelace wrote the first-ever computer algorithm, put forth the idea that humanities and technology should coexist and dreamed up the concept of artificial intelligence. Isaacson goes on to demonstrate that the exclusion of women in the history of technology is embarrassingly flagrant, arguably impacting the future. To repeat the observations of Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook and author of Lean In.
Isaacson, who also wrote Jobs, the Steve Jobs biography, provides a blow-by-blow, or should I say bit-by-bit chronological history of the birth of computing and computers beginning with Ada and Charles, and including Alan Turing, the character recently play with such finesse by Benedict Cumberbatch  in the movie The Imitation Game. He includes a wad of other particularly interesting misfits and geeks including Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Grace Hopper, who created Cobol and coined the term “computer bugs” after discovering a dead moth in a computer. And there's a herd of other women you’ve never heard of. But what is compulsively intriguing about Isaacson’s portrayal of this history is that although a few characters do jump out at you, i.e., Lovelace, Gates, etc. the overarching theme of The Innovators is that computers didn’t maneuver into the center of our universe because of individuals, but rather as the result of groups of individuals, and the alchemy of their individual intellectual quirkiness, and how those idiosyncrasies combined to create momentum. In other words, it took a village. And for all these reasons, I found The Innovators completely fascinating.

Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art by Carl Hoffman
I’ve always been absurdly fascinated by the moneyed icons of my generation, the Rockefellers, the Kennedys, Randolph Hearst. So when I saw a book had been written about Nelson Rockefeller’s son, Michael, who disappeared at the age of 23 in New Guinea in 1961, I couldn’t resist. My interest in this ilk of families links somewhat to the fact that they are subject to the same tragedies of life that smite us all – their financial capacities impotent to the will of chance.

Carl Hoffman capitalizes on the unknown to exploit our curiosities, but he does it so well we forgive him. No one really knows what happened to Michael. He could have simply drowned when his catamaran went adrift off the coast of New Guinea. He had spent several years in New Guinea studying and searching for primitive native art to add to his father’s famous collection. Or he could have made it safely ashore when he tried to swim from his capsized boat, then been taken captive and eaten by the Asmet cannibals. According to Hoffman the Asmet may have killed and eaten Rockefeller to make the point that they were tired of colonials, missionaries and art collectors messing with them. 

Hoffman explores every thread of history surrounding the incident, including Nelson Rockefeller’s heartbreak and the expansive search for his son, to provide a rather breathless account leading up to an inconclusive conclusion. Either the natives or the crocodiles ate Michael. Read Savage Harvest if you have an interest in primitive New Guinea, the Rockefellers, and/or an affection for exotic tales well told.

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert

There have been five mass extinctions in the history of our planet, Cretaceous–Paleogene, Triassic-Jurassic, Permian–Triassic,  Late Devonian, and Ordovician–Silurian. Meaning, practically everything alive suddenly disappeared - relatively speaking. Elizabeth Kolbert, and anyone else who has drank the global warming Kool-Aid, believes that humans are on a fast track to, and responsible for, the sixth extinction, the Holocene,  or what I loving refer to as the Buh-Bye-ocene.

Don't get me wrong, I agree, as will anyone with a brain, that global warming is happening and that it will change life as we know it. But I also believe that every species of flora, fauna or SueAnna has forever decidedly impacted the earth and will continue to. I also believe that the earth, unless totally blasted out of the galaxy by some gigantic meteor or fried to a crisp by a massive solar flare, will continue just fine, albeit differently, with or without us.

With that said, and this being a book review, I would say that Kolbert’s story of how she camped on the doorsteps of researchers in geology and botany from the Andes to the Great Barrier Reef rendered a surprisingly intelligible and rather entertaining 336 pages of scientific (de jour) information.

If you have a perverse appetite for frog minutiae, the need for further evidence that we are ecologically headed  down the highway to hell, or as in my case, an illogical interest in all things science, read it.

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