June 5, 2016

Review Corner

[Lady Ada Lovelace]'s ability to appreciate the beauty of mathematics is a gift that eludes many people, including some who think of themselves as intellectual. She realized that math was a lovely language, one that describes the harmonies of the universe and can be poetic at times. Despite her mother's efforts, she remained her father's daughter, with a poetic sensibility that allowed her to view an equation as a brushstroke that painted an aspect of nature's physical splendor, just as she could visualize the "wine-dark sea" or a woman who "walks in beauty, like the night." But math's appeal went even deeper; it was spiritual. Math "constitutes the language through which alone we can adequately express the great facts of the natural world," she said
A new friend lent me a book. He mentioned that he had just finished The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson. I had enjoyed his biography of Steve Jobs, though it somehow escaped a Review Corner. And it was free.

Isaacson goes from the specific case of Steve Jobs to the general case of who brought us computers, transistors, integrated circuits, networks, software, the Internet -- all the digital goodies we enjoy today. He starts with Charles Babbage and Ada and proceeds, for 560 pages, through many well known and innovators -- and quite a few I had never heard of.

Had they [used vacuum tubes rather than mechanical switches] right away, they would have gone down in history as the first inventors of a working modern computer: binary, electronic, and programmable. But [Konrad] Zuse, as well as the experts he consulted at the technical school, balked at the expense of building a device with close to two thousand vacuum tubes.

It is a well written and enjoyable book. Isaacson includes just enough anecdotal information to keep it personal, while advancing the story through the many innovations and innovators required to make Review Corner extant.
"You know, Bill," Allen warned him, "when you get to Harvard, there are going to be some people a lot better in math than you are." "No way," Gates replied. "There's no way!"
"Wait and see," said Allen

A recurring theme for Isaacson -- and great interest of mine -- is the intersection of technology and art. Ada Lovelace opens and closes the book as the daughter of the poet Lord Byron, with her ability to see computing 's encompassing more than spreadsheets.
Ada Lovelace would have been pleased. To the extent that we are permitted to surmise the thoughts of someone who's been dead for more than 150 years, we can imagine her writing a proud letter boasting about her intuition that calculating devices would someday become general-purpose computers, beautiful machines that can not only manipulate numbers but make music and process words and "combine together general symbols in successions of unlimited variety."

There's precious little politics. A throwaway line "That was back when state governments valued education and realized the economic and social value of making it affordable" gives away the author's media background, but I am tough. He defends government spending on R & D, and even bravely goes into the breach to defend vice President Al Gore's legitimate claims in promoting the Internet.

I, however, am going to impute some philosophy on top. I started this right before I finished Deirdre McCloskey's Bourgeois Equality [Review Corner] and this is what it is all about. Ada is born in England in 1815 and the computing section of The Great Enrichment proceeds apace. At the risk of mixing reviews, I'm not asking "Is Isaacson right?" but "Is McCloskey right?" And I suggest it supports her.

Many of the players are Jewish or German, and while wartime R&D spending advances many projects, many of the brightest minds are shut out. McCloskey pictures the next Einstein or Steve Jobs stuck to some plow in Africa. What about those not allowed to compete at all. The world almost lost Andy Grove. Twice.

Grove, born Andras Grof in Budapest, did not come from a madrigal-singing Congregationalist background. He grew up Jewish in Central Europe as fascism was rising, learning brutal lessons about authority and power. When he was eight, the Nazis took over Hungary; his father was sent to a concentration camp, and Andras and his mother were forced to move into a special cramped apartment for Jews. When he went outside, he had to wear a yellow Star of David. One day when he got sick, his mother was able to convince a non-Jewish friend to bring some ingredients for soup, which led to the arrest of both his mother and the friend. After she was released, she and Andras assumed false identities while friends sheltered them. The family was reunited after the war, but then the communists took over. Grove decided, at age twenty, to flee across the border to Austria. As he wrote in his memoir, Swimming Across, "By the time I was twenty, I had lived through a Hungarian Fascist dictatorship, German military occupation, the Nazis' Final Solution, the siege of Budapest by the Soviet Red Army, a period of chaotic democracy in the years immediately after the war, a variety of repressive Communist regimes, and a popular uprising that was put down at gunpoint."35 It wasn't like mowing lawns and singing in a small-town Iowa choir, and it did not instill genial mellowness.

Linus Torvalds was able to contribute -- outside of the capitalist mode -- but still requiring McCloskey's Bourgeois Deal:"
I also wanted feedback (okay, and praise). It didn't make sense to charge people who could potentially help improve my work. I suppose I would have approached it differently if I had not been raised in Finland, where anyone exhibiting the slightest sign of greediness is viewed with suspicion, if not envy And yes, I undoubtedly would have approached the whole no-money thing a lot differently if I had not been brought up under the influence of a diehard academic grandfather and a diehard communist father.

Likewise, I'd admit it supports McCloskey's (and Adam Smith's) tolerance of less-than perfect liberty. Advances come from all over the (bourgeois) world: from governments, garages, large outfits like Bell Labs. Isaacson has plenty of data to support government research funding. I still believe in optimising innovation, but there is no magic bullet that fosters or overly impedes human reaching.
This innovation will come from people who are able to link beauty to engineering, humanity to technology, and poetry to processors. In other words, it will come from the spiritual heirs of Ada Lovelace, creators who can flourish where the arts intersect with the sciences and who have a rebellious sense of wonder that opens them to the beauty of both.

Four-point five stars.

Review Corner Posted by John Kranz at June 5, 2016 11:00 AM
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