When I think of geniuses who inspire me, Stephen Wolfram is near the top of the list. I’ve never met him but have followed him from a distance since I was introduced to Mathematica in grad school in the late 1980s.
Backchannel just published a a long, detailed exploration of the life of Ada Lovelace and her work with Charles Babbage that Wolfram wrote a few weeks ago. It’s awesome. By going through a lot of original source material, Wolfram formed his own view and discovered a number of things, including that the common reference to Ada Lovelace as “Enchantress of Numbers” is incorrect – Babbage actually referred her as the “Enchantress of Number” (9/9/1843 – letter from Babbage to Lovelace.)
In his article, Wolfram uses the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine as the focal point to undercover and explain what Ada Lovelace actually accomplished. He pieces together Lovelace and Babbage’s history and relationship to each other. He extrapolates their work and places it in clear historical context. And he states his conclusions about who made which contributions.
His writing is magnificent. I’ve read some of it in the past and tried one summer in Alaska to get through his epic book A New Kind of Science (with very little success, although I read a bunch of science fiction and all the Barry Eisler John Rain books that summer.)
Buried deep in the article are a number of gems. One that jumped out at me was:
“Ada seems to have understood with some clarity the traditional view of programming: that we engineer programs to do things we know how to do. But she also notes that in actually putting “the truths and the formulae of analysis” into a form amenable to the engine, “the nature of many subjects in that science are necessarily thrown into new lights, and more profoundly investigated.” In other words — as I often point out — actually programming something inevitably lets one do more exploration of it.”
followed quickly by:
“representing mathematical truths in a computable form is likely to help one understand those truths themselves better.”
There’s a lot more like this. I encourage you to read the whole article slowly and thoughtfully as it’s a delight. But, if you want the punch line:
“Today, with computers and software all around us, the notion of universal computation seems almost obvious: of course we can use software to compute anything we want. But in the abstract, things might not be that way. And I think one can fairly say that Ada Lovelace was the first person ever to glimpse with any clarity what has become a defining phenomenon of our technology and even our civilization: the notion of universal computation.”
Last November, I read a number of biographies on my sabbatical including Ada’s Algorithm: How Lord Byron’s Daughter Ada Lovelace Launched the Digital Age. Here’s what I wrote about it then:
“I’ve read lots of articles on Ada Lovelace, but I’ve never read a comprehensive biography. The story was fascinating, especially when pondering what life much have been like in Victorian-era England and how much of any uphill cultural battle Ada Lovelace had. While we’ve got lots of challenges around gender still in our society, we’ve definitely made read progress in the last 150 years. This linkages to Lord Byron, Lady Byron, and Charles Babbage were fascinating and, in many ways, disheartening. Ada Lovelace was clearly a genius – I can’t even begin to imagine the amazing stuff she could have done if she was born in 1990 instead of 1815.”
Wolfram’s summary of what Lovelace might have accomplished if she hadn’t died so young (36 years old in 1852) was much more detailed and eloquent, but seems very consistent to what I have accumulated in my head. And I loved his conclusion.
“But the challenge is to be enough of an Ada to grasp what’s there — or at least to find an Ada who does. But at least now I think I have an idea of what the original Ada born 200 years ago today was like: a fitting personality on the road to universal computation and the present and future achievements of computational thinking.”
I read over 40 books in my month off the grid in Bora Bora recently. I’ve had many requests to blog about my reading list but rather than do one big long post I thought I’d break it up into several “longish” different posts over time. If all you are interested in is my reading list, my Goodreads Brad Feld account has everything I’ve read in reverse chronological order.
This post is about biographies. I’ve always loved to read biography and expect that my 2015 reading diet will include a lot more biography and history than normal as it has caught my interest lately. I’m including company biographies in this post. I didn’t read many, but had a little Google obsession on this trip which you’ll see in a moment.
The order is in the order I read them (even though the Goodreads list is in reverse-chron order).
Boy on Ice: The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard: I finished this just before we took off. I’m not much of a hockey fan – my childhood team was the Dallas Blackhawks – but I was entranced by this book. I learned a lot about how hockey works, much of it distressing to me. The enforcer role was one I didn’t really understand and Boogaard’s story is a powerfully tragic one. The book is well-written and moves quickly, while painting a powerful picture of how hockey can really damage people.
How Google Works: Eric Schmidt (Google chairman, prior CEO), Jonathan Rosenberg (long time Google exec) wrote the trendy book of the year about Google. I knew many of the approaches and anecdotes of the book – and how Google works – from the many other things I’ve read about Google over the years. But having it in one place, organized conceptually, was worth taking another pass through it all.
Memos from the Chairman: I had high hopes for Ace Greenberg’s compendium of memos from his time as chairman of Bear Stearns, which coincided with massive growth and success for the company. While there was some cuteness in here along with a few things to reflect on, I was disappointed in how dull the majority of the book was. Maybe it was awesome in 1996 when it came out, but it felt slow and dated in 2015.
Einstein: His Life and Universe: Einstein is one of my heroic figures and Walter Isaacson just nails it. If you are an Einstein fan or just want to really learn the full story, this is the book for you.
The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution: If I hadn’t read the Einstein book, I probably wouldn’t have read The Innovators, but Isaacson had pleased me so much that I devoured this one also. This is Isaacson’s 2014 tome an a follow-up to his Steve Jobs book. It was good, but not epic.
Two Miserable Presidents: Everything Your Schoolbooks Didn’t Tell You About the Civil War: I originally saw this at my partner Ryan McIntyre’s house a few months ago when we were over for dinner. I Kindled it and dove in. I loved it – super easy to consume and a very playful way to learn, or relearn, some history. I’m planning at least one serious Lincoln biography in 2015 so this was a good way to get a taste of it.
The Virgin Way: Everything I Know About Leadership: Everyone knows that Richard Branson is cool, and iconoclast, a massive risk taker, and amazing successful. But he’s also extremely introspective and articulate. I’ve never met him or been to Necker Island, but plenty of my colleagues have. When I started reading this one, I felt like I was doing something obligatory to read the autobiography of one of our contemporary business legends, but I really enjoyed it and by the end was glad Branson had put the energy into writing this.
In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives: As with Walter Isaacson, I eventually get around to reading all of Steven Levy’s books (I read his epic Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution in 1984 as a freshman at MIT and it has stayed with me ever since.) His Google book was awesome – much better than How Google Works. I learned a ton I didn’t know, especially about history that had either been ignored, glossed over, or repurposed. If you have any interest, relationship with, or curiosity about Google, this is the book for you.
Ada’s Algorithm: How Lord Byron’s Daughter Ada Lovelace Launched the Digital Age: I’ve read lots of articles on Ada Lovelace, but I’ve never read a comprehensive biography. The story was fascinating, especially when pondering what life much have been like in Victorian-era England and how much of any uphill cultural battle Ada Lovelace had. While we’ve got lots of challenges around gender still in our society, we’ve definitely made read progress in the last 150 years. This linkages to Lord Byron, Lady Byron, and Charles Babbage were fascinating and, in many ways, disheartening. Ada Lovelace was clearly a genius – I can’t even begin to imagine the amazing stuff she could have done if she was born in 1990 instead of 1815.
As a bonus, Amy and I have been watching the HBO Series John Adams and I’ve decided to start tackling biographies of American presidents and other American heroes of mine, like Ben Franklin. Look for some of this in 2015.