Happy New Year!

All the best in 2015


How We Got to Now

HowWeGottoNowHow We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World
Steven Johnson
Riverhead (September 30, 2014), 289 pages
Kindle Edition  $11.99, Amazon Hardcover  $19.55
eBook borrowed from the Santa Clara County Library System

If you watched the James Burke PBS series Connections in the 1980s the approach in How We Got to Now will be familiar to you. (Interestingly author Steven Johnson says that he was not familiar with Connections until after he completed this book and the accompanying PBS series.)

The thread that runs through this book is what Johnson calls the “hummingbird effect.” This is based on the idea that, as Johnson says, “The symbiosis between flowering plants and insects that led to the production of nectar ultimately created an opportunity for much larger organisms—the hummingbirds—to extract nectar from plants…”

The hummingbird effect, then, is when “an innovation, or cluster of innovations, in one field ends up triggering changes that seem to belong to a different domain altogether.” Johnson focuses on six areas of innovations: glass, cold, sound, sanitation, time, and light.

He describes, for example, how Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press led to the development of lenses because many people all of a sudden realized that they were farsighted. Before the printed page a much smaller number of people had the need to sharp close-up vision.

Johnson explains how sperm whales were killed in large part because the material above their brains made great oil for lamps. But with the discovery of petroleum products for lighting in the form of kerosene lamps and the gaslights the massive slaughter ended. Johnson says, “This is one of the stranger twists in the history of extinction: because humans discovered deposits of ancient plants buried deep below the surface of the earth, one of the ocean’s most extraordinary creatures was spared.”

How We Got to Now is a surprisingly quick read, but it’s interesting stuff and engaging reading.


Song of Simeon

Yesterday was the first Sunday after Christmas. Christmas 1 is one of the few times in the course of the year, perhaps the only time, in the Episcopal Church when the Gospel reading varies from the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). The Episcopal Church reads the prologue to John all three years. In Year A, the year of Matthew, the RCL reading is the story of the flight into Egypt. In year C, the year of Luke, the reading is the story of the boy Jesus at the temple. This year, Year B, the year of Mark, the reading is the Song of Simeon and the story of Anna. I love that passage. It is about two elderly people, one a man and the other a woman, who have spent their lives in the service of God. They are rewarded by seeing the Messiah as an infant. The passage always brings a tear to my eye.

Simeon’s words are well known:

quoteMaster, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.

The Song of Simeon has been put to music many times, in some beautiful settings. Please enjoy one of them.


Secular Music Friday: Happy Christmas (War Is Over)

The John Lennon classic sung by Neil Diamond


Happy Christmas!

Christmas joy to you and yours!


the paragraph

In school we are taught about how important the paragraph is, and how important it is to get our paragraphs correct. But the paragraph is not the cohesive unit that English teachers would have us believe. A lecture series from The Great Courses taught me that the concept of the paragraph didn’t show up until 1795. And in a study a group of English teachers were given a block of writing with all the paragraph breaks removed and were told to reassemble the paragraphs. No one matched the original paragraphing exactly.

I like Stephen Pinker’s comment in The Sense of Style:SenseofStyle

quoteMany writing guides provide detailed instructions on how to build a paragraph. But the instructions are misguided, because there is no such thing as a paragraph. That is, there is no item in an outline, no branch of a tree, no unit of discourse that consistently corresponds to a block of text delimited by a blank line or an indentation. What does exist is the paragraph break: a visual bookmark that allows the reader to pause, take a breather, assimilate what he has read, and then find his place again on the page.


The Innovators

InnovatorsThe Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution
Walter Isaacson
Simon & Schuster (October 7, 2014), 560 pages
Kindle Edition  $8.99, Amazon Hardcover  $21.00

The Innovators is a comprehensive history of the digital age, written by a master of biography and nonfiction, Walter Isaacson. The book begins with the daughter of Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace, and her work on a machine that was an early predecessor to the computer. He takes us all the way through to the second decade of the 21st century, mentioning Marissa Mayer as CEO of Yahoo!.

Isaacson discusses the earliest computers, the eventual mainframe, the mini-mainframe, and the personal computer. He talks about ARPANET, its evolution into the Internet, the creation of services like Delphi, CompuServe, and AOL. He tells us that the Internet as we know it today did not arise until 1993, when a change in federal regulations allowed anyone to connect to the Internet from their home.

The personalities are the stories around which the narrative revolves. Isaacson talks about Alan Turing George Stibitz in the early days. Of course he tells us about William Hewlett and David Packard. Isaacson presents the stories of Gordon Moore, Robert Noyce, and Andy Grove in the development of the microchip. Of course Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, Steve Jobs, and Steve Wozniak get plenty of attention.

Isaacson reinforces the message in Powers of Two, that creativity and innovation come out of collaboration and not from the lone genius. He tells us that there are plenty of biographies of the lone genius, including, he admits, his own (both Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein), but, he says:

quote…we have far fewer tales of collaborative creativity, which is actually more important in understanding how today’s technology revolution was fashioned. It can also be more interesting.

Isaacson does a marvelous job making this story interesting.