Friday, June 26, 2015

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

by Walter Isaacson

Cover image for The innovators : how a group of hackers, geniuses, and geeks created the digital revolution

Isaacson, author or the best-seller, Steve Jobs, continues to explore the computer industry in his latest book, The Innovators. This time he traces its history – and tells the colourful saga of those first inventors and they who followed.

Did you know that Lady Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron, applied her imagination to mathematics as her father did to poetry, and envisioned a “general-purpose machine” about 100 years or more before it was technologically possible to create one? Yes, in fact, Isaacson repeatedly refers to her creative spirit as a source of inspiration to many of her successors.

From the creation of the first digital machines, to the advent of computer programming, the invention of the microchip, the video game, the personal computer, the Internet, and the myriad of computer software applications, Isaacson captivates the reader by revealing the colourful personalities – men and women – at the heart of “the computer revolution”. The chapters on Lady Lovelace and her business partner, Charles Babbage; the Harvard undergrad/drop-out Bill Gates; Alan Turing; and the development of the Internet, may especially engage readers.

Isaacson’s chronological progression, fascinating insights into the innovators’ personalities, and his own personable narrative style, make this “a good read” – and a long one, at 488 pages excluding the endnotes, photo credits, and index. 

Perhaps this is a book to enjoy while on summer vacation?

Find this book in the Mississauga Library System on-line catalogue.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Fallingwater Rising: Frank Lloyd Wright, E. J. Kaufmann, and America's Most Extraordinary House

In the prologue to Fallingwater Rising: Frank Lloyd Wright, E. J. Kaufmann, and America's Most Extraordinary House, author Franklin Toker writes, "Put this book down now if you can't live without the old myths about Fallingwater. But take comfort in the fact that a Fallingwater history shorn of miracles can still be thrilling."

Toker examines those old myths, and one by one, he uses his extensive and impeccable research to dismantle them. The truth, for me, was far more interesting.

I visited Fallingwater in 1999, and although I have a great interest in architecture and am captivated by that house, I thought a biography of a single building might be too detailed for my level of interest. I was wrong. The book does contain quite a lot of detail. But through that detail, and through his nearly palpable passion for his material, the author reveals the magnificence of Fallingwater and explicates the full depth of its meaning.

Toker weaves a social and cultural history of Fallingwater, placing it in context of Wright's career, Kaufmann's aspirations, the Depression, and the conflicting forces of architecture that were raging at the time. He shows how Fallingwater was sold to the American public, and how that hype permanently changed the country's perception of art and architecture. He analyzes what Fallingwater means in the context of art history and American identity. As Janet Maslin wrote in her review for The New York Times, "Nothing about the way Fallingwater was built, conceived, influenced or manipulated escapes the author's attention."

Some of Toker's claims border on the speculative, but he meticulously presents his evidence and makes his case, leaving the reader to decide if he's made too great a leap. Given that he spent nearly 20 years researching this book, the evidence is always substantial.

I was fascinated to learn that on the eve of Fallingwater's conception, the architecture community considered Wright washed up, a has-been. He had not completed a building in 13 years, and his work was thought to have become repetitive and - the worst insult possible - regressive. At almost 70 years old, Wright was living in relative isolation, both his personal life and his professional life mired in depression. Yet his two most famous, recognizable buildings - Fallingwater and the Guggenheim Museum - were still ahead of him. By the time he died in 1959 at age 91, Wright would be, without exaggeration, the most famous architect in the world, leaving behind an unrivaled body of work. How Wright transformed his career, his image, and the face of architecture through this one building is an amazing tale, and Toker tells it with sparkling writing and wit.

Incidentally, this book is a great eye-opener for those who reject certain art based on the politics or personal life of the artist. Wright, it appears, was staunchly anti-Semitic, although his two most famous buildings were created for Jewish clients. He admired the Nazis and the Third Reich, and disliked that "the Jews" were leading the U.S. into war. (Anti-Semitism and fascist tendencies are one of the threads running through this book, and very relevant to Fallingwater's context.) Wright was also a raging egotist who abandoned his wife and six children to have an affair with a client's wife. Wright the man was not exactly an admirable character. Wright the architect was a visionary and a genius.

Another note: I highly recommend keeping some internet-enabled device on hand while you read Fallingwater Rising. Toker references dozens of buildings, and few readers will be able to conjure mental images of each one. I kept my tablet handy, and did an image search for every building mentioned. This provided me with a context I wouldn't have found in the book alone, plus I ended up with a new short-list of buildings I'd like to see on my travels. [This review was originally published on wmtc.]

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883

I thoroughly enjoy the work of Simon Winchester. For two of his other books, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary and Outposts: Journeys to the Surviving Relics of the British Empire I gave the top five-star rating at Amazon and I extend the same top rating to Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883. This is typical Winchester: nonfiction that I cannot put down, full of interesting trivial footnotes and long sentences loaded with parenthetical asides and clauses separated by commas which did not require rereading in order to fully understand. I tend to reread such lengthy sentences if I have to pause and take in a non sequitur parenthetical aside, yet Winchester makes everything flow in a rapid stream. It is a quite readable oral style that makes me laugh, even if the subject matter is the volcano Krakatoa, which was responsible for the deaths of over 36.000 people. 

The explosion of Krakatoa in 1883 has been called the worst volcanic eruption in modern history. Superlatives abound: it was the deadliest, loudest and expelled the most voluminous and wide-spreading spray of debris ever known. Winchester did not make the story prior to the eruption read like a boring airplane disaster movie, where you don't care about anything except the plane crash (or earthquake, or shipwreck) that was about to happen. Before he described the eruption and its aftereffects, Winchester needed to paint a backstory about the region. He presented both lengthy, yet at all times engrossing and wholly fascinating histories of Dutch colonialism in Indonesia, the dawn of international telegraphic communications as well as the progressive evolution of the science of plate tectonics. I am sure other authors would have driven me to sleep with such a patient breakdown of that particularly new scientific discovery. Plate tectonics and all the crusty goings-on beneath the ocean floor were crafted into a page-turning read. Diagrams, photos and paintings enhanced the text. Winchester explained the science behind the eruption, and how the (former) volcanic island got that way.

What would you do if smoke started seeping through your floor? Prior to the eruption, the population on nearby islands reported the ground under their homes starting to smoke. I can recall reading about the volcanic eruption on Tristan da Cunha in 1961, when islanders reported seeing the ground crack and split open. The Tristanians did not have dirt floors, but these Indonesians did, and the tremors and smoking ground foretold the devastation to come. Here is one observation from a nineteenth century "met station":

"He walked across to the observatory, noticing immediately that the needles and pens suspended by their cocoon-threads on his magnetic declinometer were ticking and trembling violently--not in the usual side-to-side sweeps that one might expect from an earthquake, but in a series of buzzing up-and-down motions that did not register properly on the paper rolling from the drum. The more he thought about it, the more he realized something odd: The vibrations were not so much being felt through his feet, as if they had emanated from somewhere deep in the earth; they were in fact being felt in the air. True, there were ground tremors, and buildings were shaking--this was self-evident. But most of the shaking was coming through the very atmosphere itself. And vibration of this kind was the very particular hallmark of an erupting volcano, not of the subterranean shaking of an earthquake." 

One aftereffect of a volcanic eruption on an island is a tsunami. In fact, several tsunamis. Abnormal wave movements were seen as far away as France; imagine the height and force of the waves at the epicentre. What I found haunting were Winchester's descriptions of pumice with lava-encrusted human skeletons washing up onto the shores of east Africa. While colossal in its destruction not only of structures, animals and human life, the eruption also cost Krakatoa its own life: the explosion was so strong that it blew the island off the map.

The volcanic ash painted the sky and gave the world the most extraordinary sunsets. Winchester wrote about the universal rush for canvas and paints as backyard art studios sprung up, with their artists recording the posteruptive skies in colour, which photography at that time could not yet capture. I now am more than interested in finding these paintings to get a glimpse of what the night sky looked like. 

In Krakatoa and the two other titles I have read so far, Winchester writes with an enthusiasm that tells the reader he had a great pleasure in researching and writing. I am most keen on reading other books in the Winchester oeuvre.