Tuesday, August 27, 2002

The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury

Bradbury's Mars is as much a dream as the Barsoom of Edgar Rice Burroughs, but ... it is a deeper dream, and full of all kinds of truth. With his story of the expeditions, end of the ancient Martians, war on Earth, he draws us past the ludicrous scientific inaccuracies. There are wonderful stories here, and they mesh (loosely) with the tale of Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury has hope, and cares about the future, but he tempers it with a knowledge of how tragically we go about reaching for our dreams. Worth reading and re-reading!

Sunday, August 25, 2002

The Difference Engine Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer, by Doron Swade

Swade has written a terrific book, both because it is a clear history of Babbage's quest to build a computer, and it is not a pure apology or adoration of Babbage, who in retrospect seems like an opinionated, cantankerous, crank. That is, he not only invented a computer, but he developed many of the quirks and foibles exhibited among modern computer users. Swade's book goes beyond history and speculation, though - detailing how he (and the Science Museum of London) really built the Difference Engine - finally giving Babbage his long overdue success.

Okay - I have a great fondness for mechanical computers. The first computers I owned (Think-a-Tron, Digicomp I & II) were purely mechanical (though the T-a-T has an electric light to display results). I understand the sentimental appeal of Babbage, but .. well, I'd hold the Babbage is far outshone by Pascal, who really DID make the first mechanical computer. He also thought a lot about the meaning of his simple mechanical calculator, saying in Pensees: 340. The arithmetical machine produces effects which approach nearer to thought than all the actions of animals. But it does nothing which would enable us to attribute will to it, as to the animals.

Oddly, I find the book made me want to build a clock. Don't know why, except that (even if I use a modern movement) it is a piece of simple, mechanical technology that ... well, somehow ties into the quest of Pascal and Babbage to make machines that - if not alive - autonomously pursue a task of thought.