Category Archives: Books

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

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

Think Joseph Schumpeter’s ethos of creative destruction mixed with economic historian Joel Mokyr’s emphasis on technology and how culture enables it, as told by a tech journalist, and you have this book. It’s essentially a history of great personalities of the digital age, with the broader aim of identifying cultural factors that aid innovation. While Isaacson’s arguments are nothing groundbreaking, he is a compelling biographer, and he ties together some wildly disparate personalities into a cohesive narrative of computer history.

One of the first great personalities behind the computer was the mathematician Ada Lovelace, who of all things was the daughter of the Romantic-era poet Lord Byron. Lovelace’s work with Charles Babbage would go on to influence Alan Turing, and when their efforts combined with the invention of the transistor, the cascading effect led to the emergence of numerous other innovations and innovators, who are all more interconnected than most of them realized.

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Thomas Edison, Music Critic

Thomas Edison not only invented the phonograph, he was one of the first to mass-market recorded music, along with his competitor Victor’s Victrola player. Edison also curated the music his company, Thomas Alva Edison, Inc. (TAE), released. His notebooks contain some surprisingly funny negative reviews, such as this gem from during World War I, shared on p. 39 of Greg Milner’s Perfecting Sounds Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music:

“If anything would make the Germans quit their trenches it is this…”

John Eisenberg – That First Season: How Vince Lombardi Took the Worst Team in the NFL and Set It on the Path to Glory

John Eisenberg – That First Season: How Vince Lombardi Took the Worst Team in the NFL and Set It on the Path to Glory

I read this shortly before the Packers began the 2019 season, their first under new head coach Matt LaFleur. This book takes on an added poignance with quarterback Bart Starr’s recent passing at age 85. There’s nothing groundbreaking here, just a well-told story about the beginnings of one of the sport’s major dynasties.

The team was dysfunctional at every level after finishing the 1958 season with a 1-10-1 record, still the worst in team history. Head coach Scooter McLean, though generally liked by his players, was not much of a coach or an administrator, and was fired. The Packers’ unique ownerless structure was also hurting the team. As a shareholder corporation, the team was run by an executive committee of mostly local notables who had few compunctions about meddling with personnel decisions and other football matters. Retired Hall of Fame running back Tony Canadeo was an exception on the committee, and without him Lombardi might never have been hired.

At the time Lombardi was the New York Giants’ offensive coordinator. In his mid-40s, he was a bit old to be considered for a head coaching job at that point, and though he wasn’t overly excited about relocating to the NFL’s equivalent of Siberia, he knew it might be his only shot at running his own team. One of his conditions was a weakening of the executive committee, and absolute say over personnel matters.

As Lombardi looked over game film, he saw that he was inheriting some talented players. Packers scout Jack Vainisi, who would die in 1960 at the age of 33 of a heart attack, was an unheralded genius who drafted eight Hall of Fame players who played for Lombardi. Players like Bart Starr, Ray Nitschke, Paul Hornung, and Jim Ringo had occasional flashes, but previous management did little to develop their talent. Lombardi’s famous discipline changed that virtually overnight.

Having set the stage, the book then goes week by week through Green Bay’s first season under Lombardi. They beat the Bears in the opener, the perfect way to ring in the new era. An early winning streak was followed by a longer losing streak, but the Packers still finished with a  7-5 record, their first winning season in years, and a six-win improvement in just one year. Lombardi’s Packers would go on to win five championships over a seven-year stretch, including the first two Super Bowls.

Again, there is nothing groundbreaking here, but Eisenberg has produced a quality work of history about an important part of pro football history. Better, its intended audience is all football fans, not just homer Packers fans.

Tolstoy’s Insights on Political Types

A passage from Part 6, chapter 18 of Tolstoy’s War and Peace reminds me of more than one person I met during my years in Washington:

The visitor was Bitski, who served on various committees, frequented all the societies in Petersburg, and a passionate devotee of the new ideas and of Speranski, and a diligent Petersburg newsmonger—one of those men who choose their opinions like their clothes according to the fashion, but who for that very reason appear to be the warmest partisans.

Peter Moore – Endeavour: The Ship and the Attitude that Changed the World

Peter Moore – Endeavour: The Ship and the Attitude that Changed the World

The Endeavour is the famous ship that discovered Australia under Captain James Cook. This book tells the story of the ship, rather than that voyage. Cook’s voyage was not the Endeavour’s first. It began life in 1764 as a private ship named the Earl of Pembroke, and was purchased by the British Royal Navy in 1768.

Cook’s voyage is the meat of book. Moore tells the story well, though his purple prose sometimes borders on the ridiculous. As long as the reader doesn’t take Moore too seriously as a prose stylist, he is an excellent narrative historian. The Australian voyage has its ups and downs, and the ship’s near-destruction on the Great Barrier Reef is especially gripping. Moore also gives ample time to describing what Maori life was like around the time Cook put in his appearance, and how strange it was for both cultures when they met for the first time. Primary source descriptions of the wildlife they encountered and how Cook’s crew dealt with them are another strength of the book.

Cook’s journey was not the end of the Endeavour. After returning to England, the ship made voyages under less famous crews to the Falkland Islands. It also, surprisingly, saw action in the Revolutionary War on the British side. By this time Endeavour was an old ship, and not exactly a desirable assignment. Even after undergoing extensive repairs and another name change, to the Lord Sandwich, it was still no prize It was still able to sail across the Atlantic, but ended up being intentionally scuttled off the Rhode Island coast in an unsuccessful attempt to blockade the Americans. Its wreckage is still in a cluster somewhere near Newport harbor.

Richard P. Feynman – The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman 

Richard P. Feynman – The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman 

Feynman’s view on women are, shall we say, rather dated. And some of the material also appears in “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”. But this collection of speeches and articles has both entertainment value and educational value. Feynman valued working smart as much as he did working hard, and he had some ingenious shortcuts, as well as shortcuts for finding mental shortcuts. His views on pedagogy and education are also refreshingly open-minded. Some structure is good, but too much does harm.

Christopher Hibbert – The Borgias and Their Enemies, 1431–1519

Christopher Hibbert – The Borgias and Their Enemies, 1431–1519

A history of the Renaissance family famous for its corruption, intrigue, and decadence. It begins with papacy’s move from Avignon back to Rome, but mostly as a setup for all the naughty bits that would happen once the Borgias became cardinals and popes. Their rise was somewhat improbable; the Borgias were originally from Castilian Spain, and nearly all popes were expected to be Italian.

Beyond those notes, Hibbert doesn’t take a great deal of interest in the Borgia’s greater historical context and significance. He does note that the Borgias gave commissions to famous artists including Botticelli. The Medici family and the religious fanatic Savonarola put in cameos; they were not on good terms with the Borgias.

Hibbert is instead more interested in the Borgias themselves, and one can see why. Politics, simony, sex, murder, incest allegations, orgies, corruption, bribes, illegitimate children, and more provide plenty of page-turning stories. Hibbert might have gone further in developing the personalities and motivations that animated the famous triumvirate of Rodrigo, Cesare, and Lucrezia. Why did they act as they did? How did they fit into the larger picture of Renaissance Italy? Did they help or hinder its achievements? Did their antics play a role in fomenting the Reformation’s reactions against papal excess? Readers will have to look elsewhere for anything beyond passing stabs at these deeper questions.