Posts Tagged 'Friday Giants'

Friday Giant 4: Island Girl(s)

Editor’s Note: this post in part is a celebration of Yule tomorrow, and in part of my returning to regular internet access after a six-month involuntary detox. That’s also why it’s a little longer than average. Regular service on this blog will resume in the new year. Have a happy holidaymass, everybody.

Princess of Wessex

Æthelflæd, Lady of Mercia

Æthelflæd, Lady of Mercia

Anyone with a passing familiarity with the British Isles has heard of Æthelflæd’s father. Alfredus Magnus, Ælfred the Great, pious scholar, cunning warrior, and skilful statesman. He’s mostly famous for founding the Royal Navy and being a really bad cook. Oh yeah, and uniting the Saxons and the English to kick the Danes back out of the country. Or at least, that’s the Ladybird version. [1] If one is broadly familiar with early medieval history one might know that Alfred died of chronic malaria and religious exhaustion with the job only half done. Mercia was an ally but the Anglias and the Kingdom of York were in vigorous Danish hands, and Strathclyde was a Welsh kingdom hungry for more land. Northumberland was stuck on his rock at Bamburgh and couldn’t do much. At this point Edward, King of Wessex steps into the limelight of history. He is credited with leading an alliance between Mercia, Wessex and, as liberated, the Anglias which ended the Danish kingdoms in England (for a hundred years or so, anyway). The campaign is relatively well-documented, and by all accounts Edward was both a talented soldier and a brave one, being at least as good a warrior as he was a general. Alfred and Edward between them created one of the defining cultural myths which allowed the modern English to come into existence.

What is largely invisible from this narrative is the role played by Edward’s sister. His steadfast ally, Æthelred Ealdorman of the remaining English Mercians, who covered the western flank while Edward rampaged up the east coast, was so steadfast in large part because he was married to Æthelflæd. And he was also dead from the second year of the actual campaign.

Continue reading ‘Friday Giant 4: Island Girl(s)’

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Friday Giant 3: … and Babbage.

Back in the mists of Internet pre-history, there was such a thing as a Sharp PC-500. Ever heard of bubble memory? If you’re any younger than me, you almost certainly haven’t. Be glad. That screen? 80 char x 8 ln can be a little weird to work on. A printer built into the back of a laptop? Actually, a great idea in principle but the resultant luggable was rather heavy and vulnerable to failures. But my first steps as an 8-year old proto-geek were taken using this computer, on which my father taught me how to first create a font for Tolkein’s Angerthas, and then do the necessary hackery to teach the computer how to use that font in WYSIWYG and print display. While doing so, he also told me about this Friday’s giant.

Child of one of the greatest celebrities of the day, a mathematical prodigy and a person of remarkable moral fibre and agile intellect, they have a programming language named for them, and are remembered as the genius who realised in mathematical language the potential a collaborator had recognised in Jacquard’s Loom. Their paradigm for symbolic general computing was, eventually, proved in practice to work as designed. But eventually was over a hundred and fifty years later, and the engine in question is remembered under the name of the man who thought he could build one (he couldn’t) rather than the woman who thought she could program one (who could).

Ada Byron, Lady Lovelace.

Ada Byron, Lady Lovelace.

Ada Lovelace would have been a truly extraordinary person in any era, and she happened to be born at a nexus point in European intellectual history. As Mary Wollestonecroft and George Eliot stand within the literary world, so Lovelace stands within the history of mathematics. The co-incidence of birth certainly affected her career, though. Had she not been the daughter of Lord Byron, she might have had more fun in life and would probably not have been driven by her mother into the sciences and mathematics as an armour against poetry. That accident of history led her to develop one of the most creative intellects England has ever seen.

Quoting from here:

In 1842, an Italian mathematician, Louis Menebrea, published a memoir in French on the subject of the Analytical Engine. Babbage enlisted Ada as translator for the memoir, and during a nine-month period in 1842-43, she worked feverishly on the article and a set of Notes she appended to it. These are the source of her enduring fame.

Ada called herself “an Analyst (& Metaphysician),” and the combination was put to use in the Notes. She understood the plans for the device as well as Babbage but was better at articulating its promise. She rightly saw it as what we would call a general-purpose computer. It was suited for “developping [sic] and tabulating any function whatever. . . the engine [is] the material expression of any indefinite function of any degree of generality and complexity.” Her Notes anticipate future developments, including computer-generated music.

lovelacepg5I am just a year younger than Lovelace was when she died. In her short life she ignored or overcame so many restraints and obstacles to her pursuit of beautiful logic: but she is to this day a giant of the Enlightenment who is far too often overlooked. There are a great many interesting things that are entirely true about Ada Lovelace, but I would strongly suggest that the reader discovers them via the end-notes attached to each installment of this work of historical and comedic genius. 2D Goggles: Babbage and Lovelace (Fight Crime!), created by Sydney Padua and apparently far advanced from when I last checked it, is brilliant, funny, warped, beautifully drawn, historically accurate except when it isn’t, and annotated with all sorts of wonderfully interesting things and tempestuous people from the high age of Victorian engineering. The comic features, among other attractions: The Difference Engine! Queen Victoria! Steam Trains! A runaway Economic Model! Wellington’s horse! And Isambard Kingdom Brunel with an unfeasibly large cigar! Read it. You’ll laugh, frequently. You’ll know a great deal more about the real Ada Byron, Lady Lovelace, and her pet buffoon Charles Babbage. And you’ll never again listen to any self-entitled basement bandit who tries to tell you girls don’t do math.

I have to say as a personal note that while Babbage needed a business manager more desperately than anyone else in history, and few people besides Lovelace would have had enough obsession with the Engines to see the project through the inevitable calamities, Lovelace had problems of her own which would have hampered the achievement of the steam-powered information age. To the ‘Byron Devil’ I believe we can give the name of ‘manic-depression’, and immediately after the Notes thing she turned her attention with personal urgency to the field of brain chemistry. I have to say, respect to Ada for recognizing it as a neurological problem; one, however, that she really needed to be born 150 years later to study.
                — Sydney Padua

Grease-stained girls; an obsession since long before Firefly.

11 Giants for the price of 1

Warning: this could get long. It also, at least technically, contains spoilers.

I love Doctor Who. I love Star Trek and BSG and Bab5 and Firefly, too. No question. But they’re not Doctor Who. Neither was Blakes 7, or any of the other sci-fi classics where the future had a British accent. The show’s commercial success is quite extraordinary, particularly now that the international mass market has bought into New Who.

Continue reading ’11 Giants for the price of 1′

Friday Giant 1: Jerry Rawlings

J. J. Rawlings As this blog is in large part an exercise in reflexivity, I’m going to be riffing off a friendly Giants’ fan and making a regular feature of Friday posts talking about people I find significant, or who others find significant. My goal is to identify the giants I have chosen to perch on, the causes for and implications of those choices, and thus to examine the more general issue of how our choice of heroes can change the world. I grew up in Ghana, in West Africa, during the 1980s and early 1990s. During that 16-year period the nation underwent enormous challenges, and responded to them with remarkable changes. The Big Man in Ghana from 1981 to 2000 was, indisputably, Jerry John Rawlings. He stands alongside Kwame Nkrumah as the Founding Fathers of Ghanaian nationhood, and he came to power in a military coup. He repaired Ghana’s economy, but he also conducted purges, executed rivals and caused disappearances. He launched Ghana’s modern democracy and he retired when the constitution told him to. He materially affected how my understanding of politics and world affairs developed, and he helped found a remarkable young nation.

Continue reading ‘Friday Giant 1: Jerry Rawlings’


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Per Argument Ad Astra

Politics, history, economics and rampant speculation from a victim of the Great Recession, currently at large in the West Midlands.

"When the regulation, therefore, is in favour of the workmen, it is always just and equitable; but it is sometimes otherwise when in favour of the masters."
                -- Adam Smith