Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Lovelace myth

We are currently seeing an effort to secure for gifted women proper credit for their achievements. As a rule this effort is commendable. But sometimes it exaggerates, as seen in the crediting of Ada Lovelace (a daughter of Lord Byron, 1815-1852) as the first computer programmer, or even the inventor of the computer tout court. 
Cf. Allan G. Bromley, in the 1990 article "Difference and Analytical Engines":
"All but one of the programs cited in her notes had been prepared by Babbage from three to seven years earlier. The exception was prepared by Babbage for her, although she did detect a 'bug' in it. Not only is there no evidence that Ada ever prepared a program for the Analytical Engine, but her correspondence with Babbage shows that she did not have the knowledge to do so."
Bruce Collier, who later published a biography of Charles Babbage, wrote in his 1970 Harvard University PhD thesis that Lovelace "made a considerable contribution to publicizing the Analytical Engine, but there is no evidence that she advanced the design or theory of it in any way".
Eugene Eric Kim and Betty Alexandra Toole consider it incorrect to regard Lovelace as the first computer programmer, as Babbage wrote the initial programs for his Analytical Engine, although the majority were never published. Bromley notes several dozen sample programs prepared by Babbage between 1837 and 1840, all substantially predating Lovelace's notes. 
Dorothy K. Stein regards Lovelace's notes as "more a reflection of the mathematical uncertainty of the author, the political purposes of the inventor, and, above all, of the social and cultural context in which it was written, than a blueprint for a scientific development".
Doron Swade, a specialist on the history of computing known for his work on Babbage, analyzed four claims about Lovelace during a lecture on Babbage's analytical engine:
She was a mathematical genius
She made an influential contribution to the analytical engine
She was the first computer programmer
She was a prophet of the computer age
In Swade's view, only the fourth claim has "any substance at all". He holds that Ada was only a "promising beginner" instead of genius in mathematics, that she began studying basic concepts of mathematics five years after Babbage conceived the analytical engine so that she couldn't have made pioneering contributions to it, and that she only published the first computer program instead of actually writing it.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Warren Johansson

Yesterday was the birthday of the late Warren Johanson.

I thought of writing something acknowledging my indebtedness to him. He taught me the essentials of gay studies, namely that with careful philology one could extract much of value about the past. He made me read Hirschfeld and the others, before they had been translated. Of course his model was mainly limited to Western civ, with some Semitic additions. He had no interest at all in the Far East, not to mention tribal societies. So I got from Steve Murray and Paul Knobel, much needed expansion. One must study the West AND the rest. I would write these things down, but there has been too much water under the bridge - the foul effluvia of Queer Theory and its postmodern avatars.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Where are we going?

The other day I heard a left-leaning commentator on NPR ask some pertinent questions about where the country is going. Let us suppose that we are successful in electing a Democratic Congress, and that Trump is impeached and ejected from the presidency, and that some means will be found for avoiding Pence as his replacement. 
Then what? The US will still in all likelihood have most of the same horrific problems that afflict it now, viz. catering to Wall Street, lack of a truly adequate health system, neglect of our infrastructure (highways, bridges, and tunnels), excessive incarceration, spying on our own citizens, inordinate spending on the military (which always seems to be increasing), continuing interference, often violent, in foreign countries, sending out drones to kill people, and so on. 
By and large the Democrats are no better on these matters than Republicans. These considerations should not lead to despair, but they do indicate the need to think holistically about these issues. As far as I can tell they are not on the radar of the Resist folks.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Dante and Beatrice

Today the word "Beatrice" serves as a synonym for "muse," an individual who fosters creative achievement. In fact, Beatrice Portinari (born 1265), was a real person. Dante Alighieri records the effect she had over him in his searing memoir, La Vita Nuova, consulted over the centuries by those of us who have sought to understand the sudden flood of emotion that ensues from an early love, as unexpected as it is powerful. 
Today it comes as a shock, perhaps, that when Dante first saw Beatrice she was not quite nine years old. Paedophilia? Certainly not, as there was no age discrepancy for the poet was then himself only nine years old. There were several subsequent sightings, until the paragon died at the age of 24. As an angelic being she guides the poet in the Purgatorio. 
In life Dante never consummated his passion, nor did he aspire to. The narrative is in fact a legitimate variation on the medieval tradition of Courtly Love, where the lady remains, in most cases, inaccessible.

Thursday, November 30, 2017


Even though I live in Manhattan, I have long been aware of the huge cultural differences that separate our privileged bicoastal enclaves from the heartland. With my ex, who loved driving, we would sometimes head West. As soon as we crossed from New Jersey into Pennsylvania I noticed a marked contrast. 
Based on the recommendation of a friend, I read The Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance, hoping to find there an overall explanation of this Other America. That is not what I discovered, for the book is basically a personal account of Vance's growing up in a dysfunctional extended family in Kentucky and southern Ohio, where there was a lot of substance abuse and violence. 
Vance overcame this heritage by joining the Marines. The lessons he learned there enabled him to go to Ohio State University and Yale Law School. 
It is hard to gauge what degree his upbringing is typical. Once upon a time, I can affirm, it was not. Both pairs of my grandparents were farmers in rural East Texas. As a child I boarded for a while with my paternal grandparents, who ran a dairy near Fort Worth. The lives of all these people were, as far as I could tell, boringly conventional. They did not act out, or resort to alcohol or other stimulants, but concentrated on making an honest living in the circumstances they were given. To be sure, this was during the Depression, a major shot of reality for those who experienced it. 
Recently, there has been, in the heartland, much joblessness and opioid addiction. In this light, the Vance approach would benefit from a diachronic orientation - then vs. now. There is also a need for comparison with other regions.

Saturday, October 07, 2017


"Words don't matter." I heard Karl Popper make this shocking statement in a class in London in 1964. In all likelihood, he was reacting against the current philosophical fashion in Oxford and Cambridge for "ordinary language." I suppose that Popper's remark was deliberately provocative, a little like the Zen master who instructed that if one meets Buddha on the path, one should kill him. 
At any rate, the observation chimes oddly with Popper's own quest for precision in language, all the more remarkable as English was his second tongue. 
When in the 1970s I and a group of scholarly friends realized that there was an intellectual component, a necessary one, in gay liberation. We sought to look into the history of words. In those days words were implements of our degradation, whether learned (e.g. perversion, degenerate), or demotic (faggot, fairy). The need to deglamorize these tokens of pejoration led to an effort to trace their history, as I attempted in my sketchy early book, Homolexis. 
There was always the solution, somewhat deceiving I think, to introduce neologisms. Today we are faced with an array of such terms, ranging from the cis- prefix to intersectionality. In time these gargoyles will fade, but the renovation of language continues apace - not always to our advantage. Hence the importance of studying the classics, because they preserve tried and true ways of putting matters, ways that should not be forgotten.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Our colleges and viewpoint diversity

Some colleges and universities are in fact dominated by conservative thought. Yet none of the examples commonly cited is a publicly supported university. 
These latter institutions are supported by tax-levy money, at least in large measure, and they do not encourage viewpoint diversity as they should. I taught in one such institution (CUNY) for many years, and survival required fancy footwork, even though I am not a conservative.
In another way too, there is no symmetry. Conservatives are fighting an uphill battle, for they have lost the culture war. The viewpoints they put forward must be defended since they cannot count on immediate acceptance. 
By contrast, those on the liberal-left zone of the spectrum tacitly assume that the way they see things is simply the way they are. Perceiving little reason to depart from their own bubble, these bien-pensants are suffused with confirmation bias. 
In the long run this is not a healthy situation. Yet because tenure creates so many sinecures, it is not likely to change soon.