On September 12, 1857, the SS Central America sank about 200 miles off the east coast of the USA in over 8,000 feet deep water. It was heading from PaOn September 12, 1857, the SS Central America sank about 200 miles off the east coast of the USA in over 8,000 feet deep water. It was heading from Panama to New York City. On board were 578 people and over two million dollars worth of gold that was coming from the San Francisco gold rush.
This book provides many details about the ethos of the gold rush, the passengers that got on board, the unfortunate hurricane that they sailed into, the many heroic things they tried to do to save the ship, the partial evacuation, the unfortunate sinking, and then fasts forward over 100 years to detail the life of Tommy Thompson, things that shaped him, and ultimately how he ended up intrigued by the deep sea, his scientific quest to find the lost ship despite many obstacles along the way.
I had put off reading the book for years because of its size (505 pages), but once I got into it, I was hooked and was able to read it in about 10 days. I enjoyed it and learned a fair bit. Although I knew the general story before I read it, I learned things like how much San Francisco grew during the gold rush, many nautical terms, the life of the SS Central America's Captain Herndon (I had lived near Herndon, VA and didn't know much of the city's namesake's naval career), the details of finding the ship by Bayesian methods using all the (sometimes conflicting) survivor accounts, the legal process of claiming a shipwreck, and the many challenges of working in the deep ocean.
The book was published in 1998 and essentially ends casting Tommy Thompson as a genius that can solve almost anything.
Since the publishing of the book, the story has taken several interesting new twists including many ongoing lawsuits and how Tommy became a fugitive only to be found hiding in 2015. In addition, there was another attempt to recover even more gold from the disaster site.
One of the benefits of reading it now is that you can supplement the reading by watching "Signals: In Deep Water" on ESPN's website that discusses the journey to find the ship and includes several people mentioned in the book.
For more details on the mathematical approach, see Dr. Stone's (who is discussed in the book) paper. For a much less technical coverage on it, see this audio story on PRX. Note that similar techniques were used to find Air France flight 447.
All told, I liked the book and am glad I finally read it. If you're on the fence about reading it, I encourage you to watch the ESPN video and then decide if you want to learn more. ...more
--- BEGIN DISCLAIMER --- I've been interested in computer history since my early teenage years when I would read about the industry in magazines like--- BEGIN DISCLAIMER --- I've been interested in computer history since my early teenage years when I would read about the industry in magazines like PC/Computing and devour biographies of Bill Gates. My favorite documentary of the 1990's was Bob Cringely's "Triumph of the Nerds" on PBS (along with its "Nerds 2.0.1" follow-up). Put together, they gave me a somewhat Microsoft-centric view of the personal computer revolution that more or less started with the Apple I in the 1970's through the Windows 98 "present" of the era when the web was in its Geocities youth.
My college years were mostly focused on learning technical contributions rather than about the people themselves.
After college, I had the great opportunity to meet several prominent computer scientists who were profiled in this book and had several fun discussions with them. In particular, Alan Kay noticed my interest in history and recommended that I read "The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal" by M. Mitchell Waldrop which filled me in on a lot of the details before the personal computer era, especially about Licklider and his contributions to the development of what would become ARPANET. I wrote a review of that book back in 2008.
I mainly listened to this ~17 hour audiobook at double speed to see if I'd learn new things not already covered in the other books I'd read growing up. --- END DISCLAIMER ---
This book gave a good overview of the "digital revolution" from the time of Ada Lovelace and her collaboration with Charles "If only these calculations were done by steam!" Babbage to roughly the IBM Watson-era. I would recommend it to others, especially to newcomers looking to get a curated overview from which they can dive in deeper elsewhere on sections that pique their curiosity.
Some fun new facts I picked up from this book:
* I didn't know Ada Lovelace was Lord Byron's daughter. In particular, I didn't know the reason she got into math was because her mom was worried she might otherwise turn out like her estranged poet father. * I hadn't heard of "Heathkit" before. Isaacson mentioned this electronic hobbyist kit multiple times when describing people of the 50's and 60's who liked to tinker and make things. * William Shockley was a paranoid boss (e.g ordering employees to take lie detector tests). This paranoia probably sprang from his concern about not getting credit for ideas. * AT&T's Bell Labs licensed its transistor patent relatively cheaply (perhaps too cheaply?) and provided lots of documentation and training which allowed companies like Texas Instruments to flourish. * The story of the Internet being primarily created as a way to allow communication in the event of nuclear attack was basically concocted after the fact to continue to get funding from the DoD. * I had heard of "Spacewar!" and even visited a machine that ran it when I visited the Computer History Museum, but I didn't realize how big of an impact it had. It had a lot of coverage in the book. * Steve "Slug" Russell created early versions "Spacewar!" (and Lisp) in his college days. Afterwards he got a job at C^3 and ended up teaching Bill Gates and Paul Allen how to program on the PDP while they were at Lakeside. * Nolan Bushnell loved "Spacewar!" and wanted to make a business from it. Through a series of events covered in the book, he eventually founded Atari (and hired Steve Jobs). * Early versions of Pong used no microprocessor and instead relied on simple logic chips. * Steve Crocker's humble "Request For Comments" title on documents describing how computers on the early Internet would communicate was instrumental in its success at being adopted by the community (which distrusted authority). * Bill Gates' lawyer dad helped Bill navigate some legal issues early on. * Bill was very competitive as a kid, even when doing things like memorizing the Sermon on the Mount in a contest put on by his family's pastor. * Bill's infamous "Open Letter to Computer Hobbyists", which effectively started the commercial personal computer software industry, had fun subtleties to it: 1.) The $40,000 value of computer time required to create Microsoft's BASIC was effectively provided free of charge by Harvard. 2.) The rampant early piracy of their BASIC was probably instrumental in its success because it became the de-facto standard and thus drove the demand that new computers have it (which would ultimately be paid for). * AT&T's monopoly on the phone network was a key reason why modems (and thus personal computer online connections) didn't take off earlier. It wasn't until a lawsuit was settled that these "unapproved" devices were allowed on the phone network. * Ward Cunningham (of "wiki" fame) grew up in Indiana and went to Purdue (my alma mater)
Sticking true to its focus on people rather than the technology, Isaacson often reiterated the importance of many people working together and sharing the credit rather than a "lone genius." He also stressed the ongoing importance of humans and computers working better together which highlights Licklider's "Man-Computer Symbiosis" vision.
Overall I enjoyed the book and it made for a quick read. I only had relatively minor nits with it: 1.) I feel that Isaacson only focused on larger scale online communities like The WELL, America Online, CompuServe, etc. and missed the great contributions of independent Bulletin Board Systems (BBSes) that was covered by Jason Scott Sadofsky's excellent "BBS: The Documentary" series. 2.) The book seemed to end a bit overly skeptical on machine learning (which I believe is the next major wave being lived-out in computer history). Although, I think Isaacson was justified in poking fun at overstated claims of AI in general always being a 20 year out mirage, I think that he might have downplayed what the very real machine learning subdomain can do as evidenced by impressive newer companies like DeepMind and the unreasonable effectiveness on Deep Learning on topics like speech recognition and image recognition. ...more
An older friend recommended this book to me in 2004. I finally got around to reading it. I'm glad I did. It's a quick, although sometimes quirky, readAn older friend recommended this book to me in 2004. I finally got around to reading it. I'm glad I did. It's a quick, although sometimes quirky, read.
It helps to realize that the book was really a collection of pamphlets distributed in the 1920's by banks and insurance companies. This explains a little bit of its bias, but I think the advice is still sound.
The book is set in ancient Babylon that begins with Bansir, a chariot maker, commiserating with his broke friend (a lyre player). They can't figure out how to get out of their living essentially paycheck to paycheck. The story follows him as he finds a wealthy person who shares his secrets with the him and the rest of the city.
The book has some timeless advice: always save at least 10% of your paycheck, have your savings earn good interest, pay your debts, etc.
Here are some of the other things that I highlighted in addition to what Wikipedia mentioned:
* "Thou makest me to realize the reason why we have never found any measure of wealth. We never sought it."* "A PART OF ALL YOU EARN IS YOURS TO KEEP. It should not be less than a tenth no matter how little you earn. It can be as much more as you can afford. Pay yourself first." * "Advice is one thing that is freely given away, but watch that you take only what is worth having. He who takes advice about his savings from one who is inexperienced in such matters, shall pay with his savings for proving the falsity of their opinions." * "When I set a task for myself, I complete it. Therefore, I am careful not to start difficult and impractical tasks, because I love leisure." * "If a rich man builds him a new palace, is the gold he pays out gone? No, the brick maker has part of it and the laborer has part of it, and the artist has part of it. And everyone who labors upon the house has part of it. Yet when the palace is completed, is it not worth all it cost? And is the ground upon which it stands not worth more because it is there? And is the ground that adjoins it not worth more because it is there? Wealth grows in magic ways. No man can prophesy the limit of it." * "Then learn to make your treasure work for you. Make it your slave. Make its children and its children's children work for you." * "Seek the advice of men whose daily work is handling money." * "A small return and a safe one is far more desirable than risk." * "Enjoy life while you are here. Do not overstrain or try to save too much. If one tenth of all you earn is as much as you can comfortably keep, be content to keep this portion."
* "He must pay his debts with all promptness within his power, not purchasing that for which he is unable to pay." * "He must make a will of record that in case God calls him, proper and honorable division of his property be accomplished." * "He must have compassion upon those who are injured or smitten by misfortune and aid them within reasonable limits. He must do deeds of thoughtfulness to those dear to him."
* "In this tale we see how good luck waits to come to that man who accepts opportunity." (don't be Procrastinator)... "wisdom of making a payment immediately when we are convinced our bargain is wise." "Good luck can be enticed by accepting opportunity. "ACTION will lead thee forward to the successes thou dost desire. "Men of Action are favored by Good Luck." * "To take his first start to building an estate is as good luck as can come to any man. With all men, that first step, which changes them from men who earn from their own labor to men who draw dividends from the earnings of their gold, is important." * "Wealth that comes quickly goeth the same way." * "If thou desire to help thy friend, do so in a way that will not bring thy friend's burdens upon thyself." * "humans in the throws of great emotions are not safe risks for the gold lender." * "Many other merchants of Babylon have my confidence because of their honorable behavior. Their tokens come and go frequently in my token box. Good merchants are an asset to our city and it profits me to aid them to keep trade moving that Babylon be prosperous." * "I will no longer lend any of it where I am not confident that it is safe and will be returned to me. Neither will I lend it where I am not convinced that its earnings will be promptly paid to me." * "Be conservative in what thou expect it to earn that thou mayest keep and enjoy thy treasure. To hire it out with a promise of usurious returns is to invite loss." * "Better a Little Caution than a Great Regret" * "We cannot afford to be without adequate protection." * "Ill fortune! Wouldst blame God for thine own weakness. Ill fortune pursues every man who thinks more of borrowing than of repaying." * "no man can respect himself who does not repay honest debts." * "Where the Determination is, the Way Can Be Found" * "Therefore am I more determined than ever to carry through, being convinced that it is easier to pay one's just debts than to avoid them." * "Great is the PLAN for it leadeth us out of debt and giveth us wealth which is ours to keep." * "Babylon is an outstanding example of man's ability to achieve great objectives, using whatever means are at his disposal. All of the resources supporting this large city were man developed. All of its riches were man made."
All told, a nice book that reminds us of timeless truths.
His basic thesis is that one morning a month, everyone in the company (devs, designers, ceo, etc) observes three people from outside the organization attempt to do a few tasks with your product (as well as some things like try to understand your home page). Each individual session is recorded with something like Camtasia and simulcasted to another room where the company has spectators that are taking notes. Each session shouldn't last for more than 50 mins. The result of all of the testing is a lunch debrief where people discuss some top problems and then there is ruthless focus on just fixing those, often by doing the least thing possible that will improve the situation.
One additional piece of advice is to start early in the process, even if it means showing a big paper napkin with sketches....more
As a kid, I read a lot about Bill Gates. To this day, I can still recite a lot of details about his story and the story of Microsoft. I hadn't reallyAs a kid, I read a lot about Bill Gates. To this day, I can still recite a lot of details about his story and the story of Microsoft. I hadn't really bothered to learn much about the Apple story since I've been a PC user since the early 90's by happenstance and then later by choice.
However, my first programming experience happened to be on an Apple IIe in our town's library. It was that experience as an 8 year old kid that started me down the path of being a professional programmer that I am today.
And yet, I didn't really know the history that led to that machine or what really happened after that time.
This book filled in a lot of those details.
Steve was obviously different than Bill. Bill grew up in a prominent lawyer's upper class family, Steve was adopted into a middle class family of modest means. Both of them were smart, but their styles were quite different. Both had their good points and both had notable flaws.
Throughout the book, you learn that Steve was a guy of the "counterculture" who credited dropping acid as one of the best experiences of his life and thought others (like Bill) would have been much better off had they done the same.
I was struck by the words "petulant" and "mercurial" describing Steve Jobs while reading this book. To be transparent, I didn't know the definitions of these words before this book but now I won't forget them because I think they fit Jobs quite well.
I was continually dismayed by stories of how Jobs treated people. I think there is a line between motivating people with tough love to do their best work and being brash and attacking people personally. I think Jobs crossed that line at times and it was sad to repeatedly hear about these events in the book.
Jobs was also very independent and went out of his way to not play by other people's rules nor care about opinions if he thought he was right. Sometimes this lead to great products like the Apple II and iPhone, but at other times led to him to do things like not have a license plate on his car.
Again, there is a line between being a hero by not playing by silly rules and just having an outright "petulant" disregard for others. I think he crossed this line too at times. For example, he refused to shower regularly or wear deodorant because he thought his strict vegan diet consisting of mostly fruit made him immune from any smells. Everyone interviewed in the book seemed to indicate this was a genuine problem, but Jobs seemed to blatantly refuse to believe it. It was so bad that he had to work the night shift at Atari because others couldn't stand his BO during the day.
Isaacson also painted a picture of Jobs that seemed a bit bipolar when it came to relationships. The book portrayed several relationships when Jobs was mesmerized by people one moment and then angry with them in another. Many of these outbursts seemed overly harsh, even by Jobs' standard.
A big focus of this book was the history of Apple itself. It became quite clear that the core of Apple reflects Jobs' vision.
Jobs very much was product focused and he obsessed over end-to-end experiences. This leads to some great integrations and experiences if you're willing to completely buy into the whole ecosystem (i.e. Mac, iTunes, iPhone, iCloud, etc) but some not pleasant experiences if you're not willing to cede everything to a single company. The book provided the back story of why iTunes on Windows has historically been a difficult product to deal with. It clearly was something Jobs didn't want to do early on but was only a concession to sell more iPods.
Jobs chided companies like Microsoft for not offering end-to-end experiences like Apple. The book detailed his reasons on this, but I also see the reasons why Microsoft, Google, and Amazon have for wanting to be more "open" in allowing outsiders to use their platform even if they can't control all aspects about its use. Before this book, I was a stronger supporter of the Microsoft way, but I'm a bit less intense on that now. However, I still favor the "open" way because it allows more choice and less fears about lock-in to a potentially inferior product.
The book shed a lot of light on other important early Apple events such as development of the Apple II, the failure of the Apple III, the failure of the Lisa, the development of the Macintosh, the infatuation and subsequent falling-out with Sculley that led to Jobs' resignation in the mid-80's.
I think Isaacson gave the clearest explanation I've read about how Jobs' getting let go from Apple changed him and ultimately led to things like Pixar's success. It also led to the resurgence of Apple in the late 90's when Apple bought his NeXT company and its associated NextStep OS which became the basis for OS X and whose fingerprint is still seen in all OS X and iOS APIs that begin with "NS".
The book also covered the background of the more recent Apple products and their motivation. For example, Steve hated tablets that used a stylus. This led to him pushing a team to create a great tablet (the iPad) that didn't need a stylus. He pushed for this first (before the iPhone). However, due to timing of things, he directed the technology to first go into the iPhone even though it was risky at the time (their initial plan was to have a phone using the wheel like the iPod). Isaacson also spotlighted how these products couldn't have come to be without other important people such as Jonathan Ive, Apple's top designer.
There are things that I respect about Jobs: he wasn't really motivated by money but rather sincerely motivated to create great products, he wanted to give his best to things he cared about, and lets not forget that he gave great presentations.
Isaacson's biography of Jobs also described what it took for him to deliver the products that millions of people enjoy: fractured relationships with friends and sometimes being quite distant from family. His intensity seemed at times too high of a cost to pay which left me feeling sad. ...more
Try things out, see what works by adapting. Think about "what's the worst that could happen?" rather than "what's the best that should happen?". Be agTry things out, see what works by adapting. Think about "what's the worst that could happen?" rather than "what's the best that should happen?". Be agile.
From the book: Experiment, play, immerse, define, reorient, and iterate. ...more
The basic idea of Bayes' Rule is that you treat probability as a degree of belief (i.e. how much are you willing to bet on something) instead of a relThe basic idea of Bayes' Rule is that you treat probability as a degree of belief (i.e. how much are you willing to bet on something) instead of a relative frequency (i.e. count the number of royal flushes out of all possible poker hands).
Bayes' Rule allows you to "learn" by updating your (prior) degree of belief of something (i.e. probability of finding a sunken ship in a certain part of the ocean) given new information (i.e. a captain's log) in order to obtain knowledge in a "posterior" belief. It's a bit "messier", but it tends to get good results with more data. This approach allows you to calculate probabilities for things you couldn't realistically count frequencies for (because they haven't happened before)
Bayes' Rule was often ridiculed before computational power made its tedious calculations possible. In addition, people didn't like the fact that you had to kickstart Bayes Rule with a "prior" that tended to be subjective (even if it's better than nothing).
The book highlights the story of the discovery of the rule and its ridicule for ~250 years until it came to dominate the world of today in lots of applications (i.e. used in Google's spellchecker, spam filters, etc)
Some interesting quotes/notes:
* "In a new kind of paradigm shift for a pragmatic world, the man who had called Bayes 'the crack cocaine of statistics... seductive, addictive and ultimately destructive' began recruiting Bayesians for Google." * Although Bayes gets most of the credit, Laplace did most of the real work to get the rule in its modern form. * There was a cool explanation of a Bayesian application of determining authorship of the "anonymous" Federalist papers using spam-like Bayes rule. Very interesting. * The book describes the search for a sunken submarine (Scorpion) using Bayes' Rule relying on accounts from Lawrence (Larry) Stone. I originally learned about Bayes Rule when I worked as an intern with Larry, so it was cool to see things come full circle reading about the adventure in this book (wasn't expecting it!) * "In 1996 Bill Gates, cofounder of Microsoft, made Bayes headline news by announcing that Microsoft's competitive advantage lay in its expertise in Bayesian networks." * "According to Google's research director, Peter Norvig, 'There must have been a dozen of times when a project started with naive Bayes, just because it was easy to do and we expected to replace it with something more sophisticated later, but in the end the vast amount of data meant that a more complex technique was not needed."
I liked the book. I would have enjoyed it more with more technical details, but realize this wasn't likely given the wide intended audience....more
I picked this book up because I was interested in learning more about IBM's Watson.
Although it lacked deep technical details that I would have enjoyedI picked this book up because I was interested in learning more about IBM's Watson.
Although it lacked deep technical details that I would have enjoyed, it gave a brief overview of the team behind the machine including things like the politics of working with the Jeopardy staff....more