The Best Birthday Post Ever

Ada LovelaceThis is a really great and varied day for birthdays. Really some days have a lot of the same kind of people. But as I think you will see, there are some really fascinating people today.

On this day in 1787, educator Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet was born. He was a pioneer in the education of the deaf in the United States. As you can well imagine, deaf children at the beginning of the 19th century were largely ignored (and abused). He began teaching a neighborhood deaf child and this eventually resulted in him studying in France where the education of the deaf was far advanced. When he came back to the United States, he founded the American School for the Deaf, which is still in operation with 200 students. It will turn 200 years old in 2017.

The mathematician Carl Gustav Jacob Jacobi was born in 1804. Now he actually did work that I understand: elliptic functions and differential equations. He has the distinction of being the first Jewish mathematics professor at a German university. It’s kind of creepy to think about that given what happened there just a hundred years later. But it wasn’t just Germany. Throughout Europe, Jews were seen as some kind of horrible creatures. Remember what Martin Luther thought of them just 200 years earlier. As much as I have my problems with the Israeli government, their paranoia is about a lot more than just the Nazis. And there is a sad irony that I’ve seen with other races. Jacobi basically worked himself to death. I think that is part of trying to prove to the majority that they ought to accept you. But instead, it is used as yet another reason for the majority to hate you.

The great Romantic composer Cesar Franck was born in 1822. Over time, I’ve had to reevaluate my distaste for the Romantic period. What I don’t like about it is the average material. Mediocre Baroque or Classical music is generally quite listenable. Mediocre Romantic music is annoying in the extreme. It tends toward sentimentality and when a composer doesn’t know what else to do, he simply adds unnecessary harmonic complexity. To be fair, the situation gets even worse in the Modern period. But I don’t rant about mediocre Modern composition, because it is rarely played. Anyway, Franck is no mediocrity. I’m sure he had his bad work, just like everyone. But I’ve never heard anything of his that I didn’t quite like. Here is his Sonata in A major for Violin and Piano, which is one of the greatest works of the 19th century. The whole piece is about a half hour long, but I highly recommend listening to it all. You can’t fully appreciate it by listening to just one movement. Unfortunately, I can only locate one live performance of it, which is good, but it is recorded at such a low volume that you miss much of its subtlety. Here is Joshua Bell & Jeremy Denk performing it brilliantly:

Emily DickinsonIt was hard not to give this day to Emily Dickinson who was born on this day in 1830. I feel a great kinship with her because of her agoraphobia. I would rather conduct my relationships through letters. (I’m not saying this is a good thing.) But Dickinson was also interested in a lot of the same things that I am and her thinking of metaphysics certainly parallels mine. Regardless, I thought I would present “The Mystery of Pain.” I found a version online for teachers where it comments, “This poem is suitable to be taught for Junior High School students because it has a great moral value of life. It notices to be patient when we are in a pain, and we have to realize that everything will change, there is no everlasting pain. Since the language used is quite hard to understand, the teacher should assist students to find the correct interpretation of the poem.” All I can say is that I hope the teachers understand the poem better than whomever wrote that! Let me give you my interpretation. We tend to not be able to imagine that we will always feel the way we now do and that’s a drag when we are feeling pain. But the enlightened mind will know that the pain will go away, only to be replaced by another pain. I would find that a depressing thought if it were not exactly what I know to be true.

Pain has an element of blank;
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there were
A day when it was not.

It has no future but itself,
Its infinite realms contain
Its past, enlightened to perceive
New periods of pain.

Melvil Dewey was born in 1851. He was my kind of guy. I really like coming up with structures for things. Of course, I’m the worst person in the world to implement those structures. He is, of course, the inventor of the Dewey Decimal System. In my opinion, the Dewey Decimal System is better than the Library of Congress System. This is nothing especially against the LCS, but it is designed for a particular purpose and is focused on making libraries useful for specialists. For the generalist (and that’s most people), the DDS is more consistent. The way that “religion” (100s) is subdivided is the same way that “technology” (600s) is. No attempts at all are made to make different categories of knowledge consistent. Intellectuals tend to prefer the LCS, because that is what college libraries use. But that’s not a good reason. What’s more, ethnocentric and sexist aspects of both systems have been demonstrated, but only the DDS has made major improvements in this regard. Melvil Dewey was also a big proponent of the metric system. Like I said: he was my kind of guy!

And the great Shakespearean actor (and much more), Kenneth Branagh is 53 today. I don’t have a lot to say about him, except that I’m a huge fan. Here he is as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, the film I use to introduce Shakespeare to those who do not like him. Here is a very funny part:

And then a more serious scene:

Unfortunately, I can’t find the scene after that where Benedick challenges Claudio. But don’t just think of Branagh with regard to this film. His Hamlet is excellent. And he turns the awful Love’s Labour’s Lost into a fine little film. He was also excellent as Iago in Othello. I’m also quite fond of him in How to Kill Your Neighbor’s Dog. Why he has taken to directing things like Thor and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, I cannot say.

Other birthdays: astronomer Johannes Stoffler (1452); botanist George Shaw (1751); composer Olivier Messiaen (1908); comedy writer Douglas Kenney (1946); Indian sculptor Jasuben Shilpi (1948); and actor Susan Dey (61).

The day, however, belongs to Ada Lovelace who was born in 1815. She worked on Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. She developed the first algorithm for the machine. This makes her the first computer programmer in history. The programming language Ada is named after her. She was, incidentally, the only legitimate child of Lord Byron (hey, the man got around).

It is interesting (Profoundly so!) how much sexism still exists in academia. This first program was created to compute Bernoulli numbers. A number of (male) scholars have tried to claim that Lovelace did not really write the program because Babbage provided her with the mathematics for the calculations. There is all kinds of stupid and bigoted in that contention. First, Babbage himself notes that he provided Lovelace with the mathematics to save her the trouble. It wasn’t as though the mathematics had never been worked out. And when Lovelace got his notes, she found and corrected a major mistake he had made. (None of this should be taken as a slight against Babbage who was brilliant and extremely generous in giving Lovelace credit.) Second, computer programmers use the work of mathematicians all the time. It is not a trivial matter to convert even simple equations (which is not the case with the Bernoulli numbers) into modern computer languages on modern computers, much less on the Analytical Engine.

I think the wish to disregard Lovelace’s contributions comes not just from her sex but also because she was manic-depressive. That is not the picture of the Romantic scientific hero that many (men) want to accept. One scholar claimed that Ada’s correspondence indicated that it was “obvious once again that Ada was as mad as a hatter.” I would note that many mathematicians were pretty far out. Kurt Godel could certainly be described as “mad as a hatter.” The same could be said of that other great computer pioneer, Alan Turing, whose fascination with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs caused him to kill himself by eating an apple he had poisoned with cyanide. There is no doubt of the importance of Ada Lovelace, and the attacks on her are typical of just how small the minds of big brained people can be.

Happy birthday Ada Lovelace!

4 thoughts on “The Best Birthday Post Ever

  1. Some interesting stuff about deaf education:

    Gallaudet University, the first deaf college, was chartered by Congress and the charter signed a week after the Gettysburg Address was delivered (good week for Lincoln.)

    Teaching sign language was controversial from the beginning. (Gallaudet was an advocate, and ASL is based on French sign language.) Many felt that deaf people should not be allowed a means of communication with one another, as it would encourage them to marry and have more deaf children. (That’s not exactly how the genetics work, but nobody understood that back then.) A key spokesperson against sign language (and allowing the deaf to marry) was Alexander Graham Bell. Whose wife was deaf.

    For decades, thanks to Bell and others, deaf education discouraged signing. Students would still use it amongst each other, but the curriculum was focused on teaching lip-reading (which is only useful to those with a certain frequency of hearing loss.)

    Around about the time that Native Americans started demanding the end to education that stripped them of their language & culture, the Deaf community began demanding the right to be taught in their native language. They eventually won.

    Incidentally in Deaf culture, small-d "deaf" refers to hearing loss, while big-D "Deaf" refers to the culture. You can be part of the Deaf community without being deaf; for example, if you are an interpreter, or grew up in a Deaf family. The most important thing is using ASL, participating in Deaf events, etc.

    A very overlooked minority (only about one in 1000 children are deaf) but one that’s had a fascinating and gutsy history standing up for themselves.

  2. @JMF – Thanks for that. It was very interesting. I think the whole lip-reading thing is a crock. Like a lot of treatments for ailments, it is more about making those who aren’t ill feel better.

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