Ada Lovelace: Mathematical Visionary


Photo courtesy of Google Images

Google’s tribute to Ada Lovelace, first computer programmer.

Technology is supposed to make our lives easier, and it does, mostly. I’m sure I’m not alone in my struggle to learn the nearly constant changes in technology I’m supposed to apply in both my work as a teacher and also my work as a writer. I must admit part of the problem is I’m reluctant, not because it intimidates me though sometimes it does, but also because I’m tired of change. Society lacks a human connection and a connection to the natural world these days, and technology is making that lack more pronounced. I resist the indoor/sedentary lifestyle that has been imposed on me to become and remain connected to the world through technology. The paradox of this dilemma is that through technology I am more connected to people and places far away from me  than I ever could have imagined 20 years ago, but that connection comes at a cost of being disconnected to physical reality. Technology is more than ever a matter of the mind in much the same way writing is.

More of my life than ever is spent at a desk or sitting with a laptop warming my thighs as I grade papers, write blog posts (though I’ve done precious little of that lately) or work on my novel. Seldom do I drop everything and walk outdoors to enjoy the brilliant colors of autumn or call a friend or better yet, meet a friend for a walk amongst the brilliant colors of autumn or for coffee outdoors. This school year I’ve tried to balance the demands of a demanding job, to satisfy my creative calling, and to learn the technology skills I need to use to do both well, but I also don’t want to neglect the part of me that requires the sun on my face and the feel of stretching my legs on a long walk. More on that in another post.

Who I would like to pay tribute to here is a woman for whom creativity and poetry was mathematical–seems a contradiction of terms to me because I’m language oriented, but I understand the elegance of math, just not the mechanics of it. I wish I did. I know I would have a far greater appreciation of the world and the workings of minds like Alan Turing’s, the man credited with breaking the Enigma code, or Ada Lovelace’s, the first computer programmer.

Ada King, Countess of Lovelace

Ada Lovelace was the only legitimate child of the Romantic poet, George, Lord Byron, and his wife, Anne Isabella Noel. Theirs was a stormy relationship and one that inspired Ada’s mother to foster in her a love of logic and math  to prevent her from developing what Anne Isabella Noel regarded as the insanity (read poetry here) Ada’s father suffered. Despite her mother’s influence, Ada was fascinated with her father even though he left her mother and her when she was only a month old and died in Greece when she was only eight years old. Perhaps the influence of his reputation as a passionate, free thinking poet rubbed off on her after all or was handed down in her DNA. Whatever the reason, Ada became a mathematician who approached her subject using, to quote her, “poetical science.” She described herself as an Analyst and a Metaphysician.” I believe she had the same free-thinking tendencies, the creative vision, if you will, her father had and was able to make connections no one else had done because of those tendencies.

Her mathematical talents led her to begin a working relationship and friendship with the brilliant British mathematician Charles Babbage, working in particular with him on his Analytical Engine. Babbage called her his “enchantress of numbers.” After she translated an article about the engine written by an Italian military engineer, Luigi Menebrea, Lovelace added her own extensive notes that she called simply Notes.

The significance of Notes is that many consider it to contain the first computer program, (and here’s where the description of it escapes me) an algorithm that was to be carried out by a machine. Ada Lovelace’s remarkable accomplishment took place in the 1840s. Over 150 years later I struggle to understand basic computer coding to deal with my blogging program or my interactions on the web for my technological teaching needs, but I appreciate the intelligence that went into making those technologies possible. Her research and Notes along with Babbage’s work on the actual hardware paved the way for the work of Alan Turing and others of the Bletchly Park mathematicians who broke the code of the Enigma machine. Their successful breaking of the code is credited with saving Britain and, very possibly, the world from Nazi Germany and Japan. If you extend that credit, we would have to also thank Lovelace’s mother and Lord Byron’s the scoundrel ways for inspiring Lovelace’s mother to raise her to become a clear-eyed, logical but creative thinker!

Tomorrow is Ada Lovelace Day, a day celebrated world-wide to honor the contributions of women in science, technology, engineering, and math. My hat goes off to the women like Ada Lovelace who have made our world what it is and have made technology to ease our handling of information. I just wish I were better able to understand the complexities of how it all works. I also wish there were a way to handle the new tasks created by technology. Wait, no I don’t. I love my world of language and the images and emotions it conjures. I’ll leave it to those women (and men) who make it possible for me to reach out to the world with my words. Tomorrow, October 13, I’ll raise a glass to the women who have made this blog possible through technology! Here’s to you Ada Lovelace and your poetical science!


Fiction As Art?

For about four years I have been hard at work on a novel, a project that has consumed my thought process for much longer than that. I have attended workshops about fiction writing and taken classes to learn the process of writing, an art form I believe encompasses all other art forms. That is why this morning as I was reading my November/December issue of Poets and Writers magazine, I was disturbed to read an article about the future of books entitled “The Medium Is The Message.” In this article Carrie Neill writes about the changing publishing landscape and interviews Debra Di Blasi about what her press, Jaded Ibis, is doing to publish worthy writers. I think her innovative approach of publishing experimental books, from books meant for reading as an app on an iPad is really cool and interesting, and I love that she is trying to expand the number of writers who otherwise wouldn’t have a chance to be published in a traditional way. But her view of where our culture is headed is disturbing for me as a writer and as an English teacher and lover of the “traditional” written word and all things literary.

Debra Di Blasi sees our “culture moving away from words.” Wait a minute. Moving away from words? Yes, that is what she said. She further elaborates, “There will still be people who read, but I’m not sure that literary fiction—fiction that is art, that is not just craft, not just entertainment—will survive, once the gaming-based novels get better and better.” What she is talking about are books, novels specifically, that are written to imitate video games in their “form, content, or interactive properties.” I don’t know about you, but that depresses me, probably because I am of the generation who doesn’t play video games and because the books I read are literary, fiction that I see as art. I suppose I am something of a Luddite, as opposed to change in the literary world as Ned Ludd’s followers were to change in the weaving industry in the early 1800’s. That certainly was not the image I had of myself, but perhaps it fits.

Although I realize the market for books is changing and has changed over the years, especially with the advent of tablets and e-readers, I still want to publish my book as a traditionally published book in paper format, preferably in a lovely well-designed hardcover, but at least in trade paperback. Am I realistic in that desire? Only time will tell, I suppose. Friends and people I meet who talk about publishing have told me I should forget trying to publish with a major publishing house and self-publish. They say at least that will get my book out to the public, but that process doesn’t appeal to me. After all, my story is a historical one, and the irony of only having it only available on an e-reader or online as a print-on-demand title is not lost on me. Perhaps the number of presses who will be willing to print books for those of us who want that experience will grow.

The press, Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, is one such place. They offer e-books to grow their number of readers, but they also publish hand-made books for those old-fashioned souls who value the tactile reading experience of fine paper sifted through the fingers and cloth covers to be admired as they tuck themselves beneath a throw blanket in an easy chair. Perhaps if I were in the publishing business rather than writing a novel, I would understand the need to figure out where the market is going and where to put my money, but any time I see an art form threatened, which is what I think technology is doing in some respects to books, I hope someone with more business sense than I have will figure out a way to save that art form. Perhaps I just don’t understand all that technology is capable of doing. I hear about the next big think in literature being novels written on Twitter or delivered with audio and visuals to enhance the reading experience. That sounds really cool in one respect but worries me when it comes to young readers.

For years I have heard students complain about not liking to read, and for years I have tried to coax, cajole, and sometimes, yes, even force them to give reading a try. I worry that young people are losing the ability to use their imaginations in a way that brings words to life on the page. After all, that is what I love about reading and is why I seldom like to see the movie of a book I have read. The characters rarely resemble the characters I have envisioned in my head. The setting is not nearly as idyllic, and the action is not nearly as heroic. Does that make me a romantic? I’m sure it does. My father called me a romantic for years, but I see the value of having the ability to visualize a world where life is just as real as the one I inhabit. It helps me to understand my own world a bit better.  Isn’t that one of the reasons we read literature, to learn to empathize with others in predicaments we too might one day face?

Perhaps I’m overreacting to the article by Carrie Neill, “The Medium is the Message.” I can certainly see the merits of books on a computer, the excitement of hearing and seeing an author read the story rather than stumbling over the words myself, but I’m afraid something will be lost in the translation. And that something, I’m afraid, will be the personal experience of reading and creating the fictional world we imagine in our minds, translating the words into images and sounds and feelings. How we interact with art—whether it is a painting, a piece of music, a performance of a play, or the words of a great author on the page—is a personal experience, one that no two people share. Will that interaction with words on the page remain singular—meaning extraordinary, unique, and exceptional but also personal—in the world of technology? I certainly hope it will. I hope always to be able to pick up a book and read fiction to enter the world of my imagination where the world I create comes from the words the writer intended as art.