A readable tech history, but it helps to have a background in computers to get the most out of Dear’s account. As good an...

THE FRIENDLY ORANGE GLOW

THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE PLATO SYSTEM AND THE DAWN OF CYBERCULTURE

An exploration of the computer system that was too far ahead of its time to succeed but whose legacy quietly endures.

Techno-critics who worry that computers are turning us into Pavlovian experiments might find ammunition for such an argument in tech entrepreneur Dear’s history of PLATO, which grew from B.F. Skinner’s theories of programmed learning—the same one that taught pigeons how to peck at levers for rewards in the form of bird seed. The author calls his book the “biography of a vision,” and he’s quite right to do so, though that vision in practice turns out to be less mechanistic than the purely Skinner-ian one. In fact, PLATO, a learning environment that found a home at the University of Illinois, grew from the dream of “building a computer that could teach” using both natural language and artificial intelligence; from that learning impulse also grew some of the first computer-based communities. Early experiments and programs, Dear writes, are not well-documented, so there’s a little learned guesswork in figuring out what code whisperers like Donald Bitzer and Dan Alpert were up to. The story picks up speed and grounding alike when it gets into the heart of the techno-libertarian 1960s, when companies like Xerox and Control Data Corporation began to suss out the possibilities PLATO offered, including some of the first graphics programs. For their part, tech geeks used the platform for additional pleasures, including the earliest Dungeons & Dragons ports. In the end, writes Dear, for many computer aficionados, especially in the 1970s, PLATO became a platform for learning about PLATO: “The system itself was the thing.” Those aficionados spun off into other realms, including the first usable graphical interface for the brand-new World Wide Web, which changed the world even as PLATO receded into history—not to mention “Castle Wolfenstein,” which has newfound relevance today.

A readable tech history, but it helps to have a background in computers to get the most out of Dear’s account. As good an account of PLATO as we’re likely to get—or to need.

Pub Date: Nov. 14, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-101-87155-3

Page Count: 656

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: Aug. 30, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2017

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

Did you like this book?

INSIDE AMERICAN EDUCATION

THE DECLINE, THE DECEPTION, THE DOGMAS

American schools at every level, from kindergarten to postgraduate programs, have substituted ideological indoctrination for education, charges conservative think-tanker Sowell (Senior Fellow/Hoover Institution; Preferential Polices, 1990, etc.) in this aggressive attack on the contemporary educational establishment. Sowell's quarrel with "values clarification" programs (like sex education, death-sensitizing, and antiwar "brainwashing") isn't that he disagrees with their positions but, rather, that they divert time and resources from the kind of training in intellectual analysis that makes students capable of reasoning for themselves. Contending that the values clarification programs inspired by his archvillain, psychotherapist Carl Rogers, actually inculcate values confusion, Sowell argues that the universal demand for relevance and sensitivity to the whole student has led public schools to abdicate their responsibility to such educational ideals as experience and maturity. On the subject of higher education, Sowell moves to more familiar ground, ascribing the declining quality of classroom instruction to the insatiable appetite of tangentially related research budgets and bloated athletic programs (to which an entire chapter, largely irrelevant to the book's broader argument, is devoted). The evidence offered for these propositions isn't likely to change many minds, since it's so inveterately anecdotal (for example, a call for more stringent curriculum requirements is bolstered by the news that Brooke Shields graduated from Princeton without taking any courses in economics, math, biology, chemistry, history, sociology, or government) and injudiciously applied (Sowell's dismissal of student evaluations as responsible data in judging a professor's classroom performance immediately follows his use of comments from student evaluations to document the general inadequacy of college teaching). All in all, the details of Sowell's indictment—that not only can't Johnny think, but "Johnny doesn't know what thinking is"—are more entertaining than persuasive or new.

Pub Date: Jan. 4, 1993

ISBN: 0-02-930330-3

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Free Press

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1992

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet
more