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

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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

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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