A moving and fascinating account of a brilliant man who failed in spite of his best efforts.

THE DIFFERENCE ENGINE

CHARLES BABBAGE AND THE QUEST TO BUILD THE FIRST COMPUTER

An account by London Science Museum director Swade (Charles Babbage and His Calculating Machine, not reviewed) of the work and influence of 19th-century English mathematician and inventor who was the first to proclaim the need for computers and describe their basic features.

Computing is not the same as calculating. Cumbersome mechanical calculators, capable of performing fairly impressive mathematical operations, had existed for centuries. They could not, however, perform millions of such operations—although, by the 19th century, this was precisely what was required. Many professions routinely used entire volumes filled with nothing but calculations: navigational, astronomical, logarithmic, or chemical tables. Each calculation in these massive references had been performed by hand and, inevitably, errors crept in. More errors then appeared during transcribing and typesetting. It was maddening. When Babbage proposed an immense machine that could be programmed to calculate and print continually, almost everyone liked the idea, and the British government contributed a huge (for the time) sum of money for the research and development of the scheme. Babbage spent much of his own fortune and invested decades in the research, design, toil, quarrels, and personal disasters that produced sheaves of drawings and piles of parts but no complete machine. Eventually the government stopped contributing, and Babbage died a bitter man. The author has the expertise necessary to understand his subject’s ideas and, after telling the story, he asks the obvious question: Would the machines have worked? The answer comes in the final chapters, which describe a six-year effort to construct one of Babbage’s designs in time for the bicentennial of his birth in 1991. In man-hours, frustration, and sheer financial cost, the enterprise duplicated Babbage’s torments almost exactly, with one exception: The machine was built. And it worked.

A moving and fascinating account of a brilliant man who failed in spite of his best efforts.

Pub Date: Sept. 10, 2001

ISBN: 0-670-91020-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2001

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

THE 48 LAWS OF POWER

The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...

NIGHT

Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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