Computers vs. Poetry Death Match

I really loved the Ada story- I heard about it in detail from How Stuff Work’s “What You Missed in History Class.” That night I ended up rehashing almost the entire story to my niece and nephew and their parents. Not just that I’m kind of obsessed with British peerage (oddly a generation or two down the line the Byron clan married into the Bulwer-Lytton clan. He wrote “The Victorians” and is famous for being a pretty awful writer. I wonder what they say on the tour of the house. “Descendent from two writers.” Um, one awful, one incredible. The WordsWorth cottage tour I went on in England was refreshingly honest and balanced about the history, but looking at the line of Byron-Lyttons, I doubt they’re so evenhanded. Doesn’t help that Byron’s clan hasn’t had a lot of issue. Anyways…)

If you couldn’t tell already, I’m an English major, who has also been programming since she wrote her first sentence. So it fascinates me that there’s this perceived divide between Computers and Poetry.

So let’s take Ada’s era. It’s Regency, Jane Austen is writing popular fiction, and Ada is growing up in aristocracy with a disreputable father that she never knew, the already famous and dissolute Lord Byron. Byron’s reputation at that time (and forever more) drug addict, incestuous, a rake, irreligious/heathen… he really takes the prize.

The Napoleonic wars are going on, cotton trade and silk has created a soft industrial era expanding machinery and introducing an exotic newness. I always think of Regency as an embracing of the Classical aesthetic- Bath, Roman and Greek dress, etc. but also it’s the beginning of Romantic music- Liszt and Beethoven- and of course for poetry, Shelley and Byron. My pithy understanding of Romantic poetry: seeing spirituality in nature. I remember understanding Romanticism for the first time in college, in the Chapel, a beautiful wood building, the sun streaming in on rays (like they say in poetry) and a faceless teacher reading Kubla Khan.

Back to the point of this post: So at age 30-odd something, Ada is the first computer programmer. Let’s get that out of the way now. She wrote in a published paper, instructions for a machine. Sure, the machine hadn’t been built, but she also drew a neat comparison between the machine and the jacquard weaving machine, that uses punch cards. [Mental note: next post re: weaving and computers].

The end of her life is what intrigued me, that despite her mother’s machinations, she does resemble her father, lapsing into opium addiction and love affairs. So was a life divorced of poetry- some of the best in the world- and so close to home- really worth it all? And are they so different? Could you say that writing instructions- to a computer- and being sensitive of meter and meaning, is so different from programming? More and more people are drawing together the inherent language skills necessary to not only communicate with your colleagues when agile pair programming, but to actually write concise, practical and elegant code. What would Ada have done, I wonder, if she did study poetry?

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