Go with a smile!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

2011 Obituaries

I blogged 3 years ago that 2008 was the year of roads for me. In 2011 there has been a lot of very prominent deaths.

Computer scientists
When I was in secondary school, and this was before the internet, people told me that mathematics is the king of science. In some ways this is true, but I can’t help but notice that computer science is becoming the king of science. Let’s face it, mathematics in the context of other knowledge, is essentially a form of representing knowledge. And when it comes to representing knowledge, computer science can do it more powerfully than mathematics. When we started out, computer science used to be a branch of mathematics. Eventually, when you consider that the knowledge that can be represented in computers is a superset of what can be represented by mathematics, it’s safer to say that now mathematics is a branch of computer science.

There have been 3 great scientific instruments. The first was the telescope, and Galileo, Kepler and Newton used that to help derive the laws of physics that underpin so many other inventions that have taken place since. The second was the microscope, and that is the most important instrument in our understanding of biology until now. Now, we have the third and possibly the greatest instrument of all, the computer.

Steve Jobs
It is impossible to overstate the roles that Steve Jobs played in the computer revolution for the duration of his involvement in it. His first great product was probably the most important of all, the Apple II, because it helped usher in the era of the PC. Then there was the mac with the WIMP system that was later adapted by Microsoft Windows. Then there was iTunes, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad. That Apple is the most powerful IT company in the world today is almost a miracle, considering that for 15 years, Apple was the sick man of Silicon Valley!
Anyway I don’t have much to say about this guy that hasn’t already been said elsewhere.

Denis Ritchie
This is the Ritchie of Kernighan and Ritchie. People have mentioned that Steve Jobs’ influence is prevalent all over the IT world, but this is the guy who designed the UNIX and C systems, and with it, a lot of the computer systems today.

John McCarthy
John McCarthy was an AI pioneer. Well not much has progressed since. He also invented LISP, which is a very cool computer language.

The 2 most important dates of the last 25 years were 9/11/89 and 11/9/01. The first was the fall of the Berlin Wall, which marked the end of the Cold War. The second marked the beginning of the age of terrorism.

Vaclav Havel
He became the first president of post-communist Czechoslovakia. Under the communist regime, he was a dissident and a freedom fighter, and helped to organise the resistance to the communist dictators while writing plays mocking the system. Eventually, over the course of 1 incredible winter, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria were liberated from Soviet rule. 2 years later, the Soviet Union was broken up. And strange and terrible things were starting to brew up in Yugoslavia.

Kim Jong Il
Kim Jong Il was a reminder that things didn’t play out the same way in the communist countries of East Asia. The Tiananmen uprising was brutally put down. The communist regimes of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were never overthrown, although they were liberalised to a greater or lesser extent after 1989. Taiwan and South Korea were never communist, but they were military dictatorships which made the transition to democracy.

Communism did not vanish in North Korea or Cuba. In North Korea, the cult of Kim was so strong that in spite of the tremendous hardships visited upon his people in the form of poverty and famine, Kim Jong Il was never overthrown. He was never ousted from power through US intervention, mainly owing to 2 factors: the proximity to China and nuclear weapons. Upon his father’s death in 1994, nobody gave Kim Jong Il a snowflake’s chance in hell of being able to survive, yet he did just that, outmanoeuvring the US, South Korea, Japan, Russia and China to stay in power.

Osama Bin Laden
The world had already heard of Osama Bin Laden prior to 9/11. He was the mastermind of the 2 African US embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, and also a bombing of a US military vessel the USS Cole. But his claim to fame came in spectacular circumstances, in the capital of the world financial markets and in the headquarters of the greatest military power in the history of mankind.
There is no doubt that the bombings did much damage to the US. However what caused even greater damage to the US were their reactions to the bombings: the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The millions of dollars spent on anti-terrorism security. And the withering away of the civil rights of citizens and the atmosphere of general paranoia in response to the terrorism.

Arab Spring
Dictatorships in the Arab countries were once thought to be a permanent fixture. In part they were sponsored by the Americans who wanted to put a friendly regime in place so that nobody would cut off their supply of oil. It doesn’t matter that they already did the same thing with the Shah of Iran and that resulted in the 1979 revolution and the rise of the current theocracy.
So it was an extremely curious thing that Bush 2 decided to invade Iraq to “Bring democracy to the Middle East”.

Mohamed Bouazizi
This is the guy who started off the riots in Tunisia by burning himself. Apparently he had his stall confiscated over and over by corrupt municipal officers. Then he set himself on fire in a public square. The riots that ensued brought down the Tunisian government and inspired other popular revolts in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen. This set the stage for what is now known as the “Arab Spring”, which is named after a similar uprising in Prague in 1968.

The sometime comical eccentricity of this man should not detract from the fact that he was an extremely brutal dictator who crushed all opposition under his fist and once was a supporter of Carlos the Jackal, the most famous terrorist in the world before Osama. He managed to “rehabilitate” himself by giving up nuclear weapons, and at some point even Singapore wanted to do business with him. (Some of you will remember the infamous photos of him having a nice chat with Goh Chok Tong).
But after the uprising began, Gadaffi made the fatal mistake of deciding that he was going to crush the rebellion with his military, instead of negotiating for peace and promising reforms. The US decided to back the uprising by supplying weapons and bombing the Libyan army. Their tactics of “leading from behind” and opting for a less active role in intervention, in marked contrast to similar interventions in the past, was successful. Gadaffi’s end was brutal – he was captured, raped and killed by the rebels.

The journalist: Christopher Hitchens
I don’t really know this guy, and I haven’t read that many of his books. But he’s one of the members of the New Atheists that I’ve come to dislike. He’s a polemicist who consequently isn’t very honest in his arguments.

The biologist Lynn Margulis
I’ve read one of her books. Maybe reading books is a waste of time because I’ve almost totally forgotten what I read. Only that her view of evolution is slightly different from the predominant vision of species competing with each other. She was putting forward a different form of evolution, which emphasises co-operation and which also takes place at the cell level, instead of at the level of the organism and the species.

The mathematician Patrick Billingsley
I don’t really know this guy very well, but one of his books on measure theory sits on my bookshelf. It was assigned for an advanced probability course in Snowy Hill. Apparently Billingsley was not only a professor of probability theory, he was also an actor who appeared in the “Untouchables”. Which is very unusual I suppose.

Gary Speed
One of the finest midfielders in the Premier League era. He, along with David Batty, Gordan Strachan and Gary McAllister were the quartet which helped Leeds win their last championship. He played many matches with Everton, Newcastle and Bolton, and for some time was the player who made the most appearances in the Premier League. More recently, he was the manager of Wales national football team, and brought them very close to qualifying for Euro 2012. For reasons unknown he hung himself and died young.

Another member of a famous midfield, with Falcao, Zico and Eder. They were one of the most celebrated World Cup teams, who played brilliant football almost at the level of the great 1970 side. Brazil’s swashbuckling brand of football was often described as “if you score 3 we’ll score 4”. Unfortunately in the quarter-final match against Italy, Italy scored 3 and they scored 2. Socrates was also a brave man because he was famous for speaking out against the military junta who ruled Brazil in the 1980s. After quitting football, he had drinking problems, and his health deteriorated greatly.

All 5 musicians in my list died of health problems.

Gil Scott Heron
This was one of the earliest rappers, who read poetry to funky music. His most famous tune was “The Revolution Will not be Televised”. Unfortunately for the last 20-30 years he was not active due to drug problems and going to jail for trafficking. In 2010, he made a highly regarded comeback, and it was a shame he had to leave so soon after that.

Gerry Rafferty
He was an alcoholic, and also wrote one of the greatest songs on alcoholism, “Baker Street” about a guy who dreams of owning a house but doesn’t get around to doing it.

Amy Winehouse
Let’s face it, very few of us would have expected Amy Winehouse to live to see the age of 30. She just had to abuse anything within reach. Drugs, alcohol, whatever.

Heavy D
This guy got to rap on Michael Jackson’s “Jam” and was one of the hottest rappers in the early 90s.

I don’t know her very well. I have one of her CDs, apparently she’s a highly regarded singer from Cape Verdean islands, which is a former Portugese colony in Africa.

Spiritual leader: Sai Baba
I know about him from a school friend whose father used to worship him. Seems like a nice guy.

Of course, the most important and significant obituary is for my grandmother.


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