Aug. 21, 2011

In Answer to Amy's Question What's a Pickerel

by Stanley Plumly

The text for this poem is no longer available.

"In Answer to Amy's Question What's a Pickerel" by Stanley Plumly, from The Marriage in the Trees. © The Ecco Press, 1997. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of computer scientist and Internet entrepreneur Sergey Brin, born in Moscow in 1973. His father had wanted to be an astronomer, but because Jews were blocked from the physics departments of Soviet universities, he became a mathematician instead. Eventually, he was unable to tolerate the U.S.S.R.'s unofficial, but nevertheless entrenched, policy of anti-Semitism, and the family immigrated to the United States in 1979. Brin Senior took a job as a professor of mathematics at the University of Maryland, and his wife went to work for NASA. Sergey got his first computer, a Commodore 64, for his ninth birthday. He went to Montessori schools as a child, and he often gives them the credit for his later successes.

Brin attended the University of Maryland, studying computer science and mathematics, and then moved across the country to Palo Alto, California, where he entered graduate school at Stanford on a National Science Foundation fellowship. While working toward his Ph.D., he met Larry Page, who was also working on his doctorate in computer science. They didn't get along well at first, and tended to argue about any topic that came up, but eventually they discovered that they had a common interest in retrieving information from large data sets. They co-authored a paper called "The Anatomy of a Large-scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine," which has since become one of the most-accessed scientific papers at Stanford.

While working on a group research project, Brin and Page got the idea for a search engine that would present the most popular websites first; it seemed logical that those sites would be of the most use to the searcher. They nicknamed the project "Backrub," since it ranked websites based on the number of other sites that "backlinked" to them; the more sites that link back to the original site, the more relevant that site likely to be. Brin and Page dropped out of Stanford, wrote up a business plan, and raised a million dollars from family, friends, and investors to start their own company. They wanted a name that would reflect the vast quantity of information waiting to be organized on the Internet, so they chose "Googol," the mathematical term for a one followed by a hundred zeros. Somewhere along the line, the name got misspelled, ending up as "Google." They launched their new search engine in 1998; it was revolutionary, an article in Time magazine explained, because it was the first search engine to "treat the Internet as a democracy. Google interprets connections between websites as votes. The most linked-to sites win on the Google usefulness ballot and rise to the top of the search results." It's now the world's most popular search engine, receiving 200 million queries a day, and the word "Google" has become a verb. The company's motto is "Don't be evil," and Brin once said, "We want Google to be the third half of your brain."

The company went public in 2004, and though his personal net worth is now closing in on $20 billion, Brin still lives a relatively modest lifestyle, driving a Prius and living in a quiet neighborhood in Palo Alto. He uses roller skates to get around Google's vast campus, the Googleplex, in Mountain View. He also plays roller hockey on his breaks, and is a regular patron of San Francisco's many Russian restaurants. In 2007, he married Anne Wojcicki, a former health care investment analyst and founder of the biotech company 23andMe, which specializes in individual genetic mapping. Their son, Benji, was born in December 2008.

Brin once said, "Obviously everyone wants to be successful, but I want to be looked back on as being very innovative, very trusted and ethical and ultimately making a big difference in the world."

Today is the birthday of the poet William Henry Ogilvie (books by this author), born in Kelso, Scotland, in 1869. He loved horses, and reading the work of poet and horseman Adam Lindsay Gordon inspired him to travel to Australia when he was 20. He fell head over heels in love ... with the outback. He spent 12 years there, working as a drover and a horse-breaker, before returning to Scotland. He wrote several volumes of verse that were part romantic Scottish border ballad, part bush poetry. His best-known collection is Fair Girls and Gray Horses (1898). He also wrote a memoir, My Life in the Open (1908); in it, he writes that the Australian bush "has a peculiar witchery of its own ... that spell that brings the drover and traveller back again and again to worship at the shrine of its silent beauty; that charm that chains the true bushman to his love though half the world lies between."

It's the birthday of jazz pianist and bandleader William "Count" Basie, born in Red Bank, New Jersey, in 1904. He got his nickname from a disk jockey, who was of the opinion that Basie was every bit as good as Duke Ellington and deserved a similarly aristocratic title. The orchestra had several hits in the 1930s and '40s, including their theme song, "One O'Clock Jump." In spite of suffering from diabetes and chronic arthritis, Basie led his big band until a month before his death in 1984.

It's the birthday of poet, textbook author, and writer of children's literature X.J. Kennedy (books by this author), born in Dover, New Jersey, in 1929. He was christened Joseph Charles Kennedy; the "X" doesn't stand for anything. Tired of being ribbed for having the same name as the patriarch of the political Kennedy dynasty, he added the initial when he began submitting his poetry for publication. The first time he used it, he had two poems accepted by The New Yorker, so he figured it was good luck. He calls his work "schizophrenic": "I write for three separate audiences," he told Contemporary Authors. "Children, college students (who use textbooks), and that small band of people who still read poetry."

On this day in 1945, physicist Harry K. Daghlian Jr. became the first peacetime fatality of nuclear fission when he accidentally irradiated himself during an atomic energy experiment. Daghlian went to MIT at the age of 17; two years later, he transferred to Purdue University to study in their particle physics department. While he was in graduate school, he was recruited for the Manhattan Project experiments being conducted in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

He went to the lab about 9:30 at night to continue assembling and testing a neutron reflector, breaking safety regulations against conducting experiments alone and after hours. When a tungsten carbide brick fell from his hand onto the plutonium core, it started a nuclear reaction. He was taken immediately to the hospital, where he died of radiation sickness after almost 26 days of excruciating pain. He was 24 years old.

It's the birthday of poet Ellen Hinsey (books by this author), born in Boston in 1960. She's the author of three poetry collections: Cities of Memory (1996), The White Fire of Time (2002), and Update on the Descent (2009). In a 2003 interview with Poetry Magazine, she said: "Contrary to a generally held view, poetry is a very powerful tool because poetry is the conscience of a society. [...] No individual poem can stop a war — that's what diplomacy is supposed to do. But poetry is an independent ambassador for conscience: It answers to no one, it crosses borders without a passport, and it speaks the truth. That's why ... it is one of the most powerful of the arts."

Today is the birthday of poet Eléna Rivera (1961) (books by this author). She was born in Mexico City and spent her childhood in Paris. She's the author of several poetry collections, including Remembrance of Things Plastic (2010), Suggestions at Every Turn (2005), and Unknowne Land (2000). Her most recent book is The Perforated Map (2011). She lives in New York City.

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