Archive for April, 2011|Monthly archive page

I love charming old men

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

I was at the medical lab first thing this morning for blood tests. The upside to free medical care is it’s free, and we can get regular tests to make sure we’re healthy. The downside is that medical labs are very busy. Place was packed. No seats left.

Enter charming old man and his wife. Everyone is half-catatonic. No one has had breakfast. And we’re all waiting to have someone stab us with a needle. So he waits for a bit then asks if anyone would like to sing. A little ditty or something, he says. His wife pops up from the corner, “No. You will not sing.” He smiles.

The he sidles up to me, “If the blood tests work out, we’re going to get married.”

“Ah, ” I say, “hope the courtship was as per–you’ve done flowers, dancing, dinner and all that?”

“Oh yes, ” then louder, “anyone want to come to a wedding? We’ll take gifts. And money. Money would be good.”

Then to me, “she’s a real catch, that one.” Nodding to his wife.

Mind candy

Sunday, April 17th, 2011

Yes, I may be a nerd, but it was with eager anticipation that I tackled James Gleick’s latest, The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood. As with Chaos, Gleick displays a mastery and a passion for the history of ideas while creating new connections himself. Thinkers great and small come to life, and he has a real knack for surfacing exactly the right quote or life detail in whatever thought he’s following.

Gleick starts (and ends) with Shannon – that odd man from Bell Labs whose information theory is one of the most important developments of thought in the 20th Century, and who starred in Chaos as well. Shannon was a practical man for all that. Whatsoever you understand about information, interference, bits and bobs, data, bits and bytes, or memes, Shannon had a hand in it. He was that badass.

There were so many moments where I smirked, paused, felt my neurons firing in a most pleasing manner. While it’s impossible to summarize, the book really makes it easy to see how fundamental information is at every level of understanding–mathematics, computers, language, genetics and even the basic units of the universe can be understood through this filter.

I started putting little pieces of paper whenever something struck me as interesting or entertaining, and ended up with quite a few. Here’s a selection:

  • Humans going from oral to writing cultures think differently. Literate and slightly literate people think differently, primarily because the slightly literate are without the facility to use symbolism or form symbolic relationships. There was a  study in the 1930′s where the slightly literate group couldn’t fathom geometric shapes–had no words for them. Given a circle, they think moon, literally. You can’t unthink writing. It changes you.
  • Alphabetizing stuff, like “dictionary” items and texts occurred in ancient Alexandria (250 BCE), but got lost along the way in favour of categories of function or some other topical system. Friar Johannes Balbus of Genoa was so sure alphabetic was HIS novel idea in the 13th Century, he felt the need to *really* explain it: “I will discuss amo before bibo because a is the first letter of amo and b is the first letter of bibo…”. Just so.
  • True story. The telegraph is directly responsible for weather forecasts. For the first time, information was receivable immediately, including simple weather reports for corn speculators (Nottingham, no rain but dull and cold). Weather started to be something that was connected across geography instead of a local surprise. Then in 1854, the English government set up a Meteorological Office manned by Admiral Robert FitzRoy (former captain of The Beagle) with lots of cool stuff like barometers and gave the same instruments to ports who telegraphed in their local readings. FitzRoy began to publish his “forecasts” in The Times by 1860. No one knows if he favoured plaid sport coats and loud ties.
  • wmietg (when may I expect the goods?): Alfred Vail would have loved the cell phone. The telegraph was cool, but using it could be expensive and it didn’t take long for enterprising reporters and business name to create meta-language (“encoding”) where full thoughts could be expressed with fewer letters. Vail offered up some suggestions that wouldn’t be out of place today if we primarily texted about stocks and our health, instead of kittehs and naughty proposals. Everything old is new again.
  • One of Shannon’s great insights has to do with circuits and Boolean logic (and you can find out about Boole and how he figured out the logic too). Connecting electricity to logic seemed a bit weird, but Shannon figured out that a relay passing electricity from one circuit to the next is not electricity–it’s a “fact” of whether that circuit is open or closed. And the state of each circuit may impact the state of the next circuit. Make a leap for yourself from there to binary descriptions of this flow, and you’re firmly in the digital age.
  • Shannon and Norbert Wiener (name of the day) were part of a sort of think tank in the 1940s that included the likes of Margaret Mead. One of the key concepts Shannon and Wiener discussed was what entropy measured. For Wiener, it was a measure of disorder and for Shannon it was a measure of uncertainty. What they came to realize was it was the same thing. Ingenious when applied to language–given a string of text, like a sentence, the more you can predict the next letter (based on your understanding of the language and likely words) the less information is conveyed with each subsequent letter. If you can guess the next letter with confidence, then it’s redundant. Hmmm, so if we are pleasantly surprised by a turn of phrase or a witticism, perhaps we are enjoying its entropy.
  • Alan Turing, of the Turing machine and the Turing test of intelligence, was arrested in 1952 for the crime of homosexuality and forced to submit to estrogen injections by the British Government. He took his own life in 1954.
  • Memes, a word coined by a very young Richard Dawkins, are more than funny videos on the Interwebs. Tracing how art or phraseology gets memed is fascinating – we understand “Survival of the fakest” because we can refer to “Survival of the fittest” and everything that it represents. The Mona Lisa or a painting of George Washington have a life of their own. We don’t know what the orignal people looked like, but we know what they look like now.

Plus, Gleick quotes heavily from Jorge Luis Borges, and that’s just A+ in my book.

Some quotable quotes:

  • “What lies at the heart of every living thing is not a fire, not warm breath, not a ‘spark of life’, it is information.” –Richard Dawkins
  • Regarding telephone operators in the 1880s: “The action of stretching her arms up above her head, and to the right and left of her, … turns thin and weedy girls into strong ones.” — Every Woman’s Encyclopedia (big strong woman who got paid same or less as a teenage boy, mind you)

This stuff doesn’t begin to give you all of the mind candy available in this book. I strongly recommend you read it for yourself.

Why I’m gonna miss the soaps

Saturday, April 16th, 2011

Whenever I stayed with Grannie, if it was the afternoon, then we had to watch her stories. She like the whole CBC line-up. All My Children was her favourite, but One Life to Live was okay too. She’d make me tea (with a huge dollop of milk and enough sugar to jack up a kindergarten class, which is probably why I now take it black).

This was back in the day, when Erica was young and Tad was a cad.

When I got older, and Grannie was gone, if I was home sick, I’d bundle up on the couch and catch up on the goings-on in Pine Valley and Llanview.

People deride the soaps a lot, but they should learn their lessons from the Victorian serial. The soaps are the grandchildren of the likes of Dickens and Thackery. The good, the evil, the crazy turns, the evil twins, the lechery, multiple marriages, implausible coincidences, and most of all, studies of how different classes of people interact. And there’s always a moral to the story.

So I’ll miss the soaps, and I’ll be sure to see how they end, just for Grannie.

Up with which, I will not put

Tuesday, April 12th, 2011

I got a misdirected email from someone who has a lot of relatives with the same last name as me. It was an invite to a big Easter shindig somewhere in the States, and you know, I would consider the invitation, cuz there’s ham, except for one insurmountable and scary, and BAD in the worst way detail:


If you know me IRL, then you know my justified fear and loathing of JELLO SALAD. Why? WHY? You put SOLID things in a coloured gelatin and you expect people to EAT IT. Like carrots. Carrots and jello don’t belong together. Nor does marshmallows, celery, nuts, cherries or pineapple in jello.

This is non-negotiable. So sorry, J, thanks for the invitation but I will not be attending your “feast”.

Simple wishes

Sunday, April 10th, 2011

There’s an amazing art installation in New Orleans. Blackboard paint. Some chalk. An opportunity to complete the sentence Before I die I want to ___________________.

There’s a few “famous”, but mostly people want something grand, or intimate or fun. I find hope in this.