Mind candy

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.

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