The Information

Having been on vacation for the first week of four upcoming, I finally got to finish a book I started more than a year ago.  I like to read popular science/history of science books now and then, especially if they’re about computers or math too.  The Information by James Gleick (also author of a book I read about quantum mechanics, and one about time called Faster and I’m sure may others) definitely fit the bill.  It wasn’t the most difficult read, but it was long-ish for this genre – more than 400 pages.  I guess fittingly it’s one of the last physically published books I purchased (I still buy real books as gifts, but I’m trying to read on my iPad now, as that was part of how I justified its purchase).  It cost like $30 in hardcover last spring break.

Just a little about it – it’s more or less a history of the nature and concept of “information.”  A lot of focus is thrown onto (apparently) one of the first self-conscious “information” theorists, Claude Shannon.  He apparently invented the “bit” (or named it anyway).  But there are interesting chapters before and after about other people and cultures.

One of the coolest parts was about African inter-village drumming systems that could transmit quite meaningful messages accurately across many miles.  Using a pre-literate binary code, one that transmitted only the tonal inflection of the syllables of the words at its base (using lots of redundancy to disambiguate words and phrases, kind of like the way radio operators use “charlie” and “delta” to differentiate “cee” and “dee”, though they often sound the same across a noisy radio channel) African people (from the 19th century and presumably long before) transmitted quite complex messages, and befuddled European anthropologists for years.  The problem was European languages don’t generally rely on pitch, but African languages do, so the Europeans couldn’t conceive of the transmission of a message that uses only pitch to convey the words of a language.  The neat part about this to me was that these drums were, in essence, very low bps modems or pre-Morse-code telegraphs, but they encoded whole syllables of words through binary coding.  Since many of the users of the drums didn’t have written language anyway, syllables were a more natural unit than letters, which didn’t really exist.

The book proceeds mostly historically, moving up through the 19th century’s telegraph systems, towards computers, the internet, quantum computing and beyond.  The 19th century, by the way, used a form of telegraphy that was totally unfamiliar to me.  I knew about the Morse-code driven electric telegraphs, but didn’t know that (in Europe anyway) there were visual telegraphs that transmitted signals sort of like semaphores, using an elaborate wooden crane-like mechanism that could be inflected in 2 ways at each of 5 points, allowing 2^5 (32 – 6 more than the alphabet) symbols to be transmitted visually from post to post.  It was outmoded by the electric telegraph, but it’s the same basic idea.

The history of the development of the modern digital computer is treated extensively here as well, but mostly as a side-topic in the discussion of information and the processing of information itself.  This was a story already largely familiar to me (though one I liked hearing re-told): Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, Alan Turing, etc. are names I already knew, and their stories weren’t really told in any more depth than I’ve read a bunch of other places, including in Neal Stephenson novels.

The end of the book is a more speculative (and harder for me to appreciate) section about cross-applications between physics, chaos theory, entropy, biology and information science.  There are also digressive (but interesting) chapters about random subjects like Wikipedia and DNA.

The subtitle of the book is “A History, A Theory, A Flood.”  I thought the history was the best part; the “theory” was sort of capriciously presented and seemed to lack rigor (this being pop-science writing); the “flood” didn’t shed any real light on “information overload,” the phenomenon we’re all familiar with, almost to the point where discussing it is a bit of a cliche.  There is a lot of hand-waving in the sections that get closer to the actual science.  I still don’t understand (after reading several popular sources discussing these issues) why exactly quantum computing can help overcome the exponential algorithmic complexity of factoring large numbers.  I basically get how the fact that the best known factoring algorithm requires exponential time (factoring a 100-digit number takes exponentially longer than a 10-digit number) means that any linear Turing-machine-like computer (i.e., the ones we all use) can’t factor the public keys used in RSA cryptography fast enough to make it worthwhile for code-breakers to try.  I basically get that (though that last sentence is about all I can really say).  What I still don’t get is what a “quantum computer” would be, and how it would solve that problem.  I do get that if we had a computer that could solve that problem, it would be the 21st century equivalent of alchemy, seeing as it would destroy the tool most commonly used to keep information, money, and everything else safe and secure on the internet.  I’d just like to know whether really this is something that might happen.

I also though Gleick was a bit more sold on the conversational nature of his thesis than I was.  The basic idea is that “information” is a concept that didn’t always exist, and that its self-conscious elaboration has changed our world somehow.  There’s also something he keeps saying about how “information” has become divorced from “meaning” and this is also supposed to be significant.  I may just be too steeped in 21st century discourse to understand what’s so radically different now (which is weird, given that I’m usually more than willing to accept that something has changed radically about our culture vis-a-vis all others in history).

These are minor quibbles really.  Overall, this was an interesting book to read, especially if you (like me) are not really a scientist, but like to hear about it from time to time.

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2 Responses to The Information

  1. David Svolba says:

    Hi Josh!

    First things first: thanks for continuing to post on OP. If this blog manages to avoid a second death, we’ll have you to thank for it. (And I’ll try to start pulling my weight–I leave for Europe on Thursday–a four week trip–but I plan on occasionally posting on OP with updates of travels, sights, etc..)

    I don’t know if you remember this, or even if you were still in the program at the time, but I seem to recall Kirsten Feil writing her preliminary essay (dissertation) on entropy and information theory. I had no clue what that meant then, and I’m afraid I don’t now. Perhaps I should take a look at the book!

    I was talking to a friend about you the other day, and your Dostoevsky reading/writing project. How long did that take?


  2. Josh says:

    The Dostoevsky project isn’t done yet, so I don’t know! I’m actually going to start The Brothers Karamazov today. I’m planning to post several times while reading it. After *that*, then I will have finished (note the future perfect – it’s not done but will be at a later date, in theory). I started two years ago right around now. It would have taken less time if I had less work to do during the school year. Probably a total of 6 months of focused reading time have really been spent, if I had to estimate.

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