Sunday, July 31, 2011

Oh, I Got the Information, All Right

James Gleick's The Information is a worthwhile read, but I was left a bit cool towards it in the end. The book takes a sweeping look at information science, which largely took shape alongside the development of communications technology and early computing in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It's an impressive traversal, and much of the recent thinking on information — its existence as a physical phenomenon, its relation to entropy and importance in quantum mechanics — is exciting and heady stuff.

Unfortunately Gleick includes some incongruous detours, and wraps up the book by steering it into a discussion of Internet age concerns that's much weaker than his science writing. As a result, it feels like the main thread of the book disappears early, and even Gleick's sense of the word "information" reverts to a generic use. It's disconcerting, especially since he so well elucidates information's modern refinement into a precise, subtle scientific concept.

Some of the early chapters are the most interesting, partly from the interest of seeing a modern analytical apparatus applied to premodern activity. Gleick aptly begins by discussing West African "talking drums," an intervillage communication system that was unbested before the telegraph in its delivery speed. As much as any later system it can be analyzed as encoded information, in this case an approximation of speech using only its syllable patterns and tone, high or low. The translated content seems loquacious and overly poetic at first, but as Gleick describes it, it's a now-familiar matter of building in redundancy to prevent error. The alphabet gets an early chapter too, maybe relating a bit less to rarefied information flow but certainly representing an easily overlooked phenomenon of information encoding. (And not an inevitable one; unlike, say, agriculture, the alphabet was only invented once.)

There's a wonderful chapter on Charles Babbage, nineteenth-century Englishman and scientific polymath who invented a steam-powered computer tantalizingly out of practical reach. He kept an equally fascinating correspondence with Ada Byron, daughter of the poet, who as an incredibly talented mathematical amateur even more overtly conceived of computing and programming before it really existed as such. (You get a strong sense here of the western world not exactly taking full advantage of its female minds.)

As for the modern science, it's not particularly easy to wrap your mind around it, but Gleick writes well about the things that are going to go over your head. The useful nickel takeaway, as I absorbed it, is understanding information as a property of physical reality, an inherent quality of organized existence in opposition to entropy. I will admit to still being somewhat fuzzy on the details. And I find quantum computing interesting, but for now I will mostly have to take people's word for its operation.

Reading The Information reminded me that I never actually got around to reading Chaos, beyond looking at the color plates of the Mandelbrot Set. Maybe that'll go on the reading list at a later date.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Livin' in Astoria

[Transcribed from steno pad.—ed.]

So Astoria, today, is finally feeling like the excitingly enjoyable environment that I knew I was returning to. This is three weeks in, post-move: the key seems to be finally logging a full and pleasant Saturday. The past two I spent returning to New Haven to finish cleaning the old apartment, dispatching some non-viable furniture items, and painting over in bright white the favored mild interior tones of my now-past habitation. All of that during the hottest days of the year! So it's good that it's over and done with. With Maddie in Atlanta I get to pass a day by sleeping in, biking around for an hour (following a utilitarian bike route through Long Island City and over the less-than-atmospheric Queensboro Bridge, and back), and ordering a frappe and some crepes at a brunch place on 30th Avenue. That's gotten me as far as 2 PM, as I write this down via steno pad. It's sunny and hot, but after a big rain squall yesterday evening it's not as oppressive as it's been. Which is a relief: moving into NYC in the middle of July asks a certain perseverance of you, heatwise.

The move itself, back on, what, July 10, went surprisingly smoothly, basically thanks to Maddie, who rolled up her sleeves and identified the necessary level of shit-getting-togetherness several beats before I did. And then she was there packing and shlepping and giving me verbal directions while I parallel parked a 17-foot U-Haul truck on a city street. That's some kind of quality time, somewhat less relaxing than our week vacation in her hometown San Mateo, CA, shortly beforehand. I will have to describe that enjoyable hiatus in more detail at a later time. Since I can't take any other summer vacations this year, thanks to the three-month wait stipulated by office PTO policy for new hires, I'll have to re-live the old vacation vicariously by describing it.

My apartment is quite small, especially my bedroom, and Job One is currently obtaining enough small storage-type pieces to finish putting things away coherently. My roommate, Kate, is as friendly and considerate as advertised, and of course as a flight attendant she's been away about half the time. So far, the strategy of coordinating apartment time with people's various flight schedules has worked out pretty well. Maddie's about eight blocks away, and it's predictably easier to negotiate that trip than the two-plus hours from Connecticut. Getting to hang out on weekday evenings is a predictably nice perk.

My commute to Weekday Workplace Neighborhood & Co., Inc., is a little longer than I expected, about 35 minutes door to door. But it's an easy one, and the subway time means I'm already back to reading at my early-decade amount of material, having fairly plowed through Richard Dawkins's The Ancestor's Tale, Karen Russell's excellent first novel Swamplandia! (on loan from Nate), and James Gleick's The Information, which came recommended from Pete. The N/Q trains (or the R, if I'm coming from Maddie's) let out at Times Square, an avenue west of work. It still strikes me as a goofy thing to go to Times Square if you're intending to have a workday, as opposed to gawking around and being a tourist. I've taken to calling the area Crazy Midtown, to distinguish it from the calmer Lower Midtown where I used to work. The Workplace itself is located in 500 Fifth Avenue, a handsome art deco skyscraper caddy-corner to Bryant Park and across from the lion-fronted New York Public Library building. Crazy Midtown is a fun place to be in the afternoon, as you lunch in the park surrounded by several hundred other business-y people doing the same thing. Somehow there are enough folding chairs provided.

Work is going well. I'm on a learning curve, but the job is quite similar to what I was doing at YUP, so I've been a quick study. I was just assigned my first project on Thursday, which is good, since it means I'm transitioning out of the initial editorial odd jobs I've been helping out the other editors with. I've been installed in a temporary cubicle in the interior reaches of the seventh floor, where the air conditioning and fluorescent lighting are crisp and consistent and obliterate any sensation of time or weather. I won't be in the cubicle forever, although I'm not sure how long it'll really be. The college books division has been undergoing a big expansion (I'm one of a slew of new hires, including two other people with my job description), and the company intended to secure more office space in the building while this happened. Plan A fell through, and the rumors about an early-autumn Plan B aren't particularly detail-rich.

But the cubicle isn't bad, although I have no phone line. Grudgingly, I admit that I'd like to be accessible by telephone at work. In the adjacent cubicle is the department assistant, Sophie, who's a Swarthmore grad from '10 and knows the whole music department there. The greatest cubicle risk is total social disengagement, but I finally learned to do work whenever possible at the open-area conference table directly outside my cubicle; here people will pass by and say hello. Now if any actual conferring needs to take place at the table, well, then I go into the cubicle and put headphones on and do my work while listening to symphonic Martinů, or something else with a musical texture that's chattery enough to blot out background conversation. In general, the interpersonal vibe is good in the office, and I'm of course surrounded by the simpatico kind of editorial personalities I've come to appreciate in the publishing world.

So that's the general shape of things. This is probably enough blogging for now, if you can still call it "blogging" when you're writing in a steno pad in a café. (The activity did intrigue the waitress, who asked if I was a writer, and after a brief explanation of what I was writing remarked "Oh good, I hoped it wasn't, like, a poem or a breakup letter." Pete, I guess you can make of that comment what you will. At least when I told her my brother was a poet, it seemed like she did find that to be cool. I guess you don't see people handwriting things in public much, but I can't make myself consider it to be unusual behavior.) But Astoria is interesting, it hasn't changed from when I loved it five years ago, and being in New York is a fine thing even in the brutal middle of the summer.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Cave Movie

One of the perks of moving to New York City (oh right, that little thing, which will deserve some more commentary soon) is that the IFC Center cinema is still showing Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which I'd thought I'd maybe missed my chance to see in the theater. I knew it would be right up my alley, but still I was surprised how beautiful it was onscreen. I wouldn't have thought 3-D could be that luscious, and Herzog even works artfully with its rough edges and flaws. In some of the shots of people inside the cave, the flattened or collapsed layers of the film provide a surreally warped visual. I can only imagine that Herzog's intentionally playing with the effect.

Beyond the wonder of seeing the 30,000-year-old artwork itself -- and it's a real service to everyone that a film this enveloping was made of it -- the moving aspect of the film, to me, is watching its observers react to it. It's amazing that art this vibrant exists in such a deep reach of human prehistory, but it's equally amazing that it can still genuinely move an audience.

The music, by a Dutch cellist named Ernst Reijseger, is canny in its ancient-meets-postmodern vibe, especially for being courageously exposed during the longer art-watching shots.

And Herzog's trademark kind of loony epilogue is delightful, what with the looming nuclear cooling towers and the mini-nightmarish shots of albino crocodiles and the careening Herzog-style voiceover. I suppose in ten years we'll all have 3-D television sets and we can rewatch the film, but for now I'm happy to have seen it as intended.