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.


Blogger Pete said...

Nate, did you actually read Chaos? It was odd to me, talking to Jack earlier this summer (when recommending The Information to him (with a similar caveat about Gleick really WTFing the last couple chapters (not as WTFed as, say, Pinker's The Blank Slate, but pretty bad))) to find out that he'd never actually read Chaos, since when I was in my pre-teens I managed to read most of the words of the book, since I thought you to had.

Good review, Jack. I don't have a whole lot to add. I really dug the early sections on quantum mechanics and information theory. The Heisenberg stuff especially. There's several pages where I find myself underlining quite a bit, since it seemed to so readily align with my extant world view (that's what I want from books, to preach to the choir that is me).

It's been said before, but the internet is educated stupid and evil.

8/02/2011 12:42 AM  
Blogger nate said...

I did read Chaos, yes, either right before or right after reading Jurassic Park in I think the summer of 1993, at chaos theory's moment of greatest prominence in popular culture. Those would have been among the first two contemporary grown-up books I ever read, too. I think I reread at least some small parts of Chaos later on. What I mainly remember from that first reading, other than the mesmerizing color plates, is that we'd borrowed our grandfather's paperback copy of it and when we returned it to him, after (apparently) two of us toting it around day camp every day for a summer, he took one look at its condition, said something like "Oh", and suggested that we keep that one and let him buy a new one for himself.

I agree that it's a good review, Jack. The Information has been on my reading list (now an actual list, with a book count in the low three figures) since it came out but I may fast-track it somewhat. It does sound like his conclusion would be something of a letdown: The concept from information theory that informational content is deeply descriptive of physical reality seems so profound to me that even important ideas about generic-usage information (privacy concerns, etc.) are much less interesting in comparison.

8/02/2011 12:54 PM  
Blogger Jack said...

Okay, so I'm the only one who didn't read Chaos. But Nate's right, there's a lot of chaos theory in Jurassic Park too, so at least I absorbed the basic outline of the theory. (In complex systems, very small adjustments to initial conditions can produce vast, unpredictable differences in how many velociraptors are ultimately in that system. Also: they hunt in packs!)

8/02/2011 7:12 PM  

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