265 of 307 people found the following review helpful
1,729 put that in your pipe and smoke it.,
This review is from: The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood (Hardcover)
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James Gleick is in that tiny top tier of science and technology authors who work slowly, quietly and painstakingly to help us understand things both difficult and important. He does not spend his time dancing for the media. He does not toss off books on a set schedule while Gladwellhanding on tour for books with titles like "Burp!" And he is stylist enough to present the context of the human, the social. His works on chaos and on Feynman are bright treasure with a touch of fun.
Right out of the gate, Mr. Gleick introduces Claude Shannon. In the same year Bell Labs came out with the transistor, Shannon (of said lab) gave new meaning to an ancient word, "bit". Shannon, rare bird of a technologist and mathematician, was consumed by messages and their meaning, i.e. information content. He wanted to do for information what Newton (another Gleick tome) had done for force, mass and motion. He set about integrating information into science and mathematics, abstracting theory and structure. The BIG difference between Shannon and Newton is that mechanics were to be immutable yardsticks of the universe. Information was forged in the souls of its millions of creators. It was shaped by heartbeats, circuits, character sets and symbols. Encoding takes many forms and flourishes whether the slip of a slide rule or a slide trombone. It does not stay put and jumps from logical to physical and back again, but wearing different clothes. Astounded within pages, I buckled my academic seatbelt.
Then back he leaps to the Homeric, the African where poetry around fires and where thrumming drums could repeat and relay messages across generations or across a hundred miles in an hour. It would take millennia before they were shunted, transformed and abstracted, losing their essential character. It would take alphabet and electricity, before quantity, frequency, speed and duration would magnify an order or two each of magnitude and of scope.
For us the danger of the drums stopping is the threat of a bass solo. For Africa it would have been like cable going dark. What Africa had was a language family that was not alphabet centric. The Indo-European family gradually abstracted tone from language and tried to lash it to music (though words muscled in anyway). So we had to wait for a Morse to encode words into electric pulses. Alphabet was the intermediary between existing words and a code. Mr. Gleick takes us through some of the ideas and the details showing the complexity, power and beauty of drum language. Such is the heavy lifting we are paying this kind of author to do for us.
Yet even in telegraphy, the mind/body problem seeps in. Keyers could distinguish each other by hearing, nay feeling their personal touch. Imposter agents were discovered just this way during wars. A different layer of information was riding the dits and dots. Another meta construction was to match the most used letters and combinations with the simplest strokes, saving untold millions of taps. We did just the reverse with the Qwerty keyboard, designed to maximize the finger distance across keys to stop the hammers jamming. Now the mechanical is gone, but we cling to the past. Some people imagine, out of some odd sentiment, that this is only an urban legend of evil intent. The engineering strategy was to relieve the propensity to jam hammers, not to foist off a bad design. Now, that safeguard is no longer useful.
Mr. Gleick achieves fresh and deep insight by not looking at the past merely in terms of the present, e.g. a horse is a car without tires. Historians fall into this error; politicians do it to disinform, distort and distract. Instead, he trots out the great and forgotten Fr. Ong, S.J. along with Marshall Mcluhan to testify how those involved in the creation thought and wished. And he is guru enough (slayer of darkness) to describe the spread of alphabet as viral: "The alphabet spread by contagion." Brilliant illumination.
As he traces these metamorphoses, it is the meta layer that he focuses his beam upon. He shows us the how of building the philosophy and the technology of abstraction. One of the oldest recordings I have heard is of oral tradition poetry, an epic recited from memory thousands of lines long. The integrity of the replication was achieved partially from phrasing (wine dark sea) but mostly from sound itself, tone and meter. It was fast, driving and percussive, the antithesis of beat culture café recitation. Clay tablets, papyrus and parchment were a long way off to serve as a new abstraction of meaning from sound. Ever hear somebody babble that pseudo distinction "written AND verbal" ? They mean written and spoken. The distinction opposing verbal is symbolic, not written. When you confuse, you lose.
We tour the interplay of symbol, alphabet and counting marks into words, logic and mathematics. Mr. Gleick has just the right touch of detail to let us touch and feel, to play with his revelations, not just gliding over them, assuming we get it. We spend that extra minute on each example, like having a little Newton on our shoulder.
This book is not simply a history. I learned some history, but as a side dish. It is about, as the title says so neatly, The Information. One of the meta threads traced is the interplay of information with sheer physicality. The drums - their constituent materials and their medium produce together sound waves. Yet the same physicality that propels this information also exhausts it in volume, frequency and distance. Then it is a convergence of succeeding waves that moves forward. Babbage's calculating machine (he a charter member of the Philosophical Breakfast Club) propels by wheels, gears and cranks until the limits of brass are exhausted. We meet Lady Augusta Ada Byron King, Countess (what a natural pun about numbers) Lovelace. She is another almost forgotten genius of information, immortalized at least by programmers in their eponymous language, Ada.
So on to electricity. Mr. Gleick treats telegraph, telephone and television all as stepping stones leading us into the flood, as his subtitle suggests. Even now we are bumping up against the limits of electricity in speed and heat, at least in the materials that shape and carry it through chips and wires. When ENIAC first needed chilled water to cool its vacuum tubes we knew new limits. Whither computing? Organic computers. Physicality again. The quantum computer.
Concurrently we pursue the self correcting system and the self adapting system. As Turing asked nobody in particular, "Can machines think?" Now we hit new limits of the logical kind. Godel and his incompleteness theory snarl new knots. We are quoted Watson "Thought interferes with the probability of events, and, in the long run, with entropy." Salvation is thus yoked to damnation and I think Gleick is Faust.
Break your head on this brave book. Find your limits, as Einstein told us to do, so that we may thus overcome them. In a world of swirling negatives, find some informative energy and bathe in endorphins.
For those of you who appreciate a well made book, this one is set in a lovely and effect variant of Garamond of the 16th century, in turn based upon the Venetian models as published by Geoffrey Torey. This font is made modern as "Adobe Garamond" by Robert Simbach. Everything old is new again.
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Showing 1-10 of 42 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Feb 16, 2011 4:47:51 PM PST
This is a superb review with incisive comments regarding some of the current crop of "science" writers. Gleick is one of the rare ones whose only interest is the increase of knowledge: his own as well as the readers. As you say, his books on Feynman, Chaos (and his book on Newton) are important milestones.
In reply to an earlier post on Feb 16, 2011 5:17:15 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 16, 2011 5:28:38 PM PST
I so much appreciate you stopping by Mike as you are one of the best reviewers on Amazon. You made my day.
I did mention his tome on Newton, if only parenthetically.
In reply to an earlier post on Feb 16, 2011 6:57:10 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 16, 2011 9:30:28 PM PST
Thanks. I'm reading this book now and I'm supposed to review it but I will never approach the excellence of this review. Nice one!!
In reply to an earlier post on Feb 16, 2011 8:28:03 PM PST
You get a Helpful Vote for the 1% joke in your review title. : )
Posted on Feb 16, 2011 9:14:05 PM PST
Jennifer Cameron-Smith says:
I enjoyed your review very much. Thanks for sharing.
In reply to an earlier post on Feb 24, 2011 8:48:05 AM PST
Giordano Bruno says:
Curses! Sold again! Another book on Mount Readmore.
But I wonder if the book will be as sly and stylish as the review ....
In reply to an earlier post on Feb 24, 2011 9:33:44 AM PST
It will be richly informative but not as stylish. Worth reading, nevertheless.
Posted on Feb 26, 2011 7:23:17 PM PST
H. Schneider says:
cursed be the Essigmann for adding to my troubles (for similar reaction see Meister Braun above)
Posted on Feb 27, 2011 4:04:18 PM PST
Judy K. Polhemus says:
In a word: Wow! (to the book and the review) You are the Poet-Philosopher-Bard of our Club.
Posted on Mar 7, 2011 7:32:57 PM PST
Martin Zook says:
>So on to electricity. Mr. Gleick treats telegraph, telephone and television all as stepping stones leading us into the flood, as his subtitle suggests.
How does he stack up in contrast to McLuhan?