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The 411 On The 411

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June 18, 2011
A Look At | Technology
Michael Schubach - michaelschubach@mac.com

Gentle reader, is it vaguely possible that pulsing of electrical current has altered the sweet gentility, the lush excesses and the soulful rhythmic flow of a lofty language that was once the hallmark of the industriously well read and the exceptionally well bred?  Yeah, seems so. 

This is one of the tidbits of information from a compendium of information on the subject of information by James Gleick, entitled The Information:  A History, A Theory, A Flood (March 2011, Pantheon Books).  As one might suspect from the title, there’s information in it – a lot.  My first exposure to the book was a recent radio interview with the author.  Political correctness and fear of perceived bias forbid me from disclosing the interview source, but I feel that members of the National Public would likely recognize the Radio station if I were to name it.  The interview focused on the pioneers of the last 200 years and their groundbreaking theories of information processing and transmission, from Babbage’s differential engine through the telegraph and telephone.  Based on my listening experience, I assumed the book’s past was going to be the recent past and the information was all going to be from the modern era.  The book, however, begins slightly earlier – about 50 centuries earlier.  Gleick starts with cuneiform, the first written language, and progresses through hieroglyphs and onward through semaphores, African talking drums and every other conceivable method of passing a message from one entity to the next.  Clearly, this book is a profound read.  

In defining information, Mr. Gleick is an all-embracing generalist; I think it would be fair to summarize his view of information as content.  But as you might expect, it’s not that easy.  Take one example that Gleick provides: music certainly has form, structure and impact – undoubtedly content – information that is definitely communicated.  But what is music exactly?  Is a composition the notes that are written on the pages of the score?  Is it the process of using voice and instruments to push air waves around?  Is it the experience of listening?  Is it the impression it creates?  Is it all of that?   

From the communications perspective, Gleick confirms what I always thought was the whole point – these processes exist so that one person can put thoughts into someone else’s brain.  Passing information is our best shot at immortality – by committing one’s own information to some accessible format is the way those far removed in time or space speak to us, and the way we will speak to those who follow us.  In analyzing the informational phenomenon, Gleick goes to great social, scientific and academic lengths to be far more specific, parsing every aspect of every transaction.  He differentiates the meanings of letters, words, languages, symbols, codes and every conceivable combination thereof.  Then the mathematicians come at the entire process from the log of the square of the hypotenuse, painfully reminding me why I never majored in science or engineering, but nonetheless dazzling me with the profundity of their thoughts.     Some of my favorite moments to mention:

• It is the invention of written language that made the study of logic possible.  It was not until humankind could record a thought that we were capable of analyzing (and, more to the point, remembering) it. 

• The modern style of to-the-point communicational brevity is largely an outgrowth of the telegram’s cost-per-word pricing structure. Yes, English today is less florid and less erudite as a result of dots and dashes.

• In 1852 a “knowledgeable authority” declared the concept of a trans-Atlantic cable as utterly impracticable and absurd.  Six years later it was in place and carrying regular telegraphic traffic.  With this single revolutionary advancement, the communication time from Europe to America dropped from days to seconds.  With the telegraph, it was possible for one person to communicate instantaneously with another who was not within eyesight or earshot of the other for the first time in human history.  
• After those instantaneous transcontinental conversations started to take place, new concepts began to dawn on the participants.  For people who had never communicated across what would become time zones, they began to get a sense of differing local times.  The general population understood the concepts of dawn and dusk; they just didn’t realize they weren’t happening simultaneously around the globe.  Not far behind that concept was the idea that weather was another localized event with global implications; what was here today was there tomorrow. The forecast was born.  

• Telephones were originally sold in pairs, to be connected directly to each other, because the working business model was that you knew what the one other location you were going to call was before you went to the phone store.  The whole notion of someone calling someone else who also happened to have a telephone installed wasn’t even considered until well into telephony deployment. All of that was eventually made possible by the introduction of phone switches, operators, and finally, telephone numbers.

• Another fun telephone fact: the metal tips on the original cord-board cables used to connect calls had a look that resembled the very popular jackknife. The common term for the plug on a telephone cord came into the language as a phone jack.

• A concept only an academic could love:  the better you understand a language the more predictable its content becomes and therefore the more redundant the information you transmit and receive.  For example, in English, a three-letter word ending in “u” is almost invariably “you,” making the “y” and the “o” unnecessary.  (See, those 12-year-old bullet typists are hip to these cutting-edge concepts.) Upshot:  if u cn rd ths, u dnt nd mor.

• Along those same lines, if I were to ask literate, English-speaking individuals to list any string of letters and spaces that would likely complete this string of letters and spaces: “to be or …” the majority of them would come up with the same “random” sequence.  Conclusion: once we are schooled in the language the patterns are no longer random and therefore great chunks of information can simply be ignored or discarded.  (Try this same test in Latin and see if it works as well.)

Perhaps most profoundly, Mr. Gleick’s scientists and philosophers explore what seems like a very logical extension– if there is coded content in the compression of sound waves and electrical impulses, could it be possible that we could find coded content in chemical interactions?  It seems that we have grown into that understanding as we’ve unraveled the mysteries of DNA, genetics and, yes, evolution. The process that so many disbelieve (or are insulted by) when considering a fully formed animal seems to make far more sense when one realizes that evolution is a simple survival imperative taking place at the cellular level.  Gleick contends that the coded content that makes everything living theme and variation possible is the “Information [that] has never been writ so small.  Here is scripture at angstrom scale, published where no one can see, the Book of Life in the eye of a needle.” 

I believe that Gleick and his associates have also solved the riddle of the chicken or the egg, and what came first was something that was almost a chicken that laid an egg that helped invent the chicken. What’s more, the book’s philosophers opine – perhaps tongue in cheek – that the chicken may be nothing more than a vehicle that enables the egg to reproduce itself.  Living creatures are not immortal but the genetic code and the imperative to propagate are. 

If the urge to survive is an inherent trait that goes right down to the cellular level, then it would follow that we could rightly pose the chicken/egg question about information.  If a chicken is a mechanism that enables egg survival, is it possible that the human mind is (merely) the medium that enables information to perpetuate itself?  Isn’t that backwards?  Perhaps not, contend the sages of this volume.  Conventional wisdom, clichés and old truisms survive despite anyone’s intention.  Thoughts and ideas form unbidden in our minds and new concepts can arrive on a bolt of lightning.  We don’t always set out to be brilliant – sometimes when it’s least expected, we suddenly are.  Is that the mind manufacturing the thought or the thought inhabiting the mind?  What if there is genetic information that becomes living thought – the intelligence of our species that belies what we learn as we hang around the planet?  I contented earlier that conveying information is our gateway to immortality. That may be because information is immortal element and we evolve by propagating it.  Passing information along is the imperative that we are here to obey and fulfill.  Those who do it well (or at least profoundly) are remembered beyond their time.  And perhaps now, by Gleick having implanted ideas into my mind and my having relayed them into yours, we all have obeyed the eternal order as information requires us to do. 

The Information:  A History, A Theory, A Flood is profound – perhaps at times too profound for mere mortals, but very much worth the read.  (It is also a splendid opportunity to bone up on your quantum mechanics, if that little item has somehow fallen off your to do list.) Be prepared to be surprised and amazed – and remember that you are here to serve your cellular self, so do what those little guys are telling you to do.                       

The well read and enlightened Michael Schubach is a regular contributor to Hospitality Upgrade and can be made available for Cliff note lectures on quantum mechanics. He can be reached for comment at michaelschubach@mac.com.

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