Thursday, September 28, 2017

On The Information

Jack White & Didley Bo
UNDER CONSTRUCTION - The Information by James Gleick starts with Claude Shannon and his 1948 paper, and that will be the centerpiece of the book. But the author quickly slides further back into time - back to when the European colonialists were first in encountering the talking drums of 'Dark Africa'.

[At times there are two trains running with this book. That is, one, the argument that the world changed when some essential elements of what is information were conceived (by Shannon) and, two, a history of culture as communication. My interest here is the former, but notes are included on the latter.]

[It might be worthwhile to cite Glieck's sources - the book is built in part on erudition he gained by research/reading.]

It seems some of the missionaries begin to transcribe the language of the drums they heard. I take it this was a culture without written word. The Europeans, some of them, were quick to make the connection between the talking drums and the telegraph. 

Mixing metaphors, if you will, they forwarded the notion of the Signal - the fact that there was something similar underlying very different elements - the drum and the telegraph. Well, in fact, the connection was known. After all, the armies of Napoleon and others used drums as a muster point for armies. The European battle drum message was simple, like a church bell, indicating ''time to go to church.'' while the African drums had more complex messages. Can extra nuance help ensure the gist is conveyed? Read on.


From the Vaults: Appreciation of Claude Shannon. 

It's about as hard now to imagine the world of the telegraph as it is to imagine the world of the cuneiform. IT was a distant technology even when I was a lad, although there were Western Union offices in most fair-sized towns. One found telegrams in parents' mementos trunks - and they appeared, read by comically droll Western Union delivery men or boys,  in the old movies -  STOP -  the old movies that filled up so much of the time on early TV - STOP - We knew that telegrams were clipped and sparse- their words precious. The sound of the telegram was the staccato dispatch. The sound of telecommunications was electric dits and dahs, 0's and 1's -- it was the variable length Morse (telegraphic) code and then the fixed-length Baudot and Murray (teletype) codes.

I think we're this go away is going is a discussion of the oral word versus the written word and the interpolation of mathematics and words (words representing meaning) (math representing meaning) .. funny but as I edit this (8-7-2017) I am spending my 'vacation day' writing about related topic of semantic technology - which in effect mixes words and numbers. And is in turn related in part to computational linguistics - the branch of linguistics in which the techniques of computer science are applied to the analysis and synthesis of language and speech.


Babbage's machine.
What is it that astonishes children in any given era changes in the details but sails on in the main.  For young harles Babbage it was mechanical marvels. His mother took him as boy to John Merlins mechanical museum in Hanover Square. Not without means, Babbage later purchased some of the pieces, including naked ballet figures, one he dutifully then clothed, at auction. He was a boy that could imagine an Erector Set long before Gilbert. Some of the chapter stories of The Information will be familiar. I had some knowledge of Babbage that is repeated here. His calculating engines set the stage for modern computing (by influencing Hollderith, at least), tho the machine works of his time were too imprecise for his machines to be built. But reprise was useful as some was new and even more was learned but forgotten.

He enumerated the many mechanical pieces from the index, the cog, the axle, the trigger, the hook, the claw, the spring to the ratchet wheel.

Babbage's great success was conceptual: to envision mechanisms that would "throw the power of thought into wheel-work." Like many of his era, Babbage was a polymath, interested in everything; what was different about him was his interest in both mathematics and the state of the art of machine tooling and industry. He wrote ' On the economy of machinery and manufactures'.   His analysis of pin production makes you think of later Time and Motion studies. His pursuit of the dual interests (math and machining) set a great amount of cross breeding into motion.

The meaning of this to The Information's larger story: calculation becomes ever more intrinsic to understanding. In Babbage's words "Calculation becomes continually more necessary at each step of our progress."  Then came Ada.

At the end, alas, what he had created was not an invention, but a curio. We may walk away from our encounter with Norbert Weiner with a similar impression.


p.216 Is where the Shannon part of the story reaches zenith - his theory of information. 

all this stuff is attached for me to a somewhat opaque shroud of time. funnily, when I met up with Shannon in 68 or 69 it was at Racine Public Library I will never leave in an investigation I would never finish, reading about alchemy but looking at the information technology of the day too, I'd guess in an effort to go back to a first principles time when science and humanism were more of a kind. in a mix of Renaissance and mystic middle ages, after reading Wayne McGuire's study of the Velvets, technology and violence.[Just this week, Sept 21, 2017, have been reintroduced to the War in Vietnam via Ken Burns PBS opus, including a discussion for "Hamlet measurement technology" mainframe era sociological statistics on war.']

Shannon noted he was using 'information' as term that was related to the word i everyday use, but which should not be confused with that p.219

At one point p222 inset quote has Shannon to say "the semantical aspects of communication are irrelevant to the engineering problem" - I wonder how that plays out in the present era, as a bro-ha-ha about technology generated fake news ensues.

Note.. Amping up signal over long hauls did not help - it created more noise. p223 oddly this is the feedback phenomena that gained most of Winter's attention - Shannon was interested in finding the signal and canceling the noise.

Instead of boosting power (TBC)

- Jack Vaughan

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