Saturday, May 13, 2017

On The Information

Jack White & Didley Bo
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 Erupean 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


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.


Babbage's machine.
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. 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.

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