Babbage: a Birthday Postscript

Posted on 26 December 2011 by gleick

Charles Babbage was born 220 years ago today—Boxing Day. Here is a little addendum for Chapter 4 of The Information, which contains a joint mini biography of the brilliant and misunderstood Babbage and the  brilliant and doomed Ada Byron.

This is due to Sydney Padua, an artist (“animator and cartoonist,” she says) in London, who is perhaps as enamored of Charles and Ada (and surely as knowledgeable) as anyone I know. She has uncovered a gem of a memoir, which I had not seen before: a small book titled Sunny Memories, containing personal recollections of some celebrated characters, by “M.L.”—Mary Lloyd—published in London in 1880 by the Women’s Printing Society.

A few lovely tidbits:

  • Babbage, interested in the subject of “opinion, public or private, for or against individuals”—yet lacking access to Google, Facebook, and Twitter—”collected everything he could gather in print about himself, and pasted it in a large folio book, with the ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ in parallel columns …”
  • Late in his life, troubled by forgetfulness, he went visiting one day without his cards. “So he took a small brass cog-wheel out of his waistcoat pocket and scratched his name on it and left it for a card!”
  • He liked to tell people that his great invention, the Difference Engine (“or the Leviathan, as he called it”) would someday, if it could ever be finished, “analyze everything, and reduce everything to its first principles and so include future inventions, and in short almost supersede the human mind.”

“Oh, dear Babbage,” Sydney Padua says, “kindly, brilliant, and odd!”

Lloyd’s memoir can be found here, thanks to the Internet Archive. And Padua’s ongoing Babbage and Lovelace webcomic, here.

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The Flinging of Notes

Posted on 10 November 2011 by gleick

Anyone interested in the relations between men and women (or any number of other topics) can get great pleasure from the day-by-day online version of The Diary of Samuel Pepys. It’s a soap opera. Especially at this moment (9 November 1668)  and for the last few weeks (that is, 343 years ago).

If you’re not up to date, Sam’s wife caught him in flagrante with her 17-year-old maid, Deborah Willet. He wasn’t sure exactly how much she saw. At one point he confessed to the embracing but denied the kissing. Or the other way around.

In today’s episode, messages are exchanged:

Up, and I did by a little note which I flung to Deb. advise her that I did continue to deny that ever I kissed her, and so she might govern herself … and as I bid her returned me the note, flinging it to me in passing by. And so I abroad by coach …

The way my mind tends to ramble, what most fascinates me is the flinging of the note. This is the available technology for exchanging messages. No one is texting, “Need 2 C U, Deb!” I know, it’s obvious. But it’s not trivial.

When I was writing about Newton, I kept wanting to say: “By the way, dear reader, what if he’d had e-mail? What if he’d had a photocopier? For that matter, what if he’d had electric light?”

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Una Macchina Automatica

Posted on 7 October 2011 by gleick
Indirect and abstract by its very nature, the telephone now seemed to be the positive symbol of my own situation: a means of communication which prevented me  from communicating; an instrument of inspection which permitted of no precise information; an automatic machine, extremely easy to use, which nevertheless showed itself to be almost always capricious and untrustworthy.”

—Alberto Moravia, Boredom (1960)

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Defining Information, Even More

Posted on 2 October 2011 by gleick

Here is a scholarly paper that caught my eye. It appears in the latest issue of the journal Information; the title is “Naturalizing Information”; the author is Stanley N. Salthe, a professor emeritus of biology from Brooklyn College. It attempts to create a better-than-ever, all-purpose definition of “information.” A meta-definition, perhaps I should say. Let me just quote the opening sentences:

In this paper I forge a naturalistic, or naturalized, concept of information, by relating it to energy dissipative structures. This gives the concept a definable physical and material substrate.

The question “How do you define ‘information’?” is one that gives me the willies. I hear it often in the context of discussing my new book, The Information, which, after all, devotes 500+ pages to the subject. Sometimes I simply refer to the ultimate arbiter, the OED, which, however, requires 9,400 words to answer the question. Kevin Kelly, who put it to me during this interview, had an answer in mind already: Gregory Bateson’s famous phrase, “a difference which makes a difference.” Bateson, in turn, fashioned that clever epigram to encapsulate the mathematical definition created by Claude Shannon, the inventor of information theory. (What Bateson actually wrote was: “A difference which makes a difference is an idea. It is a ‘bit,’ a unit of information.”)

What makes it frustrating for me to define information (and the reason the OED needs to go on so long) is that the word is so important in such different realms, from the scientific to the everyday. These realms are bound at the hip. But the connections aren’t always obvious.

So Salthe tries to tie them up in a package—to make, as he says, a hierarchy of definitions: “The conceptual bases for this exercise will be nothing more than two commonly recognized definitions of information—Shannon’s, and Bateson’s—together with my own, thermodynamic, definition.” The thermodynamic definition, again following Shannon, involves entropy. “My perspective,” says Salthe, “is that the evident distance from thermodynamic equilibrium of our universe is a fact that contextualizes, and subsumes everything else.” (He adds, with air quotes, “Arguing that the ‘real’ definition of information is an amalgam of all three, I find it impossible to say in a single sentence what that definition is.” To which I want to say, welcome to my world.)

From there, it gets complicated. Very complicated: to give you an idea, here is an illustration. I urge the interested reader to download the full essay. Section 6 has a title that many will consider an understatement: “Interpretation: Information Can Generate Meaning.” That is, after all, why we care. The journey from information to meaning is what matters.


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Secret No More: Google and Power

Posted on 8 September 2011 by gleick

Just last month, in an essay for the New York Review, I wrote the following sentence about Google and secrecy:

None of these books can tell you how many search queries Google fields, how much electricity it consumes, how much storage capacity it owns, how many streets it has photographed, how much e-mail it stores; nor can you Google the answers, because Google values its privacy.

As of today, that’s out of date. Google has decided to reveal the answer to two of those questions. James Glanz reports in the New York Times that the company’s data centers worldwide consume just under 260 million watts of electricity and field something over a billion searches a day.

This works out (Google says) to about three-tenths of a watt-hour per search. Google had given out that per-search figure before, in hopes of quieting people who wildly estimated that a single search consumes as much energy as bringing half a kettle of water (however much that is) to boil, or running a 100-watt light bulb for an hour.

Now, 0.3 watt-hours isn’t nothing, but it isn’t much. It sounds worse in joules: about a thousand. You yourself, if you are doing nothing more strenuous than reading this item, dissipate that much energy every twenty seconds or so. Google points out (with considerable justice, in my opinion) that any one search has the potential to save vast amounts of energy—a gasoline-powered trip to the library, for example.

It may feel as though there’s something apples-and-orangish about all this. Energy and information. I hear an echo of something I noted in The Information: that at the dawn of the computer era, in 1949, John von Neumann came up with an estimate for the minimal amount of heat that must be dissipated “per elementary act of information, that is per elementary decision of a two-way alternative and per elementary transmittal of one unit of information.” It was a tiny number; he wrote it as kTln 2 joules per bit.

Oh, and by the way, von Neumann was wrong; Charles H. Bennett and Rolf Landauer have explained why. But energy and information are tightly bound. Of that, at least, there is no doubt.


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Twitter Postscript: Earthquake!

Posted on 23 August 2011 by gleick

Sitting at one’s desk in New York, one feels a tremor. Dreaming? Naturally one turns to cyberspace.

The U.S. Geological Survey is reporting an earthquake just moments ago, but it’s in Virginia. That’s 300 miles from here—impossible. Or is it?

The real-time seismograph from the Lamont-Doherty observatory is not responding. That in itself seems like a sign.

Then there’s Twitter. Sure enough! Markos says it’s 5.8 in the DC area. Aaron Stewart-Ahn says he felt it in Brooklyn. Irfon-Kim Ahmad says he felt it in Toronto. Colson Whitehead is right in there:

 Several of my followers respond to a query within minutes, including Ismet Berkan, in Turkish: “sen o kadar bilim kitabi yaz, sonra da bunu sor.” Andy Borowitz reassures his followers that Justin Bieber is unharmed. And Maria Popova sums up: “Yep. We’ve just had an earthquake. And tweets about it travel faster than seismic waves.”


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Why Am I on Twitter?

Posted on 22 August 2011 by gleick

I am not “on” Twitter—what a loathsome expression. Now and then I may be on time or on my way or on a roll or on the phone; I am fortunately not on crack or on the dole or on the rag or on the wagon. But I am not on Twitter (or Facebook or the Internet).

I do, however, use Twitter. Occasionally I dispatch tweets of my own, but mostly I just listen. I follow a small number of people. (Very small: less than .000001 percent of the people available to be followed. That’s an important fact about Twitter. No one can sample more than the minutest fraction; everyone is taking droplets of the ocean.)

Last night, for a few excited minutes, I was reminded of why. Something important was happening far away,  and I was able to check in, not on the reality, not on the facts, but on my tiny chosen slice of the global consciousness.

Tweets are not facts; they are not news. They are not to be trusted:

 The real news will come more slowly, from brave and talented reporters working for the few great news organizations still able to afford them—such as Kareem Fahim (in Tripoli yesterday) and David D. Kirkpatrick (in Zintan) for the New York Times. Yet, considering what passes for news on cable TV these days, it’s not totally silly to speak of getting one’s news from Twitter:

Some of the people I follow (my followees? my leaders?) are friends and acquaintances; some are just people I admire. At least two are imposters: one (Samuel Pepys) entirely faithful to the original; the other, not so much:

 The last time I relied this much on my Twitter feed was when the Murdochs pere & fils were testifying before Parliament. On such occasions one feels connected to others who care. I feel
Continue reading “Why Am I on Twitter?” »

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Touching History: Addendum

Posted on 17 July 2011 by gleick

In a little essay in The Times (which you can read here or there) I muse about the differences between the artifacts of history—the tangible, venerable manuscripts and notebooks and other touchstones—and their new digital counterparts. I try to push back against what I see as a little bit of sentimentalizing.

But nothing I say—and nothing I’m pushing back against—is as eloquent as a comment almost thirty years ago, long before the digitization began, by the great historian and biographer Richard Holmes. So let me just quote it here. It’s from his classic book Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer.

The past does retain a physical presence for the biographer—in landscapes, buildings, photographs, and above all the actual trace of handwriting on original letters or journals. Anything a hand has touched is for some reason peculiarly charged with personality—Thomas Hardy’s simple steel-tipped pens, each carved with a novel’s name; Shelley’s guitar, presented to Jane Williams; Balzac’s blue china coffee-pot … It is as if the act of repeated touching, especially in the process of daily work or creation, imparts a personal “virtue” to an inanimate object, gives it a fetichistic power in the anthropological sense, which is peculiarly impervious to the passage of time….

And then Holmes adds this wise caveat:

But this physical presence is none the less extremely deceptive. The material surfaces of life are continually breaking down, sloughing off, changing almost as fast as human skin.


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