The Information

It’s somewhat ironic that despite my Computer Science degree I didn’t hear a lot about Alan Turing until after college, reading Cryptonomicon. I’d heard the name, along with the other big names in computer science: Djikstra, Knuth, Kernighan and Ritchie, along with software deities like Gates and Jobs and Torvolds. Learning computer science was disconnected from history, much like math. You’d only hear a guy’s name if he was attached to a proof or an algorithm.

Much like math, there was an acknowledged naiveté of the history, as though it didn’t matter. Never mind the messy past where this stuff had been hashed out, now we had the proofs, the parts that were useful. Here’s to the future.

Information

I hadn’t heard the name Claude Shannon until picking up The Information, by James Gleick. Shannon was pretty much the American counterpart to Turing, laying the foundations of information theory during World War II. Instead of cracking codes, he was trying to optimize the trajectories of aircraft guns, or improve the fidelity of private communiques between the allies. After the war he went to work at Bell Labs, putting out unassuming white papers in the company journal that laid the ground work for the entire information age.

But before we get to Shannon, Gleick starts with a network of African villages that signal via complex drum rhythms. Using a set of two drums with differing timbres, they could rap out a message to a distant village – “come back home”, or “the raiders are attacking from the west”. The concept was similar to Morse code: using the repetition of simple discrete signals to build up a more complex message.

The book continues a journey through time, bouncing off different cultures that have utilized information, classified it into dictionaries, languages, character sets. One of the more fascinating was the “telegraph” during the age of Napoleon, where secret military orders were conveyed across the French countryside via a system of elaborate windmill arms.

He touches on Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, Victorian savants that very well could have ushered in a steampunk information age if given enough time and money. And then Shannon and Turning and all the others who, through the crucible of a world war, crafted the technology that now dominates our world.

One of the first big concepts was that pretty much anything (text, sound, pictures, concepts, etc) could be reduced to a long chain of binary numbers.

Turing discovered that a long chain of binary numbers could act as a code, and in turn compute other long chains of binary numbers. This was a Universal Turing Machine (UTM).

Similarly, Shannon discovered a formula to describe any long chain of numbers, for instance receiving it via a wire. The amount of information you receive is a function of how well you can predict the next value. Shannon called this Informational Entropy.

If you flip a coin, each flip is random, so you have no way to predict the next number. “HHTTHTTHTHHTH”. Randomness contained the maximum entropy = 1. Conversely, something like the English language was only 0.6. You could potentially predict the next letter in the sequence. “Ths cn be prvn by th fllwng sntnce”

This laid the foundation for things like compression and encryption – trading one set of numbers for another (via an algorithm) and yet maintaining the same amount of information.

The fascinating thing was the mathematical formula for Information Entropy and Thermodynamic Entropy were the same

.Formula

Thermodynamic Entropy is basically a measure of the potential to do “work”. The second law of thermodynamics says that entropy must always increase (hence, the ability to do work decreases).

Informational Entropy works the same way: as the amount of “noise” in the message increase, so too the entropy. A random message looks just like noise, and is at maximum entropy.

Into this whole thing steps Kurt Gödel, who basically throws a wrench in the gears of mathematics, science, and information theory. He says: “There is no perfect system. No matter what, any system will break down, usually when attempting to describe itself.” In physics, this was mirrored with the Uncertainty Principle of Quantum mechanics. In mathematics, incompleteness theorems. In computer science, the halting problem (a program running on a Universal Turning Machine cannot predict whether it will complete or run forever).

Given all these parallels between the operation of the fundamental particles (the physical world) and bits (the information world), some have theorized they are one and the same. The universe is an information system, or a Universal Turning machine (or perhaps we are simulations in a high-order turning machine, etc).

Just as algorithms “optimize” programs of UTM tape, what if atoms, molecules, proteins, and life itself are simply algorithmic optimizations of the information system of the universe? On and on up the chain: enzymes -> multi celled organisms -> conscious humans -> social structures and institutions -> abstract concepts like science and math -> theories of information, bending back upon itself in endless recursion.

It’s easy to take information theory for granted, stick it in a box of things that have given us some niceties of modern life: the internet and iPhones and telecommuting. But the idea that sits behind it is pretty fundamental, and isn’t limited to circuit boards or even electricity. Like Djikstra said: “Computer Science has as much to do with Computers as Astronomy has to do with Telescopes”.

Gleicks’ book is excellent – an entertaining journey through history, illustrated with colorful characters, the oddities of dead technologies, and complex topics explained lucidly. This book should be required reading for any citizen of the digital age.

Reading Roundup

David Foster Wallace – Pale King

It’s pretty depressing to think that Wallace was hacking away at this thing the last 10 years of his life, without success. Granted, there are some pretty impressive sections here (POV tales of oddball characters, ending up as tax processors in Peoria, IL), and hints of a cohesive whole (semi-sinister plots of shadowy bureaucratic overlords revamping the inner workings of the IRS…) But Wallace was never good at novelistic plotting – it always came off as cheesy and surreal (the wheelchair terrorist in Infinite Jest, etc). The best part of his writing is when he’s deep within the psyche of a character, usually on the verge of some sort of depressive breakdown. In this book, he’s seeking some sort of spiritual solace amidst all the paper-shuffling boredom. It’s tough to say if he ever found it, but there are glimpses of salvation hidden away, like a needle of meaning in the monumental haystack that is the US Tax Code.

James Michener – Chesapeake

This book was a monster, and I barely finished it before my maximum number of renewals was exhausted at the library. Michener was a beast with a pen. The book is less of a novel then a compendium of loosely connected short stories that are set along the Chesapeake Bay, spanning hundreds of years. Each story is wonderful on its own, but the real standouts are the tale of an American Privateer who battles English warships but eventually becomes a slaver for financial reasons; the tale of a slave kidnapped from the Congo, brought aboard the holds of that very ship, who organizes a revolt; and then a hundred years later, the descendants of those grand characters, hatching schemes to hunt geese and crabs on the quiet banks of the bay. I have family from the area, and every summer I’d spend some time on those waters, out on boats or lounging on docks. That juxtaposition is still there today – pulling in a muddy crab pot, watching the pelicans skim over the glistening water, as an aircraft carrier leaves its berth at Little Creek, bound for some grand conflict of our own age.

The Pursuit Of…

Last year I went to the Decatur book festival to hear Jonathan Franzen do a reading from his latest novel, Freedom. The guy had recently been on the cover of time magazine with the headline “Great American Novelist”, and had just been re-inaugurated to Oprah’s book club (despite pooh-poohing it 9 years earlier). Needless to say, the place was packed.

Since we’d arrived at the scheduled start time, and hadn’t camped out or been members of the small but influential Decatur literati, we ended up watching Franzen speak on video. He was congenial to his hosts, dressed like a college professor, and downplayed the humor in his text with a frowny nonchalance. At the time, I was somewhat dismissive of all the hype.

Note: Spoilers below

He read from a section early in the book about a woman named Patty Berglund. Patty’s a homemaker, the wife of Walter Berglund, the mother of two teenage children – Joey and Jessica, an upper middle class gentrifier of a St. Paul neighborhood. But Franzen read an early event that defined the rest of her life: her rape at a high school party. Patty’s mom is a politician, and her father an influential lawyer, and they both shrug it off, at first disbelieving, then offering craven workarounds – simply because the rapist is the son of an influential political donor. That one event sets up the big motifs for the rest of the book: sex, rationalization, and moral cowardice.

Patty eventually goes off to college on a basketball scholarship, where she meets roommates Walter and Richard. Richard is the one who catches her eye, a rebellious rocker (curiously described as a sexy Muammar al-Gaddafi). But it’s Walter, the nerdy, pale roommate who falls for her. Thus, the first of many love triangles.

The sentence-by-sentence writing isn’t that impressive at this stage of the book. It’s mostly functional, without any literary pyrotechnics or flashy metaphors. This can be explained away with that fact that these early chapters comprise Patty’s “autobiography”, and she describes herself as “dumber” than her parents and sisters. The prose can also be misleading, reading like a pulp novelization of a plot from Desperate Housewives, or some other chick lit (more on this later), narrowed in on Patty’s minute-by-minute feelings regarding her crazy friend Eliza, basketball games, and the two men in her life – Walter and Richard.

But Franzen is devilish in his approach. More than anything else, he’s trying to build the reader’s sympathy with Patty, since they’ll need it in strong doses later on. We see her let down and abandoned by her parents (the rape), her best friend, and even her crush Richard. Her basketball career ends in an unfortunate off-court encounter with black ice. The only one to nurse her back to health is Walter, the “good guy”, who’s kind and nerdy and nervous and has zero sex appeal. Patty ends up marrying him.

From there we skip ahead a number of years (early 2000s) to zoom in on Joey, who’s now a college freshman at UVA. Franzen’s true skill as a ventriloquist comes out, channeling a crude 19 year old guy with panache and hilarious results. Joey does the usual college freshman stuff – partying and socializing. His most pressing emotional issue is how to break off contact with his long-time high school girlfriend, Connie, despite her Siren-like appeal. He’s drawn away by his roommate’s sister, the gorgeous and snotty Jenna, and by pursuing her he ends up working with her dad, a pundit and neo-con hip-deep in defense contracts in the months leading up the Iraq war.

Walter also is trapped by questionable professional arrangements. He’s always been an environmentalist, and worked for the natural conservancy for years. But he catches his big break with a Texas oil billionaire wants to donate millions to create a wildlife reserve for the rare Cerulean warbler in rural West Virginia. The catch – coal companies get to strip mine the fossil fuels first. To complicate things, his secretary turns out to be a seductive and fawning young woman named Lalitha.

The pleasure of fiction is to see characters faced with trials and conflict, become emotionally invested in them, and then ride along they meet their fate, be it good or ill. In Freedom is the fate is mostly ill. Sex is a temptation too strong to overcome. Ethical problems (such as strip mining the Appalachians in order to save a single non-endangered bird, or shipping rusty truck parts to Iraq to fulfill a defense contract) are waved away either with utilitarian or selfish motives. And the large consequences are ignored when the personal pain becomes too great.

Walter is the one character who should stand above such moral compromise. He grew up in a home wracked by poverty and alcoholism, yet he studied and put himself through school to become a lawyer, all while running the family business and caring for his aging parents. He’s the same self-sacrificing person as a young husband and father. But when we finally “zoom-in” to the minutiae of his life and thoughts, we see that a rage possesses him. He’s constantly repeating facts about the doomed environment, global warming, an impending Malthusian crisis. And yet he joins forces with an oil baron and Big Coal. His exact reasoning isn’t clear-cut, and he does a lot of rationalization: if the populace is too stubborn, and the government too ineffectual, maybe the only chance for conservationism is cutting deals with eccentric billionaire philanthropists? Richard, always thinking with his gonads, suggests that it’s all Lalitha.

From a literature standpoint, Franzen is pretty skilled at mirroring all the character’s turmoil on top of one another, so mother and son share a similar guilt re: love triangles, and the various ethical dilemmas are like fractals. And the hyper-introspection is well-paced, so our emotions can match those of our protagonist-of-the-moment. But many good novels have done these things, and done them with more powerful prose, more heroic and empathetic characters, historical events of greater importance (At one point, Patty’s reads War and Peace, perhaps an allusion to that ambitious goal). Why is Freedom so hyped, here and now?

I’m of the mind that the educated left-leaning literature critics have been waiting for that perfect novel that would sum up all that was wrong with the Bush years, and they would praise it and shoot it to the forefront of the zeitgeist wave, and the book would make millions. But not only that, the ideas in the novel would become canonical and ensconce their current opinions for future literary readers.

Freedom fit the bill not just because of Walter’s angry granola rants, and Joey’s misadventures with war profiteering. Rationalization and moral cowardice is the deeper ill that’s decimated both private and public American institutions. The weakness of Patty, Walter, Richard and Joey are stand-ins for the American public who’ve made the choice (subconscious or not) to take the easy road.

Which leads us back to the title. Freedom. It’s not just part of America’s immigrant heritage, but our legal charter as well.

But what does freedom truly mean? If we are free, does it mean we can ignore the influence of our families, the past events of our life, our current emotions and hormones? Or are we slave to those forces? Do we break those chains by destroying the family (via adultery) or our institutions (via corruption), and prove our freedom?

Franzen (or perhaps the smug voice that overrides all four POV characters), is saying just that – freedom is a destructive force. Richard, without ties to anyone, is probably the character most free, and the most adjusted to that freedom, and yet he hovers on the edge of suicide and substance abuse. That’s the question posed by the novel, and the big idea that elevates it beyond pulp soap opera. Will the opening lines of our American story – “Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness…” – be the very ones that foresee our end?