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  • Richard-Feynman

    “You Are Old, Father Feynman”

    You write a book; time passes. Toward the end of Genius I quote a bit of doggerel by “a young friend” of Richard Feynman: You are old, Father Feynman … And your hair has turned visibly grey; And yet you keep tossing ideas around— At your age, a disgraceful display!...

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    Statutes Definition of Time Act

    Her Majesty Defines Time

    Removing doubts about the meaning of time is an ambitious goal, but not too ambitious for the Queen and Parliament of Britain in 1880. They enacted the "Statutes (Definition of Time) Act" to settle the matter once and for all. So now we know. Or do we?

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    robot-cello_jpg_600x1184_q85

    Bot or Not?

    Increasing numbers of Twitterers don’t even pretend to be human. Or worse, do pretend, when they are actually bots—tiny, skeletal, incapable robots, usually little more than a few crude lines of computer code. The scary thing is how easily we can be fooled.

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    Unknown-1

    For Sale: Magna Carta. Slightly Used.

    What is MagnaCarta worth? Exactly $21,321,000. We know because that’s what it fetched in a fair public auction at Sotheby’s in New York. Twenty-one million is, by far, the most ever paid for a page of text, and therein lies a paradox: Information is now cheaper than ever and...

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    Why Must an Author Twit?

    Howard Jacobson: "So that you can do our business for us. So that you can connect to your readers, tell them what you're writing, tell them where you're going to be speaking, tell them what you're reading, tell them what you're fucking eating."

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    March of time, arrow of time, time warp

    This is the kind of thing that’s buzzing through my head as I work on the next book. (It’s an N-gram, computed on the fly by Google here, from the contents of all the books they [in some cases illegally] scanned from libraries.) (Were you wondering about those “time...

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    Metaphors of Time: 1850

    Whilst pondering metaphors of time, I happened upon a novel published in 1850 with the title, The Mistake of a Life-Time: or, the Robber of the Rhine Valley. A Story of The Mysteries of the Shore, and The Vicissitudes of The Sea. The author, Waldo Howard, promised “a truthful...

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    OED information - old

    The OED Redefines “Information” Yet Again

    The entry for information in the Oxford English Dictionary always makes good reading. It’s substantial: close to 10,000 words long. I see it has changed again. The last time I looked, the Number One definition was “The imparting of incriminating knowledge.” Excellent! As far as I’m concerned, they could stop right there....

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    Wikipedia’s Women Problem (2013)

    There is consternation at Wikipedia over the discovery that hundreds of novelists who happen to be female were being systematically removed from the category “American novelists” and assigned to the category “American women novelists.” Amanda Filipacchi, whom I will call an American novelist despite her having been born in...

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    Total Noise Gets Louder

    Kids used to ask each other: If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears, does it make a sound? Now there’s a microphone in every tree and a loudspeaker on every branch, not to mention the video cameras, and we’ve entered the condition that David Foster...

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    Addendum: Libraries, Scholars, Words

    In discussing memes in The Information, I quoted Daniel Dennett’s clever remark that a scholar is just a library’s way of making another library. If I had read Austerlitz, W. G. Sebald’s great and final novel, I would have added this:   It struck me that the scholars, together with the...

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    Statue of Marcel Aymé

    Taking Daylight Saving Time to Extremes

    This is the weekend when the clocks do something—spring forward, it must be—and from now on Daylight Saving Time will always remind me of Marcel Aymé, born 111 years ago this month, a writer of “fantastic” stories, not much translated into English. I stumbled onto Aymé not via Twitter...

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    P.S. re preserving our species memory

    Having jotted the below item on Twitter and the Library of Congress, I belatedly rediscovered the following. Too easy to forget these things. From the wise and foresighted Steve Martin, 2008: [quote]I have learned that people are uploading their lives into cyberspace and am convinced that one day all...

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    tweet — Twitter is the mirage

    The Twitterverse Goes to the Library

    [also at the NYR Blog] “What food for speculation each person affords, as he writes his hurried epistle, dictated either by fear, or greed, or more powerful love!” —Andrew Wynter (1854)     For a brief time in the 1850s the telegraph companies of England and the United States...

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    Ada’s Birthday

    Ada Byron, later Countess of Lovelace, was born 197 years ago, 10 December 1815, so it’s safe to say that many bicentennial preparations are already getting under way. What an unusual sort of celebrity she has become, after nearly two centuries of total obscurity. Let us remember: she was...

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    Harald Bluetooth? Really?

    I wrote this—Inescapably Connected—eleven years ago. There was no such thing as “iPhone.” Bluetooth and Wi-Fi were barely coming into view. The “Network” was rising all around. We sipped information through straws that were about to become wormholes. Some of it has come true.

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    Meta Enough for You?

    For the Annals of Recursion. 1. In The Information (pages 408–409, for those who wish to follow along) I mention a poet named Thomas Freeman, who lived from approximately 1590 to 1630. I say he is “utterly forgotten” and add that he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry. I...

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    A Paradox? A Paradox!

    In his wonderful new book Zona (“A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room”) Geoff Dyer, who is interested—profoundly interested, I’d say—in the subject of boredom, mentions a voiceover remark that everything’s “hopelessly boring”: a remark that makes one wonder how quickly a film can become  boring. Which film...

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    Charles Babbage

    Babbage: a Birthday Postscript

    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...

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    The Flinging of Notes

    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,...

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    Una Macchina Automatica

    [quote]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...

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    Defining Information, Even More

    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...

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    Secret No More: Google and Power

    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...

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    Twitter Postscript: Earthquake!

    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...

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    Touching History: Addendum

    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...

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    Message in an Interstellar Bottle

    The Voyager spacecraft have been in the news lately, because their thirty-year journey has now taken them to something very like the edge of the Solar System. Of course, that’s something of an arbitrary boundary. It’s partly a matter of human-centered definition; and it has varied, too, because the...

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    Gone Obsolete: Your Mother’s Maiden Name

    [quote]Who’s there? Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself. Long live the King.[/quote] The business of challenge-response authentication used to be easier. They had swords; we have cryptography. Who’s better off? We have passwords, which must never be simple enough to remember and must not be written down on...

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    In an Appliance Store, 1960

    [quote]We are today as far into the electric age as the Elizabethans had advanced into the typographic and mechanical age. And we are experiencing the same confusions and indecisions which they had felt when living simultaneously in two contrasted forms of experience.[/quote] Marshall McLuhan wrote that on the first...

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    This Is Predation

    I’m a fairly heavy customer of Amazon.com (among other booksellers), and I even provide links on this site for people who want to buy my books there (or elsewhere). So I have nothing against Amazon per se. Last night an old half-forgotten book popped into my head, and I...

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    Remind me: how dead is the Book again?

    I’m meant to give a talk in Sydney called Perish the Thought, about the death (and/or resurrection) of the book, so I’ve been studying. Here’s a lovely eighty-year-old fragment of poetry on the subject, by one Bob Brown. It comes from his self-published book Words (1931). It’s a confident prediction of...

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    Glimpse of the Past

    I just found this photograph on my hard drive. I don’t know where it came from; I have no memory of seeing it before. It is a low-resolution image, grainy and shadowed. Three men on a bench: one wearing a suit and tie (you can almost make out the...

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    Your Whereabouts, Revealed

    A couple of British software engineers have just discovered that your iPhone (if, you know, you happen to have one) keeps a permanent detailed record of your movements. Whenever you sync your phone with a computer, the record goes there, too. They’ve written some quick and dirty software to...

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    Where Are They Now: Bell Labs

    [pullquote align=”right”] Claude Shannon’s managers were willing to leave him alone, even though they did not understand exactly what he was working on. AT&T at mid-century did not demand instant gratification from its research division. It allowed detours into mathematics or astrophysics with no apparent purpose. —The Information[/pullquote] Information...

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    Face Direction of Travel

    I’m just back from a short trip to England to talk about The Information. There was a lot of tweeting. For example, while I was speaking early one afternoon at the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, some in the audience were surreptitiously thumbing their...

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    Information is How We Know

    When Kevin Kelly interviewed me about The Information for Wired, he asked me to define the word, and I was unprepared. I did some hemming and hawing (which he mercifully omitted). I see it continues to trouble him. Others have asked me the same question, and I continue to hem...

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    The Google Books Settlement, R.I.P.

    Many people, including some I greatly respect, are gleeful about the demise of the arduously worked out settlement of the lawsuits brought by the Authors Guild and book publishers against Google. Not me. It certainly wasn’t perfect. It involved some messy compromises, as settlements tend to do. It couldn’t...

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    Ta! Ra! Ra! Boom De Yay!

    Poetry or doggerel? Oh, who cares. John Horgan has unearthed and now presents some verse written by Claude Shannon in 1981, at the height of the Rubik’s Cube craze. Shannon was, of course, the creator of what is now called information theory; he is the central figure in my...

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    Now Chaos Is “Enhanced”

    “Enhanced” is the word of the day for e-books. It strikes fear into the hearts of some authors, and maybe some readers, too. There is the question of hyperlinks. Let’s say my book begins this way: The police in the small town of Los Alamos, New Mexico, worried briefly...

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    The Information Age Is Older Than You Think

    Originally the “Iron Age” was the most modern of the three ages in question (Stone, Bronze, Iron). The illustration above, produced via Google’s “Ngram Viewer,” gives a rough sense of the changing cultural awareness of these arbitrary, fictional “Ages.” So, what about the Information Age? Several months ago I...

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    A Map of Science

    Here is a lovely thing. It is a map of the world (the United States to the northwest, Europe bright in the center, Asia to the east). To be more exact, it is a map of human communication. To be even more exact, it is a map of a...

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    Chaos: The Software keeps on ticking

    [Hoisted, as they say, from comments.] The incomparable Rudy Rucker reports that he’s got our twenty-year-old package, Chaos: The Software, running under platforms that include Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux. It’s a free download. It was the work of Rudy, Josh Gordon, and Autodesk’s brilliant founder, John Walker....

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    Art for the Mind’s Eye

    Is this art? I think so, accidental or not. As a byproduct of the deluge, data miners and graphic designers have brought a new burst of ingenuity to the problem of seeing the patterns—which is to say the meaning—in apparently senseless masses of information. The resulting images have a...

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    A meme joke from Steve Martin

    In his new novel, An Object of Beauty: “Paintings,” he said, “are Darwinian. They drift toward money for the same reason that toads drifted toward stereoscopic vision. Survival. If the masterpieces weren’t coveted, they would rot in basements and garbage heaps. So they make themselves necessary.” Come to think...

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    Annals of Food Writing

    I am listening in on the Key West Literary Seminar. This year’s topic: The Hungry Muse, all about food in literature. Poets and gourmands are waxing eloquent, and mouths are watering, and perversely it has all put me in mind of some culinary prose from W. H. Auden, reporting from...

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    Trademark Madness

    There are not enough names to go around. This is a fact about our crowded, information-rich world that should be clear enough by now. I spend a certain amount of time exploring it in The Information—not enough names, catchphrases, abbreviations, or for that matter book titles (apologies again to...

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    Clarissa

    I believe I could, with a little pains, have given them life and soul, and to every feature of their faces sparkling information. —Samuel Richardson (1748)

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    All the Words in All the Books

    A few years ago I was involved in the secret negotiations with Google over the lawsuit by authors who objected to the company’s unauthorized copying of our books onto their servers. (We reached a good settlement, pleasing all sides, but there have been some objections, and court approval remains...

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    forms for "information" through the centuries.

    The very word

    The word “information” has grown urgent and problematic—a signpost seen everywhere, freighted with new meaning and import. We hardly need the lexicographers of the Oxford English Dictionary to tell us that, but after all, this is what they live for. It is a word, they tell us, “exhibiting significant linguistic productivity,”...

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