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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. Of course, the relevant citations mostly came from early English law texts—Rolls of Parliament from the time of Edward IV, that kind of thing. Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England.

The objects of the other species of informations, filed by the master of the crown-office upon the complaint or relation of a private subject, are any gross and notorious misdemesnors, riots, batteries, libels, and other immoralities of an atrocious kind.

But no longer. This definition has been quietly demoted. Maybe the lexicographers thought it was too quaint. Now the Number One definition of information is “The imparting of knowledge in general.” I guess it’s hard to argue with that.

Many other important senses remain, of course. There’s the modern, scientific one, due to Claude Shannon (“a mathematically defined quantity divorced from any concept of news or meaning; spec. one which represents the degree of choice exercised in the selection or formation of one particular symbol, message, etc., out of a number of possible ones …”). And the sentimental favorite, the true and venerable meaning of the word, Number III.7: “The giving of form or essential character to something.” As in J. Sharpe, 1630:

The soule or spirit doth giue information, or operation to the whole body, and euery part thereof.

Never mind that it’s “Now rare.

Does this tinkering have a back story? I’ll try to find out.

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 Paris, set off a furor with an opinion piece on the New York Times website last week. Browsing on Wikipedia, she had suddenly noticed that women were vanishing from “American novelists”—starting, it seemed, in alphabetical order. In the A’s and the B’s, the list was now almost exclusively male:

I did more investigating and found other familiar names that had been switched from the ‘American Novelists’ to the ‘American Women Novelists’ category: Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ayn Rand, Ann Beattie, Djuna Barnes, Emily Barton, Jennifer Belle, Aimee Bender, Amy Bloom, Judy Blume, Alice Adams, Louisa May Alcott, V. C. Andrews, Mary Higgins Clark—and, upsetting to me: myself.

The word that came to mind—and the Times used it for the headline—was sexism.

And who could disagree? Joyce Carol Oates expressed her view on Twitter: “Wikipedia bias an accurate reflection of universal bias. All (male) writers are writers; a (woman) writer is a woman writer.” Elaine Showalter tweeted in response that this was not what she’d had in mind in titling a book A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers: “Wikipedia is cutting down on American writers category by taking women out of it! A new step backwards.”

At Wikipedia, all hell broke loose.
(Let’s pause here to flag the phrase, “at Wikipedia.” Wikipedia is a notional place only. It is not situated in a sleek California corporate campus, like Google in Mountain View or Apple in Cupertino, but instead distributed across cyberspace.)

This kind of thing is usually bruited and argued on Wikipedia’s

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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 Wallace called Total Noise: “the tsunami of available fact, context, and perspective.”

This week was a watershed for Total Noise. When terrible things happen, people naturally reach out for information, which used to mean turning on the television. The rewards (and I use the word in its Pavlovian sense) can be visceral and immediate, if you want to see more bombs explode or towers fall, and plenty of us do. But others are learning not to do that.

The Boston bombings, shootings, car chase, and manhunt found the ecosystem of information in a strange and unstable state: Twitter on the rise, cable TV in disarray, Internet vigilantes bleeding into the FBI’s staggeringly complex (and triumphant) crash program of forensic video analysis. If there ever was a dividing line between cyberspace and what we used to call the “real world,” it’s hard to see now.

more here

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 whole apparatus of the library, formed an immensely complex and constantly evolving creature which had to be fed with myriads of words, in order to bring forth myriads of words in its own turn.


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 nor word of mouth nor any of the Intertubes but browsing in a bookstore, the kind with tables, on which were displayed neat stacks of books lovingly chosen by the staff. I picked up a collection titled The Man Who Walked through Walls, put out by an independent London publisher, the Pushkin Press. The beautiful translation is by Sophie Lewis.

“Le passe-muraille,” monument to Marcel Aymé by Jean Marais

Aymé is the kind of writer who makes you think of Borges (but that’s too easy, of course; it’s almost worrisome how often I’m put in mind of Borges). “The Man Who Walked through Walls”—”Le passe-muraille“—is his most famous story, the referent for his monument in Montmartre.  The story that made me gasp with pleasure is the fourth, “The Problem of Summertime” (1943). For Americans, I think that should be “The Problem of Daylight Saving Time.” It’s about— well, never mind what it’s “about.” Let’s just say it expresses something about the nature of time that could not have been expressed, could not have been seen, until the invention of Daylight Saving Time (in French, l’heure d’été), along with time zones and the International Date Line and the other chronometric paraphernalia of modernity. The story is set in wartime. “At the height of the war, the warring powers’ attention was distracted by the problem of summertime, which it seemed had not been comprehensively examined. Already it was felt that no serious work had been carried out in this field and that, as often happens, human genius had allowed itself to be overruled by habit.”

How easily, the narrator remarks, time can be moved forward an hour or two! (His readers knew well that their German occupiers had just changed France’s time zone by decree.)

On reflection, nothing prevented its being moved forward by twelve or twenty-four hours, or indeed by any multiple of twenty-four. Little by little, the realisation spread that time was under man’s control. In every continent and in every country, the heads of state and their ministers began to consult philosophical treatises. In government meetings there was much talk of relative time, physiological time, subjective time and even compressible time. It became obvious that the notion of time, as our ancestors had transmitted it down the millennia, was in fact absurd claptrap.

So the authorities decide to do something dramatic. Never mind what. Something Borgesian. You could say that time travel occurs, if you construe the term time travel as broadly, as flexibly, as possible.



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 human knowledge and memory will exist on a suitable hard drive, which, for preservation, will be flung out of the solar system to orbit a galaxy far, far away.[/quote]

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 thought that they could (and should) preserve every message that passed through their wires. Millions of telegrams—in fireproof safes. Imagine the possibilities for history!

“Fancy some future Macaulay rummaging among such a store, and painting therefrom the salient features of the social and commercial life of England in the nineteenth century,”  wrote Andrew Wynter in 1854. (Wynter was what we would now call a popular-science writer; in his day job he practiced medicine, specializing in “lunatics.”) “What might not be gathered some day in the twenty-first century from a record of the correspondence of an entire people?”

Remind you of anything?

A room in the Library of Congress, 1897

The Library of Congress is now stockpiling the entire Twitterverse, or Tweetosphere, or whatever we’ll end up calling it—anyway, the corpus of all public tweets. There are a lot. The library embarked on this project in April 2010, when Jack Dorsey’s microblogging service was four years old, and four years of tweeting had produced 21 billion messages. Since then Twitter has grown, as these things do, and 21 billion tweets represents not much more than a month’s worth.

As of last month the library had received 170 billion—each one a 140-character capsule garbed in metadata with the who-when-where.

The library has attached itself to the firehose. A stream of information flows from 500 million registered twitterers (counting duplicates, dead people, parodies, Read More

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 forgotten.

Today she is the Google Doodle:


For basic introduction, BrainPOP has a nice little movie. A tweeter has just alerted me to an “indie-rock steampunk musical.”

And to mark the day, here’s one letter of hers, from my book. She was a young woman, newly married, and she went to see a model of the new “electric telegraph” in London,

& the only other person was a middle-aged gentleman who chose to behave as if I were the show [she wrote to her mother] which of course I thought was the most impudent and unpardonable.—I am sure he took me for a very young (& I suppose he thought rather handsome) governess. . . . He stopped as long as I did, & then followed me out.— I took care to look as aristocratic & as like a Countess as possible. . . . I must try & add a little age to my appearance. . . . I would go & see something everyday & I am sure London would never be exhausted.