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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 Voyagers keep making new discoveries.Voyager 1 is beaming back data about the solar wind; it has reached a strange place, the “heliosheath,” a sort of solar bubble, described by Ed Stone, the chief project scientist, as “a sluggish, turbulent ring.” Stone and I were on Science Friday last week with Ira Flatow. Stone explained that the fairly weak transmitter on board, at its current distance of 11 billion miles, still manages to send information earthbound at a rate of 160 bits per second, which reminded Ira of his ancient 300-baud modem. It happens that Voyager makes a cameo appearance in The Information. That’s not because of any of its scientific discoveries but because it is carrying an outbound message—information from us (earthlings) to any faraway creatures …

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 a slip of paper in our desk drawer. So we forget them and call tech support. But they don’t want us to call tech support (expensive) so they give us a back door: a “security question.” If we can just tell them our mother’s maiden name … But anyone can find out our mother’s maiden name, so the security questions are getting tougher. And now we arrive at the problem. They are too tough for me. What was the name of your first pet? Do you mean my first serious pet, a beagle called Gibbs? Or the lizard I sometimes called Chameley (spelling unknown)? According to official government guidelines for authentication by federal financial institutions, this is an example of “shared secret” authentication. “Shared secrets (something …

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 page of his first great book, The Gutenberg Galaxy, printed in 1962. I quote these words in The Information because today, a half-century later, he seems to have been talking about our era, not his own. We are intensely self-conscious about the information age and feel ourselves to be experiencing confusions and indecisions. But for McLuhan it was the electric age, which meant, mainly, TV. That comes into delightful focus in an eight-minute snippet of video that can be seen in the archives of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, an interview with McLuhan titled The Global Village. It is 1960. We begin in an “appliance store.” The appliances appear to be mainly television sets and radios, but I can’t take my eyes off of the great black …

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 wanted to check its availability, so I fired up the Amazon app on my device, and this is what I saw:     A few thoughts flashed through my head, roughly in this order: I could save myself ten or fifteen keystrokes by scanning the barcode. I don’t have the barcode. If I had the barcode, I’d already have the book. Q. Where would I be, if I were shopping for a book and found the barcode handy? A. In a bookstore. I am aware, because booksellers have told me, that people sometimes go into bookstores, browse, chat with the expert staff, handle the merchandise, and scan a barcode to buy the book online before they’ve even departed the premises. This is not good. I don’t …

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 what lies ahead: Nineteen-fifty has come and gone. Have we arrived in the reading-machine future yet? Always fun to consult the oracle regarding the future of the book. If you have favorite prophecies, I’d love to hear them.

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 time on his wristwatch); one slouching in a white T-shirt; one with a cigarette in his left hand. Looking at the picture makes my heart pound. I never met any of them (they died in 1957, 1987, and 1984), but I recognize their faces. A Hungarian, an American, a Pole. They appear in at least three of my books (prominently or in passing). I don’t know who made the photograph or when (maybe a reader can tell me)—except that once you know who they are, you know exactly where they are and you know the date, or pretty close. There’s something awesome about a random glimpse into history. It’s just a point in spacetime. I’d give a lot to be a fly on the wall.

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 demonstrate. In a matter of seconds, you can see every place you’ve been:   This particular map isn’t me; it’s one of them. I suddenly feel a little queasy about showing everyone where I’ve been. Which is, of course, the point. They are Alasdair Allan, an astronomer at the University of Exeter, and Pete Warden, formerly of Apple and now living in Boulder. They happened to be collaborating on some projects for visualizing location data—for example, making maps of radiation levels in Japan—when one of them stumbled across a hidden

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 theory was born at Bell Labs; so was the transistor. Bell Labs scientists laid foundations for radio astronomy and the laser. When I first visited, in 1993, Arno Penzias was running the place as Chief Scientist; he was just one of the laboratory’s many winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics, for his discovery of the cosmic black-body radiation echoing across the universe from the Big Bang. Not many corporate research labs have ever operated with such far-sighted freedom from the bottom line. Now hardly any do. Claude Shannon did his great work in a cubbyhole in this 1900 building, the old New York headquarters, the Hudson River to the west, Greenwich Village to the east. That’s the High Line running through it. The building is …