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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.

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 would never have heard of Thomas Freeman myself, if Anthony Lane hadn’t happened to discover him in the course of reviewing Sir Charles Chadwyck-Healy’s English Poetry Full-Text Database for The New Yorker. That was seventeen years ago, in 1995. (I couldn’t read Lane’s hilarious piece on line when I was working on the book, but you can now, here:  “Byte Verse.”) Lane was making the point that the opportunity to read 165,000 poems by 1,250 poets spanning thirteen centuries on four compact discs priced at $51,000 might be considered a mixed blessing. He quoted this couplet by the aforementioned Freeman: Whoop, whoop, me thinkes I heare my Reader cry, Here is rime doggrell: I confesse it I. 2. From time to time, since the book was …

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 holds the record in that particular regard? And wouldn’t that film automatically qualify as exciting and fast-moving if it had been able to enfold the viewer so rapidly in the itchy blanket of tedium? A paradox. If a film becomes boring quickly enough—that’s interesting! It reminds me of something … but what? Oh, yes. The paradox of the Smallest Uninteresting Number. What is the smallest integer about which there is nothing interesting to say? I discuss this in The Information, in the chapter called “The Sense of Randomness”; you can see why there would be a connection between the admittedly not very scientific notion of “interest” and the possibly more significant notion of randomness. Does an uninteresting number have to be, in some sense, random? Sixteen is …

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 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. …

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, 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: [quote]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 … [/quote] The way my mind tends to ramble, what most fascinates me is the flinging of the note. …

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 itself to be almost always capricious and untrustworthy.”[/quote] —Alberto Moravia, Boredom (1960)

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 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, …