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The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood

"In the long run, history is the story of information becoming aware of itself."

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick - this was not an easy read for me, I spent more time on this book than on two before and two after (all of comparable volume) combined. And I am not exactly sure why. I guess it could be the style, the vocabulary, the depth and the breadth of the subject matter coverage, or all of these and few other things put together. 

But I feel like it was well worth the effort. The story flows smoothly from the talking drums of Africa to the world of oral culture; to the invention of scripts and alphabets; to evolution of languages, books, catalogs and dictionaries; to further developments of abstraction, symbolic logic, and mathematics; to the birth of computer science, communications theory, information theory, quantum theory, ...

I don't think I can right a review that will do this book justice. So, I would simply say - this is a great book and I recommend it highly. And here are a few selected quotes (in no particular order):
"DNA is the quintessential information molecule, the most advanced message processor at the cellular level - an alphabet and a code, 6 billion bits to form a human being."

“What lies at the heart of every living thing is not a fire, not warm breath, not a ‘spark of life’” - declares the evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins - “It is information, words, instructions.… If you want to understand life, don’t think about vibrant, throbbing gels and oozes, think about information technology.”

"Evolution itself embodies an ongoing exchange of information between organism and environment."

"The bit is a fundamental particle of a different sort: not just tiny but abstract - a binary digit, a flip-flop, a yes-or-no. It is insubstantial, yet as scientists finally come to understand information, they wonder whether it may be primary: more fundamental than matter itself. They suggest that the bit is the irreducible kernel and that information forms the very core of existence."

"When photons and electrons and other particles interact, what are they really doing? Exchanging bits, transmitting quantum states, processing information. The laws of physics are the algorithms. Every burning star, every silent nebula, every particle leaving its ghostly trace in a cloud chamber is an information processor. The universe computes its own destiny."

"The greatest gift of Prometheus to humanity was not fire after all: Numbers, too, chiefest of sciences, I invented for them, and the combining of letters, creative mother of the Muses’ arts, with which to hold all things in memory.”

"Chinese unifies an array of distinct spoken languages: people who cannot speak to one another can write to one another. It employs at least fifty thousand symbols, about six thousand commonly used and known to most literate Chinese."

"Greece had not needed the alphabet to create literature - a fact that scholars realized only grudgingly, beginning in the 1930s. That was when Milman Parry, a structural linguist who studied the living tradition of oral epic poetry in Bosnia and Herzegovina, proposed that the Iliad and the Odyssey not only could have been but must have been composed and sung without benefit of writing. The meter, the formulaic redundancy, in effect the very poetry of the great works served first and foremost to aid memory."

"There is no way to refute the world of primary orality. All you can do is walk away from it into literacy."

"Ambrose Bierce’s sardonic century-old definition: dictionary, a malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic."

"English peasants of the lower classes continued to breed cows, pigs, and oxen (Germanic words), but in the second millennium the upper classes dined on beef, pork, and mutton (French)."

"All but a few dozen of the six thousand languages spoken in the modern world, lacked an alphabet."

"And the possibility of alphabetical order arises only in languages possessing an alphabet: a discrete small symbol set with its own conventional sequence."

"Topical lists were thought provoking, imperfect, and creative. Alphabetical lists were mechanical, effective, and automatic. Considered alphabetically, words are no more than tokens, each placed in a slot. In effect they may as well be numbers."

"For names and attributes must be accommodated to the essence of things, and not the essence to the names, since things come first and names afterwards."

"What makes cyberspace different from all previous information technologies is its intermixing of scales from the largest to the smallest without prejudice, broadcasting to the millions, narrowcasting to groups, instant messaging one to one."

"We may say most aptly, that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves."

"A century had passed between Babbage’s Analytical Engine and Turing’s Universal Machine - a grand and unwieldy contraption and an elegant unreal abstraction."

"First law: The energy of the universe is constant. Second law: The entropy of the universe always increases. William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, imprinted the second law on the popular imagination by reveling in its bleakness: Although mechanical energy is indestructible - he declared in 1862 - there is a universal tendency to its dissipation, which produces gradual augmentation and diffusion of heat, cessation of motion, and exhaustion of potential energy through the material universe. The result of this would be a state of universal rest and death."

"Ideas have retained some of the properties of organisms. Like them, they tend to perpetuate their structure and to breed; they too can fuse, recombine, segregate their content; indeed they too can evolve, and in this evolution selection must surely play an important role."

"Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? Lewis Mumford, for example, restated it in 1970: Unfortunately, ‘information retrieving,’ however swift, is no substitute for discovering by direct personal inspection knowledge whose very existence one had possibly never been aware of, and following it at one’s own pace through the further ramification of relevant literature."

"Forgetting used to be a failing, a waste, a sign of senility. Now it takes effort. It may be as important as remembering."

"When information is cheap, attention becomes expensive."

"The birth of information theory came with its ruthless sacrifice of meaning - the very quality that gives information its value and its purpose."


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