The Information, A History, A Theory, A Flood by James Gleick (Vintage Books 2012, copyright 2011)
The Information is a 526-page tour de force account of the history of information technology. Gleick’s wide view of a set of people and events that are major factors in shaping our lives is impressive. An extraordinary group of mathematicians, biologists, and other scientists explored the idea that the world can be modeled and manipulated by considering the world as a collection of bits. Genes are bits. Thoughts are bits. Words are bits. The birds and the bees are bits. Spurred by the exigencies of World War II in areas like cryptography and communications issues, this group was really the nexus that ultimately produced computers, and new views of the world across a broad range of scientific disciplines from genetics and evolution to neuroscience and physics.
It doesn’t strike me as an easy story to tell. At a few points I had to resort to math reeducation before continuing. This is not just social history though the author is quite good at that, bringing the people who developed the theories to life, like Claude Shannon and many others. From Babbage to Gödel, as important as their ideas were, Gleick’s painterly touch, even when briefly applied, renders them as real people. And one of the bonuses of the author’s broad interests is that he sees all this history as a history of the culture as a whole, mostly European and American but he doesn’t ignore the rest of the world. He quotes Borges. Much is made of music. At least partly this is not so much a history of technology as it is a history of what it means to be human in the twenty-first century in light of the warp speed leaps of communication and information technology of the last two hundred years.
The Information includes 46 pages of notes not anchored in the text by footnotes but referring to quoted material in the text that’s then sampled next to the page number in Notes near the end of the book. Works pretty well in print, no idea how this works in ebook versions. Also includes a 26-page bibliography, an interesting sort of assortment including everything from Hobbes’ Leviathan to Stephen Hawking.
Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book, supposedly about “What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” is actually mostly about how technology is changing reading and about the decline of books and print in general, a natural enough interest for the journalist and author. It starts off personally with Carr explaining that his own reading experience was changing. “Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two.” I don’t think he’s talking about a boring book here (which The Shallows is not). He thinks his constant exposure to the Internet is making it more and more difficult to read analytically or thoughtfully.
This anecdotal Eureka bubbles up in the Prologue and the first two chapters of the book. The sooner that’s left behind the better. Then we start the grand tour, the plasticity of the brain, the interaction between tools and media and the brain, how the nature of the Internet rewards and reinforces short attention spans, Google’s view of the world, and an interesting chapter near the end on Memory (with case studies and citations).
Milosz died in 2004 in Krakow. He’d gone full circle, a least geographically speaking. Born in Lithuania in 1911, on the run during WWII in Warsaw, to Soviet era Poland, exiled again to Paris, and then to Berkeley, California in 1960 where he lived most of the rest of his life.
Buying a copy of Selected Poems 1931-2003 at Powell’s Books and hearing Robert Hass talk about him at a Seattle Arts and Lectures reading started me down the road to realizing what a great poet Milosz is. Most recently reading Facing the River (Ecco Press, 1995). It’s grounded in Milosz return to Lithuania fifty years after he left. The book like all Milosz’ work was written in Polish, translated in this case by the author and Robert Hass. What a great translation, just from the point of view of what great poems these are in English!
I have at various times subscribed to book clubs, record clubs, magazines, and newspapers. My current subscriptions include the latter two, a music streaming service, and a video learning service, but that’s basically it. Software subscription models, Adobe’s and Microsoft’s, have turned me to open source software and freeware because I don’t think the value proposition makes sense for software. You could call Internet, TV, or phone services a subscription but they’re in the utilities column of my spreadsheet.
And now books are offered as subscriptions by Scribd, Oyster, Amazon, and others, but, again, I just don’t see the value proposition. I read maybe five books a month, typically, sometimes ebooks but mostly print. I read novels (mostly sci-fi and “literary,” whatever that means), poetry, and non-fiction of various kinds, mainly history and technology. I did a quick survey of Scribd and Oyster and found only half of the last ten books I’ve read. As usual with Amazon, who knows what’s available? You can Browse Kindle Unlimited but I see no way to search it.
Fobbit by David Abrams (Black Cat, a paperback original imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc., New York)
It’s particularly hard reading this book in the summer of 2014 two years after it was published. The disastrous events of the last few months in Iraq, the invasion of Iraq by extremists from Syria allied with various groups in Iraq, the inadequate response of the Iraqi government left behind by the American withdrawal, and the hesitant response of the rest of the world make it painful to hear that the American invasion of Iraq was a tragic mistake both for Americans and the Iraqis. The thing Abrams does admirably is bring that politically loaded assessment down to a visceral, tragicomic personal level through an assortment of characters, mainly support personnel (“fobbits” in the lingo of the war), who are less than endearing very real people.
American novelists, journalists, and poets at least since Stephen Crane have always been the most effective truth tellers about war. The most obvious comparison to Fobbit is Catch-22. One of the characters in Fobbit, Gooding, reads Catch-22 while on R&R in Dubai. The “chapters based on characters” approach is reminiscent of Heller’s book, and the mix of absurdity and blood and guts has similar effect to some extent. I suppose you could compare (spoiler alert) what happens to Snowden in the bomber with what happens to Shrinkle in the Aussie’s pool in Baghdad but this is no copycat novel.
The Tedeschi Trucks Band is a Cadillac of a rhythm and blues band. They’ve got dual chrome exhausts (two drummers), a big V8 engine (guitarist Derek Trucks), style and beauty (Susan Tedeschi), and all the accessories (a horn section, a keyboardist, and a second vocalist). At their Marymoor Park show in Redmond, Washington last week this was all on display but they just didn’t seem be hitting on all cylinders for much of the show. No doubt Derek Trucks really revved it up a few times and Susan Tedeschi’s encore presentation of John Prine’s great song “Angel from Montgomery” was tender and moving. They worked hard. There just wasn’t an edge to it.
You could say Jack McDevitt is a bit of an old school science fiction writer. Space is the place. Spaceships are the mode of transport. Larger than life heroes and heroines save the day in a future that cannot possibly be the outcome of today’s society, though that future reflects all sorts of extrapolations upon and imaginings of the ideas we hold dearest. In short, he’s a philosophical novelist. But wait! Not really. His characters fall in love, throw up, and bleed. They’re real people, not Hollywood set pieces.