Review: James Gleick’s “The Information”

Review of The Information by James Gleick (2011)

James Gleick jumped into my small circle of favorite authors this month. “The Information” reveals a hidden pattern, a signal to be discovered amid the noise of 21st-Century information overload. It tells the story of information technology’s rise through an elegant, though not overly-simplified, history of two things:

  • communication technology
  • information theory

The latter forms the book’s organizational thread. Information theory weaves through African talking drums, books, semaphore, telegraphs, wartime code-making and breaking, telephones, and finally the flood of digital platforms that now send information coursing through our lives. Like a bot crawling the web, this thread extends backward into the past and forward to the present. It makes its entry point is 1948, when an American engineer and theorist named Claude Shannon wrote a paper called “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” that coined the term bit as the fundamental unit for measuring information.

The book is a masterful synthesis of everything that led to this idea–the physics of Newton, the rise of the telegraph, the emergence of quantum mechanics and uncertainty in both physics and mathematics–and everything that flowed from it, which includes how we interpret DNA and RNA a la Dawkins’s “Selfish Gene.” Although the details of this history are scarcely relevant to the life I live, I couldn’t help but feel that knowing this history provides a cogent context for how we live today. In other words, it provides powerful insight.

For example, I’m more inspired to write this blog by knowing the larger context for its technology. I am adding this book to Jaron Lanier’s two, more-opinionated, books, “You Are Not a Gadget,” and “Who Owns the Future,” to my short list of indispensable guides for understanding IT — its humanistic potential and potential abuse. I’m sure that Gleick opposes Lanier about certain things such as the desirability of Wikipedia. Gleick is far less strident, though he quotes Lanier in “the Information,” and likely appreciates his perspective. He’s more on the sunny side of the street, whereas Lanier sees darkness in the “hive mind.”This makes “The Information” more of an uplifting read. At the same time, he doesn’t fall into the temptation that Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, does for internet triumphalism in his books.

A good example of this is the pros and cons Gleick sees in the idea of “the wisdom of crowds.” Humans indubitably benefit from crowd-sourced effort, but they are also indelibly individual. Gleick captures this well:

It remains difficult to know when and how much to trust the wisdom of crowds–the title of a 2004 book by James Surowiecki, to be distinguished from the madness of crowds as chronicled in 1841 by Charles Mackay, who declared that people “go mad in herds, while they recover their sense slowly, and one by one.” Crowds turn all to quickly into mobs, with their time-honored manifestations: manias, bubbles, lynch mobs, flash mobs, crusades, mass hysteria, herd mentality, goose-stepping, conformity, groupthink–all potentially magnified by network effects and studied under the rubric of information cascades. Collective judgment has appealing possibilities; collective self-deception and collective evil have already left a cataclysmic record. But knowledge in the network is different from group decision making based on copying and parroting. It seems to develop by accretion; it can give full weight to quirks and exceptions; the challenge is to recognize it and gain access to it.

Far from rah-rah cheerleading about the potential of IT and big data, Gleick’s perspective includes the pitfalls. “The Information” can stand shoulder to shoulder on a bookshelf alongside Nassim Taleb’s thorny “Incerto” triology, which includes Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan, and Antifragile, and Jaron Lanier’s contrarian works. He’s too smart to become a blind IT partisan/optimist, but it’s clear that he is an IT partisan and, ultimately, an optimist. He thinks that what humans have built is of tremendous value for those who can “recognize [knowledge] and gain access to it.”

Being able to harness “the information” is essential for humans. This ability is central to performing one of our fundamental tasks–perhaps the fundamental task–introducing and preserving order amid the universe’s entropy. This is part of what it means to be alive. In describing this purpose, Gleick is eloquent:

Not only to living things lessen the disorder in their environments; they are in themselves, their skeletons and their flesh, vesicles and membranes, shells and carapaces, leaves and blossoms, circulatory systems and metabolic pathways–miracles of pattern and structure, It sometimes seems as if curbing entropy is our quixotic purpose in this universe.

This observation lies at the heart of “The Information.” It is the signal, at least for me. I could not recommend a book more highly.

Soulless optimizing: the infuriating case of the two aisle seats

The ultimate aisle seat. (Photo from the Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

The ultimate aisle seat (from the Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

Optimize this. Life hack that. Is optimizing soulless when it turns a blind eye to other people?

Yesterday my family and I stood in the Southwest Airlines boarding lineup (in the A group, having checked in within mere seconds of the 24-hour check-in window opening). Immediately in front of us were a middle-aged couple who were perhaps a nanosecond quicker with their mouse click or smartphone swipe.

“Lets sit on two aisle seats across from each other,” said the woman. The man nodded.

Meanwhile I’m thinking that my family of three might not have a chance to sit together. Luckily there were plenty of seats at the back of the plane. The seats we grabbed ended up being right behind the optimizing couple.

“This is a full flight,” announced the flight attendant.

The woman spread open a copy of the New York Times. The man glanced at his Daniel Kahneman book. More people boarded the plane, shuffling toward the rear of the rapidly-filling cabin.

Eventually a couple of solo-riders grabbed window seats, which left middle seats next to both of the optimizers. These only filled up when the attendant announced “there are no more seats in the back. If you see a middle seat grab it.”

It either escaped the attention of of the optimizer couple that their actions had lousy consequences (friends far back in the check-in queue had to sit apart), or they just didn’t care.

My guess is they just didn’t care. These people seemed pretty smart–putting aside their callous seat choices (yes, I’m judging here. I know I’m far from perfect) . They spent the flight passing NYT and New Yorker articles back and forth. The man was reading Kahneman. Many of the articles seemed to be about optimizing, like “how to be happy,” and “how to raise successful children.”

I imagined the couple’s home: a mansion designed to provide each occupant (probably just them) maximum space and convenience. Same mental picture of their daily commutes.

Meanwhile, they aren’t sitting next to each other. Nor are the folks they displace. And the world is burning up because we consume so damn much, in an optimized way of course.

I’m into optimizing too, as all people probably should be. However, my hope is for a bit more objectivity about my surroundings and what other people are going through.

Southwest Airlines, a company with many fine merits, must know that their seating system sets up a kind of game theory among its riders. The couple I observed are participants in the “prisoners dilemma” that undercut their competition (otherwise known as fellow sovereign souls) in order to get ahead themselves.

I’m tagging this blog post under the category “life improvements,” but really this is about life improvement beyond life improvement. We’re flooded with content premised on life improvement. Time for a bit more awareness.

Like I said, I’m far from perfect. For example, I eat fish during a time of fishery collapses. I’m putting myself first all the time, just like this couple. They were just so damn rude it woke me up to what is going on.

“Easy Rider” Running

Image via Wikimedia Commons

By Dan Wilcock

Call this my “hippie running” post.

What does the 1969 film Easy Rider, which encapsulates the hippie era, have to do with running? It’s about time, man.

Wyatt and Billy the Kid (Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper) set out riding their choppers from LA to New Orleans. In the opening sequence, Wyatt takes off his wristwatch at a gas station and throws it away. Later in the film, Wyatt says “I’m hip about time…but I just gotta go.”

That’s pretty much how I feel about time when running. I’m hip about it, but I just gotta go.

We live in a biometric era, a time when our wearable technology can increasingly track our bodies’ performance, our heart rate, how many steps we take, how much we sleep, and, biggie-of-all-biggies for runners, how fast we go.

Wyatt’s character would likely agree with me about this: we lose something important when we watch the clock. Over long periods of time, we are just quantifying our own slow decline. PRs, I’m convinced, are good short-term motivators but long-term torture devices. Time is just one dimension of a run’s quality, and for me one of the least important.

Far better, I think, to run “free and easy”—to steal a line from Crosby*, Stills & Nash—outside of time’s constraint. With head up and ears free, I can notice the trees and gather energy from birdsong.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Rather than an easy rider, economists would probably label me a “free rider,” because I don’t pay for benefits I derive from most of my running friends who wear the high-tech Garmin watches that beep every mile. I’m not opposed to asking them how fast we’re going, or how far. I’m not a purist. My advantage is that I don’t care that much about time while running. Since I don’t own a watch, I’m not incentivized to start caring.

So what about competition? What about prepping for the big race? I’d be lying if I said I didn’t care about that. Time has motivated me in each marathon I’ve run. I’m not fast. My best time in a full marathon is 4 hrs 08 min. But here’s the twist: I’ve run my best marathons when I mostly forget about time and focus more on the energy of the crowd and how each ‘distance down and still feeling good’ is like money in the bank.

This hippie-like mentality was inspired in part, ironically, by a very competitive runner in his day: Jeff Galloway.

A bit more than a decade ago, when I first started running, I lucked out when my aunt’s brother-in-law recommended to me Galloway’s Book on Running. I picked up a copy, which influenced how I think about running ever since. Early in the book, Galloway gives an overview of distance running’s history. Running’s massive popularity, which incidentally began during the 60s/70s hippie era, came about in part due to the discovery of slowing down to cover longer distances. Later, Galloway defines the “runner” as someone who has evolved past the competitive stage and is motivated mostly by running’s intrinsic value.

Reading this book, I thought to myself, why not take the short route to enlightenment—go straight to runner: run slow for pleasure and physical benefit. I pride myself about not giving much of a damn about time. The relative who recommended the book to me also served as inspiration. He started entering the Marine Corps Marathon in his 60s and ran a couple of them pretty well. Here I was in my 20s, and I thought to myself, damn, I’m slouching. There must be something to this wise way of running.

Galloway is a major figure in the running world, mostly known for coaching running to take walk breaks early and often to obtain a better performance/time overall. He has good arguments for this. To return to the theme of time, I think the walk break point to how time is tricky. Everyone knows the story of the tortoise and the hare and how it ends. That’s not what tends to happen in marathons. My money is still on the Kenyans. But in terms of enjoying a marathon, I think tortoises can take pride in smoking a whole bunch of hares that need to walk the last five miles.

This is undoubtedly the ode of the middle-of-the-pack runner. If I were one of the Kenyans, I’d no doubt sing a different tune. But if you take away the reference point of competition, what does it matter anyway? Running is a simple joy. It takes work, but it’s much more exhilarating than staring at screens all day. I get paid to do that, so why not be free from screens—including the small kind that track pace and distance—in the off hours? Most people haven’t considered the question.

So why can’t more of us just be hippie runners? We live in a materialistic world. When Peter Fonda throws away that Rolex, he’s making a pretty strong anti-materialist statement. Most runners, particularly beginners, aren’t coming at the discipline from a position of strength. They may feel they are weak and need plenty of motivators such as Garmin watches and MP3 players. When I talk to someone who says “I can’t run without music,” I think to myself, “Really? Have you tried?” The running industrial complex is happy to sell thousands of dollars of gear per annum to such runners. And why not? Although I agree that buying some running gear is a good investment in terms of preventative medicine, I also wish more people would kick their watch to the curb and run like a hippie: more nature, more conversations, less biometrically-fueled ego.

Take my advice or leave it. It won’t make you faster, but it might bring you some peace and decades of running.

PS- for a great hippie anthem that references long distance running and fire breathing dragons, check out the Dead’s “Fire on the Mountain” below. Happy trails!

*David Crosby reportedly was the inspiration for Billy the Kid’s character.

The function of John le Carre’s novels

John le Carre (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

John le Carre (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

By Dan Wilcock

Mystery novels—according to a widely held theory—attract readers because the detective brings an off-kilter world into concordance.

John le Carré, whose espionage novels I admire, almost always brings the reader to the opposite end of the spectrum. The off-kilter world becomes even more discordant as suspense rises to its climax.

The function of his novels is revealing the discordant undertow of secret worlds. Instead of feeling better because order has been restored to the universe, I usually feel grateful that my life has nowhere near that level of complexity, intrigue, moral compromise, etc. They put life in perspective by presenting suffering best avoided.

For this reason I don’t think I could read a stack of le Carré books back to back, but every once in a while one of them hits the spot. Currently I’m reading The Tailor of Panama, which I’m enjoying. Beyond that there are five or six of his titles on my shelf that I haven’t read like The Russia House. I guess it will take some time to go through them. That way I can emerge for air, read something simpler, more conducive to everyday ethics.

One more thing about le Carré—I believe that reading his masterfully rendered dialogues makes me a better writer. Few turn a better, or more wickedly humorous, spoken phrase.

Bogle is the Best

This interview with Jack Bogle, produced by the Motely Fool, is a good introduction to one of America’s greatest citizens. Bogle created the first index fund  on New Year’s Eve, 1975. Since then the company he founded, Vanguard, has lived up to its moniker by proving that ultra-low-cost passive investing wins the loser’s game being played in the Wall Street casinos. I just finished reading Bogle’s Little Book of Common Sense Investing, which backs up his simple investing philosophy.

What I respect about Bogle is that he calls out the greed that robs average investors. He set up his company to be investor-oriented rather than profit oriented. The result is that everyone can be rewarded. The interview is great because it’s being conducted by a stock picker, Tom Gardner, who nonetheless lionizes Bogle the anti-stock-picker.

Watch the video, then read the book. You too will become a Boglehead.

The Mother of All Goals – Dropping to “Normal” Weight with StickK

 

By Dan Wilcock

Weight loss is a great American pastime, or perhaps a great American folly. Oceans of money are spent on it. Entire forests are cut down to publish guidebooks. The only times I’ve been fairly successful at it have been when I’m not particularly paying attention to it.

I set a goal for myself this week: drop enough weight to achieve normal BMI. I’m a 5’10” male, so that means 172 pounds. Right now I’m around 200, of which I’m not particularly proud. But there it is.

What makes me think I have a chance in hell of reaching weighing what I did when I entered college?

I’m going to nudge myself my using StickK, where I’ve created a commitment page and pledged to contribute $5 to charity each week I don’t meet my weight goal. The first few months of .5 pounds/week reduction targets probably won’t be that tough. I imagine that toward the end it will be a lot harder and I may need to cough up the cash.

Why aim at so-called “normal” weight when there are good reasons to be skeptical of BMI in the first place? Why try to be what Americans perceive as skinny when some studies suggest that being a little overweight is healthier over a lifetime? I agree with this skepticism. Muscle-bound people are sometimes considered obese using BMI since it’s such a crude measurement. Being a little overweight may be just the margin we need against wear and tear and the ravages of time.

All that being said, the goal and its attainment matter to me. Dropping to 172 would provide a lifetime benefit. Getting there will require setting a lot of new baselines from which to live—in terms of daily exercise (I love to run), nutrition, and sleep. I’m also fond of StickK’s methodology—setting up iterative real consequences over time for success or failure (your get to keep your money or fork it)—such that progress occurs in dripping drops. There’s a very popular social science book behind ideas like this called Nudge, which I recommend.

Failure is a real possibility, and I’m happy to pay for it. But, as I’ve written before here, archers aim high to hit distant targets. I’ll let you know how proximate to the mark I am as I go.

Have you tried using StickK or similar programs to meet a goal? Have you succeeded or failed? Drop a comment if you’d like.

Nice 4.5-mile Running Route in Rockville, MD

By Dan Wilcock

Anyone interested in finding a peaceful, woodsy running route with few course interruptions in Rockville, MD, should check out

this route

(link will open a map of the route in MapMyRun).

It’s a good training run because it balances inclines (there are four good hills long enough to feel a bit of burn), descents, and flatter areas, and because there are only three intersections where cars can cross the route. I run it all the time, and love it.

If Rockville Town Square is your point of reference, warm up from there by walking north on Washington Street (walk past Dawson’s Market from the square and turn right on Washington). When you get to the post office on the corner of Washington and Martins Lane, you are at the start point.

There are just a few turns on this 4.6ish-mile loop.

  1. From the start, run up and down the hill on Martins (which eventually turns into Nelson).
  2. Turn right on College Parkway (the beauty of this run is that it skirts a large wooded area, so it’s more peaceful than some other parts of Rockville. This turn is where you start running around the woods).
  3. Turn left on Yale and go all the way to the end. Just as you reach a wall of trees, you will see a trail heading to the right. Take this trail up to the Millennium Trail.
  4. Turn left on the Millennium Trail. There is a nice long downhill stretch here for cooling down. Then the trail begins to climb.
  5. Just before you get to a big bridge spanning I-270 (if you get to the bridge, you’ve gone too far), turn left where the trail forks into the Rockville Senior Center campus. You’ll see the Senior Center and a playground. There’s also a funky statue made of boulders and branches right where you turn.
  6. Turn left when you get to the Senior Center can run in front of it onto Carnation.
  7. Turn right on Aster Boulevard, one of the nicest residential streets in Rockville.
  8. At the end of Aster, turn left on Nelson, which will take you back to the start/finish.
  9. The end of the race has three good hills in succession. By now you are warmed up for them, and they are a great way to finish your workout.

Hope you enjoy it. Leave a comment if you do. If you know of an even better route, send me a link.