BOOK REVIEW: The Information by James Gleick

The Information: A History, a Theory, a FloodThe Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Information is one of those topics that remains obscure not because it’s rare or hidden, but because it’s everywhere and the term is used for so many purposes it’s not thought of cohesively. It might seem like a book on this topic would be hopelessly boring by virtue of the fundamental meta-ness of the material. Instead, Gleick had a vast sea of topics and stories involving intense stakes for humanity from which to choose, e.g.: how did we learn to communicate and advance said capability until it was arguably the most important feature of our species, by what instructions are people “assembled,” might the most fundamental layer of reality be informational, and – in recent decades — will our species drown in flood of cheap information?

Given the vast sprawl of the subject matter, organization becomes a crucial question. In a sense the book is chronological, presenting humanity’s experience with information in more or less the order we came to think about the subject. I think this was a wise move as it starts from what most people think of when they think of information – i.e. language and its communication. That makes it easier to wrap one’s head around what comes later, and to see the conceptual commonalities. This approach might seem self-evident, but an argument could be made for starting with information as the word is used in Physics (as addressed in Ch. 7 – 9,) an argument that that approach is more fundamental and generically applicable, and while it might be both of those things, it wouldn’t be as easily intuitively grasped.

I found this book to be fascinating and easily followed — even though it covers some conceptually challenging topics, it does so in an approachable manner. It is over a decade old, but holds up well – though I think there is much more to say these days about the detrimental effects of information overload, a topic discussed at the end of the book. I recommend it for nonfiction readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Semiotics: A Graphic Guide by Paul Cobley

Introducing Semiotics: A Graphic Guide (Introducing...)Introducing Semiotics: A Graphic Guide by Paul Cobley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Semiotics is the study of how symbols and signs are used to represent various things and actions in language and communication. This brief guide traces the subject from its origins with Saussure and Pierce (late 19th century) to the present day. It’s not a well-known discipline and overlaps with others (e.g. information science, linguistics, etc.) so as to further obscure it’s boundaries. It’s generally considered a sub-discipline of philosophy.

I’ve read several titles in this series. This one had the fewest and longest chapters – i.e. most of these books have sections that are only a page or two long, but here the sections were generally several pages long. The book looks at differences between American and Soviet approaches as well as discussing the Prague School and the influence of prominent philosophers on the subject.

I felt that I learned something about this obscure subject, though – I must admit – knowing so little of it, I can’t say that I would have recognized if there were any glaring oversights or mistakes in the book. As should be expected of such a concise introductory guide, it’s readable and not difficult to follow. However, it can be dry; though I suspect that’s difficult to avoid, given the subject matter.


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BOOK REVIEW: Nature is Never Silent by Madlen Ziege

Nature Is Never Silent: how animals and plants communicate with each otherNature Is Never Silent: how animals and plants communicate with each other by Madlen Ziege
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: Hardcover out February 8, 2021 [e-book is out now]

The central premise of this book is that humans miss the tremendous amount of communication that is going on among and between other species. We miss it because we think of communication in an extremely limited way that revolves around visual and auditory expressions of human style languages. It doesn’t occur to us that different senses (e.g. smell) or other activities (e.g. stinging or passing gases,) could be used to convey messages as overt as, “Don’t touch me!” to as complex as, “There are good flowers to the southeast, roughly four-hundred meters along this line” or “Watch out! Some beetles have started chewing on my bark.”

While one might still dismiss all this communication as extremely simple compared to the infinitely complicated endeavor humans have made communicating, it’s not all just warning signaling. Many species engage in a form of communication that most people would probably attribute to humanity alone, specifically, deception. There are female fireflies who cannot only send a mating signal to males of her species to engage in reproduction, but can send counterfeit signals of other species to attract a male of another species of which she can make a snack.

It’s also important to note that it’s not just the species most similar to us who communicate. There are chapters devoted to both unicellular creatures and plants, species that one might be surprised to learn are quite active communicators.

I found this to be a highly thought-provoking book for the nature-lover, and I’d recommend it for anyone who wants to expand his or her horizons with respect to what is being transmitted in the natural world on those cold and quiet days when it seems like not a creature is stirring, and yet there’s always something.

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TODAY’S RANT: Invisible Conversants

Proposed addition

Proposed addition

A few years back, I was leaving an office building when I saw a man ranting full-bore. He was gesticulating wildly, delivering karate chops to the air with vicious intent, pulling at his hair. What was even more disconcerting was the potty mouth on this guy; he weaved together a chain of expletives that would make a mafia don blush. Yet, I could recognize his words as one half of a conversation, though there was no one else to be seen. He would pause and respond, and I could vaguely imagine what the invisible conversant would have said to invoke such a response.

I, of course, concluded that this poor soul should be committed to an asylum.  I was wondering if I should call the guys with the straight jackets to bring their rubber-lined van when the man swung around to pace the pavement in the other direction and I saw the BlueTooth headset clinging to the side of his head.

I then realized that this man was not certifiable.  He was just a rude douche-bag with a bad temper.

In the good old days, when someone was talking to an invisible conversant, you knew that they had an imaginary friend speaking in their ear. While this didn’t necessarily make them a danger, it did put one on notice that voice in their head might just be saying, “Get stabby.”

Today, I think we are being desensitized by miniature wireless headset technology. Now instead of assuming the someone chatting up an invisible conversant has gone around the bend, we assume that they are communicating with a real, live, flesh-and-blood person. This may be to our own peril.

What I’m suggesting is that Bluetooth headsets be made more conspicuous. They should be in bright neon colors, and should have a flag viewable by people from all directions. The flag would indicate that they aren’t hearing the voice of Beelzebub in their ear telling them to have a nice killing spree.

Just a suggestion.

It’s only going to get worse, when the first people start getting surgically grafted cell phones.