‘The Information’ by James Gleick – Book Review by Janet Maslin | New York Times

‘The Information’ by James Gleick - Review (nytimes.com)
“The Information,” by James Gleick, is to the nature, history and significance of data what the beach is to sand.

This book is assuredly going to have to skip up to the top of my current reading list.

“The Information” is so ambitious, illuminating and sexily theoretical that it will amount to aspirational reading for many of those who have the mettle to tackle it. Don’t make the mistake of reading it quickly. Imagine luxuriating on a Wi-Fi-equipped desert island with Mr. Gleick’s book, a search engine and no distractions. “The Information” is to the nature, history and significance of data what the beach is to sand.

In this relaxed setting, take the time to differentiate among the Brownian (motion), Bodleian (library) and Boolean (logic) while following Mr. Gleick’s version of what Einstein called “spukhafte Fernwirkung,” or “spooky action at a distance.” Einstein wasn’t precise about what this meant, and Mr. Gleick isn’t always precise either. His ambitions for this book are diffuse and far flung, to the point where providing a thumbnail description of “The Information” is impossible.

So this book’s prologue is its most slippery section. It does not exactly outline a unifying thesis. Instead it hints at the amalgam of logic, philosophy, linguistics, research, appraisal and anecdotal wisdom that will follow. If Mr. Gleick has one overriding goal it is to provide an animated history of scientific progress, specifically the progress of the technology that allows information to be recorded, transmitted and analyzed. This study’s range extends from communication by drumbeat to cognitive assault by e-mail.

As an illustration of Mr. Gleick’s versatility, consider what he has to say about the telegraph. He describes the mechanical key that made telegraphic transmission possible; the compression of language that this new medium encouraged; that it literally was a medium, a midway point between fully verbal messages and coded ones; the damaging effect its forced brevity had on civility; the confusion it created as to what a message actually was (could a mother send her son a dish of sauerkraut?) and the new conceptual thinking that it helped implement. The weather, which had been understood on a place-by-place basis, was suddenly much more than a collection of local events.

Beyond all this Mr. Gleick’s telegraph chapter, titled “A Nervous System for the Earth,” finds time to consider the kind of binary code that began to make sense in the telegraph era. It examines the way letters came to treated like numbers, the way systems of ciphers emerged. It cites the various uses to which ciphers might be put by businessmen, governments or fiction writers (Lewis Carroll, Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe). Most of all it shows how this phase of communication anticipated the immense complexities of our own information age.

Although “The Information” unfolds in a roughly chronological way, Mr. Gleick is no slave to linearity. He freely embarks on colorful digressions. Some are included just for the sake of introducing the great eccentrics whose seemingly marginal inventions would prove to be prophetic. Like Richard Holmes’s “Age of Wonder” this book invests scientists with big, eccentric personalities. Augusta Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron, may have been spectacularly arrogant about what she called “my immense reasoning faculties,” claiming that her brain was “something more than merely mortal.” But her contribution to the writing of algorithms can, in the right geeky circles, be mentioned in the same breath as her father’s contribution to poetry.

The segments of “The Information” vary in levels of difficulty. Grappling with entropy, randomness and quantum teleportation is the price of enjoying Mr. Gleick’s simple, entertaining riffs on the Oxford English Dictionary’s methodology, which has yielded 30-odd spellings of “mackerel” and an enchantingly tongue-tied definition of “bada-bing” and on the cyber-battles waged via Wikipedia. (As he notes, there are people who have bothered to fight over Wikipedia’s use of the word “cute” to accompany a picture of a young polar bear.) That Amazon boasts of being able to download a book called “Data Smog” in less than a minute does not escape his keen sense of the absurd.

As it traces our route to information overload, “The Information” pays tribute to the places that made it possible. He cites and honors the great cogitation hives of yore. In addition to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., the Mount Rushmore of theoretical science, he acknowledges the achievements of corporate facilities like Bell Labs and I.B.M.’s Watson Research Center in the halcyon days when many innovations had not found practical applications and progress was its own reward.

“The Information” also lauds the heroics of mathematicians, physicists and computer pioneers like Claude Shannon, who is revered in the computer-science realm for his information theory but not yet treated as a subject for full-length, mainstream biography. Mr. Shannon’s interest in circuitry using “if … then” choices conducting arithmetic in a binary system had novelty when he began formulating his thoughts in 1937. “Here in a master’s thesis by a research assistant,” Mr. Gleick writes, “was the essence of the computer revolution yet to come.”

Among its many other virtues “The Information” has the rare capacity to work as a time machine. It goes back much further than Shannon’s breakthroughs. And with each step backward Mr. Gleick must erase what his readers already know. He casts new light on the verbal flourishes of the Greek poetry that preceded the written word: these turns of phrase could be as useful for their mnemonic power as for their art. He explains why the Greeks arranged things in terms of events, not categories; how one Babylonian text that ends with “this is the procedure” is essentially an algorithm; and why the telephone and the skyscraper go hand in hand. Once the telephone eliminated the need for hand-delivered messages, the sky was the limit.

In the opinion of “The Information” the world of information still has room for expansion. We may be drowning in spam, but the sky’s still the limit today.

2011 USC Viterbi Lecture “Adventures in Coding Theory” by Elwyn Berklekamp

2011 Andrew Viterbi Lecture
Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering

“Adventures in Coding Theory”

Professor Elwyn Berlekamp
University of California, Berkeley

Gerontology Auditorium, Thursday, March 3, 4:30 to 5:30 p.m.

>> Click here for live wedcast

Abstract
The inventors of error-correcting codes were initially motivated by problems in communications engineering. But coding theory has since also influenced several other fields, including memory technology, theoretical computer science, game theory, portfolio theory, and symbolic manipulation. This talk will recall some forays into these subjects.

Biography
Elwyn Berlekamp has been professor of mathematics and of electrical engineering and computer science at UC Berkeley since 1971; halftime since 1983, and Emeritus since 2002. He also has been active in several small companies in the sectors of computers-communications and finance. He is now chairman of Berkeley Quantitative LP, a small money-management company. He was chairman of the Board of Trustees of MSRI from 1994-1998, and was at the International Computer Science Institute from 2001-2003. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Berlekamp has 12 patented inventions, some of which were co-authored with USC Professor Emeritus Lloyd Welch. Some of Berlekamp’s algorithms for decoding Reed-Solomon codes are widely used on compact discs; others are NASA standards for deep space communications. He has more than 100 publications, including two books on algebraic coding theory and seven books on the mathematical theory of combinatorial games, including the popular Dots-and-Boxes Game: Sophisticated Child’s Play.

 
I wish I could be at this lecture in person today, but I’ll have to live with the live webcast.

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HARASS SARAH is a PALINdrome, as well as a popular left-wing sport.

This is definitely the quote of the week:

Sol Golomb, mathematician and information theorist
via personal communication while discussing a palindromic word puzzle

 

HARASS SARAH is a PALINdrome, as well as a popular left-wing sport.

Another Reason to Shun Chick Flicks: Crying = Less Sex!?

A new study by Noam Sobel, of the Olfaction Research Group at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, and others are reporting in the journal Science this week that men in their study who sniffed the tears of crying women produced less testosterone and found female faces less arousing.

Previous studies in animals such as mice and mole rats have shown that tears convey important chemical messages which are used to attract or repel others of the same species.  There is good evidence for an interesting type means of higher-level chemical communication. These previous studies also incidentally show that “emotional” tears are chemically distinct from “eye-protecting” types of tears.

Scientific American’s “60 Second Science” (via link or listen below) podcast has a good audio overview of the study for those without the time to read the paper.

In press reports, Adam Anderson, a University of Toronto psychologist who was not involved with the study, posited that the results may imply that “tears have some influence on sexual selection, and that’s not something we associate with sadness.” He continued, “It could be a way of warding off unwanted advances.”

This study provides a new hypothesis for the evolution of crying in humans. (Now if only we could find some better reasons for laughter…)

The take home message may be that guys should not take their dates out to weepy chick flicks, or alternately women reluctantly accepting “pity dates” should force their suitors to exactly these types of testosterone damping films.

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The Decline Effect and the Scientific Method | The New Yorker

The Truth Wears Off: Is there something wrong with the scientific method? (The New Yorker)

Jonah Lehrer’s New Yorker article “The Truth Wears Off: Is there something wrong with the scientific method?” is an interesting must-read article. In it he discusses the “Decline Effect” and outlier statistical effects within scientific research.

Among other interesting observations in it, he calls attention to the fact that, “according to the journal Nature, a third of all studies never even get cited, let alone repeated.”

For scholars of Fisher, Popper, and Kuhn, some of this discussion won’t be quite so novel, but for anyone designing scientific experiments, the effects discussed here are certainly worthy of notice and further study and scrutiny.

Poor State of Automated Machine-Based Language Translation

You know that automated machine language translation is not in good shape when the editor-in-chief of the IEEE’s Signal Processing Magazine says:

As an anecdote, during the early stage in creating the Chinese translation of the [Signal Processing] magazine, we experimented with automated machine translation first, only to quickly switch to professional human translation.  This makes us appreciate why “universal translation” is the “needs and wants” of the future rather than of the present; see [3] for a long list of of future needs and wants to be enabled by signal processing technology.

 

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The Top Ten Daily Consequences of Having Evolved | Smithsonian Magazine

The Top Ten Daily Consequences of Having Evolved (smithsonianmag.com)
From hiccups to wisdom teeth, our own bodies are worse off than most because of the differences between the wilderness in which we evolved and the modern world in which we live.

A short and interesting list of examples showing proof of our evolution.

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The Hidden Player

Thomas Henry Huxley

Global classical solutions of the Boltzmann equation with long-range interactions

Global classical solutions of the Boltzmann equation with long-range interactions (pnas.org)

Finally, after 140 years, Robert Strain and Philip Gressman at the University of Pennsylvania have found a mathematical proof of Boltzmann’s equation, which predicts the motion of gas molecules.

Abstract

This is a brief announcement of our recent proof of global existence and rapid decay to equilibrium of classical solutions to the Boltzmann equation without any angular cutoff, that is, for long-range interactions. We consider perturbations of the Maxwellian equilibrium states and include the physical cross-sections arising from an inverse-power intermolecular potential r-(p-1) with p > 2, and more generally. We present here a mathematical framework for unique global in time solutions for all of these potentials. We consider it remarkable that this equation, derived by Boltzmann (1) in 1872 and Maxwell (2) in 1867, grants a basic example where a range of geometric fractional derivatives occur in a physical model of the natural world. Our methods provide a new understanding of the effects due to grazing collisions.

via pnas.org

 

A lovely bit of satire on Evolution vs. Creationism… what will they come up with next?

Christian Groups: Biblical Armageddon Must Be Taught Alongside Global Warming from The Onion
Constitutional debate continues over whether public schools should include biblical Armageddon alongside global warming in end-of-world curriculum.

Stem cell treatment goes from lab to operating room | CNN.com

Stem cell treatment goes from lab to operating room (cnn.com)
Imagine having your back cut open, part of your spine removed, a stabilizing device that resembles a mini oil rig mounted on your back, the outer membrane of your spinal cord sliced open and experimental stem cells injected into it -- all for the advancement of science because it's not expected to benefit you.

Another article announcing the first stem cells being transplanted into a human patient in the United States. I worked with the researchers and surgeon in this experiment and built the microinjectors that were used in the lead up experiments as well as for this first patient.

Atlanta, Georgia — Imagine having your back cut open, part of your spine removed, a stabilizing device that resembles a mini oil rig mounted on your back, the outer membrane of your spinal cord sliced open and experimental stem cells injected into it — all for the advancement of science because it’s not expected to benefit you.

John Cornick, 51, did just that earlier this month as part of a groundbreaking clinical trial.

Almost a year ago, Cornick was told he had ALS — better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The diagnosis left him “fairly devastated,” he says.

He knew the prospects were grim because there is no cure.

But John wasn’t giving up so quickly, nor was his wife, Gina.

“I knew he was a fighter from the beginning and he really wanted to do something,” Gina Cornick says. She found information about a clinical trial on online and immediately signed him up, even though she had no idea where it was being held.

ALS destroys the nerve cells in the brain and spine which control muscle movement. When the brain can no longer tell muscles to move, they eventually die, depriving the patient of the ability to move arms and legs and eventually breathe.

The goal of this phase 1 trial is to determine whether fetal stem cells can safely be injected into the spinal cord. Ultimately, researchers hope to show that these cells may slow or halt the progression of the fatal disease.

But for now, the only goal is establishing safety.

Clinical trial

The Cornicks live in North Carolina, just a few hours from Atlanta, Georgia’s Emory University, the site of the trial. It is the first FDA-approved clinical trial to inject fetal stem cells directly into the spinal cord of an adult.

Dr. Jonathan Glass, director of Emory’s ALS center, is overseeing the trial. Cornick and two previous patients in the trial are heroes, says Glass, because at this point, the trial will likely produce only information, not results.

“In reality what do these patients have? Time, families and their life and we’re putting all of these at risk,” says Glass.

Dr. Lucie Bruijn, science director of the ALS Association, says the progress being made in this clinical trial is exciting. “We’ve been able to move it forward … from animal testing now into actual patients.” The treatment had not been tried in humans before.

Glass hopes this trial will lead to a new form of treatment for people with ALS. “We’re testing multiple things: We’re testing the safety of the surgery; we’re testing the cells; we’re testing immunosuppressants[because scientists do not know whether the body will reject the cells].” They are also testing how well Cornick handles this major surgical procedure, says Glass.

“After we’re finished with the first 12 or 18 patients we will know whether this is surgery that patients can tolerate.”

As he was prepped for surgery, Cornick was hopeful but realistic. “Well, of course you’d like to get up and walk … but I know that’s not going to happen.”

Stem cells

The stem cells used in the surgery are shipped overnight from Maryland, where Neuralstem, the company funding the trial, is based. The stem cells’ source is donated tissue from the spinal cord of an 8-week old aborted fetus, which was donated to the company. The company has developed a method that enables growth of millions of stem cells from this single source of human nerve stem cells.

Before the surgery can begin, a technician at Emory has to verify that a majority of stem cells made it to Atlanta alive. At least 70 percent have to be viable. In this case three samples under the microscope showed 85 percent of the cells arrived alive.

Lead researcher Dr. Eva Feldman, a neurologist at the University of Michigan, designed the trial just four years ago. After a lot of animal testing, her team determined that using fetal nerve stems rather than human embryonic or adult stem cells (such as bone marrow stem cells) was most effective, she says.

Stem cells have the ability to turn into different cells in the body. However, human embryonic stem cells, which come from 4- or 5-day-old embryos, also been found to sometimes turn into cancer cells. Fetal stem cells, such as those used in this trial, are a few weeks older and have already taken on a specific identity — in this case nerve cells.

Feldman says the fetal stem cells used in this trial did not become any of the unwanted cell types. “That’s very, very important,” she says.

Surgery

Animal testing also proved very useful when it came to figuring out how to actually inject the stem cells. Emory University’s neurosurgeon Dr. Nicholas Boulis invented the device that holds the needle that injects the stem cells. The goal is to inject the cells without injuring the spine and causing even more paralysis. He practiced on 100 pigs before attempting the procedure on a human.

Boulis says it’s critical that the injection be done in a very slow and controlled way.

“If you inject quickly, you’re going to create pressure at the head of the needle and that can cause damage,” Boulis says. That pressure can also inflate an area in the spinal cord which could cause the stem cells to seep back out of the cord when the needle is pulled out, he says. “So by pumping [cells] in slowly you have more security that you are not going to have reflux and you’re not going to have damage.”

Dr. Jeffrey Rothstein, who heads the ALS research center at Johns Hopkins University and is not connected to this trial, said work on this method is a big achievement. “This is purely about how to surgically deliver cellular therapy to spinal cord,” he says. “It’s never been done before.”

After the spinal cord was exposed, the injections began. Cornick got five — each one contains about 100,000 stem cells.

The four-and-a-half hour surgery went smoothly, Boulis, says. “There were no surprises.”

Post-surgery

A day after surgery, Cornick was lying flat in a hospital bed, chatting and laughing with some friends from North Carolina.

One week after surgery, he says he felt amazingly well and was still hopeful the cells would do some good for him.

Two weeks later Cornick’s stitches were removed and he was able to drive home. But he will be making frequent visits back to Atlanta as Glass and his team continue to monitor him.

Neuralstem’s Chief Scientific Officer Karl Johe says after the trial’s safety board reviews all existing data, including Cornick’s results, a fourth patient can be treated with the stem cells.

“Patients Four, Five and Six will receive twice as many [stem cell] injections,” Johe says. They will get five more injections on the other side of the spinal cord compared with Cornicks’s surgery.

Cornick expects the researchers will follow his progress for a long time. He says he understands the need for people to be willing to participate in experimental research like this.

“For me it just seemed like the right thing to do. I almost felt I had an obligation to do this,” he says. “To help other people and myself.”

Source: Stem cell treatment goes from lab to operating room – CNN.com

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