Category Archives: computing

Information – James Gleick in Conversation at the RSA

James Gleik and Nico MacDonald (Photo: Tim Jones)
James Gleick (left) and Nico MacDonald (right) discuss Information at the RSA (Photo:Tim Jones)

I haven’t yet read James Gleick’s latest book Information, but was glad of the chance to hear him in conversation with Nico MacDonald at London’s RSA yesterday for a flavour of what’s in store.  This is a brief write-up of my notes and some observations – it’s not a book review! (That may come later…)

The broad discussion covered topics ranging from the history of Information Theory, how new communications systems and technologies come about and how they’re applied, the rapid pace of developments, and related issues around information quality, choice, control, value, and authority.

James Gleik (Photo:Tim Jones)
James Gleick (Photo:Tim Jones)

Information Theory

Gleick introduced the father of Information Theory, Claude Shannon, who, building on foundations set down by George Boole and Alan Turing, developed the first mathematical theory of communication and the idea that  information is measureable  – in  ‘bits’.

His approach of separating information from meaning in a structured scientific way was another first, launching a way of thinking that has since fed into all areas of formal communications and training.

Shannon’s ideas evolved out of work addressing real-world communications engineering problems at his employer Bell Laboratories,  while other developments in information theory were driven by military objectives like those related to the codebreakers at Bletchley Park and the  communication needs of the Cold War.

James Gleick (Photo: Sven Klinge)
James Gleick (Photo: Thanks Sven Klinge)

Development and Impact of the new

Gleick believes new technologies and systems appear first, followed by a series of highly unpredictable applications. Who, for example, would have thought the recently invented radio would play a critical role in capturing the murderer Dr. CrippenSee Note 1.  Escaping to America by boat, Crippen was intercepted and arrested in Canadian waters after a wireless telegram exchange with the British Police.

But do new ideas and technologies just appear?   Gleick argues that intellectual invention happens when the time is right.  I’m not 100 percent clear on this, but he may have been referring to times of inspired national growth, and/or where intellectual groundwork has been done in related or previously unrelated fields, as was the case with Shannon embracing Boole’s and Turin’s legacy.   And once these systems arrive, says Gleick, it’s not unusual to see “all hell breaking loose”.

Consider the geographical reach and speed at which information jets around the world today.  I trust he’ll forgive me for this in the interest of illustration, but when Nico MacDonald mis-pronounced Gleick’s name during introductions today (Gleick pronounces his name ‘Glick’), that little faux pas was broadcast live, archived for webcast, and picked up by at least one troublesome blogger :-).   That’s what this web-enabled, multi-media, Googlised, Twitterific world will do for you.  On the other hand, those same information systems do little to inform us how we should pronounce ‘Gleick’; it’s not like every textual instance is accompanied by a phonetic brief.  (I got it wrong too, so I guess we’re all better people for the experience.)

It’s also apparent that the forms of knowledge we are comfortable with are changing.  Gleick recounted the story of Zick Rubin, whose recent piece in the New York Times titled “how the internet tried to kill me” describes how Rubin found his own death reported on a wiki – something of a shock to say the least.  As it turned out, the wiki itself wasn’t the culprit, but a printed directory from which false information had been drawn.  Had Rubin not run his search, the directory’s failings would never have come to light, and at least the wiki can, and has, been corrected at the press of a button.

Choice and control

Whether it’s the phone, radio, or world wide web, Gleick believes we’ve always driven our communications systems for more efficiency.  But now the new systems and tools are coming ever thicker and faster – tempting us, thrusting themselves upon us – with Ads!

This overload is forcing us to make choices: Do I sign up to this?  Who do I follow / unfollow?  What’s my decision criteria?  As an audience member summed up:  “Our attention matters and we should think more how best to mobilise it”.

Once again, a discussion at the start of the session is topical: this time on the merits and de-merits of in-session Tweeting.  As you might expect in the spirit of an Information flavoured event, the RSA had laid on WiFi and a hashtag so attendees could Tweet from the meeting.  But I don’t think Gleick, while playing along gamefully, was really up for it – suggesting it might distract us from the discussion.   And while I fully support in-event Tweeting, he is of course dead right; it’s a self-inflicted distraction that needs self-management. I’ve come across similar mini-controversies concerning chit-chat and questions during presentations in virtual worlds.

Value, quality, filtration

Into the Q&A, and a discussion on the potential for information to add value and generate competitive advantage.  The conclusion here is that Gleick sees value linked to overcoming new economic challenges, so: publishers exploring new business models for e-books, and newspapers “scared to death about Twitter” looking for ways to compete with free news.

And as to us being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information – reliable and unreliable – that all these new systems are generating?  Gleick thinks not, but only if we sort out faster methods of recovering quality information and making intelligent recommendations.  Efficient suppliers of those sorts of services will find themselves in a growth business.


If the information is good and there’s one set of agreed facts, then conclusions will speak for themselves – right? Wrong, says Gleick, pointing to those who would resist the overwhelming evidence for climate change; and that small group of Americans who still dispute Obama was born on Hawaii.

Moreover, he worries we might lose science as an “authoritative, trustworthy, account” in a world –  as MacDonald observed – where some people decide a position upfront, only then looking to science to back it up – the antithesis of the scientific attitude of finding out facts and seeing where they lead.

Age of the information zombies

James Gleik and Tim Jones (Photo:Sven Klinge)O.k., no one even mentioned information zombies.  But the audience did wonder if access to ‘too much, too easy’ information might stop us (and particularly students) from concentrating and analysing properly. I got the impression Gleick was sanguine on this, but with a note of caution given we don’t even know the full effect that replacing mental arithematic with calculators has had, never mind the impact of the full on info-fest that is Google.

So, that was pretty much it – a thoroughly enjoyable lunchtime.

And as you see, I’ve got my signed copy of Information.  Hopefully some ‘bits’ will agree with what I’ve just written :-P.


Note 1 – Updated 14/4/11. There was a mix up over stories in the conversation, with Crippen being confused with the murderer John Tawell. In 1845, Tawell was captured at Paddington Station thanks to the new telegraph (wired) being used to signal ahead that he was on the train from Slough where he had committed the murder. I’ve filled in the correct later story for Crippen, which is an analagous example but for the wireless rather than wired telegraph.

Event Audio – The audio of the event is here at the RSA’s Website

Royal Society Vidcast – Gleick presented at the Royal Society on the following day.  Here is the vidcast at the RS’s website.

Also of interest: James Gleick interviewed on CastRoller

Out of the Archives – Calculators, Computers….and Stuff

sinclair scientific calculator
Sinclair Scientific Calculator (Photo:Tim Jones)

I know, I know.  Blog title of death!

Anyone, like…over 12 years old, can waffle on about the various computational gadgets they’ve owned.   But bear with me.

This picture of a Sinclair Scientific is the latest recovered image from the 30yr  archive of negatives I’m dutifully working through.

That, and this recent post on Andrew Maynard’s blog, (2020science), describing the sophisticated graphing calculator his children are required to have for school, prompt this reflection.

A pass-me-down from my brother, the Sinclair Scientific was my first electronic calculator.   Built from a kit in 1975, I used it to prep for the UK O-Levels when I was 14 or 15; in the O-Level exams themselves we only had log tables :-P.  By the A-Levels (16-18), I’d upgraded to a Casio fx-39.

John Napier, father of logarithms (Image: Wikicommons)

As it turns out, the calculator my nephews require for today’s GCSE syllabus is a Casio; but  costing around £5, against the £75 or so for Andrew’s Texas Instruments machine.

An interesting feature of the Sinclair Scientific was its use of Reverse Polish Notation (RPN): an unusual but logical way to express calculations. Under RPN, the operator (+,- x, / etc) comes after the operands (the numbers); so the more well known Infix representation of 7+8 , in RPN becomes 7 8 +.  RPN is more memory efficient for computers – a bigger deal once than it is now.  Today, modern computers just translate into RPN without us seeing it.

You might think getting to grips with RPN was an awkward distraction for a 15 year old, but it proved handy background when it came to writing programs for this:

Stantec Zebra
Stantec Zebra (Photo from the Stantec Zebra manual)

I guess this was our graphing calculator.  Not exactly pocket size.

If memory serves, the school acquired the 1958 Stantec Zebra from the local university; before that it was with the Post Office.

punch card
Punch card

A small team of students operated and maintained the machine which, filled with hot valves, would frequently catch fire and give the occasional electric shock.   This could never happen today of course, on safety grounds alone.  But at the time, the teachers and students took it all in their stride, seizing the opportunity to build a short extra-curricular programming course into the timetable.

Programming lessons involved: writing code on cards with pencil and paper, encryption onto punched cards that the Stantec Zebra could read optically, then receiving line-printer output of the results.  Looking back, it’s amazing any of this happened – a great opportunistic use of a rare resource.

Powertran Comp 80 (Photo:Tim Jones)

Pupils who later built their own computers, like the Science of Cambridge MK14, a basic kit machine launched in 1977 with about 2k of memory, or the Sinclair ZX-80, were doubtless inspired by the presence on site of their valve-driven (but still significantly more powerful) ancestor.

An interest in computers in this era meant just that: an interest in the information structure, solution algorithms, programming and hardware.  High level programming languages, like BASIC even, were too memory inefficient to exist, and ‘games’ typically comprised simple models around the laws of motion; moon lander simulations were popular.

Our household variously hosted a home-built Powertran Comp 80, a Sharp MZ-80A (including some early green dot graphical capability), a Sinclair Spectrum and Sinclair QL.  I’ve put pics of these and various other devices I’ve owned in the gallery at the end of the post – minus the obvious PCs that started with a Viglen P90 in 1995.  Also our Creed 75 teleprinter – the only one I’ve seen outside the London Science Museum, this true electro-mechanical wonder was brought to good working order save for the chassis occasionally running live with mains voltage.

Creed 75
The Science Museum's Creed 75

Are there any world-changing messages to be drawn from all this nostalgia?  Possibly not.  But I’m reminded how very hands on we were in just about everything.   And that’s relevant given the buzz today about how kids might not be getting enough practical science and engineering experience in schools (I’m thinking of comments most recently made by Martin Rees in the Reith Lectures).

No one is arguing kids need a nuts and bolts knowledge of all modern gadgetry, but I do think off-syllabus projects like the Stantec Zebra (but perhaps less dangerous) are a good thing in schools.  They show how diverse academic subjects come together in an application, making the theory real.  This is pretty much my mantra in this earlier post about the Young Scientists of the Year competition.   I would have thought such projects give a school a sense of identity and foster a bit of team spirit?

But it’s really an area I’m out of touch with.  Does this type of stuff happen in lunchtime science clubs?  Is there time in the curriculum?  Do teachers have the time and/or skills?  Or has our health & safety culture, however worthy, killed off anything interesting?


Also of interest

Kids Today Need a License to Tinker (Guardian 28/8/2011)

Second Earth

This is pretty cool.  A getting together of Google Earth and Second Life to make ‘Second Earth’, located on (above?) the SciLands virtual continent, which I stumbled across while checking out a SciLands event this weekend.

Essentially it’s  a way to represent 3D data in Second Life, with the vertical scale exaggerated.  Explanatory video here plus a couple of my own InWorld pics.

Second Earth - A mash-up of GoogleEarth and Second Life
Second Earth - A mash-up of GoogleEarth and Second Life
UK on Second Earth - Looking a bit flat?
UK on Second Earth - Looking a bit flat?

Presumably it’s therefore possible to map the entire Google Earth contour data set into Second Life or a similar virtual world.  And, it follows that,  when our avatars are sufficiently programmed up with our personalities and such like, we can just set the thing running and jump into a hole in the ground with some sleeping tablets.  Matrix here we come – yeh!

I’m getting cynical.  Must be February.

Snip Snip

It’s a funny old world.

Having taken that fateful decision 18 months ago to select a PC with the Vista operating system – along with how ever many other fools, I realised tonight where the value in Vista really lies.  It’s the snipping tool.  Nothing else, just the snipping tool.


For the unenlightenend, the snipping tool lets you, at the click of a mouse, encircle (well, enrectangle) ANYTHING on the screen at any time and save it as a JPEG.  From there on, the captured item is all yours to do with as you please.  Heaven.

Ironically, in creating this post, I discovered the snip tool’s hidden weakness…….it can’t snip itself !  No way to capture the snip icon in action.  Hence the image here lifted from the ether; from exactly where I neither know nor care.

Windows 7 Beta – what’s that all about?