13 June 2011

That's what I get

Every once in awhile, my ego whispers in my ear that I ought to read something more "important" than merely entertaining fiction. Sometimes, I listen to that voice.

Prelude: Forty-some years ago, I trotted off to one of my first college classes. It was a math class titled Math 10. It was the most basic math class offered. The topic was something called calculus.

I had no idea what calculus was. It sounded like calculation. I'd taken all the available math classes in my small town high school. I'd done well, even in the most advanced class: solid geometry and trigonometry. I knew I had to take a few math/science classes to earn my degree even if I wanted to major in political science. What better time to fulfill one of those distribution requirements than a couple months after finishing the math curriculum in high school?

I was lost in the calculus class from shortly after attendance was taken. I don't think I knew how lost I was for a couple weeks, but I was in over my head. Indeed nearly everything that was said in the class went over my head. Unfortunately, the prof lectured. I have no idea what he said. He didn't ask us to do problems in class. He had no way of knowing how lost I was until the mid-term.

I asked a friend for help. She'd graduated from high school at 16 and had taken calculus in high school. She tried to explain things, but it was probably too late. I started hanging out at the prof's office during office hours. That's when he found out how lost I was. He helped me figure out how to solve some basic problems, but he never did succeed in teaching me what calculus was or why anyone would want to know how to use it. I think I passed the class because I hung out asking for help.

What is all this reminiscing about? I picked up an important book recently that I'd read about. The topic sounded interesting and the review I saw was enthusiastic. It turns out, the reviewer was enthusiastic about the anecdotes that dot the book's chapters. But most of the book is about abstract math and quantum physics and genetics, none of which I understand any better than I understand calculus.

The book? The Information by James Gleick. Some of the anecdotes are indeed interesting, but finding them is a chore. They should have been in a different typeface than the other stuff. And since I never really understood what the book was about, I never figured out why Gleick told the stories when he did. I know what a fibonacci series is, but why would anyone care enough to even identify it?

There were whole chapters where all I could do was scan the first sentence of paragraphs looking for an interesting story, because the textbookish stuff was opaque to me. Numbers, to me, are meant for counting and measuring. What do you do with a sentence like, "Turing proved that some numbers are uncomputable." I shrug and say, "So what?"

The book was big, 525 pages with footnotes. The cover was white. It reminded me of Twain's so-called autobiography. It was less interesting, but it was easier to ignore the boring (incomprehensible) parts. I would have been very satisfied with a New Yorker article.

I should have focused on this line from the review, "Gleick ranges over the scientific landscape in a looping itinerary that takes the reader from Maxwell’s demon to Godel’s theorem, from black holes to selfish genes. Some of the concepts are challenging..." Challenging, hell. For me most of the concepts were meaningless.

Anyone have a more basic introduction to information theory? You don't have to answer that question. I'm not sure I want to know anymore.

Have you read The Information? What did you think of it? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought.

I get the impression that none of these people really understood much of what Gleick wrote either.

Freeman Dyson, I am sure understood what Gleick wrote about. His review in The New York Review of Books helped me make some sense out of The Information even though it didn't help me understand the math and science that Gleick chronicled. But, by the time I read it, I didn't much care anymore.

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