Category Archives: American Thought

The Information

Book Review: The Information

Very, very interesting. Maybe more important than all the other articles I’ve posted this week.


In 1989, I traveled to a Boston suburb to interview Claude Shannon, the inventor of information theory. Then 73, Shannon was shy and his memory was poor, so his wife, Betty, answered many of my questions. Shannon seemed to enjoy himself most when showing off his collection of games and gadgets, including a juggling W.C. Fields robot, a maze navigated by a mechanical mouse and seven chess-playing machines.

My two-page profile in Scientific American didn’t come close to doing justice to Shannon, who died in 2001. After all, this playful polymath—whose work bridged electrical engineering, mathematics, computer science, physics and even philosophical logic—was among our era’s most influential thinkers. His work, especially his 1948 paper “The Mathematical Theory of Communication,” helped spawn today’s digital devices and communications technologies. Information theory has also inspired a radical new scientific worldview, which proposes that reality is composed not of matter but of bits of information.

James Gleick’s “The Information” gives Shannon his due and much more. As promised in its subtitle, “The Information” describes Shannon’s achievement (“a theory”) and helps us appreciate it by tracking information’s myriad manifestations (“a history”) from 5,000-year-old cuneiform records of barley sales all the way up to today’s digital super-abundance (“the flood”). In the course of informing us about information, Mr. Gleick illuminates the histories of mathematics, artificial intelligence, quantum mechanics, genetics and other fields that we have come to understand better thanks to Shannon’s theory.

What, exactly, is information? Prior to Shannon, Mr. Gleick notes, the term seemed as hopelessly subjective as “beauty” or “truth.” But in 1948 Shannon, then working for Bell Laboratories, [ Bell Laboratories – must have been quite a place… ] gave information an almost magically precise, quantitative definition: The information in a message is inversely proportional to its probability. Random “noise” is quite uniform; the more surprising a message, the more information it contains. Shannon reduced information to a basic unit called a “bit,” short for binary digit. A bit is a message that represents one of two choices: yes or no, heads or tails, one or zero.

Shannon’s simple formulation provided a framework for coding information digitally and hence more efficiently. Information theory also turned out to have deep connections to other Big Ideas. Entropy, the core concept of thermodynamics, measures the disorder of systems and, paradoxically, their potential for yielding information. The insights of information theory also have helped shed light on the interplay between randomness and order in so-called chaotic phenomena, as well as on the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics.

In the 1990s, the physicist John Wheeler, whom Mr. Gleick says was “the last surviving collaborator of both Einstein and Bohr,” proposed that all of physics could be recast in terms of information theory. Wheeler dubbed his idea “the it from bit.” By “it,” Wheeler meant all the components of physical reality, including particles, forces and even space and time. Every “it,” he wrote, “derives its function, its meaning, its very existence” from “answers to yes or no questions, binary choices, bits.” Today other physicists are beginning to think of the entire universe as a cosmic computer. “Increasingly,” Mr. Gleick comments, “the physicists and the information theorists are one and the same.”

No author is better equipped for such a wide- ranging tour than Mr. Gleick. Some writers excel at crafting a historical narrative, others at elucidating esoteric theories, still others at humanizing scientists. Mr. Gleick is a master of all these skills. As he traces the evolution of intertwined ideas, he provides vivid portraits of Shannon and other pioneers of our Information Age, including Charles Babbage, whose unbuilt 19th-century “Analytical Engine” anticipated modern computers, and Alan Turing, whose machines helped the Allies crack German codes during World War II.

A key theme throughout “The Information” is that of self- referentiality. When did humans first think about thinking? Write about writing? Conceptualize concepts? What dictionary first defined the word “define”? (It was an English dictionary published in 1582, according to Mr. Gleick.) The ancients knew self-referential conundrums such as the liar’s paradox. (“This statement is false.”) But in the 1930s Kurt Gödel pinpointed a similar logical knot at the heart of mathematics. His notorious Incompleteness Theorem demolished any hope of discovering a foolproof method for yielding mathematical truth—for, in effect, distinguishing signal from noise.

The inherent limitations of reason loom large toward the end of “The Information,” when Mr. Gleick switches his focus to “the flood”—the torrent of information released by our digital technologies. He ponders the same questions that Nicholas Carr fretted over in his recent book, “The Shallows”: Is the amount of information inversely proportional to wisdom? As information surges, will noise swamp signals? Will the false and trivial overwhelm the true and meaningful?

Every information technology, Mr. Gleick reminds us, has aroused these sorts of concerns. Plato worried that writing would lead to mental laziness, but without writing we might not know that Plato ever existed. Mr. Gleick concludes on an upbeat note. “Meaningless disorder is to be challenged, not feared,” he writes. “We can be overwhelmed or emboldened.” Neither information theory—as Shannon often emphasized—nor any other methodology can find meaning for us. Each of us has to discover—or create—meaning on our own. [Not sure I agree 100%, with this last statement.]

Mr. Horgan, director of the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology, is the author of “The End of Science” and “Rational Mysticism.”


Its all about the Children

Review & Outlook: Crushing Hopes in Compton –

Can I enroll?


No good idea goes unchallenged by the forces of the educational status quo, but the tactics they’re using to stop the first experiment at “parent trigger” school reform in California sure are revealing—and ugly.

As we reported in December, a majority of parents (more than 250) have exercised their right under a new state law to petition to replace the administrators at McKinley Elementary school in Compton, California and invite a charter-school operator to take over.

McKinley is one of the worst schools in one of the worst-performing districts in the country. Fewer than half of the Compton Unified School District’s students graduate from high school, and only 3.3% of those graduates are eligible to attend California’s public universities. The parents want McKinley to be run by Celerity Educational Group, which operates three high-performing charters in the Los Angeles area.

The educational empire has not taken this well. At a PTA meeting teachers urged parents to rescind their petitions, and during school hours they pressured students whose parents supported the trigger effort.

When that intimidation failed, the school district suddenly came up with a new signature-verification process. The district required parents—many of whom work multiple jobs—to show up at McKinley at appointed times on one of two days. It also required parents to bring official photo identification, knowing that some of them are illegal immigrants. (The Supreme Court said schools must educate children of illegals in Plyler v. Doe, 1982.)

The parents have sued to stop this harassment. “This is akin to an elected official who is subject to a recall petition requiring that each voter meet with his office,” said their legal team from Kirkland & Ellis, which is working pro bono. “The District intends to make it more difficult to petition a local school for reform than vote for President of the United States.”

A judge issued a temporary restraining order stopping the district’s verification gambit, so the empire struck back again, declaring last week at a hastily-called community meeting that every petition had been disqualified on technicalities: Some legal code numbers were mistyped, for example, and some petitions weren’t stapled. Really. The parents will now also challenge this in court.

Meanwhile, the powers in Sacramento are trying to undermine parent trigger statewide. On his first day in office, Governor Jerry Brown replaced seven reform members of the state board of education with union allies, including a lobbyist for the California Teachers Association. The new board immediately announced that it would write new rules to govern the parent trigger law, throwing out eight months of work by the previous board.

In addition, state Assemblywoman Julia Brownley and new state schools chief Tom Torlakson—both of whom voted against parent trigger last year—are drafting what they call “cleanup legislation” to amend the law. Expect “cleanup” to equal repeal: When Sacramento first debated the trigger option, Ms. Brownley proposed allowing parents in failing schools to petition only for “public testimony and comment.”

This is nasty business, another example of rigging the system to help the adults who run it rather than the children it is supposed to serve. Would it be too much for Education Secretary Arne Duncan or President Obama to speak up for the parents and kids of Compton?


Why Koch Industries Is Speaking Out

Charles G. Koch: Why Koch Industries Is Speaking Out –

“Must reading” if you want one great synopsis of what is wrong with America today.    Thank you! Mr Kock!


Years of tremendous overspending by federal, state and local governments have brought us face-to-face with an economic crisis. Federal spending will total at least $3.8 trillion this year—double what it was 10 years ago. And unlike in 2001, when there was a small federal surplus, this year’s projected budget deficit is more than $1.6 trillion.

Several trillions more in debt have been accumulated by state and local governments. States are looking at a combined total of more than $130 billion in budget shortfalls this year. Next year, they will be in even worse shape as most so-called stimulus payments end.

For many years, I, my family and our company have contributed to a variety of intellectual and political causes working to solve these problems. Because of our activism, we’ve been vilified by various groups. Despite this criticism, we’re determined to keep contributing and standing up for those politicians, like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who are taking these challenges seriously.

Both Democrats and Republicans  [ any “Amens”? ] have done a poor job of managing our finances. They’ve raised debt ceilings, floated bond issues, and delayed tough decisions.

In spite of looming bankruptcy, President Obama and many in Congress have tiptoed around the issue of overspending by suggesting relatively minor cuts in mostly discretionary items. There have been few serious proposals for necessary cuts in military and entitlement programs, even though these account for about three-fourths of all federal spending.

Yes, some House leaders have suggested cutting spending to 2008 levels. But getting back to a balanced budget would mean a return to at least 2003 spending levels—and would still leave us with the problem of paying off our enormous debts.

Federal data indicate how urgently we need reform: The unfunded liabilities of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid already exceed $106 trillion. That’s well over $300,000 for every man, woman and child in America [HELLO? IS ANYONE LISTENING???](and exceeds the combined value of every U.S. bank account, stock certificate, building and piece of personal or public property).

The Congressional Budget Office has warned that the interest on our federal debt is “poised to skyrocket.” Even Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is sounding alarms. Yet the White House insists that substantial spending cuts would hurt the economy and increase unemployment.

Plenty of compelling examples indicate just the opposite. When Canada recently reduced its federal spending to 11.3% of GDP from 17.5% eight years earlier, the economy rebounded and unemployment dropped. By comparison, our federal spending is 25% of GDP.

Government spending on business only aggravates the problem. Too many businesses have successfully lobbied for special favors and treatment by seeking mandates for their products, subsidies (in the form of cash payments from the government), and regulations or tariffs to keep more efficient competitors at bay.

Crony capitalism is much easier than competing in an open market. But it erodes our overall standard of living and stifles entrepreneurs by rewarding the politically favored rather than those who provide what consumers want.

The purpose of business is to efficiently convert resources into products and services that make people’s lives better. Businesses that fail to do so should be allowed to go bankrupt rather than be bailed out.

But what about jobs that are lost when businesses go under? It’s important to remember that not all jobs are the same. In business, real jobs profitably produce goods and services that people value more highly than their alternatives. Subsidizing inefficient jobs is costly, wastes resources, and weakens our economy.

Because every other company in a given industry is accepting market-distorting programs, [ would be nice to know if it is, in fact, 100% ] Koch companies have had little option but to do so as well, simply to remain competitive and help sustain our 50,000 U.S.-based jobs.  However, even when such policies benefit us, we only support the policies that enhance true economic freedom.

For example, because of government mandates, our refining business is essentially obligated to be in the ethanol business. We believe that ethanol—and every other product in the marketplace—should be required to compete on its own merits, without mandates, subsidies or protective tariffs. Such policies only increase the prices of those products, taxes and the cost of many other goods and services.

Our elected officials would do well to remember that the most prosperous countries are those that allow consumers—not governments—to direct the use of resources. Allowing the government to pick winners and losers hurts almost everyone, especially our poorest citizens.

Recent studies show that the poorest 10% of the population living in countries with the greatest economic freedom have 10 times the per capita income of the poorest citizens in countries with the least economic freedom. [Hello? Anyone listening??? ] In other words, society as a whole benefits from greater economic freedom.

Even though it affects our business, as a matter of principle our company has been outspoken in defense of economic freedom. This country would be much better off if every company would do the same. Instead, we see far too many businesses that paint their tails white and run with the antelope.

I am confident that businesses like ours will hire more people and invest in more equipment when our country’s financial future looks more promising. Laying the groundwork for smaller, smarter government, especially at the federal level, is going to be tough. But it is essential for getting us back on the path to long-term prosperity.

Mr. Koch is chairman and CEO of Koch Industries, Inc. He’s the author of “The Science of Success: How Market-Based Management Built the World’s Largest Private Company” (Wiley, 2007).


Is There an Arab George Washington?

Bret Stephens: Is There an Arab George Washington? –

If “History” wasn’t your thing… It’s not too late!


On learning that George Washington intended to follow up his victory at Yorktown by retiring to his farm at Mount Vernon, George III told the painter Benjamin West: “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”  [Because its my blog, let me remind you: Washington did.] The British monarch may have wound up stark raving mad, but he knew a thing or two about the seductions of power.

We celebrate Washington today as the greatest of the founding fathers. But the fame he gained during his lifetime owed mainly to his willingness to relinquish the vast powers he had repeatedly been granted, and which were his for the keeping. That’s a rarity in the history of revolutions, in which the distance from liberation to despotism—from euphoria to terror—is usually short. The French Revolution began with a Declaration of the Rights of Man. It very nearly ended in an extinction of those rights.

The uprisings now sweeping the Arab world threaten to retrace that familiar arc. Consider the irony of last month’s massive protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Until Egypt’s corrupt but tolerant monarchy was overthrown in 1952, the square was known as Midan El-Ismailiya after Ismail Pasha, the great 19th-century Egyptian Westernizer. It became Liberation Square only after Gamal Abdel Nasser’s 1952 coup, yet another calamitous revolution that began brightly with promises of democracy.

Now we’re being told that this time it’s different. [Don’t fall for it…]A day after the demonstrators began to gather on Tahrir Square last month, an Egyptian friend of mine—a former independent member of parliament with close ties to the secular opposition—explained that difference: “It’s a revolution without papas,” he told me. No Nasser, no Ben Bella, no Arafat, just ordinary people in their millions demanding their long-denied civil and political rights.

I’d love to think that my friend is right. And there’s no shortage of pop-political philosophy explaining how in our networked, horizontal, spontaneously organizing era of Facebook and Twitter, there’s no longer a need for credible leaders or effective political parties. Just click the install button on People Power 3.0 and the program will run itself.

Yet until technology recasts human nature, human nature will be what it always has been. And human nature abhors a leadership vacuum. When revolutions are successful, it’s not that they have no “papas”; it’s that they have good papas. So it was with Washington, or with Mandela—men of hard-earned and unmatched moral authority, steeped in the right values, who not only could defeat their adversaries but rein in the tempers of their own followers.

What happens when revolutions don’t have such leaders? The French Revolution is Exhibit A.  [Anyone volunteering to travel back in time to Paris??? ] Exhibit B might be Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution of 2005, which took place following the assassination of the charismatic former premier Rafik Hariri. Millions of Lebanese poured into Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square on March 14 to demand the end of Syrian occupation. The Syrians obliged. Elections gave pro-Western groups clear majorities in parliament. The country seemed settled on a better course.

In May of that year I went to Lebanon to see things for myself. “Wherever I go here, the impression is of a people intent on making up for lost time, and determined never again to be dragged down by extremism,” I wrote. “It is these Lebanese, one senses, and not Hezbollah, who are making the country anew, and who are doing so, at long last, in the absence of fear.”

Re-reading those lines today, with Hezbollah in firm control of a puppet government and the various leaders of the March 14 movement murdered, dismembered or politically neutered, is enough to make me cringe.


Paris, 1793: Most revolutions trace a familiar arc from euphoria to terror.

But it’s also a useful lesson in the limits of the very kind of people power now being celebrated in Egypt. It’s not enough to be against, or to bring down, a hated regime. It’s not even enough to be for something, at least in the sense in which the Arab world now seeks a freer and more representative political dispensation. What’s required is the statesmanship that can give concrete form to a hazy political dream.

It would be nice to believe that this kind of statesmanship will emerge unbidden from decent quarters, which probably explains the fascination with Egyptian Google exec Wael Ghonim. But the perennial political problem is that good people usually lack political ambition. They cede the field to charlatans, romantics and jackals.

As Americans look at what is happening in the Middle East, it’s natural that their sympathies should lie with the demonstrators. Natural, too, is the belief that movements consisting mainly of oppressed people in search of a better life will lead to decent regimes that care for those people. And maybe that will turn out to be true.

But also true is that America’s revolutionary history was exceptional because we had a Washington while the French had a Robespierre and the Egyptians had a Nasser. We owe today’s Arabs our optimism, and the benefit of the doubt. They owe themselves the real lessons of our example.