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30 MARCH, 2011

The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood

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What African drum languages have to do with the future of the Internet.

The future of information is something we’re deeply interested in, but no such intellectual exploit is complete without a full understanding of its past. That, in the context of so much more, is exactly what iconic science writer James Gleick explores in The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood — a new book that may just be the book to read this year, flowing from tonal languages to early communication technology to self-replicating memes to deliver an astonishing 360-degree view of the vast and opportune playground for us modern “creatures of the information,” to borrow vocabulary from Jorge Luis Borges’ much more dystopian take on information in the 1941 classic, “The Library of Babel,” which casts a library’s endless labyrinth of books and shelves as a metaphor for the universe.

Gleick illustrates the central dogma of information theory through a riveting journey across African drum languages, the story of the Morse code, the history of the French optical telegraph, and a number of other fascinating facets of humanity’s infinite quest to transmit what matters with ever-greater efficiency.

We know about streaming information, parsing it, sorting it, matching it, and filtering it. Our furniture includes iPods and plasma screens, our skills include texting and Googling, we are endowed, we are expert, so we see information in the foreground. But it has always been there.” ~ James Gleick

But what makes the book most compelling to us is that, unlike some of his more defeatist contemporaries, Gleick roots his core argument in a certain faith in humanity, in our moral and intellectual capacity for elevation, making the evolution and flood of information an occasion to celebrate new opportunities and expand our limits, rather than to despair and disengage.

Gleick concludes The Information with Borges’ classic portrait of the human condition:

We walk the corridors, searching the shelves and rearranging them, looking for lines of meaning amid leagues of cacophony and incoherence, reading the history of the past and of the future, collecting our thoughts and collecting the thoughts of others, and every so often glimpsing mirrors, in which we may recognize creatures of the information.”

For a closer look at The Information, we highly recommend Freeman Dyson’s fantastic essay, How We Know, in this month’s New York Review of Books. Publishers Weekly also just released an excellent interview with Gleick, very much worth a read as well.

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29 MARCH, 2011

Through the Middle: Bittersweet Short Film about a Barber, Perseverance, and Impermanence

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Last year, we featured 7 short films about near-obsolete occupations, which went on to become one of our most enjoyed pickings all year. Today, we add to that collection Through the Middle — a beautiful observational documentary about an aging barber named Mr. S and the slow decline of his business. The film follows his profound reflections as he confronts his retirement, the loss of his patrons, and the ever-changing face of the city.

I enjoy cutting hair 24 hours a day. If I’ve got in my mind halfway through a haircut that I don’t enjoy it, I’ll put the tools down and walk out and leave you, and that would be the end of it then.”

The work of filmmakers Simon James Lane and Tom Sweetland, Through the Middle exudes the quiet grief of change as the foreign future, even when framed as progress, replaces the familiar past — the universal human restlessness towards impermanence.

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29 MARCH, 2011

Fifty Nests and the Birds that Built Them

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As home improvement shows continue to plague the primetime airwaves, photographer Sharon Beals offers a refreshing perspective shift in the powerful reminder that birds, with their incredible ability to build delicate and sturdy homes from scratch with wildly innovative materials, are the ultimate DIY homebuilding masters. In Nests: Fifty Nests and the Birds that Built Them, Beals takes a rare and intimate glimpse of these remarkably crafty creatures, drawing from the collections of the California Academy of Sciences, the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at UC Berkeley, and the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology to showcase the most astounding avian architects from around the world.

Swallows

During the 1800s, the mass killing of barn swallows for decorative hat feathers inspired one of the first organized conservation movements. Today, the barn swallow roams free, building nests from mud and twigs on the walls of barns, sheds, and bridges in North America, Europe, and Asia. This nest comes from Manchuria.

House Wren

House wrens are born into a do-or-die life, leaving the nest as early as two weeks after hatching, followed by their parents who take care of them as they learn to fly. Those who fail to take off are left behind and, without parental care, die.

Caspian Tern

Caspian terns parent on equal terms, taking turns incubating the eggs and feeding the hatchlings in nests that range from simple holes in the beach sand to elaborately constructed homes made of seaweed, pebbles and colorful shells.

Pine Siskin

Masters of camouflage, these cold-loving birds make their nests exceptionally well-hidden, beginning the mating and nesting process in the dead of winter.

House Finch

For house finches, courtship is a pregame aptitude test: The male pretends to regurgitate food, while the female imitates the begging behavior of a hatchling. Females are known for erecting nests in odd locations ranging from old hats to Christmas wreaths.

Stunningly shot and thoughtfully captioned, Nests is a poetic reminder of nature’s spectrum of creativity and scope of practical wisdom.

HT @paulrauber; images courtesy of Sierra Club

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