Saturday, August 12, 2017

"How Information Got Re-Invented"


The story behind the birth of the information age. 

How Information Got Re-Invented
With his marriage to Norma Levor over, Claude Shannon was a bachelor again, with no attachments, a small Greenwich Village apartment, and a demanding job. His evenings were mostly his own, and if there’s a moment in Shannon’s life when he was at his most freewheeling, this was it. He kept odd hours, played music too loud, and relished the New York jazz scene. He went out late for raucous dinners and dropped by the chess clubs in Washington Square Park. He rode the A train up to Harlem to dance the jitterbug and take in shows at the Apollo. He went swimming at a pool in the Village and played tennis at the courts along the Hudson River’s edge. Once, he tripped over the tennis net, fell hard, and had to be stitched up.

His home, on the third floor of 51 West Eleventh Street, was a small New York studio. “There was a bedroom on the way to the bathroom. It was old. It was a boardinghouse ... it was quite romantic,” recalled Maria Moulton, the downstairs neighbor. Perhaps somewhat predictably, Shannon’s space was a mess: dusty, disorganized, with the guts of a large music player he had taken apart strewn about on the center table. “In the winter it was cold, so he took an old piano he had and chopped it up and put it in the fireplace to get some heat.” His fridge was mostly empty, his record player and clarinet among the only prized possessions in the otherwise spartan space. Claude’s apartment faced the street. The same apartment building housed Claude Levi-Strauss, the great anthropologist. Later, Levi-Strauss would find that his work was influenced by the work of his former neighbor, though the two rarely interacted while under the same roof.

Though the building’s live-in super and housekeeper, Freddy, thought Shannon morose and a bit of a loner, Shannon did befriend and date his neighbor Maria. They met when the high volume of his music finally forced her to knock on his door; a friendship, and a romantic relationship, blossomed from her complaint.

Maria encouraged him to dress up and hit the town. “Now this is good!” he would exclaim when a familiar tune hit the radio on their drives. He read to her from James Joyce and T.S. Eliot, the latter his favorite author. He was, she remembered, preoccupied with the math problems he worked over in the evenings, and he was prone to writing down stray equations on napkins at restaurants in the middle of meals. He had few strong opinions about the war or politics, but many about this or that jazz musician. “He would find these common denominators between the musicians he liked and the ones I liked,” she remembered. He had become interested in William Sheldon’s theories about body types and their accompanying personalities, and he looked to Sheldon to understand his own rail-thin (in Sheldon’s term, ectomorphic) frame.

A few Bell Labs colleagues became Shannon’s closest friends. One was Barney Oliver. Tall, with an easy smile and manner, he enjoyed scotch and storytelling. Oliver’s easygoing nature concealed an intense intellect: “Barney was an intellect in the genius range, with a purported IQ of 180,” recalled one colleague. His interests spanned heaven and earth—literally. In time, he would become one of the leaders of the movement in the search for extraterrestrial life. Oliver also held the distinction of being one of the few to hear about Shannon’s ideas before they ever saw the light of day. As he proudly recalled later, “We became friends and so I was the mid-wife for a lot of his theories. He would bounce them off me, you know, and so I understood information theory before it was ever published.” That might have been a mild boast on Oliver’s part, but given the few people Shannon let into even the periphery of his thinking, it was notable that Shannon talked with him about work at all.
The answer to noise is not in how loudly we speak, but in how we say what we say.
John Pierce was another of the Bell Labs friends whose company Shannon shared in the off hours. At the Labs, Pierce “had developed a wide circle of devoted admirers, charmed by his wit and his lively mind.” He was Shannon’s mirror image in his thin figure and height—and in his tendency to become quickly bored of anything that didn’t intensely hold his interest. This extended to people. “It was quite common for Pierce to suddenly enter or leave a conversation or a meal halfway through,” wrote Jon Gertner.

Shannon and Pierce were intellectual sparring partners in the way only two intellects of their kind could be. They traded ideas, wrote papers together, and shared countless books over the course of their tenures at Bell Labs. Pierce told Shannon on numerous occasions that “he should write up this or that idea.” To which Shannon is said to have replied, with characteristic insouciance, “What does ‘should’ mean?”

Oliver, Pierce, and Shannon—a genius clique, each secure enough in his own intellect to find comfort in the company of the others. They shared a fascination with the emerging field of digital communication and co-wrote a key paper explaining its advantages in accuracy and reliability. One contemporary remembered this about the three Bell Labs wunderkinds:

It turns out that there were three certified geniuses at BTL [Bell Telephone Laboratories] at the same time, Claude Shannon of information theory fame, John Pierce, of communication satellite and traveling wave amplifier fame, and Barney. Apparently the three of those people were intellectually INSUFFERABLE. They were so bright and capable, and they cut an intellectual swath through that engineering community, that only a prestige lab like that could handle all three at once.
Other accounts suggest that Shannon might not have been so “insufferable” as he was impatient. His colleagues remembered him as friendly but removed. To Maria, he confessed a frustration with the more quotidian elements of life at the Labs. “I think it made him sick,” she said. “I really do. That he had to do all that work while he was so interested in pursuing his own thing.”

Partly, it seems, the distance between Shannon and his colleagues was a matter of sheer processing speed. In the words of Brockway McMillan, who occupied the office next door to Shannon’s, “he had a certain type of impatience with the type of mathematical argument that was fairly common. He addressed problems differently from the way most people did, and the way most of his colleagues did. ... It was clear that a lot of his argumentation was, let’s say, faster than his colleagues could follow.” What others saw as reticence, McMillan saw as a kind of ambient frustration: “He didn’t have much patience with people who weren’t as smart as he was.”....