Monday 19 September 2016

megabit, metabit

To my peril but also to my subsequent delight and emendation, my love-letters from Brain Pickings are usually dog-eared and set aside for reading that I always promise to get to at soon point, but that pile in my inbox is seething and threatens an avalanche. Happily, I was able to return to an intriguing sounding review of the life and times of a young mathematician who’s pioneering work in circuitry demonstrated that all logical operations could be reckoned by switches and relays and the just invented transistor, leading Claude Shannon to quickly and intuitively conclude that all information in the wilds—its natural habitat could be corralled and tamed, with data emerging as information thanks to the transfiguring exchange between the observer and the observed.

Corresponding with contemporaries that included Alan Turing and Vannevar Bush, Shannon was able to appropriate rather vague and generic terms, as had Isaac Newton in his mission to redefine physics in a disciplined and predictive manner, and furnish the world with Information Theory complete with a grammar that’s intelligible to both the mediator and the immediate. The bit is a metric, a measure of state (coined by Shannon as a portmanteau of binary digit) conveying either true or false, yes or no, but scalable out to any degree and precipitated the limning of communication and experience into a digital analogue that is accessible and exploitable by computer systems. Although we think of programmes as limited to the confines of simple logic, Information Theory also provides brute computing somewhat of a reprieve, showing that rather unique data-sets that encode unique and familiar data can be elided over, somewhat like the End-User Agreements that computers ply us with as instructive (although mathematical in nature, it is pretty human to skim), aiding in speed and compression. Moreover, as apparently as discreet and incompatible as Nature chooses to impart information, there is always a measurable threshold that computers can harness, from bar-codes and magnetic-strips to more custom parameters.