Miskatonic University Press

A Mind at Play


There’s a new biography of Claude Shannon out: A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age, by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman. Shannon well deserves a popular biography and much greater renown, but I was disappointed by both the book and Shannon himself.

Cover of A Mind at Play
Cover of A Mind at Play

Shannon’s work is fundamental to everything about technology today. In his master’s thesis (!) he set out how to implement Boolean logic with electrical switches and circuits. I didn’t know it was Shannon who’d figured this out: I just sort of assumed it had always been known.

Later, in a 1948 paper, after war work where he once had a quiet lunch with Alan Turing, Shannon invented information theory. As Wikipedia says, information theory’s “impact has been crucial to the success of the Voyager missions to deep space, the invention of the compact disc, the feasibility of mobile phones, the development of the Internet, the study of linguistics and of human perception, the understanding of black holes, and numerous other fields.” The internet, black holes, human language—that’s a huge variety! But it’s true, information theory is now behind all of that.

However, the book doesn’t do full justice to information theory and its effects, or to Shannon’s work overall. Soni and Goodman (not experts in the field) do a capable job of explaining what Shannon did, but ultimately fail to get across its full import.

My colleague John Dupuis reminded me of Siobhan Roberts’s two excellent biographies of mathematicians: H.S.M Coxeter (King of Infinite Space: Donald Coxeter, the Man Who Saved Geometry) and John Conway (I reviewed Genius at Play: The Curious Mind of John Conway in 2015). Their work is mostly very abstract—multidimensional geometric figures or the Monster group)—but Roberts does an excellent job of explaining it all and why it’s important.

Roberts does an equally good job of describing her subjects. Coxeter was a cold man, and Conway is a bit bonkers. You come away from her biographies knowing those men, but you don’t finish A Mind at Play feeling the same about Shannon.

There’s another problem with the book, which is really a problem with Shannon: he gave up. He did an amazing body of important work, then he drifted away and spent the rest of his life fiddling and tinkering. Soni and Goodman make as much of this as they can, but really, he gave up.

In 1957 Shannon moved from Bell Labs to MIT.

Even at MIT, Shannon bent his work around his hobbies and enthusiasms. “Although he continued to supervise students, he was not really a co-worker, in the normal sense of the term, as he always seemed to maintain a degree of distance form his fellow associates,” wrote one fellow faculty member. With no particular academic ambitions, Shannon felt little pressure to publish academic papers. He grew a beard, began running every day, and stepped up his tinkering.

What resulted were some of Shannon’s most creative and whimsical endeavors: … the trumpet that shot fire out of its bell when played … the handmade unicycles … a machine that solved Rubik’s cubes …

That’s all nice, but he was a full professor at MIT, and that carries responsibilities. He barely did any teaching, didn’t supervise many graduate students, didn’t get involved in the operations of the university, didn’t get involved in the world.

Yet Shannon had also come to accept that his own best days were behind him…. Henry Pollak recalls visiting Shannon at home in Winchester to bring him up to date on a new development in communications science. “I started telling him about it, and for a brief time he got quite enthused about this. And then he said, ‘Nuh-uh, I don’t want to think. I don’t want to think that much anymore.’ It was the beginning of the end in his case, I think. He just—he turned himself off.”

That’s sad.

The previous book Soni and Goodman did was a biography of Cato the Younger, the Roman philosopher, senator and general. It’s similar in that Cato deserved a popular biography but I still hope for a better one. It’s strikingly different, however, in the natures of the two men: Cato never gave up. He stood up his entire life for what he believed in, even when it meant he was one of the leaders in the fight against Julius Caesar, who was taking over the Roman Republic. Caesar won, of course, and Cato committed suicide, which might seem like giving up, but to Stoics is a reasonable action to take when one would rather control one’s own end then live under the rule of a tyrant.

Coxeter never gave up. John Conway never gave up. Richard Feynman never gave up. The great ones never give up. But Shannon gave up.

Denton Declaration

code4lib libraries open.access

I state, for the record, openly and proudly, that I am in full support of the Denton Declaration.

Live albums


Recently I came across The Quietus Writers’ 40 Favourite Live Albums (2013). A bunch of those albums I’ll maybe give a listen but I don’t really care about the bands; some I absolutely agree with; some I think are the wrong album for the artist; and some great live albums are missing.

I definitely agree with:

  • The Velvet Underground: 1969: The Velvet Underground Live with Lou Reed
  • Ramones: It’s Alive!
  • Fela Ransome-Kuti And The Africa ‘70 With Ginger Baker: Live!
  • Donny Hathaway: Live
  • Talking Heads: Stop Making Sense
  • Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Live Rust
  • Hawkwind: The Space Ritual Alive In Liverpool And London
  • Iron Maiden: Live After Death
Vag Halen, a Toronto band that does an incredible live show
Vag Halen, a Toronto band that does an incredible live show

I suggest other live albums for these artists:

  • David Bowie: Live Nassau Coliseum 1976
  • James Brown: Love Power Peace (1971) (with Live at the Apollo, Volume II (1968) second)
  • Miles Davis: Dark Magus (1974), but really anything live from the pre-retirement 1970s is mandatory listening

I’d add (with concert dates):

  • Benny Goodman: The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert
  • Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band: Live Bullet (1976)
  • Dexter Gordon with Junior Mance, At Montreux (1970) (“The Panther” smokes hard)
  • Duke Ellington: Ellington at Newport (1956), with the riot-causing “Diminuendo in Blue and Crescendo in Blue”
  • Frank Sinatra with Count Basie: Sinatra at the Sands
  • J. Geils Band: Live: Blow Your Face Out (1975)
  • King Crimson: Live in Toronto: Queen Elizabeth Theatre, November 20, 2015 (I was there)
  • LCD Soundsystem: The Long Goodbye: LCD Soundsystem Live at Madison Square Garden (2011)
  • Rush: Exit … Stage Left (1980–1981)
  • The Who: Live at Leeds (1970), the full version

Once you get to thinking about something like this it’s hard to get it off your mind, but I hope now it is.

Belly of the Beast kombucha


If you’re in the Peterborough, Ontario area I recommend trying Belly of the Beast kombucha. (Kombucha being, as Wikipedia defines it, “a variety of fermented, lightly effervescent sweetened black or green tea drinks that are commonly intended as functional beverages for their supposed health benefits.” It has an unusual, fermented, yeasty taste, and I really like it.)

Some varieties.
Some varieties.

The bottles are stubbies, like beer used to come in.

It’s for sale in a few stores, such as Chasing the Cheese, and the tap room is open a couple of days a week, so you could go see where it’s made and get a growler (I haven’t yet).

All the ones I’ve tried are very nicely flavoured without being too strong. None of these are going to blow your head off.

More varieties.
More varieties.

Listening to Art 01.08


Listening to Art 01.08 is online. It is a field recording of Samara Golden’s The Meat Grinder’s Iron Clothes, a fascinating installation I saw at the Whitney Biennial in New York City in May. The work is huge, complex, intriguing and involving, and I’ve never seen anything like it.

Whitney staircase
Whitney staircase

Librarians in Archie

archie libraries

How often does a librarian appear in the Archie comics? I just came across one and it made me realize I can’t remember any others—which certainly doesn’t mean they’re not there, but they are very rare. Does Riverdale High have a librarian? I don’t think so, and if not, that’s an appalling oversight by Mr. Weatherbee.

Here is what I suspect is a librarian at the Riverdale public library (note the grown-up in the background), in “Mystic Madness,” reprinted in Archie’s Funhouse (Back to School Annual) Double Digest 27 (September 2017). Archie has been reading Eastern philosophy and spouting gnomic aphorisms. Everyone is very impressed, but the gag at the end is that Moose understands what he means, so Archie gives up and (very sensibly) heads to the library for something new.

Archie and the librarian
Archie and the librarian

The librarian knows Archie by name, so he must go to the library regularly—though on the other hand, pretty much everyone in Riverdale knows who Archie is. She’s about to do some reader’s advisory, which is what we librarians call it when we recommend books to people.

“Mystic Madness” was written by Frank Doyle, with pencils by Stan Goldberg, inks by Rudy Lapick, letters by Bill Yoshida and colours by Barry Grossman. It’s not dated, but I’d guess it’s from the early 1970s. Archie is wearing his “R” sweater, which might help narrow it down.

Someone put together a video of panels from a 1997 comic where Betty gets recommendations from librarian Mrs. Jones, who likens her and Archie to other great couples through history and literature:

A remarkable sentence by Dumas

literature quotes

I’m rereading the complete Musketeers series by Alexandre Dumas, and just came across this astounding sentence in chapter Chapter 22, “The Nymphs of the Park of Fontainebleau,” in the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Louise de la Vallière (edited by David Coward, from an 1851 translation by Thomas Pederson):

When, however, the Queens had expressed their satisfaction and the spectators their enthusiasm, when the King had retired to his dressing-room to change his costume, and whilst Monsieur, dressed as a woman, as he delighted to be, was, in his turn, dancing about, de Guiche, who had now recovered himself, approached Madame, who, seated at the back of the theatre, was waiting for the second part, and had quitted the others for the purpose of creating a sort of solitude for herself in the midst of the crowd, to meditate, as it were, beforehand, upon choreographic effects; and it will be perfectly understood that, absorbed in deep meditation, she did not see, or rather she pretended not to see, anything that was passing around her.

Incredible. The original French has it in two sentences:

Mais, quand les reines eurent témoigné leur satisfaction, les spectateurs leur enthousiasme, quand le roi se fut rendu à sa loge pour changer de costume, tandis que Monsieur, habillé en femme, selon son habitude, dansait à son tour, de Guiche, rendu à lui-même, s’approcha de Madame, qui, assise au fond du théâtre, attendait la deuxième entrée, et s’était fait une solitude au milieu de la foule, comme pour méditer à l’avance ses effets chorégraphiques. On comprend que, absorbée par cette grave méditation, elle ne vît point ou fît semblant de ne pas voir ce qui se passait autour d’elle.

Socrates, by Lister Sinclair

literature radio

While on vacation earlier this month I picked up a copy of Socrates: A Drama in Three Acts by the great Lister Sinclair. (It was published in 1957 by the Book Society of Canada, whose archives are at McMaster.) Among many other things in a rich life, he hosted the CBC Radio show Ideas for about fifteen years. For me it was mandatory listening. His range of knowledge (in math, he studied under HSM Coxeter, but that was just the beginning), and his love of exploring things with the listener, was remarkable. Lister Sinclair was one of the most interesting and interested people I have ever heard.

Cover of Socrates
Cover of Socrates

Setting aside the content of the play, which draws on a handful of Plato’s dialogues, I was struck by the notes someone wrote on the inside cover. It’s a list of authors to read, with recommended titles. Where did the list come from? Lister Sinclair?

List of recommended reading 01
List of recommended reading 01
List of recommended reading 02
List of recommended reading 02
List of recommended reading 03
List of recommended reading 03
List of recommended reading 04
List of recommended reading 04

This is what’s written:

  • Alexandre Dumas, Three Musketeers
  • Victor Hugo, Toilers of the Sea
  • Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf
  • C.S. Forester, Hornblower series and The African Queen
  • Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
  • John Gunther, “current affairs”
  • Robert Graves, I, Claudius
  • John Buchan, Greenmantle, The Thirty-Nine Steps, Prester John
  • Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes stories, The Lost World, “generally, all,” The White Company, Sir Nigel
  • Winston Churchill, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples
  • Charles Dickens, “generally, all,” Great Expectations
  • Lewis Carroll, “generally”
  • Joseph Conrad, “generally”
  • Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
  • D.H. Lawrence
  • Stephen Leacock, “generally”
  • Erskine Caldwell, Tobacco Road
  • Herman Melville, Moby Dick
  • John Masefield, “sea stories”
  • Alfred Hitchcock, “generally, all”
  • Ernest Hemingway
  • Farley Mowat, “sea stories”
  • Agatha Christie, “mysteries”
  • O. Henry
  • Compton Mackenzie
  • Edgar Allan Poe
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • Jonathan Swift
  • Mark Twain
  • H.G. Wells
  • Jules Verne

Leaving aside Mein Kampf, I’d skip Leacock, who I think overrated, but that’s a fine list. John Gunther is forgotten now, but I know him as a guest on Information Please. Hitchcock stands out, not being a writer, but “generally, all” is a perfect recommendation to make about his films. If you were headed out to a cabin in the woods for a few months in 1957, when this book was published, this would have been a good library to take with you (and if it was 1958 and you had a projector you could take Vertigo).

Inside the back cover is this: “Truth, Beauty, Justice} = God.”

Who wrote this?

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