An unfocused, confusing attempt to grapple with a complex philosophical dilemma.

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LIFE IS FREE, INFORMATION IS NOT

An exploration of the nature of human meaning and the ways the digital age imperils it. 

In 1948, Claude E. Shannon published a seminal paper, “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” which not only changed the landscape of communication technology, according to Hsu, but the modern understanding of information, which now threatens human civilization. Shannon defined the bit as a fundamental unit for the encoding of information and also declared it meaningless and a devastating problem for mankind. Out of Shannon’s paper grew what the author calls “Machine Information Theory,” which is never clearly defined but seems to amount to the simultaneous aggrandizement of information (it becomes central to human activity) and diminishment (it becomes bereft of any meaning). This is problematic because humans need meaning for their survival. In fact, civilization was born out of and is made possible by written language: “This was the signal event that marked the beginning of civilization with the beginning of written language. The continuity of written symbols spanned the scale of time to provide continuity in society: civilization.” In order to rescue an understanding of information as stored meaning, Hsu argues we need a “Human Information Theory” as a counterweight to the shift inaugurated by Shannon’s work. Such a theory should devise a “single unit of information” that functions as a bearer of meaning, clarifies thorny questions about ownership of information, and can be adequately priced. Hsu’s discussion of meaning raises important and timely questions about the ways information is understood by a society that collapses the distinctions between it and wisdom, knowledge, intelligence, and data. He makes a powerful case that a sizable but misunderstood historical shift has occurred and that this miscomprehension could have disastrous societal implications. Also, the author astutely observes some of the philosophically titillating paradoxes that emerge from the modern interpretation of information. For example, in some senses, information is free, in others it’s extremely costly, and in some circumstances, when meaning is involved, it’s potentially priceless. However, Hsu’s meditation is messy and meandering, and it’s often exasperatingly unclear what point precisely the author is trying to make. Also, while Hsu argues that a Human Information Theory is urgently necessary, the author can’t confidently articulate what such a theory would amount to: “What is the Human Information Theory? To be frank, who knows?” The book concludes with more than 50 pages of paired words—for example, “eternal” versus “transitory”—and encouragement for the reader to think about them, though the objective of that exercise remains nebulous. Finally, contrary to Hsu’s suggestion, the question of meaning and its relation to language is not a new one—Plato discusses it at great length in the Cratylus, long before the digital age. He doesn’t seriously engage the inexhaustible literature on this subject, and as a result, his study is not nearly as searching as it could have been. 

An unfocused, confusing attempt to grapple with a complex philosophical dilemma. 

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-9985920-0-8

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Time Tunnel Media

Review Posted Online: Sept. 6, 2018

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WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD

A LIFETIME OF RECORDINGS

Noted jazz and pop record producer Thiele offers a chatty autobiography. Aided by record-business colleague Golden, Thiele traces his career from his start as a ``pubescent, novice jazz record producer'' in the 1940s through the '50s, when he headed Coral, Dot, and Roulette Records, and the '60s, when he worked for ABC and ran the famous Impulse! jazz label. At Coral, Thiele championed the work of ``hillbilly'' singer Buddy Holly, although the only sessions he produced with Holly were marred by saccharine strings. The producer specialized in more mainstream popsters like the irrepressibly perky Teresa Brewer (who later became his fourth wife) and the bubble-machine muzak-meister Lawrence Welk. At Dot, Thiele was instrumental in recording Jack Kerouac's famous beat- generation ramblings to jazz accompaniment (recordings that Dot's president found ``pornographic''), while also overseeing a steady stream of pop hits. He then moved to the Mafia-controlled Roulette label, where he observed the ``silk-suited, pinky-ringed'' entourage who frequented the label's offices. Incredibly, however, Thiele remembers the famously hard-nosed Morris Levy, who ran the label and was eventually convicted of extortion, as ``one of the kindest, most warm-hearted, and classiest music men I have ever known.'' At ABC/Impulse!, Thiele oversaw the classic recordings of John Coltrane, although he is the first to admit that Coltrane essentially produced his own sessions. Like many producers of the day, Thiele participated in the ownership of publishing rights to some of the songs he recorded; he makes no apology for this practice, which he calls ``entirely appropriate and without any ethical conflicts.'' A pleasant, if not exactly riveting, memoir that will be of most interest to those with a thirst for cocktail-hour stories of the record biz. (25 halftones, not seen)

Pub Date: May 1, 1995

ISBN: 0-19-508629-4

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Oxford Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 1995

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Necessarily swift and adumbrative as well as inclusive, focused, and graceful.

A LITTLE HISTORY OF POETRY

A light-speed tour of (mostly) Western poetry, from the 4,000-year-old Gilgamesh to the work of Australian poet Les Murray, who died in 2019.

In the latest entry in the publisher’s Little Histories series, Carey, an emeritus professor at Oxford whose books include What Good Are the Arts? and The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books, offers a quick definition of poetry—“relates to language as music relates to noise. It is language made special”—before diving in to poetry’s vast history. In most chapters, the author deals with only a few writers, but as the narrative progresses, he finds himself forced to deal with far more than a handful. In his chapter on 20th-century political poets, for example, he talks about 14 writers in seven pages. Carey displays a determination to inform us about who the best poets were—and what their best poems were. The word “greatest” appears continually; Chaucer was “the greatest medieval English poet,” and Langston Hughes was “the greatest male poet” of the Harlem Renaissance. For readers who need a refresher—or suggestions for the nightstand—Carey provides the best-known names and the most celebrated poems, including Paradise Lost (about which the author has written extensively), “Kubla Khan,” “Ozymandias,” “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, which “changed the course of English poetry.” Carey explains some poetic technique (Hopkins’ “sprung rhythm”) and pauses occasionally to provide autobiographical tidbits—e.g., John Masefield, who wrote the famous “Sea Fever,” “hated the sea.” We learn, as well, about the sexuality of some poets (Auden was bisexual), and, especially later on, Carey discusses the demons that drove some of them, Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath among them. Refreshingly, he includes many women in the volume—all the way back to Sappho—and has especially kind words for Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, who share a chapter.

Necessarily swift and adumbrative as well as inclusive, focused, and graceful.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-300-23222-6

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: Feb. 9, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

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