On his way in, Mr. Elbaz meets Mr. Smelie, on his way out

Gil Elbaz’s new company plans to collect, organize and distribute every fact on the face of the earth (and, presumably, above and below it). His company was featured on the front page of today’s New York Times Sunday Business Section.

The sum of human knowledge from a hundred years ago.

Colin Macfarquhar’s old company dates back to about 1770, when Colin and partner Andrew Bell hired William Smelie to put together the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Smelie was 28 years old at the time, and he managed to produce, with collaborators, over 2,500 pages in three volumes. This month, after 15 editions, and all sorts of contortionist moves to contain and present an increasing vast store of information, the old EB gave up. No more editions. They’re done. After more than 200 years of successful publication of facts in books, the task became overwhelming as the publication business was overwhelmed by the crowd sourced newcomer, not yet a decade old, called Wikipedia. And the old Britannica ceased publication.

‘Tis a sad day, I suppose, but neither the Encyclopedia Britannica, nor the World Book Encyclopedia (which was always easier to read and more enjoyable to browse because of its reliance upon pictures), nor Colliers or the others, were superior reference tools.

From the NY Timesarticle about the EB’s demise:

William Smelie was responsible for the first Encyclopaedia Britannica, a stunning accomplishment that lasted centuries, but never overcame the digital revolution.

(In) one widely publicized study, published in 2005 by Nature, called into question Britannica’s presumed accuracy advantage over Wikipedia. The study said that out of 42 competing entries, Wikipedia made an average of four errors in each article, and Britannica three. Britannica responded with a lengthy rebuttal saying the study was error-laden and “completely without merit.”

Early in my career, I wrote and researched questions for television game shows, where a contestant’s knowledge (and memory) of facts could be converted into thousands of dollars. We kept several encyclopedias in the office. Each one had a pad above it, where writers and researchers made note of errors. Each pad was dozens of pages long. There were lots and lots of mistakes, some stunning in their stupidity: Paris was the capital of Egypt, that sort of thing, resulting from too many pages being pushed through a manual system at speeds that made sense only to a publisher.

Gil Elbaz, founder of Factual.

Factual’s plan, outlined in a big orange room with a few tables and walled with whiteboards, is to build the world’s chief reference point for thousands of interconnected supercomputing clouds.” Based upon the NY Times article, it would be fair to assume that Factual and EB are looking at information differently–both in terms of process and scale:

Geared to both big companies and smaller software developers, it includes available government data, terabytes of corporate data and information on 60 million places in 50 countries, each described by 17 to 40 attributes. Factual knows more than 800,000 restaurants in 30 different ways, including location, ownership and ratings by diners and health boards. It also contains information on half a billion Web pages, a list of America’s high schools and data on the offices, specialties and insurance preferences of 1.8 million United States health care professionals. There are also listings of 14,000 wine grape varietals, of military aircraft accidents from 1950 to 1974, and of body masses of major celebrities.

There is reason to be confident in Mr. Elbaz’s vision and ability to execute: his prior company, “Applied Semantics software quickly scanned thousands of Web pages for their meaning. By parsing content, it could tell businesses what kind of ads would work well on a particular page. It had 45 employees and was profitable when Google acquired it in 2003 for $102 million in cash and pre-I.P.O. stock.”

So, say goodbye to yet another long-standing institution, acknowledge the intermediary step that caused the change, and welcome yet another new way of thinking enabled by the massive technology shifts that we’ve experienced in our recent lifetimes. Gee, this is moving along quickly!…

Siri, meet the family

The UK cover is more interesting than the US cover, which is, somewhat appropriately, covered with the repeated words "The Information."

James Gleick nearly won a Pulitzer Prize for a biography about Isaac Newton, and another about Richard Feynmann, a colorful physicist who pioneered nanotechnology and quantum mechanics. His best selling book (more than a million copies sold) is the step-by-step, scientist-by-scientist, idea-by idea story of chaos theory entitled Chaos: Making a New Science.

Gleick’s 2011 book is called The Information. it begins with the European discovery of African talking drums in the 1840s, a percussive idea he eventually connects to Samuel Morse’s dots-and-dashes telegraph code, and, we’re off on a long tale not unlike the best of James Burke’s TV series, Connections. Gleick takes us through the development of letters and alphabets, numbers and mathematics, numerical tables and algorithms, dictionaries and encyclopedias. These stories, and their many tangents, set us up for Charles Babbage whose boredom with the Cambridge curriculum in mathematics leads to an early, impossible-to-build, 25,000 piece machine, awesome in its analog, mechanical, Victorian design. This, then, leads to the further develop of the telegraph, now caught up in a new conception called a “network” that connected much of France, for example.

By the early 20th century, MIT becomes one of several institutions concerned with the training of electrical engineers–then, a new discipline–and with it, machinery to solve second-order differential equations (“rates of change within rates of change: from position to velocity to acceleration”). This, plus the logic associated with relay switches in telegraph networks, provides MIT graduate student Claude Shannon with his thesis idea: connecting electricity with logical interactions in a network. Shannon’s path leads to Bell Labs, where he works on the “transmission of intelligence.” By 1936, a 22-year old Cambridge graduate named Alan Turing had begun thinking about a machine that could compute.

Well, that’s about half the book. Now, things become more complex, harder to follow, dull for all but the most interested reader. The interweaving connects DNA and memes (and, inevitably, memetics, which is the study of memes), cybernetics and randomness, quantification of information, and Jorge Luis Borges’ 1941 conception of an ultimate library with “all books, in all languages, books of apology and prophecy, the gospel and commentary on that gospel, and commentary upon the commentary upon the gospel…”

Eventually we obsolete CD-ROMs (too much information, too little space), and create Wikipedia and the whole of the Internet. In the global googleplex, the term “information overload” becomes inadequate. And yet, Gleick promises, it is not the quantity that matters, it is the meaning that matters. After 420 pages of historical text, I’m still wondering what it all means–and whether the purpose is mere conveyance as opposed to deeper meaning or its hopeful result, understanding.


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