I’ve got three books going at the moment:

1. ‘What Just Happened; A Chronicle from the Information Frontier’

2. ‘Paul Allen: Idea Man’

3. ‘The Proverbs’ – the 21st book of the Bible.

The first and third books are my morning books while Paul Allen’s memoirs is my afternoon book.

This is mostly about convenience and not necessarily about preference. Paul Allen’s book is in epub format which I read on my 7” Nexus and the other two books are in mobi format which I read on an ancient Kindle.

Would I recommend Paul Allen’s memoirs? Probably not. I found some of his early history interesting but as a memoir it read more like a publicity statement coming from someone who is dying and wants to be well remembered.

I did enjoy reading about the early days of Microsoft and being reminded of so many things that I had forgotten from the earliest days of personal computing. I worked in the office on an IBM mini-computer as early as 1979 but we as a family didn’t get our first home computer I think until 1982. And I believe it was a 286.

Anyway, one thing I learned from reading Allen’s memoirs was that Microsoft’s first real product was a BASIC compiler for an early personal computer startup company in Albuquerque called Altair that introduced a kit based on the Intel 8008 8-bit CPU.

A fun fact is that Paul and Bill actually started Microsoft in Albuquerque and not in Seattle simply because that was where their first real customer was located. And I never really thought so much about the earliest days of personal computing but in the beginning – that is 1975 – Altair really had no competition.

And unsurprisingly, their early computer called the Altair 8800 didn’t do much. The machine booted from a short bootstrap that Paul Allen had developed and the machine loaded the BASIC compiler. That was it.

In 1979 Microsoft’s BASIC interpreter became the first microprocessor software product to surpass a million dollars in sales. Intel around that same time introduced the first 16-bit CPU, the 8086 (preceded by the 4004 – 8008 – 8080, then the 8086 – 8088).

Microsoft at that time hadn’t yet written their soon to be ubiquitous MS-DOS. In fact they bought their first OS realizing that with all of the then different emerging microprocessor architectures that they’d be spending too many man-hours porting their high level language compilers (FORTRAN. COBOL, Pascal, and all the rest) to each and every one of them.

In the early days of the micro-computer there were no real applications. Hence the high level language compilers. In those early days companies wrote their own application specific programs.

VisiCalc was one of the first actual standalone mass-produced programs and it ran on an Apple II. There were also a few apps like WordMaster (later evolved into WordStar) about that time and Microsoft’s excuse for not going into the applications market then was that it was too fragmented.

So in 1980, shortly after Microsoft got approached by IBM for their secret PC business Paul Allen and Bill Gates realized that they needed an OS solution that Microsoft would own outright and in the doing sidestepped Digital Research’s CP/M. But that was DR’s fault.

Anyway, Microsoft came to IBM’s attention because of how their BASIC, at half-million copies sold, was dominating the 8-bit computing world. And with the new 16-bit 8086 just hitting the market, IBM asked Microsoft if they could provide a 16-bit OS.

The only reason Big Blue did this was because they had a 4 year development cycle for mainframes so for them it only made sense to outsource their nascent PC software development in order to bring their new PC quicker to market. IBM, if you remember at that time was all about mainframes and thought that personal computers would only have a limited appeal but they still were wise enough to play.

It is ironic that Microsoft first tried to pass IBM onto Digital Research for the OS but DR in one of the most famous tech fumbles in history, dropped the proverbial ball. IBM ended up saying they couldn’t work with DR so Microsoft ended up approaching the owner of DR, Gary Kildell because he had earlier promised a CP/M-86 which was to have been delivered earlier that year. But DR lacked the typical start-up’s urgency so Microsoft had to scramble and look elsewhere.

It is also ironic that the solution that Microsoft ultimately went with was a company called Seattle Computer Products which had been shipping their version of the PC built on the Intel 8086 with an OS that they wrote in-house that they called QDOS for Quick and Dirty Operating System.

And it is further ironic that SCP perceived themselves as hardware makers and so their development of QDOS was just their way of moving iron out the door. And it is interesting to note that if DR had delivered a 16 bit version of CP/M in December ‘79/January ’80 then there would have been a good chance that the present PC world would still be CP/M and Microsoft wouldn’t have grown into the $90B/year company they are today.

And to add even more irony into the mix, IBM – usually a very IP savvy company – dropped the ball by agreeing to Microsoft‘s non-exclusive use of their software products so Microsoft was able to adapt their recently purchased QDOS into MS-DOS and sell it in turn to every PC manufacturing company in the world.

And while DR did eventually produce a 16-bit version of CR/M which ran such early programs as WordStar and dBase, the company couldn’t overcome the momentum achieved by Microsoft and eventually became just a footnote in the early annuals of computing history. Bill Gates and Paul Allen had learned early on with the sales of their BASIC compiler that in order to survive one had to completely dominate the respective market.

‘What Just Happened; A Chronicle from the Information Frontier’ is just that, a chronicle. A tale that attempts to piece together not just the history of computing machines but also attempts to address the breadth of information. And how information at its very root is physical and deeply embedded in systems and entities that most of us never stop to think about.

Personally, the book really began to get interesting for me when I got to the chapter on entropy. Entropy has been one of those elusive concepts that I’ve always managed to never fully understand, although I have tried. I think my first introduction to entropy was in taking Thermodynamics my sophomore year.

To the physicist, entropy is about measuring the uncertainty in a physical system. But what does that really mean? And loosely speaking, to an information theorist it is about measuring the uncertainty in a message. And again, what does that really mean?

To speak about entropy – substituting the less precise symbols of words for mathematical symbols – involves talking about systems with respect to their order (or disorder). But order is subjective. Initially order was idealized by the pioneers of thermodynamics as they considered the case of a closed system (a box) of gas. The highly agitated particles of gas moved, some faster than others, heat was created (or lost) as these particles collided. As individual atoms couldn’t be parsed out of their collective cloud for study, probability entered the picture and statistical mechanics, a new science was born.

Entropy was also initially bandied about by these same pioneers as the unavailability of energy. Hmm.

The First law of Thermodynamics: The energy of the universe is constant.
The Second law of Thermodynamics: The entropy of the universe always increases.

James Clerk Maxwell, one the greatest scientists of all time, got into the fray and postulated by using a thought experiment where a tiny being standing over a hole watching the movement of molecules with the gas box could tell whether they were fast or slow and could then likewise separate them using a dividing membrane within the box hence reducing entropy.

The idea of reducing entropy isn’t so much impossible (like the though experiment) but more improbable; likened by Maxwell as dumping a tumblerful of water into the ocean and then expecting to retrieve the same tumblerful back again. So for a box of gas to become unmixed (fast vs. slow) isn’t physically impossible, it is just improbable to the extreme. Are you confused now?

So this tiny creature in the thought experiment – later dubbed Maxwell’s demon – replaces, as the book says, ‘chance with reason’. And ‘it uses information to reduce entropy’.

Okay, now we are getting closer to one of the main points that the author is trying to make and that is how information is intrinsically tied to well, everything. And Maxwell’s demon serves to make the link that information is physical. ‘That the demon performs a conversion between information and energy one particle at a time.’

Claude Shannon, quite possibly the greatest scientist that most people have never heard of, wrote the definitive book on information theory. He was born (1916) in my little old hometown in Northern Michigan and I never heard of the guy until I started studying electrical engineering in Texas. And even there and even then he wasn’t taught per se, although he should have been. I find that unbelievable as he has pretty much been credited with inventing information theory.

Everyone since his seminal publication, ‘A Mathematical Theory of Communication’ builds from his ideas. Everything from how many bits will fit in a pipe to quantifying noise as a probability in a communication channel to the introduction of sampling theory all started with Shannon.

After the rather lengthy and historical prologue leading up to and including how Shannon fit entropy into his communication theory the author makes a rather clear summation statement, “We all behave like Maxwell’s demon. Organisms organize. In everyday experience lies the reason sober physicists across two centuries kept this cartoon fantasy alive. We sort the mail, build sandcastles, solve jigsaw puzzles, rearrange chess pieces, collect stamps, alphabetize books, create symmetry, separate wheat from chaff, compose sonnets and sonatas, and put our rooms in order, and to all this requires no great energy as long as we apply intelligence. We propagate structure (not just we humans but we who are alive). We disturb the tendency towards equilibrium.”

So in conclusion, what really is entropy and why does the understanding of it matter so much to me?

First, I was always troubled by the seemingly discordant semantics: order/disorder, equilibrium, high/low entropy. And I remembered from something I read years ago in another book on information theory that in the case of a system that reached the state of equilibrium that it was in a state of low information, which was bad. If every particle has the same temperature value and all the velocities were constant then there was nothing from an informational standpoint to learn.

Okay. But the universe is trending – according to the second law of thermodynamics – towards a state of maximum entropy, which is also bad. So I could never reconcile these two entropic states of bad. I mean the state of equilibrium always seemed systemically to be a good thing to me. The system was quiescent. That must be orderly, right? Wrong.

A system in equilibrium is actually highly entropic. Meaning (and this is the part that confused me) that it is highly disordered.

How can a closed system containing equally spaced particles, all at the same temperature be considered highly disordered? Comparing that to the universe that is trending from order to disorder. I always perceived that as chaos. That really screwed with my head until I thought about Maxwell’s demon.

We humans, like Maxwell’s demon, lessen entropy by adding order. And the universe, trending towards disorder would be better said that it was trending towards equilibrium. So to put all of this to rest: high entropy = equilibrium = death.

And a last comment. The universe – while it might be spreading out from the center – is also slowly cooling, losing energy, and hence, approaching a state of equilibrium. Hence, dying.

Okay. Okay. Okay. Entropy. Got it? Pssst – The dead don’t speak…

So finally getting to a synopsis of book #3 – I found something rather interesting the other day that I thought might be fitting to capture in a post before I totally forget about it. These posts of mine are mostly a ‘Dear Diary’ kind of thing where I write only about the stuff on a day to day basis that I am interested in.
And I’ve been rereading The Proverbs. And a few pages in I began to see a trend. Over and over there appeared these admonishments for man to seek knowledge and wisdom. I found it interesting how God places such a high value on those commodities where wisdom was constantly being extolled as more precious than gold or jewels.

And knowledge. To seek after learning. Interesting. Is it possible that those attributes are responsible to why the adherents to the Christian faith haven’t been stuck in the 14th century all these years arguing over the minutiae of dietary laws and worship practices?

I for one am still actively involved in learning. My short temper has always conspired to keep wisdom at an impossible distance but knowledge and the act of learning have always been blessedly within my grasp.