/ Information /
These days a commercial “home page” like Yahoo features a cartoon face.
It’s cleverly drawn, the ambiguities balance tantalizingly: is the face human or alien? Is the skull’s shoreline bestial? Moronic? is it child-friendly, does it belong in the nursery? or is it monstrous?
I recommend that you study Disney’s evolution with family vacation puppets. Steven Jay Gould, Professor Key … have accumulated good perceptions on the subject: any marketing department these days has to understand the bulk of it. The original Mickey Mouse looked like a rodent who would bite, a boy with the emphasis on mischief. That grew to round harmlessness: the bite of a marshmallow. This Bingo figure recapitulates much of that history: cute. Intriguing, regardless.
This morning I caught the Philadelphia 76ers unveiling of a cartoon of Ben Franklin dribbling a basketball. The art department is seeking and getting maximum milage from minimum pencil strokes. And old Ben shares some of Mickey Mouse’s over-time ambiguity, mixing the smart uncle we’re proud of with the mischief of the cartoon rodent. Now I hope we can spring to my real subject: minimal information.
I’ve been thinking about this since grad school. The masters program had clear simple requirements: a couple of dozen class hours in subjects on the subject: and one required linguistics course. I never would have volunteered to take it, boy am I glad I did take it: you don’t know what you’ll find most interesting until you study it! (And: there isn’t any subject that isn’t interesting once you study it!) The professor was a character. Howie Berntsen: I’ll never forget Howie saying as we studied phenomes, “I’m from Brooklyn. I have only one ah(R) in my speech: in my name: BeRnsten. The Brooklyn school insisted I pronounce BOITsen as BeRnsten.” So Howie tells us hilarious stories about studying countryside pronunciations about Leeds, England: him speaking Brooklyn, them speaking Leeds. But mostly I remember a different story: Howie had worked for the phone company: interesting work the phone company had been doing since WWII. He worked in a lab which studying how much information could be subtracted before intelligibility is lost. You record something, make an electronic record. You’ve got the total signal: “Watson, come here. I need you.” Part of it you theorize is an electronic hum. You subtract the hum. Clear as a bell: “Watson, come here. I need you.” Sounds clearer after you’re erased the hum! Now you identify something else in the signal, you subtract that. Still sounds OK: “Watson, come here. I need you.”
You weigh the dog. Then you pick the fleas out of the dog’s fur: it’s still the dog. Now you clip his toenails: it’s still the dog. At somepoint you remove the dog’s heart … Uh oh: dead dog, useless corpse.
Now: that Bingo monster: does it have to be exactly that blue? If you added to the tooth size, or say added fangs, at what point would the children shrink away, crawl aside?
The phone company in 1962 was trying to find out how cheaply the phone could be manufactured and still relay intelligible messages. “Watson, come here. I need you.” $10, $5, $1 … until: gibber-gibber-gibber. No Watson, no nothing: can’t go that cheap, not this year.