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The early years of computing were a like a Renaissance dance, lots of people who somehow manage to get to dance with each other at least once. A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age gives us yet another place to stand and watch that dance.

Claude Shannon is one of those people who fundamentally changed the way we look at the world. The problem with fundamental change is that we tend to be on one side or the other of it. Today we speak of information theory as though it’s as obvious a concept as making paper. Kind of the same way we obsess over software developers being able to write code to sort numbers or reverse linked lists. At some point, the fundamental reality of the existence of high-quality libraries and data structures will make these queries as relevant as requiring people to explain a tape sort. But I digress.

He was a researcher, tinkerer, teacher, juggler, and for all appearances didn’t seem attached to labels. He had Vannevar Bush looking out for him. As an MIT professor, he had Danny Hillis and Ivan Sutherland, among others, as doctoral students. He worked with Alan Turing during World War II. And the box-switch-thing that turns itself off. That was him.

Reading the book, you get a sense of possibilities explored. So often people either dismiss or defer possibilities. He literally had a basement full of them. If only he’d know Ron Popeil, every home might have a few of them.

I don’t know how well he would fare in the world today. In his time, Bell Labs basically paid to have him around. He had cachet. He also helped focus people’s ideas. He brought this sensibility to MIT with him as a professor. We get so terribly wrapped up in being hyper-specialized, in know the what but not the why. To often we come across the proverbial Gordian knot and turn away. People are either unwilling to try, or believing themselves to be special, simply act as though the problem does not exist. (Treating people poorly and flaunting violations of the law fall into this category.) Few people are willing to question the fundamentals. What do you need? What do you have?

The interesting people are those who solve problems and help other people solve problems, not by merely telling them what the answer is, but by enabling them to see that solutions can come from places that aren’t necessarily rooted in the past ways of doing things.

In our day and age, when we focus on special skills and special languages and special hardware, it would behoove us to remember that there is no best skill or language or hardware. There is only the universe of problems. It is far more valuable to be able to help others see the shape of the solution than to be an individual capable of providing a answer to a well-defined question whose value will in time expire.

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