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On the elimination of everything but the essentials

Filed in Books
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When DSN was visiting Stanford’s Department of Management Science and Engineering in the late 90s, it was called “Engineering-Economic Systems and Operations Research”. A change for the better, no? One thing that hasn’t changed is the excellence of the people there.

We just got our copy David Luenberger’s new Information Science. Not only is it a handsome book (big but not heavy, with cottony paper), it’s like an entire college education on a field you never knew existed, looking at everything from file compression to marketing to microeconomics through one beautiful framework set forth by Claude Shannon in 1949. It includes a nice Shannon quote, from 1953:

The first [method] I might speak about is simplification. Suppose that you are given a problem to solve, I don’t care what kind of problem—a machine to design, or a physical theory to develop, or a mathematical theorem to prove or something of that kind—probably a very powerful approach to this is to attempt to eliminate everything from the problem except the essentials; that is, cut it down to size. Almost every problem that you come across is befuddled with all kinds of extraneous data of one sort or another; and if you can bring this problem down into the main issues, you can see more clearly what you are trying to do an perhaps find a solution. Now in so doing you may have stripped away the problem you’re after. You may have simplified it to the point that it doesn’t even resemble the problem that you started with; but very often if you can solve this simple problem, you can add refinements to the solution of this until you get back to the solution of the one you started with.

Luenberger comments “Shannon’s approach of abstraction to an essence should become clear as we study his contributions throughout this text. His work is a testament to the power of the method.”

Shannon, Claude E. Creative Thinking. Mathematical Sciences Research Center, AT&T, 1993.