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In Three D: Data, Drama and Deity

November 21, 2013 3 comments

The words semaphore and metaphor are interesting to look at in the context of defining information and significance. Semaphore refers to a ‘bearer of signs’ (like a naval signaling flag), and also in programming to control access to shared resources. In both cases, the sense is of information which is not only an encoded text, but one in which the message pertains to a live event in real time. The semaphore is used to solicit attention to receive information as well as to inform.

I’m tempted to connect the prefix sema- with the etymologically unrelated semi-, as signs can, in some sense, be thought of as ‘half’ of a feeling. The signal provides a functioning form (ordered process of publicly available presence), while the interpretation of the signal provides a private experience of sensory significance.

In the pursuit of Strong AI, computer science has generally assumed that intelligence is, or can only be, a kind of entanglement of semaphores. Concepts are built from the bottom up as bits of data being stepped through a formal process of computation. The theoretical continuity between this ‘semaphoric reckoning’ with human intelligence hinges on the presumption that ‘complexity’ is a quality which is objective and autopoietic. Personally. I do not think that we can presume that, as the nature of any pattern is contingent upon pattern recognition. If we see a strand of DNA as a collection of individual atoms repeating in meaningless sequence, it need not be considered ‘complex’. If we see it instead as a single molecule, or as a recipe book for all life forms, then it would be very complex. I see it as a major problem, in light of the fact that the two phenomena are completely different depending on how we scope our attention to them, to assume that in the absence of any pattern recognition at all there would be or could be a difference between simplicity and complexity. If there is some principle of general aesthetic coherence which makes that determination, then we should name it and make it a requirement in order to have a completed physics.

On the other end of the spectrum that I am laying out, is what can be called metaphor. Where semaphores essentialize the literal and initiate unambiguous communication, metaphors essentialize the figurative and invite the interpreter to use the symbols to unlock their own experience. The semaphore points to the instrument of communication and the location of the transmission in space and time while the metaphor points through the instrument, deriving experiential significance non-locally through time. Semaphoric communication is scientific and mathematical, pulling attention into the public physic, while metaphoric communication is artistic and poetic, loosening attention into the private psyche. The significance of metaphor cannot be located within the text of a communication because it is drawn from common experience. The same fairy tale has a different set of meanings when it is read by a young child versus an English professor.

Taking this comparison to the ultimate extreme, the top-down metaphor can, in addition to seeing through the literal words that constitute it, implicate awareness itself. In contrast to this, the bottom-up semaphore, implicates automaticity – the mindless permutation function of repeating quantic forms. Data refers only to the literal process of ferrying and storing positive logic – additions superimposed on top of a void. Poetry, by overheating signs with subjective entropy, invites a promiscuity of association that, in its resonance and circularity, conjures meta-experience. It revers to ourselves, and to human experience in general. The poem is illogical negativism – it cuts meaning out of a layer cake of a priori human sympathies.

This ties back into another of my favorite dichotomies; that of superstition versus what I am calling substitution (or hypostition). The superstitious mind sees through the text of the world to see the face of God or the Devil behind every mundane coincidence. The psyche is too animated and profuse so that all of nature is read as supernatural and the low end is lost all together. Logic becomes confused and self-fulfilling. Fear and joy dominate reason. Every publicly extended signal becomes a privately intended message and the credibility of the source of the message collapses into naive acceptance or reactionary denial. Pathological denial and acceptance plays into the opposite mental extreme as well. The substitutious mind reduces all message content to the mere functioning of messaging devices. The mind which is attuned to this sub-natural level sees in all experience only the logical expression of simple facts. Even consciousness itself is deconstructed as an entanglement of semaphores. From this view, the poetic and aesthetic truths of the universe are unavailable, and a rigid formalism of reason dominates personal feelings.

It would seem that these two poles are evenly matched – the substitutious semaphore and the superstitious metaphor could be equally valuable and costly. Further consideration reveals that they are not completely symmetric, however. The difference between the poetic and the digital are only visible from the poetic facing side. The digital is effective because it can substitute – it emulates from the bottom of a particular substitution level of granularity. Even Planck scale is a scale that bottoms out with the minimum bit depth for measurement of public physics, rather than experiential privacy which cannot be measured reliably. I submit that it cannot be measured reliably because experience cannot be substituted. Like the top-down metaphor (which I now use as meta-metaphor), consciousness extends from the absolute in a way which is unrepeatable and unprecedented, even as it repeats over and over again.

Between the bookends of sub-phor and super-phor is the phoric range of ordinary experience. Many people do not spend much time contemplating the mysteries of information science or phenomenology, and so live in the more down-to-earth realm of the ordinary. Ironically, rather than cancelling out the mythic and mathematical extremes, the mid-range of awareness is perhaps the more fertile range. Games and sports take on fantastic import, and ordinary communications become soap opera-dramatic. The wide open marketplace of diurnal experience is spiced with both art and science, but the main products are significant in a completely different way. Rather than seeking the infinitessimal/instantaneous or the ultimate/eternal, the presentation of ordinary life seeks fortune and fulfillment personal choice. It contains vast opportunity and vast limitation which make us feel our lives to be both incredibly important and a complete waste of time all at once.

Obstruction of Solitude: A Guide To Noise

October 15, 2013 Leave a comment

“And then…all the noise!  All the noise, noise, noise, noise!
If there’s one thing I hate…all the noise, noise, noise, noise!
And they’ll shriek, squeak, and squeal racing round on their wheels,
Then dance with jin-tinglers tied onto their heels!” – The Grinch

“Karma police, arrest this man
He talks in maths
He buzzes like a fridge
He’s like a detuned radio” – Radiohead

It might be asked, “Why should we care about noise?” Two reasons come to mind.

1) To reduce, contain, or otherwise avoid it.
2) To understand what isn’t noise, and why we prefer that.

Real Noise

The general use of the word noise refers to an unpleasant sound. Even on this most literal level, there is a sense of denial about the extent to which unpleasant qualities are subjective. The stereotypical parent, upon hearing the stereotypical teenager’s musical taste being played at high volume, may yell something like “Turn off that infernal noise!”. There is a sense that the sound demands to be labeled objectively as a terrible thing to listen to, rather than as a sound which presents itself differently according to one’s state of mind or development.

At the same time, we cannot rule out all objective, or at least pseudo-objective qualities related to signal and noise. A garage recording of a metal band or a jackhammer attacking the pavement can be uncontroversially defined as being ‘noisy’, particularly in comparison to other, more gentle sounds. ‘Real noise’, then, seems to have a range of subjective and objective qualifiers. Loud, percussive sounds are inherently noisy to us humans, and we have reason to assume the same is true for animals and even plants:

“Dorothy Retallack tried experimenting with different types of music. She played rock to one group of plants and, soothing music to another. The group that heard rock turned out to be sickly and small whereas the other group grew large and healthy. What’s more surprising is that the group of plants listening to the soothing music grew bending towards the radio just as they bend towards the sunlight.”source

Whether we enjoy loud, percussive sounds is a matter of taste and context. Even the most diehard metal fan probably does not want to hear their favorite band blasting at five o’ clock in the morning from a passing car. Being able to control what we listen to contributes to our perception of it as noise.

Obstruction, Distraction, Destruction, and Leaks

Whether a piece of music offends our personal taste, or it is simply so loud that we can’t ‘hear ourselves think’, the experience of being distracted seems central to its status as noise. In the parlance of sound engineers, and later Silicon Valley schmoozers, the ‘signal to noise ratio’ describes this feature of noise to distract or divert attention from the intended communication. Noise not only obstructs access to the signal, the disturbance that it causes also detracts from the quality of the signal itself. If the signal to noise ratio is poor enough, it may not be worth the effort for the receiver to try to interpret it, and communication is destroyed.

This sense of noise as an obstacle to communication extends beyond audio or electronic signals to any context where information is accessed, transmitted, or stored. In his influential work on telecommunications, Clause Shannon described information entropy as those features of a signal which are costly to compress.  Typically it is those patterns which cannot be easily discerned as either part of the intentional signal or part of the background noise. Despite the tremendous computational resources available for mobile communication, the signal quality on mobile devices are still generally inferior to land lines. Between microphone gating that clips off conversation instead of ambient street sounds and the loss of packets due to radio broadcast conditions or network routing conditions, it is amazing that it sounds as good as it does, but it is still a relatively leaky way to transmit voices.

Neural Noise and Withdrawal

Every sense has its own particular kind of noise. Vision has glare, blur, phosphene patterns (‘seeing stars’). Touch has non-specific tingling or itching. Olfactory and gustatory senses encounter foul odors or bad aftertastes.  Feelings like nausea and dizziness which are unrelated to food or balance conditions are a kind of noise (noise is etymologically related to nausea and noxious). Part of the effect of withdrawal from an addiction that the brain becomes overly sensitized to irritating stimuli in general. It’s almost like an allergic response in that the systems which would ordinarily protect us from threats is distracted by a false threat and turned on itself.  Our sensitivity to the environment, having been hijacked by an external supply of pleasurable signals, has built up a tolerance for those super-saturated instructions.

With any kind of addiction, even healthy ones like exercise or washing your hands, the nature of sense is to accommodate and normalize perceptions which are present regularly. Because the addiction provides positive reinforcement regularly, there is an artificially low noise ratio which invites your senses to recalibrate to listen more closely to the noise (which would be quite adaptive evolutionarily, you would want to still hear that tiger or smell that smoke even when you enjoy a lifestyle of hedonism and decadence). When the source of positive distraction is removed, the sensitivity to negative distraction is still cranked up to 11, which of course, taps into the original motivation to escape the negative distractions of life with an addiction in the first place. We want something to soothe our nerves, to numb the sensitivity and quiet the noise.

A Recipe For Noise

There seem to be general patterns which are common to many kinds of noise. Noise can either be an obstructing presence, or a conspicuous absence (like the dropouts on a phone call). It can be a public or a private condition which clouds judgment, invites impatience, frustration, and intolerance.  Noise can be that which is incoherent, irrelevant, redundant, or inappropriate. Some signals can be temporarily irrelevant or incoherent, while others are permanently so. Besides being too loud, an audio noise can also be soft, such as a hiss or other aesthetic defect that exposes leaky conditions in the recording process. The context is important, as with withdrawal from addiction, our senses are more attuned to the relativity of sensation rather than objective measurement. Grey looks darker next to black than it does next to white.

Our ability to use our attention to pivot from foreground to background is part of what defines the difference between signal and noise, or sense and nonsense. We can all relate to the Charlie Brown effect, where the words that a teacher says are reduced to unintelligible vocalizations. As you read these words now, you may be scanning over so much tedious verbiage that looks like generic wordiness more than any particular message. Any signal can be a noise if you don’t pay attention to it in the right way, and any noise can be used as a meaningful code or symbol. Perhaps there is a way to get over our addictions a little easier if we can learn to see our irritation and cravings as a sign that we are on the right path to restoring our neurological gain.

Many Cures

The destruction of information or the suppression of noise is not as simple as it may seem. Take, for example, the difference between analgesic, anesthetic, and narcotic effects. Pain can be relieved systemically, locally, or simply by being made to seem irrelevant. It can be selectively suppressed or wiped out as part of an overall deadening of sensation. There are other ways to get pain relief besides pharmaceuticals as well. Athletes or soldiers are known to perform with severe injuries, and many people have endured astonishing hardships for the sake of their family without being fully aware of the pain they were in. While there may be endogenous pharmacology going on which accounts for the specific pain suppression, it is ultimately the context which the subject is conscious of which drives the release of endorphins and other neurotransmitters.

Semiotics of Noise

Looking at noise from a Piercean perspective, it can be seen as a failure of semiosis – a broken icon, symbol, or index.  A broken index would be something like tinnitus or a phantom limb. The signal we are receiving does not correspond to the referent that we expect, and in fact corresponds only to a problem with the signaling mechanism, or some deeper problem. A signal which is broken as an index but can be understood meaningfully as a symptom of something else (maybe the tinnitus is due to a sinus infection) has reverted from a teleological index to a teleonomic* index. It coincides with a condition, but does not represent it faithfully in any way. It is noise in the sense that the expected association must be overlooked intentionally to get to the unintentional association to a symptom.

A broken index would also be one which we deem irrelevant. This type of noise, which would include the proliferation of automatic alerts, false alarms, flashing lights, spam, etc. There may be nothing wrong with what what the message is saying, but considerations of redundancy, and context inappropriateness makes it clear that what a computer thinks is important and what we think is important are very different things. This type of noise fails at the pragmatic level. It’s not that we don’t understand the message, or that its not for us, it’s that we don’t want to do anything about it.

Broken icons and symbols would similarly be made incoherent, irrelevant, or inappropriate by lacking enough syntactic integrity or semantic content to justify positive attention. Fragmented texts or degenerated signs can fail to satisfy functionally or aesthetically, either on their own, or due to intrusions from outside of the intended communication channel. The overall function of noise is to decompose. Like the odor of something that has spoiled, disorder and decay are symptoms of entropy. In the schema of cosmic metabolism, entropy is the catabolic phase of forms and functions – a kind of toll exacted by space and time which ensures that whatever rises to the threshold of existence and importance, will eventually destabilize, its differences de-tuning to indifference.

What Noise Tells Us About Signals

If we begin with the premise that signal and noise are polar opposites, then it may be useful to look at the opposite of some of the terms and concepts that have just been discussed. If noise is irrelevant, inappropriate, incoherent, and redundant, then the qualities which make something significant or important should include being relevant, appropriate, coherent, and essential. Where noise obstructs, distracts, and destroys, sense instructs, attracts, and constructs. Where noise is noxious and disgusting, signals soothe and give solace.

In the larger picture of self and consciousness, it is our solitude that is threatened by noise. Solitude, like solidity and structure are related to low entropy. It is the feeling of strong continuity and coherence, a silent background from which all moments of sound and fury are foregrounded. It is what receives all signals and insulates all noise. Integrated information? Maybe. The Philosopher’s Stone? Probably.

*teleonomy describes conditions of causality which are driven by blind statistics rather than sensible function. Evolution, for example, is a teleonomy since it does not care which species live or die, it is only those who happen to have been better suited to their ecological niche which end up reproducing most successfully.

Data and Dualism

November 19, 2012 7 comments

“Define “dualist” and “supernatural.”

Many years ago, I participated in a USENET discussion about whether data structures in computers existed.  The debate raged on.  One side argued that they did, because look, there they are in the code.  The other side argued that they did not, because at the machine level, it was just 1’s and 0’s represented by voltage levels.  No consensus emerged.

Now, we know everything about computers, and if we cannot answer such a question about them, what hope do we have about the brain and mind, about which we know almost nothing?”

Not to dredge up any bad memories from USENET, but I think my framework provides a conclusive way of understanding the issue. Unfortunately my model also predicts that many people, because of their specialized intellectual focus, may not be able to understand the model.

The question of whether data structures exist in computers can be resolved this way:

1. Since we are not the computer, we can only talk about the behavior of the device on different levels. With our own mind, we can go much further.

2. In the case of computer data, we can say that voltage levels (which are really statistical averages of electromagnetic dynamism…the extent to which matter pushes and pulls matter) exist in a geometric sense of bodies across space. This is the literal presentation of microelectronic structure. If we anchor our intellectual inertial frame in exterior geometric realism, then it is the 1’s and 0’s which are the representations – unreal except for our labeling of them. There are no literal ones or zeroes in a computer, rather they are in the story which we tell ourselves to enable our control over semiconductor arrays.

3. If we anchor our intellectual inertial frame in the algebraic-sequential presentation instead, then the logic behind the Boolean instructions are the relevant reality as they can be exported into many different mechanisms. The specific materials and geometry which are used to execute instructions are only there to serve the encoded information.

This should explain why both sides are correct and incorrect in their own way, but neither side understands the other’s point of view. The issue of our own consciousness escalates this problem to a new level, as not only is there the same antagonism between geometric-topological materialists and information-theoretic idealists, but both of them together are equally blind to a whole other axis of non-commutative qualities related to perception and participation.

For the Explanatory Gap, we really have two orthogonal dualisms, Western arithmetic-physicists who see the universe from the outside in and what I might call Eastern spiritualist-idealists who see the universe from the inside out. The same principles of reconciliation apply here, but the application of them is even more inflammatory. The solution involves a profound relativism which recontextualizes the literal and figurative, fact and fiction, in a way which challenges many (all?) established religious, philosophical, and scientific assumptions, birthing an entirely new view of cosmos and psyche. It is a hard sell, but I suspect that unfortunately it may be the only solution which can actually work.

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