Monday, May 30, 2011

"energy" misuse

The prevailing ideas of a culture change over time. Not terribly long ago, and less than an eye-blink in geological time, my ancestors would've observed reality through the eyes of spirits. Demons and angels hindering and assisting humans. God willing the sun to rise each day. And perhaps the most persistent idea of all: a soul operating the body like so many levers.

Around the time in history that I live, humans have moved on to naturalistic theories supported by reproducible experiments and communicated by mathematical relationships. Atoms aren't considered nearly as controversial. The inferred forces are impersonal; no empathy is necessary to calculate the operations. Public education has taught (hopefully...) the essentials of a scientific interpretation of the universe.

With these differences in belief, common vocabulary has shifted also. Presently it's much more expected for someone to use the word "energy" for mysterious substances to explain everything in moral and egocentric terms. "Bad energy" in place of "demon", "good energy" in place of "angel", "weak energy" in place of "phlegmatic humour". As we've all learned, energy is everywhere and in everything, so why couldn't there be energy of "spirit" in the same way? Energy is seen by its effects. Confounding effects could just be psi energy. Ghosts and souls are sentient clouds of energy.

My complaint is that the scientific definition of "energy" isn't applicable to those contexts. There's no compatible theory to back up the use of that highly technical word. Central to the notion of energy is that it's convertible and measurable. Energy does stuff. Mystical energy isn't "energy" as understood by scientists unless it's clear how to turn other forms of energy into it or turn it into other forms of energy. Even the most "intangible" of energy can be rated by what precisely happens when the energy is converted. How does it affect temperature and motion of matter? In the scientific understanding, one can't posit as many new types of energy as one wishes. There's a detectable balance of energetic quantities (subject to quantum indeterminacy at the truly tiny scales). If the entire energy equation has no missing "terms" within a reasonable bound of error, no mystery energy is there.

Therefore, to avoid giving the wrong impression, I propose that spiritual hypotheses change their terminology from "energy", which has firm physical definitions, to "mana". Speaking in good faith, "mana" is a more effective reflection of the level of discourse. Say "naughty mana" rather than "negative energy". "Think-y mana" rather than "mental energy". "Ghoulish mana" rather than "disembodied energy". "Clogged mana" rather than "blocked energy flow". 

Simply by adjusting word usage to match the distinction, the mana experts can more effectively move on to research the open question of how mana relates to energy. For instance, how high in meters can the mana in the average human soul lift an object of mass 102 grams?

Friday, May 27, 2011

peeve no. 263 is offhand Java bashing

It's a sign of immature writing to insist on inserting opinions and extra comments. Within opinionated persuasive essays (or blog rants), this is an expected practice because it's the whole point. Within a tutorial, it's an irritating distraction. If you're writing disinterested and objective prose about a technological topic, then it'!

When someone's stated goal is to educate, as opposed to spreading a point of view, side-swipes at programming languages should be left out. There's certainly a time and place to "fight the good fight" for your faction, but not by dumping stray sentences in the middle of a how-to on neutral ground. I understand, Advanced Technical Writer, that you're eager to give off the impression that you're an independent thinker of exquisite taste. Why not fully express your sophisticated perspective into a separate long-form document, rather than confining it to a cryptic handful of sentences or footnotes in everything you write? Tossing off some quick one-sided insults doesn't do justice to yourself or the reader. Advocate in your advocacy articles. Propagandize in your propaganda.
I would've written this example shorter, but Java is awful, am-I-right? Now watch me apply the words "noise" and "clutter" to perfectly understandable and correct syntax. Isn't a shame that I used an anonymous class here, when other languages (wink-wink, nudge-nudge) offer different possibilities? I apologize for writing loops and not overriding operators; my example language ties my hands so tight that it burns. Sorry about these checked exceptions ruining my 'sunny-scenario-only-dear-bob-don't-copy-it-as-is' code sample. Please don't laugh at the parentheses in my 'internal DSL', I did the best I could with the terrible tools available. Oh, how I long to have avoided that well-known design pattern through the deep meta-programming magicks that you naive mortals cannot comprehend. And the explicit data types torture me so...

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

symbol divergence

Often, the inner workings of something are clearest when it breaks. When it's functioning as expected, the details mesh into a sublime unit of successful cooperation. A big happy result overshadows the individual contributions; a jumbled unsettling result redirects attention to whatever broke.

Perhaps surprisingly, that holds for symbols. To determine what information corresponds to a symbol, consider all the ways to prove that differing symbols are mismatches in some fashion. For a symbol to have value, alternatives to it are to some extent inappropriate and inadequate. Which typical messages are judged "true" when the symbol is in place but judged "false" when other symbols are? Or "false" and "true" respectively, or "false" for either, or "true" for either? And veracity isn't the only message outcome to judge and compare. Within messages otherwise identical, does a symbol communicate relatively greater or lesser specificity, formality, emotionality, neutrality? Subtext is still information, as demonstrated by the difference in the recipient's potential reaction.

Then the divergence in message outcomes is a basis for inferring the information for the new symbol via the indirect route of other symbols, which act as points of reference. The true message "X is a telephone" narrows down the information that X could symbolize. Another true message "X is wireless" eliminates further possibilities. A symbol's information is a synthesis whose parts and connections themselves can be symbolically communicated. Divergence outlines the real boundaries of the synthesis, like how parallax bounds objects' real positions. For instance, "X is a telephone" implies a fairly restrictive range for the mass and volume information included in the synthesis that X symbolizes. All one's prior examples of telephones, being sufficiently alike to X to merit the symbol "telephone", are like lines of sight directed in the metaphorical vicinity of X's synthesis of information. X's particular synthesis of size and price and brand and usability, as judged from messages in which X appears, is different than those prior examples but is nevertheless metaphorically closer than the synthesis symbolized by "sasquatch".

At the extreme, symbols could more or less fail to exhibit divergence. When that happens, the superficiality of symbolism is most clear. Generally, humans are too easily impressed and preoccupied by this occurrence. "What if someone abruptly started using the word 'green' for the perception of the color red?" Given the above discussion of pragmatic symbol divergence, it's not that difficult to guess what would happen. If the person never expressed any messages containing that symbol, the mistaken substitution wouldn't matter since symbols are used in messages. He or she could still reach accurate unexpressed conclusions about colors. However, after communicating a message containing the symbol, the recipients would respond by rapidly pinpointing the divergence. Sender: "I got a wonderful green balloon whose color is as vibrant as my car." Recipient: "But your car is red." Sender: "No, my car is plainly green. Green like the round fake nose on the clown who handed me the balloon." Recipient: "Hmm. It sounds like you're calling 'green' what the rest of us call 'red'."

Moreover, the proposed thought experiment is in reality a quotidian event. Scholars of language evolution have tracked gradual divergence of the elements of language. Words replace or combine. Innovative distinctions emerge and outdated distinctions fade. Separate languages cross-pollinate. Creative experiments, intentional or not, sometimes spread and sometimes die. Many times "incorrect" popular usage tramples correctness over the long run. Old-fashioned yet memorable phrases live on in isolated contexts. Idioms break the usual procedures for interpretation. Throughout these changes, communicators employ diverging symbols constantly. Simply by not introducing or modifying every symbol simultaneously, the messages that either use or explain the modified symbol remain understandable. Symbols are the bridges that symbols cross to reach other symbols.

Symbols are the fiat currency of information. Like local price changes, adjustments to the meaning of a few symbols are healthy responses to outside shifts. Like widespread hyperinflation, too many adjustments to too many symbols are detrimental to comprehending the smallest piece.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

how long has Netflix Streaming been like this?

After seeing a few relatives' satisfaction with Netflix Streaming, I recently signed up. I'd heard that Netflix signed a deal for Star Trek TV series (almost all of them) starting later this year, but I assumed that there would be enough to watch until then. Of course, a lot of TV shows have also finished their runs for a few months, so that was another motivator.

After poking around, I have to say I'm amazed. Even pre-Star Trek, Netflix is streaming...
  • Farscape
  • Doctor Who
  • Science documentaries, which are freely available on the PBS websites but not with the same playback possibilities
  • Various Joss Whedon signature shows
  • Lost 
  • Merlin, a fun but simple show that hooked me during its US showing
  • Battlestar Galactica (2004)
  • Futurama, as if I didn't have all the DVDs
  • Heroes, if I ever feel like seeing the latter seasons
  • Mythbusters
  • Stargate SG-1
  • Eureka
I concede that some of these episodes are, er, aged, because I assume that new episodes don't become available on Netflix until long after original airing. Still, especially for the price, this is pretty incredible for someone of my sensibilities...

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Pragmatist afterword

Some of the points of philosophical Pragmatism, or at least my personal digestion of William James' views, correspond nicely to the numerous instances of a datum never being alone:
  • "Meaningful communication occurs in a purposeful context". Pragmatically, interpretation is poorly-defined for messages like double-talking philosophical statements that appear to assert nothing in particular or to argue about relations among items whose existence is questionable at best. These statements correspond to messages composed of symbols that lack thorough and steady connections to information. Murky ground for the symbols in a communication implies that regardless of the fidelity of the message's bits, the message's intent is uncertain.
  • "Meaning involves constructive actions". Pragmatists see concepts as works in progress that, appearances to the contrary, came about for the sake of specific goals. This approach is a stark contrast to the alternative, which is that some "special" concepts exist regardless of humans. The mental constructive actions correspond to the procedure that defines a new set of symbols from other information. Symbols neither preexist nor are always obvious.
  • "Relations of concepts are also concepts". In other words, the same analysis and status of concepts applies also to relations. During one "mode", i.e. for the sake of some relevant goal, the human's raw experience might be treated like an undivided whole. During a second mode, i.e. for the sake of a different goal perhaps of equal importance, the human's raw experience might be treated like a convoluted structure of concepts separated by supporting relations. Whether concepts or relations among concepts, the contents of mentality mutually depend on each other and more importantly on an external rationale. Similarly, the general steps in procedures for sets of symbols are also information and therefore also communicable by symbols. "The color 'burgundy' is a dark and purplish shade of red" is a procedure that presumes "dark and purplish shade" is a valid symbol for a detailed informative manipulation of "red" information. And naturally that symbol itself depends on the symbols "dark" and "purple".
  • "Reality is evaluated according to human interest". Some critics attack this proposition by intentionally underestimating the depth and breadth of actual human interest. They pretend that motivation is simple-minded, when experience has shown it to have endless variations. Infants and household pets admittedly have primitive opinions on what's interesting and why, but it's ludicrous to restrict human interest to this limited model. Anthropologists know better. Besides, the salient factor isn't the interest's characteristics but its effect, which is the human's manipulation of raw information in pursuit of ends. One sees a good automobile and labels it as a tool of transportation. Another sees the same automobile and labels it as an intriguing hobby project. The total raw physical information of the car's existence is objective. Human perceptions are translations of that raw information, augmented with the observer's interest. These interpreted perceptions, not the original physical facts, are the pragmatic segments at the bottom of symbols.
  • "The essence of truth is piecemeal and it progresses by lurching, courageous leaps". To the extent that a philosophy has a disposition, Pragmatism is earthy. It's prone to discourage promotion of human thoughts into ethereal and unsullied domains of theoretical purity. It learns toward induction more than deduction. Its advice is to discover unifying truths via patterns in details, not via cramming details into remote and calming abstractions. Feasible approximations are acceptable substitutes in place of brittle logical categories. Hence having fewer symbols in a set is easier to contemplate, at the cost of fewer distinctions and less information. Cutting the world in two symbolic halves has a poetic simplicity, but it would be an awful coordinate system for navigation. Profundity requires few symbols because it has so little to say.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

a datum is never alone

The proposition that meaning is isomorphism has a partner: fundamentally, information is only informative in collaboration with other information. Thus, the importance of context shouldn't be underestimated. Examples abound. Pronouns need referents. Sentences need dictionaries, mental or physical, stated or inferred. Amounts need units of measurement. Hobbit heights need people nearby for visual comparison. No datum (singular of data) is useful in isolation. No datum is a "loner".

a bit is "this not that"

In a primal sense, communication is "meta-", with connections outside itself. Since direct telepathy neither is desirable nor is physically possible (the mapping from one brain to another is too complicated because of many differing neural connections), thoughts cannot be sent "raw". Every element of a message can only be symbolic. For the message's symbols to be understood, the sender and recipient must share common knowledge. They must already be aware of both the symbols actually in the message and the symbols' source set (i.e. vocabulary). The symbol cannot be independent of the participants' prior knowledge.

Furthermore, a comprehensible message is a series of selections from the symbols in the set. To choose one symbol is to reject other symbols. Part of a chosen symbol's meaning resides in its distinctions from the rest of the symbols in the set. It's vital that the communication of the symbol be unambiguous, to prevent confusing one symbol for another, and conventional, to avoid needing exotic media or equipment.

The most obvious tactic is to count the symbols in the set. The first symbol counted will be represented by communicating "1", the second "2", and so forth. In the resulting number sequence, it's always clear which number represents which symbol and the message itself doesn't require unusual communication capabilities. The set of symbols is in the form of a number line (like a ruler) with each symbol as a numbered point.

However, there's a better option. The set could be in the form of a "road" in which the symbols are "houses". To identify/reach a symbol is to travel down this road according to the directions, and since there's only one road the directions are no more than many answers to the sole repetitive question "Stop at the next house?" Instead of a unique number, each symbol's representation is a unique progression of yes/no answers.

This technique has considerable advantages. First, the directions for symbols have distinct stops. No spacing is needed between the adjacent symbols in a message. The last answer in a symbol's directions is always "yes", so the answer after it is part of the next symbol's directions. Second, since the "closer houses" have shorter directions, putting first the most probable symbols or "houses" makes it more likely that the whole message, i.e. a sample of symbols, will be shorter. Third, the media needs are even less demanding than sending (base 10) numbers. Now just "0" and "1" are enough. Two possibilities, repeated. Bits.

Does a bit have meaning? On its own, not much. But along with many companion bits, enough to meet any need.

a set is "what you get by following procedure"

Communicators can send piles of bits. Taken together, those bits in turn signify a specific chain of symbols. Those symbols in turn signify atomic members of a source set (or alphabet). Everything depends on something else, with one remaining exception at the end of the dangling thread. Doesn't it appear that the source set is now the true wellspring of meaning that needs nothing else?

Not remotely! Being a collection of symbols, the source set itself is symbolic. No matter how self-defining it seems, nevertheless it's about still other information. For example, a digital spin on the ever-popular philosophical discussion of color words.

Over the years, digital images have represented color through a range of strategies depending on the relative priority of conserving space. (This detail admittedly feels more and more quaint to the oblivious user who at the present time routinely dumps a multitude of "RAW" exposures from the camera into the computer's permanent storage.) One of the trade-offs is to reduce the number of distinct colors to employ in the image, called the palette. By this reduction fewer bits are necessary to identify a color; a smaller range requires smaller numbers or indexes for the colors. Especially for an untrained eye and images like a logo or icon, 256 colors often works well enough and may be overkill.

The digital image's color palette is certainly a close analogy for a symbol source set, and really a direct application of the concept. Assuming the raw image had a much wider array of colors, the palette is a purposely limited sample of that original array. It's an abstraction of it, an approximation, a pigeon-holing, a filtering. Moreover, for exceedingly colorful and detailed images that contain a lot of grades, the choice of palette becomes uncertain and debatable. In general, symbol sets aren't unmistakably derivative from the symbolized information. Symbolization starts with categorization, and categorization is an action.

For a set of symbols to be reproducible accurately, the steps to produce it should be spelled out with clarity and precision. Consequently the definition of a set is a procedure. It has the two sections previously listed, categorization and then symbol-assignment to the categories. Sometimes the procedure could be straightforward (by referencing another set), e.g. "integers greater than 10 and less than 30, each integer symbolized by the typical numerals". Sometimes the procedure could be complicated and even surprising in its results, e.g. the Mandelbrot set. Sometimes the procedure could be an exhaustive (finite) listing of all symbols with a per-symbol definition. At the extreme, a stream of symbols continuously produced through a "procedure" of pure randomness (not pseudo-random!) could be the basis for a perfectly mysterious and unbreakable representation of a message; what makes it usually impractical is that the stream has to be as long as the message and the recipient requires full copies of the message and the stream to be assured of correct decoding...

Indeed, the random set of symbols is an ideal illustration of a valid objection to the last few paragraphs: "It's fine that communication depends on bits, and bits depend on symbols, and symbols depend on a predefined set, but how can the set depend on a 'procedure'? How do you communicate a procedure? By your own reasoning, how can it be possible to communicate anything, let alone a procedure, before the set of communication symbols is known?"

Of course, in keeping with the theme "a datum is never alone", the predictable reply to that objection is "Communication of the set-defining procedure happens by reliance on still other symbols". Those other symbols are individual processing instructions. By assumption, the receiver already knows and can perform a set of elemental and easy processing actions, each of which has a fixed symbol. The procedure to construct the new set of symbols is one more message whose symbols happen to represent requests for action by the receiver.

For symbols for integers greater than 10 and less than 30, some of the steps are checking that an integer is greater-than and checking that an integer is less-than. For the Mandelbrot set, feeding the result of a mathematical function back into it. For the image color palette, storing the 256 colors one-by-one. In a computerized procedure, each action is literally minuscule: store information, load information, add two numbers, check if a number is less than zero. These actions and therefore symbols (i.e. processor instructions) seem quite pointless out of context. In the wake of a huge organized group of actions, a highly meaningful procedure takes shape and yields products.

a segment is "interest in raw experience"

Strictly speaking, a symbolic list of generalized actions isn't sufficient to communicate and obey an actual procedure. Like other information, actions aren't "loners". An action is only significant insofar as external information has effects on it and it has effects on external information. The exchange of effects may often be slight and subtle, producing a temporary result in preparation for succeeding actions. In any case, ultimately actions are changes to information: copies, creations, modifications, extensions, adaptations.

Such manipulations are the essence of the meaning of the generated symbol set.  From a surface perspective, symbolism is substitution, i.e. convenient shorthand names of potentially lengthy manipulations of information. "Let me introduce 'Martin', whose parents are ___, who lives in ___..."  Decoding the symbols is reversing the procedure. "I'm sure that you remember Martin." "The Martin whose parents are ____, who lives in ____?"

In practice, procedures for frequent symbols are rarely repeated in full. Instead, the excellent pattern-matching powers of the human brain notice rapidly that a symbol's procedure always terminates at the same external information. Once the pattern is seen, the brain devises a shortcut of the procedure by forming a pair out of the start and end, a direct line, a conditioned "reflex" of information. It happens with little effort. Eventually, a human can have trouble consciously recalling the procedure at all. Profound intertwining of a symbol and its external information leaves a familiar whole, with the illusion that the symbol isn't separate.

Symbols denote procedural bridges between information. The procedure probably manipulates information via previously known symbols, leading to a novel "macro" set of symbols whose meaning becomes a procedure of procedures of procedures. Presumably, no matter the heights of the overall edifice of labor that underpins all the symbols and the interconnections, there is irreducible information far down below, unmediated and unprocessed. Else the complex of symbols would be circular. The massive loop could still be intricate and interesting, perhaps also grammatically correct based on some standard, but to humans it wouldn't necessarily be any more informative than frimjun tollywobbits bersing shugbovs. Irreducible information that precedes and fuels symbols shall be named "segments".

Segments seem like the most raw and standalone information possible, but that impression too is mistaken. As suggested by the name, segments are selective portions of "raw experience". A human's raw experience is the sum of everything that affects the human, causing shifts in activity in nervous system cells, which propagate across axons and synapses. It's everything heard, everything seen, everything felt, everything smelt. A camera or microphone picks up some of the same physical phenomena, albeit through differing mechanisms.

Physical information of raw experience is the least subjective, the least egocentric. Well-known measurement and calculation limitations notwithstanding (e.g. intrinsic relativity and quantum uncertainty), information about the positions and movements of particles is the bottom line. Mythical complete information of a set of particles is the Axiom of that set; there's nothing further to speak of. Laying aside the theoretical and practical impossibilities, other messages about that set are derivatives of that Axiom. Hypothetically, "cold glass of water" is backed by untold quantities of "physic"-al information on the movements of molecules of dihydrogen monoxide. And an irrepressibly boring communicator who sends more than that many bits of (present-tense) information directly about just the water is being redundant.

Given the horde of physical information, arguably a brain's ingenuity is what it elects to discard. Focus is indispensable. Survival is closely tied to a creature's ability to attend and respond to information of interest. Brains transform raw experience into segments because a lot of information is quite irrelevant and monotonous. It's "background" that's worthy of "peripheral" monitoring alone. Segmentation is a primary component of perception.

Visual points, of similar color, moving in the same direction and speed at once, are a segment of raw experience that draws the attention of most creatures. So do segments of loud and sudden noises or tasty odors. Pains discourage and pleasures encourage. The common factor again is interest. Human brains are eminently trainable but inborn interests offer the first opinion and initiate the first constraints on the innocent tide of information of raw experience. Perceptual unity is useless to answer the foremost questions of a competitive, feasible organism. Segments simplify reactions that craft beneficial answers.

Thereafter, years of human social interaction and mimicry build on the "natural" segments. They learn verbal symbols for the most prominent segments: kin, food, body. Simultaneously they learn to learn and to seek feedback by trying out symbols. To start, the teaching proceeds by gestures and demonstrations for simple segments such as nouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions in immediate shared perception. The actions that define this set of symbols are literal acts: the motions of the teachers enacted on segments that already have interest to the learner. Sooner or later, the repetitious well-established actions allow for teaching the symbols for segments that have weak to nonexistent natural interest; at that point, humans' untiring curiosity and desire to please are great motivational aids. The ability to identify with the speaker's perspective, to imagine what the speaker intends to say, is a vital skill.

After a "critical mass" of symbols and grammar, the actions for learning new sets of symbols become the previously-mentioned mental manipulations of information. Description, contrast, and metaphor are typical symbol-defining actions. Explosive growth of information ensues. Symbols trigger computations and then symbolize the outcomes. The cycle continues.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Art's Razorette

Art's Razorette: When "Occam's razor" is mentioned by name in a casual conversation, the simplest explanation is that the speaker is trying far too hard to impress listeners with his or her purported intelligence and/or learning.

(Sometimes it is appropriate to name-drop the razor, particularly in the midst of formal or academic argumentation, but only with due discretion.)