Saturday, April 23, 2016

Incredible Aid

Faith: Hello. You've reached the phone line for questions about Incredible Aid. My name is Faith. What's yours?
Pru: Pru.
Faith: And what would you like to know about our service today?
Pru: The description I read was sort of vague. What kind of aid do you do?
Faith: We do a wide range. We aren't restricted to any one kind.
Pru: Which kinds, then? Do you have examples?
Faith: That depends on you. Whatever you need. We don't want to discourage you from making requests to us, even if a request doesn't fit the mold.
Pru: But there are limits, right? You can't carry out every demanding request.
Faith: That's correct. You may pass along any request that makes sense to you, but it's up to our discretion alone whether to take action.
Pru: ...isn't that your role? Providing aid on request?
Faith: We have great expertise handling these decisions. Requestors must defer to our superior judgment.
Pru: Will you inform me if you decline?
Faith: Probably not.
Pru: I see... Why is it called "incredible" aid? Are you capable of unusual levels of aid?
Faith: Oh yes, beyond question. Our reach extends farther than anyone else. We have immeasurable resources that we could put to use if we chose.
Pru: I know I called this phone number only to ask for more information before signing up. How does someone contact you with actual, urgent requests?
Faith: Just say it. Whisper, shout, mutter. Or think it without moving your lips. Either way, we'll detect it remotely.
Pru: are you always listening and watching, even when I'm not trying to express a request?
Faith: Less privacy is an unavoidable side-effect of our constant 24-7 attention to you.
Pru: Well, when I do have a request, how will you tell if I'm being serious, or if I'm muttering something without thinking it through? What if you have sensible follow-up questions for me?
Faith: We'll know. We won't ever bombard you with questions in return.
Pru: Then how can I be sure that you've heard, and you've completely understood me?
Faith: Trust us.
Pru: Would you respond to a request in a way I don't expect?
Faith: At least some of the time.
Pru: When that happens, will you explain why?
Faith: No. Blunt information isn't the kind of aid we give.
Pru: Well, do you leave a note after providing aid? I don't mean to be rude, but how many requests have you accepted, on average?
Faith: We have pages and pages of incredible testimonials. For instance, many of those are interesting anecdotes about strangely helpful coincidences. Or about assistance from compassionate strangers.
Pru: If I don't need the extra aid for myself most of the time, can I ask for aid for close family members?
Faith: By all means. Our policy is virtually unlimited. You may petition for aid for everyone you know. Some do it for people they don't know. Fairly often we hear from a large group all at once. I think they do it in case we missed what only one of them said.
Pru: But that's impossible. What if they contradict each other?
Faith: We know which ones to ignore. We distribute incredible aid according to the best outcome we can manage.
Pru; What's your price? Is it a yearly subscription?
Faith: No price to get started.
Pru: And later?
Faith: Long-term we do expect evidence of deep commitment. That includes regular contributions in proportion to household income. We also expect each client to do whatever they can to bring us more clients.
Pru: Is there a lower tier?
Faith: I don't recommend it. Those who are less committed are generally unsure about the priority assigned to them.
Pru: Can I quit at any time?
Faith: Yes. As we see it, those who end up canceling couldn't have been full-fledged clients anyway.
Pru: Is there a penalty?
Faith: There will be some feelings of betrayal. We strongly encourage close bonds between clients. Actually, we prefer that our clients go to each other for aid first, before involving us.
Pru: Hold on. You've said that your aid is amazing and powerful. But my requests for aid aren't openly acknowledged...and I can't identify what form the aid is in...and my total commitment is required. Now you're saying that I should just be working with the other clients you connect me to? Are—are you a cult?
Faith: Thank you for calling. We hope that you will be joining us at Incredible Aid: Aid You Won't Believe.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

big talk

Gavin is headed leisurely down the sidewalk. He spots someone wearing a kitschy sandwich board that reads simply "THINK BIG". As he curses his own sense of curiosity, he approaches. Before he can speak, the wearer shakes his hand and strikes up the conversation. (After a while, he takes off the sandwich board and they find somewhere nearby to sit.)
Biggs: Glad you stopped to chat. Call me Biggs. And you?
Gavin: Gavin. So, what is it your sign wants me to think big about?
Biggs: Everything. Bigness is what you should focus your attention on. What do you believe is the central truth of existence?
Gavin: Do you mean religiously, or...
Biggs: Yes, but "religion" is nothing except a label. Language is a symbol, and symbols are inadequate substitutes for the reality of bigness. Bigness cannot be labeled.
Gavin: The bigness of what?
Biggs: Bigness itself. Bigness surrounding and joining all things. No one thing is big enough to be bigness all on its own.
Gavin: Isn't bigness a description, though? How can you believe in bigness without being more specific about what the bigness is describing?
Biggs: Bigness isn't shown through one specific thing. If all things vanished or shrunk, bigness would still be bigness. Bigness is eternal and needs nothing else. Bigness forms new things from out of its excess supply, like a fountain spewing droplets.
Gavin: Um, how can I tell if I'm believing in the real bigness or not?
Biggs: Belief is less important than connecting with bigness. Feel it. Don't fight it.
Gavin: Then how can I tell if I'm feeling it or fighting it?
Biggs: Like I said, the sensation of bigness is bigger than I can explain. You feel it when you're opening your arms to embrace the grandest cosmic wholeness of the universe. You fight it when you're being selfish and closed off. You experience a sliver of bigness when you realize you're like a fish in a wide ocean.
Gavin: Which substances would you personally recommend taking for enhancing that?
Biggs: Indulge or don't. The bigness is present before and after whether you do or not.
Gavin: Where did the bigness come from? Will it end? What does it want? What does it do? Does it think?
Biggs: Bigness is bigger than beginnings and endings. Its wants and actions are more than we can comprehend. We're too small to translate the concepts in its thoughts. It's always pushing forward, changing. When we ride it we want to have more unity, to be more than shrunken individuals.
Gavin: ...evolution would have to be started by bigness, though, right? Evolution depends on different rates of the survival and reproduction of individuals—or separate groups of individuals. Is evolution against bigness?
Biggs: Bigness has a bigger purpose. Through evolution the deaths make future lives better.
Gavin: You just said "better". Bigness does have a morality about what's better?
Biggs: Better means more variety, more complexity, more range of expression. That kind of better might not be good for us all the time.
Gavin: Are we usually on the side of bigness, then?
Biggs: Bigness doesn't choose sides. Bigness is bigger than sides. Bigness can't be stopped by anything. For our own benefit, we should listen closer to the lessons of bigness.
Gavin: If bigness can work through competition, can't competing be a form of listening closer to the lessons of bigness? What about natural aggressiveness?
Biggs: Competition and aggression are for beings that can't plug into bigness directly. Humanity can do that. Bigness develops into self-awareness through tiny pieces of it like us.
Gavin: At what moment in its species development did humanity gain that power? Can anyone do it at any time in their life?
Biggs: I said it was a feeling. We had the power as soon as we were conscious of what we were truly feeling.
Gavin: Is it possible that we could have a feeling, but it's not as meaningful as it appears?
Biggs: Bigness is bigger than appearances. Its meaningfulness is what it is, no more, definitely no less.
Gavin: With this much vagueness, can't bigness be part of any belief system?
Biggs: Bigness is bigger than belief systems. It's wise to recognize that our beliefs about it are never completely right or finished. We know for sure that it's not just this and not just that.
Gavin: So...violent, oppressive, fearful beliefs would be...
Biggs: In essence, rejections of bigness.
Gavin: The good parts are manifestations of bigness, the bad parts aren't?
Biggs: Bigness is bigger than narrow notions of good and bad. People revise their rigid rules in better or worse directions depending on the quality of their bond with bigness.
Gavin: And the moral dilemmas that people decide differently than one another?
Biggs: They decide as they're inside the frame of their lives. Bigness is bigger than anyone's life.
Gavin: What would you say if someone else had different ideas than yours about bigness?
Biggs: Bigness is bigger than my ideas and their ideas. We can both be partially right, because we're touching different aspects of it.
Gavin: recap, bigness in the abstract is everything and nothing, but it can be felt in a dumbfounded state of mind. By feeling it we're supposed to be less self-centered all the time. It's the origin and also the sum total of everything. Calling it "bigness" is too uninspired, though. Would you rather call it "God"?
Biggs: Bigness is bigger—
Gavin: Yes, of course, forget I asked. What's the point, given that we can't apply it or understand it?
Biggs: We can in limited ways. We get perspective. Everyone has a drive to be part of something big. We should confess that we already are. When we do, the tininess of our mishaps, worries, cravings, debates is crystal clear.
Gavin: I've got to admit that I've heard of worse beliefs. The problem is that I'd prefer well-supported interpretations and solutions to the stuff you mentioned. It's all tiny, I guess, but if I'm tiny too then it's not tiny to me.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

bottomless pocket of bits

One of the most treasured defining characteristics of information is its huge range of forms. During processes its form can change, e.g. during transportation, storage, and direction of actions. This is common knowledge in today's era of personal computing devices. It's accurate too for older forms of information such as telegrams and letters, of course.

In any form handled by any process, people would certainly prefer to not lose their valued information along the way. They wish to get/reconstruct the information that went through the process(es). Acceptable forms and processes are reversible. There should be a method to access the information by inverting the processes and forms—not necessarily into the original form but into a form that holds the same information.

Reversibility in turn is restricted by the amusingly named pigeonhole principle: whenever someone is placing mail into the numerous compartments of an old-fashioned desk, at least one compartment must have two or more letters whenever there are more letters than compartments. This principle is more general and useful than it seems because the difference in quantity is the sole condition. It applies to all kinds of sets and set members. When set B has fewer members than set A, then a one-way relationship directed from each member of A to one member of B requires that two or more members of A have the relationship to a member of B. (Note that sets A and B can be uncounted as long as someone knows that B's count is less than A's; mathematicians can exploit this principle on two infinite sets like the sets of integers and irrational numbers.)

The restriction on reversibility becomes immediately apparent by picking an element of B and asking which single element of A has the one-way relationship to it. The pigeonhole principle decrees that depending on the element of B someone happens to pick, there could be at least two possible answers. That information is gone. Strictly speaking the one-way relationship isn't reversible. An English letter substitution cipher conceals a message (poorly) by substituting a different letter for each. It's a one-way relationship between the letters of the source's plain alphabet to the letters in a jumbled "cipher alphabet". This relationship is rapidly reversible by the message's recipient: if plain E goes to cipher J, then cipher J goes to plain E.

But if the cipher alphabet has 18 letters—the sender has to type on a keyboard with missing keys?—then the recipient would have more trouble despite having the key. Then the pigeonhole principle guarantees that a letter in the cipher alphabet was substituted for more than one letter in the plain alphabet. After enciphering the message "the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog", one cipher letter might occur five times in the sent message. Maybe A and B and C and H are all substituted by I. Or maybe T and U and W are all substituted by F. The recipient might still be able to use context and trial and error to deduce the plain message, but the cipher is less reversible. Information of the distinctions between A/B/C/H or T/U/W has been lost. If the information were a picture instead, perhaps it would be smudged or have fewer shades of color. If it were a song, perhaps there would be a smaller gap between its quiet and loud sections.

The inescapable upshot is that anything that processes information without losing distinctions needs to have the relevant capacity, i.e. the minimum number of representative states. Yet this need doesn't demand that one object has all the states. For instance, one object of 255 states can be replaced with eight cooperative objects which have two states, named "0" and "1".  The first state can be the sequence 00000001, the second 00000010, the third 00000011, and on and on. This is equivalent to numbering each input state in binary numbers. The individual binary digits are the familiar bits. Objects with few states, but massively connected together, can successfully absorb and emit a multitude of informative distinctions. People weren't the first to notice this. DNA is a famously excellent form of information built from sequences of four bases, A, C, G, T.

None of the preceding is controversial. Everybody admits that the information capacity of a year old SD card can be different than a 10 years old SD card with identical dimensions. The increase in the number of bits isn't magic. The one year old card's innards in total have more states available than the 10 years old card, probably thanks to the continuing miniaturization of components.

The endless conflicts begin when people transfer these analyses to the most prized conduit of information of all: the human brain. This topic has a perennially popular alternative that could be labeled the bottomless pocket of bits. In this alternative, it's assumed that the brain isn't capable of managing the bits passed to it. So the bits "really" go in and out of an incorporeal bottomless pocket, which is assumed to augment the brain's memory and abilities by inscrutable mechanisms.

The image of a bottomless pocket has made countless appearances in fiction. Animated characters have pulled object after object from their pockets, as if the objects expand and contract on command. Because the object pulled out is frequently a big mallet, the internet word for where these objects come and go is "hammerspace". Games containing puzzles about acquiring and using items have expansive "inventory lists", which hold more items of more sizes and weights than the character in the game could hold in their pockets. The handy convenience is undeniable. There is at least one equally well known detrimental example of an infinitesimal hiding place: wherever the missing socks go when the clothes dryer finishes running.

A justification for the idea of bottomless pocket of bits might be the assumption that some of the stuff in the brain can't be bits like the rest. So this inexpressible stuff resides in the pocket. That is to say, bits come in, divert to the pocket where this inexpressible stuff does some advanced work, and then the product bits come out in some form like changed behavior. The suggestion is that although the information coming from the senses is a believable stream of unremarkable bits, "deep" phenomena, such as abstract principles and words and hunches and wishes and empathy and kinesthetic skills and pattern observations, etc., etc., just cannot be translatable into normal boring bits. The hope is that existence in the super-special bottomless pocket permits different rules.

The problem is that this suggestion fails confirmation. These deep phenomena are observed to be too similar to other information in the brain. They're either instinctive or gradually learned and may be disrupted by various ailments. Some people are born without them or have a lot of difficulty developing them. They're heavily customized by the lifelong environmental, cultural settings of the person. The power to "feel" the right answer in a domain of expertise grows after the expert has been shaped by years of experiences.

Introducing the bottomless pocket of bits is a solution to a dilemma that isn't proven to exist. The brain's own capacity is unquestionably large because of its flexible high connectivity. It's a vast coordinated population. And the number of cells is dwarfed by the number of byzantine connections, which act as the forms and processes of information. A complete listing of all the connections would contain substantially more than a trillion items. This presents an astounding surface to etch information into, albeit with two cautions: not all the connections would be valuable (in fact a lot of pruning happens), and it's too naive and reductive to equate every one of these connections to one bit of information.

Like some of the examples from earlier, in the brain a whole complex chain of simple objects mirrors the information. When connections to subgroup 3 are active, subgroups 1 and 2 might be embodying slightly different "bits" than when connections from 1 and 2 to subgroup 8 are active. The collective is the unit of significance. This strategy comes with the distressing tendency to go too far in connecting dots and filling in missing data points. People can believe that they know more than the information realistically shows.

On the positive side, losing one cell doesn't lose one episode of memory. The total impressions evoked by new information persist more than the tiny details. Changes proceed in stages, not like flipping switches. The path to conclusions resembles a loud committee "voice vote" more closely than a neat dictate trickling out of a bottomless pocket. The structure matches the expectation for an information processor that's adaptable, economical, and bending not breaking after injury. Through changed connections, old pieces of information can be recruited and reused in novel remixes; the thinker can manipulate Y as a lightly modified version of a past X. Creativity is possible without an exotic auxiliary.

Having a better informed perspective on the human brain's roominess for information gives a basis for distrusting claims about information encased in cruder things. By referring to the same considerations as before, and appending the sensible rule that consciousness about things involves the minimal level of information handling, a dust mote can't have a consciousness akin to a human's. It can't be having thoughts because no states are changing in it. In a human brain, as everyone is aware from the innumerable fMRI studies, changes happen when thoughts happen. The brain performs mental tasks without a bottomless pocket; the dust mote can't.

This also leads to inferences about the type of ideas that could be in the hypothetical consciousness. Whether it's animal, vegetable, or mineral, without a human-like grasp of the variations of a type of idea, it can't be said to have comparable types of ideas in its consciousness. For example, a thing without the resources for assimilating elaborate visual information can't be having images in its "inner world". Human color vision is sophisticated. But how could something that doesn't even have separate information pathways for different colors be having dreams or daydreams in color?

In reality, a portable internet-ready device is a more fitting approximation of the bottomless pocket of bits. Its reliance on its internet connection acts like the pocket, so its own design can potentially be relatively primitive. It might not permanently keep any of the flowing data bits after it promptly produces a video or audio signal, shows a message, takes a picture, activates a circuit, etc. The bulk of its "intelligence" might not be within itself either. It might function as a specialized input/output "face" for some high-performing cluster of computers somewhere else on the other side of the internet. Deprived of the internet, its capabilities drop.

Moreover, the unmiraculous work underlying this real-world version reiterates the hand-waving incompleteness of the abstract versions. Sending bits is a lengthy procedure. The device breaks the bits into standardized chunks or packets with address and identification information. It transfers the packet into speedy adjustments of its electromagnetic connection medium (wire or wireless), compensating for interference of course. The packet joins larger channels. It's delivered via intermediary stops or hops to the destination address, this time compensating for temporary outages at any point in the journey. Then the receiving computer does the reverse to extract the bits out of the packet. It reassembles the chunks of bits and asks for missing chunks to be retransmitted. Finally it writes the bits for later retrieval; space isn't infinite but it's fairly cheap when it's bought in humungous quantities and usable for many purposes.

Every part of this procedure arose through the diligent efforts of inventors and maintainers. Initial techniques were improved. Miles of cables were laid. It turns out that feasibly accomplishing something like the bottomless pocket of bits is a marvel...of engineering. The luxury of ignoring constraints of volume, time, energy, entropy, and so forth is a feature of fantasized ideas.

Some less radical interpretations of a brain pocket do comply with the physical universe. In these the brain hoards information in dramatically exotic or miniscule matter: at the scale of DNA base pairs or at the extreme quantum scale of elementary particles/fields. (It's an inspiring technological goal. When people succeed at shrinking their information that far, the density will be staggering.) Nevertheless, the shortcomings remain. There must be enough cumulative states with enough organization, and there must be dependable, reversible processes to read and write the states. The smaller the scale, the less plausible those prerequisites are. It's easy to argue that there're a lot of intriguing niches that the brain could use. It's less easy to argue how the brain could ever so delicately cram bits into the niches, trust that the niches don't succumb to literally random fluctuations, and draw out the desired bits in the future without clearing the rest.

Drawing out the recognizable bits is the impressive phase. A hypothetical pocket accepting item after item could be bottomless in a very misleading sense. It might have a hole at the other end.